Byzantium Triumphant by Julian Romane

Book Review by Michael Mates

The course of Empire often runs like a normal distribution curve, with success and failure measured on the vertical axis, and time, usually a few centuries or so, on the horizontal. The Byzantine Empire, by contrast, looks like a sine wave, a succession of up-and-down roller coaster curves, lasting 1,123 years, from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 AD to its fall in 1453. (The Byzantines themselves, with some justification as self-described Romans, would claim 1,480 years, from the establishment of the Roman Empire in 27 BC.)

Romane’s book examines one of the political-military high points, the period from 959 to 1025, showing how the Empire benefitted from relative stability of rule; protection of core territories; strategic use of tribute; and skilled use of heavy cavalry, combined-arms tactics, siege warfare, stable rule (with only one emperor assassinated during the period), and clever and profitable alliances to ensure survival. Success came in spite of numerous powerful enemies, both internal rebels and external enemies such as the Bulgarian and Muslim kingdoms. Romane also includes interesting information on the acquisition of cavalry horses (raise your own or buy), frontier-dwelling reserve soldiers settled on their own land-grant estates, siege warfare, unit numbers (and organization and battlefield roles), and fiscal administration, including a clever scheme to inflate revenues by debasing one coin, decreeing it to be at par with another one with more gold in it, and requiring that taxes be paid with the latter.

Romane also supplies detailed information on equipment, weapons, and logistics, with more attention paid to land than to naval forces. In the bulk of the book, the author favors a chronological approach, beginning with a historical introduction to the establishment and (up-and-down) fortunes of the Empire to the 10th century, and then launching into an account of the latter half of the Macedonian dynasty: Romanus II (r 959-963), Nicephoros II Phocas (r 963-969), murdered by his nephew and successor John Tzimiskes (r 969-976), and the brothers Basil II (the “Bulgar slayer,” r 976-1025) and co-emperor Constantine VIII (r 976-1028). Romane gives much interesting detail on how both brothers were raised (and survived) in the court until they came of age, and how both had the distinction of long reigns, not dying of assassination, and, apparently, operating in substantial agreement regarding their spheres of rule: Basil warred on the frontiers, while Constantine stayed in Constantinople, enjoying a soft life and managing the home front.

Romane’s account of survival and triumph under such circumstances is fascinating, but the reader has to supplement the book to get a clear picture. “Byzantine” is a by-word for complexity, and that holds true for the Empire’s history, even for limited periods such as the one covered in this book. No maps are provided, let alone battle diagrams, and no genealogies or regnal tables. There is no chronological summary (to compensate for the author’s tendency to omit dates at important transitions), nor is there a glossary to provide the reader with a quick summary of the many military, administrative and religious terms in Greek and even Latin. Many such terms are introduced without explanation, and never defined, or they are explained later. The easily-confused word “theme” (an administrative unit) is first used on page 7, but not defined until page 179 in Appendix II, “Empire and Horse Soldiers.” (I would recommend reading the four appendices first, as they give an overview of the author’s interests and purposes.)

Theology is not one of Romane’s interests, for all that he is writing about a self-consciously sacral society. He mentions the iconoclastic controversy on page xi, for instance, and dualism on page 11, but fails to describe the issues and why they were important to the Empire.

The narrative bibliography is interesting to read. The end-of-chapter references would have been more helpful to the reader as footnotes, and the Index, rather than being inclusive, is broken down into People and Events, and the Organization and Operation of the Byzantine Army.

The book needs editing. There are over two dozen misspellings, such as alter (accusative, page 20), for altar (nominative, page 39), skill for skull and want for wont (page 43), waiver for waver (passim), debauched for debouched (page 80), populous for populace (page 100) and nice for niece (page 108). Other errors occur—of punctuation, verb tense, nomenclature, subject-verb agreement and misplaced modifiers: “Lost to the Byzantines for centuries, Basil sent his commander…” (page 124).

Despite these errors of omission and commission, the book helpfully describes the mystery of Byzantine survival and success at one of the high points, in terms of state power, of the Empire’s roller-coaster ride from founding to dissolution, and can be recommended, with cautions, for its descriptions and conclusions.

Michael Mates earned his PhD in 1982 at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA, writing his dissertation on St. Patrick and the British Church. After seminary, he taught in Pakistan, and then worked as a U.S. diplomat with the Department of State, serving in Islamabad, Canberra, Karachi, Cluj (Romania), Columbia (District of) and Chisinau (Moldova), before retiring in 2011 to Monroe, Washington State, and starting a new career as co-landscaper at his hectare of gardens, lawns and forest, and brewer of black-fudge garden compost.

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