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An Earlier Empire’s War on Iraq

by GARY LEUPP

The Roman emperor Trajan reigned from 98 to 117 and brought the empire to its maximum extent. He is generally considered to be one of the “good emperors” who ruled from 96 to 180, and indeed his administration was marked by relative tolerance (towards Christians, for example) and efficiency. Among his mistakes, however, was an attack on the Parthian Empire beginning in 115 or 116. He personally led his troops into Mesopotamia (what we now call Iraq) capturing the capital of Ctesiphon on the Tigris near modern Baghdad. He reached the Persian Gulf and in Edward Gibbon’s words, “enjoyed the honour of being the first, as he was the last, of the Roman generals, who ever navigated that remote sea.” A man of boundless ambition, he dreamed of sailing from there to far-off India.

Iraq was Persian (Iranian) territory then. We call its people “Arabs” today because they speak the Arabic language, just as we call Moroccans and Egyptians and Syrians “Arabs” for the same reason. But the original Arabs inhabited the Arabian Peninsula and what today is the kingdom of Jordan. Trajan had annexed the later (then called Arabia Petraea) about 106, bringing a large Arab population into the empire for the first time. Meanwhile he drew other Semites into the fold. By conquering Mesopotamia, with a population of perhaps a million Jews, he brought almost all the world’s Jews under Roman rule. (See Norman F. Cantor, The Sacred Chain: The History of the Jews, 1994).) (We tend to assume that the Jews were all concentrated in Judea, but there were according to Philo one million Jews in Alexandria, Egypt in the early first century, while Josephus writing later in the same century wrote that the Syrian cities of Antioch and Damascus had huge Jewish populations. At the time there were at least 10,000, and perhaps as many as 40,000 Jews in Rome itself.)

These Middle East conquests did not turn out well for Trajan. The Mesopotamians rose up in rebellion; a nephew of the king (who had fled beyond the Zagros Mountains) organized Parthian resistance, attacking Roman garrisons. According to F. A. Lepper (Trajan’s Parthian War, 1948) “traders and middlemen of all kinds” opposed the invasion. Local Jews who had been comfortable under Parthian rule constituted a key component of the uprising. Meanwhile Jews in Roman Judea, having revolted in 66-70, were again rebelling in what historians call the Kitos War (115-17).

Elsewhere too Semitic monotheism attached itself to political upheaval. In Cyrene (in what is now Libya) Jews revolted under the leadership of a self-styled messiah, Lukuas, in 115. His forces destroyed the Roman temples and government buildings in Cyrene, slaughtering Greeks and Romans, and advanced on Alexandria where they destroyed more pagan temples and the tomb of Pompey. Jews on the island of Cyprus rebelled as well, under one Artemion. (New Testament readers will recall reference to Jews in these far-flung locales: Simone of Cyrene who carries Jesus’ cross, and Paul’s traveling companion Barnabas, a Jew of Cyprus.)

Religious-based terrorism became the order of the day, if we’re to believe the third century Greek historian Dio Cassius, who records (no doubt with some exaggeration) that Jewish rebels killed 220,000 in Cyrene and 240,000 on Cyprus. Rome, having invaded Mesopotamia, was unable to contain the fighting to that one front. The war exacerbated simmering anti-Roman resentments, fanned religious fanaticism and intolerance, and produced terror as far away as Northern Africa. But with great effort Trajan’s forces suppressed the several Jewish revolts, although some fighting continued about a year after the emperor’s death. (As a result of this episode, according to Dio, Jews were expelled from Cyprus entirely.)

Trajan had not gone in to the war intending to provoke rebellions or terrorism. His ostensible reason was to punish Parthia for political interference in the kingdom of Armenia, which Rome considered part of its sphere of influence. But Dio Cassius called this a “pretext” and declared that Trajan simply wanted “to win renown.” Julian Bennett in his recent biography of Trajan agrees with this assessment (Trajan, Optimus Princeps: A Life and Times, 1997).

In 117 the proud emperor wisely elected to withdraw from Mesopotamia, and died in retreat in Cilicia. His adopted son and successor, Hadrian, returned Mesopotamia to Parthia the following year. “Thus it was,” wrote Dio, “that the Romans, in conquering Armenia, most of Mesopotamia, and the Parthians, had undergone severe hardships and dangers for naught.” But as historian B. W. Henderson put it, “it was very wise to abandon what could not be kept.” Mesopotamia resumed its former status as a prosperous part of Persia. The citizens of Rome didn’t suffer from the loss of a couple of briefly-held eastern provinces, or the revival of Parthian power up until that empire’s fall over a century later. Nor did it suffer when Hadrian, on the island of Britain at the other end of the empire, elected to build his famous barrier between Rome and “barbarian” Celtic tribes. Hadrian’s Wall, marking the boundary of Roman Britain, denoted the realistic recognition of the limits of imperial power.

* * *

Ibn Khaldun, that fine fourteenth century North African Arab Muslim scholar, one of the greatest historical thinkers of all time, cautioned against judging “by comparison and by analogy.” Many, he observed, “draw analogies between the events of the past and those that take place around them, judging the past by what they know of the present. Yet the difference between the two periods may be great, thus leading to gross error.”

Point well taken. I draw no analogies here. The current empire is mired in Iraq, drawn there by an emperor using a pretext to win renown, producing by his invasion widespread outrage conditioned by religious fanaticism. The empire’s troops face what the Romans faced in Mesopotamia—in Gibbon’s words, the legionnaires were “fainting with heat and thirst, could neither hope for victory if they preserved their ranks, nor break their ranks without exposing themselves to the most immanent danger. In this situation they were gradually encompassed by the encompassing numbers, harassed by the rapid evolutions, and destroyed by the arrows of the barbarian cavalry. ”

Yes, there are parallels. But if America is comparable to Rome, George Bush is surely no Trajan, and to draw an analogy between the two would indeed produce gross error.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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