1. Historical background
The term akrites occurs mostly in texts dating to the middle (7th-12th cent.) and the late (12th-15th cent.) Byzantine period, and it mainly refers to the soldiers responsible for the defence of the Byzantine border in Asia Minor (the akres, mean. «extremity»), as well as to their commanders. It also indicated the civilian population that inhabited this border region. At least during the Middle Byzantine period, this term certainly did not denote independent local irregular troops, since the defence of the frontier was undertaken by forces of the regular army, which served there turn out of turn; and even in the Late Byzantine period, the safeguarding of the border was organized by the central administration, albeit with the indispensable participation of the local population.
During the Early Byzantine period (4th-7th cent.), the defence of the borders was entrusted to the so-called limitanei (from the Latin limes= border, frontier), i.e. troops stationed in cities or strongholds along the border, as distinct from the comitatenses (from the Latin comitatus = escort), the strike force of the Late Roman army, stationed in cities or camps of the hinterland. The division of the army into static and mobile units dates to the reforms of the late 3rd and the early 4th century and is attributed to Emperor Diocletian (284-305), or to Constantine the Great (307-337).1
The limitanei consisted of infantry and cavalry units, under the command of a dux, while the auxiliary troops were under the command of the governors of the borderland provinces. Up to the 6th-7th cent., Asia Minor was protected (from North to South) by the borderland provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia, Osrhoene and Syria, while frontier troops were stationed in Isauria as well, partly to guard the mountain passes from Syria into the interior of Asia Minor, but also to keep an eye on the rebellious Isaurians.
2. The transitional period (6th-7th cent.)
Unlike the comitatenses, the limitanei, apart from their salary as soldiers, were also offered land in the area where they were stationed. Therefore, parallel to their military duties, they also worked the land, thus gaining a complementary income and contributing to the agricultural production of the borderland provinces. The status of the limitaneus, as well as his estate, were hereditary and passed on from father to son. The military importance of these frontiersmen gradually diminished and, by the years of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565), the limitanei were no longer considered active soldiers, although this institution was not altogether abolished.
The presence of limitanei in the eastern provinces is attested until up to the second half of the 6th cent., but the turmoil caused by the Persian conquests in the early 7th cent. led to the dissolution of the defensive system of the Byzantine empire. In the 630s, following the defeat of the Persians by Emperor Herakleios (610-641) and the reconquest of the eastern Byzantine provinces, there was an attempt to reorganize the disintegrated frontier garrisons, but this effort proved fruitless. The cause for this failure lay in the appearance of a new menace in the eastern frontier of the Empire, an enemy much more dangerous than the Persians.
In 634 the Arabs invaded the Byzantine provinces of Palestine and Syria. By 639-640 they had completed the conquest of those provinces and had invaded Mesopotamia and Egypt. The conquest of Egypt was completed in 645, while as early as 640 the Arabs had begun their incursions in Asia Minor. Over time, their raids into the Byzantine Asia Minor became recurrent.
3. The Arab threat to the Eastern frontier
Apart from the profit made from plundering, the reasons behind such almost annual Arab raids in the eastern Byzantine provinces were mostly ideological and strategic. The struggle against the infidels was a religious duty of the Muslims, while it could also be used for internal consumption, to boost the prestige of -local mostly- Arab rulers. The continuous raids and pillaging weakened the Byzantines and offered security to the borderline Muslim areas.2
Up to the early 8th cent. the raids were organised by the caliphs in order to undermine the Byzantines and to capture cities and islands that could be used as bases for further operations, the ultimate goal being the seizure of Constantinople and the conquest of the Byzantine Empire as a whole. In the late 7th and the early 8th cent. the Arab attempts at capturing Constantinople failed. Since then -and especially after the mid-9th century- their raids became seasonal3 and concentrated along the eastern border, which had now been stabilized along the line from Cilicia and the Taurus mountain chain to the Antitaurus, the west bank of the river Euphrates and the mountains of the Pontus, ending up in the Black Sea.4 The mountainous terrain of the eastern frontier forced invaders to use a limited number of mountain passes, most important among which were (from South to North) the Cilician Gates, the pass of Adata and the pass of Melitene.5
4. The defence of the frontier of Asia Minor (7th-10th cent.)
The incessant struggle on the Arab-Byzantine frontier decidedly affected the military organization of the Byzantine Empire from the 7th century onwards. Faced with incursions that often penetrated deep into Anatolia,6 the Byzantines were forced to disperse their troops all over Asia Minor, developing the institution of the themes, an in depth defensive strategy which featured the deployment of troops in the hinterland in adequate numbers so as to repel raiders and protect the territory of each theme from being pillaged. The army was also entrusted with keeping the civilian people safe. Special officers, the expelatores, were sent to the residential areas of each theme that lay on the route of the raiders and coordinated the transportation of civilians to fortified cities or to the mountains.7
Essential to the proper operation of the system were the existence of some early warning for incoming enemy raids, the gathering of information, the dynamic reaction to small-scale incursions and the carrying out of reprisal raids in the Arab lands along the frontier. These were undertaken by the regular troops stationed in the border themes; more precisely, responsible for the above were the tourmarchs who were stationed exactly on the borderland, on the «akres». These are the first men that are referred to in the Byzantine sources of the 10th cent. as «akritai», though the term does not refer to any specific unit of these troops.
5. Tactic of the «akritai»
The task of the kleisourarchs and the tourmarchs was to oversee the roads that led from the Arab lands to the interior of Asia Minor and keep their superiors informed on any raids. For this reason the «akritai» had created a network of static observation posts (vigles and kaminoviglia) spread out over the rises of the frontier to transmit information to the strategos of the theme. Mounted scouting patrols in the lowland areas also served as a connection between these observation posts, thus strengthening the frontier surveillance system.
The soldiers of the theme manned the observation posts rotating every 15 days, while the mounted patrols were carried out by light cavalry troops, called trapezitai in the eastern frontier and tassinarioi or tassinakia by the Armenians. Their mission was also to organize reprisal raids in the enemy territory and to gather information. Although the terms trapezitai and the tassinarioi do not feature in the akritic songs, the term apelatai,anotherword occurring in such literary texts, is also found in the Byzantine sources of the 10th century, and it probably designates troops that belonged to the «akritai» in general.8
The tourmarchs of each region (who were also «akritai» themsevles) were responsible, among others, for keeping the local civilian population safe and for keeping them off the war-zone, as well as for reinforcing the defence in case of large scale invasions. In the latter case, the tourmarch was supposed to follow the invaders closely while waiting for the strategos with his reinforcements. If his troops were superior in number, he would attempt to curtail the movements of the invaders and limit the extent of the plundering. Otherwise he would resort to guerrilla tactics, avoiding engaging the enemy in normal battle, and attempting to use his infantry to trap the raiders in mountainous passes and eliminate them in an ambush.
6. Gradual weakening
From the late 9th cent. onwards, compact Armenian populations began settling in the border regions of the Byzantine Empire, mostly in Cilicia and Mesopotamia. These Armenians were incorporated in the defensive system of Asia Minor, forming small themes, which were called «small» or «Armenian» ones (in contrast to the older themes of Asia Minor, which were now known as «great» or «Roman» ones); these themes were entrusted with the mission of protecting the eastern frontiers. As the Armenians proved rather lackadaisical in fulfilling their duties as frontiersmen, it became customary to carefully select the persons to be sent as lookouts in the frontier (where they would remain for 30 days) and to provide them with a special salary. But still the Byzantines were not satisfied and continued relying on the trapezitai.
The Arab raids in Asia Minor stopped in the 960s, when the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) conquered Cilicia and part of Northern Syria, thereby depriving the Arabs of their bases from which they launched their attacks. In the late 10th cent. the Byzantine defensive line in the eastern frontier was mainly manned by Armenians and mercenary units of the regular army. It was organized around five large frontier divisions: Antioch, Edessa, Mesopotamia, Vaspurakan and Chaldia, under the command of duces. The Byzantine expansion beyond the eastern boundaries of Asia Minor, the abatement of the threat of the Arab raids and the shouldering of the frontier defence by Armenian newcomers resulted in the weakening of the ranks of the «akritai», and thus of the defence of the borders, after the 10th century. Some (including certain Byzantines of the time) blame the sweeping advance of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor during the second half of the 11th century on the almost complete lack of military experience of those who undertook the guarding of the frontiers.9
7. The reconstitution of the eastern border during the Comnenid period (12th cent.)
By the 1080s, the Seljuks had captured the largest part of Anatolia, confining the Byzantine Empire to its European possessions. Thanks to the efforts of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) and even more to those of his son, John II (1118-1143), the empire managed to recapture part of western Asia Minor. The most important steps towards securing the new border were taken by Manuel I (1143-1180). On his initiative, the eastern themes were reorganized, while in the 1160s he founded the theme of Neokastra, which comprised the fortresses of Pergamon and Chliara. This new theme was the first line of defence against the Seljuks in central Asia Minor and its fortifications were manned by local army units, the soldiers of which were offered land and economic benefits in return. Thus the Emperor included these new «akritai» in the defence of the east border; and it is not a coincidence that a eulogist of Manuel Comnenos, referring to his activity in the eastern border called the emperor a «new akrites».
8. The «akritai» during the 13th cent.
The military organization of the frontier line as consolidated by Manuel I, was continued during the period of the Empire of Nicaea, the watchtower of the Byzantine rule in Asia Minor following the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204. Although the emperors of Nicaea were on friendly terms with the Seljuks of Iconium, the border of the Nicaean Empire at the Sangarios river and the valleys of the Maeander were constantly threatened by the Türkmen nomads and Seljuk war-bands not controlled by the rulers of the Iconium. To counter this threat, the emperors of Nicaea, mainly John III Vatatzes (1222-1254), took a series of measures in order to strengthen the frontier defence, measures that provided, among others, that the inhabitants along the border would undertake military activity.
Though the emperors of Nicaea did not organize or train the population of the highland border region militarily, they did offer incentives to all who, in the face of incoming raids, chose not to flee their homes but stand and defend them. Such incentives included tax-exemptions and other privileges, while some were even offered pronoiai. Though the inhabitants of the region were not officially incorporated in the Nicaean army and remained farmers and stock-breeders, they were now nonetheless wholly responsible for the defence of the empire’s eastern border. Furthermore, when a large number of Cumans (a Turkic people which inhabited areas north of the Black Sea) sought refuge in the Nicaean Empire c. 1242, John III installed some of them along the frontier east of Philadelphia and the Meander valley, and granted them the same privileges, thereby strengthening the defence of the frontier.10 The effectiveness of the Nicaean defensive policy can be seen in the fact that the eastern border of the empire remained virtually immune until 1261, when the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople.
9. The end of the «akritai»
After the recapture of Constantinople in 1261, the Emperors are mainly preoccupied with recapturing the European possessions of the old empire, and Asia Minor now becomes a secondary concern. In December 1261, Michael Palaiologos, who had come to power in Nicaea, blinded John IV Laskaris, the juvenile rightful heir to the throne. This act caused intense discontent among the acritic population inhabiting the highland region of Trikokkia, east of Nicaea, who remained loyal to the Lascarid dynasty. In early 1262, the «akritai» of Trikokkia (this place was also known as Zygos, mean. «mountain chain») rebelled against Michael VIII, whose troops barely managed to suppress the uprising.
Wishing to subdue the «akritai», but also to use them to his own advantage, the emperor introduced a number of reforms. Immediately or shortly after the end of the rebellion, he sent in Asia Minor the official Chadenos, who reorganized the «akritai» of the region: he offered them land and incorporated them in the army, where they had to serve at their own expenses, while the tax-exemptions they enjoyed were abolished. These new measures meant that, in order to add to their diminished income, these frontiersmen were also obliged to participate in the imperial campaigns conducted on European territory, as they now formed part of the regular army.
The reforms of Chadenos provedinefficient. Stripped of its defenders, the eastern frontier of the empire quickly collapsed under the pressure of the Türkmen raids in the 1260s. The akritai that did remain in their homes could not repel the invaders, while many joined forces with the Türkmens. The rest withdrew towards the west, as the Byzantine-controlled territories in Asia Minor shrunk. The remnants of these «akritai» are mentioned in the sources until the 1290s. In the first years of the next century the Türkmens captured the remaining Byzantine possessions in Asia Minor, and after that there is no mention to any «akritai».
The presence of frontier (acritic) troops during the Early and Middle Byzantine period significantly contributed to the defence of the Byzantine territories of Asia Minor, helping the empire survive during its struggles against and Persians and in the «dark centuries» that followed the capture of the Middle East by the Arabs. The strategic significance of the «akritai» during the Late Byzantine period is also evident. It is not coincidental that the Byzantine historian George Pachymeres, whose work covers the events of the second half of the 13th century and the gradual loss of Asia Minor, chooses to begin with a description of the defensive system of the eastern frontier and of the progressive decline of the role of the acritic troops.11Apart from the historic importance of this institution, the legends surrounding the heroic deeds of the 9th and 10th century frontiersmen inspired the so-called acritic songs, which emerge from the 11th cent. onwards and constitute the core around which the epic of Vasileios Digenis, one of the greatest monuments of Byzantine folk literature, was created.