Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Great man theory of history: a counter example

One of the persistent ideas that shows up again and again in history (and even in debate about modern social construction) is the idea of the great man.  Somebody (like Napolean, for example), who can transform a nation or who enable a group to do exceedingly remarkable things.  The competing, albeit wildly unpopular, alternative is attributing these things to institutions.  In the era of anti-government mania, this isn't an overwhelmingly popular view. 

But one good example from history about how these two things worked together is Hannibal.  Rome was famous for good institutions and for people holding exceedingly temporary appointments (consul, for example, was a one year post but was the key post in Roman governance). 

Razib Khan has a nice discussion of these issues:
 As you may know Hannibal was the general who led the armies of Carthage in the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War, to great effect. In fact, until the battle of Zama in North Africa, during the last phases of the war, Hannibal did not lose to a Roman army. And yet despite his record of victory in tactical engagements, he was strategically bested by the Romans and lost the war. Unsurprisingly if there is one figure who looms large in the narrative of The Fall of Carthage it is Hannibal. This is striking because almost all of what we know about these wars comes down to us thanks to the Romans, so our perceptions are coloured by their biases, and he was their great antagonist. And yet it is undeniable that Hannibal’s raw tactical genius won grudging admiration and respect from the Romans. He was a singular figure, with no equivalent among the Romans of his era, with all due apologies to Scipio Africanus. And yet Rome won, and Carthage lost.
This has a lot to do with modern theories of governance.  Should the emphasis be on inspiring leaders (like the current president) or on the institutions of the state (or corporation or university . . . ), if one wants to improve outcomes?  This is an important data point on the side of improving institutions.

[and, yes, it is always possible that the answer is both]

1 comment:

  1. Now we need a follow-up post on leaders like Frederick the Great whose successes owed as much to their institutional reforms as to their tactical brilliance.