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.
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.
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…
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