CARNAGE AT CLONTARF: IRELAND’S DARKEST DAY! (PART 2)

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On Good Friday, April 23, 1014 just north of Dublin a momentous and bloody battle was fought. At stake was the nascent unification of Ireland under its first true king, Brian Boru; and the future influence of the Vikings, who had settled and meddled in Ireland for nearly two centuries. The battle that resulted changed the course of Irish history, forever!

(This is the second of two parts. It is highly recommended to read Part One first.)

Following his stay with Jarl Sigurd in Orkney over the Yuletide celebration, Sitric Silkbeard returned to Dublin. There he informed his mother, Gormlaith, of his success in securing Sigurd’s aid in their coming showdown with Brian; and of his promise to the Jarl of her hand in marriage once they were victorious. Gormlaith was well-pleased with this arrangement, and congratulated her son on his mission. However, she was still not satisfied that her son had sufficient allies to challenge Brian Boru in battle. She told him he should voyage to the nearby Isle of Man; where the Manx Viking leaders, Brodir and his brother Ospak,  had a fleet of 30 longships. There, he should seek the alliance of these two fierce Viking warlords, and offer them whatever it took to gain their aid.

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BRODIR AND OSPAK

Little is known of the political situation on the Isle of Man in the early 11th century. It had been part of the Viking world since the 8th century; sometimes ruled from Dublin, other times from the Orkneys. Was it as some point in this era governed as an independent fief? We just don’t know. But at the end of 1013 the two brothers, Brodir and Ospak, were at Man with a fleet of 30 ships. Were they the rulers of Man at this time, using the island as their stronghold? Or were they merely a passing fleet of Vikings who had taken up temporary anchorage for the winter?

On this the sources are unclear.

The brothers are only mentioned in the 12th century Irish Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib and in the 13th century Icelandic Njal’s Saga, which describes them as “lying off the west of Man”. This would seem to infer that they were merely lying at anchor; the second of the two options above.The saga says they had a fleet of 30 longships and perhaps as many as 2,000 followers: “men of such hardihood that nothing can withstand them”[1]. For the reasons elucidated below, a more likely number for their host is about 1,500 [2]. These Manx Vikings are described as  “Danmarkians” (Danes); “the chiefs of ships and outlaws and Danars of all the west of Europe, having no reverence for God or for man, for church or for sanctuary.”[3] This sounds like a mixed band of Viking freebooters, come to serve under these two chiefs. Certainly throughout the reign of the feckless Æthelred bands of Danish Vikings had raided England continuously. With Svein Forkbeard seeming to have brought England under his sword in 1013, the “worst-of-the-worst” may have taken ship to Man to find new service and new prey under Brodir (or perhaps led there by him). [4]

This was a time of great ferment in the Viking world, with Danes and Jomsvikings assailing England over the last decade, and Norway long the scene of civil war between the royal house of Harald Fairhair and the powerful Jarls of Lade. From these campaigns many bands of hardened warriors likely spun off the mainstream and ventured on their own, taking advantage of opportunities such chaos affords the bold and ruthless.

Such was likely this band of Manx Vikings under Brodir and Ospak.

The origin of Brodir and his brother is equally mysterious and even more intriguing. One modern scholar working from other sources describes the brothers as  Danes living on the west coast of the Isle of Man [5]. Another, working from the Irish chronicle The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, describes them as “Broder and Amlaff “(Olaf), “son of the king of Lochlann” and “two earls of all the north of the Saxon-land (England)” [6]. The Irish chronicle names him “Brodar”, and calls him the “son of Osli, the earl of Caer Ebroc” (York) [7].  York (Viking Jorvik) had been added to the English kingdom in the 10th century by the descendants of Alfred the Great. However, in the chaos surrounding the Danish invasion and the last days of Æthelred the Unready, it is conceivable that a Danish warlord (Brodir), perhaps a follower of Svein Forkbeard,  could have been styled however briefly as Jarl/Earl of Jorvik; and had either fallen-out with his liege and fled to Man; or was merely on an extended Viking expedition, and wintering at Man before returning to Jorvik. It’s an intriguing set of possibilities.

Interestingly, Brodir is not a proper Danish or Norse name; but instead means “brother”. The sources call him a former mass-deacon, before he renounced Christianity and reverted to paganism. Could “brother” have been not his name, but a sobriquet? An alternate theory is that it is derived from the Irish name variously written as Bruattar, Bruadar or Brodur; the root of the name “Broadrick “. Could Brodir have been a gallóglaigh; a member of the warrior-class of mixed Norse-Gaelic ancestry, which the Irish called Gall Gaeil (foreign Gaels)? It is conceivable that the brothers had even been displaced from their Irish homes during Brian’s war against the Vikings of Munster. It is not impossible that Brodir had a very personal grudge against Brian; though if so it was one his brother, Ospak, didn’t share.

Brodir himself is described as tall and strong, his black hair so long that he braided it and tucked it under his belt!  It was also said that “he had a coat of mail on which no steel would bite.”[8] Of Ospak we know even less, except that he was a pagan as well, and had at least two grown sons with him among the Manx Vikings warriors.

The moody coast of Man, where Brodir and Ospak lay at anchor in the winter of 1013

On arriving at Man, King Sitric approached the brothers and sought to enlist them to his cause. Brodir at first refused; ’til Sitric offered him the same rewards that he’d proffered to Jarl Sigurd: namely, the kingdom and his mother, Gormlaith, to wife. The men agreed, with the understanding that their arrangement would be kept secret from Jarl Sigurd. We have no way of knowing how Sitric would have eventually reconciled these duplicate offers made to his new allies; but presumably he felt that was business for tomorrow, while defeating Brian was the matter at hand. He left with Brodir’s pledge to come to Dublin by Palm Sunday, 1014.

However, Brodir’s brother Ospak was not as enthusiastic. Ospak declared that he for one had no desire to fight against “so good a king”[9] (or one so powerful) as Brian Boru. The brothers quarreled, with Brodir threatening violence against his brother and all who stood with him. The saga is filled with tales of supernatural portents and events at Man following their quarrel, all of which were omens of disaster for Brodir if he persisted in making war against Brian Boru. Whatever actually occurred, the next day Ospak fled from his brother’s army, taking with him a following of 10 ships and their crews (500 men?). He sailed to the western coast of Ireland, and up the Shannon River; where he found King Brian at his capital of Kincora. There Ospak and his band were taken into Brian’s service; and Ospak was baptized a Christian.

Meanwhile on Man, Brodir prepared to take those of his warriors remaining and sail for Ireland; where his destiny awaited.

THE CAMPAIGN OF 1014

In the first months of 1014, “the war arrow” passed throughout the lands adjoining the North Sea. Not just Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of Man answered Sitric and Gormlaith’s request for allies. Men came from the Scottish Isles, from England, from Iceland and from Scandinavia. Nor were Brian and his ally, Malachi of Meath idle. From all over Ireland chiefs pledged their aid; and even Scottish lairds with ties to Ireland prepared to cross the Irish Sea and join Brian Boru. What began as a family squabble had grown into the greatest contest between the Gael and the Gall since Arthur faced the Saxons at Badon!

On March 17, Brian Boru set out with all the forces who owed him allegiance. His own Dál gCais aside, the chief of these were the princes of Connacht, Mael Ruanaidh Ua hEidhin (O’Hyne) of Hy Fiachrach (south Galloway), and Tadhg Ua Cellaigh  (O’Kelly) of Hy-Many. Meathla O’Faelan, Lord of the Deisi-Mumhan, led the men of South Munster. The southern  Uí Néill, led by Brian’s ally (not vassal), Malachi of Meath, completed the army: between 7-12,000 men.

The Ard-Rí’s host camped again at Kilmainham,  2.5 miles west of Dublin. From there he sent raiding parties to ravage the rich Danish farmland north of the Liffy River. From Fingall to Howth the farms and villages that fed Dublin were set ablaze. Brian detached a second raiding force of his own Dalcassians under his young son Donnchadh mac Briain (Donogh O’Brian), his son by Gormlaith, south to devastate his uncle Máel Mórda’s lands of Leinster. The lad (who couldn’t have been much older than 13) would be spared the brutal encounter to come; one in which he might find himself matching blades against his own uncle or half-brother.

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Watching the smoke rise from the walls of Dublin was Sitric and his mother, as well as Brian’s own daughter, Sláine, who as wife of Sitric viewed the coming events with deep trepidation. With them too was Sitric’s uncle, Máel Mórda, whose Leinstermen were camped around the city in three divisions, guarding the approaches. They fumed at the destruction of their lands, but waited till their allies from across the sea arrived to give battle.

The Viking fleets began arriving on Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday. Though the sources make it seem that fleets of Sigurd and Brodir arrived together on Good Friday, and joined Máel Mórda on the field of Clontarf that same day (one account even suggesting they came, left, then returned again in order to surprise Brian), this is on its face absurd. It would take extraordinary timing and coordination for two separate fleets, one setting out from the Orkney Islands and the other from the Isle of Man, to arrive at Dublin on the same morning. There is no suggestion that the two leaders were in contact, nor working in coordination, prior to arriving at Dublin the week before the battle, where they held a “war council”. But even had Sigurd’s fleet stopped first in Man to link-up with Brodir’s 20 ships (and their is no mention of this in either the saga or the Irish chronicles), their combined forces would be unlikely to have arrived just in time to take part in the battle. They would, instead, have arrived in the Bay of Dublin at the mouth of the Liffey separately, not together, in the days before Good Friday. Sigurd and Brodir would have rested their men, and conferred with their allies in Dublin, making their plans.

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The saga talks about  Brodir consulting “the gods”concerning the battle to come. He received scant comfort from these auguries: if the allies fought before Good Friday, they would fail and all be destroyed. But if they fought him on that day, Brian would fall, though still triumph.  Neither prophecy was good for the allies, but with Brian slain the future was at least more promising. The decision was made: the host would give battle on Good Friday, April 23, 1014.

THE BATTLE SITE 

Where was the battle of Clontarf actually fought?

The obvious answer would seem to be at Clontarf, today a suburb 3 miles to the northeast of Dublin. While many accept this at face value, others put the battle further west and south. The question deserves discussion.

The traditional location at Clontarf proper claims the allies left Dublin and marched across the Liffey, then crossed the Tolka, and deployed on the plain between that river and modern Clontarf (then only a weir where fisherman moored their boats, and where the Viking ship were now said to be beached).  The battle fought here would have centered on Marino, with the allied left on the Tolka guarding the crossing point (approximately where the Luke Kelly Bridge and Windsor Avenue cross the river today), and their right out as far as where Clontarf Golf Club is today; a frontage of just over a mile.

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Traditional view of campaign and deployment of the armies

This theory has only one advantage: it puts the battle close to modern Clontarf.

But it has several logical drawbacks.

First, consider where Brian’s army was located: he was camped at Kilmainham, 2.5  miles west of Danish Dublin. His army would be approaching Dublin from the west. What sense did it make for the allies to march out of Dublin, cross the plain between the Liffey and the Tolka, then cross the Tolka to deploy; all the while exposing their left flank to harassment or outright attack as they marched?[10] Worse, once deployed, what was to keep Brian marching eastward from simply cutting their line of retreat across the Tolka, and attacking their left wing? Why would the allied commanders march their army 3 miles away from their base, needlessly tiring their troops and (more importantly) exposing their line of retreat? To what purpose?

One response that is usually proffered is that Brian approached Dublin from the north; and that the allies left Dublin to meet him north of the Tolka at Clontarf. But though he sent raiding parties north of the Tolka at Fine Gall and Howth in the days before the battle, all the sources agree he marched that morning from his camp, still at Kilmainham.

Another answer to this  question that is usually given is that the Viking’s ships were drawn up on the strand at Clontarf; and they fought to protect these. But this explanation is absurd on its face. Those ships could just have easily been moored on the south bank of the Liffey, east of Dublin, were they in danger.

This rationale also ignores where these ships were likely moored. The coastline near Dublin has changed considerably in the intervening millennium; with centuries of silt deposited by the Liffey and Tolka moving the harbor further east. In the 10th century, the sea reached up the modern course of the Liffey as far as Amiens Street, about where the Famine Memorial stands today. In Brian’s time, the coastline near Clontarf  and the Tolka likely ran roughly along the modern Fairview Strand.  Fairview Park was tidal flats in Brian’s day. That might put the “weir of Clontarf” (the name given the battle in some of the oldest sources) between Richmond Road at Fairview to (perhaps) Marino College. This would have been a logical place for the Viking ships to have beached, a protected anchorage with a place ashore at the western edge of modern Clontarf for their forces to make camp.

Finally, and most persuasively, we know from the accounts that Sitric, Gormlaith, and Sitric’s wife Sláine (Brian’s daughter) watched the battle avidly from the walls of Dublin. Then the city was wholly on the south side of the Liffey; approximately occupying the area between where now stands Dublin Castle and Trinity College. The Danish fortress, where Sitric’s party watched the battle,  would have been on the northwest side, likely near or at the site of the castle [11]. It would be impossible to view the battle clearly, as they apparently could, if the battle were fought on the traditional site north of the Tolka, 3 miles away.

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View of Dublin harbor from the shore at Clontarf. The distant lights of Dublin can be seen in the distance beyond the harbor towers. It is unlikely that a battle fought here could be viewed from Dublin; as would have to be the case if the battle site were where usually placed at Clontarf.

All of this suggests an alternative location, similar to what was proposed by Joyce: between the Liffey and the Tolka. This would make far more sense, both protecting the ships moored at Clontarf Weir and staying close to their base (and place of refuge in case of defeat), Dublin. They would not have to make a pointless 3 mile march away from Dublin, exposing their flank in the process. It would also allow Sitric and his party to watch the battle clearly, as the sources agree they did.

The allied line would have been drawn up facing west, with their back to the sea. Dublin would have been on their left, and their flank would have rested on the Liffey near modern Strand Street, guarding the sole crossing point at Dubhghall’s Bridge (tentatively identified as the Father Mathew Bridge at Church Street). Their line would have loosely followed modern Dorsett Street, extending perhaps as far as Drumcondra (as Joyce suggests), though unlikely as far as the Tolka, which would mean a dangerously thin line indeed. I would suggest that the Viking right rested near modern Fitzroy Ave. In the 11th century, a broad forest, Tomar Wood, covered parts of Drumcondra in the north and extended west toward Phibsborough. This would have provided a natural resting place for both armies’ northern flanks. The Irish, coming from Kilmainham, would have deployed facing east, parallel to their enemy; with Tomar Wood on their left and the Liffey on their right. Interestingly, there is an obvious burial mound near where the Irish left flank would have rested, called (intriguingly enough) Brian Boru’s Mound, by Dalcassian Downs. This would accord well with this theory: that after the battle, the Dalcassian dead were buried in a mass grave very near to where they fought and died.

Here was a plain with boundaries upon which the armies could rest their flanks (something every general looks for), with room to deploy two armies of perhaps some 20,000 men [12].

The flaw to this tentative placement of the battle is exactly the opposite of what commends the traditional location: the battle site is not at all at Clontarf!

But if one moves the weir of Clontarf further west with the shifting coastline, and remember that earlier descriptions of the battle called it the “fight at the weir of Clontarf”, this objection can be overcome. The battle was fought on the old road from Dublin to Clontarf; with the Viking ships and the weir behind the allied right flank.

Though we are placing the battlefield between Dublin and Clontarf, and could more accurately call it the “Battle of Drumcondra”, we will of course continue to call the battlefield “Clontarf”.

THE ARMIES DEPLOY

As dawn broke on Good Friday 1014, the Gaels came to Clontarf.

Brian’s host marched from their camp at Kilmainham in three divisions, the old king riding at their head. First came the fierce Dalcassians, commanded by Brian’s heir Prince Murrogh , numbering perhaps 1,500. With them was Ospak’ force of Manx Vikings, likely another 500 men. These would form the left of the Irish line, opposing the foreign Vikings; though Ospak and his Danes were sent to the opposite flank so they would not have to fight their former comrades. Behind these came the second division, the 2,000 men of South Munster led by Meathla O’Faelan, Lord of the Deisi-Mumhan. With them were brigaded two companies of several hundred Scots commanded by the Great Stewards of Mar and Lennox; related to the south Irish and now come in Brian’s hour of need. 1,500  wild clansmen of Connacht, led by O’Kelly and O’Hyne, formed the third division. Malachi’s Meathmen, perhaps another 3,000 men, marched apart. As Brian’s forces began to deploy, the Meathmen formed up far in the rear, on the hill of Cabra; Malachi intent on holding his kerns in reserve.

There had been dissension among the Irish leaders during the war council the previous day. Brian was loath to fight on Good Friday, especially with part of his forces still raiding in the south under his youngest son, Donnchadh. But hearing that the Gall were intent on battle that day, he decided to accept their challenge and settle the war with a single cast of the die. Perhaps he was worried about a repetition of the previous year’s campaign, when Sitric and Máel Mórda had remained within the walls of Dublin till Brian’s supplies were exhausted. Here was the opportunity to settle the matter. However, for reasons now unknown, Malachi of Meath did not agree with Brian’s plans. Whether the proud Uí Néill disdained the role assigned his Meathmen; or was likewise reluctant to fight on Good Friday; or still nourished a jealous (and all too understandable) grudge against his former rival Brian is unknown, and from the distance of a millennium unknowable. [13]

So as the Irish army deployed, the men of Meath stood apart. Like Lord Stanley at Bosworth, they would remain on the heights of Cabra observing the battle until both sides were near exhaustion.

King Brian, at 73 years too old to fight in this, his last battle, turned command over to his son Murrogh. Brian would spend the battle in the rear, praying in his tent erected at the edge of Tomar’s Wood. Before he departed, though, he addressed his warriors. His white locks blowing in the wind, high above them astride his horse, Brian called on the kerns and nobles to remember centuries of wrongs visited upon Ireland by the Lochlannach. He reminded them that this was Good Friday, the day their Lord had given his life for them. He exhorted them to fight for their faith and for Ireland.

Waiting for Brian’s host was the allied forces of Leinster, Dublin, the foreign Vikings and contingents from abroad. The Irish chronicle says that these latter came from as far afield as Normandy and France; even stating that a son of the king of France (and also of Lochlann) served in the ranks of the foreign Vikings. This is of course nonsense; but “adventurers” throughout northern Europe, and particularly from the lands of the Vikings, likely came like wolves to share in the despoliation of Brian’s kingdom. We know from Njal’s Saga that several Icelanders came in the service of Jarl Sigurd, having been caught up in the domestic strife that racked their homeland at this time. A prince of Norway, Olaf Haraldson, later to become King Olaf the Stout, was at this very time raiding in the British Isles. It is not impossible that he is the prince the Irish chroniclers have in mind.

Clontarf deployment

The allies deployed with Máel Mórda and his Leinstermen anchoring the left end of the battle line, and protecting the vital crossing point at Dubgall’s Bridge; the only way across the Liffey and their line of retreat back to Dublin. They would oppose the Munster clans, Scots, and Ospak’s Manx Vikings.  The center was held by the Hiberno-Scandinavians (Danes and Norse) of Dublin. Sitric would remain in the fortress, with a thousand men to ensure their stronghold’s security. His warriors would be commanded by his half-brother, Dubghall Olafson. He would face the wild men of the west, the clans of Connacht. Finally, on the right flank, the place of honor, stood the “grey men”, the iron-clad shieldwall of foreign Vikings, commanded by Sigurd and Brodir. Leading them were an assortment of lesser chieftains; among them sixteen champions, “captains of fleets” [14], “every one of them a man to combat a hundred, on land or on sea”. These foreign “gall”  would face Brian’s fiercest troops, the Dalcassians led by Prince Murrogh.

In all, the allies number some 7,000 (with perhaps another 1,000 with Sitric defending their stronghold of Dublin. The numbers on the field were roughly equal, with Malachi and the Meathmen standing apart.

The Northmen presented a strong contrast to their Irish foe. They wore conical helmets and were clad in shirts of mail, each ring riveted closed around its neighbor, proof against arrow or slashing blow from sword or dirk. An iron-rimmed round or kite-shaped shield of  sturdy leather-covered linden completed each carl’s defensive panoply. They were armed with spear and broadsword, belt ax and saex; and most fearfully of all, the famous five foot long  Danish long-ax, capable cleaving a man in twain or beheading a horse with a single stout blow. These legions of lochlann stood in the compact ranks of the shieldwall, each man’s shield touching or overlapping that of the sword-brother to his right. Few warriors anywhere could stand before them, and from Iceland to Constantinople they were accounted the worlds most feared fighting men.

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Waving above their iron ranks was Jarl Sigurd’s legendary raven banner. Woven by his witch mother, it was infused with eldritch spells and arcane protections. It was said to ever bring victory in its wake, even while ensuring the doom of the man who bore it.

Unlike their foe the Irish disdained armor, save for a steel casque to protect their heads. Their ranks were as tightly packed as the Vikings’. The chronicle says a “four-horse chariot could run from one end to the other of the lines on either side, on their heads”, meaning traveling on the heads of the warriors without ever touching the ground! The kerns fought with nothing but a tunic (saffron being a favorite color, particularly among the Dalcassians), a leather-covered targe their chief defense. For armament they carried a bundle of darts, short-shafted javelins, and dirks. Many of the warriors had, after years of warfare, adopted the axes so favored by their foreign enemies.

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The Dalcassians in particular had obtained a mastery of the single-handed battle ax. Though it had not the reach of the Danish long-ax, it could shatter Viking mail and cleave the bone beneath.

… and they (the Irish) also carry, heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered.  These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen, of whom we shall speak hereafter.  But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke….Thus it has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight’s thigh, although it was encased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other.” – Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales)

With just such deadly axes the Dalcassians had made themselves the masters of Ireland, and their lord its High King.

THE BATTLE OF CLONTARF

The two armies faced each other at extreme bow range as the chiefs prepared their men for the combat to come. As was common in this age, a Danish champion stepped out of the Viking ranks. He was Platt, who the chronicle calls “the bravest knight of the foreigners”. The night before he had challenged any warrior among the Irish to face him the next day. This call was answered by Donald the Great Steward of Mar, a leader of Brian’s Scottish allies and an ancient enemy of the Dane.

Where is Donald of Mar”, called Platt three times. “Here I am, rogue”, came the answer from his foe, as he stepped from the Irish ranks. The two faced-off between the  armies, who watched the duel as cheering spectators. The champions laid on each other with sword and shield, battling with such ferocity that both soon fell down dead; their swords in each other’s hearts and their other hands gripping their opponent’s beard. They were the first, though far from the last, casualties on the field of Clontarf. [15]

The battle began now in earnest.

First to make contact were the Dalcassians and the foreign Vikings, laying on with a fierce vengeance. Then the centers engaged, the men of Connacht and the Dublin Danes falling on each other. Last Máel Mórda’s Leinstermen, anchoring the left of the allied line, were assailed by the Deisi of south Munster, supported by Brian’s Scottish and Manx Viking allies. All day long the lines would be locked together, swaying this way and that with the fortunes of battle shifting. There was little in the way of tactics, nor were there cavalry or massed archery. This was one of the last European battles to be fought strictly by infantry, using spear, javelin, sword, and ax to stab and hack each other at close quarters till one side broke.

Early in the battle, the Vikings on the allied right had the better of it, as did the Leinstermen led by Máel Mórda on the left. The Dalcassians gave ground foot-by-stubborn-foot, as the mail-clad Viking shieldwall advanced beneath Sigurd’s grim raven banner. On the allied left the charge of the Munster clans had been checked. Máel Mórda had cut down Prince Maethla O’Faelan with his own hand. Ospak leading his Manx Vikings was wounded during the fierce fighting, in the course of which he would lose both of the sons fighting beneath his banner.

Selection of Viking weapons: 11th century

Spear, javelin, and ax heads from the period. Mounted on a 5′ shaft, the “Lochlann” ax was a fearsome weapon, capable of shattering both shields and mail, and the bones beneath!

From the walls of Dublin, Sitric and Gormlaith were elated, watching as Viking axes cut men down like ripe corn. Turning to his wife, Sláine, he said “well do the foreigners reap the field: see how they fling the sheathes to the ground!” Her heart with her countrymen, she quietly replied, “The result will be seen at the close of day.” [16]

In the center, the Connachta and Dubliners battled with near-suicidal courage. By the end of the day, both  were nearly wiped out. The leader of the Dubliners, Sitric’s half-brother Dubgall son of Olaf, was among the dead. As were both  O’Kelly (nephew of Malachi) and O’Hyne, chief among the princes of Connacht.  The chronicle says that of the men of Connacht only one hundred survived the contest; and of the Dubliners a mere twenty escaped with their lives!

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Murrogh raged about the battle, with an elite retinue of seven score sons of kings [17]. Beside him fought his fifteen year old son, Turlogh. Murrogh seems to have acted as something of a fire brigade, charging in where the Irish were hardest pressed, and stemming the enemy’s momentum. He fought with a broadsword in either hand, dealing death wherever he stood.

From the heights behind the battle, Brian Boru sat in his tent, praying, surrounded by a bodyguard and attended by a squire, Laiten. Throughout the day, he would ask Laiten to report what he could see of the battle. At one point (likely in the early afternoon) Laiten reported that “the battalions are locked in deadly struggle, and there blows sound as if a vast multitude were hewing at Tomar’s Wood with heavy axes.” He observed that Prince Murrogh’s banner waived above the Dalcais.

At some point Máel Mórda, on the allied left, found himself facing Conaing Mac Donncuan, a nephew of Brian’s, fighting in the ranks of the men of south Munster (the Irish chronicle calls him king of Desmond). Sixteen men of their respective guards fell around the two leaders, before they slew each other in combat. Thus fell Gormlaith’s brother and Sitric’s uncle; the man’s whose jealous spite started the war that now claimed his life.

On the Viking right,  Brodir fought all day at the head of his Manx Vikings, hewing through the Irish shields with his great axe. The saga states that “Brodir went through the host of the foe, and felled all the foremost that stood there, but no steel would bite on his mail.”[18] But then he was met by an Irish warrior called Wolf the Quarrelsome; who may have been a commander of the Dalcassians and even related to Brian. The saga goes on to say Wolf “thrust at him thrice so hard that Brodir fell before him at each thrust, and was well-nigh not getting on his feet again; but as soon as ever he found his feet, he fled away into the wood at once.”[19]

This account of Brodir deserting his men and fleeing would be hard to credit, had it come from the Irish chronicle of the battle. But it is recounted in the Icelandic Saga, which one would expect to be more sympathetic with the Viking side. The Irish chronicle only says that Brodir fled when his fabled mail failed him under the blows of the Dalcassian axes. The desertion of their warlord must have demoralized his followers, locked in brutal combat with the Dalcassians.

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Prince Murrogh, enraged at seeing his Dalcais mowed down by the advancing Norsemen,  now charged forward where Sigurd’s raven banner stood waving above the Jarl. Cutting his way through the Orkneymen’s shieldburg, he hacked his way to the banner, cutting down its bearer. The fight around the standard was ferocious, as another Norsemen took up the standard, only to also meet his wyrd at the hands of the enraged prince soon after.

Robert E. Howard, writer of fantasy and occassional historical fiction, working from Njal’s Saga captures brilliantly what followed:

Sigurd, seeing his banner fallen once more, struck Murrogh with such desperate fury that his sword bit through the prince’s helmet and gashed his scalp. Blood jetted down Murrogh’s face, and he reeled back…Then a rush of warriors swept the raging chiefs apart. 

Sigurd now turned to an Icelander, Thorstein Hallson.

“Thorstein”, shouted Sigurd! Take up the banner!”                                                          “Touch it not”, cried (his friend and fellow Icelander) Asmund the White. “For all that bear it die!”                                                                                                                     (Sigurd turned to a third Icelander) “Hrafn the Red”, called Sigurd desperately, “Bear the banner!”                                                                                                                 “Bear your own curse”, answered Hrafn! “This is the end of us all.”                       “Cowards”, roared the Jarl, snatching up the banner himself and striving to gather it under his cloak as Murrogh, his face bloodied and eyes blazing, broke through to him. Sigurd flung up his sword – too late. The weapon in Murrogh’s right hand splintered on his helmet, bursting the straps that held it and ripping it from his head, and Murrogh’s left-hand sword, whistling in behind the first blow, shattered the Jarl’s skull and felled him dead in the bloody folds of the great banner that wrapped about him as he went down. [20]

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With the fall of Sigurd, and evening coming on, the Irish made a concerted push against their now demoralized enemies. The much-thinned allied lines began to give ground. With victory clearly turning toward the Irish, Malachi, watching all this while from the Cabra heights, decided to throw his lot in with Brian. Like hunting hounds whose leash is slipped, the fresh Meathmen rushed down from the heights and threw their weight into the battle. Under this fresh tide, the allies at last broke.

What remained of the foreign Vikings fled towards their ships, left moored at Clontarf Weir. The rest fled back toward Dubgall’s Bridge and the safety of Dublin across the Liffey. But the Irish were fast on their heels, cutting down those who stood and chasing those who fled. The Meathmen succeeded in swarming between the bulk of the fugitives and Dubgall’s Bridge, and a great slaughter of the Gall took place there. As for the Vikings, an unpleasant surprise awaited them.

In one of those strange quirks of irony that history occasionally serves up, the long day’s battle had gone from dawn till dusk. The tide was now at flood, and the Viking’s ships now floated far out beyond the shore – far beyond their reach.

Some tried to swim for the safety of their ships, most drowning in the process. Others were caught by the vengeful Irish at the beach and slaughtered after a brief struggle.

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From the walls of Dublin, Sitric’s party watched with mounting horror as their hopes of victory evaporated. Sláine, Brian’s daughter and Sitric’s wife, could not restrain her glee. Watching the Vikings attempting to flee to the shore and being driven into the sea, she mocked them saying, “the foreigners are making fast for their natural inheritance: the sea! They run like a herd of frightened cows!” [21] Her infuriated husband answered with a blow to her mouth with the back of his hand.

A humorous incident occurred in the midst of the slaughter. Prince Murrogh, leading the pursuit, came upon the Icelander, Thorstein Hallson, who had served Jarl Sigurd. Instead of fleeing or fighting, Thorstein had stopped to tie his shoe; and was now merely looking wistfully at the ships in the distance, out of reach. “Why aren’t you running”, the prince asked him? The Viking shrugged laconically, and replied, “I can’t run back to Iceland”. The Irish found this answer so funny that Murrogh let the Icelander live to return home. [22]

Tragedy soon followed comedy. Murrogh’s valiant son, fifteen year old Turlough, had fought well in his father’s retinue throughout the day. When the ranks broke up, he joined the chase, losing touch with his father in the process. Pursuing the enemy to the water’s edge, he plunged-in after a fleeing Norseman. His drowned body was later found by the weir, his hands clutched in the hair of his dead Viking prey.

Worst was in store for the Irish, and for the future of the Dalcais. Unaware of his son’s fate, Murrogh continued the pursuit in the fading sunlight, and encountered one of those scattered groups of Northmen still fighting on with despairing courage. This one included a Viking leader named Anrad [23], described as “head of valor and bravery of the army of Lochlann, and of all the Gall.”  He rushed upon Murrogh, who at this point was too exhausted to wield a sword. The prince grappled the Viking, and grasping the hem of his mail byrnie, lifted the shirt over head. The Dalcassian prince wrestled his enemy to the ground, where he drove the Viking’s own sword through his breast. But at the same moment, before he perished, Anrad slashed the prince across the belly with his knife, mortally wounding him. Murrogh would die, shriven, the following day.

Murrogh and Anrad

From the heights to the rear, Brian Boru still prayed in his tent. Late in the day, he asked his attendant Laiten how went the battle. “The ranks are so mingled and covered with blood and dust that no one could tell friend from foe. Prince Murrogh’s banner still flies above the ranks.” [24] Later, as the sun was setting, Brian again asked Laiten to tell him what he could see. “The ranks are thinned, and only a few brave heroes continue to fight. The Gall now flee, but Prince Murrogh’s standard has fallen.”

“These are evil tidings”, replied the aged king in despair. “If Murrogh has fallen, the valor of the men of Erin is fled, and they will never again see a champion of his like.” [25]

As the rout of the allies became complete, Brian’s guards, eager to join the pursuit, abandoned their charge and left the king alone with but his one attendant. Laiten begged Brian to mount his horse and return to the camp at Killmanham, where he would be safe from marauding Vikings fleeing the stricken field. But Brian replied, “What avails me, now in my old age, to survive Murrogh and the other champions of the Dalcais?”

Laiten’s concerns proved prescient.

Watching from the tent’s entrance, Laiten grew alarmed when he saw men emerging from Tomar’s wood. Brian asked him what they looked like. “Blue and naked men”, came the response. “They are Danes in their armor”, exclaimed the king! [26]

After fleeing the field and into Tomar’s Wood, Brodir had skirted the edge of the battlefield, working his way behind the Irish flank. Picking up a handful other fugitives along the way, he now approached Brian’s undefended tent.

Brian-Boroimhe

As Brodir entered the king’s pavilion, the aged Brian rose with his sword in hand. Both men struck simultaneously, Brian’s sword hacking through the Viking leader’s leg, while Brodir’s ax “cleft” the king’s hoary head. By the time the guards returned, the final tragedy of Clontarf was played out: Brian lay dead, his killer dying beside him. [27]

AFTERMATH

The battle left the winners exhausted, and the losers nearly annihilated. When he returned to the Orkneys, Hrafn the Red was asked how many were left of his band: “all fell there”, came the reply [28]. The following day Brian’s younger son Donogh returned with the forces that had been raiding in the south, to find his father and older brother dead. The day was spent burying the thousands of dead.

Clontarf has been called “the reaping of kings”, where chiefs were garnered like sheaves of wheat at a harvest.  Over a dozen kings (or heirs to kings) fell on the Irish side; and with them some 1,600 tribal and clan nobles [29]. Of the allies who challenged Brian that morning on the field of Clontarf, no leader who took the field survived. The Irish chronicle names many leaders of the Gall who likewise fell; most of which are unknown to any other history. Included in the list are two grandsons of Ivar the Boneless.

The death toll is likely 4,000 for the Irish, perhaps more than 50% of their total forces. The allies lost some 7,000 of their fighting men, virtually the entire army. On a percentage basis, this makes Clontarf one of the bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages; a higher proportional loss than the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Clontarf has been portrayed as many things, most of them only partially true: the end of Viking domination in Ireland, the triumph of Christianity over Norse paganism, or even Brian Boru’s last great victory. But the Hiberno-Scandinavians would continue to rule Dublin for another century. Viking raids and invasions would continue as well (though none even threatened to conquer the island in the way Turgeis did in the 9th century). As for paganism, most of the Scandinavian countries had converted (or were in the process of conversion) anyway. Though Brodir and his band were pagans (and likely renegades for that reason), Jarl Sigurd and his Orkneymen were likely Christians (Olaf Trygvasson had converted the islands during his brief reign). Finally, if this was a “victory” for Brian, it was a “Pyrrhic” one indeed.

Though the Irish “won” the battle, perhaps the greatest loser were Brian’s Dalcassians. They marched to Clontarf the premiere clan of Ireland, their chieftain the High King of all Ireland. The day after the battle, they were so depleted that rival Munster clans demanded a return of the hostages given Brian in the previous years, and demanded Donagh turn over Dalcassian hostages as a sign of submission. Donagh would fight to hold his father’s patrimony, with limited success, for the rest of his days. The Dalcais’ day in the sun was over.

Malachi, who had stayed aloof through most of the battle, garnered the immediate laurels of victory. With Brian dead, he resumed the High Kingship of Ireland. But he never had the authority and stature of Brian Boru, and Ireland degenerated into the same internecine fighting that had divided the island before Brian.

Never would Ireland be closer to unity – to becoming one strong united kingdom – than it was under Brian, and could have been had his strong son, Murrogh, lived to succeed him. No leader of vision and ability came after him, capable of completing his work. While throughout Europe strong monarchs were creating the kingdoms of the Middle Ages, Ireland remained weak and divided.

Little more than a century after Clontarf, a king of Leinster would invite the Anglo-Norman marcher lord, Strongbow, into Ireland. The island would subsequently be dominated by the English till the 20th century.

Clontarf was the disaster that made English dominance a dark reality.

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1. Njals Saga, Ch 154

2. After his brother detached a third of their fleet and sailed off to join Brian, the remaining two-thirds still under Brodir’s command, and which he brought to Clontarf, numbered 1,000. So one can infer from this that the combined host at Man numbered 1,500; with an average of 50 men per longship.

3. P. W. Joyce, A Concise History of Ireland; Ch. IX

4. That these men and their two leaders are described as Danish pagans is curious. The Danes adopted Christianity sooner than any other Viking race; under King Harald Bluetooth (970 – 975/986) around 960. While pagans were not persecuted, and men were free to practice the old religion in Denmark (unlike in Norway, where a few years later the first Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason , attempted forced-conversion of his pagan subjects), there was certainly every advantage in converting. That Brodir and his band were pagans may be significant: these may have been men who left Denmark as religious dissenters. That these men might have been outlaws from both the secular and religious authorities in their homelands would also explain this band of pagan Vikings at a time when paganism was fading in Scandinavia.

5. MacManus, Seumas (1921). The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland.

6. Joyce, Ch. IX. Lochlann is alternately given to mean either Norway or the Norse realms in Scotland and the western Isles. Could this mean that the brothers were actually Norse, not Danes at all? The royal house of Norway (the Yngling dynasty of Harald Fairhair) was at this time in exile; its heir, Olaf Haraldsson living the life of a Viking warlord and thought to be raiding in England. However, could the Irish source be confusing

7. McCullough, David Willis (2002). Wars of the Irish Kings: A Thousand Years of Struggle, from the Age of Myth Through the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Random House. P. 118

8. Njal’s Saga, Ch. XLIV

9. ibid.

10. Armies are always most vulnerable to harassment and attack when strung-out on the march. This is even more acute with tribal or clan armies such as the Irish at Clontarf; where small bands have a great deal of autonomy and little discipline. When engaged by enemy skirmishers, these can be more easily induced to break ranks and engage or pursue such enemies than disciplined, professional troops; and in so doing fall into misfortune.

11. Dublin castle was erected by the Normans in the 12 century, on the high ground were the kings of Dublin likely had their inner fortress and “hall” in the Viking times.

12. The numbers are speculative. Joyce, working mostly from the Irish sources, put the number at an improbable 20,000 on each side (40,000). While a united Ireland could have fielded such a force, the combined armies did not include all of Ireland (the northern O’Neil took no part), and there were only a few thousand foreign fighters present. A more likely number is between 7,000 and 10,000 per side.

13. Malachi’s behavior certainly appears, at best, opportunistic. A passage from a poem about the battle, written in the immediate aftermath by Brian’s court poet, Mac Liag, certainly suggests that the King of Meath contemplated treacherously abandoning Brian, and even advocated that his maternal nephew, the Connacht cheif O’Kelly of Hy Many. Malachi approached his nephew, and offered him riches and honors if he would stay out of the battle. O’Kelly refused, saying he loved Brian and the Dal Cais above all men.

14. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 173

15. Ibid, p. 175

16. Ibid, p.191

17. Idid, p. 169

18. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLIV

19. Ibid. “Wolf the Quarrelsome” (or Ulf Hroda), as he is called in Njal’s Saga, does not appear in the Irish chronicles. Some have suggested he is synonymous with Cuiduligh mac Cennétig, a brother (or more likely half-brother) of Brian. At least one author has suggested he may be none other than Murrogh himself. The name “Ulf” is a Norse or Danish one, and seems unlikely to have been given to a brother of Brian Boru. It is possible, of course, that “Wolf” was an adopted or foster brother, of Hiberno-Norse heritage. It is of course impossible to say with any certainty, and this question remains a mystery.

20. This version of how Jarl Sigurd met his death, struck down by Murrogh bearing two swords, comes from the Irish chronicle. This event is recorded as happening late in the day, after the allies broke. I have chosen to place it late in the day; and a trigger event for the breaking of the allied host, as I think it would have likely been. Njals Saga merely says Sigurd was killed after taking up the banner with a spear.

21. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 193

22. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLIV. This is a paraphrase, the true quote being: “I can’t get home to-night, since I am at home out in Iceland.”

23. The Irish chronicle is confusing, calling him first Anrad son of Ebric, king of all Lochlann; and later the son of Elbric. It has been pointed out that this passage might be translation instead as “a warrior, the son of Ebric” (Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 194, fn 3). It is also suggested in the same source that this name could be a garbled version of “Eric”. While there is no known king in Norway, Denmark, or in the Isles by that name in this period; there was a king of Sweden, Eric the Victorious, who could have conceivably had an unknown son who fought and died at Clontarf.

24. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 199

25. Ibid, p. 201

26. Ibid, p. 206

27. In Njal’s Saga, the death of Brodir is portrayed differently. Found soon after by Brian’s returning guards, he is executed in hideous fashion by Wolf the Quarrelsome. In that account, Brian is not completely left undefended; but the “shieldwall” left to defend him was too undermanned to stop Brodir breaking through and cutting down the king. In both accounts, no mention is made of what became of the other warriors accompanying Brodir that Laiten spotted coming from the woods. The Irish Chronicle states that Brian cut both of Brodir’s legs from under him, cutting through the thigh of one and the ankle of the other, in a downward diagonal cut. For any warrior to do this with a broadsword would be a notable feat of arms; but for an aged man of Brian’s years to do so begs credulity, especially when one considers the amount of muscle a large and powerful warrior like Brodir would have had in his legs (not to mention the mail shirt that would have hung to mid-thigh). For this reason I omit this description from the narrative.

28. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLVI

29. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p.211. Most of these “kings” or heirs were clan or tribal leaders, not kings of one of the major kingdoms of Ireland at the time.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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JURAMENTADO: MORO SUICIDAL ASSASSINS

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Today, when a person goes upon a crazy, violent rampage he can be said to have “run amok”. The origin of the term “amok” is actually Malay, and entered the English language as an idiom when horrified English traders encountered the strange practice of “running amok” among the Muslim peoples of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippine Islands.

There, men would for a variety reasons work themselves into an uncontrollable rage; and go on a murderous killing spree. A man “running amok” would cut down any who came across his path; continuing until his neighbors, bystanders, or the authorities killed him.

Some scholars consider the origin of this strange and deadly practice to lie in the Islamic prohibition against suicide. When humiliated or “dishonored” a Muslim man could regain his honor (manhood) by going “amok”, and dying with sword in hand, forcing others to kill him and thus accomplish his suicide.

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This unique practice took a new and unique turn in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th Century. Moro insurgents, fighting against American rule of their islands, would send lone suicide assassins called juramentado to “ran amok”; attacking and killing American Army officers and civilian administrators.

The juramentado would prepare for his mission in a most unique and painful way: by having his TESTICLES TIED OFF WITH COPPER WIRE! [1] In a state of intense agony, the would-be assassin spent the night working himself into a killing frenzy. By the next day, the juramentado would be in a virtual altered state of consciousness, so filled with agony that his mind would no longer register additional pain. The  assassin would then be led by his comrades to a place his target was expected to appear (usually a public place, to increase the propaganda and “terror” value of the act). Just before being unleashed against his victim, the juramentado’s arms and legs were tied with occluding ligatures, to reduce expected blood loss from possible wounds to these extremities.

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The juramentado would then charge forward (often out of a crowd) and assault the victim with the distinctive Moro sword, the kris; or the equally nasty-looking hacking knife, the barong. Despite being shot multiple times by the victim and his escort or comrades-in-arms, the juramentado would not stop till the target lay dead, hacked into bloody pieces. After which, the juramentado would collapse and die, his last mission accomplished.

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A Moro assassin running amok seemed impossible to stop. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that sidearm of the American Army in the Philippines was only a .38 caliber revolver. This small caliber proved utterly incapable of stopping the juramentado.

For this reason the US Army adapted the .45 caliber colt pistol: the heavier bullet of the .45 could knock the charging juramentado onto his back, stopping dead his frenzied “amok”!

The Colt .45 revolver firing the “long Colt” cartridge (not the later Model 1911 .45 automatic pistol, firing the smaller ACP cartridge) was issued to the Philippine Constabulary [2] in 1903. It proved much superior to the standard .38 caliber pistols then used by the American Army.

Comparison of the Long Colt revolver cartridge to the smaller  cartridge used in the Model 1911 .45 caliber automatic pistol

Additional help came from adoption of the Winchester pump-action shotgun; then coming into service in both the Marines and Army. These were weapons with the “stopping power” to stop a rampaging Moro.

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There has been much discussion about the veracity of this bit of history; whether or not the .45 caliber could have made a difference. But in his Annual Report of June, 1904, General Leonard Wood (commanding American forces engaged against the Moros in the Philippines, stated his opinion on the subject:

“It is thought that the .45 caliber revolver (Constabulary Model 1902) is the one which should be issued to troops throughout the Army… Instances have repeatedly been reported during the past year where native have been shot through-and-through several time with a .38 caliber revolver, and have come on, cutting up the unfortunate individual armed with it… The .45 caliber revolver stops a man in his tracks, usually knocking him down… It is also recommended that each company be furnished with 12-guage Winchester repeating shotguns… There is no weapon in our possession equal to the shotgun loaded with buckshot.”

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American Army officers and NCOs of the Philippine Constabulary, circa 1905

While the campaign to subjugate the Moros of the southern Philippines continued, the problem of the lone Juramentado was solved.

Today, when you hear in the news of a person “running amok”, remember the origin of the word, and the viciously effective Juramentado of the Philippines!

1351633Photo taken of Moros during the Insurrection.

 

  1. This factoid was conveyed to the author first-hand while serving in the Philippines with Moro soldiers in the Filipino Constabulary, who had taken amnesty from the central government.
  2. The American-led Filipino force created to fight the Moros and keep the peace throughout the archipelago.
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BELISARIUS AT DARAS, 530 AD: A STUDY IN THE USE OF INTERIOR LINES

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Faced by a numerically superior opponent, the Eastern Roman general Belisarius countered with field works, maneuver and a masterful use of interior lines!

In 530 A.D. the Eastern Roman Empire‘s province of Mesopotamia was invaded by a large and well equipped Sassanid Persian Army. The target of the Persian incursion was the frontier fortress of Daras (or Dara).

Though large in size, the Persian expedition was but another border skirmish in the centuries old struggle between the Roman Empire and that of the Persians. Beginning with Parthian dynasty and continuing with the Sassanid, the Persian Šâhanšâh (King of Kings) had been the counter to Roman ambitions in Western Asia. The war between these powerful monarchies waxed and waned. Roman Emperors and Persian Shah’s died and were replaced by men more or less capable or bellicose than their predecessor; and borders changed by small increments. This age-old conflict would be a zero sum game until the coming of the Islam, when the Arabs replaced the Sassanids in this role vis-à-vis the Byzantines.

1341376 Coins bearing the likeness of a Sassanid Shah and Roman Emperor, respectively. Shapur I was the first great Sassanid ruler; while Julian was the last Roman to invade deep into the Persian empire with the intent of emulating Alexander and conquering the Persian realm. The struggle between these two powers stretched back to the 3rd century AD, and would continue till the Arab Muslims destroyed the Sassanids and replaced them as Rome’s rival along the eastern frontier. 

The invasion of 530 promised to be nothing unique. The Persians came with overwhelming force to achieve the very limited aim of forcing the Romans to dismantle the newly fortified border post of Daras; enforcing the terms of a ceasefire negotiated between the adversaries some years prior. But the battle that ensued proved anything but ordinary. On this occasion the Romans were commanded by a young and dynamic commander, who was determined to give the Persians a bloody nose for their efforts. The Battle of Daras would announce the arrival, center stage in the military affairs of the day, of a new star: Flavius Belisarius.

In 530 Belisarius was the recently-appointed commander of Roman forces in Mesopotamia (modern Kurdish Iraq). Not yet 30 years old, Belisarius was that rarest of men: a bonafide military genius. His long life and campaigns across the Mediterranean world would earn him the epitaph “The last of the Romans”. However, at Daras he was a young and untested general on the eve of this first great battle.

At the outset of the campaign he resolved neither to abandon Daras as some of his officers suggested; nor to laager within and force the enemy to besiege him. Instead, he announced to his officers and his outnumbered and poorly-trained army his intention of offering battle in front of the fortress.

At first blush this appeared a foolhardy course of action.

FORCES INVOLVED

The Persians outnumber the Romans by nearly two-to-one: the force advancing on Daras numbered some 40,000, and by the advent of battle were reinforced by another 10,000. By contrast, Belisarius could muster a mere 25,000 men; and the infantry in particular were of very poor quality and neglected training. Numbers aside, the Persians had every reason to be confident of victory over the Romans, having won every major battle and conflict in the last several generations.

The Sassanid army was a formidable fighting force. Nearly half of the Persians were heavy armored cavalry; and by the 6th century A.D. cavalry had replaced infantry as the decisive arm on the battlefield. The striking power of any Sassanid force lay in the well-mounted and heavily armored Persian Savaran (knights) and their feudal retainers. This type of super-heavy cavalry were known to the Romans as “clibanarii” (the name translates loosely as “baking oven”, referring no doubt to how hot their armor was to wear in the Middle Eastern sun). These Iranian cavalry troopers were big men mounted upon very large horses, bred to carry a rider covered from head to toe in mail and lamellar armor!

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Sassanid Persian “Savaran” clibanarii and standard bearer

Even the horses of the Savaran were armored; typically at least the front portion of the charger being protected with lamellar or scale:

“All the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skilfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath…The Persians opposed us serried bands of mail-clad horsemen in such close order that the gleam of moving bodies covered with closely fitting plates of iron dazzled the eyes of those who looked upon them, while the whole throng of horses was protected by coverings of leather.” [1]

Each heavy horseman carried a long lance, and sometimes a light composite bow as well. Each Savaran was accompanied by several retainers equipped as lighter versions of the these super-heavy cavalry, or alternately as javelin-armed light horsemen. Unlike the Parthian armies that proceeded them in history, the Sassanids put the greatest confidence in these heavy lancers, at the expense of greater number of nimble light horse archers that had been the mainstay of the Parthian armies. Whereas the proportion of armored lancers (cataphracts) to horse archers in the Parthian forces could be as little as one-in-ten; in Sassanid armies those proportions shifted radically in favor of the Savaran lancers, with horse archery declining in Sassanid armies.

SassanianCataphract

Accompanying the superb Sassanid cavalry was a host of poorly motivated infantry, levied from amongst the peasantry or subject hill tribes. These had changed little since the days of Darius the Great. They carried a rectangular shield made of wicker, and a short spear. But, as Belisarius was to describe these Sassanid infantry dismissively, giving them a spear no more made them spearmen then giving them a flute would have made them snake charmers! They were useless in battle; and were brought along only to do the drudge-work necessary in the expected siege, and to hold down space in the line should a battle occur. In the former role they were indispensable; in the latter, worthless.

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Sassanid infantry and cataphract super-heavy cavalry: the worst and the best of the Persian forces

The Eastern Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even of Constantine. This was a time of transition; and no one would be more influential in the evolutionary changes from the old infantry-based army of the late Roman Empire to what we think of as the cavalry armies of the “Byzantine Empire” (as the Eastern Roman Empire of the Dark Ages is referred to) then Belisarius. But at Daras, he had to use the tools at hand,  and these were flawed at best.

The old legions of sword-and-javelin armed infantry were long gone; or remained in name only as poorly trained garrison troops along the frontiers. Now Roman fortunes depended upon regiments of heavy cavalry; armed either with bow, javelin, or spear.

Most Roman cavalry tended to wear at least a helmet; and the regiments of heavy cavalry, which predominated, wore a scale or mail cuirass called a “klibanon“. They were not as heavily armored as the Persian Savaran, and horse-armor was not used by the Eastern Roman cavalry in this period; the cataphract regiments of the late Roman Empire having mostly disappeared.

The state of the once-proud Roman infantry had deteriorated greatly in the 5th and early 6th century; the soldiers degenerating into demoralized, undisciplined, and largely unarmored garrison troops. While some regiments were armed with spear and sword and had some body armor, most were light archers or javelineers. Unlike their Persian counterparts, they were still professional soldiers. And though they were happiest when shooting from behind a fortress or city wall, they could be of some use on a battlefield.

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At Daras, Belisarius had approximately 15,000 cavalry, and perhaps another 10,000 infantry. His troops were mostly scrapped together from various frontier garrisons and from the dispirited regiments of the comitatensis (mobile field army) of the East that (theoretically) backed-up the border units. Because of past defeats by the Persians, their fear of the Savaran was great, and none of these troops could be relied upon to stand up to the Persian cavalry in pitched battle.

However, Belisarius had two bodies of troops upon which he could completely rely.

The first were several bands of mercenary “Huns“. These superb light horse archers were from the steppes of Eurasia. Like the later Cossacks of the Ukrainian steppe, the Huns were brave to a fault and could out-ride any horsemen in the world. They were expert with the powerful Hunnic composite bow, and  while they characteristically used this deadly weapon at distance to decimate their enemies, they had no hesitation at charging home to break a shaken foe at close quarters with sword or spear. They were also adept at using lassos to pull their enemies from the saddle, and drag them off to death or captivity.

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Top: Hunnic warrior. Bottom: Hunnic composite bow unstrung, strung, and at full draw

Belisarius had at Daras between 1,500 and 2,000 “Huns”. These appear to have been not true Huns, but raised from two separate groups of nomadic peoples formerly part of the Hunnic Empire and who lived and fought in similar fashion. One band was called “Heruli” by the sources, a Germanic people who during the time following the dissolution of Attila’s empire migrated into the Danube region. The rest were Massagetae, an Iranian or Scythian nomadic people absorbed into the Hunnic nation in previous centuries. While both groups were mercenaries with no national loyalty to the Romans, they delighted in war and were always reliable if paid and allowed to loot their enemies (their favorite activity).

Secondly, Belisarius had the elite Bucellarii of his own “Household Regiment” upon which he could rely.

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Generals of the later Roman empire were allowed to raise private regiments of cavalry to serve as their bodyguards. These often provided the solid core of a late Roman army on campaign. Such troopers were called bucellarii, meaning “Biscuit –Eaters” (though perhaps a better translation might be, “hard-tack eaters”, referring to the soldier’s campaign rations of hard-baked biscuits). Because they were paid and equipped by the generals themselves (who tended to be wealthy landed gentry in this period) they were often better paid and provisioned than “regular” army regiments. Belisarius himself had started as a bucellarius in the household guard of Justinian, before he rose to the throne.

Once promoted to general and given permission to raise his own household troops, Belisarius’ bucellarii became a test-bed for the unconventional tactical notions he harbored. Unlike most Roman cavalry of the day, who were either lancers or archers, Belisarius trained his bucellarii to perform both roles. Every trooper was armored as to the standard for a heavy cavalryman of the day, with helmet, lamellar cuirass, greaves on their shins and vambraces protecting their lower arms. All carried a lance and sword; and were adept at the use of both in close-quarter combat. But they also carried and were trained in the use of the Hunnish composite bow; and could use this deadly weapon from the saddle almost as well as the Huns themselves. Finally, they had a brace of lead-weighted throwing darts, called plumbatae, attached to the front of their saddle. These were deadly when thrown at close range, further augmenting the fire-power these elite horsemen could bring to bear.

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A late Roman/Byzantine bucellarius, such as Belisarius’ elite household troops, would have looked much like this figure

Though they were only 1,500 strong [2] at the time of Daras, Belisarius could rely on his Bucellarii to accomplish whatever mission he set before them. He had trained them himself, and led them on several cross-border raids on the Danube frontier and into Persian Armenia, where they had performed well. His optimism in choosing to give battle before Daras must have been based, at least in part, upon his confidence in this elite force in the coming engagement.

THE BATTLE OF DARAS

As the Persian army marched on Daras, Belisarius prepared the ground before the fortress for the battle he envisioned.

He set his infantry to work, digging a trench across the narrow battlefield, between two ranges of hill on either flank. This trench was wider than a horseman could leap; and could be crossed easily only at wide bridges placed on either flank. In its center, the trench cut back toward Daras; so that the flanks were advanced while the center refused.

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Knowing his foot archers would never stand-up to a charge by Persian lancers, he placed them across his center, refused back, and protected by the trench. Forward on either wing he placed the bulk of his regular Roman cavalry; also protected by the trench. The bridges, placed at key points, would serve to both funnel the enemy’s attacks into narrow choke points; and allow his own troops to cross the trench to counter attack when necessary.

At the angles of the trench, he placed most of his Huns; in two 600-man bodies. These would skirmish the front of the Persian army with arrows. They would also be in a position to attack in flank any Persian force that succeeded in crossing the trench and attacking his flanking cavalry forces. The Herulian Huns were hidden in the hills to the left of his line. There they would wait in concealment until the moment was right to fall upon the rear of the Persian flank.

Behind his infantry center, Belisarius placed himself at the head of his Bucellarii. These would be his final reserve, and success or failure would ultimately depend upon these elite troopers.

This unique deployment had several subtle benefits. First, it kept his less reliable infantry largely out of harms way, while allowing them to contribute to the battle with long-range archery fire. Second, the refused center would appear to the Persians as an obvious trap into which they would be reluctant to fall. So instead of attacking his unreliable infantry, they would divide their attacks to either wing, against his better-quality cavalry posted there. This would also allow Belisarius the chance to defeat each attacking wing separately, in detail, with a superior concentration of force at the point of attack. Because his central reserve had the advantage of interior lines , they could assault each threat in turn, more rapidly than either could achieve a breakthrough and concentrate against him.

The 40,000 strong Persian army arrived in early June, and for several days, there was inconclusive skirmishing and duels by champions fought before the two armies. The Persian general, Perozes, was waiting for the arrival of still another 10,000 troops, while attempting to make “heads-or-tails” of Belisarius’ puzzling deployment.

 

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Late Roman bow-armed heavy cavalryman. Unlike this “regular” trooper, Belisarius armed his Bucellarii (personal household regiment) with both bow and lance: unusual to Roman cavalry of the day. This allowed them to perform both the heavy and light cavalry function, acting as both shock and skirmish troops. Note the absence of stirrups: these were not introduced to the west for nearly another century, by the central Asian Avars.

On the third day their reinforcements arrived, and the Persians began their assault on the Roman lines.

The first thrust began against the Roman left, where after a fierce battle at the lip of the trench, the heavily armored Savaran cavalry succeeded in pushing back the defending Roman horsemen. As these fell back, the Persians followed close, pressing across the trench in mass.

When the moment was ripe, Belisarius launched his first counter attack.

From their side of the trench, the nearest band of Huns at first showered the interior flank of the advancing Persians with arrows; then counterattacked across one of the bridges. Simultaneously the Heruls, hiding in the hills to the left of the Roman line, sprang from ambush and attacked the other flank of the now disordered Persian lancers. From his center, Belisarius delivered the final blow, charging at the head of his Household Bucellarii. Faced with these multiple attacks, the Persian Savaran were driven back across the trench in panicked flight, and continued to gallop off the field.

Dispatching the Roman cavalry of the left to pursue and prevent their rallying, Belisarius now gathered the Huns and Heruls to the center; where, with his own Bucellarii they prepared for the next phase of the battle.

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On the Roman right, the Persians had succeeded in breaking through and pushing back the defenders of the trench. Here, their assault was spearheaded by one of the elite divisions of the Persian Empire, the Zhayedan (“Immortals”) . This corps-de-elite was based upon the ancient Achaemenid Persian force of the same name. Their numbers were always maintained at 10,000 (though it is unlikely that anything approaching this number were present at Daras). Each was outfitted as fully-armored cataphracts, even more heavily armored, man-and-horse, than the average Savaran. Each man rode the superb Nisean charger, a breed of horses from northeastern Iran larger than any in world at the time, developed over centuries to carry the very-heavy Iranian cavalry. The lances of these horsemen were so long and sturdy that the Romans called them kontos: Latin for “barge pole”!

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Sassanid commander giving orders to heavily armored Immortal cataphract

The Immortals drove the Roman right-wing back to the walls of Daras, and were close to routing them when Belisarius launched his second counter-attack.

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Using his central position, Belisarius now led his reserve of his Bucellarii and the Huns in a furious attack into the exposed flank of the Persian attack. His assault succeeded in cutting the advancing Persian force in two. The standard bearer of the Persian army was cut down by the chieftain of the Heruls. The fleeing Roman left rallied and aided in defeating the Immortals; and the entire Persian wing broke and were soon streaming in flight back across the trench.

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The final phase of the battle saw Belisarius’ riders pursuing the once proud Persian horsemen off the field; while a portion “put the skeer” into the useless Persian spearmen; who took to flight without striking a blow!

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AFTERMATH AND CONCLUSIONS

Daras was the fist Roman victory in generations over the Persians. Some 5,000 of the enemy were slain, and an equal number taken prisoner. Belisarius’ had made his name as a general to be reckoned with. His long career was just starting, and there would be many more such victories before he hung up his spurs.

There are lessons in generalship of a very high order to be learned here.

Outnumbered two-to-one, Belisarius wisely fought the Battle of Daras with the arm in which he was most confident, his cavalry; which was also the one in which he was least outnumbered. By giving ground when pressed, his cavalry wings purchased time with space; and drew the attacking Persians further away from their own center and from each other. This allowed Belisarius to isolate the Persian assaults and defeat each in detail with his central reserve, comprised of his finest troops.

The use of field works (the trench) to both protect his least reliable troops and to encourage and channel the Persian attacks against his better-trained and prepared cavalry was both novel and highly intelligent. There is no record in Roman history of such a unique solution to a problem of this kind; though the refusal of his inferior-quality infantry in the center is reminiscent of Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Ilipa.

Most importantly, the victory of Daras is an example of what can be achieved though the use of interior lines, and an active and effective reserve. Using his elite Bucellarii as a mobile “fire-brigade”, they were able from their central position to intervene effectively anywhere on the battlefield. Wherever the Persians struck, on the left or the right, Belisarius was able to rapidly interdict them from his interior position and meet them with his best troops; thus gaining a local advantage over an enemy who, overall, greatly outnumbered him. Nowhere on the battlefield were the Persians able to bring their numeric advantage to bear. The result was the first defeat suffered by a Persian army in centuries.

As the Persian wings advanced across the Roman trench, each exposed their interior flanks to assault from the Roman center. Both the Huns positioned within the retrenchment and Belisarius’ own bucellarii stationed in central reserve were able to exploit this vulnerability, attacking the Persian’s interior flanks to good effect. While most commanders and units are acutely aware of and protect their outer flanks, interior flanks are inherently more vulnerable as an enemy breaks his own line during an advance. Belisarius understood and used interior lines to exploit this to advantage.

Belisarius would go on to a long and illustrious career, and earn a reputation as the greatest general in Byzantine history. In all of his campaigns, his elite Bucellarii were the heart of his strike forces. From the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains to the Alps; against Persians, Vandals, Goths and Huns: Belisarius and his Household Bucellarii defeated every enemy of the Roman Empire of his day. His tactical methods were carried on by later Byzantine commanders and codified in the writings of the Emperor Maurice. At Daras, he showed early in his career those methods to good effect; and left generals who followed a blueprint for how to defeat a qualitative and quantitatively superior enemy.

(For more, see Dark Ages Elite: The Bucellarii of Belisarius)

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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

  1. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae. 
  2. These would have been organized into bandon of between 200 and 400 men each. The term comes from the Germanic word for banner.

 

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A MOST SANGUINARY AFFAIR: BLOODY TOWTON

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Palm Sunday, 1461: On a bleak, windswept Yorkshire plateau two Medieval armies clashed amidst a snowstorm; brutally hacking and slashing with sword, halberd and bill in what was to be the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be the decisive battle in the dynastic struggle known to history as the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses was a 30 year-long conflict between adherents of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty: the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, whose device was a red one.

The roots of the conflict lay partially in the competing claims of these royal cousins and can be traced back to the overthrow of King Richard II by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and Duke of Hereford; who took the throne as King Henry IV. While Henry was able to hold onto his usurped crown and pass it to his son, the heroic warrior king Henry V, the legitimacy of Lancastrian rule came into question in the reign of his grandson, Henry VI.

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 The white rose of the Yorkists, the red of the Lancastrians.

Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness” during which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of just such madness. Control of the kingdom during King Henry’s periods of mental infirmity was granted by Parliament to his cousin Richard, the powerful Duke of York.

Under English succession laws, York’s claim to the throne was superior to that of his Lancastrian cousin’s. As Protector of the Realm, Richard of York was too close to the throne for the liking of the adherents of the House of Lancaster, particularly the king’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou. When Henry temporarily regained his senses in 1454, the Lancastrians used the opportunity to call a new Parliament to which the Duke of York and his supporters were not invited. (In Medieval England, Parliament was called and dissolved by the King; and its members there at his invitation.) Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Roses began with the First Battle of St. Albans.

The battlefields of the War of the Roses

The fortunes of war shifted back and forth, the Yorkists gaining the advantage; until at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his second son, Edmund of Rutland, who was only 17 year old.

The Duke’s eldest son, Edward of March, succeeded Richard as both Duke and leader of the Yorkist cause. Just over a month after his father and brother’s defeat and death, he routed a Welsh force led by Owen Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross. It was before this battle that Edward’s army beheld a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion; in which the rising sun appeared to be flanked by two lesser suns and a bright halo. Taking this as a good omen, he adopted this symbol as his personal standard, the Sunne in Splendour.

Edward IV’s banner, the Sunne in Splendour

Despite the defeat of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, by Lancastrian forces at the Second Battle of St. Albans , Edward was able to join up with Warwick in London. There, on March 4, 1461, Warwick proclaimed Edward king. (Warwick would ten years later break with Edward and once again proclaim Henry VI king. From these acts he came to be known as “The Kingmaker“.)

The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. Curiously, despite so many Lancastrian lords holding titles in the south, they were detested south of the Midlands. Lancastrian loyalty was strongest in the north. Edward, then, led the Yorkist army north bringing the battle to the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists moved along three parallel routes: with Edward marching directly north; Warwick leading a group several miles west, covering the left flank of the main force; whileJohn Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east with orders to raise forces and rejoin Edward before the battle. Warwick’s group moved to the west of the main body, through the English Midlands, gathering men as they went. Warwick’s uncle, the very capable Lord Fauconberg, led Edward’s vanguard; clearing the direct route to York for the main body, led by Edward himself.

Bloody skirmishes occurred at Ferrybridge and at Dinting Dale in which the Lancastrians led by Lord Clifford attempted to harass the Yorkist’s advance. Clifford, who was thought to have personally killed Edward’s younger brother, Edmund of Rutland, after Wakefield and was called “the Butcher”, was killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow. In him the Lancastrians lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.

On March 29, Palm Sunday, under a glowering sky and amidst a snowfall, the armies of York and Lancaster met between the villages of Towton and Saxton, about 12 miles southwest of York and 2 miles south of Tadcaster.

The stage was set for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle in English history.

The numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number that actually deployed upon the field that morning was somewhat less, with as much as a third of the Yorkists under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the Yorkists began the battle outnumbered; their 25,000 to 30,000 facing Somerset’s estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Lancastrians (the latter figure almost certainly an exaggeration). Total number of combatants likely numbered 80,000. Approximately three-quarters of the Peerage of England fought in the battle, with twenty eight Lords of the Realm present (the majority on the Lancastrian side, only eight fighting for the Yorkist cause). Skeletal remains found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed evidence that the soldiers came from all walks of life, were on average 30 years old, and averaged 5’7″ tall, and very strongly built. Bone scaring shows that many were veterans of previous engagements.

Exactly what one would expect in a Medieval army!

Equipment and armor of a Man-at-Arms of the period.

Both armies were deployed largely on foot, even the knights (men-at-arms) sending their horses to the rear. The primary tactics of the War of the Roses had armies deploy in three “battles” (divisions), each composed of archers and melee-troops. Most men wore some armor, the knights being encased in fine plate armor from head to foot. Because of the ubiquity of good armor, the primary weapon tended to be the pole axe (halberd) or heavy bill. War hammers were also popular with the chivalry. The long sword was common to all soldiers, high-born and low.

Battles were usually preceeded by exchanges of arrows, followed by a fierce melee at close quarters. Sometimes a reserve of cavalry would attempt flanking maneuvers; though how seldom even such elementary tactics were employed throughout the war is striking.

The snowy battle ground, as it might have looked on the day of battle

The Lancastrians were the first to deploy. Somerset started the day in a strong position, on rising ground with his flanks protected where the plateau dropped off; most steeply on the western flank, where Cock Beck creek flowed in an S-shaped course around the west side of the plateau. This flank also had thick stands of woods growing up to the edge of the battlefield. Somerset took advantage of this feature to conceal a body of troops, ready to fall upon the Yorkist left once they were engaged.

The Lancastrian position was sound, and blocked the road to York. The only drawback was that the narrowness of the plateau didn’t allow the larger Lancastrian forces the opportunity to bring their numbers to bear against their enemy’s flanks. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief adviser, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to attack them in a brutal, frontal engagement.

View from Yorkist starting position. Across the low ground in the center is the high ground upon which Somerset’s  Lancastrian forces were deployed.

Edward’s forces took the field after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took up position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the opposing forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers continued to arrive. Norfolk was nowhere in sight, and would in fact arrive many hours after the battle began. Despite his troop’s fatigue after their long march to the battlefield, and his inferiority in numbers, Edward ordered his vanguard to begin the battle.

The Yorkist cause was well served in Edward’s vanguard commander, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. With a change of wind now blowing the snow heavily into the faces of the Lancastrians, he ordered his archers (armed with the famed English longbow) to advance to range and loose a single volley. He then ordered them to retire.

Finding themselves under fire, the Lancastrian archers returned fire. However, as the wily Fauconberg foresaw, with the snow in their eyes and the wind in their face they blindly fired volley after volley; all falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line! They loosed until their quivers were exhausted, leaving the ground in front of the Yorkist line a porcupine quilt of spent arrows.

Fauconberg now once again ordered his archers forward.

Drawing their heavy yew bows, they now loosed volley after volley of clothyard shafts. The wind in their favor, these fell in a deadly hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, the archers gleaned the spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender!

As casualties mounted from this one-sided exchange, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.

Fauconberg then recalled his archers, and though there is no clear record, it is safe to assume they continued firing over the heads of their comrades, into the melee that would soon develop.

Now came the main event, as the opposing lines clashed together in fierce and bloody close quarter combat. Edward and Warwick were everywhere, encouraging their outnumbered soldiers. The eighteen year old Edward was particularly conspicuous, 6’3″ tall and imposing in his splendid armor; the quartered leopards-and-lilies of the Plantagenet kings on his surcoat, the Sunne-in-Splendour banner waving above him. This striking young warrior-prince stood in stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, King Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!

As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left. There, the Lancastrian forces hiding in the woods above Cock Beck now sprang out and fell upon the Yorkist flank. That flank gave ground, and some began to flee in panic. Edward rushed to the threatened sector, rallying his soldiers and setting a personal example of valor in stopping the enemy’s progress.

The battle raged at close quarters for an exhausting three hours. Bodies piled so high that breaks had to be taken in order to remove the dead separating the combatants. The Lancastrians continuously threw fresh men into the fray and gradually the Yorkists were forced to give ground and retreat up the southern ridge. On their left they gave the most ground, so that the western end of the line was pushed furthest back, and the Lancastrian position now had its back to the steep slopes above the Cocks Beck creek.

At last, Norfolk arrived from the southeast, marching up the Old London Road, with the remaining Yorkist forces. These now joined the battle, pushing back the Lancastrian left. The Lancastrians fought on for a time, but momentum had clearly shifted to their opponents. Then, as happened in ancient and Medieval battles, the line suddenly gave way as men began to flee in panic.

Now the bloodbath began in earnest.

Fleeing Lancastrians were closely pursued closely by their vengeful Yorkists foes. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow in remembrance of the slaughter there. The fleeing Lancastrians tumbled down the steep slope of the Cock Beck, into the icy creek. Here and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, panicked and exhausted men still wearing their armor, plunged forward, and falling into the water, drowned. This continued until there were enough dead to form a bridge of human corpses, across which their comrades could cross. At Tadcaster a wooden bridge broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. At these crossing points, choked with refugees, the slaughter was greatest, as the congestion allowed the pursuers to catch those attempting to cross. At Tadcaster, 2 miles to the south, other Lancastrians, trying to hide in buildings and cellars, were hunted down and killed.

Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrians drowned or were cut down attempting to cross.

Many apparently had thrown off their helmets as they ran, and the ghastly damage seen on the skulls recovered in mass graves show just what happens when poleaxe, war hammer or longsword strike naked heads. The number of wounds (one victim’s skull displays eight separate wounds) speak to the frenzy of killing that overcame the pursuing Yorkists.

Towton Rout

From Bloody Meadow to Tadcaster the snow-covered fields were littered with bodies. The total dead were estimated by heralds to be 28,000; of which all but 8,000 were Lancastrian. The disparity in number of dead can be explained easily: in all pre-modern battles the worst casualties were inflicted during the pursuit of a defeated enemy.

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Many of the great lords of the realm were either slain here or executed shortly thereafter. These included the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord Dacre, and Sir Anthony Trollope. Another prominent Lancastrian, Lord Clifford, had been killed just prior to the battle, at the skirmish at Dinting Dale. The Lancastrian cause was decimated, and would never recover. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed of their titles were forced to make peace and acknowledge their enemy’s leader as King Edward IV.

The War of the Roses was all but over. Though it would continue to flare up over the next 20 years, these were small brush fires, not major conflagrations. Edward’s reign (“the Sun of York”) would last 21 years. He would prove an able if not always wise king; his crown assured by Bloody Towton: a most sanguinary affair.

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13 DAYS OF GLORY: THE ALAMO, 1836

There are times when a defeat can become a triumph. Just as the heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae gave courage to the rest of Greece; so the last stand of a handful of brave Texians in a fortified Mission became a rallying cry for Texas’ independence: Remember the Alamo!

 

IN the predawn hours of March 6, 1836, the Mexican army of President and GeneralissimoAntonio López de Santa Anna stormed the battlements of the Alamo; slaying the defending Texan garrison to a man.

This battle, though neither final or decisive, was the seminal moment in the Texas War of Independence. It bloodied the Mexican army and lent the Texans both a band of martyred heroes and an immortal rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo”!

 

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END OF THE CALIPHATE: MONGOL SACK OF BAGHDAD

On February 10, 1258 a Mongol army sacked Baghdad, capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. Shortly after, the Khan ordered the death of the last Abbasid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim. Though hardly remembered, it was an event that rocked the Muslim world in its days; the repercussions of which are still felt today.

Hulagu Khan, commander of the Mongols in the Middle East and founder of the Persia-based Il-Khanate, was the grandson of Genghis Khan and brother to both China’s Kublai Khan, and to another Kha-Khan (“Great Khan”, the title carried by the overlord of the entire Mongol Empire), Khan Möngke. At its peak, the realm Hulago created included Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan; and parts of Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.

The sack of Baghdad culminated the initial phase of the Mongol attempt to conquer the Middle East; begun with Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia in 1221. A project abandoned after Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson took up the task; supported by perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled: by order of his brother, Great Khan Möngke, two-tenths of the empire’s fighting men were allocated to the task. Not less than 100,000 fighting men formed Hulago’s horde; and likely many more than that.

Hulago opened the campaign by attacking Alamut; the chief stronghold of the feared Asasiyun (Assassins) . This fortress citadel, thought at the time to be impregnable, lay in the mountains of Iran, about 60 miles from modern Tehran. Seeing the “handwriting on the wall”, the Assassins surrendered on condition their lives were spared. But Alamut was destroyed, and with it the power of the Assassin cult, which had terrorized the Middle East since the 11th century.

The ruins of lofty Alamut. From here, the “Old Man of the Mountain”, leader of the Assassin cult, directed an army of dedicated killers throughout the Middle East for almost two centuries. Hulagu Khan destroyed the citadel on his way to the sack of Baghdad.

Baghdad was then the ancient seat of the Abbasid Caliphate; a secular and religious authority within Islam that dated back to the 8th century. Established after the overthrow of the original Caliphate of the Umayyads in 750, the first Abbasid Caliph (which title means “Successor” to Mohammed) had built Baghdad as his new capital. For centuries, Baghdad was the power-center of Islam in the world. Though secular power had since the 11th century rested in the hands of Turkish Sultans; the Caliph was still the ultimate religious authority within Islam. Though schismatic Caliphates had contested Abbasid authority from time-to-time in Spain, Morocco and Egypt, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad was the oldest and most recognized throughout the world.

Artist’s conception of the round city of Baghdad under the Abbasids.

Baghdad at its height in the 11th century had claim to being one of (if not the) largest cities in the world; boasting a population of between 1.2 million and 2 million souls. The city had a uniquely Persian design and flavor: unlike in Greek and Roman engineering tradition, where cites are laid out in a rectangular grid, the Persians built cities in a circular pattern, all streets radiating out from a central hub. At the center of Baghdad was the Golden Gate Palace; residence of the caliph and center of his administration. Surmounting the building was a 39 meter-high green dome; one of the largest in the world in its days (18 meters higher than Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock; though fully 15 meters less than the lofty dome of Hagia Sophia.In the face of imminent Mongol invasion, the foolish Caliph Al-Musta’sim took no steps to call upon allies, raise additional troops, or strengthen his capital. Hulago’s massive army reached Baghdad on January 29th….

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ELITE WARRIORS OF THE DARK AGES: THE BUCELLARII OF BELISARIUS

1441049This is the fifth part of our series on Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages. The Household Cavalry of one of history’s greatest generals helped to restore the lost western provinces of the Roman Empire. A multi-ethnic unit of armored cavalry, they were mobile fire-brigade of the Byzantine Empire.

From the 5th century on, Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) armies increasingly came to rely upon cavalry as the elite strike force of any field Army. Heralding the coming age of cavalry dominance, the wars of Justinian to reclaim the lost western provinces of Italy and North Africa in the 6th century were largely conducted by elite bodies of cavalry; supported by relatively poor quality infantry. Extraordinarily, the core of the Byzantine army of this Reconquista was the private military household of Justinian’s principal general, Belisarius; and later, that of his successor, the eunuch Narses.

Figure from contemporary mosaic in Ravenna, thought to be Belisarius

The Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even Constantine the Great. The old legions of sword-and-javelin armed infantry were long gone; or remained in name only, as poorly trained garrison troops stationed along the frontiers. Now Romans depended upon regiments of armored cavalry; armed either with bow or spear, or both.

Generals of the later Roman empire were allowed (and perhaps even encouraged, as a cost-saving measure to the Imperial treasury) to raise private regiments of bodyguard cavalry, paid out of their own purse. These troopers were called bucellarii.

This Latin term meant “Biscuit–Eaters”, though perhaps a better translation might be, “hardtack eaters”; referring to the soldier’s campaign rations of hard-baked biscuits (known later in history as “hardtack“). These private regiments could number as few as a single bandon (200-300 strong tactical unit of the late Roman and Byzantine armies), or (in rare cases) as large as a tourma/turma (a division in the Byzantine army, varying in size from 3,000-4,000 men). The largest and best known of these was the Bucellarii of Belisarius, in the mid-6th century; which numbered 7,000 at its peak.

The Bucellarii of Belisarius were the military elite of their day, fighting battles from the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains; and from the Sahara to the Alps. They began as a single 300 man bandon, formed by Belisarius as an experimental unit; this under the sanction of the Emperor Justin, while Belisarius was still a young, promising officer of the Guards in Constantinople. Unlike most Roman cavalry of the day, who were either lancers or horse-archers (Hippo-toxotai), Belisarius trained these men in both roles. Every trooper was armored as a heavy cavalryman of the day; with helmet, cuirass, greaves on their shins and vambraces protecting their lower arms. All were armed with lance and sword, for use in close-quarter combat. They were also equipped with the powerful Hunnish composite bow; and could use this deadly weapon on the gallop almost as well as the Huns themselves. Finally, they had a brace of lead-weighted throwing darts, called plumbatae, attached to the front of their saddle. These latter were deadly when thrown at close range; further augmenting the fire-power these horsemen could bring to bear in a melee.

Late Roman/early Byzantine bucellarius. Belisarius’ bucellarii would have looked very much like this figure

A composite warrior, this experimental unit became the nucleus of Belisarius’ household regiment of future fame; as well as the model for Byzantine cavalry for the next century.

Procopius, secretary on Belisarius’ staff through most of his campaigns, gives us some insight into the equipment and fighting-style of these elite troopers:

“(Cavalry) of the present time go into battle wearing corselets and fitted out with greaves which extend up to the knee. From the right side hang their arrows, from the other the sword. And there are some who have a spear also attached to them and, at the shoulders, a sort of small shield without a grip, such as to cover the region of the face and neck. They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such an impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corslet alike having no power to check its force.”

While there is no specific record as to how Belisarius trained these, earlier Roman writers on the subject provide some insight. Arrian, in the Tactica, recounts how a trained cavalryman could “leap onto his horse while it is running”. Vegetius tells us that new recruits began learning to mount their horse while fully armored and encumbered with their arms by training first on a wooden horse:

“…wooden horses for that purpose placed in winter under cover and in summer in the field. The young soldiers were taught to vault on them at first without arms, afterwards completely armed. And such was their attention to this exercise that they were accustomed to mount and dismount on either side indifferently, with their drawn swords or lances in their hands. By assiduous practice in the leisure of peace, their cavalry was brought to such perfection of discipline that they mounted their horses in an instant even amidst the confusion of sudden and unexpected alarms.”

The Strategikon of Maurice, written at the end of this period, tells us that much attention was paid to training the horsemen in close order drill, maneuvering over all kinds of terrain. The horsemen were also trained so that individual sub-units could detach from the main body, open up their order (“extended order”) and advance as skirmishers; darting forward to shower the enemy with arrows. The skirmishers were trained to do this rapidly and repeatedly, returning to the mainbody and into close order. This kind of drill created a body of horseman who were immensely flexible tactically; capable of fighting as either light cavalry scouts and skirmishers, or close-quarter heavy cavalry with lance and sword, and to switch roles repeatedly as the tactical situation dictated.

Cavalry training exercises

The equipment and provision for this Household regiment was provided, for the most part, by the general himself. Though initially given arms and equipment by his Imperial patron (and particularly through the favor of the Empress, Theodora) to arm his men, Belisarius was responsible for maintaining his bucellarii out of his own pocket. While this was true to some extent of the bucellarii of any general of the day, the normal practice was to pay the soldier’s a salary; from which they would equip themselves and replace lost or broken equipment. (As prisoners of war were added to the ranks of his household regiment, some of Belisarius’ men might have continued using their “native” equipment: armor was expensive; and it was unlikely a captured Persian or Vandal “knight”, serving now as one of Belisarius’ bucellarius, would have been required to discard the armor he wore when captured and purchase (or be supplied) a new one.)

However, Belisarius was famous for his generosity and the care with which he treated his men. When a horse was killed, or armor damaged or weapons broken, the general quickly replaced these at his own expense. He was also quick to reward acts of valor, and promote men of worth. Even those who failed in their missions were treated mildly, and always given a chance to redeem themselves. At the same time, however, discipline was strictly maintained; and men who robbed, looted, or raped or otherwise abused their power (particularly over the civilian populations in the lands where they campaigned) were punished severely, even with death. This care for his men and fairness in dealing with them went far to instilling the intense loyalty these rough soldiers showered upon their commander.

In 525, the young Belisarius* was given permission to take his experimental bandon across the Danube River; to raid the territory of the barbarian Gepids. This raid was so successful, that he was granted permission to greatly increase the size of this unit, to 1,500 strong ( five bandon, collectively a moira or droungos in later Byzantine terms); and to enroll these as his own bucellarii.

In the following years Belisarius was sent to the eastern frontier, where war had broken out against the Sassanid Persians. In the summer of 530, Belisarius led the Eastern Roman army to a stunning victory over a much larger Sassanid army in the Battle of Daras; the first won by Roman arms over the Persians in nearly two centuries. During the battle, he used his bucellarii as a central reserve; counter-attacking every Sassanid attempt to breach the Roman position. Combined with savage Hunnish foederati, these elite troops proved more than a match for the best of the Sassanid armored cavalry.

In battle or on campaign, Belisarius used his elite bucellarii as vanguard as well as reserve: Advancing on Carthage during the Vandalic War, the Roman invasion force of some 15,000-17,000 was led by a bandon of his Household . These collided with a large portion of the approaching Vandal army where the road entered a pass through the hills; and during the resulting Battle of Ad Decimum were ultimately successful in a fluid skirmish-battle that favored the flexible tactics and high-degree of command-and-control Belisarius and his subordinate officers exercised over their disciplined, professional troops. Here the bucellarii showed resilience and great initiative; responding to setbacks and counter-attacking when the opportunity arose. As would be seen in the later battles against the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Vandals were greatly hampered by their complete lack of bow-armed cavalry; which allowed the Byzantines to use their stand-off capability to kill the Vandal heavy cavalry at a distance, at little risk. At the same time, the bucellarii proved able to shatter and rout enemy formations so disordered by missile showers with a stiff charge with lance.

Modern reenactor practices late Roman horse archery. Though adept at close-quarter combat with lance, their expertise  with the powerful Hunnish composite bow gave the bucellarii the ability to destroy their spear or javelin-armed mounted enemies from a distance; at little harm to themselves. 

Later, during the Gothic War (535-554) against the Ostrogoths in Italy, the bucellarii time and again formed the vanguard or the whole of mobile columns that fanned-out to capture key points and towns. During the first Siege of Rome, the Romans inflicted numerous sharp defeats on Gothic detachments, as small bands of bucellarii and other Roman horse-archers sallied out to bait Goths into attacking. In each of these skirmishes, their long-range archery capability decimated and ultimately put to rout much larger forces.

In set-piece battles at Callinicum, Tricameron and before Rome their record was more mixed. While at Tricameron they were successful at disordering the Vandals with arrows before charging and routing them; at Callinicum and in the battle outside Rome their supporting troops (Arab allies in the former, and Roman infantry in Italy) were routed after a poor effort on their part, leading to near disasters for the army as a whole. This lack of reliable infantry during the Gothic War partially explains Belisarius’ reluctance to fight set-piece battles; but instead to engage in a war of skirmish and maneuver, where he could rely upon the skills of his superior cavalry, particularly his own household bucellarii.

Narses, in his later Italian Campaign, overcame this lack of steady infantry by dismounting his heavy Lombard lancers and using these as spearmen to hold his center at the Battle of Taginae; keeping his bucellarii (some of which were likely former members of Belisarius’ now disbanded household regiment) mounted in reserve behind each wing. When the Gothic charge was broken upon the spears of his center, and raked by archery from the flanks, his bucellarii completed their rout with a charge.

The bucellarius was a versatile warrior, quite capable of fighting on foot when necessary. During the Siege of Rome, Belisarius’ household troops manned the wall beside the Roman infantry; holding such strong points as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. During the vicious street fighting that characterized the Nika Riots in 532, Belisarius led his dismounted troopers in the streets against the rioting Blues and Greens. In the final confrontation inside the Hippodrome, the dismounted bucellarii of his household slaughtered thousands of rioters with bow and sword.

Goths attack the Mausoleum of Hadrian during the Siege of Rome. 

Belisarius is one of those rare individuals: a great and noble man, as well as a brilliant military commander. The men who formed his bucellarii were, in many respects, as extraordinary as their commander.

Belisarius’ original experimental bandon was recruited from men who had multiple skills and from diverse background; each of which brought something of value to the whole: Isaurian mountaineers (bold men, hardy and independent, invaluable as guides and scouts in broken terrain), ex-sailors (good with their hands and used to traveling to foreign lands and making friends with strangers), herdsmen of the plains (experienced horsemen and accustomed to skirmish fights on the open plains, as well as to the care and management of horses). All these contributed to the mix, and could learn from each other. What he refused were drafts from other units: old grumblers who thought they knew more than their officers, and would teach the new recruits their bad habits.

The armor and tunics of the bucellarii would have varied wildly after years on campaign and scavenging armor wherever possible; as men replaced broken pieces with armor captured or purchased locally. But his figure represents what Belisarius’ household bucellarii might have looked like in their early years, armed in typical (and uniform) fashion from arsenals in Constantinople. 

These were led by a cadre of young officers that Belisarius had known since his youth; and were devoted to their young leader and shared his vision.

As success followed upon success, Belisarius recruited men from the best of the Persian, Hunnic, Vandal and Gothic warriors taken prisoner in his campaigns. When asked by a Persian emissary why they served their former foe, the Romans; one of their number replied: “We do not serve the Romans; we seve Belisarius. He will make us perfect in the arts of war; and when we return to our people we will be great men.”

By the end of his career, his household bucellarii numbered 7,000 and was indisputably the best fighting force in the Western World.

Jealous of Belisarius popularity and suspicious of a potential rival, the Emperor Justinian retired Belisarius from active command and stripped him of his bucellarii. These were distributed out to other commanders. Here they contributed to the victories of Narses and other generals in the later years of Justinian’s reign. They no doubt taught what they had learned throughout the Roman/Byzantine army of the day. By the end of the 6th century, their equipment and tactics had become standardized in Byzantine manuals; most notably in the Strategikon, attributed to the Emperor Maurice (reigned 582–602). This would influence Byzantine military practice for centuries to come.

Belisarius in the center, pointing; two members of his bucellarii bodyguard stand behind him. The figure on the right appears to be a chieftain or high-status member of his Hun auxillaries; though many of his bucellarii were Huns and this may be one of these. 

In 559, Belisarius and some of the veterans of his bucellarii enjoyed one last hurrah, when a mounted army of Kutrigurs (described in the sources as Huns, but later part of the Bulgur people) under Khan Zabergan crossed the Danube River to invade Roman territory. The border garrisons had been stripped to provide for Justinian’s foreign wars; and the horde penetrated deep into Thrace; soon threatening Constantinople itself. A terrified and desperate Justinian recalled Belisarius to deal with the crises. The old general found that the only regular troops available, the Imperial Guards, had degenerated into “parade soldiers” and refused to take the field. Instead, he appealed to anyone in the city who had previously served in his household bucellarii, to rally to his standard.

Three hundred ageing soldiers joined their old commander; ironically the same amount as he had led on his first campaign against the Gepids, 39 years earlier. Along with a ragtag band of civilian volunteers, these marched out to meet the savage Kutrigurs.

At a wooded defile miles from the city, Belisarius hid his 300 veterans on either side of the road. The civilians had little in the way of arms; but Belisarius equipped them with pots and ladles; and concealed them higher in the hills surrounding the road. As the Kutrigurs rode into the defile, the old veterans assailed them with showers of arrows. At the same time, the civilians began beating the pots with their ladles, creating a cacophony of metallic clangor echoing through the hills. Fearing they were being beset upon by a much larger force, the Kutrigurs panicked and fled; pursued closely by Belisarius and his veterans. The Huns did not stop their flight till they had passed once again over the Danube.

This was Belisarius’ final triumph. After this, he was famously arrested, and ultimately blinded by an insanely jealous Justinian. According to the legend that grew up out of this, he briefly became a blind beggar in the streets of the city. This lasted but a brief time: when word reached his veterans of their commander’s plight, they all contributed to buying back his home. There he died in his bed, shortly after. Despite his terrible mistreatment by Justinian, he never broke his oath of loyalty, to raise the banner of revolt; a testament to his unimpeachable sense of honor.

Late 6th-early 7th century Byzantine elite cavalry: Fig. (1) is a Belisarian bucellarius. (2) Member of one of the elite “Epilektoi” regiments of Heraclius. (2a) is an officer.

Early in the following century the embattled soldier-Emperor Heraclius would form an elite unit called the “Bucellarii“; one of three so-called epilektoi (“picked”) regiments (the other two being the Optimates and the Feoderati). This may have been composed of the combined household troops of various magnates and generals (particularly those veterans of the disgraced and dismissed Priscus). This regiment and the other epilektoi spearheaded Heraclius’ victorious campaigns against the Persians in the 620s.

At the end of their service, they were settled in the newly created Opsikion Theme; along with their comrades of the Optimates regiment. A century later a new Bucellarian Theme was created, which along with the Optimatoi Theme was split off from the Opsikion when that elite Theme’s size and power was reduced for disloyalty to the Emperor Constantine V. In its name Bucellarian Theme kept alive the memory of the elite household guards of Belisarius.

Belisarius is unique among all the conquering generals of history. Never before or after did a single general accomplish so much with so little; virtually financing his meager expedition out of his own private purse. With never more than 20,000 men and often less (and most of these of indifferent quality) he recovered Africa and Sicily from the Vandals and Goths; and went far to recovering all Italy before his efforts were undermined by his jealous master. None of this would have been possible without the superb fighting instrument he created, his household regiment of bucellarii; progenitor of the Byzantine Kataphractos of the Dark Ages.

For more information, see Deadliest Blogger’s presentation of Belisarius at the Battle of Daras.

* Belisarius’ birth year is unknown; but is thought to have been between 500 and 505.

For more Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages series, see:

Dark Ages Elite: Caballarii of Charlemagne

Jomsvikings: Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages

Anglo-Saxon Huscarls: Dark Ages Warrior Elite

Varangian Guard: Elite Warriors of Byzantium

Norman Knight

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.www.ospreypublishing.com

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