When we are dealing with an opponent of substantial power, we should try to cut him off from his source of strength. If he can be made incapable of drawing on his strengths, he will be weakened; and so weakened, isolated; and if isolated, destroyed. Everything has a source of strength, whether we are talking about a person, an animal, a machine, a group, a nation. So the first step will be to identify this power source.
Consider the fable of Antaeus, a figure from Greek mythology. He was the son of Poseidon and Gaia, the goddess of the Earth. According to the fable, Antaeus was a giant who inhabited Libya; he was notorious for challenging travelers who passed through his region to wrestling matches. No one was able to defeat him. The reason was that he was in physical contact with the earth, and his mother Gaia was thus able to give him special advantages. Antaeus exploited his special advantage over his opponents by killing them all. He even built a temple to his father Poseidon with a number of his victims’ skulls.
But eventually Antaeus crossed paths with the wrong traveler. He encountered Hercules, and the goddess Athena had told Hercules the secret to defeating Antaeus. She told him to seize hold of the giant and lift him up in the air. This would remove him from contact with the earth, and deny him his source of sustenance and power. Hercules did precisely this; he lifted the giant in the air and squeezed the life out of him in a powerful bear-hug. And that was the end of Antaeus.
There are countless illustrations of this principle in history, of course, but for some reason this fable always comes to my mind. Another example can be found in the life of the emperor Julian in 361 A.D. He had just embarked on his course of rebellion against his malicious cousin Constantius, who was at that time wearing the royal purple. The historian Ammianus (XXI.9) tells us that Julian was moving quickly with his forces from Gaul to confront his cousin. Because Julian was a man of simple wants and means, he was able to move more quickly than many other commanders might have been able to move. He even liked to repeat the saying of the Persian emperor Cyrus, who, when on the march and asked by a host what kind of food he should prepare, answered, “Only bread, for I hope to eat near a stream.” In this way he made clear that he needed only bread and water while on the march.
As Julian moved through the Alps, he knew he would encounter Constantius’s men along the way. There was a government official named Lucillianus who was an important district leader near the city of Sirmium. Lucillianus planned on resisting Julian when he would pass through: his loyalties lay with Constantius. But Julian moved fast–so fast, in fact, that the historian Ammianus describes his march as similar to a “blazing dart” or a “meteor.” He arrived at the town of Bononea in Pannonia (probably the modern Bonmunster) before anyone knew very much about his movements. Bononea was about nineteen miles from Sirmium.
Julian then summoned Lucillianus. It was at night or the early morning, and he was asleep. Julian had given instructions that his men should bring him by force if necessary. Lucillianus was terrified and thought he might be executed. But when he finally saw Julian, he was given the chance to show his respects to the emperor, and quickly realized that he would not be harmed. Yet he still had an insolent tongue. He tried to make Julian doubt his course of action, and implied that Constantius had more support than did he. He told Julian, “My emperor, you have recklessly and rashly committed yourself with a few supporters to the provinces of someone else.” Julian’s response to this was:
Save these prudent words for Constantius. I have shown you the insignia of imperial power not as an advisor, but so that you might stop quaking in fear.
And this ended the conversation; Lucillianus was taken away. Through such methods did Julian tame or remove his opponent Constantius’s supporters. He understood that by detaching Constantius from his support network, he could be more easily isolated for the final blows.
Read more in Thirty-Seven.