Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.44

Arthur M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2006.  Pp. 369.  ISBN 9780520246188.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by James Quillin, Lake Forest Academy (
Word count: 3123 words

In a body of scholarship spanning three decades, Arthur Eckstein (hereafter "E.") has established himself as one of the world's foremost scholars on Roman imperialism in the middle republican period. His new book is dedicated to his teacher, Erich Gruen, and continues the tradition of Gruen's masterly The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (1984) by emphasizing the agency of Rome's neighbors in explaining Roman military policy. On one level, both works are critiques of William Harris' highly influential War and Imperialism in Republican Rome (1979), which saw Roman imperialism as the result of the uniquely bellicose culture of the Roman people. However, E.'s new book breaks sharply with Gruen's in its espousal of a reductive explanation for Roman behavior. While Gruen tended to look to the particulars of every situation in explaining Roman decisions to go to war, E. presents us with a single fundamental reason for Roman militarism and aggression, namely, the anarchy of the Mediterranean interstate system.

In critiquing Harris, E. asks a crucial question: How can one argue that Roman aggressive militarism was somehow exceptional without explicitly comparing Rome to its Mediterranean contemporaries? E. concludes that, while Rome was extremely warlike and brutal, it was in no way uniquely so, and the equally or even surpassingly aggressive nature of its Mediterranean neighbors necessitated that it be so. But E. is no mere Roman apologist--he argues that all the states of the ancient Mediterranean were trapped in the same "cruel logic", a logic that was imposed by the lack of any effective law or order within the Mediterranean community of states. To demonstrate, E. presents a series of chapters surveying interstate relations among the city-states of classical Greece (Chapter 3), the Hellenistic kingdoms (Chapter 4), and the communities of Italy and the western Mediterranean prior to the second century BCE (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 situates Roman culture within this Mediterranean context. Finally, E. builds on this foundation to make a strong case for the "nonexceptionalism" of Rome's response to the threats from Philip V and Antiochus III, which precipitated the extension of its imperium into the eastern Mediterranean in the early second century (Chapter 7). The great attraction of his argument lies in its ability to synthesize Harris' strongest evidence, which reveals the centrality of warmaking in Roman culture, with Gruen's most convincing case studies, which tend to demonstrate the lack of conscious imperialism in Roman decision-making. As E. notes repeatedly, his insight is not new (Mommsen made a number of similar points long ago), but E. articulates his argument so clearly and supports it with such a wealth of evidence that no future analysis of Rome's rise to power will safely ignore it.

In Chapter 1, "Political Science and Roman History", E. anchors his explanation in the influential Realist tradition of international relations theory, exemplified by the work of Kenneth Waltz. The states of the Mediterranean found themselves in a world without a higher power to enforce international law and adjudicate disputes, that is, in a situation of interstate anarchy. Under these conditions, so the Realists argue, a state's very survival depends on its ability to compete militarily. Realists argue that there is no security without power, and that all states are therefore involved in a desperate competition for power. Thus, it was ultimately the international system in which Rome found itself that was the primary cause of its behavior.

Chapter 2 ("Realist Paradigms of Interstate Behavior") usefully summarizes the Realist model for the readers who are not political scientists. In a nutshell, security comes only through power, and, as one state achieves the extra margin of power necessary to create the impression of security in the awareness of its own imperfect knowledge of the world, this results in a corresponding reduction of perceived security among the other states, creating a "security dilemma." Interstate politics is understood by the participants as a zero-sum game. In such a world, it is "natural" for states to seek power, and differences between states lie not in their motivations but only in their capabilities. All states are equally "revisionist" in their quest for power and essentially imperialist in their intentions. Occasionally "unlimited revisionist" states, which seek universal dominion, emerge, such as Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany, which do exhibit exceptional militarism, but E. insists that Rome never fit this mold.

In Chapter 3, "Interstate Relations in Classical Greece", E. demonstrates the inadequacy of norms, arbitration, and treaties for ameliorating the evils of interstate anarchy and shows that war and militarized competition were virtually constant. Thus, classical Greece was a "militarized and multipolar anarchy" (47), approaching bipolarity in the run-up to the Peloponnesian War and a weak unipolarity immediately following, but at other times reverting to multipolarity. E. certainly presents some supportive statistics (forty known cases of states being destroyed (53); Athens at war two out of every three years from 497 to 338 (47)), but in general this chapter is based less on the accumulation of in-depth case studies than one might have hoped. A great weight is placed on the analysis of Thucydides, including his confirmation of the Realist principles that all states are functionally similar, that fear is the predominant motivator of policy decisions, and that the structure of the interstate system is the primary cause of conflict. Yet, as E. himself admits, most modern Realist theorists consider Thucydides their "intellectual ancestor" (48) and so his analysis of events should take a second position to the testimony of other sources as way of avoiding circularity. E. does exploit Herodotus, Plato, and other sources, but not in the systematic manner with which he approaches Thucydides, and some rich veins are left virtually untouched, including Aristotle and the Attic orators. In fact, it was a common claim among ancient observers that external threats promote internal stability, presumably by lessening the relative urgency of centrifugal forces within the state such as class and status inequalities (e.g., Plato Laws 698b-c; Aristotle Pol. 1308a 20-30, 1334a 5-9; Pol. 6.18 and 57; Livy 34.9.4). This would imply a powerful domestic incentive for political leaders to err on the side of belligerence in interstate relations.1

In Chapter 4, "Interstate Relations in the Hellenistic Age", E. demonstrates that the situation of militarized interstate anarchy that prevailed in the classical period persisted into the Hellenistic age. He sides with Pierre Lévêque and M. M. Austin against earlier interpretations that saw a rough balance of power and curtailment of limitless ambitions on the part of the diadochoi after about 280. On the contrary, international law continued to be ineffective, and the need for self-help and reputation-building among rulers was greater than ever. Furthermore, the behavior was no more indicative of a "status quo" attitude among the smaller federal states, kingdoms, and city-states.

In the same chapter, E. attempts to place Polybius "among the ancient founders of the realist approach" (117). He argues that the plan of Philip V and Antiochus III to build a bipolar imperial system in the eastern Mediterranean was flawed by the monarchs' failure to perceive that the entire Mediterranean had now become interconnected, forming a single geopolitical system--a point emphasized by Polybius. The reading of Polybius is persuasive, but the attribution of the Realist label will fail to convince many. For instance, does not Polybius' deep faith in the importance of moral conduct and education ("a fund of moral exemplars" 117) open an obvious case for counting him among the ancient founders of Neoliberalism or Contructivism? If Polybius were really an ancient Realist, what would be the point of such moral teachings? Still, E. is correct to point out that Polybius has been largely ignored by modern theorists, and it will be a welcome development if E.'s book brings more attention from modern theorists to this important text. The story of Rome's expansion to the East and, importantly to my mind, the story of the changes wrought on Rome's domestic politics as a result of imperial expansion have received relatively little attention from modern political scientists.

Chapter 5, "Terrores Multi", focuses on Rome and its rivals in Italy and continues the style of detailed analytical narrative begun in Chapter 4 with the discussion of the crisis in the Hellenistic world after 207. In separate sections on Rome's interactions with the Etruscans, Celts, Samnites, Tarentines, and Carthaginians, E. convincingly supports his main points: Rome's militarism was not exceptional among the communities of Italy and the western Mediterranean; the anarchic conditions of the system created a security dilemma for all of the states within it; and international law, treaties, and diplomacy were ineffective in creating security. E.'s survey of the dense history of Italy through the third century offers a wealth of cases illustrating various dynamics and models of interstate behavior. He is most effective when pointing out the similarities in the behavior of Rome and its neighbors. However, he has a tendency to go beyond this and try to create the impression of Rome not only as unexceptional but also as exceptionally moderate in terms of its aggressiveness. Thus, E. points out that Rome was apparently considered by the Capuans to be a less threatening great power than the Samnites, but he fails to acknowledge that the same logic reveals that, for instance, by the time of the battle of Sentinum, Rome was considered by a large coalition of Italians to be a threat of unprecedented magnitude. Examples like this seem to me to obscure the essential Realist argument that even seemingly unprovoked aggression can be understood as a "natural" response to the perpetual quest for power under conditions of interstate anarchy.

Chapter 6, "Rome and Roman Militarism", presents a theoretical attack on unit attribute theory, the practice of explaining wars as the result of particular features of individual states. E. points out that "large and enduring structures that have developed over time are at least as likely to influence the behavior of individual actors within those structures as the other way around" (187) and that, therefore, the anarchic interstate system is more likely to influence the behavior of individual states than the reverse.

E. also appeals to the internal discourse of Rome concerning the importance of iustum bellum and the pax deorum, the necessity of fighting only defensive wars, and the emphasis on salus as evidence that the Romans did not seek war for its own sake. The absence of such discourse among, say, the Hellenistic monarchs does tend to make Rome appear the more moderate. But E. goes too far in citing examples where domestic opponents of war in Rome criticized wars on the grounds that they were unjust as proof that the Romans did not seek war for its own sake (226-28). These same examples have been used by others to prove the opposite. Furthermore, the fact that one does not find such criticisms directed at the Hellenistic monarchs undoubtedly has as much to do with the different types of political discourse allowable in monarchies and republics as with a distinction in popular attitudes toward war. Similarly questionable is his argument from silence to demonstrate the lack of moral discourse about war in other ancient states (239).

E. also argues against the idea that Rome was transformed into an imperialist machine in the mid-fourth century. Here again his strongest argument is the lack of exceptionalism in the Roman case: these pressures may have been felt, but the overwhelming motive for war was still security, and Rome's behavior was still little different from that of its peers.

In the final chapter, "Roman Exceptionalism and Nonexceptionalism", E. provides his explanation for why, if Rome was not exceptional in its dedication to making war, it nevertheless was exceptionally successful in the interstate competition for power in the Mediterranean. His answer is persuasive. The exceptional principle that provided the foundation for this state was "the divorce of citizen status from ethnicity or geographical location", an idea which allowed the Romans to create a polity whose population dwarfed that of any other ancient city-state (254-55), and that, as Mommsen long ago observed, came closer than any other ancient polity to creating a "unified nation-state" (257).

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to demonstrating how "nonexceptional" Rome's decision to make war on Philip V in 200 was. This decision was, arguably, the great pivot point, when Rome made its first major intervention into the Greek world, which inevitably led to further entanglements and eventually imperial domination. E.'s interpretation is based on his arguments in favor of the historicity of the pact between Philip V and Antiochus III, which I find compelling, and in favor of the sincerity of the Roman fear of Hellenistic aggression, which I find at least plausible. Yet, while I can accept E.'s basic reconstruction of events, I find his analysis incomplete in a significant way. Ultimately, everything that I find unconvincing in this book derives from E.'s consistent assumption of states as unitary decision-making actors.2 For instance, if one accepts the historicity of P. Sulpicius Galba's speech to the voters prior to the centuriate assembly's vote for war in 200, as E. does (281-82), then one must also accept that Galba seems to have distorted the Senate's reasons for going to war, exaggerating the immediacy of the threat of an invasion of Italy.3

In my opinion, E.'s application of Realist theory to the case of Rome's rise presents a major breakthrough in the discussion and challenges the assumptions and conclusions not only of Harris but also of most other previous scholarship, including, ironically, E.'s own interpretations of Roman behavior. He differs from Maurice Holleaux and Arnold J. Toynbee in that the fear of the Hellenistic kings, which they saw as irrational, E. sees as essentially well-founded. Gruen's is the best example of the pericentric argument, which holds that Rome was drawn into universal empire unwillingly and on an ad hoc basis by the interstate rivalries of the Greek East. However, Realist theory implies that there was a more consistent underlying logic to Roman policymaking. Finally, E. himself argues consistently for the validity and sincerity of Roman fear and defensive thinking. Yet if the Realist model of interstate anarchy does apply here, and if the unavoidable fact of life in that world was that military dominance was the only guarantee of a state's survival, then it would not necessarily be the case that every aggressive act on the part of Rome had a specific threat and a sincere defensive rationale behind it. But E. never admits a case like this. It is significant in this regard that E.'s analysis stops after the Syrian War of 191-188 BCE. Consideration of later developments, such as the Third Punic War and the wars in Spain of the later second century, would have forced him to deal with these complexities.

E. has done an admirable job of paying close attention to the indirect implications of Realist theory and finding correlations in the ancient evidence. For instance, this study demonstrates well that states with highly diverse forms of government, from democratic Athens to the Hellenistic monarchies to Republican Rome, all exhibit "functional similarity" in terms of their behavior within the interstate system, which is a key prediction of Realist theory. His logical rigor in testing the implications of a modern theory against the ancient evidence is commendable and all too uncommon among works of ancient political history. However, E. also states his intention to use the evidence from the ancient Mediterranean to "test" the Realist model against several alternative modern theories of international politics. This project is less successful since falsifying alternative theories requires more than simply demonstrating the anarchy and warfare that Realism predicts. While an entire chapter is devoted to elucidating the logic of Realist theory, the alternatives each receive a mere paragraph of explanation, followed quickly by a review of the Realist rebuttals (29-33). An effective falsification of a theory requires a good faith effort to match it to the evidence, a function not adequately fulfilled by the cursory discussions sprinkled throughout the empirical chapters.

In addition, the analytical emphasis on states as irreducible actors seems invalid, for what are states but the larger systems within which decision-makers, be they individuals, dominant factions, or winning coalitions, act? Thus, while it is true that the interstate system weighs heavily on the actions of states, so must the intrastate system weigh on the actions of decision-makers. In other words, decision-makers serve at least two masters at the system-level, the pressures of either of which may be determinative at any given moment. The tragic inability of certain states (such as Corinth and Tarentum) to avoid precipitating their own downfalls at the hands of much stronger states strikes me as evidence that the security of the state was not always the primary motivator of state actions. E. sees support for the opposite conclusion in the fact that Roman warmaking slows down and Roman elite culture becomes less militaristic as the pax Romana comes into existence in the later second century (188). Yet this could just as easily be explained as the result of a change in the intrastate system that rendered military aggression less attractive to domestic decision-makers. In fact, the relative frequency of war even after the establishment of unipolarity in the Mediterranean, including seemingly elective wars like the Third Punic War, the Spanish Wars of the later second century BCE, Caesar's Gallic campaign, and Crassus' Parthian expedition, raises more difficulties for the Realist explanation than the partial demilitarization of the Roman elite solves.

In spite of my reservation about the Realist model as E. employs it, his critique thoroughly demolishes the argument that Rome's rise was due to an exceptional bellicosity and militarism. E.'s collection of comparative evidence for militarist cultural and institutional features in ancient states from throughout the Mediterranean is very convincing. Each piece of evidence of Rome's supposedly exceptional dedication to aggressive expansion is placed in the context of an impressive abundance of similar evidence from other Mediterranean states.

Realism is a highly pessimistic view of the world. It argues that we can only hope for two possible situations: frequent war or imperial domination. When political leaders accept this formula, the theory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet E. is correct to assert that Realism is the dominant paradigm in international relations today. As a classicist, I read E.'s book with delight, but as a political scientist, I am concerned about its influence on a non-specialist audience whose worldview the book too confidently reinforces. Thus I hope that this book will stimulate the production of other similarly sophisticated studies of ancient international relations that give full consideration and a fair hearing to alternative theories that envision the possibilities for developing a world that is more reasonable, cooperative, and non-zero-sum.


1.   On the centrality of stasis in ancient Greek political thought, see J. Ober, "Political Conflicts, Political Debates, and Political Thought", in R. Osborne (ed.), Classical Greece 500-323 B.C. (Oxford 2000), 111-38.
2.   A measure of just how far E. has internalized the "single actor" assumption of the Realists is revealed by his use of Elijah Anderson's analysis of the behavior of inner-city youths (Code of the Street [New York 1999]) as a model for the behavior of individual states. See A. Eckstein, "Brigands, Emperors, and Anarchy", Int. Hist. Rev. 22 (2000): 862-79.
3.   See J. Seibert, "Invasion aus dem Osten: Trauma, Propaganda, oder Erfindung der Römer?" in C. Schubert and K. Broderson (edd.), Rom und der griechische Osten. (Stuttgart 1995), 237-48; J. Quillin, "Information and Empire: Domestic Fear Propaganda in Republican Rome, 200-146 B.C.E.", The Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 160 (2004): 765-85; and J. Quillin, "The Authenticity, Impact, and Sincerity of the Speech of P. Sulpicius Galba (Livy 31.7)" (unpublished paper; email me for a draft).

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