Part II: Battle of Dara

 
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Part II: Battle of Dara

Rear view of initial Sassanid set-up, Battle of Dara
(Photo courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers www.wadbag.com)

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

Two days after the initial encounters, the Persians again left their fortified camp and deployed before the city walls of Dara. The Byzantines resumed their previous positions, knowing that the Sassanids intended to make their big push on that day. Belisarius and his second-in-command Hermogenes both gave speeches to strengthen the morale of his men. After both armies deployed as before, the two armies stood at their places for half the day.

At noon, the Persians decided to attack the Roman position. Both armies peppered its opponent with bowfire, which the Sassanids kept up rather better, as their cavalry was almost entirely bow-armed. However, the Persian missiles were not as effective, as a strong wind was blowing into their faces and deflecting many of their arrows. Once the Persians exhausted their arrow supply, they charged the Roman line.

As previously, the first attack was on the Byzantine left, which was pushed back just like two days previously. This time, however, the Byzantine left flank was pressed so heavily they could not disengage. Finally, the Hunnish unit under Sunicas charged the flank of the Persian unit. At the same time, the Heruls under Pharas charged down from the hill where they had been stationed, striking the Sassanids in the rear. Essentially surrounded, the Persian horsemen broke and retreated back to their own formation. Rather than pursing the retreating enemy, the Byzantine horse returned to their previous positions.

Persian cavalry attacked on front and flank (Photo courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers www.wadbag.com)
Persian cavalry attacked on front and flank
(Photo courtesy of Washington Area DBA Gamers www.wadbag.com)

While this action was occurring, Persian commander Perozes was making some tactical changes to his original set-up. He transferred some of his cavalry to his left flank, hoping to crush the Byzantine right and win the battle. Seeing this movement, Belisarius ordered Simicas and his command to take new positions on the hinge between the Byzantine right flank and its center.

The Persian left – including the Immortals – then launched an all-out attack on the Roman right. Hard fighting finally caused the Byzantine horsemen to fall back, causing the Sassanids to pursue in a precipitous manner. Then, as occurred earlier in the fight Sunicas and the Huns attacked the flank of the rampaging Persians, taking them by surprise. The force of the charge by the Huns split the Persian formations into two parts. Simultaneously, the retreating Romans reversed their course, and struck the Persians with resounding force.

Hunnic horse archer, Byzantine ally  (Illustration courtesy of www.dbaol.com)
Hunnic horse archer, Byzantine ally
(Illustration courtesy of www.dbaol.com)

Portions of the Byzantine cavalry – including Belisarius and his retinue – circled around and surrounded the confused Persians. During this confused fighting, Sunicas the Hun killed the Persian second-in-command Baresmanes (who was said to have only one eye) as well as his standard bearer. When this occurred, the Sassanids lost all heart and tried to retreat. However, the Persians were essentially surrounded, and the Roman slaughtered many of them.

Seeing that many of their comrades were falling under the spearpoints of the Byzantines, the entire Persian army began to fall back. Procopius states that all of the Persian infantry threw down their shields and began retreating back to their camp. The Byzantines, Huns and Heruls pursued the routing Sassanids, killing many of the infantry. However, Belisarius ordered that the pursuit of the enemy not go over-long. Despite the victory, the Persians still outnumbered the Byzantines, and it would likely be a bloody fight to get into the Sassanid fortified camp to loot it. Consequently, the battle of Dara ended.

Aftermath

The Byzantine casualties are not recorded, but surely could not have been much less than about 3,000 to 5000 men. The Persians, according to Procopius, suffered at least 8,000 to 10,000 casualties. This was one of the few battles in recent years in which the Byzantines triumphed over the Sassanids.

Footnote #1: Despite his victory over the Persians, Belisarius lost the battle of Callinicum one year later. [For more on that fight, please see my Burn Pit post of April 19, 2010, http://www.burnpit.us/2010/04/battle-callinicum-persians-defeat-byzantines .] Nevertheless, Belisarius was still one of Emperor Justinian's ablest generals. He was involved in the suppression of the Nika riots of 531, along with the imperial eunuch Narses. Between 532 and 554, he led campaigns which defeated the Vandals and Ostrogoth, recovering large areas formerly under Roman administration back to imperial control.

Byzantine Empire, AD 565 at death of Emperor Justinian (Lands recovered by Belisarius are in orange, map courtesy of Wikipedia)
Byzantine Empire, AD 565 at death of Emperor Justinian
(Lands recovered by Belisarius are in orange, map courtesy of Wikipedia)

Footnote #2: The Byzantines and the Sassanid Persians waged six wars against each other between AD 421 and 628. None of these wars had a clear-cut winner or loser, with no major changes in boundaries and "eternal peaces" breaking down after only a few years. The final of the six wars, which lasted from 602 to 628, exhausted the manpower and materiel of both empires, leaving them open to the Islamic surge which engulfed most of the Middle East 10 years later.

Footnote #3: I must express my deep appreciation to David Schlanger for his kind permission to use the photographs for this article. The pictures were taken during a De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) tournament held at Historicon in Lancaster, PA in 2006.

Footnote #4: Much of my information for this article was taken directly from the writings of Procopius of Caesarea, a scholar, barrister, and legal consultant. His compilation, variously called The Wars of Justinian or The History of the Wars, followed Belisarius's campaigns closely, as Procopius was one of the general's advisors.

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