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"And I beheld, and heard the voice of one eagle flying through the midst of heaven,
saying with a loud voice: Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth....
[Apocalypse (Revelation) 8:13]

Saturday, November 5, 2016




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 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 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.
The invasion of 530 promised to be nothing unique in the annals of these 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 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 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 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 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 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 on bigger horses, bred to carry a man fully armored from head to toe in mail or 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. Each rider carried a long lance, and a light composite bow. Each Savaran was accompanied by several retainers; equipped as lighter versions of the these super-heavy cavalry, or 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 the 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. 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 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 along only to hold down space in the battle line, and to do the drudge-work necessary in the expected siege.
Sassanid infantry and cataphract super-heavy cavalryman
The Eastern Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even of 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 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 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 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 the dispirited regiments from the comitatensis (mobile field 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.
The first were several bands of ferocious 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 outride any horsemen in the world. They were expert with the powerful Hunnic composite bow, and had no hesitation at charging home to break a shaken foe at close quarters with sword or spear (or using lassoes to pull their enemies from the saddle).
Top: Hunnish warrior. Bottom: Hunnic composite bow unstrung, strung, and at full draw.
He had at Daras between 1,500 and 2,000 Huns. One band was called "Heruli" by the sources; though how if at all they differed from the other "Huns" present is not clear. The rest were Massagetae, an Iranian 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 general's themselves (who tended to be wealthy warlords in this period)they were often better paid and provisioned than "regular" army regiments.
Belisarius' own bucellarii were a test-bed for some rather unconventional tactical notions he harbored. Unlike most Roman cavalry of the day, who were either lancers or archers, these were trained as both. Every trooper was armored as heavy cavalry; 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. They carried the 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 were deadly when thrown at close range; further augmenting the fire-power these elite horsemen could bring to bear.
Late Roman/Early Byzantine Bucellarii. Belisarius' elite bodyguard would have looked very similar to this figure
Though 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 at Daras must have been based, at least in part, upon his confidence in this elite force in the coming engagement.
As the Persian army approached 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 pre-prepared bridges 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 Herululian 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; success or failure would ultimately depend upon these elite troopers.
This unique deployment had several subtle benefits. First, it kept his less reliable infantry 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 they would divide their attacks to either wing. This would 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, Firouze, was waiting for the arrival of still another 10,000 troops, while attempting to make "heads-or-tails" of Belisarius' puzzling deployment.
On the third day, their reinforcements arrived, 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 Persian cavalry succeeded in pushing back the defending Roman horsemen. As these fell back, the Persians followed close, pressing across the trench in mass.
Late Roman bow-armed heavy cavalryman. Unlike this regular Roman cavalryman, Belisarius armed his Bucellarii with both bow and lance; unusual to Roman cavalry of the day. This allowed them to perform both the heavy and light cavalry function. Note the absence of stirrups: these were not introduced in the West for nearly another century, by the Asiatic Avars.
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 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 horsemen 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 Herules 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, developed to carry very-heavy cavalry. The lances of these horsemen were so long and sturdy that the Romans called them kontos: Latin for "barge pole"!
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!
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 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 novel 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.
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)



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 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. Thought adept at close-quarter combat with lance, their expertise with the powerful Hunnish composite bow gave the bucellarii the ability to destroy their spear-armed 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; as men replaced broken pieces with armor captured or purchased locally. This figure represents what Belisarius' household bucellarii might have looked like in their early years, armed in typical (and uniform) fashion, from Roman factories near Constantinople. As time went on, and after many campaigns in foreign lands, their appearance would have been far more diverse; as men replaced worn-out armor with pieces picked up on battlefields.
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 of his Hun auxiliaries; 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.
Early Byzantine elite cavalry: Figure (1) is a Belisarian bucellarius. (2) A 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.