Is the study of classical history pointless? What useful knowledge will I glean from reading about some dead Roman governor of Britain? How will studying what the Delphic oracle had to say about the Persian advance into Greece help me in my future job at the State Department?
I hear such questions often in my seminar on Thucydides and other classical writers, which I teach at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. My students — future policymakers, pundits, and managers — approach the class with a good dose of skepticism about the value (aside from mere amusement) of reading about ancient times. Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War — in particular the Melian Dialogue, a quintessential tale of the small, neutral Melians defending themselves against the strong Athenians — is relatively common reading among budding wonks. But Tacitus, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Plutarch? Most students favor the latest tome on the rise of China over the insights of these long-dead writers.
My students’ predilections reflect a wider skepticism about the present-day relevance of old texts. For modern academics and policy analysts, ancient authors are guilty of adopting an unscientific approach, relying on anecdotes, and showing a primitive fear of natural events. What good does it do the reader to know that before battle the Romans often consulted a pullarius, a chicken-feeding augur? Such texts say nothing about modern life, critics say, and certainly will not help one get a job at Goldman Sachs or the Pentagon. The ancients were not worried about the movement of the IS and LS curves.
But that’s precisely the point. Reading Thucydides’s description of the revolution in Corcyra, Tacitus’s praise of Agricola, or Julius Caesar’s tale of Vercingetorix’s uprising is refreshing because these works do not simplify human affairs to logical models. These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood. Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether politics or economics; we are often at the mercy of incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces. Events can sometimes only be appreciated when taken as they are.
With that understanding, let me relate 11 ancient lessons relevant to today’s world.
1. Superstition bests logic. Today’s leaders, like those of ancient times, do not think exclusively in terms of gains and losses, balance sheets, costs and benefits, and legal constraints. Rather they are moved by hearsay, superstitions, and dreams. Consider, for instance, the Athenian general Nicias, who spent more time in divination than pondering how to extricate his troops from Sicily. He took a fateful decision to stay at Syracuse because of a nocturnal eclipse of the moon and ended up being executed by the Sicilians.
2. Theology is far more important than economics. People are humans, not cash registers. And humans, even today, tend to hold strong beliefs about the Supreme Being, eternity, and what happens when you drink the waters of the Lethe River. They act here and now on the basis of those beliefs. Many will be led to great sacrifices, incomprehensible to those without an appreciation for the divine, in defense of their faith. Witness the Jews who refused to allow Caligula’s statue in the Temple and were spared his full wrath only by his timely and violent demise. Others, notably the early Christians in Rome, were not so lucky, and their bodies littered imperial streets and stadia.
3. Political leaders care about public opinion, but they also care about history and their place in it. They might be willing to trade present public support and admiration — or even the survival of their city or army — for a shot at immortality and a place in history books. As a British rebel put it to encourage his men to fight the Roman legions, "Think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after!" Well, they lost, and, in Tacitus’s description, an "awful silence reigned everywhere." But he fought not as much for that day as for the past and the future. People engage in politics and war sub specie aeternitatis, with all of its consequences.
4. Money is not the sinews of war. Men are. Wealth is nice, but an enemy’s center of gravity is his soul, character, mind, and faith, not his arms or his cities. As Xenophon wrote, "It is not numbers or strength that bring victories in war. No, it is when one side goes against the enemy with the gods’ gift of a stronger morale that their adversaries, as a rule, cannot withstand them." On another occasion, the Persians ate on tables of gold and still had a hard time defeating 300 Spartans who ate porridge. Persia’s large reservoirs of money and manpower could not bend the Greeks’ disdain for the Medes and love of independence. The Greeks never surrendered.
5. Thus, to conquer an enemy, change him. Julius Caesar, when expanding the Roman Empire across Gaul and Britain, knew he needed to sap his new and unwilling constituents’ desire to rebel. Calgacus in Caledonia and Vercingetorix in Gaul could be defeated on the battlefield, but the Romans had to assimilate the British and Gauls to rule. Thus, Caesar made the enemies into Romans, providing them with things like schools. Tacitus described the result: "The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization,’ when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement."
6. Fear is powerful, but love can overcome it. Our modern understanding is that fear motivates individuals and states. (Thank you, Thomas Hobbes!) Politics is then the attempt to calibrate fear to achieve stability, deterrence, or whatever other desired outcome. Yet the ancients teach that love of one’s brother in arms, family, city, nation, honor, prestige, justice, and god will make one do things deemed impossible or even suicidal. For instance, the Melians’ faith in justice and their gods led them to naively believe that Sparta would help them against Athens.
7. States are fragile, no matter how wealthy, strong, or cohesive. The "school of Hellas," Athens, collapsed into a whirlwind of violence when the plague struck its people. The Athenians ceased to fear their gods and respect the law and "coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner," as Thucydides wrote. In fact, even families, the rock of societies, can fall apart. In the "bloody march of the revolution" in Corcyra, as Thucydides put it, fathers killed their sons, and there "was no length to which violence did not go." Polities may break up unexpectedly, and the beastly state of nature is always around the corner.
8. Expect the unexpected; not everything makes sense all the time. A respected, beloved, and experienced general can be, in a key moment, a pusillanimous and superstitious leader whose actions border on the treasonous. The Athenian general Nicias, mentioned earlier, refused to retreat speedily at the end of the siege of Syracuse — for no clear reason at all. Much cannot be understood. The ability to comprehend is limited. Live with it.
9. For some, war is not a means to an end, but a goal in and of itself. Some fight because they love the glory of the battlefield, the pleading of the defeated, the plunder, the women, the gold, and the social cohesion of the battalion. For some, war is a way of life and peace the beginning of the end. Take, for instance, Julius Caesar, who loved the Germanic soldiers who fought on his side even though their fellow tribes were threatening Roman imperial interests from across the Rhine. They simply enjoyed a good fight. Similarly, Tacitus describes a Roman officer who "exulting less in the prizes that danger wins than in danger for its own sake, … sacrificed the assured gains of the past to a novel and hazardous gamble." Or, as Achilles put it in The Iliad, "What I really crave is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men."
10. Technology extends man’s power over nature, but nature is powerful too. An earthquake stopped a Spartan invasion of Attica; a plague devastated Athens and upset its political order; and Julius Caesar barely made it back from Britain to Gaul across the British Channel. Nature can redirect history in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.
11. Success is elusive. Sometimes naiveté, arrogance, and dumb luck turn the most powerful into a loser. (Looking for a Ph.D. dissertation topic? "Stupidity as an independent variable in international relations" would be useful and rare.) Accept this as a tragedy of the human condition. You will never engineer the perfect political administration. Often a group of brilliant generals can lead to a disaster, as the Athenians found out in Sicily.
In the end, we will never fully comprehend power, war, or life. The biggest danger for modern leaders and students of politics is that we think we know more than we do and that we can play with political realities as if they were hard sciences. Reading these classical texts is a good antidote to modern arrogance. Politics is an art, after all.
Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the Digital Magazine when you subscribe to FP Premium for just 99 cents!