Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Ancient Strategy in the Near East: From Alexander to Heraclius
Abstract: Like the modern Near East, little was simple or straightforward in Antiquity. Generalities advise caution or invite rejection. Grandiose intentions frequently had to be modified in adjusting to the realities of means and ends in achieving strategic aims. Naiden's paper treats Alexander the Great's war aims and changes to his strategy as his campaigns developed over time. What Alexander wanted to do and what his army thought they were doing could differ.

Johstono discusses Rome's successful domination of the Hellenistic world through a generation of aggressive wars and diplomacy. A trendy recent interpretation of Rome's success, exploiting current IR theory, is shown to misrepresent the character of Hellenistic warfare, which was limited in its scope and intentions.

Wheeler addresses the rivalry of Rome and Iran to dispel common misunderstandings. Wars with Parthians and Sasanid Persians should be viewed in the context of balance of power politics and limited war aims. Neither side, as each knew, could totally conquer the other and neither tried, until deluded frustrations in the rivalry's final century induced each to go for the other's jugular. Both such attempts failed. A variety of factors at every stage of the rivalry induced stalemate and contributed to each side's ultimate exhaustion, which opportunist third parties exploited.
Everett Wheeler, Duke University
Participant's Paper Title: Rome vs. Iran: Illusions and Realities in a Superpower Rivalry
Participant's Paper Abstract: Two expanding empires clashed in the 1st c. B.C. at the Euphrates River initiating a superpower rivalry in the Near East for over seven centuries. First the Parthians, later the Sasanid Persians offered an opponent that Rome neither had the means nor the will to conquer?a coterminous state (not pre-state or proto-state barbarians) of equal geographical extent and resources. If numerous discussions of Rome vs. Parthia and Rome/Byzantium vs. Sasanid Persia abound, analysis of the rivalry as a whole, Rome vs. Iran, has generally escaped treatment. The paper will address the commonalities and anomalies of the rivalry's two stages to correct various misconceptions, such as the rivalry as a case study of "successful deterrence" or the absence of Roman strategy in the Near East because the Iranians posed no threat. Co-existence chafed both powers, as a crisis or war in every generation from 96 B.C.-A.D. 629 would indicate.
A balance of power scenario played out over seven centuries in the rectangle of the Caucasus to the north, the Arabian peninsula to the south, the Zagros Mountains on the east, and the Euphrates on the west. It featured limited warfare between the two major powers, but proxy wars in Transcaucasia and Arabia combined with innumerable intrigues and diplomatic maneuverings to gain advantage. Control rather than formal annexation of territory mattered most. Prestige and status motivated the two empires both claiming to be "universal," but financial restraints, social structures, instability of leadership, and multi-front wars hampered what either could accomplish. A Roman tradition of buying peace instead of fighting will be noted besides false issues such as Roman Christians vs. Persian Zoroastrians. Major third parties (Huns, Turks, Arabs) also eventually affected the rivalry. An obsession with the north left both rivals unprepared for the Muslim Arab onslaught from the south.
Fred Naiden, University of North Carolina
Participant's Paper Title: The War Aims of Alexander the Great
Participant's Paper Abstract: The title of this paper raises a question with an apparently obvious answer: Alexander had a single aim, to conquer the Persian Empire. In truth, he had several political and military aims that were not always mutually compatible. Some of Alexander's aims involved aggression short of conquest. For example, the aim of capturing Darius, and compelling him to beg for mercy, fell short of the aim of conquering the empire, or even of eliminating the Persian army. Some aims of his were religious, but they did not all flow from the polytheistic religion that Alexander shared with both his army and his Greek and Macedonian subjects. They were of Near-Eastern inspiration. In raising these difficulties, we are speaking of Alexander and his army as though they had the same aims, but sometimes they did not.
After describing Alexander's aims, this paper will ask whether he and his army had a coherent and consistent program, or, in a phrase, whether their aims reflected a grand strategy for dealing with the Persian Empire. The answer is yes, but this strategy was not fixed or reduced to writing. It was flexible, and expressed through ceremonies. Strategic thought took symbolic forms. It was none the less strategic for that.
In part, this paper is an apology for Alexander. It argues against two common views, first, that he was chiefly a destructive figure, a glorified brigand, who sought conquest without thinking about the sort of war he should wage, and second, that he was chiefly a figure of the battlefield, a great captain but not a strategist. In part, this paper is an attempt to relate questions of strategy to questions of political legitimacy, the achievement of which can be one of the purposes of a grand strategy.
Paul Johstono, The Citadel
Participant's Paper Title: Hellenistic Strategy, Limited Warfare, and the Rise of Rome
Participant's Paper Abstract: The main thrust of most recent scholarship on Hellenistic states, their wars, and the advent of Roman hegemony has followed trajectories set by two impressive senior scholars, Erich Gruen and Arthur Eckstein The latter argued, in Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome and elsewhere, that Rome's bellicosity was not, in the final tally, exceptional at all. Eckstein employed Realist international relations theory to reinterpret historical evidence from the Hellenistic Mediterranean and show an anarchic interstate system characterized by normative high-stakes war. In Eckstein's view, it was not its bellicosity that made Rome exceptional, but several political and military attributes that helped it win the wars

Eckstein's view has received some modifications, snubs, and protests, but no serious challenge. Yet for his interpretation to be true, the states and armies of the Hellenistic world must have been astoundingly bad at war. For half a dozen reasons we can be confident that was not really the case. Instead, most Hellenistic states' approaches to strategy at almost all times militated against truly high-stakes war. This paper examines the strategic parameters evident within the structures, personalities, and activities of the main Hellenistic kingdoms to rebut Eckstein's thesis. The kingdoms were bellicose. But they were so within numerous structures--economic, discursive, cultural, demographic, and political--that overwhelmingly focused military action toward limited wars. Eckstein focused on the three principal dynasties--the Antigonids, Seleucids, and Ptolemies--and their wars from 222-202 to prove his point. This paper uses precisely the same conflicts, first, to demonstrate that each of those conflicts was limited in operational scope and strategic objective, and second, to explain why the nature of Hellenistic states and the Hellenistic interstate system made limited wars normative.
John Hosler, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Alex Roland, Duke University

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