Monday, January 06, 2014

How Rome Became an Empire

The neighborhood of ancient Rome
It took centuries for Rome to dominate
its neighboring cities in Italy (c. 300 B.C.)
“Rome wasn’t founded in a day”, or so the saying goes, but the city of ancient Rome, and eventually the Roman empire, became what it was because of a definite pattern of activity that was traceable through the centuries.

This is from F.F. Bruce’s “New Testament History” (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., ©1969):

[In 66 B.C.], the Roman Senate decided to make an end of the Mithridatic war once and for all [it had been dragging on for several decades], and entrusted the conduct of operations to Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), who was given an unlimited command over all the Roman forces in the east in order to press the war to a successful conclusion. …

The reputation of the Romans for rapacity [“aggressive greed”] had preceded them in the new areas which they now occupied. Mithridates had done his best, during his twenty-five years of intermittent war with the Romans, to prejudice his allies and neighbours against them. One sample of his anti-Roman propaganda is preserved in his letter to Arsaces XII, king of Parthia (c. 69 B.C.):

The Romans have from old known but one ground for waging war with all nations, peoples, and kings—inveterate lust of empire and wealth….Do you not realize that they leave nothing that they do not lay their hands on—wives, land, power? That they are a gang of men with no fatherland or ancestry of their own, swept together of old to be a plague to the whole world? No law, human or divine, can stand in their way; they uproot and drag off their ‘friends’ and ‘allies’, whether they live near at hand or far away, whether they are weak or strong; they treat as their enemies all men, and especially all kingdoms, that refuse to serve them as slaves.

That this was not pure invention is clear from the testimony of public-spirited Romans. For example, in his speech advocating the bestowal of extraordinary powers on Pompey for the final prosecution of the war against Mithridates, Cicero said:

It is difficult to convey to you, gentlemen, the bitter hatred felt for us among foreign nations because of the unbridled and outrageous behaviour of the men whom we have sent to govern them during these past years. What temple in those lands do you think has had its sanctity respected by our magistrates? What state has been free from their aggression? What home has been adequately closed and protected against them? They actually look around for wealthy and flourishing cities in order to find an occasion of waging war against them and thus gratify their lust for plunder….Do you suppose that when you send an army you are defending your allies against their enemies? No, you are using these enemies as a pretext for attacking your friends and allies. What state in Asia is sufficient to contain the arrogance and insolence of one ordinary military tribune—not to speak of a general or his second-in-command? (citing Cicero, Pro Lege Manilia in Bruce, pgs 9-10).

This rapacity was an ingrained pattern in ancient Rome, and had been for centuries. Here it is explained in “The Romans, from Village to Empire: A History of Rome from Earliest Times to the End of the Western Empire”, Second Edition, by Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, Noel Lenski, and Richard J.A. Talbert. OXFORD: Oxford University Press ©2004,2012):

Warfare and the Civic Order

War occupied a central place in the civic and religious structure of many city-states, but this was especially true of Rome. By the fourth century [B.C.], Rome had evolved a pattern of warfare that centered on campaigns undertaken almost every year, a level of intensity and regularity that is unique among ancient city-states. In the process, warfare came to be deeply entrenched in Roman political and religious life, shaping the highest offices as well as the lives and careers both of the community’s leaders and all of its citizens. Military service was one of the central duties of the citizen body. The boundaries between citizen and soldier were neither firm nor long-lasting, and each year large numbers of adult males performed both roles. Soon after the new consuls had entered office, citizens eligible for military service came to Rome for the levy, or dilectus, in which some were chosen to be soldiers in the consuls’ armies in the upcoming season. On occasion, and additional levy could be held later in the year if it proved to be necessary. After a season’s campaigning, soldiers were discharged, returning to their places in civil life.

In Rome, as in other city-states, warfare followed a clear seasonal pattern. Direct attacks on cities or long sieges of fortified places were relatively rare. Instead, commanders of invading armies more often sought to interfere with the ability of the inhabitants of the targeted city to cultivate their lands and feed their families. Offensive operations usually began before the grain harvest, which in central Italy took place in late May or early June. After marching into an enemy’s territory, soldiers of the invading force would live off the land, harvesting the nearly ripe crops in the field and attempting to prevent the defenders from doing the same. Defenders could seek to prevent the enemy from inflicting such damage by fighting a formal battle; alternatively, if they were weaker or did not wish to risk such an engagement, they could retreat within the fortifications of the city and wait until the invaders left. In these circumstances, campaigns were generally brief, and soldiers were often discharged after only a few weeks or months. In those few instances when soldiers had to be kept under arms throughout the year, the Romans imposed a payment known as tributum, which bore most heavily on the wealthiest citizens, in order to contribute to the soldiers’ support.

Even successful wars could have few permanent results. Some wars were encompassed within a single summer’s campaigning, while others consisted of a series of annual campaigns, each with a different commander and army. Sometimes campaigns ended in truces that could run for several years; on other occasions, defeated cities might accept the dominance of the victor. When Roman commanders had secured a clear victory over an enemy city, they sometimes forced the defeated to perform a total surrender known as a deditio in fidem. Through this ceremony, the officials of the newly subjected city handed over all its components to do with what they wished.

Backed by the senate and the citizen assemblies, Roman commanders could then in theory exact any terms they wished, although they were supposedly limited by Roman good faith, or fides, which imposed a moral imperative not to prescribe excessively harsh conditions. Sometimes, it should be noted, communities would seek this relationship with Rome voluntarily in order to gain protection. It was the belief of Rome’s leaders that such a formal surrender established a permanent relationship of subordination. However, certain defeated communities plainly did not share this view, and Roman armies sometimes had to force them into submission repeatedly. Although in ancient Italy, none but the strongest of cities was able to exert long-term dominance over a substantial number of others. During the fourth century [B.C.], Rome became just such an exceptional city.

Rome in Latium and Campania

Rome’s victory over Veii profoundly changed relations among the cities of central Italy. Rome, already a relatively large and populous city, came to overshadow its neighbors even more starkly. Strength in war was closely related to a city’s population and to the numbers of its adult males who could afford to serve in its army. Rome’s treatment of Veii enlarged its own citizen body, and in addition the land then distributed to poorer citizens gave still more Romans the necessary means to equip themselves as soldiers. These new circumstances affected Rome’s relations with other cities in turn. The elimination of Veii, along with the extension of Roman frontiers and influence, meant that Rome now had new neighbors and new competitors in both Etruria and Umbria. Meantime in Latium itself, Rome’s new power seems to have disturbed the leaders of many Latin communities, who worried about Roman domination.

The impact of the Gauls’ sack of Rome was apparently no more than momentary. In Latium, some Latin communities did seek to escape Roman domination. Tibur and Praeneste, the most powerful Latin cities after Rome, attacked several times, sometimes in alliance with the Volsci and, on at least one occasion, with bands of Gauls. Roman armies retained the upper hand in these wards, however. This was a mark of their greatly increased strength, although they did not win all their battles nor were all their victories final. Even so, according to the antiquarian Festus, Titus Quinctius, dictator in 380, was able to dedicate a large gold crown to Jupiter in the temple on the Capital with an inscription, still visible centuries later, recording that “in nine days, he had taken as many towns, and on the tenth, Praeneste” (pgs 70-71).

These patterns had an effect on Roman conceptions of “office” and nobility as well.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Tangentially, I've recently been interested in Carthage and the Punic Wars. I'm amazed by Hannibal's prowess, and especially his "failure" to take Rome. Then I was interested in Carthage's relationship to Tyre and by Ḥannibal's name ("Ba'al is/has been gracious"?). Given (1) Rome's not-yet progress toward Judea, (2) Rome's status as the final great beast of Daniel (?), (3) Tyre's dedication to Ba'al and so perhaps Carthage's dedication to Ba'al, perhaps it was a great mercy that Rome became that final great beast rather than Carthage.