Komnenian army

Komnenian army

Infobox War Faction
name= Byzantine army
war= the Byzantine-Seljuk wars, the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars, the Byzantine-Norman Wars and other conflicts
active= 1081–1204 AD
leaders= Byzantine Emperor
area= Asia Minor, Southern Italy, Balkans, Hungary, Syria, Egypt.
strength= 20,000 field troops under Alexios IW. Treadgold, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society", 680]
30,000 field troops under John II
40,000 field troops + militia under Manuel I
partof= Byzantine Empire
next= Nicaean/Palaiologan army
allies= Venice, Genoa, Danishmends, Georgia, Galicia, Vladimir-Suzdal, Kiev, Ancona, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Mosul.
opponents= Venice, Hungary, Bulgaria, Seljuks, Antioch, Sicily, Armenian Cilicia, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Pechenegs, Cumans.
battles= Dyrrhachium, Levounion, Nicaea Philomelion, Beroia, Sirmium, Myriokephalon, Hyelion and Leimocheir, Cotyaeum
The Komnenian army was the force established by Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos during the late eleventh/early twelfth century, and perfected by his successors John II Komnenos and Manuel I Komnenos during the 12th century. Alexios constructed a new army from the ground up, completely replacing previous forms of the Byzantine army. The Komnenian army was instrumental in the Komnenian restoration of the Byzantine empire during the period of its existence, and was deployed in the Balkans, Italy, Hungary, Anatolia, the Holy Land and Egypt.


At the beginning of the Komnenian period in 1081, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced to the smallest territorial extent in its history. Surrounded by enemies, and financially ruined by a long period of civil war, the empire's prospects had looked grim. The nadir in the strength of the Komnenian army came in 1091 when Alexios could manage to field only 500 soldiers from the Empire's professional forces. These formed the nucleus of the army, with the addition of the armed retainers of Alexios' relatives and the nobles enrolled in the army and the substantial aid of a large force of allied Cumans, which won the Battle of Levounion against the Pechenegs (Petcheneks or Patzinaks). [Angold, p. 127.] Yet, through a combination of skill, determination and years of campaigning, Alexios, John and Manuel Komnenos managed to restore the power of the Byzantine Empire by constructing a new army from the ground up.

The new force had a core of units which were both professional and disciplined. It contained formidable guards units such as the Varangians, the "Athanatoi", a unit of heavy cavalry stationed in Constantinople, the "Vardariotai" and the "Archontopouloi," recruited by Alexios from the sons of dead Byzantine officers, foreign mercenary regiments, and also levies from the provinces. These levies included "Kataphraktoi" cavalry from Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace, and various other provincial forces such as Trebizond Archers from the Black Sea coast of Anatolia. Alongside troops raised and paid for directly by the state the Komnenian army included the armed followers of members of the wider imperial family and its extensive connections. In this can be seen the beginnings of the feudalisation of the Byzantine military. The granting of "pronoia" holdings, where land, or more accurately rights to revenue from land, was held in return for military obligations, was beginning to become a notable element in the military infrastructure towards the end of the Komnenian period, though it became much more important subsequently.

In 1097, the Byzantine army numbered around 70,000 men altogether. [Konstam, p. 141.] By 1180 and the death of Manuel Komnenos, whose frequent campaigns had been on a grand scale, the army was probably considerably larger. During the reign of Alexios I, the field army numbered around 20,000 men which was increased to about 30,000 men in John II's reign.W. Treadgold, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society", 680] By the end of Manuel I's reign the Byzantine field army had risen to 40,000 men.


During the period the earlier names for the basic units of the Byzantine army, "bandon" and "moira", gradually disappear to be replaced by the "allagion" (Polytonic|ἀλλάγιον), believed to have been between 300 to 500 men strong. The "allagion", commanded by an "allagator", was probably divided into subunits of 100, 50 and 10 men. On campaign the "allagia" could be grouped together (usually in threes) into larger bodies called "taxeis", "syntaxeis", "lochoi" or "tagmata". [Heath, p. 13.]

The earlier guard units did not, in general, survive the reign of Alexios I, the exception being the Varangians, and probably the "Archontopouloi" and "Vestiaritai" (treasury guards); the "Hetaireia" (literally "companions") is still mentioned though this was always more a collection of individual units under an administrative title than a regiment as such. By this time period, the Varangian guard consisted of Englishmen, Russians, and Scandinavians, totaling 5,000 men.J. Phillips, "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople", 159] Immediately after the Battle of Dyrrhachium, Alexios I recruited 2,000 men to form the "Tagma of the Archontopouli".W. Treadgold, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society", 617] The Vardariots, a cavalry unit initially recruited from the Christianized Turks of the Vardar valley, were a later addition to the guard and were probably raised by John II. Of increasing importance during the Komnenian period was the "Oikeioi" (Polytonic|οἰκείοι, "those of the household"); this was the emperor's household mobilized for war and was equivalent to the household knights of western kings. It would have consisted of the emperor's retinue, plus his relatives and close associates with their immediate retinues and as such would have been equipped with the finest arms and armour and mounted on the highest quality war-horses available. Although not a formal regiment it would have been a formidable fighting force, though it would have been available only when the emperor took the field in person. [Heath, p. 14.] Under Alexios, and probably subsequently, the "Oikeioi" also served as a sort of "staff college" for training promising young officers. Alexios took 300 young officers into his household, whom he trained personally. In the campaign against Bohemund in 1107-8 the best of these officers commanded the blockading forces keeping the Norman army pent up on the Albanian coast. The victorious outcome of this campaign probably resulted, in part, from the increased discipline the Byzantine forces showed due to the quality of their commanders. [Angold, p. 128.]

In the course of the 11th century the part-time soldier-farmers of the "themata" (military provinces) were largely replaced by smaller full-time provincial "tagmata" (regiments). [Haldon (1999), p. 118.] The political and military anarchy of the later 11th century meant that it was solely the provincial "tagmata" of the southern Balkans which survived. These regiments, whose soldiers could be characterized as "native mercenaries," became an integral part of the central army and many field armies of the Komnenian period, the "tagmata" of Macedonia and Thessaly being particularly notable. Though raised in particular provinces these regiments had long ceased to have any local defence role. As regions were reconquered and brought under greater control provincial forces were re-established, though initially they often only served to provide local garrisons. Military settlers, often derived from defeated foes, also supplied soldiers; one such group of settlers, defeated Pechenegs, was settled in the Moglena district and provided a unit to the army. Towards the end of the period "pronoia" revenue grants, from the income generated by parcels of land, allowed the provinces to be used to raise heavy cavalrymen with less immediate drain on the state treasury.

The central army ("Vasilika Allagia" or "Taxeis"), in addition to the guards units and the native regiments raised from particular provinces, comprised a number of "tagmata" of foreign mercenaries. These included the "Latinikon," a heavy cavalry formation of Western European 'knights,' and members of families of western origin who had been in Byzantine employ for generations. Another unit was the "Tourkopouloi", which, as its name implies, was composed of Byzantinised Turks and mercenaries recruited from the Seljuk realms. A third was the "Skythikon" recruited from the Turkic Pechenegs, Cumans and Uzes of the Ukrainian Steppes. [Heath, Ian: Armies and Enemies of the Crusades 1096-1291, Wargames Research Group. (1978), p. 28.]

In order to increase the size of his army, Alexios I even recruited 3,000 Paulicians from Philippolis and formed them into the "Tagma of the Manichaeans", while 7,000 Turks were also hired.W. Treadgold, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society", 614] Foreign mercenaries and the soldiers provided by imperial vassals (such as the Serbs and Antiochenes), serving under their own leaders, were another feature of the Byzantine army of the time. These troops would usually be placed under a Byzantine general as part of his command, to be brigaded with other troops of a similar fighting capability, or combined to create field forces of mixed type. However, if the foreign contingent were particularly large and its leader a powerful and prominent figure then it might remain separate; Baldwin of Antioch commanded a major division of the Byzantine army at the Battle of Myriokephalon. The Byzantines usually took care to mix ethnic groups within the formations making up a field army in order to minimize the risk of all the soldiers of a particular nationality changing sides or decamping to the rear during battle. During the early part of the 12th century, the Serbs were required to send 300 cavalry whenever the Byzantine emperor was campaigning in Asia Minor. This number was increased after Manuel I defeated the Serb rebellion in 1150 to 2,000 Serbs for European campaigns and 500 Serbs for Anatolian campaigns.I. Heath, "Byzantine Armies: AD 1118-1461", 33]

The semi-feudal forces raised by the "dynatoi" or provincial magnates were a useful addition to the Byzantine army. Some leading provincial families became very powerful, e.g. the Gabras family of Trebizond achieved virtual independence of central authority at times during the 12th century. The wealthy and influential members of the regional aristocracy could raise substantial numbers of troops from their retainers, relatives and tenants. Their quality, however, would tend to be inferior to the professional troops of the "Vasilika Allagia."

Under the emperor, the commander-in-chief of the army was the "Megas Domestikos" (Grand Domestic). His second-in-command was the "Protostrator." The commander of the navy was the "Megas Doux" (Grand Duke), who was also the military commander for Crete, the Aegean Islands and parts of mainland Greece. Individual provinces and the defensive forces they contained were governed by a "doux" (duke) or "katepano" (though this title was sometimes bestowed on the senior administrator below the "doux"), who was a military officer with civil authority; under the "doux" a fortified settlement or a fortress was commanded by an officer with the title "kastrophylax." Lesser commanders, with the exception of some archaic titles, were known by the size of the unit they commanded, for example a "tagmatarch" commanded a "tagma" (regiment). The commander of the Varangians had a unique title, "Akolouthos" (acolyte), indicative of his close personal attendance on the emperor. [ Heath, Ian; McBride, Angus (1995). Byzantine Armies: AD 1118-1461.pp. 12-19.]

Equipment: Arms and Armour

The arms and armour of the Byzantine forces in the late 11th and 12th centuries were generally more sophisticated and varied than those found in contemporary Western Europe. Byzantium was open to military influences from the Muslim world and the Eurasian steppe, the latter being especially productive of military equipment innovation. The Komnenian period, despite almost constant warfare, is notable for the lack of military treatise writing, which seems to have petered out during the 11th century. So, unlike in earlier periods, there are no detailed descriptions of Byzantine tactics and military equipment. Information on military matters in the Komnenian era must be gleaned from passing comments in contemporary historical and biographical literature, court panegyrics and from pictorial evidence.

Close combat troops, infantry and cavalry, made use of a spear, of varying length, usually referred to as a "kontarion." Specialist infantry called "menavlatoi" used a heavy-shafted weapon called the "menavlion" the precise nature of which is uncertain; they are mentioned in the earlier "Sylloge Tacticorum" but may still have been extant. Swords were of two types: the "spathion" which was straight and double edged and differed only in details of the hilt from the standard ‘sword of war’ found in Western Europe, and the "paramerion" which appears to have been a form of single-edged, perhaps slightly curved, sabre. [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), p. 25.] Some infantry used relatively light axes, whilst the Varangians were known as the “Axe Bearing Guard” because of their use of the double-handed Danish axe. Heavy cavalry made use of maces. [Nicolle, David: Medieval Warfare Source Book, Vol. II London (1996), pp. 75-76, also mentioned by Kinnamos).]

Missile weapons included a javelin, "riptarion," used by light infantry and powerful composite bows used by both infantry and cavalry. The earlier Byzantine bow was of Hunnic origin, but by the Komnenian period bows of Turkish form were in widespread use. Such bows could be used to fire short bolts ("myai", "flies") with the use of an ‘arrow guide’ called the "solenarion." Slings and staff-slings are also mentioned on occasion. [Nicolle, David: Medieval Warfare Source Book, Vol. II London (1996), p. 74.]

Shields, "skoutaria," were usually of the long “kite” shape, though round shields are still shown in pictorial sources. Whatever their overall shape, all shields were strongly convex. A large pavise-like infantry shield may also have been used. [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), p. 23.]

The Byzantines made great use of ‘soft armour’ of quilted, padded textile construction identical to the “jack” or "aketon" found later in the Latin West. Such a garment, called the "kavadion," usually reaching to just above the knees with elbow or full-length sleeves, was often the sole body protection for lighter troops, both infantry and cavalry. Alternatively the "kavadion" could provide the base garment (like an arming doublet) worn under metallic armour by more heavily protected troops. [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), p. 22] Another form of padded armour, the "epilorikion" could be worn over a metal cuirass.

The repertoire of metal body armour included mail ("lorikion alysidoton"), scale ("lorikion folidoton") and lamellar ("klivanion"). Both mail and scale armours were similar to equivalent armours found in Western Europe, a pull-on “shirt” reaching to the mid-thigh or knee with elbow length sleeves. The lamellar "klivanion" was a rather different type of garment. Byzantine lamellar, from pictorial evidence, possessed some unique features. It was made up of round-topped metal lamellae riveted, edge to edge, to horizontal leather backing bands; these bands were then laced together, overlapping vertically, by laces passing through holes in the lamellae. Modern reconstructions have shown this armour to be remarkably resistant to piercing and cutting weapons. Because of the expense of its manufacture this form of armour was probably largely confined to heavy cavalry and elite units. [Dawson, Timothy: [http://www.levantia.com.au/military/KKK.html "Kresmasmata, Kabbadion, Klibanion": Some Aspects of Middle Byzantine Military Equipment Reconsidered] , Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 22 (1998), pp. 38-50.]

Because lamellar armour was inherently less flexible than other types of protection the "klivanion" was restricted to a cuirass covering the torso only. It did not have integral sleeves and reached only to the hips; it covered much the same body area as a bronze ‘muscle cuirass’ of antiquity. The "klivanion" was usually worn with other armour elements which would extend the area of the body protected. The "klivanion" could be worn over a mail shirt, as shown on some contemporary icons depicting military saints. More commonly the "klivanion" is depicted being worn with tubular upper arm defences of a splinted construction often with small pauldrons or ‘cops’ to protect the shoulders. In illustrated manuscripts, such as the Madrid Skylitzes, these defences are shown decorated with gold leaf in an identical manner to the "klivanion" indicating their metal construction. More rarely these rerebraces are depicted being made up of “inverted” lamellar. [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), p. 23 (illustration).]

A garment often shown worn with the "klivanion" was the "kremasmata". This was a skirt, perhaps quilted or of pleated fabric, reinforced with metal splints similar to those found in the arm defences. This garment protected the hips and thighs of the wearer. [Nicolle, David: Medieval Warfare Source Book, Vol. II London (1996), p. 78.]

Defences for the forearm are mentioned in earlier treatises, under the name "manikellia," but are not very evident in pictorial representations of the Komnenian period. Most images show knee-high boots as the only form of defence for the lower leg though a few images of military saints show tubular greaves (with no detailing indicating a composite construction). These would presumably be termed "podopsella." Greaves of a splint construction also occur, very sporadically, in illustrated manuscripts. [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), p. 23..] A single illustration, in the Psalter of Theodore of Caesarea dating to 1066, shows mail chausses being worn (with boots) by a Byzantine soldier. [Oman, Charles: The Art of War in the Middle Ages, Vol. I: 378-1278AD, London (1924). pp. (illustration facing) 190, and 191.]

Icons of soldier-saints, often showing very detailed illustrations of body armour, usually depict their subjects bare-headed for devotional reasons and therefore give no information on helmets and other head protection. Illustrations in manuscripts tend to be relatively small and give a limited amount of detail. However, some description of the helmets in use by the Byzantines can be given. The so-called ‘Caucasian’ type of helmet in use in the Northern Pontic Steppe area and the Slavic areas of Eastern Europe is also indicated in Byzantium. This was a tall, pointed spangenhelm where the segments of the composite skull were riveted directly to one another and not to a frame. Illustrations also indicate conical helmets, and the type with a forward deflected apex (the Phrygian cap style), of a single-piece skull construction, often with an added brow-band. Helmets with a more rounded shape are also illustrated, being of a composite construction and perhaps derived from the earlier 'ridge helmet' dating back to Late Roman times. [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), pp. 20-21.]

In the course of the 12th century the brimmed ‘chapel de fer’ helmet begins to be depicted and is, perhaps, a Byzantine development. [Nicolle, David: Medieval Warfare Source Book, Vol. II London (1996), p. 163..]

Most Byzantine helmets are shown being worn with armour for the neck. Somewhat less frequently the defences also cover the throat and there are indications that full facial protection was occasionally afforded. The most often illustrated example of such armour is a sectioned skirt depending from the back and sides of the helmet; this may have been of quilted construction, leather strips or of metal splint reinforced fabric. Other depictions of helmets, especially the ‘Caucasian’ type, are shown with a mail aventail or camail attached to the brow-band (which is confirmed by actual examples from Russia and elsewhere). [Dawson, Timothy: Byzantine Infantryman, Oxford (2007), pp. 20-21]

Face protection is mentioned at least twice in the literature of the Komnenian period, and probably indicates face-covering mail, leaving only the eyes visible. This would accord with accounts of such protection in earlier military writings, and later illustrations. Such a complete camail could be raised off the face by hooking up the mail to studs on the brow of the helmet. However, the remains of metal ‘face-mask’ anthropomorphic visors were discovered at the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople in association with a coin of Manuel I Komnenos. These are similar to the visors found in grave sites associated with Kipchaq Turks from the North Pontic Steppe, and could indicate that the references to face-protection in Byzantine literature describe the use of such solid visors. [Nicolle, David: Medieval Warfare Source Book, Vol. II London (1996), p. 163..]


Under John II, a Macedonian division was maintained, and new native Byzantine troops were recruited from the provinces. As Byzantine Asia Minor began to prosper under John and Manuel, more soldiers were raised from the Asiatic provinces of Neokastra, Paphlagonia and even Seleucia (in the south east). Soldiers were also drawn from defeated peoples, such as the Pechenegs (cavalry archers), and the Serbs, who were used as settlers stationed at Nicomedia. Native troops were organised into regular units and stationed in both the Asian and European provinces. Komnenian armies were also often reinforced by allied contingents from Antioch, Serbia and Hungary, yet even so they generally consisted of about two-thirds Byzantine troops to one-third foreigners. Units of archers, infantry and cavalry were grouped together so as to provide combined arms support to each other.

The emperor Manuel I was heavily influenced by Westerners (both of his empresses were 'Franks') and at the beginning of his reign he re-equipped and retrained his native Byzantine heavy cavalry along Western lines. [ Kinnamos, p. 99.] It is inferred that Manuel introduced the couched lance technique, the close order charge and increased the use of heavier armour. Manuel personally took part in 'knightly' tournaments in the Western fashion; his considerable prowess impressed Western observers.

Permanent military camps were established in the Balkans and in Anatolia, these are first described during the reign of John II. The main Anatolian camp was at Lopadion on the Rhyndakos River near the Sea of Marmora, the European equivalent was at Kypsella in Thrace, others were at Sofia (Serdica) and at Pelagonia, west of Thessalonica. These great military camps seem to have been an innovation of the Komnenian emperors and may have played an important part in the improvement in the effectiveness of the Byzantine forces seen in the period. The camps were used as transit stations for the movement of troops, as concentration points for field armies, for the training of troops and for the preparation of armies for the rigours of campaign.


When the Komnenian dynasty came to an end in 1185, the Komnenian army did not immediately disappear. However, under the Angeloi, the Byzantine empire declined rapidly, and the result was a dimunition of the fighting power of the army. When Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Byzantine successor states established at Epirus, Trebizond and especially Nicaea based their military systems on the Komnenian army. The success of the empire of Nicaea in particular in reconquering former Byzantine territories (including Constantinople) after 1204 may be seen as evidence of the strengths of the Komnenian army model. However, there is reason to restrict the term Komnenian army solely to the period of the rule of the Komnenian emperors; the Byzantine army after the recovery of Constantinople in 1261 was sufficiently distinct from its earlier form to deserve a separate identity as the Palaiologan army.

Notable generals

Under Alexios I:
* Nikephoros Bryennios
* George Palaiologos
* Nikephoros Melissenos
* Tatikios

Under John II:
* John Axoukh

Under Manuel I:
* Isaac Komnenos
* Andronikos Kontostephanos
* John Kontostephanos
* Michael Palaiologos
* John Doukas
* John Vatatzes

Under Andronikos I:
* Alexios Branas



;Primary sources
* Kinammos, Ioannes (John Cinnamus), "Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus", trans. Charles M. Brand. Columbia University Press, 1976.
*cite book | last=Komnene (Comnena)| first=Anna|coauthors= Edgar Robert Ashton Sewter|authorlink=Anna Komnene | title=The Alexiad of Anna Comnena translated by Edgar Robert Ashton Sewter| publisher=Penguin Classics | year=1969 | id=ISBN 0-14-044215-4 | chapter=XLVIII-The First Crusade

;Secondary sources
*cite book
first = Michael
last = Angold
title = The Byzantine Empire 1025-1204
year = 1984
publisher = Longman, Harlow Essex
isbn =

*cite book
first = John W.
last = Birkenmeier
title = The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081-1180
publisher = Brill
year = 2002
isbn = 9004117105

*cite book
first = Timothy
last = Dawson
title = Byzantine Infantryman. Eastern Roman Empire c.900-1204
publisher = Osprey
year = 2007
isbn = 9781846031052

*cite book
first = John F.
last = Haldon
title = Warfare, state and society in the Byzantine world, 565-1204
year = 1999
publisher = Routledge
isbn = 1857284941

*cite book
first = John F
last = Haldon
title = The Byzantine wars
year =
publisher =
isbn =

*cite book
first = Jonathan
last = Harris
title = Byzantium and The Crusades
publisher = Hambledon & London
year = 2006
isbn = 978-1852855017

*cite book
first = Ian
last = Heath
coauthors = McBride, Angus
title = Byzantine Armies: AD 1118-1461
publisher = Osprey
year = 1995
isbn = 978-1855323476

*cite book
first = David
last = Nicolle
title = Medieval Warfare Source Book Vol. II
publisher = Arms and Armour
year = 1996
isbn = 1860198619

*cite book
title=A History of the Byzantine State and Society
publisher=Stanford University Press

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