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Ancient and modern

Hadrian’s advice for a new Defence Secretary

Either you must dominate completely, the emperor found, or give people their freedom. And we can only afford the second option

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

Michael Fallon, the new Defence Secretary, is a classicist by training. What lessons, if any, might he take from his study of the ancient world, especially in relation to military adventures in far-off places?

Hadrian offered the key insight on the problem when he became emperor in ad 117 and immediately abandoned some Roman provinces in the East: ‘Since we cannot control them, we must give them their freedom.’


Ancient Greeks are an interesting test case. While the city-states were free during the 5th and 4th centuries bc, they were constantly at each other’s throats, almost completely incapable of working together in each other’s interests. Athens itself was at war three years out of four over that period. Only from 338 bc, when mighty Macedon in the north under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, imposed full military control did any sort of peace begin to prevail there, essential for the success of Macedon’s plans to take on Persia.

In 215 bc, Philip V of Macedon decided to side with Hannibal against the Romans. At that time, the Romans could send only occasional armies into Greece to slap Philip down. But when Hannibal was defeated in 202 bc, Rome decided to sort out the Greeks. It took them 50 years to work out that it was either total control or perpetual warfare. Total control was the result, bringing with it (for the most part) a Roman peace for hundreds of years.

But that was then, and that was Rome, and that was empire. We do not do empires today, however, and all our recent in-and-out forays have done is to reinforce that Roman truth: without total control, we get nowhere. So forget it. Hadrian-like, Mr Fallon must give them their freedom — Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine — to sort out their own problems, and concentrate on what he can and must control, predominantly the security of the UK. After all, he is Secretary of State for Defence, not Attack, and in today’s world, attack is not the best form of defence.


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