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Byzantine Artillery and Defense

The warfare and tactics of the ancient Byzantine Empire still affects the warfare and tactics of today. Historians and military leaders still look in the past to find ways to win today's wars. When military leaders study the military history of the Byzantine Empire, they often change the ancient tactics in some ways because of the different weapons and machines of today. Such as the Byzantine Empire’s greatest propelled weapon, Greek Fire, was flung from a catapult compared to today's missiles.

Fortunately, sea trade revived when Italian traders grouped together to protect themselves from pirates. The Italian traders did most of their trading in the area near the old city of Byzantium. (Perry 156) The Roman Emperor Constantine founded a new capital, called Constantinople (immodestly named after himself). Constantinople was built directly over the old city of Byzantium that the Muslims and Italians used for mostly trading. Constantinople was a fortress city, because it was on a peninsula since three sides were surrounded by water. And a natural, small but wide moat was extended on the land side for extra protection. After the fall of Rome, a Muslim Empire called the Byzantine Empire claimed most of the land in Asia Minor including Constantinople. After that, in a short period of time the Byzantine Empire took the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire. (Perry 202)

The Byzantine and Muslim scholars continued to value and study Greek and Roman works of literature, philosophy, and science. With active trading, the traders brought diverse ideas to help make medieval universities throughout Europe. (Perry 182) As a result of this trading bringing together many different cultures and educations, Constantinople became the commercial and educational center of the new Byzantine Empire; and eventually Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire too. (Ferry 202) Unlike most parts of Western Europe, the Byzantine people continued learning and advancing after the fall of Rome. With their more secure water routes, Constantinople was able to become a better trading city. This made it capable for the empire to have better artisans, traders, scholars, science, and technology including new and improved weapons. (Perry 204)

It is well documented that the Byzantine people liked bloodshed, yet they had highly scientific weapons too. All officers were schooled in geography and strategy. Some emperors and generals wrote manuals on tactics and strategies for schooling officers to study their techniques. (Sherrard 83)

They were the first empire to create an intelligence service called the "Office of Barbarians." This office collected information about their enemies (e.g. barbarians) like their strengths and weakness, and even their normal tactics. They used their information to help advise generals on strategy during war with their barbarians. (Sherrard B3)

The Byzantine Empire preferred to economize their money by making the "Diplomatic Services." It was said that the Diplomatic Services helped soothe relationships with different empires, but they often tried making their enemies fight among themselves. Any other trading group needed to request permission to trade with the Byzantine Empire through their Diplomatic Services (or they had to directly ask Byzantine emperor or his court, if he had one). (Runciman 155) The imperial embassies traveled with them rich presents of gold jewels, silver, silks, and brocades. The imperial Embassies gave these presents to the ministers, church, and/or neighboring empires to gather influence, knowledge, and prestige. (Runciman 158) The Diplomatic Services was expensive because of these gifts, but it was far cheaper than war. (Runciman 162)

The Byzantine army was almost always in battles and wars with other groups of people, so the army never many moments to feel free of any danger from foreign invasions or battles. During the time of prospering, Constantinople was the main place where generals and leaders met for organization, study of armies, treaties and/or peace talks. (Runciman 136) The generals of the army often ordered all the free-born men, not slaves, to learn archery to defend their land and families from thieves, and in time of invasions, help the military too. In large cities, only free-born male citizen were called on defense of the frontier fortresses. (Runciman 139-140) The defense army of Constantinople was called the Thematic Army. This army was used only to defend and guard the walls of Constantinople. It was considered the most important army. (Runciman 141)

During attacks, as soon as any enemy crossed the Byzantine frontier, the local commander at once told the navy and/or army as well as the townspeople of the upcoming invasion. Second, the local commander would order a cavalry on purse of the invaders, while the local men guarded their lands. Third, the infantry blocked off any means of escape and the nearest cities or fortresses delivered back up of additional cavalry and fighters. Then, the first cavalry would attack from a far, and then retreat when the backup troops surrounded the enemy. (Runciman 142) While their enemy blundered on the battlefield, the Byzantine cavalry and infantry (their main strength on land) moved through a complex and orderly maneuvers. The men in the frontlines were backed by servants, scouts, and guards for the supply train and a wagon (ambulance) which carries the dead and wounded away from the battles. (Sherrard 83) Finally, the backup army attacked as the Thematic Army prepared Constantinople for an attack at any moment. (Runciman 142-143)

During counter-attacks, several armies would separate and enter their enemy’s frontier from different locations. These armies would meet at the city or fortress that they wished to attack. Finally, they would attack these locations from different sides at the same time. Their counter-attacks were mainly made of the infantry, even though their (said to be small) cavalry was about 8,000 horsemen. With this method, most of their attacks were victorious. Unfortunately, attacks were very expensive, so each general must have a test book of rashness: quickly aware of ambushes, deliver surprise attacks, never leave their flanks unguarded, all because it was the only way to save money. (Runciman 143) Their knowledge also played a big role in understanding their enemy’s tactics, weapons, and their best ways of attack. (Runciman 144) On land, Greek fire was mainly used to drive off besiegers, not attack. (Runciman 145)

The payment for a typical soldier was pretty expensive for their and our time. The payment for strategy of the military army was 20-40 pounds of gold (21,600- 43,200 gold francs). The Thermarche got at least 3 pounds of gold (3,240 gold francs). The lesser officers got 1-2 pounds of gold. Often soldiers were paid with land and gold too. (Runciman 146) Archers on horseback in the Byzantine Army were called the cavalry. The Cavalrymen was a career for professionals. They were well trained and the most highly paid fighters in the world. Archers shooting accurately with a bow and arrows on horses took training a long time before becoming a master. Most of the bowsmen were recruited after they became masters. The bowsmen that were recruited were renowned for training on horses. In the battles against the Turks and Saracens, the cavalry was often the first assault wave, because the Turks and Saracens armies were entirely mounted on horses. Behind the cavalry was a second line of armored lancers who rode for closer combat. (Sherrard 84) A cavalryman's uniform was made of scale armor with a cloth under it, a cloak on the shoulders used for a raincoat, blanket, camouflage of the shining armor at night, bows and arrows, small shield, broadsword, a battle-ax, and a lance about 2 about feet long. The saddles had stirrups that were invented by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century. It allowed the archer to slash their sword and/or thrust his lance without falling of his mount. (Sherrard 85)

Infighters were foot soldier who played a vital role on land, even though they were the secondary line of defense. Many of the Byzantine enemies did not have money to have archers, so it was all infighters like the Slavs and Franks "the Byzantine infantry came into its own." In places like hilly country or narrow passes where horses did not have room to maneuver, the infighters fought battles there instead of the cavalry. They also took the less glamorous jobs like fortifying camp every night by digging deep ditches around the camps, guarding wagons that carried supplies, and holding mountain passes and river fords to block an enemy from retreating. Their weapons were a large bow, a short broad sword, a sling, a mace, a short javelin, and a long pike. Their armor was like the cavalry, but it was expensive so most of them just wore helmets. Their shields (round or oval) were larger than the cavalry's. Like the cavalrymen, each person can be identified by distinctive colors and/or paintings on their shields, (Sherrard 95)

The main weapon used for sieges were called mangons. It is a medium size catapults that throw heavy stones "(and sometimes, to entertain the besiegers, live mules or dead enemy soldiers)" over the fortress walls. The mangons had to be cocked and geared until the rope was tight, the throwing arm set back, and put a large stone before it was ready to fire and to fire it you had to trip the slip hook. After the missiles have driven the soldiers from their posts, they used battering rams (bore holes) to break the wall down. (Sherrard 86) There are two (2) types or battering rams. The first was used by two (2) soldiers, which is held steady by a socket, by turning a long handle attached to it. The other was operated by a man sawing a bow back forth with a sharp metal object on it. It is a large tree trunk tipped with metal, swung by rope from a movable tower, that has a roof to shield a few archers. Ships also had battering rams for sea walls. (Sherrard 87) Mining was a new way of destroying a wall. In mining, soldiers would dig under the fortresses walls shoring up at the timbers of the wall. After the soldiers finished digging, they would soak the timber with oil. Then, set the timbers on fire and scramble out of the tunnel before the walls collapsed. Finally, the Byzantine forces would break their way into the fortresses. Sherrard 86). Another way was having a ladder held by a net and hooks on the net. They also had nets on top of battering rams. (Sherrard 87) Once someone went up the ladder, they would use Greek fire. The Greek fire gun was like a piston in a cinder, worked like a flaming small hand pump or syringe. (Sherrard 88)

The Tactica was the first book written ever on naval warfare in the medieval period. The navy never was giver much credit or attention as the army, until Leo VI wrote the book, called the Tactica. Only a small naval police force at the fortress of Byzantium was necessary to keep out pirates from the Black Sea. (Runciman 149) Besides the dromond (runner), the Byzantine Navy invented larger ships call galleys. Galleys are a long ships with 230 oarsmen & about 70 marines that carried at the bow a high woods turret which sprayed out Greek fire. (Runciman 153) The navy also used old merchant ships for practice target, carry supplies, to block off narrow sea routes. Even though the Byzantine had the best navy at the time, scholars people preferred to study the science of land warfare. (Runciman 155)

The most terrifying weapons of the Byzantine Empire was "Greek fire." (Sherrard 88) It was also called "maritime fire". (Filinciman 153) When Greek fire was squirted from tubes or thrown in clay pots, it would ignite instantly. It would even burn on water nor be turned off by water. Greek fire's main ingredients are thought to be made of maphtha, sulfur, and saltpeter, with also other ingredients that were a state secret. The ingredients of Greek fire were never written down, in case it got into enemies hands. Greek fire was invented in the seventh century and was first used for land and sea warfare. The slightest shock would set off the Greek fire, so it was used mainly for sea in naval use. With Greek fire the most powerful weapon in the Mediterranean Sea, the Byzantine Empire had the best fleet.(Sherrard 38)

Constantinople was the best fortified city in the world at that time. The wall of Constantinople were erect in the fifth century to protect the city against the Goths and Huns. The walls served their purpose almost a thousand years. One (1) wall on the seaward side on the peninsula, with its fleets defending the wall with towers, (Sherrard 90) In the land side, the Byzantine made a moat with three (3) walls that are up to 25 feet thick. The first defense of the land side was a moat 60 feet thick and 22 feet deep. The wall could shield archers too. The second wall was 27 feet high and could shelter some troops within a roofed area. Finally, the third wall surrounded all of the city with 192 towers in all and each tower was at least 70 feet high. These towers can shelter a lot more troops. It was only with armed forces using gun powder that could finally demolished most of the walls, however they were rebuilt after the Turkish ended the Byzantine Empire. (Sherrard 91)

New enemies weaken the Byzantine Empire called the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk Turks destroyed the Byzantine army, but the Byzantine emperor ask the Christian Church for support. The Christian Crusaders pushed the Seljuk Turks back to their home land. The Ottoman Turks surrounded & attacked Constantinople by outnumbering their army by 16 to 1. In result, the Ottoman Turks took over the Byzantine Empire. (Perry 205) The Ottoman Turks destroyed the Byzantine Empire by getting into the Empire, surrounding Constantinople, and outnumbering the people; but that was not enough. The Ottoman Turks used gunpowder that the Byzantine Empire did not have, and the Ottoman Turks’ Cannons were used to destroy the walls of Constantinople. After the Ottoman Turks surrounded Constantinople, they fired their cannons with round metal balls that could go farther then catapults and with more force. The cannons easily destroyed the walls surrounding Constantinople. (Rice 113)

Even though the Byzantine Empire had the best Navy and had a very strong army, they were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. Even after the Ottoman Turks surrounded Constantinople and outnumbered the Byzantine army by 16 to 1, it was not enough to attack the walls of Constantinople. The Ottoman Turks used a new weapon called gun powder and used cannons to fire steel balls farther, faster, and harder than catapults to destroy the walls of Constantinople and the towers guarding it. In conclusion the Byzantine Empire was very strong and wealthy, but with the new invention of gunpowder and cannons, the Byzantine navy and army did not have a chance using their once powerful Greek fire and catapults.

  1. Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Great Books of the Western World. U.S.A.: William Benton Publishing, 1952.
  2. Perry, Marvin. A History of the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
  3. Rice, Tamara Talbot. Byzantium. England: The John Day Company, 1969.
  4. Runciman, Steven. Byzantine Civilization. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) LTD.,1932 (reprinted in 1975).
  5. Sherrard Philip. Byzantium. New York: Time-Life Books, 1966.

by Phil for Humanity
on 05/06/2019

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