The past and future of De Velitatione Bellica and Byzantine Guerrilla Warfare
By Lucas McMahon
Master’s Thesis, Central European University, 2015
Abstract: Traditionally, Byzantium is said to have adopted a guerrilla strategy along its eastern frontier after the seventh century as a means of dealing with the superior forces of the Muslims. A tenth-century military manual attributed to the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963 – 969) known as De Velitatione Bellica describes warfare in this manner, emphasizing tactics that minimize risk such as ambushes and indirect engagement.
In its preface, the manual claims that since the danger of the Muslims has receded, the sort of tactics described within are no longer necessary but are nonetheless being recorded for posterity. This study examines this claim by looking at De Velitatione’s past and future by examining what evidence exists for the Byzantine- Muslim warfare taking place as the manual describes, and whether the text might have had any influence later. This is done through case studies of the eighth and eleventh centuries, which suggests that the tactics described in the manual have a long history in the Byzantine world and remained in use well after the manual claimed that they were antiquated.
Introduction: By the death of the emperor Herakleios in A.D. 641, the armies of Islam had deprived the eastern Roman Empire of its easternmost provinces, forever changing its capacity to wage war. A paucity of Greek sources and scattered and difficult eastern materials have led scholars to a tenth-century Byzantine military manual known by the modern Latin title De Velitatione Bellica. This manual contains a great deal of seemingly plausible advice on how to engage in low-intensity warfare along the Byzantine-Islamic frontier across the Tauros and Anti-Tauros Mountains.
Top Image: Capture of Aleppo by the Byzantines under Nikephoros Phokas in 962 – from the Madrid Skylitzes