Nobody goes it alone. Alliances continue to be an important part of diplomatic and military strategies. Before Adolf Twitler fucks up NATO for us, let’s look at the history of political, economic, and military alliances.
We start with Greece. Ancient Greece was made up of city-states, or poleis. For comparison, the modern world is made up of nation-states. One city among hundreds makes you think hard about going it alone, and alliances in the Greek world were numerous. The two most famous were the Delian League and Peloponnesian League. The Delian League was formed against Persia after the Persian Wars, and eventually became the de facto Athenian Empire. The Peloponnesian League was formed by Sparta to check against Athens. The “Peloponnesian War” between Athens and Sparta was really a conflict between these two alliances – think of the axis and allies during WWII if you want a quick, dirty comparison.
There were other alliances over the course of Hellenic history. Shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian War a Boeotian League popped up, led by Thebes. Since the Spartans, while very skilled in other areas, were not always the most diplomatic (to put it mildly), they decided to turn their league into an empire, just like Athens did. The results were essentially the same too. A series of wars between the Boeotian League and Peloponnesian League eventually went south for the Spartans.
After Philip II and Alexander the Great conquered Greece they played on both the Greek animosity against Persia and their love of strong alliances by forming the League of Corinth (or Corinthian League), which was one of the few times Greek city-states were almost wholly united under a single banner. The Corinthian League was more a show than anything though, with loyalty pledged to Macedon. Finally, there’s the Achaean League, which pushed back against the Macedonians after Alexander’s death, and the empire fractured. They won some control, and feeling strappy, decided to try their luck against the Roman Republic. In 146 BC, The Achaean League was defeated, the city of Corinth was razed, the Roman province of Macedonia was created for direct Roman administration of Greece, and we pretty much start talking about Roman Greece. In practical terms, the Achaean League did a whoopsy in their pants.
Each league governed itself slightly differently, and members had various levels of influence. The Delian League originally had a treasury on Delos (hence the name), with all member states contributing funds. Athens was put in charge of general operations, and when they felt bold enough, they transferred the treasury to Athens, making it the basis for their empire. The Boeotian League operated along the lines of a federation, with a central government exercising some powers, but measures passed were required to be ratified by the councils in each individual member city-state. Sparta effectively controlled the Peloponnesian League, with minimal control given to other member states.
With Alexander and Rome, Mediterranean history shifts from lots of little independent city-states and alliances to kingdoms and empires. Rome also had a great affinity for alliances. They figured out it was less work to create alliances than to have to deal with the process of conquest, destruction, and rebuilding. Autonomous city-states under the Roman system were called “socii”, which conveniently translates to “allies”. It’s also from where we get words like social and society. For most of the Republic, when Rome defeated a group, they incorporated them into the “society”. The status of socii was granted, giving some rights (such as the so-called “Latin Rights”) in exchange for military support. Roman armies marched with roughly an equal number of legions made up of Roman citizens and legions made up of allies—so each legion assembled among Roman citizens had a counterpart assembled among non-Romans. While cities lost most of their independence to Rome, they were afforded the benefit of not being annihilated, and inherited Roman protection from outside threats. Since Roman military strength was so reliant on these allies, they took their role as protectors seriously. It was kinda like the mob.
Romans making defeated enemies an offer they can’t refuse worked pretty well, with a little blip during the Carthaginian Wars. Hannibal understood the alliance between Rome and these independent cities was the true source of Roman power, and he was effective in part because he exploited this. Modeling himself as a liberator for these Roman allies, he marched through Italy and persuaded several cities to defect. Each battle he won was another city he could strip from Roman influence. Romans crapped their togas in fear.
Before Scipio delivered Rome’s salvation, a man named Fabius Maximus “Cunctator” was on the case. His nickname, “delayer”, derived from his strategy of beating Hannibal by not fighting him at all. Avoiding large scale battles (that up until then Rome had definitively lost) and harassing Hannibal’s supply lines forced Hannibal to raid the cities he was trying to liberate, undercutting his strategy. Cities turned from seeing Hannibal as a liberator from Rome to an invader. Even after Cannae, where Rome lost an unprecedented 80,000 men, cities were reluctant to defect. We all know how this ended up; Rome beat Carthage.
Unfortunately for Rome, that taste of independence and distaste at being Rome’s puppets among the allied states didn’t go away after Hannibal. They revolted in 91 BC, demanding more of a share in the affairs of state (yet another “no taxation without representation” rebellion). This started the Social War (91-88 BC). Militarily, Rome was the victor, although strategically, the allies won. Rome more or less conceded their most prominent points. In 90 BC, in order to stem the number of cities revolting, Julius Caesar introduced a law (Lex Iulia de Civitate Latinis et Socii Danda) which granted Roman citizenship to all the cities and citizens that had not revolted. In 89, they passed the Lex Plantia Papiria, which granted Roman citizenship to all the cities that did revolt. So basically, almost all the Italian allied cities became full-fledged Roman citizens, which was more or less what they wanted in the first place. Rome figured out the socii system was just not working well anymore, but expansion of citizenship was a phenomenal tool for control. This granting of citizenship to individuals or cities went on until 212 AD, when the Edict of Caracalla granted full Roman citizenship to all free males living in the Empire, and the full rights enjoyed by Roman women to all free women in the Empire.
While the socii system folded in the Late Republic, Rome still participated in various alliances with other states. They used their client-patron system in these, and hence came about the “client-states”. Whenever Rome wanted some control, but not the burden of direct administration, they set up a patronage with the city. This was especially the case on the borders, where the client-state acted as a buffer against enemies. The Romans had several in Britain. The Bosporan Kingdom was another long-lasting client-state for Rome, and was instrumental in keeping groups like the Scythians in check. Just as proof that some people thought Roman rule was the best option, Attalus III of Pergamom gifted his kingdom to Rome in his will. Talk about one hell of a trust fund, right? Perhaps the most well-known client kingdom was the Kingdom of Judaea under Herod the Great. After his death, the Romans divvied up the kingdom, and created the province of Judea to establish direct rule in that sector (also because they thought Herod Archaelaus was a complete tool). Herod Antipater controlled most of the remaining bits of the old Kingdom of Judaea.
As Roman power waned in the following centuries, she became overly reliant on these client-states. By the late Empire, tribes were being established within Roman borders to act as buffers against invading Germans. Unfortunately for Rome, many of these tribes weren’t terribly keen on being cannon fodder, or you know, whatever the equivalent is for a world before cannons. Late Roman history starts reading like Game of Thrones as the division between East and West, and the division among some of these tribes, resulted in conflicts. When you have one Germanic group fighting another Germanic group, both under orders from different Roman Emperors, you have a problem.
For somewhat arbitrary reasons, we credit one of these groups, the Ostrogoths, with the downfall of the Roman Empire. In 476 AD, the “barbarian” Ostrogoths under Odoacer deposed Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, and thus was destroyed one of the greatest empires in the history of humanity. That’s the story everyone learned in school. It’s a little loose on the details, and the full story is much more complex.
The end of Rome (or at least the Western half) marks the end of this article. “What about the Eastern Empire, the Byzantines” you ask? I’m lazy, so fuck it. Needless to say, current political pushback against globalization will be as short-lived as our confidence in Samsung’s new exploding tablets. No nation survives in a vacuum, and even if NATO, the EU, NAFTA, and other alliances are dissolved, new ones will take their place. Both the Greeks and Romans made prolific use of alliances, with various methods of administration and prevalence. They’re just plain necessary when you want to survive in the larger world. Viewing Rome, Athens, Sparta, or even the Macedonians as powerful monoliths exercising complete control over all subjects is not the right attitude. In most cases, the strength of these civilizations rested in their ability to live peacefully with their neighbors, communicate effectively with foreign nations, and demonstrate some influence beyond their borders through alliances rather than conquest.