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Byzantine Army

The general principle of the military defence of the Empire in the 4th century consisted in large forces stationary on the frontiers, and reserve forces, stationed in the interior provinces, which could be moved to any point that was in danger. Thus the army was composed of (1) the limitanei, frontier-troops (under duces), and (2) reserve forces (under magistri militum) of two denominations, (a) palatini and (b) cotnitatenses. The limitanei were the more numerous; it has been estimated that if they numbered about 350,000, the cotnitatenses and palatini together amounted to less than 200,000. It is to be noted that for the old legion of 6000 men & smaller legion of 1000 had been substituted, and that the proportion of cavalry to infantry was small.

In the 6th century the fundamental principles of the system were the same; but the cavalry had become a much more important branch of the service, and in the wars of Belisarius the foedcrati, barbarian mercenaries of various races, commanded by their own chiefs, played a great role. The peasants of Illyria and Thrace, the mountaineers of southern Asia Minor still supply an important part of the army, but the number of barbarians (Heruli, Vandals, Goths, Slavs, Arabs, &c) is much larger. Solidity and a corresponding want of mobility characterized at this time both cavalry and infantry; their great merit was straight and rapid shooting: Belisarius ascribed his success in Italy to the excellence of the archery. It is remarkable with what small forces (not more than 25,000) the first conquest of Italy was achieved, though Belisarius was far from being a military genius and the discipline in his army was flagrantly defective.

Justinian carried out on the frontiers and in the exposed provinces a carefully devised and expensive system of defensive works. Fortified towns along the times were connected by intervening forts, and at some distance behind was a second line of more important fortresses more strongly garrisoned, which furnished both a second barrier and places of refuge for the inhabitants of the open country. There was an elaborate system of signals by which the garrisons of the front stations could announce not only the imminence of a hostile invasion, but the number and character of the enemy. In North Africa there are abundant remains of the forts of the 6th and 7th centuries, displaying the military architecture of the period and the general frontier system. The typical fortress had three defences: the wall flanked by square towers of three storeys; at a few yards' distance a second wall of stone; and outside a deep foss about 20 yds. wide, with vertical sides, filled with water, and along its edge a rampart of earth.

The disasters and losses of the 7th century led to a radical change in the military organization, and how the Empire was divided into themes. The preponderant influence which Asia Minor won and retained till the 11th century is reflected in the military establishment, which mainly depended on the Asiatic provinces. The strategos of a large theme commanded a corps of l0,000 and the scheme of the divisions and subordinate commands has a remarkable resemblance to the organization of ome of the armies of modern Europe.

The recorded scheme was probably not uniform in all the themes, and varied at different periods. The Thima (corps) consisted of 2 turmai (brigades) under turmarchai; the turma of 5 banda (regiments), each under a drungarios (colonel); the bandon of 5 Pentarkhiai (companies) under a komites (captain). The pentarkhia, containing 200 men, had 5 subdivisions under pentekontarkkai (lieutenants); and there was a smaller unit of ten men under the dekarkhes (corporal). The total strength in the 9th century was 120,000; in Justinian's time it was reckoned at 150,000.

Distinct from the military forces of the provinces were the forces stationed in or near the capital. The most important of these were the Scholae and the Excubitores. The Scholarian troops were in early times under the Master of Offices, but subsequently their chief officer, the Domestic of the Schools, became the highest military commander in the Empire next to the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme. In war, when the emperor did pot assume the chief command himself, he might entrust it to any commander, and he often entrusted it to the Domestic. In the 11th century, after the conquest of Bulgaria, there were two Domestics, one for the east and one for the west, and under Alexius Comnenus the Domestic of the west received the title Great Domestic Under the Falaeologi the Great Domestic was superior in rank to all other ministers.

Besides the Scholarians, and the Excubitores (who had been organized in the 5th century), there were the regiments of the Hikanatoi, the Anthmos and the Numeroi. The Numeroi were foot-soldiers. The Optimatoi, also infantry, properly belonged to the same category, though they were constituted as a theme. It is to be observed that the demes or corporations of Constantinople were partly organized as militia, and were available for purposes of defence.

The great difference between this Byzantine army and that of the earlier Empire is that its strength (like that of the feudal armies of the West) lay entirely in cavalry, which the successors of Heraclius and the Isaurian emperors developed to great perfection. The few contingents of foot were quite subsidiary. The army was free from the want of discipline which was so notable in the 6th century; it was maintained in Asia Minor, which was the great recruiting ground, by a system of military holdings of land (an extension of the old Roman system of assigning lands in the frontier districts to federate barbarians and to veterans). The conditions of the marauding expeditions and guerilla warfare, continuously carried on against and by the Saracens in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, were carefully studied by generals and tacticians, and we possess the theory of the Byzantine methods in a treatise composed by the emperor Niccphorus Phocas, and edited by one of his pupils. Every detail of an inroad into Saracen territory was regulated.

In the 8th and 9th centuries there was a system of signals by which an approaching Saracen incursion was announced to'Constantinople from the Cilician frontier. The news was flashed across Asia Minor by eight beacon fires. The first beacon was at Lulon (which commanded the pass between Tyana and the Cilician gates), the last on Mt. Auxentius in Bithynia. When this fire appeared, a light was kindled in the pharos of the imperial palace at Constantinople. The system was discontinued in the reign of Michael III, probably after the capture of Lulon by the enemy in 860, and was not renewed, though Lulon was recovered in 877. It should be noted that this famous telegraphic system was only an application on a large scale of the frontier signalling.

Based on the Roman conception of universality, the Byzantine Empire regarded itself as rightful heir to the Roman Empire, claiming all countries that had once belonged to Rome. Byzantine (Rhomaioi) selfunderstanding was shaped by the perception of imperial authority over other peoples and expressed itself in a feeling of superiority. The emperor regarded himself as Godinstalled and being responsible for the welfare of the empire. He was commander in chief as well as a harbinger of peace. It was his task to ensure peace with the help of the army of the Rhomaioi, the "People of God", in accordance with the political orthodoxy.

Wars were waged by order of God to maintain His world order. Whenever the welfare of the empire demanded military action, a complete victory was needed, either by destroying the enemy or by signing a safe treaty. As Byzantine military thinking was exclusively rooted in the divine world order, every decision of warfare was regarded a decision of God. Thus the army of the "Chosen People of the Rhomaioi was merely a tool of God to protect the empire.

The concept of the Pax Byzantina, which was derived from the Pax Romana, made war not only appear as legitimate in the ancient tradition of the bellum iustum but also necessary in order to preserve or expand the empire, respectively. The conception of unlimited warfare against infidels as well as fellow Christians, which resulted from this, was an important factor of Byzantine selfunderstanding and had an influence on the foundations of Byzantine domestic and foreign policy.

This intellectual tension between war and peace is also reflected in Byzantine military treatises from the 6th through the 11th century, which not only provide insight into Byzantine military knowhow, but also into the political ideas, the basic order of the world, and the warfare to defend it. The highest goal was to maintain peace or to restore it, respectively by defeating the enemy and subjecting him to law. The treatises reveal that warfare on the strategic as well as on the tactical level was guided by moderation and the protection of the forces, as they were very costly. According to the military treatises the people understood strategy and tactics as something imposed by God, thus making Gods judgements the decisive factor for decisions in war. Each campaign was legitimized in the sense of a political idea based on orthodox faith, which contributed to the long continuance of the Byzantine Empire.

The loss of a great part of Asia Minor to the Seljuks, and the disorganization of the provinces which they did not acquire, seriously weakened the army, and the emperors had recourse more and more to foreign mercenaries and barbarian auxiliaries. The employment of Scandinavians had begun in the 10th century, and in 988 was formed the Varangian guard, consisting chiefly of English adventurers. In the arsenal of Venice are two lions, which were transported from the Peiraeus, inscribed with obscure Runic characters, carved perhaps by Scandinavians in the army of Basil II. Under Michael IV, the famous Norwegian prince Harald Hardrada (described by a Greek writer as "Araltes, son of the king of Varangia") fought for the Empire in Sicily and in Bulgaria. But in the latter part of the 11th century foreign mercenaries greatly increased in numbers and importance.

The note of the Byzantine army was efficiency, and nowhere is the immeasurable superiority of the civilization of the Eastern Empire to the contemporary states of Europe more apparent. The theory of military science was always studied and taught; constant practice, interpreting and correcting theories, safeguarded it against pedantry; and a class of magnificent staff officers were trained, who in the 10th century were the terror of the enemy. The particular tactics of the vanous foes whom they had to face were critically studied.

A scries of military text-books, from the time of Anastasius I to that of Basil II, explain their principles and methods. In this army there was plenty of courage, and distinct professional pride, but no love of fighting for fighting's sake, nor the spirit which in western Europe developed into chivalry. The Byzantines despised such ideas as characteristic of barbarians who had physical strength and no brains. The object of a good general, as Leo VI shows in his important treatise on Tactics, was in their opinion not to win a great battle, but to attain success without the risks and losses of a great battle. The same author criticizes the military character of the Franks. Paying a tribute to their fearlessness, he points out their want of discipline, the haphazard nature of their array and order of battle, their eagerness to attack before the word was given, their want of faculty for strategy or tactical combinations, their incapacity for operations on difficult ground, the ease with which they could be deccixed by simple artifices, their carelessness jn pitching camps, and their lack of a proper intelligence department.

These criticisms, borne out by all that is known of feudal warfare, illustrate the contrast between a western host, with its three great "battles," rushing headlong at the foe, and the Byzantine army, with its large number of small units, co-operating in perfect harmony, under a commander who had been trained in military science, had a definite plan in his head, and could rely on all his subordinates for strict and intelligent obedience.

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