Sunday, March 24, 2019


David Alan Parnell, Justinian's Men: Careers and Relationships of Byzantine Army Officers, 518-610. New approaches to Byzantine history and culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. xi, 228. ISBN 9781137562036. €85,59.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Buchanan, University of Findlay (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

David Alan Parnell's book builds on both his PhD. dissertation, Justinian's Men: The Ethnic and Regional Origins of Byzantine Officers and Officials, ca. 518-610, submitted to Saint Louis University in 2010, and his subsequent research on the ethnicity and military and social careers of army members during the age of Justinian I, defined as the period of the reigns of Justin I through Phocas. The thesis of the book is that an officer's social relationships with other officers, the men assigned to him, and the emperor were as least as important as the officer's rank or position. To develop this thesis, Parnell has divided the book into nine chapters, including an introduction and conclusion.

Chapter One, the Introduction, establishes the methodology for the book. Parnell uses the principal contemporary historians and chroniclers of the period, including Procopius of Caesarea, Agathias of Myrina, Menander Protector, Theophylact Simocatta, Marcellinus Comes with his anonymous continuator, and John Malalas (p. 7). He then employs social network theory to evaluate the social issues and relationships that affected the operation of the army, in a matrix of different relationships ranging from professional to family contacts.

Chapter Two addresses the structure of the Byzantine army in the sixth century. Parnell's principal source is the Notitia Dignitatum, supplemented by material from his primary sources. He divides the Byzantine army into two divisions, the field armies (comitatenses) and the frontier armies (limitanei), supplemented in many areas of the frontier by non-Roman soldiers serving under their own officers under treaty to the Empire (foederati). He then uses the Strategikon of Maurice, supplemented with Justinian's legal code and other primary sources, to describe the ranks and positions within the army. After discussing the various scholarly positions on the nature of recruitment, Parnell concludes that it was largely voluntary. He also argues that soldiers generally advanced through the ranks based primarily on length of service, while officers advanced partly on merit and partly on personal interest and recommendations from their superiors, including the emperor.

Chapter Three discusses the ethnic identity of Roman army officers, and how that identity affected the careers of the officers. Parnell begins this chapter with a careful discussion of recent scholarship on the meaning of identity, and in particular, ethnic identity, in the sixth century CE. He then seeks to develop rough statistics for the percentage of Roman and non-Roman men who served in the military during this time. To do this, he has created a database of 772 men documented as having served in the army, using his primary sources plus a few additional literary sources and material derived from The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (PLRE). This database itself is not included in the book, but he uses it to assess the ethnicity of these men, primarily using their names and any descriptions given in the sources, augmented by information on their family if available. Using his criteria, he finds that roughly seventy-six percent were likely Roman and twenty-four percent were likely non-Roman. He also concludes that while the Byzantine army was roughly thirty percent non-Roman from 518-540, the percentage increased slightly to thirty-six percent from 541-565, and then fell to roughly eighteen percent from 566-610, perhaps as a result of decreased recruitment from non-Roman areas and an increasing identification of former non-Romans as Roman. Romans were slightly more likely to hold the highest ranks, while non-Romans held many of the command ranks below that level. Parnell's conclusion is that the Roman army was still uneasy about non-Roman general officers, although it accepted many senior non-Romans into the army, and indeed into general officer positions. However, cultural identity was not a significant restraint on career advancement or relationship building for non-Romans.

In the fourth chapter, Parnell discusses the effect of any relationship between officers and the emperor. He gives several examples to demonstrate that Justinian I at least tended to appoint people with whom he was familiar and whom he regarded as loyal and competent to hold the position of general. Thus, family members and members of Justinian I's personal guards were more often selected for senior positions. Furthermore, Justinian I was inclined to forgive his generals for abuse of their authority or incompetence if they were personally loyal to him. He was even willing to forgive some indications of disloyalty if he thought that he could trust them in another position. Parnell reminds us that officers were often competitors and sometimes usurpers of emperors. The conclusion of this chapter is that emperors were most concerned about their own longevity in their position and had to balance the general competence and popularity of officers against the possible threat that they posed. This balance explains much of the interaction between officers and emperors.

The fifth chapter addresses the social networks of officers. Parnell starts from two related arguments; the first is that, although an officer's relationship, if any, with the emperor was most important, his secondmost important relationships were with other officers because they provided support in an often unclear bureaucracy; the second is that the social networks of officers were critical to the functioning of the army because they encouraged cooperative behavior and sometimes supplanted the official hierarchy. In support of these arguments, Parnell cites discussions of army factions in Agathias and Procopius. For example, he dissects the social networks of Belisarius and Narses in Italy in 538-539 as reported by Procopius, and concludes that the mutual suspicions of these factions was a factor in the losses that occurred. He also concludes that the networks permitted generals to exert control over the army through the cooperation of junior officers. As a result, the generals carefully explained the reasons for their decisions to their subordinates to maintain cooperation. Parnell acknowledges that factions within armies were also common in antiquity but argues that the problem was more serious in Justinian's time because generals were operating in western areas outside of the military bureaucracy of the eastern Mediterranean, and so the factions substituted for an unclear hierarchy in an army far from the imperial government.

Chapter Six deals with the officers and their families. Parnell looks at the incidence of nepotism in the army and concludes that while many families had several generations of members in the military, there was little evidence that senior officers procured official military positions for their sons or younger relatives. Emperors used members of their own family in official positions, and Justinian in particular employed cousins, nephews, and in-laws as generals. However, although multiple family members might serve in the military, they rarely shared the same position, and the emperors maintained personal control over the appointment of officers to senior positions, thus preserving authority over the military. Parnell then considers the impact of wives and children on members of the military, largely using Procopius' description of the impact of Antonina on Belisarius and the desertion of Illyrian soldiers to protect their families from a Hunnic invasion. He concludes that soldiers with families placed a high degree of importance of them and would balance their needs against imperial needs, notwithstanding the disapproval of historians such as Procopius.

In Chapter Seven, Parnell discusses the relationships between officers and their soldiers. He begins this chapter by noting that there is limited evidence in this area because while historians would identify principal generals, they rarely identified lower-ranking soldiers except as part of a larger homogenous group. While acknowledging that speeches in classical histories may have little to do with what was actually said, he discusses speeches to soldiers to convince them not to sack the local population and speeches to soldiers dividing booty as examples of the interaction between officers and their soldiers. Then he addresses reports of individual soldiers who were praised for good conduct, reports of individual soldiers given specific missions and reports of soldiers who were criticized for misconduct. Finally, he addresses reports of soldiers who had grievances against their officers, for example, for failure to pay them regularly. He concludes that officers rarely had personal relationships with soldiers, although there were mutual expectations of good leadership and good execution, and of regular payment and fair division of booty.

The eighth chapter discusses public perceptions of the army. The record is scant, so Parnell uses his sources' discussion of various desertions and mutinies to support his conclusion that desertions were often caused by monetary concerns, especially when pay was late, or survival in the face of an enemy of greater numbers. He further argues that the public, while appreciating the physical security that local soldiers brought, was probably also wary of them because of enforced billeting, extortion of more food supplies than authorized and other abuses. Parnell concludes this chapter by noting that the sixth-century army was generally successful and professional, even in the face of periodic delays in pay, and that Justinian's loyalty to his senior officers generally resulted in continuity and opportunities for professional growth. He also states that civilian government and society remained vibrant without demanding major changes to the military or rebelling against it, evidence of a general acceptance of the military by the public.

The ninth and last chapter is a short conclusion that sums up the conclusions of the previous chapters and reinforces Parnell's argument that the sixth century was a diverse vibrant world in which friendships, alliances, and various collective strategies were used to encourage social and financial success.

In summary, the strength of this book is that it uses social network theory plus an in-depth analysis of the literary sources to assess the impact of social relationships behind military operations and the often-fraught relationship between general officers and emperors. In this regard, this book adds significantly to the scholarship in this area. In addition, there are very few typographical errors.1 A weakness of this book is that, with a handful of exceptions, it relies largely on Anglophone scholarship. European scholars such as Jean-Michel CarriƩ, Fritz Mitthof, Bernhard Palme, Giorgio Ravegnani (except for his 1998 book on Byzantine soldiers in the years of Justinian), and Constantin Zuckerman are not cited, nor is Giovanni Ruffini, who wrote in English about social networks in Byzantine Egypt, a comparable period.2 Another weakness is that the book relies almost entirely on literary sources, except for the epigraphic, archaeological and numismatic evidence incorporated into the PLRE. I also found the chapter on ethnic identity to be problematic because of the relatively small number of people identified in the sources, the bias of the sources towards senior generals and notorious incidents, the difficulty with using names as an indicator of ethnic identity, and differences in how the various sources described their subjects. That said, this book is easy to read and is useful not only for understanding the relationships between the military and the imperial government in late antiquity but also for a source for military history in general.


1.   As a rare exception, the speech of Pharas the Herul, is shown in Chapter 3, footnote 45, as from Procopius, Wars book 4, chapter 4, section 15, whereas it is at book 4, chapter 6, section 15.
2.   Giovanni Ruffini, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.