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The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

by Edward N. Luttwak (Author)

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181774,103 (3.78)3
Member:SassMachine45
Title:The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
Authors:Edward N. Luttwak (Author)
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Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:history, military history, byzantine empire, military strategy, diplomacy, foreign relations, byzantines, naval warfare, military tactics, royal marriages

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The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward N. Luttwak

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Got a wicked review somewhere, recent.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
A modestly interesting book with some interesting strategic insights and some gaping flaws.

It is an easy, flowing read, and makes the analysis of composite bows and court titles seem more approachable to the lay reader. The author also makes ready comparisons to the modern era, emphasizing the use of comparative diplomacy, prestige, and deterrence to survive waves of invaders and mollify others. That seems to be the author's main focus, almost more so than Byzantium itself.

However, there are some very significant gaps. The administrative organization known as the 'theme system' is almost wholly overlooked, as is almost the entire period after the 11th century. For a work which aims to emphasize Byzantine grand strategy, they should at least mention the Crusades and the wrangling that was involved there!

This is not a bad book, by any means. It could have been much better. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
It was grrrrrrreat! ( )
  SassMachine45 | Dec 12, 2012 |
What we call the Byzantine Empire – although they considered themselves as Romans – lasted in a sense over one thousand years - until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Even if you count the sack of Constantinople by the western knights of the 4th Crusade in 1204 as the end of the empire as such – after its restoration in 1259, it survived as a small Greek kingdom for its last 200 years – it had still been an empire for nearly 800 years before that. The author of this book sets out to explain this remarkeable longevity.

It certainly wasn’t because of geography; the author explains that – compared to its western counterpart - the eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire was much more spread out around the Mediterranean, and lacked extensive hinterlands to give it strategic depth against the threat of invaders – of which there were many – from the east and north east. The empire and Constantinople itself was constantly under attack from the Sassanian Persians in the east, and subsequently by their Muslim conquerors; over the centuries – starting with the Huns in the fifth century – wave after wave of warrior peoples from central Asia rode across the steppes north of the Black Sea, entering the Byzantine heartland of the Balkan peninsula and Greece and fetching up against the great land wall of Constantinople.

Neither was the empire’s resilience due – like the old Roman Empire – to its superior fighting forces. Times had changed; the steppe warriors in particular brought a new dimension to warfare, with their skilled horsemanship, and new technology too in the form of the composite bow with which these accomplished archers could deliver a withering fire from a much greater distance. Combined, these two factors were devastating; when some of the later groups added successful siegecraft to their armory, they represented a real threat to the survival of the empire.

The empire survived through a number of ups and downs - the successes of emperor Justinian in the 6th century in recapturing the old western Roman empire territories of Italy and north Africa from the Goths, the stunning loss in the following century of north Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and half of Anatolia to the Muslims armies erupting out of Arabia, the resurgence in the 10th century, the 4th Crusade sack of the 13th , and finally the twilight years of the 14th and 15th centuries. Its survival was due to a number of practices which amounted – although there was no word for it in Greek – to a grand strategy. The author explains – several times - how a good top-down strategy can overcome poor tactics, lack of numerical or physical superiority and even actual battlefield defeats. Whereas, the reverse is not true; the author’s example is Hitler who – despite his superior armies, technology and victories, was bound to have lost the war in the end because he had picked the wrong enemies and made the wrong friends.

The Byzantines were adept at diplomacy – they were always trying to make deals - even while battle raged. They knew the value of understanding their enemies – exploiting weaknesses and avoiding strengths – to develop enemy-specific strategy. They were adept at pitting one enemy against another, calculating which of the two was the lesser evil. And – if all else failed – they were not in the least bit averse to buying off their enemies. Secondly, they learned from their enemies and adapted accordingly; in particular, the Hun invasion of the 5th century taught them the value of the composite bow in the hands of horseback warriors; the cavalry thus became the main strength of Byzantine armies, replacing the dominance of the infantry in the old Roman empire. Finally, their commanders were instilled with idea that discretion is often the better part of valor; avoid engaging the enemy in big battles – you may lose, even if you have theoretical superiority; even if you win, you can’t afford the losses of trained men a big battle always entails; don’t chase fleeing enemy – they may just be leading you into an ambush, and if they are really fleeing you don’t need to chase them – they’ve lost. Don’t try and totally destroy your enemy – he may make a useful ally against the next one.

This is the story, and you certainly emerge from reading this book with a very clear idea of it. The problem is that the author tells it twice. In the first 9 chapters he tells it in a direct sense, as summarised above. He then re-tells it in another 4 chapters – perhaps a third of the whole book – via a description of the various literary sources for Byzantine strategy. While this may qualify the book as more scholarly, I found that it added length but no breadth. Another drawback – an irritant more than a fatal flaw – is the author’s constant scholarly “namedropping”; every person, book, ethnic group, place, weapon, military unit or formation referred to is given their name - in contemporary Byzantine Greek, Sassanian Persian, Arabic or Turkic - and then by the name the ancient Greeks would have used, what it was known as in Latin, medieval German or French, and what we would call it today. My favorite sentence: “….the area now known as Bashkiria or Bashkortostan, which may have been the name of the entire nation then (in Romanian slang, bozgori, bozghiori and boangi are still perjoratives for “Hungarians”).”

There is certainly a lot of history in this book, but it is not a linear account of the history of the Byzantine empire; even within the 9 chapters of the first telling, the narrative jumps backwards and forwards, as the author’s intent is to point out the consistencies and similarities in Byzantine strategies at different points in time. Unless you are familiar with the broad outlines of late Roman and Byzantine history, you are likely to find the book unsatisfactory. On the other hand, unless you have the interest that presupposes such familiarity, you are unlikely to have chosen to read this book. ( )
2 vote maimonedes | Apr 19, 2012 |
While an interesting survey of Byzantine military history, with particular emphasis on the strategic constants that confronted the Eastern Empire, I'm one with the reviewers who are skeptical that Luttwak has really mastered the nuances of Byzantine history sufficiently to be entirely trustworthy. Also, the rather acerbic asides that make for entertaining reading do create a tone that will put more serious scholars off this book, while I'm not sure the general reader is going to be that interested. ( )
1 vote Shrike58 | Jul 16, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674035194, Hardcover)

In this book, the distinguished writer Edward Luttwak presents the grand strategy of the eastern Roman empire we know as Byzantine, which lasted more than twice as long as the more familiar western Roman empire, eight hundred years by the shortest definition. This extraordinary endurance is all the more remarkable because the Byzantine empire was favored neither by geography nor by military preponderance. Yet it was the western empire that dissolved during the fifth century. The Byzantine empire so greatly outlasted its western counterpart because its rulers were able to adapt strategically to diminished circumstances, by devising new ways of coping with successive enemies. It relied less on military strength and more on persuasion—to recruit allies, dissuade threatening neighbors, and manipulate potential enemies into attacking one another instead. Even when the Byzantines fought—which they often did with great skill—they were less inclined to destroy their enemies than to contain them, for they were aware that today’s enemies could be tomorrow’s allies. Born in the fifth century when the formidable threat of Attila’s Huns were deflected with a minimum of force, Byzantine strategy continued to be refined over the centuries, incidentally leaving for us several fascinating guidebooks to statecraft and war.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is a broad, interpretive account of Byzantine strategy, intelligence, and diplomacy over the course of eight centuries that will appeal to scholars, classicists, military history buffs, and professional soldiers.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:47 -0400)

In this book, the distinguished writer Edward Luttwak presents the grand strategy of the eastern Roman empire we know as Byzantine, which lasted more than twice as long as the more familiar western Roman empire, eight hundred years by the shortest definition. This extraordinary endurance is all the more remarkable because the Byzantine empire was favored neither by geography nor by military preponderance. This book is a broad, interpretive account of Byzantine strategy, intelligence, and diplomacy over the course of eight centuries that will appeal to scholars, classicists, military history buffs, and professional soldiers.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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