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Appeared in: Volume 5, Number 6
Published on: July 1, 2010
Strategy Is as Strategy Does

Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
eruditely makes the case that such a thing actually existed.


The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
By Edward Luttwak
Harvard University Press, 2009, 512 pp., $35

Once upon a time there was a vast empire in the East, opulent and consequential, whose rulers wore jewel-encrusted robes and diadems, raced horses in teams “blue” and
“green” around a hippodrome, built the world’s greatest ecclesiastical edifice and conducted its affairs (in all senses) in a manner which would give the world a word, “byzantine”, that conveyed a bizarre, duplicitous, even degenerate intricacy. This empire preserved and exemplified Christendom after the Roman Empire, newly Christian, collapsed under waves of barbarian assaults. Inaugurated on May 11, 330, it endured, by one expert calculation, for 1,123 years and 18 days.

Yet for most, this monumental achievement has been Western culture’s lost continent of Atlantis. Some young college graduates newly come to Washington for government work, strolling through Georgetown on Sundays, become dimly aware of rumors that somewhere inside the walled, gardened mansion called Dumbarton Oaks is a center for “Byzantine Studies”, where monographs with incomprehensible titles are published. But few pursue those rumors, much less Byzantine studies. I myself tried to explore mysterious Byzantium when, as a Foreign Service officer in Hong Kong, I bought a British paperback edition of Robert Graves’s historical novel Count Belisarius. I read only as far as the hippodrome races before giving up.

Blessedly, however, life is full of second chances. In preparation for reading Edward Luttwak’s big work The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire I went back to try Graves’s novel again. There in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library was a 1938 first edition in which William Lyon “Billy” Phelps, a revered professor of literature, had written his name, penciled some sideline notes for a few pages and then quit, giving the book to the college librarian. I did not quit, not the second time anyway, and now I think perhaps I understand the long indifference to Byzantium. For one thing, Emperor Constantine took the empire in the wrong direction. Having converted to Christianity in 313 after his vision of the Cross, he announced “in hoc signo vinces” and won a victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. But then he ignored the big red “wrong way” sign, heading from West to East when everyone supposedly knew that the translatio imperii et studii required imperial world power and learning to move, inexorably, from East to West. In the period between the founding of Constantinople as the capital of the empire, in 330, and Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, the main lines of history seemed to course through the Dark Ages of Western Europe, not in the Byzantine East.

Then came the sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204, an act that was such an inter-Christian disgrace (or intra-Christian, depending on one’s temperament in such matters) that only systematic denunciation of the East by the West could attempt to justify it. That did not help, and the libel was only reinforced as the ages of Aquinas, Dante and Leonardo overshadowed the East until Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1457—after which it seemed much too late to care.

Obliviousness to Byzantine affairs thus became a matter deeply rooted in the collective unconscious of the West. It amounts to an unwillingness to tolerate the thought that Christendom could reside in an Eastern capital as an alternative or rival to Rome. But for even the general reader, Byzantium is coming into sharper focus. Books on its art and architecture, video documentaries, and serious yet accessible works of history have emerged in recent years. There are several probable causes behind this outpouring: the “return of religion” in world affairs after long years in the wilderness; an awareness of Byzantium as a Christian redoubt against a surging jihadist Islam, that is, an empire both Christian and capable of fighting wars; and recognition of the Eastern empire as a resilient survivor across centuries through which the forces of chaos, devastation and civilizational collapse rose up in seemingly endless waves.

This latter observation is the main context for Luttwak’s impressive new explanation of the Eastern empire’s strategy and significance, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. The very scale of his endeavor, bearing this title, raises the perennial, unavoidable question, as Toynbee put it: What is the intelligible field of study? How can one speak plausibly about one coherent grand strategy employed across more than a millennium? Byzantinists (is there such a group?) have responded fiercely, some declaring that, “In reality, of course, there never existed such an entity as the Byzantine Empire” and stressing that the Eastern phenomenon, most simplistically described, fell into three major and distinctive periods: the founding, great age of Constantine and Justinian; a middle period characterized by obsession with the Arab rise and Turkic penetration; and the final decline and death throes extending from the Seljuk Turk victory at the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071 to the crushing in 1204 of Constantinople by the Christian West in the form of the Fourth Crusade to the final fall in 1453.

Luttwak is more than alert to such carping and will have none of it. His grand strategy of the Eastern empire can be discerned across all the Eastern empire’s existence in time and space and across a dizzying array of external challenges and internally disparate social, financial and political vagaries. His is, moreover, not a conception of strategy as the movement of armies on a board, not calculations for systematic decisions systematically applied, but the essential core of a culture: “It always determines the outcomes, whether men know of its existence or not.”

It is, in short, possible for a state and a civilization to have a grand strategy without its implementers being always explicitly aware of it. Indeed, the Byzantines did not even have the word “strategy.” They did have, nonetheless, what Luttwak calls an “operational code”, and he sums it up as follows: Avoid war by all means, but assume war is always at hand; gather intelligence and monitor all enemies continuously; campaign vigorously with constant course corrections while avoiding anything resembling a fair fight; replace wars of attrition with the “nonbattle” of maneuver; recruit allies to shift the balance of power; use subversion as the best path to survival; when fighting is unavoidable, do all that is possible to circumvent enemy strengths and exploit enemy weaknesses.

The three-part structure of the book reaffirms this observation: the invention of Byzantine strategy, the elements of diplomacy and the Byzantine art of war. The simplicity of this structure is compelling, although chronological complexities and confusions caused by bouncing back and forth across the centuries, and by refusing to treat diplomacy and strength as working in tandem (which they must do for a state to be successful), put a burden on the reader. All the same, the structure supports Luttwak’s overall thesis. As the great analyst of strategic history Adda Bozeman put it in her book Politics and Culture in International History (1960),


the most negative version of the empire’s record between the fifth and fifteenth centuries cannot ignore the fact that this state managed to retain its identity as a great power, a cosmopolitan society, and a distinct culture realm to the very end of its appointed time, even though its very survival was an issue in each successive century.

In short, through sophisticated forms of finance and taxation, the maintenance of a standing army and a flexible yet unified strategic mentality, Byzantium was able to assert itself steadily rather than spasmodically in the field of international security and interaction.

The invention of Byzantine strategy was necessitated by the geographic disadvantages of long frontiers with few natural defensive advantages, and in the earliest phases by the fearsome challenges posed by Attila’s Huns and their mounted archery, who raided the lands across the Danube and forayed far beyond. Byzantium quickly recognized the need to prepare for the unpredictable; to adopt the enemy’s superior tactics and technology; to collect intelligence and employ spies, subversion and bribery; and, above all, to avoid direct warfare or any conflict threatening an attrition of forces. Constantinople itself was marvelously defensible and geostrategically peerless, but it lacked strategic depth, and long walls built to address this deficit required too many troops to garrison. Taken together, the circumstances, physical surroundings and enemies of the new empire dictated a strategy of stratagems. It required, in other words, ceaseless maneuver and eschewal of even decisive victory, for to eliminate a known enemy would only create space for a new and unknown threat to take its place.

Justinian’s great re-conquests have been commonly considered as ideologically driven, a divinely ordained responsibility to recover the territories lost by Rome to the barbarians. Perhaps this is so, and perhaps not. But Luttwak is not particularly interested in unresearchable meditations on motives. Rather, he depicts the re-conquests during Justinian’s reign (527–65) as enabled by Byzantium’s new grand strategy, which enabled the new empire to survive, to hold the Huns in check, and to negotiate a period of peace with the Sassanid Persians. From this platform, Byzantine forces regained North Africa from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths and Visigothic Spain. These triumphs were capped by the building of Hagia Sophia and Justinian’s great codification of the laws, making for one of the great ages of world civilization.

Then it all fell apart. Luttwak notes the historians’ claim that Justinian’s plight was a matter of imperial overstretch, his ambitions exceeding the capacity of the empire to sustain them. But he takes exception to this claim, and in doing so would vindicate Procopius, who described the immense demographic devastation of a plague in his notorious Secret History. Procopius was merely emulating Thucydides’ description of the plague that ravaged Periclean Athens, historians said. Luttwak, perhaps drawn to the new arts of paleoclimatology, argues that Procopius was correct: An exceptionally virulent pneumonic plague pandemic (proven by recent DNA research) so severely afflicted the population that Justinian’s military aspirations after 541 were dashed.1

Rather convincingly, perhaps, Luttwak asserts that paleoclimate and other records charting the rise in carbon dioxide levels over the past 10,000 years due to forest clearing and livestock increases reveal an “abrupt and drastic decline” in CO2 correlating with the years around 541—evidence of a demographic collapse as fields reverted to forest and cattle were slain.

So it was not Justinian’s ambitions that were excessive; the plague denuded Byzantium’s frontiers of defenders, leaving no choice but to revert to the earlier strategy of maneuver, barbarian management, war-fighting avoidance and ceaseless manipulative feints. The message, delivered yet again through the oracle of experience, was that victory in war is ephemeral. In North Africa, defeat of the Vandals only eliminated them as a barrier to raiding native tribes from the desert and hills beyond, which Justinian’s winning forces would now have to fight in turn. Justinian’s expansive design was really only a series of unconnected wars. Its collapse only vindicated Byzantium’s original grand strategic concept. The same seemed true even in defeat. Byzantium could lose the Middle East to the new Muslim empire of the 7th century but emerge the stronger, for it still retained its core lands. Wars were not to be just won or lost; they were to be manipulated and managed in defeat as well as victory.

The elements of Byzantine diplomacy—a term not known to the time in question—were instinctive, multifarious and characteristic of the need for any society to try to serve its interests and get its way without resorting to combat. The Byzantine version was distinctive for being incessant, unbound by principle and conducted with an awareness that no deal was final or even stable; one needed to make constant corrections.

Compared to our modern Renaissance and Westphalian diplomacy, the Byzantine system had neither a professional diplomatic service nor anything recognizable as a ministry of foreign affairs. Instead, talented and trusted travelers, often merchants or traders, were employed as needed. Resident ambassadors were of scant value in a time of constrained communications; the long-distance go-and-return traveler made more sense. The keystone of modern diplomacy, diplomatic immunity, was an accepted necessity. Luttwak notes that this concept was unknown to the Turks; they practiced the tribal code of guest-friendship, like the xenia of Homeric chieftains.

The first characteristic of Byzantine diplomacy was persuasion, amply assisted by bribes and other forms of pay-off. The Romans did this too, but whereas military force was the first tool of Roman statecraft and persuasion the second, for Byzantium it was the other way round, the Eastern empire being militarily weaker and beset by a greater variety of deadly threats. Byzantium’s other effective diplomatic weapons included the Christian religion, which produced allies through conversions, Hagia Sophia, which attracted pilgrims, and saintly relics and icons, which were regarded as conveyors of power and prestige. This latter tool of influence was magnified with careful deliberation by the Imperial Court, which used pomp, protocol and awe-inspiring ceremony to advantage. The ancient mechanism of dynastic marriage was employed as an integrating method as well.

In the geography of power in which Byzantine diplomacy operated, first the Bulgars, then the Muslims, presented special challenges which even the most brilliant diplomacy could not have mastered. Bulgaria’s “original sin” was its proximity to Constantinople; unlike other surrounding peoples, the Bulgars posed a profound threat to the empire whenever a crisis arose on another front. When the Bulgars were strong, they could defend the Danube frontier against virulent steppe nomad fighters, but when weak, both Bulgaria and Byzantium would feel the threat. Since neither a weak nor a strong Bulgaria was compatible with the security of Constantinople, defeat of the Bulgars was a rational strategic aim whenever other threats on the circumference seemed neutralized for the moment. When such a situation arose, Byzantine diplomats normally would have conspired with the trans-Danubian Pechenegs to strike at Bulgaria from the steppe, but at one point Nikaphoros I (802–11) relied solely on his own forces; the results were disastrous, leaving the Bulgars only 200 miles from Constantinople. Not until 971, when the Arab front was finally quiet, could Basil II, “the Bulgar slayer”, solve Byzantium’s Bulgaria problem.

Luttwak’s section on diplomacy shades more and more into descriptions of war-fighting, particularly after the rise of the Arabs and the appearance of the Turks. One wonders whether diplomatic methods were ineffective or just atrophied in the empire’s later centuries. New research on the Arab conquests indicates that tribes on the Persian frontier that once were susceptible to diplomacy via bribes ceased to be so once they had accepted Islam, which decreased Byzantine diplomacy’s capacity to avoid direct confrontation. Byzantium’s survival thus became linked to Muslim disunity, with key contributions from the defensive strength of the Theodosian Wall and the psychological impact of the empire’s use of “Greek fire”, the functional equivalent of napalm. After the catastrophe of 1204 when Crusaders devastated Constantinople, it was only the eruption of Tamerlane, pressing in on the Turks from the East, that “allowed an emperor to linger at Constantinople until 1453.”

In the final third of the book, “The Byzantine Art of War”, Luttwak burrows into his comfort zone, the concatenation of technology, geography, tactics and strategy, pulling together the many strands already stretched across the work. The exquisitely detailed explanations of the torque of the compound bow and summaries of military treatises may delight specialist readers and tire the rest of us, but they undoubtedly add to the author’s credibility. The chronological see-sawing disconcerts but is never enough to dissuade.

Byzantium’s martial art is defined largely by how unlike it is to all others. In contrast to Rome’s approach, Constantinople’s commanders recognized “the impossibility of decisive victory”, for, as already suggested, they believed that to destroy one enemy only creates space for another. They adhered to Roman nightly camp discipline as described by Polybius, but otherwise their war-waging was “not Iliadic”; that is, no fighting without full justification beforehand.

Untangling the intricacies of Luttwak’s thought on the military science dimension of the book is no easy task, but something of a logic chain can be perceived: The introduction of the stirrup, contrary to established theory, was not needed as a way for a charging lancer to absorb the shock of a strike; that could be managed by thigh control. The stirrup’s real value was for mounted archery, which was critical to Byzantium’s strategic necessity: to avoid Roman-style heavy infantry wars of attrition in favor of “relational maneuver.” But this form of fighting, so runs the logic, is extremely complicated, requiring extensive training to produce mounted archers skilled in handling the composite reflex bow. Such extensive training, in turn, created a persistent manpower shortage; even soldiers with more than a year of training were not yet considered ready for combat. This created, Luttwak says, “an insurmountable strategic problem.” And anyway, relational maneuver was so difficult to carry out in actual combat that it was always on the brink of breaking down. This, the logical sequence concludes, led the Byzantines to further avoid direct warfare in favor of gathering intelligence, employing diplomatic and subversive stratagems, and putting prudential practices above all else.

If this is so, then how does one explain, across the later centuries of the Eastern empire and particularly in the face of the ideological commitment of the Muslim enemy, those cases where Byzantine boldness brought military success? Luttwak seems to argue that these also may be understood within the empire’s paradigm of relational maneuver, under the main rubric of avoiding direct or decisive operations. Allow Islamic invasions, then intercept them on their way out. Rely on the navy and its secret defensive weapon: Greek fire. Even Heraclius’s astonishing defeat of Persia in 627—the deepest, boldest theater-level maneuver in Byzantine history—was launched in desperation as a strategic raid into the enemy’s heartland when the Persian army was camped just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Heraclius’s last-ditch strike produced negotiations and a return of the empire’s lost provinces, no more.

Luttwak leaves us with two main precepts: All states have a grand strategy whether they know it or not; and in grand strategy everything counts and should be manipulated. For Byzantium specifically, Luttwak presents it as the calculated deployment of scant means to large ends—namely, survival. All this is founded upon the importance of a sound fiscal system and disregard of constraining moral principles. Though the author makes no far-reaching assertions for Byzantium’s world-historical role, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is a powerful contribution to the newfound appreciation of the Eastern empire as the sole defender of Christendom, and so of Europe, against the long, violent waves of rising Islam.

Luttwak leaves relatively unplumbed, however, one currently fascinating question: How did Christians, reviled outcasts of imperial Rome obsessed with the hereafter, adjust to the role of imperial ruler? Tertullian had declared the idea of a Christian Prince to be a contradiction in terms, that all secular powers are not merely alien from but hostile to God. President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address in 2009 spoke in terms close to St. Augustine’s concept of “just war” and the necessity for a Christian Prince to take severe decisions in order to manage this “fallen world.” The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius (379–95), a Catholic by conviction, was in many ways the prototype of Augustine’s Christian Prince, profoundly concerned to work out the logic of his position, to re-adjust relationships between the temporal and the spiritual powers.2

Then how did Byzantium’s grand strategy relate to this Christian conception? Was it opportunistic, desperate, amoral and disconnected from anything like Augustine’s reasoning about how a rule could be both Christian and imperial? Or were the stratagems Luttwak details well within the theological paradigm of the Christian Prince? Jaroslav Pelikan argued that Augustine’s influence on Western Latin Christendom was succeeded in the Byzantine East by four Greek-speaking Cappadocian theologians: Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina, the oldest sister and teacher of Basil and Gregory. All four, Pelikan said, “posited a fundamental philosophical connection between the correct doctrine about divine being and the quest for world order.”3 This sounds rather Augustinian, if undeveloped. Luttwak’s inattention to it leaves the question unanswered.

“Christian Prince” or no, Luttwak wisely refrains from drawing any bold lines connecting Byzantium’s grand strategy to America’s role in the world today. He carefully inscribes enough dotted lines, however, that the reader is strongly tempted to do so for himself. The foreign policy of the United States could well be described as Augustinian: to take, mostly reluctantly, severe decisions to intervene when and where a situation seemed to threaten not only those directly and immediately affected, but also a consequential unraveling of the fabric of world order. Through the Cold War decades, the United States defended the established international order of sovereign states against a communist revolutionary ideology opposed to every element of that ordered system.

Since 9/11, American grand strategy has been directed at another revolutionary threat to order and sees its role in similar, “common good” terms: to restore or create legitimate sovereign statehood in those parts of the Middle East where the ideology of Islamism threatens to take the region out of, and turn it against, the established order of the international state system. What if this American grand strategy has done all it can toward such an objective? Or what if a better grand strategic approach—a Byzantine one—were devised and implemented? What then would U.S. policy look like?

Instead of defending the established world order, such as it is, the American aim would be to strengthen its own financial stability and economic competitiveness, to reshape its military into an ever-ready, infinitely adaptable and omni-directional but relentlessly conflict-avoiding mechanism to unbalance, deter and thwart all other sources of power and, whenever possible, turn them against each other. Diplomacy would be a tool, not a good in itself.

Above all, perhaps, inconsistencies and internal contradictions would be reframed as potentially advantageous stratagems. In the Middle East, for example, U.S. policy would aim to support or suppress Islamism opportunistically, taking on, off-loading, backing or betraying others as necessary. Afghanistan could be left for India and Pakistan to contend over; an Indo-Pak war, nuclear or not, could be useful. At the same time, disavowable support for jihadis in East Turkestan and extremists in Tibet could discombobulate China. Elsewhere in the Middle East, a Sunni Arab versus Iranian Shi‘a confrontation, tense but stalemated, with their surrogates involved in widespread subversion across the region, could be encouraged. The worst instincts of the Israelis would become highly useful. Europe’s energy dependence on Russia would offer rich possibilities for exacerbation. Russia’s ambitions for renewed hegemony over the Caucasus and Central Asia would be a manipulator’s delight, with potential for a Sino-Russian conflict. In Africa, Muslim-Christian tensions could be parlayed into new levels of violence, with tribal and kleptocratic animosities an added advantage. In Latin America, subversive support for the extension of Chavista policies would lead to economic disturbances across the southern hemisphere.

Byzantium was alone in a disordered, dangerous world bereft of any established world order other than that which it created for itself. It had no choice but to take all possible measures to survive. It worked, more or less, with some unavoidable cataclysms, for 1,100 years. America still aims to strengthen what remains of world order, but maybe, with Edward Luttwak’s fascinating work as a guide, it could in time make a big course correction. Of course, the United States in the 21st century is not constrained as acutely as were the Byzantines in, say, the 9th century. At least not yet.

1Luttwak is not alone in this. See William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (Viking, 2007).
2See Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (Clarendon Press, 1940), p. 324.
3Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 91.

Charles Hill is Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale and research fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
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