Seizing the advantage


Dec 20th 69 AD Vespasian entered Rome as Emperor.  When I look at his face I see a jocular and human person, not an emperor on an ivory tower.  A plain man, with a face engraved with the worries and cares of normal life.  The blunt face of a plain man, a soldier, a man of the people.

In truth he was a brilliant military commander.  He had a track record of military success in Britain under Claudius, followed by the subjugation of Judea.

After Emperor Nero committed suicide followed the “Year of the Four Emperors” as one candidate after the other vied for control of Rome.  Galba was defeated by Otho who was ousted by Vitellius.  Vitellius held Rome with the cream of the Roman legions from the Gallic and German frontiers.

This is when Vespasian demonstrated his keen mind for politics and economics.  Instead of marching on Rome he moved on Egypt.  This was the breadbasket of the Roman world, providing the grain supply that kept ordinary Romans fed and happy.

With the food supply in his control he was able to broker alliances with the former supporters of Otho.  He added the Syrian legions to those he controlled in Judea.  He then assembled favourable religious omens, prophesies and portents to support his claim before moving on Vitellius.

Vespasian was also a marketing genius.  He understood the power of branding, placing the name on the world famous “Flavian Amphitheater” which is today better known as the Colosseum.

The name “Colosseum” actually referred to a giant bronze statue which stood in front of the Amphitheater.  Originally a statue of Emperor Nero, and modeled on the “Colossus of Rhodes” one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  The Colossus of Rome was almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.  Over time it was re-purposed to represent other emperors, and to represent the Greek Sun God Helios.




Where are my legions?


One of my favourite anecdotes from my study of ancient Rome is how Emperor Augustus, in times of stress, would stalk the corridors of his palace crying out  “Publius Quinctilius Varus where are my legions?”

In the year 4 CE Tiberius led a massive army of 13 legions into Germany to subjugate the country.  A revolt in Illyricum (modern day Balkans) caused a huge drain on Roman troops.  Half of all standing legions had to be deployed to the Balkans.  In 6 CE this left Varus leading only three legions in Germany to consolidate it as a province.  Up to this point what Rome wanted Rome got.

Arminius, a Roman trained soldier and Roman citizen brought together a coalition of six German tribes.  Arminius (Herman) was acting as a local advisor to Varus while putting together an alliance of warring tribes to defeat him.  Arminius then informed Varus of a local rebellion and guided the Romans straight into his ambush in the Teutoburg forest.

Arminius knew that the Legions were unbeatable once they deployed in battle array.  His ambush and tactics during the fight were designed to constrict the Romans to narrow forest tracks, and to string them out over a long line of march.  Clearings were further constricted by trenches and ditches.

The Romans were subjected to a series of well organised flank attacks from the forest.  Light German troops moved quickly through the bogs and muddy tracks and rained javelins down upon the heavily armoured Romans.  Despite the desperate situation the Romans managed to establish a defensive camp at the end of the day.  But when they tried to escape they became disoriented in the woods.  Attack after attack eventually wiped out the three legions and their standards were lost.

The Romans retrenched to the line of the River Rhine.  In subsequent years they mounted large scale punitive expeditions against the German tribes.  In 16 CE Germanicus (father of emperor Caligula) recovered two of the three lost eagles and was held to have avenged the defeat.

In truth however the Germans halted the advance of Rome.  From this point on the primary driver of the Roman Empire was maintenance of existing territory rather than expansion.  Exceptions to this were the conquest of Britain under Claudius and the short lived expansion across the Danube immortalised by Trajan on his commemorative column in Rome.

The event became central to celebration of German nationalism in the 19th Century and National Socialism in the 20th Century.  Since WW2 the modern German state has downplayed militaristic national symbols and celebrations to mark the 2000 year anniversary were low key.

Political despair

Today David Cameron announced that the UK will be allowed to vote in a referendum on membership of the European Union, if, and here is the clincher, if the Conservatives win the next election.

It is 2 years to the next election.  The Conservatives are in power only because they are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  The Lib Dems are pro Europe, and the Conservatives are afraid that this makes them look weak.

On the far right the lunatic fringe is gaining ground.  The UK Independence Party, who are basically a domesticated strain of the National Front, are making gains at the expense of the Conservatives.  Cameron is running scared from the UKIP.  He has to look strong.  He has to look British.  He is trying to personify the spirit of “St George and England” by adopting what LOOKS like an anti-Euro stance.

I have to say, as political gambits go, this looks like a good one.  It looks strong.  It looks determined.  It looks downright British.  In fact it is just about as British as St George, who was an Anatolian who joined the Eastern Roman Empire as a Soldier.  You could call him a Roman, you could call him a Greek.  He had more in common with Palestinians than with British.  Just like David Cameron, the British anti-European neo-splendid isolationist, St George is a phantasm.

Cameron is gambling.  He is gambling with stability, with business confidence, with the ability to plan long term.  If he wins the Tories gain power alone for a term.  Cameron could be the next Margaret Thatcher.  Now, if only he could kick off another war in the Falklands, and a decade of violence in Northern Ireland he could become the new Iron Lady.  God Forbid!

Politics; by William Butler Yeats

HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!