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Topic: A same old approach now cloaked in terms of military history  (Read 5669 times)

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History is the Grand Confession of Mankind

« on: December 13, 2006, 07:07:22 PM »

In his description of the defeat of Rome at Cannae by the Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal Barca, Hanson argues that there is “some superficial similarity between their constitutions”. 1 He goes on to note that their military methodologies were not dissimilar either. However, in accordance with his broad thesis of the Western Way being fomented by culture, he points to differences in the Roman and Carthaginian cultures as the reason underscoring their ultimate success following Cannae.

Hanson notes that the Carthaginians held to many Hellenistic practices. In regard to the military, he points out that the “Spartan mercenary Xanthippus was brought in to reorganize the entire Carthaginian army”. 2 In government, he observes that the Romans had two “consuls” while the Carthaginians had two “suffetes”.

The point of divergence between the two great powers, according to Hanson, was “in the notion of citizenship and the responsibilities and rights” of being a citizen. 3 While the Carthaginians did have some form of representative government, they had not “evolved beyond the first phase of Hellenic-inspired consensual rule”. 4 What he is pointing to here is that a very small few had any political say in Carthaginian politics. At one point, he makes the statement that Hannibal’s army probably “did not contain one single voting Carthaginian citizen”. 5 He does not elaborate on this seemingly doubtful statement. “In Rome, on the other hand, the Greek concept had been “borrowed and improved” into the “unique idea of nationhood”. 6 Taking up where he left off with the Greeks, Hanson argues that because these Romans and their Italian allies “voted in the local assemblies”, they were “ferocious…and threatening”. 7

One of the reasons that the Greeks and later the Hellenistic kings would fail is that because while their political system did ensure dedicated warriors, it was able to maintain only a limited amount of them. Archer echoes this when he points out that Sparta “produced very good soldiers in very small numbers”. 8 The armies of Macedonia had increased their numbers by hiring mercenaries, but these did not fight as hard as the citizen. But the Romans, by granting legal rights to those from all levels of society as well as to their Italian allies, were able to capitalize on the strengths of the Greek military system while also removing the numerical limitations. He asserts that because of the need for replacements following such a severe defeat, Cannae actually accelerated this process by providing the impetus to halve the property ownership requirement for military service. 9

The Carthaginians, however, did not grant legal rights to those below the aristocratic level, and so were, like the Hellenist armies, forced to rely on mercenaries for numbers. Hanson notes that though “the Roman Senate was probably as aristocratic as the Carthaginian, …there were no corresponding Punic assemblies that could check aristocratic power”. 10 Because of this, Carthage was unable to keep up with Rome. Indeed, Hanson goes on, “not a single one of Rome’s formidable adversaries in the centuries to come would ever grasp this Western dual idea of free citizen/soldier”. 11 Because of this, no matter how many decisive victories these enemies gained, they would ultimately fail because the Romans would always replenish their numbers because the citizenry willingly joined.

More than likely later on in the readings, Hanson will explain the decline of Roman power in the West. The question remains: if Hanson’s thesis that granting legal rights to the many assured a numerous citizen-soldiery, why did the Roman Empire of the West fail even as it granted more and more open citizenship?


1. Victor Davis Hanson, “Carnage and Culture”, (New York, Anchor, 2002), 112.
2. ibid., 112.
3. ibid., 113.
4. ibid., 114.
5. ibid., 125.
6. ibid., 114-5.
7. ibid., 118.
8. Christian I. Archer, “World History of Warfare”, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 63.
9. Hanson, “Carnage”, 121.
10. ibid., 125.
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« Reply #1 on: December 13, 2006, 07:08:31 PM »

You ask a fundamentally pertinent question that points to a way of turning this whole sham argument of Hanson's idea on its head in your comment's last sentence (the attack on the idea about the supposed exclusive ELAN of the "citizen-soldier" of the Classical kind - that is to say that Hanson is still dominated by the French revolutionary idea of "citoyen-levee" of 1789 - when will this man wake up? - but by the same token only when there was a Hannibalic character like Napoleon did these French revolutionary armies gain the necessary zeal to be victorious - BUT BY THE SAME TOKEN - those who should have fought the WORST according to this idea should have been the illiterate, propertyless and absolutely UNFREE Russian serfs who fought in fact SO HARD that they slaughtered tooth and nail the French in Russia - especially at Borodino!).

Even the French who originated the thinly-veiled Hanson-regurgitated idea of the "property-owning ELAN of the democratic citizens" needed more to fight well after 1789 than a mere "right-to-vote" !?.

As for Carthage and her state-condition - Hanson has not a clue - but all he can do is ponder on the readily available hearsay evidence of their Classical polis-adaptation - but in fact - he totally breaks down on key historic points - such as Carthage, a state that only on the outside resembled the Greek Polis - but on the inside was powered by an entirely different political engine (and civilizationally superior to Rome because of its great age and a stellar record of achievement stretching back 2000 years prior to 216 BC) with a heritage of the Babylonian Civilization where the democracy as an idea did not exist (a fact of almost all the civilizations in history).

The inner core of the Carthaginian government was a counsel of the elected affinities of older men who were members for life. The government was really controlled by a dynasty (just like the Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians and Akkadians were) which cooperated with its age-old government structures, including the council (a senate-like body) and a priesthood of Dido (who were NOT city-officials the way it was fashionable among the Classical poleis but they were in cooperation with the state-officials (a separation of religion and state in the Classical??? impossible! Hanson got that wrong too!)).

[Classical religion was never written down but it consisted of myriad city-cults conducted by city-officials-as-priests.]

Even today there are many countries in the world who adopt a Western-style government facade on the outside but retain an inner core which alone functions at the root of everything (China, Japan, Korea, Russia, Israel, Egypt, etc.).

Moreover, Hanson avoids an analysis of what is well-known about the Carthaginian grand council or Senate where there were truly democratic-style oligarchic-aristocratic factions and discourses, such as the one led by the Carthaginian Senator (and ex-general who served his country) Hanno the Great - who constantly warned against Hannibal's ambitions and who plotted to overthrow the war-faction. He was never in fear of his life for having such openly expressed dissensions even in the face of a war involving his country !? Judging even by today's standards in the USA - he was in a more "free" (whatever that means in a practical sense) society because he was never accused of treason for simply being opposed to the war against Rome.

Did Rome have any dissenters during the war? NONE! Therein lies the truly vital but also deeply undemocratic or at least democracy-as-a-process-irrelevant spiritual condition of Rome. Rome's government was at least as narrow-based as the one in Carthage if not far more in fact!

This is the historic phenomenon at work in the Carthaginian example - a Classical facade overlaying an imported original Phoenician style state-realm.

Carthage and Rome were not of the same historical continuum (or world) and therefore any comparison between the two on the basis of their relative political structures is inane, jejune and simply inexpert.

Besides, not every historic type of person in the infinite course of Time identifies "freedom" with a simple vote in a political body. To presume that freedom only works through a ballot box is to be truly shallow beyond belief. Voting is a mere technique that very soon loses its original meaning and purpose - and becomes a mere lowly tool of manipulation of the increasingly more worthless voters by the ever-more wealthy, reckless money-powers. Democracy as a type really matures more and more through Money, and the original idealism that founded it evaporates or fades away under the pressure of practical but increasingly anarchic street party-politics. Rome as a democracy was at the point of evaporation of the original aristocratic democratic ideals even by the time of Flaminius, and the Punic Wars merely delayed this process in Rome - for, the battle resumes fully by the time of the Gracchi brothers.

In the Polis - a percentage of voters was always small compared to the total population - this is another argument against what Hanson trumpets.

Besides, what was the point of having a right to vote - when only a fraction of vote-holders could actually vote at any given time - because - to exercise the right to vote a Classical man had to be corporeally present in the assembly hall or field and there raise his hand when actual voting took place!? How many do you think could get there to do so or would bother to ? Is this what inspires true men to fight ?? or is it the ideal of something venerable that holds sway in their hearts and moves them on to ever more personal sacrifice??

At campo martio typically thousands voted at any given time (prior to the Gracchi reforms). Gracchus lost because he had to drag 1000's of peasants across Italy to come and vote. A cumbersome exercise of this nature disgusted the peasants so much so that they just withdrew back from Rome - besides - they had to take care of their harvest as its time was approaching. Gracchus' plans collapsed - and he then lost the support of Equites, the money powers who were exploiting him.

Hanson is mixing the political and the military and in the process making a mockery of Classical history.

Do you think that democracy as an ideal saved its face in the judgment of Verrus (the corrupt governor of Sicily whom Cicero rhetorically reduced to rubble in the trial in the Senate only to slap him with a fine and case closed ??) ?
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« Reply #2 on: December 13, 2006, 07:09:52 PM »

Hanson is full of grandiose and factually unsupported superlative pronouncements that do nothing more than leaven or spice-up his narrative for the ostensible purpose of having the political ideology of democratism singled-out from among the multitude of important events for (what I believe to be) the sole purpose of scoring a civics lesson for the modern audience.


“At imperial Athens, and among its democratic allies [fyi: not all of Athens’ allies were “democratic”] every male born to a male citizen, regardless of wealth or lineage, was eligible for full citizenship, giving rise to an ENORMOUS [!?] navy of free citizen rowers.”

What a glorious reward for citizenship – sweltering and inhumane conditions of super-heated bottom-of-the-barrel position of a rower, the cannon-fodder, of the Athenian navy!? It was so popular for citizens to be rowers that they had to dump slaves and foreigners into the guts of triremes qua citizens! when push came to shove towards the end of the Peloponnesian Wars [check Kagan’s book “Peloponnesian War”].

I don’t see what was so “enormous” about it – for even at its height the Athenian navy employed no more than 10,000 active duty seamen. Maybe it is “enormous” given the fact that the Greeks invented the smallest possible state-organism evident in History – the minimal state of Polis (a nation the size of a small town – itself a product of historic process known as Synoecism) [an existing Wilkipedia definition of this term will do].

Hanson continues: “Even more STARTLING [!?], the spread of WESTERN DEMOCRATIC IDEOLOGY [!?] evolved far beyond formal matters of voting, but lent an egalitarian aura……[and so on]”

His approach borders on arrogant amateurism when he bothers with phrases and terms he never defines (not even in a footnote!) for neither were the Classical Greeks, Etruscans and Romans “Western” [what is Western? – for it can’t be that which Hanson places at the end of the book, because, for one – the Classical never separated the religious and the political thought!] nor were they in any directly meaningful way related to the real Europeans of many centuries later, those whose life was determined by powerful dynastic unions which alone created Western national identities (something that is utterly unClassical in nature!).

His historic romanticism, of which Hanson is clearly a belated victim, goes to show that something is lagging in his approach, or is vividly outdated (it was apt for the 19th and even the 20th century in which people even killed in the name of romantic idealism). Is it because his historic types are race-determined (the Classical faces don’t look too foreign to him so he assumes they must be “Western” or he just does not know what forces are at play in History so he assumes the modern West can be tracked down to every instance of an individualism-based system of government?).
Perhaps he is a lonely enthusiast for political constitutions (in the not too deep American historical experience – the Constitution of the USA is practically the only seminal event a traditionalist American can point to with pride as “his own” – and so he goes on assuming that this had to have been the case for the Greeks?)

It is vastly obvious that he assumes the Romans and Greeks to be part of an imagined line of ascent along an outdated “Ancient-Medieval-Modern” scheme (which he seeks to revitalize under the cloak of military history) in which, among other things, they are clearly proven to be “in line” by a system of silent discipline with which the West supposedly always stood-out from its opponents (like those robotic legionnaires).

Little does he know about the truly impressive armies of the Qin or even Tsu in the mighty “Contending States Period” of China (any one of the vastly numerous Chinese armies would have made a short work of any Roman legion or Greek phalanx on any day – had the two civilization happen to be in close proximity to each other to test this) or even less about the Assyrians, the first jackbooted soldiers in History whose military prowess even under the weak rulers (like Ashurbanipal’s successor) would have annihilated a sandal-clad Roman Army of any period.

The Romans (and the Greeks too) were merely lucky to have evolved their political power in the period in History in which there were almost no strong and serious military opponents who could challenge them on the field of battle in a non-Classically-educated way.

The Poeni (Carthaginians) were the only serious power against whom Republican Rome ever fought, and these were so powerful precisely because their methods of organizing drew heavily on the experience and know-how of an “ancient” Mesopotamian (Sumerian-Assyrian-Babylonian-Phoenician) world that was largely dead in Hannibal’s time (the last flicker of historic flame of this bygone world was – precisely – Carthage).

It is absolutely not surprising that the most serious battle Alexander ever fought (the one that made his army push him around into giving up his continuing leadership of his remaining ideas of conquest), the battle of Hydaspes, almost annihilated the vaunted Greek infantry/cavalry phalanx using the unfamiliar tactics, power and techniques of an Indian raja state. The Persians whom he fought up till then were not even all “Persian” and contained many Greek fighters, mercenaries and advisers, many of whom did not care one way or another who won the battle of, say, Gaugamela, because economically and culturally – the Persian Empire of Darius was largely conquered by Greek merchants and mercenaries before Alexander even set foot in Asia.

The Roman legion was good enough for uneducated and unruly barbarians, the backwoodsmen of what would some day become “Europe”, (even the tough Berbers/Moors/Numidians the Romans in reality never subdued, but instead had to confine its zone of influence to a narrow coastal strip of North Africa) and of course the mellow Hellenized Greeks of the Diadochi (successors).

Undoubtedly, the grandest hour of Rome was at Cannae, just like other nations had their “grand” hour in which the force of national spirit manifested itself on the battlefield in its noblest, most aggressive and deeply tragic way (Tannenberg for the Teutonic Knights, Stalingrad for the Germans, Gallipoli for the British, Waterloo for the French, Kossovo and Kolubara for the Serbs, Alamo and Gettysburg for the Americans, etc.)

Hanson dreams about the Greeks from his own perspective of staunch adherence to ancestral soil – for nothing more can be deduced from his romantic naivety than when he states: “The Greeks were too jealous of their autonomy and freedom and too chauvinistic about their surrounding countryside to grant on any wide scale foreigners and immigrants – or even Greeks from different city-states – the same citizenship rights as hardy farmers who worked their ancestral plots.” In fact the Greeks had a type of Life-outlook that contained their national unity feeling to a point in place, called the Polis, where nobody foreign (at times even if not from the ruling class) could or should feel at home in, no matter who he is.

It is quite obvious that Hanson speaks from a lordly viewpoint according to which one sees himself at the center of all important happening and then projects the effect of this stance upon those whom his preference favors. After the initial period of ripe consciousness of their original, native, separateness, the Greeks granted citizenship upon the highest bidder (especially in the late 5th and 4th century – and beyond too) – for money and not the ideal became the vehicle of democracy then as now – and when push came to shove one granted citizenship even to slaves (as Athens did late in its war with Sparta and Rome did after Cannae).

For some misunderstood reason Hanson considers Rome somehow to be a first “Western nation-state” above and beyond the other Classical nations of her type, which is simply not correct. Rome was in type and in form the same as any other Classical Polis – but in terms of the dynamics of its internal constitutional evolution – it succeeded when all the rest failed (the Senate [patricians] and the Tribunate [the plebeians] arrived at a legal consensus that allowed for cooperation rather than mutual extermination). This is the significance of the Roman formula carried on every banner: SPQR (“Senatus Populusque Romanus” – Senate and Trubunate [people body])

In fact it was a conscious decision by wise and brave Roman conservatives, led by Scipio Africanus, that prevented Rome from extending her new empire immediately beyond Carthage after Zama, because he knew that Rome was incapable of governing such a huge realm – and that the avalanche of booty that would swamp Rome would undo her political system and the delicate internal balance (which would happen anyway, although later).
For, the victim of Trasimene, Consul Flaminius, already started the process of Roman transformation in the direction of plebeian/bourgeois dominance away from the strong aristocracy that gave Rome its true grandeur. This would also be the direction for her empire. Polybius condemned Flaminius’ agrarian act for that very reason (it attempted to use the farmers as political pawns in the new high-stakes power game).
After all, the captured Greek historian Polybius was an intimate member of younger Scipio’s conservative circle that opposed the lowering bar of democratization of Roman politics [Polybius, “The Histories” II, 21].

The idea of civic militarism could be used by Hanson to justify the modern system of civilian control of military through a government bureau (“Dept of Defense”).
The Romans and Greeks however had no bureaus – and because war was the province of every man, every citizen, “vir”, one had to be a general, an administrator, a judge, a writer, a orator, a financier – all in one – because single-field career-professions as such did not exist in the Classical world. One was a bit of everything in those days. All the so-called “historians” of the ancient World were men of many talents and many different experiences – this is one forte of the Classical – that he could seize the moment even in an emergency (or especially in it) because he was so improvident at any long-term planning.

The main reason for the gradual Roman reversal of Hannibal’s fortunes was the strong and untapped race-component of the Italians under Roman leadership, which allowed a massive inner call to duty or sacrifice to override any other (personal) consideration – a condition that the Romans/Italians themselves were never again able to replicate in their history. This is what gave the Roman his stamp of Stoic commitment, fateful perseverance in the face of almost certain destruction, which a man of breeding accepts as normal in the grand context of tragedy of Life in the Universe.

“The real lessons of Cannae are not the arts of encirclement or Hannibal’s secret of tactical genius, [and so on], but [students of war] must ask themselves why men fight a battle, [and so on].” reads Hanson on pg. 131 of “Carnage and War”.

He dares to call Hannibal, the most far-sighted man of his time (the only one who came closer to him in the power of vision, though much later, was Scipio) the one who alone understood that Rome is set on a course to take over the Mediterranean World (including the Hellenic East) for the sake of which he alone conducted an unparalleled feat of war (which Hanson does not even bother to gloss over) – the crossing of the tall French Alps in the dead of Winter with a multi-national army. One had to be a man’s man or a “general’s general” to achieve such a determined feat of leadership. This alone ensured that his men, no matter if mercenary, or barbarian according to Hanson’s or Rome’s standards, whether grim professionals or wily amateurs from the wild races of Iberia – fought with unprecedented zeal at Trebia, Trasimene, Cannae and beyond – for him and only for him (a constitution would have been too effeminate for them to fight for – for these are not the educated types – nor could a bloodless concept represent something important enough for them to risk a life over)! Much like the fact that the victory in the War of American independence was not owed to those hard-fought, or hard-haggled debates in Philadelphia and in the taverns of the Founding Fathers, but in the masculine leadership of one aristocratic general George Washington whose personality inspired his men to fight harder.

If the improvident Greeks realized the importance of Hannibal’s vision they would have helped him when he needed them. He alone understood that Rome would take over the known world unless it was stopped. He continued to act as “Paul Revere” of the Hellenic World for years after the war, until his death.

It was precisely this “civic militarism” weakness of the Classical poleis that prevented the Romans from having a more effective leadership at Cannae, the fact that they had two commanders who alternated every day rather than having a force of men bonded by strong leadership at the top. Cannae proved to me the outcomes of key battles are determined by an inspiring leadership at the top and not merely a possession of patriotic zeal and a race-inspired drive to aggressive behavior (no matter how exemplary and noble in intent) among the rank-and-file.

I am uncertain as to where Hanson derives his inspiration or his glowing enthusiasm for civic virtues of the Classical – for one can even detect in Thucydides a disdain for some democratic practices of the Athenians [Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War] such as the shameful machinations that went on in the Athenian Ekklesia (assembly) where men were reduced to ruin on the strength of scheming oratorical prowess of far lesser men, where a forum for nascent, crude bourgeois greed was brazen, where there was simply no independent judiciary or even any judiciary – but rather an ad-hoc judgment by the jurors of the assembly (where just a simple show of hands that wasn’t even counted but summarily surveyed, decided the fate of men, for whom even the son of Pericles was not venerable enough to spare from a vicious ambition of a group of demagogues).

The Roman Military Transformation

The evolution of the Roman system of war closely followed that of the political revolution. The climax of the revolutionary movement lies in the period between the Gracchi and Sulla, but the struggle set in a 100 years earlier with consult Flaminius and his agrarian reform. This was interrupted by the 2nd Punic War, during which the slaves were then drafted into the “citizen” army. The traditional Roman state loses in the struggles following the assassinations of the political reformers Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus and their opponent Scipio the Younger.

Marius, a man of the lowest order, not even Roman by blood, then creates the first Roman army based on the recruitment of paid volunteers (universal conscription abolished) who were personally attached to him and noone else. This army (funded by private funds and donations) he used to destroy the Roman politics as they existed up to that time – of the kind that formerly existed, such as that of the fabled Roman statesman Cato Maior (“Ceterum censeo Cartaginem esse delendam!” – the famous statement by Senator Cato: “After all I still consider the annihilation of Carthage essential!”) and sense of moral responsibility which alone gave Rome its great-power position.

The democratic mob of that period (unlike the Roman “demos” or “plebs” of earlier times) had become largely a shapeless foreign import which was at the disposal of the craftiest possessor of the largest cash supply (usually the “Equites” or a class of Roman financiers who bankrolled the political parties in Rome, such as Optimates and Populares). This political chaos of democratic party-anarchy ended with Caesar – and as far as the Roman history is concerned – FOR EVER.

So, beginning as a national institution that served as the medium for patriotic and republican ideals of Rome, the Roman army becomes a mere tool of the power politics back in Rome for which the rest of the world serves as a mere prey, to be utilized on an as-needed basis.

After all, every foreign policy is a reflection of domestic politics.

As Polybius narrates it best:

And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created anong the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the honors of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence;
For now, stirred to fury and swayed by passion in all their counsels, they will no longer consent to obey or even to be the equals of the ruling caste, but will demand the lion’s share.
When this happens the state will change its name to the finest sounding of all, freedom and democracy, but will change its nature to the worst thing of all, mob-rule.”

– Polybius, The Histories, VI. 9. and 57.


Hanson, Carnage and War
Kagan, Peloponnesian War
Wikipedia on “Synoecism”
Polybius, “The Histories”
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