Luttwak, Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

11 May 2010

In 1984, the German historian Alexander Demandt published his now-famous study Der Fall Roms, in which he evaluated the ways in which people have judged the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. The last page was devoted to a list of 210 factors that have been mentioned as relevant, listed alphabetically from Aberglaube to Zweifrontenkrieg. It is abundantly clear that the subject has continued to fascinate people.

Yet, to some extent, all debate is ill-directed. The Imperium Romanum did not vanish. Certainly, in Western Europe, the descendants of German immigrants seized power, but in the populous and urbanized provinces of the East, the ancient state continued to exist. That historians no longer call it a Roman Empire, and instead talk about a Byzantine Empire, incorrectly suggests a discontinuity.

In his recent book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, the American military analyst Edward N. Luttwak tries to offer an explanation for the survival of the eastern half of the Empire, which he finds in the continued existence of monetized taxation, which allowed the development of a new strategy, which was unaffordable to the West.

This new strategy had, according to Luttwak, become necessary when Attila’s Huns invaded Europe with large, very mobile armies of mounted archers, which could not be defeated with traditional means. For some time, Constantinople bought off its enemies, and in those years, it discovered how useful diplomatic contacts could be. Spending a lot of gold, Constantinople created a network of allies, and when it had finally created its own armies of mounted archers, the emperors refused to pay money to the Huns, which were decisively beaten.

It was the beginning of a new look at strategy, which was only briefly abandoned by Justinian, who tried to reconquer the west but could not proceed when the Plague broke out. But this was exceptional. Usually, the Byzantine armies did not fight to conquer or to defeat an enemy completely. Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally, and besides: when the first group of nomadic tribal warriors had been eliminated, another horde would come to fill the vacuum. There were no decisive victories so they were not worth striving at.

What mattered, was the way in which enemies and allies were manipulated. Sometimes, violence was unavoidable, but there were more approaches. Reliable intelligence was of crucial importance, and Luttwak offers nice examples of Byzantine diplomats traveling to far-away countries to create alliances and obtain information. He might have digressed a bit more on the Christian missionaries, who were able to win foreign tribes for the Byzantine cause and return with accurate knowledge.

The Byzantines transmitted collected information in military handbooks. Luttwak’s description of these texts is the best part of the book. He describes their practical nature and shows how they remained up to date. For example, Maurikios’ Strategikon, written in c.600, offers no account of the Arabs, but later authors added this immediately after the great Arabian conquests. This may seem self-evident, but it is not. In the western provinces, an author like Vegetius, the author of another handbook, did not look at the actual enemies, but excerpted ancient texts, which he did not even understand. (Luttwak offers a funny example about the training of achers.) Compared to this antiquarianism from the late Roman Empire, the Byzantine approach, self-evident though it may seem, was an advance.

Luttwak tells a good story and he tells it well. There are a number of minor errors – I was surprised that he mentioned German tribes crossing the notorious frozen Rhine, even after quoting the actual source – but usually, he has a nice way to display his vast knowledge. Unfortunately, he has added a number of remarks about the world of modern Islam that are not always necessary. Islam was still in a process of inventing itself in the period Luttwak is dealing with, and it is, therefore, not allowed to use today’s Islam as comparandum.

Unless, of course, Luttwak is not really writing about the distant past, and is actually writing about the present. And indeed, several aspects of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire – like its stress on diplomacy, the importance of reliable intelligence, and the impossibility to win certain wars – leave one with the impression that Luttwak is in fact outlining an ideal strategy for the United States of America. In the final section, he lays down his mask and states that the Byzantines methods ‘are in part applicable even today, or perhaps especially today’. A professional historian, versed in the epistemological foundations of his discipline, would never be so confident about the possibility to understand the past and draw lessons from it.

Another point of criticism concerns Luttwak’s ignoring of the archaeological evidence. This is a serious matter. Had he plotted the Byzantine forts on a map, he would have learned which areas were considered important. For example, the site of Bu Grada proves that even in the Syrte, land communications were considered to be sufficiently important to build fortifications on a very difficult site. At the same time, the relative sizes of and distances between the forts would have learned us how several units were cooperating at the operational level. The absence of a spatial analysis is remarkable, especially since Luttwak included very illuminating maps in his Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1976). Moreover, archaeologists might inform us whether the Byzantine army really consisted of mounted archers, something Luttwak takes for granted but is highly contested.

Another problem is lack of conceptual clarity. Luttwak does not prove that the new strategy was Byzantine; he only shows that the Byzantines used it, but does not prove that Byzantium’s competitors had a different approach. However, they did almost the same. The Sasanian Empire, the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus, the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, and the Merovingian and Carolingian kings of the Franks also understood the value of gold, diplomacy, and sound intelligence. The new strategy was not Byzantine, but Early Medieval. Luttwak explains why the Byzantine Empire survived the Roman Empire in Western Europe, butdoes not explain why it also survived the Sasanians, Umayyads, Abbasids, Merovingians, and Carolingians. The decisive factor must have been another one.

So, there is room for criticism. Still, Luttwak has written a nice, interesting book. It may be especially useful for people who like a thematic introduction to the Byzantine Empire, focused on the financial, military, ethnographic, religious, and literary aspects of Byzantine culture. For those who prefer a more nineteenth-century “history of great men” approach, there’s still J.J. Norwich’s highly readable Byzantium, but those who want to understand which structures were there for those great men to use, can do worse than reading The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.