Byzantine Infantry Mentality, Training and Equipment: A Brief Review

Byzantine Infantry Mentality, Training and Equipment: A Brief Review

Image: Digenis Acritas art of Dimitrios Skourtelis academic member of the Academy of Historical European Martila Arts ‘Leontes’

By Alexander Koev (MA) academic member of the Academy of Historical European Martila Arts ‘Leontes’

  1. Introduction.

I am writing this article with great pleasure for the Leontes Academy [Hellenic Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’] on the topic of Byzantine Swordsmanship. I will try to analyze and describe possible combat and military preparation techniques that were used in the Byzantine army training. As well I will discuss battle mentality and equipment. My article may seem descriptive, but it tries to unravel forgotten or unnoticed facts. I would like, firstly, to quote although unrelated, but interesting Far Eastern sourse: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.” (Sun Tzu: Art of War, par. 31, Ch. Terrain)

Byzantine Empire was the part of the Roman Empire, which survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D. Byzantium was the keeper of Greek, Hellenistic and Roman culture and traditions. It continued to exist in the East up to 1453 A.D. There, Latin languge was replaced by the Greek and its main religion was Orthodoxy in contrast to the Roman Empire where many cults existed, for example, the one of Mithras in the late timeperiod of the Empire. Here, I will quote books also from Roman history in order to reestablish a possible hand-to-hand combat experience, which I try to reconstruct for Leontes Academy.

Image 1: Byzantine Weapons and Armor, Hosias Loukas, Greece, 11 century.
  1. What made Byzantines so Unique in Battle Readiness?

I would like to quote the following words written by Julius Caesar related to military maneuvers: “On the seventh day, as he did not discontinue his march […]” (Julius Caesar: The Gallic Wars, Book 1, Chapter 41,). These words describe the following: seven days Caesar’s Legions marched without a rest. I may even speak more boldly by suggesting that his soldiers did not sleep for six days. As a result, this shows how military discipline and training are important. One must adopt a new way of life in order to be able to live as a warrior. Here, the old Latin saying is good to mention: “Labor et patientia omnia vincunt” [Work and patience conquer all]. Additionally, Byzantine discipline was unriviled by most of their enemies: “The Byzantine army, at least as represented in the narrative histories and in the military treatises, prided itself on its order and discipline.” (Haldon: Byzantium At War, p. 63)

Byzantine Empire as mentioned above was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East and in order to survive up to 1453 A.D. its soldiers had to have, firstly, elite discipline and training. I would like to mention here some information from the book of Leo the Wise [886–912] – Byzantine Emperor: “[…] swords sharpened and brightly shining, regular shields as well as the larger ones called thyreoi, other small shields, formerly called peltasts, for the foot soldiers, other shields of iron, round and well polished […]” (Taktika of Leo VI: p. 74). These is some of the equipment that was used by the Byzantines and which Leontes Academy may adopt for training. The Emperor Leo VI continues: “A weapon is appropriate and serviceable if it matches the strength of the person who is to wield it.” (Taktika of Leo VI: p. 74) Moreover, “Daggers. [and] Large, single-bladed swords.” were used (Taktika of Leo VI: p. 74).

Now, Emperor Leo VI mentions what armor should be used:

“Body armor down to the ankles that can be caught up with straps and rings, as well as leather carrying cases for them. If possible, the armor should be made completely of chain mail, but if not, some of it may be of horn or dry cowhide. Surcoats over the armor. Breastplates of iron or of some other material […].” (Taktika of Leo VI: p. 74)

The Emperor continues about headwear and additional armor: “Full helmets, foot coverings, and gauntlets of iron or some other material. (Taktika of Leo VI: pp. 74-77) One should also say a particular word about the battle readiness: “Devote particular attention to the weapons needed in battle. Make sure that they are always maintained polished and sharpened, so as to terrify the enemy.” (Taktika of Leo VI: p. 79)

Byzantine Warrior had to provoke fear in his enemies. Thus, some elements of fighting, which may have remained unnoticed will be discussed in my work.

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium provides description of Byzantine Armor: Thorax (Body Armor) for cavalry men was produced of chainmail or lamellar, combining small plates with leather backing; these protection is called zabai, lorikia or klibania (Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: Armor, p.182). Byzantine military paid significant attention to the cavalry. Thus, I also mention their battle armor. However, Infantrymen had more simple armor – knee lenght quilted coats – kabadia from felt or linen (Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: Armor, p.182). Byzantines wore gauntlets called manikia, helmets called kranea or kassidia, which were made from iron – segmented or cast whole, usually with flaps of chain mail or felt in order to protect the face and neck (Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: Armor, p.183). Shields – oval, rectangular and kiteshaped were made from wood and covered with iron or leather, ranging from 1,4 m to 80cm in diameter (Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: Armor, p.183).

Image 2:Byzantine Weapons and Armor, Byzantine Warrior,Reims Cathedral, France.
Image 2:Byzantine Weapons and Armor, Byzantine Warrior,Reims Cathedral, France.

Additionally, I would like to add the following, which pertains to battle mentality and leads us to what I said in the beginning concerning the warrior’s way of life: “We order you, above all and with all, to have the fear of God, a sharp mind, and serious intent in every time, place, and affair, as well as to be ready for every eventuality.” (Taktika of Leo VI: p. 79). Moreover, battle mentality is characterized by the belonging to the Orthodox faith: “Many men who had completed their service in the army […] entered a monastery.” (Haldon: Byzantium At War, p. 62). Courage was above all important in order to decrease casualties: “Of the Romans only eighty were killed, and these were the men who stood in the ranks where they had to withstand the first shock of the Frankish charge.” (Holmes: The Age of Justinian and Theodora, p. 665). One has to say in relation to training and education the following: the adaptability of the Byzantines in their economical, i.e. all other practical matters as well. (73 page, The Economic History of Byzantium: Angeliki Laiolu). Thus, Byzantines had self educational way of adaptability leading to adopt new practical ways in order to cope with a given situation.

Byzantine hand-to-hand combat techniques can be searched in Old Russian or more precisely Church Slavonic or Old Church Slavonic manuscripts, because “Интерес к военной культуре Византии проявляли киевские князья, а затем русские военные теоретики вплоть до начала XVIII в., когда все основные военнотеоретические работы византийцев были переведены на русский язык. [Interest in the military culture of Byzantium was shown by the Kiev princes, and by the Russian military theorists until the beginning of the 18th century, when they translated all main military theoretical works of the Byzantines into Russian language.]” (Разин: История военного искусства [History of Military Art], Vol. 2, p. 249).Thus, Military treatises of the Byzantine could have been copied by others as mentioned above about the Kievan Rus.

One can observe that hand-to-hand battle with swords could not last long time, i.e. forever. One opponent is struck down at the end. Only careful training or luck helps be victorious. I would like to quote the following: “Единоборству друг против друга с использованием щитов и палок […]” i.e. [Fencing hand to hand against each other through use of shields and sticks] (Кучма: Стратегикон Маврикия [Strategikon of Maurice], p. 204). One can make a conclusion from the aforementioned that Byzantines could adapt to battle conditions through knowledge and practical necessity. Byzantines had to understand the limits of one’s strenght and victory or defeat in hand to hand battle. Here, I would like to give to paragraphs from Julius Caesar’s Book showing importans of fast reactions, short time to combat and battle shouts to inspire fear in the enemy:

“Varenus rushes on briskly with his sword and carries on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urges on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell. To him, in his turn, when

surrounded, Pulfio brings relief; and both having slain a great number, retreat into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other.” (Julius Caesar: The Gallic Wars, Ch. 44, Book 5) [and]


“The shouts which were raised by the combatants in their rear […]” (Julius Caesar: The Gallic Wars, Ch. 84, Book 7).

And summarizing the battle shouts, I would like to give the following words that serve as a proof that they existed: “Что касается боевого клича, который иногда по обыкновению издается во время сражения, именно клича «С нами Бог!» [Concerning the Battle Cry, which is heard sometimes in battle, namely, – God with Us]” (Кучма: Стратегикон Маврикия [Strategikon of Maurice], p. 97).

Byzantines also practiced combat training trough such activity as hunting: “В мирное же время охота для стратиотов необходима. [In peaceful time, hunting for Stratiotes is necessary]” (Кучма: Стратегикон Маврикия [Strategikon of Maurice], p. 83). Physical training and Intelligence played a role for the preparation of hand-to-hand combat: “людей трезвомыслящих, бдительных, быстрых и хорошо выглядящих [people with clear thought, careful, fast and well built” (Кучма: Стратегикон Маврикия [Strategikon of Maurice], p. 94). On the training, one can say the following: “Ведь полная победа заключается не в том, чтобы слегка отбросить врага и на этом остановиться, но и поражения не произойдет, если немного отойти, а затем снова повернуть назад. И поскольку итог военного противоборства знаменуется этими обоими показателями, необходимо сражаться так, чтобы познать их до конца. [After all, a complete victory is not to push the enemy slightly and stop at this, but there will be no defeat if you move away a little, and then turn back again. And since the outcome of the military confrontation is marked by these two indicators, it is necessary to fight so that they can be fully understood.]” (Кучма: Стратегикон Маврикия [Strategikon of Maurice], p. 111). As a result, these are some of the important elements, which could teach Byzantine soldiers in training.


  1. Conclusion.


All these facts from pre-Byzantine and Byzantine history stress how military discipline, philosophy, training, equipment and mentality play a role. In conclusion, Byzantine commanders most probably hid many details about the training, but these secrets were most probably stolen or taken and written in Byzantine enemies’ or admirers’ texts and some may lie in monasteries or safe heavens, which remain hidden. Archeology may help uncover more facts. However, the practical and living continuation preserved this valuable knowledge, which exists up to this day and this knowledge is recreated, for example, at Leontes Academy. Here, I would like to give as an Appendix some images of Byzantine armor and warriors. Summarizing the aforementioned, one can conclude that Byzantines believed in self-development through personal experience and observation, while guided by strict discipline, motivation and order. Byzantine warrior had to self learn through self imposed way of life of adaptable training in relation to his enemy by understanding the oppossite side and using its weakneses and his strenghts.


  1. Bybliography.

Haldon, J.: Byzantium At War. Ospfey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, England.

Holmes, W. G.: The Age of Justinian and Theodora. London: Gorge Bell and Sons 1907.

Julius Caesar. The Gallic Wars. Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 1994‐2000, Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics.

Laiou, A. E.: The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh Through the Fifteenth Century. Volume 1. Dumbarton Oaks, 2008.

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed.: Alice-Mary Talbot. 3 Vol.. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991

Sun Tzu: The Art of War. Translated by L.Giles. London: Luzac, 1910.

Taktika of Leo VI. Ed.: John Duffy. Dumbarton Oaks Washingtoniae, D.C.: MMX.

Кучма, В. В. (Изд.): Стратегикон Маврикия. Санкт-Петербург: Алетейя, ·2004. (Византийская библиотека. Источники). [Kuchma, V.V. (Ed.): Strategikon of Maurice. St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2004. (Byzantine Library. Sources)]

Разин, Е., Строков, А.: История военного искусства. Том 2, Москва: Полигон, 1994. [Razin, E., Strokov, A.: History of Military Art. Vol. 2, Moscow: Poligon, 1994]



  1. Appendix:



H Ξιφασκία και η Οπλομαχία στην Αρχαία Ελλάδα

Οπλομαχία μεταξύ οπλίτη της Αρκαδίας και της Ηλείας!
Οπλομαχία μεταξύ οπλίτη της Αρκαδίας και της Ηλείας!

Στήν Αρχαία Ελλάδα όπως αναφέρει ο Αθήναιος , οι Μαντινείς και οι Αρκάδες ήταν οι εφευρέτες της οπλομαχίας ! Κατά τον Εύμορφο οι παραπάνω επινόησαν τον οπλισμό και τη στολή των οπλομάχων.

Οι Αρχαίοι Έλληνες εκπαιδεύονταν στην οπλομαχία με την βοήθεια της Πυρρίχης ενός χορού με τυποποιημένες αμυντικές και επιθετικές κινήσεις. Κατά τον Πλάτωνα είναι πιστή μίμηση των κινήσεων του οπλίτη στην μάχη: κινείται πλαγίως για να αποφύγει το κτύπημα του αντιπάλου, υποχωρεί για να πάρει φόρα, εφορμά με μεγάλο πήδημα , σκύβει για να δώσει μικρό στόχο. ‘Aλλοι παρόμοιοι ένοπλοι χοροί ήταν η Πρύλις ο κρητικός Ορσίτης οι θορυβώδεις χοροί των Κουρητών και των Κορυβάντων.

Ο Πλάτωνας στους ΄΄Νόμους΄΄ του προτείνει την εισαγωγή του μαθήματος της οπλομαχίας στις παλαίστρες, σαν απαραίτητο στοιχείο της σωματικής αγωγής των νέων.

Στη Σπάρτη και στην Αθήνα ουδέποτε η οπλομαχία δεν ήταν μέσο σωματικής αγωγής της νεολαίας.
Μόνο το 3ο αιώνα π.Χ. ο αρχηγός της Αχαϊκής συμπολιτείας εισήγαγε την οπλομαχία στα γυμναστήρια . Τον 2ο αιώνα η εξάσκηση της οπλομαχίας γινόταν περίπου όπως σήμερα και με προστασία του κεφαλιού με κάλυμμα .

O εξοπλισμός περιελάμβανε κοντό ξίφος, επιθετικό δόρυ περικνημίδες μεταλλική περικεφαλαία, μεταλλική ασπίδα και δερμάτινο ή σιδερένιο θώρακα.

How did the Greek rebels of 1821 fence?


(Φώτο: Λουντοβίκο Λιπαρίνι: “O Κλέφτης”)
(Φώτο: Λουντοβίκο Λιπαρίνι: “O Κλέφτης”)

By George E. Georgas, fencing and HEMA instructor.

Lots of people have been coming to me, asking how did the Greek rebels of 1821 fight. Did they follow a specific school of fencing or did they just do whatever came to mind like an untrained farmer?

For a long time I searched and studied without reaching a conclusion, until I looked straight at the source – the memoirs of the heroes of the revolution. Makrigiannis for example had received his arms when he was still a teenager. He had a sword (pala) and a yatagan. He learned how to fence from here and there (he doesn’t mention anything specific) until a short while before the end of the revolution, when he was trained by fencing instructors sent by the great powers of the time that had gotten involved. Captain George Giorgas in Kalamata is mentioned by sources as the best swordsman of the area, whose enemies were afraid to approach him, and so killed him with a rifle. The Kolokotronis family traditionally trained its men to use arms using the surviving methods of the Greek stratioti of the Renaissance and the Ottoman hoplomachia, which was in turn borrowed by the Balkans, creating a mixed school (Martak), depending on the weapons they were using. Later, in the start of the 18th century, the Ottomans abandoned the old school and brought their own Italian fencing instructors.

Let us return to Kolokotronis. He too was trained in the European schools of sabre fencing, specifically in the French school that was the most popular during that time. Thus we come to the conclusion that before the revolution the Greeks had a mixed martial training, using both the old way of fencing from the stratioti and the Ottomans that was improved when some warlords were trained by Europeans. What remained unchanged until approximately 1937 was the use of the machaira and the knife. An American roamer used to say that the Greco / Romioi were using those weapons as much and as well as the French did with the foil. I hope many questions were answered.