Commentary Magazine


The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak

The Rule of Rome

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third.
by Edward N. Luttwak.
Johns Hopkins. 255 pp. $12.95.

A Friend of mine amused himself in his last years by collecting various people’s reasons for the fall of Rome. His sources were mostly the orations of politicians, usually conservative ones, and the supply was surprisingly copious. One of our more recent Presidents to deliver himself of an opinion on the subject was Richard M. Nixon, who, perhaps predictably, found his reason in the decline of character among the Romans. This particular offering, neither original nor distinctive, was far from preempting the field; all sorts of reasons have been given, depending mostly on what the speaker is intent on denouncing at the moment.

The preoccupation with the decline and fall of Rome, which in Gibbon’s contribution constitutes one of the great monuments in the English language of the historian’s art, springs no doubt from anxiety. This great historical catastrophe seems to underline the fact that no nation or civilization is guaranteed ultimate survival. Rome today is called the Eternal City, but the empire which it ruled was conspicuously not eternal, and for that matter the city itself was for a fairly long period very nearly extinct.

No comparable anxiety attends consideration of the rise and prolonged life of the Roman empire—hence there are fewer encapsulated reasons to account for it. There is, however, a vast array of historical works on Imperial Rome, and many of these works describe military operations, thus providing rich source material for whomever may have wished to produce the kind of systematic account that we have in the present book of the strategy by which this vast empire was held together for so long. It has taken too long for such a book to appear, a tardiness that reflects the general lack of interest in strategy among scholars.

The author of this new and excellent account is Edward N. Luttwak, which may come as something of a surprise to those who have some acquaintance with his other writings (including some in this magazine) on issues of modern strategy and armaments. An adviser to James R. Schlesinger when the latter was Secretary of Defense in the Nixon-Ford administrations, Luttwak has an extraordinary knowledge of contemporary armaments and their tactical and strategic signifiance. He is conspicuously brilliant, and also inclined to hold stubbornly to his strong and often unorthodox opinions. In this era, when so many well-known civilian strategists are utterly ignorant of military history—a phenomenon that would have bewildered and dismayed Clausewitz and other classic writers on strategy—it is refreshing to find one who can produce a top-grade scholarly work in military history, and astonishing to find that it deals not with the last century or two but with antiquity.

J. F. Gilliam, in a foreword, speaks of Luttwak’s book as covering four centuries, which is literally correct if one takes into account some comments contained in the epilogue, but the author’s own subtitle to the book states more accurately the period covered. It is roughly from the time of Augustus, under whom the expansion of the empire was essentially completed (except for the conquest of Britannia under Claudius), until the onset of inexorable decline in the middle of the 3rd century C.E. It is thus the period of the Roman empire at its height.

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The two most remarkable aspects of that empire which together raise the question that this book sets out to answer are, first, its enormous expanse, especially in view of the extremely slow communications and transportation of the time, and second, its long duration. Both border on the unbelievable.

The simplest of Western peoples know something of the grandeur of Rome from the legends of their several religions. The Jews of Israel have made a highly symbolic monument of the mountain fortress of Masada, from the heights of which one can still see the outlines of the Roman encampments below, and Christians of all sects have reason enough to know that Rome ruled in Jerusalem when Christ was there. The modern traveler who knocks about Europe and the Mediterranean littoral is in the most far-flung places caught up with wonderment at visible, frequently well-preserved, and sometimes unexpected evidence that here where he stands the Romans have also been, and clearly stayed for some time. For the Roman empire endured not just for one or two generations, but for many.

How is this to be explained? One must look not for the genius of One man or even of many men, but for the selective development of sound institutions which could endure and prevail in the midst of all kinds of upheavals at home. Certainly the empire was not founded upon any special genius for government displayed by the Roman people as compared with other literate peoples of the time, like the Greeks. For long periods when the empire was at its strongest, the office of the emperor was regularly vacated by murder and then filled through a show of force impelled by bribery. Statistically speaking, the vocation of emperor during those times was not much less hazardous than that of gladiator. One might read into all this a certain vigor, the attenuation of which would no doubt figure among the reasons catalogued by my late friend for Rome’s decline and fall. Nevertheless, during such periods the primary preoccupation of the man at the topmost place of power must have been with keeping himself there, which meant keeping himself alive.

One surmises that the maintenance of the empire was pretty much the accomplishment of a fairly detached and probably self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Luttwak does not enlighten us very much on this matter, but concentrates rather on the military mechanisms manipulated by whichever government structure was responsible for the manipulating. Although he distinguishes three different periods, each with a particular pattern, certain factors were common to all three.

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For most of the time-span Luttwak covers, the whole empire was defended by an astonishingly small number of men, about 300,000 to 350,000 distributed among some twenty-five to thirty legions. Thus, the basic theme for the success of the system lay in the economizing of forces. Because of the very slow modes of movement in those days, whether by land or by sea, it would have been futile to keep any significant portion of those forces as a strategic reserve within Italy. On the other hand, a perimeter defense is always a brittle one. The Romans adopted a compromise system. Legions were allocated to specific border regions on a fairly permanent basis; those legions were near the perimeter, but were nevertheless maintained as masses of maneuver.

Complementary to the legions were the native forces of the client states just outside the empire. Client states did not pay taxes to Rome, and they derived a certain prestige from their connection. Also, they were guaranteed support from nearby legions if they undertook to resist intrusions from the barbarians outside. By the same token they could fear a dread punishment if they did not comport themselves appropriately. An essential part of the system was the certainty of punishment, both inside the empire and without, for attack or rebellion. As Luttwak points out in his introduction: “The lesson of Masada [which the Romans besieged for three years] was that the Romans would pursue rebellion even to mountain tops in remote deserts to destroy its last vestiges, regardless of cost.”

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This is naturally the barest outline of the book’s plan, which the author develops with outstanding skill, learning, and insight. The treatment gives one always the feeling of commendable conciseness, for Luttwak uses words as sparingly as the Romans used their legions. There is, however, one serious flaw in the book: there are essentially no people in it. True, one sees the names of many emperors, but they are brought in simply as labels for time periods.

There are two serious consequences of this flaw. First, though the book is well-written and moves along at a good pace, it lacks a certain liveliness that it might otherwise have had, the kind of liveliness that would truly attract one to the reading of it. Second, since the technology of the time is so different from ours and the time itself so remote, anyone interested in this military history because of its possible relevance to the present will keenly miss the one element that might have made for relevance—the conduct of men under stress, especially the stress of war.

Still, this is a work well done and long needed. Can we find in it still another reason for the fall of Rome? The message seems to be that we should look outside of Rome rather than inside. Among other things, being a colony of Rome or a client state gradually declined in status. As Luttwak puts it, “The cultural and economic influence of Rome on the lives of all [its] neighbors . . . itself created a cultural and political basis for common action against it.”

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