Battle of Sirmium: Byzantines Defeat Hungarians

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Battle of Sirmium: Byzantines Defeat Hungarians

Location of former city of Sirmium, today located in nation of Serbia
[Image courtesy of ]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 8, 1167

My military history lesson for the day involves those east European bad boys of late mediaeval times, the Byzantines, as they sought to use first diplomatic guile, then the mailed fist of the army, to expand their empire at the expense of their neighbors, the Hungarians.

Background: City of Sirmium

The city of Sirmium is first mentioned in the fourth century BC, as a place inhabited by Illyrians and Celts. Its name means "(place of) flowing waters" as it was located on the north bank of the Sava River. The town was conquered for Rome in 14 BC, and in the first century AD was turned into a colonia (colony city) for Roman settlers. It became a strategic military and administrative center for the province of Pannonia. In the year 103, when Pannonia was split into two provinces – Upper and Lower – Sirmium became the capital of Lower Pannonia.

In the year 293, the Roman Emperor Diocletian split the empire into four districts for better defense of the empire's frontiers and administration of the parts. Two senior administrators were termed "augustus" with two assistants called "caesars." Due to its proximity to the Danube – a major boundary between the empire and the barbarian tribes to the north of the river – Sirmium was declared one of the four district capitals of the empire. [Unfortunately, this system broke down after about 30 years, when Constantine the Great reunited the empire in 324.] For the next one hundred years, the city would be used as a staging ground for raids and major military operations against a number of tribal enemies of the Romans north of the Danube. In addition, ten Roman emperors were born in Sirmium or its vicinity.

At the end of the 4th century, Sirmium was brought under the sway of the Visigoths, and later, was again annexed to the Eastern Roman Empire. In 441, the city was conquered by the Huns, and after this conquest, it remained for more than a century in the hands of various other tribes, such as the Ostrogoths and Gepids. For a short time, Sirmium was the centre of the Gepid state and its King Cunimund minted golden coins there. After 567, Sirmium reverted to the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines). The city was finally conquered and destroyed by the Avars in 582.

Sirmium was apparently not rebuilt for at least two centuries, and was lost to memory. It was rebuilt sometime during the 9th century. By the beginning of the 11th century, Sirmium was part of the First Bulgarian Empire, and then was absorbed by the Byzantines again after the defeat of the Bulgarians in 1018. By the end of the 1100s, the city was under dispute from the growing Hungarian nation.

Byzantine Empire in Twelfth Century

The East Roman (aka Byzantine) Empire had shrunk from its greatest extent in the 6th century. Its wars with the Sassanid Persians, and then with the Islamic armies of the early 7th century deprived the Byzantines of Egypt and much of Syria and Palestine. Wars with the Lombards and Normans in Italy and Muslim pirates in Sicily were equally deleterious. Then, in 1071, the Seljuk Turks inflicted a devastating defeat on the Romans at the city of Manzikert in eastern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This loss pushed the Byzantine borders westward, as effective control of Anatolia passed to the Turks. It was a particularly harsh loss for the Romans, as Anatolia was one of their primary military recruiting grounds.

Following the disaster at Manzikert, the Comnenian dynasty placed a number of excellent emperors on the throne in Constantinople. During the early to middle 12th century, the Byzantine economy picked up, agricultural land expanded, and the military made small but steady inroads against its external enemies. The Crusades were also inspired by Byzantine diplomacy, but attempts to fully control the Western forces were spotty at best.

Byzantine Manuel I Comnenus (reigned 1143-1180); From a manuscript miniature (artist and date unknown); Currently in the Vatican Library, Rome
Byzantine Manuel I Comnenus (reigned 1143-1180)
From a manuscript miniature (artist and date unknown)
Currently in the Vatican Library, Rome

During the 1150s and 1160s, the Kingdom of Hungary had been expanding its territory and influence, with a view to annexing the region around Dalmatia and Croatia. This caused some tension with the Byzantines, which viewed Hungarian expansion as a potential threat to East Roman dominance in the Balkans. The Byzantine emperors launched invasions against the Kingdom of Hungary and regularly aided pretenders for the throne.

Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus also found a diplomatic, dynastic way to bind the Hungarian kingdom to his empire. In 1163, under the terms of an existing peace treaty, Hungarian King Stephen III's younger brother Béla was sent to Constantinople to be raised under the personal tutelage of the emperor himself. As Manuel's relative (Manuel's mother was an Hungarian princess) and the fiancé of his daughter, Béla became a despotes (a title newly created for him). In 1165 he was named as an heir to the Byzantine throne, taking the name Alexius. Since he was also the heir to the Hungarian throne, a union between the two states was a distinct possibility. But in 1167, King Stephen refused to give Manuel control of the former Byzantine territories allocated to Béla-Alexius as his granted lands which included Sirmium; this directly led to the war.

Byzantine Army

At the beginning of the Comnenian period in 1081, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced to the smallest territorial extent in its history. Surrounded by enemies, and financially ruined by a long period of civil war, the empire's prospects had looked grim. Yet, through a combination of skill, determination and years of campaigning, the first three Comnenian emperors managed to restore the power of the Byzantine Empire by constructing a new army from the ground up. [By the end of the dynasty in 1180, the entire Byzantine army numbered perhaps 60,000 men.]

Varangian Guardsmen, c. 1066 (l) and c. 1230 (r) (Image courtesy of
Varangian Guardsmen, c. 1066 (l) and c. 1230 (r)
(Image courtesy of

The new force was both professional and disciplined. It contained formidable guards units such as the Varangian Guard, who were heavy infantrymen armed primarily with the two-handed battle axe. These men were originally drawn from Scandinavia and the Rus but later began to enlist Saxon refugees from England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Another component of the royal household troops was the hetaireia, a unit of the emperor's personal bodyguard, usually infantry while in Constantinople, but possibly mounted on campaign. Both of these units were stationed in Constantinople, as were levy units from the provinces. These levies included cataphract cavalry from Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace, and various other provincial forces, such as highly skilled archers from the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor.

Under John II, new native Byzantine troops were recruited from the provinces. As Byzantine Asia Minor began to prosper, more soldiers were raised from the Asiatic provinces. Soldiers were also drawn from defeated peoples, such as the Pechenegs (used as cavalry archers), and the Serbs, who were used as settlers stationed at Nicomedia.

Comnenian armies were also often reinforced by allied contingents from the Crusader-ruled Principality of Antioch, Serbia and Hungary, yet even so these forces generally consisted of about two-thirds Byzantine troops to one-third foreigners. The Byzantines also hired foreign mercenaries when needed, but such troops were very expensive to hire and maintain; thus, they were usually only hired for short-term campaigns. Units of archers, infantry and cavalry were grouped together so as to provide combined arms support to each other.

This Byzantine army was a highly effective, well-trained and well-equipped force, capable of campaigning in Africa, Asia, and Europe. However, like many aspects of the Byzantine state under the Comnenian rulers, its biggest weakness was that it relied on a powerful and competent ruler to direct and maintain its operations both on and off the battlefield. While the Comnenians ruled, the Byzantine army provided the empire with a period of security that enabled its civilization to flourish. Yet, at the end of the twelfth century the competent leadership upon which the effectiveness of the Comnenian army depended largely disappeared. The consequences of this breakdown in command would prove disastrous for the empire.

Hungarian Army

The Hungarian army was only 200 years removed from the days when they were known as the Magyars (pronounced MAH-yars), a former Asiatic steppe people who occupied the Carpathian Basin in about AD 895. For about 80 years afterwards, they launched major destructive raids into Germany, Italy, France, and the Byzantine lands, seeking glory and loot. They coalesced as a nation shortly after their defeat by the Germans at the battle of Lechfeld in 955.

By the 1160s, the Hungarian army closely resembled other nations of western Europe. It was about 60-70 percent mounted, with a mixture of heavy armored knights, medium men-at-arms or sergeants, and light horsemen armed with bows who functioned as scouts and pursuit troops after a battle. These last mounted troops – recruited mainly from nearby Cumans or Pechenegs – also provided missile fire at the beginning of a battle, with clouds of arrows intended to disrupt enemy formations.

Hungarian light horse archer (c. AD 1160) (Image courtesy of
Hungarian light horse archer (c. AD 1160)
(Image courtesy of

The infantrymen in the Hungarian army consisted of armored spearmen, and unarmored javelin-armed missile troops. Following the Byzantine tactical model, these footmen were used as the base around which the cavalry maneuvered or fell back upon in order to regroup.

Prelude to the Battles

In the early to mid-1160s, the Hungarians constantly sought to take Sirmium into their political orbit, but were foiled at least twice by Byzantine military power. The Hungarians crossed the Danube again in 1166, capturing Sirmium and attacking Dalmatia, taking both provinces under their wing. This act provoked a Byzantine military response. Emperor Manuel Comnenus retaliated with a three-pronged attack on Hungary from the south, the east, and the northeast. [These attacks might be characterized as large-scale raids, in my humble opinion.] One year later, Manuel ordered an invasion of the province of Sirmium, with the intention of wresting it away from Hungary once and for all.

The Byzantines mustered an army of about 15,000 men. It comprised many of the Imperial guard units, including the Varangian Guard and the hetaireia, which composed primarily of young Byzantine nobles. There were also a number of regular Byzantine levy units which were permanently assigned to Constantinople, as well as allied units consisting of Serbian and Turkish infantry and Wallachian cavalry. It also contained several mercenary units of foreign knights, primarily Germans and Italo-Lombards. Emperor Manuel was in bad health at the time of this sortie, so he appointed his nephew Andronicus Kontostephanos as the army commander. Andronicus was an experience military commander, though he had more experience with naval forces at this time. However, he had the confidence of his emperor, so he took command.

The East Romans entered the district of Sirmium in mid- to late June, probably plundering and burning to lure the Hungarians to battle. In response, a Hungarian army of roughly the same size left the nearby fortified city of Zemun, and confronted the invaders near Sirmium, north of the Sava River. [It is possible that the battle to follow was a "meeting engagement," where both armies encountered each other without knowing the whereabouts of their enemies.] Hungarian field commander Count Dénes of Bács (called Dionysios in the Greek chronicles) brought an army heavy in mounted soldiers, with only about a third of the force contained units of spearmen, missile troops, and light infantry.

Battle of Sirmium

Each army lined up in three "battles" or divisions, which was standard procedure for most armies of this time period. The Byzantines, probably using a hill or ridge as "good ground" to lure the enemy, were lined up thusly:

  • In front of the army was a line of mounted archers (probably Turks and Cumans) mixed with some European mercenary knights. These troops had been in the vanguard of the marching Roman army, so their deployment was easy;

Turkish mounted archers under Byzantine command (Photograph courtesy of
Turkish mounted archers under Byzantine command
(Photograph courtesy of

  • On the left, Kontostephanos placed four taxiarchies, or brigades, of elite Byzantine and allied infantry totaling about 4000 men, consisting of 2000 heavy infantry, 800 archers, and 1200 light infantry. These men had been the second division on the march;
  • In the center – commanded by Kontostephanos himself – were placed the Varangians, the hetaireia, the Lombard mercenary cavalry (likely armed with lances), a 500-man unit of allied Serbian heavy infantry, and the Wallachian cavalry. This part of the Byzantine army had been the rearguard while on the march;
  • Next, the right wing contained more elite Byzantine and Turkish allied units (probably cavalry), likely Macedonian, Thracian, and Thesallian horsemen. German mercenary knights were also placed in this division;
  • Finally, a reserve was placed to the rear of the center, consisting of three brigades of infantry and archers, with a unit of heavy Turkish infantry also present. In addition, behind each division was a unit of about 500 Byzantine medium cavalry. These men functioned as flank guards or, if the opportunity presented itself, to outflank the enemy and take him in the rear.

Turkish heavy infantry in Byzantine employ (Photograph courtesy of
Turkish heavy infantry in Byzantine employ
(Photograph courtesy of

The Hungarian deployment is a bit problematic; Byzantine chronicler Niketas Choniates wrote that the enemy lined up in three divisions, with mounted bowmen lined up in front of the infantry. To the rear of the infantry were heavily-armored knights on armored horses. The infantry probably consisted of Serbian militia spearmen, archers, and javelin-armed Transylvanian peasants. [This army was probably a quickly-called-up and thrown-together force, reacting to the sudden invasion of Hungarian territory.] Count Dénes was probably located in the center of his army.

At the beginning of the battle, both sides sent their archers and mounted bowmen forward to harass their opponent, hoping to provoke a premature attack. The Byzantine line held firm, but the Hungarian army was goaded into an all-out attack all along the front. Initially, the East Roman army held its own against the combined infantry and cavalry attacks of the Hungarians.

Soon, half of the Byzantine left division suddenly broke and ran in apparent rout. Two brigades of Macedonian infantry held off the entire Hungarian right. Then, the Byzantine right, after temporarily pushing back their opponents, counter-charged the Hungarian left. At the same time, the supposedly-routing brigades of the East Roman left – having reformed near the Sava River – ran back into the fight, rejoining their comrades, putting further pressure on their enemy.

At the same time, the right wing commander Andronikos Lampardas led a unit of Byzantine heavy infantry forward, attacking the Hungarian center where Count Dénes was located. A deadly melee occurred, with the Byzantines using their deadly maces in hand-to-hand combat.

The battle had reached a decisive point. Kontostephanos, recognizing the crisis of the battle, now deployed his remaining reserves. He counter-attacked in the centre using the Varangians and hetaireia. He then ordered forward the infantry along the whole front, including the reserves, driving the Hungarian forces back. The enemy divisions then began to break up in disorder and the whole Hungarian army turned to flee. Byzantine units began to pursue the retreating Hungarians, harrying them for several miles before night fell.


Casualty figures are not given for either side in this battle, though the Hungarians likely suffered at least 50 percent dead, wounded, and captured. The Byzantines captured the main Hungarian standard, which was mounted on an oxen-drawn wagon similar to an Italian carroccio. Count Dénes's warhorse was also taken, though the Hungarian commander managed to escape. Many of the fleeing Hungarians were killed or captured by a Byzantine flotilla operating in the river that they needed to cross to get to safety. Five senior Hungarian commanders were captured, along with 800 other soldiers. The following day the Byzantine army plundered their enemy's abandoned encampment.

Byzantine Empire and its neighbors, c. 1180 (13 years after battle of Sirmium)
Byzantine Empire and its neighbors, c. 1180 (13 years after battle of Sirmium)

Footnote #1: As a result, the Byzantines claimed Serbia and Dalmatia for their empire, leaving Hungary with only a small sliver of the Adriatic coast (corresponding to modern-day Croatia).

Footnote #2: Sirmium would remain in East Roman hands until 1180, when Emperor Manuel 1 died. His successors were not strong administrators or military leaders. As a result, Hungary once again took back the Sirmium area. It remained in Hungarian hands until about 1451, when a Serbian warlord took possession of it. The province of Sirmium was conquered by the Turks in 1512.

Footnote #3: Today, the city of Sremska Mitrovica was built over the ruins of the old city of Sirmium. The city also had an emperor's palace, a horse racing arena, a mint, an arena theatre, as well as many workshops, public baths, temples, public palaces and luxury villas. The Republic of Serbia has declared the excavated areas as "Archaeological Site of Exceptional Importance."

Ruins of imperial Roman palace in Sirmium, Sremska Mitrovica, Republic of Serbia
Ruins of imperial Roman palace in Sirmium, Sremska Mitrovica, Republic of Serbia

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