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  • The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
  • Richard Greenfield
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. By Edward N. Luttwak. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 512 pp. $35.00 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

More than thirty years after the publication of his significant, if debated, study The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), Edward Luttwak turns his considerable experience and knowledge of modern high-level strategic planning and operations to the [End Page 836] Byzantine Empire. The result is a substantial and stimulating examination of what the author understands as Byzantine strategy, broken down into its two major components, diplomacy and the art of war. No longer able to destroy or subjugate its many enemies in the old Roman fashion, the Byzantine empire, argues Luttwak, developed a grand strategy that turned to its advantage the very multiplicity of those enemies by employing all the many wiles of diplomacy. Here, then, "military strength was subordinated to diplomacy . . . and used mostly to contain, punish or intimidate rather than to attack or defend in full force" (p. 415).

In the first part of his book Luttwak examines the invention of this specifically Byzantine strategy, which he locates in the fifth century following the loss of the West and, crucially, the outmaneuvering of Attila and his Huns. For Luttwak the Huns were the most powerful and dangerous of all the enemies faced by Byzantium, an assertion he supports in considerable detail in his chapter devoted to them and the crisis they provoked. A second chapter relates this experience to the subsequent development by the empire's administrators of a new and enduring strategy for dealing with its enemies. The successful deflection of Attila to the West, Luttwak argues, inspired the use of persuasion (primarily monetary) rather than outright force as the foundation of Byzantine strategy. At the same time lessons learned on the battlefield from Asian weapons and tactics created a paradigm shift in the Byzantine military with the development of "missile cavalry," something that itself reflected a significant change in strategy. No longer was the aim to destroy enemies by maximum attrition through the use of traditional foot soldiers but rather to win short-term victory by disruption, for the Byzantines had come to realize that peace could never be but a temporary interruption of war, while yesterday's enemies could well become tomorrow's vital allies. Hand in hand went the development of not only espionage and covert operations as standard tactics, but also what Luttwak terms the "force multiplier" of "fortress Constantinople" at the heart of the empire. An acknowledged difficulty here is that Justinian appears to have reverted in many ways to the old strategic approach, but some resolute argument, mixed with a positive reception of theories of plague and environmental catastrophe, allows Luttwak to preserve the trajectory of his grand strategy through the sixth century.

Having established his groundwork, Luttwak turns in the second part of his book to an examination of the workings of Byzantine diplomacy—or the art of persuasion, upon which, he argues, that strategy so heavily depended. In the first five short chapters Luttwak offers a [End Page 837] wealth of fascinating detail and illustration together with some pertinent analysis of the use of envoys, religion, imperial prestige, dynastic marriage, and political geography (essentially a commentary on the de Ceremoniis of Constantine VII). Here there is, perhaps inevitably, a sense of flitting about through the centuries, and there are some broad generalizations as well as rather startling absences—as elsewhere in the book, for example, a strange reluctance to discuss in any depth Byzantine interaction with Western Europe. There is however a welcome sense provided of Byzantium as an active presence on a world stage, recognized from Spain to the borders of China and from Britain to India. Part 2 concludes with two longer chapters devoted, if rather loosely and in a broadly narrative historical framework, to the way Byzantine foreign relations played out in relation to Bulgaria and "The Muslim Arabs and Turks." What is striking, however, is that most episodes chosen for detailed...