The Battle of Dara – 530AD   Leave a comment

The only known image of Belisarius from the period

In the late 5th and early 6th centuries, there began a general ambition by the Byzantine hierarchy to restore the Empire’s territory back to the height of the Roman Empire from where it had evolved. Consequently a series of campaigns began across Italy, North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, to rebuild the former glory.  It should be noted that at this point in history, the enemies faced by the Byzantines were far more numerous and better organised than those that Rome had first faced centuries earlier. These were now the evolved enemies that had defeated Rome just 100-150 years earlier.

Through the military commanders there began to appear one who seemed more able and gifted at strategy than some others, that being Flavius Belisarius.  He had been born around 500 AD in modern day Bulgaria, then part of the Byzantine Empire, and after joining the army as a young man, had risen through the ranks and performed sufficiently to be noticed first by Emperor Justin and then by Emperor Justinian, to be asked to create a new unit of elite Royal bodyguard cavalry. This developed into a force of over 7,000 men, and soon Belisarius was given field command of entire armies and the title Magister Militum.

However, long before Belisiarius and even before the Byzantine Empire, the Sassanid Persians had been a regular thorn in the side of the Romans on their eastern frontier. The Sassanids had attempted to relive the art, culture and territorial grandness of their ancestors, the Achaemenid Persians. Centuries of conflict between Rome and the Sassanids had worn down both the financial and material ability to keep up hostilities. By the time the Byzantines faced the Sassanids it was common for both sides to pay off the other for periods of peace, as well as raid each other to “collect” needed funds in the way of booty. It was during one such period of raiding then peace that the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius took the advice of his generals to build a forward base in Persian territory at Dara (sometimes called Daras). By the time the Persians were in the position to intervene the fortification had been constructed and garrisoned.

A few years later, a dispute between Byzantine Emperor Justin and the ageing Persian Emperor Kavadh caused a declaration of war by the Sassanids and they invaded Byzantine territories that buffered up to the Caucasus Mountains such as Iberia and Lazica. The Byzantines responded by invading Sassanid territory further south, but with mixed results., although things were looking better until Emperor Justin died.  The new Emperor Justinian looked to shore up the frontier and sent Belisarius with reinforcements to secure and hold the fortress at Dara.

The Sassanids, although considered by many wargamers as a mainly cavalry army, had learnt from Rome and the Byzantines, the art of siege warfare and the use of siege engines. This made them a dangerous enemy, more than most cavalry based armies of the period, so as they approached Dara in 530AD, Belisarius knew he had to defeat them in the field before they could deploy a siege line around the fortress.

Despite being outnumbered hugely; 40,000 Sassanids to 25,000 Byzantines and allies, Belisarius rode out his army to meet the Persians in the field outside the city.

Suggested initial set up for the Battle of Dara

ORDERS OF BATTLE – using a figure ratio approx 1:100 and suggested base numbers for MeG/ADLG/DBM style rules

Sassanid Persian Army

Perozes – Commander-in-Chief – Veteran, experienced, competent leader

Front rank left to right

Clibanarii (5,000 men) – 50 figures – 5 bases – heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, bow

Light cavalry (1,000 men) – 10 figures – 2 bases – skirmish order light cavalry, no armour, trained., veteran, bow

Levy infantry (6,000 men) – 60 figures – 10 bases – close order infantry, light armour, trained, “levy” morale, 1/2 spear & shield, 1/2 bow

Clibanarii (5,000 men) – 50 figures – 5 bases – heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, bow

Light cavalry (1,000 men) – 10 figures – 2 bases – skirmish order light cavalry, no armour, trained., veteran, bow

Second rank left to right

Clibanarii (5,000 men) – 50 figures – 5 bases – heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, bow

Levy infantry (6,000 men) – 60 figures – 10 bases – close order infantry, light armour, trained, “levy” morale,  spear & shield

Clibanarii (5,000 men) – 50 figures – 5 bases – heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, bow

Rear rank

Guard Cataphracts (6,000 men) – 60 figures – 6 bases – heavy cavalry, armoured, elite, veteran, lance, impact cavalry


Byzantine Army

Belisarius – Commander-in-Chief – Veteran, excellent tactician, strategist, inspirational leader

From left to right

Herul Cavalry (300 men) – 3 figures – 1 base – Medium cavalry, experienced. veteran, light armour, spear, shield

Hunnic Light Cavalry (3,500 men) – 35 figures – 4 bases – Light cavalry, open order, experienced, veteran, light armour, bow

Kavallarioi Cavalry (2,500 men) – 25 figures – 3 bases – Heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, armour, bow

Skoutatoi Infantry (10,000 men) – 100 figures – 10 bases – Heavy infantry, experienced, average morale, medium armour 3/4 spear, shield, sword, 1/4 bow (or depending on rules, all with spear but with a “support” factor to represent the archers)

Sunicas Boukellerioi (600 men) – 6 figures – 1 base – Heavy cavalry, experienced , veteran, armour, lance, bow

Belisarius Guard Boukellerioi (1000 men) – 10 figures – 2 base – Heavy cavalry, experienced , elite, armour, lance, bow

Simmas Kavallarioi Cavalry (600 men) – 6 figures – 1 bases – Heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, armour, bow

Kavallarioi Cavalry (5,000 men) – 50 figures – 5 bases – Heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, armour, bow



The battlefield is open and flat with the exception of a hill on the left side of the Byzantine lines, the hill is “low” and passable. The Byzantines also dug a long ditch in front of their lines as shown on the map, with the centre protruding. This can be represented by a wall or fence if needs be. It is passable, but should leave troops crossing it “disorganised” or “disrupted” for one game turn after passing it.

LURKIO 15mm Sassanid commander, Perozes, readies for battle


Dara was a big battle, and a long one. The two armies formed up and faced each other for three days before fighting properly started. The first two days saw  “champions” challenge each other in single combat and a few skirmishers exchange arrows with little results, but on day three (which our suggested set up map represents) the combat began.

It is also a prime example of Belisarius’s military skill, fighting as he preferred, from a defensive position. Over the previous century the Byzantines had dominated their battles with the use of highly effective and mobile cavalry, who were used to overrun, overwhelm, ambush and ride down the enemy. The Byzantine’s response to this tactic was to increase their own cavalry arm, but even still the Sassanids had the definite advantage. So to help counter this unpredictable mobile threat, Belisarius ordered the construction of a long ditch in front of his lines, designed to extend forward in the centre for a tactical reason and in anticipation of how the Sassanids would attack. The ditch was not impassable, but designed to slow down and disorganise troops as they crossed it.

On day three, both armies formed up ready for battle once again, but the Sassanids did not begin an immediate attack. They sat and waited, knowing that the Byzantines normally ate before noon. They hoped by denying them the ability to eat because of being in battle lines would make them weaker if attacked by the Persians, who normally ate much later in the day. So it was in the afternoon when the Persians began their attack, and fortunately for Belisarius it was as he had predicted and hoped for when he had the ditches constructed and his army deployed.

As the afternoon began, the Persians made a general advance along their entire front to within bow shot distance and both armies exchanged volleys of arrows, but he numerical superiority of the Persians was countered by the fact they were firing into the wind, which dulled the effect of their shooting. Once the supply of arrows was exhausted the Persian right wing advanced to contact. Their tactic, as Belisarius had predicted, was going to be to defeat the Byzantine cavalry first, then once they had fled the field, surround and destroy the unsupported infantry in the centre.  As the Sassanid cavalry closed on the Byzantines they were slowed by having to cross the defensive ditch, but even so they were soon pushing back the Byzantine left wing. But just before the Byzantine and Hun cavalry broke, the Heruls who had been concealed by the hill, galloped over the top and charged down the side into the Sassanid flank. At the same time the cavalry Sunicas, who had been concealed from the Sassanids by the massed infantry in front of them, suddenly launched a charge into the other Sassanid flank. Pityaxes men, now surrounded on three sides, began to falter and then broke and fled back to the safety of their own infantry. leaving 3,000 dead behind them.

Frustrated, Perozes brought his Guard Cataphracts over to his left flank to support the two Clibanarii units of Baresmanas and then ordered an attack on that wing. Belisarius and his officers spotted the move, and brought the remnants Sunicas’s cavalry and the Heruls along the back of their lines in readiness to bolster the defence. Once again the Sassanid charge was slowed by having to cross the ditch, but as they recovered on the other side they began to push back the Byzantine cavalry of John and Cyril. Belisarius employed a similar tactic as before, allowing the Persians to pass his centre troops before unleashing his hidden cavalry reserve in their flank, with Simmas and Sunicas getting behind the Persian lines while he personally led his Guard cavalry into the side of the formation. Once again the Sassanids were being attacked on three sides simultaneously and began to waver. Sunicas personally killed Baresmanas in the melee, and 5,000 other Persians were killed in the fighting too.  After witnessing the Persian right wing defeated and retreat, and now the left wing almost destroyed too, the levy infantry in the centre threw down their weapons and ran for their lives. The Byzantines made a full advance and pursued the fleeing Persians, cutting down all they could catch before Belisarius called a halt. The Persians had a reputation of being able to rally and recover in defeat and he didn’t want his victorious army suddenly caught in the disarray of a pursuit and defeated in a battle they had just won.

The war would continue, but for now Belisarius had saved the fortress city of Dara.

Although not used at Dara, a Sassanid elephant, one of their favourite troop types. (LURKIO 15mm)



Due to the large numbers of men fighting at Dara, we would suggest a “bases” set of rules where you can scale things down as far as you want if you don’t have mountains of figures.  So the likes of Mortem et Gloriam, ADLG, DBM, etc would be our suggested choice.

For figures, several suppliers make figures in various scales for these two armies, though bizarrely, quite a few only produce either one of the other. One of the exceptions to this, and in our opinion the best range for these forces is LURKIO FIGURINES who produce a full range of Sassanid Persians, Early Byzantines, Huns and figures suitable for Heruls too! They can also be bulked up with plastic figures made by The Plastic Soldier Company, who use the Lurkio sculptures to create plastic box sets of Sassanids and Huns. All of these can be found on our website, as well as 10mm Sassanids by Pendraken.

On a personal note, both these armies are great fun to play, either in an historical context as in this battle, or in the club/competition circuits against random opponents. My second ever wargames army was a Sassanid Persian army, and even as an inexperienced 14 year old gamer, it never let me down against all sorts of enemies. Early Byzantines are often overlooked by gamers, who tend to go for later Byzantine armies with the Varangian Guard and other elite units to play with, but it was the early Byzantines, the armies of Belisarius and Justinian etc that brought the Byzantine Empire to its height, and the closest it would ever come to the ancestral glory of Rome.

Happy gaming.

The Byzantine Empire at it’s greatest in 555AD




Posted 13/01/2022 by The Little Corporal in Ancients, The Dark Ages

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