Lessons from Byzantium: Survival Amid Weakness and Eternal War

The word ‘Byzantine’ has come to denote political intrigue of treacherous complexity. Thus, it might be thought that a Byzantine grand strategy would be something to avoid like the plague; a nightmarish tangle of ill-conceived and contradictory policies that is guaranteed to produce catastrophe [sound familiar?]. In fact, the empire from which the term derives was one of the longest surviving empires in history. Surely they must have done something right.

Indeed, as Edward Luttwak argues in his new book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine history provides an excellent example of a grand strategy that utilized all instruments of state power to maximum effect.

Strategy is an imperative for the poor and the weak. Compared to the united Roman Empire of centuries past, Byzantium was both. When it decided to wage war, the ancient Roman Empire was able to combine well-trained military forces raised from its huge manpower reserves with sheer warlike determination to literally grind its enemies into dust, often abandoning strategic and tactical subtlety to gain victory through simple attrition; a high-cost but low-risk strategy guaranteed to produce success for anyone able to foot the bill. Not so the Byzantine Empire, which suffered from a chronic shortage of combat-ready troops and a disadvantaged geography that left it surrounded by enemies, with no easily defensible frontiers or a secure “homeland” territory. And yet, the Byzantine Empire survived nearly a millennium longer than its Western ancestor. How? With a grand strategy attuned to its situation.

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