Heraclius and the Evolution of Byzantine Strategy
By Bob Ekkebus
Constructing the Past, Vol.10:1 (2009)
Abstract: The Byzantine military strategy expressed in the 10th century treatise On Skirmishing marked a decisive shift in Byzantine strategy and an entirely new mindset in approaching war. What is unique about this strategy is that it was not created during a war against the Arabs, but before they existed as a military power. The foundation was laid during the Emperor Heraclius’s Persian campaigns of 622-628. To demonstrate the key contributions of Heraclius, these Persian campaigns shall be analyzed and compared with the advice prescribed in On Skirmishing. Also, the military events recorded by Theophanes of the 7th and 8th centuries will be compared with Heraclius and On Skirmishing to show the development of the strategy after Heraclius and how it measured up to the final form in On Skirmishing.
Introduction: While much of the continual successes of the Byzantines in the 9th and 10th centuries after the colossal failures in the 7th and 8th centuries can be and has been attributed to the Theme system and the overall decline of the Caliphate, the untold story of success lies in the evolution and perfection of a standard doctrine of military strategy uniquely adapted to border warfare. This strategical doctrine, enclosed in a treatise called On Skirmishing, was written during the reign of Nicephorus II Phocas (963-969). It is, in the words of the author, “Our part by writing down these things just as our predecessors handed them on to us, as well as from our own experience which goes back a long time.” It is selfevident that On Skirmishing is the enclosure of the knowledge of Byzantine strategy from a general’s perspective, and the author frequently alludes to the use of this knowledge, in one form or another, in the past.
However, it is also clear that the Byzantines had an overall concept of skirmishing and that the treaty was not just the enclosure of many unrelated strategical concepts together, but rather a unified strategical theory which had been refined over many generations. In essence, one could describe it as the Middle Byzantine Strategy or Art of War. As the author explains, it was only in the 10th century when the strategy was perfected:
To the best of my knowledge, it was Bardas, the blessed Caesar, who brought this method to the summit of perfection. I do not want to enumerate all the ancient commanders but shall limit myself to those in our time whom everyone knows. When this method had completely vanished, it was Bardas who brought it back.
Note how he specifically phrases it as “this method” and that it was “brought to the summit of perfection” and that it was used, at least in some form, by ancient commanders. While the treatise itself may appear as a scattered list of assorted concepts which may or may not directly relate to one another, the Byzantines themselves viewed it as their method of war as a whole. Not a set of concepts, could be brought to perfection. So despite the fact that originally all the Byzantines may have gotten was a long list of various concepts at various points in time, there was a gradual amalgamation and refinement of centuries of knowledge into one final form.