Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.48
Michael J. Decker, The Byzantine Art of War. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2013. Pp. x, 267. ISBN 9781594161681. $29.95.
Reviewed by Łukasz Różycki, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Michael J. Decker’s The Byzantine Art of War offers a historical analysis of the Eastern Roman army throughout its duration and is aimed at a wide audience of hobbyists and students. It is structured so as to first familiarize the readers with the Empire’s military history, weaponry and tactics and finally describe selected campaigns.
The first chapter deals with the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the time of Constantine the Great to the fall of Constantinople. The abridged nature of this chapter naturally leads to simplifications, but the generalized description of the final centuries of the Empire, covering the years 1204 to 1453 in only one and a half pages, is disappointing since the military campaigns of that period were hugely important and historical sources are numerous and widely available.
The second chapter, devoted to East Roman commanders, clearly showcases the leadership qualities of Byzantine strategoi and the sources of their military knowledge. The analysis mostly focuses on the rulers who also acted as field commanders (John I, John II); of all the Byzantine army men only Belisarius is described in more detail. The chapter lacks profiles of great Byzantine military leaders such as Philippicus, Nikephoros Ouranos, or Alexios Strategopoulos and presents the Tactica of Leon VI as the first significant military treatise dealing with the figure of the commander, disregarding Vegetius and Maurice, as well as the work of Onasander, which was immensely popular in Byzantium.
The third chapter focuses on Organization, Recruitment and Training. Each of these aspects is dealt with separately and divided into three chronological periods (the early period, the dark ages and middle ages, and the late period). The structure of the Byzantine army is presented in manner similar to numerous previous attempts made by other historians. In the sections on the dark and middle ages Michael Decker talks about themata and tagmata, again not deviating from generally accepted hypotheses and echoing the studies of John Haldon. The years following the fourth crusade are also presented in a conventional fashion. Michael Decker devotes just one page to the period, with the pronoia described using only a single sentence (although some more information is given in the part dealing with finances). The section on recruitment has been written properly. It mainly draws on the works of John Haldon, particularly Recruitment and Conscription in the Byzantine Army c. 550- 950 (Vienna 1979).
The quality of the part devoted to finances is similar to that of the rest of the work. Michael Decker again focuses on the period up to 1204, describing the fiscal difficulties and financial needs of the state. What seems lacking is a breakdown of the Empire’s revenue and military expenditure, which would elucidate how taxing it was for Constantinople to maintain a standing army. Taking into account that the book is not aimed at professional historians, it would also have been useful to include more information showing the actual value of a soldier’s pay in comparison to product prices or the remuneration in other professions.
The chapter on logistics and equipment is one of the best in the entire book. This time the author assigned more space to actual research, first describing the production and transport of equipment in the Late Antiquity and then summarizing the ongoing scholarly discussion about production and logistics issues during the dark ages. Michael Decker supports the theory of centralization of production and storing of equipment in Constantinople, reasonably concluding that the local fabricae could still function. The section on armament was based on more contemporary literature and distinctly influenced by the work of Łukasz Grotowski. Offensive and defensive weaponry is presented so as to be accessible to readers not versed in the subject and this was precisely the author’s goal.
The fifth chapter focuses wholly on strategy and tactics. At the very beginning Michael Decker points out that for the Byzantines these two disciplines were inseparable and could not be approached individually. The author presents the classic idea of Byzantium’s grand strategy, namely that all the lands that ever belonged to the Empire should eventually return under its rule. He also discusses the views held by medieval Romans on the issues of war and violence, who preferred to employ diplomatic solutions. It was with this viewpoint in mind that the author commented on the different attitudes exemplified by the rulers of the Macedonian dynasty. Chapter V is undoubtedly the most substantial as regards content; Michael Decker provides an easy-to-follow description of different strategies and tactics presented in the works of theorists and their practical application.
Chapter VI aims to provide additional information. Michael Decker gives some very brief and rather unoriginal comments on the main enemies of the Byzantine Empire throughout the ages (Germanic peoples, Persians, Nomads, Arabs, Bulgarians, Normans). In each case, the author attempts to characterize the fighting methods employed by a given adversary and the Roman answer to the said methods (which, admittedly, is an interesting way to go about this subject). Unfortunately, due to the nature of the chapter, individual sections tend to be only a couple of pages long.
Chapter VII concludes the book and aims to familiarize the reader with the reality of Byzantine battles. The author talks about several campaigns (expeditions against the Vandals during the reign of Justin, the eastern campaigns of Phocas from the years 964-69, the battles of Kleidion in 1014, Semlin in 1167, and Sirmium in 1167, as well as siege engagements). The chapter is of adequate quality. A large number of diagrams and maps presenting strategic and tactical operations make this part of the book very interesting to read.
In the final paragraphs Michael Decker lists the strengths and weaknesses of the Byzantine army and its influence on the world’s military history.
With regard to the theory of military history, Michael Decker draws heavily on the achievements of British scholars from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, but he fails to include the more contemporary view of military matters proposed by John Keegan. The work is illustrated with a wealth of tactical diagrams; the author focuses his narrative solely on great leaders and rulers and the events that were of crucial importance for history. Michael Decker’s study does not add anything new to our understanding of Byzantine warfare. The author largely dismissed Roman naval operations, and most of his information about Byzantine ships is given when talking about Greek fire (and even in this regard there are some shortcomings, e.g. omitting the works of Taxiarchis Kolias). Byzantium had strong ties with the sea and leaving out this aspect of Eastern Roman warfare is as surprising as it is wrong. Although the book is aimed at students and hobbyists, not scholars, there are still some faults with the bibliography that should be addressed. The sources used by the author leave much to be desired, especially their quantity. It seems strange that Michael Decker did not look into the works of e.g. Michael Attaleiates, not to mention any sources that would deal with the period post 1204. The author makes no mention of numerous distinguished works on Byzantine military history: the bibliography lists only a single entry by George T. Dennis, there is nothing by Constantin Zuckerman, only three books of Warren Treadgold, a single item by Philip Rance, and not even one book by Michael Whitby, or Michael Alexander Speidel. Moreover, Michael Decker is strongly influenced by any work that he draws on, as exemplified by the admittedly very good works of John Haldon and it is difficult to pinpoint what is the author’s opinion on many of the scholarly issues he presents.
Summing up, the work is based largely on the literature of the subject instead of historical sources. Michael Decker gives a very reader-friendly description of Byzantine warfare, addressing the book to a wide audience of history enthusiasts. The work is written in a vivid language and illustrated with interesting maps, diagrams and figures. Sadly, the shortcomings of the bibliography, the schematic and conventional attitude to numerous research problems and the failure to provide a more thorough account of the Empire’s final centuries devalue the whole book. In the field of popular scientific writing this is a solid work, but of little scholarly value.