The Origins of Counterinsurgency in Assyria and Rome

By MSW Add a Comment 19 Min Read


Most ancient empires responded to the threat of guerrilla warfare, whether waged by nomads from the outside or rebels from the inside, with the same strategy. It can be boiled down to one simple word: terror. Ancient monarchs sought to inflict as much suffering as possible to put down and deter armed challenges. Since, with a few exceptions such as Athens and the Roman Republic, ancient polities were monarchies or warrior states, rather than constitutional republics, they seldom felt bound by any moral scruples or by any need to appease public opinion—neither “public opinion” nor “human rights” being concepts that they would have understood. (The former phrase was not coined until the eighteenth century, the latter not until the twentieth, although the ideas they describe have been traced back to ancient Greece.)

The Assyrians, who starting in 1100 BC conquered a domain stretching a thousand miles from Persia to Egypt, were particularly grisly in their infliction of terror. King Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BC) had inscribed on his royal residence an account of what he did after recapturing the rebellious city of Suru:

I built a pillar over against [the] city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers, who had rebelled.

The Mongols would later become famous for equally grotesque displays designed to frighten adversaries into acquiescence. But even at a time when there were no human-rights lobbies and no free press, this strategy was far from invariably successful. Often it backfired by simply creating more enemies. Wracked by civil war, Assyria was helpless in the end to suppress a revolt by the Babylonians, inhabitants of a city previously sacked by the Assyrians, and the Medes, a tribe dwelling in modern-day Iran. They pooled their resources to fight their mutual oppressors. In 612 BC they managed to conquer the imperial capital and, as Herodotus put it, “to shake off the yoke of servitude, and to become a free people.”

The Roman Empire, which faced and suppressed more rebellions than most of its predecessors or successors, developed a more sophisticated approach to counterinsurgency. But then it had to, because it faced more sophisticated insurgents—not just the type of primitive nomads that Akkad confronted but also rebellions led by men such as Quintus Sertorius, Arminius, Jugurtha, Tacfarinas, Spartacus, and Julius Civilis who had previously fought with the Romans or lived among them and knew how to exploit their weaknesses. Quintus Sertorius was sui generis, having once been a Roman general and governor of Spain. He became the leader of Lusitanian rebels fighting Roman rule in Spain after having been on the losing side of Rome’s first civil war, in 87–86 BC. The others were originally “barbarians” who were Romanized to some degree, typically through military service. Yet, being foreign born, they were usually not able to share in the full fruits of Roman citizenship. This privation was especially severe in the case of Spartacus, a slave from the Balkans who escaped from a gladiator training school in Capua and eventually led an army of ninety thousand freed slaves who briefly overran much of southern Italy. Not only Spartacus but many other semi-Romanized barbarians built up a lifetime’s worth of perceived slights and grudges. They also sympathized with the plight of their native countrymen, who were often exploited by Roman overlords. As is the case with many modern terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, their familiarity with the West bred a volatile mixture of admiration, jealousy, and resentment.

The resulting tensions exploded in some of the worst revolts that Rome faced. Entire legions could be lost in the resulting wars. This happened most famously in AD 9, when three legions comprising fifteen thousand soldiers and auxiliaries were wiped out in the Teutoburg Forest by Germanic tribesmen, the Cherusci, led by their chief, Arminius, who had previously attained Roman citizenship and equestrian (or aristocratic) rank. The remains of this annihilating ambush were not found by another Roman army until six years later. When they finally arrived at the site of the battle, the historian Tacitus recounted, the legionnaires found a plain full of “bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps, as the men had fallen, fleeing or standing fast.” Nearby were “splintered spears and limbs of horses, while human skulls were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks.” Florus, another Roman historian, reported on the mistreatment of Roman captives: “They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others; they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, exclaiming, ‘At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss.’ ” The Romans came back to conquer after many other defeats, but this one was decisive. Never again would Rome try to permanently extend its rule east of the Rhine River.

In response to such insurrections, the Romans could be just as savage and bloodthirsty as the Akkadians or Assyrians. Witness the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC or of Jerusalem in AD 70 and again in 135. The Greek historian Polybius noted that in towns taken by the legions “one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of other animals. . . . They do this, I think, to inspire terror.” To deter would-be rebels, the Romans spread news of their merciless conquests far and wide. After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, for example, new coins were minted all over the empire with the legend “Judaea Conquered,” showing “a Roman soldier with a spear standing over a mourning Jew.” As a result, Roman counterinsurgency warfare has understandably, if unfairly, come to be associated with the famous words attributed to a British tribal chief by Tacitus: “They create a desert, and call it peace.”

In reality, the Romans often relied on subtler tactics—for example, the type of targeted assassinations employed in recent years by the Israelis against Hamas and by the Americans against Al Qaeda. In 139 BC the Romans arranged for the murder of one of the most troublesome rebel leaders in Hispania (Spain), which they valued for its silver and gold mines. Viriathus, a shepherd who became the leader of a guerrilla army, had inflicted one setback after another on the legions during the preceding eight years. Operating from mountain strongholds, he perfected a tactic beloved of primitive warriors everywhere: he would pretend to flee before Roman forces in order to draw them into an ambush. This stratagem paid off in 146 BC when his Lusitanian tribesmen, armed with spears and curved swords, managed to kill four thousand Romans out of an army of ten thousand. The dead included the portly Roman praetor (governor) Gaius Vetilius. Vetilius’s successor, Gaius Plautius, proved just as foolhardy, losing another four thousand soldiers in futile pursuit of Viriathus. Catching the rebel leader proved impossible. He and his men traveled light on “very agile horses,” the Greek historian Appian wrote, “while the Romans were unable to pursue him in the same way because of the weight of their armor, their ignorance of the routes and the inferiority of their horses.”

Perhaps growing weary of never-ending conflict, Viriathus sent three of his friends in 139 BC to negotiate with the praetor Servilius Caepio. But instead of settling on terms for Viriathus’s surrender, Caepio corrupted the envoys and persuaded them to kill their chief in return for a handsome reward. The rebel leader was so vigilant that he slept in full armor, so his assassins stabbed him in the only unprotected part of his body—the throat. The turncoats then escaped back to the Roman camp, where they were disappointed to find their blood money not forthcoming.

Decapitation strategies often fail. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for instance, was not significantly hindered by the killing of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. But in ancient Spain the Roman strategy paid off, at least temporarily. Viriathus’s followers lost heart after their leader’s death and soon surrendered. Unfortunately for the Romans, however, there would soon be fresh rebellions in Hispania.

Besides targeted assassinations, the Romans also employed psychological warfare. During the siege of Jerusalem, for instance, the Roman commander, Titus, interrupted his attacks on at least two occasions. After he had demolished the first city wall, he tried to awe the defenders into surrender by parading his army in front of them. The legionnaires, Josephus wrote, “opened the cases wherein their arms before lay covered, and marched with their breastplates on, as did the horsemen lead the horses in their fine trappings.” The whole north side of the city wall was crowded with spectators who felt “very great dismay” upon beholding the size of the army as well as “the fineness of their arms, and the good order of their men.” On another occasion, Titus sent Josephus to tell his compatriots to follow his example by defecting to the Roman camp. Josephus walked around the walls of Jerusalem, he later wrote, “to find a place that was out of the reach of their darts, and yet within their hearing and begged them, in many words, to spare themselves, to spare their country and their temple.” The gambit failed. Josephus was greeted with catcalls and missiles rather than cries of surrender. But that it was tried at all showed the importance the Romans attached to undermining the will of the enemy.

Those who praise the Romans for their ferocity in putting down revolts should realize that this was only part of the story. Rome’s enemies were not always slain. Often they were accommodated. A succession of emperors maintained stability on the frontiers by reaching understandings with “barbarian” tribes, often greased by trade and what would now be called “foreign aid.” Neighboring kings became Roman clients, and many of their followers were paid to defend the empire or at least not to attack it. The Romans, like most successful imperialists, were skilled at exploiting political divisions among their enemies and using gold as a weapon.

Rome’s ruling elites also spun a complex web of social and financial connections that bound them closely with local elites both inside and outside the empire. Typical was Herod the Great’s situation. The king of Judaea (r. 37–4 BC) was a Hellenized Jew who was supported by such influential friends in Rome as Mark Antony and Augustus, and he in turn offered them support in their own power struggles, deftly transferring his allegiance from one to the other as events dictated. Herod’s help made it unnecessary for the Romans to deploy scarce legions to Judaea. These sorts of relationships allowed the ramshackle Roman state, with an army of less than half a million men and revenues amounting to less than 10 percent of gross domestic product (compared with over 40 percent for most modern states), to control an empire of sixty million to seventy million inhabitants.

If the Roman Empire had offered nothing but death and desolation to those it ruled, it could never have survived as long as it did: Rome ruled most of western Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, and northern Africa for 450 years. The secret to the empire’s longevity was that while the Romans punished revolts harshly, they generally ruled with a light touch. Even Judaea before the Jewish Revolt was “emphatically not a police state,” writes a modern authority. The Romans may have offended Jewish sensitivities in various ways (during one Passover, a legionnaire mooned the assembled worshippers and let out a sound not unlike flatulence), but the Jews were largely allowed to run their own affairs and to freely practice their religion, no matter how bizarre the Romans found monotheism to be. Only three thousand Roman troops were normally stationed in Judaea. (Titus later charged, in a plaint echoed by countless other imperial rulers over the centuries, that the Jews had mistaken Roman “kindness” and “humanity” for “weakness.”)

Indeed, one recent book argues that Rome was, like modern America, an “empire of trust” that was built and maintained with the implicit consent of its subjects. Another scholar suggests that Roman imperialism was primarily a “diplomatic and even social” phenomenon, not “only or mainly” a military undertaking, and that it was the result of “complex negotiation . . . in which the subjects’ agenda was as important as that of the conqueror.” The Roman Senate even occasionally punished its own soldiers and envoys for dealing too treacherously or cruelly with subject peoples. As well it should have: the Roman legions could barely have functioned without the manpower and supplies provided by vanquished foes converted into allies.

As assimilation accelerated, internal revolts began to fall off, although they never ceased entirely. Roman citizenship was granted to all Italians in 90 BC to end an uprising among Rome’s allies known as the Social War. In AD 212, citizenship was extended to all free inhabitants of the empire, making them, in theory at least, equals before the law. This was one of the most effective counterinsurgency initiatives the Romans ever took, because it gave their subjects a stake in the empire’s survival. For most of its subjects, the benefits of the Pax Romana dulled the urge for independence. The greatest benefit of all was deliverance from the fear of tribal guerrillas and bandits, invasion and civil war—from the conditions that were endemic throughout Europe and North Africa before the rise of the Roman Empire and after its collapse. Security made prosperity possible.

The Jews, with their strong sense of identity, which long predated the rise of Greco-Roman civilization, were an obvious exception, but many other conquered peoples were successfully absorbed into the empire. Their elites learned Greek and Latin, employed Roman coins, built Roman-style towns, traveled on Roman-built roads, enjoyed baths and circuses, wore togas, drank wine, cooked with olive oil, and joined in the practice of Roman religious cults (and later Rome’s new religion, Christianity). In the countryside, most people continued to cling to their old customs. Still, the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon was right to note, “The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces.”

A more recent historian, Adrian Goldsworthy, observes the lack of independence movements in the provinces: “Quite simply there were no equivalents in the Roman period of Gandhi and Nehru, Washington or Bolivar, Kenyatta or Mugabe.” When Roman rule did end, it was due to external invasion, not internal revolt.

Thus Rome exemplified the yin and yang of successful counterinsurgency warfare—chastisement and attraction. It was no proto-Stalinist state.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version