Rare Byzantine manuscripts, ivory and frescos from where we can see the warfare, the type of armors and weapons of medieval Greeks


Rare Byzantine manuscripts, ivory and frescos from where we can see the warfare, the type of armors and weapons of medieval Greeks.

All the imagies are from the ‘Byzantine Military History

Academy of Historical European Martial Arts: Training in Byzantine weapon use.

The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) it survived the 5th century fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Both “Byzantine Empire” and “Eastern Roman Empire” are historiographical terms applied in later centuries; its citizens continued to refer to their empire as the Roman Empire (Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, tr. Basileia Rhōmaiōn; Latin: Imperium Romanum),and Romania (Ῥωμανία).

On all of this ages the Byzantines were had a sophisticated and cunning training of the art of war. This achievement comes because they absorbed the martial arts techniques from the nations that the Byzantines fought or from their allies (Koumans, Serbians, Russ etc) or from the nations that serve te empire as mercenaries (Goths, Vikings, Germans etc). From the other hand, the Byzantine warfare and swordsmanship did have as roots the Greco-Roman tactics of weapon training. Having as fundamental use those superior martial art of the ancients the Byzantines add the new types of warfare and martial arts that they meet from the other armies (allies or not) and the empire survived all those ages.

The melee weapons of Byzantines were the sword (ξίφος), the axe (πέλεκυς) in this broad group were also the use of wooden club and the mace, and finally the lance. As ranged weapons they had the bow, the crossbow and the sling.

The most familiar Byzantine weapons were the sword and the mace.

In the land that those techniques were borne, they are study, tested and taught with the sponsorship of Pammachon.

The purpose of tactic is to conquer the enemy with proper war movements and actions.

-Tactics of Emperor Leon 6th the Wise

St. Theodoros

Εικόνα 5. Τέταρτη θέση φύλαξης. Βασισμένο από την State Art Gallery, Dresden, έκθεμα Νο 448.Από το αρχείο φωτογραφείων του κ. Timothy Dowson.

State Art Gallery, Dresden,  Νο 448. From the files of  Mr. Timothy Dowson

From the chronicle of John Skylitzes

p.179r Aristos and Erotokritos start to wrestle in an allegoric stance of Greco-Roman wrestling technique. Look at the equipment. Both of them has saber (παραμήριον) and small shields, also Erotokritos has a shield that it is such as the buckler. The Byzantine cavalry had shields with 30cm diameter such as buckler.

From the book ‘Erotocritos‘ of Vitsentso Kornaro

A scene from the Bible, “The defeat of Ai” with Joshua as leader. This was created in the mid 10th century and. The armor of the infantry seem archaic and their helmets resemble those depicted in 7th century illustrations. Found in the Vatican Library in Rome.

Soldiers with helmet, mail and spears from a 13th century fresco.

Detail of an infantryman again from the Skylitzes chronicle.

Infantry at the occupation of Dabir. Miniature from an Octateuch, 13th century.
Mount Athos, Vatopedi Monastery cod. 602, fol. 376b

Byzantine icon featuring emperor Heraclius defeating the Sassanid King, Khusrau II. Found in the Louvre.

Cavalryman from a manuscript found in Mount Athos. 14th century. Western influenced helmet?

Saint Prokopios at 13th century fresco.

Khludov Psalter fol 141r goliath, 850’s

‘Book of Kings’ David and Abimelech at Nob Vat gr.333 f.28v udatos in left arm notice bag at hip 11th C 1 Sam 21 1-2

Khludov Psalter Codex gr. 129 9th c. David & Goliath 9th C

MS 19352 Theodore Psalter f.191 David Slays Goliath 1066 detail

Pantocrator Codex 61. King Saul and the Ziphites 9th C -gentle curve and pistol grip hilt

Passage of the Red Sea, Mashtots, 1266, The Passage of the Red Sea, Jerusalem, Armenian Patriarchate Library

Cynegetica 11. c



From the Skylitzes chronicle. Skleroi vs Phokades.

Battle of the Old Testament- Full armed soldiers with round shields and kassidion helmets. From the Joshua ivory panel, mid 10th century (Metropolitan M, New York).

Unknown Artist, “Romance of Alexander the Great,” 14th century, tempera, gold, and ink on paper, Hellenic Institute of Byzantine & Post Byzantine Studies, Venice.


Battle depiction from Folio 99 of the Skylitzes Chronicle: “Synopsis of Histories”, now found in Madrid. John Skylitzes wrote a comprehensive history of the Empire from 811 to 1057. The specific incident took place under the rule of Basil I (867-886) and illustrates the Byzantine infantry from the western Themes of Calabria and Sicily being routed by attacking Arab (Saracen) forces. The Byzantine General Procopius (in the middle) is abandoned to his fate. The Byzantine infantry is clearly distinguishable from the Saracens by their heavier armour and tear-drop shaped shields.

The traction trebuchet (πετροβόλος) shown in this illustration was commonly used by Byzantine besieging forces. The hurling power of its beam depended upon the pulling force of its crew. The machine was introduced to the Mediterranean world by the early 6th century. Taken from the Skylitzes manuscript written late 11th century.

4 military saints from a fresco in the monastery of St. John found in Patmos island. All of them wear the same armor and are equipped with a spear and a  sword type’spathion’. Notice the smaller shield held by the second from the right. Dated from the 12th century.

12th century fresco of Joshua from the monastery of Hosios Loukas. Depicts the armor of a typical heavy infantryman of the 10th-12th century. He wears a lamellar “klivanion”, splinted retraces and “pteruges” and is armed with a “Josua” (sword) and “kontarion” (spear).

Detail of a fresco from the walls of the Church of St. John at Arabissos, modern day Karsi Kilise in Turkey. Created around 1212, it portrays a detachment of predominantly red-haired infantrymen armed with long-shafted axes. This could only suggest Varangian forces. Such units, consisting of Northmen (Rus, Scandinavians, Saxons) would play the elite guard unit role.

Ivory from the 12th century portraying St Theodore Stratelates (General) praying. His lamellar armour is similar to other portrayals of soldiers. What is interesting are the patterns that are found on the tear drop shield. Such a detail is rarely observed on byzantine shields.

Ivory from the 10th century. The infantry on the right are portrayed wearing the typical armour of their era, although it is difficult to infer whether their body armor is laminar or scale. Their helmets and “pteryges” on their shoulders are clearly visible. What is interesting is the hale of their shields, since their not tear-drop shaped as usual, nor round and smaller. They remind us of the size and shape found in portrayals of the 5th and 6th century. Found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

An other image of the Centurion Longinus from a Crucifixion scene. This time in full armour (probably lamellar) and with a kite-shaped shield. The image on the shield of a bird (probably a raven) may allude to the figure being a Varangian. From the Hermitage Museum.

Military saint depicted as a heavy cavalryman, with his body armor being lamellar. His weapon is a spear with no shield. From Yilanli Church, Göreme, Turkey. Early 12th century.

Emperor Basil II from the Skylitzes manuscript.With his crown and full body armour.

In certain cases, Greek fire was delivered through hand-held siphons, though the actual technical aspects of this are still debated.

A detail from the Skylitzes manuscript (mid 11th century), clearly portraying the helmets of infantry, spears, battle axes and a round shield with possible runic inscriptions on it. The two latter elements possibly allude to the presence of Varangians amongst the soldiers. The final detail is the red and blue (with a hint of white) bandon (flag) that belongs to a specific unit.


George E. Georgas is the founder of the Hellenic Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’. He is certificated fencing instructor of the Hellenic Fencing Federation and also national referee of the Hellenic Fencing Federation at the epee. He is instructor of Meyer Freifechter Guild with the rank of Fecther and he is the group leader in Greece. He is also member of Learn Sword Fight (Gladiatores). He is in the Administration Council of the ‘Pammachon’. He is also instructor of weapon fighting of the Association of Historical studies ‘KORYVANTES’. He is studying the ancient Greek and Byzantine warfare, such as the use of rompaia, spathion and paramirion types of swords and other weapons such as the spear. He is also give stage fighting lessons to the theatrical team ‘The Blue Rose.’


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