Byzantine army in Asia Minor

1. Introduction

In 636, after the disastrous battle of Yarmouk, in which the essential part of the imperial army was devastated, Heraclius and his immediate successors found themselves facing a critical situation. They had to confront their most powerful rival, the
Umayyad Chaliphate, which had established Damascus as its capital, very close to the new borders, at a time when the fiscal revenues of Byzantium were severely reduced, after the loss of the eastern provinces (Egypt, Syria, Palestine). With most of the western territories of the Empire seized by the Slavs, the Avars and, later on, by the Bulgarians, Asia Minor was contested land between the Byzantines and the Musulmans. Defending this vast territory, which would become the main source of Byzantine soldiers, was essential to the Empire.

2. Installation of the army in the provinces of Asia Minor

The defeat in Yarmouk led to the progressive reintroduction of the troops that until then were stationed to the conquered provinces. The commander of the troops of the Eastern provinces (magister militum per Orientem) and the remains of this army were installed in the heart of Asia Minor, on the Anatolian plateau, in the area of the future theme of Anatolikon. The units that had been positioned in Caucasus and east of the Empire, where the population was mainly Armenian, either remained north east of the Empire, or they were removed from Armenia, which was under Arab control, and formed the theme of Armeniakon. The tagmata of select members of the imperial guard (obsequium) were reformed in the north-western Asia Minor, in Bithynia, in order to provide protection for the capital; they were the core of the future theme of Opsikion. Finally, having been recruited in vain for the recapture of Egypt before the death of Herakleios, the army of Thrace was stationed in Western Asia Minor before 711, in the place of the future theme of Thrakesion. We do not know the exact number of the armies that were merged together in that way, but the wars against the Arabs had caused significant losses.

3. The formation of the navy

The Arabs, who had conquered Egypt and the coast of Lebanon, were able to establish an effective fleet quickly that threatened the island of Cyprus and, soon after, ravaged the southern coast of Asia Minor. In 655, after an initial confrontation, in which the Emperor Constans II nearly perished, the Byzantines in turn built a fleet, that of Karavisianoi that recruiting seafarers from throughout the empire, including the eastern coast.1 This fleet was not able to restrain the Muslims, when they headed against Constantinople and laid siege to the city in 717. Therefore, the Byzantines had created a theme, that of Kibyrrhaiotai, situated in southwestern Anatolia, which provided them with sailors instead of soldiers. Later, new maritime themes, those of Samos and of the Aegean, were responsible for raids against the Arabs of Crete, after the island had fallen into their hands, in the first half of the 9th century.2

4. The role of the thematic army

Initially the ‘theme’ designated a professional army corps, which was no longer governed by a magister militum but by a strategos. Later, the theme referred to the area from which the troops drew their new recruits, the tagmata remaining stationed to the same place on a permanent basis ever since. For more than two centuries, Byzantium was conducting defensive wars, while the thematic soldiers were obligated to protect the Empire, receiving very low payment, since the finances of the Empire were considerably reduced after the loss of the Eastern provinces. The soldiers of the themes were eligible for recruitment from the age of eighteen and over, and they served in the army for twenty-four years. The soldiers owned his armour and at least one horse, which implies that he possessed a certain capital that distinguished him from the mass of villagers. The regiments comprised almost exclusively of riders: the sources speak of kaballarika themata (equestrian themes). However, during battle, part of the army was fighting on foot, since a combined use of cavalry and infantry had been proven more effective. A soldier was recorded in a military catalogue and was obligated to present himself in the adnoumion (from the latin ad nomen), bringing with him a reserve of food for several weeks. Gradually, the soldiers became owners of their lands, which, under the Macedonian dynasty, were placed under a more favourable tax status, which allowed each soldier to cover his own expenses.3

As a rule, in the spring, the strategos gathered his soldiers in one of the camps and the army gathered following specific rules: the strategoi of the Thrakesionand Anatolikon joined the emperor in Malagina, followed by the strategos of Cappadocia, if the expedition was to take part in the East, while the strategoi of the Charsianon and Boukellarion were joined by the emperor in Koloneia.4

For many years, the main obligation of the thematic army was to intercept the Arab invasions and, given the chance, to counter attack. For nearly a century, the Arabs had the upper hand, despite the efforts of the thematic army; its victories appeared to be without an actual future, while it proved unable to block the Arab army from marching against Constantinople by land twice in order to besiege it. From the second half of the 9th century, war was conducted in a smaller scale, which often only involved the frontier themes. This type of war, called acritic, was practiced by both opponents. It consisted of quick raids by riders, without any luggage or additional provisions, with the purpose of taking prisoners, who would be sold as slaves, and looting, while also avoiding the surprise attacks in the mountainous passes of Taurus. The defenders must have received information on the raids from experienced soldiers, who were responsible for evacuating the villages and leading the villagers and their livestock to underground passes at the time of the invasion. During the 10th century, some soldiers opted to no longer offer their services by paying a tax charge, which reduced the military value of the themes.5 However, a number of soldiers, especially members of the aristocracy, continued to surround the strategos and his subordinates, the tourmarchs, droungarioi and comites. What is more, Nikephoros II Phokas selected a few hundreds of riders, among the wealthier soldiers, who could maintain good steeds and servants; these were called kataphraktoi, because of their heavy armour. These soldiers formed the main attacking troops, at the time of this emperor’s great victories.6

5. The formation of the tagmata

The advantage of having a army of themes was that it was not an excessive burden on state finances; however, it had become less flexible and incapable of offensive campaigns. As soon as the financial situation of the Empire improved, the emperors reorganised a central army, the tagmata, which, at first, was moderate in number.7Constantine V transformed the Scholes, an old regiment that appeared only in parades, into a unit of elite fighters. Several of these tagmata were stationed in Bithynia. Their leader, the domestikos ton Scholon, acquired an increasingly significant position, and, already in the 9th century, he was considered head of the army, in the absence of the emperor.

From the 9th century, the tagmata formed the core of the provincial army, when the emperor led it into battle. Its units were still stationed in Constantinople or in the environs, in Thrace and Bithynia. In the following century, when the Byzantines resumed the offensive, the tagmata, which had multiplied and now included several ethnic units, participated in all major operations, under the authority of the domestikos ton Scholon. The Muslims, led by the infamous emir Sayf ed Dawla, marvelled at the different languages that could be heard in the battlefield: their opponents were Bulgarians, Russians, Arabs.

To diminish the importance of the domestikos ton Scholon, this office was divided by Romanos II in two, the domestikos of the East and the one of the West; later on, other offices were introduced, such as the stratopedarches or the stratelates, who were more or less equivalent to the domestikoi. The same went for the tagmata too, which had been divided at some point, to those of the Scholae, the Hikanatoi. The infantry of the tagmata was the jurisdiction of the domestikos of the East.

In the 11th century, the army consisted almost exclusively of tagmata, to the point that the former elite soldiers of the thems were part of the tagmata of the themes. For this reason, around the second half of the 11th century, the strategoi of the themata began to give way to the doukes: Nikephoros Botaneiates, shortly before ascending to the throne, held the offices of kouropalates and doukas of Anatonikon.8

6. Power in numbers

The number of soldiers that could be mobilised by the strategoi of the themata in Asia Minor is uncertain,9 due to limited information. To attempt a reasonable estimate, we must take into account the few figures provided by the sources, as well as the logistical conditions that imposed strict limitations on the number of combatants. According to the Taktika of the 10th century, an army led by the emperor himself consisted only of 16000 men. The most numerous thematic army in the 8th century, that of the Anatolikon, assumingly consisted of 15000 to 18000 soldiers, while the base of its strategos was in Amorion.10 According to Theophanes, the thematic army of all of Asia Minor comprised of 80000 men;11 of course these numbers are theoretical. During the call of the army (the adnoumion), there were always men missing, while many arrived without the proper equipment (weapons and horse).

The quality of soldiers should also be taken into account. The 10th century Taktika clearly distinguish the majority of the thematic troops, composed of soldiers, who were lightly armed and poorly motivated, from the elite soldiers, the epilektoi, members of the aristocracy, who surrounded the strategos. In 863, the battle of River Lalakaon (in the area of Poson), a decisive Byzantine victory over the emir of Melitene, was won by the epilektoi from two themes, the Armeniakon and the Charsianon; sources inform us that each of those themes provided only 600 men.12

With the exception of the Varangians, who accounted 4000-6000 men according to contemporary sources, the epilektoi did not surpass 1000 men, a number that seemed to correspond to their manoeuvring capabilities on the battlefield. The Frankish cavalry was comprised of several hundred riders.13 In the 11th century, they were probably a few thousand, in order to defend Asia Minor from the Seljuk Turks.

7. The Turkish invasion

The major offensive campaigns of the Byzantines in the second half of the 10th and the first half of the 11th century extended the borders of the Empire to the East until northern Syria and Caucasus, with the absorption of the Armenian kingdoms. The Byzantine troops were being trained mostly in the frontier katepanata or doukata (duchies). The doukaton of Antioch and its markets of Edessa and Melitene were defended largely by the Armenian troops. The old themes of the central and western Asia Minor had been demilitarised, because, with the exception of some naval raids by the Arabs, they had remained safe for centuries. When the Seljuk sultan Toghrul Beg captured Baghdad, he did not intend to attack the empire, except to restore Muslim territories that had been lost during the previous century; he aspired to reunite the Muslim world by absorbing the Shi’ite Fatimid caliphate, based in Cairo. However, in order to put to use all the auxiliary Turkmen, who had assisted in his conquests, but were not integrated into the regular army, he allowed them to plunder the neighbouring Christian territories.

The Byzantine army had not exactly adapted to this type of war mobility, and the Turks led raids deep into Anatolia, looting Melitene, Caesarea, even the area of Chonai. Often the Turkmen were able to return to their bases safely, taking prisoners, livestock and precious objects, evading the troops that were guarding the mountain passes. However, the Byzantines were not really military inferior in the middle of the 11th century. When the Sultan Toghrul Beg went in person to the siege of the fortress of Mantzikert, its defender, a katepano of Georgian origin, Basil Apokapes, managed to repel him successfully. Similarly, when Turkish troops were trapped in mountain passes, they were often annihilated. The successors of Basil II did not neglect the army.14 Constantin IX Monomachos was blamed for the dissolution of the «army of Iberia» (Georgia), with the demobilization of Armenian and Georgian troops, something that would have aided the Turkish invaders. In reality, he had striven to maintain a powerful army. The troops of Asia Minor were often called upon to fight in Europe against the Pechenegs. The tagmata also maintained guards in the East: for example, the Varangians were present in Paypert, in Antioch of Syria, and the Franks in the theme of Armeniakon in Edessa.

8. Mantzikert and Myriokephalon, decisive defeats?

The Byzantines, exasperated by the success of Turkish raids, from which many cities of Asia Minor suffered, elevated to the throne an energetic strategos, Romanos IV Diogenes. The latter, surrounded by Cappadocian troops, rebuilt a strong army, but was beaten in Mantzikert by the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, perhaps due to the betrayal of Andronikos Doukas, his political opponent. There followed a series of civil wars, whose protagonists, Romanos Diogenes, the kaisar John Doukas, Emperor Michael VII himself, later Nikephoros Melissenos and finally Nikephoros Botaneiates called upon Turkish armies, which they established as garrisons in already impregnable fortresses, like Nicaea, placed by Melissenos. The army of Byzantine Asia Minor evaporated within one decade, despite the efforts of Nikephoritzes, the logothetes tou dromou under Michael VII, to reconstitute the tagma of the Immortals (Athanatoi) and to receive help from the Alans, fearsome warriors of the Caucasus.15 It was not until the arrival of Frankish Crusaders, that the Byzantine guards in the cities of western Asia Minor or in ports like Antalya and Trebizond were restored.

The Komnenoi fortified the new frontier that passed through the edge of the Anatolian plateau, where the Turks had established their capital at Ikonion (Konya). Philadelphia, Chonai, Laodikea, Sozopolis and the fortresses of the new theme of Neokastra temporarily blocked the Turkish access to the sea through the plains. Manuel aspired to obtain a foothold on the plateau, by fortifying Soublaion and Dorylaion, and sparking hostilities with the sultan. The emperor’s powerful army, heavily equipped for a siege, was ambushed on the way to Konya, in Myriokephalon in 1176. However, the Byzantine army of Asia Minor, once again under the command of a domestikos ton Scholon of Oriens, remained strong after this serious setback, and managed to defeat significant Turkish armies, as in 1177 in the Meander valley. However, Manuel’s death in 1180 led to important problems. The two defeats, in Mantzikert and in Myriokephalon16 do no reflect the Byzantine inferiority in battle but the errors of their leaders. The army was weakened more by the internal struggles, with the elimination of competent officers, especially during the reign of Andronikos I Komnenos, and due to the significant loss of soldiers.

9. The Laskarids

The fall of Constantinople in 1204 left the population of Asia Minor broken and crippled. Theodore I Laskaris and his son in law John III Vatatzes, emperors of the newly-established Empire of Nicaea managed to organise a large army. Yet in 1211, when the decisive victory of Theodore Lascaris caused the death of the Seljuk sultan of Antioch, the emperor had little more than 2,000 men including 800 Latins, as the core of his army. Vatatzes’ troops were composed in part of indigenous population, some defending the border for an exemption from taxes and the freedom to loot, and partly of mercenaries, among which the Franks were the most infamous.

10. The end of the Byzantine army in Asia Minor

When Michael VIII Palaiologos re-conquered Constantinople, he literally abandoned Asia Minor, and especially the frontier of Sangarios, leaving behind even the akritai, in his effort to obtain money. Unfortunately, the Mongol victories defeated the Seljuk state and brought new Turkish tribes toward the Byzantine territories. Byzantine resistance against these emirates of Ghazi warriors was greater than is sometimes recognised: Michael VIII, Andronikos II and Andronikos III all sent armies to help. The most infamous of those was the Catalan Company, comprised of 6000 men, and it managed to gain great victories over the Turks, even though it proved to be greatly unruly. From 1305, the armed resistance in the area was limited to defending the remaining strongholds. The final effort came from Europe where Andronikos III mobilized troops to try to repel the advance of Osman, leader of the future Ottomans, but in 1329, he was defeated in Pelekanon in Bithynia, ending the organised resistance of the Byzantine army in Asia Minor. Soldiers of Asian origin, however, continued to fight in Europe as mercenaries, such as the Klazomenites.17

1. For the creation of this navy see the most recent hypotheses by Zuckerman, C., ‘Learning from the Enemy and More: Studies in ‘Dark-Centuries’ Byzantium », Millenium 2 (2005), pp. 79-135.

2. On the subject of Crete see Tsougarakis D., Byzantine Crete : From the 5th century to the Venetian conquest (Athens 1988).

3. Haldon J. F., Recruitment and Conscription in the Byzantine Army c. 550-950. A study on the origins of the stratiotika ktemata, (Österr. Akad. d. Wiss., philos.-hist. Kl., Sitzungsberichte 357, Wien 1979), pp. 41-65.

4. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Three Treatises on imperial military Expeditions, introd., ed., trans. and comm. by J. Haldon (CFHB, Series Vindobonensis 28, Wien 1990), pp. 80-81.

5. Magdalino, P., "The byzantine Army and the Land: From stratiotikon ktema to military pronoia", in: Το Εμπόλεμο Βυζάντιο (9ος-12ος αι.) = Byzantium at War (9th-12th c.), Πρακτικά Διεθνούς συμποσίου, Εθνικό Ιδρυμα Ερευνών, 28-30 Μαρίου 1996 (Athens 1997), pp. 15-36.

6. Kolias T., Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969): der Feldherr und Kaiser und seine Reformtätigkeit (Historical monographs 12, Athens 1993).

7. On the formation of the tagmata, see Haldon J. F., Byzantine praetorians : an administrative, institutional and social survey of the Opsikion and Tagmata, c. 580 – 900 (Poikila byzantina 3, Bonn 1984), pp. 228-256.

8. Cheynet J.-Cl., «Du stratège de thème au duc: chronologie de l'évolution au cours du XIe siècle», Travaux et Mémoires 9 (1985), p. 181-194, reprint. in Cheynet J.-Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Variorum Reprints, Aldershot 2006), no. XI.

9. Concerning the size of the army, Cheynet J.-Cl., «Les effectifs de l'armée byzantine (Xe-XIIe s.)», Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 38.4 (1995), pp. 319-335, reprint. in Cheynet J.-Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Variorum Reprints, Aldershot 2006), no. XII.

10. Lightfoot C. S., «The Survival of Cities in Byzantine Anatolia, The Case of Amorium», Byzantion 68 (1998), pp. 56-71.

11. Θεοφάνης, Χρονογραφία, C. de Boor (επιμ.), Theophanis Chronographia 1 (Leipzig 1883), p. 447.

12. For references see Haldon, J. F., Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204 (London 1999), p. 103.

13. Shepard, J., «The Uses of the Franks in Eleventh-Century Byzantium», in Anglo-Norman Studies 25 (1993), pp. 275-305.

14. Cheynet, J.-Cl., «La politique militaire de Basile II à Alexis Comnène», Zbornik Radova Vizantoloskog Instituta 29‑30 (1991), pp. 61‑74, reprint. in Cheynet J.‑Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Variorum Reprints, Aldershot 2006), no. X. For a somewhat different opinion see Vryonis, Sp., «The Eleventh Century : was there a Crisis in the Empire?: the Decline of Quality and Quantity in the Byzantine Armed Forces» in Β. Βλυσίδου (ed.), Η Αυτοκρατορία σε Κρίση (;): Το Βυζάντιο τον 11ο αιώνα (10251081), (ΙΒΕ/EIE, Διεθνή Συμπόσια 11, Athens 2003), pp. 17‑43.

15. Lemerle, P., Cinq études sur le XIe siècle byzantin (Le Monde byzantin, Paris 1977), pp. 300-302.

16. Among the extensive bibliography on the battle of Mantzikert and its aftermath, we note: Cheynet, J.-Cl., «Mantzikert: un désastre militaire?», Byzantion 50 (1980), pp. 410-438, reprint. in Cheynet J.-Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Variorum Reprints, Aldershot 2006), no. XIII and Vryonis, Sp., «A personal history of the history of the battle of Mantzikert» in Λαμπάκης, Σ., Η Βυζαντινή Μικρά Ασία (6ος-12ος αι.) (ΙΒΕ/EIE - Κέντρο για Μελέτη Ελληνισμού Σπύρος Βρυώνης, Διεθνή Συμπόσια 6, Athens 1998), pp. 225-244. On the battle of Myriokephalon, see Lilie R.-J., «Die Schlacht von Myriokephalon (1176). Auswirkungen auf das byzantinische Reich im ausgehenden 12. Jahrhundert», Revue des Études Byzantines 35 (1977), pp. 257-275.

17. Oikonomides N., «A propos des armées des premiers Paléologes et des compagnies de soldats», Travaux et Mémoires 8 (1981), reprint. in Oikonomides N., Society, culture and politics in Byzantium, ed. El. Zachariadou, (Variorum Reprints, Aldershot 2005), no. XVI.