Skip to content

Byzantine Lessons in Hybrid War Pt 2

May 18, 2010

"Tsar Simeon the Great before the gates of Constantinople"

This proposal is not an attempt to create a carbon clone of a medieval empire, but I do think that many problems suffered by the ancient Byzantines can be compared to our own challenges for the future. Like the Empire, we see an increasing need for using Means Other Than War, so-called Soft Power but also Espionage, in dealing with foreign adversaries. This has been brought on by dramatic challenges and great changes in the World, especially the decline of European colonial states in the last century, the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of radical Islam, the latter the Byzantines could certainly relate to.

There is also economic troubles, the decline in birthrates, and the subsequent reduction in available manpower, all these point to the end of industrial age warfare, and the need for smart power as well as military force. With that in mind, here are some interesting solutions which the Empire devised over times to deal with its own problems:

Organized Military Districts

Byzantium was a nation under constant siege from numerous foes. In this it was like Israel today and increasingly the West, its borders insecure over the ravages of globalization, climate change, and terrorism. In order to better manage their threatened borders, the Empire was carved into numerous civil/military districts called Themes. Each was commanded by a general dubbed the Strategos who shared powered with a civil Judge. The number of Themes were gradually increased over time by successive Emperors to lessen the chance of rebellion by powerful strategos.

The thematic troops might be likened to our own National Guard. Though each strategos possessed a professional body of retainers, the bucellarii who were the core of the army, the rest would be soldier/farmers given property and settled on the frontiers. They would be called up as needed during times of crisis. In contrast to the Roman strategy of maintaining the frontiers, the Byzantines would actually allow an enemy to invade to pillage and plunder. Meanwhile the themes would rise to arms, slowly wearing down the invaders with guerrilla tactics. Later, with the enemy retreating, loaded down with much booty, they would be easy prey for the mobilized themes.

The implications for the modern military are various. Instead of the powerful yet very expensive standing forces, which guarded the nation in the Cold War, or even the large field armies current engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, something less costly and more flexible might be called for. So you would have a small standing army, but greater dependence on reserve troops, militia, guarding our frontiers. There should be no need for large permanent field forces except in an emergency. The armies then would be smaller, numbered in tens of thousands instead of hundreds of thousands, but there would be many more such armies (i.e. 10 divisions today, but maybe 30-40 tomorrow?).

Provincial or state governors might also have greater control over local troops and militia in their area. This would allow more flexibility than the current centralized system, especially in times of disaster when fast response is a must. Purse strings and officer appointments would still be invested in the central government however, to discourage insurrection.

Powerful Mobile Soldiers

Unlike the West European troopers of the Middle Ages, who normally depended on either cavalry or infantry, the Byzantine Army was a joint force that preached the doctrine of combined arms. Still, the cavalry was all-important and there were three specific types:

  1. Clibanarii-Heavy cavalry, armed with plate. Often Frankish or Lombard mercenaries. Armed with lance. Might be likened to our modern tank troopers.
  2. Cataphract-Lighter armed, with scale armor from head to toe. More agile than the clibanarii, armed with the bow, lance, and sword. Made up the bulk of the cavalry and usually recruited from citizens. Compare this to today’s armored cavalry troops.
  3. Tasinarioi-Light cavalry, especially gained in importance after rise of the Turks around 1000 AD. They were armed with bows javelins and slings, used as scouts and skirmishers. Usually consisted of light Khazar or Avar cavalry.

Then there were the scutatoi or infantry which were among the best in the world.  Armed with spears, bows, shield, and sword, they allowed the swifter cavalry to maneuver, acting as base for a field army. They also conducted sieges or held fortresses on the frontier.

Byzantine Klibanophoros 10 th CIt was the cataphract which was the truly effective arm of the Byzantines, and its success for nearly 1000 years proves it. A true hybrid warrior, it could stand up to heavier Barbarian horseman like the Franks with superior maneuver, or defeat lighter Eastern Arab cavalry with firepower. Unique for a Western soldier, was the horse archer, which the fighting Emperors such as Maurice  insisted the Army remain proficient in. The archers would control his mount by his knees, then could fire his bow, usually a composite weapon, either forward or backward, the famed Parthian Shot!

As I noted the equivalent today might be the armored infantryman. His mount is a lighter version of the tank, the infantry fighting vehicle, which might not possess the protection of heavier tanks, but thank to modern weapons carried by its loaded infantrymen, has to the reach to take on all foes. With its lighter weight and higher sapped, the IFV has greater mobility than any of the armored giants on tracks.

This might be the reason for the demise of the clibanarii in Byzantine service as well. The heavy cavalry favored by the Franks were of great cost and too heavy for the type of mobile warfare practiced by the Empire. The demise of the tank might also be seen in this example. It’s not that the tank is no longer needed or effective, but that cheaper lighter, more agile vehicles are doing the same function with equal effect.

Instead of infighting  for what type of military is needed, as Sec. Gates referred to, such proponents of heavy armored divisions or COIN warfare, there would be ONE ARMY geared to deal with various threats. This would be the medium armored cavalry of the type proving successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some heavy and some light would remain, but the bulk would be this new Hybrid Warrior, geared to respond to a multitude of threats and enemies. Just as the Byzantines devised separate tactics for dealing with their myriad adversaries, so will the Hybrid Warrior contend with conventional armies and irregular insurgencies alike.

Means Other Than War

Typically the American Way of War has been successful, howbeit very expensive, also creating problems of its own. The destruction of the South in the Civil War, the leveling of Germany in the Second World War, and more recently regime change in Iraq all involved the defeat of enemy armies, warmaking capacity, and the replacement of anti-American governments. Militarily this still might be possible, but politically, economically, and morally has become increasingly unacceptable.

The Byzantines for these reasons rejected the previous Roman Way of War, that also involved the conquest and crushing of her foes. Though military power was as important as ever, there was also diplomatic means, and turning former enemies into friends was not considered taboo. This often entailed bribery, assassination, or paying others to fight for them. All means possible were utilized to avoid the costly attritional warfare of Rome. It is this latter in Iraq and Afghanistan  which is wreaking havoc on Western economies today, inhibiting also the replacement of vital military equipment.

Even in combat, the Empire avoided frontal attacks, instead preferring maneuver, feigned withdrawals, and ambushes over attritional breakthrough tactics that are costly in manpower and weapon’s stocks. In this we might get an idea how to contend with traditional tanks armies that are so expensive to deploy, and a burden on stretched logistical resources in modern conflict. Like tactics were used by the unconventional Hezbollah forces to defeat superior Israel armor in Lebanon in 2006.


The results of the Byzantine tactics speak for themselves. The Empire outlived Rome some 1000 years and more often than not prospered during this period. Though a shrunken version of itself for most of this time (finally limited to Anatolia and the Balkans), she yet preserved much of the culture, religion, and classical knowledge at a trying time in world history, the Dark Ages.

Some might insist with the decline of Western democracies, at least in influence, the rise of terrorism, unchecked immigration, famine, disease, and climate change, we might be headed for another collapse of civilization, the end of the world, at least as we know it. Still, with changes made now, learning from the lessons of the past, there might yet be a little light saved for future generations.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 20, 2010 4:31 am

    elgatoso-Thanks! I occasionally have to sneak in some history on a site called “New Wars”

  2. elgatoso permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:12 pm


  3. Hudson permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:03 pm


    To go on just a bit longer off topic,

    The ethnic groups I ride with on the train between Brooklyn and Manhattan emphasize their native distinctiveness. The Russians speak and read Russian, same for the Chinese, etc. I don’t see the melting pot; I see separate identities.

    Texas is a more successful state than California. It has lower taxes and higher employment. It’s large Hispanic population seems to cause less indignation than in Arizona. Texas also took in thousands of refugees from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and has successfully resettled them, people-to-people. When people have jobs, everything runs more smoothly.

    BTW, it’s interesting to hear a UK perspective on all this.

  4. May 19, 2010 5:12 pm

    I hear you on all what you say. I was actually watching TV when DuffyGate broke; we thought that the impact of that would be a lot greater but the people of Rochdale still returned a Labour MP. And yes there is a lot of resent (and it is growing) towards immigrants here in the UK. Especially if they are of a different colour and faith.

    In the conurbation to my immediate the council (city government) gave the Islamic community a large parcel of land for a mosque on condition that the building had space for community activities. At the time this caused controversy because another charity wanted to purchase the land and the council dragged their feet that resulted in the charity’s grants to lapse. Now it is reported that those running the mosque are trying to get the commitment to community activities lifted. And it will happen. Why do I relate this story? Because of the impact it has had on the more mild mannered people in my circles, of a variety of ages and backgrounds. There is a real anger and harsh racist words spill from the gentlest of mouths. What they can’t comprehend is why do “we” run scared of this minority? Where has the power of the word racist come from? As an amateur student of history I see parallels with the Germany of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Who will be to blame if, or when, the race riots begin? In the 1960s a controversial British MP called Enoch Powell gave a speech that for told of racial tension. His speech is interesting but has to be interpreted through the lens of his time. I just hope that not too many good people with good intentions from any coomunity get hurt.

    As for the Korean and Texan what I was aiming for and missed was this. The US is a melting pot. Some Americans are Americans who happen to live in a particular state. While for some their state identity is very strong; hence the Texas example. I suppose this is a combination of history, race, and political leanings.

  5. Hudson permalink
    May 19, 2010 4:36 pm


    To answer your question, as Ronald Reagan said, anyone can become an American. This includes Koreans, Hispanics, Arabs and immigrants from Muslim countries, some of whom have served loyally in the U.S. Army.

    Becoming an American entails some acceptance of the core culture and learning English. Many of the newer class of Hispanics coming here, particularly Mexicans, don’t have any intention of making this transition. They want their children to be taught in Spanish in the schools, for example. They also have this notion of the reconquista, of taking back what Mexico lost in the 1840s. I have seen this in New York. In recent years, Brooklyn, where I live, has been invaded by app. 400,000 illegals. By comparison, the Allies only landed something like 250,000 troops at D-Day and in the weeks after the invasion.

    One result of this influx, is that white non-Hispanics are fleeing the borough to places like Staten Island and New Jersey. In California, the numbers are 1.5 to 2.0 million fleeing that state for Utah, in particular. This radically impoverishes the CA tax base, forcing the state to issue I.O.Y. vouchers instead of paying in cash, and begging the Federal Government for money.

    In the U.K., as MatR relates, the situation is worse in some ways. The political and moral authorities have ceded to the various “communities” their own religious and moral codes. The “bigoted” little old lady who helped get Gordon Brown unelected was only expressing a common feeling among the British people to retain their essential character, including two of their greatest gifts to the world: English common law and the Mother tongue itself.

  6. MatR permalink
    May 19, 2010 12:42 pm

    If I’ve read them right, I agree with Hudson and X. I also think that the signs of a civilsation in crisis are evident. It’s an existential threat, to use the trendy jargon.

    We’re ‘re-tribalising’ because our politicians have worked so long and hard to divide us, because there are votes in it. You’re no longer American, or British, or an individual, or a unique voter and citizen. You’re one of an undifferentiated herd, a ‘community’ that you don’t get to select the leaders of – you’re ‘gay’ or ‘black’ or ‘hispanic’ or ‘Pakistani’ or ‘catholic’ or ‘working class’ or whatever else, and that’s supposed to control the state’s relationship with you, and the opportunities it allows you. In the USA, you can get your college scores bumped up because of your skin colour, even if you’re the thoroughly empowered child of a judge or congressman. In the UK, self-styled ‘community leaders’, religious leaders and politicians are suggesting allowing moslems and jews to use seperate legal codes if they choose. It’s divide-to-rule.

    Meanwhile our kids will be poorer than we are, social mobility is rapidly declining, job opportunities are decreasing, the poor are getting poorer and the very wealthy are still raking in money and ensuring they go to the best schools, get the best jobs, and use the best networks. I hope to goodness that our societies don’t turn into Latin America.

  7. May 19, 2010 4:55 am

    It is hard for me to judge with you Americans how American you feel. Does a Korean store keeper from LA feel more American than say a white Texan with the flag of the lone star state flying from a pole in his front yard?

    I am off to read about this migration from California because I think I have missed something there…

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 18, 2010 6:49 pm

    “who combined the best of East (especially its compound bow) and West in their armies.”

    That is an excellent summation of the late-Empire, a little of the east and the west. Understandable since its home on the Golden Horn was at the crossroads of the world. In no small way did this contribute to its prosperity and longevity.

    The recent book by David Friedman which names escapes me talks about America being in this position because of its centrality in two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific. Theodore Roosevelt, Mahan, and others saw this when advocating a canal through Panama.

    I don’t say this is where we are heading, just that we have an opportunity here if we stop bemoaning 2012 or whatever, expecting decline as inevitable, and start seeking answers to our problems instead of just leaving the whole century to China. I don’t think the rest of the world would be happy with that last solution, nor do I think the Chicoms could make the world any better, if our track record from the last century is any reccomendation.

  9. May 18, 2010 6:00 pm

    Chuck said “The situation now is that the country is relatively careless in getting itself into conflicts because only the poor and a few patriots bear the burden while the sons of congressmen avoid service.”

    Yes here in the UK the working class and the Queen’s grandson go to war. While the son of the PM who took us to war goes to Washington as an intern, then gets a job at a bank, and then gets a good sized bonus……

  10. Hudson permalink
    May 18, 2010 3:18 pm

    Many ideas flying around here–off the banners of the Byzantines, who combined the best of East (especially its compound bow) and West in their armies.

    Certainly the notion of “byzantine,” meaning overly complex and tortuous governance and social habits, is well upon us. America has made a lot of history, but we are not exempt from history. If we talk the talk and do not walk the walk, we will suffer the same fate as that of previous empires, even though we are not really an empire.

    We are not only looking at the end of the Pax Americana but the end of Jeffersonian democracy and any notion of limited government. We are approaching a tipping point when most Americans will come to the conclusion that the Federal government can or can no longer effectively run the country–one indication of that is the rise in local script.

    This next round of immigration reform will decide whether the core culture survives 20-30 years, or much less. If the illegals stay, it will be much less (and no, don’t give them land for service), and we will be on our way to massive internal migration, as we are seeing now out of California, and the re-tribalization of America.

    I am in favor of national service, some choice of non-military and military service. Though a large standing army will invite the next Madeline Albright to look around as say: “MMMM, what’s the point of all this army if we don’t use it”?

    We already have the Guard and the Reserves, depleted by long wars. The solution to long wars is to fight short wars against identifiable enemies where we can concentrate our firepower, defeat the foe, and leave the field with their flags and banners. If the barbarians really do arrive at the gates, then we all saddle up, sing our songs, and ride off into the breach.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 18, 2010 1:14 pm

    Decline can take a long time. Rome’s golden age was not its Empire, but the Republic, when art and literature was flourishing plus an early form of democracy. All the empire did was spread and preserve what was already there. The same might be said of the British Empire, whose decline probably started when she lost America, but look how much she accomplished after that, and I think she is not quite through yet.

    So also with America, where she may be losing much of the grace and innocence of her youth, now more maturer, not necessarily better, but at least settled on who she is, very powerful in a military sense, geographically well off and with plenty of resources.

    I don’t think America or the West is necessarily at an end, but something quite different than what we knew in the last century? Oh yes! To the bottom of my heart I hate to see it go, but I’m extremely curious how all this will play out.

  12. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 18, 2010 1:09 pm

    I also feel that there should be some sort of national service requirement on all of our young people as they come of age. The situation now is that the country is relatively careless in getting itself into conflicts because only the poor and a few patriots bear the burden while the sons of congressmen avoid service.

    It wasn’t like this in WWII.

  13. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 18, 2010 1:05 pm

    Our “decline” is only in relative terms. It is more that others are finally catching up. The “golden age” when we came out of WWII and generated half of the entire world’s GNP was unnatural and could never last. It is to our credit that we actually helped other countries regain their place at the table.

  14. May 18, 2010 12:51 pm

    I like your conclusion. A thing I find exasperating is how some here in the West (especially in academia) see our decline as written in stone, a given. In a way I am pleased to see China and India develop. But I see them very much as fractured countries where the gap between the have’s and the have not’s grows ever wider. Countries who industrial and commercial dealing are riven in corruption. I believe here in the West we hobbled by a left-leaning socialist mind. As civilised peoples it is good that we try to help our fellow man. But such considerations don’t hamper the likes of China. Yet when later this century the race for resources turns into war I think we will regain a more 19th century mindset and put ourselves first. Sadly I don’t think we will have choice and I don’t think the Chinese or Indians will be much opposition.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 18, 2010 12:45 pm

    Chuck and Hudson:
    I have a life-long interest in the Byzantine Empire, but I’ve only just recently started thinking in terms that their lessons might fit today. Actually, I had no idea the radical change that was coming to warfare and society since 9/11.

    Speaking of the Marches, I have to wonder if something like this would do for our own porous borders. Offering free land in exchange for part-time military service. Anyway, I think some type of ready reserve is called for, if nothing else but for the consistent disasters we keep having, which can move quickly to salvage as much life as possible.

  16. Chuck Hill permalink
    May 18, 2010 11:54 am

    The Themata are not unlike the “Marches” of the Holy Roman Empire, i.e. “Spanish March.”

    The cautionary tale here is that he Empire was destroyed because they let their own military slip and sought to have someone else, the crusaders, do their fighting for them. In 1204 the crusaders sacked Constantinople and destroyed the empire.

  17. Hudson permalink
    May 18, 2010 11:30 am

    Good essay, Mike. Watched the video. This is wilder stuff than science fiction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: