__marcelo (__marcelo) wrote,

Books! (Murder, Blood, and Mayhem Edition)

Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Susan P. Mattern, 2019/#26): A study of what we'd call Roman strategic culture. The author makes the following (well-documented) points:

  • Roman strategic decision making was done by Emperors and Senators, none of which had any sort of formal technical training in anything we'd think as directly relevant (not even the limited amounts of spatial geographical knowledge they had access to), all of which had training in, or at least ingrained respect for, rhetoric and literary composition and history. Which means that the text left to us by everybody from people like Cesar or Seneca, as dubious as they surely are in point of detail, are extremely relevant to the psychology, values, and world-view of the people who actually made and implemented strategic decisions.

  • What they knew of the world came from the same texts we read now, with a geography and an ethnography based on centuries-old stereotypes preserved even as they gained direct access to new areas and peoples. It would be anachronistic to ask for something like the British Trigonometric Survey of India (which in fact predated similar maps in Europe, as per Foucault's boomerang), but they didn't even gather the information they could have, nor used systematically scouts, spies, or ambassadors. So their knowledge of even basic geography was, to say the least suspect.

  • But this didn't matter much to them, because things like geographically sensible borders weren't things they cared about. Roman strategic behavior (mirroring Roman social behavior, although this point isn't much touched upon by the author) was based not on territory but on people, and predicated on a simple doctrine: Other people should be terrified of Rome and show proper deference (beg for, not demand, anything, never attack Romans or their allies, send hostages, embassies, and money, etc), and whenever they deviated from this, no matter what the reason, they had to be punished in a suitably devastating way, lest others forget the lesson. A somewhat literal translation of Roman concepts like honor and dignity into contemporary cognates misses the mark. What they meant by that was terrified subservience, to which they would, if unprovoked, generally answer with a more or less reasonable rule. But no guarantees: if the Emperor or a governor bled you dry, you had to shut up and take it, and if you revolted, may your gods have clemency on you, because the Romans wouldn't. Savage retaliation with no statute of limitations was how they meant to maintain the security of the Empire.

  • This doesn't mean things like greed or the political usefulness of a win weren't desirable outcomes, and even disgraceful reasons, but Roman strategic culture, insofar as they had one — it was more of a psycho-social worldview, not a separate profession — was adamant. Emperors could be lenient to those they had defeated in battle, but to avoid battle, or to leave an insult unpunished (and the Romans were very touchy) was a stain upon the Emperor and the Empire itself.

  • I find this model quite useful. I'm partial to a more proactive view of earlier conquests — if you were an ambitious Patrician, successful war was pretty much the best way to go up a few steps in the ladder — but there's a lot of Roman military history that doesn't quite click until you factor in this sort of deliberate worldview. In some ways, it was an effective one: if you waged war against Rome (at least until the latter part of the Empire, more on which below) you would either conquer it or be whipped by them, because they would keep coming at you year after year. Carthage destroyed more of their ships and killed more of their men than Rome did until the very end of the wars, but the Romans were simply too psychologically and socially invested in a status- and submission-based view of the world to ever stop. In a way, the long delay in troop movements didn't matter much then, because the question wasn't really whether you could defeat the local garrison, but whether you could survive what would come then.

  • All of this meant that Romans would do their utmost to defend whatever they had conquered, regardless of its strategic or economic value, because losing it meant a loss of face — Rome's in front of other peoples, and therefore, the Emperor's in front of his social near-peers and the troops. And Roman society was very much a shame-based one (cf. Roman Honor); the psychological and social imperatives to maintain hierarchical status through violence were deep.

  • On the other hand, this works great only as long as you have sufficient troops to be able to violently retaliate against everybody who's disrespecting you. Romans didn't have a very sophisticated budgeting system, but they did have a rough understanding of what it meant for things to be too expensive to sustain, so the army, although it always took the lion's share of the Empire's expenses, wasn't generally speaking larger than it could be — this broke down once bribing the army became the main and only way of gaining the throne, of course, at which point fiscal reality went down the drain to political expediency slash physical survival. Absent any sort of concept for non-hierarchical relationships with neighboring polities, they simply lacked the mental and political vocabulary to transition the Empire to something that could survive under changed military and demographic balances. At some scale of complexity, brutal bullying becomes less efficient than semi-cooperative arrangements. (My reading, not the author's.)

  • The author notes that giving money to other people was fine as long as it was clearly done from a position of power, not as a bribe (likewise, granting peace was fine as long as the insult had been sufficiently avenged and you did after you had scared and hurt them enough that they were clearly begging for it; asking for peace and getting it, no matter how advantageous, was deeply disgraceful). This is in line with the rest of their behavior, but also extends quite naturally to later behavior in the Eastern Roman Empire, which shifted the balance from iron-and-maybe-money to money-and-maybe-iron; a reasonable shift given their relatively strong fiscal base and poor manpower levels, but makes me wonder if there was also a cultural shift that made this palatable (a shift to more Greek mores? Greek intellectuals close to power tended to have a different view of this kind of relationships).

Infinity Four (ed. Robert Hoskins, 2019/#27): A 1972 collection of sci-fi shorts (and one play). Serviceable in period-specific terms, and I don't think I had read any of them before, although without anything standing out.

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Vol. 1 (ed. George Mann, 2019/#28): Not bad, but, again, nothing that stood out. Perhaps I'm not in the right mood?

Peril at End House (Agatha Christie, 2019/#29): A reread.

Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind (Harold Bloom, 2019/#30): Within his usual critical register; neither unenjoyable nor uninteresting if you already know that's your thing, although nothing he writes here contradicts or significantly changes his previous comments on the play. A long quote I found particularly interesting:

When I lie abed sleeplessly at night, and think of Macbeth, frequently I hear:

The time has been,
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end;

The tone is one of outrage, and will dominate Macbeth’s utterances until the end of the play. He laments the olden time, when murder possessed finality. Banquo rises from the dead and pushes Macbeth from his throne. There is a lingering, dying fall in:

This is more strange
Than such a murder is.

Strangeness becomes the garment of outrage.

A personal aside, although a very unoriginal one: I find King Lear almost impossible to read in its depiction of decaying age, and Othello, or perhaps more so the painful bits of Much Ado About Nothing, even more difficult, on account of my own romantic history. I do enjoy reading Macbeth, and have done it regularly, but I'm not entirely sure why I can do it with so little discomfort, given how precise it is in its depiction of temptation and guilt — of the unfolding astonishment of the moment just after, the quiet impotent panic, the desperate desire need to undo something you know is past, and therefore untouchable. Macbeth goes on to pile guilt on guilt until they blend and bleed into each other ( I am in blood // Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, // Returning were as tedious as go o'er), but at the beginning - at the beginning, just before and just after the murder (moments that for him are part of a single one, a wormhole between the world Before and the world After), his emotional state is a distressingly good representation of immediate guilt. Further murders, rebellion, and, I think, Banquo's ghost, provide him with concrete enemies, and that centers him in a way that nothing else might have.
Tags: #26, #27, #28, #29, #30, books

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