The Defense Strategy of the Late Roman Empire – Arther Ferrill

Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

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

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Synopsis:

Chapter five 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 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.