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.

In his new book Luttwak vigorously reaffirms his belief in the concept of a grand strategy. ‘All states have a grand strategy, whether they know it or not,’ he declares at the beginning of his concluding chapter. ‘That is inevitable because grand strategy is simply the level at which knowledge and persuasion, or in modern terms intelligence and diplomacy, interact with military strength to determine outcomes in a world of other states, with their own “grand strategies”.’ In a brief appendix he explicitly addresses critics of his book on the Roman Empire, which he wryly but rightly says ‘has continued to attract inordinate attention’. He offers a thumbnail summary of what he calls ‘the paradoxical logic of strategy, which is diametrically opposed to the commonsense linear logic of everyday life’. His examples are valuable, and reflect what he says in his panoramic account of Byzantine warfare:

In strategy, contradictions are pervasive: bad roads are good because their use is unexpected, victories are transformed into defeats by over-extension, and much more of the same … Non-practitioners, by contrast, seem to accept the comforting official version that presents strategy as a form of systematic group thinking guided by rational choices, which reflect a set of ‘national interests’, whose results are then itemised in official documents.

According to Luttwak, the Byzantines moved away from the old Roman strategy of protecting the entire frontier from Britain to Mesopotamia through a limes system that kept out both invaders and marauders. This, he claims, ‘was altogether too expensive to maintain for the Byzantine Empire with its greatly diminished resources’. He traces the evolution of a new strategy in the empire’s response to the Huns who arrived in the middle of the fifth century, and devotes considerable space to negotiations with Attila. There can be no doubt that this was an important time for the nascent Byzantine Empire. The threat from Attila’s mounted archers was something new. It provokes Luttwak to an elaborate account of the wonders of the composite reflex bow, described in such loving detail as to discourage even his most attentive readers. He also suggests that the Byzantines learned from Attila’s cool and treacherous hospitality. They discovered the manifold advantages, in terms of manpower and expense, of deflecting enemies by means of cash payments, without a battle.

It happens that we are unusually well informed about Byzantine dealings with Attila because of the survival of the personal account of Priscus of Panium, who went to Attila’s camp as an envoy from Byzantium. This accident of literary survival may, to some extent, skew our perception of the formation of Byzantine policy. But Luttwak is tapping into an exceptional curiosity about Attila among 21st-century readers. In the last few years, he has been the subject of major books in Italian (Giuseppe Zecchini), French (Michel Rouche) and English (Christopher Kelly). The shadow of contemporary foreign affairs looms over all these narratives, even if Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are manifestly not Attila. Luttwak’s insistence that avoidance of battle and cash up front is the right course of action is unnerving, particularly since Attila did go off in pursuit of other enemies until death ultimately found him.

From the encounter with Attila the Byzantines realised that they would have to train young warriors in the art of mounted archery in order to cope with such encounters as they could not avoid, and this shifted the balance from infantry, as in Roman warfare, to cavalry. But training mounted archers was inevitably more difficult, more costly and more time-consuming than mobilising troops on the ground, providing yet another reason to avoid military engagements whenever possible and have done with the ancient Homeric ideal of individual valour and heroic sacrifice. Unlike the grand strategy of the Romans, the grand strategy Luttwak detects in the Byzantine Empire is well documented in a series of important military treatises from the sixth and tenth centuries. Luttwak has studied them all and draws heavily on them in his analysis. As he generously acknowledges, he would not have been able to do this as effectively as he has without the help of the most eminent academic authorities.

Towering above all other scholars of Byzantine warfare is the gentle Jesuit George Dennis, who edited and translated the Strategikon ascribed to the emperor Maurice at the end of the sixth century. Dennis also edited and translated a trio of anonymous military treatises, one from the sixth century and two, evidently based on personal experience in the field, from the tenth. The Strategikon presents the tactical case against attrition in battle with a clarity that is as arresting as it is new. It reflects the lessons learned at least since Attila, perhaps before:

Warfare is like hunting. Wild animals are taken by scouting, by nets, by lying in wait, by stalking, by circling around, and by other such stratagems rather than by sheer force. In waging war we should proceed in the same way, whether the enemy be many or few. To try simply to overpower the enemy in the open, hand in hand and face to face, even though you may appear to win, is an enterprise which is very risky and can result in serious harm. Apart from extreme emergency, it is ridiculous to gain a victory which is so costly and brings only empty glory.

Luttwak has also been able to avail himself of the publications and advice of Eric McGeer, whose book Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth exposed what Luttwak rightly calls the ‘tenth-century military renaissance’, and John Haldon, who has written extensively on Byzantine armies. Although Luttwak’s style reflects his journalism, his analyses are solidly rooted in recent Byzantine studies, which, as he observes in his preface, ‘have flourished as never before’. He doesn’t hesitate to invoke his own experience; for example, in discussing the location of Attila’s camp in the Romanian Banat, he notes parenthetically ‘my birthplace, but it does fit the evidence’. In emphasising the importance of espionage, he observes coolly: ‘By nature espionage must be poorly documented – and the accusation of espionage is poorly correlated with its actuality, as I could personally testify.’ He leads off his long treatment of tenth-century field manuals by noting: ‘As I have learned from personal experience, the writing of field manuals may reflect any combination of different aims.’

Since Luttwak identifies extensive intelligence gathering as part of Byzantium’s grand strategy, despite the absence of a foreign office or a diplomatic corps, he has much to say about understanding other peoples, in the firm conviction that today’s ally might be tomorrow’s enemy. He strongly advocates what he calls relational manoeuvres, those that are explicitly linked to the character and habits of a particular group. The Turkic Khazars, with whom Byzantium formed an alliance through their leader (khagan), proved indispensable in overcoming the threat from the Avars. The Khazars then went on to help the Byzantines by distracting Arabs at the eastern fringes of the empire. Turkic Bulgars emerging from Central Asia became new allies against the Arabs during the siege of Constantinople in the early eighth century, but they subsequently settled with others in Thrace to threaten the empire and join its enemies. When Sviatoslav of Kievan Rus defeated the Khazars in 969 the Byzantines abandoned the Khazars and bribed the Pechenegs to take their place as allies, until they too became enemies. All this timely betrayal, bribery and self-interest sustained the Byzantine Empire. ‘Gratitude,’ Luttwak writes, ‘is not a virtue in strategy.’

We know that Byzantine soldiers collected information about enemy tactics and weapons, and envoys gave full accounts of the people they encountered. Luttwak offers a startling explanation of the success of Byzantine intelligence. After correctly observing that the Christians brought an end to the obsession with bathing that had characterised both the Romans and, through them, the Greeks of the imperial age, he writes: ‘Christianity certainly helped to combat prejudice – not only because of its universal embrace but also because it dissuaded its followers from bathing, and therefore removed the barrier of smell that greatly inhibited Roman intimacy with barbarians.’ This is vintage Luttwak, and by no means so silly as it sounds.

Perhaps the weakest link in the grand strategy that Luttwak ascribes to the Byzantines is religion, which he first introduces in conjunction with statecraft. He begins with a characteristically sweeping generalisation: ‘Almost all the Byzantines we know of,’ he writes, ‘were intensely devout Christians.’ That may be doubted. The official religion of a state is always a poor index of the piety of its citizens, and in Byzantium the sensational trials of Christians as crypto-pagans at the end of the sixth century point to the darker side of the Christian façade. Religious intimidation certainly had, and has, its value in statecraft, and so Luttwak may be allowed a reasonable exaggeration when he says that the Byzantine Empire used religion ‘as a source of influence over foreign rulers and their nations’. But even if the militant Christians on the Fourth Crusade in 1204 were momentarily inhibited on the eve of their conquest and looting of Constantinople, their bishops successfully argued that these Greek Christians were enemies of God and that the war against them was just. Religion in statecraft depends on shared beliefs. It is futile if coreligionists are heretics or think that you are. For centuries, the eastern Monophysite Christians rejected the Chalcedonian orthodoxy of Constantinople. Hence when Muslims moved into their territory in the seventh century, the newly arrived Arabs profited from Monophysite antipathy to the Byzantines. In the early years of Muslim domination, some caliphs actually worshipped in Christian churches.

When Luttwak finally turns to the Muslim invasions, his insecurity with religious history surfaces once again. He devotes a long expository chapter to Muslim Arabs and Turks, and obviously relishes telling the story. For long stretches strategy disappears altogether from his text. In explaining the success of the first Arab caliphs, he declares that the Arab invasions ‘could have been nothing more than ephemeral raids … had the invaders not offered two very great and immediate advantages with their arrival’. One, he says, was a drastic reduction in taxes – a defensible point. The other he calls ‘truly paradoxical’. ‘By imposing discriminatory rules on all non-Muslims,’ Luttwak writes, ‘the Muslim Arabs ended the arbitrary religious persecutions that had recently oppressed a majority of the inhabitants of Syria and Egypt.’ This is not only a gross overstatement: it omits three places where persecution was conspicuous – Palestine, Arabia and Asia Minor. Jews and Byzantines had persecuted Samaritans in Palestine, and Arab Jews had persecuted Christians in the Arabian peninsula. Under Justinian there was an attempt to root out pagans in Asia Minor. But overall the level and frequency of persecution in the centuries leading up to Muhammad were scarcely such as to justify the eccentric idea that the official Muslim marginalisation of non-Muslims as dhimmis was a great improvement in their way of life.

The Muslim conquest transformed the eastern Mediterranean. It created a military crisis to which the Byzantines had to respond at the same time as they addressed threats on their northern frontier. Luttwak’s treatment of this situation is excellent, and in a late chapter he presents a fascinating account of another momentous upheaval in the same period. When the Sassanian Persians captured Jerusalem in 614 and then poured into Egypt, they seemed by far the greatest danger on Byzantium’s eastern flank. But in just a few decades, as the Muslim invaders moved in, the Sassanian Persians had drawn back, and the great Sassanian Empire, which already confronted Constantinople when Constantine gave the city its name, had utterly collapsed before the emperor Heraclius.

Who could have foretold in 614 that by the middle of the century the Persian Empire would no longer exist: that Muslims would be ruling the whole region from Damascus? Luttwak provides an illuminating explanation of the strategy devised by Heraclius as ‘a high-risk, relational manoeuvre on a theatre-wide scale – a historical rarity in itself’. The emperor took his army deep into Sassanian territory and surprisingly did not withdraw but stayed to conquer. This great achievement seems in many respects to violate Luttwak’s canonical rules of avoiding battle whenever possible and of avoiding over-extension in unfamiliar territory. It is easy to see why he calls the operation ‘high-risk’ and ‘a historical rarity’, but his judgment disquietingly calls into question all his good advice on strategy more generally.

That good advice is laid out plainly at the end of the book as an ‘operational code’ consisting of seven points, which was reproduced in Foreign Policy at the end of last year, for the edification of today’s policy-makers. The points may be abbreviated as follows: 1) avoid war by every possible means, but act as if it might break out at any time; 2) gather intelligence on the enemy and monitor his movements; 3) attack, when necessary, with small units and by raiding and skirmishing; 4) avoid attrition in battle by preferring manoeuvres without battle; 5) recruit allies, on occasion from former enemies, to alter the balance of power; 6) strive for victory as much as possible by subversion, since it is more cost-effective than fighting; 7) if there must be fighting, it should be done ‘with “relational” operational methods and tactics’ to exploit enemy weaknesses and avoid enemy strengths.

These are the lessons Luttwak would have us draw from his analysis of Byzantine grand strategy. If the practicality of what he suggests is less than obvious in any given contemporary crisis, the historical analysis which has brought him to his conclusions is exciting, challenging and erudite. It is rare and refreshing to find such deep research on a great empire of the past deployed so eloquently for the guidance of the beleaguered governments of the present.