Sunday, January 27, 2013

Roman Strategy -- Defending the Frontier 20 B.C. to 300 A.D.

During the period that begins in the late Republic and extends to the time of Diocletian, Rome utilized three different strategies for defending its frontier. One can refer to them as the Republican, Antonine, and Diocletian strategies, the names an indicator of the time period when they were first utilized. Each reflected the strength of Rome at the time of its adoption – in the beginning a strong Rome expanding itself and intimidating its neighbors, in the middle a powerful Empire seeking to control a vast territory, and in the end a weak Rome trying vainly to resist united enemies.

In the Republican strategy, which ran to the time of Claudius, armed forces were distributed in pockets around the perimeter of Roman territory. Troops were garrisoned in multi-legion armies which were not intended for territorial defense of the frontier. No Roman troops were deployed in client states but there was constant diplomacy going on between Rome and the clients it sought to influence. The primary aim of the diplomacy was to remind the client of the infinite Roman power and the uselessness of trying to oppose her. This effort of deterrence was part of a “carrot and stick” philosophy where the carrot consisted of subsidies provided to influential persons.

The legions were mobile and freely deployable to any location requiring military intervention, so that major rebellions, like Illyricum in 9 A.D, could call for sending half the army without risking the security of the frontier. Absent rebellions, the deployed legions could also be used to advance the frontier where it was open, as in the case of Great Britain. In the Republican model, the reach of Roman power and the costs of operating the army were not proportional because the psychological threat of the Roman Army greatly exceeded that of the physical army.

The second, or Antonine System, was in use from about 69 A.D. to the middle of the third century. Here the Empire saw its army deployed everywhere to protect and secure the borders and the interior. The effective power and actual power were now in strict proportion because the psychological threat was backed up by large forces that could enforce it. Weak clients were ignored because they provided no value. Strong clients could not be tolerated because their strength posed a threat to the Empire.

Politics was now critical because growing prosperity and the Romanization of the frontier were fostering enculturation. Meanwhile, the threat of facing enemies was low because of their separation from each other. Elaborate border defenses, such as Hadrian’s Wall took the place of large troop deployments and allowed the army to operate with fewer units.

In spite of these positive aspects, there was a growing dissatisfaction among people outside the territories because their adoption of Roman ways was not accompanied by the rights associated with citizenship. As a result, the enculturation created a kinship among the disadvantaged. German tribes now took center stage as their drive to unification became stronger than the influence of Rome. The perimeter defense was not adequate to resist these large unified groups.

The Diocletian system arose in the middle of the third century when the political and military problems Rome was facing posed a significant threat to her stability. The new structure utilized a shallow “defense in depth” strategy to replace the massed force model. As in the Antonine system, there was no surplus of military power for offensive use or deterrent, but unlike its predecessor, the Diocletian system had no “surge” capability.

The concept of defense was one of containment. Because forces had to be put together ad hoc according to circumstances, penetrations were commonplace and the threat of Roman power was everywhere absent. Any diplomacy undertaken with external powers was local and dependent on the availability of forces. The outputs and inputs to the military system had finally come into balance and security was equal to the size of the force put to the task of maintaining it.

At this point the empire enjoyed only a small economy of scale advantage over the alternative of independent regional states but that advantage was counteracted by the inefficiency of administration far from home. The reality of a unified all powerful Empire was now a memory outside of the will of those in power who endeavored to keep the Empire intact.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Composition and Organization of the Spartan Army

The most important accomplishment of the Lycurgan reforms was the creation of the Spartan Army, an instrument of power that held off political revolution in Sparta for 400 years. At the same time, the reforms created some behaviors which had a negative impact on the army and diminished its power to protect the Spartan people.

Before discussing the army, it is necessary for us to explain how the words Spartan and Lacedaemonian come into play here. Spartans were the people inhabiting the five villages of Sparta – Mesoa, Kynosaura, Pitane, Limnae, and Amyklai, while Lacedaemonian defines the physical area of Spartan control including Sparta, Messenia, and the Perioikoi Villages of the Central Peloponnese. Because the Spartan Army used hoplites from the Lacedaemonian territories, the word Lacedaemonian more accurately describes its composition.

As we have discussed before, Homoioi were Spartiates who had graduated from the Agoge training and were able to make a regular contribution to the Mess. They constituted the most highly trained and skilled members of the Spartan Army, but were never large enough in numbers to constitute a potent military force, so Sparta came to rely on its neighbors for reinforcements.

At Platea in 479 B.C, for example, the Lacedaemonian Army was fifty percent Spartiates and fifty percent Perioikoi. By 425 B.C, the ratio was sixty percent Perioikoi.

The Spartan tactic of using territorial reinforcements was a necessity but at the same time a trap which limited the size of the army. Because the Perioikoi were more numerous, they offered a large auxiliary force, but their numbers in battle had to be limited by ratio to the number of Spartiates, otherwise the balance of the army’s power would be held by outsiders. This requirement led to the unfortunate consequence of a decrease in the size of the army as the number of available Spartiates declined.

Spartans had forty years of eligibility for service, from age twenty to sixty. To prepare for war, they chose a call up age limit based on the number of hoplites needed -- sometimes age forty-five, sometimes fifty, and in extreme cases, more.

As early as Platea, the Sparta’s ability to field adequate numbers of Homoioi was stretched relative to the Perioikoi. The Spartans selected a call up to age forty-five for that battle, while the Perioikoi had enough hoplites available to afford the luxury of selecting only elite troops. Since the Perioikoi did not attend the Agoge, they did not possess equivalent skill in battle, but were also not subject to the same cultural pressures as the Homoioi. They had their own professions and lived a “normal” life like other Greeks. During the centuries when the Spartan Army was the strongest in Greece, the Perioikoi contingent was never utilized to its capacity.

The Spartan Phalanx was built by aggregating small units into larger ones --the smallest unit being the Enomotia with a maximum of 40 men. Each Enomotia consisted of two Syssitia, the basic unit of the mess. The twenty men who dined every day together were considered a “band of brothers” who ate together, trained together, and went to war together. Each Enomotia was represented by all age classes required to be present in a specific deployment. For example, when the call up was to age forty-five, each Enomotia consisted of five hoplites between the age of 20 and 25, five between the age of 25 and 30, five between the ages of 30 and 35, five between the ages of 35 and 40, and five between the ages of 40 and 45, making a total of 25. In a call up to age 60, there would be 40 men for each Enomotia.

Four Enomotia made up a Pentecostys, two Pentecostys per Lochos, and four Lochos per Mora, making a total of approximately 1200 men. These ratios varied widely over time and there are questions about their accuracy. We know that the Spartan Army originally had five Lochi, one for each of the five villages of Sparta, but that would only total about 1500 men. Later there were twenty-four Lochi, or 7200 men at an age 60 deployment – a rare occurance.

Each of the units had its own commander: Enomotia were commanded by a Enomotiarch, Pentecostys by a Penetecosteres, Lochos by a Lochagoi, and Mora by a Polemarch.

The Perioikoi had the same unit structure but they had no Syssitia, no Agoge, and they were not a permanent army. Still, they probably utilized an age distribution among their units and the same unit structure the Spartans used.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Development of the Spartan Political System

In a previous post (June 2009), I discussed Lycurgus and his influence over the development of the Spartan political system. I described him as a shadowy figure who may never have existed. Rather than speculate about Lycurgus as a person and his influence over the Spartan political system, I would like to focus now on the system itself, its development and the forces that pushed it forward.

The most cohesive story of that time was contained in Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, which attributes the Spartan government to that great lawgiver. Many of his facts have been questioned and much may have come from Plato – a biased source writing centuries later – but still it’s a place to start.

Prior to the advent of its militaristic model Sparta, like many of the other Greek Poleis, was managed by an aristocratic faction. We talked previously about splinter experiments in new government, like the Basileus as a military leader, which failed to catch on. But at some point, possibly the mid-eight century B.C, the Spartan political system began to evolve in a unique direction. Was Lycurgus the prime mover? Maybe, but there were certainly forces at work moving the Spartans toward equality whether or not they were driven by a single individual.

The foundational step was the creation of the Council of Elders, which as Plato stated had the effect of “cooling the high fever or royalty” and since the Elders had equal vote with the kings, they could bring “caution and sobriety to their deliberations”. The Gerousia and was made up of thirty members including the two kings.

The second body of government was the Ecclesia or Assembly, made up of all members of the Spartan army (hoplites). These members were referred to as Homoioi. Remarkably, the Assembly was mandated by the Rhetra (pronouncement of the Oracle) of Lycurgus near the end of the 8th century B.C, making it the first citizen legislative body in history.

Plutarch tells us what happened next. “Even though these changes had the effect of mixing the several powers of the state, successor generations, seeing that the powers of the oligarchy were unimpaired, and that it was, as Plato calls it, full of life and vigor, placed as a curb to it the power of the Ephors. The first Ephors, of whom Elatus was one, were elected during the reign of Theopompus” circa 675 B.C. The five Ephors were administrators elected for one year who were granted power greater than the kings with regards to the management of Spartan society, although in military matters, the kings were supreme. Speculation is that the Ephors were originally part of the king’s staff, but spun off as a separate governmental unit to reduce royal authority.

So we can see a balanced Republican government of three bodies: Gerousia, Assembly, and Ephors, remarkably similar to the Roman Republic which would come along two hundred years later. Seeing a similar structure in Greece and Rome, separated by time and space, one can’t help thinking that the Republic was a natural development of human society – the bridge system between autocrats and democracy.

Moving along in the evolution of the Spartan government, we again turn to Plutarch. “The second and the boldest of political reforms of Sparta was the redistribution of the land. Great inequalities existed, many poor and needy people had become a burden to the state, while wealth had got into a very few hands.”

According to our sources, thirty thousand lots were granted to the Perioeci (neighboring villages) and nine thousand (later twelve thousand) to Spartiates.

One wonders about the land distribution and it impetus. What factor would have caused the rich to share their land? While the formation of a Council of Elders and Assembly are logical, even inevitable, the redistribution of land is not. There answer of course is that the rich did not give up their land. The land distribution was public land similar to the Roman agar publicus. There was still private land held onto by the rich. Embedded in the land distribution somewhere is the relationship between Sparta and Messenia, the territory of fertile lands west of the Taygetos Mountains. See map below.
Its people fought the Spartans twice. The first time, circa 730 B.C, led to the subjugation of the Messenian people as helots. Perhaps only half the Messenian land was taken. Then, circa 675 B.C, the Messenians revolted and had to be brought under control again. The latter event most likely sealed the “Devil’s bargain” between Sparta and Messenia. The Spartans needed an army to keep the Messenians subjugated and the need to train that army meant that Spartans had no time for activities separate from war, so the helots were engaged to serve them – growing the crops, providing services, etc. Helots were not slaves in the traditional sense – they weren’t chattels. They were assigned to Spartans as their workers, married to the land that a Spartan owed but eligible to keep half its produce.

The military mindset of Sparta manifested itself in other more eccentric ways. The mess was an institutionalized meal ritual among Homoioi designed to create camaraderie between them . Each Spartiate ate his meals with the same men he fought beside in war and each man was required to contribute food to the mess on a monthly basis. It has been written that Lycurgus got the idea for the mess from a visit to Crete where he saw it in action, but Crete is not the only example of this ritual in antiquity.

The Agoge (military training) was developed to build the Spartan army and there is nothing that can be compared to it in history. Starting at age seven, boys received an “traditional education” along with physical training. Twenty-three years later at 30, the training ended and they became Spartiates. The Agoge was extreme – including periods of surviving in the wilderness, learning to steal to survive, and even killing Helots for practice, if writers from the time are to be believed.

And there were additional modifications to the Spartan system including the banning of gold and silver money, expulsion of worker in useless trades, and promoting of physical fitness among girls. Almost all of these were attributed to Lycurgus although some may be fantasy.

So we see an evolved Spartan Republic, perhaps by 650 B.C, consisting of a balanced political system built to support a militaristic ideal.

So much of it was eccentric: the anachronistic twin royal houses that lived on past their time, the Ephors, commoners elected by the shouts of the populace, and the odd relationship between Sparta, the Perioikoi, and the Messenians. But still the power of Sparta survived for centuries until the its army became weak in battle. The end came in 371 B.C. when a Spartan army of only 800 Homoioi was utterly defeated at Leuctra.

Victory on the Peloponnesian War had been an illusion. The Spartans could not rule others because their eccentric system did not prepare them for the task. Thirty years later, Spartan power had ended.