Roman and Byzantine Empire Comparison Series- Part1: The Army

Posted by Powee Celdran


Next Article on the comparison series: Imperial Systems


Welcome back to another Byzantium Blogger article! The last 2 articles under special edition articles have been focused on the current COVID-19 pandemic issue of the present day relating it to the pandemics of the Roman and Byzantine world in the first article and the second one being about the issue of self-isolation of worldwide quarantine which also relates to stories from the Roman and Byzantine Empire of people who had also gone through the same thing including some holy men who chose to isolate themselves above columns their entire lives. Now for this article I am back to one of specialities in wiring, which is military history and the usual subject matter of elements in Byzantine history and this one will be the first in a 3 part series of the Roman-Byzantine Empires comparison, a topic I have always wanted to cover. However it would be too long to do a full article on comparing everything between Roman and Byzantine societies so instead I have broken it up into 3 articles wherein the first, which is this one, will focus mainly on the similarities and differences between the Roman army and their successor the Byzantine army, the second will be on the similarities and differences between the Roman and Byzantine imperial systems, and the third and last will be about the cultural similarities and differences between the 2 empires. So basically, the two empires to be featured here- the Roman and Byzantine Empires- are basically the same, the latter being the successor to the former and the empire that succeeded as the eastern half of the old Roman Empire when the west was lost. However since the Byzantine Empire continued the Roman Empire for about a thousand years, there was a huge difference in the life of the Roman Empire of antiquity and the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages though both in common were still the same empire having the same imperial system, the emperor as the head, while the biggest difference of course was the territorial extent while the previous Roman Empire controlled a much vast empire spanning 3 continents while its successor had a much downsized empire which over the years either gained or lost territory but never had as much as its predecessor had. The one element the Roman Empire and its predecessor the Roman Republic had strongly succeeded in and is well known for is its invincible army, which was the machine that helped Rome become the powerful empire it was. Over the centuries, the Romans have developed new tactics and military reforms to improve the army and by the 4th century when the Roman Empire gave birth to its eventual successor, the Byzantine Empire, this empire inherited Rome’s military structure among many things but over the centuries that Byzantium had existed, they too had made reforms that continued changing the structure of the Roman army including completely changing the army units, fighting styles, weapons, siege engines, and equipment. The long history of the Roman army from the old Roman Empire to the Byzantine Empire shows a story of adaptability to the fighting styles of their enemies in order to counter them as over the centuries of the existence of the Roman Empire all the way from the days of the Republic in the 5th century BC to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, war was constant and over so many centuries the Romans fought a diverse range of enemies from the Carthaginians to the Germanic tribes, from the Persians to the Turks and because of fighting so many wars, they not only learned the battle strategies of their enemy but took in and manufactured their own equipment and weapons based on that of their enemy. This article will cover the changes of the formations and units of the Roman army from the time of the Roman Republic to the rise of the empire in the 1st century BC to the rise of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century with the capital moved to Constantinople and to the Byzantine era after that where the military structure underwent many new changes as the empire downsized. Also the article will go through points in history that changed the army structure which were mainly the notable reforms in Roman history such as the Marian Reforms of 107BC that laid the foundations of the Roman legions, then the reforms of during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus (27BC-14AD) that began the structure of the imperial army, then the reforms in the 3rd century that downsized the once powerful Roman legions into a more mobile army that would be the army that the Byzantine Empire inherited in which its structure would change by downsizing of the empire in the 7th century and from the on this would continue to be the Byzantine army structure for the next centuries until the last years of the empire when the army was no longer powerful or relevant whereas instead mercenary armies were more reliable. Of course since the Roman Empire’s borders had grown larger it meant that its army needed to expand and create legions having up to a thousand soldiers but with borders too large to defend, the army meanwhile had to be simplified and in the Byzantine era with shrinking borders and constant threats of invasions from the Arabs in the east and south and the Bulgars in the north, the army again needed to change this time to be localized to respond to threats much quicker, this system the Byzantines developed for their army to respond quickly to threats would be the Theme System of smaller military zones all over the empire evolving from the Roman provincial system in which provinces were equivalent to entire modern day countries. Aside from talking about the serious matters like the military governing systems of the empire, this article will go through more fun and interesting pieces of information such as the different kinds of Roman and Byzantine soldier units including Roman and Byzantine special forces and special guard units, armor, helmets, weapons, equipment, standards, generals, and army lifestyle as well as siege engines. Overall the Roman imperial army was a successful but was still one with a very complicated and detailed structure with so many roles and positions that may have not been so necessary while its successor, the Byzantine army was a much simplified version of the Roman army in its glory days, although this doesn’t mean that the Byzantine army was less successful. The Roman army may have been powerful and massive in number but their successor the Byzantine army despite being less in number were just as innovative as the Romans yet had more sophisticated weapons and wider variety of fighting styles, weapons, and unites while having more sophisticated siege weapons too like Greek Fire, an ancient flamethrower, it’s just that the Byzantine army and its power happens to be overlooked compared to the power of its predecessor’s army. Well, as you are all most probably still under lockdown, here is an interesting read to pass the time especially for those who want to know how different the Roman and Byzantine armies were. However, the article will only be limited to the Roman and Byzantine armies and not their navies while most of my information is not as complete as I am just putting the basics of the Roman and Byzantine armies based on videos I watched from Kings and Generals and Eastern Roman History, but anyway enjoy reading it as this is mostly all just basic facts.

The Roman Empire at its height, 117
Map of the Byzantine Empire in 3 different periods (largest extent in 555, 2nd peak in 1025, and final years in 1360)
Evolution from Roman to Byzantine legionnaire
Evolution of Roman infantry units, 753BC-1453AD

Note: This article almost all Roman and Byzantine army related and not so much on stories from these empires. Maybe not the kind of article for a light read. 

Also thanks to Foojer for the illustrations of the soldiers.

Related Articles (and Army Articles) from The Byzantium Blogger:

Thoughts on Quarantine and Isolation with Roman and Byzantine Related Stories- COVID-19 Related 

Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries- COVID-19 Related

The Sieges of Constantinople

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part2

Byzantine Science and Technology

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantine Military Figures and History

Byzantine Siege Weapons and Naval Warfare

Warfare of the Romans

10 Greatest Special Forces in History

Watch this to see a time-lapse of the evolution of the Roman infantry soldiers (from Foojer).

Watch this to see a time-lapse of the evolution of the Byzantine infantry (from Foojer).


Part I. Army Structure and Reforms


First of all, the early history of Rome is shrouded in mystery as Roman only began recording their history in the 3rd century BC, so it’s unclear whether Rome was first ruled by kings until 509BC but the traditional founding date of Rome is April 21,753BC while 509BC was the founding date of the republic. In Rome’s early days, the city-state was at war with their neighbors, the other Italian kingdoms and city states including the Etruscans, which had influenced the fighting styles of the early Romans. The Etruscans and the early Romans had used a style of fighting similar to that of the ancient Greeks using the phalanx formation with soldiers dressed in light armor and bronze helmets holding long spears. The early Roman army though had conquered most of Italy and fought off the Gauls, afterwards developing the legion system for their armies which they recruited among the people of Italy that the early Romans conquered. From the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC, the Roman army used a simple battle structure known as the Manipular Structure also known as the “Polybian Army”, as the structure was recorded by the Greek historian Polybius (208-125BC). The Manipular Structure of the Roman army was said to have originated from the Samnites, a neighboring Italic people the early Romans fought yet had adopted their battle formations while its name comes from the word maniples meaning “handfuls” as the formation consisted of many soldiers armed with different types of weapons. The manipular formation was quite simple being almost all infantry units consisting of 3 lines of infantry soldiers known as the Triplex Acies divided into several blocks with loose spaces between each lines and blocks to give soldiers more space to move as they fight as these units fought in a checkerboard quincunx formation. There were 120 soldiers in each block or maniple and were equipped differently having different armor and weapon sets, which will be discussed later, although the one element the early Roman army had that made it stand out was that it was standardized with soldiers wearing uniform armor, helmets, and tunics, and even weapons similar to the hoplite armies of Ancient Greece, except the early soldiers of Rome had to provide their own weapons and armor which is why there was a difference in the weapon and armor types of the units, though Rome’s enemies at that time like the Carthaginians had a small professional army which were basically the officers with uniform equipment and armor while the rest of Carthage’s army was a multinational force of mercenaries from Numidia, Iberia, Greece, and Gaul all using their own weapons and armor, however this article is focused on the evolution of the Roman army and not the Carthaginian. The early manipular Roman army though was successful in the war against Carthage (The Punic Wars) as well as the conquest of Greece ending in 146BC with Rome victorious fully defeating the empire of Carthage as well as the Macedonian kingdom and Greek city-states and making itself a Mediterranean power. Despite powerful war machines such as the elephants of Carthage and phalanx of the Greeks, the Roman manipular army was able to succeed in overcoming both but this early formation of the Roman army did not last as Rome’s territory expanded more and their enemies like the fierce warlike Gauls of France Germanic tribes across the Rhine and Danube Rivers in Europe, the Seleucid Empire Greeks in the Middle East with their heavy Cataphract cavalry, and the Numidians of North Africa were powerful enemies, which meant the Roman army had to restructure itself and form an army as powerful as their enemies as well. In the days of the republic, the consuls or 2 leaders of the senate were also responsible to lead the army as generals and in 107BC, the Roman consul and general Gaius Marius (157-86BC) stepped in to reform the Roman army eventually forming the prototype of the imperial Roman legion system which increased the number of soldiers. Before Marius, the Roman army’s recruitment was limited and soldiers had to provide their own equipment but with Marius’ reforms to increase the number of soldiers, not only those who could afford but the masses could join the army as under the reforms, the state would now provide weapons and armor for the soldiers manufactured in central armies or Fabricae making the Roman army a professional one with uniform weapons and armor. The biggest change the consul Marius did with the army was creating transforming the old Maniple system into the Cohort system, which would then be the system used for the legions of the Roman Empire, and compared to the original maniple system, the cohort had a larger number of soldiers going from the 120 men the maniple had to 600 men which made up 1 cohort, while the cohort was divided into 6 centuries which at first had 80 men serving as the Roman legionnaires commanded by an officer called a centurion while the remaining 20 men would be reserve troops or non-combatants which served as the back-end of the army having roles such as military servants or engineers operating the siege engines. Also part of the Marian Reforms, each century which consisted of 80 men charged into battle throwing their primary weapons or pila or javelins and when charging at the enemy would group closer and form the Testudo or “tortoise” formation where all 80 men cover themselves up in shields, except at the back. Now if a single cohort already had 600 men, an entire legion had sometimes up to 10 cohorts having sometimes 6,000 men, though with this much soldiers, a legion would be already be the army in charge of defending one or more Roman provinces. In a Roman legion, the main forces would be the legionnaires divided into cohorts and subdivided into centuries, though an entire legion was not only made up of these organized units, as the Roman legion developed by Marius also included auxiliary units consisting of non-Roman citizens forming the reserve archer and light infantry units as well as cavalry units. In the legion, the most sacred symbol was the eagle (Aquila) and if it was lost, the legion was disbanded.

Army units of the Carthaginian Army during the Punic Wars
Structure of the Roman Legion Cohort System formed in Marius’ Reforms

Watch this to learn more about the early structure of the Roman Republican army (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this learn more about the Roman Maniuplar legion of the Republic (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the Marian Reforms and the start of the legions (from Kings and Generals).


In the decades following the military reforms of Gaius Marius, the Roman legions proved to be effective but this had also become a time of endless civil war in the Roman Republic where each faction commanded legions that fought against each other. Other than fighting civil wars, the army now having the legion structure introduced by Marius was effective in defeating the army of the Greek Seleucid Empire in 63BC as well as in conquering Gaul during Caesar’s campaigns, although the legions were not all that effective as in 53BC the Roman army suffered a heavy defeat to the new Persian Parthian Empire at Carrhae beginning the centuries long conflict between Rome and the Persians. In 31BC, all the civil wars in the Roman Republic came to an end after Octavian defeated his rival Mark Antony at the naval Battle of Actium and after coming out victorious, Octavian inherited all of Rome’s armies consisting of 60 legions. In 27BC, Octavian became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (27BC-14AD) and becoming emperor he kept the same legion structure introduced by Marius but further broke it down from 60 to 28 legions in order to balance the number of soldiers per legion, though later on in Augustus’ reign following the defeat of the Roman army to the Germanic Tribes at Teutoburg Forest (9AD) with the loss of 3 entire legions, the Roman army was decreased to 25 legions and would remain with this number for about the next 300 years. Under Augustus and his successors, the emperors of Rome the legion system would remain the same except for some additional command positions, new units, and improved weaponry and armor sets (which will be discussed later), but also under Rome’s imperial system, the command of an entire legion of more than a thousand men was assigned to a general known as the Legatus Legionis or Legate who usually came from the Roman patrician class and was a senator who had gained military experience over the years, sometimes the legate was also a member of the imperial family; in the first ruling family of Rome, Tiberius before becoming emperor was a legate in charge of several legions while another imperial family member, Germanicus had commanded 8 legions throughout his military career. The legate was then in charge of thousands of soldiers including legionnaires and auxiliaries, then under the legate were the 6 junior commanders called Tribunus Laticlavius or military tribune, under them was already the basic division of the army or centuries commanded by a centurion while the cohort which consisted of 6 centuries was commanded by a senior centurion called the Primus Pilus, who had more military experience than the other centurions, while on the other hand auxiliary units such as cavalry formations were commanded by a lesser commander such as Decurion which commanded a small unit of 10 cavalry soldiers. In a legion, there were at the most up to 107 cohorts, divided into 6 centuries, while the most basic unit was a contubernium made up of 10 soldiers who shared the same tent at a camp. Under the empire, each of the 25 legions was given a number and a title (e.g. Legio V Macedonica or Legio II Augusta) and was assigned to specifics regions of the empire, primarily at the empire’s borders to protect them in case war broke out but if reinforcement was needed in another part of the empire, sometimes an entire legions was needed to travel that far to help another legion in trouble. Now an entire legion had more than enough manpower than you can think which made one legion enough to go to war, however sometimes that wasn’t the case as some of Rome’s enemies like the Parthians deployed double or more than the number of the Roman legion and would use elephants in battle, an ancient war machine equivalent to a tank. Unlike other armies of their time, the Roman army did not all fight as one, rather they were divided into several division or legions as the empire’s borders were too large and different kinds of enemies lived beyond its borders so armies were needed to be stationed in each part of the empire to deal with external threats. Because of the empire’s increasing borders, the legions at first moved very quickly building temporary camps as they continued their campaigns but during the reign of the emperor Claudius I (41-54AD), the empire reached the point of no longer rapidly expanding after Roman conquest of Britain in 43AD, therefore legionnaires were to be permanently stationed in not just wooden army camps but permanent stone army fortresses known as a Castra which were not only a garrison but were like a town having taverns, workshops, baths, training yards, and a villa for the commander. Although even when permanently settled in forts, legions would still send out cohorts or centuries of soldiers to further conquer regions or to suppress revolts or do scouting missions on what the conquered land has. Many of these Roman army fortresses like those in the newly conquered provinces of Britain and Germania were built from scratch but those in conquered provinces that had existing empire before like Syria and Egypt were built on existing structures which were also fortresses used by the previous empires there. Many of these fortresses would later evolve into towns and into cities, in fact some cities in England, Germany, and Central Europe originated as Roman army fortresses. Since the legions were permanently stationed in fortresses, sometimes their children were even born and had grown up there to later serve in the legions. Also since the legions were stationed in the remote borders of the empire, legionnaires were recruited locally from the provinces, and those who were Roman citizens would be recruited as the main fighting force or legionnaires while those who were barbarians or non-citizens but inhabitants of the Roman Empire were to be recruited as the auxiliary forces, although after serving for 25 years- the amount of time the legionnaires serve in the army- the auxiliaries would be given Roman citizenship as they retire. With recruitments done locally, the Roman army was a multi-national force of different ethnicities where there would be either Germanic barbarians, North Africans, Italians, Greeks, or Middle Easterners serving in the army, although despite their different ethnicities, the standardized armor, helmets, and weapons gave a single identity to the Roman army unlike the Carthaginian army of the past which allowed soldiers of different ethnicities to dress up in their traditional gear. Although in the Roman army, those who were citizens had uniform arms and equipment while the non-citizens serving as auxiliaries at first were armed with their own traditional weapons such as battle-axes if they were Celtic or Germanic tribes but serving in the Roman army, they were given a standard Roman armor and helmets while the language of the army was Latin. The Auxiliary army basically served as the support force for the legionnaires and were recruited among foreign people and even from soldiers of client kings under Rome. Auxiliary soldiers were needed in specialized positions in battle these foreigners were skilled at more than the Romans; these included Syrians specializing in archery, Gauls and Germanic people specializing in cavalry, and people from the Balearic Islands in Spain specializing as slingers. In 117AD, after the death of Emperor Trajan, the Roman Empire was at its height after the conquest of Dacia (modern day Romania) spanning from north to south from Britain to Egypt, west to west from Portugal to Iraq and at this time the legion system too was at its most efficient, but due to larger borders, more legions were created. On the other hand, due to extremely large borders, the Roman army had to be very active in constantly defending the borders with enemies everywhere which turned the Roman army from an offensive force to a defensive one and because of this, the Roman army had to be reformed again in the turbulent years of the 3rd century, this time to be downsized into a more mobile army.

Map of the Roman Republic after Julius Caesar’s death in 44BC
Summary of the structure of an Imperial Roman Legion
Flags and symbols of different Roman Imperial legions
Height of the Roman Empire in 117, after the Dacian Wars

Watch this to learn more about the military reforms of Augustus (from Kings and Generals).


The 3rd century became a chaotic time of the Roman Empire still in the period of the Principate, which began with Augustus in 27BC which led to changes not only in the army structure but in the imperial system as well which in 284 the Principate evolved into the Dominate System under Emperor Diocletian in which the emperor was given more ultimate power as way to solve the chaos in the empire. First of all, in the 3rd century one of the biggest turning points was when the emperor Caracalla issued Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire and the several changes of emperor in which many of them were army officials proclaimed emperor by the army after deposing a previous emperor as a result of everyone becoming citizens, and due to this the command structure of the Roman army change wherein the legate or commander of a legion who was of senatorial rank was changed to someone of more military experience in order to gain more trust from the soldiers, thus in around 260, the legions were then no longer commanded by a senatorial legate but by a military officer or Prefect who was promoted to that position from the rank of the Primus Pilus or senior centurion. 260 was also a major turning point year for the Roman army as their defeat to the new Sassanid Empire of Persia and the capture of the emperor Valerian by the Persians proved the Roman legions were no longer invincible. The legions itself were broken down in number from more than 5,000 men to about 2,000+ as well as into smaller and less compact formations while foot soldiers- now called Pedes– became more flexible in armor and arms in order to move quicker as external threats grew more common. As a response to external threats and military failures against the Persians, Rome studied and adopted the battle tactics of their 2 major enemies the Gothic Germanic tribes of Central and Eastern Europe and the Parthian Persians in the east as well making arms and armor similar to that of their enemy as the best solution to fight the enemy was to learn their tactics and adapt to them. It was mostly the reforms of the emperor Gallienus (r. 253-268) that changed the legionary structure of the Roman army from a heavy infantry force to an army emphasizing more on cavalry units and in these reforms, the heavier Cathaphract cavalry based on the Parthian Cataphracts was introduced to the Roman army known in Latin as the Catafractarii. The biggest changes in the army however was the change of weapons and armor to a much heavier equipment in order to give the soldiers more protection as the number of soldiers grew smaller, thus ending the Cohort and Auxiliary system. At this point also, more barbarians from Europe such as Pannonians, Illyrians, and Goths were also recruited into the Roman army due to shortage of manpower, eventually these foreigners would later rise up the ranks and even become Roman emperors, such men of foreign origins who became emperors through military career were Claudius II, Diocletian, and Constantine the Great’s father Constantius I who were Illyrians and later emperors like Valentinian I and Valens who were Pannonians. Also due to the shortage of a citizen army and large numbers of barbarian immigrants coming in frequently, the Romans had also gone as far as recruiting loyal barbarians from beyond the borders in Europe such as Goths to fight in their army usually as cavalry units in their own armor and weapon types except under the command of a Roman commander, these units became known as the Foederati or “federated troops” and later on they would rise up the ranks and become influential generals; these included the general Flavius Aetius in the Western Empire and Aspar in the Eastern Empire both in the 5th century who were barbarian Gothic Foederati but gained influence over the imperial court. The reforms of the Roman army were later finalized by the military emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) and by Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), another military emperor and founder of the Byzantine Empire who moved the imperial capital to Constantinople in 330. First of all, Diocletian not only moved the capital out of Rome but divided the empire into 2 parts in 285, he further divided it into 4 parts in 293 creating the system known as the Tetrarchy which had 1 emperor per each division to make governing the massive Roman Empire more efficient, then the provinces of the whole Roman Empire were cut down to smaller areas called a Diocese forming almost 100 provinces to further secure every part of the empire also due to the lack of troops. Constantine the Great would later end the failed experiment of the Tetrarchy system and unite the empire again with Constantinople as its capital, though it wouldn’t be united for long and in 395 after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, the empire was formally divided between east and west, the east becoming the Byzantine Empire ruled from Constantinople and the west with Milan at first as its capital before moving to Ravenna in 402, thought the west would not last long and fall in 476 with the east still surviving. The east though in its continued existence kept the same new provincial structure of Diocletian and Constantine I. As part of Diocletian’s provincial reforms, the administrative command would fully be separated from army command so the provincial governor became a separate position with the title of Vicarii and the general in command of the legion became known as the Dux, where the title “duke” is based on; the late Roman dux commanded sometimes more than a legion of different provinces thus using the a title like Dux per Gallia Belgica meaning the commander of the armies in Gaul and Belgica, then a military position higher than the dux was the Magister Militum or “master of the army”. The rank of duke would continue to be used later on by the Byzantines as the title for general while in the last centuries the term Megas Doux would be used for the grand admiral of the navy. Now during the reign of Constantine, the first structure of the Byzantine army was formed as well which would be divided into 2 major groups, the first being the Limitanei, troops garrisoned in the borders of the Roman Empire or limes and second was the mobile army or heavy infantry in charge of the offensive known as the Comitatenses. Basically, the Comitatenses were the new version of the Roman special forces or legionnaires of before except these units also consisted of cavalry while the auxiliaries evolved into the Limitanei, although the Limitanei too would sometimes accompany the Comitatenses in campaigns while another unit known as the Ripenses also served as a other auxiliary unit in charge of guarding the frontiers, this time the river borders. Another addition Constantine I added to the Roman army was the Scholae Palatinae units or imperial guards, which replaced the Praetorian Guards of the Roman Principate, and then there was also the guard troops assigned to watch the capital, and the Bucellarii or general’s bodyguards. The early Byzantine Empire as well as the Western Roman Empire after 395 till the fall of the west in 476 would use the same structure of the late Roman army consisting of the Limitanei and Comitatenses units, the heavy Cataphract and Clibanarii cavalry units, the barbarian Foederati units, the elite Scholae Palatinae and Bucellarii units, and the command under the Dux and Magister Militum. Though the unit types had changed, the late Roman army (early Byzantine army) still retained the system of the legions where armies were stationed in different parts of the empire and would have to march if they were called to battle. During the height of the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565), the same structure of the army since Constantine I was used except that during Justinian’s conquests of North Africa and Italy known as the Renovatio Imperii, the Byzantine army used allied mercenaries such as Huns, Herules, and Goths to fight for them, and also a new unit of the Excubitors or the heavily armed personal guards of the emperors founded in 460 by the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I, though this unit was mostly ceremonial. The same army structure since Constantine I in the 4th century which would used by Justinian I in the 6th would be in use up to the 7th century during the final war between the Romans and Persians (this time the Sassanid Empire) from 602-628 which was ended by Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641). After Heraclius’ death, the Byzantine Empire would be forever shrunken after the new and swift spreading enemies, the Arabs would forever take away Egypt and Syria from the Byzantines, thus the army would be needed to reform again to make the fight against the Arabs more efficient.

Map of the 1st Roman Tetrarchy under Diocletian, 293
Roman legionnaires of the late 3rd century in the new battle formation
Units of the late Roman army

Watch this to learn more about the 3rd century Roman army (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the changes of the Roman army by Diocletian and Constantine I (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the structure of the Late Roman/ Early Byzantine army (from Epimetheus).


The Byzantines coming after the Romans though may have had a whole lot different system for their army but had still kept the major defining element of the Roman army, which was it being a professional army as unlike other kingdoms in their day which only recruited soldiers in time for war, the Byzantines kept a standing army at all times to respond to threats they were unsure when it could happen. By the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire had lost a lot of territory including the natural borders of the Danube River in the north which were overrun by invading Slavic tribes and the deserts in Syria and Egypt which were overrun by the new enemy, the Muslim Arabs suddenly exploding into power from the Arabian Peninsula in search of lands to conquer and spread the religion of Islam. The Christian Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) took a heavy blow with the loss of the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria leading many of its inhabitants to Anatolia, the heartland of the empire and the empire itself had to reform its structure and the army as well to create a more efficient army system that will respond quicker to invasions. With a downsized empire and downsized army as well, the Byzantine emperors following Heraclius beginning with his grandson Constans II (r. 641-668) first introduced the new “Theme” System where the smaller provinces or dioceses in the late Roman and early Byzantine Empire once had at first introduced by Diocletian and Constantine I were even further reduced to smaller military controlled provinces called Themes, the first 5 military regions or Themes were formed in the Anatolian Peninsula or Asia Minor which were the Armeniac, Anatolic, Opsician, Thracesian, Carabisiani Themes, the first 4 being army Themes and the 5th being a naval theme. These Byzantine Themes were controlled by a general called Strategos in Greek who now served both as the general in command of his legion now reorganized into what is called a Thema in Greek and also served as the governor of the province or Theme controlling civilian matters. In an article I made before, I have described in detail how the Byzantine Themes worked and all the many Themes or military provinces all over the Byzantine Empire that were built over time. In that previous article from last October 2019, I have covered the topic on how the many Themes formed primarily being formed from the larger original Themes. The Byzantine emperors of next centuries including Leo III (r. 717-741), Constantine V (r. 741-775), Theophilos (r. 829-842), Basil I (r. 867-886), Leo VI (r. 886-912), Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), and Basil II (r. 976-1025) further added new Themes to the empire as result of limiting the command power of a strategos to avoid military rebellion or as a result of the expansion of the Byzantine Empire particularly after coming out victorious in campaigns against the Arabs in the east and Bulgars in the north. A Byzantine Theme operated similarly to a Roman province except the general in command of the army served as the governor too and responded to the emperor in Constantinople, but sometimes these generals could challenge the emperor with their military power and would succeed in taking over the empire. In these Themes, it was somewhat like the medieval Feudal System of Western Europe too except soldiers did not own the land but were recruited locally from the farmers and people of the Theme had to provide for the soldiers of their Theme. By 1025, after the death of Emperor Basil II, Byzantium was again at another extent of its territory, though not as large as in the time of Justinian I in the 6th century, though under Basil II the empire spanned north to south from Ukraine to Syria, west to east from Southern Italy to Armenia and from end to end, military Themes were made, so as far as Italy and Armenia there were Byzantine Themes. There is not much record though on how much troops a Theme had but from 902-936 during the years of Byzantine prosperity under the Macedonian Dynasty a Theme had up to 9,600 soldiers per Thema (the Byzantine equivalent of a legion) commanded by the Strategos, which was more than that of one Roman legion and under the main army or Thema were 4 divisions called Tourma each consisting of 2,400 men commanded by a Tourmarches, then the Tourma consisted of 6 smaller divisions called Droungoi each consisting of 400 men commanded by a Droungarios, under the Droungos were the basic units of the Byzantine army called a Bandon in which 2 made up a Droungos; each Bandon then had 200 men commanded by a Komes, the Byzantine equivalent of a Roman centurion while the Bandon was equivalent to a Roman century except with more men and under a Bandon was the group of 100 men called a Kentarchia commanded by an Kentarches, the Byzantine equivalent of a centurion and this division was further divided into 10 Kontoubernia which had 10 men each that shared the same tent equivalent of the Roman contubernium. The complete 9,600 men was the average whole army per Theme in the 10th century while at that time the largest Theme had a total of 15,000 soldiers but the soldiers per Theme were deployed in smaller numbers when needed to reinforce other Themes, which meant probably 2 Tourma or 3 Droungoi were usually sent to deal with an unexpected raid of the enemy like the Arabs. However when emperors launched large-scale campaigns against enemies such as Nikephoros I’s campaign against the Bulgars in 811 or Basil II’s campaigns against the Bulgars in the early 11th century, the armies of several Themes were needed to be deployed. The Thematic army of Byzantium however compared to the Roman army of the past relied more heavily on cavalry than infantry units as their enemies too relied more on heavy cavalry which is why the Byzantines put a lot of emphasis on their heavy cavalry units or Cataphracts which then became the elite offensive force of the empire and were the main forces of each Theme’s army the same way the legionnaire was the main force of a Roman legion. When in battle, the Catpahract cavalry usually stood in front or flanking the infantry on both sides and arranged themselves in a wedge formation while the imperial guards or Tagmata protecting the general or emperor stood behind. Overall, the Byzantine Theme system proved to be effective especially since armies were recruited locally and were not far apart form each other so when one Theme was in danger, the emperor or the Strategos commanding a Theme could automatically send his army to help the other Theme in danger instead of having a legion march across the empire the way the Romans did before. The Byzantines of the 9th century under Emperor Theophilos had developed the communication system of lighting beacons above high mountain tops or towers that were equidistant to each other to warn another Theme that they are under attack to call for reinforcements; these beacons too went through a straight line from the eastern border of the empire in the Taurus Mountains of Asia Minor to Constantinople itself.  The Byzantine in the middle period or second age which was the age of the Themes from the 7th to 12th centuries had also developed new elite forces such as the Tagmata or the reserve forces which were an addition to the imperial bodyguard or Excubitors assigned to guarding the emperor and Constantinople but also to accompany the Thematic army in battle; the Tagmata units numbered as much as 42,000 men and each Tagma had 4,000 troops commanded by a general called a Domestikos. By the late 10th century, another elite force was added to the Byzantine imperial army, the Varangian Guard made up of Scandinavian and Russian mercenaries and later Anglo-Saxons, which would be more of a professional bodyguard unit serving to protect the emperor than an army of mercenaries. If the numbers of soldiers in the Byzantine army weren’t enough, Byzantines always got allies to fight for them usually by paying them off, most of them being the enemies of their enemies such as the Cumans who were enemies of the Pechenegs, also an enemy of Byzantium, thus the allies that would fight for the Byzantine emperor joining Byzantine forces in battle would be called Symachoi. The power of the Byzantine Theme army was at its peak from the 10th to 11th centuries when Byzantines expanded their power and fought on the offensive and not on the defensive, however this did not last long enough as in 1071, the Byzantines faced a heavy defeat to another new enemy, the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in eastern Asia Minor and following this defeat, the Seljuks quickly took over Byzantine territory in Asia Minor putting an end to Themes that had existed there, this battle also brought an end to the power and glory days of the Byzantine Cataphracts. The Byzantine Empire would again go through another short-lived period of glory under the Komnenos emperors Alexios I (1081-1118), John II (1118-1143), and Manuel I (1143-1180) and would reclaim territory back from the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor but still failed to stop the Seljuks and with a decrease of soldiers, the army of the 12th century became more reliant on mercenaries. The dynasty that succeeded the Komnenos, the Angelos beginning 1185 brought in a period of decline of the once powerful Byzantine armies by neglecting it due to the lack of funds of the empire and this decision proved worse when the Byzantine Empire had temporarily ended in 1204 when Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade army bringing an end to the Theme System and Varangian Guards as well. For the next 57 years the Byzantine regrouped their army and ruled their own empire from the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor until recapturing Constantinople in 1261. In less than 200 years from 1261, the Byzantine Empire would disappear though in those years would be ruled by the same dynasty, the Palaiologos but under them due to lack of funds and shrinking borders, the army was again neglected and very few troops were professional Byzantine forces, mostly the elite forces consisting of the commanders from the nobility while the other only native Byzantine army units were the elite palace guards called Tzakones coming from the Greek region of Laconia; the Palaiologos emperors then relied more on foreign mercenary armies and knights such as the Catalans, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Italians. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire had come to end with Constantinople finally falling to the new empire of the Ottoman Turks whereas the defending Byzantines only had 7,000 men in which most were foreign mercenaries while the Ottomans had about 100,000 troops. The Byzantines had almost the same legionary structure as the Romans except simplified and instead of Latin, the names of the units and command language were Greek.

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Map of the original 7th century Themes in Constans II’s reign
Military units from the Thematic Army, left to right: Cataphract, Akritai, Tagmata
Different international units of the Byzantine Thematic army, 1000-1200
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Structure of the Byzantine Thematic army
Fullest extent of all the Themes in the Byzantine Empire, 1025

Watch this to learn more on the history of the Byzantine army (from Epimetheus).

Watch this to learn more about the creation of the Byzantine Theme System (from Eastern Roman History).


Part II. Unit Types, Armor, and Weapons


Now we move on to the second part of this article, which will focus on the similarities, and differences of unit types, weapons, and armor between the Romans and their descendants, the Byzantines. At first, the early Roman army before the republic was very simple similar to that of the Greek city-states having the elite forces of Hoplites which were barely armored except for possibly leather armor or if not a belted tunic and bronze helmet and were armed with long spears and large round shields as well as round bronze shields. According to the historian Livy, the early Roman army though had only 1 legion having 3,000 hoplites, 2,400 Velites or unarmored skirmishers equipped with throwing javelins but only wearing belted tunics and animal skin over their helmets, then there were 300 cavalry units or Equites in light armor. Now the early Roman army was very much similar to the Etruscan army and was a less formal and equipped version of the Greek armies; though the early Roman army had a few archer and slinger units as well as chariot units, and as for swords each soldier had his own sword of choice. The Romans had used the Greek way of fighting by being made up of clans thrusting with long spears in tight formations until these tactics were no match to the superior tactics of their enemies, the Gauls and Samnites which meant weapons and fighting styles needed to change and new kinds of units had to be made. During the period of the Roman Republic from the 4th to 2nd centuries BC, the Romans fought in the Manipular formation in which soldiers would be lined up into 3 lines in battle with 5 blocks of men per line in a quincunx checkerboard formation, the fighting style of the Samnites. Now in the manipular formation, the structure of the army wasn’t standard yet unlike the legion formation later on as each of the 3 lines consisted of different unit types armed with different weapons and equipped in the different armor sets. The first line of attack in the 3 lines consisted of the inferior units or the younger recruit soldiers known as the Hastati which were barely armored except for a bronze pot-shaped helmet with cheek-guards called the Montefortino helmet with feathers above it while for body protection the Hastati only wore a piece of metal over their tunic to protect their chest while their weapons included 2 throwing javelins or pila and the signature Roman short sword or Gladius Hispanica which was copied from the weapons of the Iberian tribes, though this sword was only a secondary weapon and its main use was for thrusting, then the Hastati soldier also carried an oval shield. The next attacking line was made up of more experienced soldiers known as the Principes which were more equipped and armored than the Hastati as the Principes had full chain mail shirts called Lorica Hamata in Latin- which was a heavy armor that was hard to move in and inspired by Celtic mail armor- though they had the same javelins, shields, swords, and helmets as the Hastati. The main purpose of the Hastati was to be the first line of attack on the enemy and when before sending out the more experienced Principes to dissolve the enemy’s battle formation, though if the Principes didn’t work it was up for the most experienced veteran troops or Triarii to give the finishing blow which is why the saying “it has come to the triarii” was made which meant that both the Hastati and Principes didn’t work out. Now the Triarii units being the elite forces and most experienced soldiers used the same chain mail armor as the Principes except had a different helmet resembling more of the one used by the Greek Hoplites except exposing the face, while for weapons the Triarii instead of javelins wielded a long thrusting spear like the Hoplites did as well as a large round shield and like Hoplites, the Triarii wore a similar kind of Corinthian helmet except the eye pieces were for decoration and over the forehead while the eyes were seen. Aside form the 3 main infantry units, the first attacking line of the Roman Republic army were the Velites or skirmishers which had only animal skin over the helmet, no armor except for a belted tunic and a round shield having 5-7 small dart javelins to throw, these units though were only used to harass the enemy. Supporting these infantry units was the ineffective early Roman cavalry made up of only 300 men and 30 per squadron and at first these units were barely armored until later on taking in the Greek bowl-shaped helmet and a metal cuirass while bore that they only wore a caped tunic and a leather helmet though were armed with a long spear or lance and a round shield. In the republic the consuls or tribunes commanded the army as the generals and used the same metal cuirass armor and pointed helmets Greek commanders used. After the reform of Marius in 107BC creating the legionary system, the units of Velites, Hastati, Principes, and Triarii which had earlier on helped in winning the war against Carthage and the Greeks were abolished and instead the army was standardized with each line of the citizen legion army equipped uniformly. The basic unit of the legion or legionnaire was armored in the chain-mail shirt or Lorica Hamata and used the Coolus helmet which now offered neck protection, then the legionnaire was equipped with 2 pila which Marius changed the mechanism of it by making the spearhead snap after it hits an enemy shield so it can no longer be reused, then the legionnaire’s melee weapon was his Gladius sword and dagger called Pugio while for defense a larger rounded edge rectangular wooden shield or Scutum was used. As for the skirmishers, the velites were abolished and replaced with the auxiliary army made of foreigners who were not citizens specializing in specific battle skills making them be the javelin throwers or cavalry men which wore the same chain mail armor as the legionnaires except had capes and hexagonal shields while using the same lance as their primary weapon. Other auxiliary units such as archers wore a simpler and cheaper armor made of metal scales known as Lorica Squamata which was an armor type dating back to the Ancient Egyptians; auxiliary archers mostly recruited from Syria and the east though were a distinct Roman unit as they wore tunic extending down to the ankles and pointed helmets. As part of creating the legions, Marius introduced new positions such as the Vexillarius where there would be one per legion carrying the legion’s flag which was the name of the legion and the symbol of Rome (SPQR), then one Signifer or sign bearer per cohort, and the most important being the Aquilifer dressed in the same chain-mail armor and an animal skin over the helmet like both the Vexillarius and Signifer and like both also carrying the Gladius and wearing a waistband too but this person carried the most sacred symbol of the legion or the eagle or Aquila. The design of the centurion that we know with the chain mail armor and crested helmet also dates back to Marius’ reforms where the circles placed over the centurion’s armor are his merit badges. The updated version of the Roman army or legion system created by Marius which had the legionnaires in mail armor and auxiliary units would be the same army that Caesar commanded in his campaigns like the wars in Gaul (50s BC) and also the same army in the civil wars in the following years before the birth of the empire. In the age of the Roman Empire, the same legion structure of Marius was kept except that the armor of elite force legionnaires changed from the heavy chain mail Lorica Hamata to the lighter plated iron armor known as the Lorica Segmentata worn over tunics and over it, they carried their swords or Gladius and Pugio dagger, though the imperial legionnaire still carried the primary weapon or Pilum except that the imperial legionnaire’s helmet was a larger and more rounded one called the Gallic helmet or Galea with a larger neck-guard, cheek-guards, and a protruding visor, this helmet would later be the more elaborate Italic helmet, then the legionnaire’s shield also evolved into the much larger rectangular wooden Scutum for the Testudo formation which covered up almost the entire body and had an iron rim and an iron boss at the center which could be used to bash against the enemy. The legionnaire in the Lorica Segmentata is the type of Roman legionnaire we are all familiar with, the figure synonymous with the Romans, same thing that always comes into our head when we think of the Romans and what comes out in memes on the Romans; this famous armor is made of fastened metal bands connected by leather straps and this type was invented for the legionnaires during the reign of Augustus (27BC-14AD), though this armor looking strong was actually light and flexible but not hard to break. The color of the legionnaire’s tunic under their armor was not always red as we know it to be as sometimes it depended on what dye was available but red was a common color since it was one of the cheapest dyes and it was identified with Mars, the Roman god of war, and usually matched the color of their shields, but when in a civil war against Romans, the shields of each army had to be a different color so they could tell apart which is an ally or not. Soldiers though in warmer areas like in Egypt or North Africa wore a white linen tunic which was warmer compared to the wool ones worn in the north while Roman marine soldiers who were assigned to ships wore blue tunics which matched their blue shields. The item legionnaires wore that was made to identify them was their belt called a Cingulum which had leather straps with metal bolts sewn into it that made an intimidating sound as they approached, which was a tactic to scare their enemy. The imperial auxiliaries mostly made of Germanic, Celtic, and Thracian tribes meanwhile did not change much from the auxiliaries of the late Republic still consisting of the non-citizen light infantry, archers, slingers, and cavalry with the same chain-mail or scaled armor, though auxiliaries had began using the Gallic helmet as well but also using the same Pilum javelins and Gladius swords, though the barbarian auxiliaries had sometimes chose to use their native weapons like the Celts or Germanic tribes would choose to use their native battle-axes and Thracians would choose to use their throwing javelins and axes. Under the Roman Empire new divisions such as the Praetorian Guard was created which will be discussed later, though another unit created were the Vigiles or Roman city police which were unarmored except for a helmet and carrying a sword for their weapons. Meanwhile the centurions which commanded a century were more elaborately dressed in their Lorica Hamata armor, though used the same Galea helmet but with a sideward crest so legionnaires could identify their commander in battle, while elite legionnaires of the 1st cohort wore their Galea with a front-to-back crest like the Praetorian Guards; then centurions also wore a cape, additional greaves to protect their legs, bracers for the arms in which some legionnaires wore as well but for weapons the centurion just carried a Gladius but always held a vine wood staff called a Vitis which was his symbol of authority. The second in command to the centurion was the Optio, which on the other hand wore the same Lorica Segmentata as the legionnaires but had a crest over his helmet and carried a commanding straight staff and not a vine staff. In a cohort there were additional junior officer positions as well such as the Cornicen which was the soldier that signalled commands to the other troops by blowing the horn he always carried and he wore either the chain-mail or scaled armor with a Gladius and animal skin (either that of a wolf, lion, leopard, or bear) over his helmet. Another junior officer in the imperial army as well was the Imagnifer who carried the image of the emperor in battle and if he destroyed the image it could signal the start of a revolt against the emperor, this soldier too like other junior officers wore the chain-mail or scaled armor and used animal skin over his head. Now the senior command officers of the army like the Tribunus Laticlavius and Legate both wore the Roman commanders fitted metal muscle cuirass armor, had an ornate Gladius sword, metal greaves and bracers and a cape although their helmets differed as the Tribunus had a tight Attic helmet which design is of Ancient Greek origin with a smaller crest while the general or Legate had the same helmet but with a larger crest. Now knowledge of what the Roman legions and their armor, weapons, and types of soldiers comes from carvings such as Trajan’s Column in Rome showing in full detail the Roman legions, different army units, weapons, siege engines, Testudo formations, and Dacian warrior with large scythe like swords curved inwards as part of the Roman victory of Emperor Trajan’s Dacian Wars (101-106AD).

Standardization of Roman spears (Pila), swords (Gladius), shields, helmets, and armor from Marius’ Reforms, 107BC
Roman Legionnaire (left) and Auxiliary (right)

Watch this to learn more about the equipment of the Imperial Roman army (from Epimetheus).

Watch this to learn more about the evolution of the Roman helmets (from Epimetheus).


The 2nd century saw a period of the Roman army at its height with more conquered land, also there were a few changes seen in the clothing and equipment of the soldiers and not much in the army structure. In the 2nd century, the elite legionnaires though still wearing the well-known Roman Lorica Segmentata armor type had a change in helmet from the Gallic style Galea to the Italic style helmet which offered more protection and sometimes had the addition of built-in spikes; the legionnaires who served in the north of the empire where the climate was cooler had the sleeves of their tunics extended to become long-sleeved, also legionnaires and other auxiliary units in the north borders wore pants under their armor and tunics, also legionnaires in the northern borders would usually wear a long cloak over their armor that included a hood known as a “Gallic Cloak” in which the emperor Caracalla (r. 211-217) got his nickname from. 2nd century legionnaires also had additional metal arm protection or Manica, an armor piece of metal strips orignally worn by Gladiators that covered the entire arm as well as greaves for the legs and for their feet, soldiers would wear actual boots rather than the Caligae or sandals of before, while legionnaire junior officers like the Vexillarius or Signifer or centurions even wore a mask connected to their helmets. As for weapons, 2nd century legionnaires carried an updated sword called a Spatha, which was a long straight sword that replaces the standard Gladius; the Spatha though mass-produced like the Gladius was still a straight and simple sword but was more effective in slashing combat, while the daggers and spears though remained the same. The biggest change in the appearance of the army however came in the 3rd century when the legions were downsized and were now all citizens after the edict of Caracalla in 212 that made all inhabitants of the empire citizens and not only Italians which were legionnaires of before. The biggest change in the 3rd century armor was the Lorica Segmentata phased since this armor type was too light and did not allow much movement for soldiers, the large Scutum shields and the Testudo formation were phased out altogether as well; instead all units that wore this armor instead wore the simpler scale armor or an update version of the Lorica Squamata made of several small leaf-shaped scales linked by leather straps, while underneath it tunics changes and instead of the simple and loose tunics of before, late Roman soldiers wore long-sleeved tunics that were usually white and had patterns, also they wore pants beneath them. By the early 3rd century, the Gallic and Italic helmets of the past have changed by having larger cheek protection but later that century they have changed by a mile becoming simpler and more protective helmets that had more cheek and neck protection, no longer having the wide neck-guard, and at the same time became more compact, sometimes even having a nose-guard, this helmet then became what is called the Roman Ridge Helmet, which was inspired too by the designs of Gothic and Persian helmets, meanwhile commanders like the Centurions or the Dux wore this helmet sometimes with jewellery placed into it or with a crest above it. The 3rd century infantry soldiers or Pedes were divided into 2 main types the Limitanei and Comitatenses, the Limitanei were the border guards while the Ripenses were the river border guards but had a similar appearance being poorly armored except for the ridge helmet while having very little armor except for leather straps over their tunics to hold their weapons while their weapons included the spear or Pilum- similar to the legionnaire’s primary javelin- as the primary weapon and Spatha sword as the secondary together with a dagger and a large round or oval shield with the Chi-Rho (PX) or initials of Christ painted on it, again being influenced by the Germanic weapons. The Limitanei and Ripenses also had archer units or Sagitarii and units throwing javelins or Plumbata kept inside the shields, which had the same uniform of a long tunic though sometimes instead of helmets they wore the flat cap, or Pileus. The Comitatenses or mobile army on the other hand which took the place of the legionnaires wore the scaled armor or sometimes a long chain mail armor that covered almost the entire arms and extended to the knees unlike the old Lorica Hamata and the ridge helmet on the head while the Comitatenses used the spear with a color patterns in its shaft as well as their primary weapon and carried the same round shield and Spatha. The most elite forces of the late Roman army came by the 4th century which were the Palatini established by Constantine the Great taking the place of the Praetorian Guards, they on the other hand had more protection of scaled or chain mail armor over their tunics as well as a crest on their ridge helmet but carried the same spear, sword, and shield as the other units. Now in the late Roman and early Byzantine era, the empire took the cavalry much more seriously and developed a powerful cavalry unit or the Cataphracts in which the early Byzantine and late Roman version of them wore heavier armor as well as full arm and leg protection while their horses too were armored while their helmets were meant to protect almost the entire head having a distinct design of a pointed top and protecting the cheeks and neck was a straight piece of metal and strands of hair coming from the top of the helmet making this helmet inspired by the one used by the Persian Cataphracts, meanwhile the horse too was almost entirely armored. The cavalry of the late Romans was so much different from the auxiliary cavalry during the early empire and republic which was barely armored and paid very little attention too though like the auxiliary cavalry, the new Roman Cataphracts used the lance too as their main weapon. Like the Cataphracts, the other late Roman and early Byzantine cavalry unit of the Bucellarii or elite cavalry guards were also heavily armored in chain mail or scaled armor with the same helmets as the Cataphracts except with not so much armor on the horse as the Bucellarii were more of the Roman horse archers that had carried bows with them while riding, a battle tactic taken from another set of enemies, the Nomadic Huns and Sarmatians. If the rest of the units mentioned here were citizens of the empire and conscripted units, the unit of the Foederati were barbarian soldiers especially Goths and Franks from outside the empire that were settled within it in the condition that they fight for the emperor were allowed to use their native weapons such as broadswords, battleaxes, or throwing axes known as the Francisca which was like a Tomahawk and was named after the Frankish people who frequently used these axes, as well as round shields, though they also carried the standard legionnaire spear but wore their own types of helmets such as the Spangenhelm and their own tunics and capes. Then there were the palace guards or Excubitors were mostly made up of local provincial inhabitants of the empire such as Thracians, Illyrians, and Isaurians replacing the foreign barbarians that once had powerful positions in the army but abused it just like the Foederati. Now the commanders of the late Roman army such as the Dux and Magister Militum usually wore an ornate ridge helmet with a crest in battle and if not in battle the Pileus hat but usually the gold scale armor over his tunic and not so much the general’s muscle cuirass anymore which previous Roman generals wore but late Roman generals though had frequently wore the Chlamys cape over their armor instead of the traditional Roman cape of the empire that generals or centurions wore. Capes meanwhile were worn a lot by late Roman era soldiers regardless of their rank unlike the early imperial and republican army where capes weren’t so common. The biggest difference though in the later army which the Byzantines and Western Roman Empire took in was the military symbols and flags as in the 4th century when Rome became Christian, instead of using the SPQR or Aquila, the banner soldiers went to battle with was the Chi-Rho or first letters of Christ’s name in Greek sometimes together with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega and by around the late 3rd century, a new symbol was used to command the army, which was a dragon or Draco used as the eagle symbol for cavalry units carried by an officer called a Draconarius; this symbol was adopted from the Sarmatian cavalry and would be used for the next centuries by the Byzantine cavalry. On the other hand, the animal skins the legionnaires used to wear were not so commonly used anymore. The units of the late Roman army may have looked like a rip-off compared to the might of the legionnaires of the past but that doesn’t mean the late Roman and early Byzantine army was ineffective although their tactics may have been outdated compared to some of their enemies like the Persians. The style of the late Roman army though was still able to show its real strength when commanded by the general Belisarius in Justinian I’s wars against the Vandals in North Africa and Ostrogoths in Italy to take back Roman lands of the Western Roman Empire lost to the barbarians. However, late Roman soldiers were actually much more equipped in armor than the legionnaires of old as by the 6th century, soldiers had more head protection as well arm and leg protection using linked metal bracers and greaves as well as a vest of heavier lamellar scale armor that covered more body parts rather than just the simple Roman scale armor.  Some decades after Justinian I, the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602), one of Justinian’s successors records the late Roman/ early Byzantine army structure, weapons, and armor as well as the battle tactics and gear of their enemies such as the Persians, Goths, Slavs, and Lombards in the warfare manual Strategikon, not exactly written by the emperor but attributed to him.  

Arms, armor, helmets, and tunic of a late Roman legionnaire
Weaponry of a late Roman Foederati soldier

Watch this to learn more about the cavalry of the late Roman army (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about late Roman weapons (from Eastern Roman History).

Watch this to learn more about late Roman armor (from Eastern Roman History).


Together with the formation of the Byzantine Theme system in the 7th century to increase military presence all over the empire in order to respond quicker to the invading Arabs in the east, the units of the army and their armor types were updated as well to make them more compatible and even more superior to their enemies. The new enemy, the Arabs had a lot more men in battle using harassing tactics on the Byzantines and since the Byzantines did not have much manpower as the Arabs or their other new barbarian enemies like the Avars, Bulgars, and Lombards, they needed to rely more on their physical strength and protection so from the 7th century onwards, Byzantine soldiers had to be more equipped in armor and weapons compared to their predecessor army, the late Roman army. Also, the Byzantines updated the weapons and armor of the late Roman to adapt to the change of warfare of their time meaning, the Byzantines had to adopt the use of heavier lamellar scale armor and padded vests that eastern armies such as the Huns, Avars, and Persians used, axe and mace warfare, and shock cavalry troops as their enemies from the east and north had been using these things. In the Byzantine Thematic army of the Byzantine Second Age (7th to 12th centuries), the basic units of a Bandon, which were the Psiloi which made up of skirmishers and archers called Toxotai which were barely armored and only some of them wore chainmail while others wore only a padded vest called a Zava or Kavadion– sometimes over the chainmail- and some wore the basic Byzantine conical shaped helmets while other troops only wore a cloth turban instead of a helmet and for weapons these light infantry units carried either javelins while archers used short bows and melee infantry units either used the Spatha long sword or Tzikourion, the Byzantine battle-axe and a medium sized kite shield or Scutari. Both regular and elite infantry units of a Byzantine Bandon were the frontline spearmen/ shield-bearers or Skoutatoi or the border guards called the Akritai replacing the late Roman Limitanei, meanwhile were more equipped in armor wearing a lamellar scale armor or made of either leaf-shaped or rectangular scales over their chainmail with leather straps to support the scaled breastplate and for further protection in the arms, these units wore lamellar padding as well for their shoulders and another lamellar apron for their knees called Kremasmata, and for their arms they used linked metal bracers called Cheiropsella and for the legs these linked metal greaves were called Podopsella; now for their helmets these units wore a cone-shaped helmet or Kassis with a chainmail hood connected to it that gave head and neck protection, while for identification of the troops, these soldiers had 2 colored feather strands attached to the top of the helmet or a flowing crest sticking out of it, while underneath the armor and chainmail was sometimes the thick padded Kavadion vest or just a tunic and pants. The more advanced infantry units were meanwhile equipped with a larger variety of weapons that the Roman legionnaires that predated them as these Byzantine legionnaires used a longer spear or Kontarion as their main melee weapon and the Spatha long-sword or the curved single-edged sword called the Paramerion as a secondary weapon, and sometimes would optionally carry a mace called an Apelatikia in case of closer combat, while for their shields they would use the same large convex oval shield made of wood with an iron boss at the center. To put it short, the Byzantine army had uniform armor and weapons like the late Roman army regardless of rank, except that the stronger and more experienced ones like the Akritai, Catphracts, and Tagmata guard units were more equipped. The special cavalry forces of the Thematic Army or the Cataphracts meanwhile were the most armored of the Byzantine soldier units as they were Byzantium’s equivalent of the Western European knights as these units were assigned to their own horses. The Cataphract units wore the same conical helmet with chainmail connected to it except that their chainmail hood unlike the one of the Skoutatoi covered not just the head but the entire head and face leaving only the eyes visible while for the body they would wear up to 3 layers of armor beginning with either chain mail or the Kavadion and over it the lamellar breastplate called Klivanion, shoulder, and thigh guards or Kremasmata, and over it optionally they would wear a padded vest or Epilorikon which they wore over their armor instead of under it to prevent the scale armor from overheating especially when fighting in the hot sun; the Cataphracts too used the same linked metal bracers and greaves for arm and leg protection but the most unique feature of these Cataphracts was their horses were armored in the same lamellar armor as the riders. For their weapons, the Cataphracts were the most equipped in the Byzantine army carrying the same Kontarion spear as their main weapon for charging except with strands of string sticking from the tip of it, then the Spatha and Paramerion swords or sometimes both as their secondary weapons, and the same Apelatikia mace for close-combat, and sometimes but rarely in use was a small round shield. The lamellar scale armor was something commonly used by Byzantine soldiers and something unique to them though this armor type was more common among eastern armies such as the Persians, Mongols, and Chinese, while the Byzantines may have adopted this heavier armor from their old enemy, the Persians for more protection for their soldiers, while in the west the European armies of the early Middle Ages haven’t used this type of advanced and more protective scale armor, but rather used chainmail. Another element of warfare the Byzantines borrowed from the east was the horse stirrup from the Avars, which allowed more stability for the Cataphracts and cavalry units especially if they would perform archery while riding. Now the elite units the guarded the emperor and Constantinople wore the same Klivanion armor and helmet with full-face chainmail as the Cataphracts except instead of lamellar shoulder and thigh guards, the Tagmata wore a full set of the lamellar Klivanion with metal shoulder guards attached to it and leather straps sticking out of it in the upper arm and in the thighs making a leather skirt apron, but under their scale armor was the chainmail. The Tagmata for their weapons used the same spear and the Spatha sword as well as the same oval or kite shaped shield but would optionally use an axe as their weapon and over their armor they would usually wear a cape to distinguish them. The officers of the Thematic Byzantine army such as the Kentarches or Byzantine centurion, the Komes, Droungarios, Tourmarches, Domestikos, and the general or Strategos would wear the same lamellar scale armor except theirs would be made of larger semi-circle scales linked together by leather and sewn over a vest making an actual a single armor shirt with metal shoulder pads connected to them and the apron and arm guards of leather straps as well, and to distinguish them of their rank and status, these officers wore a colored crest over their helmets, a cape of expensive fabric, ribbons tied in certain parts of their armor, and partially seen would be their colorful silk tunic inside the armor. The generals or Strategoi would sometimes wear gold button in the leather straps that support their armor and gold knee pads with ornate carvings, and emperors in battle on the other hand would wear the purple imperial socks with the Byzantine eagle symbol sewn into it as well as the imperial purple cape. The Byzantine army would use the same plated lamellar Klivanion armor types up until the 3rd and final Byzantine period after the 13th century except by that time only the wealthier soldiers and soldiers of higher ranking would be equipped in a fuller set of scaled armor while the common infantry soldiers of the later period would be barely armored except for a tight leather vest with the same leather straps attached to it, the Paramerion sword and the same kite-shield, and for their head the new type of bowl-shaped helmet or onion-shaped helmet, the other elite marine soldiers using the same leather vest armor and a bowl helmet as well as the same kite shield and mace would be the Tzakones. Also, up until the final years of Byzantium, infantry units were still called Skoutatoi as they still carried their kite-shaped shields and spears, though in the later years Cataphracts would no longer be used. Elite Byzantine forces and officers of the late period though wore another type of lamellar Klivanion made of the same scales except being a more compact single piece of armor with a circular breastplate made of scales while the same scales protected the shoulders and arms though this type did not have leg protection. A fun fact about the name Klivanion used for the armor is that it is derived from the Greek word Klivanos meaning “oven’ because when it was under the sun it got so hot making the soldier feel like he is inside an oven. By the end of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century, the Byzantine army was still more or less using the same types of armor and weapons as early as the 7th century while the rest of Europe already had knights in full plated armor from head to toe and the Ottomans had already been using canons and gunpowder. In the final siege of Constantinople in 1453, there were only about 3,000 Byzantine forces defending the city still in the same armor except the more elite force had addition of Western knight style metal greaves and bracers and using the same weapons that had been in use for centuries while the Italian mercenaries or Condottieri on their side were about the same number as the Byzantines but more equipped with Western plate armor, crossbows, and broadswords while the Ottoman army attacking had up to 150,000 men in different uniforms and tactics. However, the Byzantines hired Cretan archers in full armor to fight on their side even if Crete was at that time belonging to Venice and no longer Byzantium’s, but the Venetians still allowed the Byzantines to use their archers from Crete. When marching into battle, the Byzantines like the Romans before them used different kinds of flags to signal the troops, though it is unclear if the Byzantines used music to give commands to their troops. The Byzantines though did not have much symbols in battle such as the eagle and emperor’s image the Romans had, instead each Bandon carried the Byzantine imperial flag in battle carried by an officer called a Bandophoros and sometimes also carried flags with religious icons painted on them to further inspire the troops, but also the same symbols in the flag such as the Chi-Rho were also used by the Byzantine army to emphasize them being an all Christian army, while also the same dragon banners from the late Roman army were also used by the Byzantine cavalry. Evidence of Byzantine battle formations and troop types in the Byzantine middle period come from military manuals like the early 10th century Tactica by the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise. There is not much clear evidence though today on what Byzantine armor or weapons were like except frescos in some Byzantine churches in parts that were once under the Byzantine Empire like Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey show military saints like St. Michael, St. George, and St. Demetrios in the full set of the Byzantine lamellar Klivanion armor sometimes wearing capes and holding weapons like the Kontarion spear or Paramerion and Spatha swords. Meanwhile, the 11th century illustrations known as the Madrid Skylitzes show Byzantine soldiers in battle but do not show their armor and weapons in detail, though another illustrated 14th century Byzantine manuscript called the Alexander Romance shows the ancient Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great and his army in Byzantine armor types and weapons in clearer detail.

Steps in arming a Byzantine Cataphract
Fresco Byzantine saints in full scaled Klivanion armor


Part III. Special Guard Units


In the Roman Empire, perhaps the most well known guard unit were the Praetorian Guards, the elite units of soldiers made to particularly to guard the emperors and Rome itself but at the end turned out to be Rome’s troublemakers that would destroy and install emperors. The imperial Praetorian Guard troops were established in 27BC, the same year Augustus became the first Roman emperor from among the most experienced veteran soldiers of his legions that have served under Augustus’ uncle Julius Caesar’s legions some decades earlier as before that the Praetorian Guards were originally the bodyguards of generals during the Roman Republic guarding the general’s personal tent or quarters known as a Praetorium. Called Cohortes Praetoriae in Latin, the Praetorian Guards were the cohorts assigned to specifically guarding Rome and the emperor and were mostly based in Rome, or all over Italy. Members of this elite cohort were usually not only citizens but recruited only from Italy and members of the Praetorian Guard were usually all hand-picked by the emperor himself from among the bravest, most experienced, and oldest members from the legions. Members of the Praetorian Guard then since coming from the legions had more experience and were usually older than legionnaires though being in the Praetorian Guard, they did not have much action as much as they did in the legions as they were more senior soldiers making their jobs more intelligence than combat related. The Praetorian Guards were overall not just soldiers but intelligence units as well as sometimes Rome’s secret police when it came to uncovering plots against the emperor. Since these soldiers were not in the middle of the action, when they went to battle, their role was to guard the emperor if the emperor led the campaign or if not the emperor, they would serve as the general’s bodyguard unit which would be the most active role they would have in terms of combat, while their other active role was to put down mutinies of soldiers in camps. During the reign of Augustus (27BC-14AD), the structure of the Praetorian Guard was already formed having up to 9 cohorts consisting of 500 men each making a total of 4,500 Praetorian Guards as a whole and each of the 9 cohorts had only 30 that were Praetorian cavalry troops and the rest being infantry. The leader of the whole Praetorian Guard force was the Praetorian Prefect based in Rome, who was a man of Patrician or Equestrian class but was well connected and a skilled politician and soldier; basically the Praetorian Prefect was something like Rome’s mayor but was also one of the emperor’s closest advisors, yet later on the Praetorian Prefect would be the person who would always covet the rank of emperor and plot to take it. The first person to have to position of the Prefect was Publius Salvius Aper in 2BC under Augustus but the Praetorian Guard would rise to importance under the Prefects Lucius Seius Strabo and his son Lucius Aelius Sejanus; the latter under the reign of Tiberius would establish the Praetorian facility in the Viminal Hill of Rome called the Castra Praetoria, the main barracks of the praetorians. Now if the Praetorian Prefect was in charge of the whole guard force, the 9 cohorts operated like in a legion, though a tribune who was like a senior centurion commanded each cohort. Being the elite guard unit, the Praetorian Guards like other elite guard units in history such as the Persian Immortals had a distinct armor compared to the rest of the soldiers as well as a distinct helmet and gear. The Praetorian Guardsmen of Rome usually wore the metal or sometimes leather muscle cuirass armor that Roman commanders wore rather than the segmented metal armor or Lorica Segmentata or the scale or mail armor, while the Praetorians also included other features in their armor such as the leather apron straps both in the legs and upper arms, while they also wore leather or metal greaves and bracers, and officers of this unit had colored ribbons or belts fitted to the armor, then for their helmets they did not wear the common Gallic or Italic helmets the soldiers wore but instead had the more sophisticated compact Attic helmet which was based on the Ancient Greek Hoplite helmet, except exposing the face but what made their helmet unique was the visor sometimes with ornate carvings on them and the large crest above it, although this elaborate helmet as well as the armor were usually only ceremonial, but capes were one thing the Praetorians almost always wore as a way to distinguish them from the rest of the army. The Praetorians too would always wear a dark blue or red tunic under their armor that would be the same color as their cape and when not in battle and just patrolling Rome, the Praetorians did not wear their armor and instead just their tunic with their sword and shield. However, for the Praetorian Guard, usually the senior members wore the commander’s muscle cuirass armor while the units of the Praetorian Cohort wore the same Lorica Segmentata as the legionnaires, though in the 3rd century when this armor was phased out, the Praetorians would wear the scale armor instead but with the same helmets and neck scarf or Focale they had ever since. For weapons, the Praetorians when in battle or mounted on horses used the Roman spear or Hasta as their main weapon but when in the city all they needed was their Gladius sword but their colorful Scuta or shields were the distinct feature of them being similar to the rectangular Scutum of the legionnaires except theirs were also curved but instead of rectangular had rounded edges and their fronts were colorful and decorated with ornate patterns such as wings and thunderbolts as well as scorpions, stars, and crescents as each symbol represented which of the 9 cohorts they came from, the colors of the shields usually being blue or red had to also match the color of their cape and tunic. Now when recruited, if not being experienced soldiers originally as legionnaires, the younger recruits were selected from more prominent families in Italy and had to prove their connections to military commanders or senators and had to take a test to prove they were of good moral character. However being of good moral character would later not be what the Praetorian Guards were as early as the reign of Tiberius (14-37AD) as Tiberius’ Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus had spent years plotting against the emperor to take the throne but when discovered he was executed. The Praetorian Guard had later played an important part in the successions of the emperor first by killing off Tiberius in 37AD by Caligula’s to make him emperor and in 41AD had successfully murdered Caligula afterwards installing Claudius I as emperor. Although the Praetorians assassinated Caligula and made Claudius emperor, Claudius did not act as if he were the puppet of the Praetorians though in the succeeding year sunder the next emperors the Praetorians would continue to do their part as the emperor’s protectors. In the 2nd century, the Praetorian Guards would be at their height not as plotters but in their intended function as the unit loyally serving the emperors even in battle such as in Emperor Lucius Verus’ eastern campaigns (162-166) and in Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Macromannic Wars (166-180), in battle they would not only be the emperor’s protection force but the reserve force being the last line of defense when the other units couldn’t handle it, being like the Triarii of the Republic. However it was after Marcus Aurelius’ son Emperor Commodus’ death in 192 when the Praetorians would become the troublemakers as they killed Commodus’ successor Pertinax in 193 after his very short reign and worse than that, they had sold off the position of emperor to Didius Julianus who they later killed that same year as Septimius Severus was successfully made emperor by his troops. For the rest of the 3rd century, the Praetorian Guard would play an important part in destroying and installing a new emperor as seen in eliminating Elagabalus in 222 and Severus Alexander in 238, but under the reign of Diocletian (284-305), their influence would die out. It was under Emperor Constantine I the Great in the 312 after defeating his imperial rival Maxentius- who had the Praetorian Guards supporting him- in Milvian Bridge that the Praetorian Guards were finally dissolved. After 312, the trouble making Praetorians were replaced by the more loyal Scholae Palatinae that would continue to be the guard units of the Byzantine emperors up until the 11th century. In the early Roman Empire, even the Roman Praetorian Guard was made to guard the emperor, what a lot may not know is that the early emperors had in fact another set of personal bodyguards known as the Germanic Bodyguard or Numerus Batavorum. The reason for the emperors to have foreign guards that were not only non-Roman citizens but from outside the empire was so that they remained loyal as they served someone not of their own race unlike the Praetorians who were Romans meaning it would be more likely for them to plot to take over the throne. The Germanic Bodyguards of the Roman emperors were recruited from among warriors of Germanic tribes loyal to the Romans from beyond the borders of the Rhine in Germania inferior, most of these tribes being Frisians or Batavians from today’s Netherlands, and since the Dutch from today’s Netherlands are ranked the tallest people in the world, these bodyguards must have been really tall, a lot taller than the average Roman. There is no record of the armor or weapons these Germanic Guards used, although they most likely used their own native weapons such as swords and axes and wore their native scale or mail armor, helmets, and capes; also there is little information on how they were structured, though most likely there were only less than 1,000 of them in total and it is unclear if they were commanded by their own commander or by a Roman centurion. The Germanic bodyguards in the Roman army were first recorded being Julius Caesar’s personal bodyguards and under the first emperors Augustus and Tiberius they would still be the emperor’s personal bodyguard, then under Caligula they numbered up to about 1,000 as Caligula trusted them more to guard him rather than the Praetorians which was one of the reasons that cause the Praetorians to assassinate him, and after his assassination, the Germanic bodyguards chased down the Praetorians responsible for the murder. Under Claudius I (41-54AD) and his successor Nero (54-68AD), the Germanic Guards would still serve the emperor but after Nero was removed from power in 68, the new emperor Galba (68-69AD) dissolved the Germanic Guard as they were loyal to Nero leading the Batavians now under the Romans to be offended making them revolt against Rome. Later on however, some of the Praetorian Guards would be recruited from among the Germanic Roman citizens but used the Roman armor rather than their own native ones, but in the early years of the Byzantine Empire, the Foederati units would be the new version of the Germanic Guards except they were a mobile army and not an elite guard force. The most possible revival of the Roman Germanic bodyguard was the Nordic Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, which came to their service in the 10th century and would be effective until 1204.

Watch this to learn more about the Praetorian Guards of the Roman Empire (from Kings and Generals).


Under Constantine I the Great, since 312 the new army unit that would replace the Praetorian Guard would be the Scholae Palatinae, meaning “Palatine Schools” while the term Schola applied to the regiments the Palatini soldiers belonged to. The entire Palatini force was made of of cavalrymen and each schola meant each cavalry regiment, which consisted of 500 men commanded by a Komes, which was equivalent to the rank of tribune. Since the late Romans had relied more on heavier cavalry, the Palatini were cavalrymen and were recruited from among the toughest warrior inhabitants of the empire, usually barbarians; in the east these units would be mostly made up of Goths and in the west would be Franks and Alemanni. The reason for recruiting foreign barbarians as the elite guards was not because they were larger and tougher but because they would prove more loyal, however that was not the case with the Goths as they rose to power as generals plotting to takeover the empire. The Palatini soldiers were equipped in the same armor as the mobile Comitatenses soldiers with the same scale armor or sometimes the plated lamellar over their large tunic but what made them different was usually their use of a cape, military badges for their success, and the Roman ridge helmet or Spangenhelm with strands sticking out or a crest like the Praetorian Guards and for weapons they used the Hasta spear as their main weapon and the Spatha sword as their secondary together with a round shield with the Chi-Rho symbol painted on it. Part of the Palatini unit was another smaller unit of soldiers called the Candidati  which were also elite guards accompanying the emperor but wore a white tunic and no armor. After the final division of the Roman Empire between east and west in 395, both empires would continue using the Palatini as their elite troops though their use in the west ended even after the western empire fell in 476 being disbanded by the Ostrogoth ruler of Italy Theodoric (r. 493-526). In the east, the Palatini served as the elite cavalry troops guarding the emperor in battle, joining the emperor Julian in his failed Persian campaign in 363 and accompanying Emperor Theodosius I in battle throughout his reign (379-395). Under the Byzantine (Eastern Roman Emperor) Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474), the Palatini due to them being mostly made up of Goths were no longer in use as the elite guards of the emperor but instead as Constantinople’s guards while the new emperor’s bodyguard unit became the Excubitors now made up of not anymore of foreign barbarians but locals of the Byzantine Empire like Thracians, Illyrians, and Isaurians, however the Isaurians being in this position had ended up growing too powerful and arrogant during the reign of the Isaurian emperor Zeno (474-491), though the Excubitors despite their full set of armor and weapons would be mostly ceremonials except they personally guarded the emperor and his bedroom. Before becoming emperor, Justin I (r. 518-527), an Illyrian peasant travelled to Constantinople to serve in the Excubitor guard unit under Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518) and when Anastasius died childless the old Justin now the commander of the guard bribed his way to be proclaimed emperor. Justin I’s nephew and successor, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius better known as the most influential Byzantine emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) also began his career as part of the Excubitor palace guards and so did his most successful general Belisarius. The Excubitors though being fully equipped in full scale armor and cape and a helmet as well as carrying a spear, sword, or axe, shield and dagger did not get into action much but were there primarily as a ceremonial guard position to guard the emperor and age did not matter when being in the Excubitors since there was not much action needed meaning even those of old age could still be part of it like Justin I who was still in the guard unit in his early 70s before becoming emperor. Since these were ceremonial imperial guards and not so much a fighting force much like the Vatican Swiss Guard and British Royal Guard, the Excubitor guards appear in the mosaics of Ravenna bearing spears and shields but not wearing armor stading next to Justinian I and Belisarius.  Both the Palatini and the Excubitors would be in use as Constantinople and the emperor’s guards until the late 10th century under the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), but by the 8th century under the emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775), the new elite guards for both the emperor and generals would be the heavily armored Tagmata, in which I have mentioned their arms and armor earlier; the Tagmata unlike the Excubitors were on the other hand an actual fighting force. However in 988 under Emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025), in Byzantium’s new golden age, the elite force to protect the emperor would dominantly be the Varangian Guard beginning as Nordic and Russian mercenaries ending up as the professional guard unit of the emperor. The Varangian Guard then would be the best known military unit of the Byzantine army aside from the Cataphracts as these soldiers were known for their undying loyalty to the emperor despite their foreign origins but in battle were toughest warriors in the Byzantine army for their strength and ability to wield massive weapons to take down several enemies at the same time. The Varangians, originally Viking warriors from Scandinavia in the 9th century settled in what is today Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine forming the state of the Kievan Rus, then in 988 when needed to defeat the rebel Byzantine army of Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros, the emperor Basil II needed assistance from a stronger mercenary army therefore asking the Prince of the Kievan Rus Vladimir the Great for an army. In exchange for Vladimir marrying Basil II’s sister Anna Porphyrogenita, the Rus sent an army of 6,000 mercenaries to Basil II and after defeating the rebels, these mercenaries would be an established unit in the Byzantine army, known as the Varangian Guard, the revival of the Germanic bodyguard of the early Roman Empire, except these soldiers were not of the Germanic tribes from Germany but from the far away lands of Russia and Scandinavia, home to the toughest warriors. The Varangian Guards stood out from the rest of the Byzantine army being double the height and frame of an ordinary Byzantine soldier usually having long blond hair and beards but the most distinctive feature the Varangian Guards used was their main weapon, their native large Scandinavian battle-axe or sometimes called a Dane-axe which they used as they charged out in battle altogehter ahead of the Byzantine forces able to bring more damage on men and horses. The Varangian Guards of Byzantium though wore the same lamellar armor of the Byzantine soldiers over their chainmail and had the same conical Byzantine helmet with the chainmail hood connected to it but their shields, swords, and daggers were their own native Nordic broadsword and Seax dagger and their shield was the classic Viking round shield, though they had worn the metal leg and arm guards of the Byzantines. Since Basil II was impressed by the skill and courage, he made the Varangians- who had converted to Christianity- into the elite bodyguard unit of the emperor and later in his Bulgarian campaign; the Varangians helped him defeat the Bulgarian Empire. Many of the Varangian recruits came at first from Russia then from Scandinavia itself particularly Sweden, Denmark, and Norway and would commit to serve the emperor for 10 years in exchange for wealth. At the end of the their 10 year service to the emperor, the Varangians left Byzantium rich as their pay was higher than any other Byzantine soldiers and when returning to Scandinavia, the Varangians would bring with the riches such as silk and jewellery from Byzantium and would tell stories of the greatness they’ve seen in Constantinople, which they called Miklagard meaning “the city” leading many young Nordic warriors to travel south to Byzantium to come home rich. The most famous warrior to serve in the Varangian Guard was the Harald Hardrada under emperor Michael IV (r. 1034-1041), before Harald returned to Norway and became king in 1046. People from as far as Iceland would also journey to Constantinople and join the Varangian Guard to come home rich such as Bolli Bollason from the Icelandic Laxdæla Saga but after the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons in England to the Normans who were also originally Vikings in 1066, the older defeated Saxon soldiers too had joined the Varangian Guard when travelling to Constantinople. It was under Emperor Alexios I Komnenos by the end of the 11th century when the Byzantine Excubitors and Palatini were disbanded and replaced by the Varangians as the emperor’s personal guard and from that point on, most of the Varangians would be more Anglo-Saxon than Scandinavian. The Varangian Guards were known to fiercely guard the emperor to the last man in battle as seen in the Battle of Manzikert against the Seljuks in 1071 where the Varangians stayed with the emperor Romanos IV till the end when the other Byzantine troops fled and in 1081 when they protected Alexios I in a battle against the Normans in today’s Albania; though in this battle the Varangians mostly made up of Anglo-Saxons were motivated to fight against the Normans for revenge for forcing them out of England but their anger in charging into battle ahead of everyone led to the Byzantine’s defeat. Later on in 1176, the Varangians again proved their loyalty in the Battle of Myriokephalon when the Seljuks already defeated the Byzantines but the Varagians fought to the last man to make sure their emperor Manuel I Komnenos, Alexios I’s grandson could escape and survive. The Varangians remained in the Byzantine army until 1204 when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople and still being loyal to Byzantium, the Varangians were the last defenders of the city when all the other Byzantine soldiers fled but when the emperor Alexios V fled forgetting to pay the Varangians, the Varangians too had fled. Afterwards, the Byzantines would no longer have a military unit as fierce and loyal as the Varangians. In the early 14th century with Constantinople back in Byzantine hands but the Ottoman threat starting, the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) hired a new band of mercenaries, this time the Catalan Grand Company thinking they would be as fierce and loyal as the Varangians but at the end were not as when the emperor had not paid them, they revolted and burned the remaining Byzantine farms in Thrace and Macedonia. The Catalan soldiers though were skilled warriors but poorly armored and equipped except for javelins and light armor but their main purpose was to fight for money and when not getting the pay they turned against the emperor who at the end using another mercenary army of Alans commanded by his son fought back the Catalans, though the Catalans still did not stop and further caused more trouble by taking over Athens. In the late Byzantine army however during the Palaiologos period after 1261, the new elite guard unit of Constantinople and the palace was the marine force known as the Tzakones or Tsakonians, a native Byzantine army coming from the region of Laconia in Southern Greece and when on duty they were equipped with only a leather cuirass armor, a bowl-shaped iron helmet, and a mace as their main weapon while sometimes some soldiers of this unit used a crossbow being one of the very few Byzantine soldiers to use crossbows, the commander in charge of this unit was the Stratopedarches. In 1453 during the fall of Constantinople, Byzantium no longer had its courageous elite forces such as Cataphracts and Varangian Guards except for an army of Italian mercenaries which were more effective than the heavily weakened Byzantine army of that time.

Late Roman Scholae Palatinae units, successors of the Praetorian Guard
The Varangian Guards and their arms and armor

Watch this to learn more about the Varangian Guard of Byzantium (from Kings and Generals).


Part IV. Roman and Byzantine Siege craft


In the days of the Roman Republic, Rome still growing had not yet developed effective siege warfare and had no means to perform large-scale sieges of cities compared to how they were masters of it during the time of the Roman Empire. In the time of the Roman Republic, their enemies like the Macedonians, Carthage, and the Seleucid Empire were masters of siege warfare with weapons like the Balista, siege towers, and war elephants but the Romans learned the siege tactics from them before applying it to their warfare system, although the Romans were not known to use war elephants as a kind of tank except for 2 times one being in the civil wars of Julius Caesar (49-45BC) and another by the legion of Claudius I’s conquest of Britain in 43AD. Before the Romans developed a powerful siege system, the empires long before them the Egyptians and Assyrians have already developed siege weapons like the battering ram and scaling ladders while the Greeks have developed a specific division of the army in charge of artillery and the torsion catapult or the Ballista which fires javelins or stones at the enemy up to 500m. The Roman Republic army made when learning of the Greek ballista made up their own version of it and put it into great use. The ballista was however a large weapon in the form of a giant crossbow and was hard to move around, usually these were used in throwing stones or javelins during a siege either by the attacker or defender and not so much in a field battle. For field battles, the Romans developed a lighter and more mobile ballista called a Scorpion, which also launched javelins or projectiles up to 400m except, was faster, higher, and could be moved easily; now in a legion usually each century or group of 80 men commanded by a centurion had one Scorpion each. However the ballista and scorpion were mostly effective in the battlefield but not so much in besieging highly fortified stone settlements, so the Romans for this kind of siege warfare had to come up with means that could bring down the walls by digging trenches under it to collapse it instead of firing projectiles to take it down. If not for using pickaxes, crowbars, and hammers to take the walls down from below, the Romans used battering rams to open up a gate, scaling ladder to climb up walls which were very much dangerous as soldiers who were exposed to enemy projectiles could easily fall off or if cut down by the enemy the whole ladder and all soldiers on it would fall; but the most effective method being siege towers equipped with a battering ram in front to knock down the walls while the soldiers climb up the tower to breach into the fortification. The siege tower was thus more effective as it covered the besieging soldiers, had wheels to move it, and one it reaches the walls, it could easily unload soldiers, usually entire centuries (80 men). The siege tower was one of the siege engines the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, as earlier on the Greek armies like the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great had been using siege towers while the early Roman siege tower was not as effective as they were by the time of the empire. The most successful event of Roman siege warfare was at the Siege of Masada in 73AD where the Roman siege tower proved highly effective. The fortress of Masada was being held for months by the Jewish rebel army of Judea for months and was located in a high and unreachable plateau near the Dead Sea which the Roman 10th legion (Legio X Fretensis) despite being known for their great skill in siege warfare could not besiege as it was too high. For months, the legionnaires had been encamped surrounding the fortress until they came up with a solution to build a ramp up the steep plateau known as an Agger by filling up layers of earth and sand in order to roll up the siege towers. At the end, the agger enabled the legions to roll up the siege towers and successfully stormed Masada and captured it; today, the agger built by the Romans up to the fortress can still be seen. When taking a settlement, the effective solution the Roman legionnaires used would be the Testudo or “tortoise” formation which covered a century of soldiers which shielded up the whole century and was strong enough to protect them from flying arrows and javelins before they could get into the enemy settlement, however the formation could be broken when the enemy (either foreign or Roman) would drop large stones at it. One time, a whole century’s Testudo was impossible to destroy that the enemy Roman army in a civil war broke the formation by throwing an entire ballista to break it. The soldiers in a legion that handled the artillery were usually volunteer legionnaires or more often the auxiliary troops. For most of Roman history, the catapults they used were the Ballista and Scorpion to launch projectiles and only in the 4th century did the Romans develop a kind of catapult that launched large projectiles tossing it high up in the air, this new catapult was called an Onager meaning “wild ass” because of its violent kick when firing projectiles. The late Roman Onager was however smaller than the medieval catapult but worked the same way and could carry heavier weights than a ballista and swiftly threw projectiles. Like the Ballista and Scorpion, the Onager was torsion operated meaning by ropes except was operated by 2 wooden arms unlike the Ballista or Scorpion which was just operated by one arm and only 2 men while the Onager needed 4 men to operate it, one on each side. The Onager was first mentioned by the late Roman/ early Byzantine historian and soldier Ammianus Marcellinus in 353 and he mentions that it was difficult to operate and could kill the man operating when he wasn’t careful and although it launched massive stones tossing it up in the air, it wasn’t so effective in killing off enemies, rather it was more effective in scaring them away. Now the early Byzantines army beginning with Constantine the Great in the 4th century up to the military campaigns of Justinian I in the 6th century would be using the same siege engines as the Romans such as the Ballista, Scorpion, siege towers, battering rams, Onagers, except for the Testudo formation. The Ballista of the 6th century was however still as powerful as it was in Greek and Roman times as the historian Procopius during Justinian I’s reign recorded that a javelin launched from a ballista was strong enough to run through a Goth soldier and pin him to a tree. The Byzantine army of the middle period after the 7th century would also still sue the same siege weapons except had developed new powerful ones used in ships as well. The Romans too had used catapults and Ballistae on ships to fire at enemy ships and the Byzantines had used the same weapons too on their ships but the most powerful siege weapons the Byzantines had developed was in the 7th century, this was Greek Fire (also Hygron Pyr or liquid fire in Greek) which was an incendiary weapon and the medieval flamethrower. The Greek Fire is one of a few things Byzantium is well known for other than their art, Cataphracts and Varangian Guards, and Theme System and is one of the many things like the Theme System that Byzantium had to develop to counter the growing and deadly Arab threat. Greek Fire first came into use in 672 when the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate attacked Constantinople for the first time and the Syrian engineer Kallinikos created the weapon for the emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), and the Greek Fire is what helped the Byzantines drive away the Arabs. Today, the formula for Greek Fire is lost and remains unknown but it is known that it was a liquid fire ejected from a large siphon tank placed on ships and operated by a pump, and only a special unit of soldiers called the Siphonatores could operate it and only they knew how to operate the weapon. The liquid fire is most likely made from saltpeter which was an early form of gunpowder, naphtha oil, and sulphur but the Byzantine emperors had kept the formula of Greek Fire a state secret so that their neighbors would not copy it and in the Middle Ages, only the Byzantines used Greek Fire. Up until the late 9th century, Greek Fire was only used in ships as by that point, the emperor Leo VI invented the portable Greek Fire for soldiers besieging a city, this portable version called a Cheirosiphon was hand-held sometimes even by a single soldier and could blow out fire, although it wasn’t as powerful as the Greek Fire on the ships. The Byzantines too had used incendiary grenades and caltrops during sieges, which had been existent since Justinian I’s reign. Aside from using the powerful Greek Fire, the Byzantines had other means to besiege settlements such as siege ladders which can be seen in the Madrid Skylitzes when the Byzantine forces attacked Crete in 961 as well as ramps on their ships in case they besieged an island like Crete from the Arabs in 961 where the Cataphract cavalry would unload from the ships when the ship hits the beach, like the ramps of the World War II boats during the D-Day landings. The Byzantines too were patient in sieges and would wait a long time to starve the enemy before they would able to take a city and sometimes, another trick the Byzantines would use in siege warfare is to catapult the heads into a settlement, again a tactic used in the 961 Siege of Chandax in Crete wherein the general Nikephoros Phokas catapulted heads of Arabs they killed to shock the people who could be related to these killed Arabs. The Byzantines too had advanced medieval catapults such as the Mangonel. By the last years of the Byzantine Empire, their weapons which had been around since the time of the Romans were no longer effective compared to the cannons and gunpowder the Ottomans used, not even the Greek Fire. As the Ottomans used cannons and heavy artillery, the impregnable walls of Constantinople proved gunpowder and cannons could help break it open.

Roman siege weapons (Scorpion, Onager, Siege Tower, Ballista, Battering Ram)
Byzantine Siege Weapons (Mangonel, Scorpion, Greek Fire)
Ships using Greek fire

Watch this to learn more about Roman Siegecraft (from Kings and Generals).


Part V. Army Lifestyle, Pay, and Logistics


The military superpower of the Roman legions that we all know was not formed over night as when the state of Rome had formed, it did not automatically have the all powerful legions known for its tactics, discipline, courage, and numbers. In the early days of the Roman Republic, the Roman army was not as large in number, not standard despite them having similar armor types, but was a disciplined army especially because their enemies like Carthage and the Greeks were already military superpowers while Rome was still growing; also the Republican army was not just made up of a fighting force but had a logistics force or baggage train of oxen that brought their supplies and a medical staff behind the battle to take care of the wounded soldiers. The soldiers of the Roman Republican army or Manipular Legions were also recruited from among men who had property and had enough money to provide for their own weapons and armor, which later turned out to be inefficient because this allowed for a minimal amount of men to be in the army. When all of this would change was in 107BC when the consul Gaius Marius made a series of reforms for the Roman army to make it a professional one in order to match the military power of their enemies; 109BC would be the last time the old Manipular structure would be seen which was in the Battle of Muthul against the Numidians. The biggest reform of Marius was in the recruitment of soldiers wherein he ignored the property requirement for soldiers therefore he recruited men from among the landless masses or Capitae Censi all over Italy as long as they were citizens, also Marius standardized the armor and weapons of the soldiers by having the state manufacture them which is why from Marius onwards, soldiers had uniform armor from the chain mail Lorica Hamata to the plated Lorica Segmentata and standardized weapons where all soldiers had the same Scutum shield, Gladius sword, and Pila or javelins, however officers like the Centurion would have had a more ornate sword while generals definitely had a more distinct and heavier ornate Gladius and an expensive metal cuirass armor. However, the only pieces the state provided for the legionnaires was their helmet, armor, shield, Pilum, Gladius, shoes, and tunic while the dagger, arm guards or Manica, and pants were extras like a DLC for a game, so soldiers usually had to provide for it themselves. Because of the reforms, soldiers were also paid an equal amount and the lower classes of Roman society could climb up the social ladder, meanwhile the soldiers in Marius’ army now being professional soldiers had to remain in the army for 16 years, whether or not there was war, they were in military service unlike before that when soldiers were only recruited for military campaigns and when over, they would disband; this was possibly done because by Marius’ time, wars had become more constant. When creating the legion system, the old units such as the Hastati, Principes, and Triarii were disbanded and all were to be equipped in the same way while all other symbols used before for war were disbanded except for the Aquila (eagle); then lastly the creation of Marius was the Cohort each consisting of 600 men with 480 being the fighting force and the rest of the 120 being the logistics force, engineers, and medical staff of the army usually stationed at the camps. Since the Roman legions had to march from place to place to place during campaigns, they had to bring their equipment with them, before Marius equipment was transported by a baggage train which later be too difficult when the marches were longer so part of Marius’ reforms was for soldiers to carry their own equipment while on marches, this included their food and shovels, crowbars, and pickaxes to dig trenches to make their camps as when they moved they had to build their own camps. The equipment was however left in their camps when the legions marched into battle. Meanwhile, Roman weapons and armor despite being standardized were actually not superior in quality to those of their foreign enemies but what made the legions powerful was their discipline, number, and their tactics which was marching into battle all at the same time unlike other armies where each man charged out on his own. After Marius’ reforms, the legionnaires now being paid regularly and given benefits such as land to retire to when finished with military service would be more loyal to their generals than to the Roman state itself and the legions too because of this when in military service had to be camped outside Rome and when a general returns to Rome victorious he would have to dismiss his legions and enter the city in triumph but if a general marched his legions into Rome, it would mean rebellion against the state. It was after the formation of the empire under Augustus though that the legions would grow more powerful and influential. In the years after Augustus, legionnaires would now build permanent camps where they would be assigned throughout most of their years in the army as soldiers were now not only needed to continue marching to expand the borders but to guard the borders as well, and even in periods of peace, soldiers would still remain in their camps except to patrol the borders, later this job would go to the Limitanei and Ripenses. Part of the soldiers’ service was not only to fight but also to build their camps and build roads as well in which they would march on. The permanent camps did not only have barracks for soldiers, but a villa for the commander which would in remote provinces like Germania which had no actual cities be the governor’s palace, an inn, fabrica or armory, a medical facility with doctors to treat the sick and wounded soldiers, and a shrine to make offerings to the gods. By the time of the Roman Empire, soldiers recruited as legionnaires served up to 25 years compared to the 16 year period of service earlier, which meant they were recruited at around 18 and would retire in their early 40s, meanwhile the Praetorians if recruited directly from civilians and not the legions, would only have 16 years of service. If done with 25 years, then soldiers would complete their service and be given a plot of land as their reward, though this had applied to legionnaire soldiers while auxiliaries or those of foreign origin when completed with their 25 year service would be automatically given Roman citizenship; but those who would have to retire from military service due to injuries or health reasons would be given a “justifiable discharge” but given less benefits. However, common soldiers if they have proven their skill in battle would be promoted to the rank of centurion if they were over 30 and would continue their military service for a longer period until they climb up the ranks to Primus Pilus or senior centurion, though other men would be recruited directly to the rank of centurion even at a young age and no military experience if they were from more prominent families, meaning they would be recruited by recommendation. A centurion however stayed in the same position if there was no conflict in the empire and was not just skilled and strong commander but had to be able to manage the troop’s food supply as well taking the role of the strict drill sergeant hated by the soldiers. However in times of instability, the centurion or Primus Pilus could even become emperor if his loyal troops proclaimed him, which was the case of the Primus Pilus Maximinus Thrax in 238, a man who rose up the ranks from a common soldier to emperor. When recruiting soldiers as legionnaires, before 212 they would all have to be Roman citizens from all over the empire regardless of race, but usually Gallic, Germanic, Illyrian, and Thracian Europeans or people of the countryside were preferred as these people were better skilled warrior as well as stronger and tougher than the average Roman or Italian from the cities. To be a legionnaire or even auxiliary soldier, the height limit would be 5ft7, which was tall in Roman standards but short in European barbarian standards, but aside from this height the recruits had to be physically strong, muscular, and have long fingers as this was needed for accurately throwing spears. Those recruited to legions had to have previous work that gave them physical strength too so army recruiters checked their occupation background and preferred to recruit butchers, hunters, construction workers, and blacksmiths over those of humbler professions like innkeepers or fishermen. When recruited, the legionnaires would spend 4 months training for war, then be given a symbol of identification which was a small lead disk or Signaculum which was like a dog-tag hanging on their neck aside from a neck scarf or Focale, and to be initiated they would have to take an oath or Sacramentum while holding a sword to their neck meaning they would sacrifice themselves for the emperor or be punished if breaking the oath. Now if soldiers violated the oat, punishment was severe, sometimes they would be flogged by their centurions or if discovered in starting a rebellion would undergo a punishment called Decimation, meaning the 10th soldier in a unit to be beaten to death by his own men. However, not only common soldiers faced harsh punishments, officers like centurions did too such as in one case in 38BC where the general ordered the centurion’s men to beat their centurion to death as a result for deserting from a battle. Now for salaries, a word which also originated from the Roman army meaning the soldier’s fixed payment in salt, the legionnaires were also paid in money called Stipendium, the basic salary in coins being called an Annona which was the basic salary for infantry soldiers, though in the later empire by the 3rd century, cavalry units would be paid a higher amount or Capitus which also for the maintenance of their horses, although the Praetorian Guards would be paid 1 ½ times more than a regular legionnaire and centurions 5 times more, while the Primus Pilus was paid 60% more than the common legionnaire. Under Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211), the pay for all units were increased to attract more to join the legions but by the later empire after the 3rd century, the infantry legionnaires were paid 400 denarii (coins) annually, the Auxiliaries paid 200 annually, and cavalry 600 annually, and a bonus would be paid in certain occasions like an emperor’s ascension to the throne, their anniversary as emperor, or their birthday, and even in the late empire soldiers were given land when they retired. In the Roman army before Constantine I’s reign (306-337), common soldiers lower in rank than the centurion were not supposed to be married and could only marry when retired, however Constantine I lifted the restriction but the soldiers’ families had to live with them in their camps, meanwhile sons of soldiers were also obliged to follow their father’s footsteps and serve in the army as well while sons of generals were automatically recruited to officer positions such as Valentinian I and Valens who’s father Gratian the Elder was general who rose up the ranks from a common soldier but his sons automatically became officers before becoming co-emperors in 364. As emperor Valentinian I in 372 decreed that soldiers had to provide their own food and supplies except weapons like in the early republic as for the longest time from Marius’ time to the imperial era, the state provided not only weapons and armor but soldiers’ food supply as well coming from farms all over the empire, stocked and distributed in granaries, though when on campaigns soldiers had to also hunt and forage for food. On the other hand, Roman emperors would or would not join the legions in battle themselves but many including Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Valerian, Gallienus, Diocletian, Constantine I, Constantius II, Julian, Valentinian I and Valens, and Theodosius I commanded the legions themselves but did not lead them from the front, though they had also slept in a tent in the army camps at the borders even. Generals meanwhile had been leading armies in battle in the middle of action for the longest time in Roman history and sometimes would challenge the enemy general on a one-on-one duel. In the imperial era, if a general won a great vicotry, then he was awarded a triumph by the emperor, which was a triumphal parade in Rome where his legions march with him parading the spoils of war and captives too. Overall, the Roman army was best known for its disciplined organization aside from its complicated amount of positions and flags but this would be what they would be remembered for throughout history, that even in the futuristic setting of Fallout New Vegas, an outlaw group called Caesar’s Legion was an exact copy of the imperial Roman army.