A mighty republic, having fought a considerable war to a victorious end, vindicated its plighted word by removing its arms from the realm where so many of its young men had fallen for the liberty of strangers. But then, compelled to regard fresh wars arising in that place—infestations of new enemies, friends trimming, and former allies turned repellent in its eyes—that power is seized by a weary disgust. Despite its preponderant strength, the great nation is unable to settle upon any policy of peace or war likely to put back into the slit belly of the country it had conquered and spared the serpentine slime of its unleashed entrails.

Such was the puzzlement, in 192 b.c., of the Republic of Rome. In 197 b.c., the Romans had bloodily freed southern Greece from the domination of the Macedonian dynast Philip V and tried to fashion a balance of power to keep the peace among the Greek states. And in 194 b.c., Rome had pulled all its soldiers back across the Adriatic to Italy, just as the Romans said they would when they announced that they were coming to Greece to free the Greeks from Philip. But Greek freedom devolved quickly into bedlam, and another powerful Greek-speaker, King Antiochus the Great of the Seleucid Empire (governed from what is now Syria), allied himself with one of Rome’s former allies in Greece and marched in.

Now in confused frustration at the ingratitude of the Greeks, Rome settled upon war and invaded Greece again (192-188 b.c.), and then a third time, with more clarity of purpose, when Philip V’s son Perseus began to gather what was, at least in Roman eyes, a new and dangerous potency in Macedon (171-168 b.c.). After his defeat, Rome put an end to the Macedonian monarchy, but a usurper arose in the vacuum, and the thwarted Romans had to invade Macedonia yet again (150-148 b.c.) before fighting one last time, with a kind of rueful brutality, to subdue southern Greece (146 b.c.). They sacked the ancient and beautiful city of Corinth, an act of vandalism similar to torching, at the same moment, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But until 146 b.c., the Romans kept no permanent garrison in Greece, and even the troops then permanently settled in Macedonia looked primarily to the north to protect the Greeks and Macedonians from the fierce, crude peoples who swarmed in the Balkans. Rome did not make a territorial province out of southern Greece—with a Roman governor present every year to judge causes and collect taxes—until 27 b.c.

This tale of conquest, and disenchanted reconquest, is the story Robin Waterfield tells here. Waterfield has made himself into a living international treasure by his lean and lucid accounts of some of the most involved periods of ancient history (here, Rome’s wars in Greece and Macedonia; in Dividing the Spoils, the wars of Alexander the Great’s successors). The current story Waterfield tells clearly and enjoyably, with a deft selection of detail and not without anecdote: The reader meets characters such as the jolly pirate chieftain Dicaearchus, who would erect upon the beach of the land he had chosen to pillage lofty altars to his private gods, Impiety and Lawlessness.

But Waterfield has no less difficulty than a century of predecessors in explaining the crashing wave-and-retreat pattern of Roman involvement in the Greek peninsula. Why—and this has been one of the Great Questions of Roman history since the late 19th century—did the Romans who invaded Greece and Macedonia keep winning and then going home? The Romans were not, in their nature, a peaceable people; they fought a war, or a number of wars, almost every year, and they expected to do so. Nor had the Romans any absolute objection to seizing other men’s territory and administering it themselves: As early as 241 b.c., they had made Sicily into their first province.

Even if cultural differences (e.g., the Roman expectation that freeing the Greeks would place them under so great a moral obligation that they would obey the Romans) explain the disappointment of Roman hopes for long-term peace after they liberated Greece from Philip V, the Romans were not so simple a folk as to blunder into that same cultural misunderstanding on several more occasions. If the Greeks were intended to remember the cruel might of the Romans and to obey out of fear (as Waterfield argues) —well, that worked no better. Such was Greek pride that they were willing to fight the Romans even when, as in the Achaean war of 146 b.c., they knew that there could be no possibility of victory.

But perhaps the circumstances of today can explain this mystery of yesterday. Our current president withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq partly because he said he would and partly because when the United States intervened in that region, it had denied before a doubting world that it intended to make Iraq into a dependency and pull forever on its udders for cheap oil. By the time the American withdrawal approached its end, the administration must have had qualms about the strategic wisdom of leaving. But the White House went on nevertheless to fulfill its own pledges and those of the administration before. Primarily, no doubt, it did so from distaste for the war; but also, it is nice to think, because the United States forswearing itself in so tremendous a matter might have terrible consequences in times to come.

Similarly, every time the Romans of the second century b.c. invaded the Greek peninsula, they did so, as far as we know, under the pledge that they would leave the Greeks free (without, that is, the garrisons the Macedonians had employed to control central and southern Greece). And this they did, even if, as war succeeded war, “freedom” came with cruel provisos. After the war against Perseus of Macedon, the Romans emptied 70 enemy towns in Molossia (a petty kingdom to the west of Macedonia) and sent 150,000 Molossians to Rome as slaves. And even from the Achaean League—their longtime ally in southern Greece who helped too slowly and whose feelings towards Perseus, the Romans thought, were unduly warm—the victors carried 1,000 leading men to comfortable internment in Italy. (This was bad for them but good for us, because one of those internees was Polybius, who turned by necessity from politics to writing history and from whom, ultimately, we know most of this story.) But despite the annoyance with the Greeks these acts suggest, all of Rome’s soldiers came home: Rome left no garrisons.

Once again, the Romans left Greece free, as they had promised.

In fact, the Roman promise of freedom and its regular fulfillment were inevitable. Only by promising not to leave garrisons could the Romans enjoy from their many Greek allies the practical support—troops, markets, information—they needed to be relatively confident that a war against Macedon or Antiochus would end in victory. Had Rome not pledged itself to Greek freedom, or had Rome reneged on its promise after its first or second invasion and left garrisons in Greece, or had it tried early on to reduce Greece or Macedonia to directly governed Roman provinces, proud and freedom-loving Greece would have closed up like an oyster. The Romans would have had few or no allies there, and they would have found the peninsula—its hundreds of fortified towns, overlooking its hundreds of arid valleys—as hard to take and control as the Macedonians (who made no secret of their ambition to rule) had found it during the two centuries before.

The Romans withdrew again and again from Greece because they had to make promises in order to succeed in Greece; and they had to keep those promises to succeed in the future. In fact, the Romans were, as Polybius tells us, unusual in the Mediterranean world for the rigor of their promise-keeping: It was one of the secrets of their success. For the Romans knew that keeping promises to allies, armed power, and the proven willingness to use that power were the three legs of the tripod of international credibility. And betraying one promise is noticed more widely than keeping a dozen, for those to whom promises are kept abide in quiet contentment but those betrayed from cowardice do not. Listen, now, to the cries of Poland and the Czech Republic, deprived of their missile defense shield by a White House flinching before Russia, or to the cries of Georgia and Ukraine, turned away from NATO. And so the blazing tripod of credibility tips and falls, dropping red-hot coals on the feet of the foolish, and only with long difficulty is it righted.

J.E.Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Song of Wrath:The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts:A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.

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