One of Osprey’s newest and most prolific authors, Raffaele D’Amato, focuses this study on the three “Regiments” of Byzantine marine infantry who manned the fleets of the Eastern Roman Empire for the last 300 years of its existence.
He qualifies two things, one that the name Byzantine does not reflect the fact the legacy of this state as the last vestige of Roman power in the world and two, that the reconstruction of the appearance of the troops under discussion are based principally on iconography and pictorial sources. It’s an odd and confusing paradox that the Greek Byzantines associated themselves actively as Romans, yet ironically shunned what they termed “Latins” of the west, (even those who lived in the city of Rome) who of course were not “Romans” yet were associated with the old imperial language p.
This isn’t a book about fighting prowess so much as an overview of the makeup, fighting roles and organisation of the reorganised Imperial fleet. Which in shorthand was split into heavy infantry, light infantry and rowers. These troops formed the front line in the fight against the “Latin” maritime kingdoms of Italy and the encroaching menace of the Ottoman Turks, not least serving against fellow Romans in the civil wars of the 14th century.
As one would expect in a Men at Arms title (though it can vary) we get a concise and thorough overview of operational highlights, appearance, equipment and status in society. Accompanying images detailing weapons and armour are joined with illustrations by Ukrainian painter Igor Dzis, whose highly artistic and superbly detailed work makes its Osprey debut alongside old hand Peter Dennis, who has done an excellent job portraying the richness of costume and colour.
Personally I’m very pleased to see Dzis bring this level of illustration to MAA, and although some of the paintings are a few years old, he is principally a military artist focusing on ancient and medieval subjects, (though he has illustrated books in the past), I hope more of his work appears in the future.
Warrior titles are juicier than Men at Arms ones because instead of being principally formed around the history, dress and equipment of a soldier in a given war they focus on training, day to day life and combat as well. This one suffers from the continual usage of the word Greek dark age to describe the time period, the authors have little written contemporary sources to assist them, which means that the majority of the arms, equipment and dress is necessarily a catalogue of archeological discoveries, and theories as to how they all fit together. That’s when there is archeology to discuss, where the physical evidence is lacking the authors turn to art. The paintings on Greek pottery and the carvings from buildings have always been a rich source of ancient life. And it is from these sources that the discussion on chariotry centres. Unlike in Egypt where chariots from earlier periods have been beautifully preserved, no such fortune has attended Greek archeology. Nevertheless it is a useful part of the book as it illustrates effectively the transition out of the heroic age. Chariots in Greece were less of a war machine as a vehicle from which a noble hero could get around. This seems almost typical of small states, and is in contrast to how larger near eastern empires used massed chariots. This book covers a period of transition, from the Homeric age of hero’s to the age of Lycergus and the polis hoplite, from the individual to the body and from bronze to iron. The development of the palace to the polis and the hero to the phalanx is an event lost to time, but an event covered here. The scope is quite vast for so small a book, but osprey has been getting more ambitious with its titles recently, and this will fit in well beside their other early Greek titles, being as it is the successor to their Bronze Age series which includes coverage of the Mycenaeans, Greeks and Sea People’s.
Alongside pictures of artefacts and sketches of archeological finds, Giuseppe Rava has created the colourful plate art that has been commissioned here. There is a nice nod to old osprey in the “men standing discussing weapons” scene and the storytelling in the wounded warrior returning home. Skin burnished by the Mediterranean sun seems almost real in the plate showing a Cretan warlord and his men, and the armour and equipment will doubtless give an interesting point of discussion to figure painters and writers alike.
All in all this work strives to put a little flesh on a very bony subject, there’s no denying that summaries of archeological finds are fairly dry, but the examination of the Warriors themselves (at least for me) provides interesting reading.
Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (16 Jun. 2016)
ISBN-10: 1472815378 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roman-Army-Units-Western-Provinces/dp/1472815378
So apart from the catchy title what does this book offer the Roman Army enthusiast and student? Men-At-Arms books focus of organisation and equipment, so that’s a given. Yet one may ask do we not already know what Roman troops looked like in the 1st Century AD? The answer would be yes, basically, but the study of Roman military equipment is subject to changing perceptions as the result of exhaustive academic and archeological study.
It wasn’t so long ago that Peter Connelly’s depiction of ring mail clad Caesarean legionaries was viewed as radical. What has transpired over the last century of study is to present an archetypal legionary and auxiliary. But what many see as the last word is really the beginning. Since the early 2,000’s historians have been slowly introducing a non uniform Roman army that many find unpalatable to think about.
There is a gravitational pull from the upper end of the atmosphere of academia to the popular reading public. Years of work and research by scholars and archeologists takes years of critical analysis and peer review to make it into accepted thought, from where an author can feel secure enough to publish. Essentially it takes an extended time to sieve down to general readers and enthusiasts, through the academic colander, and that means there are large gaps, as serried chunks of information is passed down. It’s not just history, but it affects the field. Therefore right now people who grew up with a set image of a Roman soldier are being challenged to accept the new evidence that is now arriving to say, actually they looked like this.
Raffaele D’Amato fresh from giving us his excellent New Vanguard series on the Roman Navy brings his sharp eye, clear writing and eye for detail to the Roman army. Arguing that instead of looking for a uniform army of men wearing cloned armour, we should look at the appearance of the legionary in a much more complex, fluid and geo-cultural way. In a nutshell the Roman army, though indeed mass producing equipment to an extent, made allowances for regional and national variances, especially in locally raised troops and auxiliaries or in those units long stationed in a given place.
The concept of a uniform, the author notes, doesn’t factor into the logic of the Roman army any more than it did the Greeks. Men equipped alike and trained alike was enough, but that is only a guideline, as one helmet pattern was phased out over a decade for a better model, and so on with shields, swords and armour. If you think how in a 20 year period between 1798 to 1815 the British army went through two major changes of uniform and equipment change, while engaged in a major war (and to this day provokes debate about when and how), it doesn’t seem all to strange to think the Romans didn’t also work this way.
Accompanying the text are many illustrations to back up the text, which although making its point, boils down, due to space constraints on a huge subject, to a list of archeological artefacts divided by province and region to present the case. At the heart of the book is the illustrations, expertly rendered by Raffaele Ruggeri, and show a familiar but different Roman army than we are used to. I loved that they included a reconstruction of the Auxiliary officer statue from Vachéres, probably my all time favourite military carving from this period. However I was a little surprised to see that the plates themselves no longer include any identifier on the image page save for a number reference to correlate in the plate commentary at the back.
It is a subject that deserves more space, and the MAA format just about carries it without creaking. The two Raffaele’s have done an admirable job in showing a glimpse at an increasingly mature and complex Roman army, and I think it’s about time.