Book Review by Ursus
Political science is not the same as political commentary. The former is the objective and often dry analysis of social events as they relate to theoretical paradigms. The latter is the biased, unscientific and all too often overly emotional discourse of opinions. The former takes training and a keen mind, the latter can be offered (whether solicited or not) by any buffoon with an axe to grind. There have been innumerable political commentaries on Ancient Rome, but there have been far too few inquiries by trained political scientists into classical politics. Arthur M. Eckstein is a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and has written various articles and books on Roman imperialism. In his latest work, he applies modern international relation theory to Roman history. In so doing he does a great service to both classical studies and modern political theory.
I need to confess immediately I am automatically prejudiced in favor of Eckstein's study. My college degree was in political science with a focus on international relations. Eckstein' study gave me an opportunity for the first time in quite a while to apply my formal academic training to my favorite past time of Roman history. One must therefore take my bias in mind in relation to the following review, but at the same time I hope one also takes into account I have some actual training in Eckstein's field.
The central question before us is two fold: why did Rome seek an empire, and what made it so effective as an imperial power? In recent times the answer to both questions by many political commentators is that Rome was more violent than its contemporaries. Rome's pathological violence was, according to this view, both the cause and the agent of its empire building. Rome effectively had the will and the ability to beat up on its more peaceful neighbors. Certainly the image of Rome as the most violent society on earth is the one that modern cinema and media loves to portray.
But Ekstein is a political scientist and disagrees with the thrust of such political commentary. The very nature of the international system, lawless as it, causes states to dominate their neighbors before they are themselves dominated. In other words, violence and power mongering is endemic to the system as a whole, not to any particular actor in the system. We thus have a reason for empire building: this is simply the normal course of affairs between states. As to why Rome excelled in this particular business, Ekstein offers plenty of evidence it was not Rome's violence, but its inclusiveness, that forged victory in war. Rome turned many of its formerly defeated foes into citizens and allies, thus erecting a power base of men and wealth that newer enemies could not overcome.
Revisionist? Not really. In his introduction, Ekstein points out that the detractors of Rome's alleged pathological violence are themselves not working from any real empirical basis. These views of Rome as an Evil Empire probably have more to do with the general tenor of the post-colonial intellectual atmosphere of the last few decades than anything resembling actual history. Ekstein places the study of Roman international politics within its proper framework. Eckstein is therefore not revisionist but is in effect rescuing classical studies from rampant post-colonial revisionists!
After his introduction, Ekstein launches into a general overview of international relations theory. He does a great job of explaining the basics to those who may be bereft of such a background. All international theory proceeds from the assumption of anarchy; "anarchy" here means that there is no world government to enforce an objective law on states. In the absence of a central authority, states are free to conduct relations amongst themselves as they see fit. No one disagrees on this point; how they should perform this is where the argument lies. The Realist school of thought posits that no matter how much a state may desire peace, it must be prepared to use force to defend itself and its interests from potentially bellicose states. When the interests of states collide and diplomacy cannot resolve the issue, war is the natural result. Otto Von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, said it best: "War is the extension of diplomacy by other means."
Ekstein traces the history of Mediterranean wide interstate conflicts through this Realist perspective. He spends two chapters providing an overview of conflict in Classical Greece and the Hellenistic world. There is a modern tendency to overvalue the place of philosophers, artists and literati in the Hellenic world. While Hellenes had extraordinary achievements in these areas, they were not essentially peaceful cultural artisans. Eckstein's two chapters firmly establish Ancient Greeks as the warlike people they were. In fact, the Realist school of thought can be said to have developed (as with so many other things) in Ancient Greece. In the absence of an overarching authority, the Greek city-states had to defend themselves from themselves. And the warrior culture they erected to deal with this harsh world was often more savage than anything Rome developed!
The next chapter then deals with Rome's immediate enemies. Eckstein traces the development of Roman power from a central Italian, to a greater Italian, to a Western Mediterranean theatre of operations. Latins, Etruscans, Greeks in southern Italy, Celts, and Carthaginians - all used violence to further their interests in a lawless international arena. The Celts, in fact, were often the savage aggressors against Rome rather than vice versa. The idea of Rome as bully that took advantage of weaker neighbors is pure lunacy. Eckstein points out that every ancient state, whether small or large, whether cosmopolitan or tribal, used violence in the international arena. Violence was endemic to the system as a whole as per the Realist school of thought. It was not the special province of a Roman pathology.
Ekstein's next chapter focuses on the culture of Roman militarism. That the internal attributes of a given culture may exert some influence on international politics is not in dispute. What Realists object to is when internal factors are placed as the determining factor in international relations. Any state, no matter its given culture, may react violently to defend its interests in the face of anarchy. In any event, all of Rome's neighbors held an internal culture that glorified the warrior ethos. Furthermore, as Ekstein observes, the internal culture of Rome may actually have been a shade less violent than its neighbors. Case in point: the state religion of the Roman Republic officially only sanctioned defensive wars; no other culture had religious qualms to a war of outright aggression.
Ekstein's last chapter deals with the aftermath of the Second Punic War. Rome, having become mistress of the Western Mediterranean, was drawn into the power vacuum of the Eastern Mediterranean caused by the disintegration of the Ptolemaic regime. Roman diplomacy and might secured the East and thus made Rome the undisputed master of the Mediterranean. Through all of this it was Rome's policy of inclusive citizenship and alliances, not its violence, that led Rome to final victory. Rome could draw on more manpower than any single enemy because of its armies of citizens and allies. Ultimate victory was thus assured.
The glory of Ekstein's work is that he does a wonderful job of ending the Evil Empire myth of Rome. The negatives of Ekstein's work is that it often dry and perhaps overly verbose. It is not a fast and easy read by any means, and reads more like a PH.D dissertation than a novel for the general public. Political science is an acquired taste and not nearly as exciting as the general political narratives that usually pass for Roman history. This book will simply not be for everyone's tastes. Nonetheless, if there is any book in the last decade on classical studies that needed to be written, it was this one. I recommend it on that level, and I commend professor Eckstein on his work.
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