As I got set up, in early 2016, for teaching the high Roman Empire for the first time as described three posts ago, I obviously had to do a lot of reading, and in the course of that I came up ineluctably against the name and ideas of Edward N. Luttwak. Since Luttwak has been writing for a long lifetime and has probably not even finished, I’m not by any means going to attempt a summary of his impact on the field of Roman, Byzantine and indeed world history here; suffice to say it’s considerable. But both because of teaching the third-century crisis and because of my own interest in frontiers and how early medieval polities (and thus, often, late antique ones) managed them, the work that did keep coming up was his [Edit:]
oldestfirst venture into history, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.1
Now this is a work that has spawned a slew of refutations, and again that is a debate I don’t want to try and reprise here.2 But while I was reading other things around the issue, I came across something that made me suddenly feel decidedly uncomfortable, as follows:3
“Luttwak gave scientific precision to the theory of defensive imperialism, arguing that the ‘escalation dominance’ of the legions (that is, their perceived efficacy as a weapon of last resort) would serve to deter any large-scale attack without their actually having to be used. Meanwhile a ring of satellite states (client kingdoms) was expected to cope with ‘low-intensity threats’ beyond the borders of the Roman provinces; and the territory of the satellite states could be used as the battle-ground if the legions had to be deployed. Needless to say, this made extremely uncomfortable reading in Europe during the 1970s, and particularly in the 1980s under President Reagan, whose leading security adviser was none other than Edward N. Luttwak.”
In short, Luttwak is where the idea that Rome maintained a range of barbarian ‘buffer states’ about its borders as first-line protection came from, but it was an idea as much from his now as the Roman then. Now, you will not know this about me, could not know this about me unless you are the one sometime commentator here who goes this far back with me, but I was schooled at a place really quite close to the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. The Navy base there used our playing fields. Every now and then a helicopter landed there to shuffle some dignitary outside the M25 more easily than a motorcade would. We were pretty clear, therefore, in the last days of the Cold War, before even Gorbachev had begun to defrost things, that when the four-minute warning went, we probably wouldn’t get four minutes (and no-one ever told us if there was a bunker). In short, we were in the firing line. We weren’t really into the full-on, “who cares, man? The bomb may drop tomorrow” disengagement; this was the era of Thatcher as well as Reagan, after all, and most of us would wind up yuppies not hippies (and as far as I know no yippies). But still, we had a certain bitter consciousness that the absolute best we could do for our futures could, still, be totally extinguished any minute by a decision that was utterly out of our hands, and we wouldn’t even know till it happened. And well, how that paragraph above takes me back.
Of course it’s not surprising that any state that gets big enough to push others around, and which sees its roots in the Graeco-Roman intellectual complex, begins to see the similarities between itself and its own archetype of super-state, the Roman Empire; it can’t be escaped, and one can only hope that people are conscious of the fact that there are important differences between then and now, or of the fact that they’re drawing those parallels.
Some of the lessons drawn from the comparison can be good, some can be bad, but they can all be instructive if handled well; that’s fine. It’s just that, perhaps especially since I grew up in a state that still sees itself in those terms really, I had not till I saw those words above ever realised that from some points of view, I and my fellow countrymen were just expendable barbarians whose strategic purpose was to keep the real new empire safe. And Edward N. Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire helped make us so.
It’s probably safe to say that the current US régime, whose exalted leader has indeed just left my homeland, doesn’t think much on Luttwak’s work by now. Maybe I’m wrong, and as all the reviews one can find of it admit, it’s not as if it’s not good, well-historicised, amply-supported work. But it’s not often you read academic work that could have helped get you killed, and as you can tell even some years later I’m not quite sure how to process it yet…
1. Now available as Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third, 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore 2016). For the crisis of which I speak, a quick introduction to the debates is Lukas de Blois, “The Crisis of the Third Century A. D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?” in idem and John Rich (edd.), The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (Leiden 2002), pp. 204–217.
2. I believe a good place to start is C. R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore 1994), but Glenn Bowersock, “Rules of Battle” in London Review of Books Vol. 32 no. 3 (London 2010), pp. 17-18, online here, brings you more up to date in one direction at least.
3. Tim Cornell, “The End of Roman Imperial Expansion” in John Rich and Graham Shipley (edd.), War and Society in the Roman World (London 1993), pp. 139-170 at p. 143.