The Magazine

Winners Take All

The Roman way of war.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By J.E. LENDON
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Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome

by Arthur M. Eckstein

California, 389 pp., $49.95

In the universities--America's retirement homes for bad ideas--there clings to life the notion that relations between nations can be rendered into a science. The diplomat will scoff: States do not act enough alike, he will say, and character is all. And the more discreet sort of social scientist will add that conclusions about human affairs are only scientific when thousands of human actions can be studied in the aggregate, like the hungry surging of bacteria.

Nevertheless, would-be scientists rule our departments of international relations, and the name they give to their pseudoscience is Realism. Realism asserts that the international arena is, at all times and places, inherently dangerous and anarchic, and that the international system goads all states willy-nilly towards belligerence.

To this eccentric doctrine historians have wisely paid no great attention. They know that Realism applies poorly even to recent history, for in the 20th century it was mad and bad men and states, rather than the logic of the international system, that tended to cause wars. They revolt at what they consider Realism's unrealistic pessimism and its one-size-fits-all scorn for exceptions. They dread the deadening jargon with which Realism seeks respectability: "unipolarity," "unlimited revisionist state," "unit attribute theory." And they see through the mannerism that Realists share with Marxists, what one might call the language of pretended brass tacks, a lingo of unsentimental hard-mindedness--in Realism the international situation is always "grim," "stern," or "brutal"--that works in secret to persuade readers that the Realist sees beneath pretexts and offers a hidden, unvarnished, truth: Real science should not need the greasy lubrication of rhetoric.

Yet the merit of Realism is to drag the historian out of the brothels (or archives) of the country he studies, slap him a couple of times, and make him look bleary-eyed at the other peoples around. When it can be claimed that one nation behaves differently from others, the Realist constrains us to check whether it is really thus.

For the Romans, such a check is essential, because the Roman conquest of their empire has often been attributed to their being so singular a folk. First to make this claim was the Greek historian Polybius, who attributed to the Romans an evil Pinky-and-the-Brain-style plan to conquer the Mediterranean world. Most 20th-century historians believed the Romans had expanded to defend themselves, drawn into ever more distant entanglements by their defensive alliances. But in 1979 William Harris returned to Polybius and cried out in his War and Imperialism in Republican Rome that Roman expansion had "dark and irrational roots" and Roman war-making "a pathological character." The Romans expanded because they were worse than those around them, the rabid weasel in the rabbit warren. Harris swept away what had gone before, and for 25 years his thesis stood unchallenged, historians accepting his harsh vision of the Romans and, according to their humors, either clucking or drooling over Rome's love of war.

Now finally comes Arthur Eckstein, historian of Rome turned Realist: He has no quarrel with Harris's picture of Roman militarism, for a Realist expects all peoples to be militarists. But for that reason, says he, Roman militarism makes little difference to history because all the powers in the Mediterranean were much the same. All were weasels, because they had to be ready to defend themselves against other weasels. The realities of the international system nudged all in the same direction. Rome, for all its aggressiveness, does not stand out, except that its aggression was more successful.

Here Eckstein is clearly right, and his digging of this jewel from the oily sand of Realism shows how well a clever man can use even a perverse theory. What made the Romans different was not their willingness to get into wars, but their success at winning more of them than they lost.

But why did the Romans win? Here Eckstein appeals to the great 19th-century German historian of Rome, -Theodor Mommsen: What set the Romans apart was their ability to incorporate non-Romans into their state, their generosity in granting citizenship. The result was a large--and with their conquests ever larger--population, and that gave them the manpower to win their wars.