Honor, Terror, and the Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Continuing my [hopefully short-lived] antiquarian bent,  I recently read Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate by Susan P. Mattern. Mattern examines the phenomenon of Roman imperialism by reconstructing their own frame of reference. She argues that, in general, the Romans did not view international relations and war in terms of “rational” objectives such as the military defense or economic security of the empire, but rather in terms of national honor. “Revolving around this idea of image or honor, Roman policy worked largely on the psychological (as opposed to strictly military or economic) plane.” (108-9)

The Romans … [did] not frame their analyses mainly in “rationalizing” economic or geopolitical terms; these motivations alone – the desire to achieve defensible frontiers, for example, or to balance the budget through lucrative conquests or to retain the tax revenue of a rebellious province – are inadequate to explain the intensity and brutality of the Roman effort in many cases. Instead, the Romans perceived their struggle for empire in very different terms: crucial were issues of psychology, the emotions of terror and awe that they hoped to produce in the enemy; and moral and status issues, such as the need to repress superbia [arrogance among the enemy], avenge iniruriae [violations of honor], and maintain the honor or decus of the empire. It was on these things that, as they believed, their security depended; it was for these that they fought. (194)

Military victory was the main currency in the struggle for honor, and military force was the primary instrument of state power, but the legions alone were not sufficient to maintain the empire; relative to the territory and population it had to garrison, the army was far too small. Mattern points out that the state always had difficulty paying for the army and that the massing of forces necessary for wars of conquest or the suppression of major rebellions often left the rest of the empire dangerously undermanned. Thus, it was their intuitive understanding of the inherently psychological nature of power – not military force – that allowed Rome to hold its empire together.

They seem to have perceived foreign relations as a competition for honor and status between Rome and barbarian peoples; by proving its superior force through war and conquest, Rome extracts deference and reverence from other nations, who then remain submissive, refraining from revolt or attack. It is in this way that the empire is supposed to maintain security. Conversely, signs of weakness on Rome’s part, such as a show of deference to a foreign people, or failure to avenge a defeat in war or to punish a revolt with sufficient ferocity, are considered invitations to disaster. (171)

The object of Roman statecraft was to imprint on the enemy’s mind a sense of dread about Roman power. Diplomatic tools, such as the  the reception of embassies, foreign hostages, treaties, tribute, etc. were intended to extract a show of deference to Rome. These symbolic expressions were binding; if the awesome and terrible image of Roman power was undermined by the defiance of the enemy, Rome waged war, the ultimate expression of its dominance.

The goals of such expeditions were not normally “defensive.” They were not undertaken, for example, to drive the barbarians out of Roman territory; in many cases the enemy will have left by the time the army arrived. The aim was to punish, to avenge, and to terrify – that is, to reassert a certain state of mind in the enemy, or even a certain moral equilibrium or status relationship between Rome and the barbarian.  This goal could, but did not necessarily, involve the annexation of enemy territory. (117)

Terror was instrumental in this system. Subject and foreign peoples must have no doubt of the horrifying consequences of offending Rome. In cases of rebellion – the most dangerous threats to the image of Roman invincibility – the genocide of the offending tribe was considered an appropriate response. However, Roman brutality coexisted with a strong just war tradition. Nations that declared for Rome entered into its fides and defending them was a solemn duty; abandoning them would be a black stain on Roman honor. Similarly, waging war on a friendly population, as glory-hungry officials occasionally did, was a crime of the utmost disgrace. So there were some carrots to go with the sticks, but non-Romans were expected to gratefully and humbly accept said carrots; failure to do so would quickly bring the sticks until a proper sense of respect was beaten into them.

To sum up:

The central aspect of Roman strategy was image. Their army was indeed astonishingly small; frontier construction and troop deployments were inadequate to prevent major invasions. This did not matter in the Roman system as long as the enemy believed that he would suffer massive retaliation for a breach of faith and as long as the Romans were both willing and able to enforce this principle at whatever cost. Should the empire’s small army, stretched too thin, face more crises than it could successfully avenge, its image would suffer and its empire would founder: this is in fact what happened in the third century. (122)

Mattern’s book has much relevance for the modern world as a reminder that the phenomenon of empire is not a tangible condition maintained by the raw force of military power. It is a psychological condition; a state of mind created by the twin emotions of awe and terror. In the Age of Nations, most of the world, especially the United States, has failed to understand this. Imperial powers unable or unwilling to conquer the minds of their subjects are left with the long, bloody, exhausting and ultimately futile course of conquering their bodies.


An amusing side note: Mattern’s work also highlights the major disconnect between historians and political scientists in the academic world. She devotes a significant amount of space to convincing her audience of historians that her central argument  (that Roman strategy was governed primarily by intangible factors such as honor) is a reasonable one. She closes out this section by using the example of the Dacian Wars – which are considered by most historians to be an “irrational” enterprise – to illustrate her point:

[Dacia’s] king had humiliated Rome by inflicting defeats on the Romans army, and by wresting from Rome a treaty in which one clause  especially – the financial subsidies paid to Decebalus – clearly conceded this defeat. Imagine, for example, some insignificant nation in Central America or the Middle East daring to behave in the same way toward, say, the United States! (209)

Apparently, there’s not much time for reading the news when one is immersed in the classics.


3 thoughts on “Honor, Terror, and the Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

  1. I am currently halfway through Chester G Starr’s The Roman Empire, 21 BC-AD 476: A Study in Survival, and his discussion of Augustus makes the same general point. Augustus knew that the Empire did not have the capacity to wage sustained war in the Eastern deserts of Parthia or with the tribes of Brittania (in both cases, victory would cost much but provide little), but he could not just let the situation be. His answer was to begin forceful negotiations with the Parthians to recover the legionary eagles lost by Crassus and with the British chieftains to to acknowledge his clear (Roman) superiority. The accomplishment of both of these goals made invasion “less necessary.”

  2. “Imperial powers unable or unwilling to conquer the minds of their subjects are left with the long, bloody, exhausting and ultimately futile course of conquering their bodies.”

    Which, by what I have read above, the Romans accomplished by completely crushing their bodies, e.g., genocide.

    • Genocide was certainly not unheard of in ancient Rome, but it usually occurred only in cases of rebellion, when Rome decided to eradicate troublesome populations that they previously considered to be conquered. In any case, it certainly is not a legitimate tool for imperial powers in the 21st century.

      What I meant by “the long, bloody, exhausting and ultimately futile course of conquering their bodies” was the use of force to physically compel obedience – but not annihilate – subject populations that reject domination by a foreign power. It was difficult enough in the days of antiquity; with the advent of nationalism, it may be impossible in the modern era.

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