Citizen Soldiers in Byzantine Empire

Oct 2011
505
Croatia
I was searching about conscription / militia / National Guard-equivalent in Byzantine Army (well, NG-equivalent would be thematic forces), and ran across this:

It appears that Romans continued conscripting civilians into military well into Middle Ages. But those conscripts were useless in the field, and so were only used for garrison duty. This was part of the reason why Byzantine Empire fielded much smaller armies than during Republic, but larger than Principate. Byzantine maximum was 250 000 out of population of 12 million in 1025., and even that was only fielded in field armies of 25 000 or less. Even counting navy we get maybe 290 000, or 2,4% of populace. Roman Republic lost 130 000 troops in 217/216 BC, so assuming 6 million population of Italy, they had 2,2% battlefield deaths. And 6 million is the highest "reasonable" number I could find. At the same time, mobilization rate hovered at cca 10% of populace.

So why did Roman Republic model army become ineffective, even when the Empire was hard pressed for troops? Was it simply that such conscripts could not be effectively trained for maneuver warfare that Byzantines tended to favour, or were there other factors as well (e.g. increasing sophistication of surrounding societies, increasing sophistication of weapons and tactics etc.) which made smaller, more professional armies preferable? And we know armies in Middle Ages were much smaller: Roman armies built aggers (ramps) for sieges, while Crusaders at Jerusalem had to settle for two towers due to lack of manpower. Only in early Middle Ages do we see armies close to those of Rome (e.g. Charles Martell).

One possibility may be the introduction of stirrups - this made cavalry much more effective, so Roman conscription system may not have been effective any more as proper cavalry had to be professional. Another possibility had to do with feudalism, including political fracturization and seventy bajillion castles lying around. And last possibility is the declining economic importance of slave labour.

And are there any other good sources about the topic?
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,903
Blachernai
It appears that Romans continued conscripting civilians into military well into Middle Ages. But those conscripts were useless in the field, and so were only used for garrison duty. This was part of the reason why Byzantine Empire fielded much smaller armies than during Republic, but larger than Principate. Byzantine maximum was 250 000 out of population of 12 million in 1025., and even that was only fielded in field armies of 25 000 or less. Even counting navy we get maybe 290 000, or 2,4% of populace. Roman Republic lost 130 000 troops in 217/216 BC, so assuming 6 million population of Italy, they had 2,2% battlefield deaths. And 6 million is the highest "reasonable" number I could find. At the same time, mobilization rate hovered at cca 10% of populace.
These sorts of figures get thrown around for the Republic, but what sort of sources are they based on? The logistics alone make me question them. Even when good roads, wheeled vehicles, and regular supply lines are available, supporting more than 25,000-30,000 over land is extremely difficult. Byzantium probably had the most sophisticated logistical system in western Eurasia in the early middle ages, but Michael I's campaign against the Bulgars in 813 suggest that even they had trouble keeping a large army in one spot for more than a week.

Was it simply that such conscripts could not be effectively trained for maneuver warfare that Byzantines tended to favour, or were there other factors as well (e.g. increasing sophistication of surrounding societies, increasing sophistication of weapons and tactics etc.) which made smaller, more professional armies preferable?
Winning a war is not always the goal. Building the agger at Masada kept a couple of legions occupied for a long time in a period of political strife and military involvement in politics. The same thing goes with Byzantium: themata troops liked to vote with their swords, and it's no surprise that in response we see the emergence of small, professional units paid directly by the political centre.

Only in early Middle Ages do we see armies close to those of Rome (e.g. Charles Martell).
Do we? The general archaeology of early medieval Europe points to demographic collapse, abandonment of built structures, and reforestation. The Merovingian and Carolingian polities do not seem to have had particularly complex logistical structures. Bernard Bachrach's study of Charlemagne's invasion of Italy in 773-4 would have needed something to 50,000-60,000 to take Pavia quickly, a strength he clearly did not have.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,849
Cornwall
There's some really daft figures thrown about in medieval history as is often debated here. You only have to look at the single track dirt road your army travelled on and count the amount of meat they need and therefore the amount of carts to realise the idiocy of some figures. Especially where horses are involved.
 
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Oct 2011
505
Croatia
These sorts of figures get thrown around for the Republic, but what sort of sources are they based on? The logistics alone make me question them. Even when good roads, wheeled vehicles, and regular supply lines are available, supporting more than 25,000-30,000 over land is extremely difficult. Byzantium probably had the most sophisticated logistical system in western Eurasia in the early middle ages, but Michael I's campaign against the Bulgars in 813 suggest that even they had trouble keeping a large army in one spot for more than a week.
I do not think armies would march as one body. More likely situation is what Napoleon regularly did, have individual divisions (legions or pairs of legions) march to the battlefield in parallel, unite for a battle, and then disband after the battle is done.

Winning a war is not always the goal. Building the agger at Masada kept a couple of legions occupied for a long time in a period of political strife and military involvement in politics. The same thing goes with Byzantium: themata troops liked to vote with their swords, and it's no surprise that in response we see the emergence of small, professional units paid directly by the political centre.
I am aware of that, but that is not what I am asking. Matter of the fact is, even themata armies were professionals, when compared to pre-Marian legions, even though they had significant connections to local populace, to the point of forming a major democratic element in political environment of the Empire. Basically, if Tagmata and post-Marian legions were the modern US Army, Themata would be US National Guard, and pre-Marian legions would be Reserve Militia.

Do we? The general archaeology of early medieval Europe points to demographic collapse, abandonment of built structures, and reforestation. The Merovingian and Carolingian polities do not seem to have had particularly complex logistical structures. Bernard Bachrach's study of Charlemagne's invasion of Italy in 773-4 would have needed something to 50,000-60,000 to take Pavia quickly, a strength he clearly did not have.
There is a difference however between calling up levies for a single battle, where each person can bring their own food, and siege or campaign where you do need developed logistics to support army in the field for an extended period of time. At any rate, Tours has armies of 15 000 - 20 000 on both sides, which is somewhere close to capacity of Roman Empire at the time (Romans I think could deploy up to 40 000 if they really went all-out). But even that number I do not think could have been maintained for long.
 
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Mar 2018
888
UK
Perhaps the thing to ask is not why the Byzantines had such small armies, but rather how armies in 350BC-0AD got so big. Only post French revolution to WW2 did countries in western Eurasia ever have such a large fraction of their population under arms. Outside of those two periods, the Byzantine armies are more or less the norm, or even larger than the norm.

The latter period of super-sized armies can be explained by a combination of nationalism and then industrialisation. For the earlier period I don't have as good a reason. But it seems to be that the time when a city state is turning into an empire produces the right combination of political system, culture of mutual fraternity/solidarity, and increased resources to allow it to have large armies. But this combination is the exception, having smaller armies is simply the historical norm.
 
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Oct 2011
505
Croatia
Perhaps the thing to ask is not why the Byzantines had such small armies, but rather how armies in 350BC-0AD got so big. Only post French revolution to WW2 did countries in western Eurasia ever have such a large fraction of their population under arms. Outside of those two periods, the Byzantine armies are more or less the norm, or even larger than the norm.

The latter period of super-sized armies can be explained by a combination of nationalism and then industrialisation. For the earlier period I don't have as good a reason. But it seems to be that the time when a city state is turning into an empire produces the right combination of political system, culture of mutual fraternity/solidarity, and increased resources to allow it to have large armies. But this combination is the exception, having smaller armies is simply the historical norm.
In other words, nationalism again. Romans fought not against states, but against peoples, and that seems to have been the norm of the Western Mediterranean. But I do not think that is the only reason for large armies.

And yeah, Byzantine armies, especially of the Middle Byzantine period, were larger than the norm of their time.
 
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Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,903
Blachernai
One critical factor that needs to be considered in terms of relating the size of Republican Roman to medieval Roman armies is sources. For Byzantium, we have prescriptive military manuals and some documentary materials. For the Punic Wars we have, what, Livy, writing a history glorifying Rome some two centuries after the events in question?

I do not think armies would march as one body. More likely situation is what Napoleon regularly did, have individual divisions (legions or pairs of legions) march to the battlefield in parallel, unite for a battle, and then disband after the battle is done.
They didn't march together, but the general Byzantine strategy was to avoid battle. Battles involving more than a few thousand combatants were rare for most of Byzantine history, and usually only took place after extensive maneuvering.


I am aware of that, but that is not what I am asking. Matter of the fact is, even themata armies were professionals, when compared to pre-Marian legions, even though they had significant connections to local populace, to the point of forming a major democratic element in political environment of the Empire. Basically, if Tagmata and post-Marian legions were the modern US Army, Themata would be US National Guard, and pre-Marian legions would be Reserve Militia.
I don't know enough about the US military to comment, but from the eighth through tenth centuries, the tagmata were quite small. The bulk of campaign armies into the mid-tenth century were still thematic units.

There is a difference however between calling up levies for a single battle, where each person can bring their own food, and siege or campaign where you do need developed logistics to support army in the field for an extended period of time. At any rate, Tours has armies of 15 000 - 20 000 on both sides, which is somewhere close to capacity of Roman Empire at the time (Romans I think could deploy up to 40 000 if they really went all-out). But even that number I do not think could have been maintained for long.
That seems about right. Leo the Deacon remarked that John I Tzimiskes' army of some 30,000 was unusually large, and the documents for the 911 campaign against Syria indicate that they sent 47,000 men including sailors and marines. Time and place is everything - numbers go up rapidly when warships are involved, as does the supply capacity since it's much easier to ship goods over water. Yet we also have a tenth-century manual mention that in the context of eastern warfare, five or six thousand is all the general would ever need (De Velitatione, §19).
 
Oct 2011
505
Croatia
Yet we also have a tenth-century manual mention that in the context of eastern warfare, five or six thousand is all the general would ever need (De Velitatione, §19).
I believe De Velitatione was about guerilla warfare. So anything larger than 6 000 or so would be unwieldy in a warfare consisting of raids, counterraids, chevauchee etc.