Vulnerability of Komnenian military system

Oct 2011
275
Croatia
#1
I have often read that Komnenian Byzantine Empire was overtly centralized and vulnerable, compared to Macedonian period (centralized in a sense that it was dependant on competence of the Emperor). However, I also know that Komneni tried to restore the thematic military model. In fact, from what I have read, pronoia grants were not that different from the way that thematic troops were supported in the time of Nikephoros Phokas and other Macedonian emperors. Why did it fail? Was it simply because of too far progressed feudalization of the Empire, or there were other factors in play?
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,713
Sydney
#2
It seems to me the Themes were somewhat similar to the Merovingian Marches
the local exarch was supposed to deal with small and medium sized raids which were pretty destructive and required immediate reaction
I suppose this led to the rise of powerful local nobles , which could be a problem , hence a desire to centralize the armed forces
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,816
Blachernai
#3
C'mon guys, I really don't have time to read through all of Bartusis' pronoia book right now. :p

I have often read that Komnenian Byzantine Empire was overtly centralized and vulnerable, compared to Macedonian period (centralized in a sense that it was dependant on competence of the Emperor). However, I also know that Komneni tried to restore the thematic military model. In fact, from what I have read, pronoia grants were not that different from the way that thematic troops were supported in the time of Nikephoros Phokas and other Macedonian emperors. Why did it fail? Was it simply because of too far progressed feudalization of the Empire, or there were other factors in play?
My short answer would be that it didn't fail. The Fourth Crusade was not a military defeat but a political one, and the Byzantine armed forces had little role to play. The crusaders' accounts note with concern that large Byzantine armies were moving about when they were at Constantinople, but in the end they only had to deal with some small palace regiments when they actually took the city. In the mid-1180s they fought off a Norman invasion and won a victory so comprehensive that Norman historians have noted that it completely broke the Hautville kingdom, but we tend only to remember the sack of Thessaloniki because it fits a narrative of decline.
 
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Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,816
Blachernai
#4
It seems to me the Themes were somewhat similar to the Merovingian Marches
the local exarch was supposed to deal with small and medium sized raids which were pretty destructive and required immediate reaction
That's what de facto happened in the smaller eastern themata, but the point was always to supply the field armies. Thema comes from the Greek tithemi, "place down." The armies were simply placed into assigned groupings of Roman provinces (which continued to exist for centuries) from which they had to supply themselves.

I suppose this led to the rise of powerful local nobles , which could be a problem , hence a desire to centralize the armed forces
The need for central forces actually came from threatening thematic generals, hence the breaking up of the Opsikion. Amongst 7-8th c. emperors, an awful lot of the usurpers were thematic generals or proposed by the thematic troops. Leontios had been strategos of the Anatolikon, and was assigned to strategos of Hellas when he revolted. Tiberios III Apsimar had been drouggarios of the Kibyrrhaiotai. Artemios-Anastasios was proclaimed by the Opsikion, as was his successor Theodosios III. Leo III was strategos of the Anatolikon when he went over to the Arabs and before he seized Constantinople for himself. The next major one came when Leo III died, and his son-in-law Artabasdos (strategos of the Armeniakon) seized power, incidentally the only civil war in Byzantine history that I can think of in which the usurper managed to eject the reigning emperor from Constantinople and yet still lose the war. There's a study on these revolts by Walter Kaegi.

The powerful locals come later and that's a different discussion. The older ideas of feudalism and de-centralization have generally been pushed back upon, noting that the provincial magnates never had the resources to challenge the centre and were more interested in coming to the centre and exercising power there. The classic study of this is Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations a Byzance (963-1210).
 

Kirialax

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Dec 2009
4,816
Blachernai
#5
Third post since it would be way, way too much to ask for Kirialax to write three short paragraphs over the course of a morning without disturbance..

All of this needs to be set in a context of a world more dangerous to Byzantium than at any point since the mid-seventh through mid-eighth century, when the vastly larger and wealthier Umayyad Caliphate was determined on destroying the empire. The increase in political sophistication and the coherence of larger, more well-organized polities less susceptible to traditional Byzantine divide-and-rule diplomacy.
 
Oct 2011
275
Croatia
#6
Third post since it would be way, way too much to ask for Kirialax to write three short paragraphs over the course of a morning without disturbance..

All of this needs to be set in a context of a world more dangerous to Byzantium than at any point since the mid-seventh through mid-eighth century, when the vastly larger and wealthier Umayyad Caliphate was determined on destroying the empire. The increase in political sophistication and the coherence of larger, more well-organized polities less susceptible to traditional Byzantine divide-and-rule diplomacy.
True, but IIRC Komnenoi field armies tended to be much smaller than Macedonian ones. Was it because of the loss of territory, or different organization?
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,816
Blachernai
#7
True, but IIRC Komnenoi field armies tended to be much smaller than Macedonian ones. Was it because of the loss of territory, or different organization?
Are they that much smaller? When the Komnenoi wanted to put very large armies in the field, they could, such as John and Manuel's Hungarian campaigns, or Manuel's Myriokephalon campaign. The upper limit is set by pre-modern logistics, I suspect. Unfortunately, we don't even have a lot of general, bad figures, and the slightly more ad hoc organization makes it tougher to estimate sizes based on unit counts. My suspicion is that the size gap is mostly made up by general demographic trends: the lands the Komnenoi ruled were simpler more populated, more intensely exploited, and wealthier than two centuries previous.
 
Oct 2011
275
Croatia
#8
Are they that much smaller? When the Komnenoi wanted to put very large armies in the field, they could, such as John and Manuel's Hungarian campaigns, or Manuel's Myriokephalon campaign. The upper limit is set by pre-modern logistics, I suspect. Unfortunately, we don't even have a lot of general, bad figures, and the slightly more ad hoc organization makes it tougher to estimate sizes based on unit counts. My suspicion is that the size gap is mostly made up by general demographic trends: the lands the Komnenoi ruled were simpler more populated, more intensely exploited, and wealthier than two centuries previous.
Maybe not central army, but IIRC Empire during the height of theme system could put more than one army in the field when necessary. They did try to avoid fighting on multiple fronts, but they could do it. And I think that the very fact that unit sizes were ad hoc shows that, if not field armies, then the total military establishment was smaller. Large, organized armies with developed organization and logistics depend on standardization to remain manageable. Only small feudal armies, numbering in single-digit thousands at most, can afford nonstandardized unit sizes.
 
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