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The Byzantine Art of War [Hardcover]

Michael J. Decker
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 May 2013
The Byzantine Art of War explores the military history of the thousand-year empire of the eastern Mediterranean, Byzantium. Throughout its history the empire faced a multitude of challenges from foreign invaders seeking to plunder its wealth and to occupy its lands, from the deadly Hunnic hordes of Attila, to the Arab armies of Islam, to the western Crusaders bent on carving out a place in the empire or its former lands. In order to survive the Byzantines relied on their army that was for centuries the only standing, professional force in Europe. Leadership provided another key to survival; Byzantine society produced a number of capable strategic thinkers and capable tacticians - several brilliant ones. These officers maintained a level of professionalism and organization inherited and adapted from Roman models. The innovations of the Byzantine military reforms of the sixth century included the use of steppe nomad equipment and tactics, the most important of which was the refinement of the Roman mounted archer. Strategy and tactics evolved in the face of victory and defeat; the shock of the Arab conquests led to a sharp decline in the number and quality of imperial forces. By the eighth and ninth centuries Byzantine commanders mastered the art of the small war, waging guerrilla campaigns, raids, and flying column attacks that injured the enemy but avoided the decisive confrontation the empire was no longer capable of winning. A century later they began the most sustained, glorious military expansion of their history. illustrate Byzantine military doctrine, vital changes from one era to another, the composition of forces and the major victories and defeats that defined the territory and material well-being of its citizens. Through a summary of their strategies, tactics, and innovations in the tools of war, the book closes with an analysis of the contributions of this remarkable empire to world miltary history.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Westholme Publishing, U.S. (30 May 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594161682
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594161681
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 616,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

MICHAEL DECKER is Maroulis Professor of Byzantine History at the University of South Florida. He has worked extensively on the archaeology and history of the Byzantine state in the Middle East and North Africa. His numerous publications include Tilling the Hateful Earth (Oxford, 2010), an exploration of economy and society in the Levant in the centuries prior to the Islamic conquests.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By JPS TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a relatively good summary although it was always going to be a rather daunting and even an impossible challenge to cover a thousand years of Byzantine military history within some 230 pages. This is what this book attempts to do and, unsurprisingly, the results are somewhat mixed. Some periods are covered much better than others, while the last two and a half centuries are hardly covered. The exceptions are a couple a couple of remarks drawn from Mark Bartusis' book on the late byzantine army after 1204, including one alluding to the limited size of the forces that the Byzantines could gather by that time - no more than 5000 according to this author, although this seems to be a plausible "guess-estimate" more than anything else. The problem with this book is that Michael Decker has no room to even discuss this number.

Essentially, this book is a summary that brings together in a single volume the main elements and findings drawn from several other works, including Haldon's "Byzantine Wars" and his Warfare, State and Society" but also his book on "Byzantium in the Seventh Century" or Mark Whittow's "The Making of Orthodox Byzantium", to name just these. There is therefore little that is original but it is mostly well presented and the book manages to be a worthwhile introduction for a general reader wanting to get acquainted with Byzantium, its army, and its endless fight for survival.

There are however a few additional glitches. One is that the book could have done with some proof-reading or perhaps a better editor. The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus' reign did NOT, for instance, end in 948 and there are a number of other such glitches scattered across the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wide ranging overview 9 Oct 2013
Format:Hardcover
The scope of Professor Michael Decker's book on the Byzantine Art of War is daunting and it is to his credit that it remains readable even while he spans the centuries over the course of just a few pages. I approached the book with only a cursory knowledge of the Byzantine period, but left it with a new found fascination and sense of awe - not least at the sheer longevity of the empire.

The book itself is incredibly well researched, drawing from original and contemporary material to provide an overview not just of the military strategies and the art of war, but also of the mechanics of the empire - such as the sophisticated postal system; as well as the equipment involved with, and the logistics of supplying, the changing Byzantine military.

Similarly, Professor Decker touches on the ways in which the political and geographical landscape changed over the many years of the empire and how those changes impacted and were reflected in the military strategies adopted; while also exploring the role the empire's many enemies played in shaping the development of the Byzantine art of war.

Professor Decker provides a discussion of the various viewpoints on much of what he covers, making it clear where there are disagreements in the literature while always stating his own interpretation clearly. As such, his book serves as an excellent starting point for further investigation of the literature.

Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are where Professor Decker focusses on some of the significant individuals from the Byzantine period, such as Belisarios, in the section on leadership; and I'd be very happy to see some of these mini biographies extended into longer pieces elsewhere.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Byzantine Age of War 13 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover
How the Romans fought their way to forge the greatest empire Earth has arguably witnessed is very well known and has been dissected to death. Now in Byzantine Art of War Mike Decker turns the spotlight on the 'Dark Ages', which of course in the East Mediterranean were actually every way as vivid and original as preceding centuries. The strengths and weaknesses of the Byzantine army are examined in great detail all the way up to the moment a new breed of religious stromtroopers, the Crusaders, brought the classical world order to an end. In this new world, war was more Lawrence of Arabia than Augustus, and relied on innovations like Greek Fire hand grenades than catapults. Decker has drilled down into the historical texts of places that will stimulate all students of Byzantium and warfare of all ages, and leave them with a newfound respect for the long Late Antiquity.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Thousand Years of Military Adaptation 5 July 2013
By Christian Potholm - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a fine work. Detailed, comprehensive, easy to read and illustrated with many superior and clear maps, it chronicles 1000 years of Byzantine resiliency and traces that empire's interaction with many foes, including the Persians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Vandals, Seljuks, Turkmen, Lombards, Normans, Venetians, Crusaders, Arabs and Ottomans. While the work is perhaps not as elegant and politically sophisticated as Edward Luttwak's' The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, it is nevertheless a most masterly and complex study.
The pairing of Byzantine weapons, tactics and strategies with the various foes over this long history gives the reader many useful insights. For Decker, the 1000 year life span of the Empire relied on the "resilience, adaptability and professionalism of its fighting men" and the reader gets to understand the how's and the why's of that success. And the author is quite persuasive concerning the damage done by the Venetians and the Fourth Crusade in 1204 with the sack of Constantinople, a tragedy which greatly weakened it long term and made its subsequent survival even more impressive: "The survival of the embattled state and its much-reduced army forces is one of the miracles of history."
Throughout the account there is also a helpful narrative concerning the weapons used, from spears, lances, swords and javelins to ballistas, trebuchets and Greek fire, as well as the tactical and strategic innovations and adaptations which helped Byzantium to survive for so long. Any student of war will appreciate this first rate study.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Relatively good despite an over-ambitious challenge - three and a half stars 4 Aug 2013
By JPS - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a relatively good summary although it was always going to be a rather daunting and even an impossible challenge to cover a thousand years of Byzantine military history within some 230 pages. This is what this book attempts to do and, unsurprisingly, the results are somewhat mixed. Some periods are covered much better than others, while the last two and a half centuries are hardly covered. The exceptions are a couple a couple of remarks drawn from Mark Bartusis' book on the late byzantine army after 1204, including one alluding to the limited size of the forces that the Byzantines could gather by that time - no more than 5000 according to this author, although this seems to be a plausible "guess-estimate" more than anything else. The problem with this book is that Michael Decker has no room to even discuss this number.

Essentially, this book is a summary that brings together in a single volume the main elements and findings drawn from several other works, including Haldon's "Byzantine Wars" and his Warfare, State and Society" but also his book on "Byzantium in the Seventh Century" or Mark Whittow's "The Making of Orthodox Byzantium", to name just these. There is therefore little that is original but it is mostly well presented and the book manages to be a worthwhile introduction for a general reader wanting to get acquainted with Byzantium, its army, and its endless fight for survival.

There are however a few additional glitches. One is that the book could have done with some proof-reading or perhaps a better editor. The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus' reign did NOT, for instance, end in 948 and there are a number of other such glitches scattered across the book. Another, which is the consequence of the book's size, is that some aspects are covered in what can only be termed as superficially. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is the first chapter presented a "Historical Overview" - a summary of a thousand years of history- in a mere thirty pages including almost ten pages of maps (which are rather good, by the way).

A third shortcoming is the last chapter, which bears the same title as the book and is supposed to bring together the aspects covered by the author in all previous chapters to explain what constituted this "art of war". I simply was not convinced by this chapter. I did not find that some of the points made by the author, such as the adaptability of their forces and the use of combined arms, were quite unique to the Byzantines. Moreover, the inclusion of developments on Greek fire in this last chapter looked like a bit of an afterthought.

Having mentioned these limits, the book also has a number of strongpoints, particularly for the so-called "general reader". In addition to those above and keeping in mind the limitations already mentioned, the six core chapters, each of which deals analytically with one aspect of Byzantine warfare (strategy and tactics; leadership, recruitment, organization and training,; equipment and logistics, and so on), are mostly clear and to the point. The chapter on Byzantium's enemies is probably the weakest: it is largely a paraphrase of Maurice's Strategikon and, with only twelve pages, would have deserved to be considerably more developed and detailed.

The chapter of Byzantium at war is the one which resembles Haldon's "Byzantine Wars" the most, but with some significant differences as well. It includes context for each of the campaigns and battles and the author had been careful to limit overlap with battles already covered by Haldon or Corey in his Road to Mantzikert. So you will find a description of the Vandal War of Justinian, but not the Persian or Italian campaigns, the campaigns of Nikephoros II Phokas and Basile II's battle of Kkeidion, but not other battles against either the Arabs or the Bulgars. The battle of Semlin (and not "the battle of Sirmium", as one of the maps page 203 mentions) is also covered by Haldon. I was a bit surprised to not find a description of either Mantzikert or Myriokephalon, although this might be explained by the fact that Michael Decker has only selected battles where the Byzantines were victorious. Other good points are the section on siege warfare and on the campaigns of John II Komnenos (largely drawn from John Birkenmeier's "The Development of the Komnenian Army"), who is, to some extent, largely unknown and whose reign and military consolidation allowed his successor Manuel to conduct a widespread, brilliant but ultimately ineffective policy across the whole of the Mediterranean.

I also had an additional problem with the book's contents, when compared to the book's title: the book is essentially about Byzantium's army and has very little to say to say about its navy except when dealing with Greek fire. Byzantium's navy is therefore another aspect of "The Byzantine Art of War" which has been somewhat neglected by the author. Also, another chapter could easily have been added about the "byzantine art of war" of winning conflicts without having to fight. While there are a number of references and descriptions of some of these aspects, for instance in the section on strategy and tactics, the importance of Byzantine diplomacy (including bribes, gifts and buying the peace, subversion, assassinations, use of religion for political advantage, hostages, alliances with the enemies of their enemies) has been somewhat underestimated. This was also very much a key component of Byzantium's "art of war", if ever there was one, and it would certainly have deserved to be better treated.

Three and a half stars for a book that would have deserved to have another hundred pages or more in order to fully cover its rather over-ambitious (but fascinating) subject.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Overview 9 Aug 2013
By W. L. Selleck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Good overview but a slow, heavy read. Would recommend to a amateur history buff but not to a general reader.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 14 July 2014
By B. Furlet - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent service.
5.0 out of 5 stars Belisarius Would Be Proud 10 May 2014
By MRM - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book outlines every aspect of warfare in the Byzantine Empire from its birth from the ashes of the late Roman Empire to the conquest by the Ottomans.

Michael Decker illustrates their war styles by sectioning the book into the history, the weapons, the tactics, the logistics, and everything in between. The headings guide the reader to the any particular interest. Want to know about the Spatha swords? Check. Want to know about Khusro I? Check.

If you ever wanted to know more about this forgotten empire that lives in the shadow of its much more famous predecessor, I would suggest picking up a copy of this book. It will be read like no other, to dive further into just how fragile the Byzantines were, and how they managed to outlast countless enemies that plagued their borders and beyond.
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