Byzantine strategies

Stuart Koehl reviews Edward N. Luttwak's article in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy called "Take Me Back to Constantinople: How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana."

It is an interesting piece that focuses on Byzantine strategy for defeating enemies by mostly avoiding war. It is not as honorable as it might sound.

Not mentioned are some tactical advantages the Byzantines had. The fortifications around Constantinople were so formidable that they were not breached significantly until the final conquest of the city. They also developed a weapon called "Greek fire" which was devastating against enemy war ships and other formations. It sounds like it was an early form of napalm that was projected through a device that blew it toward enemy formations.

It was such a closely guarded secret that its make up has been lost to history. While the article talks about the Byzantine practice of writing down their strategic thinking, the same cannot be said for Greek fire.

Update: One other interesting aspect of Byzantine history is the Empires relationship with Atilla the Hun. As I have mentioned before Atilla was not German but was from Asia. The Byzantines paid him to leave them alone for the most part, but he was always griping. One of his gripes sounds like that of th Soviets about East Germans escaping into Berlin. He apparently wrote letters demanding that the Byzantines return the refugees.


  1. Technology in war provides only a fleeting advantage. It is only a matter of time before the adversary either discovers a countermeasure (whether technical, tactical or operational does not matter) or develops his own version of the weapon. Similarly, geography and fortifications are of minimal value unless one has the will and the acumen to exploit them. Without Byzantine strategic brilliance on the one hand, and the tactical sophistication of its army on the other, the Theodosian Walls would have availed them little.

    In my brief article, I made mention of the tactical and operational superiority of the Byzantine army (the Strategikon of Maurice covers tactical and operational, as well as strategic issues; the title can best be translated as "The Book of Generals"). But I also mentioned that Byzantium was chronically outnumbered by its enemies, who could sustain numerous defeats, while the Empire could be undone by just one. Hence the importance of choosing when and where to fight, and the preference for non-military solutions (ideally, have the barbarians kill off each other) which in general were cheaper and less risky than battle. But the Byzantines knew how the fight when they needed, and they were better at it than any of their adversaries.

    One thing I did not have enough time to emphasize, however, was the advantage conveyed by Byzantium's sophisticated administrative apparatus and its monetary economy, both of which allowed it to maintain a professional, standing army equipped by the state with the best possible weapons. Better trained, better organized, regularly paid, the Byzantine army was more than a match for any barbarian war band, feudal levy or even Asiatic steppe army that came its way.

    In the end, the Byzantine Empire was brought down by its own internal fissures, notably its inability to regularize the Imperial succession and avoid the kinds of civil wars that bled it dry from the inside out. We should be wary of doing the same thing, albeit our civil wars seemed to be waged with lawsuits and selective prosecutions than with fire and sword.


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