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Emperor Maurice |
Saint, soldier and student of war

Emperor Maurice is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 136, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

How could a faith dedicated to peace embrace the realities of the battlefield? The pious emperor Maurice writes the book on Christian military practice

Emperor Maurice - Saint, soldier and student of war

Emperor Maurice - Saint, soldier and student of war
Improved weapons meant protection transcended plumage in newer Byzantine helmets, as in this reconstructed model (above) from Heddernheim, Germany. Protective features included an extensive neck guard and crossed reinforcing bars, designed to deflect a fatal blow to the crown of the head.

It was said of Emperor Maurice that he slept but four hours a night and spent twice as long at prayer each day. Indeed, the parsimonious, red-haired Cappadocian was undoubtedly one of the most devout of Byzantine emperors, and the only one canonized by the Orthodox Church apart from Constantine himself. Yet he was also a soldier, the architect of a military revival in the eastern empire, and widely acknowledged as the author of one of the most effective manuals of warfare ever written.

Maurice is often credited with bringing together the collective military wisdom of his predecessors and their generals into a single, ruthlessly pragmatic document, the Strategikon (Handbook of Strategy), which instructed the officers of what was by now a Christian army on the most effective way to combat, and if need be slaughter, their enemies.

But how could a faith that endorses turning the other cheek embrace the realities of the battlefield? Wasn’t the very idea of a Christian soldier a contradiction? The early church had frowned on military service, and at the end of the second century, the ethicist Tertullian stated, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” (See A Pinch of Incense, chapter 6.) A few decades later the theologian Origen had argued that Christians should be exempt from imperial military service. Yet paradoxically, Origen also imposed upon the armed forces of the empire the moral duty to take up arms in a righteous cause. (See A Pinch of Incense, chapter 7.)

A doctrine that recognized a general duty to promote peace and security seemed incompatible with one that encouraged Christians to exempt themselves from that responsibility. The issue was complicated by the fact that early Christian history is replete with military martyrs. Indeed, in 286 the emperor Maximian martyred an entire legion of Coptic Christian soldiers–sixty-six hundred of them–for refusing to swear a pagan oath. (See By This Sign, chapter 4.)

Towards the end of the fourth century, Basil the Great, in the thirteenth canon of his first epistle to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, offered a solution, though hardly a congenial one. “Our fathers,” he wrote, “did not reckon killing in war as murders, but granted pardon, it seems to me, to those fighting in defense of virtue and piety. Perhaps, however, it is advisable that, since their hands are not clean, they should abstain from communion for a period of three years.” That soldiers, whose lives were often at immediate risk, should in effect excommunicate themselves during the perils of frontline duty might not, to them at least, seem an altogether satisfactory solution.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Basil’s suggested prohibition was never observed, and a generation later, Augustine articulated what many, particularly in the military, had probably worked out for themselves: that in a world increasingly marked by savagery, lawlessness and chaos, an empire that represented stability and order was worth fighting for.

This recognition came at a time when warfare, as practiced in the Roman world, was undergoing dramatic changes, not unlike those prompted by the use of gunpowder a millennium later. The legions of Rome had been transformed from the mainly infantry formations that had withstood the ferocious charges of Celts and Germans into more mobile armies of lancers and mounted archers.

The transformation traced its origins to a famous disaster. In 378, Gothic cavalry played a major role in the defeat of a Roman army at the battle of Adrianople, 140 miles west of Constantinople, where forty thousand legionaries were slaughtered. (See Darkness Descends, chapter 3.) It was, according to contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the worst defeat suffered by a Roman army in five hundred years.

Thereafter, successive waves of mounted barbarian invaders had reinforced that lesson. By the reign of Justinian (527—565), the court historian Procopius describes a new imperial legionary. He is typically a cavalryman, armed with a bow and sword (and sometimes also a spear), loosing rapid-fire volleys of arrows as he thunders over the battlefield. Traditionalists “who reverence and worship the ancient times, and give no credit to modern improvements,” were worthy only of contempt.

It fell to the pious Maurice to codify these improvements and turn them into a state-of-the-art manual of warfare that would form the basis of military instruction for more than three hundred years. Whether Maurice himself wrote the Strategikon, or as was common, commissioned its production, is not known. The emperor’s experience on the Persian front, however, was considered both extensive and brilliant, so his own authorship is altogether possible.

Whoever wrote it, the Strategikon employs the simple and direct language of the practical soldier, and demonstrates a clear understanding of command and the stark realities of the battlefield. The book covers everything a commander might want to know, from training and drilling routines to the order of battle and the care of horses. It deals with sieges, ambush and provision of supplies, and advises on specific tactics designed to combat Persians, Franks, Lombards, and the latest horror to arrive from the central Asian steppes, the Avars and the Slavs.

But the Strategikon is by no means devoid of Maurice’s faith. Officers are instructed on behavior before, during, and after combat. “First,” writes the author, “we urge upon the general that his most important concern be the love of God and justice . . . without which it is impossible to carry out any plan, however well devised it may seem, or to overcome any enemy, however weak he may be thought.” Prayers are called for prior to every engagement, and the commander should be in good standing with his Maker, so that in the heat of battle he can pray to God as to a friend.

Finally, after combat, “a general should give prompt attention to the wounded and see to burying the dead. Not only is this a religious duty, but it greatly helps the morale of the living.” To this end, the Byzantine army was the first to employ medical corpsmen who accompanied units into battle. “In courage,” writes the historian Charles Orman (The Art of War in the Middle Ages), the revitalized imperial military “were equal to their enemies; in discipline, organization and armament, far superior.”

Maurice’s overthrow and gruesome execution in 602 was an ignominious end for a military reformer whose reign, according to historian George Ostrogorsky (History of the Byzantine State), “marked an important step forward in the transformation of the worn-out late Roman Empire into the new and vigorous organization of the medieval Byzantine Empire.”

The contradictions inherent in the concept of the Christian soldier would be debated for centuries. That Christians could fight “the just war” was by now widely accepted, but the precise definition of such a war would remain elusive.

The West would come to fervently endorse the concept of a “crusade” (literally, a war of the cross) to recover what Islam had conquered. While in the East, on the frontiers of Islam, war remained a matter of survival. “The crusading movement, as the West conceived it, was something entirely foreign,” writes Ostrogorsky. “There was nothing new in war against the infidel, but to the Byzantines, this was the outcome of hard political necessity.”

Four centuries after Maurice, when Emperor Nikephoros Phocas suggested that Byzantine soldiers killed in battle, especially against Islam, should be considered martyrs, he would be vigorously and successfully opposed by the patriarch of Constantinople, Polyeuktos. The patriarch recalled the ancient canon of St. Basil that when a man kills, even in battle, “his hands are not clean.”

This is the end of the Emperor Maurice category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 136, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Emperor Maurice from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at