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
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.

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[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.

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