Many of the Muslim conquests against the Byzantine empire (both Arab and Turkic) came down to clever use of cavalry. But the Romans had a handy helper against cavalry charges, the caltrop.

Did the Byzantines forget to use them in all their defeats vs. the Arabs and later the Turks? I know they would not be effective against horse archers, but stationary archers usually outperform the mounted ones, while caltrops would protect them against the usual cavalry charges.

  • Maybe they were unable to make and transport enough caltrops to deploy them everywhere they were needed.
    – MAGolding
    Mar 20, 2018 at 17:20
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    From the Alexiad: "There he [Alexios I Komnenos] assembled his regiments and mercenaries again and started on his march against Bohemund, with a new device in his head for overcoming the Franks. For he prepared iron caltrops, and on the eve of the day on which he expected a battle, he had them spread over the intermediate part of the plain, where he guessed the Frankish cavalry would make their fiercest onslaught, thus aiming to break the first irresistible attack of the Latins by piercing the feet of their horses." Mar 20, 2018 at 17:24
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    So the knowledge wasn't lost (this battle took place in 1083, I think). But why they weren't used against the Arabs & Turks—if indeed they weren't used—I do not know. Mar 20, 2018 at 17:26
  • That's the big question, they lost so much land to nomads from the East, yet seemingly never thought of using caltrops against their cavalry. Mar 21, 2018 at 11:07
  • @user1095108 - I suspect some of the answer here is what the Turks and Arabs used their cavalry for. Caltrops are at their most effective when used vs a heavy cavalry charge...to the best of my knowledge, Arabic / Turkic cav tended to be used either as skirmish mounted archers) or counter-attack troops. Neither of these tactics are overtly prone to caltrop usage.
    – Twelfth
    Mar 21, 2018 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


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The Byzantines did know about Caltrops.

A Companion to Byzantine Illustrated Manuscripts, Page 111
The so-called "Heron of Byzantium" is a name used to refer to an anonymous Byzantine compiler and commentator of two treatises: the De strategematibus, an instructional manual on the fabrication of siege machines and Geodesia, a manual on the use of a diopter, a kind of surveyor's theodolite. According to T.H. Martin, they were written in 938 or slightly later.
Indeed, the stated aim of the author is to simplify the works of ancient mechanics to make them "accessible to all". It is addressed particularly to generals responsible for besieging cities held by the Arabs and beginners who are new to mathematics. The book is therefore intended as a practical manual and not intended for engineers.
The two treatises are illustrated in "Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vatican, Vat. gr. 1605. It is a richly illustrated manuscript dated on paleographical grounds to the 11th century. In fold. 7v and 8r different tortoises and also two different kinds of caltrops are drawn: (wood caltrops) and (iron caltrops). Heron recommended against the iron caltrops to place wooden supports under the boots or to clear these away with farm rakes with large tine which some also called griphanai. As we may see in Fol. 8r (Fig.35), a man disperses the icon caltrop in front of a plaited laisa.

It would have taken a lot more than Caltrops to save the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453 when Europe was just entering the Renaissance, 1000 years after the Western Empire fell. When it fell it was just the capitol of Constantinople that was sacked. That was the culmination of 700 years of loosing ground to Islamic armies. During the rule of the Byzantium Emperor Justinian (527AD-565AD) the Byzantine Empire included most of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea including North Africa.

By 700AD Byzantine had lost the entire middle east and North Africa. By 1373 Byzantium was economically shattered and relegated as a vassal to the Turks. When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II sacked Constantinople the once vast empire was little more than a city state and the Byzantium Empire had been at war with the Muslims for 700 years.. (634 AD - 1458).

At the end their population was exhausted, their wealth was spent, their economy was shattered and perhaps worst of all they were mostly alienated from Western Europe who had come to their aid in the previous centuries. A few competent rulers in a row would have helped them more than caltrops, maybe just a few competent diplomats.


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    Actually it was the 4th Crusade that dealt the most devastating blow to the Empire. Pope John Paul II twice expressed sorrow for the events of the Fourth Crusade. Some aid. But anyway, my question was of a more tactical nature. Were caltrops useless against the mighty Arab, Turk cavalry? Maybe horseshoes are to blame? Mar 21, 2018 at 6:39
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    The 4th Crusade sacked Constantinopolis but Byzantium wasn't just a city state when that occurred. So the Crusader's sacking of Constantinopolis in 1204 can't be compared to the Turks ending the empire by sacking it in 1458. After the Crusaders sacked the city the empire went on for 250 years. It's like saying the United States never recovered from the British sacking Washington DC in 1812. The mere fact that the United States continued suggests it wasn't that devastating as traumatic as it was.
    – user27618
    Mar 21, 2018 at 14:48
  • I think Caltrops can be effective if the enemy isn't ready for them, you know where the enemy is going to attack, and you are not entirely outnumbered and outclassed. I think Byzantium was a nation on the decline after Justinian and not just from the Moslems, the Persians Empire and Slavs had softened them up before the Moslems. They had been around for more than 1000 years, they traced their lineage back to the Roman Republic 500 years before that. They lost their Mojo and pitted against overwhelming numbers of religious fanatics their forces just could not hold up.
    – user27618
    Mar 21, 2018 at 14:56
  • Cavalry as a military force is very vulnerable. WWI effectively ended the practice of putting cavalry on the field. The reason: barbed wire. So there exists a game-changer as regards cavalry, only barbed wire did not yet exist in Byzantine times. But caltrops did and they are a good substitute IMO. Nomadic armies (i.e. Turks, Mongols, ...) were mostly cavalry, so why not deploy caltrops against them? It can't hurt, at least. Mar 21, 2018 at 17:24
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    @user1095108, modern star nails are cheap, because a machine can produce thousands of them an hour. In Byzantine times, caltrops would have been produced by hand; a blacksmith would be unable to produce more than a few an hour, making them relatively expensive.
    – Mark
    Mar 22, 2018 at 1:13

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