McGeer cover
McGeer cover
De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Timothy Dawson

Byzantine Infantrymen: Eastern Roman Empire c. 900-1204

Warrior 118. Osprey Publishing, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-1846031052. 64pp. $18.95.

[previous DRM review of this book here]

and

Byzantine Cavalrymen c. 900-1204

Warrior 139. Osprey Publishing, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-1846034046. 64pp. $18.95.

[previous DRM review of this book here]

The Byzantine army was the preeminent fighting force of the Middle Ages. In two complementary books, Timothy Dawson examines the two dominant arms of the Byzantine army, the infantrymen and the cavalrymen in the Byzantine Infantrymen: Eastern Roman Empire c. 900-1204 and Byzantine Cavalrymen c. 900-1204. Dawson utilizes a topical approach to guide the reader through many nuances of Byzantine infantry and cavalry. These chapters, one barely a page in length and the longest about 10 pages, comprise an excellent introduction to the Byzantine army and provide amplification for those already familiar with the topic. These “chapters” are brief but distilled introductions to topics that are often ignored or taken for granted in larger studies. Thus, these studies serve as an excellent companion reference when reading scholarly studies. Topics include the following: Recruitment, Appearance, Equipment, Training, Conditions of Service, Belief and Belonging, On Campaign, Experience of Battle, Museums and Re-enactment. A significant shortcoming in an otherwise thoughtful study is the conspicuous absence of historiographical debates and proper historical contexts. The author’s professional expertise as a re-enactor of ancient battles and his reputation as a sword smith add a colorful layer of insight that invigorates the text and compels the reader to absorb every fascinating detail.

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 instructional tool.

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.

Christopher Berg

Sam Houston State University <Cwb004@shsu.edu>

Page Added: August 2011