The Byzantine Empire remains one of the great historical mysteries. We can go over it’s long and conflicted history some other time. Generally until recently most historians either ignored it or re-acted to it’s history and culture with distaste and amazement.
Edward Gibbon is the source of much of this negative attitude and an often quoted quote of Gibbon is as follows:
The vices of the Byzantine Army were inherent, their victories were accidental,1The quote is more than slightly misleading in that it forgets the surrounding context which is as follows:
The theory of war was not more familiar to the camps of Caesar and Trajan, than to those of Justinian and Maurice. The iron of Tuscany or Pontus still received the keenest temper from the skill of the Byzantine workmen. The magazines were plentifully stored with every species of offensive and defensive arms. In the construction and use of ships, engines, and fortifications, the Barbarians admired the superior ingenuity of a people whom they had so often vanquished in the field. The science of tactics, the order, evolutions, and stratagems of antiquity, was transcribed and studied in the books of the Greeks and Romans. But the solitude or degeneracy of the provinces could no longer supply a race of men to handle those weapons, to guard those walls, to navigate those ships, and to reduce the theory of war into bold and successful practice. The genius of Belisarius and Narses had been formed without a master, and expired without a disciple Neither honor, nor patriotism, nor generous superstition, could animate the lifeless bodies of slaves and strangers, who had succeeded to the honors of the legions: it was in the camp alone that the emperor should have exercised a despotic command; it was only in the camps that his authority was disobeyed and insulted: he appeased and inflamed with gold the licentiousness of the troops; but their vices were inherent, their victories were accidental, and their costly maintenance exhausted the substance of a state which they were unable to defend. After a long and pernicious indulgence, the cure of this inveterate evil was undertaken by Maurice; but the rash attempt, which drew destruction on his own head, tended only to aggravate the disease. A reformer should be exempt from the suspicion of interest, and he must possess the confidence and esteem of those whom he proposes to reclaim. The troops of Maurice might listen to the voice of a victorious leader; they disdained the admonitions of statesmen and sophists; and, when they received an edict which deducted from their pay the price of their arms and clothing, they execrated the avarice of a prince insensible of the dangers and fatigues from which he had escaped.2
The first thing to note is that the first quote of Gibbon’s is in fact a misquote. The actual sentence is:
The genius of Belisarius and Narses had been formed without a master, and expired without a disciple Neither honor, nor patriotism, nor generous superstition, could animate the lifeless bodies of slaves and strangers, who had succeeded to the honors of the legions: it was in the camp alone that the emperor should have exercised a despotic command; it was only in the camps that his authority was disobeyed and insulted: he appeased and inflamed with gold the licentiousness of the troops; but their vices were inherent, their victories were accidental, and their costly maintenance exhausted the substance of a state which they were unable to defend.
I have also found this misquote several times on the web. Apparently no one tried to trace the quote back to its source.3
Reading the quote in context it is obvious that Gibbon was not making a general comment on the Byzantine army throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire. Instead he is talking about the Byzantine army during the last part of the 6th century C.E., and early 7th century C.E.
Of course Oman is not wrong in implying that Gibbon was overall very negative about the Byzantine Empire. However Oman’s doctoring of the quote is at least today unacceptable.
That the Byzantine army was in fact rather efficient and often very successful is also clear from the record.4
It appears that Oman was in fact creating a silly comment which he could easily tear down and show to be absurd and ridiculous. In other words Oman created a straw man. In point of fact Gibbon was not making the point that Oman said he was but a different one. It is of course arguable that Gibbon was in fact decidedly negative about the Byzantine Empire and that this modified quote mine does in fact give Gibbon’s actual opinion about the Byzantine army in general.
Even if so the fact is it is still a distorted quote mine.
1. This quote is from Oman, Charles, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages, Methuen & Co. London, 1898, p. 170. A Copy can be found at the Internet Archive Here.
2. Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Editor, Bury J.J., v. 5, Meuthuen & Co., London, 1911, pp. 63-64, (ch. 46), also at Gutenberg Here.
3. See for example: Petersen, Charles C., The Strategikon: A Forgotten Military Classic, Here.
4. See Footnote 1, Book. 4.