3rd May 2003
The Americans say they have no plans to attack any other foreign power - at the moment. To judge by the Iraq conflict, however, it will not be St Augustine's concept of the 'just war' that controls that decision, but the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero's.
In his de officiis ('On Obligations', 44 BC), Cicero discusses how justice should be applied in a range of cases, including war. Arguing that there are laws of warfare which must be strictly observed, he continues 'since there are two ways of settling a dispute, by discussion or by force, and the former is characteristic of man, the latter of animals, we must resort to force only when discussion is no longer possible. The only excuse for going to war is that one may live in peace, unharmed'.
That principle established, Cicero starts laying down various conditions. First, no war will be just unless an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted, or a warning has been given and a formal declaration made. Second, Cicero distinguishes between wars fought for the sake of survival, and wars fought for the sake of imperium ('rule, control') when gloria is at stake. Both must be justified in accordance with his original principle, but wars of imperium must be fought 'with less bitterness'. Third, the victors have a duty to treat the vanquished mercifully, as long as the vanquished have themselves acted without cruelty or barbarism. In particular, those who lay down their arms and throw themselves on Roman mercy must be protected, 'even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls' (this, presumably, refers to a convention that the besieged could generally expect no mercy once the rams had been brought up, since this was an indication that they had refused to surrender). Fourth, only legally enlisted soldiers can fight. Fifth, all promises must be strictly observed.
It is noticeable that Cicero sees the interests of Rome as the sole justification for war, and sees both self-defence and expansion of empire as a sufficient motive for action. Such a vision suited the most powerful state in the ancient world. Cicero's call for mercy for those of the enemy who decide to agree with Rome is equally self-serving. As he goes on to say, Rome's ultimate aim is 'peace without treachery'. Rome needed all the friends it could get.
Virgil talks of Rome's mission as 'pardoning the defeated and warring down the proud'. Rome, however, decided who fell into which category. All very von Rumsfeld.
Two British commandos from the Special Boat Service (motto: 'Not by force, but by guile') escaped capture in Iraqi by trekking some hundred miles across mountainous terrain, by night, to the Syrian border. Who were they? Nobody knows, or will know - a unique form of heroism.
In the ancient world it was public performance, and so public acknowledgement, that counted. In Homer's Iliad, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally from Lycia, gives the classic statement of the heroic 'contract' to his second-in-command Glaucus, that in return for the best of material rewards, 'we are obliged to take our places in the front ranks and fling ourselves into the flames of battle. Only then will our Lycian men-at- arms say of us: "Well! These are no dishonourable lords of Lycia that rule over us and eat fat sheep and drink the best sweet wine: they are indomitable and fight in the front ranks of the Lycians." ' Sarpedon concludes: 'My friend, if, after living through this war, we could be sure of becoming ageless and immortal, I should not fight in the front line nor send you out into the battle where men win glory. But the world is not like that. A thousand demons of death hover over us, and nobody can escape or avoid them. So in we go, whether we yield the victory to some other man, or he to us.'
Even 'resourceful, much-enduring' Odysseus, for all his tricks, cannot escape this need for acknowledgement. In order to trick his way out of the ferocious Cyclops' cave, he calls himself 'No one' and, when he succeeds, he laughs at the way 'my guile deceived him'. The word for 'guile' is mêtis - but split mê tis, it means 'no one'. 'Notion' is probably the closest we can get to the double entendre in English. But after he and his men have escaped, he cannot resist stopping to taunt the Cyclops and telling him his real name - a disastrous mistake, since Cyclops can now call the god's curse down on him. A man like Odysseus could not endure that anyone should think of him as a 'no one' - that would be the ultimate heroic humiliation.
Force or guile? We hear, in one epic tradition, that Achilles and Odysseus wrangled over which tactic should be deployed to capture Ilium. Odysseus prevailed, and Ilium fell to guile - the trick of the Wooden Horse. But Odysseus still demanded, and got, the public credit for it. He would never have cut it in the Special Services.
The footballer David Beckham has had new tattoos imprinted on his arms, complete with Latin tags. One reads perfectio in spiritu, 'perfection in spirit' the other ut amem et foveam, 'to love and to cherish', translated into Latin from the Solemnization of Matrimony in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer. What is going on?
Tattoos have a long history going back to Eleventh Dynasty Egypt (c. 2000 BC). They were especially popular in Britain - Britanni, originally Pretani or Priteni, meant 'painted/tattooed people' (cf. Latin Picti). These days they have become a form of heraldry, marking the body rather than the shield with one's personal 'coat of arms', for sexual as well as social purposes.
When the idea of heraldry first emerged from the Crusades in the twelfth century, mottos tended to be in French, usually battle cries (Dieu et Mon Droit!). Latin, however, came into favour from the sixteenth century. One can perhaps identify three broad reasons. First, over the centuries, Latin had acquired claims to a sort of universality. It had been, after all, the common European language of politics, religion and education from the fall of the Roman empire onwards. It was therefore neutral and could be universally applied. One notorious example is the use of the model of Latin grammar to describe modern languages, however little the language in question actually resembled it. English, for example, has no inflected case system, but that did not prevent generations of schoolchildren saying 'O table'.
Second, as the Frenchman Ferdinand Brunétière said, 'there are languages that sing, others that draw or paint. Latin engraves, and what is engraves is ineradicable. One might say that something that is not universal or ineradicable cannot be Latin'. Latin, in other words, surviving in countless bronze and marble inscriptions, established a claim to being the eternal language: put it in Latin and it will last for ever. No wonder twentieth-century fascist Italy, with its will to power and immortality, revived the Roman epigraphic tradition.
But Latin was not only a language with a vocation to state the universal and eternal. It was also the language of cultural aspiration. A Latin motto bestowed an indefinable class on a family, business or football club - and now on a footballer? The fact that Beckham chose to have words in English from the Book of Common Prayer translated into Latin makes his case all the more interesting.
Apologies for singing a very old song, but with the debate on a referendum over the European constitution in full swing and the term 'parliamentary democracy' being bandied about by New Labour to repel the notion, it is time to remind readers again how meaningless the term 'parliamentary democracy' actually is.
'Democracy' derives from dêmokratia, 'people-power' (Greek dêmos 'people' + kratos 'rule, authority, power'). This term was invented to describe the system put in place in Athens by Cleisthenes in 508 BC. The result was that all the decisions which our MPs take today were taken in Athens by the majority vote of the people (male citizens over 18) meeting in the Assembly. Dêmokratia was destroyed by the Macedonian conquerors of Athens in 322 BC and has never been tried since. What we have in its place is 'democracy', a term with virtually no meaning in itself, as can be judged from the fact that every state these days has claimed to be 'democratic' - Saddam's Iraq, Stalin's Russia, Mugabe's Zimbabwe, all glorious democracies. The term 'parliamentary democracy' is notably fatuous: a transparent contradiction in terms. 'Partycracy' would be more like it.
If 'democracy' means anything these days, it is 'voting'. It has nothing to do with power, let alone of the people. If one wants an accurate description of our constitution, it is (as Aristotle would have called it) an elective partycracy: we vote to put in power a party to take decisions without reference to us. There is nothing wrong with this system, but it has nothing to do with people-power. Indeed, even the Roman republican system, controlled ruthlessly by cliques of aristocrats, was more democratic than ours. Every decision taken by their de facto ultimate authority the Senate (an élite consisting of all those who had held executive office, e.g. consul, praetors etc.), had to be referred back to the people for ratification before it could become law. It is undeniable that the people voted in a sort of American 'college' system, organised so as to favour the élite vote. But the Roman people could, and did, reject proposals put before them, whereas we get no chance to vote on anything our partycrats decide. Further, the Roman people even elected their own 'tribunes of the plebs', who sat in Senate meetings with the right to veto any business they did not think to be in the people's interest. How we need one today! But then we have one, at least on this issue. All hail Boris, tribunus plebis extraordinarius!
As the forces returning from duty in Iraq know best of all, important though amazing technology is, the camaraderie and morale of the unit make the crucial difference. The Romans knew this too and took steps to nurture the right frame of mind in their soldiers.
First, punishments and incentives strongly affected personal behaviour. The penalty for sleeping on watch, failing to obey orders or abandoning weapons in battle was to be clubbed to death. But the soldier who performed well was congratulated and rewarded by the general in front of the whole army, while victory usually meant a distribution of booty among the men, often worth a very great deal (a prospect that always did wonders for recruitment).
Second, high-quality leadership brought out the best in the men. Plutarch talks of the respect gained by the leader who shared his men's hardship and dangers. Julius Caesar was never slow to set an example in the front line when his men were in trouble, though it was not a tactic to be repeated too often; a general's death or wounding ran the risk of creating panic in the ranks. Likewise, the successful leader knew how to inspire his men. While it is hard to believe in the great set-piece speeches, delivered to vast armies, 'reported' by all ancient historians (how many soldiers could possibly have heard them?), the likelier practice of delivering brief, individual exhortations to separate units before battle is on record (the emperor Julian did it).
Finally, and most importantly, soldiers were encouraged to develop a strong sense of solidity with the unit in which they were serving. Swearing-in ceremonies had impressive religious connotations; constant drilling instilled in men the discipline of obedience to orders and made them not only look but also feel like soldiers (the Jewish historian Josephus said it prepared body and soul); a unit's gear with its distinctive markings, especially its standards, generated a sense of cohesion and esprit de corps (to lose the standards in battle was a terrible disgrace); and one's own mess-mates became a focus of especial loyalty (Livy talks of a soldier's tent becoming his 'hearth and home'). Personal honour, pride and shame, confidence in the leadership, and emotional commitment to the unit created the 'All for one and one for all' mentality that service in the legions was designed to generate. For all the high-tech weaponry that western armies wield today, these are still the qualities without which no army can function.