A Lesson in Resilience: the Infinite Game of the Roman Republic

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” 

James P. Carse

Punic wars: Rome vs Carthage

You have probably heard of the Roman Empire. Before the Emprice, Rome was a republic led by two elected consuls. It fought long wars with Carthage, another mediterranean power who had control of north africa and current Spain. In an amazing feat, the Carthaginian General Hannibal crossed the Alps with men and elephants and put the hurt on the Roman Republic in their own backyard. In succession Rome lost three major battles:

a black and white photograph of a bronze head depicting Hannibal

Battle of Trebia (218 BCE) 10k  Roman casualties

Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BCE) 25k Roman killed or captured

Battle of Cannae (216 BCE) 67500 casualties, including 48k dead, 19k captures, 14k escaped

Cannae is famous for a novel strategy where Hannibal pretended to have a weak center, only to cave in and wrap around the flanks of the Roman army in quasi total encirclement. 

It is still studied today by modern generals and is one of the greatest battles of all time. 

Why did the Romans survive? One factor is that for sure, they were in a dire situation but still with hope of rebuilding with time. They adopted guerilla strategy and dodged frontal encounters given that Hannibal was the better commander. The ‘spirit’ of the Roman society was to serve the republic and bring honor to their family in the process. They were relentless and in no short supply of people ready to step up to the task. After Cannae they limited the mourning to 30 days, banned the word ‘peace’ and public tears were prohibited.

In 202 BCE at the battle of Zama Scipio Africanus finally defeated Hannibal which ended the second Punic war. Carthage was completely destroyed in 146 BCE. Eventually one hundred years later the Roman Republic itself collapsed and gave way to the empire. 

File:Tunisie Carthage Ruines 08.JPG
Ruins of Carthage. Source: Wikipedia

Resilience and the Infinite Game

James Carse invented the notion of ‘infinite games’. In a finite game, like chess, the game ends with a checkmate. In antiquity, there were no attrition wars. Each king/commander would bring his army to the battlefield and square up. The loser would lose everything. Checkmate. That’s how Alexander conquiered empires. The Roman Republic was a different beast. They played the infinite game, in which you can change the rules as you go just to get the game going. Rome just did not see any rulebook in which they had to concede after a tremendous defeat. No checkmate on the battlefield. They also had the resources to get into an attrition war.

If you are a games player, this is a valuable lesson. Rome lost the greatest battle of all time and got back up. You can suffer many fantastic defeats in a row but come back and be victorious. Nothing is forcing you to retire. 

Channel some of the Roman grit and enter the next tournament. This is the infinite game. 

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