Friday, February 07, 2014

Pharsalus, Thermopylae, and History

The study of history is fascinating because it covers the rise and fall of civilizations, but when examined closely the fate of nations and civilizations is in reality the study of a handful of people and some pivotal battles.  Consider that Rome had a million men under arms for most of its history and the city of Rome itself had about a million residents, but if you were to write down the names of every person who is mentioned in the histories of Rome you would not come anywhere near a million names.  In fact the list of names would span several centuries and even then the list would be relatively short with only a few being instantly recognizable.  So the reality is that history – all history is actually based on the writings and actions of a few men and a handful of battles, many of which didn’t involve more than a few thousand soldiers fighting over a small area for a period of hours or at best days.  The result of these battles frequently determined the fate of nations or even empires.  Sometimes even battles that were lost were turning points so the victors may have won the battle but lost the war. 

The common complaint is why do we study history at all?  Who cares what a bunch of old white guys did a zillion years ago?  Of course the younger the person is the shorter the time frame encompassed in a zillion.  World War Two involved millions of people both military and civilian with literally millions of people being killed, yet the number of people still living who experienced that decline daily and virtually no person in high school or college has any real knowledge of this event.  Still even this world shaking event is defined by a few battles, such as : El Alamein, Stalingrad, Battle of the Bulge, Dunkirk, and Midway.  Likewise the number of individuals who define WW II is equally short and includes people like Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Rommel, Patton, MacArthur, Roosevelt, Hirohito, and Mussolini.  There were others of course but the point is that out of the millions of people and the hundreds of battles the actual pivotal events and people is relatively small. 

Perhaps the most famous of these lost battles that resulted in ultimate triumph is the battle of
Thermopylae.  The Battle of Thermopylae was actually a rear guard action and technically a defeat since the entire Greek force was annihilated.  But this heroic battle allowed the Greek Army to escape and regroup while the Greek Navy was able to move into a much more advantageous position.  The result was the defeat of the Persian Army and Navy both of which greatly outnumbered the Greeks.  Had the Spartans not held Thermopylae there is little doubt but that the Persians would have crushed the Greek city states which would have nipped the concept of democratic and representative government in the bud.  Thus a handful of Spartans and their allies fought a heroic battle that changed the course of history and resulted in the concept of representative government.

Another such battle was Pharsalus which sealed the fate of the Roman Republic and set the stage for Imperial Rome.  In hindsight it is unlikely that the Roman Republic could have endured much longer.  Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, formed the first triumvirate because they could see that the Roman Republic had ceased to exist in any meaningful way.  Even Cicero a strong and dedicated supporter of the Republic had his doubts.  He was a lawyer and could not bring himself to break the law and join Caesar in his bid for total power.  Caesar felt his position was being threatened by Senatorial machinations but Cicero felt he had to support Pompey because Pompey was the leader the Senate had appointed to lead the Army.

At the time Pompey was the power center for the last remaining vestiges of the Roman Republic, although he too had his eyes on absolute power.  Pompey was a successful general and a powerful man and the Senate gave him control of the fleet in order to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and then control of the Army as well.  The Senate had given control of the Armies in Gaul to Caesar but the Senate was very corrupt and under the influence of Pompey.  But votes could be purchased and Caesar was very adept at using his plunder to buy votes which allowed him to rival Pompey in power.  Pompey was the power in Rome and in effect the ruler but Caesar also had his eye on absolute power and was building a power base with the common people.  But as Caesar’s power grew the Pompey felt threatened and schemed to have Caesar recalled by the Senate.  Of course this prompted Caesar to make his fateful decision to cross the Rubicon’

Moving fast with only one legion Caesar was able to arrive at the gates of Rome in a matter of a few days.  This early version of the Blitzkrieg forced Pompey to abandon Rome and move south as he gathered his legions and prepared for battle.  Caesar had carefully wooed the commons in Rome and was immensely popular while the Senate and Pompey were viewed as corrupt and self serving so Caesar was welcomed.  Ironically Caesar did everything he could to avoid a civil war and made several efforts to appease and forgive those who opposed him, but of course he would retain absolute power.  After several preliminary battles Pompey and Caesar met at Pharsalus where there was little doubt but that Pompey’s larger force would crush Caesar’s but Caesar was the better strategist while the Senatorial contingent spent their time dividing up the spoils.  Pharsalus was a pivotal battle that effectively ended the Roman Republic and set the stage for Imperial Rome

The pages of history are filled with similar battles, battles conducted by a few thousand men that changed the course of history and the fate of nations.  The Battle of Hastings ended the rule of the Saxons and introduced the Normans, shifting the focus of England to Europe and of course laying the groundwork for wars that raged over the next 500 years as various Kings fought over their rights.