The eighteenth century political philosopher Montesquieu examines the constituent features of Roman culture which contributed to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Montesquieu argues that the increasing territorial, as well as material grandeur of the Roman Republic magnified already existing constitutional schisms, and that the primal bellicosity of the Roman people lingered as a tinderbox for civil strife long after external conflicts had ended.
“The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people.
“Authors enlarge very copiously on the divisions which proved the destruction of Rome; but their readers seldom discover those divisions to have been always necessary and inevitable. The grandeur of the republic was the only source of that calamity, and exasperated popular tumults into civil wars. Dissensions were not to be prevented, and those martial spirits, which were so fierce and formidable abroad, could not be habituated to any considerable moderation at home.
“Those who expect in a free state, to see the people undaunted in war and pusillanimous in peace, are certainly desirous of impossibilities; and it may be advanced as a general rule, that whenever a perfect calm is visible, in a state that calls itself a republic, the spirit of liberty no longer subsists.
“It must be acknowledged that the Roman laws were too weak to govern the republic: but experience has proved it to be an invariable fact, that good laws, which raise the reputation and power of a small republic, become incommodious to it, when once its grandeur is established, because it was their natural effect to make a great people, but not to govern them.
“Rome was founded for grandeur, and its laws had an admirable tendency to bestow it; for which reason, in all the variations of her government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or popular, she constantly engaged in enterprises which required conduct to accomplish them, and always succeeded. The experience of a day did not furnish her with more wisdom than all other nations, but she obtained it by a long succession of events. She sustained a small, a moderate, and an immense fortune with the same superiority, derived true welfare from the whole train of her prosperity, and refined every instance of calamity into beneficial instructions… She lost her liberty, because she completed her work too soon.
*All excerpts have been taken from Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire, Public Domain.
In letter #90, Seneca examines the purpose of philosophy in life. He fuses his own Stoic philosophy with ideas on the art-of-living, the development of government, and the pursuit of wisdom.
“If they had made philosophic knowledge also a common attribute and we were all born wise, then wisdom would have forfeited its principal quality, which is that it is not fortuitous.
“The natural measure which limited desires by essential requirements has retreated; to desire a mere sufficiency is now a mark of boorishness and wretchedness.
“Wisdom turns to the incorporeal and scrutinizes truth and its manifestations and determines the modes for distinguishing ambiguities in life or speech, for in both the false is mingled with the true.
“Virtue is not Nature’s gift; to become good is an art.
“Virtue can occur only in a soul trained and taught and raised to its height by assiduous exercise.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.
Late antiquity engendered consequential institutional adjustments for Roman arms. The wealth of the state meant that Rome would always attract the best recruits to its standard, but commonly these recruits were foreign mercenaries. Although still effective the army over time became more and more challenging to control because of foreign preeminence.
The Western Roman Empire never solved the problem of the barbarianization of its army, but rather was taken over by it, and collapsed as a state in 476. On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire answered the institutional dilemma of barbarianization first by elevating the hard-bitten Isaurian Romans of Anatolia to supremacy over the formerly favored barbarian mercenaries, and later by establishing the militia thémata system.
The late Roman writer Vegetius sought to unravel the institutional riddle of the late Roman army by advancing the thesis of how the ideal Roman army ought to be organized. His work never reflected the reality of late antiquity, but would become influential in the medieval West.
“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.
“Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their provisions as well as their arms.
“The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.
“Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight.
“To pretend to enumerate the different nations so formidable of old, all which now are subject to the Romans, would be tedious. But the security established by long peace has altered their dispositions, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits and infused into them a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion.
*All excerpts have been taken from Military Institutions of the Romans, Praetorian Press, LLC.
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.
“…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.