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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 15 June 2023

Byzantine Cavalryman v Vandal Warriors

 I fear the Vandals have got the worst of historical reputations when their name is now widely used to describe anti-social behaviour. After all, the list of ancient armies vandalising their enemies' territory is a pretty long one. I suspect it is another example of history being written by the Romans.

Murray Dahm has written a more balanced book for Osprey that compares the typical mounted Vandal warrior against one of their main opponents, the Byzantine cavalryman. This takes place during the early Byzantine period, so unlike some others in this series, it isn't duplicating other books on either warrior type.

The high point of the Vandals was the invasion of North Africa from Spain in 429, taking Carthage in 439 and establishing an empire. They sacked Rome in 455, plundering it for 14 days (we don't call the Gauls or the Goths vandals!) and repulsed a previous Roman invasion in 468. They were also active at sea, although primarily as pirates, which probably added to the reputation.

Murray gives us a broad outline of the history and the opposing sides, focusing on the Vandalic War (533-36) when Belasarius defeated them. While we don't know the exact composition of the Byzantine armies, it seems likely most were cavalry. A mixture of heavy cavalry, armed as cataphractarii or clibanarii, and light cavalry from the Balkans, including Huns. Vandal armies probably consisted entirely of cavalry. Our primary source, Procopius, never refers to the infantry of the Vandals as he does for the Romans. Unlike the Byzantines, the Vandals operated on a tribal system in which every able-bodied warrior served in the army when necessary. As usual with this series, there are lovely colour plates,  both front and rear, so helpful for the wargamer and modeller who often are left guessing what their models look like from the back. He also outlines the organisation and tactics of both types.

To illustrate how these forces were used in practice, Murray takes the Battles of Ad Decimum near Carthage in 533. I have visited this area, and there is surprisingly still much to see. He then takes the better-known Battle of Tricamarum, later in 533, interestingly for a cavalry battle fought over a stream. This was about 30km from Carthage, possibly in the suburbs of modern Tunis. The Byzantines won, and the Vandals retreated into Algeria and others into the mountains. Finally, the Battle of Bagradas in 536 was essentially a battle against Vandal mutineers that had been incorporated into the Byzantine army.

The final chapter gives us an analysis of both armies, which I often wish was longer in this series. He concludes that 'The most remarkable aspect of the Vandalic War in terms of battle tactics, however, is not the war of rapid manoeuvre that was clearly part of Belisarius’ success, but the fact that all of the military victories were achieved by cavalry charges.' The Vandal warriors were capable troops, and their allies, the Berbers, were effective. However, their commanders made fundamental mistakes.

This book will give you most of the tools if you plan to deploy either of these armies on the tabletop, other than the Byzantine infantry. Concise, well-argued text, well illustrated and comprehensive colour plates.

I have a Belasarius army in 15mm, which is currently in a box at the bottom of a big pile. I fear that reflects how long it is since I used it!

1 comment:

  1. Figures in a box, somewhere in a pile of boxes- hmmm, sounds familiar 😉