[by master-archer, Lynn C. Rees]
The Strategikon, a
Byzantine Roman military manual attributed to the Emperor Maurice Flavius Mauricius Tiberius, summarized Roman calvary training towards the end of the sixth century:
He should be trained to shoot rapidly on foot, either in the Roman or the Persian manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose and discharging it with force. This is essential and should also be practiced when mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless. He should practice shooting rapidly on foot a certain distance from a spear, or some other target. He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run, to the front, the rear, the right, the left. He should practice leaping onto the horse. On horseback at a run he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or in a half-case designed for this purpose, and then he should grab the spear which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the spear in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted, on the march in their own country. For such exercises do not interfere with marching and do not wear out the horses.
As the Strategikon explains, and Robo-voice-over emphasizes, archery proficiency required years of drill. For tribesmen native to the Eurasian steppe stretching from Hungary to the Pacific, constant archery practice was a logical extension of daily life: bow work was essential to routine tasks like hunting or raiding the neighbors. For a hybrid settled/nomadic state like Parthia and its Sassanid successor, balancing the interests of your nomads out east with your farmers out west produced sharp tensions but often found a way to field archers without breaking the farmers or the treasury. For an wholly agricultural state like Rome in the sixth century, raising and training archers was an expensive strain.
Rome’s traditional strategy, crushing enemies under the weight of infantry mass, was hampered by population decline in the empire, bruising face-offs with new horse riding archers like the Huns, and an inability or disinclination to raise many soldiers from its own peasants. Rome turned toward smaller armies composed of horsemen, some drawn from native Romans, some mercenaries drawn from nomadic tribes like the Heruli. These armies were, man for man, better trained than prior Roman armies. They could check and even defeat opposing cavalry armies like the Persians.
But they were expensive. Roman finances groaned under the costs of supporting its armies. Their cost made it hard to maintain enough forces to cover all of the Roman’s territory. The Balkans were frequently abandoned to non-stop nomad raids because most forces were needed against the Persians in Armenia and Syria. Roman armies of the sixth century were politically fickle, prone to rebel if payment didn’t show up on time and sometimes prone to rebel even when pay arrived on time.
And they were brittle: like World War I-era dreadnoughts, they were too expensive to use. They couldn’t be replaced overnight like Rome replaced armies during the Second Punic War. Equivalent forces required time and capital to raise and train to proficiency. Native Romans had to be taught how to fight like steppe nomads at state expense. Nomadic mercenaries who had the needed skills from childhood were often unreliable. This made sixth-century Roman leaders as unwilling to risk battle as earlier Romans were eager to force battle.
Caution was justified. Destruction of just one of these armies, capital intensive transplants from their natural habitat on the steppes to the more foreign but pricey fleshpots of Thrace, Anatolia, Syria, Carthage, or Egypt, were not only catastrophic but world-changing. The military bench was left so thin that there was little left to resist a victor who succeeded in annihilating a sixth century Roman army.
Defeats by the Persians and civil war after the fussy Balkan army mutinied and overthrew Mauricius over discontent with their employment benefits and uncomfortable winter accommodations reduced Rome to precisely one army. If the Persians destroyed that one army, led in person by the Emperor Flavius Heraclius, that was the end of Rome. Heraclius came back from far behind, skillfully using that one army to defeat the Persians, though it meant leaving his capital reliant on only the Theodosian Walls and the remnants of the Roman navy to fight off an Avar-Persian siege. Turns out those were good odds against the Avars and Persians, though it left the Balkans open to permanent Slavic occupation.
But Heraclius only had that one army. When he sent it against a surprisingly persistent army of desert raiders six years after his victory over the Persians, he ended up with the equally surprising loss of that entire gold-plated army to those raiders. Destruction of that one Roman army was world changing. It’s why today’s Middle East and North Africa are Moslem instead of Christian.
Armies come and armies go but Yarmook is forever. The Romans had little in reserve. What little Rome had, Heraclius retreated with behind the Taurus Mountains. Tenuously holding that line, Rome served as an annual punching bag for Saracen raids for the next three hundred years. The Balkans, occupied successively by Slavs, Bulgars, and Magyars, also remained an open bleeding wound. Given chronic suffering from two-front-itis, Roman resurgence after 941, lasting to the death of the Bulgar-slayer, was the greatest comeback since Lazarus. It came to naught with another world-changing beating, this time permanent, as another gold-plated Roman army leading with its glass jaw was destroyed in one blow.
“Even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless”. Mass has quality all its own.