Battle of Dara: Byzantines defeat Persians

 
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Battle of Dara: Byzantines defeat Persians

Today in Military History: June 4-6?, AD 530

Returning again to my favorite military era – the so-called "Dark Ages" – today's battle involves the two empires that fought for supremacy in western Asia between the third and seventh centuries: the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire.

Background

The East Roman Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire) was involved in a war with the neighboring Sassanid Persian Empire over the kingdom of Iberia, located just east of the Black Sea in the Caucasus Mountains. Iberia was a under Roman influence since about 65 BC. By the late fifth century AD, the revived Sassanid Empire began attempts to absorb Iberia into its sphere of influence. Many Iberians, mainly Christians, were being pressured by the Persians to accept Zoroastrianism. Finally, in AD 524/525 the Iberians revolted against the Sassanids, but were badly beaten. The Iberian king Gourgen fled to Byzantine territory, and received Roman pledges to help recover his kingdom. One year later, the Byzantines and Sassanids were at war.

The Byzantine emperor Justinian (see below) faced several challenges in the early part of the war. The Lakhmids, a desert tribe allied to the Persians, launched several raids on eastern Byzantine territories. Justinian encouraged a rival tribe, the Ghassanids, to become a coherent kingdom. This act partially offset the Lakhmids. Persian forces invaded the Roman-allied kingdom of Lazica, a western neighbor of Iberia. The Persians then launched a series of raids into Byzantine lands, with the help of their Lakhmid allies. Justinian sent one of his ablest generals, Belisarius, into eastern Syria to build border outposts to curb the Sassanid incursions; however, the Persians drove his back.

Justinian I, Emperor of East Roman Empire (reigned 527-565) (Mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Justinian I, Emperor of East Roman Empire (reigned 527-565)
(Mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

In late 529, the Persian king Kavadh sent 40,000 Sassanids into the eastern Byzantine lands. In reply, Justinian sent Belisarius back east in early 530, with the title of magister militum Orientum (essentially commander-in-chief for the entire eastern region of the empire). Belisarius headed directly to the fortress-city of Dara, recently rebuilt by Byzantine engineers in answer to Sassanid raids. Belisarius and his army arrived at Dara in late May, just ahead of the Persian army. Despite the scouting reports that the Persians outnumbered them, Belisarius decided to confront the invaders outside the walls of the city.

Person believed to be Belisarius (c. 500-565) (Mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Person believed to be Belisarius (c. 500-565)
(Mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The Two Armies: Byzantines vs. Sassanid Persians

Belisarius had about 25,000 men at his command, mostly cavalry. Although the army is not broken down by the historical sources, we can speculate with a fair chance of accuracy. Some of the horsemen were bucellarii, the personal bodyguard of Belisarius, trained as heavy cavalry and usually armed with bows, lances, maces and swords. These men would be used as the reserves. Another portion of the cavalry was the stratiotai, light cavalry used as skirmishers, armed with bows, javelins, swords, and maces. Also included in the mix were cataphracts, the heavily armored horsemen that could act as archers or as the decisive arm of the Byzantines, charging against enemy formations to break them by sheer weight of man and horse. Finally, the Byzantines made great use of barbarian allied horsemen, mainly Alans, Goths, Heruls, and "Huns." [The term "Hun" was a catchall phrase used by many chroniclers to indicate any non-Byzantine horsemen who were hired to supplement the recruited army.]

Byzantine infantry still resembled the old Roman infantry of the late empire period. However, cavalry had begun to overshadow the former legions. The infantry consisted of a mix of swordsmen, spearmen, skirmishers (bowmen or slingers), and finally foederati, usually foreign barbarians – again probably Goths or other non-Roman soldiers – who filled out the army.

Sassanid Persian heavy cavalryman, AD 428-637 (Illustration courtesy of www.dbaol.com)
Sassanid Persian heavy cavalryman, AD 428-637
(Illustration courtesy of www.dbaol.com)

The Persian army was somewhat similar to the East Roman force. However, more often than not the Sassanids would utilize all-cavalry forces. These consisted of lightly-armored steppe bowmen, and heavy cavalry lancers, replacing the extra-heavily armored cataphracts of earlier years. The Sassanids had a unit of heavy horsemen called the "Immortals" modeled after the same unit in the 5th through 3rd centuries BC. By contrast the original Immortals were heavy infantry rather than horsemen. The sources differ on certain details of this battle, so let us assume that there was a small amount of infantry at this battle. Usually, the Persians would use lightly armored spearmen holding wickerwork shields. They would also employ javelin-armed skirmishers. Both armies used the infantry as the base around which their horsemen would deploy and sometimes rally around.

Opening Deployments

Opening Deployments, Battle of Dara, June, AD 530
Opening Deployments, Battle of Dara, June, AD 530

Belisarius ordered his men to dig a series of trenches to protect his army and disrupt any Persian attacks. The trenches also had numerous crossing areas so that the Romans could counterattack at their discretion. His infantry was at the center of his formation, with his Byzantine horsemen placed slightly forward. At the right angles of the trenches – and to protect the inner flanks of the cavalry – were placed two units of Hunnish cavalry. [The left Hunnish unit was commanded by a man named Sunicas, who will be mentioned later in our story.] Finally, a unit of Heruls under Pharas was hidden behind a hill on the Byzantine left flank, to guard against any attempted flanking maneuver by the Persians. Just behind the Roman center Belisarius stationed himself and his bucellarii bodyguard, ready for use on either flank.

The Persians, who had camped about two to three miles away from the city, left their camp at dawn and began marching toward the city. Upon seeing the Byzantines lined up in front of the city, the Sassanid commander Perozes determined to attack. The Persians drew up in their usual formation, cavalry on the wings and their smaller infantry in the center.

Battle of Dara: Part I

According to the historian Procopius, most of the first day passed by with no action. In the late afternoon, a body of Persian cavalry charged the Byzantine left flank. After a short clash, the Romans fell back, with the Persians in hot pursuit. But, after a short chase, the Byzantines turned around and attacked their pursuers. Caught by a feigned retreat and counterattack, the Sassanids fell back to their own lines. The rest of the day was taken up by two individual challenges, both won by the Byzantines. [Procopius says that the Byzantine who won both of these fights was actually a "personal attendant" of one of the Roman officers, who had been training with Belisarius's bodyguard.] At about nightfall, the Persians returned to their fortified camp for the night.

Initial set-ups of the two armies; Byzantines on the right, Sassanids on the left (Photo courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers www.wadbag.com)
Initial set-ups of the two armies; Byzantines on the right, Sassanids on the left
(Photo courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers www.wadbag.com)

On the following day, the Persians were reinforced with 10,000 men from the nearby fortress of Nisibis. Procopius states that Belisarius and Perozes exchanged a series of letters, hoping to reach a peaceful settlement. While couched in the flowery language of diplomacy, nothing was accomplished. Finally, Perozes wrote to Belisarius telling him to prepare a bath and a meal for him so that he could enjoy the fruits of his coming victory. Reading that, Belisarius prepared his army for a fight on the morrow.

Tomorrow: Battle of Dara, Part II

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