Empire Without End
The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century A.D. to the Third
“In our own disordered times, it is natural to look back for comfort and instruction to the experience of Roman imperial statecraft.” Thus writes Professor Luttwak. Livy, one of the historians treated by Lidia Mazzolani, started his own history of Rome in order to distract his mind from the unbearable present by steeping himself in the examples of virtue offered by antiquity. Early in the nineteenth century, Barthold Georg Niebuhr turned to the history of Rome (as he later told Francis Lieber) in order to distract his mind from the reality of Napoleon’s control over Europe: “We felt like Tacitus.”
Tacitus, another of the historians in Lidia Mazzolani’s book, of course complained that, with the end of the Republic, great genius died, and there was nothing worth writing about anyhow. What these and other historians of Rome have in common is the tendency to place their golden ages in the past, and (precisely) in the Roman past. That those to whom that particular past was present were doing the same will be no surprise to the historian who does not hanker after golden ages, past or future.
There was certainly a theme for a worthwhile book in the neurotic despair and historical escapism of the three eminent Roman historians treated in Empire Without End. The modern examples we have noted show that the theme is never without present interest and relevance. Unfortunately the author lacked both the knowledge and the scholarly care to write the book. Ignorant of many basic facts of the history of the period she purports to treat, she has also (as so often happens nowadays) been ill served by her translators, whose ignorance of those facts is even greater—matched only, it seems, by ignorance of the Latin language, in which the works discussed were written.1 It is hard to tell which particular instances of ignorance and confusion are due to whom, though such choice items as “the plebes” (for the plebeians), or “commodity data” recorded by the Pontifex Maximus, as well as numerous examples of zany surrealism in the “Bibliography” and notes, show the peculiar contribution of the translators. It hardly matters, in detail. When Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus are described as “the ancient sentries who from their promontories alerted one another with signal fires to the impending dangers of storms and pirate ships, discerned in the distance, beyond the roar of the breakers and the gleaming waves,” the nature of this book is clear to the discerning reader; and he will suspect that author and translators are in harmony.
Mazzolani’s basic thesis, which we have already glanced at, is unoriginal and noncontroversial. The facts, in most cases, seem taken from secondary works, expanded into a succession of vacuous purple patches, rarely accurate and often meaningless. The introduction shows the general standard. The Romans, in the Macedonian wars (in fact fought in what is now Greece), are said to have “marched along the routes that Alexander had followed…. The figure of Alexander, his curly, disheveled head tilted toward the sound of divine voices, towered luminously against the horizon” (p. 11). The plain of Magnesia, in western Asia Minor, is “dotted with temples that had been built by Cyrus and Artaxerxes” (p. 14). As was (much less justly) said of an eminent French writer: “C’est du bleu.”
After this, we can see that historical facts hardly matter. When the Roman ruling class of the Republic is constantly confused with “patricians,” who were in fact a small and well-defined section of it (a hallmark of historical ignorance); when Marius, Cicero, and that blue-blooded aristocrat Cato the Younger are “humbly born men”; when Sallust’s picture of the causes of Roman decline is totally misrepresented, and Livy at one time (p. 95) “unlike the poets of his day, does not appear to be a fervent admirer of Augustus,” at another (p. 122) becomes “the Emperor’s official historian”—when error and misrepresentation meet us practically everywhere, it will soon become clear that this book is merely another example of the standards of thought and language that some (fortunately not all) publishers nowadays seem to take for granted, in both their writers and their public, and foster by catering for them.
Professor Mario Pei’s foreword rehashes an ample selection of phrases from the text, and comes to the reassuring conclusion that although, like Rome, we are in danger, we do have the advantage of organized trade unions and “the utilization of steam, coal, oil, electricity, atomic fission,” so that there is hope for us yet.
It is a relief and a pleasure to turn to Professor Luttwak’s book. He provides reassuring demonstration of the fact that, in our depressingly fragmented scholarly world, an outsider, trained in a totally different field, but trained in rigorous thought and endowed with controlled creative imagination, can lovingly steep himself in the mass of technical publications with their minutiae of fact and reasoned conjecture produced by “the archaeologists, epigraphists, numismatists, and textual critics” (as he, tongue half in cheek, describes modern historians of Rome)—and come up with a fascinating scholarly synthesis that teaches them how they ought to be doing their job. The foreword, by J.F. Gilliam, one of the greatest living experts on the Roman army (who, incidentally, has never published a book), will ensure that they will not ignore it as the work of an amateur.
Professor Luttwak sees three phases in the defense strategy of the Roman Empire—three “systems,” each of them evolving out of its predecessor under pressure of historical changes, until the last one (and with it the Empire) collapses. It is his contention that, although the Romans had never heard of the jargon of systems analysis (jargon which he himself regrets and, on the whole, very successfully avoids), each of these is a coherent defense system in the modern sense. He produces the models and the diagrams to prove it. Like some strategic M. Jourdain, the Romans were thinking defense systems without knowing it.
The first is the system of “hegemonic expansionism,” taken over from the Republic and lasting through the first century of the Empire. The imperial territory, not yet properly demarcated and always ready to expand, is surrounded by client states, most of the way, and they act as shock absorbers. They absorb low-intensity attacks and shield the Empire proper from them, and they provide “geographic depth,” with gain of time (as well as their own military forces), against major invasions, which the imperial forces can come up to defeat. The Roman legions and native auxiliaries did not have to defend the entire perimeter: they could be kept back, where they could combine the provision of security against rebellion by largely disaffected populations within the Empire with the intimidation (“suasion” is Luttwak’s technical term) of the client kingdoms themselves and the potential enemies beyond. The result was a high degree of both economy and flexibility. The key to success was the management of the clients—by threats, diplomacy, subsidies, and (rarely) military intervention.
During the following century and a half, including the stable period of the Antonines, most of the client states were annexed and a frontier was gradually marked out where no natural frontier (sea or desert) existed. As the inhabitants of the Empire became more civilized, and expected protection while in turn offering spontaneous loyalty, “an investment of colossal proportions” gradually built up (except in a few special situations) a new system based on perimeter defense supported by regional backup organization.
The actual barriers (such as Hadrian’s Wall) sufficed to ward off low-intensity attacks and served as bases for “mobile and offensive” defense, mainly beyond the frontier, against threats of moderate intensity. As the last line, Roman legions, now mostly settled but mobile within a region, could deal with major invasions. Luttwak demolishes the common view of this system as a “cordon” (and an ineffective one at that). He shows that its real effect was to combine the maximum feasible security in the daily lives of the civilian population—such as the first system had never even aimed at delivering—with an infrastructure for “offensive defense” against major attack.
As the Empire weakened under the stress of constant civil war and invasion in the third century, and enemies at various points beyond the frontier (from the new Persian Empire in the East to confederations of German tribes in the West) grew more powerful, the Antonine system was shattered and massive invasions struck deep into the heart of the Empire. In response to this, a third system of “defense in depth” was developed from the time of Diocletian (emperor between 284 and 305): frontier defenses became strong fortifications, meant to hold out in the rear of major invasions while the enemy penetrated imperial territory, until mobile forces could be mustered to meet the invasion, perhaps deep inside the Empire. This was obviously a much less satisfactory system, and strong emperors at times tried to convert it to one of “preclusive defense,” but the Empire was no longer strong enough. Thus the actual imperial territory, the “logistic base” of the Empire, was gradually eroded, until the ordinary citizen no longer received enough protection to value the Empire.
Luttwak has been remarkably successful in assimilating the scattered ancient sources and the vast literature on the subject. Few (if any) specialist scholars could surpass him in this. Here is no A.J. Toynbee, following a single outdated textbook for a chapter at a time and building wide-ranging conclusions on it. Inevitably, specialists will find holes to pick in their tiny fields, as they always (legitimately) do. Much remains uncertain and information easily becomes outdated, as new finds add new complications (rather than solutions). To take one small corner at random: the nature of the Roman frontier in the Negev is far from certain, as is the exact date of the fall of Masada (once firmly based on Josephus, who ought to have known); Legion III Gallica was certainly not the first garrison force of the province Arabia (thus p. 86); it can no longer be said (pp. 25 and 86) that a second legion was sent to Judaea only after the outbreak of the revolt of 132: it was there by 130; and Josephus did not write for a “primary audience” of Jews (p. 117).
What difference a multiplicity of little points like these will make to the splendid general design will not be clear until all the evidence is in. Perhaps not much, even if parts of the thesis may have to be modified—perhaps no more than the portentous number of misprints, which however deserve some censure: an apparent grammatical error in a displayed quotation from Tacitus (p. xii) causes misgivings; there are misprints in names and dates throughout the text; and I doubt whether anyone senior to the printer’s office-boy read the proofs of the thirty-odd pages of Notes.
Two typical examples: the famous urguentibus imperii fatis of Tacitus (Germania 33, 2) becomes "While the fate of the Empire is thus urgent" (p. 179); and Cicero, de legibus III, 1, difficillimam illam societatem gravitatis cum humanitate, is rendered "that society of seriousness, very difficult [to reconcile] with humanity" (p. 213). One wonders what language the translators thought they were writing.↩
Two typical examples: the famous urguentibus imperii fatis of Tacitus (Germania 33, 2) becomes “While the fate of the Empire is thus urgent” (p. 179); and Cicero, de legibus III, 1, difficillimam illam societatem gravitatis cum humanitate, is rendered “that society of seriousness, very difficult [to reconcile] with humanity” (p. 213). One wonders what language the translators thought they were writing.↩