Haldon, Byzantium at War: AD 600-1453
Annotation author: Guthier, Sophia Sonja
Book author: Haldon, John

John F. Haldon, Byzantium at War: AD 600-1453 (Essential Histories 33), London 2003

John F. Haldon is a renowned British historian. He was professor at the university of Birmingham for long years and has worked as Director of Graduate Studies for the Princeton History Department from 2009 until 2019.  Haldon’s research centers on the socio-economic, institutional, political and cultural history of the early and middle Byzantine Empire from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.

Haldon’s book Byzantium at War AD 600-1453 offers an overview of Byzantium’s history from 600 to 1453. The Byzantine empire was, as the author states, almost constantly at war. Byzantium was challenged by its neighbours: at first, by the Persian Empire in the east, later by the various Islamic powers that arose in that region and by its northern neighbours, the Slavs, the Avars in the 6th and 7th centuries, the Bulgars from the end of the 7th to early 11th centuries and, in the later 11th and 12 centuries, the Hungarians, later the Serbs and finally, after their conquests in Greece and the southern Balkans, the Ottoman Turks. By the early 13th century, Byzantium’s western and northern neighbours were able to challenge the empire for pre-eminence, and reduced it to a second- or even third-rate rump of its former self, subordinated to the politics of the west and the commercial republics of Venice, Pisa and Genoa.

Haldon’s book explores the ways in which the medieval east Roman Empire secured its long existence. His hypothesis is that Byzantium survived so long partly because it was well-organised internally, with an efficient fiscal and military system; and partly because these advantages, rooted in its late Roman past, lasted well into the 11th century.

The book is structured in four parts containing a total of thirteen chapters. In the first, Haldon offers an introduction and overview over the chronology and the political background of Byzantium (chapter 1-3). In the second part, Haldon focuses on the neighbours and enemies and why and how the Byzantine Empire fought wars (chapter 4-5). Haldon states that besides the allocation and redistribution of resources (soldiers, supplies, equipment, livestock etc.), avoiding battle and diplomacy were keystones of Byzantine warfare strategy. Throughout the history of Byzantium, the military strategy was defensive. Haldon states that Byzantium survived as long as it did because it was able to defend itself, to intelligently exploit natural frontiers or boundaries in the crisis years of the 7th and 8th centuries, and to cultivate diplomatic and political relationships thereafter. In the following, Haldon engages with the organization ofwar and portrays a soldier’s life (chapter 6-7).

In the third part (chapter 8-10), Haldon is concerned with the world around war and peace. He emphasizes that the medieval eastern Roman Empire was a world in which the virtues of peace were extolled and war was condemned. Byzantine emperors could only justify their wars on the basis that they were fighting to preserve peace and to extend the territory of the Christian world. Then, Haldon draws a portrait of a civilian named Metrios (a farmer), because, as he says, one of the problems of Byzantine history is the fact that the written evidence, upon which historians have to rely for knowledge of people’s opinions and attitudes, was nearly always produced by members of relatively privileged social strata. All the events, he described, can be found in medieval sources to the period from the 7th to the 12th centuries. The last part deals with the process of the Byzantine Empire’s downfall.

Haldon concludes that one of the most important reasons for Byzantium’s success in defending a territory that was surrounded on all sides by hostile forces was the system of logistical support that it maintained almost to the end. The taxation system ensured the raising of supplies, as well as of cash in order to purchase mercenary soldiers, livestock and so forth. Haldon also names further key elements for the Byzantines’ success over the long term: tactical order, the discipline of the Byzantine military, and leadership. Haldon closes with the statement that Byzantium was always at war and war made Byzantium what it was.

Haldon’s work offers a very good overview of Byzantium’s warfare history from 600-1453. His work is introductory and may be recommended to a general audience; considering the size of the book (92 pages), it seems as if Haldon himself aimed at reaching a broad spectrum of readers