On Whether Alexander Could Have Conquered Rome

It is said that after Alexander the Great completed his conquests in Asia, he intended eventually to turn his gaze westward to the Mediterranean region, and bring those lands under his control.  Death, of course, overtook him before he could begin this campaign.  Either the lingering effects of his battlefield wounds, or his dissolute living habits, brought him to an early grave. 

Had he sought to conquer the entire Mediterranean basin, Alexander would have had to subjugate the region’s two most powerful states, Rome and Carthage.  I believe he would have been able to conquer Carthage.  Its empire rested more on commerce than the sinews of martial prowess, and she had few allies that could be summoned in an emergency.  There would have been a long and difficult siege, but Alexander would eventually have prevailed, as he did with the Phoenician city of Tyre.  The Roman state, however, was entirely a different creature. 

Would Alexander have been able to conquer Italy?  The Roman historian Livy speculated intelligently on this question in his history; it is found in book IX, chapters 17 through 19.  It is pleasant to learn that ancient historians were just as willing as modern ones to indulge in speculative history.  It is an instructive question, and one that has something to teach us today.  We will summarize Livy’s analysis, and add our own.  He begins by offering his estimation on the conduct of war in general:

The things that seem to have primacy in warfare are the numbers and martial spirit of the soldiers, the talents of the commanders, and Fortune, which is decisive in all human affairs, and very much so in the conduct of war.  [IX.17]

Livy is confident that an analysis of these four elements (numbers of men, martial prowess of the men, abilities of the commanders, and the use of Fortune) will demonstrate that Alexander would have come to ruin had he attempted to invade Italy.  We agree.  The Roman state would have crushed Alexander, and sent him scurrying back to Ctestiphon or Macedon with his tail between his legs. 

Livy first notes that while Alexander was a commander of supreme genius and capability, he was but one man.  His army was top-heavy in this regard, and too reliant on the whims of one man; he had no organizational depth behind him in the same way that the Romans did.  The Romans had generations of competent generalship under their tunics, so to speak:  to list just a few names, Livy notes Marcus Valerius Corvus, Caius Marcius Rutulus, Caius Sulpicius, Titus Manlius Torquatus, Quintus Publius Philo, Lucius Papirius Cursor, Quintus Fabius Maximus, the two Decii, and Licius Volumnius, as well as others.  Rome, in short, had a professional military caste, a tradition that had been handed down generation by generation from the founding of the city itself. 

Warfare in Rome was a profession, conducted by professionals:  Tum disciplina militaris, iam inde ab initiis urbis tradita per manus, in artis perpetuis praeceptis ordinatae modum venerat.  That is, “so military science, passed down from the city’s beginnings through experience, had become a true craft, governed by consistent principles.”  These consistent principles were evident in tactics, organization, equipment, and command.  Alexander did not have this kind of history to rely on; he was a one-man show.  Alexander had a decade or so of military success to his name; Rome, by contrast, had four hundred years of organized warfare to draw on.  And whereas Alexander had never lost a battle, Rome had lost many of them.  This was an advantage, not a disadvantage; for Rome learned from every defeat, and came back stronger after each one.  There was regular “turnover” of military commanders in the Roman Republic, and this ensured a continuous supply of competent men who could be activated as reserves in emergencies:

One may look over, in our annals and registers of magistrates, pages of consuls and dictators who never on any single day displeased the Roman people in either their military virtue or fortune.  [IX.18]   

Roman commanders knew what was expected of them. Some might say that these kinds of traditions do not matter, but in this they would be mistaken.  When knowledge of an art is in the soul of a people, it seeps into the soil and water of the area as well.  Temporary setbacks or defeats cannot eradicate this learning.  The Roman state was founded on conquest and war; its kings and its consuls had warred continuously since the city’s founding.  Rome was unique:  she was aggressive, hardy, determined, warlike, and brilliantly organized.  Alexander never had to face such an enemy before.  Livy rightfully expresses his contempt for the martial abilities the enemies Alexander faced in Persian and India.  He would have found Italy a very different nut to crack.  Hannibal, if we recall, spent fifteen years roaming the Italian countryside in a futile effort to enlist the various Italian statelets in his war against Rome.

It is also well to remember, Livy notes, that by the time Alexander would have turned westward, he was already showing signs of corruption and decadence.  His demand that people prostrate themselves before him, his claims to have been the son of Zeus, his ever-increasing irascibility that showed itself in random cruelties, his overindulgence in food and drink:  all these things pointed toward a mind beginning to become ensnared by vice. 

If we analyze the raw numbers and worthiness of allies, as Livy does, the same picture emerges.  Rome’s census figures in the era of Alexander put the population at 250,000.  This was a considerable amount, and it would have provided the basis of a powerful army, fighting on its own soil.  Alexander would have had to contend not just with this population, but with the auxiliary armies that Rome could raise from her Italian allies.  All of Italy would have been a hornet’s nest of hostility:  Etrurians, Umbrians, Samnites, Aequi, Campanians, Apulians, the Marsi, the Paeligni, the Vestini, and many others, all would have contributed forces under Rome’s leadership.  By contrast, Alexander would probably not have been able to muster more then thirty thousand Greeks, along with his Persian and Indian allies.  These allies, says Livy, would have proven to be more of a burden to move around than an advantage (impedimentum maius quam auxilium traheret). 

The Romans would have been armed with oblong shields, which protected the body more than the Macedonian shield.  Roman javelins were more effective than Alexander’s lances.  The Macedonian phalanx was less divisible and maneuverable than the Roman units, which could be separated and re-formed with relative efficiency.  In short, even making due allowance for Livy’s patriotism and pride, it is difficult to see how Alexander would have been able to make any progress in conquering the Roman state.  He might have been able to occupy Sicily and a few coastal cities; but after this, he would have beaten his head against an unyielding Roman wall. 

It was discipline and fortitude that made Rome.  Consider this anecdote told by Livy (IX.16) about a tough general named Papirius Cursor.  Livy describes him as physically and mentally sharp, as well as a stern disciplinarian.  He was hard on his men in training, but believed it was necessary for winning battles.  There was one time when his cavalrymen asked to be given some time off after particularly hard training.  Papirius said yes, he would allow it this one time.  He said, “I will excuse you from having to scratch your backs when you dismount.”  By this he meant that his only concession would be a meaningless concession. 

Another time, one of Papirius’s junior commanders, a praetor, had been negligent in following some orders.  Papirius confronted him later, and ordered a lictor to prepare an axe, implying that he would have the praetor executed.  Papirius, pointing at the unfortunate praetor, said to the lictor, “Come on, lictor, cut off this root; it is an inconvenience to those who walk.”  He did not execute the man, but only fined him and gave him a warning.  But the message to the junior officer, and to all who witnessed the incident, could not have been clearer. 

Compare this ethic to what we see prevailing in America today.  Everywhere we see selfishness, greed, and weakness extolled as if they were virtues; lies and self-delusion have become substitutes for competence; and generals excuse their failures with torrents of words, then retire to lucrative comfort.  There is a perception that everything can be done “safely” and with technology, and that moral forces mean little or nothing.  I was angered to read recently (January 26, 2022) that the US Navy has stopped training in Washington’s state parks, due to complaints from local residents upset at seeing “armed people storming the beaches in our state parks.”  One resident said, “In these days of great division in our civil society, we don’t need stealthy men in camo uniforms toting toy guns around our State and County Parks.”  It is as if these people think their comfort and safety is guaranteed in perpetuity with no concession on their part.  They cannot conceive of war ever becoming a reality.  It is a sign of deep decay in the national consciousness, a retreat into cowardice and delusion that disguises itself as moral rectitude.         

The decline of the martial virtues does not bode well for the future of a nation.  It is, in fact, an ominous and terrible development.  If corrective action is not immediately taken, ruin will not be too far off.  Clausewitz, in his On War (IV.11), has provided us with a telling comment in this regard:

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed.  The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity.  Sooner or later, someone will come along with a sharp sword, and hack off our arms.   

Unless a nation maintains its swords in a reliable and constant state of sharpness, someone will come along, sooner or later, with a sharper sword.  And when this happens, there will be no time to search for a grindstone.   

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Read more on the effect of moral forces in the new, original translation of On Moral Ends: