Loved by wargamers, re-enactors and historical novelists, Osprey books have provided visual reference material since before I was old enough to turn their pages. However, this particular volume is showing its age, with illustrations that seem slightly naive by modern standards, and a relatively soft focus and poor tone on the photography.
This book gave me the information I wanted, and would be very hard to garner from other sources. However, its obvious age begs the question of whether the picture represent our best knowledge, or have been perhaps overtaken by more recent research
This is another Osprey volume that suffers from having to cover several centuries over 48 pages. It would have made more sense to have the whole period split into two volumes: one covering the East Roman Empire from the 4th to the 7th and a second one to cover the Arab onslaught, how Byzantium survived it and how, slowly, it managed to stem (but not yet turn back) the tide. There would be more than enough material for this and it would have prevented the content from being approximative.
However, the content also includes a number of questionable statements. For instance, it seems rather odd to mention on the very first page that various military reforms carried out in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire from the 4th century onwards were "based upon Hellenistic Greek rather than Roman concepts". This is especially strange since no explanation is provided with regards to these reforms or the concepts that were supposedly underpinning them. As the very next sentence makes clear, it seems rather that the reforms that took place under Anastasios, Justinian and Tiberius and Maurikios were above all about expediency. The Eastern Roman Empire adopted Germanic or Iranian (and Hunnish and Avar) equipment and tactics because these were what it was confronted with (something like "fighting fire with fire") and this is what worked.
Then there is the piece on the separation between themata and tagmata, and the reorganisation of the Empire and its army with the theme system. The explanations provided here, for instance the detailed reasons for these major upheavals, are barely adequate. For instance, it could have been worthwhile to mention that the land on which the thematic soldiers were settled seems to have mostly been crown land belonging to the Emperor. As the Empire's finance could no longer afford to pay for its soldiers, settling large number of soldiers - or at least giving them the rights to the land's income - on land that belonged to the crown was a neat way of solving the problem.
Another reviewer on Amazon.co.uk has deplored the lack of content. Although there is rarely enough content on Osprey Men-at-Arms series given their size limitations, there is quite a bit here and it mostly good, despite a number of simplifications. One of these is that Heraclius (reigned 610-641) took his Avar foes as a model when he reformed the army. While true, Emperor Maurikios (582-602) had done the same before him and both also took the Sassanid heavy cavalry as a model for their own. A related point is that it rather difficult to know precisely what were the reforms of Heraclius between 610 and 625 since, unlike for his predecessor, there is no military treaty bearing his mark.
The best parts of the book are the illustrations - on fortifications in particular - and the plates. Interestingly, most of them show soldiers and warriors up to the 7th century included. Some of them had been re-used in other Osprey Series, such as the Thracian heavy cavalryman of the Leones Clibanarii (Place C) or the armoured cavalryman of Plate E. The cavalryman of the Imperial Tagmata shown on Plate H is particularly interesting in that he shows Muslim influences.
Not a bad effort altogether, even if the plates are somewhat better than the content, of which there is not enough. After hesitating between three and four stars, I'll finally go for four stars, mostly because of the plates...
Good illustrations although, typically of McBride, they are rather fantastic and most of the subjects seem to be modelled on Swarzenegger! The main text is very synoptic in the first half and does not go into much more detail in the second, instead elaborating on the ethnic groups recruited by the Byzantines. The book would be more interesting if it included more historical content or at least a chronology. The achievements of Belisarius and Narses are some of the greatest in military history but they are only mentioned in passing, and only in the context of army organisation.