A disconcerting realisation about my past (and perhaps yours)

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

Cover of Edward Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Cover of Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the First Century A.D. to the Third (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

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.

Cover of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome?

Cover of Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I love this as a teaching example.

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.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934. Not sure how fully this was thought out…

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.

8 responses to “A disconcerting realisation about my past (and perhaps yours)

  1. Allan McKinley

    I think you’re placing blame on Luttwack here for something that is a generation older than 1976. Whilst you (or I) didn’t experience it, remember the highest chance of a nuclear war was in the early 60s, and by the time you were in secondary education the Soviet Union was losing the Cold War, with a major reason being that the Reagan White House unleashed the potential of liberal capitalism to out-develop a communist system. Luttwak was probably involved in this (although I get the impression he was less than confident this strategy was working) so you might be better off acknowledging his role in the threat of mutually-assured destruction.

    I’m also not sure that western Europe can be seen as a client state in this model, since the legions were effectively garrisoned here, surely making us provinces. Wouldn’t better examples of client states be the hot zones of the 80s Cold War: Afghanistan, Grenada, Nicaragua etc, where the USA and USSR sought to establish control in their own local spheres.

    Oh, and one correction: Luttwak’s first book appears to be Coup d’Ètat: a practical handbook (1968). The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire was his first historical work.

    • Thanks for the correction, Allan, I’ve amended that. As to your substantive point, which for me is the second paragraph, it’s a good one; I suppose, had Luttwak really had his way, the legions would have been withdrawn whereas in fact they were here long after their supposed official withdrawal, which also might work surprisingly well as an analogy except that they were here under state ægis, not just as gone-native deserters… But as to the first one, the threat of mutually-assured destruction was exactly what I used to worry about, so I’ll keep our respected colleague on the hook for that anxiety, at least!

  2. How Romanised might those client kingdoms become? I’m thinking particularly of those in what is now the south of Scotland.

    Of course there’s no need to ask the same question of the Americans’ client kingdoms. The Young here already speak a sort of bastard sub-American.

    • You are not the only one who has asked that first question! Predictably, views vary, and while I might currently side with Fraser Hunter (if I have him right) in saying that their material culture got very Romanised but that unlike the lowland agricultural zones their dwelling style and language probably didn’t change much and the manufactured goods could all be shed fairly painlessly once they stopped coming in cheaply, the far extreme holds that because of their persistent acculturation and long-lived resistance to invasion, such areas were in fact the last loyal vestiges of the Western Roman Empire, yet, already. This is the argument of Ken Dark. It has not been widely taken up…

      • Allan McKinley

        The late Duncan Probert once suggested (over a beer) that Gwynedd was the last bit of the western Empire to fall to barbarians, which always works as a reminder that being in the Empire did not mean being Romanised (it also fails to stand up if the main early-medieval Gwynedd dynasty were of Irish descent). The same seems to apply to northern Brittania, considering the almost total lack of non-military ‘Roman’ settlement. So if the area North of the province Romanised, their nearby model was not what we think of as Roman…

        • Good point! However, a whole barbarian frontier archaeology exists to tell us that military Roman settlement could do as thorough a job of Romanising as non-military, albeit rather different aspects of Romanitas, the military ones mainly obviously. That would work here too, I think.

  3. Thanks for the links. The question was prompted by my seeing recently the suggestion that (St) Patrick might have lived in the vicinity of Dumbarton.

    • That is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, too; the only real locators for his youth in the text seem to point that way, although he could have had later contact with the area as well or instead.

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