BELISARIUS AT DARAS: A STUDY IN THE USE OF INTERIOR LINES

Faced by a numerically superior opponent, 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 small 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 Great King 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. Until the coming of the Islam, when the Arabs changed the equation forever, this would be a zero sum game.

Julian and Shapur

The invasion of 530 promised to be nothing unique in the annals of these age-old skirmishes. 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. The Romans were commanded by a young and dynamic commander, who was determined to contest the Persian incursion. The Battle of Daras would announce the arrival, center stage in military affairs of the day, of a new star: Belisarius.

 

In 530 Belisarius was the newly 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 title, “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; 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 before the fortress!

 

At first blush this appeared a foolhardy course of action.

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; the infantry of very poor quality and 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 army of the Sassanid Great Kings was a formidable fighting force. Nearly half of the Persian army 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 Sassanid armies lay in the well-mounted and heavily armored Persian aristocracy and their feudal retainers. This type of super-heavy cavalry were known 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 cavalry troopers were big men on bigger horses, bred to carry a man fully armored from head to toe in mail or lamellar armor! Even their horses were armored, typically at least the front portion of the charger being protected with lamellar or scale. Each rider carried a long lance, and a light composite bow. Each noble warrior was accompanied by several lesser equipped retainers; mostly lesser-equipped heavy cavalry or javelin-armed light horse.

Sassanid%20Cavalry%20Banner

Sassanid Persian clibanarii and standard bearer

Accompanying the superb Sassanid cavalry was a host of poorly motivated infantry, levied from amongst the peasantry. These had changed little since the days of Darius. They carried a rectangular shield made of wicker, and a short spear. But, as Belisarius was to describe them Sassanid infantrydismissively, 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 along only to hold down space in the battle line, and to do the drudge-work necessary in the expected siege.

By contrast, the Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even Constantine. It was a time of transition; and no one would be more influential in these 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 later Roman Empire 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 arms depended upon regiments of heavy cavalry; armed either with bow 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 clibanarii, though they tended to be better disciplined. The infantry had degenerated into unarmored garrison troops. While some regiments were armed with spear and sword, most were archers. Unlike their Persian counterparts, they were 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.

ArchersAt Daras, Belisarius had approximately 15,000 cavalry, and perhaps another 10,000 infantry. His troops were mostly scrapped together from various frontier garrisons and the dispirited regiments from the mobile army of the East that (theoretically) backed-up the border units. Because of past defeats by the Persians, 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 rely to perform well.

(Continue reading here, at my blog’s new home!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses to BELISARIUS AT DARAS: A STUDY IN THE USE OF INTERIOR LINES

  1. Carlo Pagano says:

    Fascinating history Barry and a period which I find of particular interest. Many thanks.

  2. Sorin Turturica says:

    Excellent!

  3. barrycjacobsen says:

    Why, thank you! Glad you enjoyed it…

  4. ethanreilly says:

    Great post Barry – always happy to read about Belisarius! Not sure if I agree that he was a bonafide military genius, though he was probably the closest thing to it during this period. He did make some mistakes though, from time to time (like refusing to disengage from the Italian campaign in 540AD and return to the eastern frontier to fight the Persians immediately, staying instead to capture Ravenna via a ruse and ensuring the Ostrogoths would fight on under a new, defiant king), and had the benefit of prodigious good luck at others (like at Ad Decimum, when the timely death of Ammatas and Gelimer’s subsequent grief/paralysis allowed him the time he needed to regroup his forces). I mean, I’m an unrepentant Belisarius fan-boy, but I prefer to think of him more as an inspired military tactician – I think humanising him (rather than lionising him) makes his achievements appear that much more extraordinary.

    But that’s just me.

    At any rate, thanks again! If you’re interested, I’ve written briefly about Belisarius myself on my own blog: http://ethanreilly.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/tides-of-war-byzantiums-vacillating-imperial-fortunes-part-2/

  5. Colin Thorne says:

    I wish I could elucidate at this time. I know that seems unfair after my rather blunt assessment. And I realise now that it amounts to an insult; one that I wish I had not written. However, the reason I cannot clear up the matter now is that it has to do with a very lengthy analysis of the Battle of Daras I am midst writing and which is slated to be published when finished. This analysis explains the post I made in full and then some. So, please, I request that you remove my post. Furthermore, I apologise.

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