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53810th century Eastern Roman Infantry formations

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  • James Mathews
    Mar 4, 2014
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      >>>> 10th cent. Eastern Roman Infantry formations <<<<

      The Eastern Roman army's skoutatoi (Heavy Infantry with large shield) for the Macedonian Period (890-1000 AD) has been a subject of conjure. I have been doing some research on the 9-10th century Eastern Roman Army so I thought I would offer my own views on the subject.

      The 6-8th century Roman infantry had basically two major roles: 
      1. To oppose the enemy infantry 
      2. To act as siege forces.
      The infantry was expected to deal with enemy forces in terrain or conditions unsuited for cavalry or when no cavalry were present (Which was rare.)
      At the start of the 9th century this began to change.  The reviving Eastern Roman Army would need better infantry.  

      The Evidence
      The skoutatoi are mentioned in the following texts:

      1.  Sylloge Tacticorum (Military View of Tactics written about 920 AD by various contributors.)
      Infantry are divided into hoplites (Heavy armed,)menavlatoi, peltastoi (Medium Shield carrier) and psiloi (Light armed) organized into taxiarchy of 1000 men each. Alternate name was chilliarchy (of 1000) with commander called chilliarch. The author describes the use of spearmen, archers and slingers/javelinmen in seven rank or ten rank formations.  

      2.  Praecepta Militaria (Written circa 965 AD) 
      Infantry are formed in Taxies of 1000 Taxis each. The Taxis unit consists of 400 spearmen (kontaratoi, so called since they carry the kontos a 10-12' long spear), 300 archers (psiloi, literally ìlight armedî ), 200 slingers (the sphendonitai (sphere throwers) and/or javelinmen (akontistai [short kontos i.e, javelin carrier], and 100 monoaulatoi (Thick pole carrier)I believe this a corruption of the text and Nikephoros meant ìmenavlatoiî.  They are 7 ranks deep.

      3.  Liber de re Militari (unknown army officer at the start of the 11th century) Pays homage to Vegetius ìEpitomeî and is set down as updating of Vegetius ìEpitome de re Militariî at the turn of the century  
      In ìre Militariî Infantry are formed into taxies of 500 kontaratoi, 300 psioli and 200 akontistai with no ìmenavlatoi.î  They are ten ranks deep.

      So in the period 900-1000 AD it would appear that there is general agreement on the composition of the basic skoutatoi unit. The spearmen and archers are very close in numbers. The additional javelin and sling armed troops providing more firepower to augment the archers. This information tends to support the emphasis of firepower in the Nikephorian period. The unit was much like the old Persian military formations of the Classical Period, the Sparabara.  Its 1000 man regiment was 1/3rd spearmen and two third archers, and was ten ranks deep. (Herodotos Hist. 9.31, Xenophon Cyr. 7.5.2)  

      The standard Roman formation was still 7 to 10 ranks deep, although a depth of 16 is sometimes mentioned. This for years thought to be a literary carryover from Hellenistic practices (Delbruck), which used as examples of ancient practice in many later Roman tactics. However, there are examples given when 16 ranks are used consist of only spearmen and archers in the ìSyllogeî.  This is clearly an anti-cavalry formation whose description dates back to the Roman Republic.  The javelinmen and slingers formed alongside the 16 deep unit as flankers, to attack the enemy cavalry once it was engaged.  (The Arab cavalry believed that the Romans were chained together, since their discipline was so fierce that they wouldn't open gaps against the cavalry.  This ability is mentioned in Arab battle reports 

      covering centuries.) The other implication is that Arab infantry did not have this 
      ability and depended on bowfire to break up a charge.  

      The named formations according to the Sylloge were:
      1. Antistomos - the standard formation of four ranks of spearmen, then two or three of archers and finally four more of spearmen.  This was the regular formation.
      2.  Amphistomos -an alternate formation of one rank of menavlatoi, then two ranks of long spear, three of archers and finally two of long spear.  Obliviously the anti cavalry formation.
      3.  Another option for use against cavalry was another rank of spear added in   front  of   archers  altering   the  formation to one rank of menavlatoi, four ranks of spear, then three of archers and finally one of spear.
      There are also references in the Sylloge that suggest that a tagma (regiment) was 525 spearmen and 175 archers in seven files across each of 10 men. 
      This implies that the administrative regiment was altered for formations to emphasis the importance of spearmen in an anti-cavalry role. Since their basic enemies were cavalry heavy armies in this period, their was firepower was reduced to a subordinate role. 
      The Sylloge has references to units stripped off the Taxis. Some archers mixed with the spear-men while archers, slingers and javelinmen were brigaded as separate units. So a 1000 man taxis was divided into two combat units; the main one of 700 men and a skirmishing unit of 300. The spear and bow armed units formed the main infantry force, while the remainder were skirmishers in advance of the army or placed in the intervals between units of spearmen and archers. This mixing of troops on the battlefield is consistent with the Imperial practice of relying on a combined arms doctrine unlike the earlier Roman army.

      The earlier eastern Roman infantry described in Procopius' Persian and Gothic Wars [Wars] the bulk of the infantry were skoutatoi (Scutum bearers) with the 3' oval or round shield (Scutum), armed with Greek droys (Spear) which is described as the typical Roman spear (lancea) which can be thrown or thrust.  Archers/javelinmen are separate, operating in what Procopius seems to call ìKohortesî which likely corresponds with the old Cohors. (He never says.)  The infantry was poor quality and even the heavy infantry was only good for garrison duty. They even contributed to one of General Balisarios' rare losses when after they demanded the General to lead them against the besieging Goths outside Rome, where they broke and ran, after being charged by Gothic cavalry. (Wars)     
      ìOn the Reign of Justinian,î[Reign] by Agathias which continues on the narrative  ìWarsî is the chief authority for the period 552ñ558 AD. It deals chiefly with the struggles of the Imperial army in Greece and Italy and is even more scathing.  He claims that the Roman infantry would run if the Roman horse retreated.  Obviously, the infantry was not the desirable rally point.  At the Battle of Taginae in Northern Italy the General Narses was forced to dismount his allied horse of Gepids and Lombards both who were armed with lances 10-12' feet long (Kontos) since ìhis own infantry was so unreliable.î (ìReignî) The Gothic horse charged against these 2000-5000 men but ìcould not make an impression, because of their poles.î (ìReignî)
      At this point the Roman infantry apparently begin to be rearmed with longer spears.    

      By the 7th Century, the infantry often acted as a rally point for the heavy cavalry, which were always the premier forces of the Eastern Roman army. They could open ranks and allow the horse files to pass through their intervals. The heavy infantry begin to be called kontaratoi. (This may have been since the Avar system was being adopted, that the infantry was being issued kontos since it was the Avars' main weapon for their horse. (Alexiad))  This role was best suited to spearmen who could keep enemy cavalry at bay while archers provided overhead fire support, and javelinmen, slingers sallied out to flank enemy forces and shoot them down. This took training, something the earlier troops did not do.  By the 9th 
      century the kontaratoi were expected to stand up to a mounted charge, pin the enemy force so the javelinmen could engage the horse flanks and beat them. 

      Special mention must be mentioned to the menavlatoi.  These were obviously an anti Kataphractoi weapon.  When the Rus (Vikings)and Bulgar shield walls were impossible to break by the normal kontos armed horse, a Roman general came up with the idea that a heavier cavalry man, based on the old Sassanid Persian Clibanarius would be effective. Instead of fighting with the kontos and bow, the ìKlibanophoros,î as this Kataphractoi came to be called, used maces to batter down the shield wall.  It was very effective and allowed the Imperial army to win several close battles.  The problem was that in civil wars the new armored cavalry would be used against the rebel skoutatoi's foulkon (shieldwall) and the light kontos wouldn't stop them.  So the menvolius was developed.
      Both the ìTaktikaî and the ìSyllogeî recommends that this spear be between 7-8' long built from a complete young sapling, (i.e., no joints to join together) 4î thick. It was wielded by two hands braced into the ground.  This would allow the trotting Kataphractoi to impale their horse when they crashed into the shieldwall in order to use their maces.  
      The weapon was effective, but since it had the one use, stopping the armored horse, once the Rus and Bulgars were pacified, the armored protected units were no longer needed and being very expensive were disbanded.  At one point the Arab writer Ibn Khodadbah claimed that of Imperial Tagmata (regular army) out of its 6,000 cavalry, 1/3rd (2000,) were fully metal armored, riding large horses which were metal protected.  Khodadbah felt that this was an un necessary extravagance. Apparently the Imperial treasury agreed.     
      (The Arabs and Turks never used true metal armored cataphracts, armoring their horses with quilted armor instead which were easily penetrated by the lighter kontos of the kontaratoi.  So the menvolius was no longer needed.) 

      By the end of 10th century the Imperial army had undergone major changes.
      The infantry was more flexible, being bow armed and pike armed, so they could either operate against enemy infantry, or split-off and fight in unfavorable terrain with the bow and javelinmen, with the kontaratoi left in support. With long range missile fire, and long spears they could face charging enemy cavalry and fight them to a standstill, and even defeat them.                           

      The important fact to remember in analyzing the Eastern Roman army is its consistency. The military force was rather conservative. This very apparent in the military manuals and artwork. The arms, armor and dress was imitations of the old Italian Roman armies. The use of archaic words such as hoplite (Heavy armed) and peltast (Pelta shield bearer) reflect this as well. The written evidence as read suggests that the Eastern army did not change radically over the centuries. But why should it?  The Eastern army needed to face its foes in set piece battles rarely.  Mostly diplomacy and clever alliances allowed the Empire to survive.    
      When the Empire did fight, its strength was in its heavy cavalry, since that was what its enemy had as well.   
      Unlike their Italian ancestors, the old spear and javelin armed infantry had now a secondary role, this decline could be traced to the 3rd century AD.  But by the 9th century the battlefields of their changing foes demanded a return of the infantry.  The new Roman infantry which had been slowly adapting since the 6th century was now a composite weapon, with 2/3rds long spear armed infantry, 1/3rd bow armed.  If facing an army that had predominate missile troops the missile contingent could be increased to 50%.  This ability gave the resurgent Macedonian Dynasty its victories against the Empire's ring of enemies in the 10th century. Had not the superb Roman army had not been used up in civil wars, leading to the final betrayal at Manzikert, where the Empire lost the Anatolian heartland, history would have been different.  

      Procopius ìThe Persian & Gothic Warî
      Agathias ìOn the Reign of Justinianî
      Maurikius ìStrategiconî, 
      Leo VI (Leo's Tactica), 
      Nikephoros Ouranos ìTacticaî 
      (Various) ìSylloge Tacticorumî 
      Nikephoros Phocas ìPraecepta Militariaî 
      Unknown ìLiber de re Militariî
      Michael Psellus ìChronographyî

      Stephen Phenow

      Ladies and Gentlemen;

      I am most pleased to be able to provide the above thesis which was put together by my friend and colleague Stephen Phenow.  I have found this piece of research extremely interesting, and I am hoping that you will as well. 

      Respectfully Submitted;

      Marcus Audens