With this study due to Jacques Trauman, we begin in WUKALI a series of 6 articles devoted to the Roman Empire. Rome still fascinates us. Through six cult books, bases for historical reflection and updating, to understand and image this political and global world of Antiquity which can serve to nourish and enrich our contemporary reflection on our conceptual weaknesses and which can inspire us in action
One question torments us: how could Rome control such a vast empire with only 29 legions composed of 6,000 men each, that is to say a total, with the auxiliaries, of 300,000 men at most. By way of comparison, as much as George W. Bush had to mobilize only to control Iraq during the Second Gulf War)
From 70 to 73 AD, a few hundred Jews, zealots, took refuge in the impregnable fortress of Masada מצדה in the Judean desert, located on a rocky outcrop 400 meters high overlooking the Dead Sea, in order to resist to the Roman occupation.
The Romans could have stationed a few hundred soldiers around the fortress and patiently waited for the Zealots’ water supplies to run out, especially since Masada was of no character of strategic importance whatsoever.
They didn’t do that. They mobilized an entire legion and built at great expense a huge ramp that reached the top of the mountain in order to enter the fortress. When they reached the top, they found the Zealots who had committed suicide so as not to fall into the hands of the Romans.
For good measure, the Romans sent Flavius Josephus there, who gave a detailed account of the siege so that all of the East would know what lay ahead for the diehards.
The use of force for defensive purposes has long been frowned upon in power circles in Rome. So the Romans were not systematic warriors, far from it, the use of force being the last resort and was often, once a territory was conquered, the mark of failure.
What was needed was to psychologically impress other people, to make people believe that you were stronger than you really were, to show your strength so as not to have to use it. Masada was to serve as an example, it was necessary to show the submissive peoples what it cost to revolt. It was “com”, or better, propaganda, and it worked very well as it is still remembered today.
The Romans were a very methodical people. “If the strength of the Roman Empire were only the result of tactical superiority on the battlefield, or the talent of a general, or even more efficient armament, there would be little material with analysis, but with narrative ”, notes the geo-strategist and historian Edward Luttwak, the author of the first“ cult book ”*:“ The great strategy of the Roman Empire ”
A Barbarian wanted to shine with heroic deeds on the battlefield, die in battle to join some Walhalla, leave his mark in the collective imagination.
On the contrary, this was not the case with the Roman legionary. The latter was purely and simply a professional, he did not want to die, his ambition was advancement in the rank and especially retirement, where he could buy himself a piece of land and live quietly the rest of his days with his family. .
You should know that the retirement of a legionnaire was almost equivalent to his pay, 300 deniers in Domitian’s time. The Roman soldier was not distinguished by his “enthusiasm”.
Roman weaponry was by no means exceptional and was often of inferior quality to that of its adversaries. Note that the heavy infantry were armed with the pilum, a 2.7-meter heavy javelin, a sword and a composite oval shield.
As for the light infantry, they were armed with the hasta velitaris, a short, light javelin, swords and small shields. As for the cavalry, it was insufficient in number and effectiveness (at least until Hadrian). It should be noted that the Romans did not, unlike some of their opponents, invent the stirrup which gives stability to the horse.
As for the Roman generals, they were not asked to be inspired on the battlefield, but simply to apply the rules.
So, for example, to stop the advance before nightfall, even if it means suspending the pursuit of the enemy and letting him escape, this to build a night camp protected by wooden fortifications (we will come back to this later).
In addition to this, you need to know more about it.
As a result, the Romans advanced very slowly, but they were very difficult to defeat. To a senator who criticized him for moving too slowly, Scipio the African replied, “My mother begot a general, not a warrior” (“Imperatorem me mater, non bellatorem peperit”).
In this regard, Edward Luttwak, naturalized American Romanian, graduate of the London School of Economics and Johns-Hopkins University and one of the greatest specialists in strategy and geopolitics, specialist in military history, distinguishes three periods in the grand strategy of the Roman Empire.
The Julio-Claudian system
– Armed states and mobile armies from Augustus to Nero (-27 to +68)
The first imperial defense system was that of the ending republic, set up by Octave, the future Augustus.
Over time, two centuries of Republican expansion had made it possible to build an empire which was vast, to be sure, but dispersed. The Empire was then consolidated.
For example, Spain was fully occupied, much of Gaul was conquered by Caesar, and so on, so as to make the Empire more cohesive.
Everything resided in one principle: the economy of forces.
This means that strictly speaking there were no imperial borders, the system was absolutely not defensive.
It is useful to point out that there were no fortresses to protect the borders, and the legions slept in tents in unseemly places.
Thus the legions were extremely mobile response forces, ready, thanks to the roads built by the Romans, to get quickly to where they were needed. Thus along the 6400 kilometers of borders, there were no patrols to oppose a possible incursion, the perimeter of the Empire was not defended.
In particular, security was based on two major ideas.
First, the founding of settlements often made up of veterans, intended not to be hotbeds of Romanization, but a means of consolidating the Empire.
Note that Caesar’s policy was thus to establish his veterans outside Italy and Augustus created 28 colonies.
Second, the establishment of client states to do the “dirty work” of border control on behalf of the Romans. In other words, diplomacy based on intimidation rather than brute force.
There was thus, to name only a few, Mauretania, ruled by Juba II, Judea in the East, the kingdom of Emesa and the tetrarchy of Abilene in Syria, Cappadocia and Pontus, the principality of Teucride, the kingdom of Tarcondimontos, the kingdom of Commagene, etc … etc …
The whole system was based on the absence of a defensive perimeter, allowing Rome to get rid of the enormous and costly problem of maintaining order at the borders. This allowed the empire to have a “clean and available” intervention force, which maximized the offensive military power. The empire was thus able, thanks to the flexibility of the system, to dispose of vast military forces intended for the expansion of the empire, and not for the defense or the maintenance of order.
From Flaviens to Sévères
– The dissuasive defense of Vespasian to Marcus Aurelius (69 to 180)
Two major developments will, during this period, affect the grand strategy of the Roman Empire.
First, Vespasian, around the 100s of our era, reformed the empire in depth by centralizing it considerably, ending the policy of client states, which he annexed outright.
Second, a new demand emerged: that of ensuring permanent security for both property and civilian populations, given that there were now 9,600 kilometers of borders.
This led to profound changes in global strategy and the empire in its entirety became a kind of “base camp“. Suddenly, borders were established intended to separate the Romans and the barbarians in the process of romanization from the non-romanized barbarians.
What is “base camp”? At the end of a day’s march, the legionaries still had three to four hours of exhausting work ahead of them.
So it was necessary to dig a ditch, erect a rampart, establish a wooden fence to build a “base camp“, which would be destroyed the next morning.
The objective, oddly enough, was primarily psychological rather than military, though very effective. Inside the “base camp“, the soldiers felt safe, could bathe, play, relax and most importantly sleep well. The main purpose of night lightning attacks is to prevent the adversary from sleeping and thus exhausting him. The “base camp” made these attacks ineffective.
The Roman elites therefore made two arrangements, which transformed the empire into a sort of giant “base camp“.
First and foremost, establish at the borders, the “Limes” (in latin), a sort of continuous barrier, with ditches, wooden palisades, watchtowers, roads, a bit like in a “base camp”. Hadrian’s Wall, albeit hard, is a good example. All this being very effective against low intensity attacks and against cavalry.
These « limes” also made it possible to monitor borders more effectively and raise alerts.
Then, armies were distributed throughout the Empire in order to be able to react more quickly.
For information and to get an idea, the number of days of march from Rome to Cologne being, for example, 66 days, the Barbarians therefore had plenty of time to ravage the region and withdraw.
In the same way that the Americans, using an identical strategy, stationed troops far from their territory in Germany or South Korea, the Romans stationed almost independent armies almost everywhere in the Empire (exercitus Germanicus, Dalmatius, Dacicus, Britannicus, Hispanicus, Mauretanicus, Cappadocicus, Syriacus, etc …).
The system had thus evolved considerably according to the needs of the Empire, and the investments necessary for the implementation of this new policy were colossal.
However, this policy of “cordon” deployed along the limes, defensive in nature, has always had its detractors.
Starting with Napoleon, who considered that “the system of cords is most harmful”.
Since Clausewitz, the defense, in military matters, has had very bad press, with the preference for the offensive. Yet it was during this period that the empire reached its peak.
Defense in depth
– The great crisis of the 3rd century
Augustus, Caesar’s successor and founder of the Empire, was a past master in the art of constitutional ambiguity. However, there was one flaw in the building: the rules of succession were not provided for.
As long as the emperors had a son or adopted a more or less capable son, everything went pretty well.
In the second century, for example, everything went well: Hadrian, adopted by Nerva, adopted Antoninus Pius, who adopted Marcus Aurelius.
But the system seized up: between 211 and 284, there were 24 emperors, the emperors reigning on average only three years. The intrigue, the assassination, the civil war became more or less the rule until Diocletian (284-305), peasant turned emperor, propelled by a brilliant career in the army, does not restore the order thanks to a policy of reorganization and reinforced border defense.
Thus Diocletian installed the tetrarchy, two emperors, the Augustus, and two deputies, the Caesars, an emperor of the West and an emperor of the East. In this regard, this system tidied up the succession process a bit.
But these permanent civil wars had an impact on the defense of the borders, since the legions now had the function not only to defend the empire, but also to defend the emperor, even to replace him.
In addition, both in the West and in the East, the military situation had deteriorated considerably. In fact, on the one hand, on the Rhine and the Danube, the Alamans and the Franks, now united, had become much more dangerous and their threat became endemic.
On the other hand, in the East, the Sassanid Persians proved to be much more aggressive than the Parthians.
Rome was now at permanent war on two fronts with little chance of securing a decisive victory; at the most she could hope to contain the threats.
We then moved on to a “defense in depth” system, which consisted of establishing fixed and solid fortified positions (fortresses, villages or fortified farms, supply depots, etc.). These were supplemented by mobile intervention forces positioned behind the lines. This allowed them to intervene where it was necessary; the opponent was therefore allowed to pass between the fixed positions to trap him behind.
Consequence: the Roman defense system became a “rear defense” system, unlike the previous system which was a “forward defense” system. As a result, the fighting no longer took place outside the boundaries of the empire, but within the territory itself.
The security of the provinces was simply sacrificed for that of the empire as a whole. The local people, one suspects, did not like it.
The damage inflicted on populations and private property was such that the prestige of the empire and the value of the imperial system were ruined in the minds of the people. We know the rest …
Let us end with a brilliant comment from Edward Luttwak, dating from 1987:
“From the beginning of the 19th century until Hiroshima, strategic thinking was dominated by post-Napoleonic, Clausewitzian …
These ideas insist on a particular form of war, a conflict between nationalities …
They emphasize the primacy and the desire to wage an offensive war in search of decisive results, thus inspiring an aversion to defensive strategies. They imply a clear distinction between a state of war and a state of peace …
It was not until 1945 that the emergence of new techniques of mass destruction rendered the fundamental assumptions of the Clausewitzian approach obsolete …
We are like the Romans, not in the presence of a decisive conflict, but in a permanent state of war.
We, like the Romans, must actively protect a more evolved society against various threats rather than focusing our efforts on destroying enemy forces in battle.
Above all, the nature of modern weapons demands that we avoid their use, however striving to exploit their diplomatic potential …
The paradoxical effect of this revolutionary change in the nature of modern warfare has brought the predicament of Rome closer together, which is now much closer to ours “.
In addition to this, you need to know more about it.
By the way, who said that the humanities, the study of Greek and Latin, the arts and letters, were just old moons, a waste of time, an obsolete and outdated culture!