Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Ten Years Later

As a young lieutenant in the Marine Corps, not yet in the fleet, I was given lots of advice on briefing higher-ups. Most of it was what you would expect: give only the most relevant facts up front. Deliver them with confidence. And never, ever try to bullshit when you’re not sure of something. This last point was hammered especially hard. Commanders develop a bloodhound’s nose for the stench of bullshit, and a single statement that doesn’t sit right leads to questions. Questions that aren’t answered well lead to more questions, and a 2-minute brief can quickly turn into a 20-minute ass-chewing in front of the entire staff. The warning—sensible on the face of it—seemed profoundly wise the first time I witnessed a briefer walk away from the podium trembling.

Grand Strategy of the Byzantine EmpireMore often, of course, briefings follow a more congenial and predictable rhythm. Judging by tone and cadence alone, it is even possible for an experienced observer to guess whether something is a weekly update, a planning brief, or a mission brief. This came irresistibly to mind recently while rereading Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, published ten years ago last November. His sweeping survey of how Byzantium survived and flourished for over a millennium is the product of a decades-long fascination with the eastern empire, shaped by his experience from a long career in the US national security establishment. The book could easily be read as an extended intelligence brief on a foreign military’s capabilities and doctrine. It was easy to imagine Luttwak, a dynamic and entertaining speaker, addressing a general staff tasked with developing the OPLAN for an invasion.

Inevitably, I began judging his performance. He certainly adopts the right tone—the man is nothing if not confident. His delivery is also solid: he is far too good a writer to be too concise, but does keep things moving. The discussion is framed well, as he explains the general circumstances that shaped the development of Byzantine doctrine before examining their response to specific problems.

This latter point is no trivial task. The book covers eight hundred years, from around 400, when the Huns first started causing serious trouble for the Romans, to 1204, when the Fourth Crusade sacked of Constantinople and set in motion Byzantium’s irreversible decline. Even as eponymously byzantine plots transpired in the imperial chambers, a large body of palace officials, civil servants, and army officers kept the empire running. Not quite a formal cabinet or civil service, these were men who understood the strategic situation very well and did their best to guide the reigning monarch through the vicissitudes of the day. And vicissitudes there were many. The Byzantine Empire was not Rome at its imperial height; it had neither the military strength nor the material resources to subdue its neighbors at will. Emperors and generals were left to manage the chaos of international politics as best they could, using a combination of diplomacy, force, and financial incentive. The last was especially important: it was often cheaper to pay off enemies than to assemble an army and fight, which was costly even when successful, calamitous when not.

Which is not to say that the Byzantines were cringing nerds getting bullied for their lunch money. They only bought off hostile powers outright in the most desperate circumstances, when they needed time to reconsolidate their forces or fend off a threat on another front. They were more often shrewd investors, paying out bribes that would produce the best return: inducing their enemies’ vassals to revolt or neighbors to attack. The latter could be exceptionally economical, as Byzantine gold went far among the poor nomads of the distant steppe.

The Byzantines were only able to do this because they had an extensive network of educated, worldly men to conduct their diplomacy. This was nothing so formal as a foreign ministry or intelligence service, but a natural extension of Byzantine civilization itself: learned travelers composed detailed literary accounts of foreign lands, missionaries and churchmen swayed foreign rulers, and the overwhelming magnificence of Constantinople itself awed visiting ambassadors. An extensive network of foreign contacts provided the equivalent of an intelligence agency, while a number of military manuals made it possible to formalize methods of warfare.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire places Byzantium’s remarkable survival in this context, showing how Constantinople adapted to the challenges of its age. Coming back to it ten years after I first read it, it brought back some of the same exhilaration as the first time. In a way, it was this book that first got me really interested in Byzantium. My earliest introduction had been John Julius Norwich’s three-volume history, but his glib recitation of eleven centuries of palace intrigue gave me only a dim and superficial appreciation. Reading Luttwak, not long after studying Byzantine military history with Walter Kaegi, felt like peering into the depths beneath that surface. Luttwak writes from a completely different perspective from most historians, with much more panache, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.

You never read the same book twice, however, and this time was no exception. Many small errors and mischaracterizations jumped out, punctuated by the occasional howler which made me start to question his judgment. The first came in a fairly abstruse discussion, but was no less glaring for it: while describing the havoc wrought by the Huns, Luttwak analyzes their methods in terms of the levels of war. These consist of tactics, operations, and strategy, which roughly correspond to the battle, the campaign, and the war. The Huns’ strategy, for instance, was to strike like lightning over huge distances to devastate a region, then disappear before defensive armies could arrive. In battle, they were similarly elusive: Hunnish cavalry devastated the Romans’ massed ranks with their powerful compound reflex bows, fled in the face of charging cavalry, then turned around and counterattacked at opportune moments. Luttwak gets himself into trouble when he gets to the operational level, saying it is how entire units advanced then retreated without any apparent coordination, making it impossible for enemy generals to read their plan of battle. This is completely at odds with any definition of the operational level, corresponding much more to battle tactics—the operational would be the maneuvers that bring an enemy army to battle.

What is perplexing about this is that Luttwak is no amateur. He helped introduce the operational level of war into US Army doctrine by contributing to the landmark 1982 edition of Field Manual 100-5, Operations. All his other writing indicates that he understands it very well when applied to modern mechanized warfare. This is not a non-specialist making mistakes about Byzantine history, but a self-proclaimed strategist haphazardly applying the terminology of his own field. The error is ultimately irrelevant to his larger argument, but fits a pattern of nonchalance in fitting facts to theory. Too many times he breezily asserts a conceptual framework that is flatly contradicted by a plain narration of events.

Another particularly egregious instance occurs in his discussion of Vegetius’ 5th-century work De Re Militari, which he dismisses as a gallimaufry of advice copied from antiquated texts by a man with no experience of command. To illustrate this, he quotes a passage advising that promising recruits be trained as archers using practice bows, asserting that “it is foolish to train with weak wooden bows for combat with powerfully resistant composite bows. On the contrary, it was a fundamental Roman rule to use extra-heavy shields, swords, and javelins for training, to ease at least the physical effort of combat.” Luttwak would have done well to heed his own words on men with no practical experience: it is one thing to inure trained soldiers to the rigors of combat, quite another to teach raw recruits the proper techniques of archery. Giving extra-strong bows to the latter would be like running recruits at boot camp through stress drills before they even learned the fundamentals of marksmanship—Vegetius’ advice, whether copied from older manuals or reflecting contemporary practice, is perfectly sound.

This would be an extremely minor error but for the constant emphasis Luttwak places on Hunnish archery. These lengthy passages give details of how composite reflex bows were made, the tradeoffs between range and rate of fire, the particulars of shooting from the saddle, the tactical employment of mounted cavalry, and entertaining asides about modern-day Mongolians firing AK-47s from the gallop. The sheer volume of description gives the impression of carefully-formed conclusions born of deep erudition. Such an obvious, if trivial, error made Luttwak appear more a skillful raconteur than an actual thinker. I began to sense, in other words, that I was being bullshitted.

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The mistakes so far were points of detail, ultimately unimportant to the larger argument. But details are important, and, as the battalion or task force commander instinctively understands, errors in the small things usually mean errors in larger things. I began to question Luttwak’s thesis, which had seemed so sensible—obvious, even—on first reading. It revolves around two points in particular: 1.) the Byzantines sought to avoid the type of all-out war that decisively committed their military strength, and 2.) they preferred a reasonable peace with their neighbors to outright conquest, which might expose them to even more dangerous threats from beyond the horizon. In short, the Byzantines aimed to preserve a regional balance of power that was overall favorable to themselves, rather than to expand.

It is certainly true that the Byzantines played a cautious game, apt to use subversion and diplomacy. But two events described in the book give lie to Luttwak’s argument: Nicephorus I’s failed offensive of 811 against the rising power of Bulgaria, which ended in the destruction of his army, and Basil II’s three-decade offensive against the same, which ended in 1018 with Byzantium’s domination of the Balkans for nearly two centuries. Although Luttwak acknowledges these events, noting them as exceptions to the Byzantines’ usual practice, they were no such thing: between 680 and 971, Constantine IV, Justinian II, Constantine V, Constantine VI, and John Tzimisces led a series of aggressive campaigns against Bulgaria, the last of which laid the groundwork for Basil II’s conquests. The Byzantines clearly had the desire to conquer their western neighbor, even if success eluded them for more than three centuries. And as much as they might wish to avoid the calamity that befell Nicephorus, they were often willing to risk large-scale engagements.

If Byzantium’s wars with Bulgaria do not support Luttwak’s argument, the eastern theater—the Anatolian frontier running along the Taurus and Anti-Taurus Mountains—appears to present a stronger case. From the first Arab conquests in the 630s until about the 10th century, the Arabs held the initiative and were usually stronger in number. Military manuals even explicitly advised commanders in the east to avoid decisive engagements, lest they suffer a dramatic defeat that left the borders completely exposed.

This limited context does indeed support Luttwak’s case, but there was much more behind the Byzantines’ strategic reasoning. The Anatolian plateau could not support dense populations, so defenders had to be scattered across the broad and deep frontier. This naturally favored large Arab raiding parties, who could feed themselves on the move and overwhelm individual outposts as defenders scrambled to gather forces from over a huge area. Not only did this guarantee that the Byzantine army would be smaller than the Arab regardless of the overall balance of power, but a decisive engagement would give the enemy the chance to destroy their entire regional defensive capacity in one swoop (unlike the main Byzantine field armies, drawn from the interior of the empire). After many years of cautious, defensive warfare, the Byzantines broke the strength of these raids in the mid-10th century, at which they became far more aggressive. For the next three generations, Byzantium made conquests in Cilicia, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia; once more, they fought large-scale campaigns which culminated in pitched battle between two armies.

Luttwak is correct in observing the inherent difficulties the Byzantines had in waging offensive warfare in general. Any serious campaign required marching troops from one end of the empire to the other, leaving the far frontier tantalizingly exposed to raids by neighboring powers. This moreover required a call-up of the reserves, men who would otherwise be working the fields come harvest time. Keeping them mobilized for too long thus cut into the empire’s economic base while stirring up domestic discontent. Although these considerations sharply limited the Byzantines’ opportunities to go on the offensive, they did not reduce their enthusiasm to do so. If anything, this had the opposite effect: Byzantine armies had to secure whatever long-term advantages they could during the limited time they were assembled in strength. It was in their enemies’ interests to avoid decisive battle, to evade and delay until the cat was gone so that they could come back out to play. If the Byzantines only rarely destroyed an enemy and occupied his lands, this was more because they were unable than unwilling.

Beyond the Balkan and Anatolian theaters, Luttwak brings up a third area of operations: the regions on the far sides of their hostile neighbors, where diplomacy and subversion—that most characteristic element of Byzantine warfighting—came into play. A corollary to Luttwak’s contention that the Byzantines avoided high-intensity warfare is that they often preferred to find allies who could attack their enemies from the rear: they recruited the Gokturks against a belligerent Persia, the Khazars against Arab expansion in the Caucasus, Germans and Italians against the Normans, Angevins, and Arabs, and various steppe peoples against both Bulgaria and other nomadic invaders. Yet the Byzantines almost never used indirect methods in the way Luttwak suggests, as a preferred alternative to fighting themselves. In almost every instance, it was only after they had already sustained serious losses, or when they were occupied with another war at the opposite end of the empire.

One emperor, Nicephorus II, stands out as an exception to this rule. In 966, he cut off tribute to Bulgaria and raided the border. This show of strength reflected a balance of power shifting in Byzantium’s favor, and the Bulgarian monarch agreed to send his sons to Constantinople as hostages. Despite this concession, the emperor bribed the Russians in 968 to cross the Danube and attack Bulgaria. This invasion by proxy may simply have been a preemptive strike to keep the Bulgarians on their heels while the Byzantine army marched east to fight the Arabs; whatever the case, it was unique both in its use of proxies on the offensive and in initiating a two-front war. Exceptional though this was, it showed that Byzantines could be very aggressive indeed when they thought they had the strength.

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Critical though I was in my second reading of Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, it was hard to be too harsh. For all I was tempted to read it as an extended intelligence brief, it was nothing of the sort. It was not even something like his 1979 book Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, a much narrower work that focused on the technical details of Roman frontier defenses. It is instead a sweeping look at Byzantine civilization itself, driven by a genuine love and enthusiasm for the subject.

If Luttwak largely misunderstands the Byzantines’ strategic reasoning, he correctly describes the way in which they endured the centuries-long onslaught: not by coasting on momentum, not by their enemies’ indifference, and not by luck, but by applying all the resources of their civilization. In a sense, his overall argument is halfway correct insofar as he describes the purely defensive side of Byzantine strategy. He is therefore at his best when he gets into the nuts and bolts of how their defensive strategy actually worked, which takes him away both from the abstractions that lead him astray and the inconvenient details of individual campaigns—his analysis of Anatolian frontier warfare, for example, is superb.

This is also true when he discusses the relationship between Byzantine warfare and diplomacy, not as two distinct things, but as inseparable parts of a single foreign policy (what irony: the Byzantines had a miaphysite foreign policy). Outside of certain US government types—the ones who routinely refer to “the interagency” and “a whole-of-government approach”—there is no common doctrinal jargon for the sort of diplomatic-military fusion which the Byzantines excelled at. This means that Luttwak uses more straightforward language in these sections, and as his writing gets clearer, so too does his thinking. He gleefully narrates how the Byzantines combined diplomacy and generalship to undo their less sophisticated enemies countless times, summarized by a perfectly turned phrase. There is no better example than his précis of the centuries-long Byzantine-Bulgarian conflict: “Not even Christianity could erase Bulgaria’s original sin—its proximity to the Theodosian Wall.”

A historian once told me that, whatever his colleagues thought of Luttwak’s thesis in his earlier Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, they all agreed that it made them profoundly reconsider the subject. So too with Byzantium: if he is wrong, he is wrong in interesting ways, and the debate he provokes is well worth the effort of engaging. Sometimes the clamor of open battle is a good thing indeed.

Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is available on Amazon.