19.09.31 Stouraitis (ed.), A Companion to the Byzantine Culture of War

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David Alan Parnell

The Medieval Review 19.09.31

Stouraitis, Yannis, ed. A Companion to the Byzantine Culture of War, ca. 300-1204. Brill's Companions to the Byzantine World. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2018. pp. x, 490. ISBN: 978-9-00436-373-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Parnell
Indiana University Northwest

This large collection of essays does indeed make a good companion to a scholar interested in approaching the topic of war in the Byzantine Empire. As with other volumes of this type, it is probably best considered as a reference from which to consult individual chapters, rather than attempting to digest the whole book chapter-by-chapter.

A Companion to the Byzantine Culture of War begins with a chapter by editor Yannis Stouraitis entitled, "Introduction: Military Power in the Christian Roman Empire, ca. 300-1204" (1-19). While labeled an introduction, it is in fact not a general introduction to the volume but more of an individual contribution on the interplay between military power and government (particularly imperial) authority. While the subject is fascinating, the dense writing style does not lend itself to the beginning reader. For example, "The comparison attempted here between the Arab-Muslim and the Seljuk invasions on a macro-structural level--even though it hardly does justice to the complexity of these diverse and multifaceted historical phenomena--is intended to spotlight the dialectic relationship between military power, intrasystemic contradictions and external pressures in a medieval social order circumscribed by the political discourse of empire" (9). This complexity in a chapter titled an introduction marks this volume out as one for more advanced readers.

Following this introduction, the book is divided into two parts, each with six chapters. The editor dominates Part 1, "The Mentality of War," by supplying two chapters on top of the contribution already described. All the essays in this section, as the title implies, focus on issues of mentality such as the ideology, justification, and description of war. In chapter 1, "The Imperial Theology of Victory" (23-58), Paul Stephenson focuses on emperors who went to war and their symbols of imperial victory. He tries to cover all the ground between the fourth century and 1204 in the chapter, which is a tall order. His most poignant observation is that the Byzantine theology of victory was not an ideology of holy war, and was particularly suited for describing victory over other Christians (54-55). Stouraitis, in chapter 2, "State War Ethic and Popular Views on Warfare" (59-91), zeroes in on justification of war in the Byzantine Empire. Like Stephenson, he argues that the Byzantines had no conception of holy war. In particular, Heraclius' war was fought for defense and a restoration of imperial boundaries, not extermination of an "infidel" enemy (75). While tightly argued, this essay seems very close in subject to Stephenson's, and it is not clear the volume necessarily needed both chapters. Chapter 3, again by Stouraitis, is entitled "Civil War in the Christian Empire" (92-123). This is the best of Stouraitis' contributions to this volume. He deftly shows that civil wars in Byzantium were not typically caused by religious or ethnic reasons but by leadership disputes caused by personal ambition to rule (108).

Chapter 4, "The Enemies of the Empire: Portrayed Images" (124-159), by Michael Gr├╝nbart, is a repository of descriptions of images of the enemies of the Byzantine Empire. In spite of the title of the chapter, there are only three photos included here, and the rest of the images are represented by textual description. While this is interesting as a collection, it is not clear that the chapter has a main argument. In chapter 5, "Warfare as Literary Narrative" (160-195), Stamatina McGrath makes one of the best contributions of the entire volume. She argues that battle descriptions functioned as a bridge between warrior culture and Christian society (160). The bulk of the chapter focuses on a story from the Life of Basil the Younger, showing how a narrative could connect "to a pool of shared ideals and beliefs through an active oral, visual and literary culture" (173). The essay is cleverly argued and convincing. Chapter 6, "Alternative Means of Conflict Resolution" (196-227), by Tilemachos Lounghis, is a widely ranging collection of anecdotes and observations of emperors who wanted peace or arranged for alliances in lieu of fighting. However, in his conclusion, Lounghis maintains that the Byzantines only rarely tried to avoid war, and instead conducted war on an almost permanent basis (221), which seems to devalue the chapter title.

Part 2 of the book is entitled "Warfare as Socio-Political Praxis" and contains six chapters on issues relating to the actual practice of war, such as army structure, military strategy, technology, and the lives of soldiers. In chapter 7, "Army Structure: Roman Continuity and Byzantine Change" (229-258), Savvas Kyriakidis provides an overview of Byzantium's army structure from the fourth century to 1204. While he provides a reasonable summary of structural changes over this period according to the works of other scholars such as Haldon, Jones, Lilie, and Treadgold, there is no discernible new research here. Chapter 8, "Byzantine Fronts and Strategies, 300-1204" (259-307) by Denis Sullivan is not, as the author makes clear, about grand strategy, but rather about Byzantine strategy on specific fronts (264). Sullivan discusses events on the Persian front (264-271), the Balkan front (272-278), the Arab front (278-285), the Turkish front (285-294), and the Western front (294-300). Similar to the previous chapter, this is a useful summary of military contacts and strategies on the various fronts of the empire, but there is little new to read. In chapter 9, "Naval Warfare: Military, Institutional and Economic Aspects" (308-355), Salvatore Cosentino argues that the Byzantine mentality about naval warfare was rooted in fear and that navy service was considered less prestigious than army service. However, despite the limitations of the Byzantine navy, no other state in the Middle Ages possessed an organization for naval warfare comparable to it until the 12th century (347).

Christos G. Makrypoulias, in chapter 10, "Siege Warfare: The Art of Re-capture" (356-393), makes his best argument at the end of the essay. He concludes that the Byzantines, when conducting siege warfare, did not rely on just one technique, but utilized many at all times. His summation of Byzantine siege warfare is memorable: "Along with the ability to combine new technology with time-honoured methods, this way of doing things 'on the cheap' is the true mark of Byzantine siegecraft" (385). This seems to be the strongest argument of his chapter, more so than the idea of siege warfare being defensive to re-capture fortified locations. Chapter 11, "The Army in Peace Time: The Social Status and Function of Soldiers" (395-439), by Philip Rance has an expansive subject to cover, made all the more difficult by the fact that most instances of soldiers interacting with civilians are known only from the perspective of civilian sources. Not surprisingly, these interactions were often unpleasant to civilians, as the government used soldiers in a coercive role (417). Rance's most interesting observation is that it is difficult to ascertain soldiers' confessional allegiance, and tempting to infer indifference to both Christological disputes (426) and Iconoclasm (428). In the final chapter, "Military Technology: Production and Use of Weapons" (440-472), Georgios Theotokis provides quick descriptions of the arms and armor used by Byzantine soldiers, from swords and bows to shields and helmets. This chapter works as a bare-bones description of military equipment, but the absence of any photos of archaeological finds or drawn depictions of the equipment is unfortunate.

Each chapter is well referenced with footnotes and an individual bibliography. At the end of the volume, there is a general bibliography and an index. It is interesting to note what is missing from the book. There is no preface or general introduction at the beginning of the volume and no conclusion at the end. As such, there is very little to tie this collection of essays together. The blurb on the back cover of the book at least provides the intention of the volume: "to provide a critical overview of current research as well as new insights into the role of military organization as a distinct form of social power." All of the chapters satisfy the former objective, but only some fulfill the latter. This volume is a good introductory reference work for a scholar wishing to accomplish more work in one of the specific subjects of the field enumerated in these chapters, because each chapter is excellent at providing an overview of current research. While some chapters contain new research, not all do, so more established researchers in the field of Byzantine military history may pick and choose which essays to read. In conclusion, this volume should be available in research libraries for graduate students and doctoral researchers to consult on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but there is little reason for an individual scholar to own this whole volume, even if that scholar is a historian of Byzantine military matters.

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