By the late fourth century BC, the treaty that Carthage in 509 BC had concluded with what had then been a small city in upper Latium must have begun to look like an inspired piece of forward-thinking diplomacy. Although Rome had faced a number of serious setbacks, including internal political stasis, catastrophic military defeat, and the humiliating capture of much of the city by a Gallic war band in 387, its successes had been extraordinary.1 Latium had been brought under Roman control through a seemingly endless round of military and diplomatic initiatives. This had been followed by three terrible wars of attrition against the powerful Samnite confederation who lived in the mountainous Apennine region of central and southern Italy, which had eventually led to the latter’s subjugation. At the same time, the regions of Etruria and Umbria were brought under Roman control, and an alliance with the city of Capua brought much of the agriculturally rich region of Campania into the Roman sphere of influence.2
Such had been the scale of Rome’s conquests that one general, Manius Curius Dentatus, issued the famous boast that it was unclear which was the greater: the amount of land which been taken or the number of people captured. It has been calculated that by the early third century BC Rome controlled 14,000 square kilometres of territory –more than two and a half times more than it had just under half a century before. The Roman domain spread right across the expanse of central Italy, and decades of war and conquest had brought considerable wealth to the city. It was recorded that during the great triumphs of 293 BC, to celebrate the final victory over the Samnites, one consul brought back 830 kilograms of silver and 1,150,000 kilograms of bronze.
It was not just the scale of Roman expansion that was extraordinary, but also the manner in which it was achieved. Perhaps the most striking feature that emerged from these years of conquest was not the incredible run of military triumphs, but the fact that these victories had been interspersed with some devastating defeats. Rome in this period is conventionally defined above all by its extreme aggression and acquisitiveness, but it is clear that these were precisely the characteristics required not only to thrive, but even to survive, in Italy during this period.3 As the historian Arthur Eckstein has commented, ‘The Roman experience of competition for influence, power and security, first in Latium, then in central Italy, and then in the wide western Mediterranean, was a harsh experience, against formidable and warlike rivals.’4
Rome quickly developed a marked capacity to absorb the loss and shock of defeat. The Roman state responded to defeat not with offers of peace treaties and truces, but with the sending out of new armies to recover what had been lost. It was often the relentless pressure that Rome was able to exert which led to final victory. One of the key problems which Rome presented for its enemies was that no one individual or clan had such a monopoly on political power that a lasting or meaningful peace treaty could be negotiated. All regular senatorial offices were held for only a year, and consecutive terms were forbidden. It was also exceptional that any Roman held the consulship more than once. The competition to hold the top job in Roman politics was so ferocious, and the tenure of office so short, that no Roman general would risk the disapproval and opprobrium of his peers by daring to negotiate when facing defeat.
However, military success was only one part of the equation. There was also the extraordinary efficiency with which the Romans asserted their control over the newly subjugated territory. This was achieved in a number of different ways. First there was an emphasis on the implementation of new physical infrastructure to connect the new lands to Rome. Within a short period of time a network of roads was cut through the countryside connecting the city to all the major settlements in the region, both old and new. Large-scale movement of the population was instigated, with colonists from Rome being sent out to establish new settlements and Latin peoples being moved from their traditional homes to new territories.5 But Rome’s greatest strength in this regard was an extraordinary ability to integrate quickly and efficiently the native populations of the newly subjugated lands and thereby create a large and very stable territory for itself. By using newly created legal statuses rather than ethnicity or geography as the basis for membership of the state, Rome quickly drew on a huge reservoir of human resources to fight its battles, rather than relying on mercenaries like most of the Mediterranean world.6
A new body of knowledge was created that represented these newly won lands in explicitly Roman terms, and divine portents and signs which occurred in these lands were carefully recorded and expiated by Roman ritual practice. The cities of Latium enjoyed the same legal rights that they had previously enjoyed in respect to Rome, but they were now bound by a series of treaties to provide Rome with troops whenever they were required. The ancient Latin identity survived, but only as a set of duties, rights and privileges enshrined in Roman law. Thus Rome sought to display its mastery and indeed ownership of this territory. Italy would never be just a piece of conquered territory that could be evacuated if circumstances dictated.7 It was Roman land that was to be defended as if it were within the city itself.
The Roman genius for appropriation and redefinition extended also to the religious sphere. Latin religious cults and practices were sustained by the Romans, but only under strict supervision and with an agendum that placed Rome at the heart of Latin identity. The religious ritual of evocatio, for example, designed to entice an enemy deity from its native land to Rome (where it could expect due and, indeed, greater reverence), was now used to great effect. The first instance of the evocatio being used by a Roman general occurred in 396 BC at the siege of the Etruscan city of Veii, where Iuni/Juno was the chief deity. After the fall of the city, the cult of the goddess was transferred to Rome, where she was worshipped as the queen of the Roman divine pantheon. Superficially this process appears comparable to the religious syncretism that took place in central Italy in the archaic period, but in fact it was an abrupt departure. Foreign gods were incorporated on strictly Roman terms.