As we saw in the previous blog, Belisarius had more than 1,000 bucellarii for his invasion of Vandal North Africa in 533. These were private cavalry bodyguards hired and equipped by Belisarius himself and they were probably armed as heavy cavalry, heavily armoured and armed with spear, sword and probably bow. Such troops achieved remarkable battlefield feats. In addition to leading the decisive charges in Belisarius’ battles, they were also used on smaller operations.
Our best (and sometimes only) source for Belisarius’ campaigns is the historian Procopius of Caesarea in his magisterial work The History of the Wars (the Vandal Wars are in books 3 and 4). Procopius had been the assessor (legal adviser) to Belisarius since 527 and accompanied Belisarius to North Africa. He was thus an eyewitness to the lightning campaign whereby Belisarius conquered all of Vandal North Africa with blistering speed. Procopius seems to refer to the bucellariibut does not use the term – he refers to them as "bodyguards" (doryphoroi, literally "spearbearers"), a term he uses very often. It also seems clear, however, that Procopius spoke to such men and got details of specific actions from them.
One such action occurred after the battle of Ad Decimum, fought in September 533, some ten miles from Carthage (hence the name of the battle ‘at the tenth (milestone)’). At that battle Belisarius had bested the Vandals even though he was massively outnumbered (we are given odds of 80,000 Vandals against Belisarius’ 15,000 men (Procopius 3.5.18)). Most modern scholars do not accept Procopius’ exceedingly large number of men for the Vandals – they consider the disparity to be simply too great – especially as they were an all-cavalry army (Procopius 3.8.27). Modern estimates place their number instead anywhere between 20 and 30,000. The Vandals retreated and Belisarius would march to, and seize, Carthage itself. The Vandals were not defeated, however, and another, more decisive battle would be fought in December. In the meantime, however, Belisarius sent out patrols to keep an eye on Vandal movements and the king of the Vandals, Gelimer, offered rewards for every head of a Roman brought to him.
After his defeat at Ad Decimum, Gelimer had withdrawn to the Plain of Boulla, probably around the area of Bulla Regia, near modern Jendouba, Tunisia. Gelimer's forces were relatively unscathed despite their defeat; they had only suffered 800 casualties at Ad Decimum (Procopius 4.3.18). Now they were to be reinforced by Gelimer’s brother Tzazon, returning victorious from Sardinia with a further 5,000 men. Belisarius, in contrast, had landed with an invasion force of only 15,000 men – 10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.
A bucellarius, Diogenes, was sent out on patrol with only twenty-two men to spy on the whereabouts of the Vandals (Procopius 3.23.5). The small scouting force rode from Carthage for two days when they ran into some local farmers who attempted to cash in on the reward Gelimer was offering for the heads of Belisarius’ men. Unable to kill the bucellarii, the farmer instead reported their presence to Gelimer (who was close by) and who selected 300 of his own cavalry to ride out against the bucellarii and to bring them back to the Vandal camp alive.
This overwhelming force of Vandal cavalry arrived where the bucellarii were lodging before dawn. Staying in a two-storey farmhouse overnight, Diogenes and his companions were unaware of the Vandals’ approach. Since they were charged with taking the small enemy force alive, the Vandals did not assault the farmhouse but encircled it. Procopius accuses the Vandals of cowardice for this (3.23.11) and for not being willing to enter the house in the dark – they could have defeated the men inside easily as they were unprepared, naked and without weapons. In all probability, they were under orders to take the bucellarii alive. Nonetheless, the Vandals encircled the house, making a ring of cavalry around it – Procopius tells us that they "made a phalanx in a circle about the whole house and especially at the doors, and all took their stand there" (3.23.12). The details of this (and other) encounters reinforces the idea that Procopius spoke to the men themselves and took copious notes which he later wrote up in his history.
One of the bucellarii had, however, awoken and had noticed the Vandals approaching; he woke each of his comrades silently and, following instructions from Diogenes, they all dressed as quietly as they could and gathered their weapons, taking them to the lower storey of the farmhouse where their horses were stabled. There, they put their bridles on their horses and mounted. All of this was done without any of the approaching Vandals noticing what was going on inside. Gathering their small number in the courtyard of the farmhouse, they suddenly opened one of the doors and charged in a body straight towards the Vandal force positioned opposite the door outside. Procopius tells us (3.23.16) that “the Vandals immediately closed with them but they accomplished nothing. For the Romans rode hard, covering themselves with their shields and warding off their assailants with their spears.” Despite being outnumbered 300 to only 22, the Romans broke through the Vandal line, Diogenes leading away twenty of his men, losing only two in the melee.
This was clearly only a minor skirmish during the campaign and of little consequence to the overall campaign, but it is told with remarkable drama by Procopius. It seems clear that Procopius spoke to the men involved; probably Diognes himself, but also some of his troopers – perhaps as Diogenes was recovering in a hospital bed in Carthage after his ordeal. Procopius records the detail that Diogenes received three blows: to his neck and face, but he also received a blow to his left hand, as a result of which he was thereafter unable to move his little finger. It is a tiny detail but it smacks of verisimilitude and we can see Procopius, sitting at Diognes’ bedside being told of the remarkable deeds of that night and writing them down enthusiastically – a minor skirmish to be sure, but an exciting one nonetheless. For more, be sure to get Combat 73: Byzantine Cavalryman versus Vandal Warrior.