Featured Book: Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century
In Sowing the Dragon's Teeth Eric McGeer presents translations of two tenth century Byzantine military manuals - the Praecepta Militaria of Nikephoros Phokas and the Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos. McGeer supplements the translations with an extensive commentary, which includes numerous diagrams, and examples of the Byzantine military machine in action.
Byzantines regarded the technique of warfare as a science, as worthy of study as any other field of activity. Indeed, Byzantine works on strategy and tactics constitute a distinctive literary genre. However, as McGeer points out, these were largely theoretical exercises written by scholars and gentlemen-amateurs.
By way of contrast Phokas (later the Emperor Nikephoros I) and Ouranos were professional soldiers, with many of years of combat experience - especially against Arab armies on the eastern frontier of the Empire. Even in translation the Praecepta gives the distinct impression of a terse and practical battle manual - a world apart from the flowery rhetoric Byzantines employed when they wished to impress with their literary skill.
Phokas had earlier been responsible for a military tract known as De velitatione which described defensive guerilla-like tactics for use against superior invasion forces. The Praecepta Militaria instead concentrates upon organisation and use of a full-blown offensive army - designed to wrest complete control of the battlefield from its adversaries.
Phokas instructs his generals on recruitment ( heavy infantrymen must, for example, be "Byzantines or Armenians.... large in stature and no more than forty years of age." ) and weaponry, armour and supplies before moving on to a discussion of the army on the march and in battle.
The Praecepta's army is carefully constructed from disparate elements, each contributing to survival and eventual victory of the army as a whole: The heavy infantry, backed up by archers and slingers, form a hollow square bristling with long spears and pikes. The square is a mobile fortress, within which the army's striking force - the cavalry - may be marshalled for attack. Flanked by lighter-armed cavalry, the decisive attack is launched by a triangular formation of Kataphraktoi - armed with heavy maces and with riders and horses encased in armour. The kataphraktoi smash their way into the opposing army, aiming for the enemy commander, with the clear intention of causing as much shock and disruption as possible. If the enemy gives way before this onslaught, Phokas gives instructions for the kataphraktoi to maintain good order and leave the pursuit to their lighter colleagues on each flank. If the enemy stands firm, the battle becomes an escalating trial of strength and organisation, with the Byzantine commander carefully feeding extra units into combat as he sees fit.
The Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos is a large work divided into four main sections. The second section, which McGeer presents here, essentially reprises the Praecepta but also introduces new material on raiding and siege tactics.
Ouranos himself was Governor of Antioch at the beginning of 11th Century. As McGeer points out, the Taktika's additional chapters signal a shift from a period of active conquest towards an emphasis on maintaining control in the new eastern territories.
These two primary sources, together with McGeer's excellent commentary, present a remarkably immediate and coherent picture of the Byzantine Army in action at the height of its medieval power. Sowing the Dragon's Teeth is published by Dumbarton Oaks.
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