Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen 925 - 1025

By Paul Robinson 22 Feb 2013 0


Osprey Publishing?s Elite series sets out the ?history of military forces, artefacts, personalities and techniques of warfare.?  It is one of their longest established series and covers a huge range of subjects from the ancient Mycenaeans to World War Two infantry assault tactics and beyond!  Somewhere in the middle fits this volume on Byzantine Guardsmen during a period where the long lived Byzantine Empire ?enjoyed a period of unprecedented splendour and renewed vigour?.  This was the era of the Macedonian dynasty, including the famous Basil the Bulgar Basher!  This has always been a part of the Byzantine Empire much loved by wargamers, with the ?Nikephorian? army being popular under a number of rulesets.  Indeed it is one I have used myself on a number of occasions.  I therefore received this work for review with a sense of anticipation!

The book follows the normal layout for this series with an Introduction and Chronology.  It then splits into two broad sections; the first describes the various units forming the Taghmata (basically the elite units forming a central force at the Emperor?s immediate disposal) and the Guard proper; the second covers their weapons, armour and other equipment.  Spread throughout the book are eight colour plates of original artwork, in this case these are by the excellent Giuseppe Rava.

The text by Raffaele D?Amato is pretty technical; for the non-specialist reader it is definitely something to read for information rather than for a general historical read.  However the chronology is very good.  It is actually quite detailed and allows you to follow the complicated court politics, the risings of various usurpers and the ups and downs of the Emperors rather easily.  The first of the main two sections ?The Regiments-Formation and organization? is very detailed.  The history of each unit, as far as is known is described, what it?s main responsibilities were (eg the Vaslikoi Anthropoi, the Emperor?s men, provided the latter?s armed escort and personal attendants in battle and at the Palace)  and then the breakdown of the unit?s officer corps is given, alongside the equivalent court rank!  I have to say that even a lover of ancient military history such as me found this element a bit repetitive.  Also the ranks are given in Greek (the language of Byzantium) and the author has decided to go with Greek Greek spelling rather than Latinized Greek (so for example Dhromon rather than Dromon).  This adds an element of unfamiliarity for those of us use to the latter usage.  This section also covers certain of the naval units that were regarded as being part of the Guard, so it is pretty thorough.    Having said that the famous Varangian guard are only given a paragraph but this is because  they have a whole Men at Arms book dedicated to themselves (?The Varangian Guard 988-1453? by the same author and artist-which I heartily recommend, the artwork is worth the price of the book alone!).

The second of the main sections firstly covers clothing and with references to uniform colours will be of particular interest to figure painters.  This section then moves onto weapons and armour, with the former covering swords, daggers, spears, axes and bows. The latter covers helmets, body armour, soft armour, shields and horse equipment.  This was also a pretty thorough part of the book; Byzantine armour was (to western eyes) a strange blend of western and eastern and so needs to be explained properly to understand its somewhat complicated composite nature.  Of course the colour plates assist with this understanding.

These colour plates are quite superb and absolutely jam packed with detail.   They are (mainly because of the basic material covered) extremely colourful and, compared to say western dress and equipment of the time, bordering on the exotic!  Mr Rava?s style suits the subject matter perfectly.  Most of the plates show a combination of troops in full combat equipment, senior officers/emperor and guardsmen in full palace dress.    Plate A shows officers and soldiers preparing for the Bulgarian Siege in 913AD; Plates B and C show troops taking part in a Palace ceremonies in 946AD; Plate D shows soldiers raising Nikephoros Phokas on shield to proclaim him Emperor; Plate E shows an imperial lion hunt in Syria in 975AD; Plate F shows two naval soldiers overlooking Boukleon Harbour in Constantinople in the 10th to 11th centuries (this is a superb image with the background showing the sea walls of Constantinople with a purple sailed Imperial Dhromon emerging from a sea gate); Plate G shows two mounted Guardsmen in action riding down a couple of Fatamid infantrymen, with much blood and gore!; and Plate H shows the Emperor Basil II receiving a messenger during the Georgian campaign of 1020.   There is all you need to make a through job of painting your elite troops of your own Byzantine wargaming armies!

As usual with these books there are a number of colour and black & white photographs that support the text.  These include various contemporary icons and archaeological finds (armour, weaponry and horse furniture).  The former are very relevant as they form the basis for a number of the reconstructions in the colour plates-it is always interesting to look at the basic source material for artists and to see how they interpret it!    There is also a single black and white map showing the military districts (Themes) that the Byzantine Empire was divided into.  This is taken from Osprey?s Men at Arms book Byzantine Armies 886-1118.

Overall this is a difficult book to recommend to the general reader.  This is definitely a niche area of military history.  However the book is well-researched, thoroughly written, excellently illustrated and well supported with a range of colour and black & white images.  I have mentioned that the detail on officer?s ranks can get a bit repetitive but looking on the bright side this provides excellent detail for a roleplaying game based on Byzantine court politics!  If you are looking at buying a Byzantine wargames army or have a particular interest in this period of Dark Age military history then you will get a lot from this book.  It actually completes a whole stable of books by Osprey on the Byzantine military a number of which I have referred to.  All of these books (by various authors and artists) are worth checking out.

Available now in paper back from Osprey Publishing, normal price £11.99/$18.95 (ISBN 9781849088503)

Review written by: Paul Robinson



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