With the world melting down and the Bard semester heating up, I’ve fallen behind in my grand strategy posts; apologies to all and I hope to catch up with a post next week (during Bard’s spring break) on Machiavelli. But today’s business is still the Second Punic War, the conflict between Carthage and Rome that engulfed most of the Mediterranean world in what would prove to be the most important war in the history of what would, thanks to Rome’s victory, one day become western civilization.
In the last post I wrote about how Rome had a grand strategy that was bigger and deeper than tactical questions like where you put your cavalry and your Balearic slingers in the battle. It was a strategy of state construction and institution building. Carthage could defeat Roman armies in Italy, Gaul and Spain, massacring troops, capturing standards and killing consuls. But Rome could always produce more — even coming up with a third Scipio after two successful generals of that family were killed in Spain.
This is clearly one of the strengths that the British and the Americans brought to the last three hundred years of world history in which we’ve established a global hegemony as strong and as influential as the great empires of old. There was a social and an economic resilience to the two English speaking great powers of the modern world that enabled them to outlast competitors like Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler and the Soviet Union. “England loses every battle but the last,” they used to say. Hannibal and Napoleon (and for that matter Robert E. Lee) were brilliant commanders, but their brilliance could not overcome the deeply rooted institutional and economic disadvantages they faced.
More than resilience, there was something about the Anglo-American world that kept it at the forefront of technology and culture. I’ve written about this in God and Gold; it’s been easier for the English speaking world to adapt to and take advantage of capitalism than for cultures like Russia’s. Our political institutions are more flexible, our culture less threatened by change, and our people more willing to put up with the inconveniences and upheavals that rapid capitalist development entails.
There are other points of contact between the Punic War and the modern era. One is that the Punic War came at a time when the geopolitical center of gravity was shifting. Historically the eastern Mediterranean had been the home of civilization and therefore of civilization’s constant companion: war. The international system of the Levant was centuries old by the time of Hannibal. Three great empires in five hundred years — Assyria, Babylon, Persia — converted their mastery of the fertile delta into hegemonic power throughout the region. The wars between the Greek city states and the Persian Empire that Herodotus describes, as well as the Peloponnesian War, were centered in the Aegean Sea at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean. Alexander’s conquest of Persia and Egypt, and the subsequent division of his empire into squabbling successor states, confirmed the idea that the Levant was a kind of self contained geopolitical unit and to master this was to master the known world.
But by the time of the Punic Wars when Carthage and Rome fought for mastery of the Mediterranean world, the old power centers no longer seemed to matter. Athens and Sparta were inconsiderable powers in the new world order of Hannibal’s war; even Macedonia’s intervention in the war was of relatively minor importance. Syracuse was the only major Greek city to play a significant role in the Punic Wars, and even Syracuse could only choose to ally itself with one of the two leading powers — King Hiero was Rome’s loyal sidekick, not an independent actor.
The great battles of the Punic Wars were fought in places Thucydides did not know much about: Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Gaul and Italy. Greece was an afterthought in the Punic Wars, the Levant a spectator as its fate was decided in the west.
Roman and Carthaginian dominions on the eve of the Second Punic War (Wikimedia)
Change could be quick. After its defeat in the First Punic War, Carthage rebuilt its fortunes by developing a new economic and political base in Spain. In 241 BC Carthage controlled a narrow strip of southern Spain; by the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218 BC, much of modern Spain had been brought into the Carthaginian empire and both Carthaginian and Roman forces would engage in battles as far afield as modern Portugal.
The booming economic growth in the western Mediterranean created a new political situation as new trade routes, new cities and new sources of minerals transformed the region. The East was filled with old powers and stable economies; the west would be dominated by either Carthage or Rome, and the winner would enjoy economic prosperity and security, and those advantages would enable the dominant power in the west to play off its eastern rivals against one another. Once Rome had defeated Carthage, it was only a matter of time before the entire Mediterranean coast fell under its sway.
At the time, this meant that whoever controlled Italy would control the Mediterranean world. Italy faces both east and west; its cities and people had long participated in the Greek economy, but it was also well placed to participate in the economic boom associated with the opening of the west.
Hannibal understood this. His strategy in the war was to unite everyone worried about Rome’s rising power into a grand global coalition. He hoped that by leading an army into Italy and defeating Rome on its home ground, he could attract the Greek city states and Rome’s fallen Italian rivals into the coalition. He reached out to the Macedonians with an offer of alliance, and sought to bring the Gallic tribes into the war.
He lost the war where he won so many victories: Italy. The problem wasn’t, I think, as many have written: that the Carthaginians refused to resupply him by sea. That was an obstacle. His real problem was that he was unable to organize an effective power bloc of anti-Roman forces in Italy itself. Once the myth of Roman invincibility had been shattered by a series of epochal Carthaginian victories from the Lombard plain down to Apulia, many of Rome’s Italian allies and subjects defected to Hannibal.
But to Hannibal’s horror, these new allies weakened rather than strengthened him. The defection of the wealthy city state of Capua shook Rome politically, but far from providing Hannibal with reinforcements that could help him beat Rome, Capua turned into a strategic liability. Hannibal had to protect Capua against Roman revenge or watch all his new allies return to their former allegiance. In the same way, even the fierce Samnites – Rome’s most determined antagonists of old — wanted Hannibal to protect them rather than help him beat Rome.
Hannibal hoped, it appears, that after the annihilating victory at Cannae, brave Italian legions would stream to his banner from all over the peninsula, and he could lead a huge army for the bitter and difficult siege of Rome itself. And much of Italy did flock to his banners — but his new allies were seeking his protection, not adding to his strength. As the war dragged on, Hannibal lost his freedom of action. By attacking one or another of his new allies, Rome could force Hannibal onto the defensive, on ground and at times of its choosing. Hannibal’s military and political triumphs thrust him into a defensive struggle which he could not win.
This is what Fabius understood and seized on: Hannibal could not win a long war against Rome. Fabius wasn’t just aiming to keep Roman armies from destruction by avoiding battle with Hannibal — he could have accomplished that much by sitting behind Rome’s walls. The continuing presence of Roman armies shadowing Hannibal not only annoyed and harassed Hannibal and gradually degraded his army; it kept Hannibal from establishing a secure zone of power outside Rome’s control and gave the Romans a continuing ability to harass and disrupt trade and traffic from allies in revolt.
It seems that the war had a much deeper impact on the Italian economy than could be accounted for simply by the destruction of battles and the ravages of armies. Under Roman rule, Italy had become something of a common market, with people and goods able to move freely. Under Roman naval protection, the ports were able to trade profitably with the east and the west. The disruption of these trade patterns and the radical insecurity that resulted from the fragmentation of Italy as cities broke away from Rome surely created great hardship and reduced the revenues available for self defense or to support Hannibal’s war effort. That the end of the Pax Romana meant insecurity and want did not do much for Hannibal’s political goals: the longer Italy experienced the miseries of Hannibal’s war, the more benign Roman rule began to seem. It is not at all clear that more reinforcements from Carthage could have changed this basic equation.
Hannibal was two thirds right: Italy was the key to world power in the Mediterranean and many of Rome’s allies and clients would defect if they believed that Rome could be defeated. But he was wrong that his army, even with aid from Italian city-states, could provide the security and prosperity that could build a lasting alternative to Roman control. He could win victory after victory yet never win the war.
An 1890 print by French artist Henri-Paul Motte, depicting Roman and Carthaginian forces in the Battle of Zama, the decisive final battle of the Second Punic War (Wikimedia)
The next writer in our course, Machiavelli, lived at another time when the geographical center of world political and military power was in flux. The discoveries of Columbus, and the trade routes established around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia and across the Atlantic to the Americas, turned the Mediterranean world from the center of European culture and trade — and the major theater of war — into a sideshow. The economies of its rich city states and empires — Venice, Genoa, Florence, the Ottoman Empire and even Spain — fell into decline. Italy became the plaything of foreign powers, like ancient Greece in the centuries after Alexander.
Machiavelli was haunted by the contrast between old Roman times when Italy was united and his own day when foreign armies ranged freely and murderously up and down the peninsula. A united Italy was once able to command the destinies of the world; in Machiavelli’s time Italy could not muster the forces required to unite.
Once again today we are living through a geographical shift in the world’s center of gravity. This time the shift is from Europe and the Atlantic toward Asia and the Pacific. The great European powers whose exploits ring down the centuries of modern history are now secondary powers — as Athens and Sparta were at the time of Hannibal, and as Florence and Venice were in the time of Machiavelli.
The question Americans naturally ask is what does that mean for us? Are we also sinking toward relative insignificance?
My own guess is that we aren’t. Just as the westward shift of the Mediterranean world benefited Italy at the time of the Punic Wars, the shift to the Pacific may benefit the United States. Our position in the western hemisphere — despite the rise of Brazil — remains very much like Rome’s position in Italy. The decline of the European powers means that no future US president will face the problems Franklin Roosevelt did, when the US was simultaneously menaced by hostile great powers in Europe and Asia. Even Russia is no longer capable of mounting a serious challenge to America’s alliances in Europe.
Meanwhile in Asia, any potential challenger to the American world position must worry about an unquiet back yard. Neither India nor China wants its rival to emerge as the only great power in Asia; Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia also want the balance kept. The United States, free from nagging concerns about great power challenges in Europe, has a relatively free hand in the Pacific.
None of this guarantees either global stability or American pre-eminence in the twenty-first century. But it suggests that the tides of history may still be flowing in our favor, and that America will not soon be moving to a retirement community for former great powers.