Fireside this week, but also some announcements!
First, I have added an additional tier to the ACOUP Patreon for the patres et matres conscripti. The phrase patres conscripti was a somewhat fancy way to refer to the members of the Roman senate, literally the ‘conscript fathers.’ They were conscript in the sense that they were all written down together (con+scriptus, ‘written together’) on the census as members of the Senate (it has also been supposed that the phrase began as patres et conscripti, ‘patricians and conscript’ members, distinguishing between the old patrician gentes that had been in the Senate for ages and the newer plebian families which had gained entrance since the start of the Republic and then been conscripti with the patres).
Patrons at the patres et matres conscripti level are enrolled in the ACOUP Senate, which is going to have two roles: first they get to pose questions on a closed thread on the Patreon which I will then answer in regular Q&A posts here. Second, for Q&A questions which are a bit too big for a short Q&A answer (and probably other frequently requested topics), I plan to poll the ACOUP Senate (again, via the patreon page) to obtain a senatus consultum (‘the opinion of the Senate’) as to which I should tackle next when there is a break in my planned schedule. Perhaps I should add a brief overview of the Roman Senate to the list, since I’m dropping all of this senatorial vocabulary.
I should stress that this new tier involves no diminution of the old amici paedagogi tier, which will still get monthly research updates. I also make a point of trying to respond to all messages I get from patrons via patreon (although my responses, understandably, often have to be quite short); while I cannot always get to all of the email and twitter correspondence I get, I do try always to respond to patrons at any level. That’s not going to change.
Second, speaking of messages I get via Patreon, our diligent narrator has added audio versions of several more posts for your listening joy. In particular, the Fremen Mirage series is now in audio format, as well as “Why Military History” and our first (and excellent) guest-post by Robin Reich. Hopefully by the time this goes live, I will have gone back and added links to each of those posts so that new readers can enjoy the content in a different format but for now the links are here. Go check them out!
Musing this week, I was struck by this article in the Bulwark, “What Happens When Putin and Khamenei Die?” (of natural causes, to be clear, the article is not advocating assassination or anything like that). It is an interesting question because the answer to it is heavily predicated on what type of regimes you think Russia and Iran are and how that shapes their post-current-leader future. This is a point though that the article largely leaves unaddressed, treating Putin and Khamenei as fundamentally the same in terms of how they rule, when I think on some reflection there are important differences. One way to frame those differences is to use ancient Greek terminology and ask: are Russia and Iran monarchies or tyrannies?
As a quick aside, I find it striking that the system of classification of government forms which emerged in the Archaic period and was elaborated on into the Hellenistic period is still fairly usefully applicable to modern forms, albeit with some modifications (particularly to allow for representative forms of government, which neither the Greeks nor the Romans really had). We’re going to be concerned with the forms of one-man rule (monarchy under a king and tyranny) here, but the system also included of course democracies and oligarchies as well as ‘mixed’ constitutions which combined elements of all of the others.
The first thing that needs dispensing with here is the modern, normative content of tyranny. We aren’t asking “is this government bad” but rather what sort of government is it. Today we have a slew of words for one-man-rule but they’re often not as helpfully descriptive. But the Greeks recognized an important distinction between a king and a tyrant. The position of a king was customary in nature in that it was generally a long-standing institution with generally understood (if not formally codified) rights and limits. Kingship was thus both more secure (it had inherent legitimacy due to its long standing) and also more limited because that legitimacy was often predicated on the performance of long-standing norms of kingship.
Tyranny, by contrast was defined by its extra-constitutional nature. No one held an office called ‘tyrant’ or was formally elected as a tyrannos. Rather the tyrant, having seized control of the state (typically by armed coup) held it through intimidation, cronies, bribery and careful politics. One thing that surprises students is that Greek tyrants generally left the apparatus of normal polis government – the courts, magistrates, assemblies and so on – intact. The only difference was that they made sure their cronies were the judges and magistrates, and that their thugs ensured that the assemblies voted the ‘right’ way. There were obvious advantages to this: the fiction of a functioning polis government was a useful tool. Moreover, a tyrant could be freer to move against prominent citizens in the polis than a king might because he was unconstrained by longstanding traditions and expectations for rule. Kings did not generally butcher their way through their state’s aristocracy but tyrants regularly did (indeed, their penchant for so doing gives us the term ‘tall poppy syndrome.’)
So while both tyranny and kingship were one-man rule and their day-to-day functioning might in cases even look similar, they were predicated on different systems. Why does this matter? Well, for us asking what happens when the current generation of rulers dies, it matters because kings and tyrants have very different records in terms of managing succession. By and large, the aim of just about every Greek tyrant in the long term was to consolidate power into their family in a durable way, which is to say, convert a tyranny to kingship. They all failed (arguments could be made that Octavian succeeds at this, though he is Roman and not Greek; some of the tyrants of Syracuse get called kings in our sources, but as we’ll see, remained very much tyrants). Instead, the average duration of tyranny, measured in generations, was extremely short. Some examples (note that I am counting inclusively for the generations number, so if you want ‘successful transfers of power’ just subtract 1):
- Peisistratids: 545-510, 2 generations
- Cypselids: 657-582, 3 generations
- Deinomenids: 485-465, 3 generations
- Dionysii: 405-344, 2 generations*
- Agathocles: 317-289, 1 generation
- Hicetas, 289-280, 1 generation
- Heironids 275-214, 2.5 generations (the grandson rules for just one year before getting assassinated)
- Polycrates 540s-522, 1 generation
- Histaeus, 510s-514, 1 generation
- Aristagoras, 514-496, 1 generation
- Lycophron, Jason and Alexander, ???(pre-370)-356, 3 generations? (unclear if these three sequential tyrants were related)
(Asterisk Note: The family of Dionysius I of Syracuse did a bunch of coups against each other so a bunch of them moved through power, but the tyranny began with Dionysius I and ended with his son, Dionysius II, overthrown in 344.)
You could make a much longer list, but this is a pretty terrible failure rate. Most tyrannies fail in the first generation (you can move through a list of ancient tyrants, you’ll find that as you move towards more and more obscure figures, a lot of their regimes collapse under the first tyrant), very few make it to three generations and none that I can think of make it past three. Failure rates are high. Meanwhile, here are some monarchies, both ancient and otherwise (note that in some cases I’ve counted rulers, in others generations; it depends on what I could easily count. For generations, often you have more than one ruler in a single generation, in cases where succession jumps from brother to brother):
- Argeads, 808?-317, 17(ish) generations.
- Antigonids, 306-168, 8 generations
- Seleucids, 312-63, 11 generations
- Lagids (or Ptolemies), 305-31, 12(ish) generations
- Agiads, c. 900?-215, 32 rulers
- Eurypontids, c. 900?-192, 33(ish) rulers
- Merovingians, 480s-751, 12 generations
- Carolingians, 843-987, 9 generations (ish)
- Capetians (including cadets), 987-1792, 26 generations
- The Emperor of Japan, ???(claimed 660BC)-present, notionally 77ish generations; historical evidence for c. 97 emperors.
(Note that our concern is the political system, not the ruling house, so I haven’t broken here when there was a change in dynasty but no discontinuity in government form (I applied the same rule to our tyrants so that it is fair).)
We could go on but I think the point is clear: kingship is far, far more durable than tyranny. So when asking the question, “What happens when the current rulers of Iran and Russia die?” thinking in terms of the contrast between these systems one way of thinking about the probable outcomes. If you think that these regimes are essentially monarchies then the obvious mostly likely answer is that another ruler takes the place of the current one, selected by whatever means are tradition and the monarchy continues, because the failure rate on succession for monarchies is extremely low – well below 10%.
If on the other hand, you think that these states are more like tyrannies, where the position of the ruler is not supported by longstanding tradition or law, nor underpinned by ancient customs of legitimacy, then the question ‘what happens when this guy dies’ becomes a much more live question, because the regime failure rate on succession for tyrannies is very high, probably close to (and perhaps higher than) 50%. Of course in many of those cases, a new tyrant does manage to take power, but simply doesn’t manage to hold it.
For what it is worth, Russia’s system reads to me as more of a tyranny (Putin’s office is formally defined, yes, but not his real position of power or his near-total dominance of the political system) while Iran’s system seems to me to be more of a monarchy (there is a system in place for the selected of the Supreme Leader, it has functioned once before and the Supreme Leader’s position is formally defined, albeit unpopular). Consequently, I think there is relatively more uncertainty, in my mind, about what happens when Putin leaves power (be that tomorrow or forty years from now) than when Khamenei does – whatever the manner of that exit. In the later case, I think the odds are fairly high that a new Supreme Leader is selected and the regime continues to sustain itself (in no small part through violence against its people). In the former case, uncertainty is much higher, since it seems like the chance of a transition of power to a picked successor is no more or less likely than regime failure.
This week for recommendations:
Over on Youtube, Drachinifel and Jon Parshall were back at it with a live Q&A about Midway and the War in the Pacific more generally; you can watch here; there were some great questions and some better answers, so check it out. And while we’re with Drachinfel, he has finally reached the end of his excellent eight-video series looking at the stages of naval operations around Guadalcanal. I think a series like that can be really useful for trying to think about military operations because Drach gets down into a level of detail where you can see the broad textbook generalizations (‘American ships had better surface-search radar’) turn into moment to moment reality. In the case of radar, you can see the impact of the technology in some moments, but it can be misused in others and there are moments where a combination of bad tactics and luck mean that even superior materiel might not matter. The impact of that random chance – part of Clausewitzian friction (drink!) – comes out in the series really vividly.
And while we are talking about resources on Youtube, one worth noting that you may not be aware of is the considerable number of videos produced by the Army University Press covering specific battles and campaigns in American military history (although not always ones in which the United States was involved; notice for instance their deep dive into Stalingrad). For the newcomer to military history, one thing that can be quite handy in these videos is that they tend to stop and correlate what is happening in the engagement with doctrinal principles drawn directly from US Army field manuals and other publications. Drawing that direct connection from doctrinal concepts to direct on-the-field application can be really useful in grasping the importance of doctrine (a concept, I promise, we are eventually going to get to!).
Meanwhile, it has been a pretty good week for military history content on Twitter (remember that you do not need to be on Twitter to ruin your life by reading Twitter), with quite a few really good threads. First, there is me recounting the exciting life of Publius Ventidius Bassus, born without Roman citizenship, marched as a captive in a Roman triumph, at thirty a relatively humble mule-and-cart dealer, logistics guy under Julius Caesar, tribune of the plebs in 45, consul in 43, victor over the Parthians in 39 and 38, celebrating the first Roman triumph over the Parthians and being the only Roman to have ever marched in a triumph as both a war captive and a triumphing general. Also, there is Dr. Roel Konijnendijk recounting how the Corinthian War (395-387) ended “when the Persians funded a Spartan fleet to destroy an Athenian fleet the Persians had funded to destroy a Spartan fleet the Persians had funded to destroy and Athenian fleet.” There is also Dr. Michael Taylor talking here about how the Roman legion stacks up to the Hellenistic sarissa (pike) phalanx. Finally, and I saved the best for last, there is the Angry Staff Officer’s brilliant (and last, he says, unconvincingly) live tweet of the Battle of Gettysburg spread over all three days. He also discussed the contemporaneous Siege of Vicksburg here.
And getting off of the military history beat for a moment, Sparta Live hosted Prof. Ellen Millender who gave an excellent presentation on “Unveiling Spartan women,“ although I perhaps wish the title had been Unveiling Spartiate women. While Millender did gesture at non-spartiate women in Laconia, it was mostly simply to note that lack of evidence for them, which I think is understandable given the limitations of the evidence but that is a limitation in scope that I think as scholars we need to be clearer about. I tend to think that ‘the Spartans’ tends to be read as ‘the people of Sparta’ in English rather than ‘the spartiate citizen body’ if for no other reason than we have all of these other terms – Spartan citizens, spartiates, the homoioi, the peers, and so on – to specifically indicate when the spartiates are meant.
What I very much liked about the presentation was both the sober, clear-eyed views of the position of spartiate women – both the benefits that accrued to those of power and wealth, but also a sensible deflation of the myths and the solid discussion of how we know what we know. I think Millender also does a good job in the Q&A pushing back against Dr. Petros Doukas – one of the two permanent hosts of Sparta Live and the Mayor of the modern town of Sparti (that is, Sparta). Doukas has a tendency in these things, perhaps understandable given his office, to push for views out of le Mirage Spartiate and it was nice to see Millender politely but firmly point out that the evidence simply didn’t accord with his pollyannish view of the lives of spartiate women.
Finally, for our book recommendation, I am going to recommend G. Baker, Spare No One: Mass Violence in Roman Warfare (2021), which covers Roman mass violence (surprise!) from 400 BC to 100 BC. A book-length treatment of this topic, the Roman use of mass violence against civilian populations, has been desideratum (Latin, “a thing to be desired, a thing needed”) for a long time. The book treats not only mass killing, but also mass enslavement and the deliberate destruction of the physical infrastructure of settlements (like the burning of cities), presenting a continuum in terms of the selectiveness of violence (are leaders targeted? men? everyone?).
Baker argues, persuasively in my mind, that Roman mass violence wasn’t merely emotional (though it often was and frustration, as he notes, played a role in some outbursts of mass violence) or merely customary, but instrumental and strategy: mass violence was a strategy Rome deployed to achieve specific ends. More than this, Baker shows that such mass violence could succeed, but didn’t always succeed, an important intervention given that the supposed success of Roman mass violence is often marshaled in favor of more ‘muscular’ military approaches today. There is an assumption that if only we ‘took the gloves off’ we too, like the Romans, could cow populations into submission with indiscriminate violence. What Baker shows is that Roman mass violence could work that way, but generally only when the Romans were already winning otherwise. When the Romans were struggling, mass violence often prolonged conflicts and encouraged resistance. Finally, the Romans used mass violence as a deterrent, a tool of control in areas they believed already fell under their imperium. The arguments here are well made and persuasive.
More broadly, I think Baker’s volume is valuable for its content as well as its arguments. Baker argues in his conclusion – accurately, I think – that Roman violence was exception in its scope, not in its character; that is, the Romans weren’t necessarily more brutal than other ancient polities, but they were more military successful, meaning that Roman brutality (as opposed to Greek or Carthaginian or Gallic brutality) arrived in more places. Because of that, Baker’s book has a lot of value for the average reader trying to get a handle on what mass violence was entailed in the ancient world. Here Baker makes the good decision to foreground primary sources, with frequent, substantive block quotations (in translation) and, where possible, line diagrams of ancient artwork depicting such mass violence. Baker doesn’t indulge in purple prose, but he also doesn’t spare the reader the grim truth of the matter; there is no gentlemanly retreat into euphemism here and that is for the best.
Consequently, Baker gives the reader a fairly unstinting look at what mass violence in war was, what it looked like, what it sounded like, the strategic calculations around it and so on. It is also a very accessible book. Baker proceeds in a series of case studies each of which is fairly well self-contained and provides the necessary background for a lay-reader with perhaps only passing familiarity with the Roman army to keep track of what is going on. These use of chapter-by-chapter endnotes is unfortunate (I can only assume this was the publisher’s choice), but won’t trouble the regular reader. His language is clear and direct, not pedantic or academic. So while this is not a fun book per se, it is a book I think can be recommended both to specialists in other fields but also to general readership who want to understand the scope, extent and character of mass violence in Roman warfare but also in ancient warfare more generally.