How Economic Warfare Backfired in Rome

An Ancient Conflict Sheds Light on the Consequences and Limits of Sanctions

Attacks on a state’s economy can inflict immense damage, but sanctions and other tools of economic warfare are unlikely to defeat a superior military power. Instead, economic disruptions may prompt the state to fight even harder to defend itself. The anger and anxiety economic disruptions produce can accelerate rather than conclude a war.

A failed economic assault on ancient Rome offers a window into the possibilities and perils of this strategy.

This ancient case study begins in the late summer of 89 BC, when Mithridates VI of Pontus—the ruler of a medium-sized …