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Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 4)

Oct 13, 12 Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 4)

Obviously there were many other duties of the Roman legion other than pure defensive endeavors as Luttwak believed. The one major area which one would expect to see heavy defensive operations would be in the Eastern part of the empire near Rome’s oldest and most feared enemy, Parthia. Luttwak states that the Julio-Claudian period was marked by the expansion of the empire to its “natural” or “scientific” frontiers. This period was characterized by the use of client kingdoms acting as buffers between Rome and the barbarian nations. The following period, the Flavian era saw a consolidation and solidification of Rome’s borders and a gradual cessation of expansion as the legions’ advances ground to a halt. Finally the late empire is marked by a totally defensive strategy and the use of a defense in depth which allowed for the penetration of the enemy into Roman lands in order to pincer the enemy with Roman troops. This period characterization is inaccurate on many levels, some of which have been shown already. Fergus Millar attacks this periodization in The Roman Near East. In particular Roman expansion did not cease or even slowdown in the East during the Flavian period. Rome continued fighting in the region for upwards of seventy years, suggesting a continuous struggle to maintain control and exert imperium. He also notes how the use of local kings such as Herod in Judea provided stability, local rule and helped supply the army as well as gather tribute. The creation of the Judean province marks the change from Roman bridgehead in Near East to a stabilized integrated provincial and military system like rest of empire. Millar questions if this transition from dependent kings and dynasts to provinces controlled by Roman procurators is evidence of a master plan. He states that sources and archaeology do not provide evidence for a master plan.  Josephus explains the one such event that resulted in the creation of a true frontier between Parthia and Rome.

“[Titus] sent away the rest of his army to the several places where they would be every one best situated; but permitted the tenth legion to stay, as a guard at Jerusalem, and did not send them away beyond Euphrates, where they had been before. And as he remembered that the twelfth legion had given way to the Jews, under Cestius their general, he expelled them out of all Syria, for they had lain formerly at Raphanea, and sent them away to a place called Meletine, near Euphrates, which is in the limits of Armenia and Cappadocia; he also thought fit that two of the legions should stay with him till he should go to Egypt. He then went down with his army to that Caesarea which lay by the sea-side, and there laid up the rest of his spoils in great quantities.” (Josephus BJ. 7.13)

Thus what appeared as a calculated move to strengthen Roman hold along the Parthian border is in fact a coincidental happening. This episode also shows how the disposition of the legions was wholly arbitrary and not in accordance with any grand plan put rather on the whim of the commanding general. The fighting in the Near East was not just attributable to internal rebellions as in the case of the Jews. Roman expansion under Trajan into Mesopotamia is an example of naked aggression by the Romans with the sole intent of adding permanently new territory to the empire. His war with the Parthians, marked by his personal leadership on the battlefield, won the emperor much glory and set an example that would be emulated for the next three hundred years. Emperors would launch wars for personal gain and for glory. Cassius Dio is famous for his criticisms of both Trajan and Septimius Severus’s motivations for their respective wars.  Despite Severus’s claim that his goal was to “create a bulwark for Syria”, Dio blames their egos and denounces their conquests as too costly to attain and impossible to hold. These instances undermine Luttwak’s idea of a unified strategy across the empire and instead serve to show the importance of individual personalities on the expansion of the Roman Empire. As Kagan succinctly states, “In the period that Luttwak associates with “preclusive security,” the Roman army in the East engaged in consolidating internal control and aggressive outward expansion.” Likewise the third period of Luttwak’s periodization, that of defense in depth, is totally irrelevant in the East along the, arguably, most important border, that of Parthia and later Sassanid Persia. Isaac agrees that relations with Parthia rarely governed troop deployments and engagements in the Near East.  Both Isaac and Millar agree that Rome did not consistently see Parthia as a threat. This is evidenced in the fertile river land of the Euphrates where Rome did little to fortify its cities there despite the fact that they were positioned on a deep salient into traditional Parthian territory. Even during the increased attacks of Sassanid Persia under the rule of Shapur I, Rome did little to strengthen its holdings despite the fact that the Parthians were now apparently capable of posing a real threat. The claims of Parthian intrigues in Armenia, (Tacitus Annals, 6.3 1.1) and Artaxerxes claims to reconquer the old Persian empire (Herodian 6.2.2-7) are dismissed as hyperbole. So too is Shapur’s speech where he claims, “And therefore it is my duty to recover Armenia with Mesopotamia, which double-dealing wrested from my grandfather.” (Ammianus Marcellinus 17.5.5-6) even though Shapur attempted to make good on his threats capturing Antioch, Armenia, Caucasian Iberia, and reaching central Asia Minor. Kagan and Wheeler both acknowledge the shortcomings of Luttwak’s thesis, but praise his work for raising questions and sparking new debate on the topic. Both these historians critique the appraisals by Millar and Isaac on this issue. “Only hindsight permits the luxury of saying the threat did not exist because it did not materialize. The Romans had ample reason after Carrhae and the Parthian invasion of 40 B.C. to fear Parthian capabilities, a perception later justifiably transferred to the Sassanids.”  Despite these things, Rome did little to counter this threat other than retake what had been taken by the Sassanids. There is no evidence in the sources until late in the fourth century for a coherent defense of the region.

Image Credit: SueC / Shutterstock

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