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A fascinating overview of the history and qualities of the armed forces of the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantium falls, for me, into that category of long-past civilizations which, when I read about them, gives me a strong impression of… “modernity” is the closest word I can find, but of course it’s exactly the wrong word—because what you see, when you learn of how the Empire was run, its practices, etc., is that many of the things which we intuitively see as “modern”, and which is almost always conspicuously absent from fictional portrayals of societies even several centuries old, are in fact not new, not 20th- or even 19th-century innovations, but were well-known, and effectively practiced, many centuries ago.

This part at the end is worth quoting at length:

The note of the Byzantine army was efficiency, and nowhere is the immeasurable superiority of the civilization of the Eastern Empire to the contemporary states of Europe more apparent. The theory of military science was always studied and taught; constant practice, interpreting and correcting theories, safeguarded it against pedantry; and a class of magnificent staff officers were trained, who in the 10th century were the terror of the enemy. The particular tactics of the various foes whom they had to face were critically studied.

A series of military text-books, from the time of Anastasius I to that of Basil II, explain their principles and methods. In this army there was plenty of courage, and distinct professional pride, but no love of fighting for fighting’s sake, nor the spirit which in western Europe developed into chivalry. The Byzantines despised such ideas as characteristic of barbarians who had physical strength and no brains. The object of a good general, as Leo VI shows in his important treatise on Tactics, was in their opinion not to win a great battle, but to attain success without the risks and losses of a great battle. The same author criticizes the military character of the Franks. Paying a tribute to their fearlessness, he points out their want of discipline, the haphazard nature of their array and order of battle, their eagerness to attack before the word was given, their want of faculty for strategy or tactical combinations, their incapacity for operations on difficult ground, the ease with which they could be deceived by simple artifices, their carelessness in pitching camps, and their lack of a proper intelligence department.

These criticisms, borne out by all that is known of feudal warfare, illustrate the contrast between a western host, with its three great “battles,” rushing headlong at the foe, and the Byzantine army, with its large number of small units, co-operating in perfect harmony, under a commander who had been trained in military science, had a definite plan in his head, and could rely on all his subordinates for strict and intelligent obedience.

[Note: I’ve corrected some typos in the quoted text.]

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