Cavalry versus Cavalry: The Battles of Dara and Tricameron

The height of Byzantine power and territorial expansion took place only a century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire during the reign of Justinian (r. 527–565). Justinian ordered Byzantine armies to beat off Persian attacks on the eastern frontiers of the empire while also regaining parts of Italy from the Ostrogoths and north Africa from the Vandals, briefly restoring a Greco-Roman empire in the Mediterranean basin (Map 1.1). Trained as a soldier, Justinian never took command in the field once he assumed the throne; instead he relied on the battlefield genius of his generals Belisarius and Narses to fulfil his territorial aspirations.

Born in Thrace around 505, Belisarius apparently joined the Byzantine army as a youth and rose quickly through the ranks of the royal bodyguard, becoming a tall and charismatic officer. His first command came in 529 against the Sassanid Persians in Mesopotamia. Justinian had recently created a new field army of Armenia to assist the Army of the East in his war with Persia. The emperor placed the 24-year-old Belisarius in command of the Army of the East and charged him with concluding the war with the Persian king, Kavadh. A flashpoint on the frontiers was the strongly fortified border Byzantine town of Dara. In 530 Belisarius led his army of 25,000 men to Dara to keep it from being besieged by a massive Persian host of 40,000 warriors. Dara had been reinforced by Justinian’s predecessor the emperor Anastasius (r. 491–518), and was the lynchpin of the Mesopotamian defences.


Map 1. The Conquests of Justinian.

When Belisarius arrived, he arrayed most of his heavy infantry behind a bridged trench just outside the walls of the city, with a screen of light infantry staff-slingers and archers supported by Hunnic horse in front of the earthworks. He then divided his Greek and allied heavy cavalry equally and placed them on the wings, ordering half of the horses to be barded and the other half not. Belisarius probably had the forward cavalry mounts armoured so that they could receive the enemy’s attack, and kept the rear horses unencumbered so that they might pursue the enemy more easily if given the chance. The right wing was commanded by Count John of Armenia, a man of considerable talent whose resolve would be instrumental in many of the young general’s victories. Finally, Belisarius held his bodyguard, a reserve of clibanarii, behind the infantry and kept a hidden contingent of Hunnic horse behind a nearby hill, ready to charge the Persian right wing once it engaged the Byzantine left wing.

The attacking Persian host was quite impressive. Personally led by King Kavadh, it was a combined-arms force in the tradition of great classical Mesopotamian armies of the past, complete with a reincarnation of the ‘Immortals’, an elite band of Persian heavy cavalry, and war elephants in the rear. The Persian army was arrayed in two dense lines, with the elite Persian cavalry placed on the wings of each line, backed by their own clibanarii and supported by detachments of Persian and Arabian light horse. The forward Persian centre consisted of light infantry slingers, javelineers and archers, while behind them marched the conscript heavy infantry. Seeing Belisarius’ strong defensive position behind the trench, Kavadh decided to open the battle with a cavalry attack, ordering both of his wings forward against the Byzantine horse (Map 1.2(a)).

The king’s Immortal cavalry, backed by Persian and Arab horse, made progress on the Persian right, crossing the defenders’ ditch and pressing the Byzantine heavy horse backwards. But a co-ordinated counter-attack by 600 Hunnic cavalry from the left centre and the sudden appearance of the reserve barbarian horse from beyond the hill changed the tactical situation (Map 1.2(b)). Struck in the flank and rear by the once hidden Hunnic cavalry, the Immortals and their allies fell back in disarray. At the same time, the Immortal-led cavalry at first enjoyed similar success on the other flank, pushing the Byzantine heavy cavalry on the right wing back against the city gates before Count John could rally the defenders. It seemed as though the Persians were about to enjoy a double envelopment when Belisarius, noticing the Persian left was now detached from its centre, ordered 1,200 Huns to wheel and strike the flank of the victorious Persian left wing. Belisarius seized the moment and launched his elite cavalry reserve against the beleaguered Persian left who, attacked on three sides, broke and ran for their lives, swept from the battlefield by John and his reinvigorated cavalry (Map 1.2(c)).

Belisarius quickly recognized his fortunes had changed. The remaining Persian army in front of him was without a left wing to protect the mass of infantry in the centre. The Byzantine general ordered his mounted bodyguard and the Hunnic horse to attack the enemy’s unprotected left flank, shattering the infantry formation with repeated heavy cavalry charges and clibanarii and light cavalry missile fire (Map 1.2(d)). After a brief pursuit, Belisarius rallied his men. Persian casualties were high, with some 8,000 men dead on the battlefield. King Kavadh escaped the battle.

Through adroit use of the defensive, Belisarius waited for his enemy to attempt a double envelopment, then defeated one flank, routed the other, and then scattered the centre. The battle of Dara illustrated the dominance of the cavalry arm in Byzantine tactics. Byzantine infantry, though present, played only a supporting role. Belisarius won by neutralizing his opponents’ superiority in infantry by placing his own footmen behind a formidable entrenchment, thereby taking both forces’ infantry out of the fight. After that, well-timed attacks by Byzantine cavalry carried the day. The emperor was pleased with his young general’s victory, giving Belisarius the title of Master of Soldiers for the East.


Map 1.2. The Battle of Dara, 530. (a) Phase I: King Kavadh opens the battle, launching his cavalry against the enemy horse stationed on the Byzantine wings (1). The Persians make headway on their left, pressing back Count John’s Byzantine cavalry (2). (b) Phase II: The Byzantines’ Hun cavalry from both the left centre and the concealed reserve counter-attack the Persians’ right wing (1), driving the Immortals and the allied cavalry back (2). On the opposite flank, Belisarius realizes that the Persian horse are without support from their main body, and orders cavalry from the right centre and the elite reserve into action, supporting Count John’s beleaguered horsemen (3). The Persian horsemen break and flee (4). (c) Phase III: Belisarius orders his right-flank cavalry to wheel against the Persian main body’s left flank (1), adding the weight of his elite bodyguard and remaining cavalry reserve to the effort (2). (d) Phase IV: Repeated charges by Byzantine clibanarii, accompanied by light cavalry missile fire (1) shatters the Persian main body, which breaks and flees in disarray (2). Belisarius rallies his force after a brief pursuit. King Kavadh eludes his would-be captors (3), leaving some 8,000 dead on the field.

After Dara the Persians suffered several more defeats, and in 532 Kavadh’s successor agreed to a peace with Byzantium with no time limit, the poorly named ‘Perpetual Peace’. By the unusual terms of this agreement Justinian was to pay the Persians 11,000 pounds of gold toward the upkeep of the Caucasian defences, and in return Byzantium could keep the fortress at Dara, but not as its headquarters in Mesopotamia. Both sides would return strategic strongholds captured in the decades-old war. Finally, Persia swore eternal friendship and alliance with the Byzantine Empire. The treaty would last less than a decade.

In 532, the same year the ‘Perpetual Peace’ was signed, Justinian sent Belisarius and a small expedition made up mostly of soldiers from the Army of the East to conquer the Germanic kingdom of the Vandals, located in what is now modern Tunisia. The reason for the invasion was a revolution in Carthage. The Vandal king Hilderic was dethroned by Gelimer, the great-grandson of Gaiseric, the Vandal chief who so thoroughly sacked Rome in 455 that the name of his tribe has rung down the centuries as a name for destroyers of public property. Hilderic was a vassal of Justinian, and his appeal for aid from the Byzantine emperor became the pretext to launch an expedition to bring north Africa under direct Greek rule.

Sailing from Constantinople to a forward base in Sicily, Belisarius transported his expeditionary force on 500 ships manned by 20,000 sailors and escorted by 92 warships. In Sicily he waited for an intelligence report on the whereabouts of the Vandal fleet, learning that it was in Sardinia putting down a rebellion instigated by Justinian. With the formidable Vandal navy occupied, Belisarius set sail for north Africa in early September 533, landing his army of 10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry south of Caputvada (modern Ras Kapudia in Tunisia), 130 miles south of Cape Bon. After disembarking his army, Belisarius built a fortified camp and then sent heralds into the countryside explaining that the Greek expeditionary force was not there to punish the population, but bring the pretender Gelimer to justice. This must have worked, for Belisarius proceeded unmolested northward up the coast toward the ancient city of Carthage. He sent an advance guard of 300 horse commanded by Count John to screen his march. Six hundred Hunnicfoederati cavalry covered the main army’s left flank, while the fleet shadowed on the right. On 13 September, John’s van reached the defile of Ad Decimum (the tenth milestone from Carthage).

When word of the Greek vanguard’s advance on Carthage reached Gelimer, he put Hilderic and his relatives to the sword, and prepared to attack the invaders. Gelimer’s strategy was a risky one, relying on the principles of manoeuvre and concentration. He instructed his brother Ammatus, the commander in Carthage, to sally forth and engage the Byzantine van, while he took the majority of the Vandal host and attacked the rear of Belisarius’ main force. The third element of Gelimer’s strategy was a simultaneous attack by his nephew Gibamund, who would move over the hills from the west and attack the invaders’ left flank. But success would require a careful co-ordination of not two but three columns, a difficult feat for any army in any age.

What took place next was a product of unfortunate timing. On 13 September, Ammatus left Carthage and struck the Byzantine van before Gelimer and Gibamund were in position. Ammatus was mortally wounded and his forces panicked and fled. Gibamund struck next and was routed by the Hunnic flank guard. The third Vandal column, confused by the trek through hilly terrain, missed the rear of the Byzantine main army altogether and instead struck the front of the Byzantine host, now unprotected by the absence of Count John and his vanguard, which was now making its way to sack Carthage. Gelimer’s sudden attack pushed the Byzantines back, and it looked as through the tide had turned in the favour of the Vandals when Gelimer discovered his brother’s dead body on the battlefield. Stopping his pursuit to bury Ammatus, Gelimer lost the momentum in the battle. Belisarius regrouped and counter-attacked, driving the Vandals from the battlefield.

Belisarius entered Carthage on 15 September and began to reconstruct its defences for his own use. Gelimer retreated west 100 miles and recalled his brother Tzazon from Sardinia, where he was putting down the rebellion. Once reinforced, Gelimer marched on Carthage, stopping 18 miles short of his target at the village of Tricameron. Gathering intelligence on his enemy, Gelimer realized that there were strains between Belisarius and his Hunnic allies. Vandal spies offered the Huns great rewards if they would turn against the Byzantines during the next engagement. But unknown to Gelimer, Belisarius learned of this intrigue and offered the Huns a larger bribe if they stayed true. The Huns accepted Belisarius’ offer, though the general realized that the loyalty of hisfoederati was now in question.

Uncertain when his coalition might fracture, Belisarius decided to bring the battle to the enemy. By this time he faced an enemy army of around 50,000 men (mostly cavalry), or about three times the size of his invading force. In mid-December he sent nearly all of his cavalry (4,500 horse) under Count John toward Tricameron, following the next day with his infantry and a 500-horse reserve, camping some distance from Gelimer’s position. The next morning the Vandal commander led his army out of their encampment and stumbled upon Count John and his cavalry preparing lunch (Map 1.3(a)). Instead of seizing the moment and attacking, Gelimer waited for the Byzantines to mount up. John deployed men in three divisions, taking command of the centre, then sent a messenger to the main Byzantine camp (Map 1.3(b)). Belisarius immediately led his 500 cavalry to reinforce John, leaving the Byzantine infantry to catch up at a steady march. Meanwhile, Gelimer ordered his own cavalry to mirror the enemy, deploying his horsemen into three divisions and giving command of the centre to his brother Tzazon. Gelimer ordered his troops to forsake the bow for the sword, in essence favouring shock over missile warfare in the upcoming fight.

The battle of Tricameron began after a lengthy pause when Count John and a small contingent of selected horsemen crossed a brook and charged the Vandal centre, only to be rebuffed (Map 1.3(c)). John attacked again with a slightly larger force and was beaten back a second time. Perhaps thinking himself charmed, John attacked a third time, this time with all of his guards and spearmen yelling at the top of their voices (Map 1.3(d)). In the mêlée, Tzazon was killed. Arriving on the battlefield, Belisarius ordered the remaining two cavalry divisions to attack the rapidly collapsing centre, precipitating a general rout (Map 1.3(e)). With the whole of the Vandal cavalry in disarray, the Huns joined in the pursuit, pressing the remaining Germanic horse back into their fortified camp (Map 1.3(f)). The battle was not very costly in lives. Byzantine losses were less than 50 dead, while the Vandals lost around 800 men.


Map 1.3. The Battle of Tricameron, 533. (a) Phase I: Gelimer’s Vandal cavalry advance from their fortified camp (1) and encounter a force of Byzantine horse under Count John dispersed while preparing their midday meal (2). Inexplicably, Gelimer allows Count John’s forces to form for battle unhindered. Count John orders his troops to mount and sends a messenger to Belisarius in the main Byzantine camp requesting reinforcements (3). (b) Phase II: Count John deploys his outnumbered force into three divisions, a move mirrored by Gelimer, who orders his brother Tzazon to take command of the Vandal centre. Gelimer orders his troops to stow their bows and use their swords in preparation for the impending clash. (c) Phase III: Count John opens the battle by charging across the brook separating the two forces (1). The Vandals rebuff the attackers who retreat to their starting point (2). The Byzantines regroup and prepare to launch another assault. Belisarius approaches the battlefield with a contingent of cavalry (3), having left the Byzantine infantry to follow as quickly as they can. (d) Phase IV: Gathering additional reinforcements, Count John launches a third attack (1). Tzazon is killed in the mêlée (2) and the Vandal centre begins to give way (3).

(e) Phase V: Arriving at the scene of the action, Belisarius orders the two remaining divisions into the fray (1). The Vandal formation collapses from the centre and they flee to the relative safety of their fortified camp (2), closely pursued by the Hunnic cavalry (3). Belisarius orders a halt to the pursuit, not wishing to assault the Vandal position until the Byzantine infantry (4) arrives. (f) Phase VI: As the Byzantines begin to encircle the camp (1), Gelimer panics and abandons his position (2). The Vandal cavalry follow suit (3), and the Byzantines enter the camp and begin to plunder, losing any semblance of cohesion. Fortunately for Belisarius, the collapse of the Vandal forces protects his now disorganized army from counter-attack.


Knowing he could not storm the Vandal camp without his foot soldiers, Belisarius waited patiently for his infantry to arrive. Gelimer panicked as he watched the Greeks begin to surround his camp. Silently, he mounted his horse and slipped out of the noose, escaping to the mountains in the west. Leaderless, the Vandals soon followed, abandoning their camp to the Byzantines. Belisarius’ troops entered the camp and, breaking ranks, began to plunder. In moments, Belisarius’ victorious army disintegrated into a mass of thieves, illustrating the weakness of a mostly mercenary force. Had the Vandals managed a spirited counter-attack at this moment, there was little doubt in the mind of the Byzantine historian Procopius that the invaders would have suffered a defeat. It would take Count John another three months to hunt down and capture Gelimer.

Belisarius defeated the Vandals in two battles, sending back the Vandal king Gelimer and his treasury to Constantinople, then adding the surviving Vandals as foederati to his new Army of Africa. In 535 Justinian ordered his brilliant young commander to invade Italy and attack the Ostrogothic king, Vitiges. Over the next five years Belisarius conquered the peninsula, capturing the Gothic capital at Ravenna and all of Italy south of the Po valley. When Justinian recalled him to Constantinople in 540 to fight the Persians after the ‘Perpetual Peace’ failed, Belisarius left behind a new Army of Italy and brought with him the Ostrogothic king and treasury. But a devastating epidemic of bubonic plague hit the Byzantine Empire hard, and Justinian faced various rebellions over the next ten years in north Africa, Italy and the east. In the meantime, Belisarius had fallen out of favour with the emperor, who dismissed him for plotting to seize the throne. It was 552 before the treasury had recovered enough to send a new army to reconquer Italy.

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