The Art of War in the Byzantine World

Posted by Powee Celdran 

We must always prefer peace and refrain from war whenever possible.” –Tactica of Emperor Leo VI the Wise


Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! It’s been some time since I last posted an article, well now here’s a new one and it should not be as long as the previous ones I wrote. This article will be generally about warfare in the Byzantine world, how the Byzantines reacted to war, and how they managed their empire through warfare, but as well as some interesting stories set during war in Byzantine times. In previous articles, I have already written quite a lot about Byzantine armies, their weapons, uniforms, army units, battle formations, and more but this time, I will focus more on the Byzantine battle tactics, strategies, skills in battle, and alternative methods to war such as espionage and brining off enemies to stay away from Byzantine territory. To many, the Byzantine Empire is thought of as an unwarlike empire focused more on the arts, court life, and religion, however in reality, the Byzantines were actually unwarlike compared to other European kingdoms in their time but the Byzantines were only warlike when it came to defending their empire where they would do all they can to strengthen their armies to fortify their borders as their empire constantly faced attacks from the Arabs in the south, Turks and previously Persians in the east, Bulgars and Slavs in the north, and Normans as well as other westerners in the west and sometimes the enemy would at times be able to besiege Constantinople, the capital itself. When Byzantium began as the Eastern Roman Empire after it has been separated from the Western Roman world, it was much more powerful than the western half and rich enough for emperors to bribe invaders to not attack Roman territory, then during the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century, the Byzantines were at their height of military strength able to reconquer the entire Mediterranean. However, in the years after Justinian I, Byzantium began to decline in power and began to fight wars on the defensive side to protect their empire from countless invasions. It was only in the 10th century when Byzantium was under the rule of the Macedonian Dynasty with formidable generals such as Nikephoros Phokas that it once again changed its tide of war going back to the offensive and expanded its borders once again first by pushing out the Arabs to the south and east and later reconquering the Balkans from the Bulgars. Although after a short moment of success, Byzantium’s power once again declined in the 11th century with the conquests of the Turks and Normans until it was able to regain some of its power during the time of the 1st Crusade in the end of the 11th century but it so happened that it was the 4th Crusade that temporarily dismembered the Byzantine Empire in the early 13th century that brought about Byzantium’s decline. In the last 2 centuries its existence, Byzantium once again fought wars to defend itself primarily from the Ottoman Turks but this time being even more desperate for foreign alliances. The Byzantines usually fought wars not only using their own recruited soldiers known as the Themata and Tagmata from the provinces or Themes but also by hiring foreign mercenaries, mostly barbarians who were stronger warriors but poor in strategy compared to them, but still the Byzantines had to impress these mercenaries well enough to show they weren’t cowards. The Byzantine Empire lasted for about 1,100 years which meant that they had to fight wars in which new strategies and weapons were developed in order to exist that long but during its course of a millennium and one century, the Byzantines fought about 120 civil wars- even when they were on the threat of being invaded- on average one every 10 years and 1/6 of these civil wars succeeded in overthrowing an emperor and sometimes changing a dynasty. The famous phrase “If you desire peace, prepare for war” strongly relates to the Byzantines as it has also been written down as early as the 5th century in the military manual De re Militari by Vegetius, and a thousand years later, the scholar Cardinal Bessarion wrote in his Encomium of Trebizond, “He is most at peace who is best prepared for war” as they still believed wars were only to be fought when necessary. The Orthodox Church of Byzantium on the other hand did not think highly of war unless it was a holy war in which soldiers would be forgiven of their sins and would advise soldiers to abstain from communion for 3 years. This article is once again mostly based on the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis on the chapter War-by any means but some parts of it as well from another book entitled Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood also by Kaldellis which is about warfare in Byzantium and the events of the 10th and 11th centuries from their short time as a world power to another period of decline. This article will once again be written in different categories about different aspects of warfare but will mostly focus on the insider part of Byzantine warfare. Also, this article which is mostly about surprising and strange stories in the times of war during Byzantine history, there will be some videos linked from different channels that will discuss in detail about different wars in Byzantine history.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Map of the Byzantine Themes in 1025
Byzantine battle tactics from the Madrid Skylitzes


Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the era of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453).

WARNING: This article contains some bloody information.  

Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger: 

Byzantine Military Figures and Military History

Warfare of the Romans

Byzantine Siege Weapons and Naval Warfare 

Byzantine Science and Technology 

Byzantine Crime, Punishments, and Medical Practice 

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines part2

The Surprising life of a Medieval Empire 

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium 

The 94 Emperors 

Watch this for more information about the Byzantine army and the Themes

Byzantine Videos from No Budget Films:

The Rise of Phokas- Story of Nikephoros II Phokas 

Killing a Byzantine Emperor- Death of Nikephoros II 


Alternative Means to War


The Byzantines usually would only fight wars only when necessary, but really, they fought wars all the time because of constant invading enemies. However, many Byzantine emperors were smart enough to choose paying off potential invaders to avoid battle which despite paying off a lot of money was still more cost-effective because wars cost a lot more not just for paying soldiers and supplying them with food and weapons but also for the costs of rebuilding war damage on cities and farms. The Byzantine Empire was much richer than other kingdoms around them and they would use this money to pay barbarian tribes and smaller kingdoms for protection against more powerful enemies, but these acts led some to accuse emperors of being “soft on barbarians”. In the 5th century, when barbarians took over land that was once part of the Western Roman Empire, including Italy, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Zeno (r. 474-491) chose to pay off these barbarians to avoid them from attacking the Eastern Roman Empire and focus on the west instead. Later on, emperors had also preferred to pay their enemy’s neighbor to attack them from behind, thus slowing down their invasion on Byzantine territory, and here are some examples of this situation. First, during the 540s, Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) and the Byzantines were at war with the people known as the Gepids in the Northern Balkans, but to make things easier for Byzantium, Justinian paid off the Lombards of Northern Italy turning them against the Gepids resulting in the defeat of the Gepids. Meanwhile, Justinian also fought off the invading Kutrigur Huns by paying off the Utigur Huns to fight the Kutrigurs. Later on, in the 7th century, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) when campaigning against the Sassanid Persian Empire turned the Central Asian Turkic tribes against the Persians as a way to make sure the tide turns on the side of Byzantium, and eventually Byzantium won the war against Persia. In 895, with Byzantium at war with the Bulgars in the north, Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) bribed the Magyars of Hungary in the north to strike against the Bulgars, thus ending in a victory for Byzantium. Later on, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) while also facing war against the Bulgars in the north invited the Rus led by their prince, Sviatoslav I to attack the Bulgars from the north ending in success for the Rus and Byzantium. Then later on, in 1091, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) when at war with the Pechenegs in the north used the Nomadic people known as the Cumans against the Pechenegs ending in another victory for Byzantium. Apparently, the tactic of using the support of the enemy’s neighbor did help in winning wars for the Byzantines but this was not the case with later emperors using the Franks from the west to fight the Turks in the time of the crusades and using Turks to fight the Franks when trying to regain Constantinople from the Latin Empire in the 13th century as this ended up with the Franks and Turks turning on the Byzantines and taking land from them.

Map of Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire
Renaissance painting of the Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628)


Another thing the Byzantines used to make things go their way in times of war were spies, in fact they had spies everywhere adding a bit of the “Cold War” element long before the actual Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union happened. Spies were used as a way to obtain information from the enemy to let the Byzantines know the enemy’s weakness. According to the Secret History by Procopius, the Byzantines had spies disguised as merchants in order to enter the palace of the Persians and while inside they would carefully investigate everything and then would reveal all the secrets of the Persians including the layout of the palace to Byzantine magistrates when they returned. When the Sassanid Persians overran most of the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire, which was Asia Minor, according to the chronicler St. Theophanes the Confessor, the Persian general Shahrbaraz was suspected by their king, Chosroes II for being disloyal causing the king to place an order to kill this general. The letter ordering the general’s death however fell into Byzantine hands, thus the Byzantines revealed the king’s plot to kill him making Shahrbaraz switch sides to Emperor Heraclius. Shahrbaraz then later changed the contents of the letter marking 400 other Persian commanders marked for dead by Chosroes II, thus summoning these commanders to Constantinople where they would eventually change sides, thus depriving the Persian king of strong commanders. Shahrbaraz would eventually become the Sassanid king in 630, 2 years after the execution of Chosroes II. In the 9th century, the Byzantines came up with a military manual devoted to spies saying that their spies should work with associates in foreign lands and pose as merchants working in a public place or better off be the same race as the enemy but a friend to the Byzantines, must be fluent in the language of the enemy and know their customs very well, but must definitely should avoid being seen by the Byzantine prisoners kept by the enemy. This policy on spies according to the chronicler Leo the Deacon was thus in a way put into action in 970 when Emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976)  in his war against the Rus sent bilingual Byzantines dressed as the Rus to the enemy’s military camp in order to uncover their plans in which they reported back to the emperor. However, there was one case where a Byzantine defected to the enemy, which was the secretary Antoninus working for the Roman governor of Mesopotamia- who according to the soldier-writer Ammianus Marcellinus- after being in debt sold their state secrets to the Sassanid Persians but to not be noticed he bought a farm beside the Tigris River where his servants would swim across it and deliver the secrets to the Persians, then one night he and his entire household swam over and defected.

Cold War cartoon

Watch this for more information on the Byzantine- Sassanid Wars.

Another thing the Byzantines were good at to make things go their way in war was subterfuge or deception which made them basically what can be called “assholes”. In fact, the westerners when referring to the Byzantines thought of them as cowards because they would rather use deception as a means of gaining victory over their enemy rather than fighting with courage. According to the Histories of Agathias, Byzantine generals like Narses in the 6th century would fake violent methods by pretending to do them as a way to threaten the enemy. During the Justinian’s war to recapture Italy from previous invaders, the eunuch general Narses known as the “Hammer of the Goths” besieged the city of Lucca brought out his hostages from the city- being the city’s most prominent men- outside the walls but before executing them as the people watched from the walls, Narses offered that they would be spared as long as the city would surrender to Byzantium, which it did, and they were spared. The Byzantines would later use deception after ending the war with the Bulgarian Empire in 1018 where the Bulgars fell under Byzantine rule but one of their nobles named Ivats still resisted and during a function he held on August 15 of that year, the Byzantine general and governor of Ohrid, Daphnomeles pretended to go to it to discuss peace terms from Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer so the 2 talked in private but as they spoke, Daphnomeles pinned down Ivats and blinded him. Ivats was then hidden in the 2nd floor of his mansion where Daphnomeles would address the angry crowd to come into terms with Basil II saying that what he did was nothing personal but just imperial orders and at this moment the 35-year war between Byzantium and Bulgaria came to an end. Many years after the war with Bulgaria came to an end, according to the Alexiad by Anna Komnene, the general and future emperor Alexios Komnenos had arrested the Norman mercenary Roussel de Bailleul and pretended to blind him making the captured mercenary scream so that his allies in Asia Minor would not free him. Since the Norman was thought to be blind, no one came to his rescue and when he reached Constantinople, his bloody bandages were removed from his eyes.


Discipline and Caution in the Army


When in war, the Byzantine army was very strategic and exercised a great deal of caution in order to succeed in their campaigns, but also in order to be a successful and formidable army, their soldiers too had to be disciplined, meaning their generals had to be tough and ruthless to their own men and not just to the enemy. For the Byzantines, strategy was the most important part of battle and at most times they avoided heading out into battle heroically like what most barbarians did, rather they thought victory was better obtained through diplomacy or bribing the enemy but if they had to fight, generals were instructed to use delaying tactics against the enemy as well as ambushes and harassment. If a soldier or commander rushed into battle ahead of everyone, they would be punished; in fact, even Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) before becoming emperor was flogged by his father, Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) for rushing out before everyone else did. According to Leo the Deacon, during the campaign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas and his brother Leo against Tarsus from 964-65, he saw a soldier drop his shield out of exhaustion from the rough terrain; the emperor then summoned the soldier and his captain to his presence and berated them both. Nikephoros ordered the captain to flog the soldier, cut off his nose, and parade him through the camp but the next day he saw that the captain didn’t follow his orders so the emperor himself imposed the same punishment on the captain which was carried out in front of him. On the other hand, the military manual of Nikephoros II Phokas advised generals to not only avoid an enemy force of superior strength but also one of equal strength unless the one of equal strength has already been defeated 3 times. Avoiding stronger enemies showed that the Byzantines were cautious when it came to heading into battle but it also meant delay for them as the enemy could become even stronger as they prepare. Another Byzantine strategy in battle was to avoid attacking neighboring states engaged in a civil war for they will make peace and join together against the attacker. According to the Strategikon or military manual of Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) written in 600, high ranking officers such as generals should be stationed in safe positions rather than in front so they would not be killed when charging against the enemy, for this will demoralize the soldiers. This military manual also says that “bravery” for the Byzantines in battle did not mean charging out heroically but staying in formation and keeping the standard safe, otherwise it will mean defeat. This system of staying in formation in battle the Byzantine army had was adopted from the battle strategies of their predecessor, the Roman legions where they went to battle in defensive positions rather than the Western medieval knights who would charge into battle heroically. The army of the Byzantines in size on the other hand compared to the size of the Roman legions before them was much smaller making it easier to manage the formations and for commanders to notice everything that happens. According to the Chronographia of Michael Psellos, the emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025) known to be the greatest Byzantine conqueror would always be there to inspect his troops in battle no matter what. Basil II made sure that his troops always remained loyal to him and that commanders won’t turn against him, so he had to be in battle at all times. Basil II knew very well how to manage his army as he noticed everything that went on at camp and during battle; mostly he made sure that all soldiers stayed within formation and if a soldier would rush out heroically, he would not reward them for their courage but instead punish them by discharging them from the army.

Drawing of one of the many Byzantine civil wars

Watch this for more information on the Late Roman and Early Byzantine infantrymen.


Weapons and Wounds


Spies were one of Byzantium’s most effective weapons in war, but if not for their spies they also had some of the most powerful weapons of their time including liquid fire known as Greek Fire as well as heavy armored horsemen known as Cataphracts and massive foreign soldiers or Varangian Guards. In the Byzantine Empire, the state monopolized the manufacture of weapons by law, which meant that all weapons for the army were made equally and were mass produced by the state as it was part of the law of Emperor Justinian I which also said that selling weapons to barbarians or outsiders was forbidden for the manufacture of their weapons were a state secret just as Greek Fire was. The code of laws of Justinian does not allow private citizens to carry weapons except for small knives and clubs for domestic use such as hunting but weapons of war such as swords, axes, maces, and spears could not be carried by private citizens for they could use it against others when they become violent. Soldiers on the other hand- particularly the Limitanei in charge of guarding cities- when not war were only allowed to carry one sword with them for defense and also to make sure citizens paid their taxes. However, people of the empire have complained about this law because what if barbarians would attack them, and yet they have nothing strong enough to defend them. At the end of the 9th century, Emperor Leo VI the Wise altered this law saying that he wanted everyone in country towns and villages to at least have a bow as a means to protect themselves from wild animals or invaders. On the other hand, the Byzantines were very skilled with weapons in more crafty ways as it has been told in some stories. In one story from the Chronicle of John Malalas, when the Huns invaded the Balkans in 528 and defeated the Byzantine generals under Justinian I and lassoed them but Godilas, one of the generals managed to escape being captured by the lasso by using his sword to cut the rope and run away escaping while the others were captured. Several years later in 548, when the province of Carthage was taken over by the Vandal rebel Gontharis, some pro-imperial conspirators loyal to Justinian I planned to assassinate the rebel leader at a banquet he held. Artasires, one of the conspirators used the defensive strategy of placing arrows inside the sleeve of his tunic which he used to stab Gontharis and while the guards tried to strike Artasires, he deflected their blows with the arrows kept inside his tunic which he later used to kill the guards. In another story, depicted in the drawings of John Skylitzes, a priest named Themel in Asia Minor defended himself against the Saracens attacking his village only by using a single semantron, the large wooden stick used to ring the bells. Apparently, Byzantines such as Themel the priest were quick thinking when it came to finding means to defend themselves, though Themel ended up killing a lot more Saracens and routing the rest, which made his bishop not forgive him for this act of violence, so he fled to the Arabs, converted to Islam, and eventually led raiding parties into Byzantine territory.

Byzantine archers and bows during a siege, Madrid Skylitzes
Themel the priest kills Saracens with a SemantronMadrid Skylitzes
Byzantine era Carthage


If some Byzantines were apparently skilled in handling weapons whether they did or did not have proper training, other Byzantines managed to fight bravely in battle and surviving the course of it when fatally wounded. During the Siege of Rome from the Goths in 537 as documented by Procopius- part of Justinian I’s wars to recapture Italy- 2 soldiers survived till the end of battle despite having serious injuries. The first one was Koutilas who was struck in the middle of his head by a javelin but kept on pursuing with it on his head until the Goths were cleared from the city. The second one was Arzes, one of the guards of the general Belisarius who was hit with an arrow in his head which went all the way behind his neck did not show weakness and continued to ride on. The rest of the army was amazed to see how both soldiers could continue to ride despite their wounds. In the same Siege of Rome in 537, Procopius also documents that another soldier named Traianos was shot in the head by a Goth with an arrow and that the arrow’s tip completely disappeared into his head while the rest of it fell out. Only 4 years later did the arrow’s tip begin protruding out of his head, and 3 years after in 544, the arrow’s head would finally fall off, but it is unclear whether Traianos survived or not. Also during this siege- the same one where Belisarius created the ship mills- according also to Procopius, one of Belisarius’ soldiers fell into a hole that once stored grain and did not dare to call for help as the Goths were all over and would capture him, although the next day a Goth soldier fell in as well. Both soldiers agreed that they would call for help pledging to save each other’s life if it was his own people who found them. At the end, they were both rescued by the Goths and the Byzantine soldier was spared returning to his unit. Several years later in 586, during the Roman-Persian wars of Emperor Maurice, a Byzantine unit saw one of their soldiers dying from his wounds caused by Persian arrows that penetrated his helmet and his skull making his head all pierced with arrows while 2 spears struck his left and right side and before dying, all he wanted to know was that if their side had won.

Watch this for the whole story of Belisarius’ Siege of Rome. 


Emperors and their SkillsPalaiologos_Dynasty_emblem1

In the 1,100-year history of Byzantium, emperors did as well have some time spent fighting in wars, some had the great skill fighting in it themselves, and 4 of these emperors died in battle. First, Emperor Julian was fatally wounded in the Battle of Ctesiphon against the Sassanid Persians in 363 dying shortly afterwards. Just a few years later, the emperor Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople by the Goths and his body was never found. In 811, in the Battle of Pliska against the Bulgarians, Emperor Nikephoros I was killed and his skull was turned into the drinking cup of the Bulgarian khan, Krum. Lastly, at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453, the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI died in battle against the Ottomans and like Valens, his body was never found, some say he didn’t actually die but just disappeared from battle. Many emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty ruling from 867-1056 were great soldiers and military leaders including Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and Basil II the Bulgar Slayer. Before becoming emperor in 963, Nikephoros Phokas as a general during the Byzantine siege of Arab held Chandax in Crete from 960-61, he used other tactics to scare off his enemy, first by catapulting a lame but living donkey into the city, and then catapulting the heads of decapitated Arabs from the countryside to scare of the townspeople as they would notice their relatives’ heads. John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), who was emperor after Nikephoros II, according to the chronicler Leo the Deacon, despite being short was strong enough to leap from horse to horse while the horses were running, he could also shoot an arrow through a ring, and strike a leather ball into a cup without damaging it as he was riding at full speed. The emperor who apparently had great skill in battle was Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) according to the Alexiad by his daughter Anna Komnene, during the Battle of Dyrrachion on October 18, 1081 was defeated by the Norman forces of Robert Guiscard but was able to escape battle with his life even if being surrounded by the enemy. Alexios was able to defend himself by severing the arm of one assailant and then leaning back against his horse’s saddle as one Norman tried to strike his head which only cut the strap of his helmet, then as they threw spears at him, he leaped up to a rock and jumped to his horse making his escape. 10 years later, Alexios I defeated and nearly wiped out the northern horse-riding barbarians known as the Pechenegs- known as Scythians to the Byzantines- in the Northern Balkans on the last day of April leading to the famous saying among the Constantinopolitans: “But for one day, the Scythians didn’t see the month of May”. In the 13th century, the philosopher Nikephoros Blemmydes questions the usefulness of war related games like Polo which trainers of the sport believe that the sport made soldiers more dexterous, but aside from Polo, trainers believed that the Byzantine version of the Ancient Greek game Askoliasmos helped in increasing soldiers’ balance as they had to jump around standing on inflated sacks with only one leg.

Byzantine siege weapons
Byzantines face off Normans at the Battle of Dyrrachion, October 18, 1081


When Luck or the Supernatural Saves the Day


When it came to war, the Byzantines excelled in more sophisticated ways of fighting including strategy, defensive techniques, espionage, and intimidation to turn the tide of wars towards them. However, there were times when the odds were impossible with the enemy being too large in number and strength which meant that only a great stroke of luck or divine intervention could save the day. In 626, when Constantinople was besieged by the Persians, Avars, and Slavs combined and the odds for success for Byzantium were very low, suddenly they were saved by a miracle, which the Byzantines claim that the Mother of God known to them as Theotokos came to their aid sinking the Slavic ships, using invisible swords, and throwing fire from above, which is why they honor her as their “chief general”. Meanwhile, the walls of Constantinople, known as the Walls of Theodosius built in the 5thcentury itself were very difficult to breach that in 626, the combined armies were not able to make their way in; in fact, the first time it was not breached until the 4th Crusade of 1204. The only way possibly to sneak into the walls was through the aqueduct that cut through it, which was used in 705 for the slit-nosed emperor Justinian II to sneak into the city and reclaim the throne. When the walls were breached for the first time in 1204 by an invading army being the western crusaders of the 4th Crusade, they nearly destroyed the whole city and killed about half the population before making it the capital of their newly established Latin Empire. Although 57 years later in 1261, it happened by luck that the Byzantines in exile from the Empire of Nicaea were able to recapture Constantinople restoring the Byzantine Empire. The Empire of Nicaea however had actually had advantage over the weakened Latin Empire before they were able to recapture their old capital, but what really helped in the summer of 1261 was that the main Latin army of the city departed on a raid in the Black Sea leaving the city defenseless as was told to Alexios Strategopoulos, the Byzantine general from Nicaea sent by the co-emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. With the right opportunity, Alexios and his men including Cuman mercenaries sneaked into the walls and attacked the Latins from inside, in one night successfully driving them out as the Latin emperor Baldwin II was evacuated by a Venetian fleet. The Byzantines regained their empire and Constantinople as their capital but it did not last long as by 1394, the empire had only been reduced to Constantinople, the Morea and small parts of Greece, and islands as most of their land has been captured by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman sultan Bayezid I blockaded Constantinople for 8 years ready to end the Byzantine Empire once and for all until the tide turned to the Byzantine’s side out of luck preventing an earlier Ottoman victory. In 1402, while Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) was away in Europe, the Mongols of Timur appeared out of the blue and crushed Bayezid’s Ottoman army at the Battle of Ankara, thus capturing the sultan and putting him in a cage giving 50 more years for Byzantium to live. Eventually, the Byzantine Empire would come to its end on May 29, 1453 as the Ottomans grew stronger again enough to once more breach the walls of Constantinople- with the help of a massive cannon- and nothing would save them this time.

Scene of the Mother of God saving Constantinople
The Reconquest of Constantinople from the Latin Empire, 1261
Byzantine Empire (yellow) restored in 1261
1453, farewell to Byzantium

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Ankara in 1402.

Watch this for more about the final siege of Constantinople in 1453. 


Living through 1,100 years, the Byzantines underwent constant wars in order to survive and going through a millennium of war, they developed new strategies to defend themselves. The Byzantines lived in a time where the numbers of soldiers in battle decreased in size but when small scale invasions were common, which meant army sizes had to be minimized. It was part of Byzantine war strategy to make sure they don’t go against an enemy larger than them in number, which means they need a lot of time to gather up strength. However, as Byzantine imperial territory shrunk, less men could be recruited in the army which meant the Byzantines had to find other way to turn the tide of war in their favor, which included espionage, intimidation, and bribing other people to help them fight their enemy. Overall, strategy was the most important element in the development of the Byzantine army especially because their enemies fought differently, mostly with courage and swiftly charging while the armies of Byzantium fought more defensively and most all had to stay in formation. Their defensive tactics and strategy in battle are one of the many things the Byzantines inherited from their predecessors, the Romans even if Roman uniforms, weapons, and formations evolved in Byzantine times but their courage and precision came from the Romans before them. Although even continuing Roman tactics in war, the armies of the Byzantine army were no match to the superpower of the Roman legions leaving them to be a cheap rip-off of the classic. The Byzantines being more peaceful people in their time just as the emperor Leo VI said in his Tactica, did not always think fighting in hot war was the best idea, rather they preferred the “Cold War” methods of making threats against the enemy or attacking through assassination giving the enemy the impression that the Byzantines were weak that way for not choosing to fight with courage the way they do. Where the Byzantines were really skilled at was defensive warfare as for centuries since the war with the Sassanid Persians in the beginning of the 7th century up until the Macedonian emperors of the 10thcentury, the Byzantium was always fighting on the defensive side until they were able to push off their enemies and turned to the offensive side with the help of strategist emperors like Nikephoros II Phokas and Basil II the Bulgar Slayer. Many may think the Byzantines were just mostly people of art and philosophy but really, their intellectual nature made them skilled in using creative ways to defend themselves such as the conspirator in Carthage and Themel the priest and in battle, soldiers showed great discipline and endurance such as the soldiers who survived great wounds. Discipline was another thing that made the Byzantine army powerful because this way soldiers were obedient to their commanders or face harsh punishment but at many times, commanders were rebellious enough to want the throne for themselves and overthrow the emperor. The well-organized legal code of Byzantium too put discipline in the army by not allowing soldiers to use heavy weapons when patrolling cities for they could mutiny with them. Using formations in battle as well as other means to gain victory shows that Byzantium had a different approach to war as Medieval Western Europe did as the west basically preferred offensive tactics over defensive ones. With the changing of warfare over the centuries, the Byzantines were able to adapt by developing their tactics until the final centuries when the army of Byzantium never improved and foreign mercenaries became more common but the development of their tactics was one way their empire lasted for more than 1000 years. This chapter from “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis about war has taught me a lot especially that warfare in Byzantium was not all about colorful armies, mounted Cataphracts, massive sized Varangian Guards, and advanced weapons such as Greek Fire which I always thought of before when the Byzantine army comes to my mind. Behind all that, the secret weapon of the Byzantine army to success was discipline and strategy which was what the point of this article was about, to show a different and hidden side to Byzantine warfare. Now, I guess this has been a very long article for all of you, but I hope you learned a lot more about Byzantine warfare… well then, thanks for viewing!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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