The Byzantines at Battle

Byzantine navyThe Byzantines at Battle

George T. Dennis

Byzantium at War (1997)

Although the Byzantines were constantly under attack or under threat of attack, they regarded warfare as the least desirable method of defending themselves. Leo VI prefaced his Tactical Constitutions with the words: “We must always prefer peace above all else and refrain from war”. Instead of fighting, they chose to employ diplomacy, bribery, covert action, paying tribute, setting one tribe against another. War was the last resort. And when they did decide upon war, they sought to avoid the crush of a pitched battle. For they realised that a frontal assault carried enormous risks.  The Strategikon, attributed to emperor Maurice (582-602), articulated this concern, “To try simply to overpower the enemy in the open, hand to hand, face to face…is very risky and can result in serious harm. A wise commander will not engage the enemy in a pitched battle unless a truly exceptional opportunity or advantage presents itself.”


Five hundred years later, Kekaumenos advised the commander to learn all he could about the enemy and, only after thorough investigation, line up for battle. He should weaken the enemy by tricks, machines, ambushes and last of all, if there is no other way, engage in battle. Leo Phokas reminded his troops that wars are won not so much by pitched battles as by cautious prudence, cunning, and timing, and he forbade any reckless charges in the open field.

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