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An extract from Armies and Enemies of the Crusades 1096-1291
by Ian Heath


In their armour, as in many other respects, the Byzantines (or 'Romans' as they persisted in calling themselves) clung tenaciously to their classical heritage throughout this era, the evolution of armour basically stagnating after the 11th century so that most soldiers depicted in sources of the 11th-13th centuries differ from one another only in detail. Unfortunately there are no military manuals other than the somewhat Machiavellian 11th century Strategicon of Cecaumenus, so we are almost entirely dependant on such contemporary illustrations for information regarding arms and armour.

Basic equipment clearly consisted of corselet, helmet, shield, sword and spear. The corselet was most frequently of lamellar or scale, less often of mail, usually reaching only to the hips and shoulders with hanging pteruges still protecting the thighs and upper arms. Helmets were of 3 main types - the most common variety being pointed, with the neck protected by a scale or mail aventail or hanging leather lappets (66-68); conical with the back extended into a nape-guard (72, 73); or brimmed like a kettle-helmet, also sometimes with a neckguard of leather lappets or mail. Shields could be circular or kite-shaped, though some infantry still carried the old oval shield in the late-11th century. The kite-shield appears to have been in general use amongst heavy infantry and cavalry by the mid-12th century (but see note 75-78), though the circular shield prevailed amongst light infantry. Flat-topped heater shields like those of the Franks were also in use by the 13th century, though the kite remained more common; that carried by 69, quartered in red and black, is from a late-13th century wood-carving. The infantryman's spear was now usually of about 8-10 feet, though the old 12 foot Kontarion may have remained in limited use throughout this era. The sword was most commonly suspended from a baldric.

Other items of armour to be found in use included woollen or linen hoods such as that worn by 69, apparently fairly common, as well as mail coifs, the former probably the same as that described as laced at the back of the neck in Leo VI's Tactica; the old leather harness of breastbands and shoulder pieces (67, 69, 72 etc.); tubular upper-arm guards; and greaves and vambraces (both of these mentioned only very occasionally during this era).

Uniforms, where worn, were still mainly of various shades of red and blue, usually with heavily embroidered borders and hems, often brocade. Officers and noblemen wore much more elaborately embroidered tunics and trousers of brocade. Embroidery was often gold. Boots, a standard part of Byzantine military equipment, were chiefly red, black, white or yellowish leather; the markings, consisting of 2 or 3 dark bands, were fairly standard. Some men, however, appear to have worn shoes supplemented with similarly marked gaiters in place of the boots (see figure 76).

Hair was generally long enough to cover the ears, but was neatly trimmed, while short beards were characteristic of the Byzantines throughout this era and are often recorded in anecdotes (such as when Richard I of England captured Cyprus in 1191 and obliged the Greek population to shave off their beards 'in token of their change of masters').

Of the 4 figures depicted here, 66 dates to the latter part of the 11th century while 67 and 68 are from illustrations in the famous Scylitzes ms. which probably dates to c. 1200 (note the shield devices of these 2 figures, which closely resemble Bayeux Tapestry types). 69 dates to the 14th century and is probably representative of Byzantine infantry as they appeared at the time of the 'Catalan Vengeance' and the early Ottoman wars.

Next: 70, 71, 72 & 73. BYZANTINE LIGHT INFANTRYMEN in Armies and Enemies of the Crusades 1096-1291 by Ian Heath

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