HBR The Byzantine Military Revolution

Byzantine Sea Battle

If you are a regular follower you’ll know that most of my output is an extended review in great detail of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This episode fits in with that review but I have stepped out of the frame of the book briefly. I have reached the reign of Justinian, and I want to go into a bit more detail about the changes in the military set up in the Empire at around this time. Gibbon covers it well enough and his account is okay, but I think it is important enough to warrant going into a bit more depth. So I have dug into Gibbons source, the historian and soldier Procopius, and also into Edward Luttwak’s book on Byzantine strategy which I have reviewed previously. Edward Luttwak is a Romanian born strategic thinker and consultant to the American defence department. I am not sure how he got his Anglo Saxon forename, but I do know he has been into the sources of information about what made the Byzantine Empire tick in a lot of detail.

With these three guides I hope we can have an illuminating journey.

So why do I say the Byzantines had a military revolution, and what prompted it?

The Empire had come close to destruction by the Huns. The western half was so weakened by its encounter that it fell apart shortly after, barely, beating off Atilla. The Eastern half had escaped largely through a combination of luck and simple groveling. It was obvious that it would only take the emergence of another Attila to finally finish off the Empire. Like all large organisations the Byzantine Empire was an inherently conservative setup. But survival was going to require some radical thinking. And somehow, that radical thinking took place and was acted upon.

The basic problem was that the Huns military tactics were unbeatable. They were mobile and their bows packed a punch that enabled them to wipe out their targets at a distance. The Empire was behind in the arms race. They could hold onto defensive positions, but any attempt at putting together a field army that could take the initiative simply led to defeat. They needed to overhaul their military procedures or sooner or later they would be out of business, and their civilisation would be gone along with their armies.

As is often the case, although there was a simple problem, there was no simple solution. To match the Huns the Byzantines would have to develop their bow technology, their training systems and their tactics. To do this they would need to be able to find the resources to do so. This in turn required the marshalling of their finances and manpower in a way that had never been necessary before. The military would become a lot more expensive so more taxes would be needed. More taxes required the state intervening in the economy more than ever.

I mentioned in one of my previous episodes that Gibbon’s world was a lot closer to the late western Roman Empire than ours is and so he has an insight that we don’t into how it worked and what made it tick. By the time we get to the reign of Justinian I think it is fair to say that we might have a better idea than Gibbon about the nature of the state he is describing. Because to my mind sixth century Byzantine has a lot of parallels with Soviet Russia. The Soviet Union doesn’t command much affection nowadays. It is often regarded as a sort of low rent version of the Nazis with slightly lower atrocities and worse uniforms. It doesn’t get much in the way of respect either. It is perceived as having failed to deliver what it promised to its inhabitants. This verdict is not an unreasonable one. But it is worth bearing in mind that the people who created it had as their main objective making sure that the Soviet Union survived and was able to resist external interference. In this they were pretty successful. The combination of focusing resources on the military and enforcing compliance to a rigid ideology might not make for the kind of state you would want to actually live in, but it can last for a while.

The Byzantine Empire much like the Soviet Union was a military superpower by dint not of being extremely well endowed with resources, but by using what they had very efficiently. The big drawback of this approach is that while it frightens your enemies it doesn’t do much for your support at home. It is ultimately a doomed strategy even if it looks impressive on a day to day basis.

But let’s look at the details. The Roman army became heavily dependent upon horse archers. They were trained to an amazing degree of skill. They were also extremely well equipped. This was good news because it meant that they could outclass any opponents they were likely to run into. But it had the obvious drawback that it took a lot of time and money to put them in the field in the first place. It also meant that not only did the troops themselves need skill, but the people in charge needed great skill to handle such a valuable resource effectively. And inevitably with such a high cost the total numbers of troops would be limited. Although the initial motivation might well have been to avoid dependence on auxiliary troops, hiring foreign mercenaries to make up the numbers was to become a major part of Byzantine strategy from now on. Steppe horsemen were available off-the-shelf. It would have been strange not to take advantage of this.
The Romans had done this for ages of course, but they seem to have got better at keeping control of their allies.

But hiring some help is not the only way to overcome a manpower shortage. Masonry can be a good substitute as well. Walls and fortresses became another way of giving the Empire the advantage. Other military technology was also developed.The most famous example of this is Greek fire. When you are surrounded by enemies you really need to have some good weapons at your disposal. This looks a lot like the start of systematic military research and development.

And it wasn’t just staff and hardware that evolved. The Empire became adept at managing its resources and its people. Although the empire as a whole remain a highly class-based system, and indeed one in which it was very difficult for any kind of social mobility to take place, talent was recognised in the army. We see this in the career of the most famous general of the age Belisarius. He had no kind of social advantages of his background, and rose to the top of the Byzantine army on merit alone.

He came to prominence in one of the many wars between the byzantine empire and the Persian empire. It was a pretty indecisive conflict overall. Neither side got much out of it. In fact there weren’t any spectacular victories that could be attributed to Belisarius. Belisarius started out as a simple member of Justinian’s Guard who caught the eye of his sovereign. He came from Thrace but details of his early life are a bit sketchy. But we get a lot more detail once he gets appointed to the role of military commander in the eastern campaign against the Persians. At this point by great good fortune from our point of view he took on to his staff the historian Procopius. This has left us a great account so we know a lot about his campaigns from this point on.

The Romans and the Persians had been fighting one another for many many centuries now and the upper hand was at this stage somewhat in the hands of the Persians. But the balance was tipping. The frontier was dominated by the fortress of Nisibus, a one time Roman stronghold but one which had been in the hands of Persia since the Fourth Century. All attempts to recapture it had failed, so a counter fortress had been built nearby at Dara. This upset the balance and the Persians attacked to attempt to destroy it. The Persians were more numerous and were well organised. They were probably contemptuous when the young and inexperienced Belisarius offered a peaceful way out of the battle before the fighting started. But Belisarius was simply following the logic of the new military strategy. His troops were an expensive resource that could not be easily or quickly replaced. It was only sensible to take every opportunity not to have to lose them.

The Persians attacked only to discover that their big advantage by the construction of a system of ditches. They were also outmanoeuvred in the fighting. The superior generalship of Belisarius was notable and was noted at the time. But it also suggests a very particular military culture. The use of trenches for example -while anyone can dig a hole being able to dig them in a way that can confound cavalry must need some kind of specialist knowledge. It is unlikely to have been something that just popped into the general’s mind just like that.

The superior training of at least some of the troops at his disposal enabled Belisarius to outfox the Persians and win the battle of Dara despite the odds.

The Byzantine army was getting more professional, but it still wasn’t quite the model of military efficiency it could have been. The next engagement went much less well largely due to insubordination from high born officers who resented the humble origins of Belisarius. But this setback did not affect his reputation. The dispatches must have been detailed enough to allow a considered judgement to be made. And we don’t hear much more about aristocratic resistance to low born commanders from now on. Indeed a decade later a major army would be commanded by a eunuch – the absolute opposite of a well connected member of the establishment.

Belisarius did not have the advantage that later generals would have of having an actual book to refer to listing strategies and tactics. This would not be compiled for another hundred years. It was called the Strategikon and would spell out just what the Byzantine approach to war meant in practice. It gave details of tactical manoeuvres and practices. Documenting this kind of thing would give any reasonably competent general a head start against an enemy who was having to work it all out as they went along. And the willingness to follow the book strategy would also be something of an advantage against a rival on ones own side. Early in his career we have seen Belisarius having trouble with his own officers and with other generals. The unsuccessful follow up to Dara was blamed by Procopius on over confidence on the part of the officers, which resulted in the army getting into an indefensible position from which only the skill of Belisarius extracted them. We can’t really judge the tactical situation without either the details or indeed the necessary understanding of the situation. But we can hazard a guess at the psychology. The officers resented an upstart undermining their positions. That their objections cut no ice with the emperor from an equally humble background must have made it even more frustrating.

Fractious officers were one problem. Bolshy troops were another. This was a particular problem with barbarian recruits whose default was to stick to their tribal practices. It would not be a good look for an army that was supposed to be liberating lost provinces from barbarian rule to behave as bad as an invading barbarian horde would. But discipline was strong even in auxiliary units. We hear about Belisarius publicly executing Huns for murdering each other – even though under their own laws a simple compensation payment would have settled the matter. If you wanted to be in the Roman army you had to follow Roman practices.

Another feature of the new Byzantine military approach was a new concentration on logistics. This new army would be a professional organisation that was capable of supplying itself. There is a story about the bread supplied at the start of a campaign being substandard and causing illness. This indicates that it wasn’t always a successful revolution and that we shouldn’t run away with the idea that the Byzantine military machine was as highly efficient as later armies would be. The technology and skills to create and maintain large scale full time armies were still not that well developed. But in war it is not necessary to get everything right. You just need to get more right than your enemies. The Byzantine Empire had plenty of enemies to face, and as the largest and richest entity in the known world had a habit of attracting new ones. Barbarians were willing to travel great distances for a crack at the legendary wealth of Constantinople.

And that was really the crux of the strategic problem that Justinian and his successors had to cope with. Sitting astride trade routes meant that attacks could come from every direction. The deployment of diplomats to neighbouring states was clearly essential to manage local problems. But even if peace with the adjoining states could be achieved the army still had to be available in case Vikings turned up on boats, or steppe nomads poured over the Danube or the Arabs united and became a major force to the empire’s East. Like the Soviet Union, there was no end to the pressure to keep up the military effort. The history of the Eastern Roman Empire was basically one of the long struggle to keep the state safe from its enemies. In the end, it failed of course. This was inevitable. The surprising thing is just how long the emperors were able to keep the show on the road.

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