Dawson provides a useful introduction emphasizing continuity and change
present in the Byzantine army since the time of Maurice. The relationship
between the infantry and cavalry, according to Dawson, was extremely
important to the successes enjoyed by the Byzantine army. Rather than
stressing the importance of cavalry at the expense of infantry, Dawson
focuses his argument upon the dynamic relationship between both arms
of the Army and their indispensability. However diminished a role infantry
may have played since ad900,
the infantry was not an inferior component of the Byzantine army. In
fact, Dawson believes the success of the cavalry was dependent upon
the infantry executing precise maneuvers in the field and providing
the necessary cover to protect cavalrymen when retreating. This would
have been an excellent opportunity to engage in a historiographical
discussion around this hotly contested debate but Dawson prefers to
keep his text free of such distractions. Even the briefest mention of
this debate would have brought this matter to the reader’s attention
reinforcing its significance in the reader’s mind and making the
reader aware of evidence throughout the text that pertains to this particular
discussion. Dawson’s refusal to integrate even a basic discussion
of historiographical trends is disappointing and diminishes the value
of the text.
The short section on recruitment is a gem because it not only addresses
what Byzantine officers looked for in a recruit, but also the type of
men who made the bulk of the army. Dawson states that prime candidates
were under the age of 40, were in excellent physical condition, and
possessed good character and moral integrity. Most recruits were drawn
from families who owed service to the Emperor because of their status
as Strateia. In return for arable land
to cultivate, these families agreed to serve the Emperor for a given
amount of time, but were not career soldiers. Dawson frequently refers
to Strateia, giving the reader the impression that this is not
only a significant term that should be remembered but also the relationship
these families maintained with the Byzantine army for hundreds of years.
Dawson felt compelled to discuss the importance Strateia played
in the functioning of the Byzantine army and reminds the reader of this
fact often. Why is it, however, that another respected dissenting historian
chose not to mention the Strateia even once in his discussion
of the Byzantine Army?
In Byzantium and its Army, 284-1081, Warren Treadgold failed
to incorporate the Strateia into his text; Dawson’s book
is far shorter than Treadgold’s and
yet was able to include a lengthy discussion of that important concept.
This point alone makes Dawson’s work more valuable to the lay
reader because it provides a comprehensive picture. To be fair, Treadgold,
like Dawson, eschewed discussions of historical debates but for different
reasons. Dawson did not have an axe to grind like Treadgold.
Furthermore, a popular press published Dawson’s book, giving him
the latitude to format and structure the book as he saw fit. The motivation
behind the decision-making process for why something was included, repressed,
or ignored must be taken into account. Dawson may not have included
a more penetrating study because it was beyond the scope of the book.
Treadgold, however, used his book as a bully pulpit to purposely exclude
those who did not agree with his suppositions and exclude those who
had slighted him in the past. There were few historians that Treadgold
did not have a problem with, as is evident in his bibliography. Treadgold’s study
was ambitious but could not deliver because he obsessed over disparate
topics within the Byzantine army. Such a selective treatment left noticeable
gaps within his narrative, leaving the reader with an incomplete picture,
and, perhaps, a flawed understanding of the Byzantine army. A more general
approach, such as that taken by Dawson, would have served Treadgold’s audience
better. Dawson’s work is not without its blemishes but all studies
contain them. Both authors would do well to remember their readership
and provide the most productive and scholarly text possible.
One of Dawson’s more interesting chapters dealt with Equipment.
Dawson utilizes a variety of sources to construct the most accurate
and reliable picture of the Byzantine equipment. These sources include
tenth-century military manuals, a chosen favorite of Dawson, archaeology,
and East Roman art. The most useful military manual for this section
is the Sylloge Taktikon because of its detailed observations
regarding armor and weaponry. Armor can be further divided into three
sub-groups including body armor, limb armor, and shields. Likewise,
weaponry can be consisted of archery, swords, and axes with an interesting,
but outdated, concluding section on artillery and Greek Fire. Dawson
supposes that Greek fire was an offensive weapon used during siege assaults
but more recent evidence concludes that Greek fire was not used on land
but at sea. It was a defensive mechanism to help Greek ships resist
an enemy ship determining to breach their hull and board.
Dawson’s chapters on Training and Belief and Belonging show
why the Byzantine soldier was indomitable and could meet the most daunting
challenges. Training was an active exercise conducted in real-time and
was verbally expressed rather than documented for future generations.
Therefore, Dawson relies upon Vegetius to provide the training paradigm
used by the Romans and continued by the Byzantines. Edward Luttwak was
critical of Vegetius’
writings but Dawson observes that there is no better source to
illuminate training methods and practices adopted by the Byzantines.
To augment Vegetius’ descriptions are specific art works noted
by Dawson that visually depict training scenes.
Byzantine training emphasized precision, drill, preparedness, and simulation.
It has been suggested that heavier weapons, approximately double the
weight of real weapons, were used by Dawson dismisses this theory as
impractical. Simulated combat situations were excellent preparation
for a variety of circumstances that are beyond control but could be
anticipated. Dawson believes the Byzantine mode of training was the
decisive factor that insured their continued success and survival. Moreover,
their sense of identity and camaraderie because of shared values and
beliefs, such as Christianity, helped to bond soldiers with a common
cause. The Orthodox Church was not as tolerant of the “sins” soldiers
committed while on campaign in contrast to the Latin Church. Soldiers
were told that sex and drunkenness were prohibited and to kill an enemy
was a sin that required a continual penance that could never be satisfied.
Christian doctrine was a contentious but popular subject among the Byzantines
and permeated even casual interactions as noted by an anecdote Dawson
mistakenly attributes to Gregory of Nyssa (p. 44). In fact, this misunderstood
anecdote was observed by Gregory Nazianzen and not in a negative fashion
as Dawson intimates. Confusing the two Gregory’s is forgivable
because they were both Greek Church Fathers and contemporaries of one
another who lived in Asia Minor.
The chapter Experience of Battle is filled with numerous details
concerning the intricacies of waging a battle and the precision required
to execute a successful campaign. Religious observances and rituals
were doubled hoping that God would not only protect the Byzantine soldiers
but also deliver their enemies into their hands. The medieval conception
of God was powerful and many soldiers were persuaded that God would
rally behind them if they were worthy, thus motivating soldiers to become
more mindful of their spiritual condition. Dawson’s narrative
shines in this section considering the spatial dimensions of Byzantine
battle line formations and the incredible exactness needed to execute
complicated field maneuvers. Charles Oman praised the Byzantine ambulance
corps as a sophisticated mechanism that no other army of the age possessed.
Dawson, too, discusses the effectiveness of field hospitals 110 yards
behind the line of battle and the courageous orderlies who risked their
lives to retrieve wounded soldiers. Excellent summary chapter exploring
subjects often overlooked.
Dawson’s discussion of the Byzantine cavalry was disappointing.
Most of Dawson’s text was regurgitated and extrapolated from his
discussion of the Byzantine infantryman and, in many cases; additional
details seem to be mechanically inserted in an effort to address the
cavalry. The overall structure and presentation are identical as well
and is supplemented with excellent drawings, illustrations, and period
reproductions of armor and the like. Furthermore, Dawson again neglects
to notify his audience of the significance of the cavalry versus infantry
debate of this period. In all fairness, Dawson mentions the increasing
dependence upon cavalry to combat mounted enemies. An improvement upon
the first book was the addition of short discussions of related topics,
such as Medical Services and Training that dig deeper
into special topics of interest and aid the reader in his understanding
of the material. This reader was already intrigued by the effective
ambulance corps and was surprised to see that there was an ambulance
corps specially trained and outfitted for cavalry. Moreover, the pictorial
illustration beautifully reinforced the concept and served as an excellent
Chapters discussing Appearance and Equipment are filled
with a great deal of specialized knowledge and technical details that
are easily absorbed by the reader and is testament to Dawson’s
ability to engage his audience without overwhelming them with unnecessary
minutiae. These sections would not have been possible to reconstruct
accurately without a broad array of sources. Documentary sources are
less useful when discussing clothing, armor, and other military accoutrements.
Aware of this pitfall, Dawson draws upon archaeological findings throughout
southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, and as far away as the Caucasus. One
of the richest archaeological finds was in Intercisa, Germany clarifying
descriptions found in military manuals such as the Sylloge Taktikon and
filling gaps that would otherwise remain lost to history.
Dawson touches upon Edward Luttwak’s thesis
that the Byzantines employed a Grand Strategy that emphasized diplomacy,
deception, subterfuge, and a network of alliances implicitly in the
introductory pages. One of Luttwak’s aims
was to debunk the negative connotation attached to the word “Byzantine” and
to provide a proper and accurate historical understanding of Byzantine
statecraft. Modern readers have been conditioned to believe that terms
such as “Byzantine” and “Machiavellian” are
sinister when, in fact, they have been grossly misrepresented and thus
misunderstood. For this very reason, Luttwak persuasively argued the
true character of Byzantine statecraft lay in diplomatic maneuverings
and successful negotiations with neighboring powers rather than through
conniving. Likewise, Dawson believed it important to dispel the pejorative
connotation surrounding the term “Byzantine”
by retracing its origin to a 16th century German named Hieronymus
Wolf who coined the term as a piece of propaganda, cloaking the true
identity of the Eastern Roman Empire for centuries to come under a libelous
title suiting his own agenda. The second instance where Dawson obliquely
alludes to Luttwak’s thesis of Byzantine
Grand Strategy occurs in the following: “The Sylloge Taktikon recommends
that all such surplus gear was worn about the camp in order to give
defenders the impression of the army being more heavily equipped than
it was, thereby sapping the enemy’s courage and will to resist.” (p.
51) Something as simple as parading available polished
armor in full view of your enemy led them to the dubious conclusion
that they were at a disadvantage. This illusion would demoralize
an otherwise stalwart defense and would ensure a quicker victory.
Dawson provides an excellent narrative history of the Byzantine infantryman
and cavalryman. Rather than a stand-alone text, it would be best used
in conjunction with other applicable readings to create a comprehensive
picture of the Byzantine military. What really sets Dawson’s work
apart from other standard histories is his innate ability to include
fascinating details that larger histories ignore. For such a small book,
there is a great amount of information juxtaposed with evocative pictures
and illustrations. Standard university press books would do well to
include more visual plates and the like. These serve as an excellent
visual aid for the reader. Dawson’s two small volumes should not
be mistaken as comprehensive but as selective considerations that stress
various thematic aspects of the Byzantine infantryman and cavalryman.
A variation in organization and structure would have greatly enhanced
the value of both books as a whole but others may disagree. Dawson’s background
as a professional re-enactor and sword smith certainly permeate his
narrative and infuse it with a richness that other works cannot match. This
reason, above all else, make Dawson’s contribution worthwhile.