Reiver by David Pilling

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Wonder of Rome!


Welcome, Ave and Salutem to The Wonder of Rome blog hop! Myself and a whole legion (or cohort) of authors specialising in Roman-themed historical fiction have got together to write a series of posts on different aspects of the Roman Empire - all for the enjoyment of you, the lucky readers.

As you can imagine, the Empire is a pretty big topic, and the posts cover a very wide variety of subjects, so you won't get bored. The list of other participating authors is at the foot of this page - once you've read this you can 'hop' from one blog to the next.

Every author is also offering a free prize or giveaway: simply leave a comment below a post, and your name will be put into a lucky dip. The winner will be announced shortly after the hop ends on the 19th August. I am offering a free paperback copy of my novel, "Caesar's Sword."


Caesar's Sword is set during a later period of the Empire, after Rome itself had fallen and the centre of imperial rule had switched to the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The story takes place during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-65) and follows the adventures of an exiled British warrior as he joins the Roman army and finds himself fighting for his life in the Hippodrome and on bloody North African battlefields.

For the hop I have chosen to write about the bucelarii, an elite regiment of Roman horse-soldiers that played a crucial role in the wars of this era. 'Bucelarii' is the Latin plural of Bucellarius, and translates as 'biscuit-eater', after the hard tack that the soldiers ate. These elite troops play an important role in my novel, and were vital to the survival and expansion of the Empire in the sixth century.

The Roman army of Justinian's reign was a very different beast to the army of the 'classical' era (roughly 100 BC-250 AD) which was made up of the famous legions and their auxiliaries. By Justinian's reign the legions were long gone: the shrunken Empire could no longer afford to maintain such large bodies of men - a legion usually comprised some 6000 men - and the army was divided into much smaller squadrons of about 900 men each.

Nor were there a great many ethnic 'Romans' serving in this much-changed army. Italy, including Rome herself, had long since been conquered by the Goths and Ostrogoths. The Emperors that now ruled from Constantinople stuffed their armies with mercenaries drawn from all over their remaining territories: fierce Germanic warrior tribes such as the Huns and the Herulii were much in demand. The old legions had largely fought on foot, with a few cavalry as auxiliaries, but by 500 AD the cream of the Roman army was mounted. Ceaseless wars against barbarian tribes that relied on light cavalry and horse archers had forced the Romans to adapt their way of fighting.

So to the bucelarii. These men were recruited by powerful individuals, such as generals and governors, rather than the state. They fought as personal bodyguards and household troops, and were usually quite small in number, though could grow to several thousand during the many civil wars that wracked the Empire. They were often better trained and kitted out than regular troops, and paid a great deal better as well. Flavius Belisarius, possibly the last great Roman general and a star of Caesar's Sword, had a personal guard of about seven thousand bucelarii at the height of his fame and power.

Flavius Belisarius

Belisarius's master, the Emperor Justinian, dreamed of restoring the glory of the Western Empire. Belisarius was the officer he picked to make that dream reality. He had a problem in that his armies were vastly outnumbered by the peoples that had invaded and occupied the old Roman territories of Italy and North Africa. Tasked with the seemingly impossible job of reconquering these lands with just a few thousand men, Belisarius had to think of some way of evening the odds.

The Emperor Justinian I and his court

His plans centred on the bucelarii. He had set about training them in the 520s, when Justinian had dispatched him to deal with the hordes of Sassanid Persians that were threatening to overrun the Empire's eastern frontiers. To counter the Sassanid horse-archers Belisarius raised an elite corps of heavy cavalry, armed with bows and lances and intended to act as skirmishers as well as shock troops.

The bucelarii were loaded down with armour and weaponry. As well as the short compound bows and lances, they carried long, heavy broadswords called spathas and a number of feathered darts clipped to the inside of their shields. The darts were intended to be thrown at close quarters, an extra nasty surprise for anyone unfortunate enough to be facing them in combat. For protection they were long scale mail coats reaching to their thighs, a type of four-piece conical helmet called a spangenhelm, and small round shields strapped to their left arms.

It took a lot of drill to train men to handle all these weapons and control their horses at the same time. Belisarius's men were trained to use stirrups to support themselves in the saddle (stirrups were a relatively new invention at this time and took pressure off certain parts of the anatomy...) and to control their horses with their knees. The Romans had always been experts at stealing fighting techniques from others and improving on them, and Belisarius did the same with his bucelarii: their archery methods were copied from the Huns, and their method of tilting with the lance from the Goths.

One training exercise required a soldier to gallop directly at a stuffed dummy hanging from a gallows. He had to string his bow as he charged, shoot three times at the dummy and finally impale it with his lance or darts. Those dummies didn't know what had hit them! Rates of pay, rations and rank were decided according to the skill of individual riders, rather than noble status.

Properly trained, equipped and led, the bucelarii were ferociously effective. They first proved their worth at the Battle of Dara, where Belisarius routed a much larger Sassanid army. The battle lasted all day, and was finally decided by a charge of the bucelarii, which Belisarius had held in reserve until the crucial moment. When he was transferred to North Africa, to reconquer the Roman province that had been overrun by the Vandals, the bucelarii again played vital roles in his victories at Ad Decimum and Tricamarum. On his return to Constantinople, Belisarius was the first Roman general in centuries to be awarded a triumph, and marched through the streets of the city at the head of his seven thousand guards.

Belisarius went on to win further victories in the West over the Goths and Ostrogoths, reconquering much of Italy and recovering (for a time) the city of Rome itself. The bucelarii were central to all his victories, and formed the nucleus of the new Roman and later Byzantine military. Capable of matching the 'barbarian' nations in mobility and bettering them in terms of equipment and strategy, they played a vital role in preserving the Empire for centuries to come.

Below are the links to all the other participating authors on this blog hop. Enjoy!

15 comments:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading all the articles on the Blog Hop - thank you so much for organising it David!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Helen - it's been fun to do! :)

      Delete
  2. I'm way behind Helen, just starting here. What fascinating facts about a life I find hard to imagine. Yet people lived it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A wonderfully informative post. Thanks for the chance to win your book.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Very interesting, David - thanks for clearing some of my mental fog around the 'late Romans'!

    ReplyDelete
  5. What athletes, to ride, wield all that armour, fight with broadswords and then finish off with deadly darts! Opposing armies must have been terrified. Thank you for the giveaway. denannduvall@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, David! Have you read Robert Graves' novel "Count Belisarius"? Reading your post really took me back to the fantastic battle scenes in that book.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Excellent post, David, and one featuring one of my late Roman heroes, Belisarius.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for your comments, all! :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love the Justinian era, and Bellisarius is a personal hero. Istanbul is probably my fave place in the world, and Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic first got me into the Byzantine world. Nice post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Victrix :) I have to make it to Istanbul some day!

      Delete
  10. Fascinating post: Do you see any possible connection between the the bucelarii and the "knights" of King Arthur? Didn't Gildas say he commanded cavalry against the Saxons?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Possibly? Though I'm not sure the bucellarii ever made it that far West. I believe the term 'knights' derives from the Latin 'equites' for horse-soldiers though?

      Delete
  11. This is fascinating - I particularly like the darts hidden inside the shields... no limit to the nasty imagination of men who might have to kill others while trying to stay alive... Wonderful idea - thank you so much for organising it...

    ReplyDelete
  12. No limits at all! :) Thanks Manda - it was fun to do.

    ReplyDelete