How did Rome perceive Alexander's wars?

  By Sam Edwards, 14 September 2007; Revised
Contents »
The General Context

"[sic]…All the world, too, made up their minds that the rise of Alexander was a great turning point, when an older volume of history was finished, and a new one begun. Nobody ever thought of going back beyond Alexander and his conquests to make a historic claim, or to demand the restoration of ancient sovereignties. His conquests were regarded as perfectly lawful, the world as his natural heritage, his will as a lawful testament. So, then, we may begin with him without much retrospect, and see what he founded, and what he did for the advance of the world "
-- John Pentland Mahaffy and Arthur Gilman, Alexander’s Empire chapter 1

Striking words, and even in the face of new, modern historiography and despite the fact that they were from a 19th century ancient historian, they still hold as much weight and are as relevant today as they where then. This is the one indisputable fact for all ancient historians – Alexander’s empire marked a turning point in the western world. Most people know of Alexander the great – what he achieved and what he stood for. This figure, arguably more than any other classical historical figure, has been celebrated and has caught the attention of the media for generations. This, perhaps is because of his ingenuity – there were many brilliant generals in the classical world, and many who were tactically just as brilliant as Alexander, or perhaps more so, but it is doubtful that any other general has left a legacy that is as far reaching and as important as Alexander’s – the movement of the Hellenistic culture outside of Europe, spelling the death of various native cultures such as the Mesopotamians (the Archenemid Persian empire was the last, final flower of a Mesopotamian civilisation which had a far-reaching legacy), Classical Greeks and various others. The spread of Hellenistic culture which Alexander influenced spread Greek philosophy, logic and thought throughout a vast previously unknown proportion of Eurasia. His legacy influenced the philosophy of Buddhism, sent centuries of Greek development to previously barbaric places and perhaps most importantly in this context, created the assembly of vast pan-continental empires carved from his once vast nation, known collectively as the “Diodachi” or “Successors” who, lead by descendents of either Alexander’s generals or either descendents of Alexander himself, were to dominate Roman republican politics for centuries.
The great victories of Alexander such as the battles of Issus, Gaugamela, Granicus and the Hydaspes were military triumphs, nothing else. It is these great battles and actions of the early Hellenic and Classical Greek period that capture the attention of most, and for a good reason – this period is the era of the Peloponnesian and Persian wars, the age of Pericles and the development of Greek philosophy. However, ever present was the small and struggling Roman republic which represented nothing at this period of its’ future legacy. The Rome of Alexander’s age was literally fighting for her life against the various forces of the recently dissolved Latin league. Rome was back to her old problems again – internal strife and external threats. But what did these early republicans, despite their preoccupations, think of the empire-shattering events in the east? Although the world appeared to the average man or woman as much larger than it was now, news still travelled fast, and people still heard stories and rumours from around the globe. The link between early Roman republican history and the vast amount of famous Greek history appears to be a neglected area in the general sphere of historical writing, and it is an interesting point – how did Rome view Alexander and his conquest of  Persia?

The Lack of Sources

On the eve of Alexander’s accession to the throne of  Macedonia  , Rome was still part of that great loose entity “greater  Greece”. This was the area where, during the Persian invasions of Ionia in 545 BC and 496 BC, many Greeks fled to make a new life for themselves, or where the Imperialistic Athens and earlier, Miletus, had used their bloated treasuries to found new colonies. Thus, Rome had frequent contact with  Greece and  Italy as a whole traded extensively with North Africa, the Levant and  Greece proper. Even if Rome herself did not have direct contact with Greece, she did through Sicily (which was much later to be an area of considerable imperialistic interests to her in the Punic wars with Carthage) and events on Sicily such as the ill-fated expedition of Alcibiades of Athens during the Peloponnesian war, were watched with interest by the Roman republican government. The only previous contact that has been solidly known to have existed between  Greece   and Rome was very early on in the life of the republic. This was the codification of the “Lex Duo Decim Tabularum” (The law of the 12 tables) by the Decimvirs (“Decemviri Legibus Scribundis” – a group of 10 patricians elected to revise the laws of early Rome) passed in 450-451 BC. Supposedly, contact was made with the Athenian republic for help with this codification, which was essentially just a legal document officially legislating certain pieces of Roman political culture. However, early Rome was covered with a fog of war, and even if contact was made with the Athenians concerning this legislation, the Gallic raid in 390 BC according to Livy (or 387 BC according to Polybius) made brutally sure that hardly any records existed. For this reason, sources about this period of republican history are perilously few, and the ones that we do have, such as Livy, had to base much of their histories on legend, and many others are foreign, and had never been to Rome. The Gallic sack of Rome is precisely why this period is hard to comment upon – a vast period of material – generations of official religious documents and senate proceedings were lost during the sack, and those complied concerning the times before the invasion were often done so by the noble families of Rome in a bias manner to enhance the story of their pedigree and heritage.

Despite this lack of sources, there are still vague references in primary sources such as Livy, Appianus and various others that collectively can shed some light on this complex issue. Also equally important is the basic knowledge of Roman foreign policy afterwards; although naturally, after the Gallic invasions, Rome took a much firmer stand on the Gauls, there will still be residual traces of an earlier foreign policy which are spoken about and referenced to in the sources from immediately after the invasion. It is certainly likely that many of the men who served against the Gauls in the invasions continued doing so afterwards, either in the senate or with the army, as the previous foreign policy from before the Gallic invasions was certainly not out of living memory for the political survivors, despite how many records were destroyed. Livy himself admits this in the beginning of book 6 of his histories-

"The history of the Romans from the foundation of the city to its capture, first under kings, then under consuls and dictators, Decemviri and consular tribunes, wars abroad and dissentions at home, I have set out in five books, covering matters which were obscure both through their great antiquity, like objects dimly perceived in the far distance, and because in those days there were few written records, the only reliable means of preserving a memory of past events. A further reason was the loss of most of such accounts as were preserved in the commentaries of the pontiffs and other public and private records when the city was destroyed by fire. From now on a clearer and more reliable account can be given of the city’s civil and military history, after it made a second start, reborn as it were from its old roots with increased vigour and productivity "
-- Titus Livy book 7.1

Although a few primary sources (mainly Livy and Flavius Arrianus) may help, they are so limited in their scope and naturally, as the source above can confirm, quite unreliable in this area of history. It is the professionals in this field – H.H. Scullard, Meyer Reinhold, T.R. Glover and others who will be the main sources in this essay (or at least the main sources used in examining and interpreting the primary sources) in examining Roman foreign policy towards these events in the essay.

As for indirect sources, for example, Persian sources concerning Rome in the period of Artaxerxes IV Arses – Darius III, are scarce, and with the internal disruption that Persia was now facing (Darius III had only been brought to the throne because of the assassination of Artaxerxes IV Arses by his grand Vizier, Bagoas), and the military disintegration that was thus following this trend (Persian military inability can clearly be seen in Xenophon’s “the Persian expedition” around a century earlier). Besides all of this disintegration, Persia – one of the largest and most powerful nations in the world of the time – had such a monopoly in land and riches, that there was nothing much that Italy had that Persia would willingly have traded for.  Persia   had no interests in  Italy  , and had  Greece  ,  Egypt   and Mesopotamia to concern herself with, and Rome likewise had domestic issues to worry about. Rome had no links as yet with  Egypt  , and so the defeat of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, Nectanebo II, by Artaxerxes III of  Persia   cannot have had serious repercussions for Rome – her economy and geopolitical sphere of influence was not yet enough for Eastern North Africa to be much of an issue.

Rome's Perception of Post-Peloponnesian War Greece

Ultimately, it is how Rome perceived the period from 431 BC (the beginning of the Peloponnesian war) to 338 BC (the battle of Chaeronea – the destruction of the combined Athenian and Thebian forces by the Macedonians) that will set the stage for their later sympathies or lack of sympathies towards Alexander the great. Rome at this stage was far too concerned with her own issues to worry much about those abroad – a variety of serious social and political reforms such as the modification of the Questorship (in other words, a major reorganisation of the exchequer), the issue of fully instated, organised pay to the legions and finally, a costly war with the Veii under the dictatorship of Marcus Furius Camillus obviously took most of her attention. The cumbersome political machinery of the Roman republic constantly had to be updated, usually with great social upheaval in the process. Unlike a Greek republic, Rome was at this time so large that Greek democracy was unsuitable, and she had to rely on a ramshackle competing mess of institutions to manage her affairs. Territorially, at this period, she had little or no ambition. That which she did take was legitimately in the means of self-defence, and Gallic raids which would culminate in the 390 sack of Rome (as mentioned above) pressed her to be on the defensive. The only area near her which was genuinely effected by was Sicily, which was the target of an ill-fated military expedition of Athens lead by Alcibiades- an Athenian citizen-commander of much fame. This must have brought Rome hurtling towards Greek foreign policy – not only did Rome rely on wheat from Sicily so much that the island was, to the Romans, sacred to Demeter (the Latin Ceres – Greek goddess of the harvest), but it was also being systematically ravaged in this war between the forces of Syracuse (a city allied with Sparta) and the Athenian expeditionary force. Surely, this incident must have had some impact on the supply of wheat to Rome, which by now, after the successful migrations and conquest, was a fast-growing and prosperous city. The examination of two sources, Thucydides and Titus Livy, can give evidence of the effects of Greek intervention in Sicily:

"Alcibiades said that, after having sailed out in such force, they ought not to disgrace themselves by going home with nothing to show for it. They should send heralds to all the cities except Selinus and Syracuse; they should approach the Sicels, encouraging some of them to revolt from Syracuse and trying to win the friendship of others, so that they would be able to get corn and troops from them. The first step should be to gain the support of Messina, which lay directly in their way and was the gate of Sicily and would also serve as an excellent harbour and base for the army. After having won over the cities, they would know who was going to support them in the war, and then would be the time to attack Syracuse and Selinus, unless Selinus came to terms with Egesta and Syracuse allowed them to restore Leotini "
-- Thucydides, history of the Peloponnesian war, book 6.48

"During the year more sickness distracted men’s minds from political agitations. On behalf of the public health a temple was vowed to Apollo; by direction of the sibylline books, the officials in charge of those documents did much to attempt to placate the wealth of the gods and avert the curse of the epidemic, but in spite of all both men and cattle died and there were terrible losses in town and country. The farmers, too, were falling sick, and in fear of famine delegations were sent to buy grain in Etruria and the Pomptine, and finally as far as Sicily "
-- Titus Livy, book 4.2

The sources above, however, are decades apart – the first is in the first few years of that ill-fated Sicilian campaign and the second is a short while after the Spartans won the war and the Athenians were pushed from the island. However, the difference in time is completely irrelevant for the context of this essay. What is important was that the Romans chose it as one of the first three places to purchase grain from out of all the places which they could have done which were accessible to them. Moreover, by the end of the Peloponnesian war, when the Athenians had retreated to defend their land, and had learnt that they could no longer afford to be advantageous (as Pericles warned them, but his advice fell on deaf ears), the two sides, not just Athens, had practically fought themselves to death. The Persian intervention and rise of Spartan-endorsed tyrannies throughout Greece from 411 BC onwards had so ruined the once mighty Greek leagues that a rising power to the North – the Kingdom of Macedon – could finally take advantage of the situation. What is even more interesting is the power vacuum that this exhausting war (which spelt the end for the Greek way of life, the polis, traditional military tactics and ultimately, the classical age) left for the Mediterranean in Sicily. The Athenian “empire”, which had once held a great amount of commercial sway with her powerful navy and trade fleet over great swathes of the Mediterranean – had began to crumble. The taste of imperialism for the Athenians in the first few decades of the anti-Persian Delian league had been too much – ultimately, to their peril. They recklessly pursued imperialistic desires (as can be seen in the Sicilian expedition, which even theoretically gave no possible advantage to the tactical situation of the Athenians) rather than fight a purely defensive war. Even if they had followed Pericles’ advice and had stepped down their imperialistic efforts to fight a defensive war, it would still have ended with the demise of Athens as a colonial power – the colonies which she had tried for so long to maintain would have slowly crumbled without her injection of funds, trade and citizens to keep them going. Athens, being of the warlike ilk, chose the hard way to demise – all out war – but either way, Athens’ empire would have crumbled and so would her indirect control over areas of  Italy and Sicily. The future of that city was finally set when Pericles decided to use the Delian defence league for his own good – nothing could turn the tide of the combined anger of the Peloponnesian states.

Sparta, the other main competitor in the Peloponnesian war, was also devastated. Although she had technically won the war, it was no easy feat, and like all opponents, she fell into economic issues. Sparta could have got back up on its feet, but had it not been for an ill timed rebellion of its’ Helots – slave farmers – who had sustained the Spartan standing army for so long. Also, years of constant hit-and-run attacks by Athenian fleets right onto Spartan soil left the agricultural potential of that city almost devastated. These factors and many more, left the Mediterranean relatively free of Greek influence in comparison to before the Peloponnesian war. These people, so ingenious in their outlook on life and practice of it, fell like wolves onto each other. The people who had so long dominated the Mediterranean ancient world had left it for a new people – the Italians and Carthaginians.

This period, ironically was the one which ultimately created the inquiring minds of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. After the destruction of the way of life which the Greeks had almost considered holy for centuries – the Polis – (government on a scale comprehensible to its citizens) that age-old question began to be asked when it was seen that the polis had, in the end, not provided the answer. That question was “how should we live?” and although there had been early pre-Socratic philosophers in many of the Greek states even before the Persian wars, they had been small in number and generally limited to Asia Minor. It was the turbulence of this age that broke the “bubble” of Greece in the area of political philosophy. Never had a people had all their faith in such an ingenious political system completely and utterly destroyed, and it was this grieving that caused for the intellectuals of the time to ponder as to what was next. This can be illustrated by Dr T.R. Glover by an excerpt from his book “Pericles to Philip”:

"An age that teaches mankind to think, and gives it a speech adequate to render its thought, is a great age, even if an empire is gone and greater changers are coming. The fact and the individual, criticism and independence – one does not need to repeat that here also they mark the period "
-- T.R. Glover, Pericles to Philip, the new age

This brief account of the reasons for the ultimate destruction of classical Greek civilisation during the Peloponnesian war may seem to the reader to be irrelevant to the question and the context that this is being written in – how does this effect the early republican states of Rome? It did, but indirectly. The reasons for Greek abandonment of Sicily and why Macedon could rise need to be explored. Greece, as far as Rome was concerned, was a barrier to all their commercial and military aspirations. The Marian reforms were to occur in centuries’ time, and Rome’s legions were not the continent-conquering men that they were in the high imperial period. The combined economic and commercial power of all the Greek city states in the Western Mediterranean was, before the Peloponnesian war, more than anything which Rome or the Latin league could muster. The dual powers of Greek and Asian trade which flooded into these Hellenic ports made it impossible for Rome to achieve a monopoly on anything. There are two sources, stated below with an explanation of each, which show the effects of this Greek withdrawal from the Western Mediterranean.

The first of these is submission of Marseilles (known to the Romans as Massilia) – once a powerful Greek city state to Rome, showing the power that the control of the Mediterranean between Eastern Greece and Greater Greece (the Greek colonies of the Western Mediterranean) had. When Hannibal marched through Southern Gaul and recruited his many barbarian troops to supplement his losses during that march, Marseilles did not yield – granted, it did not resist either, but it remained quiet and probably sent messengers to Rome to warn them of Hannibal’s impending assault. Without these various scattered warnings, Rome could not have sent the necessary troops to North Italy to at least attempt to repel the assault. This represents a level of economic dependence which the Romans could never have achieved if there was not a breakdown in Greek dominance over the Western Mediterranean. Rome at this point (c. 200 BC) controlled most of the sea leading to the major markets – Asia, Africa etc, and if they did not, some other equally imperialistic power (at least at that time – Rome before, in the early period of which this essay is mainly focused on, was not) and thus, Western Greek cities had to co-operate with Rome – the nearest large power that would grant them access to these markets.

"the result of attempted negotiations in other Gallic communities was much the same, and the Roman delegates heard no really friendly or pacific word until they reached Massilia, where, as the result of their allies’ loyal and diligent enquires, they learned that Hannibal had already successfully worked upon the Gallic tribe and determined their attitude. "
-- Titus Livy, book 21.20

The above source shows this “Greek vacuum” in the Western Mediterranean which at its height, but does not show it’s progression from the original conditions set in place by the end of the Peloponnesian war. Although the Greek abandonment of Sicily must have seemed to the Romans to be a blessing because of the troubles that the Peloponnesian war had created with Rome’s grain supply, it was ultimately far from helpful. The second point, concerns the Carthaginians, who had always had their eyes set on Sicily and Spain and took the advantage of a Greek withdrawal by seizing a sizeable chunk of the island in 405 BC. It is fairly obvious that these two powers were not going to commence diplomatic meetings and sign peace terms without blood being shed, and this, once again, was ultimately due to the whims of the Greeks, who were the hidden puppet-masers behind of these supposedly “Roman” events in the Western Mediterranean. There had been many battles between the Greeks of Sicily and the Carthaginians originally Phoenician colonists from Tyre. These are recounted in Herodotus, but are not relevant to the context of this essay, however interesting they may be. Many of these far predate the birth of classical civilisation and are contempary with Archaic Greece and the age of the Dorian invasions.

"But the ambition and commercial aims of Carthage were not limited to Africa. For many a year she was not strong enough to aid the early Phoenician traders in Sicily, who had been driven to the west end of the island by the advancing tide of Greek colonists, but in about 580 BC she was drawn into the troubled waters, until despite the efforts of Malchus and his successors to advance in Sicily was checked by the battle of Himera, which saved the Greek civilisation in the west from being overwhelmed (480). The vicissitudes of the struggle between Carthage and the Greeks in Sicily, which recommenced about 400 BC after a period of economic recession and continued until the days of the first Punic war belong to the history of the Greek, rather than of the Roman world "
-- H.H. Scullard, A History of the Roman world 753 BC to 146 BC, Part I –Rome and Italy, chapter 7, the first struggle – the Carthaginian empire

It would seem from these two sources that Sicily was a “buffer state” between the two powers that history would pit against each other later on. As Greek control grew weaker and weaker, the Sicilians, rather than being the mediators, became simply the spectators, and were fought over for centuries between the two powers. Sicily was the obvious place for Rome and Greece to meet as nations politically – mainly because the Western territories of Greece were wild and inhabited by warlike Dorian peoples. Also, since the Greek islands and Peninsulas sweep naturally to the East, contact with Sicily and other such islands closer to the east was far more favorable than having to sail from a port on the Adriatic such as Apollonia to the east coast of Italy, which was in nearly the same situation as the Western Greek territories. Also, the lands beyond Macedonia were known to be inhabited by tribes of Goths, Gauls, Scythians, Dalmatians, Dacians and Illyrians – all of whom were warlike, semi-nomadic and generally conformed to all the attributes which the Greeks classed as “barbarian”. Far better for a Greek to communicate with the more cultured barbarians of the near east, as they saw it, than have to traverse through the cold, hostile north.

Rome’s perceptions of this period, then, were probably those of relief – Rome could now take the advantages that she wanted now that the Greek commercial giant had exhausted itself with incessant war. It is most likely, however, that she was not aware of these advantages, having been so preoccupied with her own survival against the various competing Italian states. In a few decades after the Peloponnesian wars, Sicily, the Mediterranean trade routes and the Greek colonies were now all within her grasp. After the Gallic invasions, Rome was quickly regaining its prominence, defeating the Aequi at Bola in 388 BC, then the Latins after their capture of Satricum in 377 BC, the renewal of the Latin treaty in 358 BC, the reduction of Tarquinii and Falerii in 351 BC and finally, the increase of power towards the wealthier class of plebs (the Praetorship created and the first Plebeian Consul in 366 BC) are all hallmarks in this notable period. How the Romans viewed events across the Adriatic is a difficult question to answer, but they certainly cannot have been indebted to side with the Greeks for economic reasons because they had dominated Greek economic power in their area soon after the Peloponnesian wars. Also, the swift invasion of Philip II and his son Alexander into Greece at this period broke the last strings of true Greek control over the Western Mediterranean. When we view the increasing Roman power in this period and its lesser need to rely on leagues or Greek commerce, we can be fairly sure that this slots in almost perfectly with the events in Greece – Rome’s dominance over once Greek markets in the Western Mediterranean and the destruction of those markets in Greece is simply too much of a coincidence to be ignored. Even more suggestive is the almost exact coincidence of dates, not just general economic situation. In 338 BC, Philip II defeated the joint Theban and Athenian hoplite force at Chaeronea, effectively ending the economic and political independence of Greece. Between the years 338 BC – 312 BC, Roman military and diplomatic successes dramatically increase in a boom that had never been seen chronologically before. Between those years, just a few of the most notable events were the dissolution of the Latin league, the first Plebeian praetor, Teanum granted alliance, Latin colony at Claes, Rome’s treaty with Tarentum, Roman thirty year’s peace with Senones, Roman alliance with Fabrateria and Fursino and many, many more besides. Also, despite the legislation changes that enabled Plebeians to finally take their place in politics, a significant economic boom must have taken place. This evidence is gained through firstly, the establishment of 2 new large Roman colonies and secondly, the fact that Plebeians managed to ascend to political posts at all. Roman politics was often bias towards the plutocrats, who made up the majority of senators and political candidates. The chief obstacle for any plebeian wishing to begin a political career was money – and much of it was needed to be granted admission into the senate, as the Roman rich guarded their privilege and status jealously, and the legislation passed allowing Plebeians to ascend to governmental offices cannot have been taken seriously by the rich – there were almost always conditions to prevent this from happening. This defiance of even the traditional Roman values of Plutocratic republicanism shows that not even government could prevent this influx of money from literally swamping Rome. Now that Rome was ready to cast her eyes out to the Mediterranean which had made her rich, she could now look at two of the most significant Hellenistic figures which it was ever going to throw at her – Alexander the great and Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Alexander's conquests

Plutarch, Appian and Livy all paint Alexander as a vain man, driven by his lust for power and military ability. In many cases, this can be seen to be true, and when examining the luxurious court life that he grew up in, it’s not surprising that he would have gained such ideals, but at the same time it is not surprising that such a picture would be painted of him by democracies such as Rome and Athens who hated absolutist monarchies, the Persians springing to their mind.

Alexander’s main conquests are well known and for the purposes of this essay, it is not necessary to discuss them here. The conquests of Persia and the state of Persia were discussed above in the context of why the did not matter so much to Rome. Despite the vast battles and famous events that marked Alexander’s conquests, sources from the Hellenistic period do also speak of other side-conquests and early conquests of his that almost certainly were noticed by Rome. Their geographical proximity and political effect simply could not have failed to be recognised in Rome, for many of them indirectly influenced the Italian peninsula as a whole. The first of these is his campaigns in the Balkans. Alexander’s conquest of Greece had given his nation the same problem and the same diplomatic issues that troubled Greece more than a century ago in the Persian wars. In order to end the Persian threat once and for all, he needed to subdue his northern boarders of dangerous Gothic Gallic, Scythian, Dalmatian, Dacian and Illyrian raids which could seriously de-stabilise his flanks in a long campaign. Flavius Arrianus recounts Alexander’s march to the Danube which, naturally being near the homelands of the Gallic raiders who had cost Rome so much in lives, pride and money, aided the Romans via proxy:

"…Three days after the battle Alexander reached the Danube. This river is the largest in Europe; it drains a greater tract of country than any other, and forms the frontier to the territories of some very war-like tribes. Some of them are of Celtic stock – indeed, the source of the river is in Celtic territory… "
-- Flavius Arrianus, the life of Alexander the great, book one, spring 335 BC

It was only until 119 BC that the Dalmatians and various other Gallic tribes around the area were subdued by the Romans, but when examining their strength in this perilous time a few decades after the Gallic raids, Alexander’s raid was a blessing the Romans. Although they were, as has been mentioned, preoccupied with yet more internal struggles and external struggles with her Latin neighbours, another Gallic raid - despite her regeneration and her dominance of Greek markets – could have meant complete destruction to the Romans. The Samnite wars were about to rage, and if either the Dalmatians or the Gauls were to invade the Italian peninsula again – this time with the Latin League disbanded – it’s doubtful that Rome would have had the necessary might to stop them. In this early context, Alexander’s invasions into Europe – however small – must have been viewed by the Romans with great relief. The Greek cities, which had decimated much of the Mediterranean’s economy during the Peloponnesian war, when compared to the new, united power of Macedon must have appeared to be foolish and squabbling to a Rome that itself was beginning to unite the lands around. Indeed, this period could be one of the reasons why Rome – fundamentally a member of the Greek world and an originally Greek city – soon abandoned conscious links with the Hellenes, and began to view Greek culture as strange, degraded and foreign.

However, soon after these successful raids into the wild Balkan areas, it would seem that Roman sources and academic secondary sources show that Rome began to have second thoughts about her support for Alexander. Although Rome was at this period, isolationalist, and could only view Greek affairs that did not concern her with a passing interest, Titus Livy devotes a sizeable section of one of his books to the conquests of Alexander, and his sources show a feeling of intense panic that is reminiscent of Hannibal’s march towards the gates of Rome in his later books. To the quickly changing and fast-paced world of Latin politics, the two powers of the Greek cities and the Persian Empire must have seemed a static, far-away place which bore no significance. But even Roman pre-occupation and social strife could not detract people’s thoughts from this man who, within a few decades, had forged the largest empire that Rome had even seen. Alexander’s phalanx – thanks the Macedonian military ingenuity – marched straight from Egypt to India in a tide of conquest that met few defeats and left few survivors. Rumours circulated, and it is not surprising that the knowledge of Alexander’s unquenchable thirst for conquest and brilliance and military tactics left some Romans preoccupied. The initiation of this fear was probably the very frightening and very real increase of Macedonian interests in the Western Mediterranean:

"Here his admiral, Nearchus, came to him, and delighted him so with the narrative of his voyage, that he resolved himself to sail out of the mouth of the Euphrates with a great fleet, with which he designed to go round by Arabia and Africa, and so by Hercules’ Pillars into the Mediterranean "
-- Plutarch, life of Alexander

Obviously, this trip did not happen. Alexander’s fleet never made a voyage around the whole of Africa, and if they did, it would have been a veritable odyssey for the ships of the time. Also, Alexander abandoned much of his fleet soon after defeating Memnon of Rhodes – a Greek mercenary under the pay of the Persians to defend Halicarnassos – because of issues around their cost and how the logistics of sustaining them would slow his advance. For such a trip even to be considered, though, and approved by Alexander, plans would have to be made, preliminary expeditions made and generally some kind of research into the area of interest before considerable expense and manpower was to be spent on the expedition. It was not the appearance of this fleet which the Romans feared (which never happened); it was probably the considerable interest that went into that area of the world.

There are still more sources to back up this feeling of fear that the Romans felt towards Alexander, mainly in Livy, who based much of his histories on tales and folklore because of the lack of sources for the old republican period. In one of the sections of his “histories”, he praises and statesman and general of the time for being almost as powerful as Alexander, and able to repulse him if the Macedonians invaded. This, realistically, is ridiculous – the Roman army was a mere shadow of what it was going to be, and the Macedonian phalanx was probably the most powerful troop type in the world. In any case, Livy must have gained this heroic impression of this man from somewhere – probably some obscure republican tale. Thus, Livy managed to gain this piece of information to put in his book by tales, and thus, Rome must have been considerably concerned about Alexander – no people invent stories of an event if that event was not of importance to them. The man in this case is Papirius Cursor, who, in the below excerpt from Livy, has returned to Rome after a campaign for a military triumph:

"…There is no doubt that in his generation, which produced more fine qualities than any other, there was no single man who gave such staunch support to the state of Rome. People even consider that he would have been a match for Alexander the Great in general-ship, had Alexander turned his arms against Europe after his conquest of Asia "
-- Titus Livy, book 9.16

The furthest that Alexander advanced along the North African cost was to Libya, to visit the shrine of Ammon, the chief deity of Egypt and the representation of the Pharaohs’  “Ka” or kingly sprit to receive the blessing of the oracle. It is not certain that he was intending to march to Carthage after his conquest of Asia, and in any case, his death in 323 BC and the breakdown of the empire in the wars of the successors mean that we can never know what his intents were. When we consider, however, that he pushed his men to India and back, long after he had destroyed the Persian Empire (which was his original goal), it would seem natural that his thirst for conquest could extend in the other direction just as fiercely. Thankfully for both Rome and Carthage, the chief enemy for Macedon at this period was the crumbling Persian empire under Darius III, and when regarding it’s geographical location, it is not surprising that he continued the conquest to the mysterious frontiers of the eastern Persian empire when he was there, rather than march back to the Mediterranean for hopes of fresh conquests. If one was to examine Alexander’s possible history if he had not died and continued his conquests, it would seem probable that he would have continued to advance past India and into Indochina and the Far East. This is, of course, only considering that his army did not desert him, he was not defeated any many other considerations which, in retrospect would probably have happened if pushed his men any further away from home. Had history taken a different course, and his conquests been directed towards the West rather than the East, despite Livy’s optimism, the results would have been disastrous:

"…With a new army and a new organisation, apparently with a disposition of infantry loser and more manageable than the formidable but cumbrous phalanx, he meant to start on new conquests. We do not know whether he meant to subdue Arabia, and then start for Carthage and the Pillars of Hercules, or whether he had heard enough of the Romans, and their stubborn infantry, to think it his noblest path to further glory to attack Italy. The patriotic Livy thinks the Romans would even then have stopped his progress. We, who look at things with clearer impartiality, feel sure that the conquest of Rome, though involving hard fighting and much loss, would have been quickly accomplished. If Hannibal easily defeated the far stronger Romans of his day by superior cavalry, how would the legions have withstood the charge of Alexander and his companions? Moreover, the Macedonians had siege trains and devices for attacking fortresses which Hannibal never possessed. We may regard it as certain that Rome would have succumbed; but as equally certain that upon the king’s death she would have recovered her liberty, and resumed her natural history , with this difference, that Hellenistic culture would have invaded Rome four generations earlier, and her education would have been widely different "
-- John Pentland Mahaffy and Arthur Gilman, Alexander’s Empire chapter 4

The above source shows the words of a realist rather than, as many were at that time, Victorian classicists with an irrational belief in the tales of the bias, patriotic histories of many writers of the classical period. In fact, the situation described above need not to have begun with an invasion of Italy for the sake of glory and conquests – if Alexander was to invade Carthage and North Africa, she would have needed to subdue Rome and the other Latin cities for the sake of economic survival. The spheres of influence now held by the Latin cities and the Roman and Carthaginian republics were so large that if Alexander wanted long-term economic stability and dominance in the area, he would have had to invade the whole area. An invasion of Carthage by Alexander would have logically required at least a submission of Italian economic power to be a lasting, worthwhile victory. We cannot say if Alexander considered this, and if he did, it was a future conquest which would have to be done after his conquest of the remaining Persian provinces and later, Western India, but he probably viewed Latin economic control in the Mediterranean (gained in the crisis after the Peloponnesian war) as an irritant that he would have wished ended.

Alexander’s conquest of India must have also been felt by the Romans economically – for centuries, the Greek cities in the Mediterranean had been heavily involved with trading with the Phoenicians, Ionian Greece and mainland Greece, both of which - thanks to the brilliance of the Archenemid Persian “royal road”, postal service and Canal system – had been trading items of luxury with India and surrounding areas for many centuries. Precious stones, silks, spices and shells were all traded in great quantities from Asia Minor, and the Persian Empire, which bridged the gap between the Indian trade from Babylonia and Sumer to the Persian and Phoenician trade to Greece and the peoples of the Mediterranean. After the Peloponnesian war, when the pan-continental giant of the Persian Empire could take advantage of the peace and Rome had gained control over many Greek trade routes, a monopoly of trade was naturally born. Alexander’s dominance over India cut the centuries old route between the peoples of the east and the Mediterranean. Rome commerce must have suffered and thus, merchants must have been painfully aware of the actions that Alexander was taking. The overall economic disintegration that emerged from the Peloponnesian war would have been offset by the opening of new trade routes, a small Persian revival and the rise of Macedon. However, in Alexander’s conquests of the wealth of Persia and India, there would have been nothing to compensate for this destabilisation. Alexander’s conquered lands had been ruled by his generals and military aides who he left behind in his wake, naturally having no advantage over the centuries of Persian bureaucrats who had managed the Imperial treasury and commerce of the empire with a steady hand. The trade routes were blocked, and Rome began to reconsider what Alexander was doing for them.

"For the present, however, Alexander turned his attention to occupying the great capitals of the Persian empire – capitals of older kingdoms, embodied in the empire just as the King of Italy has embodied Florence, Naples, Rome and Venice in his dominions. These great cities, Babylon in Mesopotamia, Susa (Shushan) in Elam, Persepolis in Persia proper, and Ecbatana in Media, were all full of ancient wealth and splendour, adorned with great palaces, and famed for monstrous treasures. The actual amount of gold and silver seized in these hoards (not les than £30,000,000 of English money, and perhaps a great deal more), had a far larger effect on the world than the discovery of gold and silver mines in recent times. Ever adventurer in the army became suddenly rich; all the means and materials for luxury which the long civilization of the East had discovered and employed, were suddenly thrown into the hands of comparatively rude and even barbarous soldiers. It was a prey such as the Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru, but had a far strong civilization, which must react upon the conquerors "
-- John Pentland Mahaffy and Arthur Gilman, Alexander’s Empire chapter 3

Epilogue and Conclusion

It would appear that in this period, Rome was actually aided by Alexander via proxy and by Greek disintegration in general. The actions of this age, not only those of Alexander and Philip, but those of the Greek city-states seemed to have done the following for or against Rome:

1. Relieved Rome of barbarian raids due to Macedonian attacks along the Danube, and ultimately allowed Rome the “breathing space” that she needed to make the necessary socio-political changes, expand her commercial power by sending several colonies out to various locations and concentrate on issues directly in Latium

2. The final swan-song of the Greeks as independent city states – the Peloponnesian war – allowed Rome to quietly take advantage of abandoned Greek trade routes and commercial hotspots in the Western Mediterranean, but left it as a commercial battleground between the growing power of the Carthaginian republic

3. Removed a great amount of contact with the Indians, who commercially were in much demand for items such as spices, silks, precious stones and suchlike. The destruction of the liberal, tolerant and efficient Persian empire (along with its brilliant systems of commerce, transportation and communication) by Alexander of Macedon and it’s replacement with, in most cases, commercially ignorant governor-soldiers ruined communications with many areas of the near east.

4. Stirred a feeling of fear within the Roman state, amongst both the Plebeians and the Equestrians

5. Created the group of empires known as the “Diodachi” or “Successors”, which, after the battle of Ipsus at 301 BC would be reduced to a hard core of imperialist pan-continental ones such as the Seleucids, Ptolemaics, Macedonians and Attalids. These nations would be the focus of Roman foreign policy for years to come, and inherited both the good and bad of the Hellenic and Eastern cultures – the logic and developments of Greece with the majestic despotism of the eastern kingdoms. The kings of these nations used their relation to Alexander the great or his generals to state their legitimacy to their throne, and, like Alexander, made claims to divine descent.

Alexander the Great is one of history’s greatest figures. He is known as (quite rightly) the man who conquered most of the classical world and beyond and brought Greek culture to the masses of Asia. But how did the small and struggling state of the early Roman republic view his conquests? The early and mid periods of the Roman republic are often neglected in preference to the Roman Empire and the spread of Classical developments throughout many of the shores of the Mediterranean. It is not a well known fact that the Roman republic, founded in 509 BC, was completely contempary with many of the most famous classical Greek events, the Roman kingdom, founded in roughly 753 BC was contempary with the height of the Neo-Assyrian empire, Archaic Greece and the Dorian invasions. It is always one of the oldest questions in history – how did people view the event in question – and this is no different, despite the world, which appeared much, much larger, especially after Alexander’s march to “the ends of the earth”.

Bibliography and Resources

John Pentland Mahaffy and Arthur Gilman – Alexander’s empire
T.R. Glover – Pericles to Philip
H.H. Scullard - A History of the Roman world 753 BC to 146 BC
Titus Livy – histories, books 4, 7, 9 and 21, The Henry Bettenson Translation
Plutarch – the life of Alexander, The John Dryden Translation
Flavius Arrianus – the life of Alexander the great, book 1, the Aubrey de Sélincourt translation
Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian war, book 6, the Rex Warner translation