What is the soul of a conqueror? I wonder, because as I grow older, it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that, whatever it is, I don't have it. I've only played the prologue tutorial campaign so far and I can already tell that Rome: Total War's central mechanic of marching an army up to the walls of a city and taking it by military force is going to be hard on me.
And I'm not talking about the actual command of troops on the battlefield (which I don't enjoy and am not especially good at, but basically have figured out). It's more the mental move involved. The seeing of something that is not yours and coming to the conclusion that it should be yours. It's an obstacle I've been able to overcome in the past, but it always takes a deliberate effort on my part.
The trick is usually to cultivate an unchecked ambition, some map-painting goal where I come to view the final outcome as my just and natural right. Then, every bit of territory I don't have is, in fact, something stolen from me, being held by those who don't know its value and can't put it to proper use.
But the paradoxical thing about this is that the entitled attitude is uncomfortable when my domain is small. It only feels natural when my goal is close to its completion. Which is weird, you know. If I am the rightful Emperor of Rome, then being forced to work as a nothing general in control of a single province is a grave injustice. Nearly everything that belongs to me lies in the hands of usurpers. And conversely, if I am sitting on a golden throne, with thousands of legion soldiers at my command and an empire that spans Europe, Asia, and Africa, then a couple of holdout border provinces should be nothing. I'm already recognized as having wealth and status proper to my true worth, so being a couple of percentage points away from perfection should be nothing more than an inconvenience.
And yet, that's not the way it works out. I never pursue war with as much zeal as when I'm on the cusp of complete domination. When I'm small and weak, it is easy to say "Imperial ambitions are overrated, let's live and let live." But when I have massive and unassailable power, then the existence of perverse little pipsqueaks who refuse to recognize my obvious right to rule is an insult. They betray me with their insolence.
Is it merely a matter of power? If I am on the margins, only a loss or two away from oblivion, then confronting even the smallest power is a real risk. Are tolerance and comity then stratagems? I forgive because I do not have the strength to punish, and I hope my enemies view this as a species of virtue? Do I fool even myself with this? Do I convince myself that I have no desire for power because I know that it is, in fact, unattainable?
And when I am strong, does my inflexible pride stem purely from a lack of fear, the knowledge that, in any battle, I stand to lose no more than what I hope to gain? But why should my pride be so brittle? Why am I not magnanimous in my strength, gladdened to see the plucky underdogs win an improbable victory and humble in my rare defeats, buoyed by the insight that one always has more to learn?
Is it that I fear regress? That I know that empires are lost at the margins and every defeat I suffer lends strength to those who would replace me? It's true that fear can curdle into anger, but if that's the case, why was I not so angry at the beginning, when every battle could be my last and fear was the rule of the day?
It could be that when you're small, you know your loss will be sudden, and it is only when you have the luxury of a buffer that you can anticipate your own disintegration. The multiple stages of loss can give you time to appreciate the gravity of your errors and the gradual absence of things you once possessed.
Except I don't think that's it. I think aggrievement is a weapon. It is a demand that others recognize your right to act. And like any other weapon, you can become accommodated to its use. But if you're powerful and aggrieved, then you must sense, on some level, that your hold on the weapon is tenuous. It exists because the human mind respects justice, but the powerful make their own justice. It is one of the chief functions of power.
And because you are own only judge, there is no empirical difference between righteous anger and unrighteous wrath. How would you even be able to tell? Either way, when the weak draw your ire, they are completely in your power. Even if you were a tyrant, they wouldn't be able to stop you.
Thus you have to believe that right makes might. That if you were wrong, they wouldn't let you get away with it. You must wield your aggrievement all the more pitilessly, because if the targets of your anger are not foul villains, scheming to take away the rightful possessions of an innocent victim, then you are nothing. Just a mass of muscle without a heart, brutishly grabbing whatever you can, because you can. So you must focus your anger, and never let it relent. You must elevate the weak to the ranks of the demons, because that is the only way you know how to fight.
Or maybe, it's just a game and I like to win.