The story of a Byzantine military manual: Syrianos magistros and his compendium ‘Anonymus Byzantinus’

By Georgios Theotokis

In the second half of the 950s, the military struggle between the Byzantine empire and the Arabs of the emirate of Aleppo prompted the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos to commission a treatise for his son and heir, Romanos, titled On What Should be Observed when the Great and High Emperor Goes on Campaign. In it appears the name of an obscure palatine official for whom modern historians knew surprisingly little about until recently, yet he was important enough to be recommended as reading material to the heir to the Byzantine throne – his name was Syrianos magistros.

The story of Syrianos and his work, what modern historians have amply named the compendium of the ‘Byzantine Anonymous‘, is about the remarkable output of Byzantine military literature, and what is – probably – the first military treatise following the transition from the Roman to the Byzantine way of war in the first half of the seventh century.


Readers today would have probably heard about the single most important Byzantine treatise in the history of the empire, the Strategikon attributed to Emperor Maurice, composed about the year 600. They would also be more or less aware of the manuscripts, compilations, and manuals produced under the imperial initiative of Emperor Leo VI at the beginning of the 900s, in adherence to the emperor’s duty to bring order to the empire’s affairs, and to revive the study of war as a means of turning the tide against the Arabs. Yet, Leo’s purpose was to restore the tradition, not to create a new one, and his principal work, the Taktika (compiled sometime between 904-12), is mainly a paraphrase of the Strategikon of Maurice with Onasander’s treatise On Generalship.

However, the underrated influence of Syrianos’ military compendium can be measured by the value assigned to it by the writers of the 10th century. We saw that it was among the treatises to be included in the imperial baggage train, according to Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (913-59), whose reliance on the Rhetorica Militaris, the part of Syrianos’ compendium about hortatory speeches, is evident in the two lectures that he composed for his armies during the Byzantine-Arab wars in the 950s. Finally, historians have shown that Leo VI also used parts of Syrianos’ compendium on hortatory speeches and on naval warfare in the composition of his Taktika. But who was Syrianos, and how did he come to be identified as the author of a collection of works of military nature that so deeply influenced the Byzantine literary genre of the military manuals in the 10th century?


Three works in one compendium

Syrianos magistros has been attributed as the author of a comprehensive treatise that was published as three separate works broadly covering all aspects of warfare: the On Strategy (‘De re strategica’), which began with some general observations about the body politic before quickly turning to the topic that really interested the author, and “which is really the most important branch of the entire science of government,” strategy; the Rhetorica militaris, which is a comprehensive general’s guidebook on how to compose and deliver rhetorical speeches for the exhortation of the troops before and up to the point of battle; finally, the Naumachiae, which covers various topics related to strategy and tactics at sea. Historians have alleged that the compendium may also have included a section on siege warfare no longer extant.

The assertion of the common authorship of the On Strategy and the Rhetorica Militaris goes as far back as the seventeenth century, when the German philologist, geographer and historian from Hamburg, Lukas Holste (1596-1661), first suggested that in a manuscript notation, adding that the first work (i.e. On Strategy) represented the πρακτικόν μέρος (i.e. the ‘practical’ part) and the second (i.e. Rhetorica Militaris) accounted for the λογικόν μέρος (i.e. the ‘logical’ or ‘verbal’ part) of the De Orationibus Militaribus Tractatus.

Yet, it was because of the editorial and translation work of two great scholars of the nineteenth century, Hermann Köchly and Wilhelm Rüstow – the first editors of both manuals, that Holste’s idea took hold. Nevertheless, it would take another century for the three texts to be treated as one. That was because of a codicological mistake by one of the most influential codicologists of the twentieth century, Alphonse Dain. It is thanks to the authoritative study by Constantine Zuckerman in 1990 that historians have come to accept beyond a reasonable doubt, not only the ‘common paternity’ but, also, Syrianus’ authorship of all three of the aforementioned works.

Zuckerman’s theory of the ‘common paternity’ of the compendium relies primarily on the thematic and stylistic parallels between the three works. For Zuckerman, the Anonymus applied the same tactical and rhetorical devices when it comes to writing about land and naval warfare, thus dismissing the word-for-word reiteration for the Naumachiae, which could have implied that the author of the naval treatise – if different from the Anonymus – would have drawn and adapted his material from the On Strategy or the Rhetorica Militaris.


Assigning a name to the Anonymus Byzantinus

The breakthrough regarding the name of the author of the compendium came – once again – by Dain, who was able to demonstrate that he had made out the inscription ΝΑΥΜΑΧΙΑΙ ΣΥΡΙΑΝΟΥ ΜΑΓΙΣΤΡΟΥ on the folio 332v of the Ambrosianus B-119-sup that includes the Naumachiae (fs. 333r-338v). Therefore, it is the works of this Syrianos, along with the well-known 2nd century AD military theoretician Polyaenus, which the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos advised his son to bring with him on campaign in his mid-10th century treatise On What Should be Observed when the Great and High Emperor Goes on Campaign.

This is another proof of the common authorship of the Naumachiae and the On Strategy, because it would have been unlikely for Constantine VII to recommend a treatise on naval warfare as a paramount reading for his son Romanos, on the occasion of the latter’s ‘land’ campaign in eastern Asia Minor against the Hamdanid emir of Aleppo. Finally, the name Syrianos also appears (written by a scribe) on the margins of the Viennese codex Vindobonensis phil. graecus 275 of emperor Leo’s Tactical Constitutions, along with the names of Arrian, Aelian, Pelops, Onasander, Menas, Polyaenus, and Plutarch, in the section of the prologue where the author writes that:

After devotedly giving our attention to the ancient, as well as to the more recent, strategic and tactical methods, and having read about further details in other accounts, if we came across anything in those sources that seemed useful for the needs of war, we have, as it were, gathered it up and collected it.[Leo VI, Taktika, prologue 6, 6-7]


Modern historians know surprisingly little about Syrianos magistros, as we find no person with this name in the primary sources between the mid-seventh and tenth centuries. Syrianos’ epithet implies that he had been awarded the senior dignity of magistros, a title that can be etymologically linked to the earlier office of the magister officiorum. This, however, had effectively transformed into a court dignity by the early tenth century.

Assigning a date to the compendium of Syrianos

Historians have at their disposal only two certain historical termini that can locate the authorship of the compendium in a period that is about three centuries-long: the reference to the generalship of Belisarius (530-59), and the use of Syrianos’ work in the composition of Leo VI’s Tactical Constitutions (904-12). With the ‘land’ treatise On Strategy naturally attracting the lion’s share of attention, the compendium has traditionally been dated to the reign of Justinian (527–65), following Köchly and Rüstow’s first edition of 1853-55 that cited four pieces of internal evidence.

First, the author’s allusions to the celebration of triumphs in the capital, pointing to Belisarius’ famous triumph in the Hippodrome following his reconquest of North Africa in 534; then, the ‘divide-and-rule’ diplomacy of the emperor, which Köchly and Rüstow identified as – clearly – Justinianic in nature; thirdly, the prominence of archery in the text that points more to a sixth-century compilation date rather than later; finally, a reference to the generalship of Belisarios in the present tense.

Yet, a handful of modern scholars like Barry Baldwin, Doug Lee, Jonathan Shepard, Salvatore Cosentino, and Philip Rance have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt the flimsiness of the arguments that have formed the foundation of the dating for the compendium to the sixth century, pointing -rather – to a much later date sometime in the (later) ninth century. In my forthcoming English edition of Syrianos’ work, I raise the possibility of the work having been written in the second half of the reign of Basil I, between 875 and 886.


The sources of Syrianos’ compendium

Modern historians have proposed that Syrianos made selective reworking of earlier sources from the late Hellenistic sub-genre of military literature, some of which they have been able to identify. For example, his discussion on tactics in the On Strategy is – largely – drawn from 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 late Hellenistic period, having the Macedonian phalanx as his model.

The On Strategy’s ‘tactical’ chapters comply with the general order in the Tactical Theory although, as Zuckerman notes, Syrianos chose to modify the arrangement of Aelian’s definitions while, in some cases, he disregarded some of the topics in the Tactical Theory, or he included others that were entirely his own, like the chapter on river crossings that he introduced with the following justification:

Since journeys are made not only on dry land but also across water, it is necessary to talk about crossing rivers.

Likewise, his analysis of fortifications and signal fires in the On Strategy prompted some historians to speculate that he drew on the Poliorketika of Philo of Byzantium (ca. 200 BC) and, perhaps, the lost books of Aeneas Tacticus (ca. mid-4th century BC).  Finally, Syrianos also overtly criticizes the practicality of Apollodoros of Damascus’ (2nd century AD) floating bridge in crossing rivers.

On the other hand, while Aelian remains an anonymous source in the compendium, Syrianos openly notes in the Rhetorica Militaris that he is deliberately departing from Hermogenes in not formulating opposing arguments to war. Hermogenes of Tarsus (c. AD160-230) was, perhaps, the most influential rhetorical theorist of Late Antiquity, during the time of the -so-called – Second Sophistic (first three centuries of the Common Era), when epideictic oratory (a type of persuasive speech designed primarily for rhetorical effect and display) had become a major literary force in the eastern Mediterranean.

As basic handbooks on Greek rhetorical theory proliferated in the early 6th century, amongst the most authoritative in the field that were taught as separate ‘preliminary exercises’, or progymnasmata, were Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata (later 4th century), Hermogenes’ Peri staseon (‘On Issues’) and Peri ideon (‘On Ideas’), and Menander of Laodicea’s epideictic treatises (also known as Menander Rhetor; late 3rd century).  These works would have been taught at several levels of the regular education in Byzantium, the enkyklios paideia, to the extent that even writers such as the late 11th century Kekaumenos, a man of provincial military background, would have been aware of some basic progymnasmata. Therefore, for students whose ambition would have been to earn a career at the higher levels of the state bureaucracy, proficiency in this kind of literary education would have been a prerequisite; Syrianos would have been no exception.

Although Syrianos felt the need to add more definitions in his ‘tactical’ chapters of the On Strategy, he did not feel the need to explain himself when writing about the ‘other stylistic forms’ that the general should have been able to use in his exhortation speech to the troops. Therefore, not only was Syrianos well-acquainted with Hermogenes’ doctrines on delivering exhortation speeches, he would also have assumed that his audience would have been fully aware of Hermogenes’ writings on the forms of rhetorical style for him to repeat it in any detail. Zuckerman identified a critical distinction between the Rhetorica Militaris and the progymnasmata in the sense that the former ‘filtered out’ most of the examples of myths, historical anecdotes, gnomic sayings, or any other dry rhetorical elements, favouring, instead, the practical element of the material at the general’s disposal.

To give an example of Syrianos’ departure from the Late Antique rhetorical handbooks and the challenging task of adapting the earlier material for his own main character – the general, we can compare an extract from the Rhetorica Militaris with chapter 4 ‘On War and Peace’ of the On Invention,  a work on the parts of a rhetorical speech which, along with the ‘On Method’, were combined sometime in the fifth or the sixth century Byzantium with the two authentic works by Hermogenes and Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata to form a comprehensive and authoritative rhetorical corpus: 

Similarly, if we introduce a motion to go to war with someone or to end a war, we shall use prokatastasis as follows. If we are introducing a motion to go to war with someone, we shall run over earlier complaints and say that “we ought to have gone to war with these people long ago, for they are enemies and have committed many other wrongs against us before these,” then coming to what has now happened …

If, on the other hand, we are for putting an end to a war, the prokatastasis of the diegesis will be that “not even in the first place should we have set this war in motion,” and we shall use historical reasons if we have any … But if we have no support from history, the prokatastasis will contain an attack on the war, to the effect that “we should not have raised this war in the first place, abandoning peace, for war is a difficult thing and unpleasant,” listing the evils in it, “and peace is good,” listing the good things in it.

I do not ignore that Hermogenes, and other rhetoricians before and after him, argue that pragmatism is a situation in which you can talk about future issues, but at the same time to compose the appropriate counter-arguments from the exact same premises. We, however, who write about war according to pragmatism, will not construct opposite arguments (and how could we?), but will deal only with exhortations to war, which is one of the two parts of the war-peace question. For that reason, we have disregarded any mention of the refutation [of war]. 

Syrianos emphasizes that he is deliberately deviating from Hermogenes in not formulating opposing arguments, since when a general exhorts to war, no consideration is given to the opposing point of view, that of peace. Therefore, it becomes clear that his aim was not to produce yet another rhetorical guide on deliberating war and peace in an Ancient Greek or Roman agorá but, rather, to deliver an applied rhetorical handbook for a general.

Syrianos’ compendium undoubtedly had a turbulent history and the process of identifying and piecing together the different parts of his brilliant work had remained a challenge for modern historians. That was until the groundbreaking works by Zuckerman, Cosentino and Rance, which have unequivocally identified the relationship of all three of the aforementioned works, and established the period of compilation of the compendium to the second half of the ninth century.

Now, that we have a complete portrait of this extraordinary output of the Middle Byzantine literature, we can better appreciate that whatever the technical advice offered in the treatise, Syrianos’ larger purpose, set in the context of the initial general discussion of social structure, is more literary and political than practical at the specifically military level, connecting contemporary Byzantium in the face of the Arab threat to its cultural inheritance from the Greco-Roman past, and hence asserting Byzantium’s cultural superiority.

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of the 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