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The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
By Edward N. Luttwak
Harvard Belknap, 2009

“He who is not in some measure a pedant,” wrote Hazlitt, “though he may be a wise cannot be a very happy man.” And when we turn from this mock-serious admonition to any page of Edward Luttwak’s uproariously wonderful new book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, it’s possible to discern not only a very wise man but, on Hazlitt’s terms, a very happy one. Take this note on the famed ‘Scythian’ bows used by the Hun warriors of Attila:

Bovine horn plates can compress by 4 percent before yielding, as opposed to 1 percent or so for the best woods; the preferred horn from European or Indian cattle, or better, Asiatic water buffalo, was split and then steamed or boiled to make it pliable and more easily cut and shaped.

Reading that, you can be sure that Luttwak either compressed bovine horn plates himself or was standing at the elbow of an expert who was doing the pressing – and no doubt fielding dozens of annoying questions from Luttwak in the process. This is the persistent, endearing trait that separates this book (and its equally contentious predecessor, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire) from the general run of books on how the financially-depleted and materially over-extended Byzantine Empire managed to survive and even thrive for a thousand years: Luttwak has mastered the knack of writing personal prose that it is nonetheless powerfully factual. Time and again in his book, an observation will be based on nothing more – and nothing less – than what he has seen himself, as in this digression on the virtuosity of Hun archers on horseback:

I have witnessed very accurate shooting with incongruous AK-47 assault rifles ahead, sideways, and rearward by Mongol horsemen racing at a full gallop, just as their predecessors once did with the bow, simply turning to aim as if they were in a swivel seat, without the slightest unease of imbalance.

Or the grace note of a superb discussion of stupidity in strategic and tactical thinking in standing armies:

…training as a continuous activity requires not only full-time forces, but also a serious degree of professionalism. Even today, most of the 150 or more extant armies both large and small barely train their recruits, who mostly receive only a couple of weeks of instruction in dress and ceremony, barrack-square drills, and the firing of personal weapons. After that, the recruits are assigned to units that now and then engage in mostly ritualistic exercises, and that hardly ever are combined in formations to carry out maneuvers – if realistic, they would only expose everyone’s lack of training, so parade-ground theatricals are much preferred (I once witnessed a one-kilometer progression made by a battalion of 42 tanks kept in exact formation to the inch; weeks of training had been wasted on a tactically worthless show).

The Byzantine Empire hasn’t suffered from a lack of chroniclers, and each of them has in turn lamented that the average reader of history – to say nothing of the average educated member of society – knows next to nothing about the subject. When Theodosius I split the Roman Empire between his sons in A.D. 395 – the western half going to Honorius, the eastern half to Arkadios – one epoch ended and another began (indeed, canny old Theodosius only made the split because he saw the change coming and figured two chances at some separate survival were better than no chance at all). Gone from that point on were the heady days of the Empire’s unbroken hegemony: the thirty legions, the corps of trained auxiliaries, the near-endless streams of revenue from tax and tribute – these things had been under attack from internal pressure and external military threat for centuries, and when the Empire split, both halves were quickly forced to fend for themselves.

The fending took different forms. In the West, wave after wave of foreign invasion broke upon the old superstructure of empire, with bands of warlike barbarians attacking Roman settlements, Roman cities, and Rome itself. Luttwak has little patience for “the newly fashionable vision of an almost peaceful immigration” in this scenario, and he’s quick to point out that for all the armed invaders the West had to face, it still had things easier than the East. The new empire of Byzantium (inhabitants of which of course still considered themselves and their empire Roman) faced fierce and organized enemies literally on all sides, from the warlike (Avars, Bulghars, Magyars, and half a dozen others) tribes to the northeast to the centuries-old specter of an organized and embittered Iranian empire all along its eastern border. As Luttwak puts it, “The Byzantines had to survive by strategy or not at all – the eastern empire less geographically favored than the west, and beset by radically aggressive and skillful enemies.”

The subject of this book is the story of that remarkable survival, which lasted in one form or another until 1453 when Constantinople was finally sacked by Turkey. The eastern empire had certain advantages – it sat across vital trade routes, its capital city was defended by magnificent walls, and it possessed the bottomless granaries of Egypt and Turkey, so in all but the worst of times it could pay its armies and navies. “There is a lot of ruination in an empire,” Luttwak observes, but for Byzantines, the steadily-evolving ‘grand strategy’ was simple: “the direct use of military force to destroy enemies was no longer the first instrument of statecraft, but the last.” Better by far to talk, negotiate, or simply pay off your prospective enemy – or pay some of his neighbors to start trouble on his other borders (or even some of his internal factions to be more factious).

Luttwak’s conceit is that this hodge-podge series of adaptations codified into an actual grand strategy, and there’s real meat to the claim. Byzantium developed a vast corps of governmental clerics and policy-drafters who remained working at their tables while emperors came and went, and this clerical class formed the integumentary tissue linking the generations and making sure the various tactics and strategy manuals written by generals and emperors became institutional knowledge. Luttwak must be the first popular historian to read all of these manuals (he devotes an entire chapter to the Strategikon of the emperor Maurikios, for instance) with such an enthusiastic eye, but always his emphasis is on the pragmatic details of training and equipping large bodies of men – and one of his book’s most refreshing features is its constant linking of the past with the present, as in this discussion of the institutional demands of mounted archery:

There was a major problem, however, whose consequences could also be strategic: mounted archery is not only a very demanding skill but also very perishable both individually and, more important, institutionally. Unless it is learned in childhood, it is emphatically not one of those skills that degrade hardly at all over time, such as bicycling. Weapon trainers are familiar with the sharp difference between the retention of shooting skills with pistols and with rifles; pistol skills degrade so quickly that without serious monthly practice the average pistol shooter becomes a danger to his colleagues, whereas a well-trained rifleman can retain his skills with just an annual refresher.

At times while reading The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, it seems like hardly a day separates the events of 1000 years ago from the military and paramilitary realities of today, and the bridge is Luttwak himself, who has put in many years as a military consultant for several branches of the U.S. military and NATO and knows his way around tactical practicalities as well as any historian working today. While studying an 11th century Byzantine strategy manual, he can’t help but draw modern parallels:

The tone throughout is benign, but on one point the author is fierce: he favors the death penalty for a commander who is surprised by an enemy incursion against his encampment. Many sentries are to be posted all around, even where attack seems unlikely, for the strategos should never have to say, “I did not expect an attack in that part of the perimeter” to which the reply is, “You had an enemy? If so, how could you not think of the worst contingency?” This passage echoes previous manuals, but may also reflect personal experience (as in my own case): it is easier to post sentries than to make sure that they remain awake night after night, even though nothing ever happens – except, of course, on the one night when the sentries are asleep.

And he’s quick to enter the lists on every contested issue connected with the centuries he’s analyzing. For instance, recent historical accounts have sometimes characterized Attila the Hun as a bungler, an inept barbarian who happened to strike at the West when it was particularly vulnerable, and Luttwak stops himself just shy of mocking such armchair pretensions, drily commenting that if what Attila did was bungling, it was bungling “on a huge scale – nothing like it had been seen before, nothing like it would be seen again, until the Mongols dominated all the Russias while actually ruling China.” Attila is a central example of Luttwak’s main thesis: a powerful and voracious enemy who was stopped from attacking the eastern empire through an adroit combination of bribery and diversion; in the early fifth century, Attila’s Huns were “deflected with a minimum of force and a maximum of persuasion,” and Luttwak makes a strong case that this kept on happening for the next thousand years, right up to the moment in 1282 when Charles D’Anjou’s invasion plans were frustrated by a rebellion in his client-kingdom fomented by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos.

Luttwak’s book is fast-paced, but it nevertheless covers all the highlights of Byzantine history, as seen through his specialty prism of The Grand Strategy. Justinian (527-565) of course is here, using the brilliance of his generals Narses and Belisarius to parlay limited resources into a serious bid to reconquer Italy and North Africa in the name of the Empire. Although Justinian’s story occurs early in the book’s narrative, in many ways he and Belisarius represent the perfect practitioners of what Luttwak calls the ‘rational maneuver,’ in which superior intelligence-gathering and tactical agility can allow a weaker force to withstand or even defeat a larger one:

When rational maneuver is successful, it changes the effective military balance by circumventing the enemy’s strengths and exploiting his weaknesses. If in a straight contest of attrition, 3,000 equal-quality soldiers must prevail over 1,000, barring extraordinary circumstances, with relational operational methods or tactics, it can easily happen that 1,000 can defeat 3,000. Or if the numbers are even, 1,000 can defeat 1,000 but with many fewer casualties, or with the expenditure of fewer resources, or both.

Justinian’s story ends early and sadly – a massive pandemic of bubonic plague wrecked his efforts to consolidate the territorial gains his generals won him – but endless stories follow, as the march of Byzantine emperors, generals, and statesmen do everything they can to avoid the attrition of war and preserve the fragile peace. This often involved being more flexible than their Roman counterparts in Luttwak’s first book, who “weren’t curious about their enemies because they didn’t need to be.” Huge chunks of the Strategikon are devoted to ethnographical studies of the enemy (in this case Sasanian Persia) – their dress, their trade, their habit in battle, their psychology. Luttwak is too ready to attribute to the older Romans a corresponding indifference to the world around them, a bliss through ignorance that would have been quite a revelation to canny negotiators like Augustus or Vespasian. “The Romans were not racists,” Luttwak tells us, a touch too simplistically, “they were properly culturalist, if the word be allowed – but they were simply too powerful to be much interested in the trivial lives of non-Romans.” This is too neat – with very, very few exceptions, all military states maintain a healthy interest in understanding their enemies.

(One of history’s only exceptions, the truly heedless Nazi Germany, is something of a touchstone for Luttwak throughout his book, as in his fascinating discussion of the tactical value of freshly-defeated troops turning and attacking:

That is how the German army, increasingly outgunned and outnumbered from 1943, prolonged its resistance to the advancing Red Army. … it habitually counterattacked immediately after suffering defeats. Nothing is more difficult materially or psychologically – the troops are demoralized, units disorganized, supplies short – and nothing is more effective, because it takes away the enemy’s momentum. Red Army troops dashing forward after a breakthrough would run into counterattacks from troops last seen fleeing in panic. Officers with pistols drawn would form retreating troops into improvised alarmheiten to mount counterattacks that often inflicted disproportionate casualties. Thus the German army’s excellent officers gained more time for their colleagues in the extermination branch, who killed most of their victims in the final year of a war prolonged by sheer tactical skill.

The invigorating twists and turns of that paragraph are duplicated many times in this book, to the delight of readers bored with rhetorically flat standard histories).

“Strategy,” Luttwak reminds us, is one of those Greek words the Greeks themselves never knew, and the subtle payload of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, quite apart from its riveting portrait of an improvised empire bent on finding new ways to survive, is to expose the “paradoxical logic of strategy,” where “the peaceful had to be constantly ready to attack in retaliation, aggressors had to be meekly prudent, and nuclear weapons could be useful only if they were not used.” If this has a decidedly modern-day ring to it, the effect is intentional: Luttwak is, we realize with a wide smile, writing a strategikon of his own, and if his conclusions are sharp they also carry a wary hope – that war need not be a viable answer, that “safety could be the sturdy child of terror.” Later and perhaps less realistic nations than the Byzantines might want to consult.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.