Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Soldiers of Byzantium - A Proposed Portable Wargames Army List

The Emperor, accompanied by the Army's icon leads
his kavallarioi to battle. (The Memoir '44 board
makes a fine photography studio!)
As promised a while back, I have attempted an Army List of Byzantine Empire troop type classifications and characteristics for the Portable Wargame.  The 'Enemies of Byzantium' will be for a later posting. This list is derived from the period c.950-c1050AD, but, with some exceptions can be adapted for the earlier Byzantine Empire from the development of the Thematic system. You will find in the following quite a few types that don't 'fit' the classifications given in the book.

First off, quite a few of the units are 'mixed arms'. In the case of the Byzantines, units, both horse and foot, usually comprised some lance or spear/pike armed ranks, and some bow. Occasionally there would be THREE different arms in the unit, notably the kataphraktoi and, on occasions, the heavy infantry that, for the purposes of this article, I'll call skoutatoi.  For the purposes of this article I shall ignore the secondary or tertiary weapons such as swords or maces (except where the latter are carried by kataphraktoi).


Akontistai - javelin light infantry.  All figures are 'Tin Soldier'
from Australia, bought over 30 years ago
 1. Akontistai - javelin armed light infantry.

Sphendonistai - slinger light infantry
 2. Sphendonistai - light infantry slingers.

Skoutatoi - lead rank spears, rear rank bow to represent the
close order formation of spear and bow-armed ranks.
3. Skoutatoi - close order heavy infantry in 7 (or 8) ranks.
  • Ranks 1,2, 6 and 7 comprise pike or spearmen (skoutatoi or kontaratoi); ranks 3,4, 5 comprising toxotai - archers.  An eighth, leading rank, might be formed by menavlatoi (see below)
  • In close combat, units of skoutatoi increase their D6 die roll by 1 if attacked in front by cavalry.
  • In close combat, units of skoutatoi reduce their D6 die roll by 1 if attacked in the flank.
  • In close combat, units of skoutatoi suffer no penalty if attacked  in rear.

Menavlatoi - Armed with heavy throwing weapons (actually
overlong as depicted here), in their skirmishing role.

4. Menavlatoi - skirmishers armed with heavy throwing weapon
  • These were 'dual purpose' troops, capable of forming a front rank of the skoutatoi.  In that case these troops are assumed to subsumed by the skoutatos unit.
  • They were also capable of skirmishing, supporting the light infantry.
  • For the purposes of this list, if fielded they are assumed to have taken the skirmish support role. (See table).
  • A unit of menavlatoi add 1 to D6 die roll in close combat with enemy light infantry to their front

General comment: 
The standard Byzantine infantry at around this time comprised formations of 1000 men, divided up into:

  • 100 light infantry slingers
  • 100 light infantry javelin men
  • 100 semi-light infantry with heavy throwing weapons
  • 400 heavy infantry spearmen (or pikemen - their spears seem to have been extraordinarily long)
  • 300 close order archers
These numbers can be represented by 4x8-figure skoutatos units, 2x2-figure javelin units and 2x2-figure slinger units. This assumes the heavy throwing weapon fellows have formed in close order the front rank of the heavy infantry. But if you want to field any, then 1x4-figure unit seems appropriate. 

There were a couple of other types of infantry that might be included:

Peltastoi - medium spearmen.  Somebody is missing
his shield...

5. Peltastoi - close order (medium) spearmen.  
  • Count as standard Portable Wargames 'heavy infantry'.

6. Rus, or Varangian Guard
Spear armed elite Varangian Guard.  The figures arrived with
axes, but I have modified them to carry spears.
  • Rus mercenaries fought in Byzantine service from early in the 10th Century. In 988, Basil II requested help from the Kievan Prince in defence of his throne against rebels. The Varangian Guard is held to have been established from 989.
  • These are variously known to have been close order spearmen or axe wielders. However, at this time, they appear to have been spearmen.
  • In close combat, Rus and Varangian Guard add 1 to their D6 die roll if attacked in front by cavalry.
  • In close combat, Rus and Varangian Guard reduce their D6 die score if attacked in flank or rear by an enemy unit
  • Rus and Varangian Guard are classed as ELITE


Kataphraktoi - trapezoid formation depicted as 2 mace armed
men in the front rank, lances on the flanks and archers in the
centre of the rear rank.

1.  Kataphraktoi - Mixed armed fully armoured cavalry.
Kataphraktoi - with some thematic kavallarioi
off to their right
  • Unit comprises THREE arms (apart from swords): maces, lances and bows. Unit forms a trapezoid with maces in the front few ranks, lances on the flanks and horse archers in the centre rear.  
  • Unit size was ideally about 504 - twelve ranks, with 20 in the first, increasing by 4 in each successive rank, though it could be as small as 380 (ten ranks only).
  • Usually just one such unit was fielded, though at Silistria in 972 there were two. I suggest fielding a unit such as that pictured, with 4 Strength Points, or two units with 3 SP each. (see table)
  • Kataphraktoi should be graded ELITE.
  • In normal close combat, kataphraktoi add 1 to their D6 die roll 
  • A unit of kataphraktoi adds 2 (instead of just 1) to its D6 die roll if it moves into an area adjacent to an enemy unit during the first only round of close combat.  During this round only, flank contacts may be ignored.
  • A kataphraktos unit reduces its D6 die score by 1 if attacked in flank or rear.

2. Kavallarioi - Mixed armed heavy cavalry with lance and bow.

  • Imperial cavalry were the Tagmata; Provincial cavalry still formed part of the old Thematic system.
  • Tagmatic units comprised 5 ranks, with 1, 2 and 5 equipped with lance, 3 and 4 with bow. Thematic units gradually declined during this period with the declining rural population.  Horse archery died even faster, it seems.  
  • So some Tagmatic units may be classed as ELITE; the Thematic should be classed as AVERAGE or POOR.
  • A unit of kavallarioi adds 1 to its D6 die roll if it moves adjacent to enemy during the first only round of close combat.  During this round only, and contacts to a flank mat be ignored.
  • A unit of kavallarioi reduces its D6 die roll if attacked in flank or rear.
  • Optional rule:  A 'poor' unit of kavallarioi reduces its D6 die score by 1 when shooting.

Tagmatic and thematic kavallarioi.  Barding was becoming
uncommon during the course of this period.  I use it, and the
kite shield, to distinguish the Tagmatic troops.

3. Light Horse - often mixed with lance and bow or javelin.
Trapezitai and prokoursatores light horse.  The former are double-
armed; the latter have one lancer and one bowman to
depict the nixed armed unit.
  • Byzantine (as opposed to allied or auxiliaries) light horse went under a number of titles, depending on role: Prokoursatores, Hyperkerastai and the famous Trapezitai.
  • The trapezitai were armed with lance and javelins.
  • The prokoursatores and hyperkerastai, apparently drawn from the heavy cavalry units, appear to have been armed with some mix of bows and lances.
  • Any lance-armed Byzantine light horse unit adds 1 to its D6 die roll if it moves adjacent to enemy light horse during the first only round of the resulting close combat.  During this round only, flank contacts may be ignored.
  • Any Byzantine light horse unit reduces it die score by one if attacked in flank or rear.

Prokoursatores.  The latter have been depicted with bow only.

Table of Byzantine Units

Unit Name
Unit Type
S.P. Value
Weapon Range
(grid areas)
Light infantry javelin
Menavlatoi (1)
Light infantry (1)
Adjacent (2)
Light infantry sling
Toxotai (3)
Light Infantry bow
Skoutatoi (4,5)
Heavy Infantry: Mixed spear/pike and bow
3 (Bow)
Adj(acent) (spear)
Medium Infantry
Varangian Guard/ Rus
Heavy Infantry
Light Horse (6)
Mixed lance and bow or javelin (3)
2 or 3 (missile)
Adj (lance)
Kavallarioi (7)
Heavy Cavalry: Mixed lance and bow
3 (bow)
Adj (lance)
Kataphraktoi (8)
Heavy Cavalry: Mixed mace, lance and bow
3 (missile)
Adj (lance, mace)

Adds to
accompanied unit

The Emperor Basil II of Byzantium, or the the Emperor
Dementius of Ionia? take your pick!


  1.  If used, menavlatoi are assumed to be skirmishers.
  2.  Although equipped with a heavy throwing weapon, these were made the maximum thickness that a man could grasp and throw, and had a long iron head.  Even a range of 2 grid areas seems over generous, but may be adopted as an optional rule.
  3. Light infantry bows may replace or supplement slingers.
  4. A.k.a. kontaratoi.
  5. There was an elite infantry unit, the Numeri.  Of its composition, I don't know.  I suggest that one close order unit might be classed as ELITE, the rest AVERAGE or POOR.
  6. Light horse units depicted with bow only do not receive the plus 1 to the D6 die roll when moving into a grid area adjacent to one occupued by enemy light horse.
  7. Bows are optional for 'poor' kavallarioi units.
  8. If fielding 2 kataphraktos units, players may choose that each be SP3 only.

A final word on facing...
The thought occurs to me that Ancients war games in particular might 'work' better on a hex grid if, although movement was through hex-sides, unit facing should be through the corners. It seems to me that the arcs of fire would be more easily visualised, but also that the front, rank and rear of units more easily identified. Provided it is remembered that facing and movement are different, I see that this would add no complication and resolve some possible anomalies. If necessary I might enlarge upon this notion another time.

I have not play tested these types, and may revisit this particular posting with amendments should they suggest themselves.


  1. Very nice models! I started a Byzantine army back when I played WRG 6th and 7th editions, but never finished it. I always had a soft spot for Tagmatic heavy cavalry, and imagined they were what the Riders of Rohan looked like.

    I look forward to some AARs. I recently got both Portable Wargame books and will be interested in seeing how they play.

    1. Thanks! The Tin Soldier figures are quite a large '15mm', being more like 16mm. Nice enough, but I found myself modifying them, especially replacing lances and sometimes shields. All my javelin light infantry were originally slingers.
      Although my Byzantines saw some action in WRG7, I always found that with that rule set the margin for knowledge of the system was too big to overcome, especially for one for whom this was very much a war games sideline. The much more playable DBM was not so bad in that respect, though it still existed. What particularly troubled me with DBM though, was the constant changing of the rules, and factors, and army lists. Couldn't keep up! games tended to become stereotyped anyway. Still, my Byzantines won more often than they lost!

      Based for DBM as they are, I'll not be doing any further modifications on that army. They seem to 'fit' the Portable Wargames system pretty well as they are.

    2. I have fond memories of Tin Soldier minis. I painted a 7th edition Greek hoplite army for a buddy of mine. They were a little chunky, but they painted up well.

      My friends and I tried DBA, but for some reason, we weren't too crazy about them. I bought DBM, but never used them.

    3. I was once told that the sculptor for Tin Soldier was a bit of Hellenistic nut. They were some of his best figures (I quite like chunky!). His Aztecs were pretty good too. As were his Pechenegs, but IIRC there was but one figure. I ended up modifying mine (Byzantine allies, not a whole army), adding shields (plastic chads) and bending the right arm and adding javelins.

      I quite liked DBM as a rule set more accessible than the earlier WRG sets. In fact I was very impressed with the concept, earl on. But they faffed around with them too much I think, and, as with a lot of WRG rule sets, you got your rules lawyers, gamesmen and suchlike.

      But then, I've never understood the attraction of the 'competition' or tournament war games. To each his own I guess...

  2. Archduke Piccolo,

    Sorry not to have commented earlier, but I've been at Connections UK 2017 for the past three days, and I am only just beginning to catch up with other people's blogs.

    I am very impressed with your Army List, and I will be writing a blog entry that will link to this particular blog entry in the very near future.

    All the best,


    1. No apology necessary, Bob. I realised you were engaged for the time being elsewhere! Thanks for responding.
      Probably later today I will post a 50SP Byzantine Army, and suggest the types of numbers one might look at for one's own. An all-cavalry army, for example, is quite plausible (historically) and feasible.

      I have also worked out a 50SP Bulgar army contemporaneous with the Byzantine. I'm wondering whether to add 1 to the D6 die roll for their mounted troops shooting, as they were double-armed rather than mixed. I might suggest it as an optional rule.

      That could make things interesting, because I would not be adding any impact bonuses for 'shock' action as I do the Byzantines.

  3. Great post. I hoping it will inspire me to create my own Nikephorian Byzantine army using these Tin Soldier figures I've just acquired.