Peter Jones reviews MAKERS OF ANCIENT STRATEGY: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, ed. by Victor Hanson
Princeton h/b 265pp £19.95
As one whose Vote for Caesar (Orion) argues that the classical world produced all sorts of stimulating responses to problems still with us, I strongly applaud these ten essays commissioned by Victor Hanson demonstrating how much we might still learn from ancient warfare.
Not that I agree with his central tenet that, since ‘human nature, which drives conflict, is unchanging’, new technologies have not made much difference to war as it has always been. Killing people was never a moral problem in the ancient world; these days even killing those attempting to kill you attracts in the West an orchestrated explosion of outrage that no ancient ever faced. If that is not a change in human nature, I do not know what is.
Again, there is something quite new about the calculation required in the use of a weapon so destructive (the atom bomb) that it can be deployed only against an enemy that does not have it.
But this collection does not need any over-arching theoretical justification. The essays either stand up or they do not. Those that succeed best—and there is only one obvious duffer—have something specific to say about specific conditions common to both ancient and modern warfare.
Take the unlikely topic of walls. As David Berkey points out, such ancient technology flourishes still, on the same control/protection principles: think of the security zones in Baghdad, the Israeli and Saudi walls, the USA-Mexico border, and the Gaza-Egypt underground barriers (and Berkey should have pointed out that the Israeli wall with its zoned approaches and crossing points uncannily imitates Hadrian’s).
But the big topic here is regime change, the nearest modern equivalent to ancient empire-building. Victor Hanson makes the basic point in relation to the Theban Epaminondas’s successful expulsion of Sparta from central Greece in the 4thC BC: a short, sharp, pre-emptive strike will not do the business unless you are prepared to make the lengthy post-war investment required to make it stick. Ian Worthington takes a slightly different view of Alexander’s vast, ramshackle empire. He puts its speedy collapse down to its size and cultural diversity; I would add the speed and randomness with which it was put together, and its failure to produce the sort of benefits, let alone social cohesion, that the Romans were able to generate. Susan Mattern’s essay on counter-insurgency is central on this vital issue: the Roman elites were expert at constructing economic and cultural relationships which reflected the interests, and therefore won the loyalty, of the powerful local elites in the territories they provincialised.
This is the key to preventing the urban conflict that John Lee discusses. Though ancient historians tend to concentrate on big set-piece battles or sieges, urban combat was hardly uncommon in the classical world, and is especially popular among terrorists today because it draws conventional armies into unconventional situations where non-combatants are at risk.
Lee points out that ancient theorists like Aeneas Tacticus argued that it was better to forestall urban warfare by very modern-sounding security controls: registering/confiscating weapons, identity tokens, keeping tabs on hotels and their guests, watching carefully over festivals and processions. As the ancients knew, local knowledge and awareness were crucial (remember American forces trapped in Mogadishu in 1993), and if they had to fight an urban battle, the whole population, women included, was mobilised. Likewise, as Aeneas emphasised, violent or careless mercenaries could inflame the situation; Lee tellingly cites the problems generated by private military contractors like Blackwater in Iraq.
Tom Holland strikes an equally relevant note in his beautifully written essay on the Persian empire, always the bad guy of pro-Greek western culture. In 539 BC, mighty Babylon, a city as old as time itself, fell to the upstart Persian Cyrus, who now ruled an empire extending from the Hindu Kush to the Aegean.
Cyrus’s contribution to empire-building was the insight that, after the bloody conquest, graciousness, emancipation and patronage were essential tools in persuading the conquered that their servitude was in fact a privilege. Later Persians under Darius were to add a powerful religious element to their self-image: the imperative, imposed by the god Ahura Mazda, to bring cosmic light and truth (thought not conversion) to the benighted peoples of the world. Such is the importance of imperial ideology and the place that religion might have in driving it.
At every point throughout this superb collection of essays, one cannot but reflect on Western engagements in far-off, alien places.