Roman Emperor Leo VI’s perspective on the eastern frontier reflected in the “Taktika”

Here we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “The Taktika of Leo VI and the Byzantine Eastern Frontier During the Ninth and Tenth Centuries“, by Kosuke Nakada.

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“The Byzantine military treatise known as the Taktika of Leo VI the Wise (r. 886–912) has a peculiar character. Written by one of the most scholarly emperors, the majority of the work’s contents are nonetheless derived from earlier materials. These especially encompass classical writings, including the Stratēgikon by the sixth-century Emperor Maurice, which heavily influenced the style of the Taktika. Nevertheless, Leo VI still introduces some fresh contemporary elements, such as the second-hand information gleaned from his entourage, and updated the contents in accordance with his own time.

The Taktika’s aims must be judged by considering it as compiled in its entirety; contemporary elements in the treatise are quite limited, and even if they reflect the actual circumstances, the “reality” they reflect is debatable. The regulative fashion might also be only superficial one, which is possible due to the traditional pedagogic and scholarly nature of military texts in the Byzantine world. Moreover, contemporary Byzantine cultural activities focused on accumulating ancient wisdom and compiling it into works, which Paul Lemerle labels “encyclopédisme.” Leo is often considered to be one of the propagators and patrons of this movement, and he himself also created other related works. Amongst these, in the text Problemata he answers questions by citing the Stratēgikon of the Emperor Maurice – the model of the Taktika, as mentioned above – explicitly indicating his scholarly interest in military knowledge from the past; therefore, the Taktika might be placed within this extended context. Thus, it is uncertain whether the Taktika as a whole includes “practical” intentions in terms of military affairs.

Leo VI’s chief intention was to provide his generals with Christian moral guidance for conducting warfare. Leo stressed the importance of the role of God’s favour elsewhere in the text, and gave advice on how to fight in accordance with the faith. Although not being directly applicable to the contemporary battlefield, the text was undoubtedly motivated by his consciousness of being a ruling emperor, and can be regarded as useful instruction in this sense. On the other hand, from a purely military aspect, most of the information can be evaluated as having been impractical, as it would have been obsolete or visionary.

The fact that the Taktika contains contemporary military information, especially concerning warfare with foreign peoples, cannot be overlooked, even though such content exists only to a restricted extent. The discussion of warfare against the Arabs in the eastern borderland in chapter XVIII is especially noteworthy, as it includes detailed descriptions of tactics, equipment and the nature of the people and the frontier. It can therefore be considered a key source for gaining insight into the emperor’s concerns, from which one can at least understand his grasp of the actual situation and what kind of practices he intended to apply in order to address it.

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The accounts of Arabs in the Taktika are placed in constitution XVIII, entitled “About the Practices of Various Peoples and of the Romans in Their Battle Formations,” and consisting of forty-eight paragraphs. As the title implies, the chapter is dedicated to an ethnographical account of the empire’s neighbouring nations, and knowledge of peoples besides the Arabs (Saracens) depends heavily upon a sixth-century military treatise, the aforementioned Stratēgikon of Emperor Maurice. The entry on the Arabs occupies a significant portion of this chapter (48 paragraphs out of 150) and, of course, has no precedent in the Stratēgikon, which was compiled before the rise of Islam.

It could be said that Leo VI’s particular concern when describing the Arabs in chapter XVIII of the Taktika was the frontier in the Eastern Anatolia, or al-Thughūr, although Byzantium confronted Muslims in other areas as well (e.g. Crete and southern Italy).

The concreteness of tactics is one of the most notable features of this passage, and it apparently represents the actual circumstance of the eastern borderland. Although the forgoing research underlines the initiative of central government and the emperor in the reign of Leo, the descriptions of these tactics allows us a slightly different interpretation of the emperor’s understanding of the frontier, as can be seen in the passages from the Taktika cited below:

Therefore it is necessary to attack them when they are on expeditions for booty, especially in winter…”

If they plunder inside the Taurus range you must deal with them in the narrow mountain path, when they are turning back and are the most fatigued, and are probably carrying some plunder, consisting of animals and materials.”

As evident in the text, these lines represent strategies for guerrilla counterattacks, and are written under the assumption that the Arabs make expeditions seeking plunder. One can further explore the nature of Byzantine military actions depicted here, especially concerning those carrying out these tactics. The interceptions described here were presumably made by local commanders with the troops at their disposal, since their actions required prompt responses. This assumption is supported by the fact that only a stratēgos and his thema, i.e. local commanders and their locally based armies, appear in these sections, whereas the quote does not allude to the intervention of central government; nor does it refer to the imperial tagmata, or mobile central regiments, which are more suitable for massive expeditions.

Furthermore, in sections 136–149 Leo VI indicates the deployment he believes to be most profitable for waging warfare against Arabs. This involves a local commander and a relatively moderate number of soldiers (4,000), as the words “deploy one thema and make up battle formations of up to four thousand” plainly attests.

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It must be noted that these paragraphs represent Leo VI’s opinion on what is to be done on the eastern front, and here he has apparently attached greater importance to local autonomy in the defence of the Anatolian borderlands against raiding Arabs. In such a case it is also questionable whether he finds it necessary to direct these arrangements, as one might reasonably presume that such plans had been crafted during the continual conflicts with Muslims. In other words, the Taktika might include an aspect of the ratification of the status quo of the autonomous defence in the eastern frontier, and this could be located within the wider historical context.

The situation in the east at that time seems to have needed a quite autonomous system for a long time, and this is likely to be what chapter XVIII of the Taktika actually reflects. Of course, large-scale raids into Muslim-controlled regions are occasionally recorded, but these were an exceptional occurrence. This may be partly because Byzantine resources were engaged against other opponents, such as the Bulgarians, leaving little remaining to dedicate to the east. Moreover, Taktika XVIII does not mention any military actions of such an aggressive nature. Rather, under circumstances where opponents made continual attacks on a moderate scale in a remote area far from the centre, one can assume that prompt reactions by locally based troops were probably more effective. In fact, some information implies that these autonomous defensive operations were actually carried out by the military aristocracy, by an army of thema, or even by quasi-independent Armenian frontiersmen on the Byzantine eastern frontier.

During the middle Byzantine period, the state was divided into military-administrative units called themata (sg. thema). Within these organisational units, a governor (stratēgos) supervised both civil administration and the army corps, which obviously differs from the late Roman principle of separating civil and military authority. The eastern borderland was not an exception to this. However, in addition to the themata, autonomous and independent small districts called kleisourai (sg. kleisoura, originally meaning “mountain path”) protected the frontier from Muslim incursions. The emergence of themata has elicited controversy among scholars, but a recent consensus among Byzantinists indicates that the themata were gradually developed from the late Roman system, and in response to continual Muslim incursions after the mid-seventh century. This occurred after the mobile forces (comitatenses) under the command of each magister militum in Armenia, Oriens, Thrace and the praesental armies retreated to Anatolia after being defeated by Muslims, and were given jurisdictions there in order to meet their logistical needs.

Around the ninth century, noticeable changes occurred in the east, as armies of themata and kleisourai directly opposed the Muslim forces there. In response to the “regionalisation” of raids coming from Islamic territory, specific small themata or semi-independent subdivisions were created from larger themata, or were newly established in what was formerly a “no-man’s-land”. Some of this segmentation can certainly be perceived as an intensification of central government control, as the force of larger themata was thereby reduced.

One cannot overlook the role of military aristocracy as officers, who arose during the period in question. Generals such as Nikephoros Phokas, Eustathios Argyros and Andronikos Doukas were active on the eastern frontier during Leo VI’s reign, and all of them came from influential military aristocratic families in Asia Minor. Of course, each had strong personal connections to their emperors, as they had served in the imperial entourage early in their lives, and later played important roles in the central government by leading imperial campaigns on behalf of the emperor, sometimes as domestikos tōn scholōn (i.e. supreme commander). However, one must also consider their functions on the frontier while they served as officers. During this period on the eastern frontier, such magnates primarily occupied official positions in themata.

Leo VI’s seems to have recognised the value of connecting such powerful local men with the provincial military structure, and that this might be a more significant factor on the frontier, where regionalised protection was essential. This seems to have been well practised after the reign of Leo VI. The so-called De Velitatione Bellica (On Skirmishing), commissioned by the soldier emperor Nicephoros II Phokas (r. 963–969) and completed after his death, attests to similar autonomous manoeuvres. One of the aims of this treatise was to recall the previous warfare in the eastern frontier, including the time of Leo VI, undertaken by the local commanders in the east, especially by those from the Phokas family.

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In addition to military aristocracy, similar duties could potentially be fulfilled by others, such as Armenian potentates. The creation of a thema in Lykandos can be regarded as a typical process. According to Constantine VII’s De Administrando Imperio, Leo VI accepted offers from Armenians who had deserted to Melitene, including famous Melias the Great. He then created several frontier districts in the south-eastern borderland around 908, and under the regency of the fourth wife of Leo VI, Zoe Karbonopsina (914–919) they were later integrated into the thema of Lykandos governed by Melias, now promoted to stratēgos. The Arab geographer Qudāma b. Jafar reports that he and the Armenians following him settled there, constructed strong fortifications and thereby played a significant role in frontier defence by causing significant damage to the Muslim raiders. This was another situation in which Leo VI evidently entrusted local potentates with autonomous regional defence.

After the latter half of the ninth century the Byzantine eastern frontier included an army assembled to allow local commanders of the military district, or its equivalent, to intercept continual Muslim incursions by acting at their own discretion with the forces at their disposal. The stratagem to be used against the Arabs described in the Taktika also appears to reflect and approve this autonomous defensive disposition and practice, formed over a long period, rather than military operations controlled by the central government.

It is uncertain to what degree the Taktika is practically applicable to the actual field, and it is doubtful that it functioned as a utilitarian instruction from the centralised authoritative emperor to the field commanders. The paramount aim of Taktika was to compile an up-to-date volume of wisdom, which included the military science of the Roman past as well as Christian moral guidance for warfare, all of which was motivated by Leo VI’s consciousness of himself as a ruler chosen by God. The recently introduced elements in this source can also be appropriately grasped as projections of Leo VI’s perspective on the current status of the empire, the environment surrounding his state and his idea of suitable methods for addressing them.

The description of Leo VI can be interpreted as meaning that he simply ratified the existing form of flexible response by local forces led by potentates, established over a
long period of time. This indicates that Leo recognised it was both effective and indispensable to delegate power to these potentates in order to resist the incessant Arab razzias, despite the possible centrifugal effects on political and military power.”

Basil&leo

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

 

 

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