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Maurikian Byzantine Horse
Tony Stapells' Maurikian Byzantine Horse

Maurikian Byzantine (578-650 AD)
(DBA 91)

The Maurikian Byzantine list covers the eastern Roman empire during the reigns of the Emperors Tiberius II (578-582), Maurice (Maurikios) (582-602), Phocas (or Phokas) (602-610), Heraclius (Heraklios) (610-641) and his sons. It was a period in which the eastern empire had become the focal point of Rome's declining power, and eastern emperors still dreamed of ruling over a reunited Rome.

Fighting against the same barbarian expansions that brought down the western empire, Maurice and Heraclius rank among the more accomplished Byzantine generals/emperors. Maurice was a highly regarded military officer under Tiberius II, and given command of an elite corps of barbarian "foederati" cavalry regiments that formed the core of the Byzantine army. Following a successful campaign against the Sassanian Persians in 578 AD, he was given the hand of Tiberius' daughter Constantina in marriage and designated his successor. With the death of Tiberius in 582 AD, Maurice peacefully assumed the throne only to find the treasury empty and the eastern Empire hard-pressed on all sides. In the south, the Persians were engaged in a long campaign to seize the Empire's Middle-Eastern holdings. In the North, the Slavs and Avars were contesting the Empire's Balkan possessions and raiding as far southward as Greece, while the Langobards (i.e. Lombards) ravaged Northern Italy with impunity.

The war with the Persians drug on for ten years, until a successful uprising against the Persian ruler Hormizdas led his son Chosroes II to seek refuge with the Romans in 590 AD. Maurice created an alliance with the young prince and then conducted a miliary campaign in 591 AD that successfully restored him to the throne, thus bringing a period of peaceful co-existance between Persia and Byzantium. Meanwhile in 584 AD, at odds with the Pope at Ravenna, Maurice answered western pleas for assistance against the Langobards by inviting the Franks to invade Italy. Maurice also depleted his sparce treasury with a large bribe to buy a temporary peace with the Avars, which allowed him to focus his efforts on rolling back the gains of the Slavs. Maurice was also able to strengthen Byzantium's control over Sicily and North Africa,

The wars drug on, however, and due to the lack of funds and unpopular regulations attributed to his personal parsimony, Maurice gradually lost support of the army. His decision in 599 AD not to ransom 12,000 prisoners held by the Avars resulted in their summary execution. In 602, he ordered the army then operating beyond the Danube to make winter camp in the field, which prompted a rebellion in the ranks. The centurion Phocas was raised on the shields of the army as their new commander, and they marched on Constantople. Unable to raise a resistance, Maurice fled, but was overtaken at Chalcedon and executed with his family. Phocas then ruled tyrannically for eight years until Heraclius, the son of the exarch of Carthage, arrived at Constantinople by sea with an army that was popularly received.

Heraclius is often characterized as a savior of the Byzantine empire. He rebuilt the army and reformed the imperial administration, so that the commander of each thema (regiment) was charged with the supervision of the civil authorities in his military district. The old diocesan and provincial divisions disappeared, as the military departments became the principal administrative districts. Heraclius also continued the practice of recruiting Gothic, Vandal, Bulgarian and other barbarian soldiers from conquered territories, forming them in "national" regiments and drilling them to a high state of proficiency. A unit of elite Gothic heavy cavalry (i.e. Optimates) was retained as a centralized reserve. The retainers and household troops of Byzantine nobles and officers, referred to as bucellarii (Bukellari) were reconstituted from part-time soldiers into a regular cavalry force.

War with the Persians was renewed. In 614 AD, the Persians conquered Jerusalem, massacreing thousands of inhabitants and looting the Holy Cross of Christ before burning the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 616 AD, the Sassanians captured Alexandria. Heraclius rose to the challenge by launching what could be considered the first crusade. In 627 AD, he defeated the Persians at Ninevah. In 628 AD, another successful battle resulted in recovery of the Holy Cross. In 629 AD, he recovered Jerusalem following a victory at the Battle of Mu'ta and was able to hold it until 638 AD.

Thanks in part to the cumulative effects of Heraclius' victories, the Sassanian Persian threat receded before the growing influence of the Arab Conquest. In 636 AD, the Byzantine army suffered a severe defeat to Caliph Omar and his vastly out-numbered Muslim army at the Battle of Yarmuk River in Syria. Following Yarmuk, Muslim armies were gradually able to conquer the southern territories of the Byzantine Empire (Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt, and Jordan) and isolate Constantinople.

Heraclius died in April 641 AD. His will named his two sons, Constantine III and Heraclonas, born of different mothers, as co-equal heirs to the throne. The elder Constantine III was initially the more popular, but quickly saw his support fade when the Arabs conquered Egypt. He died within four months of tuberculosis, but rumors spread that he was poisoned by Martina, the mother of Heraclonas, who sought to rule through her adolescent son. The mother and son proved unpopular, particularly after rumours of the poisoning began to circulate, so that by September 641 Heraclonas had been deposed and exiled to Rhodes (with his mother, whose tongue was cut out) in favor of Constantine III's eleven year old son Constans II. Constans ruled until 668 AD.


5 x 3Cv The Kavallarioi formed of the Foederati Thema (either barbarian or Romanized ethnikoi) and Bucellarii (Retainers or household troops pressed into regular service). The Bucellarii fought in the second line (reserve) with the mounted Optimates.
2 x 2Lh or 3Cv More Foederati Thema
1x 3Kn Optimates. Descendants of Gothic heavy cavalry employed in the Late Roman (East) army, now settled in the Empire, the Optimates retained their Germanic dress, weapons and fighting style. They served as a sort of Imperial Guard and were held in strategic reserve near the capital. It is likely that the ranks of the Optimates also contained outstanding soldiers (Germans, Lombards, Huns, etc.) drafted from the foederati thema.
2 x 4Sp Spear-armed Skutatoi.
2 x 2Ps

How Maurikian Byzantine cavalry units were armed is a subject of some debate. One theory holds that more elite units (e.g. Bucellarii) were armed with bow, sword and a long spear (kontarion), whereas regular foederati horse was simply bow armed. Others argue, based on references from the Strategikon that arms were mixed within each unit, with kontaria (spearmen or lancers) and toxotai (archers) fighting in different ranks within the formation. Phil Barker suggests (in Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome) that cavalry were equipped with both weapons, but that different ranks were trained to use the kontarion or bow as their primary weapon. The 1, 3 & 5th ranks used lance and the 2 & 4 ranks used bow.

According to Barker, the Heralcian Byzantine heavy cavalryman wore an iron helmet, mail shirt and a small round shield strapped to the left forearm (so as not to interfere with use of the bow). Front rankers had iron splint protection on their fore arms and lower legs, and a mail hood hooked to their helmets. In addition to lance, bow and sword, cavalry may have carried lead-weighted throwing darts (marzobaboula). Clothing was linen in summer and dyed goatskin in winter for warms, with red and blue being popular colors. Cloaks were yellow-brown for purposes of concealment. Gauntlets and boots were yellowish leather. Helmet crests, pennons and surcoats were dyed a regimental color that matched the primary color of the shield and regimental standard (i.e., Bandon). Horses had tufted plumes in regimental colors at their forehead and on each side of their rumps. Bucellarii were allowed to display their elite status with addition of tufted plumes on their shoulders that matched their helmet crests.


The enemies of the Maurikian Byzantines include the Later Sassanids (#73b), the Gepids and Lombards (#85), Early Bulgars (#87), Slavs (#89), Avars (#90), and the Arab Conquest (#96).



Notes on Tactics

Historically, Maurikian armies relied on their elite cavalry thema formed of foederati troops to fight and win battles, which were usually decided long before the Byzantine infantry could see action. Cavalry was drawn up in two lines, with the foederati thema in the first line, and the Optimates and Bucellarii in the second line as a reserve. Each regiment fought in five ranks of alternating lance and bow. Infantry is mentioned at various points in the Strategikon, although their location in the basic formation is not described. At Yarmuk, a Byzantine army variously estimated in size anywhere from 80,000-200,000 ,included large numbers of levy Greek foot, who were reputed to have been chained together to discourage flight.

Unfortunately, the qualitative edge held by the Maurikian cavalry over the horse of the Avars and Sassanians is not reflected in DBA. It falls on the heavy Optimates to carry the battle for the Maurikians. Against the Gepids/Lombards, the Byzantine mounted arm is both outnumbered in horse and outweighed in Knights. The best strategy, therefore, is to fight a delaying battle against the mounted Langobards while striking against their Warband and Psiloi. Against the Slavs, the key to quick victory is catching their Auxilia-heavy army in good going. Against the Early Bulgars and Arab Conquest, the Byzantines can attempt to ride over the enemy foot or use their advantage in cavalry to overwhelm the enemy's mounted.

Other Resources

For useful background on the organization of the Maurikian Army, see Perry Gray's "Researching a Maurikian Byzantine Army: Or Frustrated by Conflicting Reports", SAGA (April-May 1998), also available at MagWeb Included with the article is a lengthy bibliography.

A standard gamers/painters reference for the "Dark Ages" Byzantine army is Osprey's Romano-Byzantine Armies 4th - 9th Century (Men-At-Arms 247), by David Nicolle, A. McBride (Illustrator). Osprey has also published a book on Yarmuk 636 AD: The Muslim Conquest of Syria in its campaign series, also authored by David Nicolle. Both titles are available through the De Bellis Bookstore.

Here are pictures of Tony Stapells' Maurikian Byzantine army.

Excerpts from Arabic histories of the Battle of Al-Baladhuri (Yarmuk River) are available on-line from the Medieval Sourcebook.

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Last Updated: Sept. 11, 1999