Horses and men were kept fit both physically and mentally by hunting. The men learned military tactics and stalking techniques which were useful when they were sent on scouting patrols, and at the same time enjoyed a day’s exciting sport, although in the context of the Strategikon hunting was a means of teaching manoeuvres and supplying meat to the camps. The Byzantine military hunt was a major undertaking, with 800-1000 men per mile spread in a line across the country to be driven for game. Using the whole army, drawn up in similar fashion to a battle line with centre, right and left, and according to total numbers from one to four horsemen deep, game was trapped in a gradually closing circle, the right and left divisions eventually meeting, passing each other and tightening the circle till the centre was filled with animals ready for slaughter.
If infantry were present they came into the circle stationing themselves in front of the inner circle of horsemen, using ‘their shields to prevent small animals escaping through the horses’ legs. If no infantry were available the rear line of horsemen dismounted and lined up before the front line. Only then was permission given to designated officers to dispatch quarry, the circle being large enough for safe shooting and the trajectory from mounted archers directed downwards.
Apart from exercise and food shot, soldiers learned to negotiate any type of country while maintaining position in ranks. Powers of observation and physical responses were also honed. The horses had their tendons, bones and muscles toughened and their minds and responses sharpened at the same time, getting enjoyment from the chase with minimal chance of being injured.
Most cavalry consisted of archers who trained first on foot, then on horseback. They could shoot in either the Roman or Persian manner, that is, using either a thumb lock or a finger release, the former adopted from the Huns. The Hunnic method afforded a faster delivery. Practice was to be carried out on a fast-moving horse, preferably on a route march to conserve the horse’s energy, and the rider should shoot both straight ahead and to the rear, both to right and left. Speed and dexterity were vital, the archer being expected to shoot, replace his strung bow in its case, grasp and manipulate the spear carried on his back, replace it, and once again take up his bow. He needed a level-headed horse who did not quicken once the reins were slackened, nor as the rider shifted his position for the various releases. Above all, whether the rider was loosing arrow, lance, javelin or spear, the horse had to keep a straight course, an even pace, and a lowered head and neck to facilitate the rider’s aim.
The full panoply of the higher-ranking Byzantine cavalrymen consisted of ankle-length hooded mail coat, gorget, small plumed helmet, bow and bowcase, covered quiver for thirty to forty arrows, two cavalry lances of Avar type, and sword. In his baldric the soldier carried an awl and a file for on-the-spot mending of gear and sharpening of weapons. His clothing consisted of a roomy tunic, fixed at the knee when riding (this helped to prevent the pinch and chafe of stirrup leathers), which suggests a garment rather like trousers. The outer covering was a large felt cloak, both for wet weather and to mask the gleam of mail when on patrol. It also gave some protection against arrows.
The horse’s tack consisted of a saddle with stirrups, a thick saddle pad, a good-quality bridle, a capacious saddle bag to carry three or four days’ iron rations, and spare bowstrings. No doubt other essentials were also carried, such as hoof picks, strips of leather [thong] for saddlery and personal gear repair, etc., plus some food for the horse along with the soldier’s own rations, and a lasso with a thong and a pair of hobbles. Wicker cages were provided for carrying mail coats when not in use. During battle or when on a raid one of these containers was attached behind the saddle of the soldier’s charger to protect the mail coat against the elements, and so that the soldiers could unburden themselves when they were not needed.
The thick saddle pad protected the horse’s back from saddle sores and pressure galls, which could have put it out of action, and also gave some protection against arrows or other weapons.
The Byzantine horsed archer was an expert, capable of loosing arrows from either side of the horse while at full gallop, either shooting a fleeing opponent, or defending himself by a ‘Parthian’ shot over the horse’s rearquarters if he himself was fleeing. The method used was a full draw to the right ear which imparted greater poundage to the arrow. The penetrative quality of Roman equipment used at the battle of Callinicum was due to the adoption of the Hunnic bow and the Mongolian release. The Mongolian release, which uses a thumb lock, is faster, whereas the Mediterranean release, using the fingers to draw, is slower and with an oriental bow the fingers would be crushed. Procopius says the bow used by the Persians at Callinicum was much weaker and the arrows unable to pierce armour, even though the rate of delivery was greater.
The Byzantines’ attitude to warfare was different from that of many of their undisciplined nomadic enemies, and from the haphazard attitude to military engagements shown by some western medieval European armies. Strategy was all-important. To win a war by diplomacy or failing that, skirmishes and raids, was preferable to engaging in a pitched battle.
The 6th-century [C.E. Byzantine] soldier was in fact much more than a cavalryman: he had become an all-around mounted warrior. With his bow he could skirmish at a distance, but he was also heavily armoured and well equipped for close mounted combat. When a steady force was needed to hold ground, he was quite happy to dismount and fight as a heavy infantryman. On many occasions Belisarius took only cavalrymen with him, and when Narses needed steady infantry, he dismounted his cavalry.
— Late Roman Cavalryman: 236-565 AD, p. 24