By Maximilian Lau
The Byzantinist, No.1 (2011)
Introduction: It was by reading John Keegan’s Face of Battle that I discovered that it was possible to write military history that was both intellectually rigorous and engaging to read. Though he opens by saying he has no idea what a battle is truly like, through his examination of sources and comparisons with similar battles, he manages to realise as much of his chosen battles as it is possible to do. This not only appeals to the armchairgeneral in many historians, but, through this thorough exploration of what he calls the ‘face of battle’, we can then delve further into the nature of the protagonists and the world they lived in, and gain insight into the operational practices of armies by engaging with their raison d’être – warfare.
In this short study, I will conform to Keegan’s methodology by presenting the Campaign, the Battle, and the Will to Combat. This outline should enable the reader to see the implications that the study of any Byzantine battle raises, and appreciate the account of the battle itself. When it comes to battles of the Byzantine period, we have fewer sources compared to those Keegan had for his analysis. This is true both of primary sources, where on many occasions we have only a single source for a battle, and of secondary sources. Eric McGeer has stated that most studies in Byzantine military history seem to focus on ‘what the army was rather that what it did’, that is to say, most studies are of the institutional history of the army rather than its operational history, and battles are often considered as events in a bigger picture rather than as a central human experience.
Using Keegan’s methodology of investigating primary sources, and cross-referencing with what we know from other battles, this study will deduce what we can about the battle of Beroia in 1122 AD. I have chosen Beroia, firstly, because of my research interest in the reign of John II Komnenos, for whom this was a great victory, in commemoration of which he established a day of thanksgiving. Niketas Choniates attests the feast was still celebrated almost a century later, making Beroia as important to Byzantium as Trafalgar was to Britain. Secondly, the battle heralded the end of the Pechenegs as an independent force and forced their disappearance from history. Moreover, a number of elucidating parallels can be made with previous battles. Finally, there are two differing accounts of this battle.