Hunnish archery’s impact upon the Eastern Roman Empire

You would not hesitate to call them the most terrible of all warriors,

because they fight from a distance with missiles [arrows] having sharp

bone, instead of their usual [metal] points, joined to the shafts with wonderful

skill; then they gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand

to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives; and while the enemy

are guarding against wounds from the sharp [sword] points, they throw

strips of cloth plaited into nooses over their opponents and so entangle

them that they fetter their limbs and take from them the power of riding or

walking.”–Ammianus Marcellinus on the Huns

The Huns were first mentioned by Tacticus in 91 C.E (A.D.) as a steppe tribe living around the Caspian Sea. To the Romans of that period, the Huns were just one more horse barbarian tribe, and not of much concern. This would change in 376 C.E., when the Visigoths were drive into Roman territory by the migration westward of the Huns.

The Huns were one of the many steppe nomadic tribes who used the paradigm of the horse archer to define their warriors. This type of warrior was not new to the Romans of Late Antiquity. The horse archers of the ancient Scythian had been known since the early Classic time to Hellenistic writers. But the Huns were more dangerous than any of the past tribes.

The Huns trained their youth to ride horses from the age of 4 or 5, just as all the steppe nomads for millennia had done. So the horsemanship of the Huns was no surprised to the Romans, but the composite reflex bow of the Huns was a vast improvement over past composite bows the Romans knew. This bow combined with all the archery and horsemanship skills of the Huns created a warrior combination that the Romans and all the Germanic tribes had great difficulty facing.

The Hun could use the standard horse archer tactics of firing and retreating against less mobile forces at even greater ranges than the Romans had experienced in the past. There were few missilery troops the Romans had access to in this period that could match the range of the Hunnish bow. The classic counter tactic to the horse archer of using ground archers was not an option.

Other tactical attempts by the Romans to counter the Huns meet with only mixed results. In the end the Romans found it necessary to develop horse archers of their own, which also combined the capacities of heavy cavalry, to create mounted troops of a formidable nature. But these Roman cataphracts would prove expensive to train and maintain. Such troops had to be trained in effective horsemanship and archery, two skills the Huns had developed since childhood.

The self destruction of the Hun Empire in 469 C.E would spare the Eastern Roman Empire, but the Eastern Roman found their new elite troops highly effective against the Germanic tribes of Western Europe, and the Parthian eastern neighbors.

The cataphract had started become the main Roman unit in the 4th century, but the addition of the composite reflex bow was an Eastern Roman innovation to counter the Huns. These heavy cavalry, mixed with the comitatense heavy infantry would be main stands of the imperial armies as the Eastern Roman Empire became over time the Byzantine Empire.

This would be the standard till the Seljuk Turks defeated the Eastern Romans at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, where much of the Byzantine army was destroyed. The Eastern Empire found it a costly defeat, and never fully rebuilt their army to such professional elitism again. Yet the root of these 600 years of effective cavalry combination of horse archer and heavy knight lie in the Roman answer to the legality of the Hunnish warriors.

A Quick Review of the Longbow in the 100 Years War

When the idea of archery in military history comes up to most English speakers, the English long bow and its performance in the 100 Year’s War comes to mind. Let’s do a quick review of the details, even though most everyone who has studied medieval history is aware of the details.

The Hundred Year’s War lasted for approximately 115 years, running from the years 1337 through 1458. The cause of the war was the English Throne contesting the succession to the French throne of the House of Valos. Edward III would lead an army into France, and would campaign there off and on through out the rest of the years of his life.  One of the changes Edward III had done to the English army was to add the Welsh longbow men to the English army.

To many students of history the long bow is well known. Its impressive power, often with a pull weight of over 50 kilograms, and range was something new to many medieval battles. It would prove to be critical in 3 of the most famous battles of the Hundred Year’s War. While over 55 major battles were fought during the century long conflict, the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt earned the Welsh longbow its incredible history.

The Battle of Crecy was fought in 1346. Edward III divided his outnumbered army into 3 wings and took the high ground against a pursuing French army. With each wing having longbow men on the flanks and infantry at the center they received a French charge and devastated the French forces.

The Battle of Poitiers was a repeat of similar circumstances in 1356, when Edward the Black Prince deployed an army with longbow men on the flanks and dismounted English knights to fortify the English infantry in the center. A fatigued pursuing French army attempted to press home a cavalry charge into the English center, costing them dearly. The French then followed up with an infantry charge. In each case the French were devastated by the volley fire from the longbow.

The Battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, following much the same pattern as the previous two mentioned battles. Henry V lead an English army to stand its ground behind embedded stakes as a pursuing French army attempted to press home an attack. Bad weather, and the volley fire from the English archer’s wielding longbows, devastated the French nobility.

The war would last forty more years, with the English never performing quite the same effect. Historians have debated the reasons for centuries. It could be that the plague cut down the number of longbow archers available to the English kings. The development of plate and chainmail combinations in the later decades of the war might have nullified part of the longbow’s deadly effect.

There is also the idea that the French got much wiser in how they conducted battles against the English. Dr. Archer Jones, in his work The Art of War in the Western World, proposed that the English tactical doctrine of using heavy infantry and dismounted knights to withstand French charges, while archers devastated with volley fire, lacked a key offensive component to force the French into battle.

Regardless of which factor was the critical one to the loss of effectiveness, the Welsh longbow would go down in history as one of the most effective usage of archery in warfare. With a bit of irony, historians would come to call the longbow, a weapon developed by the Welsh, the English longbow, from its effective use as a weapon of war by English kings.