TOP 100 REVIEWERon 30 May 2012
This book is unvaluable and I share Tom Speight's conclusion on Amazon.co: "I have yet to find a better text on this subject." This is still true, some 13 years after he posted his review. There are, to be honest, two or perhaps even three books on the Byzantine armies of the tenth century, when the Empire embarked on its reconquest. However, these happen to be in German, and has not been translated, at least to my knowledge. In addition, as as the author notes, they mainly focus on changes in the organization of Byzantium's army:
- the splitting up of the top commanding officer into two, one for the East and another for the West
- the distinction between the smaller "Armenian" themes, more recent, largely comprised of reconquered regions and indeed largely populated by settlers of Armenian stock who also provided a good portion of the heavy infantry
- the shifting of at least part of the full-time professional cavalry regiments of the Tagmata, previously concentrated in and around Constantinople, to the borders
- the raising of the minimum worth of the plots allocated to soldiers and the conversion of at least part of the military services owned by the themata troops of the province to cash payments allowing for the recruitement of full-time professionals (largely "foreign" mercenaries, meaning from outside of the Empire's frontiers, in addition to being non-Greek);
While McGeer does mention these elements as part of the context that he provides, his purpose is rather to focus on the practicalities of the Byzantine armies of the Reconquest period. This he achieves wonderfully by proving us with what is essentially two books in one, both of which are excellent and complete each other. The first part of the book (roughtly the first half or so) translates two military treaties, one attributed to the first of the soldier-emperors - Nicephoros II Phokas (reigned 963-969) and the other attributed to Nicephoros Ouranos, one of the best generals of the third emperor-soldier (Basile II, who effectively reigned from 976 to 1025). Another of the elements that makes this book invaluable, at least for students and fans of the Byzantine Empire, is that this the first time these texts have been translated into English, therefore almost completing the series of Byzantine military treaties that are now available in English (well, not quite because Kekaumenos, which deals with the 11th century, is still only available in a very old Russian edition).
A third key quality is that, unlike most other treaties, which are theoretical pieces written in fashionable court language by aristocrats, these two are eminently practical, written in common language, by professionals and for professionals. They are in fact manuals, not treaties, and they in fact compile the military experience gathered by seasoned commanders, starting by the considerable experience of Nicephoros Phokas for practical use on campaigns by both themselves and their officers.
Other components further add to the value of this book, as its second half describes and discusses the contents of both manuals and show the extent of sophistication achieved both in military thinking and in the organization, deployment and fighting capabilities of the army. Contrary to the previous period, where the division between militarized provinces (the themes) and the central army made of professionals was intended to defend against attacks and then counter-attack, these manuals show to what extent the emphasis had shifted to the offensive. The purpose of expeditionary forces now no longer to repel invaders or large scale raids, but to attack ennemy territory and destroy its armies in pitched battles. To this extent, Byzantine military thinking was systematic:
- the purpose of the manuals was to provide commanding officers with a range of empirical scenarios and their corresponding range of solutions, while also emphasizing innovation, adapting to the ennemy's circumstances and initiative because all cases could not be prepared for in advance
- a related purpose was to lay down the composition of what some Byzantine historians have deemed to be an "ideal" expeditionary force of some 24000, two-thirds infantry, one-third cavalry, with multiple types of specialised troops (respectively light, medium and heavy infantry and cavalry), which were trained to operate together (both the cavalry and infantry, and each of the troop types within each other
- finally, the treaties clearly emphasise two top priorities, to ensure that such a sophisticated war machine, that had no equivalent in Europe or in the Middle East at least till the 14th century, worked as efficiently as intended: training and harsh discipline, something for which all three of the soldier-emperors were known for during their lifetimes. This training and the enforcement of harsh discipline - such as prohibiting troops from breaking ranks to pillage - went a long way towards ensuring the Empire's victory.
Interestingly, when re-reading this excellent book once more, I couldn't help drawing parallels with the Roman Army of the first and second century. Both had a number on ingredients in common, starting with training and discipline, and ending with a systematic (one is almost tempted to say a scientific) approach to warfare. The triumphs reaped by both war machines were commensurate to their efforts, with everyting being done to stack the odds on their favor.
One last comment. For readers wanting more, or looking for a companion book that can provide them with more context, I can also recommend the two following books, both of which were published after this one:
- one of Mark Whittow's "The Making of Byzantium 600-1025"
- the other is "Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204"
Both cover much more than just the tenth century. However, this is also their advantage to the extent that they provide the reader with more on an overview. This includes very interesting sections on the Empire's strategic context.