“Look at the past – empire succeeding empire – and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing.”1 This quote by the former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius acknowledges the constant rise and fall of empires throughout history. Empires and nations fall due to the compilation of various factors, but the creation and development of these empires is a systematic process that requires careful leadership decisions and actions. Two such examples of empire creation come from the histories of Agricola, a Roman military leader, and Muhammad, a religious prophet and leader. By looking at the similarities and differences between Agricola’s and Muhammad’s empire building strategies, a thorough understanding can be ascertained about the complex factors involved in building empires and nations.
Agricola’s first major opportunity to prove his strategic leadership abilities was his governorship of the chaotic and unstable island of Britain. Although the country had been conquered by the Romans, violence and rebellion were still common and prevalent. Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law, explained Britain’s struggles by saying, “Britain has certainly never before or since been in a more disturbed or dangerous state.”2 The rebel attacks continually harassed and disrupted the country’s progression toward peace. Interestingly, Agricola’s first goal was not to falsely create peace through repression, it was to create predictability. As a young military commander, he learned the importance of predictability from the discipline and leadership of his superiors. For example, as Tacitus explained, “Beginning with himself and his staff, he first enforced discipline on his own household, a task which many find no less difficult than governing a province.”3 With a standard set in his household, Agricola was able to deal with the issues of society like burdensome taxes and unorganized food deposits.4 By alleviating the issues explained in the quote, Agricola showed that he cared for the citizens of Britain and demonstrated to them that they could live in peace under the new leadership of Rome. Now that peace and predictability were possible, Agricola’s next task was to remove the chaotic rebel insurgency.
Leading from the front, Agricola utilized brutal and violent actions to push back the rebels and secure the island. Though Tacitus described Agricola as an extremely humble leader, he clearly stated that Agricola’s humility never interfered his authority: “his familiar manner did not lessen his authority nor did his strictness reduce his popularity.”5 Humble but confident, Agricola fought shoulder to shoulder with his men, maintaining his standard of superior discipline. In one specific battle, Agricola lead his men “himself at the head of the column so as to impart his own courage to the rest by sharing the danger.”6 This leadership by example was essential in the swift, lightweight warfare he encountered. Over time, Agricola’s leadership helped clear the country of the rebels, thereby obtaining peace.
While immediate and deliberate violence created some order, it could only accomplish a limited amount of success. As Jakub Grygiel explained in his article, Agricola: A Man for Our Times, “Violence is necessary but has limits in what it can achieve and alone can never suffice to maintain political order.”7 Agricola understood that the country could not thrive in a constant state of violence. With that knowledge, he worked to instill the desire for peace in the population by allowing the citizens to freely live and exercise their cultural customs. Tacitus said, “[Agricola] gave encouragement to individuals and assistance to communities to build temples, market-places, and town houses.”8 By serving the citizens, he demonstrated that the assimilation with the Roman Empire would bring positive changes to Britain. Overall, Agricola’s steps to rebuilding the island of Britain were a testament to his knowledge, experience, and leadership skills. While remaining humble, Agricola successfully maintained authority on the land and created the necessary conditions for growth and success to occur.
Almost 500 years after Agricola, another leader sought to develop an empire, using similar leadership and empire building techniques. Muhammad was born on the Arabian Peninsula in a society based on tribal rule. Claiming to have received a revelation from Allah, Muhammad formed a new community (umma) and, for the next decade, spread his message to the Arab tribes. By looking at the vast Roman and Persian empires that surrounded the Arabs, Muhammad understood that a unified empire could obtain great power and recognized that it could be an incredible vessel for spreading Allah’s message. Beginning with the unification of the Arabs, he began converting family and close friends. Adam J. Silverstein explained in his book, Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction, Muhammad eventually “managed to unite the tribes of Arabia under the umma’s banner.”9 While the unification was an incredible first step, Muhammad genuinely wanted to share his beliefs with the entire world. By living what he preached, he demonstrated that he was not simply using people for his own personal gain. Doctor El’Amin Zakiyyah Wajihah’s article on Muhammad’s leadership says: “[The people] knew him as a member of the clan of leadership who rejected arrogance and self indulgences. He was kind to widows and orphans and helped the troubled.”10 Specifically stated, Muhammad’s actions set the standard for his followers to live up to.
Although Muhammad’s teachings spread, he and his people were not without opposition. The Quraysh tribe recognized that Muhammad was a threat to their traditions and sought to kill him. Violence eventually erupted between the two sides. In one specific battle, Muhammad and his followers built a trench to defend the city of Medina from the Quraysh and their allies. Doctor Wajihah described the situation saying, “After weeks under siege the Muslims were growing exhausted from the sporadic fighting and the vigilance it required.”11 Incredibly, Muhammad began a diplomatic battle which turned the enemy forces against each other. Eventually, the battle ended and the enemy forces withdrew.12 To Muhammad, however, the battle was not over. In retaliation for this and the many other battles, Muhammad led raids on Quraysh trade caravans. As a former merchant, Muhammad understood the importance of trade to an economy. These raids both hindered the economic success of his enemies and helped the growth of his society through the collection of wealth.
Muhammad continued teaching and carrying out raids on the Quraysh until his death. After his death, an Islamic Empire was established which utilized the concept of Muhammad’s raids to conquer territory and spread the religion of Islam. When a city or location was captured, the citizens could either convert to Islam or pay higher taxes to keep their beliefs. Though the empire’s goals was to spread Islam, it still benefited from the increase in tax revenue. Overall, the Islamic Empire grew because it demonstrated the attractions of peace through it’s inclusiveness, permissiveness, and lack of violent oppression.
In order to compare the strategies of Agricola and Muhammad, it is important to note that they both developed and utilized a clear process for consolidating their empires. First, each leader established a sense of predictability within the society. This normality fostered the expansion of Agricola’s superior Roman culture and helped spread Muhammad’s religion of Islam. Although both men received opposition in achieving their missions, they used swift actions to counter the resistance. Finally, Agricola’s and Muhammad’s leadership showed the attractions for peace and prosperity to the citizens.
It is clear that the strategies designed by Agricola and Muhammad were carefully crafted by their experience and education. Each man drastically changed the region under their leadership and ultimately changed the course of history. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was correct in saying that empires will continue to rise and fall. By exploring the strategies of these two brilliant imperial tacticians, an important understanding can be ascertained about an issue that will continue to affect the world until the end of time.
1. Marcus Aurelis, Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Penguin Group, 1964), 113.
2. Tacitus, Agricola and Germany, trans. A.R. Barley (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 5.
3. Tacitus, Agricola, 16.
5. Ibid., 8
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Jakub Grygiel, “Agricola: A Man from Our Times,” Orbis 58, no. 1, Winter (2014): 72, accessed November 16, 2014, ProQuest (1493901446).
8. Tacitus, Agricola, 17.
9. Adam J. Silverstein, Islamic History, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), PDF ebook, under “600-800 CE.”
10. El’Amin Zakiyyah Wajihah, “The leadership of Muhammad Prophet of Islam: An integral analysis,” (2008): 169, accessed November 16, 2014, ProQuest (3310399).
11. Ibid., 191
12. Wajihah, “The leadership of Muhammad,” 191.
Agricola. Agricola and Germany. Translated by A.R. Barley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Aurelis, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. New York: Penguin Group, 1964.
Grygiel, Jakub. “Agricola: A Man from Our Times.” Orbis 58, no. 1. Winter. (2014): 72. Accessed November 16, 2014. ProQuest (1493901446).
Silverstein, Adam J. Islamic History, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. PDF ebook.
Wajihah, El’Amin Zakiyyah. “The leadership of Muhammad Prophet of Islam: An integral analysis.” (2008): 169-191. Accessed November 16, 2014. ProQuest (3310399).