Book Review: Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD): Byzantium, the West, and Islam (Petersen)—Review by Lucas McMahon

Book Review: Leif Inge Ree Petersen. Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD): Byzantium, the West, and Islam. Leiden: Brill, 2013. xxvii+819 pp. £170, $282, €218. ISBN 13: 9789004251991.

Following a failed attack on Adrianople, the late fourth century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus famously had the Gothic leader Fritigern (d. after 380) claim that he was not at war with the walls (31.6.4). This statement has served as a point of departure for modern scholarship in regards to barbarian and early medieval siege warfare, and is a view that Leif Inge Ree Petersen has set out to challenge in his large Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD): Byzantium, the West and Islam. The book is long and much more complex than a cursory glance might suggest, and scholars who are not interested in military matters per se ignore this volume to their peril. It contains important arguments for the transition of the Roman world into the early medieval, Byzantine, and Islamic eras. The work presents some crucial revisions on the capacities of these states to organize resources and wage war. Beyond being a work of military history, this book is a useful contribution to the debate of “continuity” versus “fall” which has occupied scholars such as Peter Brown, Averil Cameron, Wolf Liebeschuetz, and Bryan Ward-Perkins in recent years.

Petersen’s book can be effectively divided into three parts. The introduction and first four chapters make up the “military organization” aspect of the title. The crux of the argument here is that the post-Roman states inherited a large portion of the Roman military tradition, including the capacity to field sizable armies and conduct substantial long-term sieges against major fortifications. The second part (chapters five through eight) is a more technical discussion of the various manifestations of siege warfare and the transferral of technology, which benefits greatly from the concurrent breadth and depth of Petersen’s research. The final part of the book is Petersen’s corpus obsidionum, a 300-page catalogue of sieges from the period under discussion arranged by date and provided with extensive quotations from primary material and references to secondary sources. This section is based entirely in literary sources. While archaeological material would certainly have supplemented the texts, and perhaps challenged some of them, such a task is beyond the purview of an already substantial volume. Nonetheless, the corpus obsidionum is a significant achievement and will likely be useful for a long time. An impressive range of evidence makes up the corpus obsidionum, and Petersen includes Syriac material in addition to the Latin and Greek, which adds to the quality and range of the corpus.

Since few literary descriptions of sieges from this period are furnished with much specific detail, Petersen turns to Clifford Geertz’ concept of “thick” and “thin” descriptions, arguing that the latter are too limited to come to much of a conclusion and that further context is needed. Some hazards lie in this method, with so many of the “thick” descriptions coming from Roman sources that it may be difficult to see anything other than Roman siegecraft in the “thin” descriptions that are little more than brief notices. Nonetheless, Petersen has enough material to convincingly present his thesis, and a handful of particularly detailed accounts are used effectively but not excessively in the creation of a convincing picture of siege warfare. A small number of thoroughly described sieges from several corners of the former Roman world thus lie at the base of many of the others, but this does not restrict the types of activities that Petersen sees as being carried out at sieges. Rather, siege techniques varied immensely, even during any given siege. Overall, Petersen marshals evidence to convince readers that early medieval states were able to muster the substantial resources required to conduct major siege operations.

A book of this size will undoubtedly generate some criticism. Specialists will certainly have minor points to complain about, and the comprehensive but breakneck pace at which the introduction of the traction trebuchet is handled will not please everyone. The philological evidence presented by Petersen is intriguing, but leaves one wishing for a more comprehensive study given how databases like the Library of Latin Texts and the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae can facilitate such a project. However, a study of that magnitude may also warrant more than just a chapter in a longer work. Some greater attention to copyediting would also have been appreciated, notably for the footnotes.

Rather than choosing to dwell on minor, specific points, broader methodological questions deserve attention. I hope that these will not be taken as specific criticisms of the book, but instead as part of the broader discussion of late antique and early medieval military history. A recent trend in Byzantine Studies, illustrated by the works of scholars such as Anthony Kaldellis, Leonora Neville, and Catherine Holmes, has been to look at literary sources as carefully composed, artful pieces of literature rather than as mere repositories from which “facts” can be assembled. How warfare is presented in these sources is never discussed in this book, although Petersen is aware of the issue, since he notes most of the detailed siege narratives derive from East Rome during late antiquity, and are contained in classicizing historiography (p. 297). How the classicizing trend influenced these accounts is a matter of particular importance, but receives no discussion here. Continuity in siege warfare can certainly be seen from antiquity into the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, one does wonder to what degree literary models like Thucydides or Xenophon influenced, for example, Procopius’ lengthy and detailed siege of Rome. In all fairness to Petersen, however, one of the more substantial siege narratives he uses is in Syriac, and thus exists outside the classical milieu of classicizing writing.

This is an important work of late antique and early medieval history, and not just military history. The corpus obsidionum is a work of enduring value. Petersen’s conclusions derived from his mass of evidence are important, as they point to a great deal of continuity amongst the post-Roman states. More importantly, however, despite the scanty nature of much of much of the evidence, Petersen convincingly demonstrates that post-Roman states maintained a military apparatus no less sophisticated than that of late Roman times. While this conclusion will likely engender some debate, Petersen shows that many of these early medieval states had the capacity to carry out complex siege operations, an important challenge to traditional ideas of more mobile and simpler warfare amongst the civilizations of the post-Roman west. While few readers will likely engage with the work in toto, scholars of Late Antiquity, the post-Roman west, Byzantium, and Islam will all find important material on the formation of the early medieval world within.

Lucas McMahon

Lucas McMahon is an MA student at Central European University, Budapest. His research interests are primarily concerned with Byzantine historiography, power, and foreigners in the empire. His current thesis work deals with understanding the tenth-century military manual de Velitatione as a contemporary piece of literature.

Cited works
Brown, Peter. SO Debate The World of Late Antiquity Revisited.” Symbolae Osloenses 72.1 (1997): 5-30.

Cameron, Averil. “Ideologies and Agendas in Late Antique Studies.” In Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology. Ed. Luke Lavan and William Bowden. Leiden: Brill, 2001. 3-24.

Holmes, Catherine. Basil II and the Governance of Empire. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Kaldellis, Anthony. Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. “Late Antiquity and the Concept of Decline.” Nottingham Medieval Studies 45 (2001): 1-11.

Neville, Leonora. Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


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