Chapter 7

‘People should know when they are conquered’: the reinventions of the Western Way of War

Towards the beginning of the film Gladiator, as the Romans wait for the start, of the bailie, an officer surveys the enemy and says ‘People should know when they are conquered’. Maximus the general replies ‘Would you, Quintus? Would I?’. As well as calling into question the otherwise rigid distinction between the civilized Romans and the barbaric Germans, this exchange points to the importance of psychological factors in victory and defeat.

In ad 86, after the crushing of a tribal revolt in North Africa, the emperor Domitian is reported to have told the Senate ‘I have forbidden the Nasamones to exist'. Cassius Dio, the historian who tells us this, seems to have recorded it as an example of the arrogance of Domitian (67.4.6). The Nasamones continued to exist until the late 3rd century ad, when they were absorbed into the Laguatan confederation of tribes. Although sometimes alleged, genocide was not a practical possibility in the classical world. Most wars, like the one against the Nasamones, were won not by destroying the enemies' practical ability to fight, but by breaking their will to resist.

In 215 bc, during the Second Punic War, Hannibal made an alliance with Philip V, the Antigonid king of Macedon. The terms of the treaty assumed that Rome would continue to exist after the war. Clearly Hannibal thought that his string of victories would bring the Romans to sue for peace on his terms. The Romans, however, in part buoyed up by the fact that the majority of their Italian allies remained loyal, and thus they had a very large reserve of manpower, fought on until it was the Carthaginians who sought peace on Roman terms.

Things were very different between ad 633 and 640, when the Byzantine empire, as the eastern Roman empire after the fall of the west is referred to by modern historians, was stripped of its territories in Syria, and then subsequently, by ad 642, of Egypt, by Arabs under the banner of Islam. It is not easy to account for the Arab conquests. The search for explanations usually proceeds under two headings: Byzantine weaknesses and Arab strengths.

Although they are impossible to quantify, massive economic strain and large-scale loss of manpower had been suffered by the Byzantine empire in a series of wars with Sassanid Persia, which had lasted from ad 604 to 629. The Persians had occupied Syria from ad 614 to 627, and Egypt for ten years from ad 617. Financial stringencies meant that there was a shortage of regular troops for the defence of Syria. There was little tradition of local self-defence in Byzantine Syria. The Byzantines were trying to offset these deficiencies by rebuilding their network of alliances with local non-Muslim Arab allies, which had been wrecked by the Persian occupation, when the Arabs invaded and also began to try to win over the same tribes. It is uncertain to what degree religious divisions in the Byzantine empire undermined its defence. The Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt were estranged from, and had been persecuted by, the ‘Orthodox’ Christians of the Byzantine government. The inhabitants of Syria must at first have seen the Arabs as a barbarous threat. But for those lucky enough not to be killed in one of the towns sacked by the invaders, they would find that their new rulers largely granted freedom of worship on payment of a poll tax. While there is no evidence for local Monophysites aiding the Arabs in Syria, there is some for their involvement in Egypt. Years of Persian rule had shown that Byzantine authority was not an inevitability, and deals done by the locals with the Persians set a precedent for dealing with the Arabs.

Islam had put in place a new ideology and political structure, including the emergence of an elite of settled Arabs from the Quraish clan, which turned Arab martial prowess from traditional inter-tribal wars to the outside world. Islam forbade fighting other Muslims. External aggression may have been particularly apposite after the civil wars known as the Ridda, or Apostasy, wars (ad 632-3) which followed the death of the prophet Muhammad. These seem to have left the Arabian peninsular full of armed bands, and to have caused economic dislocation, which could be remedied by booty. Arab successes cannot be put down to superior numbers, since at some battles they seem to have been outnumbered, or to superior weaponry, in which they appear to have been less well supplied than their opponents. Arab success in battle seems to stem from high morale instilled by religious fervour. Every man who fell in battle was to go straight to paradise.

The Byzantine defeat at the battle of Yarmuk in ad 636 was recognized as a turning point. After that, the Byzantines evacuated Syria, began to reorganize their military forces, and tried to create a wasteland on the borders between their neighbouring territory of Cilicia and Syria. There were no sustained attempts to recapture Syria. The defeat of Yarmuk was recognized as irrevocable.

The high costs of recruiting, equipping, and training regular troops had led the Byzantines by the start of the 7th century ad to begin to avoid open battle, in favour of strategic manoeuvre and ambush.

The defeat at Yarmuk strongly reinforced this trend. Yet while the “Western Way of War’ might no longer be much of a reality for the Byzantines, it remained a potent ideology. Later Byzantine historians tended to ascribe the Arab victory at Yarmuk to guile and trickery.

Finally, let us return to where we began, to the battle between the Romans and the Germans at the start of the film Gladiator.

We can compare and contrast this with another series of visual representations of the same events. One hundred (Roman) feet tall, the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome now stands in isolation in the Piazza Colonna, but once was part of an architectural complex, which included a temple of the deified emperor and, probably, a series of colonnades. Commissioned by Commodus, and constructed between ad 180 and 192, the relief sculptures that spiral around the column depict the wars of the emperor’s late father, Marcus Aurelius, against the Germans and Sarmatians between ad 172 and 175.

Our purpose here is not to try to see how far the two representations reflect the ‘reality’ of the wars. Such a project could be considered ultimately fruitless for at least two reasons. Whose ‘reality’ would we be looking for: that of Marcus, one of his generals or soldiers, that of a Germanic chief or warrior? Also, on the Roman side, at least, it could be thought that all the participants in the wars would have interpreted the reality that confronted them through a filter of their expectations, which, in large part, would have been created by viewing ‘war art’ similar to the column itself. Instead, here we will think about what the similarities and differences in the depictions tell us about the ways in which a “Western Way of War’ is endlessly reconstructed.

Much remains the same (Figures 11 and 12). The Romans advance to battle in ordered ranks (note how the spears of those in the lower register all slope forward, while those in the higher all slope backward), with officers and standards to the front. Their technology is emphasized with their well-detailed equipment, and the pontoon bridge they cross. This is very similar to the disciplined way in which the Romans await the onset of combat in Gladiator.

11. Column of Marcus Aurelius LXXVIIIa-b

12. Column of Marcus Aurelius XLIll

In battle, the Romans light hand to hand with calm courage (note their seemingly ‘emotionless’ faces), and in a communal way (note the close similarity of the poses of the infantrymen). The barbarians, by contrast, either fight with a doomed ferocity (the thrown-back head of the warrior in the centre of the lower register), or flee with panic (the ‘despairing’ open-handed gesture of the figure in the centre of the upper register). Whatever they do, they do it as individuals (all their poses are different). Again, Gladiator echoes these ideas.

Yet much differs in the two depictions. The modern version increases the technological gap between the sides, adding exploding ‘Greek fire’-style missiles to the Romans’ armoury.

The ancient version contains much that is ‘suppressed’ in the film.

A huge, winged figure of a god comes to the aid of the Romans (Figure 13). From his outstretched arms, torrential rain sweeps the barbarians and their horses into a pile of contorted bodies, while the Romans either are unaffected or shelter under their shields. Gods do not intervene in a ‘realistic’ modern version of ancient battle.

The Romans sack a village (Figure 14). The barbarian at the top pleads for help from the gods. It will do him no good. We have already seen whose side the gods are on in this contest.

At the bottom right, a barbarian who has been knocked to his hands and knees is about to be butchered by a Roman soldier (compare with Chapter 6, the legionary). To the left, a woman and child seek to flee, past the body of a barbarian man (her husband, brother, or father?), but a soldier catches her by the hair. Her clothes have come off her shoulder, revealing her right breast.

This points to the rape she has or will suffer. This scene is far from being a regrettable case of the troops getting out of control. The sack is watched over by Marcus himself, backed by his officers and the standards of Rome. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ such as this finds no place in the modern recreation of the ancient Western Way ofWar’.

Seven women and three children are taken into captivity, and probably slavery (Figure 15). It is conducted in a disciplined way (see the almost identical poses of the two soldiers at the left), but the lower register points to a messier and more distressing interpretation, as the two women are dragged away by soldiers. The clothes of both women are in disarray, and they make palm-outward gestures of unhappiness. Mass rape and enslavement does not feature in Gladiator.

13. Column of Marcus Aurelius XVI

14. Column of Marcus Aurelius XX

15. Column of Marcus Aurelius CIV

Their hands tied behind their backs, two barbarian prisoners are bent forward for execution (Figure 16). At their feet are two earlier victims, whose heads lie beside their slumped bodies. More of the condemned wait their turn on either side. Although Roman cavalry watch over the scene from the rear, it is interesting that the executioners, like their victims, are barbarians. Are the Romans forcing their prisoners to kill each other, or should this be interpreted as indicating the disunity of barbarians? In Gladiator Romans finish off wounded barbarians in the immediate aftermath of battle, but there is no hint of mass killings of prisoners in cold blood.

Marcus Aurelius, known in other contexts, both in antiquity and today, as the ‘philosopher emperor’, sits as his troops bring captives before him (Figure 17). One soldier, however, presents the emperor with a severed head. Gladiator reverses this motif. Head-hunting in the film is confined to the barbarians.

The column is full of fighting, but for the ancient observer, no matter how carefully or briefly they viewed its scenes, or from what angle, or in what order, there was no suspense. They already knew how the story ended. For they had seen, as we cannot, the now destroyed sculptures nearest to eye level on the base (Figure 18). Known to us via a drawing from ad c. 1540, the east side of the base gave away the ending. To the left stood the emperor, while to the right Roman soldiers keep an eye on barbarians, who kneel and make gestures of submission. Unlike the barbarians in Gladiator, these barbarians know when they are conquered.

16. Column of Marcus Aurelius LXI

17. Column of Marcus Aurelius LXVI

The similarities and the differences between the visualizations of the same battles on the ancient column of Marcus and in the modern film Gladiator illustrate how the ‘Western Way of War’ is constantly reinvented.

Out of the reality of the Persian Wars, the Greeks constructed the nexus of ideas that we label the Western Way of War'. In this concept the Westerners’ ultimate goal in war is a pitched battle which aspires to annihilate the enemy. Preferably it is fought hand to hand by heavy infantry. Victory comes from courage, and this stems partly from training and discipline, and partly from ‘civic militarism’, the combatants being landowners who have political freedom. This was always more of an ideology than an objective reality.

18. Column of Marcus Aurelius, east face of base

In no period were all the elements of the “Western Way of War’ in place. Paradoxically, the time that might be thought to most closely approach the ideal was the Greek world between the introduction of the hoplite phalanx and the Persian Wars. Yet, as we have seen, we know little about war in this period, and there is a temptation to simplify and project back into this era what we know of later practices. The stress in the ideology on free men fighting the non-free appears to have come about as a result of Greek perceptions of the Persian Wars, and it should be remembered that many hoplites in Greekpolis armies in the years between c. 725 and 490 bc probably had little or no political freedom in the classical senses of equality before the law and a right to participate in political decision-making. For long periods of time, very few of the ideas that make up the concept of the “Western Way of War’ have been present in the reality of Western European war-making. For example, the historian John Lynn has demonstrated that ‘civic militarism’, with some partial exceptions, disappeared with the fall of the Roman Republic at the end of the 1st century bc and did not reappear until the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century ad. A gap of some 1,800 years in a supposed continuity of 2,500 years does not make for much of a proposition.

While there was little continuity of practice, the ideology of a “Western Way of War’ proved both tenacious and extremely flexible. Various Western societies looked back to the Greeks and Romans and thought either that they should fight in the style classical authors admired, or, with remarkable intellectual slight of hand, that they actually did. An important text in the transmission of classical ideas about war was Vegetius’ Epitoma rei militaris. Writing some time between ad 383 and 450, Vegetius mixed past and present practices with wishful thinking to build a prescriptive programme for late Roman warfare. Vegetius moves in the realm of theory rather than reflecting contemporary reality. Much of Vegetius fits squarely in the “Western Way of War’, both his emphasis on training and discipline leading to courage (e.g. 1.1; 28) and his ethnographic view of the world - Germans are big, Africans treacherous, people from the cold north stupid, those from the hot south cowardly, and so on (1.1-2). Yet the ideology has been adapted from that of the past. Writing in the aftermath of the crushing defeat of the Roman army by the Goths at Adrianople in ad 378, Vegetius advises generals to be wary of open battle, instead they should aim to ambush the enemy (3.9). If the “Western Way of War’ could be remodelled by Vegetius in late antiquity, this was nothing compared to the changes that would be made to it later. Vegetius was admired in the Middle Ages in Western Europe. But he was not read as a blueprint for change, but as a reaffirmation of contemporary practices. Centralizing Vegetius’ words on courage, the medieval European nobility interpreted Vegetius’ work as a handbook on chivalry. In one edition, it even acquired the title ‘Livre de chevalerie’.

The “Western Way of War’, however, has not always served just to put a gloss on contemporary reality; at times it has been used to alter it. Starting in the late 16th century, the Dutch general Maurice of Nassau drew on classical models to drill and form up armies, and the citizen soldier of Republican Rome was an inspiration throughout the 18th century, which culminated in the armies of the French Revolution.

An uncritical acceptance of the ever-changing ideology of the “Western Way of War’ as an objective reality the belief that there is a genuine continuity of practices between the ancient Greeks and the modern West, could have two dangerous results. First, it might lead to complacency in the West. The thinking could run on the lines, ‘ever since the Greeks inspired by “civic militarism” sought decisive combat the West has been ultimately successful in war; providing the West’s approach to war-making remains essentially the same, it will always win.’ As such, this could serve much the same function of an ‘ideological comfort blanket’ as did the classical cultures’ beliefs that barbarians did not change, and newly encountered ones were just the same old ones with a new name; beaten before, they would be again. The second dangerous result might be an abandoning, or weakening, of restraints on war-making by the West. This thinking could run, ‘it is the nature of the ‘Western Way of War” to seek to annihilate the enemy, so a Western state that takes any action to lead to this result is just being true to its nature.’ This could operate in a similarly pernicious way to the Greeks’ ideas that wars against barbarians do not need restraint because it is the nature of barbarians to be slaves.

It is much better, and safer, to see the Western Way of War’ for what it is: a long-lived, highly adaptable, and powerful ideology. The Western Way of War’ is constantly reinvented, as, of course, it has been in this book.

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