Justinian’s Military Organization – Hans Delbrück

Synopsis:

In the second volume of his History of the Art of War, Hans Delbrück devotes a chapter in book three to the military organization of the early Byzantine/late Roman Empire under the emperor Justinian. He examines the dissolution of discipline within the ranks, as well as the transition to a generally cavalry centered army. This more mobile force than the famous legions of previous epochs – particularly the republican one – was the culmination of centuries of evolution within the Roman army that had commenced under the emperor Gallienus. The resultant innovations from this transformation would give Justinian the edge in escalation dominance over the barbarian kingdoms in the West, and would open-the-door to a Roman re-conquest of North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian peninsula – all within the span of forty years.

Excerpts:

“The active armies were quite small. Belisarius had 25,000 men when he won his victory over the Persians at Daras in 530. He landed in Africa with no more than 15,000 men, and of these 15,000, the 5,000 cavalry included in that total were sufficient to defeat the Vandals in the open field. Even smaller was the army with which Belisarius moved to Italy in order to destroy the East Gothic Kingdom eleven years after Theodoric’s death: there were no more than 10,000 to 11,000 men. ”

“A contemporary author, Agathias (5. 13), estimated that the total Roman army must have been 645,000 men strong but that only 150,000 men were actually available under Justinian.”

“A very large number of the soldiers with whom Belisarius had conquered Italy deserted to the Goths when, after he was relieved, the Roman domination again collapsed and Totila established the Gothic kingdom.”

“After the fourth century A.D., and after the disappearance of the legions, everything changed. The barbarian mercenaries now felt that they were the masters. Woe to the prince or the general who might have dared to incur their displeasure by his strictness!”

“Procopius considers it a half-miracle and an extraordinary accomplishment of Belisarius that the Romans marched into Carthage in good order, ‘whereas otherwise the Roman troops never march into their own cities without disorder, even if there are only 500 of them.”

*All excerpts have been taken from History of the Art of War, Volume II: The Barbarian Invasions, Hans Delbrück, University of Nebraska Press.

The Punic Wars – Nigel Bagnall

40

Synopsis:

Born in India in 1927, Sir Nigel Bagnall served as Chief of the General Staff in London for the British Army in the late 1980s. In his survey of the Punic Wars among Rome and Carthage he bestows upon the reader notable erudition of the subject paired with the employment of his vast practical experience as a soldier in the British Army. The blending of his learnedness in both capacities lends to manifest an uncommon narrative of the life and death struggle among the two ancient superpowers – with Rome emerging as the ultimate victor. Bagnall likewise intercedes his own narrative with a chunk of commentary following the telling of the events of the First Punic War, and it is in this commentary that the book sets itself apart from other histories of these imposing wars.

Excerpts:

“When comparing the constitutions of Rome and Carthage, Polybius concludes that Rome was at its zenith when the Senate was at the height of its power and that its decisions were usually sound because they were being made by the best men available. Carthage on the other hand, because its strength and prosperity had preceded that of Rome, was past its prime by the time of the Punic Wars, and the people had gained too much power. In making this assessment, Polybius, however appears to have only considered the constitution as it affected a city state and to have overlooked the wider fact that, whereas Rome had forged a confederation of states which held together even when gravely threatened, Carthage had merely created a feudal empire with no sense of corporate loyalty.”

“Although there will admittedly never be any way of determining exactly why Carthage and Rome went to war, there are nevertheless two clearly identifiable factors which made such a war more probable. First, that the Romans saw an opportunity to advantage themselves, and second, that because they saw that the Carthaginians were unprepared militarily they succumbed to this temptation. Nothing appears to have changed in human nature during the last twenty centuries. Whether as individuals, or collectively, most of the human race displays an unfortunate proclivity for opportunism unless deterred by the threat of sufficiently painful consequences.”

“Although the terminology is today’s, it will still be helpful at this point briefly to distinguish between the three levels of war:

Strategic Level The definition of the strategic objectives to be achieved in fulfillment of government policy.

Operational Level The planning and execution of military operations to achieve stated strategic objectives.

Tactical Level The planning and conduct of battles in pursuit of the operational aim.

In nontechnical language: having decided what you want to do, you plan how this is to be achieved and coordinate the actual battles to be fought in its fulfillment.”

“The effectiveness of Hannibal’s administrative and constitutional reforms, however, is demonstrated by the continuing rise in Carthaginian prosperity even after his flight. In 191 BC, Carthage offered to pay off the whole of the war indemnity, while supplying large quantities of grain to provision the Roman armies – offers which either for reasons of hurt pride, or from a desire not to end symbols of Punic subservience, were disdainfully declined. No more than the fulfillment of her treaty obligations was expected of Carthage. But how far Carthage was prepared to go in order to placate the Romans and show her loyalty as an ally is indicated by the presence of Carthaginian contingents fighting alongside them in their wars against Philip, Antiochus and Perseus.”

“Following the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus endeavored to ensure that Rome’s attitude to Carthage was one of moderation. But he did not survive the political infighting, and with his departure came a reversion, under the leadership of Cato, to the earlier policy of vigorous confrontation with Carthage. After being threatened and having disarmed to demonstrate their willingness to placate Rome under almost any circumstances, the Carthaginians were obliterated. The lesson here is writ large and clear. It is the longterm predisposition of states which should govern our relationships with them, not the ephemeral appearances of some charismatic leader.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the Struggle for the Mediterranean, Nigel Bagnall, Pimlico.

Against Fear of Death – Cicero

H

Synopsis:

In the first book of his Tusculan Disputations Cicero examines the idea of death, the quality of the human soul, the pursuit of virtue as an end, as well as the mood of human nature. The essay is conveyed in dialogue form among a teacher and his pupil.

Excerpts:

“And yet a responsible farmer will plant trees, even though he’ll never see them bear a single olive. Won’t a great man plant laws, practices, a commonwealth?”

“But somehow there remains in our minds a vision, as it were, of generations to come: a vision that appears most readily and blazes forth most intensely in those with the greatest talent and the deepest soul.”

“We naturally believe that gods exist, but we discern their qualities through the exercise of reason. Just so, we share a universal feeling that souls live on, but we must use reason to determine where and in what condition.”

“The soul senses its own motion; when it does, it senses that it has been moved by its own power, not by anything else, and that it can never be deprived of itself. Which means it is eternal.”

“Although glory is not to be sought for its own sake, it follows virtue like a shadow.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.

The Life of Pyrrhus – Plutarch

50

Synopsis and Commentary:

Plutarch wrote the life of Pyrrhus as part of his Parallel Lives in which he pairs a famous Greek and Roman with independent biographies of each. Pyrrhus is paired with Gaius Marius the famous Roman general that defeated Jugurtha as well as a major Germanic invasion of Italy and later helped to undermine the Roman Republic in his quest for power. Pyrrhus and Marius have very little in common, and conceivably were only paired to sustain the motif of the book.

Among the countless generals in the history of Western warfare perhaps none has won more battles in concert with ultimate defeat in wars than Pyrrhus of Epirus. Even though he failed in nearly all of his endeavors he was able to gain a lasting reputation for military genius which has endured and will endure in Western culture. His most towering opponent – republican Rome – possessed that crucial additive in warfare which Pyrrhus lacked: the resolve to never accept defeat. Such resolve was manifest in the belief that every war was a life-and-death struggle for republican Rome. Despite the ability of Pyrrhus to achieve awe-inspiring battlefield victories the war itself was more of a passing enthusiasm than a life-and-death struggle for him, and so he met failure after failure in the eventual aims of the wars he fought.

Pyrrhus remains an enigma in Western culture. His battlefield successes, his spectacular military genius, and his Alexander like charisma ought to have produced an unstoppable military juggernaut, but rather than climbing the heights that Alexander once did he met ultimate failure in war after war.

Excerpts:

“…Pyrrhus only by arms and in action, represented Alexander. Of his knowledge of military tactics and the art of a general, and his great ability that way, we have the best information from the commentaries he left behind him. Antigonus, also, we are told, being asked who was the greatest soldier, said, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old’…

“…Hannibal of all great commanders esteemed Pyrrhus for skill and conduct the first, Scipio the second, and himself the third, as is related in the life of Scipio.”

“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.”

“…What he got by great actions he lost again by vain hopes, and by new desires of what he had not, kept nothing of what he had. So that Antigonus used to compare him to a player with dice, who had excellent throws, but knew not how to use them.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.

The Trojan Women – Movie Review

W

Synopsis and Review:

The eminent classicist Edith Hamilton provided the translation of the powerful Euripides play of the same name for this dynamic film from 1971, which stars Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache as well as Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba. The Trojan Women portrays the aftermath of the Trojan War, and the consequences of the Greek victory on the leading women of Troy.

Throughout the film as well as the play the mood is melancholy with moments of intense acrimony against Helen – played by Irene Papas. Although the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote his own more forceful version of The Trojan Women, this version – the original one by Euripides – has fewer of the graphic scenes Seneca depicts and relies more on the dramatic conditions these women find themselves in – i.e. a life of slavery awaiting them. Vanessa Redgrave is on another order of magnitude above the other performers in her portrayal of Andromache – the widow of Hector – and this is exquisitely revealed when Andromache learns that her young son is to be executed by being thrown off the walls of Troy.

For lovers of Classicism this film is a must watch, and for those that have not yet read the Seneca adaptation of the play it is absolutely recommended as well.

TW

On Friendship – Seneca

23

Synopsis: 

In letter #3, Seneca discusses the merit and meaning of friendship. He drafts the framework by which a friendship ought to be commenced, perpetuated, or dissolved.

Excerpts:

“Deliberate upon all questions with your friend, but first deliberate about him. After friendship there must be full trust, but before it, discretion.”

“Trusting everyone and trusting no one are both wrong, though I might say the one wrong is an excess of frankness and the other an excess of security.”

“The two attitudes should temper one another: the easygoing man should act, the active man take it easy. Consult Nature: she will tell you that she created both day and night.”

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

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire – Edward Luttwak

42

Synopsis: 

Military historian and strategist Edward Luttwak traverses late Roman history as well as Byzantine history in order to examine the overarching schema, notions, and prevailing strategic outlook that maintained the Byzantine Empire for nearly a thousand years following the demise of the Western Roman Empire. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, and not having the manpower dominance of republican Rome, the Byzantines were adept at remaining powerful by other means.

Excerpts:

“The Huns and all their successors inevitably used their tribute gold to buy necessities and baubles from the empire – special arrangements were negotiated for border markets – hence the gold exported to the Huns returned to circulate within the empire rather quickly, except for the minute fraction retained for jewelry.”

“Much of what they did was calculated to preserve and enhance the prestige of the imperial court even as it was being exploited to impress, overawe, recruit, even seduce. Unlike troops or gold, prestige is not consumed when it is used, and that was a very great virtue for the Byzantines, who were always looking for economical sources of power.”

“It might be said, therefore, that the loss of Syria and Egypt, unlike Latin speaking and Chalcedonian North Africa, was a mixed curse for the empire: it brought the blessing of religious harmony, and increased cultural unity.”

“It is by that same logic in dynamic action and reaction that the victories of an advancing army can bring defeat once they exceed the culminating point of success, indeed victory becomes defeat by the prosaic workings of overextension.”

“It starts with the simple, static contradiction of sivis pacem para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) and proceeds to dynamic contradictions: if you defend every foot of a perimeter, you are not defending the perimeter; if you win too completely, destroying the enemy, you make way for another; and so on.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.