BMCR 1997.02.08

1997.02.08, Kriegerisches Rom? Zur Frage von Unvermeidbarkeit und Normalität Militärischer Konflikte in der Römischen Politik

, Kriegerisches Rom? : zur Frage von Unvermeidbarkeit und Normalität militärischer Konflikte in der römischen Politik. Palingenesia ; Bd. 55. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1995. 192 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9783515067751

War, its causes, and its appalling frequency are perennial problems. Human societies have been freed from the plague of war only in the constructions of utopian visionaries or in theories which are driven by their own contemporary politico-cultural agendas, such as Gimbutas’ idea of a peaceful, agricultural Old Europe centered on the worship of the Goddess. As Kostial (K.) states, there were 159 wars worldwide in the roughly forty year period between the end of WW II and 1984, for an average of some four new wars each year (25 and n. 70). Yet moderns generally consider war to be a gruesome abnormality, an international disease, and a perversion of the natural order of things. Should Roman Republican sensibilities necessarily have been otherwise?

Interest in the causes of war remains intense, as evidenced by recent books by Suganami, Bond, and Kagan. As Hew Strachan has pointed out in a recent review of these three works, there is a sharp divide between the approaches of historians and political scientists to the causes of war. Historians focus on the historical contingencies and peculiarities that have triggered individual conflicts, whereas political scientists often are in search of the universal truths and general conditions which sketch a paradigm for the origins of all wars. The dangers of the two approaches are, in the case of historians, precise delineations of historically specific factors leading to particular wars which by their very specificity are of little value to anyone save the antiquarian, and, in the case of political scientists, facile explanations which are so general that all wars become an undifferentiated mass in umbrella theories which in the end tell us very little. 1 The latter approach (and some critics may think that the work of Michael Walzer provides an example), must assume that there is such a thing as an immutable human nature as well as an enduring code of moral principles that provide the basis for universal criteria by which to judge wars. These underlying assumptions stand in opposition to writers as diverse as Herder, Ranke, Burckhardt, Spengler, and Foucault, who in various ways have contributed to a dispersive historiography that celebrates the difference of the varieties of human societies.

K. at times seems to make such essentialist assumptions (see, as examples, the analogies drawn between Roman warfare as a last resort, Desert Storm, and current events in the former Yugoslavia at 58 n. 202, or the discussion of fear as a cause of Roman wars and the atmosphere of international relations during the Cold War at 110 n. 406), and much of her book implicitly discounts the possibility that from a modern perspective the Romans may present a bewilderingly strange mentality. Nihil humanum sibi alienum putat. She denies that Romans of the Republican era perceived warfare as unavoidable and in some sense normal. K. revives Nestle’s 1935 thesis, which Clavadetscher-Thuerlemann’s 1985 study echoes, that the Romans viewed peace, not war, as society’s normal state. She invokes modern anthropological and social-psychological literature, canvassing Lorenz’ instinctive-aggression theory as well as the contingency-oriented approaches of Fromm et al. (20-22; cf. 133). The reader may be surprised that K. neither mentions the radical sociological perspective on war of Stanislav Andreski (with which Brian Bond’s recent neo-Clauswitzian The Pursuit of Victory [Oxford 1996] has affinities), nor recent work in social and cognitive psychology on the pragmatics of stereotyping and social perception. 2 This material, in any event, may well seem far removed from the question of ancient Roman attitudes toward war and peace.

K. is concerned with the Roman idea of the bellum iustum and a system of Roman procedures for conflict resolution. She maintains that Rome was bound to present offending states with a rerum repetitio, followed by a lex de indicendo bello, carried out according to proper fetial procedure (schematized in a flow chart at 168). There would be several opportunities, including in some cases deditio noxae, for Rome’s antagonist to avoid war. In this putative Roman system, military action is a last resort. The final authority in declarations of war or peace lay with the populace, who carefully weighed the life-threatening dangers of war against any political, material, or ideological advantages of armed conflict. The comitia centuriata would not undertake war lightly, and the righteousness and necessity of a declaration of war had to be patent to the Assembly (117-124). Here K. overlooks two important articles on the democratic element at Rome by Fergus Millar (which she could have employed to advance her argument), and she does not account for evidence such as Roman patrons’ controls over their clients in the Assembly, the timocratic and hierarchical organization of the centuriate assembly, or the situation in 200 BCE, when the Senate forced a new war against Philip V on an unwilling populace (Liv. 31.6.1-8.4). More generally, K. presents Roman procedure as a static system, although the sources indicate an institutional primitiveness of the early Roman Senate as a decision-making body in foreign affairs and a continual process of development in the Roman declaration of war in the second century BCE. 3

K. points out that the distortions of anachronistic uses of the word imperialism, a modern idea, have blocked an historical understanding of the Roman Vorstellungswelt concerning warfare (17-19). This is a point well taken, although one misses the nearly obligatory reference to J. A. Hobson as well as mention of Polybius’ strained attempts to find a consistent, overarching Roman plan for world conquest (cf. 1.3.6 and 3.2.6). K. seems to be unaware of J. S. Richardson’s bold if somewhat idiosyncratic 1991 study of the word imperium, whose thesis would help to advance her own. 4 In fact, it is strange that in this section on the dangers of anachronism in the word imperialism, there is no discussion of the Latin word imperium.

In making her case for a Roman disavowal of the normalcy of the state of war, K. must not only confront modern scholars such as M.I. Finley, W.V. Harris, A. Momigliano, and Y. Garlan, but also much of the ancient evidence. Here her arguments run as follows. On the one hand, we find no theoretical treatment of war in the sources, and on the other, classical historiography took war as its central concern (30). More generally, classical, like modern (Braudel and the Annales school?) historiography, eschews the commonplace in favor of the extraordinary and the dramatic (29). The ancient historians, moreover, suffer from a temporal distance from many of the events they report, a problem compounded by the unreliable, anecdotal, and predominantly oral nature of the tradition on early Rome (30-31). Finally, there is the fact that the historians, after all, were members of the Greek or Roman socio-economic elites, and we cannot recover the thoughts and feelings of “der kleine Mann” through their writings (34-35). These, for K., are the obstacles that stand in the way of an historical understanding of the Roman attitude toward war, and as a result of the ancient sources’ failure to provide a key to Roman conceptions of war and peace, she must tease out her argument from Cicero and, to a lesser degree, Seneca.

K.’s appeal to the formal Roman structures for preempting war through peaceful conflict resolution, rerum repetitio, deditio noxae, and the rest, is too static and legalistic, and the many exceptions to the rule in her own pages weaken the argument. As she confesses, lust for power, glory seeking, and the profit motive often played important causal roles in the outbreak of Roman wars (63-64). We may take the case of the outbreak of the First Punic War, which K. treats cursorily (37-38, 122-123, 125) and without reference either to Petzold’s important study on the preliminaries to the war or Thiel’s scathing condemnation of the Roman intervention at Messana, in order to illustrate the vast difference between Roman formal procedure and Roman practice in the declaration and conduct of war. 5 Roman involvement in Sicily was an unprecedented extra-Italian venture and may well have been a violation of an international treaty agreement with Carthage, if one accepts the historicity of the so-called Philinus treaty (Polyb. 3.26.6-7). It is likely that the Senate accepted the Mamertine deditio without consultation of the Assembly (cf. 125 and n. 454, which assumes more than Polyb. 1.11.2 actually says). Finally, Ap. Claudius Caudex clearly took independent action at Messana without a proper indictio belli. In all these ways, the preliminaries to this most important of Roman wars, a war which put Rome on the path from master of Italy to Mediterranean hegemon, violated the standard procedures, as K. presents them, for Roman declarations of war. A more in-depth treatment could have served part of K’s argument: Caudex apparently exhausted diplomatic initiatives before resorting to armed conflict, although these were his own initiatives, without formal directives from Rome. 6 Flamininus’ actions in 195 against Nabis may provide another illustration of an individual commander’s disregard of formal Roman procedure: Livy gives no hint of rerum repetitio or indictio belli (34.25.1-26.8, contra Briscoe, Comm. II: 88). K.’s own statement reflects much of the problem with her book: “Die Divergenz zwischen Theorie und Praxis ist offensichtlich” (26). Caudex’s behavior in Sicily was not atypical, and K., failing to mention Eckstein’s 1987 study (note 6), does not give sufficient weight to the important factor of the Roman commander’s individual decision-making in the field.

Badian’s classic study of Roman conduct of foreign affairs, Foreign Clientelae, does not appear in the pages of K.’s book. Badian, of course, argued that we may best understand Roman foreign relations in the Middle and Late Republic as a super-imposition of the extra-constitutional Roman social institution of patronage upon Roman behavior in the international sphere. The demands of dignitas, auctoritas, and obsequium in Roman foreign policy could result in public humiliation, economic ruin, or total annihilation for non-compliance to impossible terms, as in the cases of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and “The Day of Eleusis,” Rhodes in the aftermath of the Third Macedonian War, and Carthage in the mid-second century BCE, respectively. The style and the tone of Rome’s relations with other states are indispensable for an appreciation of the historical texture of the Republic and cannot be captured in flow charts.

Sceptics may raise three objections that compromise K.’s claims that Romans considered peace to be the normal state of affairs, that Romans took great pains to fight only bella iusta, and that the state apparatus exhausted the possibilities for peaceful resolution before resorting to armed conflict. First, there is the pragmatic Roman concern for Rome’s public image abroad, and particularly in the Greek world, which would induce Rome to put the best face on military activities. We see this concern as early as the aftermath of the First Illyrian War, when Rome sent embassies explaining Roman action across the Adriatic to the Achaean and Aetolian Confederations and to Athens and Corinth (Polyb. 2.12.4-8; cf. 36.2.1 on Rome’s concern for foreign opinion). Gruen’s monumental HWCR (1984), countering in important ways Badian’s FC, argued for a Roman education in and adoption of Greek diplomatic tools, and aside from a passing reference to Greek political influence (158), K. pays insufficient attention to this important question. Careful consideration of the influence of Greek political philosophy at Rome in the Middle Republic, engaging the work of Ferrary and Strasburger’s seminal article on Stoic thought and the morality of Roman power, would improve the book. 7 One might note that there seems to have been a double standard in Roman approaches to the Greek east and the barbarian west (as Schulten’s work on the Romans in Spain forcefully reminded us), which K.’s schematic approach glosses over. We might expect some discussion of this dichotomy in Roman policy, with reference to Dauge’s Le barbare (1981).

The remaining objections are internal to Rome. The formal criteria for declaring and conducting wars constituted an important element in the factional politics of the Roman nobility, whereby the senatorial aristocracy as a collective body could cut the individual of extraordinary achievements and abilities down to size by means of charges of procedural violations (compare the invalidity of ministerial appointments for magistrates vitio creati). Here one thinks of the difficulties which M. Claudius Marcellus encountered in having his Sicilian acta ratified by the Senate, which come through the accounts of both Livy and Plutarch, or the political attacks awaiting Scipio Africanus following the final defeat of Hannibal. Finally, the representation of Roman wars as just and defensive wars which had the approval of the gods played a large role in selling wars to the populus who would have to fight them. In this connection one thinks of Africanus’ and Sulla’s popular, supernatural claims or Polybius’ explicit statement on the Roman aristocracy’s manipulation of the populace through religious awe (6.56.6-12). Thus, Rome’s image abroad, the bellum iustum as a political weapon guarding against the threat of the brilliant individual to the collectivity of the Senate, and the favor of the gods as an inducement to war for the Assembly are critical factors in the Roman representation of the defensive and just war, to which K. pays too little attention.

K.’s book, then, approaches the problem of Roman conceptions of war and peace too simplistically. We need a more nuanced approach. What, for instance, does K. really mean by a Roman Vorstellungswelt ? Are we to understand this to be the view of the senatorial aristocracy, of the rank-and-file legionaries, or does it represent some common, deep-seated beliefs which all Romans held throughout the period of the Republic? The book does not address several important works on this topic written in English. And the book’s thesis does not convince. Were I to have to choose a classical author whose representations inspire confidence in an underlying historical reality, Cicero would not be my first choice, yet much of K.’s argument must rest on the authority of that author.

The Roman Republican aristocrat’s self-conception was bound to his military achievements, and he always had an eye to at least equaling the military exploits of his ancestors (cf. CIL I 2 6,7 = Ernout, Recueil, 13; Polyb. 6.53). Rome was a society that took a vegetation god turned god-of-war as its progenitor, whose poetic self-representation placed no limit upon the expansion of Roman power (Verg. Aen. 1.278-9), and whose quinquennial censorial prayer asked for the improvement and augmentation of Roman affairs (Val. Max. 4.1.10). Polybius could cynically observe that the Senate declared war in Dalmatia in 157/6 because there had been twelve years of peace since the war against Perseus, the legions were out of practice, and it was time to resume military activity in Illyria (32.13.4-9). And in the entire period of the Republic, the years in which Rome was at peace in all theaters were few and far between. 8 So what does K.’s study tell us? The Romans did have formal procedures for declaring wars, there are numerous instances of Roman attempts (sometimes successful) at peaceable conflict resolution, and certain Roman writers stress the benefits of peace and the horrors of war. K.’s book has the virtue of reminding us of the complexity of Roman diplomacy and warfare, and in this respect it has value as a corrective to Harris’ picture of primitive Roman aggression and bellicosity. But the unintended lesson of K.’s book is the great disparity between Roman ideals and Roman practice. It is perhaps appropriate to conclude with a remark of Polybius, a most astute, inside observer of the Roman Republican system. In a fragment that probably makes up part of a discussion of the Roman annihilation of Carthage in the aftermath of the so-called Third Punic War, the Achaean historian notes that the Romans take great care not to appear to be responsible for unjust acts or aggression, but rather always to seem to be acting in self-defense. 9

1. TLS April 12, 1996: 28. On Gimbutas’ “Civilization of the Goddess,” see the criticisms of Lynn Meskell, Antiquity 69 (1995) 74-86.

2. See the useful summary of recent work, J.-P. Leyens, V. Yzerbyt, and G. Schadron, Stereotypes and Social Cognition (London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi 1994).

3. F. Millar, “The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200-151 B.C.,”JRS 74 (1984) 1-19; id., “Politics, Persuasion and the People Before the Social War (150-90 B.C.),”JRS 76 (1986) 1-11. We now have the collection of essays edited by M. Jehne, Demokratie in Rom? (Stuttgart 1995), too recent for consideration by K. On the evolution of Roman declarations of war, cf. G. V. Sumner, “The Chronology of the Outbreak of the Second Punic War,”PACA 9 (1966) 5-30 at 17-18.

4.”Imperium Romanum : Empire and the Language of Power,”JRS 81 (1991) 1-9.

5. K.-E. Petzold, Studien zur Methode des Polybios und zu ihrer historischen Auswertung (Munich 1969) 129-179; J. H. Thiel, A History of Roman Sea-Power Before the Second Punic War (Amsterdam 1954) 129-134. J. F. Lazenby recently has published a full-scale study of the war, reviewed by H. Elton, BMCR 96.9.11.

6. See A. M. Eckstein, Senate and General: Individual Decision-Making and Roman Foreign Relations, 264-194 B.C. (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1987) 73-101, and 157 n. 4 for a list of commanders left in distant theaters of war year after year.

7. J.-L. Ferrary, Philhellénisme et impérialisme: Aspects ideologiques de la cônquete romaine du monde hellénistique (Rome 1988); H. Strasburger, “Poseidonius on Problems of the Roman Empire,”JRS 55 (1965) 40-53.

8. Liv. 1.19.3; cf. Cic. Off. 2.45; see W. V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327-70 B.C. (Oxford repr. 1986) 10, 256-57.

9. Frg. 99 B-W. On the context, see, H. Nissen, RhM 26 (1871) 275.