Interview: War, Byzantium, and Military Saints

In an absorbing interview, Dr. James Skedros, Cantonis Professor of Byzantine Studies and Professor of Early Christianity at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, leads us into the tumultuous world of Byzantine warfare to examine Orthodox views on war and peace, the veneration of military saints in the Christian Roman Empire, and what the Byzantine experience can teach our own turbulent times.

RTE: Dr. Skedros, before we discuss the veneration of Byzantine military saints, would you begin by describing how military activity was viewed in the Christian Roman Empire?

DR. SKEDROS: Military activity was a dominant and constant aspect of the East Roman Empire. Not that Byzantine society was militaristic in the way that ancient Spartan culture was, but rather, as an imperial power with enemies on all of its borders, the Byzantines were constantly at war. The Byzantine State was very large—at its height it covered nearly as much territory as that of the imperial Roman Empire. Its borders were vulnerable and the Byzantines always seemed to be prosecuting some sort of war—whether for defensive purposes, for retaliation, trying to regain land, or all of the above. War was a recurring event. Byzantium emerged from the late Roman world where an organized professional military was part and parcel of society. Further, like their ancient predecessors and medieval contemporaries, the Byzantines took advantage of any means possible to defend themselves—not only direct military action, but also through political and economic means, the creation of alliances, hiring of mercenaries, the paying of tribute to keep enemies at bay, and arranging of inter-dynastic marriages. Then there was this incredible secret weapon—so secret that we still don’t know exactly what it was made of—Greek fire.

The Byzantines also had great tactical minds. They produced treatises and handbooks on warfare and military tactics and they had an incredible foundation of Roman soldiery that stays with them throughout all of their eleven-hundred-year history. They also have a well-organized bureaucracy of negotiation: sending diplomats here, marrying a member of the imperial family off to create an alliance, paying 30,000 gold coins a year, for example, to enemies such as the Bulgarians to obtain a thirty-year truce, particularly when they are defending multiple borders at the same time. They are always thinking, planning, dealing with, and guarding their borders. The question is, to what extent does war trickle down into the provinces or the hinterland? If you are living in Asia Minor, in Cappadocia for example, it may very well be that from the third century to the Arab raids of the seventh century, you have three or four hundred years of relative peace. Do people in the center of such peaceful areas have a kind of Pax Romana period? I don’t have a sense that the experience of war is trickling down to everyone, but as a state apparatus, Byzantines are always, if not actively at war, certainly aware that war is on the horizon. The borders, however, were always vulnerable.

RTE: I wonder if this period of Cappadocian peace is similar to our situation in North America, where over the past century we have participated in distant wars, but not at home on our own soil. For them, like us, there were probably intermittent drafts, and certainly taxes for defense.

DR. SKEDROS: Yes, particularly during the Macedonian Dynasty, roughly the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries, it is estimated that nearly three quarters of the budget was spent on military activity. This is a rebirth, the attempt of Byzantium to regain territory, and a period where you have a succession of military rulers who themselves went out and fought in battle.

RTE: To modern ears, paying invaders such as the Bulgarians a yearly retainer to maintain a thirty-year truce seems almost dishonorable, but in context it was extremely shrewd because they saved both lives and money and could concentrate their military endeavors on other borders, such as during the Persian or Arab invasions. Geographically, they were extremely vulnerable. 

DR. SKEDROS: It also speaks to the wealth of an empire that has the resources to fight on one front while paying off the other.

RTE: As a Christian empire, how would the Byzantines have looked at war? We hear of pacifist writings in early centuries. Did that change after the Roman Empire became Christian?

DR. SKEDROS: Already in early Christianity there seems to be a tension between those who support war and those who reject it wholesale. When you look outside of the New Testament texts, you hear pacifist voices at the end of the second century. By the beginning or middle of the third century, you find statements like, “Christians shouldn’t be involved in the military,” which suggests that they were in the military. It seems that the biggest challenge for Christians who served in the Roman army before Constantine, as seen also in the lives of military saints, is not so much the concern over killing in battle, but the question of whether or not a Christian can or should participate in the various pagan rituals associated with being a member of the military. Having said that, I think you can find post-New Testament Christian authors who, if not 100% pacifist, are pacifistic voices. By the fourth century you have a Christian emperor, and a slow shift towards a Christian empire that still needs to be defended. The New Testament reads very much as if Christ and the early Church are against violence, so why haven’t Christians become out-and-out pacifists? Is it because they are realists and see that evil in the world needs to be confronted, or have they somehow sold out?

Read full interview here: