Does the Islamic State employ classicists?

The recent terror attacks by Islamic State (IS) in Brussels and Paris have shown once more that the terrorists are willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause. After the suicide bombings in Brussels, IS has threatened that more attacks will follow.

By doing this, they are following a strategy that is as old as the hills.

2500 years ago, Rome was not yet the empire we know from history classes. It was a small city state in central Italy. In the year 508 BC, Rome was at war. The city was under siege by the Etruscan king Porsenna. A young man called Gaius Mucius set out to kill Porsenna.

In the camp of the enemy, Gaius Mucius stabbed the king’s scribe instead of his intended target. In the terms of today, the Etruscans would have called Mucius a terrorist. During interrogation by Porsenna, Gaius Mucius demonstrated his resolve by holding his right hand above a fire. He did not show pain while his hand was being charred. Mucius told the king that he was the first of three hundred Romans who had sworn to murder Porsenna. This was nothing but bluff, because there were no others ready to follow the example of Gaius Mucius.

Gaius Mucius Scaevola and king Porsenna, by Rubens and Van Dyck. Source.

King Porsenna was so impressed by the things he had seen and heard, that he decided to withdraw his army. Gaius Mucius became a hero to the Romans. They gave him the nickname Scaevola (meaning left handed) for what he had done.

So the tactic of self-sacrifice to demonstrate your determination to your opponent is nothing new. Neither is bluffing about your strength. Today we also hear voices that urge us to withdraw from the region. My Latin teacher from the first year of secondary school would say “Nihil sub sole novum”. Maybe she should be writing newspaper columns.

PS: This does not mean that no more terrorists are coming. Seen the support for jihadist organizations among the muslim populace, further attacks are likely. But the fact remains that they almost certainly exaggerate their number of fighters. See also my standard disclaimer about historical analogies.

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