The last two weeks in our grand strategy seminar have dealt with the war between Hannibal and Rome. The Second Punic War was one of history’s great confrontations, and the struggle has echoed and re-echoed down the millennia. Hannibal’s audacity, his tactical brilliance and his sheer military genius have challenged and inspired generations of strategists. The commander who led elephants (how many is not clear) over the Alps and shook Rome to its foundations in some of the most brilliant battles ever fought will not be forgotten.
The story of Rome is equally compelling: the fortitude of the city under a rain of disasters; the brilliance of Fabius; the struggle between Fabian caution and hotheaded impulsiveness; the audacity of Scipio. Few episodes in world history have stakes this high, characters this compelling, drama this intense.
I hesitated about what book to assign in the grand strategy class on the Second Punic War. At Yale we followed Polybius. It’s a good choice: Polybius was an eyewitness to some of the events he describes, a thoughtful student of comparative politics, a concise writer with a global perspective on the war. For Americans, there’s something else to be said for him: his political reflections powerfully influenced our own founding fathers, both directly and through his influence on Montesquieu.
But since we’ve adjusted the syllabus at Bard to give us a little more time with key episodes in the history of grand strategy, I thought it was worth giving students a chance to read Livy‘s account. The 600 plus pages of Livy’s history tell the war’s story on something like the epic scale it demands. The successive crises in Spain, in Italy as the allies defect following the shattering defeats, in Sicily as Rome’s most reliable ally passes from the scene, and then as the King of Macedon agrees with Carthage on how to divide the Roman estate: Livy’s story has it all, and the stories are told with his unique dramatic flair. And while both Livy and Polybius lay great stress on the role of the Roman state and constitution in the war, Livy gives us a more comprehensive look at Roman political life. And Livy’s analysis of the reasons why the Roman Republic rose and fell has been even more influential than Polybius’ groundbreaking constitutional analysis in forming the political mind of the west down to our own day.
I may have surprised my students by focusing on something other than the eye-catching details — Hannibal’s route over the Alps, the classic battle strategy at Cannae, or even the struggle between Fabius and his mutinous subordinate that almost wrecked the Roman army. Those are important and they are worth knowing about, but I wanted to draw their attention to the real grand strategy of Rome: the construction of a new kind of state and society that brought Rome to world power despite Hannibal’s best efforts.
In Livy’s account we see a contest between two styles of organization. Carthage has its factions and its politics, but in the Carthaginian system, individual leaders are strong but the state is weak. Hannibal and the Barca clan have one policy; their opponents have another, but one doesn’t get a picture of a central coordinating power center in Carthage overseeing the twists and turns of the war. This is no doubt partly because of Livy’s dependence on Roman sources; history is written by the winners.
But it also seems truly the case that Rome was the first of the ancient city states (in the Mediterranean world) to develop a real system of governance that operated reasonably reliably and consistently. The Romans had their legal system, their political system with its competition for office and its checks and balances, their standardized methods of training and equipping an army, and even (for the time) a well organized method for dealing with the public finance and debt.
Among other strengths, Rome’s solid institutional base gave the city a greater ability to manage power across distance and manage a conflict that was larger and more complex than any other war the city had fought. The Second Punic War enveloped the entire Mediterranean world; Roman forces saw action from modern Portugal to the Balkans and Rome’s diplomats and soldiers had to manage relationships with effete and scheming Greeks, North African tribesmen, and shaggy, hostile barbarians in the fastnesses of Gaul. Military developments in one theater had to be considered in the light of events at the other end of the zone of hostilities; Rome — whose financial and manpower resources were stretched to the uttermost limit by the demands of the war — had to make difficult decisions about priorities.
Rome’s deep political stability and the capacity of so many Romans to think clearly and act decisively enabled the city to manage the complexities of the conflict; those characteristics also made Rome resilient. Slaughter a legion and kill a consul if you like: Rome can make more. It also made Rome reliable. Promises from Hannibal did not and could not bind Carthage the way that promises from properly constituted Roman authorities vested with imperium bound the Senate.
The Roman political system at the time of the Punic Wars harnessed the ambition of rival families and clans to the service of the state. The wealthiest and most powerful Romans competed for the great electoral offices, to be aediles, quaestors, praetors and consuls. With annual elections and multiple openings every year (two consuls were elected, and larger numbers of the other offices), well-placed patrician Romans had a reasonable chance of ascending the cursus honorum and achieving the highest offices in the state.
But to do that, they had to win and keep the approval of their peers, demonstrating a sufficient level of administrative competence, physical courage and personal honesty. The law courts, where former officials could be sued for malfeasance in office, and the open debates in the Senate and the popular assemblies ensured that the performance of individuals would be watched. Failure or scandal would block your rise.
The possession of this system made Rome seem reliable. Roman foreign policy was less unpredictable than Athens’ had been; many of Rome’s allies stayed loyal even after Hannibal’s great victories out of a combination of belief in the durability of Rome’s power and their sense that the Romans were reliable allies and acceptable hegemons. (Empires of Trust by Thomas Madden explores the role that a reliable and reasonably moderate foreign policy played in the rise of both Roman and American strength; the book is well worth reading.)
The Roman system was not foolproof — and Livy, from the other side of the disastrous civil wars that accompanied the fall of the republic and led to the establishment of the empire, tends to romanticize the system at the time of Hannibal. But at the end of the day, Rome worked. Nobody in Rome had the kind of individual military genius that Hannibal had, yet Rome’s ability to harness the talents and ambitions of its citizens ultimately gave it a strength that Hannibal could not overcome.
What Livy shows us in the Second Punic War is Rome’s mastery of the highest level of grand strategy: the strategy of state construction and social development.
The idea that states compete not only by fighting wars but by creating societies which can, among other things, fight wars successfully is still very much with us today. It underlies George Kennan’s approach to containment. Kennan’s containment was the exploitation of the flawed nature of the society the Soviets wanted to build. Because the American system, at home and abroad, had more durable foundations than the brutal but ineffective Soviet model, Kennan believed that time and history was on America’s side. If we could keep the Soviets from expanding, sooner or later their system would fall apart.
The belief that some forms of social organization generate greater power, including military power, than others is at the heart of Hegel’s concept of the end of history — and was taken up by Francis Fukuyama. Liberal capitalist democracy, Fukuyama argues, promotes a better mix of solidarity and individualism, of dynamism and stability than societies organized in any other way can do.
That may or may not be true, and there is more than one model of liberal capitalist democracy from which to choose. Nevertheless, it seems clear that no serious grand strategist can afford to ignore the relationship between the internal situation of a state and the economic, political and even moral constitution of a society and its ability to sustain itself in international life.
Some of Livy’s thoughts about Rome’s civic order will make Americans feel smug; his analysis of the causes of the fall of the Republic (an increasingly greedy uberclass, the erosion of the middle class, the growing dependency of the lower classes on what today would be called entitlement programs, immigrants who did not share traditional values, the decline of traditional religion, political and sexual license and corruption up and down the social pyramid) has been making Americans nervous since the time of the founders.
My Bard students were optimistic, if that is the right word; after the Punic Wars Rome’s tendency toward decadence was accelerated because Rome no longer faced a great power rival in the Mediterranean world. Ambitious men seeking power could play ruthless politics against their rivals without worrying that divisions among the Romans could leave the whole country exposed to hostile attack. The students argued that for the foreseeable future a dangerous international environment will keep America on its toes.
Good news, I guess; this is a version of the argument I made in my most recent (partially paywall protected) article in Foreign Affairs, where I say that the clear and present threats emanating from overseas will ensure that the new wave of populism in American society will likely not turn us toward a new isolationism. The United States is likely to be an effective power in a dangerous world: that perhaps is the best we can hope for.