This book covers a wide swathe of Byzantine military history – from Justinian’s wars, to the earliest battles between the Byzantines and Islamic armies, all the way to Manzikert in 1071. The epilogue briefly summarizes the years following Manzikert to the last Byzantine emperor’s death in 1453.
The first half of the book built slowly on a number of important battles with Islamic armies – most of which the Byzantines and others (e.g., the Spanish and Chinese) seemed to lose. In fact, the author writes so much about the battles the Byzantines lost that I began to wonder how the empire lasted as long as it did.
The stories of these battles were somewhat interesting, but they were not the reason I bought the book. Finally, in chapter 5, we get to Manzikert and the pace picked up.
Manzikert was not an isolated incident, but rather the product of years of incompetent rule from Constantinople, as well as carefully nurtured expansion efforts by the Seljuk Turks. From reading this book, it appears that the key precipitating event was probably Constantine IX Monomachus’ decommissioning of 50,000 thematic troops manning the key Armenian border to save money. According to the author, Seljuk raids into Byzantine eastern territories began within two years of those cutbacks. Over the next twenty years they raided ever more deeply into many central Anatolian cities and towns – plundering, besieging, and burning them; their populations raped, enslaved, and/or killed.
Romanus IV Diogenes, a successful general who married the mother/regent of Michael VII Ducas, took on the challenging but still not hopeless task of trying to push back the Turks. The book makes clear the many enormous difficulties the emperor faced as he approached the battle – military, political, strategic, and tactical. The most significant of these turned out to be political – and was Romanus’s greatest weakness. The one individual who comes out worst in this retelling is Andronikos Ducas who withheld his men at a crucial time when the battle could have been won. That Romanus came as close as he did to winning this battle in the face of such headwinds is a tribute to his military abilities. The permanent and devastating impact that the personal and political ambitions of the Ducas family had on the long-term fortunes of the Byzantine empire should be – but probably isn’t – an abject lesson for political leaders of any generation or people.
The first half of the book was a little dry, but it was generally well-written. I read it on my Kindle and the maps worked well on it – better than with some other books I’ve read. An editor familiar with the Orthodox church might have removed the reference to the Byzantines attending “mass” and replaced it with “services” or “divine liturgy”. There were a few other small errors, but nothing egregious.
Overall, the book’s framing of the story of Manzikert as another stroke in Turkish/Islamic expansion during the Medieval period helped me appreciate the historic currents the Byzantine empire was swimming against in the 11th century. “The Road to Manzikert” was a worthwhile addition to my library of Byzantine histories.