Thursday, December 04, 2003

Imperatores Victi

By Nathan Rosenstein

"The glory and wealth that the city's conquerors gained by their victories paved the way to office, authority, and enhanced prestige when they returned to civilian life. But did that connection obtain in the other direction as well? Was military failure likely to bring serious political damage in its train? Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries seems to offer an obvious analogy. Then, too, successful war leaders enjoyed great influence in the political arena, but those whose operations failed regularly paid a heavy price. Thucydides is the best known but by no means the only politician to have had a career cut short by the domestic fallout from a military defeat. Prosecutions on charges brought by eisangelia were a constant danger to strategoi after battles were lost or when foreign-policy initiatives went awry. At Carthage the consequences could be even more frightening. The citizens there evinced a singular brutality when their armies met defeat: Punic commanders were crucified.

Common sense might suggest that punitive measures would have been equally prevalent at Rome. Military failure affected the citizens directly. The soldiers who filled the legions and suffered most when battles were lost voted in the assemblies, if they returned alive. And whether they did or not, their suffering touched relatives and friends, among whom the men also had votes. Even Romans with no personal ties to those in the ranks could be moved by anger and fear when defeat damaged the prestige of their city or imperiled its safety, and a hostile populace at Rome had effective ways of lashing out. The bulk of aristocratic competition took place under its arbitration, in elections for office or through the deliberations of judicial assemblies. Hatred and a desire for vengeance against the commander responsible therefore ought to have made themselves felt at the polls, ending his chances for further honors and perhaps even being visited on his descendants. Even greater danger could come from the courts. A military defeat might furnish grounds for a capital charge, and all such cases, until late in the history of the Republic, came before the voters in the comitiacenturiata for trial. To be effective, of course, public animosity needed leaders to marshal and focus it, but candidates would not have been lacking. Working up popular rage and exploiting it for political advantage or to humiliate a rival was commonplace among ambitious aristocrats. Men eager for office ought not to have let the electorate forget an opponent's earlier failures. Enemies should have been quick to bring a rival to trial when he had led Roman soldiers to defeat."
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