Category Archives: World History

What Can We Learn About Byzantium from the Strategikon?

I was always afraid to study Byzantium, because of its unjust reputation of complexity and strangeness. The term “Byzantine,” used to describe things that are difficult to understand, perhaps influenced me – too easily – to stay away from it. But when I picked up a copy of the Strategikon, which I encourage you to do, I immediately gained a better understanding of the Byzantine Empire, and its place as a successor to Rome. The Strategikon is a brilliant work, and it hints at many of the attitudes and conditions present in Byzantium at the time of its writing.

The first thing I noticed was pretty easy to understand. The primary tactical change between the military of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Roman Republic and Empire was a shift away from traditional heavy infantry tactics toward moremobile cavalry-based forces that stressed hit and run tactics. There were a number of causes for this shift. At the time that Maurice’s Strategikon was written, infantrymen serving in the thematic armies were responsible for supplying their own equipment, which consisted of light padded armor, wooden shields and a spear and/or bow [1]. Gone were the days of state-provided heavy metal armor, tower shields, and gladiuses of the Roman legions. Cavalry was better supplied, with money for armor and weapons coming from landowning commanding officers [2]. Heavy infantry simply did not exist from an affordability standpoint in Byzantium, and even if it did exist, it would be ill-suited for the type of warfare Byzantium was forced to conduct. The region was was surrounded by enemies and its people lived in a state of near constant warfare, mostly on its own territory. Byzantine lands were better suited for ambush tactics and guerilla warfare than for massed formations of infantry, which required more space and greater numbers to operate effectively.

Byzantine forces were smaller than that of Rome [3] and as a result, they were forced to fight with tactical cleverness and awareness of the landscape. Strategikon contains an entire book dedicated to ambushes. “Well-planned ambushes are of the greatest value in warfare,” it reads [4]. The choice to center the composition of the army to meet hit and run tactics is summarized succinctly in the section on general maxims: “The general would be well advised to have more cavalry than infantry. The latter is set only for close combat, while the former is easily able to pursue or retreat, and when dismounted the men are all set to fight on foot”[5].

The repeated emphasis of the Strategikon on ambush, terrain awareness and mobility implies that the Byzantines felt a need to institutionalize their strategy on defensive warfare, to make sure the multiple, smaller units of their military acted consistently to repel the frequent invasions of larger, offensively-minded neighbors. Constantinople was the premiere city and trade center of its day, and represented a high-value plunder target for the enemies of Byzantium. One of the prevailing Byzantine tactics to protect that great city was to use the rugged countryside of modern-day Turkey its greatest force multiplier.

The defensive-minded Strategikon stresses the importance of avoiding protracted conflicts and pitched battles between armies, which was a trademark of ancient Rome. The Strategikon advises, “It is safer and more advantageous to overcome the enemy by planning and generalship than by sheer force; in the one case the results are achieved without loss to oneself, while in the other some price has to be paid”[6]. Ancient Rome’s greatest victories and defeats were epic clashes of tens of thousands of men on either side. The Punic Wars were a demonstration of the Roman will to grind down its enemies with an avalanche of men and material raised over decades. Byzantium, with its small military, economic strain and enormous list of people eager to kill them, could not afford to lose men and material the way ancient Rome could. The emphasis in the Strategikon of living to fight another day implies that the loss of soldiers was more devastating to Byzantium than ancient Rome.

This attitude is further emphasized by the extensive guidelines in the Strategikon focusing on the armament, training, discipline and organization of infantry and cavalry. The very first paragraph of Book One of the Strategikon mentions the things cavalrymen should be doing to practice their craft [7]. Byzantium had a vested interest in getting the most production and longevity possible out of their soldiers. If one reads between the lines, it is easy to see that the Strategikon is a guidebook for a country under siege.

The work continues ancient Roman traditions in a number of ways as well. There is a very businesslike philosophy regarding the training, management, organization and recruitment of soldiers that resembles the traditional Roman emphasis on practicality. “Make peace a time of training for war”[8] and “courage and discipline are able to accomplish more than a large number of warriors” [9] could easily be cut and paste from the Strategikon to any ancient Roman military manual and no one would be the wiser. There seems to be a continuity of maxims that persist from ancient Rome into the Strategikon. Book VIII bears strong resemblance to Vegetius, with mirroring themes of deception, the necessity of supply, proper behavior of officers and soldiers and picking one’s battles wisely.

Maurice. I have a painting of myself just like this hanging over my fireplace at home.

Do manuals like the Strategikon articulate an official, conscious “doctrine” for the armed forces of Byzantium? In my opinion, yes. Though the authorship of the Strategikon is questionable, if the work is indeed Maurice’s, then we have a military emperor formalizing his philosophy. Imperial communications are usually intended to be followed. If the work is not Maurice’s, then it is still written by someone high up in command with the intent of distributing it to the lower ranks. Byzantium was a literate society. “The fact that the officers in the Byzantine army had to be able to read and write by itself sets it apart from other medieval armies,” says George Dennis of the Strategikon in the introduction [10]. The system for manual distribution exists via the literate commanders of Byzantium. Why require the commanders to be literate if there is no intention to pass written doctrines like the Strategikon to them? The introduction goes on to mention that Maurice was a reform-minded military ruler whose goal was to “put an end to the system of private armies which had prevailed for a century or more”[11].

Furthermore, from a strategic standpoint there is a strong motive for the centralization of the Byzantine military. Byzantium was set on all sides by enemies. In order for the empire to survive, a coordinated, smart strategy needed to be enacted from top to bottom. Byzantium could not afford to lose men, material, commanders or territory. The Strategikon, with its highly detailed scenarios and specific mention of tactical adaptation against various named enemies, lays out a defensive playbook that any field commander can learn and follow. It is a franchise-model system in which the enemies of Byzantium can expect the same type of fight from every commander and every unit that the Byzantines throw at them, regardless of where it occurs. The basic tactical theme of the Strategikon is, apparently, to make the invaders’ lives a living hell until they leave Byzantium.

Regarding the Roman continuity debate, I think the most important thing to remember is that these people called themselves Romans. They could have called themselves anything. Their home territory is a thousand miles from Rome, geographically, and the actual state of Western Rome had been dead for more than 100 years when this document was written. No living person at the time personally remembered the Western Roman Empire, but they felt it was important to share its name. There was an undeniable philosophical, social and religious connection shared between Rome and Byzantium that led Byzantium’s citizens to claim descent from Rome.

One difference that can be seen in the documents of Vegetius versus Byzantium that points to a change in attitude are the number of references to God and Christianity in the Strategikon that doesn’t exist in the earlier Roman work. Though Christianity united West and East, it can be argued that Christianity had a more prominent and central role in hearts and minds of Byzantine citizens and leaders than their Roman counterparts. Maurice’s call to the Holy Trinity in his introduction serves as a good example of that sentiment [12]. There is a level of sincerity there which conveys that the work is not only being endorsed by Maurice, but also by the Lord. Much like the mention of cavalry and training at the opening of Book One, if it’s important, it’s right at the beginning, where you can’t miss it. Otherwise, it would be buried in the middle.


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient times to the Present (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 152.

[2] Maurice and George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 12.

[3] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War, 152.

[4] Maurice and George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon, 52.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 80.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., xiv.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Ibid., 8.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

The End of the Bronze Age – When is Guessing Okay?

Recommended. You should check it out.

Robert Drews’s book, The End of the Bronze Age, is an interesting read in terms of content and methodology. Drews attempts to explain the sudden end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean by attributing it to a mysterious Catastrophe, which  has its origins in military change.  According to Drews, the losses of palace-based aristocratic chariot soldiers both on the battlefield and in societies created a disruption within many Late Bronze civilizations from which there was no recovery [1]. Drews makes the case that this military change was the direct cause of the Catastrophe, which ended or weakened dominant civilizations across the Eastern Mediterranean around the year 1200 BC, and marked the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

When determining his hypothesis for the Catastrophe, Drews considers a number of factors. First, what was the Catastrophe and, specifically, what was the difference between the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age? Drews spends the first two parts of his three-part book explaining both the nature of the Catastrophe and debunking the alternate explanations for it: earthquakes, migrations, drought, systems collapse and raiders. Critics of Drews’s work have varying opinions on this analysis of the alternate causes of the Catastrophe. Young and Thomas make generally favorable remarks, but there is tough criticism from Van Wees and Cline. The former characterizes Drew’s attempts to discredit the alternate explanations, particularly the “raiders” theory as unconvincing due to a lack of evidence [2]. Cline accuses Drews of distorting conflicting explanations for the Catastrophe to fit his hypothesis [3] and of incorrectly labeling systems collapse and raiders as consequences of the Catastrophe, instead of causes. In part three of the book, Drews details the prominence of chariot warfare in the Late Bronze Age and its disappearance in the Iron Age. The decline of the chariot coincided with the rise of infantry as the main focus of the Iron Age military. This distinction is the focal point of Drews’s work.

Let’s be real. We all know it was the Sea People, right?

This begs a question: do the sources exist to explain what happened in the Catastrophe, and to solidly support Drews’s hypothesis? The short answer is no, and Drews seems to be the first to admit it. “On many questions one can only guess, and since guessing seems unprofessional, historians do as little of it as possible,” Drews writes. “The result, however, is that for lack of evidence one of the most important things about the preclassical world is largely ignored. There is good reason to think that the evolution of warfare made and unmade the world of the Late Bronze Age. Even though we cannot be certain about this evolution, and especially about its details, it is time that we begin to guess.”[4]

Now comes the philosophical question which I think is very important to history: is it okay to guess? I was quite surprised to see that many of Drews’s reviewers failed to address the act of guessing directly. Rather, most who criticized Drews’s hypothesis as inconclusive, such as Cline [5] and Haggis [6], did so by pointing out a lack of evidence. Only Young directly addressed the issue of guessing. Of Drews, he says, “…he marshals old and new evidence on what he calls ‘the Catastrophe’ in a masterly fashion which, mixed with a little guesswork, provides us with significant and exciting new scholarly insights on a pivotal period in ancient history. Would that we could all ‘guess’ as effectively.”[7]

The great obstacle to any study of the ancient world is a scarcity of sources. Even within the range of available sources, there are bad translations, bias,  and great variances in quality of authorship. Does this great obstacle and its associated, smaller obstacles excuse Drews’s approach, in which he unabashedly admits guessing at the main points in his work? Young seems to applaud the effort. I am conflicted. On the one hand, all hypotheses are guesses to some degree, backed by evidence. On the other, when evidence is so lacking, is it better to not present a half-baked hypothesis?

There are more questions to ask when confronting this particular historical issue: is there a single cause for the Catastrophe or multiple causes? Is the cause the same from civilization to civilization? How sudden was the transition from chariot to infantry?

Drews presents the idea of a military shift as singular causation, but there are critics that remain unconvinced. Cline states that Drews’s explanation for the Catastrophe is not the only possible explanation, and does not provide the final answer [8]. Young states that Drews’s argument does not negate the theory of systems collapse effectively, and that a military change and systems collapse are not mutually exclusive [9].

Haggis is concerned with Drews’s one-size-fits-all approach to causation. Drews presents the military shift as the singular cause of the Catastrophe for civilizations from one end of the eastern Mediterranean to the other. Were these cultures not different from one another? Haggis suggests this hurts Drews’ assertion of singular causation, and that Drews should provide more explanation regarding to the culturally specific variables of each region, relative to his thesis [10].

Lastly, the lack of sources and frames of reference on time have the potential to make events in the ancient world seem closer together and more connected in the causal chain. This is another criticism that Haggis has of Drews’s argument. Haggis suggests Drews’s narrative makes the Catastrophe seem like it occurred more quickly than it actually did. Haggis says that length of time could have allowed for a more gradual, internal shift to dominant infantry than Drews suggests [11]. Young defends Drews by stating that the destructions of the Catastrophe took place in a compressed enough period of time for them to be considered closely related events.

After thinking about it for a bit, I can see that Drews is sincere about what he is attempting to do. At one point, he even unnecessarily apologizes for writing a military history while not being a military historian [12]. So he is aware that he is operating in an imperfect situation and he makes it clear that he’s doing the best he can with the resources he has.

I also suspect that his reviewers were happy to see a new work of scholarship on the Late Bronze Age Catastrophe and were respectful of an attempt to inject new life into an old mystery. Ancient history can be very intimidating to write. Ideas are often stopped before they start because of the vast amount of writing that has already been done on the era, combined with the scarcity of sources.

It just struck me odd when I was reading Drews’s conclusion that I came across so many terms indicating uncertainty. This is the thesis wrap, where the author is supposed to be most convincing in his argument. On page 216 and 217, I flagged a “whatever,” a “very likely”, two “imagines” and a “perhaps” all in a pretty close arrangement regarding a key point of support for his thesis [13].

I agree with Young, who says that Drews’s work seems partially developed and he would like to read more of what Drews has to say [14]. It’s a very entertaining book, but I think Drews is really stretching his reasoning pretty thin. I want to believe him, but I’m sticking with multiple causation when it comes to the Catastrophe.


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1 (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009), 14.

[2] Hans Van Wees, “Review,” Greece and Rome, Second Series, vol. 41, No. 1, (April 1994), 75

[3] Eric H. Cline, “Review,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 56, no. 2 (April 1997): 127.

[4] Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA.1200 BC (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 98.

[5] Cline, “Review,” 129.

[6] Donald C. Haggis, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 116, No. 2 (Summer 1995), 323.

[7] T. Cuyler Young, Jr., “Review,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (June 1995): 312.

[8] Cline, “Review,” 129.

[9] Young, “Review,” 312.

[10] Haggis, “Review,” 324.

[11] Ibid., 323.

[12] Drews, “The End,” 102.

[13] Ibid., 216-17.

[14] Young, “Review,” 312.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

Two Takes on Training the Ancient Warrior: Vegetius and Sun Tzu

If there’s one military maxim that has been proven time and again over many centuries of history, it is that the best trained militaries typically perform much better than their poorly trained enemies. It’s not a radical concept to understand, but what might surprise some people is how organized and committed certain commanders and societies were at training their soldiers. Two outstanding documents on training that have survived to this day are the well-known Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the not-as-well-known De Re Militari, by the Roman general Pulius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (or, simply, Vegetius). Both training manuals have a distinct style, and show us how two very different cultures held similar viewpoints regarding war.

Vegetius’s De Re Militari

Vegetius (5th century AD, around AD 435-450) and Sun Tzu (544 BC to 496 BC) have much in common because their goals are similar from the outset. Both generals wrote manuals describing the ideal conditions of conducting a campaign and managing men under their banners. This commitment to the ideal draws the philosophy of two men from different lands, cultures, and times together.

In the ideal, armies are made of disciplined troops, who are well supplied and organized, and who exercise caution and aggression at just the right moment. Of course, these ideal troops always operate from advantageous terrain, in the proper formation and end the battle victorious, with as few losses as possible to their side. They are controlled in pursuit of the fleeing enemy and they allow the enemy the opportunity to flee. An ideal campaign is not protracted and lengthy, and an army’s soldiers stay motivated and level-headed. These are goals that both Vegetius and Sun Tzu value and mention in their works. But that says more about military culture than the cultures of Rome and China. All militaries, with few exceptions, would agree to these commonalities, so it’s not surprising at all to find them in the works of both Vegetius and Sun Tzu.

What makes Vegetius and Sun Tzu different from many is that they placed value on educating others about war. They viewed their professional duties from a systematic standpoint, and did not place value on chance and random events. Both men believed, as Vegetius says, that “…he who hopes for success, should fight on principal, not chance.”[1] As both men held prominent positions as military leaders, this attitude reflects an appreciation in both cultures for reason, rule and order. The fact that these manuals were meant to be shared also reveals a value placed on education and literacy in both cultures, at least for the ruling classes.

Both men lived their lives in periods of time where warfare was common, even constant. Consider the references to war as an art form. The title of Sun Tzu’s work is “The Art of War.” Vegetius, in his final words of his manual, refers to the “art of conquest.”[2] If you had never encountered war before, and saw it for the very first time, would you refer to it as art? Probably not. War is chaotic, bloody, violent, and centered on death and destruction. Yet, Vegetius and the Chinese referred to war as art. Regardless of medium, art is almost always controlled, deliberate, expressive, inspired, and provokes thought and/or emotion. This is how the two men viewed war. How many conflicts would a person have to bear witness to, and be a participant in, before his point of view shifted from the fear and confusion of the first battle to the visionary experience of a master artist? How indoctrinated in war must these societies be in order for this viewpoint to seem normal?

Read either Sun Tzu or Vegetius and you will also encounter many references to how “the ancients”[3] did things or how the heroes who came before them conducted themselves in war. [4] This is indicative of cultures that share ancestor veneration in common. Ancestral altars and memorials are well-known features of both Roman and Chinese homes. Both cultures observe filial piety across all classes of society, and this tendency is reflected in the constant presence of the ancients in the works of Sun Tzu and Vegetius. Indeed, both generals may have acquired instant credibility for their views by linking them with the actions of respected figures from the past.

Sun Tzu

One of the main differences that is noticeable between Sun Tzu and Vegetius is how they operate in different planes. Sun Tzu is more strategic in view and his philosophy is ethereal and spiritual. He talks of balances and relationships between one variable and another, such as rest and exertion, union and separation, confidence and surprise. [5]  He draws parallels between war and nature [6] and makes references to ch’i.[7] He is the more cerebral of the two authors, and his philosophy seems to fall in line with the traditional Chinese emphasis on harmonious relationships.

Vegetius is more tactical in his recommendations, and his tone is flavored with traditional Roman practicality. This is exemplified in his general maxims, nearly all of which apply to common situations within a campaign’s ground-level operations. “Valor is superior to numbers.” “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.” “Novelty and surprise throw an enemy into consternation, but common incidents have no effect.”[8]

Many people have read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and have attempted to apply the work to everything from organized sports to business. My personal view is that this is a less than ideal way to view this work. The Art of War is a relic of a particular place and time. So is De Re Militari. We can learn much from these works about how the Chinese and the Romans viewed war, the role of the commander, and how they viewed the men who served as soldiers in the rank and file. Of course, one can learn from both books and be influenced by the lessons within each, but I urge you to spend more time thinking about the time and the setting of both books, rather than how they apply to modern life. Both manuals are a gold mine of insight into the past, and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about ancient Romans and Chinese.


[1] Vegetius, On Roman Military Matters, trans. John Clarke (St. Petersburg: Red and Black, 2008), 52.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Sun Tzu, “Chapter 3: The Art of Warfare” in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (Boulder: Westview Press 1993), 163.

[4] Vegetius, 51.

[5] Sun Tzu, 158.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Ibid., 170.

[8] Vegetius, 91.


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