Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern - 14 July 2012

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It is a basic principle of international diplomacy that one does not interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. These days it seems more honoured in the breach than in the observance, Syria being the latest target. The ‘democratic human rights of the oppressed’ is usually the reason (or excuse). In the ancient world, it was ‘freedom’.

The Romans were masters of the tactic. Philip V of Macedon (i.e. Greece) had supported Hannibal against the Romans, and in 200 bc the Romans moved against him. To gain a foothold in Greek politics, they decided to appeal to Greeks’ traditional love of ‘freedom’. So after Philip’s defeat, Flaminius announced (in Greek) that those once ‘subject’ to Philip were now ‘free’. The cheers were so loud, we are told, that crows flying overhead fell dead from the sky.

The point was that individual Greek city-states and leagues were always at each others’ throats. So Romans decided to play off one Greek state against another by offering to those who came over to them ‘freedom’ from their local ‘oppressors’ — the old ‘divide and rule’ tactic. And it worked. By 168 bc Rome could affirm ‘all nations should realise that Rome did not enslave the free but freed the enslaved’, and Greek freedom was now ‘secure and lasting under the protection of the Roman people’.

It was that ‘protection of the Roman people’ which was the key. It was a straight trade-off: you get peace in exchange for usually ‘light-touch’ Roman control. Many thought it worth having (as the Roman historian Tacitus pointed out, Gauls and Germans all wanted to win freedom from Rome, but only to exert control over their neighbours themselves). So Cicero could claim that Rome did not run an empire so much as a ‘world protectorate’.

Total control was the only way that the famed pax Romana could be maintained. It is wishful thinking that the West can secure its own, or anyone else’s, interests, let alone peace, by hopping militarily in and out of faraway countries in the name of the ‘human rights’ of people for whom the term means not much more than a new shipment of AK 47s.