The Campaigns of Heraclius in the East – George Finlay

B

Synopsis:

When the Roman Emperor Heraclius elevated himself to the throne in Constantinople, the empire was in a bleak state. It had been defeated, its armies destroyed, and most of its major cities conquered. The Persian monarch Chosroes II had succeeded in destroying Roman power in a string of successful campaigns initiated after the murder of his benefactor the Roman Emperor Mauricius by the usurper Phocas.

Nearly twenty years later the empire had been restored on all fronts, and the Persian enemy completely defeated with great slaughter. Heraclius was able to achieve this spectacular result after a series of brilliant counter-offensive campaigns into the heart of Persia, which included extinguishing the eternal flame of the fire god Ahura Mazda – the national deity of Persia – and the destruction of its ancient shrine.

In his seminal History of Greece, George Finlay details these campaigns and imparts his own sagacious commentary on the events.

Excerpts:

“Heraclius had repeatedly declared that he did not desire to make any conquest of Persian territory. His conduct when success had crowned his exertions, and when his enemy was ready to purchase his retreat at any price, proves the sincerity and justice of his policy. His empire required not only a lasting peace to recover from the miseries of the late war, but also many reforms in the civil and religious administration, which could only be completed during such a peace, in order to restore the vigor of the government.”

“The fame of Heraclius would have rivaled that of Alexander, Hannibal, or Caesar, had he expired at Jerusalem, after the successful termination of the Persian war. He had established peace throughout the empire, restored the strength of the Roman government, revived the power of Christianity in the East, and replanted the holy cross on Mount Calvary. His glory admitted of no addition. Unfortunately, the succeeding years of his reign have, in the general opinion, tarnished his fame.”

“Though the military glory of Heraclius was obscured by the brilliant victories of the Saracens, still his civil administration ought to receive its meed of praise, when we compare the resistance made by the empire which he reorganized with the facility which the followers of Mahomet found in extending their conquests over every other land from India to Spain.”

“The moment the Mohammedan armies were compelled to rely solely on their military skill and religious enthusiasm, and ceased to derive any aid from the hostile feeling of the inhabitants to the imperial government, their career of conquest was checked; and almost a century before Charles Martel stopped their progress in the west of Europe, the Greeks had arrested their conquests in the East, by the steady resistance which they offered in Asia Minor.”

“His effort to strengthen his power, by establishing a principle of unity, aggravated all the evils which he intended to cure; for while the Monophysites and the Greeks were as little disposed to unite as ever, the authority of the Eastern Church, as a body, was weakened by the creation of a new schism, and the incipient divisions between the Greeks and the Latins, assuming a national character, began to prepare the way for the separation of the two churches.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Greece Under The Romans, B.C. 146 – A.D. 716, Palala Press.

Antiochus the Great – Michael Taylor

Synopsis:

Overlooking the swelling power of the Roman Republic in the Mediterranean, the late Seleucid Empire of Antiochus III posed a strategic obstacle to Roman expansion into Greece as well as the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to lead the Roman Republic in peace it was absolutely necessary for a Roman aristocrat to lead in war, and the fanatically competitive nature of the Roman aristocracy meant that Hellenistic autocrats such as Antiochus became an endangered species during the era of Roman ascendancy.

In his biography of Antiochus III ‘the Great’ of the Seleucid Empire Michael Taylor chronicles the politics, wars, conquests, and defeats of the Megas Basileus (Great King) of the Seleucid Empire.

Excerpts:

“…unprecedented warfare had reduced a divided international system to two powers. The two victors saw each other across a ‘contested periphery’, territory that both sides claimed as spheres of influence: Greece in the case of Rome and Antiochus, Central Europe in the case of the US and Stalin. In both instances diplomacy was terse and generally ineffective.”

“Antiochus III knew that moving an army into Greece to ‘settle affairs between the Aetolians and Romans’ would lead to war with Rome. Antiochus had not sought such a war willingly, but he was no pacifist. With most of his royal career dominated by military operations, there was little reason for him to flinch from this new challenge.”

“The facts that Hannibal relayed were likely encouraging: the Roman army was an amateur militia commanded by amateur aristocrats. It had no standing units, but rather each year fresh recruits were distributed into legions. Half of the army was composed of ‘allied’ wings; these soldiers lacked citizenship. As Hannibal had proved, the Roman army had suffered stunning defeats, due mostly to the combination of poorly trained levies and inexperienced or even incompetent generals. At best, a Roman consul had one or two years of provincial command as a praetor or pro-praetor; Antiochus III had commanded armies for thirty years. While the Seleucid army also contained citizen militiamen in the phalanx, it also had a splendid professional corps, the 10,000 Silver Shields, and the two regiments of royal cavalry. Thus, despite recent Roman successes against Carthage and Macedonia, Antiochus entered the war confident of victory.”

“Almost all Hellenistic kings were obsessed with the physical image of Alexander, the ultimate role model and prototype for Hellenistic kingship. Before Alexander, a copious and virile beard was the sign of a mature Greek man. But Alexander had died before he reached the age where it was customary for Greek men to grow a beard, and his youthful clean-shaven state was copied by his successors even into old age. As a result, beards went out of fashion in the Mediterranean for the next 450 years.”

“The Romanophile Antiochus IV met the Roman delegation as it disembarked at Pelusium and affably offered to shake hands. This was a gesture of tremendous respect and good will. In a spectacular and arrogant gesture of showmanship, Popilius Laenus remained silent. He took his staff, drew a circle in the sand around the King, and handed him a written copy of Roman demands. Finally speaking, he told the King not to step out of the circle until he had agreed to Roman demands, demands that included the complete evacuation of Egypt. Antiochus IV was humiliated. But a fellow Hellenistic monarch had just been deposed by Rome, making manifest the potential cost of defeat. He told Laenus of his decision to comply and swiftly withdrew his forces.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Antiochus the Great, Pen and Sword.

Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire – Ian Hughes

Synopsis:

In his survey of the late Roman Empire and its rulers, Ian Hughes examines the internal as well as external causes of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The core of the book is devoted to the imperial leadership of the last twenty years of the empire.

Cultivated amid the collapsing institutions of the Roman state was unexpectedly an impressive array of men that ascended the purple. Majorian, Anthemius, Avitus, and Glycerius were all attractive, energetic, and able rulers that under better circumstances may have established lasting dynasties.

Excerpts:

“…it is possible to declare that as far as the (self-deluding) Senate of Rome was concerned, the only territory lost during the period when Ricimer ‘ruled’, between 456 and 472, was a small part of Hispania to the Sueves. The ‘rebellions’ of both Aegidius and Marcellinus would be seen as temporary and having little effect on the Empire overall.”

“…the large number of plagues that occurred in the fifth century; the refusal of great landowners to allow their workers to be taken for military service; and the pressure of taxation causing many citizens to abandon their loyalty to the Empire and transfer it to either local bishops or barbarian leaders, all weakened the Empire in one way or another.”

“Whenever the Empire brought overwhelming force to bear the barbarian kings could easily submit, safe in the knowledge that the troops were too valuable to be risked in battle and would soon be removed for service elsewhere in the Empire. At that point it would be possible to revert to an aggressive policy. At many key points this also explains why the barbarian kingdoms were allowed to continue, and also how they managed to pursue policies inimical to the survival of the Empire without being destroyed by Rome.”

“Yet there remains the fact that emperors who concentrated any significant resources outside Italy, such as Avitus, Majorian and Anthemius, quickly lost the affiliation of Italy and thus their rule and their lives, encouraging the alienation of non-Italians to the emperor and their change of allegiance to powerful men – usually barbarian kings – who would fulfill the role of protector once provided by the legions.”

“In Gaiseric the emperor had a political and military genius as an opponent. Gaiseric was able to successfully conquer large parts of the Western Mediterranean and repel two major Roman invasions, whilst at the same time continuing a political policy of divide and conquer that enabled him to make peace with East and West separately whilst continuing attacks on the other.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire, Pen and Sword.

The Sole Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #76, Seneca underscores the element of reason in human existence. He also surveys the subjects of wisdom, virtue, bravery, and what ingredients aggregate into the human soul.

Excerpts:

“Wisdom is never a windfall. Money may come unsought, office may be bestowed, influence and prestige may be thrust upon you, but virtue is not an accident.”

“What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods. Perfect reason is, then, his peculiar good; his other qualities are common to animals and vegetables.”

“The sole good in man, therefore, is what is solely man’s, for our question does not concern the good but the good of man. If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest.”

“Folly may creep toward wisdom, but wisdom does not backslide to folly.”

“…men bear with fortitude, when they have grown accustomed to them, things they had thought very difficult.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Rhetoric – Aristotle

20

Synopsis:

In his treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle considers the requisite building blocks of rhetoric as well as its existent contemporaneous forms. He also examines the subjects of politics, virtue, happiness, and morality in his customary common-sense way.

Excerpts:

“Justice, courage, self-control, magnanimity, magnificence, and all other similar states of mind, for they are virtues of the soul. Health, beauty, and the life, for they are virtues of the body and produce many advantages…”

“In regard to war and peace, the orator should be acquainted with the power of the State, how great it is already and how great it may possibly become; of what kind it is already and what additions may possibly be made to it; further, what wars it has waged and its conduct of them. These things he should be acquainted with, not only as far as his own State is concerned, but also in reference to neighboring States, and particularly those with whom there is a likelihood of war, so that towards the stronger a pacific attitude may be maintained, and in regard to the weaker, the decision as to making war on them may be left to his own State.”

“…it is useful not only to understand what form of government is expedient by judging in the light of the past, but also to become acquainted with those in existence in other nations, and to learn what kinds of government are suitable to what kinds of people.”

“Let us then define happiness as well-being combined with virtue, or independence of life, or the life that is most agreeable combined with security…”

“Internal goods are those of mind and body; external goods are noble birth, friends, wealth, honor. To these we think should be added certain capacities and good luck; for on these conditions life will be perfectly secure.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Aristotle: Rhetoric, Chios Classics.

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Synopsis:

The 6th century AD Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius ascended the peak of power and influence amid the post-Roman state of Theoderic the Great. After the dissolution of Roman authority in the late 5th century AD,  Theoderic seized control of Italy and formed a successor state to the Western Roman Empire, which would maintain the ancient traditions, offices, and formal structure of the old Roman heartland. This continuity allowed Theoderic to pacify the Roman population, as well as permitted him to concentrate his power and influence over the Italian peninsula.

Late in the reign of Theoderic, the career of Boethius would come to an abrupt end with the latter being charged with treason by the former. In prison Boethius would go on to write The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his own execution. The book is written in dialogue form between Lady Philosophy and Boethius. The subjects of the dialogue include: the origin and preservation of happiness, pursuit of virtue, inconstancy of fortune, as well as time and free will.

Excerpts:

“…I shall present you with this corollary: since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods once they have acquired divinity. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity.”

“The outcome of human actions is entirely dependent on two things, will and capability. If one of these two is absent nothing can be accomplished. For if the will is lacking, people do not even embark on action which they have no wish to carry out; on the other hand, if they are incapable of doing it, it is vain to will it. It follows from this that if you observed someone wanting to acquire something but totally failing to get it, you can be certain that what he lacked was the ability to attain what he desired.”

“…he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal.”

“Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition.”

“God must not be visualized as prior to the created world merely in length of time; rather, it is by virtue of possession of his simple nature. This condition of his, unchanging life in the present, is imitated by the perpetual movement of temporal things. Since that movement is unable to achieve and to match that unchanging life, it degenerates from changelessness into change. From the simplicity of the present it subsides into the boundless extent of future and past.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.

On Clemency – Seneca

Synopsis:

In his essay On Clemency, the stoic philosopher Seneca defines the requisite qualities of an ideal ruler relevant to the notions of justice and mercy. The motive for which Seneca wrote the essay was to instruct the young emperor Nero on how the consummate ruler ought to govern. Nero would of course go on to become the antagonist of nearly all the ideas representing virtue in the essay, thereby defining his legacy in history.

Excerpts:

“The true fruit of right deeds is, to be sure, in the doing, and no reward outside themselves is worthy of the virtues…”

“No one can long hide behind a mask; the pretense soon lapses into the true character. But where the basis is truth and where the roots are solidly planted, time itself fosters growth in size and quality.”

“…in full view for all to see is the happiest of administrations in which the only limitation upon the completest liberty is the denial of license for self-destruction.”

“Lightning’s stroke imperils few but frightens all; so chastisement by a mighty power terrifies more widely than it hurts, and with good reason, for where power is absolute men think not of what it has done but of what it might do.”

“It is a mistake to think that the king is safe when nothing is safe from the king; one bargains for security with security.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.