Rules of Battle

Glen Bowersock

  • The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak
    Harvard, 498 pp, £25.95, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03519 5

A man of deep culture and reading in many languages, Edward Luttwak has at least three major personae – strategist, journalist and scholar. His practical experience of contemporary policy and defence is reinforced by an almost professional knowledge of military history, particularly in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and he expounds his views in lively prose that gives maximum exposure to the most eccentric of them.

He isn’t Clausewitz, and doesn’t want to be. He is a practical strategist of disconcertingly cynical views and of broad as well as specialised competence. He has written military manuals for use in the field, and has things to say about the Huns’ mounted archers on the basis of having watched modern Mongols firing AK-47 assault rifles at full gallop. He is the only person who could have written the much reprinted Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, or calmly assessed the infinitely changing patterns of warfare in Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. A volume entitled A User’s Guide to Terrorism can’t be far off. Nothing Luttwak writes is uninteresting, and his secret memos over the years must have been as diverting as they were helpful. He doesn’t keep his interests in strategy, journalism and scholarship in separate compartments but allows all three to inform everything he writes. His ventures into the military history of antiquity and the Middle Ages are unlike the work of academic historians and equally unlike the superficial surveys produced by journalists for the general public. Thanks to his polyglot reading, his many scholarly contacts and his opinionated style, he succeeds wondrously in reaching both specialists and the public.

Ancient historians first became aware of Luttwak in 1976, when he published his audacious book on the Roman imperial armies and frontiers, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. A preface by my late colleague J.F. Gilliam, an authority on the Roman army, ensured that ancient historians wouldn’t dismiss the book as the work of an amateur, and they didn’t. Luttwak’s postulate of a grand strategy launched an intense debate about Rome’s frontier policy and defences. The problem, of which Luttwak was well aware, is that we have no documentary evidence for any grand strategy in the Roman Empire and no hint that its generals or emperors were conscious of any such thing. Yet Luttwak believed that what happened at the edges of the empire showed that the Romans were doing more than merely responding to immediate threats and invasions. The northern limes (‘frontier’), a network of watchtowers and fortifications along the Rhine and Danube, was mirrored at the edge of the desert in North Africa by a defensive line, called ‘the ditch’ (fossatum), behind which fortified villas provided a defence in depth. In the Near East, where Roman authority gradually bled away into the fastnesses of the Syrian and Jordanian steppe, the concept of a limes was transformed into a series of fortified zones or limites, called ‘interior’ (more remote) and ‘exterior’ (nearer to urban settlements). Luttwak, I’m convinced, was entirely correct in thinking that all this could not have happened by accident or in response to crises in different places at different times.

In The Limits of Empire (1990), the most important work on Roman imperial frontiers to appear after Luttwak’s, Benjamin Isaac dedicated his final chapter to the theme ‘Frontier Policy – Grand Strategy?’ If not totally convinced of Luttwak’s hypothesis, Isaac was impressed by it: ‘We can admire his lucid analysis of the material, accept many of his insights, and appreciate his systematic approach, but we must still ask whether the system analysed did in fact exist. If we do ask this question, it is thanks to Luttwak’s own admirable synthesis.’ By the time Isaac was writing his book in the 1980s, Luttwak was exploring what he called the ‘grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire’, not least because he believed that the Byzantines deliberately and wisely chose not to continue or replicate what the Romans had done. Now, after more than two decades, he has produced his analysis of Byzantine strategy. It is much longer and more elaborate than his study of the Roman Empire: he traces Byzantine strategy all the way from Attila in the fifth century to the Crusaders’ capture of Constantinople in 1204. He doesn’t consider the Byzantine Empire in the period after the restoration of Constantinople in 1261 down to its capitulation before the Turks in 1453.

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