They make a desert and call it peace
I am usually suspicious of claims that understanding the history of the ancient world helps you understand the history of our own. When people tell me that antiquity was so like today, I tend to object that it was actually very different in almost every possible respect.
But two of the topics in Roman history that I regularly teach have recently come to seem almost uncomfortably topical – and raw.
The first is the whole theme of “native” resistance to the Roman empire. If you didn't have the military resources, how could you stand up against the ancient world’s only super-power?
Between the third century BC and the first century AD, Rome systematically extended its control over the world from the Sahara to Scotland. As with most empires, it was not without its advantages for at least some of the conquered. I’m not just talking about consumer goods, literacy, water and drains (which didn’t impact on as much of the Roman world as we often fondly imagine). Rome’s imperial strategy was first to incorporate the local elites and gradually spread citizenship, with all its advantages, throughout its whole territory. It was generosity, even if sprung from self-interest.
That said, what could you do if you didn’t fancy being taken over by Rome, having your self-determination removed and being forced to sing to the Roman tune (as well as pay Roman taxes)? The Roman legions represented an insuperable military force. In pitched battle they might occasionally be delayed (if you could muster vast numbers of forces while the Romans themselves were off-guard), but while their power was at its height they could not be defeated.
Barbarians were not stupid. They did not pointlessly waste their men’s lives in formal battle lines against the super-power. Instead they did what the disadvantaged will always do against overwhelming military odds: they ignored the rules of war and resorted to guerilla tactics, trickery and terrorism.
Much of this was ghastly and cruel. Our image of plucky little Asterix with his boy-scoutish japes against the Roman occupation is about as true to life as a cartoon strip would be that made suicide-bombing seem like fun. Boudicca’s scythed chariots (if they ever existed) were the ancient equivalent of car-bombs. In terrorizing the occupying forces she was said to have had the breasts slashed off the Roman civilian women and sewn into their mouths.
Roman writers were outraged at barbarian tactics in war, decried their illegal weapons and their flouting of military law. (In fact “terrorist” sometimes captures the Roman sense of the Latin word “barbarus” better than the more obvious “barbarian”). But in the face of invincible imperialism, they must have felt they were using the only option they had. Does it sound familiar?
My second teaching topic is the famous account by the Roman historian Tacitus of the career of his father-in-law Agricola. Agricola was governor of Britain in the late first century AD and extended Roman power north into Scotland. On one occasion the barbarians were foolish enough to risk a pitched battle – and, just before it, Tacitus puts into the mouth of the British leader, Calgacus, a rousing speech denouncing not only Roman rule but the corruption of language that follows imperial domination. Slaughter and robbery go under the name of “power” (we make much the same point about “collateral damage”). And, in a now famous phrase, he says “They make a desert and call it peace.”
This is often treated, and quoted, as a barbarian denunciation of Roman rule. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. No real words of Calgacus or of any British “barbarians” have survived. As with many imperial powers, the most acute critiques often came from within the Roman system not from outside it. This is an analysis by Tacitus himself, a leading member of the Roman elite, observing the consequences of Roman expansion and daring to put himself into the place of the conquered.
As such, it makes an even more appropriate message for us. Whatever forms our “deserts” take – whether it is the poppy fields of Afghanistan, or the ruins that will be left of Beirut, when Israel and Hezbollah (and our own culpable inactivity) have finished – we are still making them and calling them “peace”.