Fighting barbarians is not appealing to political leaders. Skirmishes and drone warfare bestow little and rare glory. A defining victory, to be celebrated with pomp and speeches, is unlikely. And the persistent but inchoate threat is tiresome, draining attention and resources. The temptation to abandon the fight with barbarians, and to return to the familiarity of domestic affairs, is always great. It is much easier to subcontract the fight to others and hope to divert the attention of barbarians to other targets.
Obama’s rapid withdrawal from Iraq and disengagement from the Middle East in general is therefore understandable, even though it’s a justified target for criticism in the recent memoirs by former officials of his administration. The allure of proclaiming peace and the appeal of focusing on domestic undertakings trumps the unrewarding slog of negotiating with allies and chasing barbaric groups in distant valleys. But the risks are big and, now, they are on the front pages.
Obama is not the first one to have withdrawn from a fight. Commodus did it before him. As recounted by Herodian in his Roman history, Commodus, Roman Emperor in the second half of the 2nd century AD, inherited a war with the barbarians along the Danube River from his father, the prudent Marcus Aurelius. Initially Commodus was eager to continue the war and exhorted his men to finish the conflict. In a speech to his legions, mourning the loss of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus argued, “Crushed at the beginning of a new imperial reign, the barbarian will not be so bold to act at the present, scorning our youth, and will be cautious and fearful in the future, mindful of what he has suffered.”
But then two groups of advisers competed for Commodus’s ear. On the one hand, sycophantic courtiers, “who gauge their pleasure by their bellies and something a little lower,” kept dangling in front of Commodus the attractions of a return to Rome. Life was easier, more pleasant there; the new Emperor would be celebrated and praised by the populace, and he could enjoy there the excitement of intellectual conversations at well appointed tables of influential men (perhaps the Roman equivalent of a “2006 Brunello, grilled rib-eye and three pasta dishes—cacio e pepe, all’arrabbiata and Bolognese” and a conversation about “the importance of understanding science, the future of the universe, how sports brings people together, and many other things,” as recounted in a New York Times article describing Obama’s attraction to such meetings). How preferable this vision must have been to the grinding details of frontier warfare! Moreover, were he to return to Rome and to a direct control over domestic affairs, the Emperor could perhaps also keep an eye on his political opponents, quickly criticizing them or bringing them to his court to coopt them.
The shallow and inexperienced men with whom Commodus surrounded himself kept telling him: “’Master, when will you stop drinking this icy liquid mud? In the meantime, others will be enjoying warm streams and cool streams, mists and fine air too, all of which only Italy possesses in abundance.’ By merely suggesting such delights to the youth, they whetted his appetite for a taste of pleasures.”
Older and wiser advisers, appointed by Marcus Aurelius, opposed this group of minions. These prudent men, led perhaps by military commander Pompeianus, urged Commodus to continue the fight. He could not simply abandon, or lead from behind, the Marcomannic Wars started by Marcus Aurelius. Victory cannot be declared by one side, merely out of desire to return to other pursuits; it needs to be won. In fact, “to leave this war unfinished is both disgraceful and dangerous.” The dishonor arose from the refusal to take the more difficult but strategically sound path of remaining on the frontier—not to mention the dishonor of disengaging after the sacrifice of so many Roman soldiers. The danger stemmed from the conclusions that the barbarians would draw from the Emperor’s return to domestic political affairs. That return “would increase the barbarians’ boldness; they will not believe that we long to return to our home, but will rather accuse us of a cowardly retreat.”
The wise lost to the sycophants. Commodus returned to Rome.
And what a return it was! The Emperor was greeted as a peacemaker, the embodiment of the dreams of all, the sign of Roman greatness and progress. “Received everywhere with imperial pomp, he appeared in person before the celebrating crowds, a pleasing sight to all. As he drew near Rome, the entire Senate and the people of the city cast aside all restraint. Bearing laurel branches and every kind of flower then in bloom, each man carrying as much as he could manage and eager to be first, they came out some distance from the city to welcome their young and nobly born emperor.” Had it been invented, the Nobel Prize would have been in Commodus’s hands.
On the frontier, the Emperor decided to let others fight the war. He left the war “in the hands of leaders he deemed capable and trustworthy.” And they chose to avoid a fight. It was easier to buy the barbarians off, even though they sold “peace at a huge price.” But this approach was preferable to Commodus too: he “bargained for release from care and gave the barbarians everything they demanded.”
Of course, the abdication of leadership on the frontier has its security consequences. The Roman army, and presumably the allied forces with it, were not eager to remain on the frontier. “All the soldiers wanted to leave with him [Commodus], so that they might stop wasting their time in the war and enjoy the pleasures at Rome.” Wars cannot be led from well-appointed tables in Rome.
We do not know much about how that war ended. But Commodus’s disengagement from the frontier, contrary to the strategy pursued by his predecessor and father, left a vast region of instability that a few years later ended up demanding even larger numbers of Roman soldiers and manpower. Commodus merely postponed a problem, aggravating it in the process.
Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, the broader disengagement from frontier fights, and the preference for leading from behind will have no deleterious consequences. But the story of Rome’s frontiers along the Danube and Rhine rivers is not encouraging.