Despite modern interpretations of the Empire, it was not without military dynamism throughout its 800-year hold on the East.
During the “Second Golden Age” of Byzantium, this dominion experienced a level of strength and discipline in its army that was rarely countered before or after. This was largely due to the interest of the Komnenian emperors in creating a military culture and integrating foreign ideas into the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Byzantine Empire faced unique challenges not only because of the era in which they were a major world power but also for the geography of Byzantium. Like the Rome of earlier eras, the territory encompassed by Byzantium was broad in scope and encompassed a variety of peoples under one banner. There were two basic areas held by the empire – the Haemus and Anatolia, with outposts in Crete, the Crimea and southern Italy and Sicily (Willmott). By the time of the Komnenos dynasty, most of Anatolia had been lost in the battle of Manzikert. Manuel I would attempt to remedy that loss, considered significant to the control of the empire.
Of this territory, the majority was arid or mountainous, creating difficulties for what was primarily an agricultural economy. This reliance on land-based products helped to bolster the reluctance for war in the eastern Roman Empire. The dramatic economic impact that crop loss or military service could have on the ability to sustain the agrarian culture influenced military thought away from direct confrontation on the battlefield and towards a system of “subsidizing” those nations with whom they might otherwise come into conflict.
These nations were not few but many. Bordered on all sides by hostile countries, the observation made by Liutprand of Cremona, a 10th century Italian diplomat, that the empire was surrounded by the “fiercest of barbarians” sums the situation up well (Haldon). Battles with countries like Turkey and Hungary would reoccur throughout their history while attempts to maintain a hold in Italy and Sicily also resulted in conflict. Byzantium was frequently beset by revolts and insurgencies throughout the entirety of its hold on the East.
Warfare was not a rare occurrence in this region but rather, a way of life. The Empire was in a constant state of war and it was this that resulted in a series of strategies and an evolution of what could be characterized as a distinctly eastern version of warfare. The field armies of Rome translated themselves during the fall of the empire to locally based militias. While regional commanders held larger standing armies, offensive warfare was virtually never undertaken until the 8th century (Haldon).
War and the military took on a different flavor than they possessed in Western Europe – rather than battling to acquire land, the Byzantines were in a position where acquisition was a lesser concern than retaining the land that they already held. The modern vernacular has adopted “byzantine” as an adjective to mean “of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation” (Merriam-Webster). This is a direct reference to a “subsidy” system developed by Byzantine emperors where they paid bordering nations a fee to remain at peace with them. This might better be termed bribery, a word with more relevance to the political and social blackmail that often accompanied such payments. Generals and rulers preferred bribery and blackmail to the possibility of confrontation where war was unavoidable, utilizing tactics such as providing misleading information, harassing the enemy and forcing an overextension of communication lines and resources (Haldon).
In the period during which the Komnenian line controlled Byzantium Western Europe was experiencing a shift in military power, moving towards a feudal structure and empowering armies with a religiously linked ideology as they swept across the East, through Byzantium and into the Arab world, on a series of crusades.
Likewise, Arabic powers were also responding with the development of new technology and forceful engagements to halt the spread of Western expansionism. Western armies appear more dynamic than the slowly declining East at the beginning of the medieval era. The Komnenian emperors, particularly Manuel I, would recognize this and respond, embracing aspects of the Western Way of War as they sought to maintain what was a crumbling empire in the wake of a decisive defeat at Manzikert.
In the ‘Alexiad‘, Anna Komnene, daughter of Alexios I, states of her father at the beginning of his reign:
“Alexius [Alexios] saw that the Empire was nearly at its last gasp, for in the East the Turks were grievously harassing the frontiers whilst in the West things were very bad… Consequently the young and brave Emperor was desperate, and did not know which way to turn first, as each of his enemies seemed to be trying to begin war before the other, and thus he grew sorely vexed and disturbed. For the Roman Empire possessed only a very insufficient army (not more than the 300 soldiers from Coma cowardly and inexperienced in war, besides just a few barbarian troops, accustomed to carry their swords on their right shoulder). And further there was no large reserve of money in the imperial treasury with which to hire allied troops from foreign countries. The preceding Emperors had been very inefficient in all military and warlike matters and had thus driven the State of Rome into very dire straits. I myself have heard soldiers and other older men say that never within the memory of man had any State been reduced to such depths of misery.”
Alexios would not return to Anatolia, more concerned with defending the western frontiers of Byzantium. To recapture Anatolia would have required both the enlargement of the army and giving land to magnates dispossessed in the Civil War, thus strengthening rivals to the Komnenos (Treadgold).
His reluctance was also due to constant threat from Doukas claimants to the throne and conflicts with Norman at Dyrrhachium, Corfu, and Thessaly. The Byzantine army was not equipped to adequately fight battles of this scale and it was only through the early death of Norman leader, Robert Guiscard that Alexios managed to disengage his army from that conflicts.
It may have been this early encounter in Alexios’ reign that encouraged the emperor to restructure his army in the face of attacks from countries with superior and dynamic tactics. It may also have been desperation – not long after the problems with the Normans came a threat to the capital from barbarian raiders. The constant state of warfare within Byzantium had not abated but rather exacerbated with the civil wars – enemies now challenged the empire from within and without.
The solution that the emperor would utilize would be to look to the west for support. Calling on Pope Urban II, Alexios received help in the form of the First Crusade. The help that he requested was not what he had expected – the Crusaders expected much and gave little, the first wave slaughtered by the Turks that they had been called to destroy (Gallant). Yet, despite these difficulties, they opened the door for Komnenian policies that increasingly favored the integration of western ideas in the eastern sphere.
Alexios is thus notable in this regard for two things – the plea to the western pope being only one of them. The other was the introduction of a conscription system, a concept hitherto unknown to the Eastern Roman Empire. The economy was not strong enough to afford the maintenance of an army comprised of mercenaries in the wake of Manzikert – likewise, with the defeat, it could no longer easily obtain troops from Anatolia. This signaled the beginning of a military structure that his successors, John II and Manuel I, would build upon.
John II Komnenos took the throne, continuing in the military tradition that his father had begun without the burden of having been the instigator of both conscription and western alliance. He began a system of slow and steady campaigning, choosing to battle in sustained annual campaigns rather than to extend his forces beyond their capacity. For the majority of his reign, however, John was to remain defensive, centering much of his efforts around the Turks’ encroachment on Asia Minor rather than adopting a more Western pattern of aggression.
It was one of these wars against the Seljuk Turks that would lead to Manuel I’s distinction and later acclimation as emperor by the Byzantine army (Gibbon). Manuel was not the intended successor to John’s throne- that role was planned for his elder brother, Isaac. It was his military service that elevated him as heir through both paternal and public choice. Like both father and grandfather before him, Manuel designated the military as one of his highest priorities as emperor.
With this continuation of a growing military tradition came a realization of the Western traditions and what they could offer the Byzantine Empire. While Manuel raised awareness of foreign culture to distinct heights, this was the culmination of both his predecessors’ interest in foreign affairs and the changing Byzantine perception of Western Europe.
(Source: “The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Western Way of War – The Komnenian Armies”, by Gwen Perkins)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus