In about 350 BC the Romans developed a story about how their ancient city was first founded. It was a story that would seek to trace their ultimate origins back to a remote past beyond even the age of Romulus and Remus. At the time the Romans were a people from a powerful city-state in Italy, but they were also beginning to strut on the international stage of the Mediterranean. There was one civilization in particular with which they came into greater and greater contact – that of the Greeks in the east. This was an enticing, older world, rich in myth, history, sophistication, wealth and influence. It was one the Romans wanted to connect with, to be part of, to measure up to. One of the ways they achieved that was to adopt a foundation story they could share with that more ancient civilization whenever Greeks and Romans met. It was the story of the Trojan Aeneas. Later, at the height of the Roman empire, it would come to be seen by some as the moment when the ancient Greek world began its transformation into the new Roman order.
Aeneas was a hero of the Trojan War fought against the Greeks. Leaving behind his desolate, burning city of Troy (on the northwest coast of modern Turkey), Aeneas made his escape. But he was not alone. He carried his frail father on his back, held his son by the hand and was accompanied by a band of Trojan survivors. One night, after years of travelling the seas of the Mediterranean, Aeneas was woken up with a shock. The god Mercury appeared before him and delivered a stern message from the god Jupiter. Aeneas’s destiny, he said, was to found the city that would become Rome. His old home destroyed, Aeneas was set on a mission to found a new one. It was no less than a heaven-sent task. Continuing their travels, he and his followers eventually reached Italy. Sailing upriver, the greased pine timbers of their ships gliding gently over the water, they laid eyes on the future site of the city. Here they found an idyllic rural land called Latium, its quiet green woods standing in contrast to the bright colours of their boats and the shine of their armour. But in this Eden-like land events quickly spiralled out of control. The Trojan settlers who came in piety and peace quickly turned invaders, began a bloody war and found themselves murdering local countrymen.
Although the story is a myth anchored in the very ancient past, its theme gets to the heart of early Roman history: conflict and the Italian countryside. It would not be the first and only time that war and the rural ‘quiet land’ of Italy bled into each other. Indeed, in 350 BC, at the time of the myth’s creation, those two spheres of Roman life were fast becoming stitched into a single fabric. Early Roman citizens were both farmers and part-time soldiers. In both war and agriculture Romans humbly and piously called upon the traditional gods to sanction their endeavours and bring success to them and their families. The cycles of the agricultural year and the season of military campaigning were the same too: March (the month of Mars, the god of war) heralded the period of greatest activity. By the time October came around, the tools of the farmer and the weapons of the soldier were put away for the winter.
Above all, however, it was the characteristics of soldier and peasant that had become fused in the Roman. The virtues that made a good farmer also made a good fighter. Patriotism, self-lessness, industriousness and a hardy ability to persevere in the face of adversity would not only make a farm or a plot of land productive. These were the same virtues that would build the greatest empire of the ancient world. This, at least, is how the Romans liked to see themselves. It was a comforting view. The poet Virgil, who composed the epic story of Aeneas’s foundation of Rome, neatly summed this up. The Roman peasant-soldiers, he said, were like bees. They were not individuals, but a highly organized community striving together. Like Aeneas, these ‘little Romans’ worked hard, were dutiful and patriotically repressed their private desires to the greater good of the group. Yes, some died from their exertions along the way, but the race as a whole flourished. And the glowing, lucent honey they produced? This was pure gold, the product of a golden age, the riches of an entire empire.1
However, as in the story of Aeneas’s violent struggle to found Rome, the rural ideal of the bees clashed with the reality. Away from the hive, observed Virgil, the bees were also capable of waging venomous war on outsiders. But outsiders were not their only enemy. With their wings flashing, their stings whetted and their arms ready for battle, they reserved their most vicious attacks for inside the hive, for an internecine war on themselves.2 Lurking behind the rustic virtues of the hardy peasant, behind his honour and his steadfastness, said Virgil, was something quite opposite: the chaos of passion, the irrationality of war and, worse, the messy brutality of civil war. This was the true theme of Rome’s foundation. It was one that would reverberate throughout the history of the empire that the city-state would create. It would characterize the eventual fall of Rome as much as its earliest foundation and its incredible rise.
The site of the city that the mythical Aeneas first set eyes on was located 24 kilometres (15 miles) inland near a river, the Tiber. Made up of seven compact hills, it seems today like a small, unprepossessing place for the capital of an empire that would rule over the known world. There was no immediate port giving on to the sea’s trade routes, and the marshes lying at the bottom of the hills, subject to overspills from the Tiber, had to be drained before settlement could spread there. Nonetheless, on the Palatine Hill, the future residence of Roman emperors, a series of stone and wooden shepherds’ huts formed the first settlement at the very start of the Iron Age in 1000 BC, and from that time on it would be continually inhabited. By the seventh century BC that community on the Palatine joined together with others on the Quirinal, Aventine and Caelian hills. Soon the Esquiline and Viminal hills also were deforested, levelled and terraced to make homes for other settlers. The Capitoline Hill, which was nearest to the river, became the settlement’s acropolis and the home for the temple of the shepherds’ principal deity, Jupiter. The area at the foot of these hills, once the place where the shepherds grazed their flocks, was drained and filled, and the meeting-place of the Roman Forum soon formed the city’s epicentre.
But while the site of the capital of the future Roman empire was perhaps unexpected, it did have natural advantages for an expansion into Italy. Those hills, for example, formed a natural defence against invaders, while the Tiber valley opened out on to the rich agricultural plain of Latium. The site also formed a natural bridging point between Latium (and hence the Greek colonies at the foot of Italy) and another region, called Etruria, to the north. Its sandwiching between these two civilizations is reflected in the language the Romans used: they spoke a dialect of the language of the Latins, but it was the Etruscans, themselves influenced by the Greeks, who predominantly gave the Romans their alphabet. However, the Etruscans gave the Romans much more than writing: they gave them their early rulers too.
Between 753 and 510 BC Rome was ruled by kings, the last three of whom were Etruscan. The first, according to legend, was Romulus, and his story is in keeping with the rootless, belligerent theme of his ancient ancestor Aeneas. Romulus and his twin brother Remus were the sons of Mars, the god of war. Abandoned by their jealous great-uncle and exposed to the wilderness of Latium, they were saved when a she-wolf, an ancient figure of ferocity, suckled them. Later the brothers were looked after and raised by shepherds. It was a start in life that made the twins tough but also unforgiving. When they were adults the brothers quarrelled over who should be the founder of the city they decided to establish. In the course of this argument Romulus killed Remus and became the first king. Although the Romans believed that after Romulus there were six more kings of Rome, the reality is that perhaps only the last three (Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius the Proud) were real historical figures. Under these Etruscan kings, key characteristics of the political system of early Rome were established, and these would resonate throughout the city’s history.
One political principle arose from a clash of loyalty among the leading aristocrats; they felt they owed their primary loyalty not to the state or the wider community, but to their clan. The noblemen were known to walk around the city with their associates, relatives and retainers, whose families could all trace their descent from one common ancestor. These dependants were known as ‘clients’, and the informal network of which they were part became a key nub of political power, status and influence in the state. This is reflected in the names of Romans then and through the centuries to come.3 Appius Claudius, for example, was a prominent politician in Rome of the 130s BC. His family name shows how, alongside his personal name of Appius, he could trace his ancestry back to Attus Clausus, the man who founded the clan. The Claudii would not only become the leading men of state throughout the Roman republic, but would also form one branch of Rome’s first dynasty of emperors, the Julio-Claudians.
But it was not just the ancient names and the associated prestige which began under the Etruscan kings that would echo through the centuries to come. The authority invested in the kings was their most important legacy. It was this that would become the foundation stone of the Roman imperial mentality. The Romans called the kings’ executive authority imperium. This was their right to give orders to ordinary people and to expect those orders to be obeyed. Imperium allowed them to punish and even to execute people for disobedience. Crucially, it also included the power to conscript citizens into an army and lead them to war on people outside the boundary of Rome who challenged that authority. The holder of imperium carried a symbol of his power, and this too was of Etruscan origin. The fasces was a bundle of elm or birch rods 1.5 metres (5 feet) in length; they were tied together with red leather thongs, and in among the rods was an axe. The authoritarianism symbolized by the rods survives today in our word ‘fascism’.
Long after the Etruscan kings had gone, the authority of imperium would remain. In Roman eyes it would legitimize and justify conquest. Be it Julius Caesar’s annexation of Gaul or the emperor Trajan’s invasion of Dacia, imperium carried with it the honourable appearance of the execution of justice. The first Roman emperor Augustus was also the first to regularly use the title of imperator, from which we get our word ‘emperor’, the man to whom that authority is attached. The reality of imperium, however, would be much more self-serving. It would result in the mass shedding of blood, not just within Italy, but throughout the entire Mediterranean world. How Romans other than the Etruscan kings came to hold the power of imperium is the central story of the first great revolution in Roman history: the foundation of the Roman republic in c. 509 BC.
CREATING THE REPUBLIC
The great revolution that spawned the political system of Rome is told in a famous story. Sextus, the son of the king Tarquinius the Proud, made sexual advances to Lucretia, the wife of a nobleman. When she resisted, Sextus threatened to kill both her and a slave in her company, and claim that he had caught her committing adultery with the slave. Lucretia gave in. Unable to live with the dishonour, however, she soon committed suicide. Personal tragedy quickly escalated into a very public revolution. A nobleman called Lucius Junius Brutus, enraged at the death he had just witnessed, was spurred to take action against the Tarquins. With a band of aristocrats, he drove Tarquinius the Proud and Sextus out of the city of Rome. While the details of the story might more comfortably belong to the world of romantic fiction, the fact remains that Roman nobles mounted a coup d’état in the final decade of the sixth century BC against the last of the Etruscan kings and crystallized a crucial political change. This revolutionary moment would become the most pivotal point in early Roman history. From it was forged another key cornerstone in the Roman mentality: a desire for political freedom and a hatred of domination by one man.
The solution the Romans devised to the problem of rule by kings was the republic. The word does not imply a democracy (although it would have democratic elements), but means literally the ‘public good’, the ‘state’ or the ‘commonwealth’. It was a system of government that evolved slowly over a long period of time, and was subject to continual tweaks and improvements as Rome’s influence and power in Italy and the Mediterranean world increased. Above all, the republic would see the power of imperiumexercised not by kings, but by two annually elected office holders called ‘consuls’. Under the men who held this office and their powerful clan-networks of clients, the small city-state of the Roman republic would build an empire.
The magistracy of the consulship approximated to the role of a prime minister or a president today, although, unlike that modern parallel, there were of course two consuls. The simple fact that two men were elected to the consulship meant that one could act as a restraint on the other. They were elected by a vote in a public assembly, and held power for a year. When presiding over official business, they, like certain other office holders, wore a light woollen toga distinguished by a purple border. Once their term of office was over, the consuls were called to account by their peers in the aristocracy. The basis of their authority, the power of imperium, was as strong and personal as it had been under the kings. For example, reflecting their aristocratic clan background, the consuls were accompanied by a group of twelve attendants wherever they went. Just as they had done under the Etruscan kings, these attendants, like a band of bodyguards, heralds and policemen rolled into one, carried with them the consuls’ rods and axe of office, and cleared the path for the consuls to pass through. Now, however, that power of imperium was circumscribed by the limitations of the office.
For all their attempts to move decisively away from the kings, the aristocratic Roman nobles who founded the republic were careful not to abandon entirely the rule of one man. For times of emergency, they created the office of dictator, to which the consuls could appoint someone to restore control over affairs of state. Once the republic had been safely returned to order, the elected consuls would resume office. Indeed, as the responsibilities of the two consulships increased throughout the fifth and fourth centuriesBC, the leading men of state sought to share out the burden of the consuls’ duties by developing subordinate magistracies with more specific tasks. The origins of these other offices are obscure but later in the republic they come to form a clearly defined hierarchy.
One such office was that of praetor. This post was perhaps created to ease the responsibility of consuls in hearing private legal cases – at first within Rome, but later in trials brought by Romans elsewhere in Italy and abroad. The fact that praetors were also accompanied by attendants (though only six), also carried the power of imperium, and had the privilege of consulting the gods shows that they were like junior consuls. When Rome’s empire developed, the post of praetor would be held by military commanders and governors of Rome’s provinces abroad.
Several other posts were important to the smooth running of the republic. The office of quaestor originally carried with it the responsibility of assisting the consul in hearing and judging legal trials. (This is suggested by the meaning of quaestor: literally ‘investigator’.) Later it too took on a different character: it came to be associated with managing financial affairs, and, as a result, the post of quaestor became an office akin to that of a minister of the treasury in a modern state. An aedile, on the other hand, was the magistrate who supervised the markets in the city. Perhaps the modern equivalent would be a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry.
Finally, the responsibility of the censor was to compile a census of Roman citizens every five years. This office, loosely an ancient version of the General Register Office, was much more important than perhaps its task implies, particularly in a military context. The Roman army at this period was not a professional body; it was comprised of simply citizens of the republic. However, because soldiers had to provide their own armour, the process of registering Roman citizens and their respective wealth and property had the consequence of dictating their military obligations to the state. The wealthier had a greater influence within the Roman republic because they brought more wealth and prestige to its army.
Out of all the holders of these offices a key body of the republic was formed: the Roman Senate. The Senate was a debating chamber and the collective voice of the political élite, and was presided over by the year’s consuls. However, the Senate was not at all like a present-day parliament, such as the US Senate. It was not made up of representatives of Roman citizens; instead it comprised simply ex-office holders. Indeed, senators did not pass laws and had no legal powers. As we shall see, sovereignty belonged not to the Senate but to the adult male citizens who voted in the assemblies of the people for elections and the passing of bills.
Rather, senators were an advisory body whose decisions were formulated and passed on as guidance to the current office holders. This, however, should not belittle the importance and authority of the Senate. Future and past office holders relied on the approval and support of their colleagues in the aristocratic ruling class for political influence and success in elections. Considering that the office holders would most often come from the Senate, and return to it once their term of office was over, magistrates in the Roman republic ignored the wishes of their fellow senators at the peril of their future political careers.
This, then, was the basic formation of the Roman republic. The Greek historian Polybius provided an astute analysis of this political system, which he based on knowledge gained while he was held hostage in Rome during the mid-second century BC. It had, he said, using Greek concepts, elements of democracy (elections and the passing of bills in the popular assemblies), oligarchy (the Senate) and monarchy (the consuls). The harmony between these three parts was the source of the republic’s great virtue, its unequalled strength and dynamism. When the three elements worked together, there was nothing that Rome could not achieve, no emergency it could not overcome. Two critically important questions remained, though. Who was eligible for these offices – the aristocratic heads of the leading Roman clans or ordinary Roman citizens? And how did the Romans vote for them? Answering these questions would be the cause of the next great revolution in the development of the Roman republic.
CONFLICT: PATRICIANS AND THE PLEBS
In the earliest period of the republic the aristocrats of the old Roman clans held all offices. These men called themselves ‘patricians’, and one argument was typical of the way they justified their complete monopoly on power. Since the time of the Etruscan kings, they explained, they had held all the ancient priesthoods. Their unique knowledge of the gods made them best placed for the decisions of political office; only with that knowledge could the gods’ favour on Rome in the future be guaranteed. The success of the state was considered to be dependent on the gods’ goodwill, making Roman religion of critical importance, both then and throughout Roman history. In the early republic, however, said the patricians, they alone were the gatekeepers to the gods and they alone should hold power.
The rich leading plebeians (namely, the non-patricians from the rest of the Roman people, known as the plebs) vehemently disagreed with this claim. In the mid-fifth century BC they organized and agitated for reform. Although they campaigned on a platform of alleviating the economic problems of the poorest plebs, the reality was different: they too wanted their hands firmly on the levers of power. By 366 BC they had notched up their crucial victory: one of the consulships was opened up to candidates from the plebs, and in 172 BC for the first time plebeians held both the consulships. However, this was not quite the radical, meritocratic reform it might appear.
Wealth was the key to office holding. To secure election to a magistracy, to build up political alliances and support among the plebs and the aristocracy, prospective candidates needed lots of money. As a result, only the richest two per cent of adult male Romans ever reached the consulship. This situation seemed to get worse with the enfranchisement of the rich plebeians because they quickly closed ranks with the patricians and formed a new nobility, admission to which was carefully policed. That, at least, is what noble Romans liked to think. More recently, scholars have shown that the new élite was actually more open than even the Romans thought; the reform of rules relating to eligibility for the consulship helped achieve this. Another consequence of allowing plebeians to become consuls and office holders was not immediately recognized by the Romans, but lay some way off in the future. Later in the history of the republic, when Rome built its empire in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean world, candidates from Roman élites in Italy and the provinces of the empire would be eligible to run for the top offices of the republic. Later still, those provincial élites would even furnish Rome with its emperors.
It had taken the best part of a century for rich plebeians to find their way to sharing with the patricians the top offices of the Roman state. The struggle of the ordinary plebs in fighting for their political voice also began in the fifth century BC. In order to curb the power of the patrician élite, they used the only leverage they could: an old-fashioned strike. When Rome’s security was being threatened by invading forces in 494 BC, the citizens simply laid down their weapons en masse, took up a position on the Aventine Hill and refused to fight. The plebs’ secession from the republic resulted temporarily in the formation of a state within a state. Instead of asking the rich nobility to provide them with an office in the republic to serve their interests, the Roman citizens, holed up in protest on their hill, simply made up their own. The magistrates they created were called ‘tribunes of the people’. Only when that office became formally recognized by the patricians as part of the state did the struggle, known as ‘the conflict of the orders’, come to an end.
The new office would prove crucial to the history of the republic. It would radically change the balance of power between the political élite of the Senate and the people. Ten tribunes were elected annually by the plebs alone, and it was their responsibility to protect the plebs from abuse of power at the hands of the office holders, especially the consuls and praetors in possession of imperium. If need be, a tribune was empowered to intervene physically to defend a citizen who was being wrongfully punished or oppressed, and to bring help. It is important to stress, however, that whereas today the roles and jobs of figures in a modern state are highly stratified and specialized, in ancient Rome they were entwined in one person. A consul was at once a military commander, a prime minister, a chancellor and a bishop, while a tribune combined the roles of a Member of Parliament or a US senator with defence lawyer, policeman and trade union representative. Although the new office was radical in origin, later in the history of republic it would come to be held by the lackeys of the noble élite. Nonetheless, by the mid-fourth century BC the political voice of the plebs had found its teeth. Now its bark was recognized too.
The second crucial consequence of the plebs’ great strike was the strengthening of their tribal assemblies. Before the secession the dominant assembly of the people was called the Assembly of the Centuries, but it was not very democratic. It was organized around military units known as ‘centuries’, and because military obligations were dictated by a citizen’s wealth, the assembly was dominated by the rich. A relatively small number of citizens from the highest class of soldier controlled over half of the 193 centuries, while the mass of the poorest citizens held only one. Considering that each century had one vote, the political voice of the poorer citizens amounted to a whisper.
After the conflict of the orders, however, the tribal assemblies became more powerful. They were classified according to regional districts, known as ‘tribes’. Each tribe thus contained both rich and poor. Thanks to the electoral college system of ‘one tribe, one vote’, these assemblies were altogether more representative. As Rome increased its rural territory throughout Italy, the city’s original four tribes expanded accordingly to thirty-five. A new assembly, the Assembly of the Tribes, was called by a high-ranking magistrate from the élite (a consul, for example) and could be attended by patricians as well as plebeians. The Plebeian Assembly, however, was convened by a tribune of the people, attended only by plebs and became a standard place for passing laws. At first the votes of these popular assemblies were nothing more than plebiscites – a way for the élite to gauge the majority opinion of the Roman citizens. By 287 BC, however, the decisions of both tribal assemblies, whether expressed in elections or in the passage of bills, had the force of law and were binding on the entire Roman people.
In both the office of tribune and the newly empowered popular assemblies the Roman republic had grown the great paradox of its ‘two heads’: those of the Senate (the collective voice of the aristocratic and moneyed political élite) and the Roman people. A system that mixed an aristocratic élite with the fundamental principle that power also lies in the hands of the people seems puzzling today. In the ancient world, however, the partnership was potent. It was the concept hammered into the initials ‘SPQR’ (Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and Roman People), the logo emblazoned on the Roman military standards and the slogan that would, in time, authorize Rome’s march into the domains of its future empire. That march had begun before the conflict of the orders, in the fifth century BC. It was the start of an extraordinarily aggressive period of expansion. One of the greatest problems of ancient history is explaining exactly why it happened.
Where that expansion was aimed is certainly clear. Between 500 and 275 BC, in piecemeal fashion and through a combination of war and diplomacy, the citizen armies of the Roman republic brought first Latium and then the rest of the Italian peninsula under its control. The original motivation for war was perhaps land. With the peasant holdings of most Roman citizens too small to sustain a large family, the Romans of the early republic were on the lookout for new territory. But the first concerted military campaigns were driven perhaps more by the defence of land rather than its acquisition. In 493 BC Rome joined an alliance of Latin communities, known as the Latin League, to defend their cherished region of Latium. It was being invaded by the hill tribes of central Italy: the Volsci, the Sabines and the Aequi. This war, provoked by aggression from outside Rome, would provide the republic with a very convenient and useful theme for all future wars in Italy and beyond. To ensure the favour of the gods in their military campaigns, the Romans would look for instances to justify taking action in ‘self-defence’. Indeed, the legitimating mythology of the ‘just war’ was fostered by the elaborate religious ceremonies with which Romans declared hostilities. These eccentric demonstrations of their attentiveness to justice were rituals with which Rome’s Italian neighbours would become very familiar.
Once the assaults of the hill tribes had been checked, Rome and its Latin allies turned their attention to the region of Etruria to the north. Perhaps because the family trees of the leading Romans had Etruscan roots, there was no shortage of old friendships and feuds with which to justify both alliances and declarations of war. Some Etruscan cities promptly came to terms with Rome; others were defeated in battle and annexed. Accused of arrogance by its Latin partners for claiming to have carried the lion’s share of the fighting, Rome turned on them next. The increasingly powerful city-state went to war with the Latin League in 340 BC, defeated it, and then dismantled the league two years later. Next in line were the Samnites. Perhaps Rome’s greatest Italian adversaries, the Samnites were a powerful and organized confederation to the south of Latium. They proved so hardy that the name ‘Samnite’ would later be accorded to one of the four types of gladiator in the Roman arena. In three wars that endured until 290 BC, and in which Rome had mixed success, huge swathes of Samnite territory eventually came under its control. The once diminutive city-state was now pushing at the borders of the Greek colonies at the foot of Italy.
The fruits of all these wars of conquest were varied. Sometimes the territory won became a Roman colony: the land was annexed, divided up and allotted to Roman citizens. Sometimes Rome came to an alliance with autonomous Italian communities, its basis being the agreement to come to each other’s military aid. Sometimes Rome conferred the privilege of citizenship (either with or without the right to vote), and in this instance, while these communities had two citizenships at once, they had also become absorbed into the Roman commonwealth. The language, customs and culture of the Romans were thus slowly spread throughout Italy.
All these forms of conquest demanded one thing: loyalty to Rome. That loyalty would create Rome’s greatest asset in building an empire beyond the perimeters of Italy – an endless supply of citizens and allies, and hence an endless supply of military manpower. In analysing the superior power of the Roman citizen militia over other armies of the Mediterranean, the Greek historian Polybius wrote: ‘. . . even if the Romans have suffered a defeat at first, they renew the war with undiminished forces. . . Since the Romans are fighting for country and children, it is impossible for them to relax the fury of their struggle; they resist with obstinate resolution until they have overcome their enemies.’4
In the fire of these wars of conquest, the military mindset and culture of the resilient Roman peasant-soldier was forged. The Roman consuls who wielded the power of imperium and led the campaigns were on a quest for glory, seeking to bring honour to the ancient family names of their more humble ancestors, the shepherds and farmers of Etruria and Latium. Above all, the character of the tough, unwavering peasant, in whose work there was no quarter for comfort or self-indulgence, was reflected in the Roman attitude to these wars. As they liked to see it, the conflicts were undertaken with pious respect for the gods, with integrity, honour and, above all, justice.
The war that completed Roman control of Italy in the south was sparked in 280 BC. The Greek city of Tarentum, on the heel of Italy, had sent out messages of defiance towards Rome. Indeed, fearing Roman expansion into their territory, the Greeks of Tarentum had called for military aid from overseas, and Pyrrhus, the Greek king of Epirus (in northern Greece) had agreed to help them. He had ideas for a western Greek empire of his own.
Furious at this impertinent show of disrespect from Tarentum, Rome wanted reparation for the so-called ‘insults’ levelled at it. Here was another opportunity to act in ‘self-defence’ and to requite what Rome considered its due. A new and very real Trojan War was beckoning. It was not now between the mythical Trojan hero Aeneas and the legendary Greek kings Agamemnon and Menelaus. This time it pitted their descendants, the ‘Trojan’ Romans against the Greek army of King Pyrrhus.
Tarentum was too far away from Rome for the meticulous rituals with which Roman priests now traditionally initiated hostilities. There was, for example, no time for the arrival of a herald-priest on the enemy’s frontier. Here such a man would bind his head with wool, call upon Jupiter as his witness that he came lawfully and piously, and announce that the ‘guilty’ party had thirty-three days to surrender.5 Neither was there time to ensure the favour of the gods by throwing a spear into the designated enemy’s territory. The Romans found an expedient solution to this problem, however. They forced a prisoner seized from Pyrrhus’s army to buy a small plot of land in Rome and the priests threw their symbolic spear into that.
Pyrrhus invaded Italy at the start of the campaigning season in 280 BC. In two brutal and bloody battles he successfully defeated the Romans. The Greek king, though, having seen so many of his soldiers slaughtered in achieving this success, was said to have remarked, ‘With another victory like this, we will be finished!’ (Hence our modern phrase ‘pyrrhic victory’.) By 275 BC, however, the Romans had turned their fortunes around. They defeated Pyrrhus at Beneventum near Naples, expelled his invading army, and were now free to consolidate their grasp over the rest of southern Italy.
With the ambitious Greek king Pyrrhus defeated, however, the Mediterranean world outside Italy had been forced to sit up and take notice. There was a new player in the region. Breaking over their seven hills, the waves of Aeneas’s Romans were now lapping at foreign shores. The power of Rome had arrived.