Georgios Chatzelis, Byzantine Military Manuals as Literary Works and Practical Handbooks: The Case of the Tenth-Century (Lucas McMahon)

Georgios Chatzelis

Byzantine Military Manuals as Literary Works and Practical Handbooks: The Case of the Tenth-Century Sylloge Tacticorum

(Routledge, 2019) 211 pp. $140.00

The Sylloge Tacticorum is a military manual written in Greek attributed to the emperor Leo VI (r. 886-912). Considered to be derivative by Alphonse Dain, the text has languished while many of the others were edited, translated, and studied in-depth. Until the work of Georgios Chatzelis, the Sylloge Tacticorum (Συλλογή Τακτικών, “Collection of Tactics”) was one of the few major Byzantine military manuals that had yet to receive significant scholarly attention. With the publication of Byzantine Military Manuals as Literary Works and Practical Handbooks, Chatzelis has restored the Sylloge Tacticorum to the canon of Byzantine military writing and presents a range of important thoughts on how to approach such texts.

This book is based on the author’s 2017 Royal Holloway doctoral dissertation, and was preceded by the publication of the translation- Georgios Chatzelis and Jonathan Harris, A Tenth Century Byzantine Military Manual: The Sylloge Tacticorum (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). This second book provides a full study of the text in two parts. First, Chatzelis seeks to set out the basics, making an argument for its origins and purpose, before approaching the bigger issue of how military manuals functioned in Byzantium. Five short chapters introduce the context and discuss the details of the manual itself, and then a much longer sixth chapter (88-154) engages with the question of whether the manual had a practical purpose.

The book opens with a discussion of the military context, and more specifically, the conflict between Byzantium and its eastern neighbours in the first half of the tenth century. The narrative is concise but comprehensive, however, it is not just stage-setting for the rest of the book. Chatzelis uses this chapter to illustrate changes to warfare in the east over the course of the tenth century, which will later be revealed to be key to the dating and attribution of the manual.

The next two chapters deal with the sources of the manual and its dating. The discussion of the sources becomes rather technical as Chatzelis has to deal with two hypothetical texts, one of which is dismissed as not applicable to the Sylloge. While Chatzelis identifies many of the sources of the manual, he argues that their interpretation here is rather free and original. The main contribution is that the text is not quite as derivative as it has been traditionally assumed to have been, and that such claims are unfair since mimesis was a regular component of the production of the written word in Byzantium. A number of other military manuals are no more or less mimetic, and Chatzelis argues that the Sylloge deserves a more central place in the canon.

The following chapter on the dating cements this point. The manual claims to be written by Leo VI, but this has long been in doubt. Chatzelis instead notes that since most tenth-century manuals were sponsored by emperors, this one likely was as well. Since Leo VI needs to be rejected for a variety of historical and linguistic reasons as does Constantine VII, that leaves only Romanos I Lakapenos. This indeed fits the context of increasingly aggressive Byzantine military action in the east, something that does not appear quite so clearly in the work attributed to Leo VI, the Taktika. Chatzelis argues that the re-attribution to Leo was undertaken in Constantine VII’s court as a means of damnatio memoriae upon the regime that sidelined him for decades.

Comprising nearly half the length of the book, the sixth chapter asks whether the Sylloge Tacticorum, and Byzantine military manuals more generally, can be said to have had a practical purpose. Chatzelis approaches this by taking a number of prescriptions put forward in the manual and examining them against historical accounts from the same period. The literary nature of the written sources is appreciated by Chatzelis, and he is careful not to take whatever the historical materials say at face value, even when it supports his argument. This results in a rather complicated situation. A number of the major historical texts in Greek from this period use now-lost family histories that glorified the military accomplishments of members of that household. Working with this is difficult since the texts no longer exist and so the possibility that they represent an idealized vision of military conduct on behalf of their patrons presents a real problem in using Greek historical sources. It is a tough nut to crack: do the military manuals set out an idealized assortment of military behaviours for a general which ideologically-implicated historical sources then follow to idealize particular men? Or do the historical sources represent warfare in a manner similar to the manuals because that is how it took place? Chatzelis’s answer to all of this is yes, the manuals and historical accounts are part of the same spectrum and feed into each other. We can see this through the development of tactics and organization over the course of the tenth century in Byzantium, as the Sylloge Tacticorum builds upon Leo’s Taktika, and how the Sylloge was then built upon by Nikephoros II Phokas in the Praecepta Militaria. Chatzelis brings two further factors into the discussion. First, he notes the general conservatism of warfare in the Mediterranean basin before gunpowder. Military manuals were repeating a lot of earlier materials because it remained relevant. The second is that he checks the Byzantine historical tradition against what is written in other languages. While the image of tenth-century Byzantine armies in Arabic and Armenian materials could constitute independent studies that account for their own literary traditions, the case that the warfare of the period is more or less that prescribed in the manual is convincing.

Chatzelis convincingly engages with the issue espoused in the book’s title: are these manuals practical handbooks or literary works? His answer is that they are both, but that they (or at least, the Sylloge Tacticorum) leans more towards being practical than a purely literary exercise in antiquarianism. The Sylloge does contain material from antiquity and earlier Byzantine writers, which is exactly what we should expect given a literary culture that placed a high value on the authority of the ancients and mimesis. Yet as Chatzelis brings out, this work is not merely a product of slavish imitation of earlier texts, but was rather a living document and can be seen as representing an intermediate stage of warfare between the Taktika of Leo VI and the Praecepta Militaria of Nikephoros II Phokas. Its life did not end there, and it was probably re-branded under Constantine VII to remove its association with Romanos I Lakapenos. Not only has Chatzelis provided a much-needed study of a neglected military manual and set it back into its proper place, he has engaged with some of the most difficult questions that bedevil the understanding of these manuals and has produced interesting and credible solutions.

Lucas McMahon
Princeton University

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