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The Art of War from Ancient to Medieval: The Role of Byzantine Military Manuals

By Georgios Theotokis

The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote military treatises dating back at least 2400 years. The Early Middle Ages saw a revival of these works in the Byzantine Empire. One question historians have been asking is how much of these Byzantine manuals are imitations of their ancient predecessors, and how much do they reflect the strategic thinking of their own period?

Military manuals – known as Strategika or Taktika – date back from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, are perhaps the greatest primary source a military historian of the period can have, as they contain centuries of knowledge in military affairs and advices that vary considerably from battlefield formations and tactics to stratagems applied by famous personalities of the past like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. They are a specific category of literary works that began to appear in Ancient Greece around the end of 5th century BC under the influence of the sophists and Socrates and carried on well into the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The first of the Taktika dates back to 357 BC and was written by a certain Aeneas, also known as Taktikos, an experienced soldier in operational theatres in Peloponnesus and Asia Minor who wrote – among other works of military nature now lost – the Περί του πως χρη πολιορκουμένους αντεχείν (On the defence of walled cities). Asclepiodotus’ Τέχνη Τακτική is also one of the earliest works on military matters, written in the 1st century BC; however, much better known to the Byzantines was the Στρατηγικός (General) of Onasander, a platonic philosopher writing around 59 AD, whose work examines the several duties and responsibilities of a general. His work greatly influenced the Byzantine authors of Strategika and, especially, the Emperor Leo VI (c. 900). An author who exercised great influence on the future generations of military writers was Aelian, a Greek living in Rome in the early 2nd century AD who based his Tactical Theory on the art of war developed in the Hellenistic period, having the Macedonian phalanx as his model.

Another Greek living in Rome in the 2nd century AD was Polyaenus, and whose Στρατηγήματα is a collection of 900 stratagems of famous people like Pericles and Leonidas – an invaluable primary source as a great part of the information we get from it is unique. There are only two such works that have been saved in Latin, written some three centuries apart. First, we have Sextus Julius Frontinus’ Strategemata, another collection of stratagems from the Ancient Greek and Roman period compiled by an experienced officer and civil servant of the Roman State between 84-96 AD. The other is Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’ Epitoma Rei Militaris, dated between 383-450 AD.

Byzantine manuals were first produced in the sixth century, with the most well-known being the Strategikon attributed to Emperor Maurice (582-602), a work compiled early in the 7th century that dealt with the operational matters of the Roman Army. The Strategikon not only uses elements from previous works but it contains some original and up-to-date material – mostly regarding the enemies of the Empire. These works greatly proliferate in the tenth century, when the Byzantines embarked on their conquests in the East and the Balkans, with the “mass production” of at least six major works of this kind, like Nicephoros Phocas’ Praecepta Militaria (c. 969).

The works of military men

To go back to the definition of the term Taktika: “Strategika or Taktika are a specific category of literary works that contained constitutions and treatises of military nature which have been compiled by the author (a) through personal experience and/or (b) through oral tradition and other literary works of the past.”

I have pointed out the fact that a great number of these authors had served as army officers at some point in their lives; indeed, Aeneas Tacticus had seen action in Peloponnesus and in Asia Minor in the mid-4th century BC, Frontinus was the military commander of Roman Britain between 74-78 AD with military experience in south Wales while the author of the Strategikon can probably be identified with Philippicos, the general (magister) of the Imperial Forces in the East (late 6th century). However, although many of these works contain a great number of original and innovative ideas, indeed none of these authors was as a great military tactician as the personalities whose exploits they examine in their works, like Pericles, Alexander the Great, Scipio or Julius Caesar.

The value of these works lies in the fact that they are a great source material for the military knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, which their authors have gathered, organised and enriched through the centuries, thus transmitting it to the future generations of army officers and civil servants. Indeed, I have already mentioned the tradition of codifying the military traditions and knowledge that the Byzantines had inherited from Greece and Rome along with their authority in military matters, which they revered. Nevertheless, what, exactly, were the written sources of our authors and what similarities we can detect in the contents of the Taktika throughout the centuries?

Th beginning of De Re Militari by Vegetius in a 12th century manuscript – British LIbrary MS Harley MS 3859 fol. 1r

Ancient Influencers

If we take as a starting point the first – chronologically – of our military works: Aeneas Tacticus seems to have been drawing extensively from both his experience as a general and the oral tradition that had survived to his time, making occasional use of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and – one of the greatest Athenian generals of the early 4th century BC – Iphicrates. The fact that Aeneas’ work was highly regarded in Antiquity is shown by the fact that early in the next century Cineas, a Thessalian and a close associate of another brilliant general and tactician, king Pyrrhus of Epirus, compiled an epitome of them, undoubtedly with the suggestion of the latter.

In the second half of the 3rd century BC the fifth book of Philo the Mechanicus on the attack and defence of fortifications makes use of Aeneas’ work, while Polybius (200-118 BC) also identifies a certain Aeneas “ο τα περί των στρατηγικών υπομνήματα συντεταγμένος”, in his passage regarding signal fires. Thus, the historical connection between the On Defence and the authors of the 1st and 2nd century AD can be built through the use of common sources. Following the same trail of thought, we know that Onasander had made use of Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides and both he and Aelian (who was writing in 106 AD) seemed to have admired and followed Xenophon, Iphicrates and Polybius. In fact, Aelian classified Aeneas in the preface of his Tactics as “the first military writer who composed Στρατηγικά βιβλία ικανά,” while another of his great sources was Frontinus who he had actually met in person and would certainly have influenced his work.

To establish the link between the ancient authors of Taktika and those who were writing in Latin is a much more difficult matter altogether. The major hurdle to overcome is, of course, the language in which the authors could read and write! Frontinus had made use of two main sources: primarily (a) Titus Livius (59-17 BC), who wrote the famous Ab Urbe Condita Libri, and (b) Valerius Maximus, a writer and a rhetoric who lived during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14 – 37 AD). Both Livius and Maximus, however, are using Cicero and Polybius as their main sources, thus the latter could possibly have been the historical link between our Latin authors and Aeneas Tacticus.

Another theory that has been put forward by N. P. Milner wants Frontinus to have had indirect access to Aeneas Tacticus through the work of Onasander, based on the common structure and the similarities in the contents of their works. But the language barrier, once again, makes this theory less attractive. What is certain, however, is Frontinus’ influence on the work of Vegetius, as the latter not only identifies the former two times in his work but it is quite likely that Vegetius’ third and fourth books are drafted after the Strategemata.

The Byzantines, thus, inherited a voluminous series of military treatises from Antiquity, and their wish to transmit the “ancient” knowledge in military matters to the future generations of army officers is more than obvious in their work.

Why were the Byzantines writing military manuals?

A common trend among the authors of these military treatises is that all of them were writing in a period of intense military activity, when the Empire was either on the defensive (7th century for the Strategikon and early 10th century for the Taktika) or they were marking an era of offensive warfare (the wars of reconquest in the East, after 960s). Furthermore, two facts have to be underlined at this point:

(a) the Byzantine authors of Taktika drew their material largely from the ancient Greek and Roman authors already mentioned, although none of them is specifically mentioned largely because of the ancient tendency to suppress the names of the more immediate sources or to copy authors unnamed. A rare exception to this is Leo VI who identifies Arian, Aelian and Onasander several times in his Taktika.

(b) we have to understand that the Byzantine authors were not simply copying or summarising their predecessors’ works, nor were they attempting to write a manual that looked back to past eras of glory like Vegetius did. Rather, they took the essence of the teachings of the ancients in the Art of War – the way of thinking and their understanding of warfare and its basic principles like order, discipline and command structure – and they both adapted it to the geopolitical reality of their time and they enriched it in a practical and comprehensive manual of war.

The fact that these Byzantine treatises were compiled in periods of intense military activity for the Empire can help to explain their aim and scope. We read in the Strategikon:

The state of the armed forces has been neglected for a long time and has fallen so completely into oblivion, so to speak, that those who assume the command of troops do not understand even the most obvious matters and run into all sorts of difficulties…

This passage falls into the wider category of writings from authors who seemed to be extremely worried about the neglect and decay in the armed forces during their period of writing and for the dangers about to befall the Empire; and, we have our authors’ answer:

A modest and elementary handbook or introduction for those devoting themselves to generalship, which should facilitate the progress of those who wish to advance to a better and more detailed knowledge of those ancient tactical theories. (Strategikon)

We must, therefore, recover the ancient custom from histories and books … the Spartans, it is true, and the Athenians and other Greeks published in books much material which they call Taktika. (Vegetius)

Thus, it is through the urgent need to compile practical military manuals for contemporary army officers that the knowledge of the ancients in military matters has been saved.

Madrid Skylitzes fol 173r

Comparing the Ancient and Byzantine

To wrap-up my argument about that wants the transmission of “military” knowledge from Antiquity to Byzantium to have taken place through the Greek and Latin treatises of the 1st and 2nd centuries, I compare the structure and the most important extracts from the contents of the Taktika.

First, historians have identified a similar division of the works in three major thematics according to the variety of the subject-matter, with the focal point being the battle itself; thus referring to the events prior to the battle which involved the training, logistics, morale etc., those that deal with the battle itself and the parameters that could affect its outcome, and those following the aftermath of the battle – most usually concerning the retreat of an army or a siege of a stronghold. In the first book of Frontinus’ Strategemata that deals with the events before the battle, we can identify four more sub-categories concerning

(a) strategy and the general planning of the war,

(b) the marching of the army in friendly and enemy territory,

(c) the defeat of the enemy by cunning and,

(d) the morale and discipline of the troops.

In this first section, Frontinus differentiates between the two kinds of strategy that can be followed by a general – either an offensive strategy or a defensive one – depending on the numbers of men involved, the morale of the army, the terrain, the gains etc. These factors are examined in detail by the Epitome of Vegetius, the Strategikon and the Taktika of the Byzantines and the similarities are more than obvious to the careful eye.

An important aspect of the preparation for war was intelligence. The gathering of as much information as possible for the enemy was paramount for all authors of Taktika since Antiquity, while the concealment of the tactical plans was equally crucial. Characteristically, in case an informant is discovered in the military council, a general should pretend that he is afraid of the things he desire, in order to give the false impression to the enemy that this would be the right strategic move against his army. Furthermore, the dispatch of soldiers dressed as slaves or envoys, wearing the local outfit and speaking the local language/dialect to enter the enemy town and inspect the fortifications and report on the enemy numbers is highly recommended.

Also, every author places great importance in escaping from difficult situations like i.e. the crossing of a river when an army as at its most vulnerable, while an attack when peace negotiations are taking place is also a favourite amongst many. The placing of enemy captured soldiers as a screen to the line of march is proposed for leading an army through dangerous enemy territory. And since good morale of the troops was very important for a general, all the Taktika are providing many examples on how to dispel the fears inspired by adverse omens, like meteors or thunderbolts and how to arouse the army’s enthusiasm for battle by convincing them that the Gods were on their side.

The second section of Frontinus deals with the events on the day of the battle, with the first half examining key issues such as the time and place to offer a battle, numerous battle formations where the author provides examples from Antiquity, while stratagems on how to cause panic in the ranks of the enemy and escape encirclement are also presented. It seems to be common amongst our authors to recommend an attack on the enemy army around noon, and more specifically during lunch-time, while there is also a direct correlation between the opposing numbers involved in the battle, the armies’ consistency (cavalry, foot and chariots) and the terrain that should be chosen to give battle.

A very significant factor which certainly determined the outcome of the battle was the formation of the opposing armies which depended on the numbers and their composition, the terrain etc. The basic principle underlined by Frontinus was to gather adequate intelligence as to take advantage of the enemy’s weakest points in his formation and turn them against him – there are many common elements here with the writings of Aelian, Vegetius and Leo VI.

All the Taktika underline the importance of ambushes in war with common stratagems being found in many of our works; indeed, the more popular ones are the placing of skirmishers at the end of a defile to block the march of an enemy force or to attack the enemy while returning home from foraging laden with supplies. Finally, it was deemed essential, according to recommendations of king Pyrrhus (paraphrased by Frontinus): “never to press relentlessly on the heels of an enemy in flight – not merely in order to prevent the enemy from resisting too furiously in consequence of necessity, but also to make him more inclined to withdraw another time.”

Even though the military manuals that we have come to identify as Taktika served to preserve the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans in the Art of War and offered a valuable source-book for contemporary officers of the Byzantine armies, these were not just copied texts taken from ancient authorities on the subject. The Byzantines did revere the deep knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans in military matters, but the manuals compiled on the 6th and 10th centuries AD were a conscious adaptation to the geopolitical realities of the present day with the authors willing to enrich the contents of their works rather than simply passing on obsolete battle-tactics – an invaluable lesson for every civilisation!

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.

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