Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 1)

Oct 10, 12 Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 1)

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: from the First Century A.D. to the Third created a storm of controversy among historians of the Roman world. The author, Edward Luttwak, was a renowned American political scientist and military strategist, not a classically trained historian. Despite his lack of formal training, Luttwak’s thesis struck a nerve within the historical community prompting swift responses from experts in the field both in support and, more commonly, in denouncement of his ideas. The offending thesis was simple; Roman statecraft implemented an evolving grand strategy in regards to its borders and defense. This evolution could be marked into three distinct phases: Julio-Claudian, Flavian, and that of the late Empire. Luttwak’s critics, including Benjamin Isaac, Fergus Millar, and A.D. Lee, attacked his understanding of the concept of borders in the Roman mind, the relative absence of external threats to border regions, and the very existence of a coherent planned “master plan” in regards to Roman strategy. Additionally, his extensive use of secondary sources, but the dearth of readily available primary sources was pointed to as evidence of amateurish history. This paper will seek to re-evaluate Luttwak’s thesis in light of the numerous criticisms by leading historians and examine whether or not the ancient sources provide evidence to back up either side’s claims. It will examine the issue of frontiers and border in the Roman world, the concept of the limes and its uses, the actions and roles played by the legions in frontier regions (particularly in the East), address the issue of external threats on the empire’s border regions, and finally conclude with a re-examination and re-defining of our concept of grand strategy in the Roman empire.

Any discussion of strategy will inevitably include a discussion of borders and frontiers. In fact the whole issue of Roman grand strategy necessitates an understanding of the concept of the frontier as seen through the Roman mind. Quite naturally one might assume that such a basic concept as borders would be unproblematic and transmissible from one society or time to the next. However, a cursory examination of the literature surrounding the subject belies this simplistic notion rather quickly. Whereas the modern mind thinks of natural boundaries to countries and regions seated in geographical terms of rivers, mountains, deserts, etc., the Roman mind thought differently. It is difficult to re-create what the Roman knew about the physical geography around them. Strabo’s Geographica gives us a clear insight into what the Romans visualized and conceptualized their world. The world is structured around peoples, not the land itself. There were regions worth possessing and regions that were not. Likewise there were peoples worth subjugating and peoples who were not. Strabo’s discussion on Britannia highlights this notion very well.

“It would not serve any political purpose to be well acquainted with these distant places and the people who inhabit them; especially if they are islands whose inhabitants can neither injure us, nor yet benefit us by their commerce. The Romans might easily have conquered Britain, but they did not care to do so, as they perceived there was nothing to fear from the inhabitants, (they not being powerful enough to attack us,) and that they would gain nothing by occupying the land. Even now it appears that we gain more by the customs they pay, than we could raise by tribute, after deducting the wages of the soldiers necessary for guarding the island and exacting the taxes. And the other islands adjacent to this would be still more unproductive. (Strabo 2.5.8)”

It is clear from this passage that Strabo, a contemporary of Augustus, viewed the world in the manner aforementioned. Whittaker claims that Strabo’s views most likely reflected those of the time and would have been quite similar to those of Augustus. Similarly, Polybius reflects the same ideology: “the one aim and object, then …is to show how, when, and why all the known parts of the world fell under the dominion of Rome” (Polybius 3.1.4). Taken from Polybius’ introduction to book three of his Histories, this passage indicates that Strabo’s concept of geographically dividing the entire world into desirable and undesirable areas based on profitability to Rome was generally accepted. Again in Diodorus we are told that Pompey in the first century CE had “taken the boundaries of the empire to the limits of the earth.” (Diod. 40.4). This indicates that there are no boundaries to the Roman world but the oceans, a view again backed up by Plutarch who states that Pompey wished to reach with his victories Oceanus which flows around the world.” (Plut. Pomp. 38.2) Vitruvius writes in the time of Augustus of the Roman concept of their geographical position in the world. “Such being nature’s arrangement of the universe, and all these nations being allotted temperaments which are lacking in due moderation, the truly perfect territory, situated under the middle of the heaven, and having on each side the entire extent of the world and its countries, is that which is occupied by the Roman people.” (Vitr. 6.1.10)

Image Credit: SueC / Shutterstock

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