Warfare, State, and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204

By John Haldon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE

Fighting for peace: attitudes to warfare in Byzantium

Warfare and the Christian Roman empire: the problem

Since God has put in our hands the imperial authority…we believe that there is nothing higher or greater that we can do than to govern in judgement and justice…and that thus we may be crowned by His almighty hand with victory over our enemies (which is a thing more precious and honourable than the diadem which we wear) and thus there may be peace… 1

This passage, taken from the introduction to the Ecloga of the emperors Leo III and Constantine V, issued in 741, admirably sums up the key elements in the East Roman attitude to warfare, which was seen as undesirable but at the same time justified in order to maintain order and achieve peace. But the evidence for eastern Roman or Byzantine attitudes to warfare and fighting contains a number of ambiguities and paradoxes. Such ambiguities have existed throughout the history of cultures dominated by Christianity. Some of these societies have developed a reputation for being more warlike or more peace-loving than others, however—both in the eyes of their contemporaries as well as in those of the modern commentator. Western medieval society gave the former impression to others when it was involved in warlike confrontation with them (as during the Crusading period, for example), and Byzantium is placed usually in the second category. In this chapter, we will look at the ways in which early Christian ideas about warfare evolved in the later Roman and the medieval East Roman world, to produce the peculiarly Byzantine attitude to war which permitted western Crusaders and others, as well as some modern commentators, to caricature them as cowardly and effete.

Christianity has never developed formally an ideological obligation to wage war against “infidels” presented in the terms of Christian theology, even if, at times and on an ad hoc basis, individuals have spoken and acted as though

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