Book Review: Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200


by Monica White

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 256. Illus., map., appends., notes, biblio., index. $95.00. ISBN: 0521195640

For Orthodox Christianity, waging war presented a theological dilemma. The early church was distinctly pacifist in outlook, but Orthodoxy later developed as the state religion of an empire locked in almost constant warfare against barbarian incursions and Islamic attacks.  The veneration of "military saints" was one way that this apparent contradiction was resolved.

According to tradition, during the persecutions of the third and fourth centuries, a number of Roman soldiers professing Christianity were tortured and executed when they refused to offer pagan sacrifice, becoming martyrs.  Although historical evidence for these soldier-martyrs was thin, a rich literature emerged describing their mortal sufferings and posthumous miracles.

Most prominent among these "military saints" were Saints George, Demetrios, and Theodore, but there were many others: Prokopios, Eustathios, Arethas, and Merkourios.  There were actually two saints named Theodore -- Theodore Teron, or "Theodore the recruit" and Theodore Stratelates, "Theodore the general" -- but the evidence suggests they were two different versions of the same person.

During the "Macedonian dynasty" (867-1028) the cult of the military saints was actively promoted by the Imperial court in Constantinople, expressing a religious-political ideology that glorified the martyr-warrior ideal.  The military saints were invoked as special protectors of the ruler and the army, and were often credited as having helped bring victory to beleaguered Byzantine forces.

Monica White, of the University of Nottingham, has authored a deeply researched, well-balanced and logically organized study of these figures, using liturgical texts, iconography, and other sources to explore the context of military sainthood, and how it was transformed in its transmission from Byzantine to Russian Orthodoxy.  Boris and Gleb, two young princes murdered in 1015 by a kinsman in a dynastic power struggle, were canonized as martyrs, and despite their apparent lack of warfighting credentials, they were promoted by the rulers of Kievan Rus as homegrown warrior saints.

This is a difficult, densely footnoted academic study that assumes the reader is generally familiar with church history, Byzantine studies, and early medieval Russian history.  There is relatively little here that would be of interest to military historians, such as the analysis of weapons, costume, and armor depicted in the iconography of the military saints, but it’s important to keep in mind that in Byzantine and Rus military life, the existence of the military saints were important factors in building and maintaining morale.  The author is acutely aware of the limitations of the scanty historical evidence, and offers few conclusions or new interpretations.

Our Reviewer:  Mike Markowitz is a D.C. based defense analyst, who writes for several defense related journals and Defense Media Network, including, The Year in Special OperationsHe is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of Supermarina 1 and Supermarina 2, both from Clash of Arms Games.  His previous reviews for StrategyPage include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, and The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204.


Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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