McGeer cover

Edward Luttwak

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2009. 512pp. $35.00 ISBN 978-0-674-03519-5.

An Empire surrounded by enemies cannot defend itself by military might alone. It is for this reason that the Byzantines have been unjustly labeled as diplomatic charlatans and schemers intent on the destruction of her enemies. In his book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak seeks to restore the luster of Byzantium’s tarnished image by discarding myths and shedding light on Byzantium’s true legacy, a legacy even more spectacular than the legends that have ingrained themselves into our modern imagination. Unable to defend herself in the traditional Roman way, the Byzantines adopted a new grand strategy that would successfully neutralize enemies and attract allies for centuries.

Necessity demanded wars of attrition to be avoided in favor of influencing and/or pressuring potential enemies and allies alike through a variety of diplomatic devices, including Imperial ambassadorial missions, gifts of friendship, dynastic marriages, alliances against common enemies, and conversion to Christianity. Divided into three sections, Luttwak’s book covers the Invention of Byzantine Strategy, their Diplomacy-Myth and Methods, and the Byzantine Art of War. Luttwak challenges conventional understandings, deconstructs myths and dubious sources, revealing a rich and militarily sophisticated state that continued to prosper in spite of being pressed and squeezed by multiple enemies at any given time.

When Attila and his Huns terrorized the peoples of Europe in the fifth century, they possessed the most advanced war-making capabilities ever seen. The Roman mentality of annihilation was untenable and the Byzantine state did not possess the manpower or the financial resources to maintain a large standing army that could protect her frontiers. A new strategy would have to be adopted in order to confront the changing dynamics and a fluctuating balance-of-power in the region. Soldiers would be trained in the use of the composite reflex bow and heavy infantry would be phased out in favor of mounted archers and heavy cavalry.

The Byzantines understood that in order to protect their Empire, they would have to adapt to a new method of war and adopt comparable or new technologies. By revolutionizing the way war was conducted and adopting foreign weaponry and tactics, the Byzantines stressed the importance of constant drill and training to master mounted archery, cavalry organization and maneuvers. Unlike modern armies that rely upon a basic training program of eight weeks, Byzantine soldiers were expensive investments that could not be easily replaced. A soldier was not considered proficient or battle-ready for a minimum of a year—this training regimen, however, made Byzantine soldiers a formidable force. A critical factor was to avoid large engagements that could severely cripple the Byzantine army. One poor decision could threaten the safety of army and, possibly, the stability of the Empire. Keeping this in mind, a grand strategy that emphasized maneuver, ambush, raiding, outflanking, encirclement, containment, and unpredictability became part and parcel of the Byzantine way of war. By avoiding wars of attrition and engaging the enemy on their own terms, the Byzantines were able to dictate the course and pace of a battle or war. All the while, commanders and emperors, shrewd practitioners of war, made calculated risks with great success.

Battlefield success came with heavy costs and high casualties. There were other alternatives, however, which were highly effective and required no cash expenditures or loss of life. These options were highly desirable because, as Luttwak observed, “peace was a temporary interruption of war, that as soon as one enemy is defeated, another would take up his place.” (p. 58) Byzantine creativity and ingenuity knew no bounds. Envoys were specially selected and trained to conduct missions of great urgency to remote lands to create bonds of friendship. Zemarchos ’ journey to Central Asia to offer terms of friendship with the Turk qaganate is evidence that great hopes were placed upon envoys to cement alliances against common foes. In this case, it was Sasanian Persia who was tamed, knowing that any overt aggression would involve the feared horse archers of Sizabul . War on two fronts was impractical and most medieval states avoided them.

Belligerent neighbors, such as the Bulgars and Rus , required a different tack. Rather than offering cash payments or treaties of alliance, they were assuaged with conversion to Christianity. However, conversion proved problematic to Byzantium because the Bulgars and the Rus could now lay legitimate claim to the throne of Byzantium. Competing claims as the true and right rulers of Byzantium was one outcome the Byzantines failed to anticipate. This turn of events surely surprised the Byzantines but they made strategic moves through arranged marriages with their daughters, showcased the splendor and opulence of Constantinople and its royal trappings of power, and when all else failed, mounted guerilla-style raids into the Balkans under Basil II to sate their quest for blood. Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom and Richard Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion from Paganism to Christianity are excellent studies that detail Byzantium’s push to Christianize the Barbarians in Southeastern Europe. An especially interesting chapter in Fletcher’s work pays tribute to the missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius in converting the Slavs to the Orthodox faith.

The last section of the book is devoted to military thinkers and commentators who directly influenced the writings of Maurice and Leo VI. Luttwak deeply admires and respects the Strategikon of Maurice for its simple yet sophisticated analysis and presentation. Maurice emphasized stratagems and relational maneuvers “made of tactics and operational schemes specifically designed to circumvent the peculiar strengths of a given enemy and to exploit his peculiar weaknesses.” (p. 288) The Strategikon was an all-purpose manual that emphasized training, meticulous preparation and a thorough understanding of your opponent. This was not a manual grounded in theoretical and abstract terms but was chiefly concerned with concrete facts and insights. A brief section is devoted to Leo VI and Naval warfare. Like Maurice’s Strategikon , Leo’s Tactica stresses the virtues of training and combat simulation in order to minimize the chance that something may go awry.

Luttwak gives an excellent narrative case study of Heraclius’ magnificent victory over Persia. Luttwak’s reasoning for choosing this specific example is easy to discern: this particular case study serves as a perfect exemplar of all the devices that Byzantines used to fight opponents, especially opponents who possess greater numbers or resources. Flawless Byzantine execution in logistics, strategic surprise, maneuver, boldness, and unpredictability led to a crushing Persian defeat. Heraclius proved that war was not decided by superiority in either manpower or gold, but in a scientific understanding of your opponent and using that knowledge to guide your every decision. That is how Byzantium was able to protect her Empire and to continue prospering for centuries.

One of Luttwak’s strengths is to show how the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire differed from that of the Roman Empire. Luttwak is eminently qualified to do so because he has spent the greater part of his career researching and writing the present book under review while building upon his doctoral dissertation that analyzed the grand strategy of the Roman Empire. It is also worth considering the value Luttwak brings to such a study because of his keen insights derived from a career as a military strategist. Like the many Byzantine authors he discusses, Luttwak sees the world and especially military matters through the lens of the strategist. This is one of the book’s great strengths and benefits the reader in untold ways. If this book had been written by a Byzantine scholar or a military historian, it would have been of much depreciated value in comparison to the present volume because of its rich insights and its heavy emphasis upon the development of Byzantine strategy through the centuries. Strategy came in many guises and was indispensable to the survival of Byzantium. While other historians may have made the occasional reference to strategy, Luttwak relentlessly places strategy in front of the reader to emphasize its evolving importance as time progressed, resources diminished, and enemies proliferated.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire took the author nearly 20 years to research and write and he considers it to be his crowning achievement and worth more than the sum of all his previous work. Throughout his book, Luttwak contrasts the Roman model of strategy against the Byzantine model and argues that the Byzantine model was more sophisticated than its predecessor. It is for this very reason that the Byzantine Empire was able to endure for many centuries and to experience periods of prosperity in spite of being surrounded by jealous neighbors and volatile enemies. What made Byzantium different from Rome was its ability to adapt and evolve to a changing environment without exhausting the treasury, non-renewable resources such as manpower, or the morale of the people. A threat from within was more dangerous than an enemy at the gates and the Byzantines understood that fact all too well. Keeping the people fed, clothed, and protected was expensive but necessary in order to prevent civil unrest. This Byzantine specialty would see them safely through countless crises.

 For Rome, a large professional army could influence not only Rome’s actions but also the way Rome was perceived by neighbors and those who encountered them on a regular basis. The Roman legion was an intimidating force that could persuade a belligerent power to redirect its warlike intentions in another direction or extinguish them completely. This method of war served the Romans well but was impractical for the Byzantines for a variety of reasons. Byzantium preferred to recruit allies rather than annihilate potential threats. Of all the differences between Rome and Byzantium, this may very well be the crucial difference that separated Roman grand strategy from Byzantine grand strategy. Other divergences between Rome and Byzantium included the Byzantine fascination with neighboring cultures and a profound interest in learning about them in a way reminiscent of Herodotus (p. 145). Another key distinction was the fundamental structure of the Byzantine army, which relegated the infantrymen to a supporting role while placing greater emphasis upon cavalry (p. 267).

Charles Oman held the Byzantine army in the highest regard and was convinced that they cultivated martial superiority by integrating theory and practice and training into an organic military science that could be applied with devastating effect. Byzantine military science was largely due to the original thinking of men like Maurice, Leo VI and countless others who methodically cataloged their strategies, tactics, precepts, and the like into didactic manuals that could be studied and practiced through simulation until mastered (p. 239). A feature ignored by Oman and other writers is the success of a style of war trademarked by the Byzantines termed “relational maneuver” by Luttwak . In the author’s opinion, it “is one of the characterizing differences between Roman and Byzantine warfare,” and when used flawlessly, “changes the effective military balance by circumventing the enemy’s strengths and exploiting his weaknesses.” (p. 287)

Because Byzantine history spanned many centuries and came into contact with dozens of different ethnic groups, many of the sources used in constructing Luttwak’s study are obscure, redacted, or written in a language other than Latin or Greek. For these reasons, Luttwak is to be commended for exhaustively sifting through the historical record to find a myriad of colorful accounts to help tell his story. Luttwak painstakingly evaluates the credibility, reliability and potential difficulties every source poses and renders a critique that helps the reader to make value judgments about the evidence. This is a great benefit for the reader who is able to move easily from one piece of evidence to another without getting confused by the many pieces of information the author lays out. It is apparent Luttwak assumes an intelligent audience but, perhaps, one not intimately familiar with the subject matter, which explains why he provides many helpful historiographical discussions that give the reader an excellent grasp of historical debates and current trends.

For example, when discussing Justinian’s rapid collapse after successful campaigns of expansion and reconquista , Luttwak draws the reader’s attention to a long held belief that Procopius’ accounts were not accurate but exaggerated. New evidence, however, corroborates Procopius’ statistics which shed light on the seriousness of the calamity that the plague inflicted upon the Byzantine Empire. Climatological studies and DNA analysis vindicated Procopius’ veracity and should serve as a warning to historians that they should not be too quick to pass judgment upon a source because the evidence provided seems, at first blush, to be a fabrication or misinformation (p. 86). Historians are only able to reconstruct a past with the available evidence and if a particular source is suspect for whatever reason, it should still be taken under consideration as a worthy source until confirmed otherwise.

This reader was particularly impressed by the broad variety of sources used to construct the narrative of this book. Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Harald Hardrade was used to show that the wealth of Byzantium flowed in many directions and reached the Baltic lands in vast quantities, thus verifying the vast amount of wealth that Byzantium held in gold (p. 130). Many sources that would not be recognized by the non-specialist give Luttwak’s story more richness due to their stories and their locales. These include the Chronicle of 1234, the Nedarim of the Babylonian Talmud, the Chronicle of AD 819, various Arab sources, and the Armenian author Sebeos (pp. 207, 203, 176, 153, and 336, respectively). Luttwak has provided a thoughtful and vigorous exposition of two special sources in their own chapters: Maurice’s Strategikon and Leo VI’s Tactica . The historiographical treatment contained within these two chapters is extraordinary and will certainly promote and/or provoke debate causing others to reconsider the revolutionary impact these writings had at the time and how much they had to do with Byzantine military success.

There is a great deal to be gained from this invaluable book and Luttwak generously acknowledges the assistance that other notable scholars gave in the production of this book. They include John Haldon , Walter Kaegi , Eric McGeer , and George Dennis to name a few. His modesty and humility are noteworthy because they exhibit what is best about the camaraderie that can be shared and experienced by those who are eager to share what they have learned and those who are willing to listen. Luttwak’s book would have been less persuasive without their valuable contributions. His willingness to seek out, and document in his text, their expertise in areas where he was less familiar is an excellent example more historians should emulate. That alone is the mark of a historian who seeks to further the boundaries of knowledge of a subject rather than the aggrandizement of his own name or reputation.

It is customary to balance praise with criticism. To put it another way, a good book review highlights both strengths and weaknesses inherent in the argument presented. Because this book was written gradually over many years and thoughtfully and critically conceived is testament to this overwhelmingly positive review. For this very reason, this reader is convinced that there is no point of contention of any great significance that is worth mentioning. Great care was taken in preparing this book and would be a lofty standard for others to consider when preparing a manuscript. To give credence to mere trifles would cast a shadow over a work that deserves acclamation and enliven new debates on old subjects. In this respect, this work provides unlimited avenues for future discussion.

Byzantine grand strategy revolutionized the way the Empire interacted with friends and foes and balanced those relationships to favorable advantage. A variety of factors make such innovative and creative strategies necessary in order to survive in a volatile age. The grand strategy of the Byzantines had little in common with the grand strategy of Rome. The former preferred to avoid war while the latter believed that any enemy should be annihilated. But Byzantium was geographically centered, surrounded by potential threats in every direction. Military campaigning was impractical and could easily bankrupt the Empire. Rather than fight, Byzantium preferred friendship and alliance and the strategy proved highly effective. Some of Byzantium’s most loyal allies were the Turkic Pechenegs and other warriors of the steppe. With powerful allies by their side, potential threats from Sasanian Persia, the Bulgars , and others were neutralized. These diplomatic “weapons” were, perhaps, more powerful than any other human weapon because they neither exhausted the treasury, manpower, or the people who lived within the Empire. Byzantine grand strategy showed that the way wars were traditionally fought had evolved in directions that required creative thinking, a trait the Romans did not possess.

Christopher Berg

Sam Houston State University <Cwb004@shsu.edu>

Page Added: August 2011