By Georgios Theotokis
‘The Constantinopolitan city … is located amidst very savage nations. Indeed it has to its north the Hungarians, the Pizaceni [Patzinaks], the Khazars, the Russians, whom we call Normans by another name, and the Bulgarians, all very close by; to the east lies Baghdad; between the east and the south the inhabitants of Egypt and Babylonia; to the south there is Africa and that island called Crete, very close to and dangerous for Constantinople. Other nations that are in the same region, that is, the Armenians, Persians, Chaldeans, and Avasgi, serve Constantinople.’ ~ Liutprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, I. 11
In the middle of the tenth century the Italian diplomat Liutprand of Cremona described the position of the empire accurately enough as being surrounded by the fiercest of barbarians. Yet, this is precisely the image of a beleaguered state that the Byzantine self-image wanted to promote – a Christian state fighting the forces of evil.
In this paper I will focus my attention on the tenth century, that has been dubbed as the period of the Byzantine ‘re-conquest’, and I shall attempt to put together a model (or models?) of negotiation and confrontation between Byzantium and its neighbours in three different geo-political theatres: with the Arabs in the East, with the Bulgars in the West, and with the Rus’ and Patzinaks in the North. The theme with which I shall be concerned here is, essentially, that of war and diplomacy and, I will try to figure out the delicate equilibrium between the appetite of the Byzantines for war, and their willingness to negotiate by ‘other means’, i.e diplomacy, or the employment of stratagems, craft, and bribery.
But first let me clarify some key points about the role and use of war in political negotiation. War is a form of political communication and, to quote a couple of – perhaps – the most famous maxims in human history: War as an instrument of politics
‘War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with the admixture of other means … The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.’ [On War, I.22]
‘War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will … To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare.’ [On War, I.2]
Clausewitz, a reader of Aristotle, went no further than to say that man, who is a ‘political animal’, is also a ‘war making animal’. This rational, of course, implies the existence of state entities and interests, and of rational calculation about how these may be achieved – what we could call today, foreign policy or strategy.
Yet, the term strategy (στρατηγεία or στρατηγική) had a different meaning in pre-modern times. According to an anonymous Byzantine treaty of the late 9th century AD: ‘Strategy (στρατηγική) is the means by which a commander may defend his own lands and defeat his enemies.’ And the author goes as far as to differentiate between two kinds of strategy, the defensive by which the general acts to protect his own people and their property, and the offensive by which he retaliates against his opponents.
For the Byzantine emperors and high officials there was no succinct concept of ‘grand strategy’, at least not in a way scholars would have understood it in the twentieth century, but rather a reaction to the socio-political events in the world that surrounded the empire – a sort of ‘crisis management on a grand scale’. Yet we can identify the basic interrelated strategic considerations (or factors) that determined the empire’s strategic thinking and planning:
(1) the position of the empire in the wider geostrategic context of the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Middle East;
(2) the economy and manpower of Byzantium in relation to warfare;
(3) cultural approaches that affected the Byzantines’ attitude towards warfare.
To begin with, the strategic position of the empire in Eurasia played a prominent role in its military organisation and the shaping of its attitude towards its neighbours and warfare in general. In order to understand the Empire’s history and strategic thinking, one must appreciate the geopolitical significance of Asia Minor and, especially, Constantinople to the wider region of the eastern Mediterranean. With its capital situated at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, inevitably, it had to face different enemies in two geographical areas that were culturally and otherwise as far apart as they could be. Yet, the sad reality that the emperors in Constantinople had to face was that the limited resources in money and manpower constituted the waging of war in more than one theatre an almost inconceivable prospect, especially since the maintaining of an active army posed a heavy burden for any pre-industrial economy.
Finally, the Byzantine attitude towards warfare is neatly summed up by Emperor Leo VI’s words in his (c. 900) Taktika:
‘You should not endanger yourself and your army if it is not of utmost need or if you are not to have major gains. Because these people who do this, they greatly resemble those who have been deceived by gold.’
Hence, the Byzantine officers were professionals who saw battle as the chance to achieve their objectives using every means possible, fair or unfair. Undoubtedly influenced to a large extent by Christian ethics and the Roman imperial tradition, the prevailing attitude of the Byzantines, or at least that of the dominant cultural elite, was to praise the use of diplomacy, the paying of subsidies, and the employment of stratagems, craft, wiles, bribery and ‘other means’ to deceive the enemy and bring back the army with as few casualties as possible; a strategy of non-engagement that made perfect sense in military terms.
The many cogs of Byzantine diplomacy would work overtime to prevent any armed conflict between the empire and its neighbours, and historians have identified two basic elements in the conduct of imperial diplomacy: (a) delay in responding to military aggression and negotiation, and (b) careful surveillance of the barbarians and speed in responding to any political changes in their power structures, principles that are, again, summed up in an anonymous 6th century military treatise:
‘Do nothing unless you really have to; but watch the enemy’s moves carefully, so that you can strike effectively if action is unavoidable.’ [On Strategy]
Therefore, wherever possible, the emperors preferred either to avoid war, hoping for plague, starvation or the break up of the enemy host to do the job for them, and/or to negotiate with or pay off the aggressors. When this policy failed, of course, the state would recourse to arms. But even then, these were frequently the arms of ‘friends’ that were meticulously negotiated.
Against the Rus
This is especially obvious on the northern operational theatre, where against the Bulgars or Magyars or the Patzinaks, for example, the state could invoke the threat of other nomads further east, such as the Khazars or Cumans, or of feared peoples such as the Kievan Rus. By a geographical accident, the most advanced nation in Christendom happened to live cheek-by-jowl in the west and north with some exceedingly primitive and savage nations, many of whom were still living nomadic lives, like the aforementioned Patzinaks and Cumans. Hence, the key to understand the different levels of dealing and negotiating with these neighbouring peoples lies: in a map! Because the only formidable barrier between these nations and the empire’s political, social and religious centre -Constantinople- was the River Danube, geography itself dictated the levels of threat posed by different people encroaching on the Bosphorus. Therefore, in the tenth century, Byzantium’s way of assuring a modicum of control over the barbarians to the north of the Danube was a slender combination of the different means of (a) diplomacy (‘soft’ military power), and (b) the building of fortifications.
The Kievan Rus made their first appearance in the Theodosian Walls of the City with a spectacular military siege in 860 that, according to Patriarch Photius [homilies], caused a palpable shock to the people and their leadership. The Rus raiders did not penetrate the walls but ravaged the suburbs, thus opening a long chapter of threats, alliance, more raids, alliance, conversion to Christianity, and outright wars. From then on, the Byzantines feared both the attacks on their capital and the Rus settlement on the Black Sea coast; yet, as long as they could remain behind the Danube, the situation seemed manageable.
In their dealings with the Rus princes, the Byzantines took them very seriously and often treated them with respect and pomp, which – in turn – enhanced the prestige of the Rus princes in the eyes of their aristocrats and subjects. This ‘fear-and-fascination’ feeling was, certainly, mutual, but it seems rather surprising considering the vast distances between where the Rus lived (Ukraine and Belarus) and the Byzantine capital. It was more, as a mentioned earlier, a shock about this sudden appearance outside of the – usually – sparsely defended imperial capital of a people that possessed the basic naval technology to navigate the Russian rivers and the Black Sea.
Nonetheless, it seems that in treating with these newcomers, and in particular in negotiating with their leaders, the Byzantines not only helped to develop in the Russians the concept of nation and to encourage the Rus princes to acquire the rudiments of a more complicated method of rule and legislation, but they also stood to gain a great deal: the Russians were able to supply them with the produce of the northern forests, like furs, wax, honey and – perhaps – timber, but also slaves and elite warriors. In its aftermath, we find treaties being drawn between the emperor Michael III and the Russians in the years 866 and 868, where it is clearly noted down that troops should be sent to the Emperor’s personal service.
Following the second Russian siege of Constantinople in 907, one of the terms of the treaty that was agreed in 911 included the following: “Whenever you [Byzantines] find it necessary to declare war … providing any Rus desirous of honouring your Emperor … they shall be permitted in this respect to act according to their desire”. This Russian-Byzantine treaty of 911 was further developed to a treaty of alliance after the Russian siege of Constantinople in 941, where we read: “And if our [Byzantine] Empire needs military assistance … we shall write to you Great Prince [Igor], and he shall send us as many troops as we require”. Yet, the latter treaty included a term that revealed Byzantium’s concern about Russian encroachment on the Black Sea coast: ‘In the matter of the country of Kherson and all the cities in that region, the Prince of Rus’ shall not have the right to harass these localities, nor shall that district be subject to you.’
Russia’s princes do not seem systematically to have claimed the title or authority of an emperor, and they were therefore less liable to offend Byzantium’s rulers. But to serve Byzantium, an ally had to be both strong enough to be effective against the enemies of the empire, yet not a threat themselves. However, it is well-known how alarmed the Byzantines were by the Rus prince Svyatoslav’s attempts to establish himself south of the Danube, after he was ‘invited’ by the emperor Nicephorus Phocas, in 965, to plunder Bulgaria in order to draw him away from Kherson in the Black Sea coast; the emperor was apparently hoping that the Russians and Bulgarians would exhaust one another, but he did not visualize other consequences.
Russian Primary Chronicle (969):
‘Svyatoslav announced to his mother [Olga] and his boyars, “I do not care to remain in Kiev, but should prefer to live in Pereyaslavets on the Danube, since that is the centre of my realm, where all riches are concentrated; gold, silks, wine, and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia.’
Then there is the specific mechanism of geo-political deterrence, which reflected the very peculiar distribution of power in this case — Kievan Rus’ with their boats could control the Dnieper down to the Black Sea, but not the vast steppe on either side, and the emperors could make use of neighbouring peoples to attack dangerous enemies from ‘behind’:
‘Nor can the Russians come at [Constantinople], either for war or for trade, unless they are at peace with the Pechenegs, because when the Russians come with their [boats] to the barrages of the river [Dnieper] and cannot pass through unless they lift their [boats] off the river and carry them past by portaging them on their shoulders, then . . . the Pechenegs set upon them, and, . . . they are easily routed.’ [De Administrando Imperio, 4, pp. 50–2]
Svyatoslav’s defeat of the Patzinaks at Kiev, in 968, made an imperial military intervention inevitable. Emperor John Tzimiskes’ crushing of Svyatoslav’s army at Paradunavium, in 971, tilted the balance back in favour of the empire: a treaty was then signed; Svyatoslav was to be allowed to depart in peace up the Danube as a friend of the empire. Trade between the two states was to be restored; the Russian prince promised he would not return to Bulgaria again and would leave Kherson in peace. Early in 972, and while Svyatoslav was returning to Kiev, he was killed by a group of Patzinaks – probably – in the service of the emperor.
After the war of 968–71, Emperor Tzimiskes’ strategic goal on the Danube was to restore the solidity of the Danube frontier by – what I mentioned earlier – diplomacy (‘soft’ military power), and the building of fortifications (‘hard’ military power). The main diplomatic action was the alliance with the Patzinaks, even though relations with them would develop in a way different from that that John had envisaged. On the other hand, the building activity along the Danube consisted of the restoration of several old Roman forts and the erection of new ones at strategic points, while around this time the “Mesopotamia of the West” was established as a military-administrative unit in the Lower Danube.
Finally, one of the main reasons why the Byzantines sought to convert the Russians to Christianity was their despair at the Russians’ breach of the treaties: chronicles speak of their disregard for the treaties in the context of 941 and 971, and the Byzantines made sure to insert some special provisions about ‘eternal damnation’ in the treaty of 944 for Russians who were Christians: ‘If any inhabitant of the land of Rus’ thinks to violate this amity, may such of these transgressors as have adopted the Christian faith incur condign punishment from Almighty God in the shape of damnation and destruction forevermore.’ [RPC, s.a 945] The uniquely menacing threat of the Rus will recede with Vladimir Svyatoslavich’s conversion to Christianity in 988.
Byzantine dealings with the Rus princes were certainly complicated but entailed no existential threat to the empire. That was also true of the Muslim Arabs after the failure of their second siege of Constantinople in 718, in spite of periodic scares as in 824, when Arabs in flight from Umayyad Spain conquered Crete, or the Emperor Theophilus’ defeat by the Abbasids at the Battle of Dazimon in western Anatolia, in 838.
Bulgaria was different. Because it was so close to Constantinople, its power was a deadly threat whenever crisis on another front denuded the empire’s manpower and resources. The very existence of a Bulgarian state south of the Danube River was necessarily a threat to the survival of the empire, regardless of its strength or weakness. For across the Danube there was the vastness of the Eurasian steppe, from which several nomadic people had, and would, arrive, potentially turning Bulgaria into a ‘gateway’ into southern Balkans. The Bulgarians could never have been a reliable ally of the Byzantines, axiomatically: if they were strong enough to defend the Danube frontier themselves, they would necessarily be a threat to Constantinople as well; if they were too weak, not only they, but Constantinople would be in danger. Only a Bulgaria both strong and slavishly obedient could have been a desirable neighbour for Byzantium, but that improbable coincidence would only occur briefly in times of transition.
So in 965, when Bulgarian envoys appeared at the court of Nicephorus Phocas to collect the annual tribute owed by the Byzantines according to the terms of the peace treaty with Tsar Peter I, agreed in 927, Nicephorus flew into a rage that the “lowly” Bulgars would dare ask for tribute. It is clear, therefore, that warfare was not necessarily conducted with a purely material advantage in mind, since ideological superiority played an important role in Byzantine political ideology; Nicephorus, thus replied to the Bulgarian envoys:
‘”It would be a dreadful fate now to befall the Romans, who destroy their every foe with armed force, if they would have to pay tribute like captives to the particularly wretched and abominable Scythian people!” Turning to his father Bardas (who happened to be sitting beside him, having been proclaimed Caesar), he asked him in perplexity what was the reason for the exaction of tribute that the Mysians were demanding from the Romans: “Did you unawares beget me as a slave? Shall I, the revered emperor of the Romans, be reduced to paying tribute to a most wretched and abominable people?” Therefore he ordered that the ambassadors be immediately slapped in the face, and said, “Go tell your leather-gnawing ruler who is clad in a leather jerkin that the most mighty and great emperor of the Romans is coming immediately to your land, to pay you the tribute in full, so that you may learn, Ο you who are thrice a slave through your ancestry, to proclaim the rulers of the Romans as your masters, and not to demand tribute of them as if they were slaves.” [Leo the Deacon, History, Book IV]
The third quarter of the 10th century was a period of extraordinary Byzantine military success against the Arabs in the east, and Nicephorus could be excused for acting in the manner he did against the Bulgarian envoys. But since the humiliating recognition of Khan Asparuch’s first Bulgar State in the Paradunavium, following the disastrous battle of Ongal in 680, the policy of a succession of emperors towards the Bulgars suggests that warfare on this front was never more than a holding action, broken only by occasional periods of peace. John Haldon believes that the imperial government had been thoroughly resigned to the existence of the Bulgar state, especially following the Byzantine devastating defeat at Pliska in 811, and the effort to convert the khan and his court in the 9th century was as much a response to the need to find alternative ways of taming a potentially dangerous neighbour by utilize the church for its own political ends, especially against the growing influence of Rome in the area. Yet, this effort entailed another danger: after Khan Boris’ conversion in 865, every tsar could dream of becoming emperor of all Christians, once they were recognized as emperors in the first place.
It would be Symeon who would aspire to this title. He was the second son of Boris, sent to Constantinople at the age of 13 and spending almost a decade there studying between 878-888. What would be unique in Symeon’s case is that he was not seeking plunder, he wanted nothing less than the crown. On top of that, it was once confidently asserted that for Symeon even crown and title were not enough, that his higher ambition was to be enthroned as the emperor of Byzantium and Bulgaria, in Constantinople. That has now been disputed. Symeon would, more likely, have wanted three things from Byzantium: trade, tribute, and recognition of his imperial title. He arrived with his army outside the capital, in 913, and began negotiating via envoys with the regent to the underage emperor Constantine VII, the patriarch Nicholas Mysticus, and in the famous meeting between the two outside the Theodosian Walls, the patriarch performed a ceremony involving a crown and a public acclamation, and arranged for the emperor Constantine to marry Symeon’s daughter.
Thereafter, Symeon began to use the title ‘basileus [of the Bulgarians]’. This transition is apparent in the changing official seals used by Symeon; according to finds in Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) in Northeast Bulgaria, Symeon had two different types of seals corresponding to the two different periods of his reign – before and after the Battle of Anchialos, in 917 AD, in which his forces wiped out almost an entire Byzantine army of some 62,000 troops: the first type of seals date from between 893 and 917 AD, when he signed as “archon” of the Bulgarians, while the second type date from between 917 and his death in 927, when he signed as “basileus (i.e. Emperor) of Bulgarians and Romans”. The Book of Ceremonies also records the transition from “the God-appointed archon [prince] of Bulgaria” to the later protocol, confirmed during the reign of Symeon’s successor, Peter:
“Constantine and Romanos, pious Autocrats, Emperors of the Romans in Christ who is God, to our desired spiritual son, the lord . . . [Name] Basileus [= emperor] of Bulgaria.” [The Book of Ceremonies, Book II, Chapter 47].
Following the death of Symeon, in 927, the status quo that would prevail between Byzantium and Bulgaria in the period 927 and 959 was based on a mutual desire to ensure continued stability, and to eliminate the nomad threat of the Patzinaks and Magyars to both empires. The arrangement was underpinned by the marriage alliance of 927 between tsar Peter and Maria Lekapena, where the emperor undertook to recognize the tsar’s imperial status, and to continue annual tribute payments. In return the tsar promised to defend the Byzantine empire’s Balkan lands. Thus Peter succeeded in obtaining immediately all of Symeon’s goals.
Therefore, to appreciate Nicephorus’ maltreatment of the Bulgarian envoys in 965, we need to understand that the Byzantine emperor had subtly altered his attitude to the Bulgarian tsar, after he was raised to the throne in 963. During this period he significantly improved his contacts with the various peoples settled beyond Bulgaria: a series of arrangements were made with Magyar chieftains to reduce their raids [raids in 934, 943, 959]; trade was encouraged beyond the Danube to ensure socio-economic stability; new contacts with the Rus of Kiev sought to exploit their greed for precious goods and metals. It is therefore explicable that soon after his accession, the militant emperor Nicephorus Phocas decided that he was in a position to re-negotiate the 927 peace arrangement with Tsar Peter. However, his commitment to the war against the Arabs in the East precluded a direct military intervention, hence the involvement of the leader of the Rus of Kiev – as I mentioned earlier – that had disastrous consequences.
The reversal in Byzantine fortunes in 969 was astonishing. The dire situation south of the Danube had to be resolved by force of arms, and the conquest of Antioch in 969, coupled with John Tzimiskes’ murder of Nicephorus, dramatically changed the political situation in the region within two years. John’s swift and sweeping military successes against the Rus and the conquest of Bulgaria became central to the legitimation of his authority, which culminated in the ritual humiliation of tsar Boris II in Constantinople, where his authority and the symbols of it were absorbed within the imperial hierarchy, and the independent realm of Bulgaria was absorbed into the Byzantine oikoumene. Yet, the – so-called – ‘revolt of the Cometopouloi’ that broke out in western Bulgaria shortly after John’s death, in January 976, confirms Byzantium’s geo-strategic concern about this troublesome neighbour.
Because of the civil war that ensued in the empire for more than a decade after 976, coupled with a series of military defeats inflicted by the new Bulgarian ruler Samuel, emperor Basil resorted to the familiar diplomatic tactics that had served the empire well in the past: he negotiated an alliance with the Rus prince Vladimir. Thus, to secure the return of – the recently captured – Black Sea town of Kherson, and a detachment of Russian warriors, Basil was obliged to offer the greatest prize at his disposal: his sister, the porphyrogenite, in marriage to Vladimir. But it would only take the agreement of an alliance with the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, in 1001, to free Basil to turn west against the Bulgars, in a prolonged, systematic and bloody recovery of strongholds and territory that would last for another 15 years.
Against the Arabs
When we study Byzantium’s strategic aims and military thinking in the eastern theatre of operations in the 10th century, we have to include: (a) the Byzantine concept of restauratio imperii, or the recovery of former imperial lands, and (b) the ideologically charged war against the Muslim Arabs. Dealing with a neighbouring empire whose faith committed her to ‘Holy War’ against Byzantium were bound to differ greatly from those with more or less impoverished barbarians from the steppes. Likewise, the Muslims were less likely to be seduced by the charms of Byzantium’s diplomatic devices (the ‘soft diplomacy’ mentioned earlier); they were, at least, their equals or even superiors in wealth, literacy and culture and were, therefore, less likely to be bedazzled by them with bribes, gifts or marriage alliances.
When it came to the diplomatic relations with the Muslim caliphates, a state of war was considered to be the norm between the two powers and peace was very much an exception, although occasionally a truce was agreed. The main concerns on both sides being the exchange of prisoners and the declaration of – or the threat of declaring – war rather than any major invasion. Therefore, according to Hugh Kennedy, diplomatic contacts between Byzantium and the Caliphates were, most of the time, irregular and unsophisticated, while the diplomacy was essentially reactive and prophylactic, in a sense that it simply reacted to changing political events rather than attempt to initiate them, and it was designed to thwart immediate attacks rather than lay the foundations for a long-term expansion.
There are brief records of embassies between Constantinople and Baghdad in 924, 927-8, 937-8 and finally in 942-3. Diplomatic contacts cease thereafter, because the Caliphs were now completely powerless and not worth doing business with. After 945, power in Baghdad and southern Iraq was effectively in the hands of a family of Persian military adventurers, the Buyids, who regarded the Byzantine frontier as an irrelevance. Yet, paradoxically, the Byzantine government’s diplomatic and military focus in the first half of the 10th century was not in Syria but, rather, in Armenia. Empress Zoe’s government initiated a series of campaigns led by John Curcuas in Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia in the 920s-40s, a policy which, however, did not include a conscious and long-term ambition of territorial expansion:
“If these three cities, Khliat and Arzes and Perkri, are in the possession of the Emperor, a Persian [Arab] army cannot come out against Romania, because they are between Romania and Armenia, and serve as a barrier and as military halts for armies.” (De Administrando Imperio, 44. 125-28)
This is, perhaps, one of the most significant statements for the strategic aims of the Byzantine governments in the tenth century, written between the years 948-52. It highlights not just the strategic importance of Armenia to the eastern frontiers of the Empire, but also the strategic importance of the fortress-towns around Lake Van and the Diyar-Bakr as “buffer-zones” between Armenia and the Caliphate. Chapters 43-46 of the De Administrando Imperio present a detailed account of the kastra and the local family connections in the principalities of Armenia proper, demonstrating Constantine VII’s special interest in the internal politics and family connections of the Armenian naxarars.
But if Armenia was strategically far more important to the Byzantine government than Cilicia and Syria, then how can we explain the paradox of the extensive territorial gains on the other side of the Empire’s eastern frontiers – in Cilicia – in the third quarter of the 10th century, and the massive mobilisation of manpower for a war that lasted for decades? It all comes down to the personal and, as these were inter-connected, political image of the Byzantine Emperor as a sovereign chosen by God to protect His people. In the opening years of his rule as sole Emperor, Constantine staked his prestige on recovering Crete, thus putting himself in the tradition of his father’s policy to recapture the island. But as the Cretan campaign of 949 was to end in a disaster, it would be humiliating and politically damaging for the Emperor’s prestige and it would make a great impression on the nobility and the people of the capital.
This situation was followed in the 950s by an equally disastrous period of incessant raids conducted by the emerging emir of Aleppo Sayf-ad-Dawla, which would result in some of the most spectacular and humiliating defeats of Byzantine arms for many decades. But since the Byzantine strategy of the period was clearly defensive, and did not involve any kind of territorial expansion, then – to return to my question – how can we explain the extensive gains of territory in Cilicia and Syria in the following decades? The answer lies in the propaganda war against an emerging enemy of the Empire in the East, “the Sword of the Dynasty” Sayf-ad-Dawla!
As warfare was seen primarily as a matter of subjecting or sacking cities, and breaking the power of troublesome border emirs rather than any territorial expansion per se, we read in the imperial military oration that was read out – probably in late 950 – to the soldiers returning from the eastern campaign of that year.
“With confidence in this hope [in Christ], and after entrusting your souls to it, you have set up such trophies as these against the enemy, you have striven for such victories as these, which have reached every corner of the world, and have made you famous not only in your native lands but also in every city. Now your wondrous deeds are on every tongue, and every ear is roused to hear them.”
Between the composition of the aforementioned oration in 950 and the famous battle of the Hadath in October 954, Constantine attempted to make overtures to Sayf. These were defiantly rebuffed by the Emir and, instead, they were used by the Court poet Mutanabbi to enhance his patron’s stance in the Muslim world as champion of the jihad:
Extracts from: Panegyric to Saif al-Daula, commemorating the building of Marash (952 AD)
24. So on one day with horsemen you drive the Byzantines from them, and on another day with bounty you drive away poverty and dearth.
25. Your expeditions are continuous, and the Domesticus in flight, his companions slain and his properties plundered;
26. “You stood [your ground] when death was not in doubt for anyone who did so”
30. but he turned his back, when the thrusting waxed furious – when his soul remembered the sharpness, he felt his flank,
31. And he abandoned the virgins, the patriarchs and the townships, the dishevelled Christians, the courtiers, and the crosses.
34. “Dare he [Domesticus] always attack you when his neck was always reproaching his face?”
Mutanabbi’s poetry also does not involve any notion of territorial expansion. The main objective of the Emir is the defeat and humiliation of his enemies. It is from this period of the middle of the 950s (possibly in 955) that we can remark the beginning of a new policy of Constantine VII to “raise the stakes” in his conflict with Sayf-ad-Dawla: (a) The proliferation of military treatises, (b) the dismissal of the ageing Domestic of the Scholai Bardas Phocas in 955, and (c) the ritual humiliation of Sayf-ad-Dawla’s cousin, Abu’l Asair, in 956 and the revival of the calcatio, a Roman ritual not used since 823, which involved the ritual trampling of the enemy leader in the hippodrome. This was a war of propaganda which, by the end of the 950s, had already escalated into an “all-out” conflict between the Emperor and the Aleppan Emir where no one could (politically) afford to succumb.
Strategy and Byzantium
The foreign policies formulated by successive governments in Constantinople, which were based on the extensive use of non-bellicose means before resorting to conflict, were a product of what we may call ‘political pragmatism’ in the medieval Roman Empire. In short, any means that guaranteed the empire’s status quo – including diplomacy, bribery, trickery and ‘other means’– was preferable and, in a cold calculating way, cheaper and less risky than military action.
War, then, should be understood as the penultimate means of political negotiation, a true political instrument and, in a very Clausewitzian manner, a continuation of political intercourse. Therefore, the empire’s defensive strategic thinking should not be overshadowed by expansionist wars, such as the ones conducted in the 10th century, that were the result of an unexpectedly favourable strategic situation, which proves that the imperial governments were capable of understanding when the equilibrium of power favoured the conduct of war in a specific operational theatre.
Finally, the basic considerations that shaped the empire’s strategic thinking and planning (or ‘reacting’) in the tenth century included the capital’s geopolitical location in the confluence of two continents; the state’s reliance on agriculture and the economy’s reaction to warfare; and the Byzantines’ cultural approaches to warfare. All three were interrelated and helped define and develop a sort of strategic thinking for the empire that raised awareness over material considerations and the state’s limited ability to face enemies in different operational theatres at the same time.
The Muslims in the East always took precedence in the state’s strategic priorities, in an apparent war of propaganda that involved grandiose claims of impending recovery of the Christian Holy Places or destruction of Islamic cult centres. Fighting the barbarians in the Balkans and north of the Danube was regarded as much less prestigious and glorious than combating the religious foe in the east; it was, however, a matter of life and death the closer an enemy got to the capital, and Byzantium’s way of assuring a modicum of control over the barbarians in the Balkans and to the north of the Danube was a slender combination of the different means of diplomacy (‘soft’ military power), and ruthless military force when things were getting out of hand.
Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and early Modern periods. His latest book is Twenty Battles That Shaped Medieval Europe. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis.