Thursday, December 19, 2019

Was the Byzantine Army Weak?

Tough, Hard Warriors

Byzantine archers
Victorious Byzantine archers.
There are all sorts of misconceptions about the Byzantine state. One of the most pernicious is that the Byzantines were sort of weak cast-offs from the Roman Empire. According to this view, they couldn't win any battles and constantly gave ground until finally overwhelmed by the Turks. In fact, people seem to think that Byzantine soldiers were vaguely effeminate. Let's take a look at the performance of the Byzantine armies in comparison with Rome's famed legions.

Byzantine troops are undeservedly smeared because of how the Empire ended. The truth is that Byzantine armies were by far the best of the Middle Ages. Many of their successes are completely overlooked, such as the dramatic victories of John I Tzimiskes and the many successes of Basil II. If you look these guys up in standard texts you would think they were non-entities - dig a little deeper and you see that they were brilliant generals with hardened troops who were a class above all other armies of the time.

Battle of Kleidion
After the Battle of Kleidion, Basil II ordered the Bulgarian Army blinded and sent home. This earned him the honorific "Basil the Bulgar Slayer."
I bet you’ve heard that story about the army that was defeated and all the soldiers were blinded, with only one left with one eye to lead them home. It’s a famous military story and it’s not a myth or a legend. Basil II actually did that. Does that sound like an incompetent leader and army? The Byzantines were capable and ruthless.

Justinian fresco at San Vitale
In the famous fresco of Justinian in the Church of San Vitale, note the prominent place of the military at the left. This was not by accident, the Byzantine army was considered just as important as the church in the early days of the Empire.
The Byzantines did not just loiter around for a thousand years waiting to be defeated, they fought like lions year after year after year. A few dramatic defeats such as Mantzikert and Yarmouk are blown out of all proportion, but the ancient Romans had their share of defeats, too. The Byzantine armies fought successfully for over a thousand years and there are very, very few armies that can match that record. Because they were stretched tight and faced strong and growing powers, the Byzantines did have to play defensive for much of the Empire's existence. However, that doesn't mean they were weak. It simply means they were facing steep odds and had to be that much tougher to overcome them.

Battle of Zama
Hannibal humiliated several Roman armies before finally being defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. (shown).
There is a common misconception that classical Roman armies never broke and ran. That is hardly the case. In fact, Roman armies often struggled. When Hannibal broke into Italy, he absolutely creamed the Roman legions sent against him at the Battles of Lake Trasimene (Lago Trasimeno) and at Cannae. Their commander ran back to Rome and was promptly banished for cowardice. Similar incidents happened early in the Empire, such as in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (aka the Varian Disaster) in 9 A.D. A key incident in this battle was when Legatus Numenius Vala became terrified and abandoned the main body of troops by riding off with the cavalry, leading to his own troops' deaths and also the remaining troops who were trapped and left defenseless by Vala's cowardice. This ended Roman attempts to conquer the Germanic territories east of the Rhine river, so it was not just some inconsequential battle to shrug off as a fluke. It was a pivotal moment in Rome's history and it was an utter failure.

Some consider the Varian Disaster as the worst defeat in Rome's entire history, in fact, greater than those suffered against Hannibal. But, you rarely hear about it unless you are a true student of Roman or German history. The battle displayed in abundance the worst possible traits of any troops - cowardice, overconfidence, lack of preparation, naivete, and rank incompetence. And these were Roman troops, Roman legions, from the period we like to think of as the height of the Roman Empire. Germanicus came back and restored Roman prestige in the region from 14-16 A.D., but the damage had been done.

Battle of Teutoborg Forest
"Scene from the Varian Disaster" by Kunz Meyer-Waldeck (German, 1859–1953).
This Roman military vulnerability extended throughout the Empire, not just the early years. The trouble of the Third Century was well known but usually just shrugged off as some sort of an aberration. However, Roman military troubles continued afterward, too. Licinius, who revolted against Constantine I, lost battle after battle in the 320s. It’s hilarious reading Gibbon recount how Licinius got defeated, then raised another army, then got defeated, then raised another army, over and over. When Emperor Julian invaded Persia in 363, the Romans got spanked badly and had to agree to humiliating terms (Julian did not survive the campaign). Incidentally, there are a lot of interesting parallels between Julian's invasion of the East and the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler, but let's not get too far afield on this. The bottom line is that these were all Roman troops that cut and ran.

Invasion of the Barbarians by Ulpiano Checa 1887
"Invasion of the Barbarians or The Huns approaching Rome, " 1887 (Ulpiano Checa  (1860–1916)). While Rome was falling, the Eastern Empire was thriving.
I am by no means trying to imply that Roman armies were weak or incompetent - far from the truth. They were human, with good and bad. Building their reputation up into superhero status, however, does them no favors. The Romans were grinders, tenacious and relentless. They won by outthinking and outworking their opponents, not by being military robots or phony caped crusaders. They were not invincible and lost regularly - just not as regularly as their enemies for most of their existence. Some people seem to mistake the Roman Legions for the Spartans at Thermopylae who fought to the last man, but that stoicism didn't last forever for the Spartans, either. By the 5th Century, the Roman Armies were being beaten regularly and the victories were the rarities. That the Byzantines (Eastern Empire) were winning battles while the Roman (as in, the Western Empire) were losing theirs should tell you something about what direction things were going. The Byzantines adapted better to changing times. However, people try to measure Rome's armies at its height to Eastern Empire armies centuries later when the geopolitical situation had changed drastically from one time to the other, and that is unfair.

Battle of Lalakaon 863
Byzantine troops defeating the Arabs at the Battle of Lalakaon, 863 (unknown painter, 13th Century) (Chronicle of John Skylitzes, cod. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 73va, Madrid National Library). This is just another forgotten victory by Byzantine troops that barred the door to Western Europe by invading Eastern armies.
Losers in that day and age did not wait around to be put to the sword, they cut and ran and lived to fight another day. The Romans just had a very high winning percentage so there is this myth that they were somehow different than everyone else. When they lost, they ran just like anyone else.

In sum, the Byzantines were tough, hard warriors. You have to remember that the Byzantine Empire was essentially half the size of the classical Empire and just did not have the same resources as did, say, Augustus or Hadrian. There is this huge misperception that the Byzantines were too religious or squeamish to fight, and it is just not true. Perhaps it is because their own artwork was not sufficiently heroic by our standards, but that is a fault of their artists, not their warriors. The Byzantines fought well and hard, but they have never gotten good press because they were not considered "Western" at the right time and that is a shame.

Byzantine Cataphract in action against the Bulgarians
Byzantine heavy cavalry (kataphraktoi, or Cataphracts) charging against fleeing Bulgarians (Chronicle of John Skylitzes, XIVth century; Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, matritensis graecus, Vitr. 26-2, folio 19r).


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