Book Review: The Grand Strategy Of The Byzantine Empire

The Grand Strategy Of The Byzantine Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak

I must admit, I’m very fond of reading books about grand strategy and pondering about the subject, although it is rare to find many books on the subject [1]. This is a large book, at a little more than 400 pages of material, but it is a worthwhile book to read for those who are interested not only in the history of the Byzantine Empire, but also its contemporary relevance. The author demonstrates both his command of elegant prose, his thoughtful command of important sources of diplomatic and military theory and practice, his ability to wade into scholarly controversies over the value of Byzantine texts and the characteristic Byzantine tendency to value antiquarian sayings but also show an astonishing command of realpolitik. The author is fulsome in praise towards the scholars who helped him with his work by sharing their own translations and manuscripts with him, and he bemoans the fact that inferior Roman texts have been well-remembered while better Byzantine texts have been forgotten and left to languish in obscurity. This book does a good work, for example, in helping audiences gain a greater appreciation of the military manuals of the Byzantine Empire, which deserve a definitive collection of their own [2] that is popularly accessible at a low cost. While we wait for that to happen, one can enjoy books like this which provide a comprehensive review of the lengthy tradition of Byzantine military texts with a practical bent that show how an empire with many enemies and a vulnerable position maintained its survival for a millennium when more heralded empires like the Roman Empire or Ottoman Empire were unable to do so.

In terms of its contents, this book is divided into three parts and over a dozen smaller chapters that cover about 430 pages or so of core material, along with helpful appendices and a lengthy section with endnotes and an index after that. The first part looks at the invention of the characteristic Byzantine strategy, which began with the threat of Attila the Hun towards the end of the Roman Empire and continued through about two centuries of history in what the author considers the “Late Roman” period of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the full emergence of a Byzantine successor state in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests. The author then spends seven chapters discussing Byzantine diplomacy, from their use of envoys, to the role of Orthodox religion in serving the interests of the empire, to the use of imperial prestige to overawe potential opponents, to their fondness for dynastic marriages, to their recognition of the geography of power, to their struggle to control Bulgaria, to their relations with the Muslim Arabs and the Turks who eventually conquered Constantinople in 1453 after a long period of conflict and tension. The final five chapters of the book examine the Byzantine Art of War, a subject that deserves to be better known, with chapters on the classical inheritance from Greece and Rome, the Strategikon of Maurikios (better known in English as Maurice), the Byzantine texts after the Strategikon, Leo VI and his writings on naval warfare, a chapter which puts Greek fire in its proper context, the tenth-century military renaissance, which included many texts written about military practice, as well as a case study of strategic maneuver in Herakleios’ defeat of the Persian threat of the early 7th century. The book concludes with a discussion of grand strategy that summarizes the author’s points effectively and then moves on to an appendix that seeks to defend the author’s contentions about the feasibility of grand strategy in Byzantine times in the absence of a general staff or people with specialized functions as a diplomatic corps.

In many ways, this book is both immensely quotable and relevant for its reading audience [3]. The author frequently quotes the noted Latin justification of war preparations, si vis pacem para bellum, which, roughly translated, means, “If you want to see peace, prepare for war.” This is, of course, the reason why even people of a pacifist nature should study warfare [4]. The author also provides an understanding of Byzantine strategic thought, despite the inevitable simplifications that occur when telescoping texts from many centuries into a particular presentation, that is of particular use to the United States and to Western civilization in general. Byzantine grand strategy, that is, the integration of political, economic, military, and diplomatic aims into a coherent but often paradoxical and unpredictable set of operating principles and behaviors, is well-suited to our time and situations. The author shows a Byzantine empire with limited demographic resources and a core of immensely trained and often irreplaceable soldiers, vulnerable frontiers, far more numerous and powerful enemies, and a realization that today’s ally could be tomorrow’s enemy, and vice versa. Focusing on goals of survival rather than annihilation of the empire’s enemies, and the subversion of enemies through bribery and flattery, and the development of internal unity fostered on cultural and religious factors as well as an espirit d’corps, the empire sought to use its strengths in logistics and culture to compensate for weaknesses in manpower in a time of limited budgets but potentially unlimited warfare. Our own nation would do well to adopt such means ourselves, especially given the reality of limited military budgets in an age of austerity and enforced fiscal responsibility. To do, though, requires that we engage in a more careful husbanding of our own resources, human and material, and that we make a better effort to understand our potential enemies, which requires empathy and understanding.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] Among its most worthwhile quotes are as follows:

“The strategical success of the Byzantine empire was of a different order than any number of tactical victories or defeats: it was a sustained ability, century after century, to generate disproportionate power from whatever military strength could be mustered, by combining it with all the arts of persuasion, guided by superior information. The current terms would be diplomacy and intelligence, if one could disregard their largely bureaucratic character in modern conditions–all use of those words in what follows is to be understood in inverted commas (6).”

“The envoys we send out should be men who have the reputation of being religious, who have never been denounced for any crime or publicly condemned. They should be naturally intelligent and public spirited enough to be willing to risk their own lives…and they should undertake their mission eagerly and not under compulsion…Envoys should appear gracious, truly noble, and generous to the extent of their powers. They should speak with respect of both their own country and that of the enemy and never speak disparagingly of it (101).”

“Illiteracy among cavalry officers did not prevent the study, dissemination, and retention of entire repertoires of tactics originally learned from books. That indeed was a comparative advantage of the Byzantines, whose own military literature was more useful than the earlier Roman, so far as we know, including lost texts by Cato, Celsus, Frontinus–whose Strategemata survies–and Paternus (239).”

“When relational maneuver is successful, it changes the effective military balance by circumventing the enemy’s strengths and exploiting his weaknesses. If in a straight contest of attrition, 3,000 equal-quality soldiers must prevail over 1,000, barring extraordinary circumstances, with relational operational methods or tactics, it can easily happen that 1,000 can defeat 3,000. Or if the numbers are even, 1,000 can defeat 1,000 but with many fewer casualties, or with the expenditure of fewer resources, or both.

So why would anyone ever fight in any other way?

The first reason is that to uncover the enemy strengths to be avoided and weaknesses that can be exploited, the enemy itself must be understood, and that requires an intellectual effort, and also an emotional effort to overcome hatred, for there can be no deep understanding without empathy (287).”

“The Praecepta Miltaria contains the most concentrated expression of the Byzantine style of war. It is not Homeric combat for personal glory, nor the grand heroic warfare of Alexander, nor the relentless destruction of the enemy of classic Roman warfare. The Byzantine field commander depicted in the text is neither a devotee of holy war equally content with glorious victory or glorious martyrdom, nor an adventurer hoping for success. His task is to campaign successfully, occasionally by fighting battles but mostly not; he is to fight only victorious battles, an aim that can be achieved by carefully avoiding anything resembling a fair fight: “Avoid not only an enemy force of superior strength but also one of equal strength (375).”

[4] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Book Review: The Grand Strategy Of The Byzantine Empire

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