This 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 Roman commanders 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 (a 200-300 strong tactical unit of the late Roman and early 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 (kontarion) and sword (spatha), 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’ household troopers would likely have looked much like this figure.
A composite warrior, they formed an experimental unit which 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 his troopers, 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 main-body 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, in the early years, through the favor of the Empress Theodora) 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 panoply.
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. During the resulting Battle of Ad Decimum the bucellarii 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 (and particularly their intrepid captain, John the Armenian, who commanded the vanguard) 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 armored horsemen from a distance, at little risk to themselves. 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 composite bow gave Belisarius’ bucellarii the ability to destroy their lance or javelin-armed mounted enemies from a distance
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 the Goths into attacking them. 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.
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 and repelling every Gothic assault. 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 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 serve 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 to 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 they 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, at a place (or near a village) called Melantias Belisarius hid his 300 veterans on either side of the road down which the approaching Kutrigurs must pass. His civilian volunteers 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 of the bucellarii 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 which echoed 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 ambitious 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.
- Narses, in his later Italian Campaign (551-554) overcame this lack of steady infantry at the Battle of Taginae by dismounting his heavy cavalry Lombard lancers and using these as spearmen to hold his center while 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 Imperial Guard at this time was comprised of two regiments: the Excubitores, and the older and senior unit, the Scholae Palatinae. Though throughout their long history both corps were at times crack field units of the Byzantine army, at this point one or both seem to have degenerated to the point of being incapable of taking the field.
For more see Belisarius at Daras, a Study in Interior Lines
For more Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages series, see:
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.