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.