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10 January 2016


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I offer a slightly different view on the Roman history, and its implications for today.

Romans were either generous in victory or utterly ruthless, but hardly ever somewhere in between. The conquered cities and tribes in Italy and Greece were generally given relatively generous terms and became Romans sooner or later. Others, e.g. the Carthaginians, were crushed with absolute brutality to the point that there is no one left who could even think of revenge. The Roman genius lay, to a large degree, in leaving no vanquished enemy resentful enough and strong enough simultaneously to seriously contemplate revenge. Contrast the Entente powers in World War I: Germany was defeated, but it was left both too resentful and too strong. John Maynard Keynes criticized the Versailles Treaty as too harsh and Ferdinand Foch thought it too lenient. They were both right.

But the Roman generosity had an additional layer: those whom Romans vanquished but were given generous terms knew that they were treated generously and mercifully. They could have been utterly crushed, and, if they tried to resist Rome again, they will be, for they are too weak to seriously contemplate further resistance. The benefits from the favorable terms were too valuable to risk by a likely hopeless attempt at fighting the Romans. This, of course, is why Carthage had to be destroyed: it could not be made so dependent on Rome, so hopeless and weak, so that a future confrontation was inevitable.

I think the lesson from the Roman way of conquest is not that we should simply be generous to the vanquished, but think ahead to the terms of the generosity. A zero-sum game is out of question: the vanquished will have to have some benefits from cooperating with their erstwhile enemies. If the Democrats win, say, at least some Republican programs will have to be accommodated, for example. If this is not possible, then the Republicans cannot be allowed to exist. Proscription, after all, was a Roman political practice. A "democratic" political order where the victor enjoys all spoils (to the degree of imposing terms unacceptable to the other) without proscribing the other completely, I think, cannot exist. I was thinking about American electoral politics, but this reminded me of the "democratic" fetish we have worldwide. Even in countries with all powerful elected cabinets, say, the stereotypical parliamentary government a la UK, the other party retains a huge benefit: they stand a reasonably good prospect of winning an election, even if it might take a decade or two. I don't think, say, an Islamist victory in a typical Middle Eastern country would allow for any possible return of secular-militarist faction to power in the future, while both factions would be too powerful to lay low as grateful recipients of charity--even if such charity is offered, which is highly improbable in the first place. So proscription rules the day until another Caesar emerges (literally in the Roman case). Sic transit gloria mundi.


The Romans understood a third way as well: recognizing that
Hadrian Wall and their "relative" acceptance of a non-aggressor as independent neighbor, once they were thought a few lessens at Cannhae and Legio Nona Hispana.



Fair enough point. I suppose there are two dimensions of Roman pragmatism that sustained their empire: a useful mixture of generosity and ruthlessness within their borders and/or near their home base (e.g. within Italy and around the Mediterranean) and wise recognition of their limits along the edge of their empire. Still, both seem lacking in the hearts of many in the West today.

William R. Cumming

Thanks for this post and excellent comments! My understanding is that the number of Roman Legions was less than 60 at anytime and there movements during Roman history are quite well documented thanks to Caesar and others. Still astounding given the extent of the Empire at its maximum breadth. But is there any complete documentation of Roman Naval Strategy and number of warships under direct or indirect state control?

Where does Luttwak's MILITARY STRATEGY OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE rate with other scholarship?

William R. Cumming

My knowledge of maps of the world during the Roman Empire is limited but review of the linked map that follows may indicate that whatever the significance of the Mediterranean Sea in the history of the Roman Empire, the Arctic now plays the same role but magnified:



Prof. Kao,

Many in the [occident] west do not read (much) History, save for what counts as 'elementary' or crude 'revisionist' "pop"-versions of it.

Many share not the vast Athenæum or Bilbliotheca of Facts & Evidence that our host the Col. & Mr. Richard Sale exhibits.

Sad (& Tragic) how 'dumbed-down' the youth of to-day are: with naïve 'flights of fancy' re. the world at-large ("people are the same everywhere regardless of race or religion.")

Pff!, juvenile Weltanschauung...

Babak Makkinejad

Richard Sales:

My understanding has been that the 3 civil wars that ended the Roman Republic were waged among the same privilege class of Romans and not between a so-called Ruling Class and the poor oppressed Ruled Classes.

Richard Sale

I believe that to be mistaken.

Richard Sale


You had the "Optimates" and "Populares" pitted against each other towards the second half of the second century, BC. Both were elites, that is true, yet where the former stood for the established order with the senate at the top, the latter advertised themselves as championing lower classes' benefit. The land reforms of Tiberius Gracchus, Lex Sempronius Agraria, the purpose of which was to limit more privileged landowners' allowed ownership of agrarian land, thereby making more available for poorer farmers, were one such gesture by the "populares" to placate the Plebs - not meant in a derogatory sense here, yet the negative connotations of "plebs" or "plebeian" we have today rather obviously come about as a result of the way Roman historiography relays these struggles of Optimates against Populares to us.

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