Towards the end of his life the Byzantine Emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602 CE) composed, or perhaps commissioned, a detailed handbook of military strategy entitled the Stratēgikon. Maurice by this time had already made significant reforms to the structure, equipment, and techniques of the East Roman (i.e. Byzantine) army; plus, he had many years of practical field experience fighting a wide variety of opponents of the Empire, particularly in the Balkans, Pannonia, and on the Persian border. Many military reforms had been made earlier by his predecessor Justinian (reigned 527-65), including a substantial increase in the proportion of cavalry to infantry (the latter of which had been at the heart of the famous Roman legions for centuries). Maurice similarly recognized the necessity to expand the use of cavalry, both in numbers and in terms of the variety of mounted manoeuvres and weaponry employed, from horseback archery and javelin-throwing to heavily armed mass charges with lances and swords. This pressure to transform more of the East Roman army into mounted soldiers came directly from the fact that the Empire’s enemies were highly skilled horsemen. Some, like the Avars of the Eurasian who established an empire centred on the Pannonian Plain in the late 560s (more or less exactly where the Huns had previously created their short-lived European empire in the mid-5th century), were nomadic equestrian peoples whose entire societies were based on the horse. Others, like the Persians, had been building up their heavy cavalry. It is of special relevance to this module that the Avars used stirrups at this time and that stirrup use was also spreading into the Sasanid Persian Empire and other regions in contact with steppe peoples.
In the Stratēgikon stirrups occur in two sections: Book I, section 2 which consists of a list of the weapons and other equipment required for cavalrymen; and Book II, section 8, which is about the duties and equipment of army field medics. It is important to note that Book I, section 2 includes five explicit mentions of the types of equipment that the Avars use, so that it is quite clear that a number of items of military kit have recently been borrowed from them, presumably because they are either entirely new to the Byzantines or else just better versions of things that they already use. Although the paragraph that includes the stirrups does not actually specify that they are a borrowing, the paragraphs immediately preceding and following both do list Avar items: horse neck-armour and roomy tunics for cavalry soldiers, the latter explicitly ordered to be cut according to the Avar design. Interestingly, the author several times explains the choice of Avar-style kit on the grounds of its combination of practicality and handsome appearance. The tassels listed here are decorations; this is clear from the introductory part of Book I, section 2, which states that ornaments such as these serve to boost confidence and make soldiers look more intimidating to the enemy. It is also significant that the word used in Greek is skala, which applies to any kind of step, from staircases to ladders, indicating that no technical word for “stirrup” exists in the author’s vocabulary.
The extracts presented here have been translated specifically for the Ancient & Medieval Open Textbook by Aleksandar Jovanović. For a published version of the whole work, see the English translation by George Dennis, as cited.
Book I, section 2
Horses, particularly those of officers and other special soldiers, especially in the front line of battle, must have protective iron armour on their heads and iron or felted wool chest armour, or alternatively chest and neck covers like the Avars use.
It is necessary for the saddles to have thick and large saddlecloths; their bridles should be well-made. The saddles should also have two iron stirrups, a leather lasso, a hobble, a saddle-bag––in which, when the situation arises, it would be possible to fit three to four days of provisions for a soldier––as well as four tassels on the back straps, one on the brow-band [of the bridle], and one [tassel] under the chin. The men’s clothes—tunics in particular, whether linen, or goat-hair, or coarse wool—need to be wide and full, cut in the Avar style, such that they can be secured over the knees when riding to create a tidy impression.
Book II, section 8
In order to facilitate mounting the horses for corpsmen as much as for the wounded or the fallen [soldiers], it is necessary to set the corpsmen’s stirrups on the left side of the saddle. That is to say, one should be placed on the [front] curve of the saddle, as is customary, and the other should be placed on the back-curve so that both of them may mount the horse; that is, the aforementioned [medical corpsman] as well as the wounded man. The former mounts using the stirrup on the [front] curve, and the latter does the same by using the one on the back-curve. It is also crucial for them [medical corpsmen] to carry flasks of water for those wounded men who are likely to faint.
Later Byzantine stirrups can be seen in this 12th-century illuminated manuscript known as the “Madrid Skylitzes,” a lengthy historical text by John Skylitzes called Synopsis Historiarum (Summary of History), now housed in the National Library of Spain in Madrid. In this picture the stirrups are especially visible on the two riderless horses, although the riders’ feet can also be seen resting in stirrups. Source: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica.
- How might the ordinary rank and file of Byzantine soldiers have appreciated the instructions to imitate the Avar horsemen?
- Why might there be so much emphasis on the visual elements of the cavalrymen’s clothing and equipment? Consider the purpose of military uniforms, especially before the modern rise of camouflage garments.
- Stirrups in this text are evidently part of an Avar-inspired full kit for cavalrymen. What can you deduce about the uses of the other items of kit?
- For more information see the translator’s introduction in George T. Dennis, trans., Maurice’s Stratēgikon. Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), esp. vii-xvi. ↵
- Florin Curta, “The Earliest Avar-Age Stirrups, or the ‘Stirrup Controversy’ Revisited,” in The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans, ed. Florin Curta and Roman Kovalev (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 302-03. ↵
- Dennis, Maurice’s Stratēgikon, 12-13; Curta, “The Earliest Avar-Age Stirrups,” 302. ↵
- Dennis, 13, n. 6. ↵
The vast grasslands that stretch approximately 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from modern Ukraine in the west to northern China in the east. There is another pocket of steppe—often called the Great Hungarian or Pannonian Plain—to the west of the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Hungary. The contact zone in the West was the Pontic–Caspian steppe north of the Black Sea.