The Byzantine Art of War: Strategy and Tactics – Michael J. Decker

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Synopsis:

Chapter 5 of Michael J. Decker’s book on the Byzantine art-of-war recounts the strategy and tactics used by the Byzantine Empire throughout its long history. Decker discusses the stratagems, imperial ideology, and organization of the Byzantine state apparatus centered in its capital city of Constantinople. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 this apparatus was irrevocably destroyed by the Latin West, and even after the reconquest of the city by the Greeks it was never again on the same order of magnitude or effectiveness as before.

Excerpts:

“…All wars were defensive. Even offensive campaigns were considered defensive, in that they aimed to recover land that had been seized from the empire and rightfully belonged to it, and this notion of the ‘forward defense’ or ‘active defense’ was something that the Romans probably imparted to Muslim jihad theorists.”

“Experience taught the emperors that any period of peace was fleeting; never did this come into such sharp clarity more than in the events of the late 620s and 630s, when Heraclius found himself at the top of the wheel of fortune with his victories over the Persians, symbolized by his triumphant entry into Jerusalem in a spirit of millennial jubilation. The wheel turned, however, and within a decade Arab forces seized the whole of the Levant.”

“Since the reign of Constantine I, the Romans had understood that the universe was ordered according to the principles of Christianity and the world was a reflection of the unseen cosmos:one God, one faith, one emperor, one empire.”

“Subterfuge, bribery, and disinformation were prized bloodless means to undermine or dissolve enemies and were always preferred to open battle. The military manuals instruct, whenever possible, to bribe enemy commanders. Before campaigns on the frontiers, the general Nikephoros Ouranos (ca. 950-1011) ordered that gifts be sent to the emirs along the border in order for the bearers to collect intelligence and possibly induce the enemy to the Byzantine side or at least inaction in the coming conflict.”

“The handbooks stress the need to surprise the enemy. Strategic surprise could be achieved by avoiding enemy agents, by disinformation, and by unexpected marches. The Strategikon warns that to avoid enemy spies armies should take little-used routes and march through uninhabited areas that were less likely to be under surveillance.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Byzantine Art of War, Westholme Publishing.

The Campaigns of Heraclius in the East – George Finlay

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Synopsis:

When the Roman Emperor Heraclius elevated himself to the throne in Constantinople, the empire was in a bleak state. It had been defeated, its armies destroyed, and most of its major cities conquered. The Persian monarch Chosroes II had succeeded in destroying Roman power in a string of successful campaigns initiated after the murder of his benefactor the Roman Emperor Mauricius by the usurper Phocas.

Nearly twenty years later the empire had been restored on all fronts, and the Persian enemy completely defeated with great slaughter. Heraclius was able to achieve this spectacular result after a series of brilliant counter-offensive campaigns into the heart of Persia, which included extinguishing the eternal flame of the fire god Ahura Mazda – the national deity of Persia – and the destruction of its ancient shrine.

In his seminal History of Greece, George Finlay details these campaigns and imparts his own sagacious commentary on the events.

Excerpts:

“Heraclius had repeatedly declared that he did not desire to make any conquest of Persian territory. His conduct when success had crowned his exertions, and when his enemy was ready to purchase his retreat at any price, proves the sincerity and justice of his policy. His empire required not only a lasting peace to recover from the miseries of the late war, but also many reforms in the civil and religious administration, which could only be completed during such a peace, in order to restore the vigor of the government.”

“The fame of Heraclius would have rivaled that of Alexander, Hannibal, or Caesar, had he expired at Jerusalem, after the successful termination of the Persian war. He had established peace throughout the empire, restored the strength of the Roman government, revived the power of Christianity in the East, and replanted the holy cross on Mount Calvary. His glory admitted of no addition. Unfortunately, the succeeding years of his reign have, in the general opinion, tarnished his fame.”

“Though the military glory of Heraclius was obscured by the brilliant victories of the Saracens, still his civil administration ought to receive its meed of praise, when we compare the resistance made by the empire which he reorganized with the facility which the followers of Mahomet found in extending their conquests over every other land from India to Spain.”

“The moment the Mohammedan armies were compelled to rely solely on their military skill and religious enthusiasm, and ceased to derive any aid from the hostile feeling of the inhabitants to the imperial government, their career of conquest was checked; and almost a century before Charles Martel stopped their progress in the west of Europe, the Greeks had arrested their conquests in the East, by the steady resistance which they offered in Asia Minor.”

“His effort to strengthen his power, by establishing a principle of unity, aggravated all the evils which he intended to cure; for while the Monophysites and the Greeks were as little disposed to unite as ever, the authority of the Eastern Church, as a body, was weakened by the creation of a new schism, and the incipient divisions between the Greeks and the Latins, assuming a national character, began to prepare the way for the separation of the two churches.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Greece Under The Romans, B.C. 146 – A.D. 716, Palala Press.

Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire – Ian Hughes

Synopsis:

In his survey of the late Roman Empire and its rulers, Ian Hughes examines the internal as well as external causes of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The core of the book is devoted to the imperial leadership of the last twenty years of the empire.

Cultivated amid the collapsing institutions of the Roman state was unexpectedly an impressive array of men that ascended the purple. Majorian, Anthemius, Avitus, and Glycerius were all attractive, energetic, and able rulers that under better circumstances may have established lasting dynasties.

Excerpts:

“…it is possible to declare that as far as the (self-deluding) Senate of Rome was concerned, the only territory lost during the period when Ricimer ‘ruled’, between 456 and 472, was a small part of Hispania to the Sueves. The ‘rebellions’ of both Aegidius and Marcellinus would be seen as temporary and having little effect on the Empire overall.”

“…the large number of plagues that occurred in the fifth century; the refusal of great landowners to allow their workers to be taken for military service; and the pressure of taxation causing many citizens to abandon their loyalty to the Empire and transfer it to either local bishops or barbarian leaders, all weakened the Empire in one way or another.”

“Whenever the Empire brought overwhelming force to bear the barbarian kings could easily submit, safe in the knowledge that the troops were too valuable to be risked in battle and would soon be removed for service elsewhere in the Empire. At that point it would be possible to revert to an aggressive policy. At many key points this also explains why the barbarian kingdoms were allowed to continue, and also how they managed to pursue policies inimical to the survival of the Empire without being destroyed by Rome.”

“Yet there remains the fact that emperors who concentrated any significant resources outside Italy, such as Avitus, Majorian and Anthemius, quickly lost the affiliation of Italy and thus their rule and their lives, encouraging the alienation of non-Italians to the emperor and their change of allegiance to powerful men – usually barbarian kings – who would fulfill the role of protector once provided by the legions.”

“In Gaiseric the emperor had a political and military genius as an opponent. Gaiseric was able to successfully conquer large parts of the Western Mediterranean and repel two major Roman invasions, whilst at the same time continuing a political policy of divide and conquer that enabled him to make peace with East and West separately whilst continuing attacks on the other.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire, Pen and Sword.

Justinian’s Military Organization – Hans Delbrück

Synopsis:

In the second volume of his History of the Art of War, Hans Delbrück devotes a chapter in book three to the military organization of the early Byzantine/late Roman Empire under the emperor Justinian. He examines the dissolution of discipline within the ranks, as well as the transition to a generally cavalry centered army. This more mobile force than the famous legions of previous epochs – particularly the republican one – was the culmination of centuries of evolution within the Roman army that had commenced under the emperor Gallienus. The resultant innovations from this transformation would give Justinian the edge in escalation dominance over the barbarian kingdoms in the West, and would open-the-door to a Roman re-conquest of North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian peninsula – all within the span of forty years.

Excerpts:

“The active armies were quite small. Belisarius had 25,000 men when he won his victory over the Persians at Daras in 530. He landed in Africa with no more than 15,000 men, and of these 15,000, the 5,000 cavalry included in that total were sufficient to defeat the Vandals in the open field. Even smaller was the army with which Belisarius moved to Italy in order to destroy the East Gothic Kingdom eleven years after Theodoric’s death: there were no more than 10,000 to 11,000 men. ”

“A contemporary author, Agathias (5. 13), estimated that the total Roman army must have been 645,000 men strong but that only 150,000 men were actually available under Justinian.”

“A very large number of the soldiers with whom Belisarius had conquered Italy deserted to the Goths when, after he was relieved, the Roman domination again collapsed and Totila established the Gothic kingdom.”

“After the fourth century A.D., and after the disappearance of the legions, everything changed. The barbarian mercenaries now felt that they were the masters. Woe to the prince or the general who might have dared to incur their displeasure by his strictness!”

“Procopius considers it a half-miracle and an extraordinary accomplishment of Belisarius that the Romans marched into Carthage in good order, ‘whereas otherwise the Roman troops never march into their own cities without disorder, even if there are only 500 of them.”

*All excerpts have been taken from History of the Art of War, Volume II: The Barbarian Invasions, Hans Delbrück, University of Nebraska Press.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire – Edward Luttwak

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Synopsis: 

Military historian and strategist Edward Luttwak traverses late Roman history as well as Byzantine history in order to examine the overarching schema, notions, and prevailing strategic outlook that maintained the Byzantine Empire for nearly a thousand years following the demise of the Western Roman Empire. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, and not having the manpower dominance of republican Rome, the Byzantines were adept at remaining powerful by other means.

Excerpts:

“The Huns and all their successors inevitably used their tribute gold to buy necessities and baubles from the empire – special arrangements were negotiated for border markets – hence the gold exported to the Huns returned to circulate within the empire rather quickly, except for the minute fraction retained for jewelry.”

“Much of what they did was calculated to preserve and enhance the prestige of the imperial court even as it was being exploited to impress, overawe, recruit, even seduce. Unlike troops or gold, prestige is not consumed when it is used, and that was a very great virtue for the Byzantines, who were always looking for economical sources of power.”

“It might be said, therefore, that the loss of Syria and Egypt, unlike Latin speaking and Chalcedonian North Africa, was a mixed curse for the empire: it brought the blessing of religious harmony, and increased cultural unity.”

“It is by that same logic in dynamic action and reaction that the victories of an advancing army can bring defeat once they exceed the culminating point of success, indeed victory becomes defeat by the prosaic workings of overextension.”

“It starts with the simple, static contradiction of sivis pacem para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) and proceeds to dynamic contradictions: if you defend every foot of a perimeter, you are not defending the perimeter; if you win too completely, destroying the enemy, you make way for another; and so on.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.