Polybius on war — one, two, three: The Cause, The Pretext, The Beginning

The analysis of Polybius is always current and The West's closed-ranks actions against Russia on the plain excuse of Skripal's poisoning make it worthwhile reading today.

Bas relief of Greek hostorian Polybius
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Analysis by Tom Winter

March 26, 2018. (updated from a version posted in 2015)

I knew throughout most of my career that there had to be a popular course where we would just read the Greek and Roman historians in English.  As a course title, though, “The Greek Historians in English Translation” lacked something.

Well. All the Greek historians were generals.  They had been, and they had led, “boots on the ground.”  And what sort of history did they write?  


Wars.

And there was the light bulb! Clever boy, I finally titled it “Ancient Warfare.”  (Forgive me, but old war has sex appeal.) In the last decade of my professorial career, the Ancient Warfare Course filled rather large classrooms, and, I hope, left students wiser than when they came in.  (Still naive after all these years…!)

The success of the idea has kept it in the course catalog even after my retirement.

But Polybius, more than any other ancient historian, thought about war.  Also he thought about writing about it.  Polybius spent most of his adult life as a hostage in Rome, hobnobbing with Rome’s elite in politics and war.  He knew war, he knew Rome, he knew politics.  Those experienced Greek eyes on Empire-building Rome made interesting observations.  (“You can observe a lot by watching” — Yogi Berra)

Fabius, an earlier Roman historian, had written that Hannibal started the Second Punic War  (WWII for Rome) when he captured Saguntum, a Roman Ally in Spain.  This means, of course, for the Roman view of history, Hannibal started it.

It is at that point that Polybius explains patiently that you must distinguish three things about a war:

  1. The Cause,
  2. The Pretext, and the
  3. Beginning.

 

Curiously, the “beginning” is the last of the three!

Today, the plain Cause is Russia’s rise from the Gorbachev-Yeltsinian ashes, with the concomitant failure of the US goal to maintain “Full Spectrum Dominance”

 

Today, the Pretext is overt and obvious: the Skripal poisoning.

Notwithstanding the fact that the alleged means, novichuk, has been in US hands since 1999; notwithstanding the fact that still no evidence has been produced. In fact, no country of the West has even asked for evidence, but they have, instead, used it to march further along on the perilous path toward war. It is plain to anyone with two brain cells that this is the Polybian second step towards The Beginning: The Excuse.

History may not repeat, but it rhymes: See Polybius on the Second Punic War: Study its preceding events, and people’s reactions, and with Polybius, you conclude that The Cause of the Second Punic War was the insulting, “poison pill” terms that Rome had imposed on Carthage at the end of the First Punic War (WWI for Rome).  Now as any student of history knows, it is impossible — or nearly so — for a regime to lose a war and stay in power.

The West, utterly ignored Georgiy Arbatov’s famous line “We are depriving you of an enemy.” Instead of a peaceful cooperative world, it was a unilateral peace, and the West souldn’t have it, but has uniformly acted as if it won the Cold war. President Putin said it plainly a year ago “We can’t just tolerate such disrespect towards our country.”

One consequence of losing WWI for Carthage was a bitter civil war.  And Rome piled on.  In terms from Nebraska football, late hit and dead-ball foul! With Carthage re-weakened, Rome added on more indemnities, and also took Corsica.

Result?  Military leaders from Carthage hated Rome with a burning white-heat hate.  In modern terms, Polybius would have us understand that the beginning of WWII (for Rome) was the inverse Marshall Plan that she imposed upon the defeated Empire of Carthage.

But with Hannibal, i.e. for the Second Punic War, Polybius does not have a good illustration of The Pretext.  For an example of pretext, Polybius uses the war of Antiochus against Rome.  There, too, the Cause that Polybius assigns is hatred/anger at Rome, but the Pretext (Antiochus had one!) was the Liberation of Greece. Today, for “Liberation” we read R to P the “Responsibility to Protect.”

All of the Inheritors of Alexander the Great, when warring on each other or on Rome for glory, honor, and empire, used this “Liberation” Pretext.  So we can say that even in the time of Polybius, the  liberation excuse (now called the R to P!) was OLD.

Let’s go straight to the recent or the present wars.  Yes, there is going to be a quiz.

Professor Winter’s most important advice for test-taking was “Take your gimmes. This quiz leads of with the ‘gimme’ question. 

Skripal was the a) cause, b) pretense for the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats.

We continue with the wars…

Pick one from A Cause, B Pretext, or C Beginning. You may use the same answer more than once!

Afghanistan

___to avenge 9/11.

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___to remove the WMDs.

___to plant Democracy in the Middle East.

___to defeat Terrorism.

___to focus Terrorism all in one spot.

___to Liberate Afghanistan

Iraq

___to avenge 9/11.

___to remove the WMDs.

___to plant Democracy in the Middle East.

___to defeat Terrorism.

___to focus Terrorism all in one spot.

___to Liberate Iraq

Libya

___to avenge 9/11.

___to remove the WMDs.

___to plant Democracy in the Middle East.

___to defeat Terrorism.

___to focus Terrorism all in one spot.

___to protect Libyan citizens from evil Gaddhafi (i.e to Liberate Libya)

Syria

___to avenge 9/11.

___to remove the WMDs.

___to plant Democracy in the Middle East.

___to defeat Terrorism.

___to focus Terrorism all in one spot.

___to protect the Syrian people from evil Assad (i.e. to Liberate Syria)

 

Yes, you can use the same answer more than once.

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