Ancient History & Civilisation


The Hannibalic War forced the world to think in international terms. ‘Hitherto’, wrote Polybius, ‘the world’s history has been, so to speak, a series of disconnected transactions… but after this epoch history becomes a connected whole.’ All civilized countries had to face the fact that the two halves of the Mediterranean were now linked by the central power in Italy. It was long before Rome finally won the whole Mediterranean world, but the battle of Zama sealed her primacy and by the year 146 she had six provinces – Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, the two Spains, Macedonia and Africa; five of these had fallen to her as the result of wars with Carthage. She had ties of alliance or friendship with Numidia, Massilia, Illyria and the rest of Greece, the kingdoms of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt; in reality these countries formed a Roman protectorate. A superficial glance at this great achievement might give the impression that the Romans had been driven on by a lust for conquest which would not be satisfied until it embraced the whole world; but that this was not so is clear from an examination of the circumstances in which they acquired their various dependencies. Indeed, for many years they tried not to annex territory and wished either to avoid foreign complications or else to exercise influence rather than rule abroad. The early growth of the Empire falls into two clear divisions: the period from 241 to 197 and then after a gap of fifty years the period around the year 146. What then did this changing policy mean, why did Rome acquire an empire and how did she adapt her machinery of government to meet it?

During the first period of annexation Rome had been dominated by fear of Carthage, and her four earliest provinces were annexed mainly with the object of excluding the Carthaginians from them. Although the Romans had not thought it wise to extend their confederacy to include these countries, from which they exacted some form of taxation in place of military service, they had not deliberately tried to build up an empire. The word provincia only meant the sphere of work allotted to any magistrate; Italy itself could form such a ‘province’, as when it was assigned to a consul in 171 BC. As the need to send magistrates abroad increased, the number of praetors was raised to four (c. 227) and then to six (197). After this the Romans were unwilling to extend the Empire, and the reasons are not far to seek.

Annexation involved administrative, financial and military problems which strained the institutions of a city-state. To govern an empire a civil service of permanent officials had gradually to supersede annual magistrates, and a citizen militia, commanded by officers who often had little military experience or aptitude, gave place to a professional army. The Hannibalic War had moulded the army in the direction of professionalism: the periods of service, the foreign theatres of war, the difficulty of control by the home government, the length of the generals’ commands, had all increased. But it was followed by a reaction to the more amateur system of earlier days. Rather than create a standing army for provincial defence, or allow the provincials themselves to guard their own frontiers, the Romans preferred to allow foreign kings to protect their interests. But the problem of administration influenced Roman policy even more than that of imperial defence. The Romans were unwilling to create the necessary machinery beyond raising the number of praetors to six, two of whom served in Rome, the others in the four provinces. But though no more provinces were added, Rome had to fight, arbitrate and govern in the Hellenistic world. This required magistrates, and so the device of prolonging an annual magistracy, first adopted in the Samnite Wars and used frequently during the pressure of the Hannibalic War, was afterwards used more frequently, and when Macedonia and Africa were annexed the problem of provincial administration was solved by the extended use of the pro-magistracy. It became more usual for pro-magistrates to govern the provinces, until in Sulla’s time it was the regular custom, if not a legal necessity.

It has been suggested that the Senate adopted an anti-expansionist policy in order to secure its exclusiveness at home.8 To have increased the number of provinces would have meant increasing the number of magistrates and hence of admitting more men into its upper ranks, while to create a new type of magistracy which did not carry with it the right to a seat in the Senate would have been equally injurious to the senatorial nobility in the long run. When, however, the pro-magistracy became more common, the Senate was able to plan a second period of provincial annexation (146–121). Doubtless this desire to maintain its exclusiveness was a real factor in the policy of the Senate, which was especially jealous of provincial governors whom it found difficult to control. But if for other reasons annexation seemed desirable, the Senate might well have devised the method of prorogatio imperii fifty years earlier; the commands of the Scipios and Flamininus were striking examples in wartime of a method which could have been adapted to peace. The government had other objections, beside the peril to its own exclusiveness, against increasing the number of provinces. Early in the second century fear of eastern complications forced the Senate to define a policy towards the Hellenistic world; it followed the line of defensive imperialism, but its opinion was divided. The more liberal outlook of a number of philhellenic nobles led to the establishing of ‘friendship’ and ultimately to the formation of a protectorate system. A reaction followed, led by Cato, who wished to interfere as little as possible in foreign affairs, thinking that foreign conquest was undermining Roman character. But both schools of thought were opposed to annexation. Thus many considerations militated against the formation of further provinces: the inadequacy of Republican institutions; the lack of permanent officials and a professional army; the Senate’s dislike of increasing the number of magistrates and widening the basis of the nobility; its mistrust of distant commands; and the wish of some to protect but not to rule the Greek world, and of others to neglect it.

The protectorate system gradually broke down in Greece, and ties of friendship and temporary alliance soon hardened into permanent alliance, which meant Roman leadership in external affairs. After 187 Roman policy deteriorated, but even after Pydna an attempt was made to patch up the old system. The Romans tried to uphold a protectorate in Macedonia, as in Illyria, by deposing the king and breaking up national unity. But their brutal treatment of Aetolia and Epirus revealed their attitude. The punishment of Corinth showed clearly what a Roman protectorate meant when the Greeks still refused to set their own house in order. In Spain too, methods of policy deteriorated. Neither of the two departures from the protectorate system, the formation of the provinces of Macedonia and Africa, was caused by the desire to annex. In Macedonia, where Roman patience was exhausted, annexation seemed the only method of securing peace; local conditions were changed as little as possible. The destruction of Carthage was caused by misplaced jealousy and fear. The creation of the province was a measure of self-protection, whether necessary or not. Only some 5,000 square miles were annexed, of which a large part was assigned to seven free cities which paid no taxes to Rome. Indeed, the Romans seemed desirous of maintaining a protectorate system wherever possible, as later, after the Jugurthine War. The policy of annexation was due less to the senatorial nobility than to the military captains of the last century of the Republic. But protection meant in fact control. Equal alliance and friendship could not be maintained between two parties of such different weight. The kings of Asia Minor were virtually client kings. It has been seen that Rome was slow to intervene in the east and that the initiative was often taken by the Greeks themselves, but insensibly the Romans came to dominate their friends and allies as effectively as their subjects; and the fault belonged as much to the suicidal folly of the Greeks and to the deterioration and weakness of the east, as to Rome. But to measure the decline in Rome’s policy it is only necessary to consider first the brave declaration of freedom to Greece in 196, and then the smouldering ashes of Corinth, Carthage and Numantia, or the crowd of princes and envoys that waited obsequiously in the lobby of the Senate-house.

The change in Roman policy is sometimes attributed to the growth of a capitalist class in whose commercial interests Rhodes was humbled in 167 and Corinth and Carthage were sacked in 146. Little evidence can be found in support of such a proposition.9 The stipulation in Rome’s treaty with Ambracia in 189 requiring exemption from port dues appears unusual; the clause in the constitution of the Macedonian Republics, restricting the exportation of timber and the importation of salt, was probably designed to protect Macedon; the request of Rhodes in 169 for permission to buy grain in Sicily may imply some control by the Senate over the Sicilian market, but even supposing such control was permanent, it was more probably exercised for political than for commercial motives. The Romans declared Delos a free port when handing it over to Athenian control; their motive, however, was probably political, to punish Rhodes, and the inscriptional evidence shows that, although Italian merchants benefited, Orientals benefited still more. The destruction of Corinth aided Delos, but the Romans would hardly have undertaken its destruction to benefit Italian merchants so indirectly; and the motives which led to the overthrow of Carthage were probably political. The Romans took few measures to aid their merchants and did not trouble to keep the seas free from pirates. Many Italians went to the provinces to seek their fortune in trade or business, partly because of agricultural depression in Italy; a capitalist class was created; and trade followed the flag. But there is little evidence to show that such classes were influential enough to mould Roman policy or to shape the political decisions of the Senate. The equites and the merchants of southern Italy reaped, but it was the Senate that sowed.

Roman policy, guided by political rather than commercial or economic motives, deteriorated partly because of an increasing tendency to exploit the provinces and theatres of war.10 In theory the burden imposed on the provincials was not severe; as a general rule, instead of giving their lifeblood like the Italian allies, they merely paid some form of tax, either a tithe as in Sicily or a fixed tribute (stipendium) as in Spain, Africa and Macedon. Notwithstanding the Spanish mines, it is doubtful whether the revenue from Spain paid for the cost of occupation, and in such warlike provinces the task of administration must often have seemed thankless. The annexation of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica was advantageous since they were fairly peaceful and supplied the Roman market with corn. But while in theory the administration might be beneficial to Rome and fair to the provincials, in practice much depended on the character of the governor, who with the tax-collectors could fleece the provinces if he wished. It must be remembered that his position was unpaid, that he had had to bear the cost of reaching office and that, if a praetor, he was probably hoping to obtain the consulship on his return to Rome. Roman society was becoming more luxurious and a political career involved increasing expense. The Senate in theory discountenanced cruelty or oppression in the provinces, since disorders caused trouble and expense; but in fact the governor, far from its watchful eye, had to be allowed considerable rope – and he did not often hang himself. Further, it would increase his future electioneering prospects if he adopted a lenient attitude towards the Italian merchants and businessmen who invaded the provinces, and to whom, whether as individuals or as partners in, or agents of companies, the Roman government found it convenient to farm the collection of harbour dues and the tax on pasturage. In the provinces that paid a fixed stipendium, which could have been collected direct by the governor’s quaestor, publicani were still able to collect the secondary taxes and the revenues from public lands and mines; they could also do business for local governing bodies which were responsible for the collection of taxes. A governor would seldom wish to offend the agents of the great companies at Rome.

Thus, although the provincial system was theoretically fairly sound, it was open to abuse by unscrupulous governors. The abuses increased in the years after 146 until they reached their climax in the governorship of a Verres, but that they were not unknown in the earlier part of the second century is clear from the appeal of the unhappy Spaniards in 171. Little was done to counter the disgrace until, by a Lex Calpurnia de repetundis in 149, a permanent court was established to try cases of extortion. Jurors were empanelled by the praetor from the Senate and the court was more expeditious than the cumbersome tribal assembly; yet as corrupt governors were judged by members of their order, the verdict might not always be unbiased. But there was a brighter side to the picture; extortion, at any rate during the earlier part of Rome’s imperial career, was the exception rather than the rule, and most magistrates were men of honour. Polybius wrote that ‘if a single talent is entrusted to a Greek statesman, ten auditors, as many seals and twice as many witnesses are required for the security of the bond, yet even so faith is not observed; while a Roman official or diplomat who handles vast sums of money keeps faith through the mere moral obligation of the oath he has sworn… amongst the Romans the corrupt official is as rare as the financier with clean hands among other people’ (vi, 56; he also admits a deterioration of Roman character, xviii, 35; xxxi, 25).

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