Questions: We know that despite their anti-pagan attitude, the Byzantines safe-guarded ancient manuscripts, busts, artworks, etc (Roman and Greek). So presumably, a Roman in the medieval era could educate himself about ancient Roman or Greek literature, history, arts using the libraries of Constantinople.
Did they ever use this knowledge and their accessibility to antiquity to their advantage in the medieval era? One example might be that they used the Phalanx formation in the siege of Rome. Implementing these types of ancient battle tactics or bringing back those units must have given the enemies a great surprise. An Arab or Turkic or Slavic army would never expect to meet a legion in battle, which could work to the Byzantines’ advantage, couldn’t it?
The tenth-century saw a revival of Byzantine military manuals, which gives us an insight into how the army commanders thought about warfare. For example, there is a succession of these army manuals starting from about the 950s to the 1000s AD that cover the use of large hollow square formations. In order, these are the Sylloge Tactictorum (c. 950 AD), the Praecepta Militaria (c. 965 AD), the Tactica of Nikephoros Ouranos (c. 1000 AD). [Infantry versus Cavalry: The Byzantine Response by Eric McGeer].
Some passages are verbatim quotes of the earlier manuals, however, what we find fascinating is that other passages have been edited with newer tactics. For example, the later Praecepta Miltiaria describes keeping the pikemen (menuvlatoi) close to the front line of spearmen (hoplites – no tactical relation to the ancient Greek hoplites aside from both having shields) where the Sylloge describes keeping them separate.
These slight changes lend credence to the idea that these manuals were actually used and refined through periods of loss, such as in the early 950s soon after the Sylloge was written.
It is possibly worth providing the context that the Praecepta Militaria was a military manual likely edited together from the notes of the mid-tenth century general, Nikephoros Phokas, in 965 AD. The intervening 15 years (or so) had seen a very positive reversal in Byzantine fortunes, which had swept Nikephoros to the throne in 963 AD, and his sponsorship as emperor led to the wide publication of the Praecepta Militaria.
This has been a very wordy way of saying that Nikephoros was a very competent general who cared deeply about military literature and that we should pay attention to his writings and writings that he’s sponsored.
Near the beginning of the Praecepta Militaria, the following quote is provided that relates to the usage of ancient formations in current times:
“The heavy infantrymen must be deployed two deep in a double-faced formation, and keep two infantrymen in front and two in the back. Between them are three light archers, so that the depth of the formation is seven men. We do find the ancient Macedonians making their phalanx sixteen men deep, occasionally twelve or ten.
But because their adversaries were borne by elephants with wild beasts set loose among their formations, as we find the Ethiopians did against Alexander the Great, they also employed other methods in their wars in addition to these and for these reasons made use of such formations.
In our own day, however, such formations are no longer employed and this type of phalanx is impractical. When compared with the wars of the ancients, even the offspring of Hagar has greatly reduced the depth of their formations. ” [Chapter 1, lines 63-74, Page 17 of Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth by Prof. Eric McGeer]
What is interesting here is that Alexander the Great did encounter elephants, they weren’t the primary threat he faced when using his deep pike formations against Achaemenid Persia.
It’s difficult to highlight an absence of evidence, however, another manual published under (or soon after the death of) Nikephoros II Phokas, called On Skirmishing, makes no reference to earlier tactics and strategies, instead of keeping to very contemporary approaches of tracking the enemy, working out their size and force composition, shadowing them, and either attacking smaller raiding parties or forcing the invading force to not send out raiding parties at all. [Three Byzantine Treaties, George T. Dennis]
In conclusion, the generals of tenth-century Byzantium broadly knew of the different approaches that had been used and intentionally dismissed them in favor of novel tactics that earlier Roman and Greek armies hadn’t used. This reflects the much more constant state of border warfare and raiding in Anatolia and so the focus on cavalry as the offensive arm of the military with the infantry being used in a much more defensive role.
2. Infantry versus Cavalry: The Byzantine Response by Eric McGeer
3. Chapter 1, lines 63-74, Page 17 of Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth by Prof. Eric McGeer
4. Three Byzantine Treaties by George T. Dennis