Devise and Conquer: Lessons From Rome
From the May 29, 2017, issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
By J. E. LENDON
May 21, 2017
Pax Romana is a magic mirror that shows us the bloody beasts we must become to raise and rule an American empire. Few seek such a course, but it is the inevitable end of many or indeed most realistic American foreign policy options, especially in the Middle East. How must we behave if we wish to hold dominion as securely as the Romans did over sundry ominous, contumacious, and well-armed folk?
First, we must be implacable in war. We must break our enemies. This was once the American way, as the Confederacy, the Germans, and the Japanese can attest. To the broken, mercy and alliance can be extended: To this American habit the same witnesses can be called. "Spare the humble and war down the proud" is how Virgil described our policy. Some foes, like Carthage, may never bow their heads: thus Cato the Elder appending the phrase "Carthage must be destroyed" to his every speech long after Carthage, defeated in two Punic Wars, had been reduced to a trifling trading post on the African foreshore. Carthage was finally obliterated during Rome's Third Punic War, in 149-146 B.C. Such foes must suffer the grimmer fate Tacitus described as Rome's alternative policy: "They make a desert and they call it peace."
We need not turn victory into rule: We seek above all to inculcate a submissive attitude in those we defeat. The Romans rarely made war to seize territory and were long reluctant to create provinces under direct government, preferring deferential friends to taxpaying subjects. Many puzzling instances of Roman action or of sloth—including the alleged advice of Augustus, Rome's greatest conqueror, to his successors, to halt Roman expansion—can be understood when it is grasped that the Romans sought victory for nation and army rather than rule over more dirt; that they valued psychological over territorial domination; and that, early on at least, they felt that the direct administration of a conquered area was a sign of failure.
Allies, in the Roman view, must be supported with arms, even if—especially if—they are in the wrong, as were the "Sons of Mars," the mercenary company that inadvertently ignited the First Punic War. They must be supported even if supporting them is perilous, even if supporting them pits you against a mighty enemy, such as Pyrrhus of Epirus (Pyrrhic his victories might have been, but they killed tens of thousands of Romans). Only by such actions against Rome's own interest was the loyalty of allies ensured afterwards when disloyalty was in the allies' interest—as when Hannibal thrice defeated the Romans and was trampling his way down Italy, and the power of Rome appeared as a balloon drifting towards the sharp tusk of a Carthaginian elephant. An empire consists both of subject lands and loyal allies, ideally mostly the latter. For centuries the Romans' most usual term for their empire was simply "the allies."
A properly submissive attitude was difficult for ancient states to maintain, and the Romans were apt to see arrogance where none was intended—as, perhaps, in the case of Carthage. Over time they also came to grasp the joys and profits of direct rule. But their way of war served them well for keeping the peace over what evolved into a territorial empire, because they were no less implacable if that peace were broken. Spare no effort to defeat and hunt down rebels (so the Romans thought). If they flee to the gable of the world—to Masada, 1,300 feet above a desert—carry in water and build a ramp up to that roof and leave it as your monument when the rebels finally preempt their capture by suicide. Atrocity was the Roman way in war and revolts, in part because they enjoyed it—the old wolf-magic still pulsed in their blood—but also because they knew well the terrible power of example.
The Roman peace was kept in less brutal ways, too, as Adrian Goldsworthy goes on to show here. Graceful in prose, learned in lore, as comfortable with archaeological as with literary witness, and a master of anecdote and historical comparison, Goldsworthy points his reader to many instances where Roman rule succeeded by powerful protection, upright justice, and intermingled economic interest.
After the turn of the millennium, Roman soldiers were rare in most of the interior provinces of the empire, because the Romans never imagined that their distant, descending, all-slaughtering military might could replace in local sway the power that rises up by nature from city street, from farm and fane. At that level, the power to collect rent is the power to collect taxes, and the power to protect the harvest is the power to drive off broken men and brigands. Buy the men who live by rent, and control the cities; in ruder lands, buy those who command the ancient fidelity or the piety of the folk. Rome collected rentiers and local chiefs into town councils, councils collectively charged with gathering taxes and keeping the peace, councilors who in exchange Rome allowed to lord over lesser men, and squeeze them.
If that squeezing be our measure, the rule of the councils was perhaps the most successful regime in the history of the West, involving the greatest peaceful transfer of wealth from the low to the high. This we can tell from the vast and ornate structures that the squeezers built for their towns in rivalry with one another: the temples, markets, fountains, baths, colonnades, and libraries. York Minster took the Middle Ages over two-and-a-half centuries to finish; a second-century A.D. magnifico of Roman Ephesus could have built it in two-and-a-half years.
After the bloody conquest, and after the bloody suppression of the rebellions that often erupted when the sons of those killed in the conquest came of age, and despite the daily exactions by high from low—despite, in short, the way the Romans seemed to brood a nest full of the eggs of future strife—during the first two, and the fourth, centuries A.D., most of the Roman empire, most of the time, abode in profound, almost stultifying, peace. Golds-worthy argues that the cycles of stunning violence with which the Romans introduced themselves to their eventual subjects induced in the conquered a manner of coma, and that when eventually they awoke it appeared to them that they had always been servants of Rome, that Roman rule was by then (in the immortal formulation of Paul Veyne) "in the nature of things."
Can we take upon ourselves the cheerful cruelty needed to beat our enemies into that coma from which they will emerge our willing collaborators? Will we ever be able to reconcile our consciences to looking into Adrian Goldsworthy's mirror and seeing the wolves of old Rome, their chops crusted with blood, looking back at us?
J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity and Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins.