Ancient History & Civilisation

INTRODUCTION

The two crowning achievements wrought by the Roman people during the period covered by this volume were the unification of Italy and the founding of an overseas empire. The Greeks had revealed aspects of the spirit of man before undreamt of; the Romans could only gaze up at many of the peaks that their predecessors had scaled and show their admiration by a humble imitation and by passing on the legacy to later generations. But in one sphere the Greeks of the city-state, despite their genius, had failed: their rejection of permanent co-operation among themselves at length proved fatal, and noble strivings after independence often degenerated into petty bickering and quarrels. But the peculiar genius of the Roman people, their predilection for law and order, and their powers of organization and administration, unlocked the doors at which the Greeks had hammered in vain: a city-state proved itself able to weld the various peoples of a country into a nation and to govern an empire.

In the first half of the nineteenth century Prince Metternich declared that Italy was ‘only a geographical expression’; the succeeding century has witnessed the growth of a united nation. The Austrian Chancellor’s dictum could be applied with truth to Italy during the early days of the Roman Republic, while by the middle of the third century BC the whole country was united within the framework of a confederacy, designed by Rome, which was strong enough to withstand the disruptive influence of foreign invaders, whether Pyrrhus’ professional soldiers, drilled in the latest methods of Hellenistic warfare, or Hannibal’s untiring military genius. If the final unification of Italy was not achieved till the first century BC, she was at any rate welded by the genius of Rome into a confederation, the like of which the Greek world had never seen.

When Rome had transformed Italy into a world power, she came, partly by design, but more by accident, into contact with the Mediterranean world, with Carthage in the west and the Hellenistic monarchies in the east. Her struggle with Carthage was a life-and-death tussle, and modern western civilization owes much, if not everything, to her ultimate victory. In the east the older monarchies collapsed like a house of cards at Rome’s touch. ‘The surprising nature of these events is sufficient to challenge and stimulate the attention of everyone, old or young … events for which the past affords no precedent.’ So thought a contemporary Greek historian, Polybius, who was himself interned in Italy for sixteen years. What Alexander the Great might have achieved, had he lived, what, indeed, he even hoped to achieve, must remain shrouded in doubt. It was reserved for Rome to realize an ecumenical ideal, to introduce a unity into world history, and to embrace western civilization within one political system.

‘Can anyone be so indifferent or idle as not to care to know by what means and under what kind of polity almost the whole inhabited world was conquered and brought under the dominion of a single city of Rome, and that too within a period of not quite fifty-three years?’ So wrote Polybius. To the Greeks the cause of the advance of the Romans was their moral qualities and their excellent constitution. To these we may add the advantages derived from their geographical conditions, their superior manpower and war-craft. As the Marquis d’Azeglio in 1839 prophesied that the new railways would ‘stitch the boot of Italy’, so ancient Italy was knit together by the roads and nodal colonies which Roman statesmen planned and Roman engineers constructed. But however many contributory causes there might be to this or that particular line of advance, all Rome’s conduct was marked by empirical methods and by a spirit of adaptation and receptivity: she was willing to learn from friend and foe alike. Guided by practical problems, not by cut-and-dried theories, the Romans adapted their constitution and methods to meet present difficulties. During the period covered by this volume their success was unbounded, but before the end a change is perceptible. Foreign influences began to undermine the moral qualities and the ancestral discipline of the Roman people, lust for power at times superseded desire for law and order, foreign conquest appeared to many as a source of profit, the institutions of a city-state were strained to the breaking-point in an attempt to govern a far-flung Empire, the revolutionary era ushered in by the Gracchi was approaching and the fabric of the Republic began to totter.

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