The Battle of Halys, 430AD

 

Background

Whilst the Magister Militum Praesentalis, Atulf, a Goth, was campaigning in Thrace to expel an invading army from the west, the Magister Militum per Orientem, Nikolos, a Roman Greek, decided that the time was right to rid the Empire in the East of it's Gothic Patrician. Therefore, taking advantage of his rival's absence in Thrace he gathered together the Syrian army and marched on Constantinopolis. Hearing of this attack on his position Atulf called his troops together and crossed over into Asia Minor. Atulf's army was experienced, strong in regular troops, supplemented by Gothic foederati recruited during the Balkan campaign. Nikolos, wary of a Persian invasion and wanting to ensure his base was secure, could only take part of his army on the march. However, he took 4 vexillationes of Equites Catafractarii and had recruited a band of raiding Huns to offset his deficiency in mounted troops. Both armies marched hard and met on a small dry plain in the province of Kappadokia at an important road junction beside the river Halys, which gave its name to the battle. The armies now camped for the night about 3 miles apart, As the march had been hard on both armies neither general risked a night attack on his opponent as they wished to rest their troops for the decisive clash.

 

The Armies Deploy

Both armies deployed to the west of the Halys in full view of each other, there being no ground suitable for an ambush. Deployment on both sides was delayed by the large number of foederati not accustomed to the discipline of Roman armies. It was not until the late afternoon that both armies were finished deploying leaving about 3 hours until dusk. However, this was to prove enough. A wind blew from the south, which the Syrian army took to be a good omen; however, it was to have no effect on the course of the battle.

The Syrian army deployed on the south side of the plain; they were arrayed from west to east as follows, eager for battle for the glory of their general (and the large donative promised if victory was theirs). The extreme left of the line was held by 5 vexillationes of Equites Illyricani, experienced in many skirmishes with the Persians, deployed in a column of march with the leading ranks on the road. Next to them in a line about half way up the column were the mounted foederati, a mix of wild Heruli and Skiri in bright mail and tall helms. They were led by the Magister Militum himself at the head of his loyal comitatus and his German bodyguard. These two mounted groups were under the direct command of the Magister. On the small ridge to the front of the right of the Heruli were 4 legiones; all below strength, starved of recruits who had been sent to the army in Thrace. Continuing the line eastward from the legiones was a mass of barbarous Rugians, some 4000 strong, eager for a fight and promised plunder. The legiones and Rugians were under the command of Ulfidas, a Romanized Goth loyal to the empire. He positioned himself with his bodyguard of Roman horse between the legiones and Rugians. The right wing of the army was commanded by a Roman, Annius Rufus, second in command to Nikolos. The first of his troops were to the right of the Rugians extending their line. These were 8 elite Auxilia Palatina, all veterans and all having a number of archers in their ranks for support in the manner of the legiones. Some 300 paces to their front were the Alani, so placed as to delay the advance of the enemy and disrupt his formation. Refused behind, and overlapping the end of the auxilia's line were the vexillationes of Catafractarii; both horse and man encased in iron, impervious to any hurt. Annius stood at their head with his bodyguard in full view of the enemy. The Hunnic horde was placed about 300 paces in front of the legiones and Rugians where their ferocity and love of battle would break up the enemy's attack.

The opposing Thracian army was deployed on the north of the plain approximately along the line of the east-west road. Their regiments were arranged from west to east in the following manner. On the right were 4 vexillationes of Roman cavalry deployed in a square formation. To their left were 500 Alan foederati, veterans of a number of battles under the Magister Atulf. Next to the Alani were 5 vexillationes of Equites Illyricani drawn up in an unusual column on a frontage of 2 vexillationes. Next in line was a long mass of Gothic horsemen from the Balkans, spears glinting in the afternoon sunlight. The Magister Atulf led these at the centre of their line at the head of his bodyguard. Thus 2000 formidable horsemen were positioned to charge the Syrian left wing and centre. Behind this mass of horsemen and well to the rear away from danger were 4 auxilia pseudocomitatenses regiments from the garrison of Thrace huddled together in fright at the thought of a real battle. All these troops were under the direct command of the Magister. Behind, and supporting, the Goths were the majority of the regular units of the army under the command of Amalric, another Goth. They comprised of 2 vexillationes of Equites Catafractarii headed by Amalric and his bodyguard and to their left 4 full strength legiones, the latter no doubt the recipients of the recruits so badly needed by the Syrian legiones. Covering the left flank of the legiones were 2 Auxilia Palatina, inferior to their Syrian counterparts as they contained no supporting archers. The left wing of the Thracian army filled the plain to the edge of the small wood and was commanded by one Justinian, a loyal and experienced general, second in command of the whole army. On their right were 4 vexillationes of Roman horse deployed as before and to the left of these 3500 Germans of many mixed tribes, no less fierce than the opposing Rugians. Justinian and his bodyguard led these so as to keep them under control and curb their natural instinct for all out attack. 4 more Auxilia Palatina covered their left in the space next to the wood. Finally, 3 vexillationes of Equites Sagittarii were placed between the wood and the river to prevent an outflanking move by the Syrian right.

 

The Generals Plans

Both commanders adopted relatively simple plans relying on their more expendable foederati rather than the regular Roman troops. Atulf aimed to smash the Syrian centre and left with a decisive charge of his Gothic horse supported and exploited by the regular troops including the cavalry of the left wing. His left wing was to protect the flank of the Goths and act as a threat. Nikolos adopted a slightly more complex plan dependant on absorbing the initial attack with the Huns and counter attacking the now disrupted enemy with his Heruls and Skiri. At the same time the right wing would advance to bring the enemy auxilia and Germans within reach of the catafractarii who would then punch a hole in the line to be exploited by the Auxilia Palatina.

 

The Battle

After a short pause following final deployment during which the generals assessed the situation the battle proper commenced. The first moves were made by the Thracian army with the Equites, Alani and Illyricani of the right advancing rapidly toward the Syrians to pin them into position and restrict their room for manoeuvre; during this advance the Equites deployed into a more traditional line formation. At the same time the Magister Atulf led the Goths forward wheeling them to the left at the same time. Thus they were now moving towards the heart of the Syrian army. Those seeing this were amazed at the control of the Goths who turned as if regular cavalry and not the wild barbarians that they were. In accordance with their generals wishes the supporting Roman troops advanced slowly and the troops of the left wing held to their positions. Despite being unnerved at the alacrity and precision of the Gothic advance Nikolos trusted his army and urged the Huns towards the Goths as planned. However, the Huns took exception to being used as bait and halted after a short advance and refused to go further, their leader even talking of joining the Goths in destroying the Romans. Nikolos being a prudent general, and experienced in the vagaries of the Huns, had foreseen this possibility, hence his cautious battle plan. His Illyricani moved up level with the Huns and the gap between them was filled by the legiones, although they again had to march at a furious pace to reach their position such was the speed of the advance of the Thracian right. At the same time Nikolos led his Heruli and Skiri behind the Huns to cover their position and encourage them to remain loyal. On the right the Alani advanced rapidly to close down the enemy and the other troops advanced cautiously. The Rugians in the centre were held back by Ulfidas with some difficulty so eager were they for a fight.

The static line of Huns was too much of a temptation for Atulf and he wheeled the Goths into a line parallel with them and advanced to a distance that his Goths could charge over. The rest of his right wing horse moved within a bowshot of the Syrian troops of the left forcing them into a defensive posture. The Syrian response was to push their Alans to the bridge over the river to secure the right flank and threaten the Thracian Equites Sagittarii. Simultaneously the auxilia and catafractarii wheeled left so as to threaten both the German foot and the flank of the Goths; the only response by Justinian was to occupy the wood to his left with his auxilia.

Fighting now commenced in earnest on the Syrian left. The Thracian Equites charged the Illyricani, attempting to drive them from the field opening up the flank, whilst the Alani rode up to the legiones raining arrows down on the at pointblank range. In both cases the fight was short; the Syrian Illyricani skilfully skirmished with the Equites stopping their charge with a volley of javelins, although 1 vexillatione broke under the pressure. The Alani fared worse; the legionarii protected by their large shields and iron helms suffered little loss to the bows of the Alans and their own archers laid down such well aimed fire that scarce one arrow missed it's target and the Alans fled in disorder jeered by the legiones. At this setback the Magister Praesentalis wavered momentarily holding back his Goths from charging. Seeing this Nikolos pressed his advantage and unleashed half his Heruli into the enemy Illyricani and the end of the Gothic line. The Heruls, ever impatient, charged with unbridled ferocity and swept the Illyricani from the field, killing many. They had less success against the Goths, being outnumbered, but managed to push back that part of the line they had charged. Stung by this second reverse Atulf led his Goths in a charge to sweep the Huns from the battlefield. However, upset by the attack by those they had sought to join the Huns replied with their inhuman savagery, killing many Goths, which resulted in a confused static melee with loss on both sides. The sight and sound of battle raised the blood of the Rugians and they surged towards the fight only just under Ulfidas' control, ending dangerously close to the rear of the Huns. Out of the confusion of the central melee a few hundred Goths charged into the Syrian auxilia on the right; a protracted fight ensued over the following half hour with repeated savage Gothic charges being beaten off by 2 auxilium by weight of missile fire, until Gothic loses proved too much and they broke and fled leaving most of their number dead on the field.

As casualties mounted on the Huns the Goths gained the upper hand slaying many. Finally, even the Huns could take no more and started to quit the field looking for easier victims; those that did not were ridden down by the triumphant Goths. One group of fleeing Huns crashed into the Rugians behind them in their panic and carried nearly 1000 away in flight. With their battle line now broken the Rugians became uncontrolled and charged wildly at the enemy in disorganised bands. With his centre compromised Nikolos now feared that it was only a matter of time to defeat, but as a true Roman resolved to fight to the bitter end. Fortunately for him the Thracian army now lost all impetus, perhaps believing that battle to be won. As the fight in the centre dissolved into charge and counter-charge by small, uncontrolled bands of Germanic horse emphasis moved to the Syrian right wing. Here the Equites Catafractarii thundered into the Thracian Auxilia Palatina, immune to their missiles by the weight of their armour, destroying nearly all by the impact of the charge. However, one vexillatione foolishly attempted to fight its way into the wood to get at the auxilia; here their armour was a disadvantage and the auxilia pulled them from their horses slaying most. Despite this setback the catafractarii wheeled left and charged the flank of the Germanic horde exposed by the destruction of the auxilia. Once more they were unstoppable, crushing almost 1000 hapless Germans underfoot, impaling them on their long lances. In an attempt to save his troops from being rolled up Justinian charged with his bodyguard into the flank of the catafractarii, sweeping them away in confusion as they were too heavily armoured to turn and face the attack. By this brave action the left flank was saved. However, it was to be elsewhere that the battle was to be decided.

On the Syrian left and in the centre a number of small combats were to turn the battle. On the Syrian left a small group of Herul cavalry charged into the Thracian Alani who were returning to the fray, caught them by surprise in the flank and routed them utterly. In the centre rampaging bands of Rugians surrounded a number of isolated Goths and, ripping them from their horses, slew many in their blood lust. However, the uncontrollable Rugians also lost many men, as the Goths gave no quarter where they found them. In an attempt to restart the attack in the centre Justinian rushed his Equites to the fight hoping to brake through at last. Unfortunately by now the Goths had taken so many casualties that they no longer believed they could win and started to flee towards the rear to save themselves and their baggage, thus the newly arrived Equites were isolated. Atulf now turned to his regular troops long held in reserve to finish off the Syrians moving them into the attack; at the same time Justinian let his German warbands charge into the auxilia facing them. The latter raised their warcry, which was returned by the auxilia, and charged full speed into a hail of darts, javelins and arrows that turned the sky black. Such was the density of fire that the barbarians came to an abrupt halt and advanced not one foot more that day.

At this delicate point the victorious Herul cavalry rampant after destroying the Alani crashed into the deploying Thracian Catafractarii so ruining their formation that they fled in ignoble rout with hardly a single casualty. Seeing this the legiones lost heart and began to withdraw towards their camp. This spread rapidly to the rest of the army, which started to disintegrate being now too scattered to rally. Fortunately for them darkness and a lack of any fresh troops prevented the Syrian army from pressing the pursuit for any distance.

 

Aftermath

As the Thracian army quit the field the Syrian foederati rushed to plunder their camp although it contained little of any value. Atulf managed to rally the remains of his army, including most of the precious regular troops, and retired towards Constantinopolis to collect more troops to return to the contest. Nikolos, relieved to have won a battle he thought lost, took time to refresh his exhausted army and collect the spoils from the battlefield as well as exerting his authority over the surrounding provinces. His biggest boost came from discovering that most of his Catafractarii had survived, fleeing to the camp in rout, rather than being killed as there had been no pursuit when the broke. The stage was set for a second battle; however, other factors were to intervene (see The Battle of the Dunes)

 

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