BMCR 2021.12.48

Reflections on Macedonian and Roman grand strategy

, , Reflections on Macedonian and Roman grand strategy. Bogotá: Ediciones UGC, 2019. Pp. vii, 145. ISBN 9789585405561

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The problem of “Grand Strategy” in the Roman Empire is one of the fundamental controversies in the field of ancient history. Since the publication of Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy in the Roman Empire forty-five years ago, the battle lines have been quite firmly drawn.[1] The scholarly pendulum swings between the maximalist view, advocated by Luttwak, that the Romans engaged in reasoned and centralized grand strategy, to the minimalist belief that the Romans were so misinformed about geography and ethnography that any sort of reasoned grand strategy was impossible.  This volume, stemming from a small conference in Bogota in 2014, provides four treatments of the debate, three from a pro-strategy position, and a final contribution undercutting it at the end.

Kenneth Harl presents a history of Lucullus’ operations during the Third Mithridatic War. In terms of hierarchies of military activity, the operations of armies are generally considered subsidiary to both regional strategy and overall grand strategy. Indeed, Harl largely ignores the fundamental if unglamorous role the Roman senate had in determining grand strategy during the Republican period through the allotment of armies and provinces. The chapter rather assumes that Lucullus was simply the right man for the job, skipping over evidence that he had to connive to get the position after the death of the governor of Cilicia (his initial assignment was Cisalpine Gaul); he supposedly even hired a courtesan to lobby on his behalf (Plut. Luc. 6.1-5). This bit of color may not be true, but it is worth noting that in both republic and empire key positions were often assigned due to personal machinations.

The value of Harl’s piece lies in its consideration of how broader strategy can develop out of operations, especially as commanders on the ground familiarize themselves with critical geography by moving through it. A key tension in the Grand Strategy debate is the fundamental difference between practical and theoretical geography, the Romans being relatively good at the former and––as discussed in a later chapter by Richard Talbert––quite mediocre at the latter. In order to capture Mithridates, Lucullus realized he had to defeat his ally Tigranes, which meant projecting his army across the Anatolian plateau and beyond the Euphrates. Harl discusses his own survey of the topography of the region, which leads him to postulate an identification for Tigranocerta and the nearby plain where Lucullus trounced Tigranes in pitched battle, near the Turkish village of Bozhüyük. While Lucullus’ troops mutinied when he tried to pursue Tigranes too far, Harl cogently notes that Lucullus’ operations provided an enduring template for Rome’s larger eastern strategy, as knowledge of topography, routes, and logistical resources informed subsequent commanders, and represented the inception of the upper Euphrates frontier maintained in the Principate.

Fred Naiden’s examination of the grand strategic thinking of Alexander the Great is a welcome expansion to a discussion dominated by Rome, especially since Alexander is often depicted by both ancient and modern sources as driven by non-strategic impulses, particularly the pothos that motivated him to do what had never been done before. But Naiden argues that when it came to the war with Achaemenid Persia, Alexander seems to have had a well-considered strategy. Rather than simply trying to conquer Achaemenid territory, Alexander aimed to destroy the king and, if that failed, his armies. Thus, at both Issus and Gaugamela, he aimed his cavalry charge directly at Darius, hoping to kill him, although it is notable that in each battle Alexander had the good tactical sense to turn his focus to the envelopment of the Persian army when it was clear that Darius had escaped and that his own phalanx could not hold. Even his movements through the Persian empire reflected the pursuit of Darius, rather than an attempt to systematically consolidate or annex territory. In many ways, Alexander followed the strategy attempted by the Achaemenid pretender Cyrus the Younger: to rapidly penetrate the empire, overthrow the king, and then assert control over the bureaucracy as the only plausible candidate left standing.

Finally, Naiden discusses Alexander’s religious strategy by which he attempted to legitimate his conquest. He notes that Alexander enjoyed excellent knowledge of the religious aspects of kingship for both Egypt and Babylon, allowing him to quickly assume the religious prerogatives of rule for these regions. But this dual role also muddled things considerably, as the parochial religious claims of each kingship were not necessarily compatible with Alexander’s multi-regional conquests, while his advance east quickly outpaced his religious knowledge, to the point of total aporia as he encountered Brahmins and Buddhists in India. He never bothered to have himself coronated using Persian rituals at the Temple of Anahita at Pasargadae. Naiden concludes that Alexander’s religious grand strategy was far less successful than his military strategy, reinforcing the conventional notion of Alexander as a man very good at conquest but whose attempts at consolidation were wholly inadequate.

Daniel Raisbeck provides a review of the status quaestionis, summarizing recent pendulum swings between minimalists who seemingly had the upper hand by the turn of the millennium, with subsequent pushback of supporters of Grand Strategy theories, especially Kimberly Kagan and Everett Wheeler, who are quoted extensively.[2]  Raisbeck himself advocates a more measured position in favor of Grand Strategy. Ancient states, including the Roman Empire, had a general sense of the resources at their disposal (military units, revenue) and deployed these consciously to achieve regime goals, be it conquest, internal security and political stability. We can observe the movement of Roman armies through geography in ways that suggest that they were hardly flying blind: Raisbeck highlights the Rhine campaign of Tiberius in 5 A.D., with supply ships moving down the Elbe to link up with troops marching overland from the Rhine. This complex operation required, and demonstrated, not only on-the-ground geographic knowledge in order to execute it, but also a fairly sophisticated and accurate theoretical geographic conception in order to conceive of it in the first place. Roman emperors clearly knew the location of military units and shifted them as necessary. Trajan’s letter to Pliny (10.78), rejecting a request to provide a centurion for internal police duties shows Trajan at once considering military deployments at the micro-level, yet also in terms of broader strategy: if too many legionary troops were detached to serve as urban cops, the strategic mission of frontier security would suffer.

Richard Talbert presents the freshest perspective of the volume, mobilizing the evidence of Roman sundials to argue for the minimalist paradigm that hinges upon the routine geographic ignorance of the Romans, citing as inspiration Susan Mattern.[3] Talbert then mobilizes portable bronze sundials that had to be positioned according to latitude in order to tell time correctly. The dials therefore contain inscriptions reporting the latitudes of various locations throughout the empire, both provinces and cities. While a number of the latitudes on these sundials are spot on, others are shockingly inaccurate, suggesting that the maker of the sundial was either ignorant or indifferent. The mistakes are not random, however, and seem to show a distorted mental map of how the empire fit together. Talbert suggests that the mixed bag of geographic knowledge displayed on these sundials is another strike against any notion that the Romans collectively had the geographic knowledge necessary for accurate grand strategic thinking.  Here, the question is how relevant the ignorance on the sundials was. A sundial was not a military device. The Ashmolean sundial is badly wrong about the latitude of North Africa, for example, putting it at 41oN, roughly the same latitude as Campania, but Roman history would have been very different if Rome did not know exactly where Carthage was.

With only four contributions, I found myself wishing for more essays in the collection. One of the strengths of often-maligned conference volumes is the mass and diversity of positions, bringing together many different takes on a common problem. In particular, it would be interesting to hear more about the problem of Grand Strategy in more ancient states beyond Rome and Macedonia: Athens, Sparta, Carthage and particularly the Achaemenid Empire.  As it is, the volume opens lines of communication in an otherwise stagnant debate, but does little to break the stalemate.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Fred Naiden and Daniel Raisbeck
Chapter 1: Kenneth Harl, “Pursuing Mithridates VI Eupator: The Campaigns of L. Licinius Lucullus, 74-67 B.C.”
Chapter 2: Fred Naiden, “War Aims of Alexander the Great.”
Chapter 3: Daniel Raisbeck, “Grand Strategy in Antiquity: the Case of Imperial Rome.”
Chapter 4: Richard Talbert, “How Grand was Roman Grand Strategy? Some Perspectives from the Study of Roman Sundials.”


[1] Edward Luttwak, Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century BC to the Third Century AD (Baltimore 1976).

[2] E.g. Everett Wheeler, “The Methodological Limits and the Mirage of Roman Grand Strategy: Part I,” Journal of Military History 57 (1993): 7–41; “Part II,” JMH 57 (1993): 215–40; Kimberly Kagan, “Redefining Roman Grand Strategy,” JMH 70 (2006): 333–62.

[3] Susan Mattern, Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy and the Principate (Berkeley 1999).