Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Best Roman Emperors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

When ranking the Top 10 Best Roman Emperors there are many names that stand out. The more famous Emperors stand out such as Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. But these were not the only Emperors who did great things for their empire, or ruled in a way that could only be classified as a success. There are lesser known names who still made very important contributions to Roman Society and it is important to explore their contributions to understand why Rome was such a successful Empire.

The subject of this round of Best Roman Emperors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of will be Antoninus Pious. Antoninus Pius ruled from 138 CE to 161 CE. Antoninus Pius’s reign is saddled between the reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Both Emperors are more well known than Antoninus Pius, but such historical obscurity is part of what made Antoninus Pius so great. The reason Antoninus Pius was able to be saddled between two great emperors is because he was able to act as bridge between the two famous emperors. Antoninus Pius’s disposition allowed for a smooth transition of power from Hadrian to Antoninus, and then Antoninus to Marcus Aurelius.

Transition of power was never an easy endeavor for Rome. In fact often times the transition of power created great turmoil within the empire. In fact one of the key reasons Rome eventually fell was because of so much in fighting during transitional power struggles. Rome was at its greatest when power could easily and clearly be passed from one ruler to another. It was this characteristic that defined the peak of Roman power, an era that bears Antoninus Pius’s name, the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.

Antoninus Pius’s name provides a perfect a example of how he ensured a smooth transition of power in the wake of Hadrian’s death. Antoninus received his cognomen Pius, which means loyalty or the dutiful, because he pushed an unwilling Senate to deify his predecessor. Traditionally the Roman Senate would deify a successful and well liked Emperor after his death. Hadrian though had greatly displeased the Senate early in his reign by ordering the execution of four prominent Romans because of an alleged failed conspiracy plot against Hadrian. Rather than cut his ties with his adopted father, Antoninus dutifully ordered for Hadrian to be buried in his unfinished Mausoleum upon its completion. Visitors to Rome will know the Mausoleum of Hadrian as Castel Sant’Angelo. Antoninus Pius also threw a lavish ceremony in honor of Hadrian that was fashioned after the ceremony honoring the death of Augustus.

There are important implications resulting from Antoninus Pius’s decision to celebrate the will of his adopted father, Hadrian. Hadrian ordered that Antoninus could only ensure his spot as imperial successor by following certain conditions laid out by Hadrian. Hadrian had foreseen the prowess of a young Marcus Aurelius and preferred him to be his successor. Yet a common thread among failed emperors was when too much power was given to people who were too young. Caligula and Nero are often cited as model examples. At the time of Antoninu’s adoption, Marcus Auerlius was only 17 years old. Antoninus Pius, a 52 year old man at the time of his adoption, was old for Roman standards. Antoninus was meant to occupy the seat of Emperor until the young Marcus Aurelius grew into a mature adult who could handle the responsibilities of being Emperor. It was assumed that Antoninus Pius would not live for much longer and that Marcus Aurelius was on the cusp of becoming emperor.

A second condition Hadrian set for Antoninus was that he also had to adopt Lucius Verus as a successor. Hadrian’s plan was for Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to rule the empire together. The reason for this is prior to the adoption of Antoninus Pius, Hadrian had adopted another man to be his successor. Hadrian adopted his lover Lucius Ceionius Commodus to be his heir and renamed him to Lucius Aelius Caesar. Lucius Verus was the son of Lucius Aelius Caesar. Since Hadrian loved Lucius Aelius Caesar, he wanted to maintain his legacy by having his son ascend to the throne since his father could not. It is important to note that for Emperors in Ancient Rome adoption did not hold the same meaning it holds today. Adoption was a way for the Emperor to choose his successor while also giving him a legitimate claim to the throne through the paternal connection of the adopting father and adopted son. Lucius Aelius Caesar died in 138 CE and thus Hadrian needed to find a new successor until Lucius Verus came of age to co-rule.

The well respected and aged Antoninus served two purposes for Hadrian. Antoninus helped Hadrian’s image with the Senate by selecting someone they were in favor of, but also allowed for him to select someone who could manage the Empire until the ascension of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Hadrian also favored Antoninus because he was not a military man and did not show the drive towards conquests like previous Roman Emperors had. This was important because Hadrian was the first emperor to delineate the limits of the Roman Empire. Hadrian did not want to see his life’s work of maintaining the borders to go to waste upon his death. Hadrian’s decision to end Roman Expansion is what makes Hadrian’s reign stand out as so unique and successful. Long wars of conquest were becoming too expensive and too far reaching for Rome to handle. In Ancient Times travel took much longer so it was very difficult and costly to maintain and supply far reaching outposts that were outside of the immediate Mediterranean Coastal area. A series of uprisings and population unrest led Hadrian to pull back from most of the lands conquered by his predecessor Trajan in order to have a more manageable empire. Hadrian did not want to see his anti-expansionist legacy die with him, so Antoninus’s non-military background ensured it would not.

One common theme when discussing Antoninus Pius is that often times historians speak of Antoninus Pius in terms of the emperors who immediately preceded and succeeded him. Part of this is that there is not much literature on Antoninus Pius. Adding to this dearth of information is that he did not build grand structures like Trajan had with his Forum or Hadrian had with his Mausoleum. Although Antoninus did have to deal with some military incursions for the most part he maintained Hadrian’s goal of ending imperial expansion. Antoninus mostly kept things the way they were. The maintenance of the status quo was the whole point of his reign. He was not supposed to be the Emperor who rode into Rome with an Imperial triumph or to be a great builder, he was meant to be a keeper of the peace.

If there’s one thing that defines Antoninus Pius’s reign, it is the peace that existed under his rule. In fact so peaceful was his rule that the time period from the beginning of his reign to the end of his successor Marcus Aurelius’s reign was known as the Golden Age Of The Antonines. This era is considered the pinnacle of the most successful period in Roman history and it was all made possible because Antoninus kept things the way they were. His reign did not overturn the Roman order like those of Augustus or Diocletian. Instead he kept going with things that were going well. Being a respected Senator, his reign marks the last time the Emperor and the Senate worked hand in hand to rule the Empire.

The only truly notable act of Antonius’s reign was that he passed laws guaranteeing certain rights to slaves. But even this was an example of how steadfast Antoninus was to keeping things status quo. This was not some great emancipation to be revered like the emancipation of the Civil War is revered. Instead rights were guaranteed to slaves because Antoninus understood that slaves drove the Roman economy and needed to have some protection from their masters in order to optimize their productivity and ensure a stable economy.

Such peace allowed for Roman culture and the economy to flourish. A great quote that embodies what Antoninus’s reign was about comes from the podcast of The History Of Rome. “Antoninus is a man who wants tomorrow to be like today, and today to be like yesterday.” Rome could only taste the fruits of its greatness when there was peace. Turmoil drained the Empire of resources and directed the population away from cultivating their culture, and to focus on war. Antoninus Pius’s reign was so great because he created the climate for peace that allowed Rome to reach its fullest potential. By following Hadrian’s wishes rather than breaking from them, he allowed for seamless transitions from the reigns of Hadrian through Marcus Aurelius.

Antoninus ended up being one of the longest serving Emperors, surviving much longer than anyone had anticipated. His reign lasted an almost Augustan amount, 22 years and 239 days. Most emperors’ reign came no where near this long of a reign. Antoninus’s peaceful relationship with the Senate, the power brokers of the Empire, meant that they felt involved enough in the affairs of the Empire that killing off Antoninus would not be to their advantage. Furthermore the climate of peace that Antoninus created was so well respected and successful that it made no sense for the Emperors in waiting to kill Antoninus in order to ascend to the throne more quickly. The peace and consistency Antoninus Pius provided for the Empire was almost universally regarded as bringing out the best in Rome and that is why he is One Of The Best Roman Emperors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The False Lure and Lessons of Technology And How It Shaped US Strategy In Vietnam

In all of the wars the United States participated in, technology especially cutting edge technology has been part of the common thread that ensured American victory. Whether it was the rifle of Revolutionary Marksmen, howitzers in the Civil War, or a nuclear bomb to end World War II, technology was crucial to American success. A tradition was established, and reached an apex in the arms race of the Cold War. American technology would be a key determinant in America’s Cold War strategy. Strategy and technology became inextricably linked. What was not grasped by American officials in charge of the Vietnam war was technology plays its most prominent role in the realm of tactics, and is not a driving force behind strategy. Thus America was doomed to failure in Vietnam due to a flawed overall strategy that fundamentally did not understand the role of technology in war nor the implications of its use.

The lesson America took from World War II and applied to Vietnam was that mass production won wars. Under President Eisenhower the US policy to send military advisers and aid to South Vietnam began. Since the French-Indochina war, America had been propping up the French with financial aid and military materiel. America was able to do so because in World War II America had established itself as the industrial superpower. America developed new and more efficient techniques to speed up production. Through Taylorism, America was able to out produce it’s enemies in World War II. Such mass production overwhelmed the enemy. Thus America believed in war it could grind down its opponents with overwhelming quantities of war materiel.

After the French defeat, the American military failed to reform it’s technology driven strategy. French failures were overlooked. The Eisenhower administration ignored French local failures and instead viewed the war through the geopolitical lens of the domino theory.# Eisenhower’s administration believed they could arm ARVN with vast quantities of weaponry to ensure victory. This course was chosen because American strategy operated under the assumption that conventional warfare tactics could win the war. Although the Americans provided huge sums of armaments to the South Vietnamese military, these weapons were meant for a conventional war. What the Vietminh had proved though in the French-Indochina War was that victory was secured through a strategy of unconventional warfare. Since America failed to adjust their strategy based on French defeat, America’s strategy for arming ARVN was fundamentally flawed.

The American military’s belief in the absolute power of technology prevented it from understanding how to defeat the fomenting insurgency in South Vietnam. America’s strategy was to make ARVN a NATO style military organization. The Military Assistance and Advisory Group, later MACV, believed NATO styled firepower was superior to the weaponry of locals. As a result military advisers felt they could win every battle against insurgents. This assumption was wrong. America could not see there was more to warfare than overwhelming brute force. The nature of the South Vietnamese insurgency was that the insurgents were highly motivated. This was in contradistinction to the ARVN who had many reasons to be disillusioned with the Diem government they were supposed to be protecting. Corruption, failure to land reform,# and removal of tribal power, isolated ARVN and the Diem government. MAAG was blinded to the fact that in order to succeed in Vietnam, they needed South Vietnam to succeed. To do this people needed to believe and support the South Vietnamese government. America did not realize that ARVN could not win by annihilating every enemy, but could only win by securing the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people.

Kennedy’s approach was to have a limited partnership with the Diem regime. He did not want to commit US ground troops to a conflict he viewed as an insurgency. Kennedy increased the number of advisers in Vietnam. He also sent a large amount of helicopters and other cutting edge technology. Kennedy brought the United States into a secret war that could only be facilitated by the new technology at America’s disposal. American pilots flew transport planes and helicopters for ARVN units. The administration believed the loss of the conflict could be prevented through such technology and support roles of US troops.

The Kennedy Administration changed the strategy of the Vietnam War. The new strategy shifted to counterinsurgency. Kennedy did not want to over commit and draw the Chinese or Soviets into the Vietnam War by pounding away at the North Vietnamese. The Untied States advised ARVN to take the war to the guerillas with new technology. Kennedy allowed the use of and M-113 armored personnel carriers for ARVN. The Kennedy administration believed such technology would intimidate the guerillas. Unfortunately for ARVN and MACV, the technology did not give an absolute advantage to ARVN. Guerillas sometimes captured the feared M-113. Guerillas became emboldened when they learned some of the new weapons of war could be easily destroyed . Guerillas realized helicopters could be shot down with their personal weapons. Technology was not creating a gap between ARVN and guerillas. Instead the guerillas adapted to the technology while ARVN and MACV continued to put false hopes in success through technology.

Johnson’s administration took the doctrine of using overwhelming firepower to end the Vietnam War to a new level. Escalation of the war was gradual under Johnson. Each step up the path of escalation pointed to America fighting a war of attrition. Johnson believed the US military’s superior firepower could overwhelm the insurgency and the North Vietnamese army. MACV promoted the strategy of crossover. Crossover occurred when enough opposing Vietnamese forces were killed that combat troops could not be re-supplied or reinforced. Crossover was a crucial failure in the US’s approach to the war. It fundamentally linked technology and tactics while blurring the line of achieving tactical goals and strategic goals.

Operation Rolling Thunder was a key example of trying to achieve strategic goals through
technology and tactics. Rolling Thunder was a reaction to the Gulf Of Tonkin incident. Many in Johnson’s cabinet, like Robert McNamara pushed for a heavy bombing campaign of North Vietnam to pound the country into submission. Opponents like George Ball understood that strategic bombing would not have the desired effect. North Vietnam had nothing of value to bomb. It was being supplied by China and since China was not a belligerent, it could not be attacked. Thus as Ball learned from WWII, the heavy bombing on homes and backyards of many North Vietnamese brought the war home for them. The bombing increased North Vietnamese determination while achieving almost no success for preventing the re-supply of guerrillas in the South. The bombing also did not shore up support of the Saigon government among locals. Thus South Vietnam was still very weak, while its enemies were furious and emboldened.

When the Johnson Administration approved the use of ground forces in Vietnam they were still hamstrung by an over reliance on technology instead of having a solid strategy. MACV believed the maneuverability helicopters provided for infantryman would ensure success in the battlefield. The MACV failed to understand the pitfalls of such technology. Helicopters did improve maneuverability but often increased vulnerability. Helicopters could be shot down before landing. After dropping terrain clearing daisy bombs, helicopter landing zones became easy targets for guerrillas. Landing zones often became ambush sites for guerrillas. Yet Johnson’s administration over looked these pitfalls. In their eyes the war was going to be won by such support vehicles destroying a drawn out enemy. The infantry were supposed to be the tools to draw out the enemy. This was the crux of the crossover strategy. Infantry would draw out the enemy, and support vehicles like helicopters and planes would bomb where the enemy was spotted. Because the Johnson administration was so tied to the idea of technology and tactics winning the war, it could not see how they were failing the war effort and endangering American soldiers.

The United States’ strategy in Vietnam was a non-strategy. Rather it relied on superior technology and tactics to win the war. The war could not be won on the hope technology and tactics would bleed the enemy into surrendering. As North Vietnam proved, an active and concerted strategy was the way to success. From 1956-1967 technology proved time and again it alone could not win the war in Vietnam.

Navarre, Give Us Back Our Legionairres

For many years after the Battle of The Teutoburg Forest, Roman Princeps Augustus could be heard passionately bellowing “Varus! Give me back my Legions!” So devastating was the Roman defeat in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. that the great “Anointed One” could never put the memory of such a humiliation behind him. Indeed it was the blackest mark on a career studded with success. Much like Augustus, the specter of undefeated Germanic tribes would come to haunt Rome for the rest of its existence. And yet the lessons from this World Changing event were ignored. The narrative of a great imperial power setting out to crush the challenge of perceived inferiors yet failing due to massive hubris seemed to escape the French in the events leading up to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French failed to learn the lessons that hit the Romans like so many German axes against routed Roman troops. The French failed to see how the Vietminh power was based on strong, loyal local coalitions, something France could not claim to have.

Arminius, leader of the Germanic coalition against Rome, proved and the Vietminh later executed on this fact, that to assert control over a region, one must rally local strong support to succeed. Arminius, was able to succeed in overcoming elite trained Roman Legions by drawing together many of the disparate Germanic tribes by weaving a patchwork of anti-Romanism. Conversely the Romans failed in Germania because they did not follow their strategy of incorporation that had made Roman Hegemony over the Mediterranean so efficient and long lasting. Instead Varus, Governor the Roman province Germania, was known to be harsh towards conquered Germanic tribes and often imposed unbearable taxes. Rather than rally local support, Rome went into the battle alone, on foreign soil, against an enemy united solely to defeat Rome.

The French, in their colonial war to maintain Indochina, sought to divide not just their opposition, but all Vietnamese. The French wanted to assert hegemony by making cynical friendships and discrediting long established Vietnamese traditions. France would often prop the Catholic minority above the Buddhist majority, and merged old kingdoms to form superficial bonds in provinces, as in the case of Laos. Much like the Romans failed to do with the tribes of Germania, the French failed to make the Vietnamese feel invested in the future of a Vietnamese-French relationship. Because the French had made it clear that their presence in Indochina was for resource extraction purposes only, an adversarial relationship emerged between the colonizers and colonized. Thus, when the French were ambushed and devastated, most in Vietnam were not weeping; they were elated.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was an ambush that resulted from France’s failed strategic planning and understanding of local Vietnamese politics. France having entrenched themselves too deeply in the lessons of World War I were rendered inflexible, like so many of their fortifications, to deal with a Vietnamese insurgency. From World War I, the French took the lesson that attrition won wars, and defensive fortifications were the prime tool of such success. The French often failed to capitalize on the mobility of their modern military, in favor of immobile, rigid defensive structures all over northern Vietnam. The French hoped the Vietminh would waste so many lives trying to take French fortifications, that eventually they would run out of troops to fight with. On the other hand the Vietnamese used mobility to their advantage to outmaneuver French fortifications.

From this emerges another lesson that should have been learned from the Teutoburg debacle. Picking the location of battle is crucial. Similarly important is the ability to be flexible in one’s chosen location of battle. Mobility provides this flexibility. The Romans in the Teutoburg Forest were ambushed because the densely packed legions were led into a forest and confined to a narrow road that provided little maneuverability. Maneuverability is crucial because it gives troops the power to react to sudden changes in the battle. Thus when the legions were stormed in lighting attacks by Germanic raiders, Roman inflexibility made slaughter easy.

The French defensive network at Dien Bien Phu made them highly inflexible. In order to achieve success the French had to lure the Vietminh into designated killing zones that allowed for crossing fire. When the Vietminh reacted to this by building a series of trench works that zig-zagged towards French defenses, the immobile French could not react in time to change their course of strategy. The French either had to hope the Vietnamese could be bled out before reaching their fortifications, or would somehow be relieved in the ever growing encirclement. Despite the fact that they were led to Dien Bien Phu through the feints and diversions of Vietminh General Vo Nguyen Giap, the French believed that Dien Bien Phu would be secure because of how remote it was.

Dien Bien Phu was a fortification located in a valley. As a result it became very difficult to supply and depended on air lifts for materiel. Furthermore, typically high ground is preferred in war. This did not concern the French. They believed it would be impossible for the Viet Minh to supply such a remote location. What the French did not factor in was the level of organization and determination of the Viet Minh courier system. The courier system was a system where manual laborers one by one transported war materiel up to Dien Bien Phu. Artillery was provided by the Chinese and Soviets, Cold War nemeses of the French.

The Vietnamese had advantages in manpower and initiative. Combined with foreign artillery, the Vietminh had a recipe for success. Despite many losses, through grit and determination, the Vietminh worked their way up to the different French fortifications of Gabrielle, Anne-Marie, and Beatrice, and overran them. Once these fortifications were gone, the crossing fire they could provide became eliminated along with French hopes of bleeding the enemy to defeat.

The aftermath for both imperial powers was devastating. The Roman losses from the three legions and auxiliary forces in the Teutoburg Forest are estimated at around 20,000 casualties. For the French 10,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. For Rome, gone was the Roman air of invincibility. So embarrassing was the loss, never again would any Roman Legion bear the numbers XVII, XVIII, XIX. This was a macabre homage to Rome’s greatest fiasco since Cannae. For France, Dien Bien Phu marked the beginning of the unraveling of its great empire dating back to the 19th century. Within 20 years France’s overseas empire was all but disintegrated. The implications of this battle reversed the trend of European domination over third world powers. Dien Bien Phu was the first time a major European power was defeated by a subjugated people. For the rest of the 20th century the narrative of imperialism would be its rapid post World War II decline, not continuing European domination.

In both cases, France and Rome were great imperial powers fighting wars to oppress, rather than lift their subjects. As a result neither could secure local support when combating opposing factions. Furthermore, both powers believed they were superior and their opposition was inferior. This arrogance led to poor assumptions and unwise tactical decisions when facing the enemy. France, having ignored the lessons from Roman history became destined to fail in Indochina. In the end, with such high losses and international humiliation for naught, France could only cry Navarre, “Give us back our Legionnaires!”