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Making the best out of a bad job?,
This review is from: Byzantine Armies 1118-1461 AD (Men-at-arms) (Paperback)
Here again, the limits inherent in Osprey's collections lead to a no more than ok book. It could have been a great one, as was, for instance the book on Byzantine armies 886-1118, if the scope had been limited to 1204 or, even better, made to cover the period 1081 to 1204. This would have given the book some unity in its structure and focused it on the Byzantine armies at the times of the Crusades, when the Empire confronted the West. Instead of that, we have a thing booklet covering the last 350 years of Byzantium.
Although Ian Heath's and Angus McBride's efforts manage to salvage something from this inherently poor publishing decision, the result is rather predictable. The chronology takes up a full 8 pages out of 48. Added to the explanations needed for the plates (another 6 pages), this takes out almost a third of the book. What is left is divided into two sections.
The first section attempts to review the first two of the four components of the military forces - the central army and the provincial armies - with a little section on the navy tagged onto it (6 pages). The problem here is that you get little feel and no idea of the differences and evolutions between the armies of the Komnenes before 1204 and those of the Empire of Nicea or of the Epirots during the 13th century. Contrary to what is implied, the Komnenes were still able to field relatively large forces, perhaps up to 20000 or 25000 (at most) for the largest expeditions lead by the emperors into Syria or against the Turks of Konya. It is only after 1204 (and with the exception of Pelagonia) were the largest forces never seem to have exceeded a few thousands.
The second section is a catalogue of all the nations, people and tribes that served as mercenaries or allies for the Empire over the whole period (6 pages). While interesting and useful, there can only be a paragraph for each of them
There are however several strongpoints. While the section on the final fall of Constantinople is not original, although the presentation of the city's walls and defences is a nice touch, it does serve its purpose as a general introduction and the loss of Trebizond is original and rarely told. Another interesting section is the one on firearms in the Empire and it is boosted by a nice illustration of an Italian mercenary with a handgun in one of the plates. More generally, the plates are of the usual high quality that we have come to expect from Angus McBride.
Thanks to these efforts, this is still just about an ok book worth three stars. Had it been split into two with each one illustrated with the same skill and the content more developed, each book could easily have been worth four stars.