Book Review: The Taktika of Leo VI


by Leo VI

Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010. Pp. xxii. 690. Maps, gloss., appends, notes, biblio., indices. $60.00. ISBN: 0884023591

Alexander, Alfred, Peter, Catherine -- many rulers have earned the title of "Great," but very few merit the epithet "Wise." Leo VI, called "Leo the Wise" (Leon ho Sophou) was emperor of the Eastern Roman (or "Byzantine") Empire from 886 to his death in 912.  Although Leo never personally led his army in battle, he took a deep interest in military affairs.  Around the year 900, he compiled a detailed handbook of practical advice for his commanders, logically organized in twenty chapters:

1. Tactics and the General

2. Qualities Required in the General

3. How it is Necessary to Make Plans

4. The Division of the Army and the Appointment of Officers

5. Weapons

6. Armament for the Cavalry and the Infantry

7. Training for the Cavalry and the Infantry

8. Military Punishments

9. Marches

10. The Baggage Train

11. Camps

12. Advance Preparation for Battle

13. The Day Before Battle

14. The Day of Battle

15. Besieging a City

16. Matters After the War

17. Surprise Attacks

18. The Practices of Various Peoples and of the Romans in Their Battle Formations

19. Naval Warfare

20. Various Concise Sayings.

The Byzantines loved antiquity, and much of this material was derived from ancient military writers, including Onasander (1stcentury AD) and Aeaneas Tacticus (2nd century AD), both available in a single volume from the Loeb Classical Library, and especially the Strategikon of the emperor Maurice (ruled 582-602).  Of course much had changed by Leo's time.  His army of 130,000 men (about 30% cavalry) faced potential enemies on all sides -- Arabs of the Abbasid Caliphate to the south and east, Bulgars and Slavs to the north, Lombards and Franks to the west.

Although it was clearly intended for limited distribution -- "classified" as it were, remarkably Leo's Taktika survived in two nearly contemporary 10th century manuscripts, and several later copies.  Latin translations made during the Renaissance made the book accessible to scholars and educated officers, but no English edition has existed until now. 

Leo deplored the neglect of archery skills in the army, and required that every military household have a good bow and 40 arrows.  He emphasized what we would call "force protection" and "indirect" forms of combat, particularly delaying tactics, ambush, and protracted negotiations.  But he insisted that commanders honor any pledges or commitments made to an enemy under oath -- contradicting our usual perception of "byzantine" as a synonym for "treacherous".  Leo cautions his generals not to risk themselves in combat, a remarkably "modern" idea for an age when personal leadership on the battlefield was expected.  The Taktika emphasizes the importance of holding out a reserve, and the use of a "wedge" formation for armored shock cavalry.  Leo also stresses the criticality of morale and psychology, including the role of religion; for example he notes that it may be advisable before battle for the commander to spread the rumor that he has had a dream in which angels or saints promised his army victory.

Editing the original text and making the translation occupied the late George T. Dennis, S.J. (1923-2010) for 30 years.  A professor at The Catholic University of America, his scholarly study of war in the Byzantine era reflected his devotion to peace.  This magnificently produced edition sets Greek text and English translation on facing pages, supplemented by an appendix on Byzantine measurements, two clear maps, a Glossary of military terms, capsule biographies of all persons mentioned, and a comprehensive index.

Related works by Father Dennis include his 1984 translation of the Strategikon, noted above, and Three Byzantine Military Treatises (1985).


Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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