The advent of extreme circumstances either activates the latent abilities of the brave man, or smothers the spirit of the timid soul. Of the many historical examples that verify this, we will discuss one that is unlikely to be familiar to most readers.
Septimius Odaenathus was a Syrian general and ruler who is credited with founding the Palmyrene Kingdom during the time of the later Roman Empire. Accurate details about this period of history are elusive, but he is believed to have lived from around 220 to 267 A.D. The city of Palmyra, now a ruin, was once a hub of commercial activity that stretched across the Near East. He was born into a noble family that attained Roman citizenship; and the evidence suggests that his enduring loyalty to the Roman throne was the product of a deep appreciation of its antique splendor, administrative greatness, and martial prowess. As an adult he held consular office in his native city.
Persia was at the time an existential threat to the integrity of Rome’s eastern domains. This fact was made evident in 260, when the Persian king Shapur I destroyed a Roman army led by the emperor Valerian himself at the Battle of Edessa. The emperor was taken prisoner and subjected to the most degrading humiliations before dying in captivity under uncertain circumstances. The importance of this deeply shocking episode cannot be overstated. Suddenly Rome’s eastern provinces were at the mercy of an expansionist and aggressive Sassanian king. Rome’s military was in a state of confusion and disarray. It seemed that there was nothing to prevent the Persian armies from sweeping across the Near East. The Roman senate dithered and prevaricated; and no one stepped forward to take the initiative in restoring stability and calm to an alarmed population. No one, that is, except Odaenathus.
By now he was in a leadership position in Palmyra. Unlike the prelates of other cities, he refused to bow down to the might of the Persians. The historian Edward Gibbon tells a revealing anecdote about the tenacious Palmyrene. Odaenathus, wishing to retain good relations with Shapur, sent him a train of camels “laden with the most rare and valuable merchandises.” With these gifts, he included a letter—polite but not groveling—to the Persian monarch. Shapur reacted with scorn and contempt. “Who is this Odaenathus,” he growled, “who would presume to write to his superior and overlord? If he wishes to preserve himself, let him not send me gifts; let him appear before my throne and prostrate himself with his hands behind his back. And if he refuses to do this, let him fact prompt destruction.” This, in essence, was Shapur’s response to Odaenathus and his attempt at peace-making.
This response from the Persian king aroused in Odaenathus a martial spirit that he was entirely unaware of. He must have known that, with his back against a wall, he could either sit still and wait to be attacked, or he could trust in his abilities and take the initiative. He chose the latter course. “The desperate extremity to which the Palmyrenian was reduced,” says Gibbon, “called into action all the latent powers of his soul.” And so it turned out to be. He managed to cobble together an army out the villages of Syria and the combative nomads of the desert.
When he was ready, he attacked Shapur with a ferocity that sent the Persians reeling. This victory was followed by additional campaigns. In 262 he and his men crossed the Euphrates and recovered for Rome the cities of Carrhae and Nisibis; he even penetrated as far as Ctestiphon. He eventually was able to recover all eastern Roman lands that the Persians had conquered since 252. Gibbon tells us:
By this exploit Odenathus [sic] laid the foundations of his future fame and fortunes. The majesty of Rome, oppressed by a Persian, was protected by a Syrian or Arab of Palmyra.
How was that a man with little or no military experience was able successfully to lead an army against one of the world’s most formidable powers? The answer seems very clear. External crises operate as the crucible of character and latent ability. The ingredients of success were always there; but with no opportunity to be recognized or used, they remained dormant and unreactive.
Those who say that there is a dearth of leadership today make a valid point, but this is only one part of the story. External crises have a way of propelling men from obscurity to positions of ultimate decision. Ulysses S. Grant, an undistinguished former army officer, was rescued from failure and obscurity by the outbreak of civil war in the United States in 1861. He was thirty-nine years old, and had achieved almost nothing of importance. His record had been a nearly unbroken series of failures and disappointments. But when war came, everything changed. One of Grant’s confidants, John Rawlins, described him in 1861:
I saw new energies in Grant. He dropped a stoop shouldered way of walking, and set his hat forward on his forehead in a careless fashion.
Freed from the restrictive fetters of bureaucracy, and from the unrelenting drudgeries of a peacetime routine, such men finally have a chance to shine. Our leaders are already among us. They will make their presence known in time.
Read more about the untapped abilities of the soul in the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: