The Byzantines were the strategic culture par excellence of Western civilization for much of their more than thousand year history. The Strategikon was written during the reign of the Emperor Mauricius as a military and diplomatic guidebook for the Byzantine high command. It is a combined arms treatise which synthesizes components of cultural anthropology, psychological operations, tactical dispositions, human intelligence collection, military maxims, reconnaissance techniques, and lessons learned from the era of the Later Roman Empire. The Strategikon – when it was followed – acted as a combat multiplier for the often outnumbered Byzantine military, and even when defeated their opponents usually only won after a close-run contest.
“For it is not true, as some inexperienced people believe, that wars are decided by courage and numbers of troops, but – along with God’s favor – by tactics and generalship, and our concern should be with these rather than wasting our time in mobilizing large numbers of men. The former provide security and advantage to men who know how to use them well, whereas the other brings trouble and financial ruin.
“Warfare is like hunting. Wild animals are taken by scouting, by nets, by lying in wait, by stalking, by circling around, and by other such stratagems rather than by sheer force. In waging war we should proceed in the same way, whether the enemy be many or few.
“Before any fighting the first and the safest thing to do is to choose a few experienced and lightly armed soldiers and have them very secretly carry out attacks against some detachments of the enemy. If they succeed in killing or capturing some of them, then most of our soldiers will take this as evidence of our own superiority. They will get over their nervousness, their morale will pick up, and they will gradually become used to fighting against them.
“Unless it is absolutely necessary, for a few days after a defeat in battle no attempt should be made to line up again and resume the offensive. It is better to rely on stratagems, deception, carefully timed surprise moves, and the so-called fighting while fleeing, until the troops come to forget their discouragement, and their morale picks up once more.
“There can be no rest until the enemy is completely destroyed. If they seek refuge behind fortifications, apply pressure by direct force or by preventing them from getting more supplies for men and horses until they are annihilated or else agree to a treaty to our advantage. One should not slacken after driving them back just a short distance, nor, after so much hard work and the dangers of war, should one jeopardize the success of the whole campaign because of lack of persistence. In war, as in hunting, a near-miss is still a complete miss.
*All excerpts have been taken from Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Defense strategy in the Roman Empire following the Crisis of the Third Century evolved considerably from the earlier preclusive security apparatus of Hadrian – which emphasized a synthesis of passive and active defense along mostly static lines of effort. Arther Ferrill credits the Emperor Constantine with the transition from the preclusive ideal to a novel defense-in-depth approach, which offered weakened frontier defenses in favor of large mobile field armies. This new model Roman army allowed more centralized control for the Emperor – as well as greater personal security – but with a vastly less controlled border region for the Empire.
“Such obvious advantages, reflecting organization of war-making capacity far beyond that of Rome’s potential opponents, gave the Roman armies a psychological edge, a superiority in morale, often sufficient in itself to deter hostile military action. In the great days of the second century, with an army of about 300,000, the Romans defended an empire of some 50,000,000 people living in the Mediterranean basin.
“More than anything else Roman grand strategy in the High Roman Empire was based on the tactical superiority of the Roman army against all potential foes. To that extent the famous walls and fortresses can be misleading. The army, not the walls or forts, defended the frontiers.
“Roman grand strategy of the second century was predicated on political stability – preclusive security requires the presence of the legions on the frontiers. Civil war and rebellion, especially when they became endemic, diverted legions from the frontiers to the interior, creating marvelous opportunities for enemies across the border. That is what happened in the third century.
“The big change in Roman grand strategy came with Constantine the Great. As Zosimus claimed in the passage quoted above, Constantine organized a large mobile field army (probably 100,000 or more), stationed centrally, by withdrawing units from the frontiers, leaving them in a weakened condition. Zosimus saw this modification of traditional Roman grand strategy as catastrophic, an interpretation endorsed by Gibbon.
“The worst feature of the defense-in-depth is that inevitably the central mobile army will become an elite force and the frontier defenders merely second rate actors in defense policy. Troops that are not expected to defeat the enemy can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid him altogether.
*All excerpts have been taken from Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, Thames and Hudson Inc.
The Battle of Adrianople in 378 often signals a key crossroad in the history of the late Roman Empire, but Alessandro Barbero lays out a somewhat different narrative in his book The Day of the Barbarians. Barbero examines the event within a three century context, and chronicles the cultural evolution of Roman civilization leading up to the battle – as well as the civilizational reaction following the final peace agreement with the Goths. As Roman power began to decline in the fifth century the long ignored aristocracy of Rome began to reassert itself by becoming the foremost voice of the anti-barbarian reaction.
“In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition – if not hostility – between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.
“All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed.
“The army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as ‘comrades in arms’ and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.
“In certain regions of the empire, where the mercenaries had completely replaced the units of the regular army, the change was reflected in the language itself: In Syriac, starting at the end of the fourth century, the word for ‘soldier’ became Goth.
“Most people ultimately shared the assumptions about the empire’s ability to assimilate the barbarians but resisted granting them too much power too quickly and thereby abdicating the civilizing mission of the empire.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Walker & Company.
When Julian was elevated to the rank of Caesar by his cousin Constantius II it was for the purpose of countering continuous and destructive Germanic raiding into Roman Gaul. Julian had been brought up – and educated – in isolation in Cappadocia, and had survived the dynastic purges of the Constantinian dynasty by Constantius II. This reality made Julian the only option left for Constantius if he wished to have a member of his own dynasty raised to the position of Caesar – because Constantius had no sons.
Julian was an introverted intellectual with no military background, and was not intended to take on an active role within the campaign against the Germans – i.e. Julian was to act only as a figurehead for Constantius. Unexpectedly, Julian quickly took command of the campaign and achieved staggering battlefield successes in Gaul, as well as in Germany. Later, as sole Emperor of the Roman Empire Julian attempted to roll-back Christianity, and return to the primacy of Roman paganism – which earned him his famous cognomen of ‘the Apostate’ from Christian writers.
“In the years before Julian’s appointment as Caesar the frontier along the Rhine and Upper Danube had been stripped of many of its garrisons as men were drawn off to fight in the civil wars. Roman weakness was confirmed when barbarian raiders were able to penetrate deep into the settled provinces and come back with plunder and glory.
“The army of the fourth century was geared towards warfare on a relatively small scale, an impression which Julian’s operations in Gaul confirm.
“In the third and fourth centuries many communities which had not felt the need of fortifications in the early Principate acquired walls. Simultaneously the army was putting far more effort into constructing strong ramparts and projecting towers around its bases. Defence was a much higher priority than it had been in earlier centuries.
“The Roman plan was to launch a major offensive against the Alamani, Julian attacking from the north and Barbatio from the south. Indirect pressure would also be put on the Alamanni by the Augustus’ own operations from Raetia on the Upper Danube.
“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the soldiers of the fourth century were all too aware of their capacity to dispose of any general and replace him with an alternative of their own choosing, and as a result felt very free to express their opinion.
*All excerpts have been taken from In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire, Orion Publishing Group.
Emerging from the Third Century Crisis, the Roman Empire and its military underwent a cultural revolution of colossal breadth. The era before the transition is recognized as the ‘Principate’ – i.e. rule by the First Citizen – and the era after as the ‘Dominate’ – i.e. rule by despot. This evolution was necessary for the autocracy of the Roman central government, because of the unremitting dynastic chaos of the Third Century Crisis. The architects of the revolution were the Emperors Diocletian, and Constantine.
Diocletian created an institutional division between civil and military offices – beforehand the two had often been fused – increased the administrative capacity of the central government, and humbled the Roman aristocracy. Constantine sought to unify the state under a single religious faith – Christianity – as well as establish an enduring administrative division between the Greek East and Latin West of the Roman Empire by founding a second capital city – Nova Roma or Constantinople – with its own Senate. Ian Hughes chronicles all of these events in his book, but with special attention given to the revolution in military affairs which took place under the two Emperors.
“Modern estimates suggest that the number of legions probably doubled between the reigns of Severus and Diocletian, and by the time of the Notitia Dignitatum (early-fifth century) the 30 legions of the Early Empire had grown to more than 200.
“It has been noted that cavalry only has a ‘strategic mobility’ – the ability to march and retain the capability to fight effectively – that is superior to infantry over short distances. Over longer distances – for example, any march taking around a week or longer to complete – cavalry actually have a lower mobility due to the need to rest the horses, so in reality their strategic mobility is actually less than that of infantry. These questions have resulted in the whole idea of a ‘mobile cavalry force’ being seriously doubted.
“The chaos and confusion caused by piecemeal reforms and temporary solutions to short-lived problems in the third century resulted in the Roman army becoming a disorganized and inefficient organization. Despite it winning many battles in the third century, it was hardly capable of protecting the frontiers from the ‘Germanic’ tribes to the north, the Sasanid Persians to the east or even the Blemmye to the south.
“…it is possible to infer that both Maxentius and Daia offered better pay, higher donatives and better retirement benefits than their opponents. However, the fact that these troops were still easily defeated at the Battles of the Milvian Bridge and Tzirallum suggests that, despite the financial benefits, the troops’ opinion of their emperors was low. The further implication is that, rather than being generous, in order to retain their troops in their service the two emperors had little option but to increase their pay and benefits… It is the morale and readiness to fight and die for their emperors that were the main reasons for the victories of both Constantine and Licinius, not Constantine’s access to new types of troops.
“Their ability to plan and finance large-scale military campaigns, alongside their ‘sound and sophisticated logistical organization’, was only equaled by the capabilities of the Sasanid Persian Empire. Rather than simply attempting to defeat an enemy or conduct a raid, the Romans were capable of ‘having goals, knowing routes, terrain and the type and strength of the opposition’, meaning that their campaigns could be focused and their intended outcome clear. Of equal importance, they could gain intelligence concerning enemy location, direction and intentions, either through the means of informers or from the fact that an army on the move deployed a screen of light cavalry to gain information and screen the main body as it marched.
*All excerpts have been taken from A Military Life of Constantine the Great, Pen and Sword.
Exiled to St. Helena, and dying of stomach cancer, Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his ideas on the wars of Julius Caesar for posterity. The work is mired in technical details comparing modern and ancient armies, as well as endless reflection on how Napoleonic era artillery would be applied to the ancient Roman battlefield. However, Napoleon’s views on the conduct of the civil war, and its aftermath for Roman society are captivating. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon believed Caesar’s dictatorship was justified, and his assassination was unjustified. He also concludes Caesar’s Parthian campaign would have been successful – had he lived – thereby extending the Roman Empire to the Indus River.
“Nothing is more opposed to a national spirit, to general ideas of liberty, than the private spirit of family or village. Because of this fragmentation, it also followed that the Gauls had no trained standing army, therefore no knowledge of military science. If Caesar’s glory depended solely on his conquest of Gaul, it would be in doubt… Any nation which lost sight of the importance of a standing army ever-ready for action, and which relied on mass levies of militias, would suffer the same fate as Gaul, although without even the glory of putting up a resistance as strong as theirs, which could be attributed to the barbarism of the time and to the nature of the terrain, covered with forests, marshes and quagmires and without roads: which made it difficult to conquer and easy to defend.
“One can only despise Caesar’s treatment of the Senate of Vannes. This people had not revolted; they had provided hostages and promised to live quietly, but they were in possession of all their rights and liberties. They had indeed given Caesar grounds to make war against them, but not to violate the law of nations in their case and to misuse his victory in so atrocious a way. This conduct was not just; still less was it politic. Such means never achieve their aim; they anger and disgust the nations. The punishment of a few chief people is all that justice and policy permit; it is an important rule to treat prisoners well.
“The conduct of Cato was applauded by his contemporaries and has been admired by history; but who benefited from his death? Caesar. Who was pleased by it? Caesar. And to who was it a tragedy? To Rome and to his party. But, it is argued, he preferred to kill himself rather than bow down before Caesar. But who was forcing him to bow down? Why did he not follow the cavalry, or those members of his party who embarked at the port of Utica and rallied the party in Spain? What influence his name, his advice and his presence must surely have had among the ten legions which in the following year were to vie for the destinies of the world on the battlefield of Munda!… If the book of destiny had been presented to Cato, and he had read there that in just two years’ time, Caesar, pierced by twenty-three dagger wounds, would fall dead in the Senate at the foot of Pompey’s statue, that Cicero would take the floor and angrily denounce Antony in his Philippics, would Cato still have transfixed himself? No, he killed himself out of spleen and despair. His death was the weakness of a great soul, the error of a stoic, a blot on his life.
“Among nations and during revolutions, there is always an aristocracy. If you destroy it in the form of the nobility, it will immediately be recreated among the rich and powerful families of the Third Estate. If you destroy it among these, it will resurface among successful artisans and the people. A prince gains nothing by such a displacement of the aristocracy. On the contrary, he restores order by letting it continue in its natural state, by reconstituting the ancient families on new principles.
“Caesar did not wish to be king because he could not have wished it; he could not have wished it because, after him, for 600 years, none of his successors wished it. It would have been a strange policy to replace the curule chair of the conquerors of the world with the despised and rotten throne of the vanquished.
*All excerpts have been taken from Napoleon’s Commentaries on the Wars of Julius Caesar, Pen and Sword.
Perilous Glory chronicles the ascendancy of Western military power in world history. Military historian, John France dedicates a chapter of his book to a comparison of the competing styles of warfare of the ancient Greeks and Persians. Both styles of warfare were well adapted to distinct geographical settings, and both were notably hamstrung operating outside of those settings. The Persian military relied on cavalry mobility whereas their Greek counterparts utilized heavy infantry hoplites.
“Like almost all who wrote about war, Greek writers, Herodotus amongst them, liked to emphasise its noble aspect: the valour of the hoplite, fighting honourably face to face and breast to breast against his enemies. They preferred to forget the sneaking around to surprise and destroy villages and cities, the bullying of peasants and the squalid destruction of their crops.
“Bloody though hoplite confrontations were, it has been suggested that the citizens perceived them as a rapid and efficient way of settling quarrels between states, and certainly better than drawn-out struggles in which severe long-term harm to the countryside and city might get out of hand. Moreover, the brutal violence of this clash of arms with its rigid subordination of the individual to the collective mass was possible because the citizens had agreed to this style of war and thus were bound to it by public commitment.
“For the Delian League became an Athenian empire. Athens meddled in the politics of the Delian cities to favour democratic regimes, and planted colonies of Athenians in their lands where they formed military bases. The tributes from the League and the taxes upon foreigners trading with Athens created enormous incomes which could be used to pay towers for the fleet and to support strong armies. Here was the Athenian culture of leisure and greed at work.
“The Persian wars and then the long quarrels of the Greek city-states created a kind of military laboratory in Greece, stimulating ideas and new developments. The most obvious effect of this was the development of the hoplite phalanx. It became the very embodiment of close-order, a tight mass of men working together, able to resist enemies with their hedgehog of spears and to threaten them by sheer weight and momentum. However, this was only really achieved as the citizen-soldier was superseded by the professional soldier.
“The Greek front was not all that vital to the Persian Empire, and it managed to regain Anatolia by an adroit diplomacy which exploited the quarrels of the Greeks. The priority for the Persian Empire was speed of movement and the ability to fight in other places, especially on the long Asian frontiers where cavalry was the most useful arm. No power can be strong everywhere and in every aspect of war, and the Persian army was no exception to this general rule. And when they wanted heavy infantry, they could always hire them at need from the quarrelsome city-states of Greece whose mercenaries were perfectly willing to serve for money.
*All excerpts have been taken from Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power, Yale University Press.