This book covers the military and political history of Byzantium during the lifetime of Basil II Porphrogenitus, better known as Basil the Bulgar Slayer, one of the most successful military emperors. Basil and his brother were officially crowned as Emperors during their childhood, but spent much of their youth in the background to a series of joint emperors who held real power.
This is history presented as a coherent narrative. This approach has several clear advantages. We get a very readable account of this period, which draws us into the subject. The author presents us with a plausible reconstruction of events, with some attention paid to individual motives. Basil emerges as a real individual (his less well documented brother and co-Emperor doesn't emerge quite as clearly, but the sources don't appear to say that much about him during Basil's reign, so that isn't at all surprising).
One flaw with this approach is that it smooths over the complexities of the sources. One example is the use of Byzantine military manuals as a guide to actual events. There is actually quite a bit of debate about the nature and use of these books. One argument is that they were produced by a scholarly elite that didn't actually fight, and weren't used by the actual soldiers. Another problem is that we can't always be sure how accurately they reflect contemporary practice and how much they were influenced by Classical Greek and Roman sources (in the same way that some Medieval European sources talk about Vikings and their opponents fighting in a phalanx).
I'm not sure that I agree with the author's view that Basil's military arrangements didn't play a part in later Byzantine problems. One of his key policies was the reduction of the power of the great military families of eastern Anatolia (for entirely understandable reasons), but this could be said to have rather hollowed out the defences of this area, which was soon lost to the Byzantine Empire, bringing the eastern frontier dangerous close to the city. I would have liked a bit more on why the author believes this to be the case.
Overall this is a good contribution to Byzantine history, bringing the period alive in a way that not many books of military history manage. Byzantium emerges as a living culture in its own right, and not as the footnote to Rome or declining power so often seen.
1 - Romanus II: The Conquest of Crete and War in the East
2 - Nicephorus Phocas Seizes Power
3 - Nicephorus II Phocas: the conquest of Cilicia
4 - Nicephorus II Phocas: Wars in the East and the West
5 - The Murder of Nicephorus II: John Tzimiskes Seizes Power
6 - John I Tzimiskes: War with Svyatoslav in Bulgaria, and Rebellion in Asia
7 - John I Tzimiskes: War with Svyatoslav and Battle of Dorystolon
8 - John I Tzimiskes: Victorious Emperor
9 - Basil II and Constantine VIII: Civil War in the East
10 - Basil II and Constantine VIII: Wars in the East and West
11 - Basil II and Constantine VIII: Wars in the East and West II
12 - Basil II and Constantine VIII: Basil Sets the East in Order
13 - Basil II and Constantine VIII: Basil Battles in the Balkans
14 - Basil II and Constantine VIII: Basil Victorious in the Balkans and Asia Minor
Author: Julian Romane
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military