After the collapse of the Western Empire in the 5th century, the Eastern Roman Empire faced many of the same pressures, but was better able to adapt, and survived for a thousand years, only finally succumbing in 1453. However, the story of much of that period was one of gradual decline, as illustrated by the fact that it was at its greatest extent during the 6th century, when parts of the West were reconquered despite various threats from the East. The task of raising troops to defend and expand the empire was made more difficult by repeated outbreaks of plague and numerous barbarian raids from many quarters, and attempts to pay for mercenaries to fill the gaps only lead to heavy taxation for the people. With this in mind, the successes of the generals under Justinian in the 6th century are impressive, as they managed to reconquer the North African coast, much of the Italian peninsula (including Rome itself) and parts of Spain. It was the high point of the later empire, and deserves to be as well-known as the triumphs of the early empire in the first century.
The armies that achieved this imperial revival were complex, and many who fought for the emperor were ‘barbarians’ and not citizens of the empire at all, so it would be a challenge for any one set to depict all of these aspects. This set touches on many of them, and fortunately the box labels each and every pose, so we can see what is intended in each case. According to these identifications, our top row begins with a soldier from the Bucellarii, who were more or less personal armies under the control of a general or senior official, and were often seen as some of the best troops available, yet might potentially have more loyalty to their paymaster than the emperor. Beside him is a member of the Comitatenses, which was effectively the field army of the state, as opposed to frontier or garrison troops, although the distinction was not always so clear. The next two are the same, but they are distinguished by their weapon, which is the cheiroballistra. Our second row begins with another man from the Comitatenses, this time labelled as ‘Skoutatoi’, followed by two archers described as ‘trapezoid’, and another man defined as ‘auxilia palatina’. The third row is all command figures, being a biarchus, a tribunus, a man with a religious standard, and a draconius. That is a very diverse selection of figures, so we will consider each in more detail.
The general look of Byzantine soldiers was of a helmet of Spangenhelm construction, a decorated tunic, leggings and often a cloak, and the first figure conforms to this look perfectly. The Bucellarii, and indeed the Comitatenses, often had large numbers of ‘barbarians’, and some of these may have reflected their origins in their appearance, so there was no standard look for Byzantine infantry, although this figure is a good example of what might be described as ‘typical’ appearance. He holds a spear and oval shield with minimal decoration engraved on it, and is in a non-battle pose. The second figure is a heavier infantryman, perhaps one that would have stood in the front ranks. He differs from the first man by having a central plume on his helmet, and the wearing of an armoured corselet and pteruges at the shoulders and waist. He is in a much more combative pose, presenting his shield to the front as he jabs with his spatha sword, and is a good example of the heavier foot soldier.
The next two figures are particularly interesting, because although they are more of the heavier Comitatenses, it is their weapon that distinguishes them. Their clothing and armour are typical of a heavy infantryman, but both hold a cheiroballistra, which translates literally as ‘hand ballista’. Anyone with knowledge of the early imperial Roman period will be familiar with the ballista, but it is a matter of debate whether a smaller version such as this, which could be handled by a single man, was used. Certainly the name implies as much, but whether it looked like this, unsupported and light enough to be launched from the shoulder, is far from certain. The first man is cocking his weapon whilst resting it on the ground, and the second looks to be about to release his bolt, so the chosen poses are pretty representative of how such troops might have appeared when in battle, but we were very surprised at the inclusion of such a weapon, and particularly of two poses in a set of twelve.
The second row begins with another from the Comitatenses, but labelled as ‘Skoutatoi’. There seems to be no special significance in this label, which is merely another name for the Comitatenses, but he is again a fairly heavy soldier, as he wears a knee-length corselet of mail. He also has pteruges at the shoulders, and an interesting mail curtain on the helmet to protect the back of the neck, but it is his pose that gave us some concern. Any single-piece figure (which these all are) will present difficulties when they have spear and shield, but we were not keen on this solution, which shows him holding his shield in mid-air and so protecting him from blows or missiles from the left rather than to his front. It is not an impossible pose, but we felt it was awkward and probably unusual at least.
Next we have two archers, which is a good thing as archery had become very important to Byzantine armies in the 6th century, in contrast to earlier imperial armies, which relied mainly on heavy infantry formations. Both these men are surprisingly heavily clad, with plumed helmets, mailed corselets and pteruges, so they are not the light missile troops that might normally be seen, although we were unable to confirm whether such heavily-armoured bowmen were a feature of Byzantine armies. Each has a small circular shield attached to the left upper arm. On the box both are labelled as ‘Trapezoid’, but we do not know why (perhaps related to the town of Trebizond?).
The last figure in the second row is labelled as an auxiliary, but he is dressed and equipped much like the rest of the heavy infantry in this set, including mail armour and Spangenhelm helmet with cheek pieces. There is nothing wrong with this, and the only unique feature of this figure is that he has a round shield rather than an oval one, which is strapped to his back. Indeed, with helmet off and standing nonchalantly, he makes a useful ‘before the battle’ pose, although we wondered how his spear is being supported, as it is not being held, but merely tucked between shield and body. The box also labels this figure as ‘palatina’, which on the face of it implies connection to the imperial bodyguard, although sometimes this terminology was used merely to distinguish troops in the field armies from those in garrison or frontier forces, which had a lower status.
The command figures are of a biarchus (junior officer), a tribunus (an officer commanding a numerus, the basic army unit, which in theory contained 500 men), a man holding a religious standard which pretty much speaks for itself, and a draconius, who held the unit’s standard, which was commonly a draco, as it is here. As with most armies, such men dressed according to their status and wealth, and all except the man with the processional cross have typical helmets and body armour, which looks fine. The crucifer appears to wear no armour, and has a cap and short cloak that covers much of his body, plus long boots into which he has tucked his leggings. However, he is armed with a sword, and also has an axe attached to his belt.
The sculpting is very good, with a lot of the detail that such figures would require. The armour in particular has clearly received considerable attention, although the fact remains that representing mail or scale armour at this scale is extremely difficult if you wish to show individual scales or links. The figures are nicely proportioned, although some elements like spear shafts could have been less thick, but these are nice figures to look at. The hand ballistas are of course a considerable compromise, with short, stubby bows and no detail round the head. The poses are a mixture of battle and relaxed examples, and we have already expressed our reservations about the man holding his shield horizontally, but otherwise we were happy with them. The man thrusting with his sword has a fair amount of extra plastic on his chest where his arm hides his body from the mould, and there are a few other areas of excess plastic such as behind the shield on the auxilia. Flash is about average, although a few of the seams are completely clean. However we have also seen examples of this set with a very considerable amount of flash, so your experience may vary from ours.
Although there are some compromises, these are generally very nice figures, and while some elements, particularly the hand ballistas, are hard to verify, we could not find any solid evidence to suggest anything here is inaccurate. Perhaps the main feature of this set is the variety of unit types it seeks to portray, which inevitably means you get few of each, but we would suggest you pay little attention to the specific labels, since many in most units would have looked much the same. The inclusion of two ballista poses, and two heavily-armoured archers, certainly makes this far from a representative set of Byzantine infantry, but as usual we note that this is called ‘Set 1’, so can only hope that the succeeding sets redress the balance, and between them provide all the necessary figures to model a typical Byzantine army during that busy century for the Eastern Empire.