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Roman Centurion

The Grand Strategy of Defense of the Roman Empire

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If one was to briefly define the expression of ‘grand strategy’, it would likely be described as the integration of a state's overall political, economic, and military aims to preserve its long-term interests. Within the current historiography of Roman military history, an interesting matter of debate arises in which an attempt is made to detect, and then define, the existence of a grand strategy of defense among the ancient Romans. 

Some historians argue that, throughout classical Roman history, Roman leaders never managed to establish a grand military strategy. For example, some argue that military decisions were made on an ad hoc basis by Roman authorities who reacted to political and military events rather than planning at the strategic level. Some go as far as proposing that not only Roman strategy, but even Roman survival were reduced to pure luck. At the other end of the spectrum of opinion, there is another group of historians who argue that the notion of a grand strategy of defense existed among the Romans as early as the Republican period. 

In the context of this debate, and without judging whether they abided to a clearly established military grand strategy, in a modern sense of the term, it is more likely that the Romans did follow a general concept of military defensive thinking called a grand strategy of defense. Furthermore, this grand strategy of defense was not static, but evolved throughout the history of the Roman Empire, adjusting to a changing environment. 

The Birth of an Empire 

In the 5th century BC, long before anyone in Rome considered establishing a grand strategy of defense, it was the small and medium-sized landowners who were responsible for defending the Roman state, whose area of influence corresponded to barely half the surface area of the current Italian region of Lazio, i.e., an area of about 9,000 square kilometers (approximately 3,475 square miles). The aristocracy and those who were not proprietors ( proletarii) were not admitted in the army, which was then seasonal. The period of military campaigns usually began in mid-March and ended in mid-October. In the 2nd century BC, the professional army appeared, made permanent by the continuous wars and the need to defend or pacify ever-growing territorial possessions. 

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Mario Bartolini has a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada, and a second master’s degree in war studies, obtained at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire and of The Speculatores: The Men Who Spied for Rome. 

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Mario J.A. Bartolini is a retired political analyst and officer in the Canadian army reserve, with a long-held interest in Roman military history. He has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada,... Read More

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