on 19 November 2009
I would imagine anyone reading this review is either a byzantine history lover, a military history lover, or both. I am both and I found the book to be very good enjoyable, well written and obviously well researched. It fills in a lot of blanks from other books I've read on similar sbuject matter and often changed or expanded on my ideas of the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine military in particular. My only complaint would be how short it is and my desire for other battles to be analysed but that is only because Haldon does a good job on what he does include.
I bought this little book in January 2002 and have been using it ever since. In less than 150 pages of main text, John Haldon present over 600 years of wars opposing Byzantium - the Eastern part of the Roman Empire - and its numerous neighbours and invaders. The book starts with an enlightening and very valuable "geography of byzantine warfare" that shows gthe kind of contraints and limitations that successive emperors had to cope with. It is then divided into five chapters of apporximatly the same size (around 20 pages each, except the last one, which is almost double the size). Each chapter starts with couple (sometimes three) of short sections that summarize the main events and military features and evolutions of the period (for instance, for the chapter on Justinian's wars: strategic arrangements, tactics and tactical structures). Then it presents and describes extensively, and for each period, a selection of battles and their consequences. There is also a short glossary and a valuable but short bibliography listing the main primary and modern sources for each of the battles analyzed.
Although I very much symphasize with another reviews comment (he wished that Haldon had included more battles and so do I!), I must admit that the book includes 19 of them. They range from Belisarius' victory at Dara over the Sassanids (but not his defeat the next year against the same at Callinicum) up to the byzantine defeat of Myriokephalon in 1176. Just like Mantzikert a century before, Myriokephalon was not the utter military disaster that it has often been portrayed to be and, for both cases, John Haldon explains why. However, he also explains in his conclusion the two reasons that underpin his selection. One is "because they are those for which most evidence survives". The other "because they exemplify the developments that the armies of the empire underwent across the period" from the sixth to the twelth century.
Although remarkable in most respects, this little book does have a weakness and this can be found in its last chapter: "collapse and recovery: the eleventh and twelth century". Haldon states that, after Alexios I Komnenos lost the last indigenous byzantine army (destoryed at Dyrrakhion and then defeated several times by the Pëtchenègues), he and his successors were obliged to essentially rely on armies of mostly foreign mercenaries after trying, "with very limited success", to re-establish an indigeneous army. This statement is rather controversial and likely to be somewhat exagerated. This is because it is largely based on Anna Komnena's Alexiad. She quite systematically exagerated her father's difficulties to make his achievements that much more heroïc and extraordinary. In addition, byzantine armies had traditionnally included "foreign" professionnal soldiers, whether before the seventh century or after the mid-eigth century.
The reason why there were fewer between 650 and 850 was simply that at the time the Empire did not have the means to pay them after having lost its richest provinces to the Arab onslaught (in particular Egypt and Syria) and with the others being devastated or depopulated because of the slavic invasions (the Balkans) or endemic Arab raiding. In fact, and in what was essentially a multi-ethnic empire - just like the old Roman Empire - you can't help wondering about the exact meaning of "foreign mercenaries" versus "indigeneous professionnal soldiers". For instance, are the tends of thousands of Armenians who chose to serve as skutatoi (heavy infantry) to be considered as "indigenous" or as "foreign"? Bearing in mind that a byzantine was essentially defined by being an orthodox christian, speaking Greek and recognizing himself as a subject of the Emperor, anyone meeting these three conditions could (at least in theory) qualify, regardless of his origins.
The idea that Alexios I and his son John II largely failed to reconstitute an indigeneous army needs to be qualified. It is certain that the use of Frankish lace-cavalry and Turkish horse archers increased when compared, for instance, to the reign of Basil II, and this evolution had in fact started well before Alexios I seized power (the first Norman contingent is attested in 1038, for instance). This was at least as much driven by imperial politics as it was by their warrior qualities. Just like the Varangian guard founded by Basil II with Russ and Scandanavians, the fact that they were both profesional soldiers and foreign implied in most cases that they loyalty went to their paymaster the Emperor, as opposed to the numerous indigeneous troops, whether from the themes or from the professional shock troops whose loyalty might be more easily swayed by provincial military governors or imperial generals/warlords, as was the case in the tenth century.
Finally, there is at least one of Haldon's selected battles - that of Dyrrakhion in 1081 which Alexios I lost to the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard - that needs an explanation. While the reconstitution of the battle is plausible, or even likely, it is mainly the result of Haldon's educated guesswork (or assumptions, if guesswork sounds disparaging). This is because our main sources for the battle are rather confusing when it gets to troop deployments (especially the Byzantines' deployment) and they fail to explain what exactly happened to both the denter and the right wing of the Byzantine army (that is, why did they break and flee?).
So, this little book, which is a must for anyone interested in Byzantine Warfare, medieval warfare or wargaming covering these centuries is certainly well worth four stars, but not quite five...
on 17 August 2009
A populist history of the military successes and failures of the Empire in less than 200 pages charting the evolution and development of battle tactics. Populist on this occasion is a positive rather pejorative term as this book relies heavily on illustration and less on literary sources to outline its theme. Topographical maps and military plans show the key victories and defeats, distilling a great deal of information into snapshots of the Empire's history with a bibliography at the end of each chapter for the reader to follow up at their leisure.
He outlines the development of the army showing the shifts in its emphasis, from infantry to cavalry, garrison and siege-craft and highlights the central area of weakness as the absence (in the Byzantine rather than the Roman army) of an NCO class which could have obviated the worst excesses and faults of bad generalship.
A good book as many others covering Byzantine history singularly lack the useful adjunct of good mapping as part of the illustrative process
on 8 August 2013
John Haldon's book is a very well written and concise survey to warfare between the Byzantine state and the numerous enemies that it faced during its existence. The book explores the evolution and adaptation in Byzantine tactics sometimes painfully learned through defeat on the battle field and looks at several battles spanning the period from the late Roman period up to the late twelfth century with the Byzantine defeat at Myriokephalon in 1176 which is generally regarded as the beginning of the slow decline of the Empire until its end in 1453.
The book is therefore not a comprehensive and complete survey of Byzantine warfare or military history. It does not cover the last two and half centuries of the Byzantine Empire's existence which still witnessed a number of key battles which are note explored. Neither are the exploration of battles and campaigns before 1176 complete but selective.
Nevertheless it stands as a very accessible, interesting and readible book to be picked up by anyone with an interest in Byzantine military history and helps answer the central question as to why the Byzantine state adeptly preserved its existence for so long against numerous enemies.