Rome: strategy of empire


This fine book seeks to overthrow the current academic consensus that the Romans were incapable of strategic thought, had little understanding of their frontiers, lacked the will to develop a coherent defensive system due to the problems of time and distance, and finally did not believe it was their role to protect the provincial population from attack from those across the frontiers.

Rather, for five centuries from the Battle of Actium in 31 BC to the final collapse in AD 476, ‘they’ maintain that the Empire lurched along in haphazard fashion driven by one capricious emperor after another. James Lacey’s contention is that this flies in the face of both the evidence and common sense. It is Lacey’s belief that, ‘the Romans were, for their time, very sophisticated strategic thinkers who possessed all the tools to plan long-term strategies and to act according to those plans’.

The controversy over whether the Romans were capable of strategic thought dates back to 1976 and the publication of Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third. Luttwak is what may be described as a ‘professional defence analyst’, and his intrusion into the cosy world of Classical scholarship caused quite a furore 46 years ago. Eventually, the riposte came with Ben Isaac’s The Limits of Empire: the Roman Army in the East (1990), in which Isaac refuted much of what Luttwak had said, maintaining that Rome had no grand strategy and little thought of defence, arguing that the concept of an imperial frontier was irrelevant in Roman terms.

Isaac’s research, however, was mainly based on evidence in Israel, and thus confined to a rather small area when compared to Luttwak’s monumental sweep. Lacey’s apposite intervention will no doubt rekindle this lively debate, and, while he is by no means an apostle of Luttwak, their conclusions are broadly similar.

However, as with all studies of the Classical world, the dearth of adequate original sources will remain a major problem. Modern archaeology has been of immense benefit in recent years, but much still needs to be resolved, thus ‘mere speculation’ is always present.

Impeccable credentials

Dr James Lacey serves as Professor of Strategic Studies and Political Economy at the US Marine Corps War College, and holds the Horner Chair of War Studies. Previously, he spent six years at the Institute for Defence Analyses, and prior to that served for 12 years as an Infantry Officer in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division, and the United States Army Europe Headquarters, finally retiring from the Army Reserves in 2005, after 24 years’ service.

Besides his academic and military credentials, Lacey has a sound knowledge of economic and financial affairs, with extensive experience in several Wall Street firms focusing on ‘Capital Markets Operations’. These impeccable credentials bring a refreshingly new approach to this subject, from someone with first-hand experience of strategic planning at a senior level, and relevant logistical knowledge from Germany to the Middle East. To this is added the inestimable value of infantry combat experience – a relatively rare commodity these days, it must be said.

Lacey divides his thesis into three distinct parts: ‘Themes and Topics’, ‘Rome’s Strategic History: From the Principate to the Crisis of the Third Century’, and ‘The Late Empire: New Beginnings and an End’. The main thrust of Lacey’s argument is contained in the first part, where under the chapter heading ‘Could the Romans do strategy?’ he makes a very convincing case for asserting that the Romans were perfectly competent strategists, and, had they not been, their enormous empire would hardly have survived for more than five centuries. He makes short work of critics who maintain that the Romans appear to have been almost devoid of reliable maps and that their ‘famous itineraries’ were useless for strategic planning.

The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, as depicted in this painting by Lorenzo A Castro. The victory of Octavian, later Augustus, led to him consolidating his power over the Roman Empire and its dominions. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Somehow, as Lacey is quick to point out, time and again huge armies were moved enormous distances across and beyond the Empire, with almost surgical precision. Lacey is surely correct that the itineraries and additional ‘local’ knowledge were quite adequate for planning purposes. He also reminds us that ‘accurate scale maps’ are a comparatively recent invention, and that the likes Frederick the Great and Napoleon were hardly inhibited in their planning by using maps that ‘modern policy-makers’ would never have dreamt of using either for making strategic calculations or for making war.

Lacey also summarily dismisses the lack of anything approaching a General Staff, reminding us that this institution did not exist until its invention by the Prussians in the 19th century (after the debacle of Jena in 1806, when they were beaten by Napoleon). Before then, no ruler in history ‘ever had such an entity’. He then reminds us that such luminaries as Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, and even Napoleon were quite capable of strategic thinking without the need of a General Staff. The American army didn’t feel the need for one until 1903, while the British held out until 1906.

A chapter entitled ‘How dangerous were the barbarians?’ seeks to dispel a commonly held myth that the Parthian Empire, the only ‘organised’ state on Rome’s borders, was the main strategic threat. Yet for 250 years the Romans maintained a force of at least 16 legions on the Rhine–Danube front, and only four to six facing the Parthians. The subsequent replacement of the Parthians by the Sassanians in AD 224 certainly increased the threat, but the bulk of Rome’s strategic effort remained on the Rhine–Danube.

In part, Lacey attributes this to Rome’s appreciation of the fact that two major historic catastrophes, the Battle of the Allia and the subsequent sack of Rome in 390 BC, and the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC (with the estimated loss of 80,000 men), had both come from the ‘north’. The later destruction of Publius Quinctilius Varus and his legions at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 would only serve to reinforce this strategic appreciation, and of course ultimately it was Gothic forces from the north that overthrew the Empire in AD 476.

Economic aspects

An unusual yet essential chapter is devoted to the economic aspects of Roman strategy, or, as Lacey prosaically puts it, ‘Paying for a strategy, funding the Republic’. Perhaps he should have had ‘empire’ here rather than ‘republic’, but at least he addresses a topic that so many others studiously avoid. After a slow start, the Romans soon discovered that ‘an empire built on the back of its legions could be made to pay for itself’.

Having effectively plundered the Mediterranean world on an epic scale between 240 BC and 44 BC under the Republic, they then plunged into a period of internecine civil wars that were only finally concluded by Octavian and Agrippa’s victory at Actium in 31 BC.

A period of consolidation was now implemented by Augustus (formerly Octavian) that saw the Empire girdled by a ring of fortifications and barracks manned by 28 legions and a similar number of auxilia. This ensured that the revenue-earning provinces remained secure, and thus provided the necessary fiscal and logistical support essential for the maintenance of the army and any strategic initiatives. Lacey estimates that four-fifths of government revenue was spent maintaining the army and the road network that supported it.

The role of the often-ignored Roman navy is also discussed in some detail, as is the infrastructure of empire, and in particular the very extensive road network, referred to here, and not without reason, as ‘Rome’s nervous system’.

Further chapters are devoted to the offensive nature of Roman strategy, the motivation for attacking, where and when, and with what strategic objective in mind. This covers such adventures as Trajan’s assault on Dacia in AD 101 and again four years later, a combination of a pre-emptive strike and gigantic ‘smash and grab’ raid; Hadrian’s controversial decision to ‘go on the defensive’; and the extraordinary incursion into north Germany by one Maximinus Thrax in the mid-3rd century and the resultant climactic battle at the Harzhorn Pass (c.AD 235), some 200 miles north of the Rhine at Mainz, the starting point of the expedition.

The crisis of the 3rd-century Anarchy and the subsequent restructuring of the army by Diocletian and others is adequately covered, as is the new strategic imperative to deal with and confront the usurper before turning to counter any barbarian incursion. As has often been said before, the most dangerous enemy facing a Roman army during this chaotic period was another Roman army and not a barbarian horde.

In conclusion, perhaps more could have been said by way of an introduction about how the Republic gained the empire in the first place, and perhaps about what happened post-AD 476, and how the East carried on, until at least Justinian, if not Heraclius and the advent of Islam.

This book has excellent notes and an adequate bibliography, but could have benefited from more maps, particularly to emphasise the logistics of empire. The illustrations seem both lacklustre and probably irrelevant, and neither the maps, tables, nor illustrations are listed on a contents page, which makes them difficult to access.

Otherwise, this well-argued and exhaustively researched book will no doubt reopen the debate as to whether the Romans really were capable of strategic thought.

Rome: strategy of empire
James Lacey
Oxford Academic, hbk (£26.99)
ISBN 978-0190937706