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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 September 2013
At last Osprey had published as part of its Campaign series a volume on the battle of Mantzikert in 1071. This had been a rather significant gap in the series since this battle, or rather its consequences, were disastrous for Byzantium which was raked by civil wars for a decade and lost for ever its Anatolian inlands as a result.

The defeat also played a significant role in ushering in the major upheaval of the First Crusade. From a "Western" perspective, the Crusade was at least partly a belated response to the Byzantine Emperors "inability" to ensure that the Empire played its role as the "bullwark of Christianity" in the East, which it had been for so long. This, at least, was how the defeat of Mantzikert and the subsequent loss of territory and anarchy in the Byzantine Empire were presented and looked at in the West, largely by the popes themselves (Gregory VII and Urban II, in particular). All this to say that I had rather high expectations about this book's and its author's ability to present a clear and concise narrative of what happened and how important this battle really turned out to be.

Even nowadays, to quote the author, Mantzikert "is widely regarded as one of the most significant turning points in medieval history" although it was neither "the breaking of Byzantium" nor the "cataclysm" that this author portrays it to be with hindsight. This is where I started having problems with the author's presentation of the event and its consequences, and with the author's attitude and stance more generally.

The military importance of the Byzantine defeat of Mantzikert had been largely overestimated, as even the author had to admit, drawing on a comprehensive study published by a French historian published in 1980. Mantzikert was, without any doubt, a very serious military defeat, but it was not in itself the military disaster or the military triumph that it has been portrayed to be in most of the sources for, respectively, the Byzantine and the Seljuk Turks. What was disastrous, however, were the political consequences stemming from the capture of the Emperor - something that had not happened for centuries. As an aside, I was rather surprised to discover that David Nicolle believes (without mentioning his sources) Romanus III Argyros to have been captured briefly by the Fatimids during his brief reign (1028-1034).

This brings me to one of the main flaws in this volume: the author's over fondness for Islamic sources and its consequences. While he is quite correct to use such sources, contrary to what was done for a long time (until Paul Cahen and others Islamicist historians started using them from the 1940s onwards) he generally does so in a rather uncritical and unbalanced way, giving them much too much importance in some cases and downgrading the importance of the Christian sources in general, and of Attaliates (the only direct eye-witness) in particular. One rather unfortunate manifestation of this is the way he gets side-tracked and devotes significant amounts of valuable space in his spare book by quoting verbatim Islamic sources with all their late "embellishments" and semi-legendary accounts without analysing or properly discussing them.

More generally, quoting these sources and mentioning the various embellishments that they introduced as part of his narrative of the battle (but without explicitly acknowledging these as historically worthless) fails to mask two other flaws that van be found in this volume. One is the lack of any structured discussion on the respective reliability of the sources, whether Byzantine, Armenian or Islamic. At most, all you find are a number of comments dismissing out-of-hand some sources (such as Michael Attaliates) without providing any explanation. Another flaw is the absence of any discussion with regards to the differences in structure and equipment of the two respective armies, as if the author was somehow assuming that the strength of the Byzantine was their heavy cavalry and infantry and that of the Turks lied in their horse archery and superior mobility. Neither is explicitly mentioned, although this is hinted at several times, for instance when assuming that the Byzantines and the Emperor were confident of victory because they knew they would prevail in hand-to-hand fighting.

A related point is the way David Nicolle selects and over-emphasizes relatively minor points drawn from such sources, such as how the Emperor was captured (was he fighting heroically to the last? Did he surrender? Was he hiding beneath a chariot on the battlefield?), who exactly captured him and even whether the warrior who captured him was adequately praised and rewarded by his masters or not. Needless to say, none of this is really critical to modern historians and readers nowadays, although it obviously was for the Islamic sources at the time. Another similar features are the liberal quotes from the sources about the (obviously made up and moralizing) speeches of the Seljuk Sultan and his dialogue and the captive Emperor.

Partly as a result of this flaw, other far more significant points are not properly explained, not discussed in-depth or even not discussed at all. In addition to those mentioned above (reliability of sources and differences in equipment between the two armies, with their associated implications), another instance is the importance of Mantzikert, Akhlat and the surroundings around Lake Van. The author merely states that these had "strategic importance", briefly describes the geography, but fails to explain why this area was so strategic.

Moreover, there is a lack of context when the author discusses the Byzantine objectives of the whole campaign. He does mention the rather delicate political situation that Romanus faced at home. He also mentions that Romanus had been crowned Emperor essentially because of his assumed ability to deal with the Turkish inroads in the East once and for all. However, he fails to link this with the rather mixed imperial record of the three past years: campaigns in 1068, 1069 and 1070 had little to show for them. Despite some successes, there were also some significant and rather humiliating reverses. In no way could the Emperor claim to have managed to end the raids, been successful and therefore have become a legitimate ruler favoured by God and doing his Work, a key component of Byzantine imperial ideology. Added to this, of course, the Doukas family was lurking in the wings, waiting and hoping for the Emperor to fail in order to replace him by one of their own and recover the throne which had previously been held by one of theirs. It is even possible that, short of overt treason, they did everything they could to hinder his efforts. In other words, the Emperor was playing for very high stakes: his political (and perhaps even his physical) survival.

Accordingly, Romanos was condemned to success and it is this pressure that would make him take a rather dangerous gamble and seek battle under unfavourable conditions, despite the contrary advice of some of his generals. In much the same way and under similar political circumstances (the need to build his legitimacy on military victory), Alexis I Comnene would make a similar choice in 1081 against the Normans of Robert Guiscard which would also end in disaster.

A further pervasive flaw of this volume, and another consequence of the author's choice to quote sources extensively rather than provide a comprehensive analysis and explanations, is that it the narrative is often unclear or sometimes even confusing. In some cases, bits and pieces that can be found in other references have sometimes been left out. There are also cases where there appears to be "missing links" in the reasoning, with the reader being left to somehow connect the dots.

One extreme case of the later is the capture of Romanus IV, with David Nicolle quoting Attaliates about the Emperor making a "heroic last stand." It is this capture which turned a serious military defeat into a political disaster for Byzantium, as for Romanus in particular, of course. Accordingly, and since Romanus was far from a being a fool and very probably a rather good general, I would have expected the author to explain what happened and try to make sense of it, especially since he provides the various elements.

The most likely explanation is that the Emperor did not intend at all to be captured, neither did he intend to make a last stand. Rather, he attempted, and failed, to break away from the Turkinsh encirclement when his horse was killed under him, as the two wings of his army started to break up and after his rear-guard had failed to support him. As David Nicolle mentions, many of the troops in the centre did manage to get away, especially those on horseback. However, because the Emperor's horse was killed under him, preventing him from breaking through, he was forced into the so-called "heroic last stand" which Attaliates presents somewhat misleadingly (but quite understandingly) as intentional.

There are also other elements of this book that make the narrative confusing at times. I have already mentioned the reference to the "breaking of Byzantium" and the "cataclysm" of Mantzikert with the core text showing that this defeat was not a military disaster. Another point where the author seems unable to make up his mind is when estimating the numbers of the respective armies in the field and establishing whether the Byzantines really outnumbered the Seljuk Turks at all. While the number estimates (largely draws from Haldon, for the Byzantines at least) make sense and show that the two armies on the battlefield were roughly even in size, Nicolle still manages to suggest that the Turks were outnumbered.

In fact, at the thickest of the battle, it was the Byzantine centre that was heavily outnumbered since the rear-guard abandoned the Emperor in the field and both the wings of the main battle line broke and/or retreated.

Finally, there are the maps the plates and the bibliography. Even these are problematic. One of the maps contains a mistake: Edessa was not conquered by the Empire in 1052 but twenty years before. More generally, the maps are somewhat difficult to read because those much has been crammed into them. Regarding the plates, there are only three of them and the last one, depicting the Emperor's supposed last stand, is somewhat problematic: there is not a single Varangian guard around Romanus although, if I remember correctly, a number of them were killed defending him as the fierce bodyguards that they were. With regards the bibliography, I was surprised to discover that Michel Attaliates was somehow not worth mentioning. Neither was John Skylitzes, although Michael Psellos makes it to the bibliography, but does not somehow make it to the main text. One again, here as elsewhere in the book, these typos - assuming that it what they are - are demonstrations of rather poor editing.

So, to conclude this long review, and despite some good points, such as the Byzantines' and the Emperor's major failure in terms of gathering intelligence and information on the whereabouts and numbers of his enemies, I was rather disappointed with this volume. What makes even worse, in my view, is that I cannot even recommend this volume as an introduction or an overview to someone who might know little or nothing about the battle since it is quite confusing. This is a real pity because it could have been much better. Two stars.
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on 24 May 2014
I bought this slender volume hoping to get a clear straightforward account of this most important battle, and knowing of the series of which it is a part - the Osprey illustrated series - expected the illustrations and maps to contribute to the narrative. What I found was a most confusing account, with details thrown in here and there without preparing the reader for them. The maps, too, are a serious disappointment. Almost every map is submerged in small type here and there, a confusing array of colours, and a legend next to it that adds to the confusion. I found most of the maps unreadable. The book might perhaps appeal to the expert on the subject - I don't know. But I give it two stars for some excellent illustrations, which this series excels in.
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