Book Review: Ilkka Syvanne, ‘Military History of Rome, 518-565’ (2021)

Book Review: Syvanne, Ilkka, ‘Military History of Late Rome 518–565’ (Pen and Sword Military, 2021). £30.00

First, I would like to thank Pen and Sword for sending me a review copy of this book. In my fault, I was not able to review it at the time of arrival because I was in England visiting my family, rather than Cardiff where the book was waiting for me. I wish to rectify the delay with an approachable and short review. One thing I noticed when picking the book up was how heavy it was. This was going to be one mighty tome!

I should note a few things before we proceed. The nature of receiving this book as a review copy from the publishers will not impact this review. I aim to review the book in a broad and general context, elaborating on some areas whilst glancing over others. The book’s strengths and weaknesses will be mentioned and last, this review will provide my thoughts on whether this book is worth purchasing.

The Review

Dr Ilkka Syvanne has just released the sixth volume in his book series with Pen and Sword, which focusses on narrating and analysing Late Roman military history. The book title is: ‘Military History of Late Rome 518-565.’ This volume focuses on the reigns of Emperor Justin I (AD 518-527) and Emperor Justinian I (AD 527-565). For that reason, it covers a large portion of warfare in the sixth century, alongside the famous and monumental reconquest of the lost western Roman territories.

The book takes the form of a chronological narrative of military events, focussing on analysing battles, tactics, and their generals. When events run simultaneously in different geographical regions, they are split into separate chapters for the reader’s ease. This is clear when looking at chapter sixteen, which focuses on the Lazic War (AD 549-57) and seventeen, which focuses on Italy (AD 548-51). The chronological approach allows the reader to have an overall understanding of how things were playing out within the empire, and therefore provide an apprehension of how events impacted one-another.

What impressed me about this book was its scope, and the ease I could look up a theatre of war and learn about it. I could read the book as a complete narrative of military history or use it as a steppingstone for learning more about a particular geographical region, such as the Sasanian conflict or the troubles along the African frontier. I cannot go into any real detail in this review about the book’s arguments and analysis (otherwise it would be a thesis), but I would like to confirm that it achieved its designated goal of providing ‘an overview of all the principal aspects of Roman military history during the years 518-565’ [p. x].

The first two chapters of this volume focus on setting the scene of the sixth century. Chapter one narrates the political and military situation of the Roman Empire after the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (AD 491-518). Dr Syvanne notes that Anastasius left the coffers of the empire well endowed, however, it was the inefficiency of the military and relative religious division which made the empire fragile. This section is followed by ten pages detailing the Roman military organisation of the early sixth century. Syvanne provides a welcome introduction to the topic for casual readers but comes to the very traditional conclusion of the Roman infantry’s lack of efficiency. This has generally been accepted by many scholars who believe the infantry’s fall in efficiency gave way to the prominence of cavalry deployment, however, it should be noted that it was merely that the infantry’s role had changed. There were several examples of infantry pulling their weight notably at the Battle of Callinicum (AD 532) and Taginae (AD 552). It should be stated that Dr Syvanne does preface that these are his arguments for the early sixth century. Therefore, one might assume that his opinion could change throughout the book. What we find is that even when some credit is given to the infantry’s efficiency, it is doubted in the proceeding moment (p.70 & p.342). There is still an on-going debate about this issue and Dr Syvanne simply adds to one side of the argument, and therefore this does not detract from the book. It merely caught my attention after working with the debate in the past.

The second chapter provides an outline of Rome’s allies and enemies during this period. Dr Syvanne notably discusses the Slavs, Antae, Huns, Bulgars, Turks, Avars, Goths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, Gepids, Heruls, Moors, Berbers, and Sasanians. Quite a few peoples and societies! Some of these peoples are grouped together for ease as a result of their close-linked ethnicity/heritage or equally their type of warfare. For example, the Huns, Bulgars, Turks, and Avars. Likewise, some of these groups are provided substantially more space than others. While it should not be expected of the author to provide an extensive breakdown of all these peoples in one chapter, a little more on the Sasanians would have been nice, especially as they are one of the principal enemies of the Roman Empire during this period. In comparison, Dr Syvanne provides a sizable amount of detail to the Slavs and Antae, combining background information with evidence from the Strategikon on how they operated and how the Romans needed to combat them. The same treatment for the Sasanians would have been warmly welcomed. With that said, this chapter provides a nice introduction to these important groups, and I enjoyed reading through it and refreshing my memory.

Dr Syvanne dedicates one chapter to Justin I and this can largely be down to the type of foreign relations conducted during this period. During the reign of Justin I, the Romans did not conduct any military campaigns until the last few years when conflict with the Sasanians re-emerged (AD 526-527). Instead, Justin I decided to take the route of strengthening his foreign borders through the means of establishing, and reinforcing, client states. Therefore, Justin I preferred to use foreign diplomacy as a method to provoke his enemies without any direct involvement. Dr Syvanne provides a notable example with Justin I delegating all martial conduct to the Ethiopian power Aksum after the Himyar revolt emerged in AD 522. The chapter also touches on Justin’s western relations with the Ostrogothic and Vandal powers, which resulted in a distancing of the two Christian churches. Lastly, the ‘Cold War’ relationship between the Roman Empire and the Sasanians is also discussed, as well as the reasons why ‘proper’ conflict resumed in the latter years.

The remaining seventeen chapter focus on the Emperor Justinian and his numerous military conflicts between AD 527-565. To provide an overview of each chapter would be too long for this review and therefore, I shall only provide a short content summary.

An introductory chapter on Justinian and Theodora is provided and includes information about their personal relationship, but also some of their aims and achievements during this early period. This was a nice addition because it sets up the political situation and how and why things were put into motion in the proceeding decades. From this point onwards, the book focuses on Justinian and his wars which spanned the, then, current, and lost territory of the Roman Empire. The book focuses on the various well-known conflicts of the period, but also those that go relatively under the radar. To that end, I am thankful to the author. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the conflict in North Africa (Ch.7 and 10), and especially learning about John Troglita and his military leadership and exploits in chapter fourteen.

The intermittent conflict between the Romans and Sasanians is covered in chapters five, eleven, and sixteen. I particularly enjoyed reading more about the Lazic War and the political and military turmoil that surrounded Phasis in AD 555/6, alongside the events preluding the end of the war. The eastern theatre of war is extended in chapter fifteen which focuses on the conflict between the Arab federates (Ghassanids and Lakhmids) and their ongoing struggle for dominance and survival. The various western reconquests are covered in great detail in chapters six, seven, nine, twelve, thirteen, seventeen, and eighteen. These discuss the initial operations to take back control of the lost western territory, but also the troubles that Justinian and his generals faced on how to maintain them and indeed, stop them from being retaken. Although the battles and overall narrative is evidently present, the sense of battling styles of generalship is also prevalent. I will admit, I am a team Narses guy… The Balkan theatre of war is introduced in chapter eight, but a large deal of information on the ongoing conflict between the Romans and the various peoples in that region are actually more present in other chapters. For example, there is an excursus on the Slavic invasions of the Balkans in chapter seventeen. Supplementary information on conflict with the Slavs, Antea, and others can also be found in various other chapters connected to the general western theatre of war. The penultimate chapter provides an overview of the last years of Justinian’s reign. It narrates the military situation of the empire in terms of its manpower and finances, but also sets up the stage for the next phase of conflict under his successor, Justin (II), who comes to the forefront in this chapter. The book is rounded off by a brief concluding remark on Justinian’s character.

The material of the book is vast and dense, but well written, and it is clear that a great deal of research and analysis has gone into the author’s work. Whether an individual chooses to agree with Dr Syvanne is entirely up to them as some of his conclusions can be (as I quote the back of the book) a result of his ‘often revisionist’ approach to the topic.

The book does provide the reader with footnotes; however, these are not plentiful and are limited.  This is not necessarily a problem for the general reader, but for those wanting to find the specific reference for an event or individual discussed in the book, it can be hit and miss. Dr Syvanne does mention in his introduction that references will only be provided if his contribution is new or controversial, however, it would be nice to know where some of these interesting events can be found in their contemporary origins. It should be noted this may be, and likely is, the result of the publishing guidelines rather than the author’s direct intention. With that said, it is an important thing to consider for those wanting to use the publication in an academic manner.

The last thing to consider is the limited presence of historiography or source analysis. Again, Dr Syvanne does provide a preface in his introduction explaining that this aspect had been taken out because there is a vast amount of scholarly literature available elsewhere on the contemporary sources. While this is true, the author does not provide enough of these ‘other works’ in his bibliography (which is only five page long – two for contemporary and three for secondary). If the author wishes not to include historiography in his publication, then he perhaps needs to provide people with adequate direction to find it. Retrospectively, I feel the author could have included a precursory/introductory remark on the sources for this period, much like his second chapter on Rome’s allies and enemies. This again does not overtly detract from the book, but those wanting to know more about the contemporary sources will need to find it elsewhere.

The addition of numerous maps, pictures, and battle diagrams are very welcome and make certain sections of the book easier to understand alongside being visually pleasant and interesting. These visual additions are certainly a key strength of the book and bring it to life.

In conclusion, this is well-worth picking up and will be a useful addition to anyone interested in Late Roman military history. It offers a unique and dedicated focus on battles and their tactics during this period. For that reason, I will be sinking my teeth into it for some time to come.

Published by Sean Strong

Sean is a doctoral researcher working on the reign of Maurice (582-602). He holds a further interest in understanding the ideology behind identity and the perception of rulership in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sean's research interests vary throughout the Late Antique and Byzantine world, and span across the fields of military, political, and social history.

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