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.

May 15, 2009

Fortunes of War


Battle between Rome and her neighbours was a frequent phenomenon in the ancient world as Rome rose to power and prominence. More frequently than not, Livy ascribes Roman victories to Roman virtu- whether of the commanders or of the soldiers- but that was not always so. Livy was more realistic an analyst and better a historian than to believe that all of Rome's triumphs might be explained by its virtues. In a battle between the Hernici and the Romans in 362BC, Livy mentions not merely that the Romans armed themselves both with valour and with their best men, but suggests that the Hernici too were able to call up large numbers of men and also their best men.

The rank and file of the armies clashed but it was on the Homeric strength of their most illustrious detachments that the fortune of battle depended upon. These factions were Livy acknowledges equal: 'nothing could have stopped' the Romans, save for 'the special cohorts' of the Hernici, he tells us (VII 8). 'What it was that tipped the balance between two such forces so evenly matched is difficult to say, unless the invariable fortune of the two peoples had the power to raise or diminish their fighting spirits.' There is an indication here that the Romans may have profitted from their history of victory- and yet it is only an indication, a hint which suggests a reason the Romans might have won. But Livy finds it difficult to say quite why Rome won- save for its mystical destiny to win, save for the fact that ultimately it did win.

Within Livy's pattern, this is inconsequential- it does not contradict his picture- but it offers an indication that Livy like most historians knew that there was more in history than there was in the patterns with which he constrained and explained it.

May 13, 2009

The Long Good Friday: Association and Motivation


The Long Good Friday is a film about gangsters and their world- but its more than that, it is a film about the transition from one world of gangsters to another. Onstage we have the figure of Harold Shand, the boss of London and particularly its East End, offstage we have a group of gloomy nemesis from the mafia of America to the IRA. Actually offstage we have more than that- we have the Castro regime in Cuba and ultimately Osama Bin Laden. Harold Shand believes that he can control these elements, that his basic criminality- his capitalist criminality can control and confine matters and will allow him to take a piece of London and turn it into a new property estate with the mafia money, will allow him to turn legit. During these plans suddenly several of his leading henchmen are killed, his own pub blown up, he himself attacked and eventualy he and his girlfriend are kidnapped- the forces behind these events are shadowy but clearly identified- this is the territory of a new force, ideological gangsterism before which Harold's more mercenary forces have no defence, for as one of his men says once you kill them they spring up against. In a sense Harold's problem is now the problem of the whole world.

We begin in the world of London, Harold beleives that London is on the verge of the Thatcherite era- the film was made as Margerate Thatcher ascended to the Premiership. London was the European capital- London was the place where Americans like Harold's mafia might come to do business: Harold's hope is to transform the capital, to make it the capital of Europe. He wants peace- like any good gangster he knows that there is no money in gang war, the secret of the mafia in New York was their ability to control feuds, Harold's ability is the ability to partition and negotiate. In that sense what Harold is is a traditional businessman- he is both the opportunist who can recognise that Maggie's London stands on the verge of something- the bollinger boys of the banking world are about to arrive- and the man who can organise a team of people to deliver that. He can organise the truth even- organise things to be hidden. He is a team player- his partner Victoria, a friend of Princess Anne in her childhood, but is integral to Harold's operation. Harold knows his strengths and Victoria's, he knows that she can schmooze with the best of them, she oozes charm (as only Helen Mirren can!) whereas his skill is as a deal maker behind the scenes. It is as though the lady of the manor had gone into partnership with a second hand car salesman!

But what the film brings up is the limitations of the kind of association that Harold can bring- what he appeals to. He appeals to people's self interest- either their interest for profit or their interest to survive. But what he faces is not a group of people who care for their self interest or their survival- the IRA ultimately appeal to other kinds of senses within humanity and Harold finds it difficult to confront that kind of loyalty. Normally if you blow someone's leaders away with snipers, they relent and go into partnership with you, but in this case you blow their leaders away and in the film they continue fighting. They do not fight for a leader or the chance to succeed him- they fight for a cause. Harold can't offer anything against that because all his techniques appeal to people's self interest, they do not appeal to people who care more for their cause than for their lives or their bank balances. This is a film about the types of association that appeal to people- what associations can motivate people and what associations can succeed. What the film shows on the cusp of the era of capitalism is that capitalist motivations cannot neccessarily trump other motivations- in that sense it is a warning, a warning to the age of capitalist motivations.

Francis Fukuyama hypothesized a new type of man stood at the end of history, as its culmination. Some of the simple minded interpreters of Fukuyama suggest that the end of history looked a bit like Harold Shand in the mid nineties. But of course it doesn't and as subsequent events suggest didn't. The Long Good Friday does not go into a discussion of what other motivations or associations look like- all it suggests is that Harold Shand's inability to understand those motivations led to his downfall.

Comment Moderation

I apologise to regular commenters and readers but I've had to insert comment moderation- this is because of a prolonged attack from some idiot who as you can probably see on my sidebar decided that this was a place to advertise his ultimate spamming game site. I do not and will not tolerate anyone posting on my blog solely to advertise their site- particularly their gambling or gaming site- this blog's comments are for discussion of the articles up here, in a civilised and thoughtful way, they are not for commercial gain. (I doubt unfortunately the purveyers of this vile craft will ever read this post- or if they do read it are capable of understanding why everyone sensible on the internet regards them as beneath contempt.)

May 10, 2009

The death of Curtius

That same year, as the result of an earthquake or some other violent upheaval, it is said that the middle of the Forum or thereabouts collapsed, leaving a huge chasm of enormous depth. The abyss could not be filled by throwing in the earth which everyone brought, until a warning from the Gods started the people wondering what was the chief strength of the Roman people; for that was what the soothsayers declared must be offered up to the place, if they wished the Roman Republic to endure forever. At this time (as the story goes) Marcus Curtius, a young man of great military distinction, rebuked those who doubted whether Rome had any greater asset than her arms and valour. In the silence which followed he looked up to the temples of the immortal Gods which tower over the Forum and the Capital, and stretching out his hands now to the heavens, now to the yawning gulf in the ground and the Gods of the underworld, he devoted himself to death. He then mounted a horse caparisoned with all possible splendour and plunged fully armed into the chasm. A crowd of men and women then threw piles of offerings and fruits of the earth in after him. Curtius's pool was named after him, it is said. (VII 6)
The death of Marcus Curtius was a particularly grisly one- what Livy does not tell you is that the young soldier died either from the shock of the plunge or worse from being buried alive. That concealment is not though the most interesting point of the story- for the story brings to light two issues- the first is Livy's practice as a historian, the second is Livy's intention within his history. Let us take the first first, why is Livy telling us this story? He expresses in two places in the above passage a caution to his readers- this is a story, it is a tradition, so antique that 'certainty [is] impossible' (VII 6). The historian must though pay attention to an aural tale- it is not possible merely to dismiss it as it may conceal something of truth, the fact that the name of the pool is 'better known from the more recent legend' (VII 6) is evidence that it possibly owes its origin to something like this incident. Though Livy has to make this judgement to complete his narrative, he has to also offer his readers the reminder that the story is a story- it is not certain, it is doubtful.

A historian does not merely ascertain truth, he also selects what to include and what not to include. Why does Livy include this story? Firstly I suspect he included it because it was interesting and dramatic- it aids the narrative construction of his history, it keeps the reader's interest in a ghoulish way (afterall a young man is being buried alive). That however is not the only reason that Livy selects this story to tell us- the centre of the tale is the prophesy of the soothsayers that if Rome throws into the hole its chief strength it will survive forever. Curtius interpreted that as being the military might that Rome possessed and threw himself as a good soldier and representive of that might into the gap. The soothsayers suggest not merely that Rome will survive forever but that the Roman Republic will survive forever- Livy though offers no comment on Curtius's actions or the soothsayer's prophesies. The interesting question to ask is whether he believed Curtius was right- he leaves the answer ambiguous for a political reason (to question whether the Republic had survived into the reign of Octavian might be dangerous) and also to leave us guessing about what the heart of the Republic's survival might be.

Curtius definitely gets something right in Livy's view. Military valour was part of the heart of the Roman Republic- authors from Livy to Gibbon were to laud the martial virtu of the Roman soldier- but the key issue here is whether that was a cause or consequence of the virtue of the Republic. Stepping back I think it is clear to say that it was a consequence- and that Livy himself may well have said that- we have seen in other contexts that Livy believed (as did other Roman authors) that victory was potentially destabilising. War allowed the plebeian party to destabilise the state and use its threat of a strike to intimidate the patricians. War brought in foreign luxuries to the state- corrupting the pure and simple tastes of the Republic. Furthermore had the Republic survived forever? What is interesting about this story is it furnishes us with an ironic comment on what will later happen- on the story that Livy will tell, the triumph of the Republic through war and its destruction through conquest- Curtius's fate points to the error that Rome will later make, to imagine that if the form of government survives, its reality survives as well. That if Rome's armies are strong then Rome herself is strong- Livy's theme is in part a rejection of that- a rejection of the idea that a large despotism is better than a small republic.

Ultimately Curtius's behaviour is an episode of republican virtue but not of Republican wisdom- by throwing in Roman martial valour (and this may be an interpretation too far) Livy may be suggesting that Curtius secured the survival of the Roman state, but not the Roman Republic.