Lucullus: Military Success Undone by Political Failure.
By David Trumbull
By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005
Partisan bickering, political strife, questions at home about military involvement abroad, complaints about the costs of foreign liberation efforts. It was all there, in ancient Rome, just as in our America. Take for instance Lucius Licinius Lucullus (114-57 B.C.)
Lucullus extended Rome's control over new territories and defeated kings at the height of their power. According to Plutarch,
"Lucullus was the first Roman who carried an army over Taurus, passed the Tigris, took and burnt the royal palaces of Asia in the sight of the kings, seizing and overwhelming the northern parts as far as the Phasis, the east as far as Media, and making the South and Red Sea his own through the kings of the Arabians. He shattered the power of the kings, and narrowly missed their persons, while like wild beasts they fled away into deserts and thick and impassable woods." --Comparison of Lucullus with Cimon, 3.
Lucullus was a master of varied tactics in battle. When he marches into Asia in preparation for engaging the forces of Mithridates in 74 B.C., Lucullus, calculating that the large host of Mithridates will soon run out of provisions, waits for his opportunity rather than rushing into battle. He cuts the supply-lines of Mithridates and the the troops of Mithridates, being famished, are defeated by Lucullus. (Life of Lucullus, 7-11). Later, when Lucullus faces both Mithridates and Tigranes at the battle of Tigranocerta in 69 B.C., Mithridates, smarting from his early defeat at the hands of Lucullus, urges Tigranes to cut Lucullus' supply-lines rather than rashly engage the enemy, but Tigranes, not wishing to share the victory with his father-in-law Mithridates, throws himself against the Romans and is repulsed. Then Lucullus, acting exactly opposite to the way he did in the earlier battle where, greatly outnumbered, he forebare to attack, waiting rather for his enemy's food stores to give out, now goes swiftly on the defensive. Lucullus divides his forces, leaving his lieutenant Murena to press the seige of Tigranocerta, while Lucullus goes against Tigranes. Mithridates and Tigranes, thinking Lucullus will employ his customary waiting tactic are caught unawares and Lucullus, with a smaller and more lightly armed force, utterly routs the forces of Tigranes. (Life of Lucullus, 26-28).
Plutarch also records that Lucullus freed the cities of the Middle East of their crippling debts and ousted their oppressors (Life of Lucullus, 20). For his labors to pacify a troubled region and free oppressed people Lucullus created rich and powerful enemies and is seen as spending Roman resources to liberate barbarians. Back home in Rome he was criticized for pursuing a foreign wars for his own glory but not to the advantage of the Roman people (Life of Lucullus, 24).
Lucullus was a brilliant military leader, but he failed to rally the political support that he needed domestically to build a lasting and prosperous Roman state. Perhaps he failed to grasp how Roman military and civic life were changing as Roman territory expanded. For centuries Roman leaders had followed a similar career. Military success won the opportunity to return to Rome for a triumph, election to an office of honor and responsibility, with consul being the highest office, then entrance into the senate to take one's place among the respected and powerful governors of the republic. It was a pattern that worked well as long as Rome's enemies were nearby, as in the early years when she was subjugating the surrounding cities of Italy, and even when conquering the Gauls in northern Italy and nearer parts of Europe. Citizen-soldiers would take up arms in the summer campaign season and return in time for the harvest. Military commanders were never long away from the city and the military and civic functions of government were never far apart. But this was changing. Rome's enemies were farther away and campaigns could no longer be concluded in a season. A generation earlier Marius, in 107 B.C. reorganized the army by enlisting slaves and poor people, thus changing the character of the army from a citizen to professional army (Life of Marius, 9). The great military exploits of Lucullus were done during his long absences from Rome, during which time other men, not necessarily as good as commanders, but with the advantage of being in Rome where they could sway the crowd and argue in the senate, held office and with envious eye regarded Lucullus' Asian exploits as a threat to their own careers rather than a credit to Rome.
Lucullus, perhaps, just didn't understand the need to run a campaign of political rhetoric at home while campaigning against Rome's enemies abroad. The next generation of leaders, Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and finally, Octavian known as Augustus will demonstrate an ever increasing awareness of this vital blending of the military and the civic virtues.