National Security

THE CULTURE AND CONFLICT REVIEW What Would Caesar Say? Modern Warfare through Classical Eyes

By James Spencer

The newspapers and airwaves are awash with exotic sounding military terms, as pundits and armchair generals try to explain complex military concepts, strategies and acronyms to a de-militarised general public in sound-bite terms. From the large manoeuvre units advancing on Baghdad during the high intensity phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation TELIC, to the on-going low intensity operations against terrorists and insurgents around the world, many of these ideas are presented as being “new” ways of operating, sometimes even “revolutionary”.

But are they really as novel as their proponents would have us believe?

In fact, many such ‘innovations’, in both the low and high intensity domains of conflict, were current by the time of, and during, the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. Roman commanders were fully aware of many of the same principals – and pitfalls – as modern day commanders.

High-intensity Combat

Long before Cromwell’s New Model Army, the Romans had a standing, professional Army, with individually numbered Legions, and a sophisticated recruitment, training and logistics organisation. They conducted extensive training: drill, marching and digging in, working up via the Classical equivalent of “paint-balling” exercises to combined arms operations, and extensive – and innovative – combat engineering, all of which enabled them to prevail against almost every enemy in open battle.

Just as Western Armies have done, the Romans evolved their tactics over time, learning from their enemies (such as their adoption of the Samnites’s versatile “checker board” formation) and abandoned the unwieldy long spear in favour of the gladius , or short sword. Using these short swords in disciplined formations, the Romans had smashed the previously undefeated phalanx of the Greeks, the rabble of the Celts, the cavalier Carthaginians and the swarming tactics of the Parthians. Less excitingly, but underpinning their success, the Romans’ mastery of logistics and engineering enabled expeditionary warfare of a kind not seen for more than a thousand years.

Classical parallels with the modern battlefield are less limited than one might imagine, although one obvious difference was the absence of any aerial capability. The Roman legions had chariot-borne archers (the equivalent of light tanks), the famous testudo (the infantry fighting vehicle of the day) and even artillery (in the form of ballistas and onager catapults), as well as a system of skirmishers (velites ), infantry (hastatii), and heavy (triarii) not seen in Europe before the Riflemen, Line and Guards of the Peninsular War.

Caesar bridged both the Rhine and the Thames, as much for a PsyOps “demonstration” of power as for logistic purposes. Roman siege tactics – whether patient (such as the Siege of Alesia) or aggressive – such as the capture of Masada – demonstrated a clear understanding of tactical principles, such as covering an obstacle belt by fire, and concentration of effort, while Trajan’s penetration of the Iron Gates (on a suspended road way) both surprised his enemies and terrified his own soldiers!

In terms of engineering, the Romans’ roads continue to form the backbone of Europe’s highway system 2000 years later, while the space between the stepping stones across the streets defined cart axle width, and so Standard Railway gauge to this day. In terms of fortifications, many influence current political boundaries: Hadrian’s Wall is the most famous defence still to survive.

The Romans were familiar with the more esoteric side of high-intensity operations as well: Hannibal is known to have used elephants against the Romans not merely for shock-action, but because their smell terrified the Romans’ horses – another early example of PsyOps. There is even some evidence of the Romans having Chemical Weapons employed against them by the Persians at the Siege of Dura-Europos in modern day Syria.

At sea, the Romans mostly used sail-assisted rowing galleys. These enabled them not only to go against the wind when necessary, but also to manoeuvre alongside their enemies. Having done so, they would send Marines to board (over the corvus, a sophistcated gangplank-cum-grapnel) and fight an infantry battle at sea. The Romans were also capable of blockading a port, and indeed of putting ballista equipped galleys “on the gun-line” to attrit it from the sea.

The Romans had their Revolutions in Military Affairs – in the adoption of the sword as the primary weapon over the spear; in abandoning their wagon train (so that each legionary carried all his own equipment); and even in developing Special Forces, like those who swam the River Medway in AD43. Perhaps the most pertinent example was the Transformation from the heavy infantry legions of the Golden Age, to the mobile, mounted Cataphracts of the 4th Century AD – the Shock and Awe of the Roman era. While cheaper – the increased mobility and firepower could cover a wider area – it was ultimately self-defeating, as when it cam upon a numerically far greater army massed against it, it was unable to prevail.

The Roman Army also faced the complications of Asymmetric warfare. On the eastern front, the Romans faced the proponents of the eponymous “Parthian Shot”, who exploited their mobility and firepower to overcome the Roman armoured infantry’s protection. More shocking was the infamous Clades Variana in AD9, in which three crack legions were lured in to and utterly destroyed in the complex terrain of the German forests. This was to haunt Augustus for the rest of his days – as McNamara was to grieve over Vietnam until he died. Equally reminiscent of modern policies, the Germans’ leader Arminius had been trained by the Romans, and had even fought for them in the Pannonian Campaigns – as ‘Usama bin Ladin did in Afghanistan.

The Romans fully understood the politics of war: rank and file soldiers were decorated with medals worn on their armour, while should a Roman General be victorious, he might be granted a Triumph, the Classical version of a ticker-tape parade. But they were also aware of the allure of physical power, and the temptation of a coup de main: no Commander was permitted to bring his army into Italy proper, to cross the Rubicon.

Low Intensity Conflict

It is popular to regard low intensity conflict (counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations) as a modern curse. Yet it was alive and well in the Classical Era, with many of the aspects we see today then present – indeed, the reverberations of the Romans’ Diaspora (or ethnic cleansing) of the Jews are still felt to this day.

Many school children are taught about the rebellion of Boudicca, but the underlying causes are usually forgotten: the Romans had tried to pacify the fiercely independent tribesmen (resulting in a revolt in AD47.) On King Prastagus’s death, the Romans annexed the Iceni Kingdom, treating even the tribal nobility out of hand, while the corruption of Roman tax-farmers such as Catus Decianus can scarely have helped. As Tacitus records, the Iceni (similar to the Iraqis 2000 years later) drew inspiration from the successful uprising of Arminius the Cheruscian who had forced the Romans from Germany in AD9, and their own ancestors who had driven Julius Caesar from Britain in 54BC.

The immediate spark which set off the rebellion is also often glossed over: Boudicca’s flogging, and the rape of her daughters. Like the Iraqis, this deed – and the resting (probably exaggerated) rumour “Pissed Off” the Iceni, who rose up in armed resistance. The Romans – like the US Administration of GW Bush – initially dispatched insufficient troops (a cohort of auxiliaries, the National Guards of the day) to pacify the situation, who were destroyed. Emboldened, the Iceni subsequently routed the regular IX (Hispana) Legion which had been “surged” to pacify the region, and sacked the three main cities of southern England, killing 70,000 – 80,000 people, many of them retired Roman soldiers. At one stage, these initial casualty figures in the uprising caused Emperor Nero to consider abandoning Britain as a lost cause – as some advised over Iraq in 2006, and from Afghanistan in 2009.

However, the Britons became over-confident, and took on the Romans under Suetonius in pitched battle – and lost, badly. Boudicca committed suicide, and became a British legend – something the West is trying to avoid in regard to ‘Usama bin Ladin. Subsequently, Nero had to replaced Suentonius (who had begun to undertake “punitive expeditions”) and replace him with a less kinetic-minded, more conciliatory Commander, Publius Petronius Turpilianus – in the same way that President Obama replaced GEN McKiernan with GEN McChrystal in Afghanistan

Just like many modern armies, the Romans also failed to apply Lessons Learned. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (3:46), Diodotus the Athenian is quoted as saying: “the right way to deal with free people is this – not to inflict tremendous punishment on them after they have revolted, but to take tremendous care of them before this point is reached, to prevent them even contemplating the idea of revolt, and if we do have to use force with them, to hold as few as possible of them responsible for this.”

The names of Muqtada’ al-Sadr in Iraq or Mullah Omar of the Taliban are familiar to many who track the on-going operations in the modern Middle East. But a very similar issue to those faced today was the role of the clergy in inciting rebellions against the Romans. Besides the Jewish revolts, in Britain major insurrections were fought (and bloodily put down) at the direction of the Druids, who were eventually exterminated on Anglesey – not a solution available today!

Terrorism, too, scourged the Ancient World as much as the modern. Judas Iscariot is often rendered by historians as Judas the Sicariot. The Sicarii – the violent wing of the Judean-nationalist Zealots (much the same as the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA) carried out what we would now term Close Quarter Assassinations with their sicarius or dagger, usually merging into the crowd to make their escape. They murdered both Romans and Jewish “collaborators” – often tax-farmers or other contractors of the Occupying Power. (One explanation of Judas’s betrayal of Christ is as revenge for Christ’s insistence in maintaining solely political resistance to Roman rule – much like the split between the Official and the Provisional wings of the IRA in 1969/70.) As newspapers report too often, such “collaborators” are again targets of Islamist or Nationalist violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, and Somalia.

Good intelligence has always been key to successful operations, yet in 24BC Aelius Gallus advanced towards Ma’rib (in modern day Yemen) with the intent of controlling the incense trade (the Classical equivalent of the oil fields, which some have suggested as the reason for Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.) Like the Egyptians in Yemen 2000 years later, the Romans legions advanced on Yemen with much combat power but little or no intelligence. They were tricked by their guide Syllacus, and thousands perished from thirst and disease. Aelius Gallus was forced to retreat.

Subsequently, the Romans were able to employ economic warfare (such as recommended by the People’s Liberation Army in their seemingly-seminal work “Unrestricted Warfare”) to destroy the South Arabian kingdoms’ financial basis, and thus remove them as a credible threat on the Eastern Front. As sent up in the film “Life of Brian”, for those whom they conquered, the Romans brought vast technological improvements in the standard of living: from roads and running water, to fire brigades and police cohorts. There were opportunities to enlist in the Roman Army (and so gain full Roman citizenship), while local contractors and administrators enjoyed a spike in their standard of living – just as many in Iraq and Afghanistan have profited from the Multi-National Forces’ requirements for sustainment and reconstruction. Similarly, Julius Caser well understood how to keep the working class from rebelling against the Elite’s rule: “panem et circenses” was his prescription, a lesson which was missed in Iraq, where insurgents on both sides were able to use the dire state of the Iraqi economy to enlist local unemployed to their cause either for individual attacks, or full-time membership.

Psychological and Information Operations are often regarded as being a domain of modern warfare, and (for obvious reasons) Computer Network Operations did not occur in Classical times. Yet while Caesar’s “burning his boats” after he “crossed the Rubicon” have now become clichés, they were elements of his Psychological Operations campaign: his troops were fully aware that there was no surrender, and no way back. It was victory or death. Not only were Caesar’s own troops aware of this, but so were the Republic’s – they knew that their foes would fight to the bitter end – there was no question of breaking the will to fight.

Similarly, during Caesar’s earlier failed Siege of Dyrrachium, Pompey’s men discovered loaves made of grass and herbs that Caesar’s men were living off. Anxious to use this as part of their PsyOps campaign, Pompey’s staff officers urged him to publicise the issue. Pompey refused, believing that the knowledge that their enemy were so dedicated that they would eat grass to follow Caesar would have an adverse effect on his own men, who were mostly raw recruits.

Perhaps the most sophisticated politico-military tactic is the understanding that the best way to defeat an insurgency is to pare away the reconcilable elements, and then to defeat (or destroy) the irreconcilables. Yet here again, the Romans practiced this strategy (whether it was a doctrine is moot!)

Spurred on by the Zealots and the priests, in AD66 the Jews revolted and were initially relatively successful, wiping out a punitive expedition. Then the Romans sent a larger force under Vespasian and his son Titus, who advanced in a pincer-movement from both the north and the south, capturing and securing territory methodically. In the north, Vespasian besieged Yosef ben Mattiyahu, the Jewish commander of Galilee, in the fortress of Yodfat. Mysteriously, Yosef became cut off in a cave outside the fortress with his bodyguard of 40 soldiers. These latter refused Roman exhortations to surrender, preferring suicide by lots. Equally mysteriously, Yosef survived to surrender to the Romans, and to become Titus Flavius Josephus – client of Emperor Vespasian. The “mysteries” are easily – and frequently – explained as Yosef’s pre-planned betrayal to the Romans, or as the Romans saw it, paring away one of the reconcilables.

A similar tactic was eventually permitted in Iraq at the same time as the Surge, which led to the formation of the “Sons of Iraq” (also known as al-Sahwa), and the dramatic falling off of violence by both Sunni Arab Resistance, and by the Transnational Jihadis in their midst. GEN McChrystal is reported to be trying to do the same thing to the “reconcilable” Taliban in Afghanistan. It is entirely possible that the consummately self-serving Gulbadin Hekmatiyar could be enticed back into government under such a programme, although becoming a Democrat-voting American citizen called Gilbert Hick-Mateer, and working in one of the Beltway think-tanks is probably stretching the bounds of possibility too far.

As part of the Romans’ Information Operations campaign after the first Jewish Rebellion, coins were struck with Iudea Capta – “Judea captured”. In return, Simon bar Kochba – leader of the Second Jewish Rebellion in AD132– overstruck Roman coins with “to the freedom of Jerusalem”. Yet here too, there are parallels – one of the first acts of the CPA in Iraq was to ban the Ba’ath era notes with their beaming images of Saddam Hussein and replace them first with US dollars, and subsequently with New Iraqi Dinars, (a word itself deriving from the Roman denarius.)

It might be argued that sowing confusion and dissention among enemy troops was already a proven tactic by Caesar’s time. In the Argonaut, Jason hurled the helmet into the midst of the warriors which had sprouted from the dragon’s teeth he had just sown from the helmet. Not knowing from which direction this attack had come, the warriors turned on each other. Some might represent the intra-Sunni Arab conflicts in Iraq over the last few years as just such confusion and strife.

The habit of garrisoning Legions throughout the Empire, and of constructing the network of Roman roads for the Legions to move rapidly along, met the requirement of security of the population centres. (This tactic was replicated by General Wade in the Highlands, after the suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.) Together with the Auxiliaries, usually local allies who also provided good intelligence, this enabled the Roman Empire to identify and defeat most insurgencies rapidly. (Similarly, the Black Watch were raised as “native infantry” for paramilitary service in the Highlands.)

While Caesar constantly battled against the Parthian Empire (which encompassed much of modern Afghanistan and Iran) he did not invade Afghanistan. Alexander the Great had briefly conquered Afghanistan (Kandahar is a corruption of Iskander, the Arabic version of Alexander), but was unable to subdue the country. As often as he captured a city, the enemy would disperse, and harry him from the mountains. Like the Soviets, Alexander tried a version of the scorched earth policy, but to no avail – Afghan resistance even hid in the same qanats as they did from the Soviets 2000 years later! Macedonian suzerainty in Afghanistan did not long survive Alexander’s death.

In June 2009, President Obama spoke in Cairo of understanding the “daily humiliation” of the Palestinians (and more widely the Muslim world), which was a revelation to many in the West. Yet the bitterness caused by humiliation was also understood in Classical times. At the “Battle” of the Caudine Forks in 321BC, the Romans were forced to surrender unconditionally to the Samnites. The Samnite Commander sought his father’s advice on how to deal with his captured foe. However, he rejected the advice of his father Herrenius either to make a friend of the Romans by freeing them, or to annihilate the Roman Army (and thus destroy Rome’s fighting power for generations.) Instead, Gaius Pontius opted to put the Romans “under the yoke” (a ritual humiliation) and send them on their way, having dishonoured them but in no way reduced their fighting power. Soon, the Romans were back and spoiling for revenge.


History is written for the most part by the winners, and so probably omits most of their mistakes. Even so, many of the problems which beset modern operations, whether in open battle or low intensity conflict, have endured for the last 2000 years. The tools of the trade have evolved (in particular communications) but many of the fundamental strategies, and even the locations, remain the much the same. There are 2000 years of others’ mistakes to learn from before we commit our own.