Should Strategists Take Baths? The Byzantine Empire’s Lesson in Surviving Uncertainty

Why do some organizations survive and thrive while others falter? The question has long been asked, and the proposed answers are many, but one factor that seems to play a very strong role is the ability to maintain a creative connection with the changing reality of one’s environment. A historical example is the survival of the Byzantine Empire.

In his book on the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire, strategy specialist Edward Luttwak asks how the empire was able to endure for nearly 1,000 years despite being located in an unfavorable geographic area and under constant attack from virtually every direction. How can such longevity be explained when its “big brother,” the far more prestigious Western Roman Empire, lasted only about 600 years?

According to Luttwak, it was because its rulers were able to adapt strategically to difficult circumstances and devise new ways of dealing with successive enemies. The empire relied at least as much on military force as on persuasion to recruit allies, deter threatening neighbors, and manipulate potential enemies into attacking each other instead. Anything was good for deflecting attacks, including paying off tribes. There were no principles, only extreme pragmatism.

For this strategy to succeed, it was essential for the Byzantines to maintain constant contact with hostile tribes and empires, even those far away. This strategy had two goals: first, to be able to anticipate a tribe’s hostile intentions by being informed as early as possible; second, to prevent such hostile intentions from materializing. Contact was maintained by all possible means, from espionage to trade to arranged marriages, but the basic attitude of the Empire was based on recognizing these tribes as equals with whom it was not unworthy to mix. This is a far cry from the attitude of the Western Romans, heirs in this respect to the Greeks, who regarded foreign tribes as barbarians with whom contact was unacceptable.

Strategists beware! (Photo: mk. s on Unsplash)

Interestingly, Luttwak attributes the Byzantines’ ease of contact to their Christian religion, which discouraged bathing because it saw it as an invitation to sensuality. The Byzantines, less clean, were therefore less repulsed by the barbarians’ odor than were the cleanness-obsessed Romans. As a result, they mingled with them more easily.

This barbarian-inspired Roman revulsion, the distance between thought and terrain, remains relevant to the way strategy is thought and practiced today. In our book Constructing Cassandra on strategic surprises, Milo Jones and I described how an organization like the CIA remains marked by a deep scientism that makes it look at the world in a clinical way. This clinical vision is often found in the business world, where marketing analysts, strategists, or financiers view the world through neat, disembodied quantitative models, and whose plans are often challenged by events they didn’t see coming. On the contrary, Georges Clemenceau, President of the French Council (Prime Minister) at the end of 1917, was also constantly in the field, “feeling” the reality of the war and the lives of the soldiers. No data can replace a connection with the reality on the ground, and this reality can only be lived, not told.

📖 This article is an excerpt from my book “Welcome to Uncertainty

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🇫🇷 French version of this article here.

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