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Now Reading Luttwak

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak

Just starting reading this magnum opus by eminent strategist Edward Luttwak and I am thoroughly enjoying it; particularly, the context-building historical digressions that enrich the text.  Highly recommended.

9 Responses to “Now Reading Luttwak”

  1. T. Greer Says:

    Have not read the book, but came across two reviews a few months ago that made me wonder if I should bother:


    Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire — Book Review Richard Tada.  Arm Chair General. 12 August 2010.

    Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire — Book Review Anthony Kadellis. Bryan Mawr Classical Review. 27 January 2010.

    I am no expert on the Byzantine Empire, but I have read a few books on their main rivals – the Turks. Among these scholars there seems to be a consensus that the Byzantine’s poor military performance against the Turks can be attributed to the collapse of the theme administrative system in the 12th century. IMHO, that Mr. Luttawak devotes but a single sentence to the themes puts his entire case to question.  


    In any case, I would advise reading a few other books on the Byzantines in order to formed an informed assessment of Mr. Luttwak’s arguments.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi T. Greer,
    I too am not a Byzantinophile. I’ve read some Norwich and on the Turks, Kinross and Grousset. That’s about it, except when the Byzantines appear in histories of early Russia or the medieval West ( and I am far more well read about the former than the latter).  Economic and social foundations that undergird military power are vital so that criticism of Luttwak is important; Also important is a shared identity and the Byzantines were riven with bitter religious disputes about their Orthodox identity, Iconoclasm and the Great Schism being the most destructive phases.
    Not far along enough to say why Luttwak takes the approach your reviews indicate, other than he is a strategist with a different professional perspective than a Byzantine specialist and that the rump empire circa 1180-1400 + was not the Byzantine empire of Justinian, or even much of an empire, except in terms of memory.

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    I saw at least one of those reviews.  Historians will never like what strategists do with the historical lumber that they pile up with so much effort.  Luttwak is examining the Byzantine record to derive lessons and to make a polemical points about strategy today.   Any professional historian of Byzantium is going to find nothing but defects, and cringe at seeing his life’s work ransacked and roughly handled in this way, and many historians want to deny that their work can be "used" at all.  But some people are consumers and users of history and others are producers of history, and whatever the current dogmatism may be, the only thing we can use to guide is today and tomorrow is the recorded events of yesterday.  We have no guide other than history and its lessons, however inchoate or arguable both the facts and the lessons may be.   The historical material is useable only if people who are not professional historians can derive lessons from it and expound those lessons, and argue about those lessons and refine them.  If the historical defects in Luttwak’s book invalidate the lessons he derives, that is one thing.  But I did not see the reviews clearly saying that.  They said, in effect, a professional historian would included many other important facts, and would have written a different book.  Maybe so.  But that does not really tell us whether Luttwak’s book has any value.  It has to stand on its own, unless the purported defects can be shown to invalidate his conclusions.  

  4. Joseph Fouche Says:

    (Note: I have not read Luttwak’s book). It’s something of a cliche among historians of Byzantium that the decline of the theme system was the key to the eventual destruction of the empire. Specifically, the theme system provided a class of self-sustaining military units based on hereditary holders of small farms. It was the cannibalization of these small landholdings by the late Byzantine aristocracy in order to form large latifundia worked by sharecroppers that fatally hollowed out the Byzantine military and destroyed the resiliency of the empire. Following that logic and applying it to contemporary American strategy, ignoring the collapse of the themes is the equivalent of ignoring the implosion of the American middle class when forming strategy. That’s a large stumbling block. The polemicist is allowed some freedom in interpreting history but this may be the Byzantine equivalent of Victor David Hanson’s eternal Western Way of War, a phantom in search of reality.

  5. J. Scott Says:

    I read this book over the summer. If memory serves this is only second book on Byzantium that I’ve read. The early portions are much better, IMHO than the second half. When Luttwak describes Byzantium’s experiences with the Islamic world of their day, I saw the parallels to today. In addition, Luttwak manages to insert snippets of humor into an otherwise potentially humorless topic. Look forward to you review, Zen.

  6. T. Greer Says:

    Joseph Fouche hits the nail on the head. More than once I have thought that Constantinople’s wholesale destruction of the theme system for the sake of personal profit and elite infighting provides an eery parallel to the state of America’s republic today. It is astonishing to me that Luttwak can gloss over it and yet spend time arguing over the terribleness of Attila the Hun or the composition of Greek fire. 


    Of course, it could just be that Luttwak is rather more comfortable and familiar with the histiography of the early empire – in many ways Belisarius had more in common with the Romans of a century earlier than with his fellow Byzantines living a century hence. I would still advise checking Mr. Luttwak’s work against that of a few others. Don’t know how deep you want to go here (or perhaps more accurately, how much time you have), but for those interested in the subject these books might be worth checking out:


    John Haldon’s Byzantine Wars (240 pgs), Warren Treadgold’s  A Concise History of Byzantium (280 pg), Mark Whittow’s The Making of Byzantium, 400-1075 (480 pg), and George Ostrogorsky’s A History of the Byzantine State (736 pg).


    In addition, there are a great number of Byzantine historians and strategists for those who like to delve straight into primary sources.  

  7. Fred Leland Says:

    I am a novice in all realms but i loved the whole book and Luttwaks approach to the topic. He does come at it from the strategic side (as the title stresses)  and realtes a lot as Scott mentioned, to present day.  I especially liked Part Three titlled The Byzantine Art of War, which includes the Classical Approach, The Strategikon of Maurikios, in which he breaks done tactics and a great section on attrition and manuever; "For the strong, who can win by outmatching the enemy in straight forard force on force combat, tactics can remain simple procedures to convey troops and their weapons against the enemy. the resulting "attrition", an almost mechanical process, has to be paid for in casualties, when still a commercial nation, the English called it the "butcher’s bill" but it can reliably grind down the enemy, avoiding all the risks of more ingenious and complicated manuevers…"

    In the strategikon the author  sumerises the tactical arguement for avoiding attrition whenever possible.

    "Warfare is like hunting. Wild animals are taken by scuting, by nets, by lying in wait, by stalking, by circling around, and by other such strategems rather than by sheer force. In waging war we should proceed in the same way, whethe rthe enemy be many or few. To try to simly overpower the enemy in the open, hand in hand and face to face, even though you may appear to win, is an enterpirse which is very risky and can result in serious ham. Apart for  extreme emergency, it is ridculous to try to gain a victory which isso costly and brings only empty glory."

    Luttwak balances out the Byzantine overall Grand Strategy of persausion and then force very gracefully, in my humble view. My understanding is he researched this book for over 25 years, which shows me he has passion for the topic, which shows in his writing throughout the book!  Zen i think you will enjoy the book, i look forward to your review.  Enjoy!

  8. Sauro Says:

    T Greer,Luttwak states very clearly that he considers the Byzantine Empire to have basically ended with the Crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople. That was long before the Turks became the main menace to Byz. So while your criticism (the theme point) might be correct historically, it doesn’t seem to fit with the limits and definitions the author himself drew. Considering the extensive 25-year research Luttwak put into this book, it’s hardly likely that he would shy away from or simply "omit" such an important point if it was part of the time-period he was referring to. 

  9. T. Greer Says:

    @Sauro, I refer not to the Ottomans (who ended up destroying the empire during the 1400s), but to the Seljuks, whose apogee was in the 1000s-11000s.  The Battle of Manzikert, lost by the Byzantines to the the Seljuks, is generally considered the pivotal point of the Byzantine Empire’s decline. It happened in 1071 – nearly 150 years before the Crusaders laid seige to Constantinople.

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