Between Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Han Fei-tzu and my rapidly worsening podcast addiction, I’ve been learning an awful lot about ancient history recently. One of the themes I’ve kept running across is this pattern where good politicians seem to be much more important and much more powerful than generals or warlords. Generals and warlords, in turn, seem to have very little problem running over businessmen. Let’s go through some examples.
The First Triumvirate of Rome:
The first triumvirate consisted of Gaius Julius Caesar, who rose to prominence as a populist, left-wing politician, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who rose to prominence by being one of the wealthiest individuals in history, and Pompey the Great, who rose to prominence by kicking the living snot out of the Marians, the slaves under Spartacus and the tribes of Gaul.
Businessman Crassus, easily outmaneuvered by Pompey, died in a failed invasion of Parthia undertaken mostly because he was desperately trying to get somebody, anybody, to like him. General Pompey, outmaneuvered by politician Caesar, fell next. This is perhaps a little too neat, since Pompey was a good, but nowhere near Caesar-level politician and Crassus was a decent, but nowhere near Pompey-level general, but I think it’s instructional. Nobody liked Crassus and it showed. People did like Pompey, but not as much as they liked Caesar, and that showed as well.
The Second Triumvirate of Rome:
The second version consisted of consumate politician Octavian, consumate general Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who was also a general but we’re mostly going to ignore him because he was a bit of a third wheel.
What’s really interesting about Octavian and Antony is that they were such extreme examples of their type. Octavian was a bad, bad, not good military leader but everyone agrees the man was a master administrator and savvy politician. Antony was a political disaster whose debauched lifestyle alienated the people of Italy and whose fling with Cleopatra, identification with Egyptian culture and elevation of eastern values thoroughly offended everybody else. However, everyone agrees Mark Antony was a brilliant military commander beloved by his troops.
Octavian won. He won despite starting off with the least resources. He won despite being 19 when the whole thing started. He won despite being an absolute turd of a military commander. The thing that amazes me about Octavian is how easily he secured the loyalty of really, really excellent military men to fight for him. Agrippa never seemed to consider turning on Octavian. Neither did the men serving under Agrippa. It seems that a good politician can find a good general when he’s in charge. A bad politician, on the other hand, can’t find a good person to be in charge while still being in charge himself.
The American Revolution:
The American side of the Revolution had a number of historically gifted politicians like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and most especially politician George Washington. Unfortunately, General George Washington started the war off as a disaster of a military commander and really only worked his way up to average by the end.
The British politicians of the Revolution included an incredibly out of touch parliament, King George III and Governor Thomas Gage, who tied to passify the colonials through the unique strategy of pissing them off immensely. Fortunately, they also had Charles Cornwallis and his collegues, who tended to wipe the ground with George Washington’s troops whenever they tangled.
Again, the deft politicians and bad generals of the American side developed deep and stable ties to the population that provided them enough fresh men, supplies and moral to make up for the continuous losses in the field. Franklin also managed to get the French on board without compromising the American position post-war. The British, despite winning something like 90% of the battles, lost the war because their political bosses couldn’t stop irritating the locals, couldn’t keep France out of the war, and couldn’t keep their own people cooperating with each other.
The Haitian Revolution:
This was basically a three way battle. There were the “big white” businessmen, who owned most of the island’s plantations and controlled Haiti’s access to France. They faced off against Toussaint Louverture, who I’d consider one of the most politically gifted men ever, and the successions of military men who washed in and out with every tide.
Louverture’s success in the revolution stemmed from his ability to alternately play and coopt the big whites, play and coopt the various military factions and most especially, his preternatural ability to read and manipulate the French. He quickly and efficiently dispatched the militant slave leaders, deftly undermined French control of the island and beat up on the rival claimants for power so badly that I almost felt bad for them. No Louverture, no way in hell Haiti works its way free of the slave system that had so long defined it.
When the French did eventually kill Louverture, it was the desperate and nihilistic act of a sore loser. Louverture’s death also put the final nail in the big whites’ collective coffin, resulted in a genocide for French citizens on the island and screwed Haiti for at least a century.
So, am I full of it? Would we be better off with great businessmen and weak politicians? Am I cherry picking rare instances of good generalship failing to bring victory? I’d love your thoughts.
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