Top positive review
3 people found this helpful
on 30 July 2014
This is the last book of « the Haga’s » trilogy, and for me at least, it was the best of the three.
The main reason for this is the author’s remarkable treatment of the battle of Mantzikert, with the whole novel, and the whole trilogy to a lesser extent, being built around this climatic event. The author has taken great care to show that the Byzantine defeat did NOT entail the total destruction of their army. Moreover, he clearly shows that the battle was far from being entirely one-sided and that the Seljuks suffered heavy losses before they managed to destroy the center of the Byzantine first line.
As shown in the book, however, both wings (although with heavy losses) and the entire second line managed to escape. What made this battle into a disaster was the capture of the Emperor, largely through the treason of Andronikos Doukas who could have saved the day had he come to the help of the beleaguered Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes. Instead, he retreated back to Constantinople and supported his father’s coup, ushering in a civil war (the first of several over the next decade) which must have been even more damageable than Mantzikert itself, as the author also mentions in his historical note.
Also mostly well told and closely following the historical sources are the narratives for the two years preceding 1071, with these events, and the lack of any clear victory, building pressure on the Emperor Romanos and making him increasingly desperate to secure such a victory in order to shore up his legitimacy.
This is where I had a bit of a problem with the author’s choice to ascribe to treachery just about everything that went wrong on the Byzantine side both during the Mantzikert campaign and before. While this is of course part of the author’s license, there was so much of it (all invented, except for Andronikos Doukas’ role on the battlefield) that it became a bit incredible at times.
It also affected the credibility of some of the characters to some extent, with the ultra-evil Psellos appearing as all powerful while the Emperor seems at times to be a well-intentioned but a rather hopeless character, and the Haga as some kind of “Deus ex machina” who arrives at the last possible moment and saves the situation, at least until the next time. A related consequence of this kind of exaggeration, which was also apparent in the previous volume, is that you cannot help wondering why the Emperor (and Appion to a lesser extent) did not take more extreme measures to ensure their back if Psellos was really so dangerous and powerful. All in all, the consequence of making Psellos into the arch-traitor is to make Romanos seem overconfident, naïve, weak and indecisive.
In a few cases, however, the author’s license may have done the book a bit of a disservice. It is, for instance, quite incredible that Andronikos Doukas made the whole way from Constantinople to the battlefield being in chains all the time. In fact, and contrary to what is shown in the book, he was explicitly put in command of the reserve that formed up the Byzantine second line during the battle and this line was not made up only of the troops of the magnates. The second line included some of the Empire’s crack cavalry troops such as the Hetairia. These are not included in the author’s list of Tagmata. The Excubitores are also omitted from the list, by the way, and it very unlikely that the numbers of each regiment were identical.
Two other cases are worth mentioning. One is about the difficulties to ensure the feeding of the vast army (for the time) that Romanos had managed to gather. These are partly ascribed to sabotage and treason although such a feature is not really necessary to explain how difficult it could be to feed and water 40000 troops and tens of thousands of horses, mules and oxes in Spring and Summer during their long march across arid Anatolia.
Another is about the alleged treachery of Tarchaniotes who retreated back to Melitene with part of the army (probable less than half of the initial 40000, although it included the Normans under Roussel de Bailleuil) instead of uniting with the Emperor at Mantzikert. A more simple explanation is that he and his battle corps were simply cut off from the main force, did not know its whereabouts, were unable to make contact with them and were being constantly harassed by Turkish horse archers. Given that logistics were the initial reason for splitting up the army (as mentioned in the book), and that the provinces were left wide open to attack should the Turcoman horse archers manage to get behind the heavier Byzantine corps, a case for the retreat can be made without necessarily ascribing this to treason.
Finally, there is the aftermath of the battle. While the dialogues between the Sultan and the captured Emperor is fictitious of course (including the ones that are included in the historical sources), their substance is either likely or confirmed by sources. In particular, Alp Arslan did release Romanos and was not really interested in conquering Anatolia for himself. He was more interested in securing bases from which he could protect his own frontiers from Byzantium (hence the whole campaign over Mantzikert and Khliat which were essentially gateways) and in fighting the “heretic” Fatimids.
The story of the Haga itself is, as another reviewer mentioned, rather sad. Given the historical context however, the lack of a “happy ending” does not really surprise. Even there, the author manages to “stick” to the historical record as much as possible (and to the extent that there is one) by showing that although much of Anatolia was occupied by various Turkish chieftains and their war bands, most of Charsianon was not and it remained in Byzantine hands for close to four hundred years. Four stars.