Book Review: Byzantine Military Organization on the Danube, 10th-12th Centuries

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by Alexandru Madgearu

Leiden / Boston: E.J. Brill, 2013. Pp. xii, 212. Maps, plans, notes, biblio., indices. $133.00. ISBN: 9004212434

Flowing down from the Black Forest, gathering tributaries across Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Serbia the mighty Danube river separates Romania from Bulgaria before turning sharply north to reach the Black Sea in the delta region of Dobrogea ("the good land") on the border of Ukraine.  

For many centuries, the Danube was both a highway for the people living along its banks, and a barrier against barbarian invaders sweeping down from the north.  For the Eastern Roman Empire -- known to us as "Byzantine" -- the Danube was a critical military and political frontier.

In the disastrous seventh century this frontier was overwhelmed by invading Avars, Slavs and Bulgars. Between 971 and 1018 Byzantine generals re-conquered the south bank of the river and held it through the 11th and 12th centuries against waves of  nomadic Turkic tribes, the Pechenegs, Uzes and Cumans.

 Unfortunately, little of what the Byzantines might have written about the defense of the region has survived the ravages of time. Generations of Balkan scholars - notably Romanians - have sifted the archaeological evidence to reconstruct the story from scraps of information. For English-speaking readers, little of this impressive scholarship has been accessible until quite recently.

Of particular importance are the lead seals that relentlessly bureaucratic Byzantine officials affixed to their paperwork.  Thousands of these lumpy gray disks survive, arranged in museum trays, and carefully cataloged, long after their parchment documents have crumbled to dust or burned to ash, meticulously listing the official's name, titles, and often, location.

Alexandru Madgearu, a young Romanian historian at the Institute for Political Studies of Defense and Military History in Bucharest has made brilliant use of the evidence of the seals to document the administrative history of Byzantine military organization on the Danube from the 10th to the 12th century.  Administrative history is dry stuff -- it lacks the drama of battle narratives or the glamour of court intrigue.  But it provides the framework on which more exciting kinds of history must depend for accurate chronology and logical coherence.

Along with 15 maps and diagrams, Byzantine Military Organization on the Danube has an extensive bibliography, along with indexes of people, places and sources.  The book is well-produced, with only a few editing glitches in the English text.  Although the list price seems extraordinarily high, which is the nature of academic publishing these days, it is also available in e-book format (ISBN: 978-90-04-25249-3).  A volume in the Brill series “East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450)” Byzantine Military Organization on the Danube will be of interest mainly to Byzantine and Balkan specialists. 

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 Operations.  He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of  Supermarina 1  and Supermarina 2 , both from Clash of Arms Games.  Some of his previous reviews for StrategyPage are To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204 Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryenniosand The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora,

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Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


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