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Stefan Ancuta 5.6.


Warren Treadgold brings a whole new perspective to the debate with his analysis of Byzantine

attitudes towards warfare from a materialist-pragmatic viewpoint.1 In terms of what has already

been said, he agrees with the arguments of Kolia-Dermitzaki and Kolbaba, but not with their

conclusions. He finds the conclusions of Laiou and Oikonomides more convincing. Byzantines,

who used the term holy and sacred exhaustively, did not use it for wars, which is

understandable since wars are not morally neutral and universally acceptable things. Wars were at

best not evil, something unclean, not good enough to call holy. The titles of Kolbabas article and

that of Haldon are also not to his liking, since from his perspective, Byzantines didnt really fight

for Christianity, nor did they fight for peace. There are multiple examples of Byzantines preferring

to fight against Christians instead of Muslims, especially amongst themselves, completely contrary

to their supposed ideology of peace and philanthropy. He agrees with Laious position on just wars,

but reduces the acceptable grounds for justification to only two: wars of defence and wars of


Byzantine wars can be categorized into foreign (with subcategories offensive, reconquest, and

defensive) and civil wars, though the only real offensive wars were fought in an age where no

researcher would even call the Empire Byzantine, by pagan emperor and have thus no relevance

here. Wars were mostly defensive, restrained and reactive. The Byzantines preferred not to fight,

there was minimal deterrence against incursions, most of the time they just payed the enemy off,

because it was cheaper than fighting. There were also very few serious attempts to recover lost

territory, not even when the opportunity was ripe for it.

He doesnt even consider Heraclius war as one of reconquest, rather a defensive that he was forced

into by the escalation of the Persians. Most of the territory recovered in the following centuries was

Warren Treadgold, Byzantium, The Reluctant Warrior. In: Niall Christie, Maya Yazigi (Hgs.), Noble Ideals and
Bloody Realities. Warfare in the Middle Ages (Leiden/Boston 2006), 209-233.

Stefan Ancuta 5.6.2017

some case of defensive or retaliatory efforts that got somewhat out of hand.2 It is also clear that

Byzantines preferred not to recover territories now inhabited by Muslims, Christian population

would simply be easier to govern.

Domestic political considerations also played a role in deciding which territory should be recovered

or not. Emperor Alexius Is reconquest of Anatolia, for instance, was not complete, because he

feared a rebellion from the landowners he would have to return the territory to.

Looking at the organization of troops one realizes how defensive Byzantine mentality was. There

were 3 different systems of organization, all focused on defence. When one of them declined, which

often coincided with loss of territory, the next system was eventually put in place. In the meantime,

a mobile army had to be fielded to protect the otherwise defenceless state. These armies were

essential for the great campaigns of reconquest in these times of transition.

The last question Treadgold asks is why the Byzantines fought so many civil wars. His answer is

also quite practical: gaining the imperial centre was connected with better rewards than conquering

foreign territory. Foreign wars of reconquest were risky, defeat meaning a loss of prestige so severe,

that rebellions might be encouraged. By the same reasoning defensive wars had to be fought. But

there is also a theological explanation based on the imperial-Christian ideology that legitimizes the

emperor as Gods chosen only until God decides to choose someone else. Thus, any successful

rebellion was legitimized post-fact as having had Gods approval and aid. Wars were still thought

of as bad, but civil wars offered better incentives to try than foreign wars.

So Byzantines did not have holy war, because they preferred not to fight at all, the few reconquest

they did make were incidental and not part of a consolidated effort of reclaiming Christian land or

protecting Christians.

Treadgold, Reluctant Warrior, 219.

Stefan Ancuta 5.6.2017

His starting point is St. Basils 13th cannon, which he interprets as lenient towards those who kill

in battle, compared to some of his other teachings.