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The Strategikon A Forgotten Military Classic Charles C. Petersen

The Strategikon A Forgotten Military Classic Charles C. Petersen

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07/24/2013

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Return to Military History page.Return to Military Theory page.
 
A Forgotten Military Classic
Charles C. Petersen
(Article from
 Military Review
, August 1992. Scanned by Air War College.)
The
Strategikon
was written to serve as a manual to assist with the training of themounted troops of the Byzantine army. The author suggests that this forgotten work hasuse for today's military organizations. He compares the philosophies of the
Strategikon
tothose of Sun Tzu's
The Art of War
and discusses their differences. Finally, he notes that it was not until the 20th century that the Byzantine type of warfare returned to thebattlefield.
O EDWARD GIBBON, "the vices of the Byzantine armies were inherent, their victoriesaccidental."(1) Of all the many distortions in his
 Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
,this one ranks with the most glaring. For it was largely the excellence of the ByzantineEmpire's military organization and the sophistication of its art of war that enabled it towithstand assaults from Persians, Avars, Franks, Slavs and Arabs (to name just a few of its enemies) for more than 500 years between the sixth and 11th centuries.The sources of this excellence lay not in the genius of Belisarious or Narses who, despitethe brilliance of their victories, left no lasting imprint on the Byzantine military system,but in reforms enacted a generation later by the soldier-emperor Maurice (582-602) andcodified in an outstanding military manual, the
Strategikon
.
 
So
 
successful were Maurice'sreforms that they remained substantially undisturbed for the next five centuries. "Notuntil well into the nineteenth century," writes J. F. C. Fuller, "were military manuals of such excellence produced in western Europe."(2) Yet, very few copies of this work havesurvived; a printed version of the Greek text appeared only in 1981; and the first Englishtranslation, only in 1984.(3) Published by an academic press, it appears not to have cometo the attention of the general military reader and has already gone out of print.(4)
The Strategikon - A Forgotten Military Classic - Charles C. Petersenhttp://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/strategikon/strategikon.htm1 of 1410/27/09 2:39 PM
 
The
Strategikon
is
 
a practical manual, "a rather modest elementary handbook," in thewords of its introduction, "for those devoting themselves to generalship."(5) Its concernwith contemporary military problems contrasts sharply with the philosophical detachmentof Sun Tzu's
The Art of War
,
 
written a millennium earlier.(6) Even so, its militarywisdom, like that of the Chinese military classic, speaks to generals of every era, and theprinciples that influenced its instructions for the deployment and employment of the EastRoman army's field forces remain of interest today.
 
The
 Strategikon
on Maurice's Reforms
The
Strategikon
consists of 12 chapter-length "books," all but one of which deal with theorganization, training and support of mounted troops. But the mounted troops describedin the
Strategikon
were no ordinary cavalry; they were balanced and versatile fightingformations capable of winning decisions independently in battle against a variety of opponents and in many kinds of terrain. The Byzantine army's infantry, as Sir Charles W.C. Oman points out, was "altogether a subsidiary force," used more for garrison duty andsmall-scale mountain warfare than for taking the field with the horse.(7)The basic tactical unit of the Byzantine army, as reorganized by Maurice, was the
bandum
or 
tagma
, a mounted company whose size fluctuated between 200 and 400 horsemen."All of the
tagmas
should definitely not be of the same size," asserts the
Strategikon
. "If they are, the enemy can easily estimate the size of the army by counting standards."(8)Three or more
tagmas
formed a brigade or 
moira
; three
moiras
in turn, a division or 
meros
 —all of them, like the
tagma
, of variable strength. Twelve hundred years later, Napoleon laid down a similar rule for his own higher formations for similar reasons.(9) Nevertheless, the requirements of efficient command and control did impose upper limitson the size of these units. Thus, the
moira
could not exceed 3,000 men, nor the
meros
"more than six or seven thousand"; otherwise, "as they become larger and more extended,they may prove to be disorderly and confused."(10)The Byzantine army's success on the battlefield as a result of Maurice's reforms wasfounded on its effective blend of striking power, mobility and protection, and on a keenawareness that "the art of fighting depends upon the closest combination of the offensiveand the defensive, so closely as does the structure of a building depend upon bricks andmortar."(11) Every formation in the Byzantine army, from the smallest to the largest,embodied these principles in its organization and tactics and was, consequently, ableequally to fight on its own or as part of larger units, performing specialized roles.The smallest tactical unit, the
tagma
, derived its striking power from its combined use of fire (from horse archers) and shock (from lancers), an innovation that no Byzantineadversary could match, being proficient in one or the other, but seldom both together.Well in advance of the rest of the medieval world, as the
Strategikon
reveals, the EastRomans discovered that fire prepares the way for shock more through
 suppression
than
The Strategikon - A Forgotten Military Classic - Charles C. Petersenhttp://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/strategikon/strategikon.htm2 of 1410/27/09 2:39 PM
 
attrition and that the effectiveness of suppressive fire depends less on accuracy than onsheer volume and high trajectory. For when the enemy has to worry about avoiding themissiles raining down on him, his attention is diverted from what is happening directlyahead, and he becomes vulnerable to the shock of a charge.(12) Therefore, in theinstructions for drilling the
tagma
, the horse archers line up
behind 
the lancers, reversingthe earlier practice, so that they must use high-angle fire in order to reach the enemy andavoid hitting their own men.(13) The directions for training the individual horse archer are equally revealing: "He should be trained to shoot rapidly . . . . Speed is important inshaking the arrow loose and discharging it with force. . . . This is essential. . . . In fact,even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless."(14) This emphasis on speed,and hence volume, of fire, even at the cost of accuracy, was also without precedent inByzantine military practice.(15)The
tagma
's high mobility was the product of not only its equine locomotion but also thespecial training to enhance its cross-country capability. "It is essential," according to the
Strategikon
, "that the horses become accustomed not only to rapid maneuvering in open,level country, but also over hilly, thick and rough ground, and in the quick ascending anddescending of slopes. If they get used to these different types of ground, then neither mennor horses will be surprised or troubled by any sort of land." After describing some drillsto be used in "difficult country," the manual adds: "The men who spare their horses andneglect drills of this sort are really planning their own defeat."(16) The
tagma
's ability tomove and fight on irregular terrain was further enhanced by the fact that its troopers weretrained to fight on foot, as well as on horseback. This infantry training also improvedtheir chances of survival if they were unhorsed or their mounts were killed in combat.(17)For protection, the
tagma
's horsemen relied on helmets and on what the
Strategikon
describes as "hooded coats of mail reaching to their ankles, which can be caught up bythongs and rings." The lancers in the two front ranks also carried shields, and their mounts wore "protective pieces of iron armor about their heads, and breastplates of ironor felt, or else breast and neck coverings such as the Avars use."(18) In addition, the
tagma
was trained to fight both in extended (offensive) order and in close (defensive)order and to make rapid changes from one to the other as conditions required. During thecharge, the
tagma
advanced in close order, the horse archers protected by the lancersahead, and the lancers, in turn, by volleys of suppressive fire from the horse archers behind.(19)In higher formations, Maurice's reforms introduced a distinction between "assault troops"(
cursores
)
 
and "defenders" (
defensores
):
 
one third of each division or 
meros
was toconsist of the former, drawn up on its
 
flanks in open order, and the remaining two
 
thirdsof the latter, drawn up in the center in close order.(20) The task of assault troops was "tomove out ahead of the main line and rush upon the retreating enemy"—in other words, toconduct pursuits, presumably after the enemy line of battle had been successfully chargedand routed. The task of defenders, on the other hand, was to "follow them, not chargingout or breaking ranks, but marching in good order as a support for the assault troops if they should happen to fall back."(21) An inherent weakness of mixed infantry-cavalry
The Strategikon - A Forgotten Military Classic - Charles C. Petersenhttp://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/strategikon/strategikon.htm3 of 1410/27/09 2:39 PM

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