BMCR 2022.12.23

Byzantine fortifications: protecting the Roman empire in the east

, Byzantine fortifications: protecting the Roman empire in the east. Barnsley; Havertown: Pen and Sword Military, 2022. Pp. 288. ISBN 9781526710253. $42.95.

The medieval East Roman empire never lacked enemies and challenges to its existence. It was always engaged politically, diplomatically, and militarily on at least two fronts, sometimes three. Defensive architecture to protect its population, to house and support its military operations, and to serve its fiscal and administrative bureaucracy was part of the fabric of social, cultural, and political life. Study of this aspect of the Byzantine world is, therefore, of first-rate importance in all these respects. This short survey or handbook devoted to the study of Byzantine fortifications is long overdue. Until now the only general survey of the subject has been the 1986 book by Clive Foss and David Winfield, which presented a brief general overview and a number of case-studies, including both the walls of Constantinople and Nicaea as well as a series of examples of fortifications in Anatolia with discussion of problems of dating, forms of construction, and plans. This can be used in conjunction with the even sketchier (56 pp.) but important ‘Skeletal History of Byzantine Fortifications’ published by A. W. Lawrence in the Annual of the British School of Archaeology at Athens in 1983. Since then, a number of articles devoted to particular monuments or structures have appeared, but no up-to-date survey of the field as a whole. This is hardly surprising in view of the wide and varied range of sites and types of late Roman and Byzantine forts, fortresses, and urban defensive systems. Kontogiannis’ book is all the more laudable, therefore, in its attempt to provide an overall framework for the subject, to establish some general ground-rules for studying these different categories of fortification, and to provide a rough chronology for developments throughout the lands of the medieval East Roman empire from the fifth to the fifteenth century. Importantly, the author is keen to place these architectural phenomena in their social, cultural, economic, political, and institutional contexts, and to trace the paths of their evolution across the longer term to help make sense of the broader story of East Roman politics and society.

The book is divided into three main sections, preceded by a useful glossary for non-specialists and a short Introduction setting out the author’s aims in writing the book: to offer an overview of Byzantine fortifications in their contexts and to try to establish when different monuments were constructed, how they were constructed and decorated, and how they are to be understood in terms of defensive strategy and military technology. Each of the chapters dealing with a particular period or century follows the same basic format: introductory comments and scene-setting (political and military developments); short discussion of the relevant and available sources (written archaeological, architectural); brief account of the military organization of the period; and an account of the various fortifications in the western and eastern parts of the empire, illustrated by a series of examples and case-studies.

Section I (chapters 1-3) starts in the later Roman world – from the fourth and fifth centuries – and takes the survey through into the late sixth / early seventh century. It examines briefly some 45 examples from the Balkans (including the walls of Constantinople) and the Aegean region, from Anatolia and the east, and from North Africa. The section concludes with a discussion under the title ‘What makes an “Early Byzantine” fortification?’ for the period in question, looking at masonry and methods of construction in general, and then at towers, gates, ramparts, and a range of ‘defensive features,’ such as arrow-slits, crenellation, artillery platforms, and so forth.

Section II (chapters 4-7) is devoted to the middle Byzantine period, defined here as the seventh – twelfth centuries. The basic scheme as set out in the first section is followed: an introductory account of the general political-military situation, followed by discussion and presentation of some 42 examples that illustrate the surviving fortifications in the Balkans and the Aegean regions and in the eastern lands of the empire. Chapter 4 describes the sources and military organization of the seventh–ninth centuries, together with the fortifications of the empire. The author points out that Anatolia now exhibits two major categories of fortified structure that can be distinguished, fortress cities on the one hand, and forts and refugia on the other (although of course there are considerable variations within both categories, depending on location and strategic situation, among other factors). He also notes that at least three phases of construction can be distinguished, in the second half of the seventh century, in the later eighth century and in the middle and second half of the ninth century, with emperors Constans II and Theophilos or Michael III as especially significant contributors, along with Nikephoros I. Chapter 5 focuses on the tenth–eleventh centuries, noting that there is little evidence for entirely new constructions except in newly-conquered frontier districts, although indications of maintenance and repair of established fortifications are clear. The ‘long twelfth century’ is the focus of the following chapter, with particular emphasis on the building program of the Comnenian emperors relative to the new inner-Anatolian frontier. The final chapter in this section, chapter 7, discusses ‘What makes a “Middle Byzantine” fortification?’, following the pattern presented in chapter 3.

Section III (chapters 8 – 12) deals with the complicated picture that evolves as the empire shrinks territorially and small sub-imperial statelets (the empire of Nicaea, the Despotates of the Morea and of Epiros, and the empire of Trebizond) form and dissolve. In each case the author chooses representative examples, largely focusing on the capitals of these ‘empires’ but also bringing in one or two other cases. He concludes with a chapter on what makes a late Byzantine fortification. The final section presents a useful overview of a range of cultural historical and strategic questions: how Byzantine fortifications were used in different contexts; how they were attacked or defended; the strategies of defense employed by the empire at different times; and the network of fortifications in their geostrategic contexts. Short sections on marching camps, on monastic fortifications, the role of fortifications in peacetime, and questions of the use of spolia and decoration and of how Byzantines perceived and understood their fortifications represent the final points discussed. The notes to the chapters, the bibliography and two indexes (historical persons mentioned; historical places and monuments) conclude the book.

The study of Byzantine fortifications is in many respects still in its infancy. Major problems arise with respect to dating, for example, and it is often impossible to establish whether a structure for which no written evidence exists was constructed in the seventh or the eleventh century without some indications within the fabric of the walls, for example in terms of ceramics, coins or preserved wood (in all three cases there remain substantial interpretative problems). Stylistic analysis helps a little; context (topography as well as historical data) is also crucial; plan and defensive arrangements (types of gate, types of tower, forms of embrasure, crenellation, arrow-slit, artillery-platform, and shape of towers and their relationship to one another as well as to other features) are equally important but may not necessarily indicate more than a very broad chronological range. The analysis of inclusions in mortar, brick or tile can also help, where it can be done and where the resources are available (cost is a significant issue here). In other words, we do not know nearly as much as we would like to know, given the number of surviving structures, regardless of their state of preservation. Given all of this, and building on earlier work, Kontogiannis has achieved a great deal and set out the framework for further research, with respect to  both establishing key desiderata as well as setting out a clear and methodologically coherent picture that can serve as a strategic guide for the future.

Of course, there are lacunae, given the vast scope of the subject. One area of the Byzantine world that is missing, perhaps surprisingly, is Italy, especially southern Italy, for which some documentary evidence for fortifications exists and where a number of Byzantine defensive structures survive, if modified by later occupants. Comparison with some of these and the Aegean or Anatolian monuments discussed in sections II and III might have proved profitable. Likewise, there is no real discussion of small rural defensive arrangements (different from refugia)—the fortified farmstead at Çadır Höyük in north-central Anatolia, firmly dated to the tenth-eleventh centuries, would have made an interesting and useful minor contribution. Similar installations are known from a handful of other sites, including Boğaz Köy, for example, about which one could perhaps say something in order to compare such minor (and almost certainly private/unofficial) defensive arrangements with the grander forts, fortresses, citadels and acropoleis that form the focus of the book. And of course, there are numerous issues of social history that would be worth pursuing: What was the relationship between state and private fortifications and fortification-construction? Is there any indication in the ground-plan of citadels or fortresses for elite residences, and can one detect an evolution in the internal arrangements of such structures? Who did the constructing, what evidence is there for the artisans and specialists who both designed and planned such fortifications? Some but not all these issues are raised in the course of the book, and it is certainly the case that in the present state of our knowledge and the relative paucity of data many such questions cannot be answered, or if they can, it is thus far for individual monuments only. Nevertheless, it would have been helpful to have them mentioned as part of the bigger picture that the author aims to set out. Having said that, such absences in themselves indicate the urgent need for more specialized studies in all aspects of this field.

But perhaps these issues should be part of another study. Whatever questions and issues this book leaves to one side, it is without doubt a stimulating and significant contribution to the field, not just of Byzantine history in general, but to the history and evolution of medieval fortification and military technology more broadly. It will be useful for specialists of the Byzantine world as well as those from neighboring fields of historical study. In setting out so clearly the broad trends in the development of late Roman and Byzantine fortifications over such a long period, with such a helpful range of indicative examples properly and clearly situated in their historical, topographical, and architectural/technological contexts, the author has established a new baseline from which the study of Byzantine fortifications can move forward with a clear strategy and on a sound basis.