Byzantine battle tactics

The Byzantine army evolved from that of the late Roman Empire. The standard language of the army was still Latin (though later and especially after the 6th century Greek dominates, as Greek became the official language of the entire empire), but it became considerably more sophisticated in terms of strategy, tactics and organization. For example, the Byzantine army was the first army in the world to adopt combined arms task forces as part of its regular doctrine, similar in many ways to the German Kampfgruppen of WWII. Unlike the Roman legions, the core of its strength was in its heavy cavalry Cataphracts, which evolved from the Clibanarii of the late empire. Infantry were still used but mainly in support roles and as a base of maneuver for the cavalry. Most of the footsoldiers of the empire were the heavy infantry Skutatoi and, later on, Kontarioi (plural of the singular Kontarios), with the remainder being the light infantry and archers of the Psiloi. Byzantine soldiers were often depicted by Westerners as effeminate and reluctant to fight, but this was a false image. The Byzantines valued intelligence and discipline in their sodliers far more than bravery or brawn. The "Ρωμαίοι στρατιώται" were a loyal force comprised of citizens willing to fight to defend their homes and their state to the death, augmented by mercenaries. Infantry conscription was still practiced, as in the Roman army, with every citizen eligible to serve. The training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close quarters, melee techniques with their swords. But, as in the late Empire, archery was extensively practicised and emphasized.

Infantry types and equipment

Skutatoi: The bulk of the byzantine infantry were the skutatoi, named from the word skutos, for their large oval shield. These men were professional soldiers paid by the state. The skutatoi evolved from the Comitatenses of the later empire and were equipped much as the same as these legionaries. Their armor and weapons included:

  • kresamata: A quilted, green skirt hanging below a soldier's cuirass to protect his legs.
  • κlibanion (κλιβάνιον): the characteristic Byzantine lamellar cuirass, usually sleeveless. In addition, pteruges (leather hanging strips) were worn to protect shoulders and hips.
  • zaba (ζάβα) or lorikion (λωρίκιον): mail hauberks, usually reserved for the heavy cataphracts.
  • bambakion (βαμβάκιον): A padded leather or cotton under-garment, worn under the cuirass.
  • epilorikion (επιλωρίκιον): A padded leather or cotton over-garment, worn over the cuirass.
  • spathion (σπαθίον): The typical Roman spatha, a longsword (about 90 cm), double-edged and very heavy.
  • paramerion (παραμέριον): a one-edged scimitar-like sword, girded at the waist.
  • kontarion (κοντάριον): a long spear (about 2 to 3 m), the kontarion was used by the first ranks of each chiliarchia (battalion) in order to fend off enemy cavalry.
  • Helmet: the helmet varied by region and time period, but was generally a simple, conical-shaped piece of steel, often with exttra neckguard.
  • skutos (σκούτος): a large and oval (later kite-shaped) shield made of wood, covered by leather and reinforced with steel. Each unit had different shield decoration.
  • Unarmoured light infantrymen, often armed with javelins, were known, as in classical times, as peltastoi.

  • Toxotai or Psiloi: The standard light infantry of the empire, in each chiliarchia they made up the last three lines. These soldiers, highly trained in the art of bow, were formidable archers. Most of the Imperial archers came from Asia Minor, especially the region around Trebizond on the Black sea, where they were raised, trained and equipped.

Their arms included:

  • Composite bow
  • Bambakion
  • spathion or tzikourion (small axe) for self-defence.

Although military manuals prescribed the use of light armour for archers, cost and mobility considerations would have prohibited wide-scale implementation of this.

Varangian Guard: The Varangian Guard was a foreign mercenary force and the elite of the Byzantine infantry. It was comprised principally of Vikings, Nordic, Slavic and Germanic peoples. The Varangians served as the personal bodyguard (escort) of the emperor since the time of Basil II. Generally well disciplined and loyal, as long as they were well paid. Although most of them brought their own weapons with them when entering the Emperor's service, they did gradually adopt Byzantine military dress and equipment. Their most characteristic weapon was a heavy axe, hence their designation as pelekyforos froura, the "axe-bearing guard".

Infantry organization and formation

The primary Byzantine infantry formations were the Chiliarchiai, from the Greek, chilia meaning thousand, because they had about 1000 fighting men. A Chiliarchy was generally made up of 650 skutatoi and 350 toxotai. The skutatoi formed a line of 15-20 ranks deep, in close order shoulder to shoulder. The first line was called the kontarion, the first four lines were made up of skutatoi the remaining three of toxotai. Three or four Chiliarciai formed a Tagma (brigade) in the later empire (after 750), but Chiliarchy-sized units were used throughout the empire's life.

The Chiliarciai were deployed facing the enemy, with the cavalry on their wings. The infantry would counter march to make a refused center, while the cavalry would hold or advance to envelope or outflank the enemy. This was similar to the tactic Hannibal employed at Cannae.

The Chiliarciai were deployed not in classic checkered Quincunx pattern, but in a long line with enveloping flanks. Each chiliarchy could assume different battle formations depending on the tactical situation, the most common of these were:

  • line formation;
  • deep formation, similar to a phalanx, which was generally used against other infantry or in order to better repel a cavalry charge;
  • wedge, used to break the enemy's lines;
  • skirmish, with the toxotai advanced in the first line at intervals between the skutatoi, providing missile fire support while enjoying the skutatoi's protection against melees.

Infantry tactics and strategies

Although the Byzantines developed highly sophisticated infantry tactics, the main work of battle was done by cavalry. But the infantry still played an important role when the empire needed to demonstrate its strength. In fact many battles, throughout Byzantine history, began with a frontal assault by the skutatoi with support from the horse archer units known as Ippotoxotai (Equites Sagitarii).

During these assaults the infantry was deployed in the center, that consisted of two chiliarchiai in wedge formation to break enemy's line, flanked by two more chilarchiai in a "refused wing formation" to protect the center and envelop the enemy. This was the tactic used by Nicephorus Phocas against the Bulgars in 967.

Each charge was supported by toxotai that left the formation and preceded the skutatoi in order to provide missile fire. Often, while the infantry engaged their enemy counterparts, the Clibanophori would destroy the enemy's cavalry (this tactic was used mainly against Franks, Lombards or other Germanic tribes who deployed heavy cavalry).

Byzantine infantry were trained to operate with cavalry at all levels and to exploit any gaps created by the cavalry.

An effective, but risky, tactic was to send a chiliarchia to seize and defend a high position, such as the top of a hill, as a diversion, while the Cataphracts or Klibanophoroi, supported by the reserve infantry, enveloped the enemy's flank.

The infantry was often placed in advanced positions in front of the cavalry, with the cavalry deployed behind them. At the command "aperire spatia", the infantry would open up a gap in their lines, for the cavalry to charge through.

Cavalry armor, arms and equipment

The Imperial Cataphract was a heavy cavalry horse archer and lancer, who symbolized the power of Constantinople in much the same way as the Legionary represented the might of Rome.

The Cataphract wore a conical-shaped casque helmet, topped with a tuft of horsehair dyed his unit's color. He wore a long shirt of doubled layered chain or scale mail, which extended down to his upper legs. Leather boots or greaves protected his lower legs, while gauntlets protected his hands. He carried a small, round shield, the thyreos, bearing his unit's colors and insignia, strapped to his left arm, leaving both hands free to use his weapons and control his horse. Over his mail shirt he wore a surcoat of light weight cotton and a heavy cloak both of which were also dyed in unit colors. The horses often wore mail armor and surcoats as well, to protect their vulnerable heads, necks and chests.

The Cataphract's weapons included:

  • Composite bow: Same as that carried by the Toxotai.
  • Kontarion: or lance, slightly shorter and less thick than that used by the skutatoi, which could also be thrown like a javelin.
  • Spathion: Also identical to the infantry weapon.
  • Dagger
  • Battle axe: Usually strapped to the saddle as a backup weapon and tool.
  • Bambakion: Same as that of the infantry but with a leather corselt usually depicted as colored red.

The lance was topped by a small flag or pennant, of the same color as helmet tuft, surcoat, shield and cloak. When not in use the lance was placed in a saddle boot, much like the carbine rifles of more modern cavalrymen. The bow was slung from the saddle, from which also was hung its quiver of arrows. Byzantine saddles, which included stirrups (adopted from the Avars), were a vast improvement over earlier Roman and Greek cavalry, who had very basic saddles, without stirrups or even no saddles at all. The Byzantine state also made horse breeding an important priority to the Empire's security. If they could not breed enough high quality mounts themselves, they would not hesistate to purchase them even from the barbarians if the need arose.

The Cataphracts, in turn, would have a great influence on these barbarians, especially the Franks, Lombards and Bulgars. Thus the Cataphract is the evolutionary link between the legionaries of ancient Rome and the Knights of medieval Europe.

Cavalry formations and tactics

The Byzantine cavalrymen and their horses were superbly trained and capable of performing complex maneuvres on the drill field and the battlefield alike. While a proportion of the Cataphrats (Kataphractos or Clibanophori) appear to have been lancers or archers only, most had both bows and lances and were equally deadly with either. Their main tactical unit was the Numerus (Also called at times Arithmos or Banda) of 300-400 men. The equivalent to the old Roman Cohort or the modern Battalion, the Numeri were usually formed in lines 8 to 10 ranks deep, making them almost a mounted Phalanx. The Byzantines recognized that this formation was less flexable and more cumbersome for cavalry than infantry, but found the trade off to be acceptable in exchange for the greater physical and psychological advantages offered by depth.

As with the infantry, the Cataphracts adapted their tactics and equipment in relation to which enemy they were figthting. But in the standard deployment, four Numeri would be placed around the infantry lines. One on each flank with one on the right rear and another on the left rear. Thus the cavalry Numeri were not only the flank protection and envelopement elements, but the main reserve and rear guard as well.

The Byzantines usually preferred using the cavalry for flanking and envelopement attacks, instead of frontal assaults, and almost always preceded and supported their charges with arrow fire. The front ranks of the numeri would draw bows and open up on the enemy's front ranks, then once the foe had been sufficiently weakened, they would draw their lances and charge. The back ranks would follow, drawing their bows and firing ahead as they rode. This highly effective combination of missile fire with shock action, put their opponents at a dangerous disadvantage- If they closed ranks to better resist the charging lances, they would make themselves more vulnerable to the bows' fire, but if they spread out to avoid the arrows, then the lancers would have a much easier job of breaking their thinned ranks. Many times the arrow fire and start of a charge were enough to cause the enemy to run or rout without the need to close or melee.

A favorite tactic when confronted by a strong enemy cavalry force, involved a feigned retreat and ambush. The Numeri on the flanks would charge at the enemy horsemen, then draw their bows, turn around and fire as they withdrew (the Parthian Shot). If the enemy horse did not immediately give them chase, they would continue harassing them with arrows until they did. Meanwhile the Numeri on the left and right rear would be drawn up in their standard formation facing the flanks and ready to attack the pursuing enemy as they crossed their lines. The foes would be forced to stop and fight this new unexpected threat, but as they did so, the flanking Numeri would halt their retreat, turn around and charge at full speed, lances at the ready, into their former pursuers. The enemy, weakened, winded and now caught in a vice between two mounted phalanxes, would break, with the Numeri they once pursued now chasing them. Then the rear Numeri, who had ambushed the enemy horse, would move up and attack the now unprotected flanks in a double envelopement. This tactic is similar to what Julius Caesar did at Pharsalus in 48 BC when his allied cavalry acted as bait to lure the superior horse of Pompey into an ambush by the six elite cohorts of his reserve "Forth line". The Arab and Mongol cavalries would also use variations of it later to great effect, when confronted by larger and more heavily armed mounted foes.

When the Byzantines had to make a frontal assault against a strong infantry position, the wedge was their preferred formation for charges. The Cataphract Numerus formed a wedge of around 400 men in 8 to 10 progressively larger ranks. The first three ranks were armed with lances and bows, the remainder with lance and shield. The first rank consisted of 25 soldiers, the second of 30, the third of 35 and the remainder of 40, 50, 60 ect. adding ten men per rank. When charging the enemy, the first three ranks fired arrows to create a gap in the enemy's formation then at about 100 to 200 meters distance from the foe, the first ranks shifted to their kontarion lances, charging the line at full speed followed by the remainder of the battalion. Often these charges ended with the enemy infantry routing, at this point infantry would advance to secure the area and allow the cavalry to briefly rest and reorganize themselves.

When facing opponents, such as the Vandals or the Avars with strong heavy cavalry, the cavalry were deployed behind the heavy infantry who were sent ahead to engage the enemy. The infantry would attempt to open a gap in the the enemy formation for the cavalry to charge through.

Other cavalry types

The Byzantines fielded various types of light cavalry to compliment their Kataphraktos, in much the same way as the Romans employed auxilary light infantry to augment their heavy infantry legionaries. However, due to the empire's long experience, they were wary of relying too much upon foreign auxiliaries or mercenaries (with the notable exception of the Varangian Guard). As a result, Imperial armies were usually comprised mainly of citizens and loyal subjects. Indeed, the decline of the Byzantine military during the 11th century is parallel to the decline of the peasant-soldier , whixh led to the increased use of unreliable mercenaries.

If the need for light cavalry became great enough, Constantinople would simply raise additional Toxotai, provide them with mounts and train them as Ippotoxotai. When they did employ foreign light horsemen, the Byzantines preferred to recruit from steppe nomad tribes such as the Sarmatians, Scythians, Pechenegs, Khazars or Cumans. On occasion, they recruited even from their enemies, such as the Bulgars, Avars, Magyars or Seljuk Turks. The Armenians were also noted for their light horsemen.

Light cavalry were primarily used for scouting, skirmishing and screening against enemy scouts and skrimshers. They were also useful for chasing down enemy light cavalry, who were too fast for the Catphracts to catch. Light cavalry were more specialized than the Cataphracts as well, being either archers and horse slingers (psiloi ippeutes), or lancers and mounted Javelineers (psiloi kataphractes). The types of light cavalry used, their weapons, armor and equipment and their origins, varied depending upon the time period and circumstances.


  • Charles Oman, The History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (1898, rev. ed. 1953)
  • R.E. Dupuy and T.N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia Of Military History: From 3500 B.C. To The Present. (2nd Revised Edition 1986)
  • Leo VI, "Tactica"
  • Nicephorus Phocas, "Praecepta"
  • Maurice, "Strategicon" 7.

See also

Retrieved from ""
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License