Ever since World War II’s conclusion, American foreign policy has become increasingly aggressive and has included numerous attempts at nation-building. But many of these experiments have been abysmal failures. This shouldn’t surprise anyone though. Governments have been poor nation-builders for thousands of years. In fact, ancient Rome witnessed some of the same foreign policy shortcomings that modern states experience nowadays. However, rather than heeding Rome’s lessons, many modern elected officials have ignored these cautionary tales about the dangers of overseas meddling.
Its ascendency wasn’t without copious risks.
Long before despotic emperors ruled Rome, it was a burgeoning republic that relentlessly clawed its way to the Italian hierarchal apex. But, as I’ve outlined in Gaius Marius, the Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour, its ascendancy wasn’t without copious risks.
The sprawling state ultimately became locked in a struggle for survival with the western Mediterranean’s superpower, Carthage, prompting Rome to desperately seek allies. So, Rome formed an alliance with a Numidian chieftain named Masinissa and, partially through this partnership, was able to reverse Rome’s fortunes and defeat mighty Carthage. This left Rome as the undisputed regional superpower. To reward Masinissa, the Republic officially recognized him as a king, allowed him to annex large swaths of territory, and permitted the creation of a Numidian state, which included much of Carthage’s former domain. From the Roman point of view, a Numidian kingdom inhibited Carthage from reemerging from its ashes while also providing the Republic with a malleable ally and acting as a buffer against potential enemy states.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Rome’s experiment with nation-building was initially successful. Masinissa was the Republic’s obedient friend, and his successor, Micipsa, was likewise a loyal Roman ally. In fact, when Rome became embroiled in a conflict in Spain, he gladly supplied Rome with Numidian troops and resources. He also sent his deceased brother’s charismatic bastard son, Jugurtha, to Spain, likely to remove him as a threat to the throne and to place him in harm’s way. However, Micipsa’s plan disastrously backfired because Jugurtha trained in Roman warfare, was loved by the legions, and even impressed the famed Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus.
Rome’s purported honorable friend quickly revealed his true nature.
As a result, Aemilianus dispatched a missive to Micipsa congratulating him on his nephew’s many virtues. The letter also served to not-so-subtly suggest that Micipsa should declare Jugurtha as his successor. Feeling pressure from Rome, Micipsa meekly acquiesced and named Jugurtha co-heir to the Numidian throne alongside his own two biological sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. From the Roman perspective, things were going swimmingly. They had created an allied kingdom, and because of their meddling, Numidia would soon be partially controlled by the beloved and supposedly pro-Roman ally, Jugurtha.
When Micipsa died, Jugurtha and Micipsa’s sons assumed control over the Numidian kingdom. However, Rome’s purported honorable friend quickly revealed his true nature. Jugurtha ordered the murder of one of his co-heirs, Hiempsal, and then marched his troops against his only surviving co-ruler, Adherbal.
Rome repeatedly ordered Jugurtha to desist, but he continued to disobey them. After he twice defeated Adherbal, the humbled African fled to the Numidian city of Cirta, where a host of Italians lived and, at first, they safeguarded the monarch. However, after an elongated siege, the town ultimately surrendered him to his enemy. Jugurtha executed his cousin and all of the Italians whom he deemed combatants. The Romans began to realize that their overseas experiment had quickly gone awry.
The man that they helped train led the fight against Rome.
The Romans could ignore disobedience to some extent but they couldn’t countenance the wholesale murder of their subjects. Therefore the Republic declared war and dispatched an army to Numidia. But Jugurtha repeatedly bribed the Romans and outwitted the generals sent to defeat him.
Before long, in an embarrassing episode, Jugurtha managed to purchase a lenient peace agreement, and subsequently traveled to Rome, where he bribed more Romans and even ordered the murder of one of his pro-Roman relatives. This was the final straw for the Romans and Jugurtha was expelled from their city. As he departed, he looked back at Rome, smirked, and said, “A city for sale and doomed to speedy destruction if it finds a purchaser!”
An Embarrassing Turn of Events
Upon his return to Numidia, war resumed, largely as a consequence of Rome’s meddling. The Republic had essentially created a state that quickly became their foe, and the man that they helped train led the fight against Rome. This was an embarrassing turn of events.
As time progressed, the war progressively cornered the Romans. By 107 BC, Gaius Marius, an up-and-coming politician and military man, was charged with leading the floundering Roman war effort. Under his leadership and with the aid of one of his lieutenants, Sulla, Rome regained much of its honor and, ultimately, concluded the war after years of conflict and tens of thousands of deaths.
It was their heirs who ensured the Republic’s final fall.
As a result of the Jugurthine War, Marius and Sulla rose to the pinnacle of power. However, both men bore some undesirable character traits. At times, they were jealous, petty, and power-hungry, and they eventually turned on each other over a trivial dispute that threw Rome into chaos.
Sulla marched his forces on Rome twice and Marius once. They left the Republic in tatters because of their personal rivalry. However, it was their heirs who ensured the Republic’s final fall. Marius’ nephew, Julius Caesar, and two of Sulla’s deputies, Pompey and Crassus, formed the renowned First Triumvirate to shamefully manipulate and exploit the state for their own selfish purposes.
When the three-headed monster’s power-sharing agreement broke down, Rome was treated to another avoidable civil war that left Caesar victorious. He assumed the unconstitutional office of dictator in perpetuity. After he was assassinated, his grandnephew, Octavius, ultimately assumed control of Rome and replaced the republican form of government with an autocracy called the principate.
It’s clear that Rome’s African policy was disastrous. The Numidian state that was supposed to serve as a dedicated ally turned against the Republic, along with Rome’s handpicked heir to the Numidian throne. This resulted in a costly and protracted conflict. However, this wasn’t the worst side-effect of Rome’s troublesome foreign policy.
Meddling in Numidia actually sparked a chain reaction that led to the Roman Republic’s fall. Their meddling in Numidia actually sparked a chain reaction that led to the Roman Republic’s fall; without the creation of the Numidian state and the Jugurthine War, Rome may have never witnessed the rise of Marius and Sulla and, as a result, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, and Octavius, who instituted the principate.
Rome’s bungled African policy should serve as a valuable lesson that states are the worst nation-builders and an intrusive foreign policy can have undesirable consequences that are far-reaching and unforeseeable. Rather than assuming government’s omniscience, perhaps the state’s agents should operate with more humility. Imagine what the world would be like if they did.