Book Review by Tobias
It was not through luck or divine intervention (not entirely anyway) that the Later Eastern Roman Empire – the Byzantine Empire – survived and carried on the knowledge, culture, traditions and Empire of Ancient Rome for so long after the fall of the West. The Byzantine Army, particularly its officer corps, was one of the most efficient, well trained and intelligent fighting forces of its time. With centuries of knowledge, wisdom and experience at their command, Byzantine armies set the standards for armies of the Age.
It took one person to realise that if all this knowledge and wisdom could be condensed into a simple, readily understood handbook on military strategy, Byzantine military supremacy could be guaranteed for a long time to come. It was envisioned that no Byzantine officer would lack a copy of this Strategikon. It is this book, Maurice’s Strategikon, which has survived to this day, informing us of some of the greatest strategists of the time, the Byzantines.
There is a certain amount of debate over who actually wrote the Strategikon. Evidence suggests that it was written either during the reign of Emperor Maurice (after 592 A.D.), or during that of Emperor Phocas (before 610 A.D). It is possible that Emperor Maurice wrote it, or at least oversaw its creation. It could have been written by some unknown expert in Maurice’s name. There is extensive military and logistical knowledge within the pages of the Strategikon, accompanied by personal touches, remarks and advice that suggests that it was written by an experienced, indeed gifted military expert, which Maurice undoubtedly was. The general consensus is that the Strategikon was connected with Maurice in one way or another.
The time when the Strategikon was written was a tumultuous one. Having recently undergone vigorous expansion, and then considerable loss, military action was constant, and commanders and rulers were constantly recruiting new soldiers and training new officers. It was common knowledge that “green” officers couldn’t be thrown in the deep end without assistance, or without something by which they could learn their trade from. Thus, the Strategikon was born.
This broad handbook covers troop divisions and formations, ambush strategies, baggage train organisation, soldier’s drills and tactics, general strategies for attack and defence, the setup of camps and advice and comments on the strategies and characteristics of peoples neighbouring the Byzantine empire. It is indeed, more than a mere handbook on military strategy (although it was the standard of military strategy for the Empire through its long existence); to the historian, it is also a primary insight not only into the Byzantine Romans, but into the people it fought, such as the Franks, Lombards, “Others whose way of life resembles that of Hunnish peoples”, such as the Scythians, Avars and Turks, and of course, the arch enemies of the Byzantines at the time, the Persians.
The Strategikon also includes detailed in order to visually represent what is being explained, such as infantry and cavalry formations, and the all important line of battle. These diagrams give incredible insight into the depth of organisation of Byzantine armies (as indeed does the whole handbook), showing the divisions of the army and the distribution of these divisions and their officers. The proper layout of a fortified camp is also illustrated, and in this version, a map of the Byzantine world is included.
Maurice’s Strategikon was originally intended as a military handbook. To all the officers of the Byzantines of the time, it must have been an invaluable companion, and to some extent, a textual mentor. It has, in modern times, become so much more. The Strategikon is a first rate insight into the way of life of many peoples, primarily the Byzantines, during tumultuous times. We receive the extreme emphasis on organisation, attention to detail and efficiency that would make the Byzantine Army one of the best fighting units of its day. Through its contents, the book has achieved immortality. We can still learn from this handbook today, even though warfare has changed so much. Anyone interested in the Byzantine Empire and its neighbours should study this book. Only through reading it can one truly come to understand not just an army, but a whole people.
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