1500 years of Roman Infantry

Lamellar armor presented by Frank Perrin (USA)

The Byzantine army evolved from that of the late Roman Empire. The standard language of the army was still Latin though later and especially after the 6th century Greek dominates, as Greek became the official language of the entire empire , but it became considerably more sophisticated in terms of strategy, tactics and organization.

The Byzantine army evolved from that of the late Roman Empire. The standard language of the army was still Latin though later and especially after the 6th century Greek dominates, as Greek became the official language of the entire empire , but it became considerably more sophisticated in terms of strategy, tactics and organization.

For example, the Byzantine army was the first army in the world to adopt combined arms task forces as part of its regular doctrine, similar in many ways to the German Kampfgruppen of WWII. Unlike the Roman legions, the core of its strength was in its heavy cavalry Cataphracts , which evolved from the Clibanarii of the late empire. Infantry were still used but mainly in support roles and as a base of maneuver for the cavalry. Most of the footsoldiers of the empire were the heavy infantry Skutatoi and, later on, Kontarioi plural of the singular Kontarios , with the remainder being the light infantry and archers of the Psiloi.

Byzantine soldiers were often depicted by Westerners as effeminate and reluctant to fight, but this was a false image. The Byzantines valued intelligence and discipline in their sodliers far more than bravery or brawn. Infantry conscription was still practiced, as in the Roman army, with every citizen eligible to serve. The training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close quarters, melee techniques with their swords.

But, as in the late Empire, archery was extensively practicised and emphasized. Infantry types and equipment Skutatoi: The bulk of the byzantine infantry were the skutatoi, named from the word skutos, for their large oval shield. These men were professional soldiers paid by the state. The skutatoi evolved from the Comitatenses of the later empire and were equipped much as the same as these legionaries. Their armor and weapons included: A quilted, green skirt hanging below a soldier's cuirass to protect his legs.

In addition, pteruges leather hanging strips were worn to protect shoulders and hips. A padded leather or cotton under-garment, worn under the cuirass. A padded leather or cotton over-garment, worn over the cuirass. The typical Roman spatha, a longsword about 90 cm , double-edged and very heavy. Each unit had different shield decoration. Unarmoured light infantrymen, often armed with javelins, were known, as in classical times, as peltastoi.

The standard light infantry of the empire, in each chiliarchia they made up the last three lines. These soldiers, highly trained in the art of bow, were formidable archers.

Most of the Imperial archers came from Asia Minor, especially the region around Trebizond on the Black sea, where they were raised, trained and equipped. Bambakion spathion or tzikourion small axe for self-defence. Although military manuals prescribed the use of light armour for archers, cost and mobility considerations would have prohibited wide-scale implementation of this.

The Varangian Guard was a foreign mercenary force and the elite of the Byzantine infantry. It was comprised principally of Vikings, Nordic, Slavic and Germanic peoples. The Varangians served as the personal bodyguard escort of the emperor since the time of Basil II. Generally well disciplined and loyal, as long as they were well paid.

Although most of them brought their own weapons with them when entering the Emperor's service, they did gradually adopt Byzantine military dress and equipment.

Their most characteristic weapon was a heavy axe, hence their designation as pelekyforos froura, the "axe-bearing guard". Infantry organization and formation The primary Byzantine infantry formations were the Chiliarchiai, from the Greek, chilia meaning thousand, because they had about fighting men.

A Chiliarchy was generally made up of skutatoi and toxotai. The skutatoi formed a line of ranks deep, in close order shoulder to shoulder. The first line was called the kontarion, the first four lines were made up of skutatoi the remaining three of toxotai. Three or four Chiliarciai formed a Tagma brigade in the later empire after , but Chiliarchy-sized units were used throughout the empire's life.

The Chiliarciai were deployed facing the enemy, with the cavalry on their wings. The infantry would counter march to make a refused center, while the cavalry would hold or advance to envelope or outflank the enemy.

This was similar to the tactic Hannibal employed at Cannae. The Chiliarciai were deployed not in classic checkered Quincunx pattern, but in a long line with enveloping flanks. Each chiliarchy could assume different battle formations depending on the tactical situation, the most common of these were: Infantry tactics and strategies Although the Byzantines developed highly sophisticated infantry tactics, the main work of battle was done by cavalry.

But the infantry still played an important role when the empire needed to demonstrate its strength. In fact many battles, throughout Byzantine history, began with a frontal assault by the skutatoi with support from the horse archer units known as Ippotoxotai Equites Sagitarii.

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During these assaults the infantry was deployed in the center, that consisted of two chiliarchiai in wedge formation to break enemy's line, flanked by two more chilarchiai in a "refused wing formation" to protect the center and envelop the enemy.

This was the tactic used by Nicephorus Phocas against the Bulgars in Each charge was supported by toxotai that left the formation and preceded the skutatoi in order to provide missile fire.

Often, while the infantry engaged their enemy counterparts, the Clibanophori would destroy the enemy's cavalry this tactic was used mainly against Franks, Lombards or other Germanic tribes who deployed heavy cavalry. Byzantine infantry were trained to operate with cavalry at all levels and to exploit any gaps created by the cavalry. An effective, but risky, tactic was to send a chiliarchia to seize and defend a high position, such as the top of a hill, as a diversion, while the Cataphracts or Klibanophoroi, supported by the reserve infantry, enveloped the enemy's flank.

The infantry was often placed in advanced positions in front of the cavalry, with the cavalry deployed behind them. At the command "aperire spatia", the infantry would open up a gap in their lines, for the cavalry to charge through. Cavalry armor, arms and equipment The Imperial Cataphract was a heavy cavalry horse archer and lancer, who symbolized the power of Constantinople in much the same way as the Legionary represented the might of Rome. The Cataphract wore a conical-shaped casque helmet, topped with a tuft of horsehair dyed his unit's color.

He wore a long shirt of doubled layered chain or scale mail, which extended down to his upper legs. Leather boots or greaves protected his lower legs, while gauntlets protected his hands.

He carried a small, round shield, the thyreos, bearing his unit's colors and insignia, strapped to his left arm, leaving both hands free to use his weapons and control his horse. Over his mail shirt he wore a surcoat of light weight cotton and a heavy cloak both of which were also dyed in unit colors.

The horses often wore mail armor and surcoats as well, to protect their vulnerable heads, necks and chests. The Cataphract's weapons included: Same as that carried by the Toxotai. Also identical to the infantry weapon. Usually strapped to the saddle as a backup weapon and tool. Same as that of the infantry but with a leather corselt usually depicted as colored red.

The lance was topped by a small flag or pennant, of the same color as helmet tuft, surcoat, shield and cloak. When not in use the lance was placed in a saddle boot, much like the carbine rifles of more modern cavalrymen. The bow was slung from the saddle, from which also was hung its quiver of arrows. Byzantine saddles, which included stirrups adopted from the Avars , were a vast improvement over earlier Roman and Greek cavalry, who had very basic saddles, without stirrups or even no saddles at all.

The Byzantine state also made horse breeding an important priority to the Empire's security. If they could not breed enough high quality mounts themselves, they would not hesistate to purchase them even from the barbarians if the need arose. The Cataphracts, in turn, would have a great influence on these barbarians, especially the Franks, Lombards and Bulgars. Thus the Cataphract is the evolutionary link between the legionaries of ancient Rome and the Knights of medieval Europe.

Cavalry formations and tactics The Byzantine cavalrymen and their horses were superbly trained and capable of performing complex maneuvres on the drill field and the battlefield alike. While a proportion of the Cataphrats Kataphractos or Clibanophori appear to have been lancers or archers only, most had both bows and lances and were equally deadly with either.

Their main tactical unit was the Numerus Also called at times Arithmos or Banda of men. The equivalent to the old Roman Cohort or the modern Battalion, the Numeri were usually formed in lines 8 to 10 ranks deep, making them almost a mounted Phalanx.

The Byzantines recognized that this formation was less flexable and more cumbersome for cavalry than infantry, but found the trade off to be acceptable in exchange for the greater physical and psychological advantages offered by depth. As with the infantry, the Cataphracts adapted their tactics and equipment in relation to which enemy they were figthting.

But in the standard deployment, four Numeri would be placed around the infantry lines. One on each flank with one on the right rear and another on the left rear.

Thus the cavalry Numeri were not only the flank protection and envelopement elements, but the main reserve and rear guard as well. The Byzantines usually preferred using the cavalry for flanking and envelopement attacks, instead of frontal assaults, and almost always preceded and supported their charges with arrow fire. The front ranks of the numeri would draw bows and open up on the enemy's front ranks, then once the foe had been sufficiently weakened, they would draw their lances and charge.

The back ranks would follow, drawing their bows and firing ahead as they rode. This highly effective combination of missile fire with shock action, put their opponents at a dangerous disadvantage- If they closed ranks to better resist the charging lances, they would make themselves more vulnerable to the bows' fire, but if they spread out to avoid the arrows, then the lancers would have a much easier job of breaking their thinned ranks.

Many times the arrow fire and start of a charge were enough to cause the enemy to run or rout without the need to close or melee. A favorite tactic when confronted by a strong enemy cavalry force, involved a feigned retreat and ambush.

The Numeri on the flanks would charge at the enemy horsemen, then draw their bows, turn around and fire as they withdrew the Parthian Shot. If the enemy horse did not immediately give them chase, they would continue harassing them with arrows until they did.

Meanwhile the Numeri on the left and right rear would be drawn up in their standard formation facing the flanks and ready to attack the pursuing enemy as they crossed their lines. The foes would be forced to stop and fight this new unexpected threat, but as they did so, the flanking Numeri would halt their retreat, turn around and charge at full speed, lances at the ready, into their former pursuers. The enemy, weakened, winded and now caught in a vice between two mounted phalanxes, would break, with the Numeri they once pursued now chasing them.

Then the rear Numeri, who had ambushed the enemy horse, would move up and attack the now unprotected flanks in a double envelopement. This tactic is similar to what Julius Caesar did at Pharsalus in 48 BC when his allied cavalry acted as bait to lure the superior horse of Pompey into an ambush by the six elite cohorts of his reserve "Forth line". The Arab and Mongol cavalries would also use variations of it later to great effect, when confronted by larger and more heavily armed mounted foes.

When the Byzantines had to make a frontal assault against a strong infantry position, the wedge was their preferred formation for charges.

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