The Apotheosis of Terrorism

3 December 2011


Who can resist a portrayal of Roman decadence? Perhaps the picture galleries of the future will feature works named something like 'Americans of the Decadence,' although Madden's book fortunately doesn't feed into this famliar narrative.

I have just finished listening to Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — and America Is Building — a New World by Thomas F. Madden. The author makes a tripartite distinction between empires of conquest, empires of commerce, and empires of trust. He formulates an elaborate analogy between the growth of the Roman Empire and the growth of the de facto American empire. The author would point out that the Roman Empire, at least during its phase of growth, was also a de facto empire, because Rome preferred allies to conquered territories, and did all that it could to avoid foreign entanglements while also seeking to secure its frontier.

From what I have written briefly about the book above, the contrarian cast of the book should be clear. This is to be welcomed. Too many people write popular histories and rely on regurgitating conventional wisdom in order to avoid offending their public and therefore selling more copies. Thus I welcome the author’s contrarianism. I also appreciate the author’s studied distantiation from any declension narrative. He goes out of his way to point out that his parallelism between Rome and America is not the familiar parallel of Rome became decadent and fell, therefore America, which is becoming decadent, will soon fall. Madden emphasizes that his parallels are between the Roman Republic, a thousand years before it fell, and America. He also explicitly acknowledged, near the end of the book, that all empires fall, but that if an empire has a thousand years of life that this is a good run. I agree.

Roman grew to such a great extent, according to Madden, because Rome turned enemies into friends and allies.

Much is Madden’s argument is closely parallel to what I have called The Credibility Paradox: Rome once, and America now, have credibility in foreign affairs not because they sought or seek power, but precisely because they avoided or avoid it. Empires of conquest grow because a sovereign power actively seeks to control other peoples, conquering them in order to rule them. Empires of trust grow because a sovereign power does not seek to control, and therefore has credibility when it comes to power. Not wanting to rule, an empire of trust comes into power by refusing power. Madden tells some stories of cases in which dying kings actually willed their kingdoms to Rome, such was the trust and confidence that these kingdoms would be well ruled by Rome.

In the latter parts of the book, Madden formulates another detailed analogy between the terrorism that the US faces from Islamic militants and the terrorism that Rome faced from Jewish militants. In one place he quite explicitly argues that the Romans had it worse in first century Palestine than the US has it today in the same general region.

Roman occupied Palestine. According to Madden, Jewish terrorism in ancient Judea got so bad that the Romans eventually came down hard on the Jews and re-named the whole region.

By touching on issues of terrorism he brings up an important point of contemporary relevance, although he avoids using some familiar terminology, and it isn’t clear that this is purposeful or not. The position he formulates is the familiar line that political Islam is the problem, and that Islam must modernize and become a personal faith rather than a political doctrine. However, Madden never speaks of “political Islam” in his discussion.

Madden also writes — and I agree — that Islam in the minds of many of its practitioners, is still an essentially medieval belief system. I think that this is true because Islam is about six hundred years behind Christianity in terms of its social development, and when it has passed through its medieval phase — think of Christianity six hundred years ago and you should understand what I mean by having a “medieval phase” — it will experience its own modernization through internal forces. This view of mine entails the idea that what we think of as the high point of medieval Islamic civilization (which occurred during the Christian Middle Ages) was not a medieval period for Islam, but was rather Islam’s “classical antiquity,” and the great empires of Islam of the Middle Ages are then parallel to the Roman Empire. I don’t think that Madden holds this view at all, but I wanted to mention my own point of view here.

Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate: classical antiquity for Islamic civilization?

In any case, when Madden develops his position of Islam as a medieval belief system, he nowhere mentions the idea of cosmic war that has been developed by Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God and Reza Aslan in How to Win a Cosmic War. I discussed both of these books in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception. I think that Madden’s formulations could have been improved by drawing on the idea of cosmic war, since that seems to be what Madden is getting out, but he didn’t use the term or explicitly invoke the concept. Also, the “solution” that Madden urges (force Islam to modernize) strikes me as being as unworkable as Aslan’s “solution” (refuse to fight a cosmic war).

Madden, Juergensmeyer, and Aslan have in common an explicit recognition that Islamic terrorism is religiously motivated. Madden extends this model to Jewish terrorism in classical antiquity, and I think that his argument is a sound one. Again, he didn’t call it a cosmic war, but we can say that ancient Jewish terrorists waged a cosmic war against Rome. In this struggle, Rome prevailed, but at the high cost of destroying the temple, depopulating Jerusalem, and sending the Jews into exile — events commemorated in Rome by the Arch of Titus, which can still be seen today. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, Madden’s message is a hopeful one, in so far as he explicitly states that terrorism can be overcome, and suggests that he is hopeful that it can be overcome in our time through less brutal methods.

The Romans plundering the temple in Jerusalem: not so much the spoils of war as the price to be paid for terrorism.

Madden’s treatment of terrorism set me to thinking, and I realized that he is right, is so far as terrorism could be much worse today, and has been worse in the past. While Madden’s focus of concern is a comparison of Rome and America, if we go a little farther afield we can produce an even more “successful” example of terrorism than first century Palestine, and that is the cult of the assassins, also known as Shi’a Nizari Ismaili Muslims (as well as by many other names).

The story of the assassins is so astonishing that it would seem to have been taken from a Hollywood film rather than actual history, but the assassins were real, and we might even say that they constituted the apotheosis of terrorism. If we take the murder of Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092 as the first victim of the assassins, and fall of the last assassin fortresses in 1265 to the Mamluk sultan Baybars as the end of the group, the assassins exercised an influence throughout the region for more then 170 years — which is quite a run for a terrorist group. If any government today thought they were facing a threat that could last nearly two hundred years, there might be a certain sense of hopelessness in fighting such a menace.

Nizam al-Mulk, first known victim of the Assassins.

The assassins began as a stateless entity — essentially an NGO — but grew to such power that they seized fortresses and held territory for almost a hundred years. They organized secret cells throughout much of the region, and such was their power at the height of their influence that it was felt that anyone, anywhere, anytime could suddenly become the victim of the assassins. By killing prominent figures at politically sensitive times — they murdered Conrad of Montferrat just before his coronation in 1192 — they fulfilled the essential function of terrorism, inspiring disproportionate terror in the populace at large, and especially among the political leaders who feared that they would be the next target.

The fear that anyone, anywhere, anytime could become a victim is curiously parallel to the situation of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, since under these latter circumstances the same formulation was found, and was the basis of escalating fears: anyone, anywhere, anytime could be killed by a nuclear missile appearing as though from nowhere. But a nuclear weapon is an anonymous agent of death; an assassin was a very personal agent of death. I am not sure which is worse, or which inspires the greater terror. Certainly, both are effective.

Putting a smile on mutually assured destruction.

The point here is that we must recur to something as monumental and as a horrific as mutually assured destruction in order to understand the impact that the assassins had on the Levant during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was the success of the assassins that led the major military powers of the day to eventually undertake military operations to destroy the fortresses held by the assassins. Eventually this action was successful, and the archive of the assassins was burned, so that the record of history consists exclusively of hostile witnesses. Perhaps if the assassin’s library had been preserved we would view them in a different light, and not call them terrorists (as I am doing here). From what we do know about them, however, the assassins seem to deserve to be called the apotheosis of terrorism.

Like Madden’s upbeat closing note that Jewish terrorism in the Levant was eventually ended by Rome, and that we can hope that terrorism today can be defeated at a lower cost, I can also observe that the assassins were eventually defeated, but it was a long, hard slog.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “The Apotheosis of Terrorism”

  1. After reading the chapter on terrorism last night I googled and found your notes. Madden was a good read. I took a lot of notes on his view on Rome’s COIN operation in Judaea but his conclusion was off. He said by 200 a.d. Judaism has moved on from the belief in holy state. But really in its traditions and beliefs its merely subsided. In fact, the UK suffered a lot of terrorism as Jews sought to recreate the state in the 1940s. Closer today conservative Jews have shot up a mosque and PM Begin was assassinated by a radical not different than those in Vespasian’s day. It appears we can only hope radical Islam with subside as radical Judaism did for so long.

    The other gap was the absence of why? Rome committed them to allies but why after it withdrew once did it go back in after the death of Agrippa II? Why was stability so critical? Was Judaea’s access to mideast trade just as critical to the roman economy as Islamic petroleum is to the west?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Schroeder,

      Now the the Afghan war is officially over we will probably be hearing a little less about COIN, but it has been some fraught years as examples ancient (as in Madden’s work) and modern (e.g., the revival of interest in France’s Algerian War) have been dredged up in the attempt to shed some light on US/NATO/UN “peacekeeping” efforts across a range of problematic regions.

      I agree with you that Madden’s conclusion was off, and it was off in the crucial manner than you suggest: Jewish religiously motivated terrorism in the Levant has been cyclical, not a spike followed by a steady decline. If the parallel holds, we would expect to see contemporary Islamic terrorism in Mesopotamia be cyclical. Such examples of possible historical parallels are as fraught as the comparisons of Afghanistan to ancient Judea or modern Algeria.

      As for the “why?” question, this could be the topic for a treatise, or at least another blog post as long the one above. States have an intrinsic interest in stability, but is it enough an an interest to justify the kind of generational peacekeeping efforts discussed here? Certainly trade played a role, but I would argue that it was not a decisive role. Many other factors could be cited, as well as the folly of particular decisions made by particular individuals. It isn’t all impersonal historical forces.

      Best wishes,


  2. I found this in Stratfor’s Geopolitics of Israel:

    “The Levant in general and Israel in particular has always been a magnet for great powers. No Mediterranean empire could be fully secure unless it controlled the Levant. Whether it was Rome or Carthage, a Mediterranean empire that wanted to control both the northern and southern littorals needed to anchor its eastern flank on the Levant. For one thing, without the Levant, a Mediterranean power would be entirely dependent on sea lanes for controlling the other shore. Moving troops solely by sea creates transport limitations and logistical problems. It also leaves imperial lines vulnerable to interdiction — sometimes merely from pirates, a problem that plagued Rome’s sea transport. A land bridge, or a land bridge with minimal water crossings that can be easily defended, is a vital supplement to the sea for the movement of large numbers of troops. Once the Hellespont is crossed, the coastal route through southern Turkey, down the Levant and along the Mediterranean’s southern shore provides such an alternative.

    There is an additional consideration. If a Mediterranean empire leaves the Levant unoccupied, it opens the door to the possibility of a great power originating to the east seizing the ports of the Levant and challenging the Mediterranean power for maritime domination. In short, control of the Levant binds a Mediterranean empire together while denying a challenger from the east the opportunity to enter the Mediterranean. Holding the Levant, and controlling Israel, is a necessary preventive measure for a Mediterranean empire.

    Israel is also important to any empire originating to the east of Israel, either in the Tigris-Euphrates basin or in Persia. For either, security could be assured only once it has an anchor on the Levant. Macedonian expansion under Alexander demonstrated that a power controlling Levantine and Turkish ports could support aggressive operations far to the east, to the Hindu Kush and beyond. While Turkish ports might have sufficed for offensive operations, simply securing the Bosporus still left the southern flank exposed. Therefore, by holding the Levant, an eastern power protected itself against attacks from Mediterranean powers.

    The Levant was also important to any empire originating to the north or south of Israel. IfEgypt decided to move beyond the Nile Basin and North Africa eastward, it would move first through the Sinai and then northward along the coastal plain, securing sea lanes to Egypt. When Asia Minor powers such as the Ottoman Empire developed, there was a natural tendency to move southward to control the eastern Mediterranean. The Levant is the crossroads of continents, and Israel lies in the path of many imperial ambitions. Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere. A European power trying to dominate the Mediterranean or expand eastward,an eastern power trying to dominate the space between the Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean, a North African power moving toward the east, or a northern power moving south — all must converge on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and therefore on Israel. Of these, the European power and the eastern power must be the most concerned with Israel. For either, there is no choice but to secure it as an anchor.”

    • geopolicraticus said

      I was formerly a subscriber to Stratfor, and I love reading their analyses. This passage you have quoted made a lot of sense, thought I might quibble with some of its details. However, the major drawback, as is almost always the case with Stratfor, is their near-total neglect of the role of ideas in history.

      While most of what they have said regarding the geopolitics of the Levant is accurate, it is also inadequate. It is impossible to understand the importance of Israel and the Levant in the contemporary world without a deep appreciation of the evolution of the Abrahamic religions in the region, and their ongoing selective pressure on contemporary political institutions.

      We all know, though it is impolite to observe, that reactionary conservative politicians in the US believe that the Jews in Israel are canaries in the apocalyptic coal mine, and that the mass conversion of the Jews is going to be the first signal of the Second Coming of Christ. Hence the US must help to keep Israel in place so that we ourselves will be ready and warned for the Second Coming. I know this sounds ridiculous, and this precisely why it is so rarely discussed in the mainstream media; nevertheless it is a view that is widely held in the US.

      But that is just start of the ideological and intellectual impact of ideas coming out of the Levant and shaping history elsewhere in the world. No amount of analysis of terrain and waterways is going to fully explain what is going on in the Levant.

      Best wishes,


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