Byzantium, the Underappreciated Empire III: Byzantine Bribery

by northernbeholder

When last we left our favourite Roman successor state, there had been a plague, two devastating decades-long wars, and the loss of the Empire’s richest lands.  Now Byzantium can only afford to maintain a smaller number of soldiers, each of whom takes so long to train and equip that he is quite literally too valuable to risk in a fight.  How then will the Byzantines last over five more centuries?

The answer is simpler than you might think.  Although Byzantium is significantly poorer than it was prior to the Muslim emergence, it is still fantastically rich.  The increasingly-settled tribes outside its borders can only dream of the massive displays of wealth that are an everyday occurrence in Constantinople.  Well, dream and launch avaristic raids to try and steal that wealth for themselves.  When an enemy army (or more often, horde) threatened the Empire, Byzantium’s rulers did some quick calculations.  How many soldiers can we expect to lose driving them off?  Are one or more cities likely to be looted, and what will we lose in tax revenue? How much farmland will be torched, and will it cause a famine?  These figures were assigned a monetary value and added up, and a representative was then dispatched to the unruly barbarians, authorized to offer them anything up to the total they had previously determined in cold, hard cash.

Bribery.  Deliberate, calculated bribery.  If Byzantium could pay off would-be aggressors with an amount less than what they estimate it will cost them to repel an invasion, they did so.  And if that didn’t work, they took their money and went to visit the next tribe or proto-kingdom just to the north of the previous one.  Hello, barbarian king.  Your neighbours are looking to cause us trouble. We will give you all this money to distract them for us.  (This was a proven tactic dating back to the internecine wars with Sassanid Persia; Byzantine victory in the final conflict was considerably aided by the warriors of the western Turkic Khaganate, who were paid off to plunder the Persians’ hinterlands while their armies were clashing with the Byzantines.)  Best of all, because the money was going to Byzantium’s neighbours, they would have every last solidus back within a year.  Byzantium was, for centuries, the only place in Europe to get a great many manufactured and luxury goods, and as such was a tremendous centre of trade.  The cash used to pay off a threatening Slavic king would soon be back in Byzantine coffers in exchange for spices, silk or fine pottery.

Of course, bribery did not always work – if it had, there would have been no great warrior-emperors such as Basileios II (976-1025 AD), who restored the Empire’s crumbling borders, not only defeating the aggression of the Fatimid Caliphate in the east, but also suppressing in the west the kingdom of Bulgaria (which had posed a serious threat to the Empire’s European territories for some time) and the Serbs in a brutal campaign that earned him the title “Bulgar-slayer”.  However, even when Byzantium used its soldiers, it tried as hard as possible to avoid getting them into a fight.

Byzantine military tactics were deep and detailed, and more importantly uniform. Written manuals were created and distributed to the literate officers of the army, containing not only brief descriptions of the Empires’ primary foes and their fighting styles, but also information on the proper use of formations,  equipping of soldiers, and most importantly when and how to offer battle.  In the quest to preserve the lives of expensive soldiers while still inflicting harm on the enemy, the greatest – the only – empire of the Mediterranean engaged in, of all things, guerrilla warfare.  The enemy army was not to be faced directly; instead they were to be corralled and starved.  Foraging parties were to be butchered; supply lines severed; scouts run down and killed.  The enemy is to be bled white through traps and ambush, and if possible, fed misinformation and rumour.  Only at the very end shall the foe be confronted, ideally when they are laden with ill-gotten plunder to impede their mobility, and even then nothing so simple as a head-on engagement is to be deployed.  The Byzantines used feints, false retreats, advantageous terrain, pitfalls, hidden trenches and flanking assaults to ensure any battle was as one-sided as possible, maximizing enemy losses while minimizing their own.  It was an astonishingly effective way to wage war and the primary reason why the Byzantine Empire outlived its Roman predecessor by over seven hundred years.

To the knights of western Europe, however, it was far from impressive.  Although warfare and tactics would begin to evolve in the 13 and 14th century (a topic you can be assured I will cover), during the time of the First Crusade it was quite straightforward: Charge the enemy and overwhelm them with your supremely conditioned and heavily armoured warrior caste.  There were no standing armies in feudal Europe, merely a chain of land-owning warriors owing fealty to more powerful warriors that, when called upon, formed a formidable host of steel and horseflesh, each individual drawing upon a lifetime of training to perform as a deadly warrior, but acting largely without any manner of greater cohesion.  To be brutally honest (and with apologies to my own ancestors) they were not far removed from the Germanic warrior tribes that had settled in the disintegrating Roman Empire, placing great pride in personal performance and considering it cowardly to shirk from fighting.  Consider the following passage from the Strategikon (edited for brevity’s sake):

“The [Franks, Lombards, and others like them] place great value on freedom. They are bold and undaunted in battle. daring and impetuous as they are, they consider any timidy and even a short retreat a disgrace. They calmly despise death as they fight violently in hand-to-hand combat either on horseback or on foot … when things are not going well and their friends have been killed, they will risk their lives fighting to avenge them … either on horseback or on foot they are impetuous and undisciplined in charging, as if they were the only people in the world who are not cowards.”

Sound familiar?  Here’s the thing: Scholars date the Strategikon’s writing as being sometime between 570-610 AD (complicated by the unknown identity of the author, although Emperor Maurice (582-602 AD) is the most popular guess).  The First Crusade began in 1096 AD.  Military tactics hadn’t come far.

The result, of course, is that when fighting with the Byzantines during the Crusade – whether against or alongside them – the knights and nobility of Europe were left thoroughly unimpressed.  Chronicles of the Crusades frequently use terms such as “cowardly”, “craven” and “timid” to describe the Byzantine armies and their fighting style.  If anything, the situation was made even worse by the circumstances under which the Crusaders were operating: As far as Byzantium was concerned, the knights of western Europe were just another barbarian tribe being bribed (albeit in an unorthodox fashion – reconciliation on matters of faith)  to come fight a different tribe (in this case the Turks) in order to preserve Byzantine lives, such that the Byzantines took every opportunity to foist the bulk of the fighting on the Crusaders while seizing the spoils themselves.  It was the chronicles penned by the monks who accompanied the knights, and not the Byzantine records, that would go on to make up the basis of European history and, thus, European attitudes towards Byzantium’s legacy.

Next time: Ancillary reasons why everyone forgets Byzantium and conclusion.