Skip to Content

Ancient and modern

Vladimir Putin should look to ancient Rome for tips on building an empire

The Russian president should start by turning his enemies into allies

29 April 2017

9:00 AM

29 April 2017

9:00 AM

President Vladimir Putin, who still supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria, needs help if he wishes to be seen as a member of the civilised world. Rome might provide it.

From 509 bc Rome had been a republic, controlled by a senate, consuls and people’s assemblies, all (it was argued) balancing each other out. During that period Rome mastered all Italy, defeated the powerful state of Carthage, and brought much of North Africa, France (Gaul), Spain, Greece and the Levant under its control. It did so not primarily because it was an aggressive, warlike state: so was every other state it faced in that dog-eats-dog ancient Mediterranean world.

For all its triumphs, Rome suffered 90 military defeats in that time; the Celts (390 bc) and Hannibal (218-202 bc) nearly brought it to its knees.


The reason for its success, it has been argued, was twofold. First, it was a securely integrated state, actively involving the whole population, rich and poor alike. More important still, in this bellicose world Rome alone understood the advantages of bringing enemies onside.

During the 200 years it took to bring Italy under its control, it developed high political and diplomatic skill at ‘alliance management’, converting enemies into loyal Roman citizens. Consequently, the military and human resources Rome had at its disposal vastly outnumbered those of any other state it took on, and its success in conquest (and the booty it accumulated) made more allies and cemented existing loyalty. Hannibal’s ally King Philip V of Macedon urged Greek states to adopt the tactic.

The tsars of imperial Russia had ‘co-optation’ skills, too. But now this deeply corrupt, insecure nation seems incapable of co-opting anyone except those equally corrupt.

Consequently, it has no option but to express its pride in being a leader of loners, surrounded by enemies, single-handedly and heroically facing up to a hostile world.

But if you are unable to see that it is in your interests to turn enemies into allies, what can you expect?


Show comments
Close