Book Review: Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate Warfare, and the Rise of Rome by Arthur M. Eckstein

This book is for serious students of ancient Rome and its place in antiquity, for those who desire a deeper understanding of the cultural, social, economic and political dynamics of the ancient Mediterranean world that Rome came to dominate, and an insight into how and why Rome came to rule over this entire region. The historian attempts to tell us what happened in a particular time and place, the political scientist attempts to tell us why it happened. The author, Arthur M. Eckstein attempts to marry history and political science and does so, in this reader’s estimation, very successfully.
Mr. Eckstein maintains that up until the time that Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean region, that is, the second century B.C., the region was in a state of anarchy. He does not mean that within a given polity there were no leaders and no effective laws, he means that between polities there was no enforceable international law, and each polity was on its own in a struggle to survive in the face of challenges from other warlike polities. This situation compelled each polity to maintain a substantial military force and a culture of militarism and, to some degree, aggression. Conflicts between states were generally settled by war. Although there was an international norm that prevented harm to diplomats (sometimes violated, as when the Spartans threw the Persian ambassadors in a well), diplomacy was not an effective means of solving disputes because it was “compulsion” diplomacy in which the diplomats publicly presented ultimatums. The state that received such ultimatums could not reasonably submit to them for fear of appearing weak, and a weak state was fair game for aggression.
The political situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, that is Greece and Asia Minor, came into being in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the great. According to Eckstein: “The empire he had created almost immediately fell apart. During the chaos that followed Alexander’s death, several of his generals founded great territorial states themselves, Macedonian dynasties with worldwide ambitions, each in bitter competition for power with the others: the Ptolemaic regime based in Egypt; the Seleucids based in Syria and Mesopotamia; the Antigonids based in Macedon. But despite the brilliance, vigor, and ruthlessness of the founders—and the brilliance, vigor and ruthlessness of some of their successors—none of these monarchies was ever able to establish universal domination. The world of multipolarity and unstable balances of power continued in the Mediterranean—along with the prevalence of war and the absence of international law.”
Rome arose in a similar situation of anarchy in Italy. From its very beginnings Rome struggled to survive amidst challenges from a multitude of aggressive
rivals-the Etruscans, the Latins, the Campanians, the Samnites and other Italic hill tribes, and the invading Gauls from the north. Rome faced various existential challenges and had little choice other than to become highly militarized, aggressive and brutal with a culture that justified its dominance over other states. The author makes the point that while Rome was indeed militarized, aggressive and brutal it was not exceptionally so. Every state in the region was militarized, aggressive and brutal because that’s what international anarchy compels. Each state was on its own and each had to be militarily strong to resist the aggression of others. A small state did have the recourse of allying with a more powerful state and asking for its protection and they usually allied with the state that they found least threatening. In the case of Greece, a number of the less powerful states would turn to Rome for protection.
Eckstein places the critical year of Rome’s eventual hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean at 200 B.C. He maintains that a crisis of vast proportions arose when Ptolemy IV Philopater died in 203 B.C. and left his kingdom to his infant son. There was rebellion and chaos in Egypt and a marked weakening of the state. The rulers of the other two Alexandrian successor states, Philip V of Macedonia and Antiochus III of the Seleucid Kingdom each saw an opportunity to take advantage of this situation and expand their dominance. Wars of aggression broke out in various regions of Greece and, in 200 B.C. several embassies from various parts of Greece; Rhoades, Athens and Pergamum, among others, came to Rome pleading for Roman intervention. The ambassadors claimed the Philip V and Antiochus had made a treaty allowing them to dismantle the Ptolemaic state and each claim a portion for himself. The Roman Senate, alarmed by these developments made a decision to intervene. They faced opposition from the citizen assembly but overcame it. They decided to send an ultimatum to Philip V, with whom Rome had a history of war, and a diplomatic mission to Antiochus III. Philip rejected their ultimatum and Rome went to war with Macedon, resulting in eventual Roman victory. While Antiochus III continued aggressive acts in Asia he was restrained from actually invading Egypt and the Ptolemaic monarchy persisted for nearly two more centuries.
Although Rome had been involved in Illyria during the previous three decades and had already fought one war with Macedon, Eckstein maintains that it was this decision to intervene in the crisis provided by the succession in Egypt that was the tipping point for Rome’s eventual hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean.
Eckstein maintains that the Roman success in establishment of a hegemony in the Mediterranean world was not due to Rome being exceptionally militarized, aggressive and brutal. All state of that era were militarized, aggressive and brutal. (There were no “good guys” in the ancient world.) He maintained that it was the social characteristic of inclusiveness in the Roman culture that allowed Rome to amass manpower reserves and increase its military power. Rome frequently granted citizenship, partial citizenship (Latin rights) or favored status to the peoples they conquered and, in exchange these peoples provided allied legions for Roman use in the event of war. Thus, during the Hannibalic war, until the battle of Cannae, there were Campanians, Samnites, Etruscans, Lucanians, Bruttians and others among the allies in the battles against Hannibal and even after Cannae Rome could draw upon manpower from the Latin states and some others that remained loyal to Rome. Greek states, by contrast, guarded the privilege of citizenship closely and did not confer citizenship or rights on aliens or conquered peoples.
I would also add three other factors to the reasons for Rome’s ultimate hegemony. First, although Rome had always had a strong military, their recent experience in the sixteen year-long Hannibalic war caused Rome to develop a military that was second to none in the ancient world. Secondly, as Polybius pointed out, Rome’s republican system of government with its balance of powers between the monarchical component (Consuls), oligarchical component (Senate) and democratic component (assemblies of the plebs) was particularly strong and stable. Thirdly there was the Roman penchant for organization. If you ever read Polybius’ comparison between the Roman military camp and the Greek, you will conclude that the Romans had it all over the Greeks in their organizational skills.

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