Imagine explaining the global reputations of Elizabeth II and Vladimir Putin to someone from ancient Rome. These two leaders both came to power in declining empires. Under one, the dissolution of the empire has continued, and most of the territories the Queen inherited have won their freedom. The other empire has proven more resilient and its leader has sought—with a little success—to restore the extent of the realm. Yet Elizabeth II has been hailed as an exemplary monarch; Vladimir Putin is roundly condemned. An ancient Roman would probably have been shocked that Elizabeth’s loss of territory did not cause her to lose her throne and found the notion that she is a better leader than Vladimir Putin almost incomprehensible. For the key determinant of a ruler’s reputation in Rome was his ability to expand—or at the very least not cede—the imperial territory.
During his first consulship, Julius Caesar passed the lex Vatinia, which granted him the governorship of Transalpine Gaul at the end of his term of office in Rome. This allowed him to expand his influence into parts of the country that had not yet come under the empire’s sway. He wrote De Bello Gallico to publicise his feats there. The conquest of Gaul was a key part of Caesar’s claim to power.
Not to be outdone, his fellow triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus launched an invasion of Parthia. Crassus had already earned his military spurs by suppressing Spartacus’ revolt, but the honour gained by quashing a slave uprising—however threatening—paled in comparison to the glory of conquest. Unfortunately for him, however, his campaign ended in a disastrous defeat at Carrhae, after which, legend has it, the Parthians paid ironic tribute to his status as Rome’s richest man by pouring molten gold down his throat.
Even Marcus Aurelius—often described as a philosopher king—spent much of his reign campaigning on the northern frontiers, to ward off incursions from the Germanic tribes.
Rome’s militarism is far from unique in history. Take ISIS, for example. In 2015, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appointed himself caliph, an ancient office that had fallen into abeyance with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. While the title confers honour, it also implies obligations—failure to uphold which can result in censure or even loss of office. Among its duties is that the caliph should seek to expand the caliphate. He must wage jihad at least once a year. According to ISIS, peace is allowable, but only on a temporary basis—treaties may last no more than ten years and consenting to permanent borders is forbidden.
Even in more modern, western cultures, a leader’s success or failure to expand or retain territory has, until recent times, played a key part in his or her legacy. Queen Victoria’s reputation rests partly on the fact that under her reign the country reached the height of its imperial pomp. By contrast, her ancestor George III is known for being the man who lost America, since the American Revolutionary War took place on his watch.
Russia’s attempt to seize Ukraine, by contrast, has drawn near universal condemnation. The UN resolution issued in the immediate aftermath of the invasion cites the obligation of nations to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State” and demands that Russia “immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine.” It passed by 141 votes to 5 (with 35 abstentions).
Individual leaders went further. Greece’s President Sakellaropoulou described it as a “clear violation of international law and our values,” Ireland’s Michael Higgins called it “unacceptable and immoral” while, to Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, it was “intolerable.” The Kremlin’s defenders might try to write off western condemnation as the complaints of competitors concerned by the changing balance of power, but these are small nations, with little international clout. Their outrage cannot be dismissed as an attempt to unsettle a geopolitical opponent. It reflects a genuine change in the way many societies view international relations.
Nor can the west be accused of hypocrisy if it condemns behaviour it once practised. There is no one alive today—still less in power—who played a role in the acquisitions of the British Empire, for example. The children have not repeated the sins of their parents. As Pope Francis said, “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner.” Condemning Putin’s actions—even when they are like those undertaken by our ancestors—is not a sign of hypocrisy. It is a sign of progress.
It is not just the invasion, however, that the west condemns, but the way it is being fought. Much of the reporting has focused on the humanitarian plight of civilians in cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol. Once more, however, a citizen of earlier times would recognise much of Russia’s conduct. For civilians follow closely upon truth as early victims of war.
Our Hollywood-inspired vision of ancient combat may be one of bronzed bodies wielding glistening spears on a sunlit plain, but in fact urban warfare was a regular feature. Athens built its Long Walls at great expense to protect access to the port of Piraeus if it came under siege. Macedon’s King Demetrios I was awarded the name Poliorketes (“sacker of cities”). Rome’s recapture of Jerusalem, Josephus relates, featured bloody hand-to-hand combat and the slaughter of civilians.
States were rarely criticised for attacking other states. One exception is the opprobrium heaped upon Sparta for invading Plataea during the Peloponnesian War. But this was a special case. Plataea was holy ground to the Greeks and the Spartans had sworn an oath to the gods to protect it. They had not committed a war crime, in Greek eyes: they were guilty of a religious sin.
The deliberate targeting of civilians was not unknown in Christian times, either. During one notorious episode of the Albigensian Crusade, the papal legate, Arnaud Amalric, having no way to tell the Cathar heretics apart from the Catholic faithful, allegedly instructed his soldiers to slaughter everyone barricaded inside a church in Beziers: “Kill them all. God will recognise his own.” He later told the Pope: “Our men spared no-one, irrespective of rank, sex or age and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. [This is probably an exaggeration.] After this great slaughter, the whole town was despoiled and burnt.” Amalric not only went unpunished but was made archbishop of Narbonne three years later.
Modern western warfare has also killed civilians. America’s post-war Strategic Bombing Survey suggests that Allied bombing resulted in 300,000 civilian deaths and the destruction of 3,600,000 homes in Germany. In 2016, the Iraq Body Count estimated that more than 174,000 civilians had lost their lives since the US-led invasion, despite the advent of precision weaponry and the coalition’s overwhelming force.
But there are signs that these actions were not felt to be in keeping with western ideals. The World War II Bomber Command would have to wait until 2012 to receive a memorial, and its airmen were denied campaign medals. They played a key role in winning the war, but the UK preferred not to remember that.
The modern west does not, however, condone transporting civilians from occupied territory to work as slave labour as, it is alleged, Russia has been doing. To the ancients, this was a standard feature of warfare. Those whose cities were sacked would be forced into exile or sold into slavery. When Seneca relates the nonchalant courage of the philosopher Stilbo, exiled from his home town of Megara following its conquest by King Demetrios, he includes no condemnation of Demetrios’s actions.
Under Putin, Russia, which is sometimes called the “third Rome,” is behaving in a way that would have been entirely familiar to the original Romans and to the citizens of most other states throughout history. Ours is perhaps the first generation in which Putin’s conduct is seen as unusual. Perhaps our mistake was in assuming that, because the west has changed, the rest of the world has too. We forgot John Buchan’s wise admonition: “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there and you bring back the reign of Satan.”