As this continuously ascending and descending world finds itself in a condition of extreme self-reflection, the impulse will always be, and has always been, to look towards history for answers. Whether these answers are to tell us what to do — that is, imperative answers — or are instead to tell us where within the context of time and place we are: indicative answers. Typically, one first finds the indicative answer, finding relation between now and some distinct or indistinct time in the past, then one will follow through to find some imperative based upon this indication.
For those expecting my usual theological works: this is more in the vein of the historical, philosophical, and chiefly geopolitical sciences. However, I still would, of course, encourage you to read it if it suits your tastes nonetheless.
A great friend of mine recently sent me a tweet relating the situation in the Mediterranean following the Punic Wars to the situation on the whole of the Earth after the World Wars — in particular that Rome ascended to a position of unimpeded power in the Mediterranean following a series of highly politicized, and indeed, ideological (“Carthago delenda est” — more about this highly popularized but inadequate quotation later…) wars between the two greatest powers at the time (broadly: the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC). The similarities in this regard are tantalizing, and certainly, this tweet is not the first place that this comparison has been made. In fact, in long past private correspondences, I have previously made similar sorts of comparisons. However, more recently, I have learned that extreme caution must be exercised when comparing our now with another’s. My intention with this article will be not to debunk the various claims made, nor extract my own using the aforementioned methods, but to instead offer a far more productive method of analyzing and reading history and thusly find some reliable and more precisely actionable parallels one can draw from the geopolitics and economies of Rome.
This topic is quite large, as one might imagine, so large, in fact, that a full study of these matters would warrant a book or even a volume of books on the topic. I will not be doing either, as my goal is to summarize these affairs into a digestible truth of caution and imperative.
A true student of history may ask themselves, at this point: “why Rome?”. And, I think that this is a question which I am more than happy to answer. Firstly, I do not mean to imply somehow that historical associations to now can only be made to Rome. I simply intend to present a method of analyzing history which is novel to the approach of index imperans (roughly: the commanding indication).
When one looks for an indicative answer from history, they often do, as this same friend put it to me: a “pattern-match” of sorts. They often look for a few key details that seem to be similar between the now and some specific epoch in the past, and then may often expand from that specific epoch into a rather indistinct and broad epoch. For example, you may have seen articles during the coronavirus pandemic which read something trying to compare the Antonine plague in Rome to the modern day. Both involved a large, fairly stable polity being destabilized by an unexpected plague. From there, one might search for other similar “patterns” that could be found across the whole of the Roman empire — usually the timing does not at all match up, or is even in the wrong order.
And this continual return to some phase of Rome’s life as being similar to our modern lives is tempting for obvious reasons. Chief of which is the fact that in both polities (that is, America and Rome) both had a foundation in an aristocratic revolution of sorts against kings that both parties considered “tyrannical”. Both polities founded a Republican system out of this (although the extent to which the law of the American Republic can be compared to the systems and complexities of the Roman Republic is nigh on negligible, in my opinion), they found themselves after a great deal of hardship and war as the the foremost power of the civilized world at the time, with the exception, in Rome’s case, of far-flung China. Euphemistically, the American media refers to this not as the “civilized world” but instead the “free world”. This is a distinction which may have made some sense during the cold war (maybe? obviously, the use of the word “free” here is extremely dubious) but now really means nothing other than “not China and maybe not Russia or something”. In any case, this all seems to be foreboding of some catastrophic end, and it looks particularly bleak when one looks past all of the misinformation which can be found in the American psyche of utter and total exceptionalism.
What I will focus on for this article, having defined a few concepts which will be useful for my analysis, is the first Punic War which laid bare the first large scale geopolitical and ideological games. My sources include Polybius, Eutropius, and Livy (to whatever extent is possible, as his works on the first Punic wars are lost, though I have read his account of the opening salvos of the Second Punic war which does do something to help understand the ideological conditions of the wars that I will analyze in-depth in a later piece). Chief among these geopolitical games is a trend where I have found Rome and America differ greatly in: their attitude towards de facto and de jure client states — both of which should be treated more or less the same, though I will briefly address the United State’s tendency towards establishing de facto relationships rather than de jure.
Let us amble ourselves not much more than two thousand two hundred years in the reverse. Rome has always had the attitude of conquest, but always, it would seem, on “legal” terms. Their wars all have some legal justification, whether made post-hoc or not. Indeed, treaties were signed between the Romans and neighboring peoples such as the Sabines and Etruscans since the first king of Rome. Even the infamous capture of Sabine women was largely in part (according to Livy, at least) due to Rome’s neighbors wishing for Rome’s population to collapse as a result of their lack of such women:
Rome was now strong enough to hold her own in war with any of the adjacent states; but owing to the want of women a single generation was likely to see the end of her greatness, since she had neither prospect of posterity at home nor the right of intermarriage with her neighbours. So, on the advice of the senate, Romulus sent envoys round among all the neighbouring nations to solicit for the new people an alliance and the privilege of intermarrying. Cities, they argued, as well as all other things, take their rise from the lowliest beginnings. As time goes on, those which are aided by their own worth and by the favour of Heaven achieve great power and renown. They said they were well assured that Rome’s origin had been blessed with the favour of Heaven, and that worth would not be lacking; their neighbours should not be reluctant to mingle their stock and their blood with the Romans, who were as truly men as they were. Nowhere did the embassy obtain a friendly hearing. In fact men spurned, at the same time that they feared, both for themselves and their descendants, that great power which was then growing up in their midst; and the envoys were frequently asked, on being dismissed, if they had opened a sanctuary for women as well as for men, for in that way only would they obtain suitable wives. This was a bitter insult to the young Romans, and the matter seemed certain to end in violence.T. Livius AUC I.IX, as translated by William Heinemann. By my personal judgement, this is a quite appropriate translation.
Many wars would follow with adjacent city states, culminating in the total subjugation of the Etruscan and Sabine peoples, which brought the Romans to having conquered much of mainland Italy. As Roman eyes turned towards Magna Graecia (what is now the south of mainland Italy and Sicily, named for the great number of Greek colonies founded there), Tarentine eyes looked north, towards the impending threat of Roman conquest. Per Polybius:
After subduing all the Latins by their valour and the fortune of war, they fought first against the Etruscans, then against the Celts, and next against the Samnites, whose territory was conterminous with that of the Latins on the East and North. After some time the Tarentines, fearing the consequences of their insolence to the Roman envoys, begged for the intervention of Pyrrhus. (This was in the year preceding the expedition of those Gauls who met with the reverse at Delphi and then crossed to Asia.) The Romans had ere this reduced the Etruscans and Samnites and had vanquished the Italian Celts in many battles, and they now for the first time attacked the rest of Italy not as if it were a foreign country, but as if it rightfully belonged to them.Polybius “The Histories” I.6
There is a very important detail which Polybius is keen to point out here, primarily that after being emboldened by such success on the rest of the landmass, the Romans had been emboldened to simply crush and annex any opposition, rather than settle with (as they previously had done with the Sabines and others) a treaty of some sort by which the defeated state would retain most autonomy but would be a client of the Romans. Even as early as Rome’s first king, this had gotten them into unwanted trouble. Client states would either rebel or provoke neighboring nations, knowing that they could rely on the Romans to save them. This was not only a shift in Italy, but also the first sort of war of this kind which was fought on such a scale during the Iron Age. Even during all of Greek’s turmoil and tumult, the victorious side would very rarely annex complete cities and claim them as solely their own. This was a complete shift in the way that wars would be fought, a period of war theory which would effectively last until the modern era. Needless to say, the Romans were victorious against Pyrrhus, and all of mainland Italy fell to the Romans.
It was this geopolitical situation that would lead to the first Punic War, which more closely mirrors our modern day war in terms of scope and geopolitical consequence. Rome’s conquests up until now had been largely similar to those of any other city-state at the time, the only difference being that their territorial gains were enormous compared to all others — with the exception of the Punic-speaking Carthaginians.
In the case of the first of the Punic Wars, the Roman justification was centered around the city of Messana (modern day Messina), wherein at this time, the wealthy and powerful, but rapidly dwindling Kingdom of Syracuse had just lost a costly war against the Carthaginians in which they ceded this city to the Punics as a result of this defeat.
After the taking of Messana, Sicily found itself in the covetous eyes of both Rome and Carthage. The west of Sicily was at this time occupied by Carthaginians, the east the Greek Kingdom of Syracuse, with a great variety of assorted Greek city states and even smaller petty kingdoms than Syracuse making up the rest of the island. It was these states who largely decided the outcome of the entire world, by siding with the Romans who appeared to suddenly have the upper hand over the Carthaginians in the region. However, the region nor city was by no means stable. According to Polybius (as is the case in all the specifics of of the First Punic War), an Italian or Italiot Greek mercenary group known as the Mamertines who had been being paid, up until the defeat of the Syracuseans, by the Tyrant of Syracuse at this time. When the king died, and the salaries being paid out to these Mamertines evaporated, rather than simply returning home to Italy, most chose to stay in northern Sicily and caused a great deal of havoc in the area.
These Mamertines became so problematic to the Sicilians, that the city of Messana, which had already seen a great deal of hardship after having been invaded by the Syracuseans and then the Carthaginians in riposte, was taken outright by them. For over a decade they operated as pirates out of this region. When their activities became known to the Syracuseans, the new King of Syracuse launched a campaign against them. The Mamertines, seeing that they could not defeat a well established regional power, called upon Carthaginian help. However, they felt uncomfortable with these occupiers and soon called for Roman help. Rome, exhausted by the wars in the south of Italy, despite the enormous potential for establishing a foothold in Sicily, was reluctant towards their calls for help. However, the Romans could clearly see that allowing the Carthaginians to further encroach upon the continent would challenge their own power, the Romans finally obliged. They entered into an alliance with these Mamertines, which resulted in the strange alliance being made between Carthage and the Syracuseans, neither power apparently having any interest in Roman power growing beyond the mainland.
The Battle of Messana ensued, and the Romans were the victors. What happened next is perhaps one of the greatest examples of how, despite the contentions of much larger powers, smaller regional powers can easily sway a war one way or another. This victory caused local cities and city-states in the vicinity of Syracuse to declare alliance with Rome, whose military successes in Southern Italy now in addition to the capture of a city on Sicily itself made clear Rome a force which was to either to be feared or respected. And soon, strangely, Syracuse itself once more switched sides by allying itself with Rome against Carthage.
This is where we see a great deal of similarities between the wars of the 20th century and the Punic wars. What started as a localized, regional conflict rapidly escalated into a war between the two greatest powers in the Mediterranean which would eventually (following the Third Punic War) result in the utter destruction of one of these power’s entire culture and polity.
It is hard to say how the first Punic War may have played out if not for these petty states turning their petty coats, but surely it put the Carthaginians at an immediate and massive disadvantage, for if the alliance with Syracuse had been maintained, it is hard to see Rome making much of a dent in Carthage’s hegemony over the Mediterranean.
How can we compare this to our modern day wars? This, I will write about in-depth in an upcoming piece, but simply put, the difference between Rome and America is that while Rome took up a policy of annexing territories that were conquered, America in it’s World Wars chose the path of a sort of pseudo-client status of these states. And, in places where America holds other regional powers, such as the middle east, one can see plainly that these states have begun to exercise influence upon the US — much in the same way that Syracuse and its even more miniscule neighbor city-states did during the First Punic War. Particularly when one observes how the Saudi Arabian government can effectively hold America hostage by inflating the price of petroleum by extreme margins, driving America either out of wars or into them. However, this is a topic which, again, could have many books written about it, and, again, I will cover this in relation to antiquity in an upcoming piece.