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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Saturday 29 July 2017

Byzantium Triumphant

The Byzantine army generally doesn't get a good press. Its many failings over the centuries tend to dominate the memory, with the possible exception of Belisarius. This book by Julian Romane, offers a correction for the period 959 to 1025.

It was by no means a stable period. It starts with the reign of Romanus II whose general Nicephorus conquered Crete and defeated the Muslim armies in the East. When Romanus died unexpectedly young the heirs apparent were five and two years old, creating the space for Nicephorus to take the throne. The author explains very clearly the power structures in the Empire that allowed him to gain control.

A new campaign in the East resulted in the conquest of Cilicia and then campaigns in Italy and the Balkans. The conflict with Bulgaria is a recurring part of the story during this period. The soldier emperors of the period often came from families like the Phocas whose lands were in the East and had little time for the City. It all ended badly with his murder and replacement by John Tzimiskes.

Tzimiskes was a popular and successful emperor. The main campaign of the period was against the Rus, led by Svyatoslav, who had occupied parts of Bulgaria. The Byzantine victory at Dorystolon, ended the campaign and brought the Rus into the Orthodox sphere of influence.

John died in 976 and as Basil and Constantine were of age they took the throne. Two emperors might appear to be a recipe for chaos, but in practice it worked well. The two brothers trusted each other - Basil was the soldier and Constantine the administrator. They faced a rebellion almost immediately from Bardas Skleros, another military family from the eastern themes. He had some success in the East, but was unable to advance to Constantinople.

It was Basil who instituted the Varangian Guard and used it to squash another revolt in the East, this time led by Bardas Phocas. He went on to break up the great houses and defeat the Fatimids in the East. He also defeated the Bulgarians, led by Tsar Samuel, in campaign that ended at the Battle of Kleidion. His claimed blinding of 15,000 prisoners, brought him the title Basil the Bulgar Slayer, but the author argues that at most it was 1500.

The two emperors left the Empire in its strongest position for 500 years, both internally and on the frontiers.

Most of the book is a straightforward narrative history of the period. However, the final third includes appendices on the sources, the development of the army and the role of the Great Palace. The appendix on the organisation of cavalry is particularly good.

Overall, this is a very good military history of the period.

Let's finish with some axe wielding Varangians.

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