Ancient History & Civilisation

AN INEVITABLE WAR?

With Pyrrhus gone, the Romans wasted little time in subduing Magna Graecia. In 275 a group of Campanian mercenaries, originally sent by the Romans to protect the city, had seized Rhegium, killing or expelling its male citizens and taking over their property and families. It was five years before they were dislodged by the Romans, who restored the city to its surviving citizens and took the captured mercenaries to Rome, where they were flogged and beheaded in the Forum, probably as a warning to others.34 Finally, in 270 Tarentum was besieged and captured. Soon afterward the process of territorial absorption honed by the long hard years of struggle in Latium swung into action. The road network was rapidly expanded, with the Via Appia being extended from Capua through the newly conquered lands of Samnium and Magna Graecia. The conquests of such wealthy cities meant a huge influx of war booty into Rome, much of it spent on providing the ever-growing citizen body with a better infrastructure as well as a series of magnificent new temples and victory monuments.

However, once the common threat of Pyrrhus had been seen off, it did not take long for the Roman–Carthaginian alliance to start to unravel. Indeed, the Roman refusal of Carthaginian naval assistance at a time of desperate crisis (when Pyrrhus had only been a few kilometres from Rome) suggests a level of distrust between the two allies before the defeat of the Epirote king. The impressive way that the Romans had eventually defeated Pyrrhus, a general whose talents were widely recognized across the Mediterranean world, had certainly caught the attention of the larger Hellenistic kingdoms in the East, and in 273 Ptolemy II Philadelphus, ruler of Egypt, the most powerful of the Hellenistic states, sent envoys to Rome to establish diplomatic relations, an initiative reciprocated by the Romans. This would suggest that Rome was casting around for new Mediterranean allies, perhaps already with the idea of jettisoning its relationship with Carthage. Roman suspicions of Carthaginian intentions were underlined in 270 when a Carthaginian fleet appeared at Tarentum while the Romans were besieging the city, leading to accusations it had been endeavouring to help the beleaguered Tarentines, although it is far more likely that the flotilla was merely on a reconnaissance mission.35

Some scholars, in particular William Harris, have argued for the inevitability of conflict between Carthage and Rome once Pyrrhus was defeated. Rome now had control over Magna Graecia, and the affairs of the Greek cities in southern Italy had long been intertwined with those of their counterparts on the island of Sicily. Such scholars point to the Roman capture of Rhegium (just across the Strait of Messina from Sicily), in 270, the foundation of two new Roman colonies at Paestum and Cosa on the Tyrrhenian coast, in 273, and the confiscation of the Bruttian forests (a source of timber ideal for shipmaking) as signs of Roman designs on Sicily.36

All these developments have been seen as evidence of the growing influence of a cabal of several Roman senatorial families of Campanian origin who wanted to provoke a war with Carthage so that they could control the flow of Campanian goods, especially wine and fine black-glaze pottery, into Punic Sicily and North Africa.37 However, there is little evidence for the export of substantial quantities of Campanian goods into either Punic Sicily or Carthage during this period.38 In fact these initiatives probably had far more to do with Rome’s growing concerns over its lack of a maritime defence, especially as the capture of Magna Graecia had greatly increased the amount of Tyrrhenian coastline under its control.39

It is extremely unlikely that any significant grouping in either Rome or Carthage actively sought war with the other; however, new political realities meant that tensions between the two states were bound to arise. The Sicilian cities had a long tradition of playing off the larger regional powers against one another, and now that Rome had joined the number of the latter it would be only a matter of time before it became embroiled in the affairs of the island. Furthermore, any Roman reticence about challenging Carthage on land must have been diminished by the Carthaginian army’s unimpressive showing against Pyrrhus in Sicily. Despite the lack of overt warmongering, therefore, by the early 260s the central position of a divided Sicily within the influence and interests of both cities, and the apparent swing of contemporary military might away from Carthage and towards Rome, made for a highly combustible situation.

Behind the political pragmatism and strategic diplomacy lurked a growing sense among the Roman senatorial elite that the Carthaginians inhabited a different side of an important ethno-cultural divide. By the fourth century, the Roman elite had become increasingly interested in a number of theories propagated by Greek authors on the origins of their city. The earliest known example of such ethnographical speculation, by the fifth-century-BC writer Hellanicus of Lesbos, claimed that the great wandering hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and the Trojan prince Aeneas, who had come to Italy after Troy had been destroyed by the Greeks, were the joint founders of Rome.40 Superficially this may have looked like a strange combination, as it was the enmity between the Greeks and the Trojans which had been the subject of the most famous Greek epic ever written, and, theoretically at least, Trojans were in Greek eyes barbarians.

In fact in much Hellenic literature the Trojans were often characterized as possessing many of the same qualities and virtues as the Greeks.41 Indeed, by the late fourth century the Roman aristocracy appears to have embraced the idea of a Trojan heritage precisely because, while it allowed them to maintain their own ethnic distinctiveness, it also permitted them to share in the prestige of the Hellenic cultural tradition. 42 Over the next century, as the western-Greek intelligentsia, especially in Sicily, had become increasingly aware and interested in Rome, so the number of stories that linked the city’s foundation to either Greek or Trojan settlers would be multiplied into a bewildering number of versions.43

Although the Romans had their own indigenous foundation myth, which centred on the twin foundlings Romulus and Remus, by the end of the fourth century BC those stories that associated the origins of the city with Trojan and Greek settlers had become very influential among sections of the Roman aristocratic elite who were beginning to show a deep interest in Greek language, art and politics.44 Indeed, over time this diffuse set of stories concerning Rome’s origins was skilfully incorporated into a prehistory that emphasized different waves of Greek and Trojan incomers, eventually leading to the foundation of the city by Romulus and Remus, now considered to be the direct descendants of Aeneas. These stories were not just quaint pieces of cultural narcissism. They came to have important political ramifications, for instance in the appeal to common kinship made by Demetrius Poliorcetes, king of Macedonia in the early third century, in an attempt to gain Roman assistance in dealing with Etruscan pirates.45

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