3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Mostly good, but some problems that could have been avoided,
Amazon Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-arms) (Paperback)
This Osprey booklet on the Varangian Guard of Byzantium draws heavily from Blôndal and Beneditz "The Varangians of Byzantium" which has at last been reprinted and remains the major reference on the subject. To this, it adds a few paragraphs inspired by archaeological findings in Bulgaria, and in particular at Dristra (with the author using the modern Bulgarian name of Drastar) where the emperor Alexios Komnenos suffered one of his worst defeats in 1087 and where Varangians were present.
As other reviewers had already commented upon, Rava's plates are rather gorgeous. Some of sections, in particular the one on Guard service and on Equipment, are particularly good summaries. Others, however, are perhaps more questionable. For instance, the discussion on numbers and organization is rather cursory, perhaps because of space limitations. There seems to be no distinction made between Tagmata (professional regiments) of Rus or Varangians, and the Varangian Guard itself. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the Varangian Guard numbered 6000 in 1203.
However, mercenary Rus infantry regiments PLUS the Guard could perhaps have made up such a total. In reality, we simply do not know the exact proportions or numbers at all times, neither how they evolved over time. Since the Varangians were not only bodyguards but also very much shock troops, losses tended to be heavy, even when the Varangians won. Since the sources mention that Basil II first received 6000 warriors in 988 and still had the same number with him some 12 years later, despite a number of hard fought victories, an implication, not mentioned in the book, is that losses must have been replenished by a constant stream of recruits attracted by the high pay and encouraged to enlist by their own Prince, too happy to get rid of turbulent warriors.
One problem I had with the book is that, with a few exceptions (the battle of Eski Zagra in particular), we do not learn much about the performances of the Varangians. We are told about their great reputation as warriors. We are shown how their alleged rashness supposedly led to the disaster of Dyrrachium, according to Anna Komnene eager to shift responsibility for this military disaster away from her father. We are also told of how they largely got themselves killed at Mantzikert and at Dristra, probably defending the Emperor in both cases. I was expecting to learn more about their decisive role in a number of battles.
There are also a number of other issues, which are probably due to poor editing. In the chronology, I was most surprised to learn about "Norman" ships serving in the byzantine fleet in 967-968. Either this is a mistake or this was supposed to mean "Northmen" (that is, from Scandinavia, not from Normandy). Even more surprising is the mention of "Vandals" serving during a Byzantine expedition in Sicily in 1025. This is probably an oversight from the author since the Vandals had simply disappeared as a people after their kingdom had been destroyed and conquered by Belisarios almost five hundred years before. I was also surprised to learn about the battle of Kalouryta in 1077 - it seems to be the battle of Kalavrita, which took place in 1078 and, to my knowledge, no Varangians seem to have been present on either side. Also, it is simply impossible that Alexios Komnenos' army was 50000 strong at Dyrrachium. He probably did not have that many soldiers left in the whole of what remained of the Empire. John Haldon's estimate (20000 to 25000) is much more plausible. The number mentioned by D'Amato may nevertheless represent something like a grand total including both combatants and non-combatants (servants, camp followers etc...).
Three stars, but it would have been worth four without the very avoidable typos...