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(Polybius 6.42). He contrasted this with the Greeks, who placed their camps according to the advantages and disadvantages conferred by the terrain. (Polybius 6.42). In this way, the Roman soldiers could rely on military protocol and camp life being the same even no matter where they were and who was commanding.
Another outcome of Rome's system of military organization was the remarkable discipline of the Roman army. Only property-owners were allowed to serve in the Roman military, which meant that all Roman soldiers had extra incentive to obey commands, to never retreat and to never desert, for fear of squandering their property and reputation back home.
Roman military units were designed in a Gestalt style which reduced the effect of externalities such as inadequate troop strength, partial routs, or bad commanders. Polybius described the virtues of the Roman Maniple:
"The order of a Roman force in battle makes it very difficult to break through, for without any change it enables every man individually and in common with his fellows to present a front in any direction, the maniples which are nearest to the danger turning themselves by a single movement to face it." (Polybius 18.28).
The flexibility of the Roman maniple helped ensure its effectiveness whether fighting at half-strength or combined with other bodies. (Polybius 18.32). Thus, the Roman military was designed to survive hardship and disaster.
Military Ethos of Roman Political Class
Rome could persist in long, drawn-out wars because it had a stable of capable commanders it could send out into the field. A man had to serve in the Roman military for ten years before being eligible to be elected for political office in Rome. (Polybius 6.18). Thus, Rome's best men, in terms of ability and ambition, had to prove their worth in the military field before they could achieve any political position of note. If there was any martial ability to be found in a man, this system brought it out. This military ethos, combined with a standardized system of military organization, ensured a bevy of competent generals, and a handful of remarkable generals, to lead Rome's numerous legions.
The political gains produced by military glory created a bias towards war among Roman military men. Romans valued and rewarded military glory and the most ambitious, able Romans pursued military careers. Aggression was all but guaranteed for Rome's enemies, as Roman generals simply had too much to gain by fighting. This bias towards war proved to be a moral hazard in the early part of the war, inducing ill-advised engagements at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae. However, this bias towards war also made Hannibal reluctant to make an attempt on Rome, not only because of the stiff defense from the city itself but because of the endless legions Rome sent to Hannibal's holdings in Spain, Sicily, and Carthage, not to mention the legions that could be called back from Greece. Roman politicians and generals often encouraged, and actively provoked, conflict with other states to create opportunities for military glory, which promoted Rome's expansion.
Rome's leadership, considering the moral hazard brought by its military ethos, was generally responsible during the Punic Wars and should not be underestimated in explaining Rome's success. One can only imagine what would have happened to Rome if Fabius Maximus was not there to make the wise, unpopular decisions and, later, to calm a panic-stricken populace preparing to flee after the disaster at Cannae. Fabius Maximus, a member of the ancient Fabii clan, was an example of the paternalistic Roman Patrician who understood his heritage not as a source of entitlement, but as a source of responsibility to Rome.
According to Polybius, Rome's steady leadership can be attributed to its political structure and its ability to place the interests of the state over the passions of its individuals. Polybius doted on "the prudence of the Senate when the people, who had been unaccustomed to the word or fact of defeat, would not have been able to endure reverse with patience or dignity." (Polybius 3.85). Polybius evidences the prudence of aristocratic rule by mentioning Hannibal's request that the Romans ransom back the 8,000 Roman soldiers he captured at Cannae. (Polybius 3.58). The Roman Senate refused the request, even though some of the senators' relations were among the prisoners, and told their remaining soldiers that prisoners will not be ransomed back so they would either have to conquer their enemies or die. (Polybius 3.58).
Although Hannibal's invasion of Italy was inherently flawed, as it had no clear objective, it was still conducted as flawlessly as any military campaign before it or since. The fact that such a commander was defeated serves as the perhaps the best testament to the stability of the Roman system. Unlike Carthage, Rome survived bad leaders and recovered from setbacks as a matter of habit. Ultimately Rome succeeded and expanded because it had a high margin for error, conquering Hannibal and most of its subsequent foes by outlasting them.
Lazenby, J. 1996. "Was Maharbal Right?" In T. Cornell et al. (eds.), the Second Punic War: a Reappraisal. London. 39-48.
Salmon, E.T. 1960. "The Strategy of the Second Punic War," Greece and Rome 7: 131-142.
Donaldson, G.H. 1962. "Modern Idiom in an Ancient Context. Another look at the Strategy of the Second Punic…[continue]
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