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Warfare in the Balkans - From Early Times to 500AD

This was the period dominated by the Greeks and the Romans who both had a significant influence on warfare in the Balkans.

 The Greeks

 The early Greeks migrated to the Balkans from the steppes north of the Danube around 1500 B.C. displacing the Minoan civilisation which had spread from Crete to the coast of southern Greece. They established independent states and colonised the Mediterranean shores. Armies of the 'Heroic period' as described by Homer were based on elite chariot forces supported by massed foot armed with javelin, sword and shield.

 The most famous of the Greek states was Sparta. Founded in 1000 B.C. Sparta was a military society in which the Spartan citizen soldier, with his iron discipline, formed the most effective small army in the known world. Following the Messenian wars they dominated the southern Peloponnesus.

The Spartan Army 5th C. BC

The basic unit was the ENOMOTIA of 30 men. 2-4 Enomotiae constitued a PENTEKOSTYS. 4 Pentekostyes made up a LOCHUS (533 men).

 There were 6 Lochi recruited on a territorial basis with an additional elite unit called Sciritae.

 The other half of a Spartan army would be made up of Laconians with limited citizen rights.

 By the 6th century B.C. it was the hoplite which dominated the battlefield. Recruited from the middle and upper classes these infantrymen formed the centre of the battle line between 8 and 16 men deep. They were armed with a long (8 to 10 foot) spear, sword and large round shield, protected by helmet, breastplate and greaves1. Limited numbers of cavalry, mostly from the plains of Thessaly formed on the wings with light skirmishing infantry in front of the battle line. Thus the basis of a tactical formation which arguably survived until the 20th century2.


Persian Wars

 The main threat to Greece came from the Persian Empire which also controlled modern Turkey and already occupied Thrace. The Persian army was a huge polyglot force recruited from all parts of the empire. The core was the Guard Corps "The Immortals" supported by 29 other Corps each of which could be 60,000 strong. The main strength was based on Iranian infantry and cavalry partly armoured. The remaining troop types included Assyrian and Bactrian spearmen and bowmen from India, Arabia and Ethiopia. Significant numbers of Asian Greeks also fought for the Persians.

 In the Marathon campaign of 490 B.C. the Persian fleet aimed at Athens landed north of the city in good cavalry country at Marathon plain. The Athenian army blocked the road to Athens and awaited the promised Spartan assistance. The Persians then embarked their cavalry and part of the army. Some historians argue that this was for a direct attempt on Athens, others point to the embarcation of cavalry as part of a general withdrawal. Either way the infantry screen was attacked by the Athenians who came down to the plain. By strengthening the flanks the Athenians achieved a double envelopment killing 6,400 Persians. The remainder retreated by sea to Asia.

 In 480 B.C. the Persians returned under Xerxes with an army of 150,000 supported by a large fleet. After crossing the Hellespont by pontoon bridge the army moved along the coast until it reached the Pass of  Thermopylae which was blocked by a small Greek army led by Leonidas and his Spartans. The respective fleets were engaged forcing Xerxes to make frontal attacks with his best spearmen. These were defeated by the superior hoplites until a local traitor showed the Immortals a path to the rear of the Greek position. Assailed from all sides the remaining Greeks were destroyed.

 This gave Xerxes control over most of Greece north of the Isthmus including Athens which was destroyed. Several Greek states defected to the Persians. The largely Athenian fleet held the island of Salamis. The Persian fleet attacked and after 7 hours of fighting lost more than half the fleet. With his seaborne supply line cut Xerxes was forced to retreat back to Asia.

 Xerxes left Mardonious with a mixed Persian and Greek army in Thrace. The following year the  Greek army commanded by the Spartan King Pausanias defeated Mardonious at Platea. This victory coupled with the destruction of the remaining Persian ships at Mycale ended the Persian threat.

 With the external enemy defeated the victors quarrelled and the remainder of the 5th century was taken up with a series of wars between coalitions led by Athens and Sparta.  Sparta was eventually victorious with the surrender of Athens in 404 B.C. Spartan hegemony in Greece was only ended after a revolt of almost all the other states ended with Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 B.C.

 These wars saw a slight move away from the rigidity of hoplite warfare. Increasing use of light troops (including peltasts) and cavalry anticipated the later reforms of Philip of Macedon.

 Beyond Greece

 The Hellenic civilisation never reached further than Macedonia. The rest of the Balkans were occupied by tribes of Thracians and Illyrians. These fierce mountain tribes traded with Greek coastal settlements but were never overun. Illyrian pirates based on the unhospitable Adriatic coast raided far to the west.

 In the North a very different force, the Scythians dominated the plains from their base in the steppes. They were predominantly a cavalry army with light horse archers and an armoured core of heavy cavalry3. The Scythians reached as far south as Thrace and fought several wars against Macedon before pressure from the East forced a withdrawal and eventual destruction in the Crimea.


 The hoplite warfare of classical Greece came to an end with the emergence of Macedonia under Philip II. His well balanced force formed around a deep Phalanx consisting of lightly armoured infantry armed with an 18 foot pike. These were supported by Hypaspists (Peltasts) and light troops including javelins and archers. The cavalry consisted of Companion heavy cavalry and Thessalian and other light cavalry.

 Philip consolidated his position in the north by conquering Epirus, Thessaly and southern Illyria as well as defeating the tribes up to the Danube. His domination of Greece was confirmed at the Battle of Chaeronea 338 B.C.

 Philip's son Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) consolidated Macedonian control over the Balkans before invading Persia. Alexander's subsequent conquests are outside the scope of this study but they confirmed the superiority and flexibility of the Macedonian military system. 

Philip V & Hannibal

In 215 BC Philip despatched envoys to Hannibal in Southern Italy. It was agreed that Philip would dispatch an army to assist Hannibal in Italy. When Rome was defeated Hannibal would bring his army to Greece to assist Philip. Sadly for both men the envoys were captured by the Roman fleet on the return journey 4.

 Such a combination could well have ended what became the Roman Empire with fascinating consequences for the development of western civilisation. All thanks to a vigilant Roman ship's captain!

Upon his death Alexander's empire was fought over by his successors, the Diadochi, for a century. Antipater inherited Greece and Macedonia. The Antigonid dynasty fought off Greek rebellions and Celtic invasions from the north for most of the century as well as intervening in Asia. Other notables included Pyrrhus of Epirus (he of the Pyrric victory) who invaded Italy and his son Alexander who briefly held most of Macedonia. The 3rd Century BC ended with the rise of the Achaean League of Greek states in the South and Macedon controlling the North.


 Rome's early involvement in the Balkans came as a result of Philip V of Macedon's links with Hannibal. While Rome was fighting for its very existence it responded by supporting the Aetolian Greek states in their war with Philip and the Achaean league led by Philopoemen.

 In the Second Macedonian War (200-196 B.C.) Rome following the defeat of Hannibal contributed ground forces to the struggle. At the Battle of Kynoskephalia 197 B.C. the flexible legion defeated the phalanx in open battle. Philip was forced to withdraw to his Macedonian heartland.


Each cohort consisted of 3 lines of heavy infantry maniples, 60 triarii, 120 principes, 120 hastati with 120 skirmishing velites. 10 cohorts made a legion of 4,200 men. Each legion had 300 cavalry attached in 10 turmae of 30.


Rome's war with Seleucid Syria spilt over into the Balkans when Antiochus III invaded Greece in 192 BC. With Aetolian support he attempted to hold the Roman army at Thermopylai. Elephants on both sides battled in the pass while a Roman force under Cato flanked the position causing the Seleucids to flee back to Asia Minor. The Romans went on to control Western Asia Minor after the decisive victory at Magnesia 190 BC.

 In 172 BC Rome entered the Third Macedonian War in support of its ally Pergamum. Perseus of Macedonia repulsed two Roman invasions from Illyria and bought off the Illyrian and Gallic tribes to the north. The decisive battle of the war took place at Pydna in the Elpeus valley (168 BC). Roman elephants broke the Macedonian left wing but their centre was forced back by the phalanx. Only when the phalanx hit rough ground and became disordered did the flexible maniples of the Roman legions gain the advantage. Macedonian losses of 25,000 ended the monarchy and Macedonia was split into four republics. In 146 BC the Achaean League was defeated at Corinth and all Greece  fell under Roman control.

 The Roman Civil War 88-82 BC provided an opportunity for rebellion in Greece supported by Mithridates VI of Pontus. A Roman army led by Sulla captured Athens (86 BC) and then defeated the Pontic armies at Chaeronea and Orchomenus.

 Internal Roman difficulties came to a conclusion at the Battle of Actium 31 BC (near Prevesa on the Ionian coast). Octavian's fleet commanded by Agrippa defeated the fleet of Anthony and Cleopatra.

 Imperial Rome

 The early AD years of the Balkans were dominated by the expanding Roman Empire. The frontier was on the Danube with the Balkans divided into the provinces of Illyricum, Pannonia, Moesia, Thracia, Macedonia and Achaea. There were numerous revolts against Roman rule (e.g. Pannonia AD6-9) and frontier fighting with the Dacians over the Danube.

 This period saw the strengthening of the legion to over 5,000 men divided into 10 cohorts. Each cohort consisted of 6 centuriae, somewhat confusingly, of 80 men. These reforms introduced by Augustus formed the basis for the Pax Romana of the next 200 years.

The Dacians

 The Dacians were related to the Thracians although mixed with Germans and Sarmations all living in an area covered largely by modern Romania, including Transylvania and the Banat. Our main primary source for these peoples comes from the reliefs on Trajan's Column5. They show generally unarmoured infantry warriors, often with the distinctive 'Phrygian' crested cap and large richly decorated oval shields. Weapons included long celtic swords, spears, javelins, battleaxes, bows and the scythe-like falxes.

 In 85AD the Dacian King Decebalus invaded Roman Moesia. A Roman counter invasion into Eastern Dacia was defeated in 89 AD and Emperor Domitian was forced to sue for peace. Dacia prospered with the development of towns and well organised trade.

 Previous humiliations and the growing civilisation of Dacia attracted the Emperor Trajan who eventually conquered Dacia defeating the Dacian king Decebalus at Tapae 101 AD and Hulpe 102AD. The Dacian capital Sarmizegethusa was occupied. In 105 AD the Dacians retook their capital and again ravaged Moesia. Trajan responded the following year with a successful two pronged assault on Sarmizegethusa and the destruction of the Dacian army. The Roman frontier was extended to the Carpathians and the Dniester creating the new province of Dacia.

 Danube Frontier 166-192

 From the middle of the 2nd century the Danube frontier came under increasing pressure from Germanic tribes. In the West the Marcomanni, Quadi, Lombards, Gepids and Vandals crossed the Danube as part of what is known as the 'barbarian conspiracy'. In a series of wars between 166-179 AD  Marcus Aurelius and then  his son Lucius repelled invasions by these tribes. Similar incursions were made into Moesia by the Scythians and Sarmations. Whilst Rome stood firm the outcome was only temporary. The great migrations continued to put pressure on the Danube frontier.

 Gothic Wars 214-270

 The Goths who originated in Scandinavia and Northern Prussia dominated the area north of the Danube by the end of the 2nd century6 . The Western Goths who became known as Visigoths were originally mostly infantry. Their Eastern relatives the Ostrogoths took up the use of heavy cavalry from the Sarmatians supported by mostly bow armed infantry. In addition the Goths developed the use of wagon laagers as mobile forts providing a useful base in hostile territory.

Early raids by the Goths into Thrace and Moesia were repulsed but as the Empire suffered internal strife Gothic raids increased. Cuiva, King of the Goths defeated a Roman army at Philippopolis in 250 and Forum Terebronii (Danube Marshes) the following year before being bought off by Emperor Gallus. The Goths quickly broke the agreement but were held on the Danube line by new Roman commanders. They had more success with sea raids through the Bosporus controlling most of the Aegean except Greece by 268.

 There was a Roman revival under the Illyrian Emperor Claudius II ('Gothicus') who defeated the Goths at Nish in 269 before destroying their naval base at Thessalonika. Claudius's death resulted in further attacks driven off by Aurelian although Dacia was abandoned (270).

 The Empire Divides 286

 After years of civil war Diocletian divided the Empire East-West with 4 major administrative regions/armies. The Balkans were split between 3 of these regions, although the main Danube frontier was in Illyricum with a HQ at Sirmium (Mitrovica).

 Constantine 305-337

 Diocletian's abdication lead to further civil war between Constantine and Licinius. Constantine's victorious Balkan campaign of 314 (battles of Cibalae and Mardia) pushed Licinius into Asia. War broke out again in 323 with further victories at Adrianople and a naval battle at the Hellespont. The decisive victory took place in September 323 at Chrysopolis (Scutari) following which Licinius was executed. Constantine established his capital as sole Emperor at the renamed Constantinople.

 While the Romans fought each other the Goths sought to expand their territory. Constantine succeeded in holding the Danube line with a divide and rule policy between the Goths and Sarmatians. The Goths were eventually victorious and the remaining Sarmatians were allowed to settle in the Empire. 

The Later Roman Army

 The armies of Constantine bore little resemblance to the Imperial force described earlier. 

The old infantry legions were based on the borders, on the Danube known as Ripenses. They provided a local defence backed up by mobile field legions called Palatini and Comitatenses. 

The legions were much smaller with more cavalry, light infantry and a greater reliance on missile weapons. 

In the 5th Century 'Roman' armies increasing consisted of Barbarian Foederati commanded by their own tribal chiefs. 

Goths 350-376

 Ermanaric united the Ostrogoths and Visigoths in a kingdom which included all the Balkans North of the Danube. The Romans lurched into yet another round of civil wars with one of Constantine's sons, Constantius holding the Balkans after defeating Magnentius at Mursa (Osijek) in 351. For the next four years Constantius dealt with a series of invasions from Sarmatians and Quadis following these up with a punitive raid across the Danube in 357.

 Following a further period of civil war  Ermanaric sent a Visigothic army across the Danube to force the release of Gothic mercenaries imprisoned by Emperor Valens. Between 367 and 369  the Goths and Romans fought both sides of the Danube until a treaty recognised  the status quo with the Danube forming the boundary between the Roman and Gothic Empires.

 With the Huns invading the Gothic Empire to the north the Goths lead by Fritigern were driven to seek Roman protection. Following a treacherous Roman attack the Goths rebelled defeating the Romans at Marianopolis (Shumla) 377. They escaped Emperor Valens army at Salices and joined with other Germanic tribes who erupted across the entire border.

 In 378 the Roman armies had some initial success in holding Thrace with the Roman General Sebastian defeating the Goths at the Maritsa River. Fritigern was pinned into his wagon laager at Adrianople with his infantry and the women and children totalling some 200,000 people. Valens arriving with a reinforcing army  rejected negotiations and attacked the Gothic camp. As the Romans engaged the Gothic cavalry returned from their foraging and crashed into the Roman flanks. 40,000 Roman troops perished including Valens in a decisive defeat for the legions.


 The Romans gradually recovered led by Theodosius and in a series of campaigns (379-383) drove the Goths across the Danube. Others settled peacefully within the Empire. Theodosius incorporated Goths lead by Alaric into his army (390). After his death in 395 there were further barbarian uprisings lead by Alaric. The Empire was just held together largely through the intervention from the West of their commander, the Vandal Stilicho. Over the next 15 years Alaric used the Balkans as his base to launch a series of invasions of Italy beaten back by Stilicho. When Stilicho was murdered in 408 Alaric and his Visigoths tried again. The Western Emperor Honorius held the impregnable Ravenna whilst Alaric sacked Rome in 410. After Alaric's death the Visigoths went on to create an empire in Southern France and Spain.

The Huns

 By the 5th Century a new Asiatic horde had swept over the tribes north of the Danube, the Huns. 90% of their early armies consisted of light horse archers with a core of heavy noble cavalry. Later they incorporated subdued tribes of Gepids, Goths and Sarmatians giving a better balance of heavy and light cavalry.

 In the early years of the 5th Century Hun raids were beaten off, but as they increased in numbers Constantinople decided to pay tribute and recognise Hun sovereignty over large parts of the Balkans (432-441). In 441-443 Attila destroyed the imperial army and reached Constantinople before exacting increased tribute from the Emperor Theodosius. In 447 he was back, though partially checked at the Battle of the Utus the Romans were forced to treble the tribute and concede extensive territory south of the Danube. Attila then moved West out of our area until his defeat at Chalons (451) and subsequent death in 453.

25mm Huns from the collection of Andy McGreary

 After Attila's death the Ostrogoths regained their influence in the Balkans usually allied to the imperial army.


 So ended what Schevill7 described as the Greek and Roman epoch of Balkan History. During this period the Balkans played an important role in the development of warfare from the early Greeks to the Macedonians. Imperial Rome left an important legacy on the peninsula albeit drifting into the anarchy of the last few centuries. From this period the Eastern Roman Empire is usually described as the Byzantine Empire reflecting its Greek rather than Roman basis although its citizens continued to describe themselves as Roman.



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Last modified: 01/23/12