Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Eurasian Way of War in the Sixth Century (Part 1)

In late July I'm making my first trip to a Celtic Classics Conference, and, surprise-surprise, I'm speaking in the Roman Army session.  By chance, at least in part, I speak dead last:  most of the papers cover republican-era topics, and I'm speaking on the end of antiquity.  In some ways it also seems fitting.  The topic, generally speaking, is the "Eurasian Way of War", and the impetus is a similarly-named book by David Graff on seventh century Byzantium and China.  His book ranges widely, and goes from the institutions, literature, and resources to campaigning, weapons, and tactics.  I can't cover it all in one talk, so I'm going to limit discussion to one part of Graff's book and subject, the steppe influence on how the two parties, Byzantium (Rome) in particular, fought.

The subject has not struggled for attention.  Coulston, for instance, has discussed the influence of the steppe on Rome's military, especially during the high empire, while James has gone a bit further by looking too at the impact of interactions with Parthians and Sasanians.  Jin Kim, whose interests lie in the Huns and their impact on Rome, has argued that the steppe's impact on Rome in late antiquity and earlier has been significant and wide-ranging.  But these are just three such examples. 

A good deal of the attention has focused on cavalry, and Rome's gradual (or not?) adoption of heavily-armoured and mounted horsemen.  The usual view is that the infantry-heavy military of the Roman world in the republican and imperial eras gave way to a cavalry driven one. This process was complete by the sixth century.  The proof for this transformation is usually assorted comments of Procopius and Maurice (pseudo).  Procopius famously (to the few) compares contemporary mounted archers to Homer's archers in his preface to the Wars, an odd comparison to be sure, and ultimately finds the latter wanting.  This comparison has attracted a lot of attention (myself included), and the jury's still out on whether we should take it seriously, and what it says or means for the rest of Procopius' narrative.  Eleven of the twelve books that comprise Maurice's Strategikon focus on cavalry, and there's good reason to think the infantry chapter was a later addition.

We know that the peoples of the Steppes and the Iranian empires were well versed in these two broad types of horsemen.  The nomadic steppe peoples, the Scythians in particular, were recognized for their horse archery as far back as Herodotus (4.46.3).   A number of auxiliary cavalry units in the Roman military were mounted from the second century, some, evidently, of Near Eastern origin, others not.  As for the heavily-armoured horses, the Romans might have come up against them as early as Crassus' defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BC, if not a few decades earlier in Armenia (Plut. Luc. 31.6).  It's the wars in the Balkans against the Sarmatians and related peoples in the first and second centuries AD, however, that are usually said to have had the greatest impact, however.  In fact, the first Roman cataphract unit, the ala Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafracta, appears in Moesia Inferior in the second century (CIL 11.5632), though we don't know when it first emerged. 

By the sixth century the mounted archer seems to have been even more widely used, while the heavily armed cataphracts (and clibanarii) perhaps less so.  Procopius suggests that many Roman and allied mounted soldiers were adept at archery in the middle of the sixth century.  Although it's not always clear what constitutes Roman and what doesn't, the point seems to be that its use was spread throughout the military.  Given that a number of Huns were fighting for Rome at this point, it might be reasonable to assume that the so-called Romans doing the fighting learned it from them.  We would then have, in these instances, evidence for a direct transference of this mode of combat from steppe warriors to Roman soldiers. 

Where things get tricky, however, is when we try to discern when this happened.  My implied evidence for Procopius only works if there hadn't been mounted archers in the military before he was writing, and yet we know full well that there were.  In fact, one scholar (Alofs), in a series of papers, goes to great pains to argue that mounted archery was an integral aspect of warfare from at least the end of the fifth century onwards, if not earlier, with no discernible break in the seventh century which some, like Kennedy, have supposed.  To be fair, Graff too highlighted the build-up of atypical (i.e. non-Roman or Mediterranean) cavalry amongst the Romans in his book (and a DOP journal article, which is, effectively, a precis), and so sees this impact stretching back some decades.  The adoption of a Eurasian way of war was a gradual thing.  I'd been tempted to compare the prevalence of these kinds of mounted warriors in Ammianus and Vegetius (best evidence for combat itself in the late fourth and early fifth centuries) with what we find in Procopius and Maurice (best for the second half of the sixth), but I'm not sure how far I'd get.  I'd really like the surviving portions of the fifth century fragmentary historians, like Priscus, to be far more substantial than they already are.

As far as how widespread heavily-armoured cavalry and mounted archers were in the sixth century that's harder to say, and opinions differ.  Most see a prominent role for the mounted archers, less so for the heavily-armoured ones.  They don't feature all that often in the texts, though a unit based, or at least attested, in Egypt, the Leontokilibanarii suggests heavily-armoured cavalry were still in use, at least in some capacity, in the sixth century.  Suffice to say, mounted archers certainly feature in all three of Procopius' Wars, and play a particularly prominent role in the Gothic wars, which to my mind says a great deal about how willing the Romans were to adopt their tactics to different enemies, though his literary proclivities had an impact too.  Fact is I still have to look at the specifics of Procopius' accounts in more detail (I've got lots of notes), and that's something I haven't gotten around to yet.  Suffice to say, however, many of the signs are pointing towards a significant role for horse archers in sixth-century Roman combat (Petitjean, Syvanne, and Alofs would all agree), which means that Graff's supposition that Byzantium had acquired a Eurasian way of war is all the more likely. 

All this being said - and I have provided a sweeping overview - some questions remain, which I'll turn to in part 2.

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