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Lessons from the legion

more percent efficient

They controlled the majority of the known world for almost a thousand years. They maintained the foremost military of their time. Their might was feared, their wisdom was sought and their wealth was envied. Drumroll please as we welcome to the stage…the Roman Empire!

More of Rome was built by power of the sword and spear than the hammer and plow, and her roads were flattened smoother by the marching, hobnailed sandals of her soldiers than by the efforts of any road builders. The 400-plus-page tome by Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, summarized the campaigns of the great Roman generals spanning the history of the civilization. Unsurprisingly, there is much to learn from the example of these men.

The first among many lessons is never to fear failure but to strive for greater victories always. “All citizens, and especially the high-born, were expected to fight bravely, but, as long as they had done so, there was no shame in having been defeated,” Goldsworthy noted. “A leader faced with defeat and disaster was not expected to die fighting, unless there was no way out, nor to commit suicide. Instead he was to begin to rebuild the army’s strength, salvaging as many men as possible from the chaos of a lost battle, and preparing for the next encounter with the enemy.”

Initially, it is vital to remember that none of Rome’s generals was specially trained in “military strategy” or anything resembling it. They were chosen simply from the highest ranking political officials in the Senate, and were often middle-aged, with no military experience whatsoever. At best, these men were equipped with what knowledge they could garner from the few texts that described the conquests of Alexander the Great, and from the literary example of Homeric heroes like Odysseus and Achilles. That means that these commanders were forced to learn experientially, through trial-and-error. The most famed generals were not those who had the best training, but those who worked to learn from their mistakes. This is incredibly important. These commanders often had to make decisions that sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths. In the most Roman way, they took the defeats pragmatically and strove to salvage what they could from the wreckage.

You can’t be afraid to fail. Simply by trying, you succeed. And even if you fail at the task, you have learned 100 percent more than someone who never tried, thus setting yourself up for success for when you encounter the next obstacle.

One way to avoid failure, however, is to give yourself no choice but to succeed. Goldsworthy describes one bold move by the general Cato when he writes of, “[a] night march [that] went undetected by the Spaniards and brought the Roman army to a position with the enemy between them and their own camp, for Cato was determined that his men should have no chance of survival other than through victory.”

Throw yourself into whatever you do with absolute intensity. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted or deterred. Cato’s legionaries were massively outnumbered by the Iberian tribes they faced, but they overcame them because that was what they had to do to survive. Make your goals so big that they will crush you unless you surpass them. Constrain yourself so that you have no choice but to escape the bonds of mediocrity.

Goldsworthy also wrote how Romans were eternal optimists. “The Romans accepted that they would sometimes suffer defeats,” he allowed, “but refused to accept that these could ever be final… For there would eventually be a next time, and eventually Rome would win.”

This is the attitude that allowed Rome to suffer catastrophic defeats, like losing 70,000 men at Cannae doing battle with Hannibal, and still continue forward. It unnerved and disheartened their enemies. Other tribes or civilizations, once they knew they were beaten, would sue for peace in an attempt at self-preservation. The armies who fought the Romans quickly learned that the only way to defeat Rome would be to completely annihilate every last one of her soldiers. This near-suicidal drive to achieve victory allowed the Roman legions to go up against enemies both numerically and tactically superior to themselves and still come out on top. They had supreme self-confidence. There was no way the Republic could fail to achieve ultimate victory. You can’t stop an opponent who, no matter how many times you knock them down, always gets back up.

One way to always come out ahead is to dictate terms from a position of power. “A Roman war ended,” Goldsworthy commented wryly, “when the Republic dictated peace terms to an utterly defeated and subject people.” The Romans were proud. Until their empire began to stagnate and crumble in the early 300s AD, they never gave in to treaties that were proposed against their interests. They realized an important truth—as soon as you grant one concession you can justify giving another. Don’t set that precedent. Even when it seems like you have no choice but to give in, keep going just a little longer. Say “no” to offers at an easy way out. Say “no” to your excuses to give up or to procrastinate. You will reach the light of success if you just keep battling forward.

Learning to say “no” to people is a difficult skill, but one that is vital if you want to achieve anything of value. The work you are going to do to achieve your dreams will require you to spend time on yourself, instead of on others. Don’t let anyone make you do something you don’t want to do. That’s a waste of time. And a waste of time is a waste of life. On the other hand, in order to get what you want you need to barter from the strongest possible position. The Romans were able to get what they wanted from subjugated peoples because when their envoys came with treaties it was only after they had crushed their opponents’ armies and all hostile forces sent against them. There was no stopping them.

If you can overcome adversity and never give up, pushing onward against all odds with an indomitable will to succeed and maintaining ultimate self-confidence, then there will be no stopping you either.

Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "more percent efficient" runs on alternate Fridays.

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