Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 2  /  

The return of ancient challenges

The return of ancient challenges The return of ancient challenges
To cite this article: Grygiel, Jakub, “The return of ancient challenges,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2, fall 2014, pages 38-43.

© Papadimitriou | – Greek Ancient Alike Plaque At Great Alexander Monument, Greece Photo

We analyze international relations through the lens of modern history, and as a result we remain puzzled in front of current strategic realities that have no apparent historical equivalents. Instead of well-demarcated states jousting for influence and power by waging wars and engaging in diplomacy, we see fierce groups rising in ungoverned areas, revelling in violence and eschewing negotiated settlements. Modern history does not offer many analogies for such security conditions. We have to move farther back in time and study ancient history to find more appropriate parallels. The security landscape we face is, in fact, acquiring tints of ancient times, characterized by proliferation of lethality, the pursuit of violence as a social glue, and the existence of unstable frontiers. The length, the place, and the purpose of violence were different in ancient times, and we ought to start looking at current and future strategic challenges through the lens of ancient, rather than exclusively modern, history.

I examine here reasons for this different – ancient and, I suggest, future – security environment, focusing on the proliferation of lethality and on the pursuit of violence as a source of social cohesion, suggesting parallels with current trends. These features result in strategic landscape characterized by unstable frontiers and the necessity of using constant force to manage them. As in ancient history, the future may see prolonged low-level conflicts that cannot be resolved through negotiations or through a decisive application of force. It will demand recurrent offensives to mitigate rather than eliminate the threat.

1. The modern vs. ancient mindset

What ancient history can show us is, in some ways, the flip side of the lessons of modern history, which imbue the study of international relations in general, and of war in particular. The impression one receives from studying the past two or three centuries of international politics is that strategic interactions among states, and war as their violent expression, are defined by clear geographic boundaries, are marked by precise dates delimiting the beginning and the end of a period of violence or of peace, and can be mitigated by traditional tools of statecraft such as diplomacy or deterrence. This view is not wrong. Take, as a timely example, World War I: it begun on a specific date (28 July 1914 when Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, followed by a cascade of declarations of war in the following week); it was fought in well defined geographic theater, and the Western Front in particular was a thick bloody line separating combatants; it also had a clear conclusion (11 November 1918, the day of the Armistice, followed by its formal end on 28 June 1919). The time and space of conflicts are also defined by the attempts, not always successful to be sure, to contain and circumscribe them. The very purpose of strategy is, after all, to translate violent behavior into political effects and, to do so, violence needs to be channeled and controlled. Civilian oversight of the military is the most immediate means that comes to mind, but the issue is broader. Diplomacy and deterrence before, during, and after the eruption of violence are key tools to direct the use of force toward the desired political objective.

This simplified version of modern history contains three sets of informed assumptions that are at the basis of our understanding of war and politics. They deal with the length, the place, and the purpose of violence. Violence is a moment, often relatively brief, in political interactions; it has a well-demarcated space where it occurs (the frontline); and it is meant to achieve finite political effects (usually associated with territorial defense or expansion).

Ancient history tells a slightly different story. An even cursory perusal of the histories of Classical Greece, Republican or Imperial Rome, or Late Antiquity (but one could extend this period up to the 15th or 17th century) shows that violence was more persistent and geographically diffuse, spanning decades and often without clear boundaries, and was not very amenable to negotiated settlements. As a historian, John Guilmartin, put it: “more common in the broad sweep of history are prolonged conflicts where the transition from peace to war is blurred, where guerilla and positional operations are more important to the outcome than field or naval campaigns of limited duration, and where objectives tend to be total. This type of conflict – the term war is frequently inadequate- tends to end only with the elimination or cultural absorption of the losers.”[i] In brief, violence was longer, geographically diffuse, and more difficult to control. The question is why, and in what follows I try to provide some answers.

2. Diverse strategic actors because of proliferation of lethality

The first reason for the persistent instability and insecurity of ancient international politics is that there was a plethora of strategic actors roaming the known world. Cities, empires, medium size states, tribes, migrating groups, mercenaries, or simply bands of bandits were all interacting with each other, often violently. This is in striking contrast with modern history when this complex strategic mosaic became more monochromatic as the modern, territorial, nation state rises starting in the Renaissance and continuing until the mid-20th century, when the world map was neatly drawn.

More specifically, ancient history is characterized by the ability of groups of men to survive and prosper without a state. In fact, they frequently inflicted heavy defeats on the armies of established empires, an anomaly in modern history. For instance, Xenophon’s description of the “Ten Thousand” is the story of a mercenary Greek army that, after a series of military setbacks and a loss of leadership in Persia, managed to march through enemy territory in a constant running fight. It was an incredible feat not only because they kept united in extremely difficult circumstances (the Greek mercenaries are often referred to as the “marching republic”) but also survived with no logistical support against large and hostile imperial forces and then against battle-tested warrior tribes. While even in the 5th century BC this was a military exploit, this story points to a certain parity of force among actors who are otherwise vastly different in territorial size (indeed, the mercenaries have no territorial control), logistical support, or organizational structure. The greatest power at that point in history, Persia, could not vanquish a bedraggled band of Greek mercenaries running for their life.

This rough equality of very diverse strategic actors stemmed from the fact that it was difficult to hold exclusive monopoly on violence, the quintessential trademark of political modernity. Multiple strategic actors were constantly vying for glory and wealth, within and between ancient polities (states, empires, cities), resulting in a persistent albeit low-intensity violence (as opposed to the momentary and industrial-scale violence of modernity). A polity, even the most powerful like Persia or Rome, could not impose order through a monopoly on force. In Xenophon’s description of the “march to the sea,” the Greeks encounter in Persia several local tribes that do not pay allegiance to the king, who in any case can at best send occasional forces to keep them in check. As the Greek historian writes, “a royal army of a hundred and twenty thousand had once invaded their country, and not a man of them had got back.”[ii] The likely difficulties and costs associated with an imposition of imperial control would have been greater than the potential benefits, leaving a swath of land under only a nominal imperial control.

The difficulty of imposing order through a monopoly of violence was due in large measure to the wide availability, relative cheapness, and ease-of-use of weapons. A disorganized group, a rabble of refugees in fact, could turn quickly into a lethal and devastating force when it was fortunate to acquire arms through trade or battlefield spoils. In 376 AD, for instance, a large group of Goths arrived on the Danube, asking to be settled by Roman authorities. Admitted on Roman land, the Goths never gave up their weapons and almost immediately revolted, spurred also by the incompetence and brutality of local Roman administrators. This rebellion of Gothic refugees managed to harass Roman troops for months and in the end defeated a large army led by the emperor himself in the battle of Adrianople (378). Augmenting their lethal capabilities with the weapons abandoned by the Romans, these Goths ended up being a security menace throughout the region for years to come.[iii]

There are some current trends that are strikingly similar. Technological developments appear to be leading to a democratization of violence, allowing the amateur to be lethal and thus a strategic actor. The ease of use, combined with the wide availability of many dual-use technologies, is leveling the field between states and non-state groups. A case in point is the rapid development and spread of drones, the possession of which is no longer limited to states. But the whole spectrum of tools of violence, from automatic weapons to nuclear bombs, is affected by this trend of proliferation and democratization. One way to put it is that the link between industrial capacity and lethality, a key feature of modern history, is breaking. A state or a group no longer needs to have an efficient industrial base or even a well-run economy to be able to cause serious damage to a rival and be a source of enormous instability. Poverty is not a hindrance to lethality as a nuclear North Korea demonstrates; neither is absence of a stock market or industrial capacity as ISIS is proving in the Middle East.

Proliferation of lethality leads to a proliferation of strategic actors. The modern world of states is being replaced by a world of states vying for influence with each other but also with non-state groups.

3. Violence as social glue

The second feature of ancient history, one that I suggest is also reappearing, is the role of violence as a source of social cohesion. In a nutshell, violence attracted, peace repelled. Fighters joined the group that conducted the most aggressive raids against a neighboring community. The social cohesion and numerical size of a group on the frontier was directly proportional to the level of violence it directed against nearby targets. When a leader was incapable or unwilling to conduct assaults against the frontier settled communities, he quickly lost prestige and ultimately power. Men stopped following him, and a new warrior chief, promising a more belligerent lifestyle, replaced him. Violence, in other words, was the social glue that kept together a warrior band on the frontier.

An offensive military posture was therefore politically appealing. Warrior tribes, the barbarians of ancient times, were constantly poised to raid nearby communities, creating a wide band of permanent insecurity. The frontier along the Rhine and Danube in the 4-5th centuries AD comes to mind, but this type of situation was not limited to Roman times. For instance, the ghazi warriors of the early Ottoman Empire, who targeted Byzantine territories, were similar in that their numbers swelled as they attacked Christian lands.[iv] The source of their strength was the fact that they were on a constant offensive against the wealthier neighbors who, in this latter example, professed a different religion deemed to be heretical or in any case inimical to the “true faith.”

As Michael Howard correctly observed, for leaders of warrior societies “prolonged peace was often … a disaster.”[v] Peace was dangerous because it deprived the Huns or the ghazis (or later on, in the 18th and 19th century, the Comanches, one of the last groups with similar traits of the ancient “barbarians”) of their source of unity.[vi] As a result, it was difficult to deter such groups because to be deterred meant to cease to survive in their existing configuration. Deterrence was revolutionary for them, in the sense that their leadership would have been rejected and most likely replaced by one that maintained an aggressive stance and continued war. Deterrence was riskier and more dangerous than war.

We are witnessing a similar development in today’s world. Some groups, such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria, are drawing in men who are seeking to fight. In fact, the strength of such a group is in the very attraction it generates through its violent acts. The more violent it is perceived to be, the greater its appeal for potential recruits. Were such a group to cease its violent behavior, accepting a negotiated settlement or claiming a satisfaction of its objectives, its appeal would diminish and its ranks shrink. They seek war, not ways to avoid it.

In a strategic interaction with such groups, deterrence is less effective, as ancient history indicates. In fact, we may be in fact entering a period in history when deterrence is in decline. Many contemporary analyses point to the diminishing willingness of the United States, in particular under the Obama administration, to shore up the credibility and capability necessary to deter increasingly more aggressive rivals (Russia, Iran, China). Deterrence is diminished by American retrenchment.[vii] This view is correct, but I think incomplete. Deterrence is in decline because violence is becoming a source of attraction and a social glue. Fighters are flocking to zones of war, from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, but also in the Caucasus and to a degree Eastern Ukraine. The resulting fighting forces are not prone to be deterred because an end to the hostilities would mark also their political demise.

4. Frontiers, not borders

As a result of these two features, namely the proliferation of weapons and the rise of violence as a social glue, the security landscape is changing in ways that resemble the political map of the ancient world. First, the wide availability of weapons makes controlling territory very difficult. In the ancient past, ruling the provinces was an exercise in never-ending counterinsurgency. A recurrent theme in, for instance, Roman history is the fact that local populations were quick to arm and thus to revolt. Even skilled commanders, such as Julius Caesar in Gaul or Agricola in Britain, who were capable of great tactical and political achievements had to face annual revolts, and the aura of their success was written for domestic consumption rather than being a faithful description of the political reality on the ground. Proliferation of lethality means absence of monopoly of violence, and the result is a low-intensity but geographically pervasive insecurity.

Second, warrior groups coalesced near their preferred targets, settled and wealthy communities that promised low-risk and high-reward raiding. They flocked to the frontier of imperial power, creating a zone of instability and insecurity. As a result, ancient states were demarcated more by frontiers than borders. The latter draw lines neatly separating the sovereignty of one state from another, and they constitute a key line of defense. An army crossing a border, for instance, constitutes a clear act of war. Frontiers, on the other hand, are wider bands of land, grey zones of sorts where the exclusive influence of one power is ambiguous and contested. A hostile military force roaming on the frontier was an accepted, if unwelcome and threatening, reality. Ancient empires, from China to Rome, attempted to draw a more distinct line separating themselves from the other side, often a region too difficult to conquer and lacking a civilization (that is, settled people). China’s Great Wall or Rome’s Hadrian Wall were such attempts, in different circumstances and with slightly different tactical purposes but broadly in line with the desire to fix a defensive line.

The difficulty of clearly demarcating one’s own territory carried two security challenges. First, it was difficult to arrest movements of people. In Late Antiquity, in what was called the “great wandering” of people, various groups entered the Roman Empire essentially unopposed. A historian termed it a “seepage of people,” rather than a series of invasions.[viii] Frontiers are porous and, unless reinforced by natural obstacles (e.g., high mountains such as the Alps, or wide rivers such as the Rhine and Danube), are not effective tools for controlling population movements.

The second related challenge of frontiers is that they require constant military engagement. Borders can be defended, frontiers have to be managed. The uncertain, even chaotic, nature of a frontier makes it difficult to establish a fixed defensive posture. Preclusive defense is simply impossible on a frontier; it requires a border. Instead, the outer edges of imperial influence are a constant work in progress. When Julius Caesar reached the Rhine, for instance, he could not hold the line because Germanic tribes constantly harassed what he now deemed Roman territory. As a result, he was forced to conduct several expeditions across the river, as punishment for the raids of these tribal groups. These short expeditions, however, were nothing more than shows of force that never met the hostile tribes and, therefore, that never defeated them. He described his first excursion across the Rhine as motivated by the desire “to make the Germans less inclined to come over into Gaul by giving them reason to be alarmed on their own account.” After more than two weeks of military operations during which he met no enemy and managed only to burn “all the villages and farm buildings and [cut] down their crops,” Caesar returned to Gaul, deeming that “he had done all that honour or interest required.”[ix] Needless to say, this did not settle the situation once and for all, and recurrent projections of force across the Rhine were required. Security, if we can even call it that, had to be maintained by being on constant alert and by conducting periodic offensive operations.

There are striking parallels with today’s security environment. Borders are becoming increasingly more porous. They are turning into frontiers of sorts, wider bands of instability where various groups and powers compete and no one has the exclusive legal authority and monopoly of violence. The modern view of borders is that they are a source of stability because they demarcate clearly the sovereignty of neighboring states. Frontiers on the other hand are grey areas where

a constant pushing and pulling, and they radiate instability. The Southern Mediterranean, Eastern Ukraine, or Northern Mexico are some examples of what may be in store for the future. The traditional maps that we use, with clear lines separating one polity from another, no longer reflect the underlying political realities in these regions. The case of ISIS is one example: the border between Syria and Iraq is crisscrossed by veins of territory controlled by this terrorist group, resulting in a region that sees multiple forces clashing. But, in different circumstances and with different actors, Eastern Ukraine is also turning into a wide band of land where authority is unclear and violence is widespread. Moreover, even a clear Russian military penetration in this region has not been unequivocally condemned as an act of war by most states, in part because this would require a stronger response to Moscow. This is a tacit recognition that

an area of unclear sovereignty, a frontier where a conflict can fester. Like the frontiers of ancient history, Eastern Ukraine and the Iraqi-Syrian area, for different reasons and in different ways, will require constant management to mitigate the instability and violence.

5. Lessons

The study of ancient history exposes us to a strategic reality that is different from the modern one. Pervasive, geographically diffuse, low-intensity and yet difficult to abate violence was the characteristic of much of human history, and the modern world ordered by nation states may turn to have been a relatively short period of time. This knowledge of ancient history, however, will not translate immediately and directly into policies that we can apply in Iraq or Libya or Ukraine. Rather, it can serve only as a background to help us think through the security problems we are facing and are likely to face in the future. In particular, three sets of broad and related lessons can be drawn.

First, the fundamental challenge facing ancient strategists was in a certain sense the opposite of the one facing modern policymakers. Modern history indicates that the key strategic question is how to translate military force into political effects, or how to turn the outcome of war into a stable political settlement. War is a means to achieve a political reality deemed to be more beneficial. In ancient history, it seems that in many cases the question was turned upside down: how to turn political efforts into conditions that allowed for a more effective use of force, or how to turn the outcome of policies into a more decisive military effort. Force was not futile, but it certainly was less effective in achieving lasting political control. War was ineffective against some strategic actors, such as the barbarian warrior groups, unless its path was prepared by political means.

Second, there were two specific political strategies that paved the way for the use of force: cooptation and sedentarization. For example, members of hostile tribes were coopted by imperial authorities through bribes or promises of future political support. Not only this brought much needed knowledge of local geography, cultural norms, and tribal structure (the ancient version of “human terrain”), but also it divided the enemy, depriving him of manpower. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul not by a mass invasion and military occupation of the region, but by seeking alliances with local leaders, who hoped to increase their own influence through a Roman victory. It was an attempt to manage and direct the political balance internal to these tribes in favor of Rome. It meant getting deeply involved in tribal politics, which often baffled an external observer and were akin to understanding and managing the dynamics of an unknown family. In fact, in one of the early campaigns, Caesar had to navigate between two brothers, Diviciacus and Dumnorix, the former on Rome’s side while the latter in opposition.[x] This intimate divide-et-impera approach was necessary for military operations. It gave states much needed manpower, expanded the understanding of local geographic and social conditions, and supplied logistical needs.

Similarly, in our times, conquering and controlling territory is becoming increasingly more difficult as it is relatively easy to counter the invading army by inflicting high costs through widely accessible weapons. It is striking that in the past decades several industrial powers had been essentially unable to control territories that they had invaded, regardless of their motivations. Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel in Lebanon are some of the examples. The costs of maintaining control over these territories were higher than the potential benefits. It appears that, like in the ancient past, political control over a territory needs to be prepared and exercised through the cooptation of local groups and leaders. Direct control is simply too costly, if at all possible.

The other political approach was a process of sedentarization. Warrior groups tended to be highly mobile, making them difficult to target and defeat in battle. In fact, they often avoided large, set piece battles, preferring hit-and-run tactics, a “skulking way of war,”[xi] that maximized their strength (e.g., topographical knowledge, ability to fight in small independent groups, skillful adaptation of weapons) while minimized their casualties. Hence, in the past, states tried to settle these warrior groups, hoping that they would switch from plunder to agriculture as a source of wealth. Such a change would put a premium on leaders who were interested in administering a stable community rather than leading plundering raids. In reality, pursued by itself, this strategy often backfired: it merely strengthened the hostile tribe, which then continued to engage in aggressive behavior. Settling down did not pacify these groups. But if this approach was merely a precursor for the use of force, it had greater chances of success. By fixing the enemy to a place, it created a more defined target for the employment of force, if necessary. Roaming groups were menacing in large measure because they were more difficult to find and defeat; a settled group, even if hostile, had a clear “return address.”

Today, the territorial control exercises by groups such as ISIS or even Hamas can be seen as an opportunity, not because it will change their motivations and interests but because it establishes clearer targets. It is a political development that is unpleasant, violent and dangerous but one that also allows a more effective use of force by the Western powers that oppose these modern barbarians.

Third, the use of force will be recurrent and never decisive. Short of annihilation or assimilation which are lengthy, unappealing, and difficult processes, ancient warrior tribes and current non-state groups were not easy to eradicate as a threat. An individual group could certainly be defeated, disappearing from history, but the larger threat of similar strategic actors could not, because it arose from deeper trends, such as the above mentioned proliferation of lethality and rise of violence as a source of social cohesion. Like in the past, the threat could be only mitigated, not eliminated.

To mitigate the threat, however, states had to adopt a military posture that matched the enemy. As historian William McNeill observed in his classic book, The Pursuit of Power, steppe nomads could raid civilized territories “almost with impunity, unless rulers were able to replicate barbarian levels of mobility and morale within their own establishments.”[xii] In other words, one had to become like one’s own enemies in order to defeat them. This was true in more traditional state-on-state contests such as the Peloponnesian war, in which the first combatant to master the sphere of power of the other would win. In this case, Sparta (a land power) became a sea power like its rival Athens through an alliance with Persia. It is, however, more difficult for states to turn into “barbarian” forces because this requires shedding at least in part some foundational characteristics of a settled – that is, civilized – polity.

But, historically, there were two complementary approaches that are worth keeping in mind for the future. First, states tended to engage in recurrent counter-raids: rapid projections of power meant to inflict material and reputational damage on the enemy warrior group but rarely resulting in conquest, which as mentioned earlier was inherently difficult. The current U.S. return to Iraq (with expected forays into Syria) can be seen as such a counter-raid, however unwanted and unplanned by Washington’s political leaders. But the counter-raid will not eliminate, and may only abate, the threat, which will require constant attention and perhaps future offensive actions.

Second, the mobility of warrior groups in the past meant that they could raid deep inside the territory of the neighboring state, affecting local communities without threatening the existence of the entire state. Similarly, it is plausible to see a future when groups such as ISIS or their permutation will conduct relatively small yet tragic attacks not on the border, but inside Europe or the United States. The various attacks conducted so far, from 9/11 in the U.S. to Mumbai, Madrid, London or the Boston Marathon bombing, may be only the first of many more. What such a situation will demand is resilience of local communities, namely, the ability of provinces, cities, and even urban neighborhoods to prevent, and if not, to respond quickly to such attacks. This may lead to a trend away from political modernity, which has seen greater centralization of force by the state driven by the fact that only a modern nation state could defeat another modern nation state. Some form of security decentralization may be necessary, allowing local communities to provide their own safety rather than de facto subcontracting it to the central state authorities and military forces. If violence will occur not just on the border, but inside the state, then security will have to be provided accordingly. The beginning of such a decentralizing trend can already be seen in the growing ability of cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, to provide their own local and foreign intelligence as well as to field their own rapid response security teams.

In the end, we have to be aware of the main lesson of ancient history: contests and rivalries were and, I suggest, will be prolonged, along unstable frontiers, characterized by low-intensity but widespread violence, and with means to mitigate their effects but not to eliminate them. The security challenges of the past decade, and the disorder described in today’s headline news, are here to stay. We will be better prepared if we look at them through the lens of ancient history.


[i] John F. Guilmartin, JR, “Ideology and Conflict: The Wars of the Ottoman Empire, 1453-1606,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Spring 1988), 722.
[ii] Xenophon, The Persian Expedition (New York: Penguin, 1972), 173.
[iii] Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire (New York: Penguin, 1986), book 31, 410-443.
[iv] Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 26.
[v] Michael Howard, Lessons of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 167.
[vi] On the Comanches, see Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
[vii] “The Decline of Deterrence,” The Economist, 3 May 2014.
[viii] Averil Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, AD 395-600 (London: Routledge, 1993), 56.
[ix] Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul (New York: Penguin, 1982), 94-96.
[x] Caesar, book I, 36-38.
[xi] Patrick M. Malone, The Skulking Way of War (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
[xii] William McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 16.