May 16, 2009

The Politics of Military Tactics

Rome was a Republic torn by social strife. In Livy's account the history of Rome was the history of ambition and battle between the plebeians on the one side and the patricians on the other: this coloured Rome's domestic and foreign policies and of course its internal politics. What Livy doesn't say so explicitly, though he implies it, is that it also coloured Rome's military tactics. We can see this in a campaign by the the dictator Gaius Sulpicius.

Sulpicius was appointed dictator in order to take on a Gallic army coming southward into Italy, upon Rome. Like any good general he noticed something about this army, the enemy was 'becoming weaker with every day he had to linger in a hostile country' (VII 12). The argument that Sulpicius would make and would be sensible to make was that the Gauls were far from home, frightened and did not know the landscape or have the support of the local population. As the weeks went on, their forces were likely to lose morale and more importantly depend more and more on a reluctant local population for supplies- possibly leading either to diminishing their store of provender or just as dangerously, creating for them the fearsome enemy of a hostile population.

But and here is the political limiting factor, Sulpicius himself was limited in what he could do. During this period of waiting, Sulpicius was petitioned by his soldiers who demanded to know why he delayed fighting the Gauls so much. They believed he must account them lowly- 'an army of cripples and weaklings' (VII 13) to keep them away from the fight. But more than that, they argued through their spokesman, that 'the Gallic war is keeping us away from our city and our homes', that 'if anyone gave the signal and led us out to battle we would fight like men and Romans, but if there is no need for our arms, we would rather spend our leisure in Rome than in an army camp' (VII 13). Sulpicius of course was forced to hearken to his men's beliefs and ultimately won the victory against the Gauls- through his own superior generalship and their courage.

But we should not ignore the dynamic within the army- despite the happy result- that led Sulpicius to attack. The issue with a Roman army in these early Republican days was not merely that it was an incredibly strong organisation- one that its commanders could barely control- but that also it was a group of men who had other things to do with their lives. Fighting for months of the year at a spell was a costly enterprise for most of the poor within Rome: just marching around may have been bad for morale but it was also bad for the fields untended and shops closed. Ultimately the economic costs of war in terms of direct lost income to the plebeians forced them to desire quick wars and aggressive military actions: Sulpicius's delay may have been the right strategy but it could hardly have appealed to a farmer eager to get back to his crops.