Classical pacifism, an oxymoron

An admirer of Robert Fisk has made a favorable comparison between General Wesley Clark and the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

I listened to Wesley Clark in Henniker, New Hampshire at the start of the weekend and heard between the lines the classic warning of a first-class warrior against the folly of limitless empire:

"Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt."

The words are not Clark's, or mine. They are the reflections of the Emperor Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138), among the last of the great Roman chiefs.....

I agree with Glenn Reynolds that the analogy does not hold, and not simply because the United States is not an imperial power like Rome, but because pullback strategies (whether Hadrian's strategy may be called appeasement is debatable) did not secure peace then, now will they now -- and Hadrian's pullback from certain provinces should not be seen in isolation. In Hadrian's case, even the perception of the pullbacks as appeasement might have had a role in triggering a war with disastrous consequences -- some of which are with us today.

While it is true that Hadrian pulled back from the Euphrates and made deals with the Dacians, these areas had already been pacified, and he pulled back because he felt the empire had been overextended. Building the famous wall between England and Scotland also stressed Hadrian's idea of clearly defined, defensible borders. There is not one iota of evidence that Hadrian ever backed down from a war once it started. One of Rome's worst wars, in fact, started after Hadrian's pullback: the bar Kochba rebellion, discussed infra.

Now, I cannot state conclusively that Hadrian's pullbacks were seen as "weak" and emboldened Shimon bar Kochba or any of the Jewish rebels. Rebellions in Judea had been going on for many decades -- long before Hadrian was born. In order to make the claim that the pullbacks emboldened the rebels, you'd have to get inside the rebel leaders' heads and analyze their thinking, which Romans did not do; although they did present Hadrian with the head of bar Kochba. But the fact is, the uprising did start after Hadrian's pullbacks. The empire had grown quite huge and unwieldy, so adjusting the borders may well have been the reasonable, prudent, and wise thing to do. Certainly it was not appeasement. But, in the eyes of angry, messianic radicals, waiting for any sign that their moment was at hand, a pullback by the Romans from other outlying provinces could very likely have been seen as precisely the evidence of weakness indicating an opportune moment to strike.

So much for Hadrian and how the border pullbacks of a vastly overextended empire might have played a role in the timing of a revolt. What has this in any way to do with General Clark? I didn't make the analogy, but the only way I can makes sense out of it is if I accept the underlying premise that the United States is a vast empire which needs a Hadrian to pull back from its overextended borders. Otherwise, the analogy makes no sense.

But even if I accept Mr. Ludlow's premise that we are another Roman Empire (and that presidents are the same as emperors), the argument still doesn't make sense -- precisely because pulling back failed utterly to create a magical Pax Romana for Hadrian. 90,000 Romans died in the bar Kochba war. In those days, each man had to be killed the hard way; by swords, spears, arrows. Today this would be called hand-to-hand combat. Adjusted for the relative size of the populations, 90,000 Romans becomes 500,000 Americans. (Around 50 million lived in the Roman Empire.)

No matter how you look at it, that's a pretty expensive peace. And on top of that, consider the 580,000 Jewish deaths....

Contrast General Clark's view:

One thing I've learned is--in my work in the Balkans and visits elsewhere around the globe: you very seldom solve political problems by killing people; you intensify them. The killing needs to stop."

While it might be true that killing fails to solve political problems, war is much more than a political problem, as Hadrian discovered.

Anyway, for a variety of reasons, Clark is no Hadrian.

I think Mr. Lydon ought to pull back from his rather strained analogy.

posted by Eric on 09.30.03 at 10:57 PM


Fifty million is a minimum estimate for the population of the Roman Empire.  According to Lesley and Roy A. Adkins' Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (1994):

"Most useful are the figures for totals of citizens registered under Augustus and Claudius.  These suggest that around AD 14 there were about 5 million free inhabitants of Italy, to which some demographic analysts conjecture that a population of 2 to 3 million slaves should be added.  Rome had a population of between 500,000 and 1 million, and other large cities had populations of 100,000 to 200,000.  Egypt seems to have had a total population of around 7 million. At the beginning of the 1st century, there is likely to have been a minimum of 50 million to 60 million people within the frontiers of the empire, possibly 100 million."  (p. 341)

Sorry to get pedantic (or even knowledgeable) on this issue, Eric, but I'd just been discussing this question on a mailing list and thought I'd share the information and quote.


Michael E. McNeil   ·  October 5, 2003 3:21 PM

Rather than just commenting on population figures, I thought I'd bring in a comment made on an alternate-history mailing list, based on the same Glenn Reynolds posting that you mention.  A member had proposed Rome might sooner have learned its lesson (communicated by Augustus in his famous advice to the future) about not expanding further.

Rather than Rome learning its lesson about the futility of further expansion earlier, I proposed that it never learned the lesson, or at least not till much later.  The question was suggested by a historically-minded reader's comments to Instapundit a few days ago (making some comparisons between modern American politics and the Roman), from whose letter I'll quote:

Mr. Lydon seems to assert that Hadrian's consolidation of the [Roman] Empire's borders and cessation of expansion was unquestionably beneficial.  But this interpretation is far from unassailable.

The Roman Empire was always at its strongest when it was on the offensive, pushing its borders ever further into barbarian territory and carrying the benefits of civilization with them, just as President Bush asserts that America can only triumph in the war on terror by staying on the offensive and bringing the fight to the enemy's heartland.  There's no reason to believe that the Democratic strategy of going on the defensive (by focusing on homeland security rather than regime change in hostile nations) will work any better for America than it did for Rome, which found it difficult to maintain static borders against the constant encroachments of barbarian tribes (again, just as our porous borders would be almost impossible to seal against terrorist infiltration).

In fact, it's arguable that Hadrian's reforms contributed to the eventual fall of the empire by sapping Rome of its drive and ambition for expansion, leading inevitably to decadence and decline.  It's hard to avoid drawing unfavorable parallels to Democratic pacifism and provincialism.

So, hopefully without impelling people to mix things up more with latter-day politics, what about the question of what would have happened if Augustus, say, had not bequeathed to his successors the advice of not advancing the borders further?  Suppose Augustus' recommendation had been to go ahead and advance the frontiers when feasible (after a war started by barbarian invasion, say, take their provinces into the Empire afterwards).  Or what if Hadrian had not reversed Trajan's gains?  What if Marcus Aurelius, say, after vanquishing the Germans of the upper Elbe and preparing to incorporate their lands as provinces, had not died suddenly in the midst of it all, and his lackadaisical son Commodus therefore did not have the opportunity to abandon all the Empire's painfully acquired gains?

Such advances need not have occurred very frequently; during the Republic it often took fifty years from one until the next new province was incorporated into the realm.  However, an established tradition of a policy of growth, not stasis, might have made a huge difference to the later history of the Empire.  Not only is there such a thing as historical momentum, which the Empire arguably abandoned in its satisfaction with holding the line, but had the Empire actually attained a stable Elbe-Danube frontier, or even better probably, Vistula-Danube frontier, the length of the borders requiring defense would have been considerably reduced, lessening the manpower needed to defend them and making the same number of defenders more effective.

I've also heard (haven't checked the details thoroughly) that a good portion of the military disaster of the mid-200's — when barbarian invasion devastated the West so thoroughly that it never recovered (Romano-Gaulish cities like modern cities had been unwalled heretofore and were almost totally destroyed) — can be attributed to the fact that the Roman army hadn't fought a real war for nearly a century, and thus was massively stultified and out of practice.  More frequent war-fighting experience might have made quite a difference there too.

Michael E. McNeil   ·  October 5, 2003 3:45 PM

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits