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Warfare in the Byzantine World, ca. 632-1461 - 30 credits (HS1708)

Module Tutor: Professor Frank Trombley 

Course Description

The module will cover the period from the Muslim conquest of the Near East to the capitulation of Trebizond to Mehmed II in 1461.  It will consider a typical range of issues in line with the 'new' military history, which looks at the impact of war on social and cultural structures and processes, economics and fiscalité, fortifications and infrastructure, state ideologies and treaty systems, architecture and representational art. Tactical manuals and historical evidence for the execution of military plans (grand strategy, operations and tactics) in the diverse geographical environments of the southern Balkans and Near East is an inevitable part of this.  There will be particular emphasis on the human cost of endemic warfare and the role of religion in bolstering Greek ethnic morale. The range of questions will be similar to those posed for other periods of European history.  What were the ideological characteristics of the Byzantine state and its competitors? Is it possible to trace clear continuities in Greek society and culture in their response to foreign military aggression? What role did the amalgam of neighbouring peoples (inter alia Albanians, Arabs, Armenians, Slavs and Turks) play in the vicissitudes of Byzantine state and society?  What function did endemic warfare have in the ethnogenesis of contemporary Balkan and Near Eastern societies?  The module will adopt an intercultural approach to this investigation. Narrative histories, documents, archaeological data and art historical representation will all be used to explore the material and cultural context of the historical process.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures and seminar discussion of major issues. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

  • Historiography of the Byzantine state, medieval Greek society and culture at war.
  • The Eastern Roman state: army, society and defensive infrastructure
  • Across the frontier: neighbouring state formations, societies and their practice of war.
  • Crisis of the 7th century I: Islam, the caliphate and the Arab conquest of Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
  • Crisis of the 7th century II: Slavonic and Bulgar penetration of the Balkan peninsula.
  • Social and cultural impact of endemic low intensity warfare 7th-10th centuries. The early medieval fortified town (kastron).
  • Byzantine territorial expansion in the 10th-11th centuries. Tactical manuals and the systematisation of warfare.
  • Graeco-Roman customary law of war in medieval Christian configuration. Islamic and Slavic legal norms.
  • Dangerous neighbours in the 11th century: Fatimids, Seljuks and Franks.
  • Technological and organisational dislocation: the Seljuk Landnahme in Asia Minor.
  • Challenge and response: Crusade. Military reforms of the Komnenian emperors. Loss of Constantinople 1204.
  • The Laskarid regime in Asia Minor: endemic warfare in the Seljuk borderlands. The Epirote state. Recovery of Constantinople 1261.
  • Michael VIII Palaiologos: Byzantine naval forces and contacts with Italian maritime republics.
  • Byzantine territorial losses in 14th century Asia Minor. Expansion of the Ottoman Turks.
  • Balkan twilight of the Byzantine state.  Fall of Constantinople and other outposts 1453-1461.
  • Aftermath and prospectus:  Greek society in defeat. Byzantine tactical manuals and the development of military thought in early modern

Learning outcomes

  • demonstrate a systematic understanding of the development and nature of a pre-industrial society in long periods of low-intensity warfare (raiding) and catastrophic events that affect state survival
  • demonstrate a systematic knowledge of the behavioural structures of Greek society under the impress of the fiscal demands of an authoritarian state.
  • demonstrate a systematic knowledge of the historiographic debates about medieval Greek public institutions, society and culture—and particularly about state survival—that have emerged since the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  • assess the various historiographic approaches to the genres of evidence that are used to recover the medieval Greek past.
  • develop a praxis for multiethnic understanding of endemic warfare and peace-making in the Balkan and Near Eastern context.
  • assess and interpret select examples of Byzantine primary sources: documents, historical narratives, defensive architecture and artistic practice relevant to the theme of the module.
  • interpret debates in the secondary literature relevant to the theme of the module.

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.

Suggested preparatory reading

Bartusis, M., The Late Byzantine Army. Arms and Society, 1204-1453 (Philadelphia 1992).
Birkenmeier, J. W., The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081-1180 (Leiden 2002).
Bury, J. B., A History of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I (A.D. 802-867) (London 1912).
Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gy. Moravcsik, trans. R. H. J. Jenkins (Washington, D.C. 1967).
Dennis, G. T. (ed. and trans.) The Taktika of Leo VI (Washington, D.C. 2010).
Dennis, G. T. (ed. and trans.), Three Byzantine Military Treatises (Washington, D.C. 1985).
Haldon, J. F. (ed. and trans.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Three Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions (Vienna 1990).
Haldon, J. F., Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204 (London 1999).
Kyriakidis, S, Warfare in Late Byzantium, 1204-1453 (Leiden 2011).
Lee, A. D., War in Late Antiquity. A Social History (Oxford 2007).
Leo the Deacon, History, trans. A.-M. Talbot and D. F. Sullivan (Washington, D. C. 2005).
McGeer, E., Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century (Washington, D.C. 1995).
Muntaner, The Catalan Expedition to the East, trans. R. D. Hughes (Barcelona 2006).
Ostrogorsky, G., History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick 1969).
Pryor, J. H. and Jeffreys, E. M., The Age of the Dromon . The Byzantine Navy ca 500-1204 (Leiden 2006).
Toynbee, A., Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his World (Oxford 1973).
Theophanes Confessor, Chronicle, trans. C. Mango and R. Scott (Oxford 1997).
Treadgold, W., Byzantium and Its Army 284-1081 (Stanford 1995).
Trombley, F. R. and Watt, J. W. (trans.), The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite (Liverpool 2000).
Vryonis, S., The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century (Berkeley-Los Angeles 1971).