November 23, 2008

Defence in the Ancient World

Modern warfare is a very different beast to ancient warfare. In the 2003 war on Iraq, Saddam Hussein knew that an attack was coming, even if there was not that much he could actually do about it. The danger of a surprise attack is of course always present but thanks to satellite technology, communications especially via the net and the large bureacratic machinery of the modern state- the surprise attack will be discovered instantly even if it cannot be met. The wars of the pre-modern world in this sense are very different- it took people in Egypt sometimes over a hundred days to find out that their emperor in Rome had died. If we think rightly of the modern state of something with a wide and slow turning circle- then the ancient state was even more a logistic nightmare to manage especially when it came to anticipating great changes occuring far off from the centre.

Thinking about empires less and city states more, we can see in a microcosm in the way that Livy describes the arrival of the Gauls in northern Italy. Rome's complacency is something that we have already noticed. But Rome was not alone: 'the plight of Clusium was a most alarming one; strange men in thousands were at the gates, men the like of whom the townsmen had never seen, outlandish warriors armed with strange weapons, who were rumoured to have scattered the Etruscan legions on boht sides of the Po' (V 36). Notice the two phenomenon here: firstly there is the fact that the inhabitants of Clusium had no idea about what they were facing- what kind of army stood outside their gates and what kind of behaviour this army would exhibit both in capturing and after the conquest of their city. Secondly without truth, all they had was the rumour which exaggerated the success of these foreign raiders- and suggested that their defence would be forlorn.

This obviously alters the challenge for the defence of a city. It is what makes religious arguments about the unpredictability of invasion more plausible- afterall there could be no possible way to predict the Gauls were coming so it must be a decision taken by the Gods. Furthermore it advances the attractions of a view of the world which sees the barbarians as other- and the city states as all being interested in the defence of every other city state. Livy stresses that this identity between city communities existed even at this point- and that Rome possibly should have done more to help Clusium. By telling this story, he perpetuates the point- that cities are vulnerable to sudden shocks and must band together against the outsider. In those few lines, Livy does two things- he describes to us the fear of the barbarian and why that fear, in his view, must be maintained politically.

In that sense we have here an instance not merely of the analysis of the perils of the city state- but of the promulgation of the myth of the barbarian.


Georg said...

Hallo Graccy,

Reading this I cannot help thinking that "the myth of the barbarian" has been replaced these days by "the war on terror".