October 9, 2012

Isaac And Millar: A Comparison

Fergus Millar and Benjamin Isaac, both renowned historians of the Roman period, have each treated the subject of the Eastern Roman Empire in their respective texts, The Roman Near East and The Limits of Empire. While both authors disagree with Luttwak’s thesis of Roman Grand Strategic Planning, and both challenge the traditional roles of Roman army units on the frontier, they differ slightly in their approaches.

To begin, Millar and Isaac focus heavily on Judea and the uniqueness of the Jewish peoples in the history of Roman conquering. The sheer volume of archeological data for Millar and Talmudic data for Isaac, as well as the unique nature of Judea account for the authors’ attention to this region. Isaac is critical of overreliance on archeological evidence, fearing the tendency to read too much into an artifact or location whose survival is the product of chance. He cites numerous cases of experts rushing to judgment over new discoveries of milestones, outposts, and desert forts, which upon further excavation proved to be exceptions to the Roman status quo rather than the rule. He notes, “Even in the best-explored western provinces it is still difficult to distil history from artefacts.” Millar, while acknowledging the limitations of such sources, defends his use of inscriptions, “However their limited content, inscriptions have the overwhelming advantage for the historian of being tied to place and time: that is, of being found (generally speaking) in the place where they were set up and of being explicitly dated or (at worst) broadly datable.”

The authors discuss the process by which the Roman army facilitated the assimilation of conquered peoples and cultures. While Millar focuses on the cultural subjugation of a conquered people Isaac takes a closer look at the role of the Roman army in bringing about this change. According to Millar, when Rome took over an area, indigenous political power disappeared. Roman legions kept the peace, Roman officials collected taxes, and Greek and Latin replaced local language, Greco-Roman governmental and civil structures supplanted any such local entities with speed and efficiency. Much like Alexander’s Macedonians before them, Romans supplanted local gods by equating them with their own Greco-Roman ones. The role of Greek language in facilitating this change cannot be exaggerated. Millar notes how not only governmental but also historical, mythological, and religious ideas were transmitted via the language. Isaac focuses on the Roman army’s brutal suppression of the local population immediately following the conquering of new territory by fire and sword, mass crucifixions, and destruction of the enemy’s economic base. Afterward, the Roman army would force locals to go through Roman channels in order to carry out any business. Isaac and Millar both recognize the role of the army in keeping providing security for a province, but they focus on different reasons for the security process. Millar notes the fortification of roads with watchtowers and guard posts in order to provide secure lanes of traffic for commerce. Isaac disagrees with Millar on this point. He notes that, “the army served the Roman authorities as an instrument of control.” The army sought to control the local population for the sake of the Roman imperium, not for the benefit of commerce. Consequently, Isaac sees these fortified roads as lines communication, with the posts and watchtowers acting to secure this communication.

Millar and Isaac both disagree with the Luttwakian thesis of a Roman Grand Master Strategy. Isaac clearly states, “There was no Grand Strategy, conscious or unconscious, guiding the rulers in their decision.” Millar admits that the disposition of the legions was a matter of deliberate choice. Regardless of any other accidental consequences or lack of a master plan, Roman legion assignments were clearly a choice, such as the placement of three legions in Syria by Augustus. For Millar, there was no “grand strategy”, but there was a continuous expansion. Similarly, Isaac agrees that the placement of legions in frontier regions was a deliberate act, pointing to the placement in Judea of extra legions following the Jewish rebellions ending in AD 70 and again after the Bar Kochba revolt as an example of how these areas were gradually built up. The important part, both authors note, is that these legions were stationed in urban areas and near urban centers, not on borders. In particular, Isaac attacks the idea of the frontier being under constant external pressure, either from Parthian or nomadic forces. This is a key peg in Luttwak’s concept of the frontier as a buffer zone or defensive line.

The authors agree also on the role of personal ambition and greed in the expansion of the Eastern Empire. Both point to the emulation of Alexander the Great’s conquests as a motive for the constant expansions and fruitless campaigns beginning with Trajan. Isaac quotes Dio’s criticism of Trajan, “He would say that he had gone further than Alexander and wrote accordingly to the Senate, while he could not even keep what he had conquered.” Likewise, Millar makes note of Caracalla’s imitation of Alexander as well as that of his father Septimius Severus. Millar and Isaac also agree on the personal ambition of individual emperors as a motivation as well. Isaac writes, “The interests and ambitions of the emperors were very often served better by expensive conquests than economic defense.”

As we have seen, both Millar and Isaac, while approaching the selected topics differently, agree on the outcomes. The Luttwak thesis is shown to be wrong and the personal ambition of the emperors in their quest to claim the legacy of Alexander is highlighted as a motivation for the Eastern Expansions.

Image Credit: Isabella Pfenninger / Shutterstock

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