Nikephorian Byzantine (AD 963 - AD 1042), DBM list #III/64

Byzantium was a country with limited population, surrounded by powerful enemies. The efficiency of its army was important for its survival, and the Byzantine army of the 10th century was the best organized, trained and equipped army in the known world. Byzantine tactical doctrine was second to none; tactics on the battlefield were more varied but frequently good.

Byzantine armies had traditionally relied on cavalry; infantry units were of dubious quality and tactically of little importance. However, from around 950 the need for high-quality heavy infantry, and heavier shock cavalry, was recognized. Reforms were carried through, and tactics which used these arms, alongside lighter cavalry and infantry, were developed. This combined arms approach, with a mix of heavier and light units across the arms, will generate an interesting army for use on the gaming table, both visually and tactically.

All images are clickable for a bigger version.


Army overview

The two first pictures have quite a "standard" setup: Skutatoi with attatched light troops making up the centre, cavalry on the flanks, clibanophoroi either in one unit in the centre or, as here, divided equally between the wings. Untypically, allied Rus and Varangians make up a second line.

The last picture has the heavy clibanophoroi in one block, supported by lighter types of cavalry.

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Skutatoi and archers

From around 950 infantry units were again seen as an important part of imperial armies, and they were an integral part of the offensive heavy cavalry tactics of the period. They were expected to play an offensive role on the field of battle, in addition to providing a kind of "mobile defended camp" for the cavalry forces. Most forces had at least twice as many infantry as cavalry. Many infantrymen were recruited from warlike peoples within the empire, like Armenians.

Tactically, the units consisted of pike men with large, oval shields (skuta), who protected ranks of archers. Light infantry were attached to the units, as well as menavlatoi, men with heavy javelins meant to confront cavalry charges.

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Tagmatic kavallarioi

The core mounted units of the army were provided by the guards units stationed in Constantinople, the tagmata, which might have numbered 6000.

Themes (provincial forces) also provided some cavalry from the wealthier of their number; the standard of equipment these soldiers had varied considerably. The strength of the cavalry forces in each Theme also varied a lot; probably between 4000 and 15000 men per theme around 900, with numbers dwindling with time. There were 47 themes in 1025. We know little of thematic infantry forces; there might have been up to 24000 per theme, many of which were light troops.

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Cataphract cavalry

Super heavy cavalry units called "klibanophoroi" appeared around 950 as the elite stiking units in the army. Totally armoured men on armoured horses made up the front and flanks of the blunt-nosed wedge they fought in. They carried spears and maces. Light mounted archers made up the centre rear of the formation. The heavy punch they delivered would often pry apart the enemy formation, making it possible for lighter types of cavalry to exploit the weakness.

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Prokursatores

Prokursatores were light horsemen, apparently usually brigaded together in a small advance command. They were primarily armed with lances but some of their number carried bows. They sometimes worked directly together with the klibanophoroi, probably skirmishing in front of them as in picture 2.

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The Varangian guard

The first Scandinavian vikings went to serve the Byzantines actively in 911. The Varangian Guard, made up of 6000 of these fighters, was established as the emperor's personal guard in 988. Apparently, foreign vikings were regarded as more trustworthy than native soldiers(!). By the 1100s the Guard was largely made up of Anglo-Danes and Anglo-Saxons. The Norwegian viking and future king Harald Hardraada is one of the men who served as an officer in the Guard.

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Other allies: Rus, Normans, Arabs

As the number and quality of thematic (provincial) forces dwindled, the Byzantine army came increasingly to rely on mercenaries. By 1050 probably more than half of the men serving in Byzantine armies were mercenaries.

I don't have a picture of the important Turkish light horse (Patzinaks et al), this must be rectified.

The Rus were an amalgamation of Scandinavian Vikings and indigenous Slavs. At different times they were both a powerful enemy or ally of Byzantium.

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As internal warfare, rebellion and fiscial problems weakened the native units, western mercenaries became increasingly important. Foremost among them were perhaps the Normans, who had fought for the Byzantines as early as the 1030s. The kind of mounted shock they delivered (using lances, not maces, and charging fast instead of at a trot) was different from the Byzantine klibanophoroi but equally effective.

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I don't know much about Hamdanid Arab allies to the Byzantines. They were apparently quite unreliable.

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