December 26, 2008

What's a war?

I do not doubt that people who read in all these books about endless wars with the Volscians will feel surfeited by them, but they will also feel as astonished as I did myself when I examined the historians who were more nearly contemporary with these events, and will ask where the Volscians and Aequi got a sufficient number of soldiers after so many defeats. (VI 12)

War with the Volscians and the Aequi seem to be a constant theme of early Roman history: on the face of it though this seems confusing, war, as we understand it, ruins societies- continuing war for hundreds of years would leave someone exhausted, someone conquered. Here though it seems that hundreds of years of war gave birth to even more wars. Livy himself suggests some reasons for this- he suggests either successive generations of young men were raised to fight Rome and that in previous times the territory inhabited by the two groups was much more fertile than it was in Livy's day. Changing fertility is not unrealistic: Egypt and Mesopotamia used to be incredibly fertile agricultural districts- they are not so now. But I think we can add to Livy's explanations with some suggestions of our own.

Firstly its worth asking the question about who were the Volscians and Aequi. Livy's sources were compiled centuries after the event. It does not seem implausible therefore that what we know of, through Livy, as Volscians and Aequi, were actually collective nouns for invaders in general. There may be a confusion here between several Italian peoples- and what we may see therefore is that these nouns are used generically. Its a thought at least and to some extent Livy agrees noting that it is possible that the new levies were not recruited from 'the same tribes, although it was always the same nation that was at war.' (VI 12)

Secondly there is the nature of warfare. Warfare as we and Livy understand it and as the Romans of Camillus's days understood it are slightly different entities. I wonder whether Livy's sources deceive him into imagining full scale warfare- whereas he should actually be thinking of raiding. We know that Livy himself described the object of the wars that the Volscians and Aequi fought in terms of plunder, I suspect what these 'wars' are is raids for plunder. What we may see here is two things- firstly a bias in Roman reporting- away from reporting failures and particularly from reporting successful raids on cities (and raids on non-Roman sites) and secondly a bias in the reporting to exaggerating the numbers involved. If we think of war bands coming down upon Rome to gain plunder, and sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, with punitive expeditions sent by Rome to fight back, I think we can see a more stable situation in which long term conflict leads neither to destruction nor to absolute victory.

The word 'war' can deceive us. The last thing we should note is that the size of armies and therefore their impact on population levels varies hugely. In the Middle Ages- thousands of men or even at times hundreds encountered each other in major battles: compare that to a First World War army of millions and you can see that whereas it is possible to raise several medieval armies in one country, it would be difficult to raise a second or third first world war size army. The same contrast functions in Livy's case- the wars that he is describing may be wars involving small amounts of people- hundreds, possibly barely a thousand- scarcely numbers that would impact on the ability of the participants being able to fight again. Introduce into that situation the possible importance of plunder and you have a situation in which perpetual warfare is quite possible- indeed probable.


James Hamilton said...

"The last thing we should note is that the size of armies and therefore their impact on population levels varies hugely."

I recall this as a theme of the reign of Henry VIII: it was one thing putting a "large" English army into the field in 1519; quite another to do it in 1540 when continental forces had trebled or quadrupled in size.

Crushed said...

I'm taking it you mean thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, in medieval wars...

I think we often forget that the scale of classical wars WAS probably much smaller even than medieval wars- the armies of those days didn't seem to need such vast supplies as the medieval armies, which sustained themselves by massive raiding parties to gain food.

It's highly likely yes, that these early battles Livy refers to often had only a hundred or so on each side. Only later judgement saw it by their own standards.

In much the same way, their cities would have looked walled villages to Livy's eye, had he seen them.