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