An ailing economy handcuffed the Byzantine army and its eventual
collapse restricted the army’s scope to merely defensive operations,
thereby sealing the fate of the Byzantine Empire. In The Late Byzantine Army:
Arms and Society, 1204-1453, Mark Bartusis argues that the success
or lack thereof of the Byzantine army had a direct causal relationship
to the Byzantine Empire. “The successes and failures of the Byzantine
army determined the size, longevity, and even the tone of life within
the empire. And as an institution, it reflected the problems and possibilities
inherent within Byzantine society.” (p. 8) Rather than a traditional
military history, Bartusis examines the Byzantine army from an administrative
and institutional standpoint drawing much of his evidence from memoirs,
especially John VI Kantakouzenos, military manuals, and legal documents.
The author’s linguistic dexterity was tested in this undertaking
because most of the material was culled from Slavic, Latin, Greek,
and Turkish sources.
The book is divided into two general parts. The first part (ch. 1-6) provides a chronological assessment of the declining
Byzantine army and Empire, analyzing and synthesizing a broad corpus
of secondary literature while alerting the reader to key concepts that
will be addressed in the second part. The second part (ch. 7-14)
attempts to dissect the Byzantine army by looking at each of its constituent
parts and examining how the Byzantine army functioned and operated as
a shadow of its former self.
Part two is where Bartusis’ scholarship
shines and deepens our understanding of the complexities of the period.
The first four chapters consist of eloquent expositions of the compositional
makeup of the Byzantine army with especially strong discussions of pronoairs,
mercenaries, professional soldiers, and peasant/free soldiers and their
relationship to the army and the continuation of the Empire. The subsequent
chapters discuss how soldiers were paid, recruited, and mustered to
service, and how campaigns were conducted and administered. Of particular
interest to this reviewer were the two chapters devoted to the varieties
of guards and their unique services. An intriguing look at guard service,
especially palace guard service, is a highlight of the book but regrettably
fails to include the critical study of the Varangians by Sigfus Blöndal. Despite this shortcoming, Bartusis’
rigorous examination affirms many of Blöndal’s conclusions
and suggests that the Varangians were indeed a powerful force in Byzantine
society. The last section is an archaeological exploration of weapons
and equipment followed by a concluding chapter that soundly reaffirms Bartusis’
conclusions and its corresponding evidence.
Bartusis has taken great care in constructing his arguments and organized
it with the reader in mind. Each successive chapter builds upon the
previous and flows unencumbered by superfluous details or digressions.
One of the great strengths of this monograph is its unrelenting focus.
Little will distract the reader from his task because of the forethought
that went into its preparation. This format is welcome, in this reader’s
opinion, because one could easily lose sight of important themes and
debates in a quagmire of foreign place names, personalities, and other
terms. Bartusis guides his readers effortlessly
through a plethora of information with relative ease.
This book is a bold statement consolidating a large amount of disparate
material into a readable whole. The original thinking that lay behind
its creation and its careful production impressed this reader. Bartusis has made a respectable contribution to Byzantine,
Balkan, and Ottoman studies. However, such contributions are rarely
generated over night but rather assimilated over years of painstaking research
and reflection. John W. Barker’s review in the American Historical
Review is the sole review to notify prospective readers that the
present volume was first conceived as a series of articles. A decade
after the first article was published, Bartusis thought it prudent to
consolidate his extensive research, accumulated knowledge, and findings
into a single comprehensive volume to the benefit of his readers.
General themes Bartusis stresses are the gradual deterioration of
the Byzantine economy and its negative impact upon the performance of
the army. The critical point to remember, Bartusis emphasizes, is that
a sluggish economy provided few viable options and because cash was
scarce, creativity would have to be employed to entice men to serve
in the army. One such program was pronoia.
It helped to relieve the pressure exerted upon an insolvent treasury
while supplying a meager force of men through land revenues and other
entitlements to fight when called upon by the Emperor. Such a program
was ingenious because it conscripted men willing to serve without having
to add a further burden upon a treasury on the edge of collapse. Another
consequence of a weak economy was the small size of the army. According
to Bartusis’ figures, the army could not have been larger
than a few thousand men when it defended Constantinople in 1453. Moreover,
the Emperor was forced to rely even more upon mercenary forces, no matter
how uncomfortable their stay within the Empire may become. Furthermore,
the majority of these mercenaries did as much harm as good (the Catalans
come to mind). No longer a homogenous construct, the Byzantine army
transformed over the centuries into a melting pot of ethnicities whose
loyalty remained only as long as gold filled their purses. No better
example illustrates this point than the token force defending Constantinople
against the Turks – the army was composed of more Latin mercenaries
than Byzantine Greeks.
After 1204, competing rivals sought to control the city and fought
to become the Imperial heir. John Vatatzes vanquished his opponents
and consolidated power quickly. Vatatzes assimilated
the Cumans and assuaged the hostile highlanders of Asia Minor transforming
them into a buffer zone. These policies were continued and expanded
under his successor Michael VIII (1289-82). Michael was a dynamic ruler
known as a brilliant military organizer and a ‘master diplomat’: “It
is testimony to Michael’s abilities that he could be warring on
three fronts and still deal with unforeseen developments.” (p.
64 and 54) Byzantium’s geographical location was the bane of Michael’s
reign because his mission was to restore the pre-1204 borders of the
Empire but was constantly harassed by strategic incursions and threats
along those borders. A brilliant military leader and diplomat Michael
may have been, but his ill-fated decision to uproot and transplant Eastern
peoples from Asia Minor to the Balkans was perhaps his greatest blunder.
It can be argued that the long-term consequences of this action predetermined
the future direction and eventual dissolution of the Empire in 1453.
Andronikos II (1282-1328) inherited a shaky economy but continued
Michael’s military policies. Seeking to cut costs, Andronikos
reduced the size of the fleet and became embroiled in a dispute that
exhausted the treasury and put Byzantium in an awkward position between
Venice and Genoa until 1302. This diplomatic mis-step proved disastrous
to the economy and Andronikos resorted to withholding salaries of state
officials and soldiers and heavy taxation in Asia Minor upsetting powerful
magnates. It was during this period that Andronikos recruited the Alans
because of their unique horse-archer skills to augment a beleaguered
army but failed to settle them permanently in Asia Minor. Roger de Flor’s Catalans
were welcomed into the Empire in order to work alongside the Alans but
only brought dissension and proved to be a greater threat because of
their propensity for wanton destruction. Nowhere is it more clear how
important the lack of a homogenous Greek Byzantine army was during these
periods of crisis. Reliance upon foreign mercenaries was a two-edged
sword. They showed time and again how fickle their loyalties were and
how easily their bloodlust could be turned upon their benefactors. This
led to the first of three civil wars (1321-57) which grew out of failed
policies, the loss of Asia Minor, a growing population of displaced
peoples and refugees, the Catalan debacle, and high taxes.
By the mid-fourteenth century, Byzantium had shrunk to the city of
Constantinople and its surrounding hinterland, “owing its pathetic
existence solely to the Sultan’s pleasure.” (p. 103) Power
politics were again to exert a powerful presence and determine the health
of the Byzantine Empire. The Turks toyed with the Byzantines forcing
them to retreat behind the imposing Theodosian walls for protection.
Meanwhile, the Turks began to focus their gaze intensely upon Byzantium
and the Balkans. For decades the Byzantines were able to repulse the
Ottomans but the ascension of Mehmet II brought about the fall of Constantinople
in 55 days using the dreaded goliath of a cannon that was reported to
be 25 feet in length and ejected 1,200lb. projectiles with
ease. Its mere presence was enough to demoralize even the most hardened
soldiers and the majority of those present defending Constantinople’s
walls were Latin mercenaries. Small numbers of defenders, poor cooperation
among the mercenaries, and limited resources brought about the fall
of Constantinople. If the Ottomans did not possess gunpowder or the
newest technological advancements in projectile warfare, it is reasonable
to conclude, as Bartusis has, that the Empire may well have not fallen.
This is a remarkable statement but one that speaks to the quality and
character of the Byzantines. They were an ancient people who were the
inheritors and guarantors of an accumulated knowledge and wisdom handed
down from generation to generation since the time of Rome; their longevity,
in spite of a lackluster field army, heavy reliance upon foreign mercenaries,
enemies pressing from all directions, and a bankrupt economy, is an
enduring monument to their adaptability. It shows just how tough it
was to subdue and conquer a people who refused to accept defeat. Three
successive Ottoman rulers could not do what Mehmet II did in 55 days!
Cannon and gunpowder were the difference between victory and defeat.
The Byzantines possessed an innate resilience and, perhaps, that was
the key attribute that define the Byzantine army and Empire and their
desire to endure.
As noted earlier, the fascinating study of Blöndal is absent from the discussion entirely and does
not even merit a basic reference in the extensive bibliography. In fairness, Bartusis’ study does a fine job collating the source
materials and presenting a clear picture of the various Palace guard
corps serving the Emperor without the benefit of Blöndal’s analysis.
For those unfamiliar with the palace guards who served the Emperor,
this may seem an excessive criticism but this reader believes the omission
of such a valuable study such as Blöndal’s is
grave enough to merit attention. Perhaps, in Bartusis’ estimation,
the palace guards were not as pivotal since they were not part of the
army proper but their exalted station attests to their inestimable value
in the eyes of the Emperors. Bartusis includes
basic information concerning the largest and most feared contingent
of palace guard – the Varangians. More than a palace guard, they were the Imperial
bodyguard trusted and relied upon to execute orders in complete obedience.
For this and other reasons, they were often charged with unsavory tasks,
such as guarding high-profile prisoners, torturing those who defied
the Emperor, and intimidating any who dare oppose the Emperor. It is
probable that Bartusis underestimates their true value and the scope
of their duties. Bartusis states the Varangians were a supplemental force;
if Blöndal’s monograph had been
consulted, Bartusis may have amended this erroneous statement.
On balance, however, Bartusis manages to offer a fairly accurate picture
of the Varangians that can be pieced together from his text. The sources
he does draw upon note that the Varangians wielded axes. Another source,
Adam of Usk, noted this peculiar feature of men bearing axes as well
in 1404, which leads one to the conclusion that the Varangians were
still a functioning unit at the dawn of the fifteenth century, a conclusion
not found in Blöndal’s (p. 275). Bartusis concludes
that it is probable that the Varangians “had maintained their
ethnic identity, their military role, and their reputation” leaving
the reader with a one-dimensional view of the most feared palace guard
(p. 276). An excellent opportunity was missed by Bartusis to explore
the changing ethnic composition of the Varangians and his concluding
statement that their ethnic composition remained intact is flawed. Furthermore,
a discussion of Varangian service at strategic garrison locations throughout
the Empire is missing and this may partly be due to the author’s
ignorance further illustrating the necessity of Blöndal’s thoughtful study. However, the author
admits that his study on garrisons is far from authoritative because
of the scanty source materials. For this and the reasons discussed above,
it would have behooved Bartusis to consult Blöndal’s groundbreaking
study. It is unlikely that he is unaware of or unfamiliar with its publication
because of the appeal of the topic.
Feudalism was a socio-military construct that governed day-to-day
affairs in Western Europe but should not be, according to Bartusis,
accepted as a thriving institution in Byzantium. The East-West feudal
connection was first made by George Ostrogorsky in the 1950s and has
not been seriously challenged for decades. Bartusis shatters Ostrogorsky’s romanticized vision of feudal ties between
Western Europe and Byzantium while systematically presenting the fundamental
differences between the Western fief and Byzantine pronoia. Pronoia shares
“undeniable similarities” with the fief, its procurement
and administration through the bonds of vassalage but there are more “substantial
that make pronoia antithetical and irreconcilable to the Western
concept of feudalism (p. 182-3).
The first distinction is that the grant of pronoia came directly
from the Emperor. Such a grant was purely a fiscal transaction and bore
none of the personal touches found in the bequests of a fief in the
feudal relationship. A personal relationship was entirely lacking from
this arrangement. As Susan Reynolds has argued, the personal relationship
between a lord and vassal was the key condition of that relationship. Without it, feudalism could not function as it did. The
second key distinction was that the land could not legally belong to
the pronoair. The only rights the pronoair had
regarding the land was to the income generated from it. A third distinction
is that feudalism and fiefs were commonplace in Western Europe; in Byzantium, pronoia were
limited and Bartusis notes that they are scarcely mentioned in the sources,
giving more credence to the fact that this institution was selective
in nature and not a significant part of the fabric of society. There
are aspects concerning pronoia, however, open to speculation
and debate because the sources do not tell the complete story and leave
many details to the imagination thus allowing an ember of hope to burn
for scholars who do not agree with Bartusis.
A stronger connection can be made between the Turkish iqta and timar according
to Bartusis and the similarity between these social constructs as “striking”
(p. 185). Further research should illuminate our understanding
of these social constructs and their development while deemphasizing
the faulty link between Western feudalism, the fief, and Byzantine pronoia.
A bankrupt economy haunted Byzantium and its effects are best seen
in the army. Unable to pay soldiers timely or outfit them appropriately,
recruitment dwindled until the army had no other choice than to rely
predominantly upon mercenaries. Directives issued by Michael and Andronikos
accelerated the decay and helped bring about the future dismantling
of the Empire. Their myopic visions may have addressed short-term problems
but produced long-term consequences the Empire could not withstand.
The Byzantines possessed strong character qualities and were adept diplomats
but they could not continue unchecked forever and the Ottomans dealt
the deathblow in quick order. Everett Wheeler’s thoughts are worth
pondering as we conclude this discussion of Byzantium and its fall:
what is most impressive is not the circumstances of Byzantium’s
fall, but that they lasted as long as they did.
Benedikt S Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium: an aspect of Byzantine
military history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).
Reynolds. Fiefs and Vassals. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1993).