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Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 5)

Oct 14, 12 Grand Strategy Of The Roman Empire (Part 5)

A key aspect that Luttwak’s defensive strategy depends on is the constant presence of an external threat to the empire along its frontiers. This is the justification for his final defensive strategy in the late empire. However, as Millar, Isaac, Lee, and Whittaker have shown there was no constant threat or pressure being exerted upon the empire’s borders. Sources from the period, including written and archaeological, with the exception of Sassanid Persia, fail to evidence any credible threat. Other than occasional bandit raiders in the desert regions of Arabia, Germanic barbarian rebellions, and punitive reprisals by Parthia, there were no major threats.

While it is clear that Luttwak’s arguments are fatally flawed, those of his critics are also somewhat weakened. Kagan in her article, “Redefining Roman Grand Strategy” suggests that the failure of Luttwak’s thesis does not necessarily mean that there was no strategy. “Although Roman grand strategy and frontier policy cannot be disassociated, the two are not equivalent.” Kagan believes that a new set of questions need to be asked; questions that can be answered by the sources we have available. She calls for a re-examination of frontier studies that can synthesize studies of very small regions integrating those regions into areas of grand strategic significance by considering the relationship between events on different frontiers and the role of central decision making played in balancing competing interests in different theaters. What is needed is modern redefinition of Grand Strategy. “The crux of grand strategy lies . . . in policy, that is, in the capacity of the nation’s leaders to bring together all of the elements, both military and nonmilitary, for the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s long term (that is, in wartime and peacetime) best interests.”  Given what we know of various emperors decision making processes, which albeit is very slim as Kagan bemoans, it is clear that extensive correspondences between regional governors, officials, and the emperor. These sources were know in the ancient world, but were kept secret as Cassius Dio found out when trying to access them for his own research. (Dio 53.19) So too did Polybius. (Polybius 29.5.1-3) The existence (at one time) of these sources can be interpreted as evidence of a continuous knowledge base which could inform imperial decision making and guide the use of resources to achieve the empires goals. Hence there is a possibility for the existence of a Grand strategy. Kagan is explicit that this is not to be taken as evidence for a grand strategy however. “We cannot assume that because such documents existed, the state engaged in formal processes of developing what we would call grand strategy-consciously determining long-term goals and objectives, assessing its own resources, and assessing the enemy. We can know that without them, we cannot simply or reliably deduce the state’s long-term goals or the specific process (if any) by which they were formulated.” Wheeler cites three “policies relating to peoples outside the Empire, reveal strategic thought: subsidies paid to barbarians to keep them quiet, a policy of starving barbarian raiders into retreat, and controls on exports to outsiders.” By studying troop movements over time we can ascertain where the empire’s attention was focused. From the Principate onward the attention and legions of the empire gradually shift eastward. “A study of the allocation of military resources, furthermore, can help to illustrate the emperors’ de facto priorities, if not their abstract goals. It can reveal their perceptions of changing threats. It can even clarify how, generally, they set out to ensure the security and, sometimes, expansion, of their state.”  The constant presence in some areas of permanently stationed legions suggests that emperors believed that the presence of troops was needed to control belligerent populations; whereas the removal of legions from others can be seen as evidence that an area could be left to its devices in an emergency. A prime example of this can be seen in the Jewish rebellions. As Rome moved legions from the area to launch attacks elsewhere, the sudden absence of their stabilizing presence sparked off revolts among the Jewish peoples that had to be put down. The area would require a constant legion presence in order to maintain control. The reassignment of legions after a successful campaign can also be seen as evidence of a master plan. Legions tended to be returned to their original locations after completion of duties whether defensive or offensive. Even the Roman expedition into Britannia under Claudius largely returned to base. Legions in the provinces relied on a synergy of sorts to maintain order, utilizing each other as backup when needed. This arrangement was problematic and had a small window of error. If too many legionaries were gone for too long in support of another legion, problems could arise in their home areas. It was a delicate balance that the emperors maintained. Kagan concludes,

The grand strategy of the Roman Empire can be studied as long as we ask questions that the available sources support. To say that the Roman Empire had no grand strategy because it had no long-term plan is to define the concept incorrectly and condemn the field of grand strategy for all time-virtually no modern states have adhered to plans for periods lasting more than a few decades at a time, periods that historians of Rome will rarely consider “long-term.” The contingent realities of foreign policy often overwhelm the stated goals of modern countries, or at least, strongly condition their response to crisis. Roman emperors set priorities among objectives and allocated resources among them, and thus made grand strategic decisions

Luttwak’s thesis, as we have seen, is not supported by the sources. His critics, including Millar, Isaac, Lee, and Whittaker, have valid arguments. His concept of the frontier is flawed at best and his interpretation of the function of the limes is not supported by the sources. The sources witness many other uses and roles of the legion in the frontier besides that of pure defense. In the Near East especially the legion fulfilled a role as an internal stabilizer. We have seen that the sources are nearly silent when on the issue of credible external threats to the empire. Finally we have examined Kagan’s call for a re-examination and a re-definition of what grand strategy means in a modern sense as well as what it would look like in the ancient world.

Image Credit: Robert Gregory / Shutterstock

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