Book Review: Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025

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by Julian Romane

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020. Pp. xiv, 208+. Illus., apppends., references, biblio., index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 1526782006

The Apex of Byzantine Power

Between 959 and 1025 CE a series of exceptionally capable military and political leaders occupied the throne of the empire that we call “Byzantine,” but that its own Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian people called “Romanía,” expressing their inheritance of the legacy of the Roman Empire. Under Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), Ioannes (John) Tzimiskes (969-976), and Basil II (976-1025) the embattled empire launched a series of successful counter-offensives against the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate (750 - 1258 CE) to the east, and the First Bulgarian Empire (681 - 1018) CE in the Balkans.

Although he was a gifted strategist, Nikephoros proved to be an unpopular ruler and a thoroughly unpleasant character. A Western envoy, Liudprand of Cremona left a vivid firsthand account:

“Liudprand found the emperor to be a repulsive, monstrous man. He had a dwarfish fat head with small mole-like eyes…His robe was once very beautiful but now it was old, food stained, threadbare and it smelt bad.” (p. 40)

Nikephoros was murdered in his bed by one of his generals, John Tzimiskes, in a palace coup in which the empress, Theophano, was implicated. John married Theodora (born c. 946), a daughter of the late emperor Constantine VII, and reigned for six years. He defeated the forces of Sviatoslav, Prince of Kievan Rus, and annexed Bulgaria to his empire. In a series of brilliant campaigns in Syria, 972-975) he defeated the Abbasid Caliphate, but failed to recapture Jerusalem. He died suddenly in 976. Like most Byzantine emperors who died suddenly, there was a suspicion that he had been poisoned, but this was never proven. He left all of his wealth for relief of the poor and sick.

Basil II (born 958) son of the late emperor Romanos II had been nominal co-emperor since 960. He reigned for an extraordinary 49 years, ruthlessly suppressing a series of rebellions by powerful aristocrats. His campaign in Syria in 999 forced the Caliphate to sign a ten-year truce. His greatest achievement was the conquest of Bulgaria completed in 1018, earning him the nickname Bulgaroktonos (“Bulgar-slayer”).

In popular English usage, “Byzantine” suggests a decadent, ineffectual, bureaucratic state, dominated by the intrigues of palace eunuchs, bejeweled aristocratic women, and scheming monks. This was definitely not the situation in Constantinople during these six eventful decades. Byzantium Triumphant is a dramatic and well-documented military history of this little-known era. But for readers accustomed to academic writing this book will seem … odd. There are no footnotes -- just brief source references at the end of each chapter. The lack of maps is a serious fault in a work of military history. The text is studded with careless spelling and usage errors that should have been caught in copy editing.

In recent years, there has been an remarkable upsurge of interest in Byzantine history, sparked by the work of gifted scholars like the late John Julius Norwich (1929-2018), John Haldon, Warren Treadgold, Judith Herrin and many others. Perhaps this reflects the way Byzantium’s centuries-long struggle against militant Islam mirrors our own present historical anxiety.

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews in ancient and medieval history include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, and Theodosius and the Limits of Empire.

 

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Note: Byzantium Triumphant is also available in hard cover.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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