Book Review: Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Byzantium, the West and Islam

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by Leif Inge Ree Petersen

Leiden & Boston: E. J. Brill, 2013. Pp. xxx, 820. Maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $282.00. ISBN: 9004251995

The 91st volume in Brill’s vast “History of Warfare” series, this ambitious work by a young Norwegian scholar is a significant contribution to our understanding of conflict during “Late Antiquity” – the term that contemporary historians have adopted in place of the pejorative, and inaccurate, “Dark Ages.”  

Petersen treats the Byzantines, the “barbarian” West, and Islam as “successor states” that inherited a common base of military technology and tactical methods from the late Roman Empire.  As applied to the attack and defense of fortified places, these methods included the battering ram, scaling ladders, a variety of catapults, mining and counter-mining.  Although most of the heavy lifting during a siege was performed by unskilled laborers, it is clear that a core of skilled craftsmen, artisans and engineers survived; often in the service of land-owning “magnates” or local bishops. 

Because academic specialization often confines the study of this historical period to narrowly focused monographs on specific cultures and regions, this kind of sweeping comparative history has become all too rare.

After an introduction covering methodology and sources, Chapter 1 describes siege warfare from the fall of Rome to the early middle ages.  Chapter 2 reviews the survival and renewal of Roman military institutions in the Byzantine empire.  Chapter 3 surveys the military organization of the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Lombards. Chapter 4, “The Last Legions on the Rhine” describes siege warfare in the Frankish kingdoms.  Chapter 5 details the “anatomy of a siege” in terms of tactics and technology, while Chapter 6 considers economic, social and cultural aspects of sieges.  Chapter 7 “Appropriation of Military Infrastructure and Knowledge” considers the ways in which the Huns, the Slavs, and the Arabs assimilated the Roman way of war.  Chapter 8 is a case study of the diffusion of the traction trebuchet, one of the major technical innovations of the medieval era.

This only gets us to page 429.  What follows is the “Corpus Obsidionum” (Latin for “collection of sieges”), a chronological listing of over 300 sieges, each with a concise description, citing and often translating original text sources.  The list begins with the Visigoths’ assaults on Rome (408-410) and ends with the failed Bulgar attacks on Adrianople and Constantinople in 813.  There are six small gray-scale maps; every place mentioned in the text is located on one of the maps. This is very helpful to the reader, since some of these places are very obscure, for example the “Petra” captured by the Persians in 541 and retaken by the Romans in 549 was a remote fort on the Black Sea coast, not the famous rock-cut Nabatean city in Jordan. 

With a mastery of the original texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic, along with some access to Persian, Armenian, and other sources, Petersen has accomplished a work of monumental scholarship that will challenge and inform military historians for years to come. The comprehensive bibliography reflects a deep command of the literature in English and most modern European languages. The author has a wry sense of humor that is all too rare in academic writing. The formidable price of the book, unfortunately, will limit its accessibility mainly to those who enjoy the services of a great academic library.

Note: Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States is also available in e-Book format, ISBN 978-9-0042-5446-6

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.  A collector and lecturer on ancient coins, he is active in the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, DC.  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 The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204Military 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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