Friday, October 11, 2019

Bimillenary of the death of Germanicus: The Defeat of the Roman Deep State



2,000 years ago, on Oct 10, 19 CE, Germanicus Julius Caesar died in Antioch, Asia Minor, perhaps poisoned by his uncle, Tiberius, then the ruling emperor. If we see Hillary Clinton in the role of Germanicus and Donald Trump in the role of Tiberius, you have an equivalent ongoing conflict.
Most likely, the concept of "Deep State" existed in Roman times, just as in ours.



Germanicus had not gained his "agnomen" (victory name) because he was a friend of the Germans, but because he had managed to kill many of them in a series of military campaigns from 14 to 16 CE. Tacitus tells us many details of how the Romans engaged in what we would call today a Strafexpedition ("Punitive expedition") to avenge the defeat they had suffered against the Germans in Teutoburg ten years before. 

The Romans attacked Germany with eight legions and plenty of auxiliary troops in what was probably the largest military expedition in history, up to that time. In military terms, it was a success: the Germans were defeated and forced to retreat, but the cost of the campaign was simply staggering. Reading Tacitus we can get a feeling of the enormous effort in which the Romans had to engage in order to keep their legions supplied of food, equipment (and money for the troops). Eight legions were about a third of the whole military strength of the Empire: imagine fielding them in a region having no roads and no supporting infrastructure!

By 16 CE, it must have been clear that the effort was bankrupting the Roman state. That led to an undeclared conflict between the ruling emperor of the time, Tiberius, and his nephew, Germanicus. It was good that Germanicus could defeat the Germans (or, at least, claim victory over them). But that made Germanicus too popular and hence a dangerous competitor for the ruling emperor. Then Germanicus wanted to continue attacking the Germans and this was a bad idea on all counts. First, it was too expensive, then the Empire couldn't afford another defeat like the one suffered in Teutoburg -- continuing the campaign was simply too risky.

We don't have documents from those ancient times telling us much about the Roman "war party" that surely existed. War was then, as now, good business for those waging it, but it was very bad business for those who had to foot the bill of the campaigns. So, it made a lot of sense for Tiberius, a ruthless leader by all accounts, to quietly get rid of Germanicus and, with him, of all the risks involved with more wars on the Germans. Germanicus' death was a considerable defeat for the Roman war party (or deep state). It didn't stop the attempts of the Roman Empire to expand, but it made the Romans much more cautious and, specifically, it made it clear that expanding into Germany was a no-no in military terms. 

Today, the situation is similar: the current empire, the American one, is facing gigantic costs just to maintain its huge and largely obsolete military structure. It cannot afford military adventures, not even victorious ones if they end with no economic gains -- the campaign against Iraq is a case in point. And it goes without saying that the ailing American Empire cannot risk a major military defeat. 

Yet, there exists a strong war party, often called the "deep state," in the US pushing for new campaigns. So far, President Trump has played the role of Tiberius, avoiding to engage the US in new wars. Hillary Clinton, instead, has been playing the role of Germanicus as secretary of state, including taking credit for some recent US victories (we all remember her ghastly bout of laughter when she described the death of Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, in 2011). 

So far, the conflict between the president and the secretary of state hasn't led to anyone being eliminated by poisoning. But the similarities between the current empire and the old Roman one are deep and we may well see more events that we may interpret as being mirrors of much older events. As we all know, history doesn't exactly repeat itself, but it does rhyme.




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Belw, a post that appeared on "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2015

A distant mirror: bimillenary of Germanicus' campaigns in Germania


(Image: a battle scene showing Roman troops fighting Barbarians. This relief is much later than the times discussed in this post, but it gives some idea of how these battles were seen in Roman times: "Grande Ludovisi Altemps Inv8574" by Unknown - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)


Julius Caesar Germanicus, the grandson of Emperor Augustus, was called "Germanicus" not because he liked the Germanic peoples; rather, he was engaged in a ruthless, scorched earth campaign against them. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish very little; mainly to show that the Roman Empire, despite all its might, could not possibly conquer Germania. 




Success, sometimes, shows one's limits more than defeat. That's a lesson that the Romans had to learn the hard way when they tried to subdue the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, between the first century BC and the first century AD. The attempt involved a long series of campaigns and, perhaps, the climax came exactly two thousand years ago, from 14 to 16 AD, when the Romans invaded Germania with no less than eight legions under the command of Tiberius Claudius Nero, known as Germanicus (at right), grandson of Augustus and the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. The total number of the troops employed could have been at least 80 thousand men, perhaps close to a hundred thousand; about a third of the whole Roman army. Using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were trying to steamroll their enemies.

In this case, the concept of "steamrolling" can perhaps be intended in an almost literal sense. Tacitus makes it clear for us in his "Annals" that the Romans were going into Germania having in mind something much different than "bringing civilization" to those primitive peoples. No, no such silly idea; the Romans were there to teach those Barbarians a lesson. For this, they were burning villages, slaughtering everyone, or taking as slaves, as Tacitus says, even "the helpless from age or sex." Germanicus' name, evidently, didn't imply that he loved Germanic people. Again, using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were practicing a scorched earth campaign, if not an outright war of extermination.

And yet, all these efforts achieved little. Over three years of campaigns, Germanicus' troops won all the battles they fought; but they couldn't break the Germanic tribes. And the cost of keeping so many men in the field was becoming unbearable even for the mighty Roman Empire. In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome. He also ordered the legions to abandon the territories they had conquered and to retire behind the fortifications along the Rhine, from where they had started their campaigns. Germanicus was given a big triumph in Rome, but, a few years later, in 19 AD, he died, possibly poisoned by Tiberius himself who feared the competition of a popular general. So, Germanicus' campaigns had shown the might of the Empire, but also its limits: there were some things that the legions just couldn't do. That was a lesson that Emperors understood well and, indeed, the Romans never tried again to attack the Germanic territory.

Two thousand years afterward, we see in these remote events a distant mirror of our age. The parallels with our current situation are many, and I am sure that the word "Iraq" is already coming to your mind. Yes, the Iraq campaign was a series of victories, just like Germanicus' campaigns. But, from a strategic viewpoint, modern Iraq, just like Germania two thousand years ago, turned out to be a conquest too expensive to keep.

But there is more to be seen in this distant mirror and so let's go a little more in-depth into history. First of all, Germanicus' campaigns were the consequence of an earlier, failed campaign: the defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, when three Roman legions were annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Not even their commander, Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, escaped alive. Teutoburg was not only a disaster but a mystery as well. How could it be that the Roman legions, not exactly amateurs in practicing the art of war, blithely marched into a dense forest where a large number of Germanic warriors were waiting for them to hack them to pieces?

I wouldn't be too surprised if Varus himself were to appear to me one of these nights as a bluish ghost in my bedroom. Then, he could tell me the story of why exactly he was sent to Germania as the governor of a province that existed only on paper and supplied with insufficient troops to control a region that had never been really pacified. Lacking this apparition, we can only speculate on this story, but it takes little imagination to conclude that someone, probably in Rome, wanted Varus' head to roll. Whoever they were, anyway, they probably couldn't imagine that so many more Roman heads would roll together with Varus' one. We will never know for sure, but we know that the man who led Varus into the trap in the forest, Arminius, was a Roman citizen, albeit born in Germania. Varus was betrayed.

I know what you are thinking at this point. And, yes, we can find some kind of a parallel with modern history in the 9/11 attack to the twin towers in New York. Let me state that I am not discussing conspiracy theories, here; what I want to highlight is the similarity of the reaction of the ancient and the modern empires to events that both perceived as an existential threat. Just as the US citizens were deeply scared by the 9/11 attacks, the Romans were deeply scared by the disaster of Teutoburg and that had political consequences.

The main consequence of the defeat of Teutoburg was that it strongly reinforced the position of the Emperor as the military leader of the whole Empire. Don't forget that, in the early 1st century AD, the idea that there was to be an emperor at the head of the Empire was still something new and plenty of people would probably have liked the Republic to be re-established. That was what Brutus and Cassius had tried to do by killing Julius Caesar. But, after Teutoburg, reinstating the Republic became totally out of question. You probably have heard of Suetonius reporting that Emperor Augustus, on hearing of Varus' defeat, would walk aimlessly at night in his palace, murmuring, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" That was a master propaganda stroke on the part of Augustus, a consummate politician. By showing himself so concerned, Augustus was positioning himself as the defender of the Empire against the barbarian menace.

Not only Teutoburg reinforced the role of Emperors; the campaigns by Germanicus reinforced the effect even more. If Teutoburg had shown that the Germanic tribes were an existential threat for the Empire, then, Germanicus' failure showed that they couldn't be destroyed. The result was that the Empire positioned itself for a long term war. That generated the equivalent of our present military-industrial complex: a standing army and a set of fortifications along the Imperial borders. That was good business for the military contractors of Roman times, but the long term consequence was that the Empire bled itself to death in order to maintain the colossal defense works it had built. Before Teutoburg, the Roman army had been producing wealth as a result of the conquest of foreign lands. After Teutoburg, the army became a destroyer of wealth, costing much more than it produced; as Germanicus' campaigns clearly demonstrated. As time went by, the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker, but it stubbornly refused to admit it and to accept the barbarians in roles that were not those of mercenaries or slaves.

Four centuries after the battle of Teutoburg and Germanicus' campaigns, an enlightened empress, Galla Placidia, broke the rules in a bold attempt to revitalize a dying empire. She married a Barbarian king and tried to start a new dynasty that would merge the Germanic and the Latin elements of the Empire. She didn't succeed; it was too late; it was too much for a single person. The Roman Empire had to go through its cycle, and the end of the cycle was its disappearance; a relic of history that had no reason to exist any longer.

This is the destiny of empires and civilizations that, as Toynbee says, die most often because they kill themselves. So it was for the Romans, our distant mirror. A dark mirror, but, most likely, our destiny will not be much different.


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See also

http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2015/09/fortress-europe-wall-to-keep-foreigners.html




8 comments:

  1. Sorry Ugo, "Hillary the Hawk, Donald the Dove" is bullshit. Trump would start a war tomorrow if he thought it would help him get reelected or keep him out of jail. Any effects Trump has had in reducing the reach of American Empire have been pretty much an accident of his deferring to Putin, not a result of a anti-imperialist mindset.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe. But it is a fact that Trump didn't start any war, so far.

      Delete
    2. Good point Ugo! Trump may be criticized for his lack of understanding of energy and environment issues, for rising military budget and lowering taxes for the rich, but we have to keep in mind that many of these things are forced as some kind of compromise with deep state. He is not The Emperor. And the attacks he receives from the deep state are proof that he really intended to change foreign policy. But with such hysterical opposition from "leftists" all his good intended efforts are bound to be clumsy. Even tariff war with China is good move because it is better to re-negotiate some anti-globalist distribution of power that at some point go to hot war with China and/or Russia. In his speech at UN he said that the future belongs to patriots not globalists and that makes him some kind of American de Gaulleist, person who believes in the world of nations, as de Gaulle believed in Europe of nations. Trump has many flaws but he is much better President that Clinton woman would ever be.

      The only reason why would anybody prefer globalism is for solving energy and environment issues, which could only be solved on global level. But it seems more and more like an utopia, especially if one understands that behind Extinction Rebellion and Greta some dark forces could be hiding.

      Delete
  2. Ridiculous comment!

    In effect saying that Trump hasn't started any wars because he is 'an agent of Putin'!

    Well, it proves that propaganda works with the masses.....

    ReplyDelete
  3. completely OT: look at
    https://www.desmogblog.com/2019/10/03/fracking-revolution-peak-without-profits
    if you want to watch a seneca cliff in the making.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The challenge is engagement, not cost. Trump is clearly helping to bankrupt us by increases in military spending without entering a war. What’s the difference? The beneficiaries are the same. Are you comparing him with Obama? Do you know how many drone strikes (which are costly) the U.S. has made under Trump as compared to Obama? That was Obama’s primary military tool, and it continues to be Trump’s.

    In my view, the real question is whom or what does Trump’s foreign policy serve? Non-engagement is simply acquiescence and leaves a vacuum that will be filled by Russia and China. That may not be a bad thing, but our world is not the same as that of the Romans and the Germans 2,000 years ago. The engagement exists and will continue at the level of commerce, international trade, and technology. Do you really think that Trump intends to withdraw all of our engagement to our shores? That’s quite the delusion. Trump brags about his two towers in Istanbul.

    No, my real problem with Trump is his complete refusal to talk to me or my friends, citizens of the country he leads, with any respect or humility. He serves himself, not us, and that makes him incredibly dangerous. If you think he cares about our nation’s resources or coffers, you are not paying attention.

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  5. One more thing, Trump has started a war in Syria, on behalf of Erdogan. It’s his first war. Where do you think Erdogan gets his weapons from? Up until last year’s purchase of Russian S400s, they fly F-16s, and shoot American missiles. We are very much a part of the new war and may end up yet, in the actual fight.

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  6. Some very dark forces lie behind the promotion of Greta and the Extinction Rebellion people: the aim is to create a compliant and uncritical bloc of - above all - very young and inexperienced voters.

    Note,too,the push for the right to vote at a mere 16!

    Because the 'old' just block the Future, right?

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)