The Byzantine attitude toward war can best be understood in the context of the way in which they viewed the world and life in general. This world and the life it bore were fragile and transitory. The only permanent reality was to be found in another world, the kingdom of heaven. The empire on earth was a mere reflection of that in heaven, and the emperor was called to imitate the Lord of heaven. Under God, he was to assure the well-being of his subjects and protect them from all dangers, within and without. The church had a different role. Jesus had told his followers that he could call upon legions of angels to save himself from death, but he did not do so, and neither would his church. Unlike its Latin sister, the Byzantine church left the call to arms and the waging of war, even against the most pernicious and destructive heretics and infidels, to the imperial government. But it took the lead in another kind of struggle, one for the souls of the faithful, a struggle not against human enemies but against cosmic powers and superhuman forces of evil. For Byzantine Christians this was a form of warfare that could be called holy, although I have not found explicit use of that term. The concept of the Christian being involved in a war against the forces of evil goes back, of course, to St. Paul, if not before.
While every Christian had to withstand the onslaughts of the devil, the monks were the frontline troops in the war against the legions of Satan. Night and day, according to Gregory of Nazianzos, the monk must fight the spiritual war (pneumatikos polemos). Chrysostom tells his audience that the war against demons is difficult and never ending. Spiritual combat is a regular theme in the vitae of the saints. Demons in a variety of shapes, from hyenas to dragons, viciously attacked saints Theodore of Edessa, Gregory of Dekapolis, Joseph the Hymnographer, John Psychaites, Isidore, abbess Sarah, and many others. Story after story is told of their incessant struggles against the forces of sin and darkness.
The demons, for their part, took warfare seriously. They appear in full battle array, in phalanxes of cavalry and infantry that wheeled about in formation. They wore iron breastplates and carried bows and arrows and other missiles. They began their advance against St. Ioannikios in proper order, although making a tremendous racket; they drew up in formation, shouted their war cry, and shot a steady stream of arrows at him. All of this he repelled by the sign of the cross. Under their commander (strategos) Satan, the demons arrayed themselves in their phalanxes in a proper battle line (parataxis), just as the armed forces of the emperor do, and charged against Constantine the Jew. As the military manuals prescribe, they feigned retreat, shouted insults from afar, regrouped, and attacked again. The saint beat them off with a wooden cross made on the spot, but the effort left him exhausted. A monk in Skete heard a battle trumpet sound as the demons prepared to attack him and force him to quit his prayers.
To confront such adversaries, the monk had to be a soldier. Symeon reminds his monks that they have been called to fight against invisible foes. They have enlisted and taken their place in the ranks of Christ’s soldiers. The monks did not wait to be attacked; they did not simply hold the fort, but took the war into the devil’s territory and fought him on his own turf, in the desert and in other wild, abandoned locations. Many made a point of settling in the desert where the demons lived. Daniel the Stylite learned that demons were hiding in an old church. He immediately went in to fight them “as a brave soldier strips himself for battle against a host of barbarians,” holding the invincible weapon of the cross.
What, then, about the visible, tangible wars waged by the Byzantines with armor and weapons made of solid iron and steel, and against other human foes? No Byzantine treatise on the ideology of war, whether a holy or a just war, has come down to us, and it is unlikely that any was ever written. One must glean what one can from the military manuals and the histories. Although there were occasional rhetorical flourishes in admiration of valor and bravery on the field of battle, and although they were dependent on military means for their survival, the Byzantines, in the words of a retired combat engineer in the sixth century, regarded war “as a great evil and the worst of all evils.”, “We must always prefer peace above all else,” wrote Leo VI, “and refrain from war.” For them war was not the “politics by other means” of Clausewitz, but was the last resort. The threat of overwhelming force was preferable to the actual use of such force, and in this, it may be noted, they displayed a striking continuity with the ancientRomans. They sought to obtain their objectives by diplomacy, bribery, covert action, paying tribute, or hiring other tribes to do the fighting. Only when all else had failed were they to take up arms. And even then they tried to avoid a frontal assault and concentrated on wearing out the foe by light skirmishing, clever strategy, and adroit maneuvering. They were reluctant to wage war on both moral and practical grounds. Killing, even when deemed justifiable, was evil—one need only recall the famous, if rarely observed, canon of St. Basil which declared that soldiers who had killed in battle were to be refused communion for three years. On the practical side, war was both hazardous and expensive.
All this is consistent with the remarkable centrality of defense in Byzantine strategic theory and practice. One American military scholar wrote of a sixth-century tactician: “He has a distinctly defensive mind, and sees so clearly what the enemy may do to him that he has no time to think of what he may do to the enemy.” The Byzantines were not a warlike people and, in fact, this led the Crusaders to accuse them of cowardice. Their entire attitude toward war was colored by their emphasis on defense and, in this respect, certainly differed from the crusade and the jihad, both of which were aggressive by nature. Even the offensive campaigns into enemy territory of Herakleios, Nikephoros Phokas, John Tzimiskes, and Basil II were aimed at recovering and protecting regions that rightfully belonged to the Roman Empire.
In the Byzantine world, war was not, as sometimes in the West, a lethal playing field on which so-called noblemen displayed their prowess and sought glory. In itself, war was not a good or meritorious act, and it was certainly not “holy.” How, then, did they justify war? “The purpose of all wars is peace.” So wrote Aristotle long ago, and in the eleventh century Anna Komnene quoted him in explaining why her father Alexios had to devote so much time and energy to warfare. She also makes it clear that, as with an individual, so a nation was entitled to use force in defending itself. Alexios was also, in her mind, justified in taking military action to recover lost territory, to force compliance with a sworn treaty, or to avert a greater evil. Other writers, when they do advert to the causes of war, seek to justify it much as Anna.
Perhaps the clearest and most deliberate explanation of the Byzantine view of war is that put forth by Leo VI in the beginning of his Tactical Constitutions, very early in the tenth century. While the emperor’s highest priority was to see to the peace and prosperity of his subjects, he realizes that, to assure this, he must maintain the armed forces in good order and promote the study of tactics and strategy. Why must war take up so much of the emperor’s energies? “Out of reverence for the image and the word of God, all men ought to have embraced peace and fostered love for one another instead of taking up murderous weapons in their hands to be used against their own people. But since the devil, the original killer of men, the enemy of our race, has made use of sin to bring men around to waging war, contrary to their basic nature, it is absolutely necessary for men to wage war in return against those whom the devil maneuvers and to take their stand with unflinching resolve against nations who want war.” Eventually, he hopes, “peace will be observed by all and become a way of life.”
The Byzantines were not to wage war against other peoples, Leo wrote, unless those others should initiate hostilities and invade our territory. “Then,” he addressed the commander, “you do indeed have a just cause, inasmuch as the enemy has started an unjust war. With confidence and enthusiasm take up arms against them. It is they who have provided the cause and who have unjustly raised their hands against those subject to us. Take courage then. You will have the God of justice on your side. Taking up the struggle on behalf of your brothers, you and your whole force will be victorious. . . . Always make sure that the causes of war are just.”
The Byzantine wars were not “holy” wars, but just wars, imperial wars. They were waged to defend the empire or to recover land that rightfully belonged to it. The soldiers put their lives on the line for the emperor and the people subject to him, the Christian people. They were to “struggle on behalf of relatives, friends, fatherland, and the entire Christian people.” Toward the end of the tenth century another military author spoke up on behalf of the men on the eastern frontier who “choose to brave dangers on behalf of our holy emperors and all the Christian people. They are the defenders and, after God, the saviors of the Christians.”
In conclusion, then, Muslims believed force might be used to bring all people under the sway of Islam;Western knights believed that they were called not only to defend but to “exalt” Christianity and that attacks on its enemies could be holy and meritorious. The Byzantines believed that war was neither good nor holy, but was evil and could be justified only in certain conditions that centered on the defense of the empire and its faith. They were convinced that they were defending Christianity itself and the Christian people, as indeed they were.