Byzantine Military Advice

Byzantine Military Advice

The long history of the Byzantine Empire included having to fight many wars against a variety of opponents. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Byzantines also wrote about military matters and how to win at warfare. One of their best-known military treatises is the Taktika of Leo VI. Also known as Leo the Wise, he was the emperor of Byzantium from 886-912, a reign that saw wars with the Bulgarians, Arabs and internal rivals.

We do not know how much of the Taktika was composed by the emperor himself, and how much was left to his officials – many portions were copied from previous military treatises by Byzantine and ancient authors. The book is designed to be a guide for his generals, offering them advice on all military matters – topics covered include infantry and cavalry formations, drills, sieges and naval warfare. The final chapter of the Taktika is a collection of 221 ‘concise sayings’ – meant to reinforce the advice given in previous chapters.

Here are ten of the maxims found in this chapter, which would be useful for both medieval and modern-day military commanders:

The general is truly outstanding who is temperate in his way of life and vigilant. He prefers to deliberate about critical problems at night, for it is more productive to finalize plans during the night when one’s soul is free of external disturbances.

Spread rumours among the enemy about one thing, then do something else. When it comes to essential matters, share what ought to be kept secret not with many but rather with your more intimate circle. It has often proved necessary to deceive the enemy in this way.

It is essential to be cautious and to take your time in making plans and, once you have come to a decision, it is even more essential not to put it off to another time because of hesitation or timidity. Timidity, after all, not only is not a safe way of acting but also brings about the opposite of good.

I believe that it is safer and more advantageous to overcome the enemy by planning and generalship than by physical force and power and the hazards of a face-to-face battle. One engages in the first of his own volition and, on taking the initiative, knows what is to his advantage, whereas the other always results in something harmful.

It behooves you to keep quiet about the cowardice of our soldiers and not condemn them publicly so they may not become utterly dejected and their morale sink even lower.

You will contribute to the poor morale among the enemy if, in the period after battle, you are able to provide burial secretly for the fallen in your own army, but leave the bodies of the fallen enemy without burial.

Give orders to the soldiers that they should at all times be prepared to march out against the enemy; on a holiday, in the rain, by day or by night, and whenever it is necessary. For this reason on such occasions you must not tell them the scheduled day beforehand, so they may always be prepared.

It is well to harm the enemy by deceit, by raids, by hunger, and to hurt them for a long time by means of very frequent assaults and other actions. You should never be enticed into a pitched battle. For the most part, we observe that success is a matter of luck rather than of proven courage.

You will make the enemy suspicious of one another if you leave undamaged the estates of the important men among them and burn down the neighboring estates.

Undertake military operations with intelligence and extensive investigation. If some mistake is made in other matters, in a little while, perhaps, the mistake can be rectified, but errors made in war cause lasting harm, for the dead are gone for good.

You can read the full text and translation of this work in The Taktika of Leo VI. Text, Translation and Commentary by George T. Dennis, which was published by Dumbarton Oaks in 2010.

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