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The Romans, Part II: 262-113 BC: Conquest of the Mediterranean
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Military
The year is 264 BC. The Mediterranean seems to be divided by a stable order of five "Empires": the Roman in Italy, the Carthaginian in Africa and on the West-Mediterranean islands, the Ptolemeian in Egypt and Northern Syria, the Macedonian in Hellas and the Seleucid in Anatolia, Northern Syria and Mesopotamia. This order was relatively new. In the late fourth and early third century, a Macedonian storm had raged over Hellas, Asia and Egypt. The dust had finally settled around 270, when a "final" division of Alexander's Empire was achieved by the successors of his generals. At the same time, after centuries of war and balanced policy, the city of Rome (Roma) had gained posession of all of Italy, except for the territories North of the river Arno (Arnus).
In a period of little more than a century this order was to be changed so radically that it seemed as if it had never existed at all. In the year 133, Carthage and Macedon had been destroyed and the Ptolemies and Seleucids were ruling puny kingdoms at the edge of the known world. The only remaining Mediterranean power was the Republic of Rome. The first step to this was put by Roman senators in response to Sicilian events in the year 264.
The Rise of Rome: the dominion of Italy and the government and economy of the Republic
Before we study this enormous shift of power, however, we must take a short look at the rise of Rome. Starting as a tiny village at the Tiber river, the Latin city of Rome (founded in the year 753 BC according to legend) was ruled by kings, the last of them being Etruscans. The Etruscans were a mighty, non-Indo-European civilization in Tuscany. They have largely influenced the Romans, for example in their religious cults and technological skills. Around the year 509, the Romans banished their last king and founded a Republic. During the fith and the first half the fourth century, most of their activities were focused at matters of war and peace in a relatively small area, Latium. In a war of two years (340-338) they overthrew their former Latin allies and other tribes and thus started the conquest of Italy, facing many mighty opponents such as Gauls, Etruscans and Samnites.
By means of war and smart policy they subjected Italy to their will. The final test came when the Hellene (Greek) city of Tarentum in Southern Italy called for the help of Pyrrhus, king of the Hellene kingdom of Epirus. After a tough war the Romans finally defeated him at Beneventum (275). This victory amazed the Hellenistic world, and Ptolemy (Ptolemaios) II of Egypt established diplomatic relations with this new power.
The most important question is of course: how can a city only dominating Latium and a few territories beyond conquer an entire peninsula in less than 60 years and eventually unify it?
The most important contributions to Roman success were the way the Romans treated the rest of Italy and their policy of founding colonies. Some conquered areas were given total citizenship, others received civitas sine suffragio, citizenship without the right to vote, which meant that the citizens shared the plights of all Roman citizens - military service, taxes etc. - but lacked certain rights, for example the right to vote. This policy strengthened the Roman army.
Another policy was the policy of alliances. After an area had been conquered, Rome could offer the people inhabiting the area an alliance. This meant that the people had to aid Rome with troops when she asked for them. This meant the loss of independent foreign policy and the allied nations really became vassals, althought they were allowed to mamage their internal affairs themselves and did not have to pay tribute or taxes to Rome either. If they aided Rome in battle, they would get a share in the booty - be it land, slaves, whatever. Also, Rome supported local aristocracies if they were the victims of revolt. In return, Rome expected support for Roman policy from these aristocracies. Seeing all the positive aspects of allying themselves to Rome, many nations preferred to ally themselves to Rome even before they were defeated in battle by the Romans.
In spity of this policy, we must not forget that Roman subjection of Italy could be very cruel from time to time, too. However, it was wise policy that united Italy. A second important factor was the founding of Roman or Latin colonies in other Italic areas and the construction of roads that connected other parts of the peninsula to Rome. Thus Roman language and way of life were spread. All this contributed to the unification of Italy. However, we cannot say this was a quick process. Even in the first century AD a few remote areas were still not Romanized.
We will now take a look at the Roman Republic in the 260s BC. Although Rome was a Republic, it was more of an oligarchy than a democracy. The most important magistrates were aristocratic plebeians or patricians. The Romans nation was led by two consuls (who had military powers) and other magistrates (who were elected annually, just like the consuls) and by a Senate consisting of former magistrates. The elections of magistrates and the decisions on other important matters were the tasks of the comitiae, the national assemblies. These were quite undemocratic, though, since they could only be convocated by magistrates, were dominated by the aristocracy and could only vote, not discuss.
In the last 3.5 decades before the First Punic War, Roman wealth had grown enormously. Wealthy big landowners became some of the most powerful people in the Republic; booty and tribute were used to construct marvellous new buildings, including temples. Roman economy was flourishing: coins and slaves became a part of Roman life
The First Punic War
For many centuries, Siciliy had been divided between Carthaginian and Hellene colonies. The most important and most powerful Hellene one was Syracuse. For centuries, Carthage and Hellas (Greece) had struggled for total control over the island, but so far neither side had succeeded. In just two decades, Rome would control the island.
It all started with some trouble over the city of Messana. A bunch of Italic mercenaries had taken control of the town and were now under siege for Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse. The mercenaries sought the aid of both Carthage and Rome. They eventually turned against the Carthaginians, who sided with Syracuse. Rome then intervened and sent an army to the city. The alliance between Hiero and Carthage was broken easily when Rome put Syracuse under siege some time later and Hiero changed sides.
The war that followed was successful for Rome and the Romans decided to gain a stronger grip on Sicily by building their first real fleet. Fortuna, goddess of luck, fate and fortune, seemed to favour Rome, as the Romans won several naval battles. Sometimes, however, they did this by turning a naval battle into a land battle. For the Romans had added bridges to their ships, that would be let down when an enemy ship was close enough. The Romans could then cross the bridges and try to capture the ships with their good old infantry, still the core of their army.
Encouraged by their good fortune, the Romans invaded Africa itself (255). This expedition eventually turned into an enourmous disaster and was followed by several set backs at sea, culminating in the huge Carthaginian victory at Deprana (249). In spite of this the Romans were able to get a tighter grip on Sciliy itself (255-49) although there was strong resistance, led by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. After the battle of Deprana, however, the situation seemed to turn into a stalemate, in spite of some success by Barca. However, both sides were recovering and rebuilding their fleets. Eventually, the Romans won a decisive victory at the Aegatian Islands, west of Sicily. A treaty was signed: Carthage abandoned Sicliy, returned Italic prisoners of war, was to refrain from attacks on Syracuse and had to pay 3200 talents as an indemnity.
Carthage got into deeper trouble when their mercenaries revolted because their pay could not be paid due to Carthage's financial losses. This turned into a civil war, of which Rome profited by taking over Sardinia (a former Carthaginian posession) and Corsica (238-27).
Sicily and Sardinia + Corsica were turned into Rome's two first provinces. They were each ruled by a praetor, who had to defend the province, maintain law and order and collect taxes.
With the horrible First Punic War finally over, Rome and Carthage had the opportunity to turn their attention to other matters. Hamilcar Barca had overcome the rebellion (241-38) and left for Spain to expand Carthaginian posessions. Rome strengthened her grip on the Po Valley, defeating an army of Gauls from that region who had invaded Etruria. After this victory, Rome conquered Milan (Mediolanum) and founded two large colonies: Piacenza (Placentia) and Cremona. Also, Rome turned Illyria, infamous for its piracy, into a Roman protectorate.
Second Punic War
In Spain, Hamilcar Barca had died. He was succeeded by his son-in-law Hasdrubal, who continued the Carthaginian expansion in Spain. A treaty was signed with the worried Romans, stating that no Carthaginian army was to cross the river Ebro. In 221 Hasdrubal was murdered. Hamilcar's son Hannibal succeeded him. Hannibal continued to campaign in Spain and besieged the Roman ally Saguntum, a city south of the river Ebro. Rome demanded from Hannibal to give up the siege, but this "order" was ignored. Saguntum fell (218) and the Romans sent ambassadors to Carthage, demanding that Hannibal was extradited; Carthage refused and war was declared. In the words of historian Andrew Lintott: "So began a war, which became the most complex in antiquity and probably the most costly. It was not a war in which either side sought to destroy the other utterly. The Carthaginians hoped to break up Rome's powerbase in Italy and so recover their own lost possessions; the Romans wished to preserve what they had and to reduce or eliminate Carthage's military potential. Moreover, they soon realised the importance of the resources of Spain, which they wanted for themselves."
The Romans had planned to invade Spain and fight Hannibal there and to send an expeditionary force to Africa. However, Hannibal took the initiative and marched for Italy itself. With some 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry he managed to cross the Pyrenees, get through Gaul quite easily and finally cross the Alps. When he arrived in the Po-valley, he found that the Gauls were still hostile towards the Romans and used this to his advantage: the Gauls sided with him. Before the year had ended, he had won a cavalry battle at the river Ticinus and his first major battle at the river Trebia.
He then crossed the Apennines and destroyed most of the Roman army at Lake Trasimene (217). The Romans decided to change their policy upon the initiative of dictator* (*a dictator was a military magistrate with full powers appointed for half a year) Fabius Maximus "Cunctator" ("the lingering") and started some kind of guerilla war. The next year, however, Rome decided to wage open war again, with disastrous consequences: Hannibal crushed the Roman army completely at Cannae in Apulia.
All seemed lost for Rome and Hannibal expected that the war could be ended in favor of Carthage. However, Rome refused to give up. Although many of her former allies in southern Italy had abandoned her, Syracuse, Capua and Macedon had sided with Hannibal (215) and many Hellene cities had chosen his side too (212), the Romans had several advantages which they would exploit fully: their huge reservoir of men and resources, Hannibal's isolation and Rome's Northern- and Central-Italic allies. Besides, a Roman expeditionary force in Spain under the command of Publius and Gnaeus Scipio cut off Carthaginian reinforcements from that area and was making progress conquering Spain.
211 was the turning point: Capua and Syracuse were recaptured by the Romans. Unfortunately, the Scipiones had been killed in Spain the same year. Rome, however, immediately sent reinforcements and made Publius Scipio's son, named Publius Sciio too, commander (210). He conquered Carthago Nova in 209 and defeated Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal at Baecula the next year. Hasdrubal maged to escape, however, with quite an army and crossed the Alps spring 207 to unite himself with Hannibal in Umbria. The Romans prevented this by defeating and killing Hasdrubal at the river Metaurus in northern Italy. Two years before, they had recaptured Tarentum. Although Hannibal had remained undefeated, his campaign in Italy was doomed. His alliance with Macedon had been of little use: Philip V, king of Macedon, had only managed to conquer Illyria, but could not invade Italy.
In 206, Scipio had subjected all of Carthaginian Spain and returned to Italy to be made consul the next year. He then decided to invade Africa itself (204), allying himself with the Numidian king Massinissa, thus gaining access to the famous Numidian cavalry. The final confrontation came at Zama: Hannibal, who had returned two years earlier, was defeated by Scipio, who would receive the name Africanus as a reward for his victory.
Furthur Roman Expansion
Carthage's role as a world power had been destroyed. Spain and most of Africa had to be abandoned by Carthage, the navy was destroyed and Carthage could no longer follow an independent foreign policy. The victory over Carthage turned Rome into the mightiest nation of the Western Mediterranean. The following 70 years would be dominated by further Roman expansion. Usually there were two ways in which Rome expanded her power: one was military conquest and direct government of an area, the other was diplomatic and military interference and the use of completely loyal allies and installed vassals in an area. The first strategy was adapted in the West, against the "barbarians", the second against the Greek nations in the East.
After the year 203, Rome strengthened her grip on Northern Italy and started exploiting Spain. This led to Celtiberian revolts in one of the Roman provinces of Spain (197) and a war that would rage through Spain until 179. Conflicts erupted again from 153 to 151 and finally the Iberians were pacified after a ten year's war concluded by the destruction of their stronghold Numantia (133) by Scipio Aemilianus - adopted grandson of Africanus. This was not all, however. From 154 to 138 a war was fought against the Lusitanians led by Viriathus and several Corsican (181 and 166-63) and Sardinian (181-176 and 126) revolts had to be repressed. The wars were tough and the treatment of the barbarians was harsh - not that the Romans cared about that, though.
In the East, the Romans had to deal with the Hellenistic nations. The king of Macedon, Philip V (who had sided with Hannibal during the Second Punic War), and the king of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus III the Great (who was busy reconquering what his predecessors had lost) signed a treaty in which they would divide most of Alexander's heritage, including Egypt. Others threatened by this treaty were the wealthy merchants of Rhodes and the kings of Pergamum, who had split off from the Seleucids not that long before.
Philip still had to be punished for what he had done several years earlier and thus the Second Macedonian War began (200) (the first one being fought during the Second Punic War). Rome proclaimed that she wanted the liberation of all Hellene poleis from Macedonian rule. This sort of strategy had been used nth times before by the Hellenistic Empires, but still, it worked. Many central- and southern-Hellenes sided with Rome. In 197, Philip was defeated at Cynoscephalae and forced to become an "ally" of Rome. The next year, at the Isthmian Games, the Roman general Flaminius dramatically declared the independence of all Hellene states. In 194, all Roman troops were pulled back from the Balkans, after everything had been arranged.
The next foe was Antiochus III. Some Hellenes, especially those of the Aetolian League (some sort of alliance of Hellene nations), felt that Rome hadn't done enough for them. They captured the stronghold Demetrias and invited Antiochus to liberate Hellas. Antiochus, who had recently campaigned in Anatolia and Thrace and thus given rise to tension between Rome and his Empire, accepted the invitation and sent a small expeditionary force into Hellas (192). The Romans defeated it at Thermopylae and thus kicked him out of Europe. They them marched into Asia and defeated Antiochus at Magnesia (190). A final treaty was signed in 188 at Apamea, stating that Antiochus had to retreat behind the Taurus-mountains, pay a lot of tribute and give up his war elephants and navy to Rome. His Asian posessions were divided between Rhodes and Pergamum. The Romans had also crushed the Celtic Galatians in Asia, a potential threat to Pergamum, and destroyed the Aetolian League for being rebellious.
This war is significant because it had destroyed the last chance of any Hellenistic nation to become powerful ever again. Rome was almighty now and could do whatever she wished, as she would show during the following decades.
The final blows to Macedon and Hellas were dealt in 150-48 and 146. From 150 to 148, Rome crushed a revolt when a certain Andriscus claimed the Macedonian throne. Two years later, the Achaean League was destroyed and Corinth sacked after a puny revolt. Both Macedon and the League were turned into ordinary provinces.
The last "opponent" that was still left was Carthage. The city had become wealthy by trade again, but was no serious military threat. Anti-Carthaginian sentiments were whipped up by people like Cato the Elder, a homo novus (new man), who insisted that Carthage had to be destroyed to secure Rome's safety.
Cato and friends got "a heaven sent pretext", as Lintott puts it, when Carthage waged war against the good old Numidian king Massinissa, who had been harassing Carthage for quite some time. Unfortunately Carthage lost, and even more unfortunately, the war had been illegal, because the peace conditions after the Second Punic War said that Carthage could only declare war with Roman permission. Rome made several harsh demands and finally demanded the Carthaginians to destroy their city and rebuild it +- six miles inland. Carthage didn't accept the last term, rebuilt her army, and the Third Punic War began (149). Finally, in 146, Scipio Aemilianus was able to capture the city. Carthage was razed to the ground. Thriteen years later, the Celtiberian stronghold of Numantia would suffer the same fate. Africa was made a province, capital: Utica. It was over.
Reasons for and consequences of Roman conquest and expansion
The question is, of course: why did the Romans expand their power so rapidly in the decades following the war with Hannibal? Historian Tim Cornell, co-writer of the "Atlas of the Roman World", considers this question too. He points out that there are two major theories concerning this:
1. Rome only waged war when her interests and those of her allies were under threat, whether really or imagined.
2. Imperialism was a kind of "bad habit" of the Romans, being in agreement with their lust for war and military glory and a desire for land and booty.
Cornell rejects both opinions, stating that they only concern the motives of the main character of this period up to the degree that they controlled the events. And even then he finds them too abstract and far-fetched.
He then asks the related question: "why were the Romans so succesful in their conquests"? The answer to both questions concerned is: "Rome's very efficient war machine and her huge reserves of manpower, unequaled by her enemies." This military power was based on Rome's system of alliances mentioned before, in which Roman allies aided Rome, supplying the city with soldier when asked to do so. To gain profit from this system, Rome had to use it. It enabled the Romans to wage war on a larger scale than other nations, and with the continuous series of wars, experience and efficiency grew. This created military ethics that penetrated every level of Roman society and led to an enormous growth of wealth, safety and power.
Of course, a nation cannot go through over half a century of growth of power without changes. There are three main "consequences of conquest"; each of them will be elucidated briefly:
1- the possibility of the rise of "mighty generals"
2- hellenisation of Roman society
3- dramatic economic changes
1- The old system in the Roman Republic was that a general could only command an army for one year. The scale at which the Second Punic War and the wars following it were fought, however, required longer terms, to secure succesful and consistent military policy. However, this made men like Scipio Africanus much more powerful than the generals preceeding him, and succesful generals like Africanus were to be many of the main character dominating the Century of Civil War. (Simply think of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Marc Anthony and you will get my point.)
2- Through growing contacts with the Hellene world (be it positive or negative), Rome would be hellenized in a strong way. Aristocrats adopted Hellene culture, Hellene-style architecture, sculpture and literature became popular, eastern cults penetrated Roman society and Hellene philosophy started to influence Roman thoughts.
3- The long and far-away wars severely damaged Rome's old agricultural economy. The Roman army consisted of peasants who had to be in military service for six years in total. When wars were close to home and only fought in summer, this was no problem, but it became one when the wars became long and were fought all over the Mediterranean. With many farmers being away for a long time, this was devastating to Roman economy. Moreover, the aristocrats were using the profit from war to become big landowners using the now omnipresent cheap and not-military-serving slaves. Many farmers moved to the cities and into lower classes, thus no longer available for military service. Besides, the slaves could be a serious threat when they would decide to revolt. However, there were some positive changes too. Trade for example became more important in Italy and the army became one of the big consumers of new good produced. Eventually, Roman expansion had not only changed the Mediterranean, it had also changed Rome itself. The Republic would find out that its never ending expansion would ultimately be the cause of its own downfall during the next century.
Timeline: Important Events of this Period
275 BC: Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated at Beneventum
264: Beginning of the First Punic War
255: Failed Roman invasion of Africa
241: End of the First Punic War after a Roman victory at the Aegetian Islands: Rome gains Sicily
238-27: Rome conquers Corsica and Sardinia
218: Rome begins colonizing Gallia Cisalpina (the Po-valley, roughly)
218: Beginning of the Second Punic War: Hannibal invades Italy and defeats Rome at the river Trebia
217: Carthaginian victory at Lake Trasimene
216: Carthaginian victory at Cannae
211: Rome reconquers Capua and Syracuse, which had sided with Hannibal a few years earlier
209: Carthago Nova conquered by Scipio
207: Hasdrubal defeated at the river Metaurus
206: Carthaginian Spain conquered by Scipio
202: Scipio defeats Hannibal at Zama
201: End of the Second Punic War
200-197: Second Macedonian War: Philip V, king of Macedon, defeated and forced to become an ally of Rome
188: Treaty of Apamea signed with Antiochus III, king of the Seleucids, after a Roman victory over him at Magnesia in Anatolia two years earlier
172/1-168: Third Macedonian War: Rome defeats Perseus, king of Macedon: Macedon is turned into four dependant republics
149-46: Third Punic War: Carthage destroyed
148: Macedon annexed
146: destruction of Corinth: Hellas annexed
133: Rome captures Numantia, finally subjection most of the Iberian Peninsula after a long series of wars