Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Byzantine Longevity

From the founding in AD 330 by Constantine I the Great up to the death in battle of Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1453 on the day Constantinople fell to the Turk.  Well over 12 centuries! 

It wasn't a stable millennium.  Their borders swelled and ebbed.  There were sixteen different dynasties and several periods of internal instability.  Their capital city was sacked and occupied for 50 years by Western crusaders supported by and urged on by Venice during the Fourth Crusade.  The invaders were aided by internal dissension.  But even then Byzantines survived in three successor states east and west of Constantinople and eventually liberated it. 

How did they survive so long?

Edward Luttwak’s book “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire”  touches on some of the reasons why.  Interesting read if you are fascinated by the duration of empires, dynasties, republics, institutions and such.  Luttwak elaborates on seven major facets pf Byzantine strategy that may answer some of the reasons why they survived so long:

I.                 Avoid war by every possible means in all possible circumstances, but always act as if it might start at any time.

II.               Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his movements continuously.

III.            Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but attack mostly with small units; emphasize patrolling, raiding, and skirmishing rather than all-out attacks.

IV.             Replace the battle of attrition with the “nonbattle” of maneuver.

V.               Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the overall balance of power.

VI.            Subversion is the best path to victory.

VII.          When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and there must be fighting, it should be done with “relational” operational methods and tactics that circumvent the most pronounced enemy strengths and exploit weaknesses.

Don't know much about Luttwak and have no idea if he knows what he is talking about.  His companion book on the grand strategy of Rome was criticized by many historians.  And he was seen by some as a neocon, although he was reportedly against the invasion of Iraq and against bombing Iran. 

In any case numbers one, five, and six are critical IMHO, two and four are also key.  Three and seven sound like a good game, but I am not 100% on board.  The emphasis on small unit tactics in the offense outlined in number three sounds much like our current use of SOF.  In number seven Luttwak seems to channel Sun Tzu which is good some of the time - but what would CVC say?

Several other reasons that the Byzantines lasted so long.  Most included in Luttwak's book, some in detail, some briefly.  Others are speculation on my part (or perhaps I remembered them vaguely from FDChief's excellent blogpost on the fall Constantinople two years ago?).
  • geography - They sat astride the trade routes, both the East/West routes and the North/South routes.  This made them a commercial powerhouse.  A treasury full with gold buys a lot of friends and allies, buys off a lot of potential adversaries, and pays a lot of soldiers and sailors (and provides for their equipment).
  • navy  - They dominated the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean for more than five hundred years, and even the Western Mediterranean early on.  Their fleets managed to hold off the Arab fleets in the Seventh and Eighth centuries.  Eventually they lost naval dominance to Venice and Genoa and later to the Turks resulting in disaster.
  • legacy - They had a military legacy from ancient Greece and the earlier western roman empire.  Not strategy, but they took a lot from their forebears on military organization, training, tactics, operational methods, and in the means of evaluation of different strategies
  • engineering - This was another inheritance passed down from Rome.  They carried on with the advice of Domitius Corbulo: that the dolabra (a combination pickaxe tool) “was the weapon with which to beat the enemy".  The walls of Constantine and of Theodosius are testimony to that, and the hundreds of cisterns they built for when the aqueducts failed during a siege.
  • tax revenues – Tax collection was rigidly organized and sophisticated.   It was a very effective system.  No other contemporary powers could compete.  It filled their treasuries and gave them a huge advantage.
  • bureaucracy - They had a capable and enduring bureaucratic class.  It was they who administered the empire, guided diplomacy, counted beans in the treasury, organized and oversaw military logistics and training.  They provided the continuity and institutional memory needed through those sixteen different dynasties and 96 emperors/empresses. Without them - chaos with each change of crown.
  •  land for service in the army - This put tens of thousands of veterans on the frontiers of the empire.  Their family's safety gave them incentive to band together into ad hoc militia units.  They retained their weapons.


  1. "Tax collection was rigidly organized and sophisticated. It was a very effective system. No other contemporary powers could compete."
    Let's exclude China from this.

    The income from trade was likely of even more prominent importance in wartime than in peacetime because the light cavalry-centric enemies were very good at ruining the rural economies by raiding, but did not affect the maritime trade much. Maritime trade was thus a quite reliable source of income.
    A similar effect was offered by being on two continents; the Sassanids did never affect the economy in Greece directly and the Bulgars didn't affect the economy in Asia directly.

    1. Sven -

      Perhaps the Song Dynasty had as good or better tax system. But that did not kick in until the tenth century. And by that time the Byzantines had lost a huuuge chunk of their tax base due to the Arab conquests of the Egypt, the Levant, southern Spain, and Sicily.

      And then the late Song (13th century) was said to be a period of high government deficits. I am guessing the reason was constant war: Viets, Liao, Jurchen, Mongols and loss of territory. Plus internal dissension. Same reason that the Byzantines started their decline.

    2. The Tang dynasty had a tax system spanning 9 million households. The Byzantine Empire had slightly less than 9 million inhabitants at that time.

    3. Sven -

      I read somewhere that under the Tangs (the original Chinese Communists), agricultural land was all state owned. They probably still collected taxes. I have no clue as to how efficient they were.

      But didn't the dynasty finally collapse because of a tax rebellion?

    4. Do you mean Asiatic mode of production theory?

    5. Karel -

      Good question. I have never read Marx directly. But I thought that his discussion on AMP were widely disputed even by his many admirers.

  2. My understanding is that one of the most important military elements of the Byzantine system was the θέματα, the "themes", which provided the organization and support for the national army between about the 7th and 12th Centuries.

    The themes combined military and civil administration and integrated the troops with the civil and economic welfare of the province (this is your "land for service" thing, Mike...). This made the themata the equivalent of the Roman Republican legionaries; effectively citizen-soldiers.

    The loss of territory after the 11th-12th Century and the disaster of Manzikert pretty much put the themata on the way to extinction. The Empire had to rely on the professional tagmata and discovered, as Machiavelli noted, that the problem with mercenaries is that if they're good they take you over and if they're bad they get you killed and either way they break the bank...

    1. The themata system became insufficient after territorial losses and the devastation of central Asia Minor.
      Mercenaries have been as important to the Byzantine empire as to the late imperial Rome and Western Roman Empires. Huns, Turks, English knights, German knights, Varagians were hugely important to them. Huns were even involved in the conquest of Italy.
      Mercs were more important even in the early centuries than you supposed:

      "The armies sent by the emperor Justinian against the Persians, Vandals, Franks and Goths differed radically from the Roman armies of centuries past. The army with which Rome had conquered Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was made up of heavy infantrymen who cast javelins and then rushed in to fight with pilum, sword and shield. They were supported on the flanks by small numbers of cavalrymen recruited from provincials more adept with the horse than the typical Roman. Centuries of warfare against mounted enemies such as the Goths, Huns and Persians, however, had changed the makeup of the Roman army. By the 6th century ad, the army consisted primarily of a cavalry force of armored lancers, or cabalarii, wearing body armor and capable of handling a bow from horseback. Garrison duties and defensive positions were held by two types of infantry: lightly armed archers and heavily armed soldiers in mail jackets who fought with sword, ax and spear.

      Organizationally, the Roman army had not been divided into legions for a century. Now it was divided into squadrons called banda, a Greek word taken from German and formerly used to designate German allied troops. While many of the soldiers in the Byzantine army were subjects of the empire whether they were Greeks, Thracians, Armenians or Isaurians, many others were mercenaries who swore allegiance only to their commander. This practice was a holdover from hiring entire companies of barbarians, called foederati, to serve under a chief, a measure adopted by the Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century. This tactic had spread so that by the 6th century, native generals had small private armies. Belisarius himself had a regiment of 7,000 of these household troops. Because such soldiers had their commander’s interests at heart, a successful general could become a potential threat to the government’s stability or even a contender for the throne."

      "cabalarii" - I find it amusing that the term "cavalry" is supposedly originating in the French "cavalerie".

      One of the reasons of Byzantine longevity may have been the (actually surviving) treatises on war. Literate officers also learned by reading, not only by being told, watching and doing.
      I read "Maurice's Strategikon, and it seems to be a very good piece, albeit a bit too general in some places (such as how to fight against cavalry armies) and the doctrine too intricate in others (particularly the many confusing ranks of the infantry formations).

    2. FDChief -

      Yepp! And often they (the Byzantines) hired new mercs to fight off previous mercs. The Alans vs the Catalan Almogavars is one example. "Almogavar" was supposedly pidgin Arabic for "Devastator", and wherever they went there was devastation. Originally hired to fight the Ottomans, they spent more time raiding and ravaging more Byzantine communities than they did fighting the Ottomans.

      And yet, the Byzantines survived. But don't take that for any kind of endorsement for mercs. IMHO, we should go back to a citizen army.

  3. Regarding your legacy comment, the Byzantine army was still receiving their pre-battle instructions in Latin - a language the common soldiery wouldn't have understood.

    1. Leon -

      I wonder how long it lasted that they were still using Latin? Until the bitter end? Or did it peter out after five or six centuries?

      But actually not that surprising. They called themselves Romans not Byzantines, which was a construct by modern historians. And their capitol they considered to be Rome. The Arabs and the Turks of the time called it 'Rum'.

      I think what you point out is in line with what SO said above about their treatises on war. Many of the early ones were undoubtedly in Latin and officers had to be literate in that language. And perhaps as well in ancient Greek. I reckon that the Greek script of Homer or Herodotus would have been damn hard to read for anyone in the Komnenid or the Palaiologan dynasties, 1500 years later.

    2. They probably revived the use of Latin in the final years when the empire was called "Latin empire" because they had converted to Catholic in hope of support from the West.

    3. Sven -

      The Byzantines referred to the Latin Empire as the 'Latin Occupation' referring to the Catholics of the Fourth Crusade. It was also referred to as the 'Frankokratia' and 'Venetokratia'.

      It is true that some in the deposed Angelos dynasty asked the Latins for military support to regain their crown. But then the citizens of Constantinople revolted and killed Prince Alexios. So the crusaders invaded and sacked the city. Their reign lasted less than six decades before the Greeks retook the city and most of Thrace and Greece.

      Early in the current century Pope John Paul II formally apologized to the Patriarch of Constantinople for the crimes of the Fourth Crusade.

    4. This is embarrassing to me.

    5. Sven -

      Embarrassed? I see no reason for that.

    6. I had badly garbled memory of some part of history. That means a lot to me.
      It's embarrassing.

  4. Sven -

    I was taught many years ago that the French word "cavalerie" was a bastardized form of an Arabic word for horseman. Probably adopted into French in the time of Charlemagne.

    After your comment on armored cavalry I am wondering now if there is also an Arabic connection with cabalarii"? But if the term was in common use in the 6th century instead of the 7th at the time of the Arab Conquest, then that does not make a lot of sense. Or maybe it does? The early Byzantines had many Arab allies and minor vassal tribes, not just in the Levant. The Ghassanids for example and other smaller ones further south.

    1. AFAIK caballarii goes back to Latin (the -ii for plural is typical Latin) even though equites was the Latin word for horsemen. So Arabic could have been influenced by this word as well.

  5. Sven -

    I'm no linguist. But I see from Wiktionary that 'caballarius' is from the Late Latin period (3rd to 7th Centuries AD) and not from Classical Latin. So Arabic may well have been influenced by the word as you say. Or the opposite is also possible.

    1. This source
      even claims 3rd to 5th centuries.

      I had completely forgotten (or maybe never known) the singular form.

    2. In classic Latin a horse is equus, in contrast a nag (German: Gaul) is caballus. Cabellarius would be the rider.

      With the sound shift b -> v we get the Italian cavalleria.


  6. My only real hard knowledge of the Byzantine language situation is in the 15th Century, and by then all the non-Byzantine observers referred to them as "Greeks", so I'm guessing that the common tongue would no longer have been Latin.

    Tho the Venetians and Genoese were referred to collectively as "Italians" even tho I'm sure they didn't consider themselves as such other than in a very general way. So I'm unsure of the degree of actual "Greekness" of 15th C. Byzantium.

  7. Re: Luttwak, I seem to recall he wrote a politico-military analysis of the U.S. in Vietnam conclusively proving that the U.S. actually won. Much like your comment on the Rome work his study is widely ignored when it's not derided.

    My understanding of him is that he's fundamentally an imperialist. Call it neocon if you will; he likes the idea of empire and dreams of an openly American one. Might have been a PNAC guy; that'd fit his outlook.

    1. FDChief -

      I believe he is/was in CSIS:

      Don't know about whether he was ever in PNAC.

      An article by Corey Robin in 2001 says that Luttwak's 1980s analysis of the US military in Vietnam: "... got him in trouble with the Defense Department. His real mistake was to go after the military's conduct during the Vietnam War. Luttwak downplayed the armed forces' favorite explanations for their defeat in Vietnam, weak-willed politicians, the treasonous press, a defeatist
      public. He argued instead that America's warrior elite had simply lost the
      taste for blood. During the Vietnam War, he wrote, "desk-bound officers"
      were always "far from combat." Their penchant for "outright luxury" had a
      devastating effect on troop morale. Although Julius Caesar "retained both
      concubines and catamites in his rearward headquarters, ate off gold plate,
      and drank his Samian wine from jeweled goblets," when he was on the front
      lines with his soldiers he "ate only what they ate, and slept as they did,
      under a tent if the troops had tents, or merely wrapped in a blanket if
      they did not." By contrast, American officers refused "to share in the
      hardships and deadly risks of war."

      At the time, he (Luttwak) also criticized Reagan's SecDef Weinberger, calling him a slick used-car salesman and not a statesman. It reportedly cost him a lot of consultant jobs.

  8. On language, Wikipedia says that although Greek was the common language of the Church, of scholarship and the arts, and of trade - Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Slavic, Arabic, and even Persian dominated the provinces and were also spoken in Constantinople.

    Latin was the 'language of administration'. It was 'abolished by Heraclius in the 7th century', ... 'although the language would continue to be at least a ceremonial part of the Empire's culture for some time.' And it remained as a minority language in parts of the empire - Romania & Dalmatia.

  9. Re: Luttwak's criticism of the Vietnam U.S. officer corps, while I'll agree that careerism and command rotation were at their most pernicious in the Late Sixties Army, trying to convince a Laotian peasant underneath an arclight in the Plain of Jars, or a Vietnamese woodcutter caught in an I Corps free-fire zone that the Green Machine had "lost its taste for blood" would have been a bit of a chore.

    Luttwak has always stuck me as one of these armchair priapists for bloodshed, similar to V. D. Hanson. They seem to believe that the real "problem" with modern Western democracies is that they've lost their enthusiasm for bloody martial butchery. Their prescriptions always seem to involve encouraging young men to clash in gory panoply of the Greek phalangites or Roman legionaries.

    To which me response is and has always been, regardless of the theme of whatever politico-military trope they're pushing, "you first, asshole."

    1. I hold Luttwak's book on strategy in high regard. Can't remember any bloodthirst in there.

  10. FDChief -

    I would not put him in the Vicky Hanson category. Seems to me his #1 takeaway from Byzantine Strategy "Avoid war by every possible means in all possible circumstances" would put him in the exact opposite camp of Hanson and other warmongers.

    I believe the one claim of his detractors to him being a neocon probably from an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs titled: "Give War a Chance". But that title was farce, what he was saying was 'do not interfere', or in other words 'no R2P insertions of American or UN forces. At least that was my reading of it. Your opinion may differ.

    In any case, I'll have to read his book on strategy that Sven commented on. I see nothing in his book on Byzantine Strategy that indicates he is a warmonger. Just the opposite it seems to me. And a healthy interest in the strategies of empires or nations that endured does not IMHO make one an imperialist.

    1. I mentioned Luttwak a couple times on my blog. I think he's one of the rather intelligent thinkers on mil affairs and he had a creative phase (likely not any more, considering the age - no offence meant, but research has shown that 30-50 is the best age for making discoveries).

  11. Thanks Sven -

    I agree on your opinion of Luttwak. Although Wiki says his forecasts on future events are mostly wrong: "...writing as a public intellectual, he repeatedly ventures predictions that events falsify. In 1983, he pronounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a success. He also thought it likely that the Soviet Union would launch a limited war against China, especially if the West increased its military power (as it did in the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan). Years later, and indeed just a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, Luttwak was worrying that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika would augment the military power of the Soviet Union. Instead, those policies precipitated the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union"

    But even so I admire a man that has no qualification as a historian taking on the historical establishment in his books on the Roman and Byzantine strategies. I would guess his educational background in Analytical Economics and International Studies gave him insights that were outside the ken of more qualified and traditional historians.

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