Medieval Serbian army

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Medieval Serbian army
Organization of the Serbian army in the Middle Ages
Active 839 – 1540
Disbanded 1540 (Ottoman annexation)
Commander-in-chief The Serbian monarch

The medieval Serbian army was well known for its strength and was among the top Balkan armies before the Ottoman expansion. Prior to the 14th century the army consisted of Byzantine-style noble cavalry armed with bows and lances (replaced with crossbows in the 14th century) and infantry armed with spears, javelins and bows. With the economic growth from mining, mercenary knights from Western Europe were recruited to finalize and increase the effectiveness of the army.



Axes dating to the 9th century.

Between 839 and 842 the Bulgar Khan Presian invaded Serbian territory, the two having lived peacefully sharing a common frontier up until that point. The cause for the invasion is unclear. It led to a war that lasted three years, in which the Bulgars were decisively defeated. In the mid 850s the Bulgarians under Boris I made another unsuccessful attempt to subdue the Serbs. In the beginning of the 10th century Simeon I launched several campaigns against the Serbs who were acting as Byzantine allies and by 925 he managed to conquer Serbia completely but the Bulgarian rule was short-lived. Samuel of Bulgaria subjected the Serbs for a second time in 1009 or 1010 after he defeated their ruler Jovan Vladimir.[1]

10th-century Byzantine military manuals mention chonsarioi, light cavalry, recruited in the Balkans, especially Serbs, "ideal for scouting and raiding".[2]

11th century[edit]

12th century[edit]

The writings of John Kinnamos and other contemporary Byzantine sources (Anna Komnene, Niketas Choniates, Eustathios of Thessalonica, Michael of Thessalonica) of the twelfth century, gives substantial data concerning Serbian armament and tactics.[3]

  • As primary weapons of the Serbs, Kinnamos mentions spears and long shields. The terms he uses for these weapons (borata and aspibaz) are the words which, in Kinnamos' writings and contemporary Byzantine sources denote spears and shields in general meaning; so, it is not possible to determinate from Kinnamos the type of spears and shields that were used by Serbs of twelfth century. Michael of Thessalonica attests Serbian usage of spears and shields in twelfth century, also by terms of general meaning. Kinnamos mentions Serbian usage of sword. The term he uses for sword (xifoz) is the word which in his writings denotes sword in general meaning; because of that, it is not possible from this term to determinate the type of sword which was used by Serbs of twelfth century. But, in one of his orations, N. Choniates uses word romfaia to name sword used by Serbs. Since term romfaia in Byzantine sources usually denotes one-edged sword, and since Choniates calls sword in general meaning by word xifoz, it is reasonable to suppose that some Serbs of twelfth century used one-edged sword. Surprisingly Kinnamos doesn't mention Serbian usage of bow and arrows, although Serbian usage of arrows is known from the previous epochs. This circumstance may be attributed to fragmental character of Kinnamos' data concerning foreign nations, or to Kinnamos' impression that arrows don't play vital role in Serbian warfare.[3]
  • Kinnamos doesn't mention armor among Serbs, but, when talking about battle of Tara (1150) he says that Serbs were well armed using word katafraktoz which usually means 'armored'. Presence of armor among Serbs of twelfth century could be attested by Michael of Thessalonica who mentions Serbs using mail face-coverings, and we know that such mail masks were usually integral part of mail hauberks. Kinnamos mentions Serbian 'hoplites' in fortress of Galič; since, in Kinnamos writings, term 'hoplite' denotes heavy armed and armored infantryman, this mention of 'hoplite' could also indicate presence of armor among Serbs of twelfth century. Eustathios of Thessalonica also mentions hoplites in Serbian army.[3]
  • Concerning Serbian tactics, Kinnamos also offers interesting fragments. One part of Serbian army fighting in battle of Tara, Kinnamos shows fighting as infantry. Serbian infantry of twelfth century is attested by Eustathios of Thessalonica, but it is important that Eustathios also mentions Serbian cavalry, led by Nemanja. Describing battle of Tara, Kinnamos shows some parts of Serbian army using ambush and sudden strike. Serbian use of ambush is attested by Eustathios of Thessalonica, who mentions Nemanja's ambushes.[3]

14th century[edit]

Emperor Dušan’s Serbia, ca. 1350

Serbia defeated the Bulgarian Empire in the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330. Serbia became a military superpower during the middle part of the 14th century under the dynamic Stephen Uroš IV Dušan (1331–55), who created the Serbian Empire. It included Macedonia, Albania, Epirus and Thessaly, reaching from the Drina and Danube rivers as far south and east as the Gulf of Patras and the Rhodope Mountains by 1350. A large part of this expansion was at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. Dušan set his sights on the Byzantine capital of Constantinople itself, dividing his lands into 'Serbia' and 'Romania'. Dušan was crowned Emperor (Tsar) of Serbs and Romans in 1345. He modeled his court on that of Constantinople, calling his officials by Byzantine titles such as caesar, despot, sebastokrator and logotet (logothete). However, following his death, the Serbian Empire gradually disintegrated under his successor Stephen Uroš V (1355–71). One Byzantine chronicler noted with evident satisfaction that the Serbian nobility were soon divided into '10,000 factions', while John VI Kantakouzenos wrote that Dušan’s empire fell 'into a thousand pieces'.

After 1363, Vukašin Mrnjavčević became the most powerful noble in the Serbian Empire; he controlled lands in the south of the empire, primarily in Macedonia.[4] He was defeated and killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1371 in the Battle of Marica.[5] In 1373, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović emerged as the most powerful Serbian lord. He created the largest state on the territory of the disintegrated Serbian Empire; his state is known in historiography as Moravian Serbia. Its government and army were better organized than those of the domains of the other Serbian lords.[6][7] In 1386, Prince Lazar rebuffed the Ottoman Sultan Murad I at Pločnik, a site southwest of the city of Niš.[8]

An Ottoman army led by Sultan Murad, estimated at between 27000 and 30000 men, arrived in June of 1389 on the Kosovo Field near Priština. The Ottomans were met by the forces commanded by Prince Lazar, estimated at between 12000 and 20000 men, which consisted of the prince's own troops, Vuk Branković's troops, and a contingent sent by the Bosnian King Tvrtko Kotromanić. In the Battle of Kosovo, both Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad lost their lives. The battle was tactically inconclusive, but the mutual heavy losses were devastating only for the Serbs, who had brought to Kosovo almost all of their fighting strength. Lazar was succeeded by his eldest son Stefan Lazarević, who became an Ottoman vassal in the summer of 1390. Vuk Branković accepted Ottoman suzerainty in 1392.[7][9] Stefan Lazarević participated on the Ottoman side in the Battle of Rovine in 1395, the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, and the Battle of Ankara in 1402.[10]

15th century[edit]

Serbian 15th-century armor, on display in Military Museum, Belgrade
Smederevo Fortress constructed in 1429

Stefan Lazarević was granted the title of Despot by the Byzantine Emperor, and he ceased to be an Ottoman vassal in 1402.[11] He introduced modern western style knight warfare and knight tournaments. And there were fireweapons already in use, especially in armored cavalry.[12] He ruled Serbia as Despot from 1402 to 1427. He was fighting against the Ottomans, and later he supported Mehmet I rise to power in the Battle of Çamurlu.

After him the Branković dynasty came to power. They continued developing modern military battle tactics. Despot Đurađ Branković who ruled Serbia from 1427 to 1456, constructed the Smederevo Fortress, which was the largest medieval lowland type of fortress in Europe. This fortress had 24 towers and a citadel with 50m tall towers. Most of the fortress remains intact until nowadays.


The Serbian army was feudal in nature, though its system of military landholding was inherited from the Byzantine pronoia rather than the Western European fief. The pronoia itself - hereditary by some accounts, non-hereditary by others - is only first recorded in Serbia under that name in 1299 (the Serbs spelt it pronija, or pronya, and called its holder a promjar), but even from as early as Stefan Nemanja reign (1186–96) every able-bodied man possessing a bashtina (a grant of hereditary freehold land, the holder being called a bashtinik or voynici) had been obliged to attend the army whenever required, only monastic tenants being exempted in exchange for performing part-time garrison duties in local fortresses and fortified monasteries. The building and maintenance (gradozadanje) of such fortresses, and equally the maintenance of their permanent garrisons (gradobljudenlje) was an additional aspect of the feudal responsibilities of the population of each Župa (district), who were also responsible for guarding their own frontier. The holders of both bashtinas and pronijas constituted the nobility (though many of the former were only upper-class peasants), and these were the principal native element of every Serbian army, serving as heavy cavalry (the proniiars) and infantry (the voynici), In fact most armies included only the nobility (the vlastelini, or 'holders of power') and their retinues, maintained at their own expense, but in times of emergency the arriere-ban, called the Zamanitchka Voyska ('All Together'), would be summoned. As elsewhere, this comprised all the nobility and every able-bodied freeman.

In border regions all land-grants appear to have been called krayina and their holders vlastele krayishnik ('border lords'), whose duty it was to guard the frontier. Dušan's Code of 1349 (the Zakonik, extended and completed in 1354) actually states that any damage inflicted by an invading army had to be compensated for by the border-lord through whose lands the enemy had entered, another article stating that similar pillaging committed by brigands had to be repaid seven-fold. The Byzantine chronicler Gregoras, as ambassador for Andronikos III to Emperor Dusan, encountered some krayishnici (men of a border- lord) on crossing the frontier. He wrote: 'When we passed the Struma River ... and came into thick woods, we were suddenly surrounded by men clad in black woolen garments, who darted forth from behind trees and rocks like devils out of the earth. They wore no heavy armor, being armed only with spears, battle-axes, and bows and arrows.

From the 11th century on the commander-in-chief of the army was the king (kral), a veliki vojevoda or 'high military chief, equivalent to the Byzantine Grand Domestic, being appointed in his absence. However, since any call to arms had to be approved by the Sabor (the National Assembly) the king actually had limited military power, in effect being no more than a glorified Grand Župan, or elected tribal leader. Although Dušan stripped the Sabor of much of its power, the crown's dependence on a permanent nucleus of mercenaries that was not subject to the assembly's whims had by then already evolved, constituting the core of all Serbian armies throughout this period. Under Stephen Uroš II Milutin (1282-1321) these mercenaries included such diverse elements as Cumans; Anatolian Turks (some 1,500 were employed in 1311 from amongst those who had been allied to the Catalans in Thrace and Macedonia); Tartars from South Russia; and Christian Ossetians (Jasi in Serbian and Russian sources) from the Caucasus. However, it was Western European style heavy cavalry which soon came to predominate. As early as 1304 a certain Francisco de Salomone is mentioned in an inscription in Trevise as having distinguished himself in the service of 'Orosius, rex Rascie' (i. e. Uroš, king of Serbia). Mercenaries in Stephen Uroš III's army that defeated the Bulgarians at Battle of Velbazhd in 1330 were 1,500 Aragonese, Spaniards, and Germans, and it was the latter who seem to have predominated during Dušan reign. The papal legate to his court reported seeing 300 German mercenaries there under the knight Palman Bracht, who held the rank of capitaneus. In addition we know that the Serbian troops supplied to the Byzantine Emperor, John VI Kantakouzenos, in 1342-43 were Germans, and that the troops garrisoning Beroia in Macedonia in 1341-50 were German mercenaries too. Even at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 it is significant that many of Lazar men were German and Hungarian mercenaries according to a Florentine account, while a mid-15th century Ottoman source reports that his army included Wallachians, Hungarians, Bohemians, Albanians, Bulgarians and Franks, doubtless chiefly mercenaries. Another says he employed many mercenaries from among the Serbians themselves as well as the Hungarians, Bosnians and Albanians. Serbian documents indicate that as well as Germans the other predominant European mercenary elements comprised Spaniards (possibly as many as 1,300-strong at one point) plus Hungarians, Frenchmen, Italians and Swiss. One prominent name to appear in their ranks was that of Philippe de Mézières, in later life Chancellor of Cyprus and one of the last protagonists of the Crusade. Inevitably, in the 15th century Ottoman auxiliaries were also used, for example by Vuk Lazarević against Stephen, 1409-13. In addition to the king or despot, the larger cities also employed some mercenaries of their own to back up their militia.

When the Ottoman hold on Serbia weakened after the Battle of Ankara, Stefan Lazarević took advantage of the situation to establish his independence from the Turks. Recognizing the king of Hungary as his overlord he built up a small regular army, on the basis of a newly imposed levy known as the vojstatik, which was stationed in the country's 11 major fortresses as well as several of its small walled towns. This army included many Hungarians and was well equipped with cannon and handguns; for example, there were 2 cannons in the fort guarding the large silver mine at Srebrnica in 1425, and in Belgrade, Lazarević capital, there was a large bombard (called Humka, meaning 'Knoll') captured from the Bosnians the same year. In 1455 there were as many as 3 large cannon, 5 other guns and 55 handguns in the fort guarding the great silver mine at Novo Brdo.


Serbian medieval army equipment (Military museum Belgrade)

Serbian armies were composed of lance-armed light and heavy cavalry, plus infantry (armed with spears, axes, and above all bows and, later, crossbows) and a baggage-train (komora) manned by shepherds ("Vlachs").[citation needed] Most of their armies tended to be small because of the difficulties involved in supplying them in the field, and on the whole they could probably raise only about 12,000 men in the late 14th-century, the army at the Battle of Kosovo probably numbering at most 20-25,000 men including allied contingents. The majority were heavy cavalry. Emperor Stefan Dušan was said to have raised around 80,000 men for the invasion of Bosnia in 1350 although the largest Serbian army on record in this period was that raised by Dušan in 1355 for his proposed attack on Constantinople, which numbered 85,000 men according to later Ragusan chronicles. Modern scholars, however, give this figure little credence.

After the Battle of Maritsa in 1371, Ottoman suzerainty was accepted by the Serbian rulers in Macedonia: King Marko (Vukašin Mrnjavčević's son), Konstantin Dragaš, and Radoslav Hlapen.[13] By 1388, Djuradj Stracimirović Balšić, the lord of Zeta, also became an Ottoman vassal.[14] Stefan Lazarević and Vuk Branković accepted Ottoman suzerainty in 1390 and 1392, respectively.[9] Stefan Lazarević ceased to be an Ottoman vassal and ally in 1402, when he became a despot and created the Serbian Despotate.[11] According to Serbian historiography, Stefan from 1390 on, was obliged to pay an annual tribute of 1,000 lbs of gold and to provide the sultan with a contingent of 1,000 cavalry when called upon. Finlay and Creasy, however, maintained that it was the treaty of 1376 that first imposed this obligation, while Gibbons says 1386; certainly there were Serbs as well as Bulgarians and Byzantines in the Ottoman army that fought against the Karamanli Turks in Anatolia in 1387 (the Serbs being promised booty in return for their services). Finlay says in one of his books that Sultan Beyazid actually demanded the service of the same number of Serbians as the Byzantines had called for after Manuel's subjugation of Serbia in 1150, i.e. 2,000 to armies serving in Europe and 500 to armies serving in Asia; but in another book he says that the figure was only 'subsequently increased to 2,000 men' when Beyazid was gathering his forces to confront Tamerlane in 1402. Bertrandon de la Brocquière, in his 'Travels' of 1432-33, recorded of the despot of Serbia that 'every time the sultan sends him his orders, he is obliged to furnish him with 800 or 1,000 horse, under the command of his second son.' Elsewhere he adds how he had heard that 'in the most recent army [supplied to the sultan] from Greece, there were 3,000 Serbian horse, which the despot of the province had sent under the command of one of his sons. It was with great regret that these people came to serve him, but they dared not refuse.' (This army was probably that which campaigned against Albania in 1430-31, in which Serbs are known to have been present.) Konstantin Mihailović reports that when the treaty with Serbia was renewed under Mehmed II the obligatory tribute was set at 1,500 lbs of gold and a contingent of 1,500 cavalry.

Amongst the battles in which Serbs fought for their Ottoman allies were Battle of Rovine, against the Wallachians and Bulgarians, in 1395; Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, where apparently their contingent comprised 5,000 heavy cavalry; and Battle of Ankara in 1402, where Doukas says there were 5,000 "encased in black armor" and Chalkokondyles that there were an unlikely 10,000 (though the Ottoman chronicler al-Anwari says that there were 10,000 Serbs and Wallachians altogether). George Branković even supplied an unwilling contingent of 1,500 cavalry under voivode Jakša according to Konstantin Mihailović, for the final siege of Constantinople in 1453, plus some silver-miners from Novo Brdo whom Sultan Mehmed employed as sappers. On August 11, 1473, the army that marched against Uzun Hasan which resulted in an Ottoman victory in The battle of Otlukbeli included many Christians - Greeks, Albanians and Serbians, in their number.


Serbia had adopted gunpowder artillery from Dubrovnik (Ragusa), where a centre for the manufacture of wrought-iron cannon existed by 1363. (The first gun foundry in the Balkans, casting bronze cannons, was also established at Dubrovnik, in 1410.) Neighboring Bosnia had cannon by 1380, and they were in use in Serbia by 1382-86 at the very latest, probably served and certainly made by Ragusan engineers. In fact Mavro Orbin claims that Grand Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović used guns against Nikola Altomanović even as early as 1373. Guns were apparently employed in the field by the Serbians as early as 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo, being clearly mentioned in one later Ottoman chronicle (Mehmed Neşrî) and alluded to in a contemporary Serbian source which says that 'fiery explosions thundered, the earth roared greatly, and the air echoed and blew around like dark smoke'; we know too that King Tvrtko of Bosnia (1353–91) brought one gun, a gift of the Italians, with him to the battle. The Serbian contingent in the Ottoman army defeated at Ankara in 1402 also had artillery, but as at Kosovo it failed to affect the outcome, probably for the same reasons on both occasions - i.e. the guns were too small to be effective in order that they might be maneuverable on the battlefield. In siege work trebuchets and ballistae remained in service alongside gunpowder artillery for a long time.


In addition to her land forces, Serbia occasionally also had a very small fleet, provided by the communes of Dulcigno (modern Ulcinj), Budua (Budva) and Cattaro (Kotor), sometimes by Ragusa (in exchange for a year's tax-exemption), and briefly by Venice (which provided 4 new galleys, the galee domini imperatoris, in 1350, the subsequent fate of which is unknown). King Tvrtko of Bosnia too later constructed his own small fleet, with a Venetian as its admiral, and was similarly given a galley by Venice, this time fitted with a cannon.


Gusars, Hussars[edit]

See also: Hussars

Gusar light cavalry forces were part of the medieval Serbian military. Armed with spears and pentagonal wood shields padded with metal, they supported the noble knights as their second line on the battlefield.[15] In the middle of each wooden shield, there was a round metal knob that held the shield together.

Gusar light cavalries were a traditional Serbian force, which meant that they usually were not hired as mercenaries from Spain or Germany. Their style of fighting was similar to the noble knights. They used the eastern style of fighting: they would charge into the enemy ferociously, and try to cause mass havoc. As for their role with the foot soldiers, they were more like support cavalry. When the foot soldiers were losing the battle, the Gusars would charge into the enemy's flank, hoping to cause them to rout. They would repeat this charge from different angles while the infantry kept the enemy from chasing the Gusars.

Later on, after the fall of the Serbian Empire, these troops were used as "Krajišniks" meaning frontiersman in the Habsburg Monarchy (today Croatia, Slavonia, Vojvodina) which southern parts became the military frontier, defending and liberating as they believed Christendom from the Ottoman invasion. Their military tactics of engaging combat, as well as pillaging and looting of Ottoman ruled territories, were similar to the ones of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

According to Webster's the word hussar stems from the Hungarian huszár, which in turn originates from the Serbian хусар (Husar, or гусар, Gusar) meaning pirate, from the Medieval Latin cursarius (cf. the English word corsair).[16] A variant of this theory is offered by Byzantinist scholars, who argue the term originated in Roman military practice, and the cursarii (singular cursarius).[17] Through Byzantine Army operations in the Balkans in the 10th and 11th centuries when Chosarioi/Chonsarioi were recruited with especially Serbs,[18] the word was subsequently reintroduced to Western European military practice after its original usage had been lost with the collapse of Rome in the west.[19]

The hussars reportedly originated in bands of mostly Serbian warriors [20] crossing into Kingdom of Hungary after the Ottoman invasion of medieval Serbian state at the end of the 14th century. The Governor of Hungary, Hunyadi János – John Hunyadi, created mounted units inspired by his enemy the Ottoman Turks. His son, Hunyadi Mátyás Matthias Corvinus, later king of Hungary, is unanimously accepted as the creator of these troops. Initially they fought in small bands, but were reorganised into larger, trained, formations during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus.[21][22] Initially the first units of Polish hussars in the Kingdom of Poland were formed in 1500, which consisted of Serbian mercenaries.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Živković, Tibor (2002). Поход бугарског цара Самуила на Далмацију. Istorijski časopis (in Serbian). Belgrade: The Institute of History of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. 49: 9–24. ISSN 0350-0802. 
  2. ^ Richard Brzezinski (2006). Polish Winged Hussar 1576-1775. Osprey Publishing. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-1-84176-650-8. 
  3. ^ a b c d Drašković, M. 2010, "Serbian armament and tactics in writings of John Kinnamos", Vojno-istorijski glasnik, no. 2, pp. 9-19.
  4. ^ Mihaljčić 2001, pp. 29–52
  5. ^ Fine 1994, p. 379
  6. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 387–89
  7. ^ a b Mihaljčić 2001, pp. 116–32
  8. ^ Reinert, Stephen W (1994). "From Niš to Kosovo Polje: Reflections on Murād I's Final Years". In Zachariadou, Elizabeth. The Ottoman Emirate (1300–1389). Heraklion, Greece: Crete University Press. p. 177. ISBN 978-960-7309-58-7. 
  9. ^ a b Fine 1994, pp. 409–14
  10. ^ The Balkans, 1018-1499, M. Dinic, The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 4, Ed. J.M. Hussey, (Cambridge University Press, 1966), 551.
  11. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 500
  12. ^ Fine, The Late Medieval Balkans (1987)
  13. ^ Mihaljčić 2001, pp. 78–115
  14. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 392–3
  15. ^
  16. ^ Philip Babcock Gove, ed. (1986). "Hussar". Webster's Third New International Dictionary. 2. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster. pp. Page 1105. ISBN 0-85229-503-0. 
  17. ^ George T. Denis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985) p. 153.
  18. ^ Polish Winged Hussar 1576–1775 – Richard Brzezinski, Velimir Vukšić
  19. ^ M. Canard, "Sur Deux Termes Militaires Byzantins d'Origin Orientale" in Byzantion, 40 (1970), pp. 226–29.
  20. ^ Haywood, Matthew (February 2002). Hussars (Gusars). Hungarian Army Composition. Wargaming and Warfare in Eastern Europe. Retrieved 2008-10-09. In Matthius' reign the Hussars were equally referred to in the sources as Rac [an old Hungarian name for Serbs]. The primary reason for this being that the majority of Hussars were supplied by Serbian exiles or mercenaries. 
  21. ^ Nicolle, David; Witold Sarnecki (February 2008). Medieval Polish Armies 966-1500. Men-at-Arms. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-84603-014-7. One of several likely models for this development were those light hussars of Serbian origin who had first appeared in the Hungarian army of king Matthias Corvinus (the Serbian word гусар meaning bandit or robber). 
  22. ^ Haywood, Matthew (February 2002). "Hussars (Gusars)". Hungarian Army Composition. Wargaming and Warfare in Eastern Europe. Retrieved 2008-10-09. In Matthius' reign the Hussars were equally referred to in the sources as Rac [an old Hungarian name for Serbs]. The primary reason for this being that the majority of Hussars were supplied by Serbian exiles or mercenaries. 
  23. ^ Brzezinski, Richard and Velimir Vukšić, Polish Winged Hussar 1576–1775, (Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006), 6.


Further reading[edit]