A review of the Taktika of Leo VI

For those interested in Byzantine history, here’s a review from the work The Taktika of Leo VI, written by Mark Bartusis. Enjoy.

George T. Dennis (ed.), The Taktika of Leo VI. Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010. Pp. xxii, 690. ISBN 9780884023593. $60.00.

Reviewed by Mark Bartusis, Northern State University (bartusis@northern.edu)

The military manual written around 905 by Emperor Leo VI (886-912), known as the Tactical Constitutions, or Taktika, is the earliest of a number of military treatises extant from tenth-century Byzantium. This is the first complete critical edition of the Taktika, superseding the eighteenth-century edition which appears in Migne, Patrologia graeca, and the critical edition of Vári, who edited a little over half the work.[1] With this publication Dumbarton Oaks continues its support of the Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae (CFHB) series of texts, and George Dennis continues (and completes, for he died in 2010) his substantial body of work on the Byzantine military. Dennis is well-known to students of Byzantine military history, having edited and translated the Strategikon usually attributed to Emperor Maurice (582-602) and three shorter treatises from the sixth and tenth centuries, as well numerous articles on military themes.[2] The volume begins with a surprisingly brief introduction providing little more than information about the manuscripts used (pp. ix-xiv): the mid-tenth-century codex Mediceo-Laurentianus graecus, 55, 4, supplemented by the codex Vindobonensis phil. graecus 275, with the readings of four other manuscripts in the apparatus. There follow the Greek text and English translation presented on facing pages. The paragraph arrangement follows that of the primary manuscript utilized, which differs from both the Migne and Vári editions, and some readers may be dismayed that Dennis provides no cross-referencing of older paragraph numbers with his. At the end of the volume are a pair of maps, a list of Byzantine measurement terms, a glossary of technical terms, and a list of persons, mainly authors, mentioned in the text (all of which probably should have been placed at the beginning of the work), along with indexes of Greek proper names and of Greek terms, a list of source references, and a well-structured general index of people, places, concepts, and things.

The Taktika itself consists of twenty “constitutions,” or chapters, sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue. The first two constitutions, after a brief section that defines tactics and strategy, deal primarily with the qualities desired in a general (pp. 12-37). Then, after a brief constitution on the need for making plans (pp. 38-45), there are constitutions on the structure of the field army (pp. 46-73), weapons for both cavalry and infantry (pp. 74-103), maneuvering training and drills (pp. 104-45), military punishments (pp. 146-53), marches (pp. 154-85), the baggage train (pp. 186-93), camps (pp. 194-215), battle array (pp. 216-77), preparations and stratagems the day before battle (pp. 278-89), and tactics during the battle (pp. 290-388). Then there is a constitution on sieges (pp. 350-81), another on dealing with victory and defeat (pp. 382-91), one on how to launch and deal with surprise attacks (pp. 392-435), and a long constitution discussing the characteristics of foreign peoples, the battle formations they utilize, and how Byzantine forces should counter them (pp. 436-501). A constitution on naval warfare (pp. 502-35) rounds out the work which ends with a compilation of aphorisms and other advice for the general (pp. 536-619), followed by an epilogue (pp. 620-43) summarizing the advice offered throughout the work.

The amount of original material in the Taktika is limited. The relatively brief section on the Arabs and tactics to use against them (XVIII.103-49) appears to be original (but surprisingly vague to be of any real usefulness to a commander), and Leo writes that the constitution on naval warfare was based on the experiences of current commanders because nothing could be found in old manuals. Here and there the work makes reference to military operations during the reigns of Leo and his father Basil I (IX.14, XI.21-22, XVII.65, XVIII.40). However, most of the Taktika is paraphrased or copied verbatim from the Strategikon, with substantial borrowing from the military work of Onasander (first century AD) and Aelian (second century AD). In fact, one could say that the Taktika is an updated revision of the Strategikon.

Consequently, if one wishes to use the Taktika for the obvious purpose-to illuminate the practice of Byzantine warfare around the year 900-one needs to be very careful, first distinguishing what parts of the Taktika are borrowed from these authors, what parts of these works (specifically the Strategikon) were omitted from the Taktika, and what parts of the Taktika appear to be original. Second, one needs to know how useful were the borrowed bits to a Byzantine general. A number of times Leo writes that the information he is presenting in a particular section is not particularly relevant anymore, but he includes it for completeness and with the hope that the general will find something useful in it.

Let me give two examples of how Leo works. First, rather disingenuously, he writes that he chooses not to discuss the military practices of the Bulgarians because they are now Christian (XVIII.42). Nevertheless he does describe the nature of the Franks and Lombards for anything a general might find useful (XVIII.76-92), even though they too are Christian (and it was quite unlikely the Byzantines would be fighting Franks of any variety), and he describes the practices of the Magyars which, he writes, differ “a little or not at all” from those of the Bulgarians (XVIII.43,73). Leo’s choices become clear once one realizes that the Strategikon discusses Magyars, Franks, and Lombards, but not of course Bulgarians.

In another passage Leo advises the reader on how to draw up the troops to counter an attack from lancers (XVIII.26). However, he borrows this material from a passage in the Strategikon, which describes how the Persians arrange their troops against lancers (XI.1). Rather than omitting irrelevant material, Leo recasts it to fit into his treatise. This encyclopedic tendency makes me wonder whether we should take for granted Dennis’s assumption that Leo incorporates so much material from earlier works, specifically the Strategikon, because military techniques had changed little during the three hundred years separating the reigns of Maurice and Leo (Maurice’s Strategikon, trans. Dennis, xiii).

All of this is to say that one cannot understand these Byzantine military manuals outside of the tradition in which they were produced. Reading the Taktika without a knowledge of the Strategikon will mislead the reader. Dennis has provided notes indicating that certain passages were derived from other authors, but these are neither complete nor easy to use (a reader often has to turn back several pages to see where a passage is borrowed from). This matter and others (including perhaps the lack of a concordance with older editions) will be addressed once Dumbarton Oaks publishes an extended commentary on the Taktika currently being prepared by Professor John Haldon. In this sense the present text and translation of Leo’s Taktika might be considered the first of a two-volume work which, notwithstanding its pleasantly modest price, admirably maintains the high standards of all Dumbarton Oaks publications as well as the CFHB series generally.

Notes: 1. R. Vári, Leonis imperatoris Tactica, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1917-22). 2. Das Strategikon des Maurikios, ed. G. Dennis, German trans. E. Gamillscheg, CFHB (Vienna, 1981); Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy, trans. G. Dennis (Philadelphia, 1984); G. Dennis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises, CFHB (Washington, D.C., 1985).

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