How Was The Byzantine Military Machine Structured?

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire — and it survived for many centuries after the western half of the empire crumbled to dust. While most of us think of it as an entirely different entity — that perhaps the heart and soul of the Roman Empire was lost when Rome itself fell to both domestic and outside forces — it really wasn’t all that different in the beginning. Over time, though, it became a unique empire with a heart and soul all its own.

It’s military, for example, evolved quite differently than Rome’s did. 

The cataphracts (a word meaning completely armored) were heavy cavalry meant to check the military might of the Persians, who were devastating to Byzantine soldiers when encountered in the field. These soldiers were among the most disciplined that were fielded all the way through the High Middle Ages. Even the horse was heavily armored. Riders would carry a number of weapons, including lances, maces, or bow and arrow.

Although the cataphracts were the result of outside forces, the Byzantine military almost always included well-trained infantry men — which was the direct result of having been a part of the Roman Empire for so long before. Most of these men would carry a sword, axe, or spear. Some would arm themselves with lead-weighted darts called plumbata. They would wear a shield shaped like either an oval or triangle. Some would wear chain mail. Those of lesser means could be found equipped with leather armor. 

Around the twelfth century, Byzantine began including units of pronoiars, who were paid in land. Although they didn’t directly collect wages, part of their job was that of a glorified tax collector. Sometimes they kept some of the monies collected. Because of their power, they were considered somewhat like western knights. Although they were soldiers with a great number of expectations placed on them, they also had wealth and titles.

The akritoi soldiers were found along the Anatolian borders, although their initial appearance as part of the Byzantine military is not well documented. The akritoi were mostly Greek farmers. They mostly carried a bow and arrow or javelins. These light soldiers would be used for quick encounters to soften an enemy before the rest of the army swooped in, but they could also be trusted to act defensively.

In addition to a military of its own citizens, Byzantine relied heavily on units made up of mercenaries and foreign soldiers. Whereas the Western Roman Empire was known for quickly raising legions from within its own cities, it could be said that the Eastern Roman Empire was known for quickly raising new armies from within its own coffers. Byzantine was an empire of vast wealth — and it knew how to put that wealth to use.

Greek Fire

The Byzantine Empire was under pretty constant assault for most of its existence, mainly from native Turkish and eventual Ottoman forces that continued to try to take out the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey).

Considering the excellent seaside location and its relation to the Mediterranean Sea, it was a vitally important port that saw its share of navies aim at the mighty walls.  Most of the time, however, Constantinople withstood the barrages. Part of it was the training of the men in battle, and the solid walls and how they were built. But a key role in the protection and defense of the city came from a weapon that wreaked a lot of havoc among the ships in the water outside the city’s walls.

This technological marvel was begun in the seventh century and was never truly duplicated, though various other cultures and empires tried to emulate it because of its crippling power. It had several names, but it was most commonly called “Greek fire.” The first known use of the weapon was late in the seventh century and was an important key in saving the city of Constantinople from a couple of massive Arab sieges prior to the rise of the Ottoman Empire.

Greek fire was a flammable liquid, which had a chemical composition that is still unknown today, and it was shot out of what were called siphons, or tubes, that were on some Byzantine naval ships as well as a shot from some of the towers along the wall of Constantinople that faced the sea. What made this weapon so dangerous to navies was that it was on fire as it traveled through the air toward the ships, but it did not extinguish once it hit the water; ships were still vulnerable if the weapon missed in the air but still could catch the wooden vessels ablaze if they got too close.

Believed to be a petroleum-based concoction, Greek fire was supposedly developed by a Jewish Syrian refugee named Callinicus of Heliopolis for Emperor Constantine IV. It was used against an Arab fleet in 673 under Constantine, another Arab siege in 717 under Leo III, and in the 10th century under Romanus I against a Russian attack fleet.

Even after some of these Byzantine weapons were captured by enemies and they investigated Greek fire and its sipons, no one could determine the exact composition of the mixture, nor could anyone fully duplicate the weaponry that fired the sticky liquid. Several tried their own combinations, including the Chinese, Mongols and Arabs.

There had been combustible and incendiary weaponry dating back hundreds of years before the Byzantine Empire, but Greek fire (also called “liquid fire” or “sea fire”) was perhaps the most effective such weapon, as some variant of it was used for hundreds of years.

The concept, in fact, has even carried forward into more modern warfare, as it could reasonably be an inspiration for the modern-day flamethrowers that are used in some war zones. But again, the actual composition of the original Greek fire was so secretive that even today we don’t really know what was in it and in what proportions. But it was perhaps the most feared weapon in naval warfare for a millennium.

Thank you to Blair Chan for providing this information.