|Imperial Tagmata cavalryman (left), light infantry archer and Akritai cavalryman.|
The Akritai is a term used in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th-11th centuries to denote the army units guarding the Empire’s eastern border, facing the Muslim states of the Middle East. Their exploits, embellished, inspired the Byzantine “national epic” of Digenes Akritas and the cycle of the Acritic songs.
|Late Legionary – 5th century AD|
The term Akritai is derived from the Greek word akron/akra, meaning border; similar border guards, the limitanei, were employed in the late Roman and early Byzantine armies to guard the frontiers (limes).
The limitanei or ripenses meaning respectively “the soldiers in frontier districts” (from the Latin phrase limes, meaning a military district of a frontier province) or “the soldiers on the riverbank” (from the Rhine and Danube), were an important part of the late Roman and early Byzantine army after the reorganizations of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. The limitanei garrisoned fortifications along the borders of the Roman Empire and were not normally expected to fight far from their fortifications.
The limitanei were lower-status and lower-paid than the comitatenses and palatini, and the status distinction between scolae, palatini, comitatenses, and limitanei had largely replaced the older distinction between praetorians, legionaries, and auxiliaries. The limitanei and palatini both included legionary units alongside auxiliary units.
The nature of the limitanei changed considerably. In the 4th century, the limitanei were professional soldiers, and included both infantry and cavalry as well as river flotillas, but after the 5th century they were part-time soldiers, and after the 6th century they were unpaid militia.
The role of the limitanei remains somewhat uncertain. Some historians suggest that, besides garrisoning fortifications along the frontier, they operated as border guards and customs police and to prevent small-scale raids. They may have driven off medium-scale attacks without the support of the field armies. Others see their role as a key part in a strategy of defence-in-depth in combination with the provincial field armies.
|The Akritai is a term used in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th-11th centuries to denote the army units guarding the Empire’s eastern border, facing the Muslim states of the Middle East.
QUOTE – “…from all the great towns within the borders of Persia and Mesopotamia, and Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Morocco, there is no city but has in Tarsus a hostelry for its townsmen, where the warriors for the Faith from each particular country live. And, when they have once reached Tarsus, they settle there and remain to serve in the garrison; among them prayer and worship are most diligently performed; from all hands, funds are sent to them, and they receive alms rich and plentiful; also there is hardly a sultan who does not send hither some auxiliary troops.”
Ibn Hawqal – – – His description of Tarsus as a centre for jihad against Byzantium
Who were the Akritai?
In official Byzantine use, the term is non-technical, and used in a descriptive manner, being generally applied to the defenders as well as the inhabitants of the eastern frontier zone, including their Muslim counterparts.
The popular image of the Akritoi has been heavily influenced by their portrayal in the Acritic songs, and refers to the military troops stationed along the Empire’s border. In reality, the Byzantine troops stationed along the edges of the Empire were a mixture of professional troops and local thematic militia, as well as irregular units that constituted the Akritai or Apelatai proper.
These were light infantry recruited from Armenians, Bulgarians and the native Byzantine population. By the late 10th century, the reconquest of much territory in the East meant that the latter were often ethnically and religiously mixed, a fact epitomized by the legendary Digenes Akritas: “digenes” means “of two races”, i.e. “Roman” (Byzantine/Greek) and “Saracen”.
Their role in the East
The Apelatai, whose role and tactics are described in Nikephoros II Phokas‘ De velitatione bellica, acted as raiders, scouts and border guards in the perennial border warfare between Byzantium and its eastern neighbors, characterized by skirmishes and raids. Aside from light infantry, the border forces were complemented by the light cavalry called trapezitai or tasinarioi. In case of a major Arab raid, they were supposed to raise the alarm, assist in the evacuation of the local population to the various strongholds, and shadow and harass the enemy force until reinforcements could arrive.
Many of the Akritai were members of the separated Armenian church and most of them gave protection to heretics. Often, they were active as brigands as well – they were known as chonsarioi, from the Bulgarian for “thieves”, in the Balkans, and in the epic of Digenes, the apelatai are brigands.
Whether these men were also given military estates like the other thematic soldiers to cultivate or lived on rents from smallholdings while concentrating on their military duties is still a matter of debate. Their officers however were drawn from the local aristocracy.
The Akritai declined in importance by the late 10th century, as the Byzantine conquests pushed the border eastwards, and its defense radically restructured, with smaller themata grouped in five large regional commands headed by a doux and a heavy presence of professional Tagmata troops.
At this time, a new class of themes, the so-called “minor” or “Armenian” themes appear, which Byzantine sources clearly differentiate from the traditional “great” or “Roman” themes. Most consisted merely of a fortress and its surrounding territory, with a junior stratēgos as a commander and about 1,000 men, chiefly infantry as their garrison.
As their name reveals, they were mostly populated by Armenians, either indigenous or settled there by the Byzantine authorities. One of their peculiarities was the extremely large number of officers (the theme of Charpezikion alone counted 22 senior and 47 junior tourmarchai).
During the first half of the 11th century, the Byzantines faced little danger in the East, and allowed their military strength to weaken. As a result, they were unable to halt the quick advance of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor.
The institution, in the form of a force raised by local inhabitants in exchange for land and tax exemptions, was re-established under Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180), when he reorganized the themes in the reconquered western portion of Asia Minor. It is also attested during the Empire of Nicaea, guarding the Anatolian frontier, especially around the Meander valley, against the incursions of Turkish nomads. Their attachment to the Laskarid dynasty however led them to revolt against the usurper Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1262.
After the revolt was suppressed, the akritai were then enrolled into the regular army, and their exemptions were annulled. As a result, within a generation, they had effectively ceased to exist, opening the way to the complete loss of the Byzantine possessions in Asia Minor during the first half of the 14th century.
|Roman Limes Fortifications
The limitanei or ripenses meaning respectively “the soldiers in frontier districts” were an important part of the late Roman and early Byzantine army after the reorganizations of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. The limitanei were garrisoned fortifications along the borders of the Roman Empire and were not normally expected to fight far from their fortifications.
With the collapse of the western portion of the Empire the limitanei may have developed differently in the east.
In the east, the Emperor Justinian cancelled their pay. After this, the eastern limitanei were no longer professional soldiers, but continued to exist as militia. The Limes Tripolitanus and Arabicus continued to exist through the Persian Wars to the Arab Conquest.
The Akritai troops would have often clustered around Roman strongpoints like Amasya Castle in eastern Anatolia. Using the castle as a base, the troops would patrol the frontier and drive off raids by Muslim Arabs or Turks.From : Byzantine Military