Using Ancient Military Handbooks to fight Medieval Battles: Two stratagems used by Alexios I Comnenos against the Normans and the Pechenegs

By Theocharis Alexopoulos

Eoa kai Esperia, Vol.8 (2012)

Byzantine warfare

Introduction: During the whole of his lengthy reign, Alexios I Comnenos (1081-1118) faced multiple military threats from many different opponents that seriously threatened the cohesion and the existence of the empire. The Seljuk Turks, the Pechenegs,the Cumans,the Normans and several Turkish principalities of Asia Minor tried to exploit the dire position in which the Byzantine Empire had fallen during the fifty years that preceded Alexios reign. Alexios’ campaigns against all these enemies, sometimes fought with limited resources and often having to cope with strategic disadvantage, have been sufficiently studied by modern scholars. This article is a result of the study and analysis of some of the stratagems cleverly used by the emperor during his campaigns and the identification of their correlation to similar stratagems as they have been recorded in Ancient sources, specifically those concerning wagons and carts. The interrelation between Ancient and Byzantine stratagems can provide useful conclusions about the theoretical military training of the Byzantine senior officials and the significance of Ancient military texts and sources in Byzantine battle theory.

Until the eleventh century, the only people using wagons as weapons of war were the Nomads, usually of Turkish origin. For centuries, these people located at the northern and eastern borders of the empire used wagon carts for their transportation as well as for their security. The Byzantine writers circumscribing the conflicts of the Byzantine army and the Nomads frequently mention the large wagon circles(or‘wagon laagers’) of the latter. These were used as defensive obstacles or forts for the protection of their families and livestock and even as strong points which could be also used as a shelter to accomplish a reorganization of the army in case of defeat, although the wagons were vulnerable during open field fights, in which the Byzantine forces excelled. As a matter of fact, the significance of the wagons for the Nomads was such that many tribes used to name themselves after them.

The tactics used by the Nomad people had a great impact and influence on the way the Romans and Byzantines waged their wars. The Byzantines adopted many elements from the Nomads, both in terms of tactics and weaponry. They came to terms with a different, more agile style of warfare, in which the use of light-armed cavalry played the most prominent role. The Nomad light-armed cavalry used the composite bow as their primary weapon and applied guerrilla tactics, such as ambushes, and other stratagems in order to dominate more heavily armed opponents. The lengthy campaigns and bloody battles against the Pechenegs and the Cumans during the latter half of the eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth century was the culmination of the long armed confrontation between the Byzantines and the peoples of the steppe.The defeats suffered by Alexios and his predecessors at the hands of these technologically inferior opponents had deep impact on the re-evaluation and transformation of Byzantine battle tactics. The use of wagons in stratagems against the Normans and the Nomads, people with a vastly different military philosophy, is not irrelevant to the experience Alexios gained by watching and fighting these people. As we shall see, those stratagems were not simply mere inspirations of the moment or derivatives of the emperor’s military knowledge and expertise, but mostly strict applications of the theories and deductions of Ancient and early Byzantine military tacticians and historians, the works of whom survived up to the middle Byzantine period, whether identical to the prototypes or as fragmentary medieval revisions.

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