Tuesday, August 21, 2018


Georgios Chatzelis, Jonathan Harris (trans.), A Tenth-Century Byzantine Military Manual: The 'Sylloge tacticorum'. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 170. ISBN 9781472470287. $149.95.

Reviewed by Meredith L.D. Riedel, Duke University (mlr45@duke.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


The subject of this volume is the Sylloge Tacticorum, a tenth-century Byzantine handbook of military tactics written in Greek. It begins with a brief introduction of some ten pages, discussing the historical and literary contexts, the scope, date, and authorship of the text, its sources and manuscript tradition, and a list of previous editions and translations. The ninety-six pages of translation present the 102 sections of the manual, rendered in English with occasional Greek terms transliterated. The translation is supported by 489 endnotes, plus a full bibliography and general index. The volume also offers a helpful glossary of specialized Greek military terms in transliteration. The translation is presented in smooth, idiomatic English; the original Greek text is not offered in this edition, which may be disappointing to scholars, but occasional Greek terms are cited in the endnotes for the sake of precision.

There is no scholarly consensus on the date of the text, but the manual itself offers a very specific indication using the widespread Christian dating system of the Byzantine period: AM 6412, or the 6412th year from Creation (or 903-4 AD). However, the majority of scholars are skeptical of this, because the text contains material dated to later than that. Moreover, its oldest manuscripts, as the editors note (p. 6), also contain the Hippiatrica and medical treatises attributed to Constantine VII, suggesting that this might be a dossier of texts from the mid tenth century. Haldon takes a mediating position, saying that the Sylloge could have been composed earlier and then revised in the mid-tenth century with material from the 950s. He is convinced on internal evidence that the text must be later than the Taktika of Leo VI (d. 912).1 Chatzelis and Harris propose the reign of Romanos I Lekapenos (920-944) (p. 7). Although the manuscript specifically attributes the text's authorship to Leo VI, this name could have been put in the place of that of Romanos Lekapenos; the translators propose that the latter suffered some kind of damnatio memoriae (p. 7; the idea is footnoted to an unnamed work in progress by Chatzelis). Overall it seems likely that the text was produced in Constantinople in the first half of the tenth century.

Only one complete critical edition existed previously, published in 1938 by Alphonse Dain,2 the prolific Byzantinist whose work provides the foundation for so much of current scholarship on Byzantine military writings. This is the first complete translation of this manual into English and is based on Dain's text, itself produced from the earliest manuscript, which dates to the fourteenth or fifteenth century, some 500 years after its composition (p. 11). Transmission difficulties thus account for some of the textual irregularities, such as internal references to previous comments that do not occur elsewhere in the text.

The Sylloge was compiled with the two most worrisome enemies of the empire in mind: the Abbasid caliphate along the border to the southeast and the Bulgars to the northwest. Its strategies comprise responses to cross-border raids and it refers to both themata (provincial armies) and tagmata (professional armies), with more prominence given to the latter as the somewhat permanent fighting forces headquartered close to the capital city. Overall, it presents its material in three sections: one on tactics, one on 'war by other means' (see p. 4), and one on ancient Greek and Roman stratagems culled from previous tactical manuals.

The Sylloge was written in an era characterized by the proliferation of tactical books under the Macedonian emperors in the tenth century, and so, as its name suggests, it is mostly a compendium of previous works. Nevertheless, it does offer some unique or novel suggestions for its time. For example, it is the first treatise to record the use of new tactics such as the hollow square formation and the development of specialized units of heavy, light, and medium infantry; light and heavy cavalry; lancers; and mounted archers. For example, the author develops tactics that appear in the Taktika of Leo VI, but adds a third line of heavy cavalry (kataphraktoi) in the middle of the wedge (p. 68). The text also makes the first mention of the menavlatoi, heavy infantry whose primary battle objective is to spear the horses of the opposing heavy cavalry (p. 77). These units also appear in the later tenth-century Praecepta militaria.3 In addition to reusing information from Leo's manual, the Sylloge uses material copied from the usual suspects — Onasander, Aelian, Polyaenus, and other ancient Greek tactical manuals — but also from a lost source or sources posited by previous scholarship (p. 8), the so-called Corpus Perditum. The translators suggest this corpus as the source for the version of Polyaenus found in the final twenty-eight sections of the Sylloge (p. 140 n. 368).

The manual also addresses the duties, knowledge, and decisions of the general throughout, and uses the third person ('what the general should do'). After the introduction on the qualities of a good general, the counsel to the general exclusively addresses activities on campaign, such as battle formations, moving the army and its baggage train, setting up camp, dealing with envoys and spies, and so forth. A central part of the text, sections 30-43, presents a sort of reference file on battle formations in history and terminology for units and troop movements, as well as for weapons and armor. The later sections also deal with marching, laying sieges, hunting, and post-battle protocols, in addition to practical information about poisoned water, desiccated trees, keeping horses quiet in an ambush, field medicine, deceiving the enemy, and dealing with traitors. There is nothing in this manual about civilian support, training regimens, ideological concerns, or combatant salaries. It reads like a summary of useful information for easy reference during deployments, not a philosophical manual of tactical theory. It assumes the necessity of setting ambushes, attacking and being attacked at night or in rough terrain, and above all the need to move combat units quickly and safely to maximize strategic advantage.

The sole allusion to religious obligations comes in section 59, which describes how soldiers can be infected with plague by the enemy through their food. Although the author lists the various ways to execute such biological attacks, he is careful to clarify that these are included not for the Roman army to use, 'for I believe that they are unworthy even to be mentioned in a Christian context,' but to provide knowledge to prevent such tactics against the Romans, especially when they camp in hostile territory (p. 94).

As the first complete English translation of this text, this book is a welcome addition to the canon of accessible medieval Byzantine military manuals. Although one might struggle with the usual annoyances of flipping back and forth to consult the endnotes, they do provide concise references with occasional lengthier comments that further explain the context. Multiple notes give the relevant terms in Greek, although the text itself presents only transliterated Greek terms, contributing to the accessibility of this publication to readers unable to read Greek.

The book is also a welcome resource in part because the sources of each section are clearly cited and because it is also explained when there is no source or the author of the manual makes an unsubstantiated claim. For example, the text states in 1.24 that 'it was an ordinance of the Roman senate never to call to power a money-loving and avaricious man.' This has the ring of plausibility, yet the translators state that 'no such law as the one described here existed in the Roman Republic' (p. 121). Whether it was perhaps a law proposed by the Byzantines (who called themselves Romans), they do not say. Whereas previous manuals such as the Strategikon of Maurice (late sixth century)4 and the Taktika of Leo VI were content simply to suggest that a general ought not to be a lover of money,5 the Sylloge states that he must not only be 'munificent and indifferent to money' (p. 24), but also fight only for the right cause and 'not for the hope of earnings or profit' (p. 25).

What makes this translation especially useful for historians of the tenth century is its status as a record of transitional tactical thought at a time when the Byzantines were adapting strategies in response to raids across territorial boundaries against both the Arabs and the Bulgars. Additionally, because some of the material here is based on a lost source or sources, it presents information and details new to the growing domain of English-language scholarship on Byzantine military manuals.

The text is free of typos and factual errors, making it a pleasure to read. If one might be permitted the very tiniest of quibbles, this reader found it unfortunate that the references to John Stobaeus,6 the fifth-century anthologist, often do not indicate which ancient writer Stobaeus is quoting, thus creating the additional necessity of consulting the relevant volume of Stobaeus works. Likewise, for the intriguing references to the use of 'liquid fire' (p. 140), the translators cite only an anonymous eighteenth-century Florentine work not accessible to most readers. Throughout the notes, however, it must be said that the references consistently include the most up-to-date scholarship.7


1.   John Haldon, A Critical Commentary on the Taktika of Leo VI (Washington, DC, 2014), 134.
2.   Alphonse Dain, Sylloge Tacticorum, quae olim 'Inedita Leonis Tactica' Dicebatur (Paris, 1938).
3.   E. McGeer (ed. and tr.), Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks), 12-59.
4.   G. T. Dennis (tr.), Maurice's Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (Philadelphia, 1984).
5.   G. T. Dennis (ed. and tr.), The Taktika of Leo VI, 2nd ed. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2014).
6.   O. Hense and C. Wachsmuth (eds.), Ioannes Stobaei Anthologium, 5 vols. (Berlin, 1884-1912).
7.   I beg the pardon of the editor and to BMCR itself for my long-overdue submission of this review.

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