An extract from Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066
by Ian Heath


These figures and the next 2 are based on descriptions given in the 10th century military manuals; cavalrymen depicted in contemporary manuscripts are equipped more like 18, 20 and 21. An earlier Byzantine heavy cavalryman is described in 'The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome'.

By the 10th century kataphraktoi no longer carried both lance and bow as they had in the earlier period, in a 5-rank formation ranks 1, 2 and 5 being lancers (figure 13) while 3 and 4 were archers (figure 14). The former were armed with kontarion (the cavalry version being a slender 12 foot lance originally, and occasionally still, called a kontos, 'barge-pole', in recognition of its length), plus a dagger, and a sword carried from a baldric. The sword could apparently be as long as 3 feet, including the hilt. The shield carried was larger than that recorded in the Strategicon, probably because the bow was no longer a handicap to its use. In an appendix to Leo shields are described as a maximum of 40½ inches, which is also the basic length of the average 11th century kite-shield. The Sylloge describes '3-cornered' infantry shields, clearly kite-shields, as 54 inches in length, though the cavalry version appears to have been smaller, only 36-40 inches long, which tallies with Leo. Kite-shields of the type shown here began to appear in Byzantine mss. illuminations in the mid-10th century and it was probably from this type that the European version developed (see note 61). Judging from pictorial sources it appears to have been about 2 feet broad at its widest point. In his main text Leo actually specifies that the small 12-inch shield was to be carried, but larger 24-30-inch circular shields appear in most sources of the 8th-10th centuries.

Early sources record that the cavalry kontarion could be slung behind the back by a strap in its middle (a feature of Avar origin), and a spare was carried in the baggage. It was thrust overarm, often 2-handed but more commonly in one hand, until the late-10th century when it began to be couched. Officers carried in addition a flanged mace called a bardoukion, meaning 'sledgehammer', in a case right of the saddle bow. This had become fairly standard equipment by the late-10th century.

Body armour consisted of a mail lorikion, thorax or zaba (from which the Arabic 'zardfaa', long mail coat, derived) to knees and elbows, or horn or iron scale armour if mail was unavailable. A lamellar corselet called a klibanion could also be substituted; technically this was a short sleeveless defence of the type worn by 2 and 4, but it was also a blanket term for lamellar armour in general. It was sometimes worn over the mail lorikion for extra protection, as here. Most men wore mail hoods or aventails, those without wearing a padded wool or linen gorget instead. Additional armour consisted of vambraces and greaves of iron, wood or ox-hide. Dyed horsehair tufts were worn on each shoulder and also as helmet crests.

Archer ranks were usually less-heavily armoured, and although they officially carried no shield the 12-inch diameter one was probably still in use by many, strapped to the left forearm. Their composite bow was 45-48 inches long and more powerful than those of the Turks and Persians but 'slower firing', probably because it was fired by volley. When not in use it was kept in a waterproof case which hung from the saddle at the left. The quiver, containing a spare bowstring and 30-40 27-inch arrows, was suspended from the belt at the right hip. Bad archers could substitute 2 javelins for the bow and by the reign of Nikephoros II 2 javelins and a spear might also be substituted for the kontarion.

Clothing consisted of bleached linen tunic embroidered with coloured thread, loose linen trousers, and yellowish leather boots; in winter goatskin dyed in solid colours and with the hair left on was substituted for linen clothing. A long, sandy-brown cloak was rolled up and strapped behind the saddle, sometimes being worn to conceal the gleam of armour. Such is the description of dress given in the manuals. The pictorial sources, on the other hand, tell a different story. Uniforms were dyed throughout this period, predominantly in red, also in all shades of blue and sometimes green and purple; trousers are most often shown as white or grey so were presumably bleached or left undyed. Tunic embroidery at hems and cuffs appears to have been generally gold. Boots were black, brown or sometimes dyed, usually red or white; they were invariably decorated with dark bands as shown in the drawings. The army-issue cloak would appear to have been replaced on active service by non-regulation, brightly-coloured civilian types with embroidered hems and panels, particularly amongst the officers. Either way the cloak was not normally worn in battle. The military manuals specify that each bandon had lance-pennons, plumes, shields and standards in a particular distinctive colour.

Probably all lancers rode armoured or half-armoured horses, though it is less likely that archers did so. Note that the Byzantines do not appear to have used spurs.

See an early kite shield in a Byzantine Manuscript of the Iliad, 10th century. BNM Ms. Gr.Z.454.
See shoulder tufts on plates depicting the Byzantine folk hero, Digenis Akritas, 12th century.
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