If your strategic objective is conquest, then one risk is that you can’t beat the people you want to conquer… It applies to businesses and new target markets as much as it did to ambitious and expansive nations in days of yore; and the key to effective management of that risk is knowledge, deep knowledge of the risk.
When the Ancient Romans came up against a tribe that they could not beat, this not only represented failure of an objective but also created a potential threat that the tribe might fancy attacking them and grabbing some of their wealth. So the Romans would make a truce and would exchange hostages, specifically the young sons of kings, nobles or leaders, for a period of years. It was understood that if one side broke the truce, the other side would kill the hostages.
But for the Romans, there was more to it. They took the enemy hostages to Rome and gave them a life of luxury in order to soften and debauch them before they returned to their homelands as future leaders. And on the other side, the young Roman hostages who were handed over to the enemy tribes had been briefed to learn everything about the enemy that they could, in order to understand their strengths and their weaknesses.
In the late 4th century AD, the Huns had moved into Europe with fast moving cavalry, living off what they could pillage and tributes they could exact from weaker peoples. They soon became a massive, existential threat to the Roman Empire which quickly organised a truce.
In the early fifth century, a powerful Hun leader emerged whom we now refer to as Attila the Hun. Attila’s edge was that he had been a truce hostage in Rome, and had understood what the Romans were trying to do. He resisted the life of luxury, and instead learned everything he could about the Romans. He soon became the scourge of the Roman Empire, defeating its armies and exacting huge payments of gold in return for peace.
Attila only ever lost one battle against the Romans. He had invaded Gaul (France) and was met by an army commanded by the Roman general Flavius Aetius. It became known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and took place in what is now the Champagne region of France. The thing about Aetius was that he had been the exchange hostage going the other way, and had spent several years with the Huns as a teenager, understanding their ways.
In Aetius the Romans had someone who knew how to beat the Huns. But the emperor Valentinian III was jealous and fearful of his growing reputation, and at a meeting with him and the emperor’s advisers, Valentinian drew his sword and stabbed the unarmed Aetius, with the advisers then joining in. Rome thereby lost the very knowledge that might preserve it from an existential threat. Sic transit imperium – thus empires are lost…
Data Sources: Attila the Hun – John Man; Wikipedia.