Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen 925-1025 The Tάghmata and Imperial Guard – review

Raffaele D’Amato is a well-known scholar specializing in Roman and Byzantine military history. He gained prominence after the publication of Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier From Marius to Commodus, 112 BC-AD 192[1], although we should also remember his excellent study of Byzantine weaponry seen in the works of Skylitzes[2], as well as his numerous academic articles. Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen 925-1025 The Tάghmata and Imperial Guard is a popular science piece published as part of the famous Osprey “Elite” series. The book fits in well with D’Amato’s scientific achievements to date, as he is an expert in Byzantine military history of the period. Within its 64 pages the author sets out to describe elite Eastern Roman units that saw service during the period of the Empire’s greatest military glory, i.e. in the 10th century. What seems surprising is the chronology, additionally highlighted in the title. The year 1025, marking the death of Basil II – the last male heir of the Macedonian dynasty, shouldn’t raise any objections, despite the fact that the passing of this exceptional ruler changed nothing in the functioning of Byzantine troops, but it is rather puzzling that the author chose to begin his analysis with the year 925. It was the year that saw the death of patriarch Nicholas Mystikos[3]. This event, however, was of little significance, if any at all, to the Roman army. Most probably the author intended to present an account of full 100 years of history of these elite formations, but such rigid adherence to the specified timeframe leads to certain misunderstandings[4]. D’Amato could have chosen to start his account with the death of Emperor Leo VI (in 912) or even with the death of Tsar Simeon II of Bulgaria (in 927), as both these dates have big symbolic importance.

The book is divided into four chapters (introduction, chronology, unit description and offensive and defensive weaponry) complemented with selected bibliography and a very useful index. Each chapter contains numerous photos and illustrations by G. Rava. The iconography is a significantly strong point of this work. Rava’s reconstructed images must have been created in large part under the guidance of the author and on the basis of historical sources, because the level of detail is simply stunning. Photographs are equally good. Thanks to D’Amato’s extensive network of academic contacts the book includes pictures from the collections of V. Sekulov, V. Yotov, Z. Kiziltan, J. Macnamara and others, in addition to those made by the author himself. There are about 50 photographs in all, and they do a great job at familiarizing the readers with the Roman material culture by appealing to their imagination. The core of the work consists of two large chapters, which take up 50 pages. The first of these deals with the Roman Tághmata[5] – the author gives a short description of origins of respective units, describes their tasks and, wherever possible, structure. D’Amato did not fail to mention any of the formations of the Byzantine army that had a significant impact during the conflicts of the 10th century. It should also be recognized that the book includes footnotes referring the readers to historical sources, which is not at all that common in popular science works. The second big chapter focuses on the weapons of previously described units. In this section, apart from written sources, the author often makes use of archeological and iconographic sources, painting a comprehensive picture of Roman offensive and defensive weaponry of the studied period.

This work by Raffaele D’Amato is a very solid book; it is of high value to beginning historians, but also of some worth to established scholars (due to its excellent iconography!). The author should receive praise for drawing on most of the available sources dealing with Byzantine military history. However, some small mistakes with regard to the sources do appear. For example, on page 13 the author makes reference to the Tactica of Leo VI when describing heavy cavalry. Unfortunately, the fragment mentioned in the text (Tactica, VI. 31.) actually talks about light infantry, not the Kataphraktoi; the fragment that D’Amato meant is in fact Tactica, VI. 26. While the author does emphasize that he used the edition of Tactica published in the PG series, this choice seems surprising since Dennis’ edition from 2010 is considered the new standard. With the exception of negligible errors such as the one mentioned above, the author has sufficient knowledge on the source material and is proficient in its use. It is worth mentioning that the abridged bibliography included at the end of the work lists the most important literary items dealing with the military history of the Eastern Roman Empire of the period.

In transcriptions, D’Amato elected to use the Demotic Greek instead of the classic Koine Greek. As koine is the predominant form among scholars of Byzantine history, some of the terminology used in the book may require a certain degree of flexibility even from experienced historians. D’Amato’s choice to use the other form is rather questionable, especially since the authors of books listed as his sources used the Koine Greek[6]. However, it should be pointed out that the author had every right to use the demotic language and he does it correctly and consistently throughout the book.

In conclusion, Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen 925-1025 The Tάghmata and Imperial Guard is a book that will be greatly appreciated by everyone interested in medieval military history. Having done a good job at analyzing written sources and iconography, the author was able to present a fascinating image of the elite units of the Byzantine army. It serves as an excellent introduction into one of the most interesting periods of Byzantine military history. Minor mistakes make the book no less valuable and one can, with clear conscience, recommended it to every history lover.

dr Łukasz Różycki

The book was made available for review thanks to Osprey Publishing.

[1] D’Amato R., Sumner G., Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier From Marius to Commodus, 112 BC-AD 192, London 2009.

[2] R. D’Amato, A Prôtospatharios, Magistros, and Strategos Autokrator of 11th cent.: The equipment of Georgios Maniakes and his army according to the Skylitzes Matritensis miniatures and other artistic sources of the middle Byzantine period, ΠΟΡΦΥΡΑ 2005, Supplemento 4.
[3] Nicholas I Mystikos, acted as regent in the name of Constantine VII.

[4] The date 925 is not even mentioned in the chronological tables at the beginning of the work.

[5] The author also shortly describes the themata system, unreflectively ascribing its authorship to Emperor Heraclius.

[6] A separate issue is the language spoken in the 10th century, which closely resembled Demotic Greek.