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The Byzantine Doctrine

What the United States could learn from the military and foreign policy of the Byzantine Empire.

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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The incomparable and irrepressible Edward N. Luttwak has a short article in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy called "Take Me Back to Constantinople: How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana." Still one of America's leading strategic minds, Luttwak literally wrote the book on the subject with Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, as well as on the application of strategy to modern day situations (e.g., The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union; The Pentagon and the Art of War; and On the Meaning of Victory).

But one of his most brilliant and influential works dealt with ancient history. In his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century AD to the Third, Luttwak outlined the patterns of continuity and change in the strategic policies of the Roman Empire from Augustus to Diocletian. Dismissed by classicists who do not understand strategy, and by strategists who are ignorant of ancient history, the book has, nonetheless, shaped all subsequent discussions of Roman foreign policy. Luttwak argues convincingly that, while they may not have written dissertations and white papers on the subject, the ancient Romans had an instinctive grasp of strategic logic embedded in their culture, which allowed not only continuity across changing regimes, but also for strategic evolution in response to a changing security environment. Thus, under the Julio-Claudians, Rome employed a strategy of forward defense, with large field armies capable of offensive action against potential threats, whether Germanic barbarians, nomadic raiders, or the Parthian Empire. In the second century, under the Antonines, Rome switched to a preclusive defense based on fortified frontiers backed up by the legions. Finally, in response to the collapse of the frontier defense in the third century, Rome adopted a defense-in-depth, based on defended towns and cities backed by mobile field armies to counter-attack and repel the invaders. Each strategy was appropriate in its time, and for that reason, Rome managed to survive as an empire down to the fifth century AD--or so the story goes.

Most conventional histories speak of the "Fall of the Roman Empire" in 476, when the last Emperor in the West was deposed by the Gothic warlord Odovacar. Historians are now reassessing that interpretation, for Roman institutions continued to function in the West for at least two more centuries, albeit in increasingly decadent and fragmented forms. But the real truth is, only part of the Roman Empire "fell" in 476--the Empire in the West. In the East, the Roman Empire continued to exist, and even thrive, without interruption. Known to us as the "Byzantine Empire," a term coined during the Enlightenment, it has long been synonymous for decadence, effeminacy, and deviousness--everything the noble, upstanding Romans were not. But the Byzantines actually thought of and called themselves Rhomaioi, or Romans, right down to the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, almost 1000 years after the Roman Empire supposedly "fell".

The traditional stereotype of the Byzantine Empire, established by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has undergone considerable revision of late, thanks to a renaissance of Byzantine studies, to which Edward Luttwak has now made an important contribution. Luttwak had long promised a sequel to Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire covering the Roman Empire in the East from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries, and finally it is here: The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Luttwak's Foreign Policy article provides a foretaste of the book by identifying some of the principles of Byzantine grand strategy and suggesting that these might be more appropriate for the United States in the multi-polar 21st century than the more "Roman" principles applied in the 20th century.