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Illustrations referenced by Byzantine Armies 886-1118 by Ian Heath & Angus McBride

Byzantine warriors of the late 10th century. Unfortunately the artistic style utilized betrays signs of a strong classical influence and some inaccuracies have thereby been introduced. The old-fashioned greaves, for instance, are highly improbable at this date. The lamellar corselet, or klibanion, of the right-hand figure is accurate enough however, though the muscled leather corselet of his companion is of a type that had probably been obsolete for many hundreds of years. Both corselets have thick leather strips called pteruges (‘feathers’) hanging from waist and shoulder. The cloaks indicate that these are probably horsemen.
[State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, W-299]

Spirited cavalry engagement from the Joshua Roll, dating to the first half of the 10th century. The men wear hip-length corselets with pteruges at shoulder and waist, plus iron helmet and leather harness of breast-band and shoulder-pieces. Note also their large shields and kontaria. The officer figure at left sports an impressive helmet crest. (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome).

Avar horseman from a 6th century rock carving. Much Byzantine military equipment was copied from the Avars in the 6th-7th centuries, including clothing, stirrups, horse-armour, and the widespread use of lamellar.

Two fully-equipped horsemen on a lion hunt, probably in Anatolia or northern Syria, taken from an ivory casket in Troyes Cathedral dating from the 11th century. The corselets are presumably lamellar, though the large upward-pointing scales are somewhat unusual. Absence of stirrups here must be artistic licence since they occur in another panel on the same casket. (Trésor de la Cathédrale, Troyes)

Though Byzantine artists do not seem to have normally considered soldiers as suitable subjects they nevertheless drew, carved and painted endless numbers of military saints. This is one of them, St Demetrius, from an 11th-century ikon. He carries a large circular shield and wears quilted body-armour, probably an epilorikion. Note also his horse’s tied tail. A helmet would normally be worn, but saints are usually bareheaded in Byzantine art.

Another engagement between kontarion-armed cavalry, this time from the heavily illustrated manuscript of Scylitzes, now in Madrid. The illuminations probably post-date this era but appear to have been largely based on 11th-century originals. Points to note here are the quivers of the two bodies in the foreground, and the bandon-type standards with their long, streamer-like tails. Armour is mainly scale (or mail?). (Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid). Scylitzes Chronicle.

Depicting Basil II’s victory over the Abasgians in 1002, this illumination from the Madrid Scylitzes shows klibanophoroi wearing padded epolorikia. They appear to carry kite-shields and, though it cannot be seen here, the very front figure wears splint greaves identical to those worn by the Magyar on page 19. The horses are unarmoured. (Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid). Scylitzes Chronicle.

Gilt bronze plaque of the 11th century depicting a military saint (Theodore) in the guise of a dismounted Byzantine cavalryman. His equipment comprises leather-fringed lamellar klibanion, sword suspended from a baldric, lance (shortened to fit the plaque) and decorated circular shield. The sash tied round his chest occurs in a number of sources and is probably an indication of rank. Most dismounted horsemen wear cloaks in the pictorial sources. (By courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Saints George and Demetrius, demonstrating cavalry equipment of c. 1100. The corselets appear to be of mail and quilt respectively. Both have pteruges. The long tunics may be evidence of Frankish influence.

Military saints (Theodore now joins George and Demetrius) equipped as horsemen of the early 12th century. Theodore, on the left, wears a klibanion over his mail corselet; George, in the centre, wears a klibanion with pteruges at shoulder and waist; and Demetrius has now changed into a knee-length mail lorikion with elbow-length sleeves. All three have kite-shields.

10th century Arab horseman. The Arabs had been the Empire’s main enemy since the 7th century, and Emperor Leo VI said that it was the ever-present Moslem threat that convinced him of the need to write his military manual.

This is taken from a Byzantine bowl of the 12th century, probably depicting the folk hero Diogenes Akritas. It is the only contemporary, or near contemporary, picture which appears to exist of the shoulder tufts mentioned in Leo VI’s Tactica. It seems fairly certain that they would not normally stand upright like this, probably a result of artistic licence.

At the time that Leo VI actually wrote his Tactica the Magyars were the Empire’s other principal foe, though they could also be found as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. The armour worn here could almost be straight from an Imperial arsenal, with mail coif and corselet, iron helmet and splint-armour greaves and vambraces. His captive wears lamellar. (Kunsthistorischen Museum, Vienna).

A number of 10th-12th-century ivory caskets depict figures such as these. They fairly certainly represent Asiatic mercenaries, probably Patzinaks. The apparent ‘trousered’ tunic is probably a long coat split at front and back for riding. Note the pointed felt or fur cap, characteristic of Patzinak dress.

Turks attack a Byzantine fortress, from the Scylitzes manuscript. On the left are unarmoured horse-archers, on the right heavy cavalry in corselets and helmets. The defenders are hurling down javelins from the battlements. (Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid). Scylitzes Chronicle.

Seljuk chieftain in characteristic costume, complete with cased bow at left hip. Between the Seljuks’ first appearance on the Empire’s eastern frontier as an obscure Turkish tribe and their decisive defeat of the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071, a period of only fifty years had elapsed.

Victorious Byzantine Emperor receiving the submission of an enemy city, from the Troyes casket. Except for the crown the equipment worn is identical to that of the horsemen on the front of the casket, shown on page 7. (Trésor de la Cathédrale, Troyes)

Norman knights from a porch at the church of San Nicola at Bari, c. 1087. The city of Bari, the Empire’s last stronghold on the Italian mainland, fell to the Normans under Robert Guiscard in 1071. The figures are very similar to those in the Bayeux Tapestry. Note both underarm and overarm use of the lance. (Tim Benton)

A portrait of c. 1017 of Basil II (976-1025), called Bulgaroctonos or ‘Killer of Bulgars’. A superb soldier, contemporaries reported that at the very sight of his banner the enemy used to flee, screaming, ‘Run! Run! It is the Emperor!’ It was he who totally subjugated Bulgaria, in addition scoring victories over Armenians, Georgians, Arabs and Normans. Had he lived another ten years he would have reconquered probably the Empire’s long-lost Italian and Egyptian provinces too. His own reign followed on from those of two other brilliant generals, the Emperors Nikephoros II Phokas (whose stupendous victories over the Arabs won him, from their own lips, the title of ‘The White Death’), and John I Tzimisces, who but for his premature death in 976 would have reconquered completely the Holy Land, lost to the Arabs as long ago as 634. Not without reason has the era 963-1025 been christened by some as Byzantium’s ‘Age of Conquest’.

Figures of this type seem to start appearing in the 10th century and are often thought to be Varangian Guardsmen. They only ever appear in biblical crucifixion scenes, however, and wear a type of headdress which in byzantine art is normally associated with Jews. But at the same time their rich panoply certainly suggests that artists may have used the equipment of guardsmen as their model, and interestingly this figure has a raven-like bird emblazoned on his shield, which could certainly associate him with Scandinavian origin.

A rare picture of bearded Varangians in full armour, here attending the execution of an Anti-Emperor. Eighteen of their famous axes are in evidence, together with spears and unit standards. Note the mixture of circular and kite-shields. (Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid). Scylitzes Chronicle.

Early 10th-century skutatoi, from the Joshua Roll. Note ‘shield-wall’ use of the large shields. The figures with cloaks wrapped round their bodies are officers, one of whom carries a bandon standard. (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome).

These details from a 10th-century ivory casket depict Armenian infantry in Byzantine employ. Most of the Empire’s military aristocracy were of Armenian ancestry and in the 9th and 10th centuries Armenians formed about twenty-five per cent of the Empire’s armed forces or possibly even more.

Another fine study of skutatoi equipment from the Joshua Roll, showing corselets with pteruges, breast-bands and shoulder-pieces. The neck-guards of their helmets appear to be flexible so are probably leather. Uniforms in this source are chiefly red, sometimes blue. (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome)


These figures representing psiloi are taken from an assortment of 10th-century ivory caskets. The first thing we see is that, despite the military manuals’ statements to the contrary, helmets appear to have been in widespread use amongst light infantry. Bows and swords are the arms most commonly depicted on the caskets, but note that of the top two figures one has a slightly curved weapon and the other a sabre-hilted sword, both probably one-edged parameria.

A similar selection of skutatoi, the top three from 10th-century caskets and the other two from later manuscripts. The 10th-century figures all wear basically the same equipment, i.e. a hip-length klibanion with or without sleeves and a helmet with or without aventail. Shields are all rather small for skutai and appear to be circular. The last figure comes from the Madrid Scylitzes, his armour really differing little from that of the 10th century. The shield of the last figure, who dates from c. 1110, is the indigenous Byzantine ‘three-cornered’, or kite, shield; he appears to wear a padded corselet of some kind.

Details worthy of notice in this 10th-century David and Goliath illumination from the Paris Psalter are, in the upper scene, Goliath’s crested helmet with aventail of leather strips and his javelin with butt-spike, and in the lower scene David’s one-edged paramerion. Note also the spiked helmets at left and right. The shields are fairly certainly convex here, and armour appears to be leather. (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Though oft-reproduced, this ivory casket from the Victoria and Albert Museum still remains one of the best representations of 10th-century skutatoi. All wear lamellar corselets, that of the seated general at left reaching to knee as well as elbow, and carry kontaria so long that they disappear out of the top of the panel. Though badly cut the leather harness of breast-bands and shoulder-pieces is also apparent. Two large oval shields of the type called skutai are apparent, while the man at extreme left carries instead a circular thureos. The two figures at the opposite end of the panel are apparently wearing non-metallic armour, either leather or possibly quilted fabric, and are perhaps peltastoi. All have helmets with scale aventails, surmounted by a ring to which a crest would be attached on parade.

Detail from another 10th-century ivory panel depicting skutatoi, their large oval shields again much in evidence. The equipment portrayed differs from that of the last picture mainly in the addition of pteruges to the corselets. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of J. Piermont Morgan 1917)

David and Goliath scene from the Menologium [Psalter] of Basil II, c. 1017. ‘Goliath’ is a good example of an 11th-century heavy infantryman, wearing the usual lamellar corselet with fringe and pteruges plus the sash of an officer. His helmet, and those of the leather-armoured ‘Israelites’ crowded behind the hill, is of a new brimmed variety, reminiscent of a kettle-helmet, which seems to first start appearing at about this date. The figure of David, in lower-class costume and armed only with a sling, can probably be taken as representative of the appearance of soldiers’ servants on the battlefield (see Plate B1). (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice)

‘Greek Fire’, or Sea Fire (pyr thalassion) as the Byzantines themselves called it, had been invented in Constantinople c. 673. Throughout its history, however, it appears to have been used entirely in naval and siege warfare. It was fired from siphons by heating or by a jet of water (opinions differ) and was extremely difficult to extinguish. One of the advances made during this era was the invention of ‘hand syringes’ (mikroi siphones) in Leo VI’s reign, these being fired from behind iron shields. The picture here, from the Madrid Scylitzes, shows the more conventional shipboard use, with the Fire being fired from copper, bronze or iron-covered tubes. (Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid). Scylitzes Chronicle.

See also Illustrations referenced by Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen 925-1025: The Tághmata and Imperial Guard by Timothy Dawson
Other Byzantine Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers