John W. Birkenmeier, The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081-1180. [History of Warfare, 5] Leiden: Brill, 2002.  XII, 263 pp., with 6 maps. ISBN 90 04 117105

Birkenmeier has made a significant contribution to Byzantine history and military historiography by writing this succinct, well researched, circumspect, and thoughtful book. It is a thoroughly revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation in history for the Catholic University of America. He sets the following objective: "how, and with what resources the Komnenian emperors restored the Byzantine military position in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Levant" (p. XI). He is factually accurate. This is a coherent analysis of the army during the Komnenian dynasty (1081-1185).  This dynasty is significant for non-Byzantinists because it is contemporary with and interacted with the first two Crusades. It is easy to follow his analysis. He knows the Komnenian period thoroughly. His judgments are sound and careful. He has used the relevant primary sources, the majority of which are historical narratives of campaigns and clashes. His historians do not write objective accounts, so he must discount their bias and their conformity and accommodation to traditional literary and historiographical structures and stylistic dictates. The nature of the sources limits his analysis, because no archival ones exist.  He sets for himself the investigation of the fighting capability and campaigning and strategies of Byzantine armies between 1081 and 1280. There is no other comparable study of the Byzantine army for this period. His analysis does not concentrate on structures.  In fact he makes a very valid concluding point: "...the Komnenian military (and political) system required strong personal leadership, and direct intervention by the ruler in military, fiscal, and political matters. When this control disappeared, the system, and its army, collapsed," p. 235. Hence his focus on emperors is justifiable. Hitherto readers had to read disconnected observations by historians whose primary interests concentrated on other aspects of Komnenian dynastic history.

            Eight chapters constitute the book (I give shortened titles): 1. Textual Sources 2. Historical Overview 3. The Campaigns of Alexios I. 4. The Campaigns of John II Komnenos. 5. The Campaigns of Manuel I Komnenos. 6. Supporting the Komnenian Army. 7. Komnenian Siege Warfare. 8. The Komnenian Army in Battle. Conclusion.  The three appendices include a useful glossary that should help to make this book more comprehensible to non-specialists. Appendix 1 includes a handy list of sieges.

            Birkenmeier assesses Byzantine campaigning, not Byzantine bureaucratic and military hierarchies and titulature. He wants to explain how and how well the Byzantine army functioned. He investigates a number of key military campaigns with this objective. I concur with most of his judgments. He concludes that sieges were more important than large, open battles, and that most imperial campaigns in Anatolia were defensive. He gives an excellent discussion of Komnenian siege warfare. He makes excellent judgments on merits and deficiencies of individual emperors.  This may expose him to criticism from those new-style historians who characterize this as writing history from the top down. He does not engage in counterfactual speculations. He carefully describes Byzantine perceptions of threats from Crusaders. He evaluates Byzantine military effectiveness against Turks, Normans, Hungarians, Pechenegs, and Venetians.  On 121-6 he elucidates Komnenian tactical doctrine. He concludes that the Komnenoi had a "sophisticated system" for maintaining troops, p. 181.   The battle of Myriokephalon in 1176 indicated the limitations of Byzantine warmaking against the Turks, p. 55. Concerning the Normans, he examines in details Emperor Alexios I battle of Dyrrachion against Robert Guiscard in 181, pp. 62-7. B. finds Komnenian siegecraft was successful, p. 204, that it involved, p. 204,  "regular use of heavy siege engines (trebuchets)." He evaluates the three principal Komnenian emperors (excluding Andronikos Komnenos 1180-1185) in chronological order: Alexios I to whom he ascribes "clever single-mindedness more than any great genius of execution" p. 84, John II (1118-1143) for his strategy of siegecraft, p. 95 he inherited a "a highly professional army" and p. 98 was an "incessant campaigner," who "seldom fought large, open battles" p. 98.  Manuel I (1143-1180) exhibits, in his campaigns, "no deliberate, strategic pattern" p. 100. B. has a harsher judgment on Manuel I's military skills and strategies than does Paul Magdalino, who is an eminent specialist on Manuel I Komnenos. Finally, B. gives an excellent analysis of battle wounds and combat.

            The absence of extant Komnenian military treatises hinders any evaluation of tactical and strategic doctrine. We could however use more investigation of the strategic culture of the Komnenian era: how creative was it? Why do the Byzantines apparently cease to produce new treatises on warfare? But B. has made optimal use of the sources that do exist. Birkenmeier has a sound interest in and broad understanding of the history of warfare so that he can relate his microanalysis to larger issues and trends.

            There are some desiderata, most notably, more discussion of size and numbers, although this is a perilous task. We still need more analysis of the controversial issue of pronoia (grants of revenues from lands) in the Komnenian period: that is, more analysis of the controversial pronoia institution in chapter 6 or elsewhere.  Readers may still not understand how pronoia functioned after reading chapter 6, especially pp. 144-154.  More detailed maps of some battles and campaigns would have been helpful. How did the Byzantines handle prisoners? There could be more comparative study of the military effectiveness of Crusading armies and more reference to studies of Crusading warfare and logistics. We need more study of recruitment and the effectiveness of mercenaries. We lack details on the military budget so B. can give no secure estimates about costs. Likewise we do not have sufficiently detailed narratives or archival material to be able to understand topographic details to the extent that we would prefer. Some day archaeological evidence may help to elucidate mysteries of Komnenian military history, including actual weaponry, but that is not the situation today.

            Birkenmeier is familiar with the principal lines of interpretation of Byzantine and broader medieval military history. For the most part B. has cited the relevant modern scholarship. But there are a few exceptions.  Among the bibliographic omissions: there is no reference to Nikos Svoronos' edition of Byzantine land laws, or to Speros Vryonis' studies on battle of Manzikert "A Personal History of the Battle of Mantzikert" in: Byzantine Asia Minor (6th-12th cent.) (Athens, Center for Byzantine Studies, National Hellenic Research Foundation, 1998), pp. 225-244, or to Anthony Kaldellis' study of the history of Michael Psellos. Bibliographic references cannot remain complete, of course, because of the explosion of new publications.  Several recent publications appeared too late to incorporate into the bibliography. Among these is Angeliki Laiou, ed., The Economic History of Byzantium (Washington 2002), in which Nicholas Oikonomides published important observations on Komnenian governmental finance, including the controversial pronoia: "The Role of the Byzantine State in the Economy," on pp. 1030-1044. However omission of these recent publications does not seriously affect Birkenmeier's evaluations and conclusions.

            Birkenmeier has a good feel for military history. He avoids developing any extravagant, wild or undocumented theses; this is a serious and deliberate scholarly inquiry.  The Development of the Komnenian Army is valuable for historians of the Crusades, medieval Middle Eastern history, and for comparative military history, as well as for Byzantinists. The reader gains a good understanding of the nature and parameters of warfare in the Komnenian era. Its publication fortuitously coincides with a resurgence of interest in the Crusades. Although it unquestionably fills a major gap in the history of Byzantine military institutions, it does far more than that.  It explains the functioning, effectiveness, and weaknesses of Byzantine armies immediately before the permanent drop in Byzantine capabilities in the post-Komnenian era.


Walter E. Kaegi
The University of Chicago