History

Byzantine Historiography: Contemporary Lessons

“An American soldier post in Anbar province during the twilight war over the remains of Saddam’s Mesopotamian kingdom might have been surprised to learn he was defending the westernmost frontiers of the ancient Persian empire against raiders, smugglers, and worse coming from eastern stretches of the ancient Roman Empire.”[1]  In 2008, on the eve of the final year of the Bush Presidency and with the Iraq War drawing down after the Surge, classicist and then-Provost of Georgetown University James J. O’Donnell released a book titled, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, and this is the opening sentence of his work.  By the end of his work, he concludes by drawing a connection between Justinian’s wars in the west with ongoing American foreign policy by saying, “Old errors are easy to reenact—as fading empires, bereft of self-awareness, struggle again to use their power to preserve themselves, and in so doing risk weakening beyond repair…Civilization is a thing of the calm, the patient, the pragmatic, and the wise.  We are not assured that it will triumph.”[2] 

While the view that the Byzantines can serve to impart lessons onto a contemporary world in the realm of geopolitical foreign policy, especially with regards to diplomacy is not something altogether a twenty-first century idea,[3] for our purposes, we will mostly concentrate on twenty-first century works that deal with Byzantine foreign policy and diplomacy and its impact onto our world today.  The purposes for concentrating on more recent work is primarily the fact that these works have more relevance to a twenty-first century world attempting to deal with the crumbling walls of the supposed “end of history.”[4]  As Peter Heather has stated with regards to Justinian’s wars in the west, “[L]ike the neocons nearly 1,500 years later, Justinian was now confident that he had the military hardware to roll over the Gothic Kingdom as quickly as he had the Vandals.”[5]  This military confident prodded him into a war with the Ostrogoths in Italy, culminating in their destruction, but also, the ruination of the city of Rome and opened the door to military reversals in the coming decades, all after twenty years of war in Italy.

The theme of O’Donnell’s work was clear–Rome had not fallen with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 by Odoacer, but had been ruined by Justinian’s wars.  In that sense, the Byzantines under Justinian are negatively portrayed have having sowed the seeds of the ruination of the empire they proclaimed to be the continuation of, and serve to remind us of the folly to rush off to war.  In addition, Justinian’s penchant for waging war and the terrible destruction, not only to the invaded peoples but also to his own (speaking of Justinian) economy and treasury is a mistake of history so repetitive that it’s amazing one has not learned from these mistakes.  “This painful recycling of history should make him-and us-want to know what unhealable wound, what recurrent pathology, what cause too deep for journalists and politicians to discern draws men and women to their deaths again and again in such a place.”[6]

This view of Justinian’s conquest is not all that uncommon.  There was much death and destruction wrought upon Ostrogoth Italy and its peoples from Justinian’s wars.[7]  Indeed, overlooking the close psychological profiles of Justinian’s conquests and modern American understandings of self in history can be closely paralleled.  Justinian undoubtedly still believed that it was his duty to spread Christian civilization across the globe, very reminiscent of liberal idealists and neoconservative beliefs that the United States will help procure and foster liberalism and democratic societies abroad.  Yet, Justinian’s wars and the destruction it caused laid the foundation for the continuing crises faced by the Byzantines, especially in the east.[8]    Peter Heather, while trying to be more balanced than to lay all the blame upon Justinian for the crisis the Byzantine Empire would face in the seventh century, said of him, “Justinian was an autocratic bastard of the worst kind.  It worried him not a jot to slaughter his own citizens in huge numbers to keep him in power, nor to launch speculative attacks on neighboring states with much the same end in mind, no matter how much collateral damage.”[9]  After decades of war, conquest, and destruction, what had Justinian achieved in his desire to restore the Roman world and order?  Little to nothing, and the bloodletting would have serious ramifications upon the Byzantines in the coming two centuries.[10]  Not only was the Byzantine Empire in a more delicate position after Justinian’s wars and death than it was before, but so too were the territories and regions that his armies had laid waste too. 

The city of Rome, once the prize of Roman civilization, and even after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, still possessed remnants of its prosperous past and was tenderly cared for by Theodoric.[11]  Now, however, the city was ruined and wouldn’t come alive again for over 700 years until the birth of the Renaissance in Italy.[12]  Justinian’s wars of restoration and had failed, they failed to advance Christian Roman civilization, and they opened the door for new invasions and the loss of two-thirds of imperial territory within a few generations by the end of Heraclius’s reign in 641 C.E.[13]  Furthermore, it is also within these years of unending wars and destruction that Procopius was likely influenced to see Justinian as a possessed demon.[14]  By an evaluation of the human and economic cost from Justinian’s wars, it is easy to castigate him in a negative light for the decades of war, death, and destruction—even instability that followed despite the superficial success of having reclaimed the city of Rome.

The re-interest in the Byzantine Empire and its foreign policy is a mostly modern phenomenon in the Western World, no less a direct result of the recent conflicts the United States and other European powers, notably the United Kingdom, have been embroiled in since the beginning of the “War on Terror.”  The Byzantines straddled the grounds of the Middle East for much of their existence, directly holding the lands of the Levant and Iraq before the Arab Conquests of the seventh century and always remained on the periphery, especially after the Komnenian Restoration of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  The fact that the Byzantines survived for such a long period in a region seemingly hostile to Western, secular, and Christian interests have recaptured the imagination of scholars to seek how the Byzantines were able to achieve this lasting legacy.  However, there are competing lessons to be learned from looking at the Byzantines and their history of conquest, war, and diplomacy.

While O’Donnell highlights the failed attempts of Justinian’s total conquest as a warning for, undoubtedly, American policy making, noting that after his failed attempts no other emperor ever embarked on such a grandiose adventure,[15] other historians and authors have highlighted the Byzantines not as a “not to do” strategy but as a model to follow.  Edward Luttwak, in 2009, published The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire and it implicitly, even explicitly, identified the post-Justinian Byzantine strategy as model for the future of American foreign policy.  At the very beginning of his work, Luttwak proclaims that the modern arts of diplomacy, intelligence gather, which was critical to the “epic survival of the Roman Empire of the east,” have their foundation in the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire in the Middle East.[16]  As Luttwak proclaims after the failures of Justinian’s campaigns that depleted the empire financially and militarily, “The genius of the Byzantine grand strategy was to turn the very multiplicity of enemies to an advantage, by employing diplomacy, deception, payoffs, and religious conversion to induce them to fight one another instead of fighting the empire.”[17]  The message in Luttwak’s work is very clear, a foreign policy of pragmatic diplomacy, non-exhaustion (militarily and politically) and cleverly working with regional powers is the path forward after the failed Iraq War, which can be seen akin to Justinian’s conquests – superficially successfully, but in the long run, possibly detrimental. 

His work even struck a chord with former members of the American intelligence community.  Ishmael Jones, the famous pseudonym of a former CIA operative who resigned and has since clamored for reforming American intelligence infrastructure, wrote a positive review of Mr. Luttwak’s work for the American Thinker.[18]  Like with Luttwak, Jones finds parallels in his review between Byzantine strategies and modern American thinking, “The Byzantines used Christianity to convert and create allies.  We create allies through conversion to our democracy and the ideals of our Constitution.  The Byzantines used…the splendor of Constantinople; we have the vitality of our economy, the splendor of our cities, and the promise of opportunity.”[19]  The parallels with the Byzantines are therefore, not only serve as a model to dissuade one from, but also as a model that should be followed because of the successful longevity of the more diplomatic and pragmatic practices that emerged in the failure of Justinian’s wars.

The conclusion of Luttwak’s work ends with the seven principles of the Byzantine “operational code,” all of which seem to have strikingly contemporary lessons to be further analyzed in the wake of recent American, and to a lesser extent European, foreign policy.[20]  It is somewhat unsure that the listing of the operation code, in any sense of order, was the actual prioritization of the Byzantines, but more in accordance with the prioritization of a future foreign policy in the twenty-first century.  The first of Luttwak’s operational codes that the Byzantine strategy hinged upon was, “Avoid war by every possible means in all possible circumstances.”[21]  Discounting the fact that the Byzantines were involved in over 100 military conflicts and wars during their existence, the listing of avoiding war as the first operation code seems more applicable for lessons of our modern time than with the Byzantines themselves.  While it is certainly true that the Byzantines after Justinian never embarked on such grandiose designs, any attempt on Luttwak’s part to prioritize the Byzantine strategy seems to be catered to contemporary lessons to a mostly war-weary populace after Afghanistan and Iraq.

Robert Kaplan also looked at the Byzantines in praise, in part, to offer suggestions on how the United States should approach its handling of foreign policy in the Middle East calling for prudence and endurance along similar lines of how the later Byzantines constantly employed shrewd diplomatic practices to keep their foothold in Asia Minor.[22]  Relating Byzantine practices to the Syrian Civil War and possible American responses, Kaplan concluded, “A Byzantine strategy…would maintain the requisite military force in the eastern Mediterranean…It would feature robust, secret and ongoing diplomacy with the Russians and the Iranians, aware always of their interests both regionally and globally, and always open to deals.”[23]  Just as the Byzantines routinely used other groups to do their bidding for them, like aiding the Crusaders in 1096 for the return of Nicaea, or bribing into an alliance to ward off against their mutual adversaries the Seljuks and Mamluks, Kaplan and others seem to suggest that the lesson to be learned from the Byzantine Empire is to trust a pragmatic, if not shrewd, diplomatic policy rather than reliance upon military power to achieve policy goals.  As Luttwak warns, the Byzantines were keen to realize this mistake in strategy, “To wear out their own forces, chiefly of expensive cavalry, to utterly destroy the immediate enemy would only open the way to the next wave of invaders.”[24]  In more modern language, this is a warning against the invitation, through war, to invite a new wave of jihadists and other such characters from taking up arms and plotting harm against the perceived aggression of the invader (the United States and other Western powers).

As noted, James J. O’Donnell’s account is a lesson against the willingness to rush to war and highlights the destructive elements of Byzantine imperial power, and that Justinian’s war efforts in Italy had essentially bankrupted the Byzantine treasury.[25]   While Peter Heather’s histories do not read, or should be thought of as having the same foundation with regards to connecting dots of Byzantine history with contemporary geopolitical situations, his histories do offer a critique of Justinian’s conquests and the negative fallout that resulted as a result of his wars – both for the Byzantine Empire and its targets.[26]  The empire’s most damning lesson to be learned may be seen economically, as the empire was never able to fully recover the financial losses from the wars waged by Justinian and the sudden outbreak of new conflicts by the seventh century.[27]  The outbreak of these new conflicts hastened the rapid decline of the Byzantine Empire in the immediate aftermath of Justinian’s death whereby the succeeding emperors where embroiled in near constant warfare with the Avars, Persians, and then the Arabs and oversaw one of the most dramatic reductions of Byzantine territory and power in its history.

By contrast, Luttwak and Kaplan portray not the negativities of Byzantine imperial policies, but the genius thereof – looking not at Justinian’s wars but the changing Byzantine strategies in light of the realization that campaigns fought in the same manner of Justinian would only further cripple the empire, but at the emergence of a new strategy that emphasized pragmatism, diplomacy, and calculating political moves.[28]  After all, Luttwak has said, “It is the lessons of Byzantine grand strategy that America must rediscover today [if it is to preserve the notion of Pax Americana].”[29]  The emphasis of diplomacy and pragmatism from the Byzantines comes in the aftermath of a changing Presidency when Barack Obama, running on a platform of peace and de-escalation, defeated Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee who was often castigated for his “100 more years” comment with regards to an American military presence in war-torn Iraq.

As was the case with examining the moral lessons to be taken away from the Byzantine histories in Chapter I, the political lessons to be learned from the Byzantines fit a unique time in human history and cannot, or at least, should not, be separated from the historicism which guide the foundation of these more modern writings.  While I mentioned that I do not think it is fair to Peter Heather to assert that his latter works were somehow motivated to be commentary upon recent foreign policy developments, it is much more clearly the case that O’Donnell’s and Luttwak’s works are both tremendously influenced to give commentary in the aftermath of the Iraq War and a possible policy shift in American foreign policy directives aimed at the Middle East, although they concentrate upon and offer two different interpretations of Byzantine history for lessons in political and foreign policy concerns.

Yet, even in more modest and popular histories, there is a tendency among Byzantinists to celebrate diplomatic triumphs in the larger game of politics.  For instance, Michael VIII’s handling of the episodes of the Sicilian Vespers, in which he successfully managed the King of Aragon to invade Sicily and detract Charles Anjou from a possible invasion of the Greek mainland, is celebrated as triumph of “byzantine” diplomacy.[30]  In the annals of the last great emperors, Michael VIII stands among the rest among some contemporary historians not for being the typical soldier-emperor of the Roman tradition, but a superb and skillful diplomat who preserved the longevity of the empire, with one historian going as far as calling him, “the most brilliant [diplomat] Byzantium ever produced.”[31]  Apart from Justinian’s war and destruction, being a stark warning against the rush of the use of force and imperial ambitions, the diplomatic triumphs of the Byzantine Empire seems to receive near universal praise.  Today, that is a stark reversal of old assessments of Byzantine diplomacy and even Michael VIII, whom was also described as a character similar to Richard III, paving the way for civil war and the empire’s demise, and as someone who, “did not win a single advantage in all the rest of his entire reign.”[32]

The general trend is that the Byzantines were expert and skilled diplomats, even in the fields of espionage, and that this was their primary means to defend Constantinople—the “New Rome.”[33]  As mentioned, many historians and commentators have seen this as their most admirable trait, and no doubt, one of the reasons for the empire’s longevity despite being surrounded by constant enemies.[34]  This set the Byzantines apart from their predecessors, it highlighted adaptability and an evolution in thinking—rather than charge in head first, as the empire had done previously—the realization that the long-term game was against them prompted a re-evaluation of strategy and decision making.  For the modern world, especially the United States, this serves as a warning on how to proceed with future foreign policy initiatives—for to continue down the path of Justinian is a dangerous road that need not be travelled again in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recent crises in the Middle East involving the Arab Spring uprisings and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s entry and prospective conquests centered in central and northern Iraq.

Thus, it is important to see these works as being influenced in their historicist context, namely, being written, compiled, or influenced by a world that has seen failed military policies to achieved desired geopolitical goals and damaging the war parties—mainly the United States but to a lesser extent the United Kingdom—on the international stage as a result and have caused a storm of resentment and has possibly caused, “the next wave of invaders.”[35]  As Heather notes, the wars in Italy had opened the door for a devastating backdoor strike by the Sassanid Persians that ravaged Byzantine Syria.[36]  Yet, there is an unsettling irony in the emphasis on the need to adopt a “Byzantine strategy,” it ultimately failed in the long run.  After all, by 1453, the Turks had taken Constantinople despite centuries of a longstanding strategy that sought the equivalent of covert action to achieve Byzantium’s operational goals.  This is stunningly absent in the re-emphasis of the Byzantines.  In that, there is also an irony in adopting the strategy of an empire that ultimately fell, but the focus is well-intended.  After all, the Byzantine Empire lasted from 330-1453, and straddled an area of the world that has caused much problem in, predominately, American foreign policy—and had successfully warded off constant threats, experienced periods of revivals, and shocked many in its continued longevity even after it seemed the empire should have been destroyed.  This long survival, in the eyes of some, can be credited to the ingenious strategy that, as Edward Luttwak said, “Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies and changing the overall balance of power…Subversion is the best path to victory.”[37]

For the Byzantines, as Averil Cameron notes, their longevity and importance in Asia Minor depended upon, “Byzantine foreign policy relied at all periods on elaborately developed diplomacy that was very likely to involve the concessions and had as its object the procurement of benefits.”[38]  By now, the repetition of historians and other journalists writing on the Byzantines seem to take the time, sometimes at great length, to emphasize the importance of Byzantine diplomacy with regards to their political longevity and the resemblance of a medieval foreign policy.  Or, on the opposite end, constantly take the time to point out that war had led to further crises than problems solved, to the least of which draw connections between Justinian’s damning and destructive wars in the west with contemporary policy initiatives by neoconservative thinkers.

It is here that an emphasis on historicism is necessary when viewing the new histories of the Byzantines with explicit or more implicit messages.  Like with Herodotus, who wrote at the beginning of The Histories that he was writing, “…so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time,”[39] contemporary historians also write so that the wider audience may take away important messages or themes in their work, more-so than the stereotypical view of history as being a regurgitation of repetitive facts that impart little meaning to the lives of the greater public.  As noted, the slight-of-hand remarks connecting Justinian’s wars to neoconservative thinking, the opening preface of a book concerning the ruination of the Roman Empire with an American soldier in Anbar Province in Iraq, to the emphasis that the Byzantine strategy is the model to follow instead of the Roman model of conquest all have their foundation of being written in a time with ongoing wars overseas that never seemed to be coming to an end or achieve the desired outcome of the original goals.  In addition to the recent ‘rediscovery’ of the Byzantine Empire, even works that are not as explicit in their drawing connections to the present from the past still emphasize the important aspects of successful Byzantine diplomacy and foreign policy in a region that has caused serious problems for Western powers ever since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I.

Very early on, Edward Luttwak asserts the shifting evolution of a Byzantine survival strategy was in the realization that military force alone, could not deter the threat from Attila the Hun.[40]  It seems timely enough that the remarks of military dominance as not being enough to deter an enemy be brought to the fore in a work, although worked on through two decades of research, that was published in the aftermath of the Iraq War and Mr. Luttwak’s tour promoting his book as having an importance for the direction and shaping of a future American foreign policy.  As one review of his work poignantly pointed in conclusion, “We would do well to avail ourselves of such a prism in assessing the grandness of the strategies now being contemplated in Washington.”[41]

While it is not my assertion that such works would have otherwise not been published if not for the War on Terror and the possible lessons to be learned from a decade of war, these works themselves are clearly influenced from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Byzantines therefore, serve as a constant reminder to the contemporary world of how to properly undertake political and foreign policy endeavors.  Notwithstanding the often short span of imperial dynasties, the Byzantine Empire as a unitary polity lasted 1,123 years—a most remarkable feat all things considered.  The Byzantines have left the world with a written compendium of their works and strategies, and it becomes clear that they learned from the mistakes of Justinian’s wars and adopted a new ‘grand strategy’ that would prolong their importance for another seven centuries in a region that has constantly been the grave of empires.

            The Byzantines are now a model of diplomatic and political action, depending on the two-edged sword in contemporary scholarship.  On one side, there is a stark and clear warning using the Byzantines to illustrate the example, that war and conquest is not the best path to achieve desired goals.  After all, even though Justinian’s were superficially successful in the sense that he restored Byzantine rule, albeit temporarily, to North Africa and Italy, he also invited the rise of the Avars and greatly overstretched the imperial territory and forces to the point that when the Avars assaulted the Balkans and the Persians rolled into Syria, the Byzantines were incapable of responding effectively.[42]  The other side highlights the post-Justinian model, one in which the Byzantines understood the concept of the longue durée and formulated a strategy of pragmatic diplomacy, pragmatic military campaigns often small and quick-hitting by comparison to the large and cumbersome armies of Antiquity, and were always willing to work with adjacent and regional powers to achieve their ends.[43]  As one historian put it, “The Byzantines were nothing if not pragmatic.”[44]  It is through this pragmatic diplomacy that the Byzantines reached their true grandeur during the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1057).

            Thus, in this fashion, one should realize the clear message in Byzantine scholarship tailored for the modern world.  Their rush to war and conquest failed, it failed to achieve the restoration of the old Roman Empire, and it also opened the door for new invasions and more enemies that would bring the empire to its knees by the beginning of the ninth century until a recovery was made.  This recovery and longevity of the Byzantine Empire that lasted until the middle fifteenth century, was due to their retooling strategy that embraced pragmatic diplomacy and did not rush to war on false or vain pretexts.[45]  Therefore, the Byzantines serve as a circular lesson—primarily for the United States and American policy shapers.  While it would be anachronistic to call Justinian and his cohort neoconservatives, there is a strong connection between viewing Justinian in the context of modern neoconservative thought and policy making at the beginning of the twenty-first century.[46]  The failures of Justinian prompted the reformed “grand strategy” that Luttwak and others emphasize, in-of-itself, an enduring testament to the ability of the Byzantines to realize the faults with prior policy and thinking and reshape it to serve their best interests within the realm of their capabilities.  After all, following the failures of Justinian’s egomaniacal ambitions that launched Byzantium into more than two decades of constant warfare ending with superficial success and almost immediately after his death—began a period of two centuries of decline before the Macedonian Renaissance and Revival—the Byzantine Empire became the most diplomatically powerful entity in the medieval world and procured, to many, its continued survival until the mid-fifteenth century.


[1] O’Donnell, ix.

[2] Ibid., 394.

[3] See Michael Antonucci, “War by Other Means: The Legacy of Byzantium,” History Today 43, no. 2 (1993).  Antonucci’s article, published in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Cold War, makes the arguments that the United States can learn from the ‘legacy of Byzantium’ with regards to foreign policy in the new global world order.

[4] The quote is taken from Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

[5] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome (Oxford University Press, 2014), 153.

[6] O’Donnell, ix.

[7] Peter Heather, Empires and Barbarians (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 241.  Heather states that in the wars over Italy, nearly all the Goths of high class and privilege were killed in Dalmatia, an enduring testament to the brutality of the conflict.

[8] Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 202.

[9] Ibid., 203.

[10] Ibid., 204.

[11] O’Donnell, 268-269.

[12] Ibid., 359.

[13] Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 200.

[14] Procopius, The Secret History (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).  The near universal view of historians is that Procopius identified Justinian and his reign as being demonic and very much anti-Christian.  As a primary source writing in the time of Justinian, it is almost certainly the case that the wars Justinian unleashed, the death, destruction, and blowback that followed, influenced his view of the emperor.

[15] O’Donnell, 300.

[16] Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2009), 6.

[17] Ibid., 415.

[18] Ishmael Jones, “What the Byzantines Can Teach Us about Our National Security,” American Thinker, 6 March 2010.  Accessed, 19 August 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Luttwak, 416-418.

[21] Ibid., 416.

[22] Robert Kaplan, “Syria and the Byzantine Strategy,” Forbes, 5 September 2013.  Originally Accessed 5 September 2013, re-accessed 18 August 2014. 

[23] Ibid.

[24] Luttwak, 416.

[25] O’Donnell, 289.

[26] Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 200-204.

[27] Ibid., 202; O’Donnell, 289.

[28] Luttwak, 49-94.

[29] Luttwak, “Take Me Back to Constantinople: How Byzantium, Not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana.”  Foreign Policy, 19 October 2009.  Accessed, 19 August 2014.

[30] Brownworth, 267-270.

[31] Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 330.

[32] Oman, 303, 313-314.

[33] Kristian Gustafson, Intelligence Elsewhere.  Eds. Philip Davies and Kristian Gustafson (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 67-88.

[34] Ibid, 79.

[35] Luttwak, 416.

[36] Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 159-160.

[37] Luttwak, 417.

[38] Averil Cameron, The Byzantines (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 12.

[39] Herodotus, The Histories (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 1.0

[40] Luttwak, 13.

[41] Eric Ormsby, “Words and Swords,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 November 2009.  Accessed, 21 August 2014

[42] Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 186-199.

[43] Luttwak, 409-417.

[44] Cameron, The Byzantines, 37.

[45] The general belief for Justinian’s wars waged in the West was the result of a dream in which he felt compelled, for various reasons, to launch an offensive war to reclaim North Africa and Italy.

[46] Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 154.

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