Although the fifth century is often described as 'late' in terms of the Roman Empire this was still relatively early in that Empire’s history. Constantine I had transferred the capital of the Empire from Rome to the newly named Constantinople in 330, and while the Empire split and the western provinces, including Rome itself, were eventually lost, the Empire continued in the East for another thousand years. Throughout this time it was referred to as the Roman Empire by both its inhabitants and outsiders, but in the modern West it is generally known as Byzantium. The 12th century saw the start of a long slow decline in the fortunes of the Empire, gradually shrinking until effectively disappearing in 1453 at the hands of the Ottomans.
The long decline of the Empire was mirrored in its army, which increasingly relied on mercenaries rather than native troops. As a result many nationalities fought in its ranks at one time or another, and any set of Byzantine infantry should reflect this enormous variety. This set from Orion makes a pretty good attempt at this, so we will consider each element individually.
The first three rows show what might be termed the native Byzantine soldiers, although others, particularly within the Empire, would have looked much the same. These figures wear a corselet, mostly of mail or scale armour, which in some cases has leather pteruges at the waist and/or shoulders, a common feature of such infantry. Another common feature was a strip across the chest, and a small number of poses have this distinction also. Many have mail or leather hoods and there are an array of helmets, all of which look appropriate although there are hardly any brimmed examples when these may have been quite common. Some of the helmets exhibit strips of leather as a neck curtain, which is also a known Byzantine characteristic. The Empire was quite conservative in outlook and military styles changed less than elsewhere, so to an extent covering such a long period is possible, but there were still changes and one of these was in the shape of the shield. The ancient round type seems to have persisted throughout our period, but during the earlier part most shields seem to have been almond or tear shaped. Several of these figures are carrying such a shield, while others have ones with some straight sides: A style that gradually replaced the tear shape during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Therefore not all the figures are ideal for the whole of the period claimed. No less than seven of the poses have a sash across their chest. This was called a pektorarion and was a sign of rank (with different colours distinguishing ranks), so we were not pleased to see so many poses effectively marked as officers. All the men are well armoured and would therefore be heavy infantry. In the third row there is an archer, who is unusually heavily armoured in much the same way as the rest, but not necessarily wrong. At the end of the row there is a hand gunner. Such weapons were of course latecomers for this period and there is no evidence that native Byzantine infantry ever used them, although the possibility cannot be ruled out. However this man could easily be a foreign mercenary such as an Italian.
Sometimes we review a set of figures and suspect that all the designer did was open the appropriate Osprey or Funcken book and slavishly copy the nice pictures without even reading the captions, never mind doing more detailed research. We cannot know, but this thought has crossed our mind for this set too. By reading the relevant Osprey title (see Further Reading below) all the figures are fairly easy to identify. The first figure on the fourth row is a Bulgarian auxiliary, being identifiable by his long gown and enormous sleeves. He looks accurate but all such men were bow-armed light cavalry so he has no place in a set marked as infantry. His long gown has a slit up the front to allow him to ride his horse, rather obviously, but clearly the sculptor has not understood this as there is no such slit at the back, so the figure is both inappropriate and wrong.
Next on the same row are two Albanian mercenaries, with their large pointed hats and typical coats. However again the sculptor has not done his homework, as these coats have been given mid-length sleeves when the sleeves should be extremely long (this is because the feature is not easy to see on the Osprey illustration). They too have slits up the front of their garments because, yes, you’ve guessed it, these are also cavalry types, and again the sculptor has failed to provide them with the obligatory rear slit. Some such men did operate as infantry, but they were armed with bow, crossbow, handgun or javelin. These figures carry the long spear with a point at both ends (which is impossible to see here), which was exclusively a cavalry weapon, so big problems here too.
The final two figures in this row are again archers, and this time they seem to be Alani mercenaries. Again they are correctly costumed and armed, but (stop us if you have heard this before) they only served as light cavalry! It is tedious to repeat it but once again the slit at the front of the garment is to allow riding, but there is nothing similar at the back. Most importantly of course none of the figures in this row should even be here, and if they are then they should have a horse between their legs. Just because they are all dismounted in the Osprey book does not mean they are infantry, as actually reading that book would reveal! It should be said of course that any cavalryman might find himself without a ride at some point, and with some contingents like the Alani the Byzantines provided the horses, so it is possible that any of these 'cavalry' mercenaries may have had to fight on foot at some stage. Nonetheless we would still argue that this is a flimsy excuse for including them in this set.
Oh dear, that was not an impressive section. Can it get better? Well yes, the first two figures on the bottom row are actually infantry. Hooray! They are Almughaver mercenaries, wearing animal skin coats and carrying a characteristic long spear that could be broken in half to allow its use in close combat. These troops were also known for their use of javelins, but the two poses here are fine.
The next figure, holding a long axe, puts us in mind of the famous Varingian Guard. Originally filled with Scandinavians and Russians, this small unit later came to be mainly British. They were essentially a palace guard and would not have fought on campaign. Also their costume became very elaborate as befitted their largely ceremonial duties, so this figure would only fit the description for the very early part of this period. More likely is that he is a Norman mercenary, although again only for the early part of the period.
Last but not least we find a member of the Imperial Court. We know this because he wears a richly patterned kabbadion, which was a kind of kaftan, and an equally impressive skaranikon on his head. Indeed this costume means he is a senior member of the Court, and in full Court dress. While we always welcome something different and this figure is perfectly accurate we have to wonder what it is doing in this set. He can only be considered military at all in that some Court officials also led armies, but if they did so in person then they would not have worn court dress in the field or on the battlements. The suspicion must be that the sculptor thought this was some sort of officer, which it certainly is not. What he is doing is hard to say, but our guess is returning a cricket ball (or baseball if you prefer), or perhaps a hand grenade. If there are any sensible possibilities then we can’t think of them.
Having discussed the figures at some length we will try and keep our remaining remarks as brief as possible. The quality of the figures is extremely mixed. All have a delightful amount of detail very sharply and expertly done which is great. Textures on mail and animal skins are superb and the clothing all looks good and natural. However in some places things are different, with vague or disappearing detail. For example the spears are mostly just sticks with no apparent head, while the face of the hand-gunner is completely absent and several of the figures have no visible means of holding their shields. These are not massively visible problems from a distance, but they warrant mentioning certainly.
The other aspect is much more obvious; some of these figures are absolutely bathed in flash all over the place. However others are almost entirely free of it, which is always disappointing as we have to ask why the job was only done properly for some of them. All the figures are provided complete, so some of the poses are fairly flat; we are thinking of the man throwing his spear over the exact middle of his head for example. However this is no worse than many other sets and apart from the incomprehensible courtier we have no problem with the poses in general.
So, do more than just look at pictures when you research and make sure the whole of the sprue is flash free, not just some of it, and this set would have been so much better. It contains almost a quarter dismounted cavalry when it should have contained some light infantry, which would have made it much more representative of the Byzantine infantry as a whole. A set not without merit but with too many mistakes and sloppy workmanship on the part of whoever made the mould.