roman generals were slow and careful -- 4/22/16

Today's selection -- from The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward N. Luttwak. Roman generals were noted for extreme caution, and Rome learned to use implied, rather than direct, military power:

"For the Romans, as for ourselves, the elusive goal of strategic statecraft was to provide security for the civilization without preju­dicing the vitality of its economic base and without compromising the stability of an evolving political order. The historic success of the Roman Empire, manifest in its unique endurance, reflected the high degree to which these conflicting imperatives were reconciled. It was certainly not battlefield achievements alone that ensured for so long the tranquillity of vast territories, lands which have been in turmoil ever since.

Continence of Scipio, Nicolas-Guy Brenet

"Had the strength of the Roman Empire derived from a tactical superiority on the battlefield, from superior generalship, or from a more advanced weapons technology, there would be little to explain, though much to describe. But this was not so. Roman tactics were almost invariably sound but not distinctly superior, and the Roman soldier of the imperial period was not noted for his élan. He was not a warrior intent on proving his manhood but a long-service profes­sional pursuing a career; his goal and reward was not a hero's death but a severance grant upon retirement. Roman weapons, far from being universally more advanced, were frequently inferior to those used by the enemies whom the empire defeated with such great regularity. Nor could the secular survival of the empire have been ensured by a fortunate succession of great feats of generalship: the Roman army had a multitude of competent soldiers and some great generals, but its strength derived from method, not from fortuitous talent. ...

"With rare exceptions, the misuse of force in pursuit of purely tactical goals, or for the psychic rewards of purposeless victories, was avoided by those who controlled the destinies of Rome. In the imperial period at least, military force was clearly recognized for what it is, an essentially limited instrument of power, costly and brittle. Much better to conserve force and use military power indirectly, as the instrument of political warfare.

"Together with money and a manipulative diplomacy, forces visibly ready to fight but held back from battle could serve to contrive disunity among those who might jointly threaten the empire, to deter those who would otherwise attack, and to control lands and peoples by intimidation -- ideally to the point where sufficient secur­ity or even an effective domination could be achieved without any use of force at all. Having learned in the earlier republican period how to defeat neighbors in battle by sheer tactical strength, having later mastered the strategic complexities of large-scale warfare in fighting the Carthaginians, the Romans finally learned that the most desirable use of military power was not military at all, but political; and indeed they conquered the entire Hellenistic world with few battles and much coercive diplomacy.

"The same effort to conserve force was also evident in war, at the tactical level. The ideal Roman general was not a figure in the heroic style, leading his troops in reckless charge to victory or death. He would rather advance in a slow and carefully prepared march, building supply roads behind him and fortified camps each night in order to avoid the unpredictable risks of rapid maneuver. He pre­ferred to let the enemy retreat into fortified positions rather than accept the inevitable losses of open warfare, and would wait to starve out the enemy in a prolonged siege rather than suffer great casualties in taking the fortifications by storm. Overcoming the spirit of a culture still infused with Greek martial ideals (that most reckless of men, Alexander the Great, was actually an object of worship in many Roman households), the great generals of Rome were noted for their extreme caution.

"It is precisely this aspect of Roman tactics (in addition to the heavy reliance on engineering warfare) that explains the relentless quality of Roman armies on the move, as well as their peculiar resilience in adversity: the Romans won their victories slowly, but they were very hard to defeat."


Edward N. Luttwak


The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third


Johns Hopkins University Press


Copyright 1976 by The Johns Hopkins University Press


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