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Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 2)

Oct 11, 12 Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 2)

Rome is the center of the world with the best lands and people who have a divine right to rule over the sea of barbarians that surround them. Vitruvius goes on to add, “and so by her wisdom she breaks the courageous onsets of the barbarians, and by her strength of hand thwarts the devices of the southerners. Hence, it was the divine intelligence that set the city of the Roman people in a peerless and temperate country, in order that it might acquire the right to command the whole world.”

What is clear from these ancient sources is that the Romans saw themselves as the center of the universe with a divinely appointed a right to command the world. As such they did not have a concept of limits to their borders, only areas that were worth possessing and those that were not.

Luttwak’s view of borders and frontiers involves fixed lines and fortifications. The term Limes, defined by Isaac as “fortifications linked by roads along a fixed boundary, marked in many, but not all, parts of the empire by a river or an artificial obstacle.” accurately provides a description of what Luttwak envisions when he discusses borders and frontiers. Luttwak admits that the limes, as typically envisioned, was not in existence during the Julio-Claudian system. Instead he asserts there were series of “access roads perpendicular to the border of secured imperial territory.” Both Velleius and Tacitus make mention of roads utilized by the Army to move along between forts and during campaigns in their discussion of Tiberius’ campaigns, “He attacked the enemy whom his father and country would have been content to hold in check; he penetrated farther inland, opened up roads, destroyed fields, burned houses, routed those in his way.” Here is an example of what Luttwak is discussing. The army is literally building inroads to enemy territory in order to launch attacks. These initial roads were later utilized by later legions as evidenced by Tacitus; “the Roman general in a forced march, cut through the Cæsian forest and the barrier which had been begun by Tiberius, and pitched his camp on this barrier.”  This allowed units to move where they were needed, as they were needed rather than keep a fixed force in place. These border roads were not fixed structures, but rather an ever expanding series of roads which allowed communication and helped control movement through regions and provinces. It seems then that Luttwak’s idea of the limes during his Julio-Claudian period is accurate to a degree. However he fails to grasp the ephemeral and transitory nature of these borders in the Roman mind.

Luttwak’s second period, the Flavian, marks a change in Roman policy, from that of diplomacy through client kingdoms, particularly in the East, to a more aggressive use of force and a much more fluid and clearer sense of Roman control in previously loosely held areas. Luttwak attributes this to an increase in the number of legions and a hardening of defensive lines in the form of more formal limes. The increased number of roads, watchtowers, and forts are interpreted by Luttwak as evidence of a plan to consolidate and hold frontier lands. The Romans “designed and built large and complex security systems that successfully integrated troop deployments, fixed defenses, road networks, and signaling links in a coherent whole.” Luttwak also argues that the empire during this time fought wars to expand its borders to natural barriers such as rivers and mountains in order to make them more easily defensible. This is in addition to the increased construction of fortifications along these borders. The goal of this “was to provide security for the civilization without prejudicing the vitality of its economic base and without compromising the stability of an evolving political order.” This security was geared towards external threats. Isaac differs in his interpretation of the limes particularly those in the East. Isaac notes that archaeological evidence of these Roman forts shows that they were not designed for to repel a full scale attack, but rather for several different functions including securing roads and communication lines as well as protecting trade routes.  Isaac and Millar both recognize the role of the army in keeping providing security for a province, but they focus on different reasons for the security process. Millar notes the fortification of roads with watchtowers and guard posts in order to provide secure lanes of traffic for commerce. Isaac disagrees with Millar on this point. He notes that, “the army served the Roman authorities as an instrument of control.” The army sought to control the local population for the sake of the Roman imperium, not for the benefit of commerce. Consequently, Isaac sees these fortified roads as lines communication, with the posts and watchtowers acting to secure this communication.

Determining why and how these fortifications functioned is difficult due to the lack of written sources on the subject. Still there are sources available such as archaeological and inscriptions. Isaac is critical of overreliance on archeological evidence, fearing the tendency to read too much into an artifact or location whose survival is the product of chance. He cites numerous cases of experts rushing to judgment over new discoveries of milestones, outposts, and desert forts, which upon further excavation proved to be exceptions to the Roman status quo rather than the rule. He notes, “Even in the best-explored western provinces it is still difficult to distil history from artefacts.” Millar, while acknowledging the limitations of such sources, defends his use of inscriptions, “However their limited content, inscriptions have the overwhelming advantage for the historian of being tied to place and time: that is, of being found (generally speaking) in the place where they were set up and of being explicitly dated or (at worst) broadly datable.”

Image Credit: Pascal RATEAU / Shutterstock

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