The Campaigns of Heraclius in the East – George Finlay

Synopsis:

When the Roman Emperor Heraclius elevated himself to the throne in Constantinople, the empire was in a bleak state. It had been defeated, its armies destroyed, and most of its major cities conquered. The Persian monarch Chosroes II had succeeded in destroying Roman power in a string of successful campaigns initiated after the murder of his benefactor the Roman Emperor Mauricius by the usurper Phocas.

Nearly twenty years later the empire had been restored on all fronts, and the Persian enemy completely defeated with great slaughter. Heraclius was able to achieve this spectacular result after a series of brilliant counter-offensive campaigns into the heart of Persia, which included extinguishing the eternal flame of the fire god Ahura Mazda – the national deity of Persia – and the destruction of its ancient shrine.

In his seminal History of Greece, George Finlay details these campaigns and imparts his own sagacious commentary on the events.

Excerpts:

“Heraclius had repeatedly declared that he did not desire to make any conquest of Persian territory. His conduct when success had crowned his exertions, and when his enemy was ready to purchase his retreat at any price, proves the sincerity and justice of his policy. His empire required not only a lasting peace to recover from the miseries of the late war, but also many reforms in the civil and religious administration, which could only be completed during such a peace, in order to restore the vigor of the government.

“The fame of Heraclius would have rivaled that of Alexander, Hannibal, or Caesar, had he expired at Jerusalem, after the successful termination of the Persian war. He had established peace throughout the empire, restored the strength of the Roman government, revived the power of Christianity in the East, and replanted the holy cross on Mount Calvary. His glory admitted of no addition. Unfortunately, the succeeding years of his reign have, in the general opinion, tarnished his fame.

“Though the military glory of Heraclius was obscured by the brilliant victories of the Saracens, still his civil administration ought to receive its meed of praise, when we compare the resistance made by the empire which he reorganized with the facility which the followers of Mahomet found in extending their conquests over every other land from India to Spain.

“The moment the Mohammedan armies were compelled to rely solely on their military skill and religious enthusiasm, and ceased to derive any aid from the hostile feeling of the inhabitants to the imperial government, their career of conquest was checked; and almost a century before Charles Martel stopped their progress in the west of Europe, the Greeks had arrested their conquests in the East, by the steady resistance which they offered in Asia Minor.

“His effort to strengthen his power, by establishing a principle of unity, aggravated all the evils which he intended to cure; for while the Monophysites and the Greeks were as little disposed to unite as ever, the authority of the Eastern Church, as a body, was weakened by the creation of a new schism, and the incipient divisions between the Greeks and the Latins, assuming a national character, began to prepare the way for the separation of the two churches.

*All excerpts have been taken from Greece Under The Romans, B.C. 146 – A.D. 716, Palala Press.

The Punic Wars – Nigel Bagnall

Synopsis:

Born in India in 1927, Sir Nigel Bagnall served as Chief of the General Staff in London for the British Army in the late 1980s. In his survey of the Punic Wars between the rival city-states of Rome, and Carthage he bestows upon the reader notable erudition of the subject paired with the employment of his vast practical experience as a soldier in the British Army. The blending of his learnedness in both capacities lends to manifest an uncommon narrative of the life and death struggle among the two ancient superpowers – with Rome emerging as the ultimate victor. Bagnall likewise intercedes his own narrative with a chunk of commentary following the telling of the events of the First Punic War, and it is in this commentary that the book sets itself apart from other histories.

Excerpts:

“When comparing the constitutions of Rome and Carthage, Polybius concludes that Rome was at its zenith when the Senate was at the height of its power and that its decisions were usually sound because they were being made by the best men available. Carthage on the other hand, because its strength and prosperity had preceded that of Rome, was past its prime by the time of the Punic Wars, and the people had gained too much power. In making this assessment, Polybius, however appears to have only considered the constitution as it affected a city state and to have overlooked the wider fact that, whereas Rome had forged a confederation of states which held together even when gravely threatened, Carthage had merely created a feudal empire with no sense of corporate loyalty.

“Although there will admittedly never be any way of determining exactly why Carthage and Rome went to war, there are nevertheless two clearly identifiable factors which made such a war more probable. First, that the Romans saw an opportunity to advantage themselves, and second, that because they saw that the Carthaginians were unprepared militarily they succumbed to this temptation. Nothing appears to have changed in human nature during the last twenty centuries. Whether as individuals, or collectively, most of the human race displays an unfortunate proclivity for opportunism unless deterred by the threat of sufficiently painful consequences.

“Although the terminology is today’s, it will still be helpful at this point briefly to distinguish between the three levels of war:

Strategic Level The definition of the strategic objectives to be achieved in fulfillment of government policy.

Operational Level The planning and execution of military operations to achieve stated strategic objectives.

Tactical Level The planning and conduct of battles in pursuit of the operational aim.

In nontechnical language: having decided what you want to do, you plan how this is to be achieved and coordinate the actual battles to be fought in its fulfillment.

“The effectiveness of Hannibal’s administrative and constitutional reforms, however, is demonstrated by the continuing rise in Carthaginian prosperity even after his flight. In 191 BC, Carthage offered to pay off the whole of the war indemnity, while supplying large quantities of grain to provision the Roman armies – offers which either for reasons of hurt pride, or from a desire not to end symbols of Punic subservience, were disdainfully declined. No more than the fulfillment of her treaty obligations was expected of Carthage. But how far Carthage was prepared to go in order to placate the Romans and show her loyalty as an ally is indicated by the presence of Carthaginian contingents fighting alongside them in their wars against Philip, Antiochus and Perseus.

“Following the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus endeavored to ensure that Rome’s attitude to Carthage was one of moderation. But he did not survive the political infighting, and with his departure came a reversion, under the leadership of Cato, to the earlier policy of vigorous confrontation with Carthage. After being threatened and having disarmed to demonstrate their willingness to placate Rome under almost any circumstances, the Carthaginians were obliterated. The lesson here is writ large and clear. It is the longterm predisposition of states which should govern our relationships with them, not the ephemeral appearances of some charismatic leader.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the Struggle for the Mediterranean, Nigel Bagnall, Pimlico.

Empires of Trust – Thomas F. Madden

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Synopsis:

Empires of Trust was published in 2008 during the low-point of the United States war in Iraq, and perhaps because of that war it sought to examine the evolution of American power in comparison with the Roman Empire. Ancient and medieval historian Thomas F. Madden goes into considerable detail propounding the complexities of Roman culture, and explaining how that empire emerged. Although Madden identifies many similarities between American and Roman civilizations he unexpectedly unmasks many more differences.

Excerpts:

“The U.S. military is larger than the militaries of all other NATO allies combined. American military bases are planted in many NATO countries, while no allied bases are in the United States at all. Yet, Americans will still insist that NATO is an alliance of equals, not a structure of an empire.

“Doubt among allies regarding the trustworthiness of the Empire of Trust is toxic. Americans cannot allow it and neither could the Romans. Hannibal understood that very well. As a result of the failure to defend Saguntum, Rome’s word already meant nothing in Spain – something that Roman envoys learned when they arrived to seek allies in the war against Hannibal.

“We believe that the normal human condition is peace, periodically disrupted by war. That illusion is the product of a large and historically rare superstructure built to keep lasting peace in existence. Without the perfect functioning of that superstructure, peace disappears.

“If it was truly the UN that was responsible for the growing peace, then the continued warfare in Africa makes little sense. UN missions to Africa are numerous. In truth, it is American apathy for the region that allows it to continue to remain violent, provided that the warfare does not affect American assets or security. Just as the Romans had only a passing interest in Germans or Celts outside of their empire, so Americans tend to ignore a sub-Saharan Africa that, while frequently in a state of crisis, poses no security threat to the United States or its allies.

“For some years the military strategy of the United States has included the ability to project significant power anywhere in the world. For the most part it has achieved that goal. These facts, in and of themselves, represent an extraordinary disparity in power. That is not to say that the United States has the power to fight the world and win. It does not. Nor does it need it. An Empire of trust only requires sufficient power to defend its allies and deter or punish aggression. In short, it must have ‘military strengths beyond challenge.’

*All excerpts have been taken from Empires of Trust: How Rome Built – and America is Building – a New World, Plume.

The Civil War – Julius Caesar

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Synopsis:

Julius Caesar wrote The Civil War for the same reason he wrote about his campaigns in Gaul – i.e. to prove to the Roman people that his cause was just and that his opponents were unjust. The work was never completed, and the reason for this may be conjectured as having won the civil war – against the Pompeian faction – Caesar no longer needed to defend his actions because he was in full control of the state.

Excerpts:

“…but let me remind you it is always at the end of a war that soldiers look for the reward of their efforts, and what that end is going to be not even you can doubt.

“Is it conceivable that a side which could make no stand with all its forces intact can now do so when its cause is lost; and can you, who declared for Caesar when victory still hung in the balance, now think of siding with the vanquished, after the issue of the war is decided, and when you ought to be reaping the reward of your services?

“With what seems to be a tradition among foreign nations, the African force lay scattered about their camping-ground without any properly made lines; consequently, when our troopers dashed in upon the broken groups of heavily sleeping men, numbers were slaughtered on the spot, and a considerable body took refuge in panic-stricken flight.

“But Curio answered unhesitatingly that, having lost the army which Caesar had entrusted to his charge, he would never go back to look him in the face, and with that answer he died fighting. Only a very small proportion of the Roman cavalry escaped from the battle; but those who, as recorded above, had dropped behind in the rear for the purpose of resting their horses, on observing from their distant position that the whole army was a rout, made good their return to the camp. The infantry were all cut down to a man.

“Inside the Pompeian lines the eye fell upon the spectacle of arbors artificially constructed, of masses of silver plate laid out for present use, of tents paved with cool, fresh cut sods, and even, in the case of Lentulus and others, protected from the heat by ivy. Many other indications could likewise be discerned of extravagant luxury and of confidence in coming victory, rendering it an easy assumption that men who went so far out of their way in the pursuit of superfluous pleasures could have had no misgivings as to the issue of the day. Yet these were the men who habitually taunted the poverty-stricken, long-suffering army of Caesar with the charge of being voluptuaries; whereas in truth they had all along been in want of the barest necessaries.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Civil War, Julius Caesar, Barnes & Noble, Inc.