Friday, July 16, 2010

History Book -- WARFARE, STATE AND SOCIETY IN THE BYZANTINE WORLD 525-1204, by John Haldon

As someone who specializes in the late Roman Republic and Early Roman Empire, it would only be natural for me to be interested in the Roman Empire's "rump state," the so-called Byzantine Empire. They never called themselves "Byzantine," of course, but "Romanoi." The term "Byzantine" was created by historians to describe the state that occupied the Aegean Basin, Balkans, and Black Sea Basin from its capital at Constantinople roughly from the eighth century onwards (before that it is often referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, even after the West had fallen).

Pursuant to that interest, I came across Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 525-1204 several years ago while writing a paper on Basil II Bulgaroctonus. Haldon's research is an in-depth examination on the way Byzantine society and culture shaped their methods and capabilities for warfare. I'd be tempted to say that Haldon took off from Lynn's model of cultural (quasi-anthropological?) research on how cultures wage war, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, but Haldon's Warfare, State and Society came out long before Lynn's research was published. Haldon's book is deeply concerned with all aspects of how the Byzantines waged war against their enemies, how their culture, society, and economy shaped their warmaking, and how that warmaking in turn shaped their culture, society, and economy.

The opening chapters attack the very paradoxical nature of Byzantine militarism--the idea that the Christian religion repudiates war and cherishes peace has a profound effect on the Byzantine outlook on war as a necessary evil. They are, essentially, "making war for peace." While the skeptic may scoff at such a concept, Haldon is careful to examine the Byzantine situation and state of mind in regard to warfare. He's very clear that the Byzantines preferred to avoid armed conflict, but were willing to fight using brutal methods (raiding, preemptive strikes, harassment, etc.) to deter and defeat opponents. The ultimate aim of the Byzantine Empire's concept of war was simply survival at any cost.

This is very much a result of the reverses the Byzantines suffered at the hands of the Arabs during the eighth century. Haldon traces the organization of the Byzantine frontier system, the creation of military districts (themata), and the arrangement of military units. Haldon compares Byzantine war manuals to Late Roman texts and methods to extract a continuous line of development throughout their history.

As Haldon builds a very complex image of Byzantine society, the reader cannot help but become aware that, overall, the Byzantines were actually very successful in war. They had developed a very centralized system of resource collection and allocation designed for maximum efficiency in a setting where such resources were extremely limited. Haldon focuses a great deal on the less glamorous aspects of warfare, such as logistics and travel times. His emphasis on supply cannot be understated, and Haldon is very clear that feeding and equipping the army on the march was a feat of great administrative skill and sophistication that placed a heavy burden on both state and local populace.

The ideal Byzantine war was rarely one of direct confrontation, which contradicts Victor Davis Hanson's theory of shock combat being preferred in western civilization. I support Hanson's theory of a Western Way of War, but, like John Lynn, I find problems, and the Byzantine penchant for raiding, harassment, entrapment, ambush, and guerrilla warfare seem to contradict Hanson's theory. I would instead suggest that the Western Way of War is simply "whatever works," and the Byzantine methods are absolutely tailored to make best use of what limited resources they had. Their war manuals are insistent that direct, open battle should be avoided whenever possible because the imperial armies didn't always fare well against their Arab and Turkish enemies during such engagements. There were times when good discipline, unit coordination, high morale, and a charismatic and intelligent leader (often the Emperor himself) would result in smashing victories for the Byzantine army in a pitched battle.

However, there were just as many times when disaster would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (to invert an old adage). Sometimes, it would be a simple misunderstanding or an erroneous perception of a situation. An emperor leaving the battlefield momentarily to relieve himself once convinced the soldiers in his army he was fleeing (his banners withdrew with him to his toilet), and the result was his near-victorious army promptly retreated. At other times, a unit would withdraw in disciplined order, and neighboring units would mistake this for a general retreat and flee. The unexpected and unforeseeable were the primary reasons that Byzantine military textbook writers advised against direct engagement, but preferred to use stealth, subterfuge, and surprise to defeat their enemies--strategies that seem to fly directly in the face of Hanson's theory.

However, the reasons that the Byzantines preferred these methods were wholly cultural and economic. Their resources were stretched extremely tightly, and the loss of a single army could result in massive losses, as occurred in the eleventh century when the Turks won much of central Anatolia and pushed back the Byzantine frontier almost to the Aegean Sea. While the Byzantines won some of that territory back, they never did manage to recover fully. The killing blow fell in 1204, with the Fourth Crusade, when Western Christendom effectively broke and partitioned the empire. Although it reformed itself later, it never managed to recover--too much had been lost and destroyed by the Crusade. A completely different cultural, economic, and social milieu existed, thus Haldon's survey ends with 1204.

The Byzantines were concerned with whatever methods were the most efficient and effective given the resources they had at their disposal. Their entire strategy was predicated on protecting their interests and survival.

If there can be any criticism of Haldon's work, I'd have to say that he relies very little on material evidence, focusing almost entirely on textual evidence. However, material evidence is not in great abundance and doesn't give us a lot of direct information on Byzantine mentalities towards war and peace. It can only give us an approximate idea of how sophisticated their equipment was. Haldon's sources are not only Byzantine but also Western European and (especially) Muslim historians and writers. Hagiography is used prudently to illustrate mentalities and cultural concepts but not to provide direct evidence for actual events.

Haldon includes three appendices that provide information on weights and measures, rationing, and other details that could prove vital to a researcher seeking more information on Byzantine military practice. Although dry, his tables and calculations are a fantastic resource that does not exist for narrative purpose but for detail and to illustrate the complexity of the Byzantine administrative supply system. Maps and diagrams of marching and battle formations also assist in illustrating developments in the Byzantine military and frontier system.

As a whole, Haldon's book is an interesting and complete look at the complex relationship between Byzantine culture and society with war.


Brunomac said...

Pretty interesting. I've been rewatching HBO's Rome lately, and my interest in ancient Rome is all revved up again. I'd love to run some sort of ancient, real world RPG of some sort.

Dave Cesarano said...

The Byzantines would be a neat-o place to roleplay, or perhaps a fantasy version. Their pacifistic religious view, coupled with their role as defender of the faith and their willingness to fight ruthlessly to survive would make for an interesting setting. I immediately considered a fantasy version with evil neighbors as an option. It's something most of the established settings don't have--an ancient vestigial empire that is slowly shrinking and the only bulwark between the young human kingdoms and dark forces of evil gods. Lots of adventure opportunities there, lots of ruins and dungeons to explore in the frontier no-mans lands.