5th April 2003
Commentators are complaining that the Iraqi army is refusing to confront the coalition forces head-on. Very sensible of them. Quintus Fabius Maximus (charmingly known as Verrucosus, 'covered in warts') would have applauded.
In 218 BC Hannibal brought his Carthaginian army (complete with elephants) from north Africa, across Spain and southern France, and over the Alps down into Italy. His purpose was to take revenge on the Romans for the Carthaginian defeat in the first Punic War (265-241 BC). In battles at Ticinus, Trebia and Trasimene he thrashed the Romans in open field, at a cost to the Romans of about 50,000 casualties. The Romans were appalled at this turn of events. It was time for them to re-think their strategy against an inspiring and innovative general with a superbly trained and highly flexible army, and Fabius was the man to do it. His proposal was not popular, but it was their only hope: to fight Hannibal where Hannibal was not. Consequently, Fabius started to dog Hannibal's steps, following him wherever he went as if he were 'Hannibal's paedagogus' (i.e. the slave who followed the young master to school, carrying his books), as those contemptuous of the policy put it. Fabius camped on high ground, where Hannibal would not dare to attack, and engaged in a war of attrition, harrying his foraging parties so that they could not collect food or fodder ('kicking the enemy in the stomach', as Romans later called it). He upset Hannibal's lines of communication, attacked his allies, launched swift guerrilla raids and generally did everything he could to lower enemy morale by causing maximum disruption, but without ever engaging in the open. On one occasion he even had Hannibal trapped, but let the chance slip. When Fabius returned briefly to Rome to supervise some religious rituals, his colleague Minucius won a skirmish against Hannibal and foolishly decided to take him on properly. Only Fabius' intervention saved Minucius' army from a very severe mauling. Even so, the Romans did not learn their lesson: they fielded a gigantic army to confront Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC, and lost some 50,000 dead. They learned it then.
So Romans went back to harassing. They denied Hannibal reinforcements and attacked Carthage in Spain and Africa, and Hannibal was finally forced out of Italy. Fabius earned the nick-name Cunctator, 'delayer', for his strategy (an improvement on Verrucosus). His tactics stumped Hannibal. Will they stump von Rumsfeld?
Wilfred Owen is always quoted in times of war, especially his poem ending '...you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori'. But Owen's understanding of the 'old Lie' is not quite fair to the ancients. They were no keener to die in battle than Owen was.
Owen's quote comes from Horace's Odes (III.2), but Horace is not preaching the virtue of dying. He goes on to say 'death also chases down the man who runs away and does not spare the back or hamstrings of young cowards'. His point is that, if you must die in battle, better to die gloriously: even a coward can make the best of the situation and lessen death's bitterness.
Likewise, Homer's Iliad is regularly seen as the prototype heroic epic glorifying warfare and a martial death. But, with one exception, no hero seeks out death. The hero's desire is to win, and to die is to fail. At the same time, when death does come, it is construed as inevitable. Indeed, Homer's word for 'destiny' usually means 'the moment you die', which (the poet tells us) is fixed the moment you are born. In these cases, the hero does go for glory at all costs. Thus Trojan Hector, pursued by Achilles round the walls of Ilium but deceived by Athene into stopping and fighting, when he realises that he has been tricked and that the gods have deserted him, reflects 'So now my destiny confronts me. Let me at least sell my life dearly and not without glory, after some great deed for future generations to hear of' - precisely the point Horace was making seven hundred years later.
The one exception is Achilles. As a direct result of his own refusal to return to the fighting, his beloved companion Patroclus is killed in battle by Hector. Achilles' mother Thetis tells him that, if he takes revenge on Hector, he will die next. Achilles bursts out 'Then let me die immediately, since I let my companion be killed when I could have saved him'. Achilles proceeds to win what immortal glory he can with the single-handed rout of the Trojan forces, culminating in the slaughter of Hector; but, as the Odyssey shows, that is cold comfort. Odysseus in the underworld says Achilles 'lords it over the dead'. Achilles retorts that he would rather be a labourer for a landless peasant, and at once asks after his living son, Neoptolemus. Life is what counts.
What will be Middle Eastern historians' judgement of Saddam's regime and its enforced collapse? Is there a Tacitus among them? In his Histories, Tacitus describes the traumatic 'Year of the Four Emperors' (AD 69) that followed the death of Nero, a year when general after general attempted to seize power by force, and the Roman world seemed to fall apart. There is an especially dramatic description of the fall of the third brief tenant of the imperial throne, Vitellius - an end which may yet mirror Saddam's.
When Rome was captured by the troops of his successor, Vespasian, Vitellius was taken by chair through the back of the palace to his wife's house. His aim was to lie low and get away by night to his brother's home, sixty miles to the south in Tarracina. But unable, in his terror, to make a final decision, Vitellius returned to his 'vast, deserted palace. Even the lowest of his menials had slipped away, or avoided meeting him. The solitude and silence of the place terrified him. He tried locked doors, and shuddered at the emptiness around him. Eventually, exhausted by his miserable wanderings, he crept into some shameful hiding place, where he was discovered and hauled out by a tribune of the guards called Julius Placidus. His hands were tied behind his back, his clothes torn and he was led away, heaped with insults, a disgraceful sight, evoking not a single tear of pity.' (Other sources describe his hiding-place as the janitor's room, or a dog-kennel.)
Forced to watch as statues of him were pulled down, Vitellius was taken to the place where a previous emperor, Galba, and a city prefect had been murdered. As the jeering mob abused him, Tacitus records a comment showing true nobility: 'Whatever you may say, I was your emperor'. With that he was cut down, 'and the mob reviled him in death as viciously as they had flattered him while he was alive'.
Tacitus has a number of targets in his sights here. The first is the degradation brought on the highest office in the Roman world by people like Vitellius (hence Tacitus' comment on one sign of nobility in him); the second is the behaviour of the brutal, fickle, value-free mob, happy to be swayed by whatever pleasure and advantage they could extract from a situation. It all makes for a dreadful vision of the perversion and degeneracy of a world about which Tacitus felt so deeply. There will be room for Middle Eastern historians of similar passion and honesty when it comes to assessing events in Iraq.