Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Aug 12, 2010 in Books and Movies

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire – Book Review

By Richard Tada

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Edward N. Luttwak. Harvard University Press, 498 pages, $35.

The strategic culture of the Byzantine Empire differed greatly from that of its Roman progenitor. While the Romans were straightforward and aggressive, the Byzantines were subtle and indirect. The Romans had emphasized infantry; the Byzantines preferred the more flexible cavalry. According to Edward N. Luttwak, in his interesting but flawed new book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, the Huns were the catalyst that effected this change.

The Byzantines employed an increasing number of mercenaries during the tenth century, as they shifted to an offensive stance.

When Attila’s Huns attacked across the Danube in the fifth century A.D., the Byzantines discovered that confronting them in battle didn’t pay. The Huns were mounted archers wielding powerful compound reflex bows, thus combining mobility and firepower to an extent the Byzantines had never before seen. Out of necessity, the Byzantines adopted a new approach, one that combined diplomacy and the payment of tribute, backstopped by the construction of very strong fortifications for their capital Constantinople. The payment of tribute to Attila—6,000 pounds of gold to get him to withdraw, to be followed by 1,000 pounds annually—was a marker of a broader shift. Unlike their Roman predecessors, the Byzantines were willing to put persuasion before force (and gold was a very effective form of persuasion). In this way, the Byzantines contained the Hunnic threat until Attila’s attention turned toward Western Europe.


Having learned from the Huns how effective mounted archers could be, the Byzantines decided to train some of their own, "adding some armor to make them more versatile," as Luttwak states. Thus the Byzantines raised units of mounted archers who could double as lancers when necessary. These archer-lancers played an important role in the campaigns ordered by the emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) to regain the former Roman possessions of North Africa and Italy from their barbarian occupiers.

Yet the material on the Huns and their impact only forms the first section of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, which is actually three books in one. Since the Byzantines emphasized diplomacy to a greater extent than had the Romans, the second section of the book offers up several chapters on the topic. This section is more of a grab bag than a systematic examination of Byzantine diplomacy. However, to his credit, Luttwak discusses one very important Byzantine device that was not available to the Romans: religion. The Byzantines were eager to propagate Orthodox Christianity, which brought diplomatic benefits as well as religious ones. By converting nations to Orthodoxy, the Byzantines were also recruiting potential allies. Not that conversion to Christianity always prevented conflict with Byzantium, as the case of Bulgaria shows. Yet even when war arose, "Byzantine diplomacy could and did exploit the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople over local churchmen to enlist help or at least dissuade hostility."

Luttwak’s third section—a discussion of surviving Byzantine military manuals dating from the sixth to the eleventh centuries—is the strongest in the book. He gives clear summaries of these very interesting texts, and his background as a strategist enables him to discern the principles behind the advice in the manuals. He notes that the Byzantine manuals consistently advocate what is now called "relational maneuver." Indeed, the late sixth-century text called the Strategikon gives a succinct definition of the technique: "That general is wise who before entering into war carefully studies the enemy, and can guard against his strong points and take advantage of his weaknesses."

The prerequisite for relational maneuver is military ethnography, to which the Strategikon devotes an entire book. For example, the "light-haired" peoples of the west—Franks, Lombards and the like—are described as brave but impetuous and disorganized. Hence, they can be easily lured into ambushes; sham negotiations are also worthwhile, eating up time while the barbarians eat up their scanty store of provisions.

In a brief conclusion, Luttwak outlines what he calls the Byzantine "operational code." He also digs down to the cultural bedrock underlying Byzantine strategy, about which he is dead-on correct when he writes:

This too is an explanation for the immense resilience of the imperial ruling class in times of acute crisis, and during agonizingly protracted periods of extreme insecurity: when all seemed bleak and hopeless, the Christian faith, the culture of ancient Greece, and Roman pride combined to reject surrender and inspire tenacity.

While The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire contains many insightful passages, it is marred by a basic structural problem—its three sections don’t combine to form a coherent whole. In his first section, Luttwak follows Justinian’s attempt to reconquer the west in the sixth century, and the devastating outbreak of plague that doomed his efforts. Luttwak then drops the narrative to turn to his section on Byzantine diplomacy. By so doing, he fails to make clear the extent of the catastrophe that hit the empire in the seventh century, with the Arab-Islamic conquest of Syria and Egypt.

After this forcible amputation of the empire’s wealthiest provinces, the revenues available to the Byzantine state declined drastically—as much as 75%, according to one modern estimate. This nearly fatal blow forced the Byzantines to make radical changes in the structure of the military: the field armies were pulled back into Anatolia and settled in districts called themes. As the empire was so impoverished it had difficulty paying its troops, it compensated them with land grants instead—these grants possibly coming out of the imperial estates. The thematic armies were supplemented during the eighth century by the creation of the first of the tagmata—standing cavalry units based in Constantinople. The themes and tagmata successfully defended most of Anatolia against the Arabs, until the threat abated in the tenth century.

Luttwak shows a curious lack of interest in the institutional forms of the Byzantine military after the seventh-century crisis, as he mentions the themes and tagmata only in passing. Moreover, the restructuring of the army also has implications for the presence of mounted archers, which Luttwak had earlier highlighted as a Byzantine response to the Hunnic threat. Luttwak notes that mounted archers need constant and rigorous training in order to stay effective. It is unlikely that a provincial militia (such as the thematic armies eventually became) could have offered such training. Mounted archery could only have persisted among the tagmata, and the extent to which it did so is not clear. There are references to mounted archers in tenth-century Byzantine texts, but at least some of these may have been foreign mercenaries. The Byzantines employed an increasing number of mercenaries during the tenth century, as they shifted to an offensive stance against the Arabs on the eastern frontier.

Other topics are passed over in silence, including one with clear parallels in more recent times: in eleventh-century Byzantium, internal political divisions became so severe as to prevent the implementation of a consistent strategy of any sort. The upshot was the empire’s defeat by the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071 (or "Mantzikert" as Luttwak has it, adopting the voguish transliteration). This defeat was a harbinger of the empire’s doom, although Byzantine resilience insured that the final downfall did not come until 1453.

From the mid-eleventh century, Muslim Turkoman nomads, under the loose suzerainty of the rising Seljuk sultanate, began to raid Byzantine Anatolia. It soon became clear that the Byzantine defenders had lost their edge, and these raids increased in frequency and destructiveness. Finally, the emperor Romanus IV Diogenes (reigned 1067-1071) raised a large and unwieldy army—one containing many units of foreign mercenaries—and moved into eastern Anatolia. As Luttwak cleverly puts it, the emperor’s intention was "to demolish the Seljuk infrastructure of Turkoman terror, in modern parlance." The campaign ended at Manzikert with the army in flight and the emperor a prisoner of the Seljuk sultan.

Luttwak’s account of the catastrophe focuses on purely military factors. He speculates about various defensive arrangements that might or might not have contained the Turkoman threat. But the roots of the defeat at Manzikert were political—namely, a bitter struggle between two factions of the Byzantine elite, which undermined the army at a critical moment.

Contemporary accounts describe the two factions. One comprised the military aristocracy, dwelling on great estates in Anatolia and holding a near-monopoly of the high commands in the provincial armies. They were opposed by a civil-bureaucratic faction that dominated the state apparatus in Constantinople. Prior to the arrival of the Seljuks, the empire had seemed secure. Thus the civil faction was able to reduce the thematic armies, commuting the soldiers’ military obligations in exchange for tax payments—doing so partly to undermine their rivals in the military aristocracy, partly because they had their own uses for the money raised. The most egregious offender in this regard was the emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (ruled 1042–1055), who in the early 1050s demobilized the soldiers of the Armenian themes and subjected them to taxation, thus opening up a hole through which Turkoman raiders soon began to pass.

Were topics such as these left out because they lack the requisite grandeur for inclusion in a book about grand strategy? If so, this decision weakens the book as a work of history, by leaving out so much that newcomers to Byzantine history (in particular) need to know. Those topics that Luttwak wishes to analyze are presented in a clear and interesting manner, but the wide gaps in coverage render The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire a disjointed and sometimes frustrating book.

Richard Tada holds a graduate degree in ancient history from the University of Washington. He has previously had articles published in MHQ and Military History magazine.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *