Although nobody can say when Rome began, at least there is reasonable certainty of where it did. It was in Italy, on the bank of the river Tiber, about twenty-two kilometers inland from its mouth, a delta which was to become the seaport of Ostia.
The reason no one can pinpoint when the foundation took place is that it never ascertainably did. There was no primal moment when a loose scatter of Iron and Bronze Age villages perched on hills agreed to coalesce and call itself a city. The older a city is, the more doubt about its origins, and Rome is certainly old. This did not prevent the Romans from the second century B.C.E. onward coming up with implausibly exact-looking dates for its origins: Rome, it used to be asserted, began not just in the eighth century but precisely in 753 B.C.E., and its founder was Romulus, twin brother of Remus. Here a tangled story begins, with many variants, which tend to circle back to the same themes we will see again and again throughout Rome’s long history: ambition, parricide, fratricide, betrayal, and obsessive ambition. Especially the last. No more ambitious city than Rome had ever existed, or conceivably ever will, although New York offers it competition. No city has ever been more steeped in ferocity from its beginnings than Rome. These wind back to the story of the city’s mythic infancy.
In essence, the story says that Romulus and Remus were orphans and foundlings, but they could claim a long and august ancestry. It stretched back to Troy. After Troy fell (the legendary date of this catastrophic event being 1184 B.C.E.), its hero Aeneas, son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite or Venus, had escaped the burning city with his son Ascanius. After years of wandering on the Mediterranean, Aeneas fetched up in Italy, where Ascanius (now grown up) founded the city of Alba Longa, not far from the eventual site of Rome, traditionally in about 1152 B.C.E.
Here, Ascanius’ progeny began a line of kings, his descendants. The last of the line was called Amulius, who wrested the throne of Alba Longa from its rightful occupant, his elder brother, Numitor.
Numitor had one child, a daughter named Rhea Silvia. Amulius the usurper used his convenient, newly seized power to make her a vestal virgin, so that she could not produce a son, who might be not only Amulius’s heir but also a deadly threat to him. But the war god, Mars, no respecter of either virginity or vestality, impregnated Rhea Silvia. Amulius, realizing she was pregnant, had Rhea Silvia imprisoned; presently she died of ill treatment—but not before delivering her twin sons, Romulus and Remus.
We have the great historian Livy’s word for what happened next. Amulius ordered his men to fling little Remus and Romulus into the Tiber. But the river had been in flood, and its waters had not yet receded. So, rather than wade right out into the current and get uncomfortably wet, they merely dumped the babies into the shallower floodwater at the river’s edge, and went away. The level of the Tiber dropped some more, stranding the twins in the mud. In this state, wet but still alive, they were found by a she-wolf, which benignly nourished them with its milk until they were old and strong enough to be brought to adulthood by the royal herdsman Faustulus. (Most visitors, when they see the bronze sculpture in the Museo dei Conservatori of the Founding Babies sucking on the pendulous conical teats of the lupa, naturally think it is one original piece. It is not; the wolf is ancient and was cast by an Etruscan craftsman in the fifth century B.C.E., but Romulus and Remus were added c. 1484–96 by the Florentine artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo.)
In any case, in the myth they eventually overthrew Amulius and restored their grandfather Numitor to his rightful place as king of Alba Longa. And then they decided to found a new settlement on the bank of the Tiber, where chance had washed them ashore. This became the city of Rome.
Who would be its king? This was settled by an omen in the form of a flight of birds of prey. Six of them appeared to Remus but twelve to Romulus, thus marking him—by a majority vote from the gods above, as it were—as the indisputable ruler of the new city.
Where exactly was it? There has always been some disagreement over the original, “primitive” site of Rome. There is no archaeological evidence for it. It must have been on one of the Tiber’s banks—which one, nobody knows. But the district is famous for having had seven hills—the Palatine, the Capitoline, the Caelian, the Aventine, the Esquiline, the Viminal, and the Quirinal. Nobody can guess which one it may have been, although it is likely that the chosen site, for strategic reasons, would have been a hill rather than flatland or a declivity. Nobody was keeping any records, so no one can guess which one of these swellings, lumps, or pimples was a likely candidate. “Tradition” locates the primitive settlement on the modest but defensible height of the Palatine Hill. The “accepted” date of the foundation, 753 B.C.E., is of course wholly mythical. There was never any possibility of authenticating these early dates—of course nobody was keeping any records, and since later attempts at recording the annals of the city, all belonging to the second century B.C.E. (the writings of Quintus Fabius Pictor, Polybius, Marcus Porcius Cato), only began to be made approximately five hundred years after the events they claim to describe, they can hardly be deemed trustworthy. But they are all we have.
Supposedly, Romulus “founded” the city that bears his name. If things had gone differently and Remus had done so, we might now talk about visiting Reem, but it was Romulus who, in legend, marked out the strip of land that defined the city limits by hitching two oxen, a bull and a cow, to a plow and making a furrow. This was called the pomerium and would be the sacred track of the city wall. This, according to Varro, was the “Etruscan rite” for the founding of a city in Latium. Ritual demanded that the furrow, orfossa,the small trench of symbolic fortifications, should lie outside the ridge of earth raised by the plowshare; this ridge was called the agger or earthwork. The walls of the city were raised behind this symbolic line, and the space between it and the walls was scrupulously kept free of building and planting, as a defensive measure. The area within the pomerium would come to be called Roma quadrata, “square Rome,” for obscure reasons. Evidently Remus took exception to it, for reasons equally unknown. Perhaps he objected to Romulus’ assuming the right to determine the shape of the city. He showed his disagreement by jumping over the furrow—an innocent act, one might think, but not to Romulus, who took it for a blasphemous expression of hostile contempt and murdered his twin brother for committing it. History does not tell how Romulus may have felt about slaying his only brother over a perceived threat to his sovereignty, but it is perhaps significant that the sacred group that ran around the pomerium at intervals to assure the fertility of Roman flocks and women in later years was known as the Luperci or Wolf Brotherhood.
So the embryo city, rooted in an unexplained fratricide, had one founder, not two, and as yet no inhabitants. Romulus supposedly solved this problem by creating an asylum or a place of refuge on what became the Capitol, and inviting in the trash of primitive Latium: runaway slaves, exiles, murderers, criminals of all sorts. Legend makes it out to have been (to employ a more recent simile) a kind of Dodge City. This can hardly be gospel-true, but it does contain a kernel of symbolic truth. Rome and its culture were not “pure.” They were never produced by a single ethnically homogeneous people. Over the years and then the centuries, much of Rome’s population came from outside Italy—this even included some of the later emperors, such as Hadrian, who was Spanish, and writers like Columella, Seneca, and Martial, also Spanish-born. Celts, Arabs, Jews, and Greeks, among others, were included under the wide umbrella of Romanitas. This was the inevitable result of an imperial system that constantly expanded and frequently accepted the peoples of conquered countries as Roman citizens. Not until the end of the first century B.C.E., with the reign of Augustus, do we begin to see signs of a distinctively “Roman” art, an identifiably “Roman” cultural ideal.
But how Roman is Roman? Is a statue dug up not far from the Capitol, carved by a Greek artist who was a prisoner-of-war in Rome, depicting Hercules in the style of Phidias and done for a wealthy Roman patron who thought Greek art the ultimate in chic, a “Roman” sculpture? Or is it Greek art in exile? Or what? Mestizaje es grandeza, “mixture is greatness,” is a Spanish saying, but it could well have been Roman. It was never possible for the Romans, who expanded to exercise their sway over all Italy, to pretend to the lunacies of racial purity that came to infect the way Germans thought about themselves.
Several tribes and groups already inhabited the coastal plain and hills around the Tiber. The most developed in the Iron Age were the Villanovans, whose name comes from the village near Bologna where a cemetery of their tombs was discovered in 1853. Their culture would mutate by trade and expansion into that of the Etruscans by about 700 B.C.E. Any new settlement had to contend, or at least reach an accommodation, with the Etruscans, who dominated the Tyrrhenian coast and most of central Italy—a region known as Etruria. Where they originally came from remains a mystery. In all likelihood, they had always been there, despite the belief held by some in the past that the Etruscans’ remote ancestors had migrated to Italy from Lydia, in Asia Minor. The most powerful Etruscan city close to Rome was Veii, a mere twelve miles to its north—though the cultural influence of the Etruscans spread so wide that they made themselves felt far in the south, in what later became Pompeii. Until they were eclipsed by the rising power of Rome, around 300 B.C.E., they laid down the terms of culture in central Italy.
Never a centralized empire, they created city-states along the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy: Veii, Caere (now Cerveteri), Tarquinia, Vulci, and others, all of them ruled by high-priestly kings called Lucumones. Some of these settlements were linked in a loose federation, with ritual similarities and defense and trade agreements. Because of their military superiority—the Etruscan “tank” was a bronze-fitted chariot, and the basic unit of Etruscan warfare was a heavy-armored, close-knit phalanx, the ancestor of the Roman legion—they could dominate the less tightly knit forces of their tribal rivals, until the Romans moved in.
Other minor tribal groupings held territory in the neighborhood of Rome as well, one of these being the Sabines. They seem to have been hill people and shepherds, and their settlement may have been on the Quirinal Hill. An expansionist from the beginning, Romulus seems to have decided to go after this territory first. In order to lure the Sabines and their women within reach, Romulus is said to have held some horse races during the Festival of Consus (in August). The whole Sabine population turned up, and at a signal the Romans abducted all the young women they could lay their hands on. This amounted to a declaration of war between the Romans and the infuriated Sabines. (All Romans were Latins, but not all Latins were Romans. Roman power, including the power to confer Roman citizenship, was vested in Rome, and citizenship became an esteemed honor.) The Sabine King Titus Tatius gathered an army and marched against the Romans. But, in another scene made legendary by later artists such as Jacques-Louis David, the kidnapped Sabine women flung themselves between the two sides of furious males—brothers, fathers, husbands—and persuaded them to make peace, not war.
Peace and alliance between Sabine and Latin now prevailed. Romulus supposedly ruled the united tribes for another thirty-three years, and then dramatically vanished from the earth, wrapped in the thick darkness of a thunderstorm. Six kings are traditionally said to have succeeded Romulus, some Latin, others (notably the semi-legendary sixth-century rulers Tarquinius Priscus and Tarquinius Superbus, “Tarquin the Arrogant”) supposedly Etruscan. In legend, their succession began with Numa Pompilius, who reigned for forty-three years and established in Rome “an endless number of religious rites and temples.” He was followed by Tullus Hostilius, who conquered the Albans and the people of the Etruscan settlement of Veii; by Ancus Marcius, who added the Janiculan and Aventine hills to Rome; by Tarquinius Priscus, said to have established the Roman Games; by Servius Tullius, who added the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline hills and finished off the Sabines; and by Tarquin the Arrogant, who murdered Servius. Servius’ son, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, made peace between Latins and Etruscans. These kings established the mons Capitolinus, the Capitoline Hill, as the citadel and sacred center of Rome. Here the temples to the goddesses Minerva and Juno were raised, and, most sacred and important of all, the temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, “Jupiter Best and Greatest.” It was (supposedly) dedicated by King Tarquin in 509 B.C.E. Although little is known about Tarquin the Arrogant as a historical figure, he contributed to most languages an expression which lives and is used down to the present day. According to Livy (who was writing about half a millennium later), the king taught a lesson with it to his son, Sextus Tarquinius, the future rapist of Lucretia. Having just conquered an enemy city, Tarquin was strolling with his boy in their garden when he began to chop off the heads of the tallest poppies in it. This, he explained, was the thing to do with leading citizens of a fallen town, who might cause trouble in defeat. Hence the modern term, especially loved and all too often used by sneering Australians to level the society around them, “tall-poppy syndrome.”
The authority of kings in Rome lasted about two hundred years. Succession was not hereditary. During this time, the kings were in essence elected—not by all classes of the Roman people, but by the city’s richest and most powerful elders, who (with their families) came to be known as the patricii, the patricians. These constituted a governing class, choosing and then advising the rulers of Rome. After the disappearance of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, whom the patricians expelled and refused ever to replace, a system evolved that was designed never to put such authority in one man’s hands again. Supreme authority was granted not to one but to two chosen figures, the consules (consuls). Their powers were exactly equal, and one could overrule the other: thus the Roman state could take no action on any issue unless both consuls agreed on it. This at least saved the Roman state from some of the follies of autocracy. From now on, the prospect of “kingship” would be a political bogey to Romans; the consul Julius Caesar, to take the outstanding example, would be assassinated by a cabal of republicans who feared that he might make himself a king. Meanwhile, the religious powers of the kings were hived off and invested in a supreme priest, known as the pontifex maximus.
Every Roman citizen not a patrician was classified as a plebeian. Not everyone who lived in Rome enjoyed citizenship; it was not extended to slaves or resident aliens, of whom there were many. The official upper caste of power was next enlarged after 494B.C.E., when the plebeian citizens—fretting at the arrogance with which patricians treated them—went on strike and refused army service. This could have been a disaster for an expansionist state like Rome, surrounded as it was by potential enemies. The disaster was averted by choosing each year two people’s representatives known as “tribunes,” whose duty was to see to and protect the interests of the plebeians. Before long, the number of officials granted the tribune’s power, the tribunicia potestas, grew from two to ten. To clarify their field of action, written laws began to emerge, known at first in their primitive form as the Twelve Tables.
The city on the hill, or by now hills, was unstoppable. It continued to live and grow, to expand and conquer. It was singularly dynamic and aggressive, but about its life and physical traces we know very little, because of the absence of credible historical records and the crumbling away and demolition of buildings. Whatever there was is buried by subsequent Romes. In the words of the French historian Jules Michelet, “The Rome we see, which tears from us … a cry of admiration, is in no way comparable to the Rome we do not see. That is the Rome that lies twenty, thirty feet underground.… Goethe said of the sea, ‘The further you go, the deeper it is.’ So it is with Rome.… We only have the lesser part.”
Perhaps, perhaps not. The deeper you go, the more primitive Roman architecture is apt to be. There are no legible traces of constructed Etruscan-Roman temples left standing. Much guesswork is needed to reconstruct the primal, Etruscan-based temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline, with its deep porch, heavy gabled roof with wide wooden eaves, and profuse terra-cotta roof decoration in the form of antefixes. The columns are very widely spaced, wider than they could possibly have been in stone construction. These forms belonged to wooden architecture, because they rely on the tensile capability of timber; stone is strong in compression and therefore excellent for posts and columns, but in tension, as a beam spanning a gap, it is weak. The emphasis of the building is on its front façade—unlike Greek temples, which were “peripteral” or designed to be seen with columns all round, on four sides. Vitruvius, the first great classifier of ancient Italian architecture, called this style “Tuscan,” and so it remains.
What caused the gradual refinement of this kind of “primitive” Etruscan-Roman architecture was the influence of Greek building in the Hellenic colonies on the Italian mainland—Cumae, Neapolis (Naples), Zancle (Messina), Naxos, Catana, Leontini. Their temples tended to have all-round columning and established “orders” or styles of column-capital. It may be that liturgical changes favored abandoning the single-front temple. Or perhaps the all-round design of the Greek buildings that were rising in Hellenic colonies on the Italian mainland prompted imitation. The fluted column, whose vertical striations, in Greek hands, may have been a highly stylized memory of wood grain, never appears, but certainly the Etruscan builders’ use of terra-cotta antefixes along their wooden roofs was adapted from Greek models.
Many of the Etruscan tombs and holy precincts that are recognizable today needed no columns at all, because they were built below ground level. Some of these, particularly in the country inland from Tarquinia, a city which overlooks the coast fifty miles north of Rome, are still in existence today, a tiny minority of them beautifully if somewhat crudely painted with scenes of hunting, fishing, feasting, sacrifice, dance, ritual, and (in the Tomb of the Bulls, behind Tarquinia) of sodomy. But these are hardly architecture—just decorated holes in the ground, or recesses under conical heaps of earth and stones.
Of their religion and gods, frustratingly little is known. Plenty of inscriptions in Etruscan survive, but they are, for the most part, historically quite useless—mere chicken-scratched names, not even memorializing dates and certainly not deeds. Because of the letters’ kinship with the Greek alphabet, we can tell what the words probably sounded like, but rarely what they meant. It may be that the triad of principal Etruscan gods, Tinea-Uni-Menvra, corresponds exactly to the Roman triad Jupiter-Juno-Minerva, whose worship would be installed on the Capitol, but it may not—though “Menvra” is probably Minerva.
We know that some Etruscans were capable of exquisite sculpture in terra-cotta, and that some were experts in metalwork: this is clear from such masterpieces in bronze as the Chimera of Arezzo; the hauntingly Giacometti-like figure disinterred from a tomb in Volterra and nicknamed, because of its extreme elongation, the Ombra della sera (Evening Shadow); the life-sized and elegantly detailed bronze figure of an Etruscan orator, which is one of the treasures of the Archaeological Museum in Florence; and the aforementioned emblematic lupa or she-wolf which, glaring fiercely up on the Capitol, suckles little Romulus and Remus. Perhaps the greatest of Etruscan terra-cotta sculptures is the late-sixteenth-century B.C.E. Sarcophagus of the Spouses, now in the Museo di Villa Giulia in Rome, a large chest in the form of a bed on which the young couple gracefully recline, the massing and delicate linear balance achieved with such delicacy that, for many visitors, it is the most touching and beautiful image in all Etruscan art. What did they die of? Did they go at the same time? Who could guess now? It was found in Cerveteri, but the most esteemed center of statuary in Etruria was Veii—so much so that the name of one of its artists, Vulca, who was commissioned to make statues for the great Temple of Jupiter on the Roman Capitol, has come down to us, the rarest of commemorations.
The Etruscans seem to have had few if any indigenous potters of the first rank, but their taste for fine ceramics brought remarkable pieces from Greece to Etruria as trade goods, which ended their travels in the tombs of the Etruscan great; the most famous of these, thanks to the sensation and controversy that surrounded its sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and its eventual return to its true custodianship in Italy in 2008, was of course the big Greek wine-bowl known as the Euphronios krater, dug up and then stolen from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, north of Rome. The indigenous pottery material, not found in Greece, was a black clay known as bucchero, used unpainted, from which thousands and thousands of utilitarian pots and bowls were made, some of robust monochrome beauty.
Their architecture and most of their sacred artifacts may be gone, but the influence of the Etruscans is written everywhere on the early city-state of Rome. It affected the calendar—its division into twelve months, each with its “Ides” (the middle of the month), and the name of the month Aprilis, were of Etruscan origin. So was the way Romans personally named themselves—with a first and a clan name. The original Latin alphabet, of twenty-one letters, was probably adapted from an Etruscan adaptation of the Greek alphabet. The first temple on the Capitol was Etruscan. It was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, with his companion goddesses Juno and Minerva. No ruins of it survive, but it appears to have been very large—two hundred feet square is a common estimate—and, because of the necessary column spacing, its roof was made of timber: this meant, inevitably, that it often burned down. One can probably get a good idea of the cult image of Jupiter on its roof from the 500 B.C.E. terra-cotta Etruscan Apollo of Veii in the Museo di Villa Giulia in Rome.
Rome’s Ludi, the games and gladiatorial contests that were to assume such colossal political importance under the Caesars, originated in Etruria. Some of the lifelike qualities of Roman portrait sculpture were already present in the vivid immediacy of Etruscan terra-cotta effigies.
Some Roman technical achievements began in Etruscan expertise. Though the Etruscans never came up with an aqueduct, they were good at drainage, and hence they were the ancestors of Rome’s monumental sewer systems. Their land was crisscrossed with irrigation channels up to five feet deep and three feet wide known as cuniculi; but after Etruria was crushed by Rome its drainage was not kept up, so that much of the Campagna north of Rome degenerated into malarial heath and swamp and would remain uninhabitable in places until Mussolini’s government drenched it with insecticides in the twentieth century.
It is probable that the Etruscans invented the segmental arch, without which Roman architecture could not have developed—the Greeks never had this structural form, but it is the basis of the Etrusco-Roman sewer system that culminates in the enormous, and still-visible, exit of the Cloaca Maxima into the Tiber.
Some Etruscan forms of political organization were kept up, in a broad way, by the early Romans, starting (legend says) with Romulus and continuing through the early Republic. They retained the institution of kingship, backed by patricians or aristocrats. But kingship was not hereditary: because his office as war chief was of absolutely central importance, the king was elected (though not by the common people). As high priest of the state, he had the task to find out the will of the gods by augury and haruspication. He was in charge of taxation and the military draft. He was the military leader. These things made up his executive power, or imperium. It was interwoven with the advice of his advisory body, the Senate, composed entirely of free citizens of standing—no paupers, workers, or freedmen (ex-slaves) allowed. The custom was that each patrician would enjoy the services of his plebeian “clients,” persons of inferior rank (such as ex-slaves and foreigners) who would serve him in return for a place, however small, in public life. The patron-client relationship would prove to be as durable in the future history of Rome as that between masters and slaves.
And before long, the institution of Roman kingship would wither away. By the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C.E. the aristocracy was victorious, and it proceeded to replace the king’s functions and powers with those of the two consuls. Each consul—also known as a praetor—was elected to office for one year and had complete authority over civil, military, and religious matters. If necessary, the kingly power could be renewed, for a strictly limited term of six months, by an appointed dictator—but this was not often resorted to as a political device, and nobody was prepared to equate or confuse dictatorship with kingship.
The largest class of Romans was the intermediary one, attracted to settle and work in Rome by the steady expansion of the city and its territory. Rome kept pushing outward: in 449 B.C.E., for instance, it annexed a great deal of Sabine territory, and it was in more or less continuous confrontation with the tribes of the Volsci, who wanted—but failed—to cut off Latium from the sea. The Romans correctly saw it as essential to control both banks of the Tiber, and its mouth. The biggest danger of all, in the fifth century B.C.E., came from the north—the hostile Gauls, who had begun a piecemeal takeover of Etruria. One of their raids, in approximately 390 B.C.E., carried them right into Rome, though not for long. (A Gallic scouting party, so the story goes, had seen the tracks of a man on a cliff by the shrine of Carmentis, on the Capitol. They managed to follow up, ascending in such silence that not even a dog barked; but just as they were about to fall on the Roman garrison at the top, they disturbed some geese which, sacred to Juno, were kept on top of the Capitol. The cackling and flapping of these birds gave the alarm to the Roman defenders, who drove the Gauls off.)
The need for strong defensive forces against the Gauls and others increased the value of the plebeians to the Roman state, which could not defend itself with patricians alone—particularly since its territory kept growing through conquest and alliance. In 326B.C.E.Rome had about 10,000 square kilometers; by 200 B.C.E., 360,000; by 146 B.C.E., 800,000 and by 50 B.C., nearly 2 million. The city on the Tiber was well on its way to ruling the known world.
Naturally, given their growing military and economic importance in their inferior position, the plebeians had demands to make. This was when the tribunal system was set up. The hereditary aristocratic system of Roman power became less stably fixed because of them. The plebeians wanted champions, men who would defend their interests. Several tribunes were appointed. And the spread of Roman power kept inexorably growing. By the mid-fourth century B.C.E. Rome had swallowed up all the Latin cities, and all Latins in Rome enjoyed the same social and economic rights as Roman citizens. Part of Rome’s political genius was that when she absorbed another political entity—socii, they were called, or allies—she moved its citizens to full Roman rights. The typical arrangement—with the Samnites, for instance—was that the socius tribes and cities kept their own territory, magistrates, priests, religious usages, and customs. But this did not amount to democracy. There was a general feeling that government required special skills, which a citizen or an ally needed to learn and acquire—they did not simply come with territory and land ownership. And meetings of the plebeians were very seldom held without patrician observers.
The Senate of Rome was distinguished from the “people,” the mass of Romans. But the two were always envisaged as working in harmony together. This is commemorated in what, since time immemorial, has been the official device of the city of Rome, itsstemma or shield. Preceded by a Greek cross, four letters run diagonally downward across the shield: SPQR. These have had many jocular interpretations, from Stultus Populus Quaerit Romam (“A Stupid People Wants Rome”) to Solo Preti Qui Regneno(“Only Priests Are in Charge Here”) and even, in a gesture toward the household marketplace, Scusi, il Prezzo di Questa Ricotta? (“Excuse Me, the Price of This Ricotta?”). But they just mean Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”).
Few Romans saw anything amiss with the class relations that developed out of a state run by a patriciate. An exception was a pair of brothers, Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133 B.C.E. and tried to legislate a redistribution of land from the rich to the poor. It is doubtful whether he was inspired by wholly pure and disinterested motives. More likely, the measures Tiberius Gracchus proposed were meant to curry favor with a plebeian majority so as to advance his own power. In any case, the patricians stamped on him, hard, and when Tiberius took the unprecedented step of seeking a second year’s election as tribune, he was killed in a riot which they fomented. Much the same fate befell his brother, Gaius, who in 122 B.C.E., having been likewise elected tribune, tried to bring in laws that would have given more power to plebeian assemblies and cheap grain to the needy. Patrician landowners viewed such measures with horror and arranged the lynching of Gaius Gracchus, and of several thousand of his supporters. In matters of class interest, the Roman Republic did not hesitate.
Undoubtedly, the chief Etruscan legacy to Rome was religious. Polybius, the Greek historian of the second century B.C.E., argued that Roman power came from Roman religion: “The quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is, I think, the nature of their religious convictions.… It is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman state.” “Superstition” did not mean false fear of untrue fantasies. It related, rather, to the shared idea of religio, “re-ligion,” a strong binding together. There can be no question that the unifying power of a common religion, linked at all points to the institutions of the state, reinforced Rome’s political strength and increased her powers of conquest. Cicero was one of many who agreed with this. “We have excelled neither Spain in population, nor Gaul in vigor … nor Greece in art,” he wrote in the first century B.C.E., “but in piety, in devotion to religion … we have excelled every race and every nation.” The highest praise, the supreme adjective that one Roman could apply to another was pius, as in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic celebrating the mythic birth of Rome and the deeds of its founder, pius Aeneas. This did not mean “pious” in the English sense. It implied veneration of ancestors and their beliefs; respect for the authority of tradition; worship of the gods; above all, consciousness of and devotion to duty. It was a firmly masculine virtue whose implications went far beyond our milky notions of mere “piety.” The only national sentiment that approached the full sense of Roman piety—and even then, perhaps not completely—was the English Victorians’ belief that God was truly on their side, sharing the white man’s burden in the immense task of founding, expanding, and glorifying the natural needs of the people in the face of the “fluttered folk and wild” whom it was their destiny to rule. There has probably never been a civilization in which religious imperatives were more entangled with political intentions than they were in early republican Rome. This characteristic of the city would last, of course; it underwrote the enormous political power of religion there from antiquity through papal Rome.
Certain religious practices came directly to Rome from Etruria. The native Roman religion, before it was re-formed by the adoption of Greek gods, was animistic, not anthropomorphic. Its gods were rather vague and ill-defined spirits known as numina, from which our term “numinous” comes. Some of the numina survived in later Roman religion, long after the main Roman gods had been personalized and taken on the character of their Greek predecessors—Zeus becoming Jupiter, for instance, and Aphrodite becoming Venus.
Through early republican times, and even into those of the Principate, which brought the beginnings of one-man rule by Augustus and turned the Republic into the Empire, Roman religion was an absurd bureaucratic clutter of minor gods without defined character, who presided over innumerable social functions and needed constant propitiation by prayer and sacrifice. For most of them, only their names and some rather obscure functions have come down to us. In the growth of a baby, for instance, his cradle was supervised by Cunina, his breast-feeding by Rumina, his ingestion of adult food and drink by Educa and Potina, his first lispings of words by Fabulinus. Agriculture attracted a horde of godlets, who saw to plowing, harrowing, sowing, and even the spreading of dung. One numen looked after the thresholds of doors, another after their hinges. Among the more important surviving numina were the lares and the penates, who guarded agricultural land and houses; the “Genius,” identified as the procreative power of the father (whence its eventual application to the idea of creative talent); and Vesta, guardian goddess of the hearth, center of family life, in whose honor “vestal virgins,” six in number, starting as children aged six to ten, were appointed by the high priest. The vestals were supposed to tend the sacred fire on the state hearth in the Temple of Vesta, never letting it go out. If it did, they would be ceremonially flogged. This was in practice a lifetime appointment; it was supposed to last thirty years, but after such a term of office a vestal, having known no other way of life, was most unlikely to marry and raise a family, especially since women in their late thirties or early forties were not considered eligible for childbearing.
Each of the principal gods had priests known as “flamens” devoted to him, to make sacrifices and perform rites. Ancient taboos and rituals surrounded these sacred offices. A flamen could not, for instance, ride a horse, touch a she-goat, wear a jeweled ring, or tie a knot in any of the clothes he wore. The origin of these and other peculiar taboos is, by now, not merely obscure but unknowable.
The flamens were important figures for two main reasons. First, their deliberations were the primitive basis of law and had something of its coercive force: you could not defy them with impunity. Second, because it was so desirable to have an idea of what the gods approved, from this need arose the practice of augury.
The Etruscans seem never to have done anything important without a religious motive, and respect for what the Romans called the Etrusca disciplina was passed on and remained embedded in the codes of Roman public and religious life. Well into imperial times, Rome maintained a “college” of Etruscan diviners, a privileged group known as the haruspices, whose task was to read the will of the gods from lightning flashes (fulgura) and other portents, especially the flight of birds (what part of the sky they came from, what their speed and heading were) and the markings on the livers, gallbladders, and guts of sacrificed animals. Some believe that the requirements of these vatic birdwatchers influenced, or perhaps even once determined, the siting of temples (on hilltops) and the orientation of their façades (so that the migratory passage of bird flocks could be compared with them). Templum did not originally mean a building; it signified a place set aside for the utterance of formulaic words in augury. The augurs’ requirements may also have determined the form of the temples: that they were set on tall podiums and had to have one single façade (unlike Greek temples) may have been ritual necessities. But there is no way of proving such things now.
The aim of augury was not simply to foretell the future. It was to find out whether a proposed course of important action was likely to have the approval of the gods. A common way of doing this was consulting the sacred chickens. These otherwise ordinary fowls (there seem to have been no criteria for telling a sacred chicken from a nonsacred one) were carried in a cage to the field by Roman armies. Before the battle, they would be given chicken feed. If they pecked at it with gusto, letting bits of food fall from their beaks, this was greeted by the augurs as an excellent omen. If they ignored the offering, it was a very bad sign. If they ate halfheartedly or seemed choosy, that too had its meaning for the augurs. Many Romans of the highest rank took this charade perfectly seriously. One who did not was Publius Claudius Pulcher, an admiral of the Roman navy who, just before an engagement between the Roman and Carthaginian fleets off Drepanum during the First Punic War, in 249 B.C.E., cast the grain before the fowl and was told, by the ship’s augur, that the birds would not eat. “Then let them drink,” Pulcher exclaimed rashly, as he grabbed the chickens and threw them overboard. Alas, he lost the ensuing battle.
If pietas was one of the two defining virtues for ancient Rome, then lex—law in all its guises and forms, starting with the great and fundamental distinction between civil law and criminal law—was the other. The Romans were tremendously energetic codifiers, and the corpus of Roman law, a conceptual edifice so vast that it defies any possibility of summary here, remains the foundation of all Western legal systems since. Its earliest form, drawn up by a special commission of jurists in the republican period (c. 450B.C.E.), was known as the Twelve Tables, and so much importance was attached to it that four hundred years later, during the lifetime of Cicero, schoolboys were still obliged to recite it by heart, even though the code of law by then had so hugely expanded as to render the original Twelve Tables, though still fundamental, obsolete. They would remain the cornerstone of Roman law for the best part of another thousand years, until they were at last superseded by the Corpus Iuris Civilis of the Emperor Justinian.
What was law in the Roman view? Certainly not the false principle that “might is right,” although—particularly in their dealings with non-Romans—you might often suppose that is what they believed. The code of law was not simply a code of power, and this made all the difference between Roman law and its more primitive antecedents. “Justice,” wrote the jurist Ulpian (Domitius Ulpianus, d. 228 C.E.), “is a constant, unfailing disposition to give everyone his legal due. The principles of law are these: to live uprightly, not to injure another man, to give every man his due. To be learned in the law is the knowledge of things divine and human, the science of the just and the unjust.” Law was the god in the codex.
Its principles, written down by such jurists as Julius Paulus (late second century C.E.) and notably Ulpian, seem so elementary and self-evident now that it is hard to believe they had not existed forever, but of course they had not. “He who has knowledge of a crime but is unable to prevent it is free of blame” (Paulus). “He inflicts an injury who orders it to be inflicted; but no guilt attaches to him who is obliged to obey” (Paulus). “In the case of equal conflicting claims, the party in possession ought to be considered in the stronger position” (Paulus). “No one is compelled to defend a cause against his will” (Ulpian). And “Nemo dat quod non habet” (Ulpian): “No one can give what he does not have.” Such were a few of the 211 entries in the “General Rules of Law” inscribed in theDigest of the Emperor Justinian.
The making of law was, as the name implies, “legislation.” Who made law under the Republic? Popular assemblies, divided at first into military units and later, after the third century B.C.E., by a council of common (i.e., not royal or patrician) citizens known as the Concilium Plebis or Council of the People. Its votes and resolutions were known as plebiscita, from which stems our concept of a “plebiscite” or general popular vote. At first the men of money and property, the patricians, vehemently objected to the idea that they should be subject to the same laws as commoners. They thought they should make their own for themselves. But in 287 B.C.E. a dictator, Quintus Hortensius, passed a law that all citizens, patricians included, should be bound by any law passed by the Plebeian Council. This “Hortensian Law” was a milestone in Roman class relations. It deprived the patricians of their last means of arbitrarily dominating the plebeians.
Much of the physical legacy of Justinian’s reign would disappear. Most of the hundreds of churches, aqueducts, and other public buildings erected by this fifth-century Christian emperor—with certain great exceptions, such as the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—have fallen into ruin or disuse, but not the epitomes he made of earlier Roman law. Justinian’s Corpus Iuris, despite the Greek and Christian elements that entered it, remained essentially Roman law, and because the imperial constitutions were issued in the names of both Eastern and Western emperors and were held to be binding throughout the Roman Empire, they would eventually radiate—through the universities of England, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany—to encompass the entire legal basis of Europe through the Middle Ages and on into modern times.
We speak of early Rome as a republic, which she was. Nevertheless, she was not a republic in the modern American sense. The root of the term, res publica, meant “public affairs,” no more than that. But the essential quality of her political life as a republic was, as we have seen, that she was not ruled by a succession of kings, especially not a hereditary one. She had hammered out a system whereby her polity was split into two broad classes—patricians and plebeians. In the early years of the Republic, the patricians held and controlled all the political and social power of the state. Only patricians could be elected to any office, including the all-important senatorships. Only they could serve as priests. The plebeians, by contrast, were excluded from religious colleges, magistracies, and as a rule from the Senate; early on, they were also forbidden to marry patricians. With lawmaking and religion in patrician control, what was left for plebeians? Only agitation and pressure. The patricians needed the plebeians, could not do without them, because they had to build armies; all military offices up to tribunus militum were open to them. As Rome kept annexing more and more land within (and then outside) Italy, larger prospects of economic independence gradually rose before the plebeians.
Rome was still a young republic when it began to acquire the overseas provinces that would form the basis of its immense empire. Doing this required naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, but for the first five hundred years of its history Rome had no warships. The naval power in the Mediterranean belonged to the city of Carthage, founded (allegedly) a little earlier than Rome, in 814 B.C.E., on the Tunisian coast of North Africa, by its legendary Queen Dido. Carthage enjoyed immense trading power in the Mediterranean, and considerable strategic power as well, since it controlled the routes along which tin—that essential ingredient of bronze when alloyed to copper in a proportion of approximately one to nine—was shipped and sold. (Not just the hardness but the brittleness of bronze increased with its tin content. Alloyed with zinc, copper became brass.)
All the islands in the western Mediterranean had been annexed and colonized by Carthage, except Sicily. But the Carthaginians had established a strong presence there, and Rome was worried that if it got any stronger the whole island would be theirs. In 264B.C.E.Carthage occupied the Greek colony of Messana, in northeastern Sicily. Rome entered an alliance with the Greeks and drove the Carthaginians out of Messana, expelling them (in 262 B.C.E.) from the colonies of Segesta and Agrigentum as well. This was the beginning of the First Punic War. (Punicus, in Latin, meant “Carthaginian.”) It has often been said that Rome’s war on Carthage was a blunder without real justification, but it was not. Rome needed Lebensraum by sea as well as by land. It could not move armies freely around the Mediterranean if Carthage remained the dominant sea-power. Hence the monotonous sign-off cry of Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder (234–149 B.C.E.) at the end of every speech he made in the Senate, “Delenda est Carthago,” “Carthage must be wiped out.” The defeat of Carthage took more than a century, but eventually it ended all serious obstacles to Rome’s hegemony over the Mediterranean and the lands that enclosed it; the Mediterranean now became, in the full sense, mare nostrum, “our sea.”
What kind of forces were locked in this war? How strong were they? The Greek historian Polybius gives what is probably the most balanced sketch. At sea, the Carthaginians were superior—they had been trading across the Mediterranean for generations, they understood shipping, “seamanship has long been their national craft.” They had no standing army, however, and had to employ mercenaries. The Romans were far better at fighting on land. Their army consisted of Romans and their generally loyal allies: most Roman soldiers were fighting for their own land, their own families and nation, and for one another—inducements to courage and obstinacy which no mercenary army could be expected to have.
But as good as their army was, the Romans knew they could not defeat the Carthaginians without naval power. They also knew they had neither a fleet nor any naval tradition. So they set out to create themselves a navy from scratch. According to Polybius, they were very lucky in capturing an enemy prototype they could copy: as the Roman forces were heading for Messana in Greek-built, chartered triremes and quinqueremes (oar-powered warships), the skipper of a decked Carthaginian ship got overexcited in pursuit and ran aground. The Romans “built their whole fleet on its pattern.… If that had not occurred they would have been entirely prevented … by lack of practical knowledge.” They even had to train their rowing crews in mock-ups, built on land. But it worked; the Carthaginian fleet was destroyed at sea off Mylae, a septireme (a battleship with no fewer than seven rowers to each of its enormous oars) and thirty quinqueremes and triremes, all captured or sunk.
The trireme, which by the end of the sixth century B.C.E. had become the standard warship of the Mediterranean, had three banks of oarsmen, one above the other, the topmost ones working from an outrigger. The oars were manageable if not light, between four and four and a half meters long. One reads, in classical sources, of quinqueremes with five banks of oars (or five rowers to an oar), and even sixteen-bank vessels, but it is most unlikely that so many oars, placing the rowers so high above the waterline, could possibly have worked, since they would have had to be unmanageably long.
A trireme’s normal crew was two hundred men, of whom about 170 were rowers and fifteen were deckhands. None of these, as a rule, were slaves; and the cartoonists’ image of a Roman galley with its whip-wielding bosun striding through the hull and flogging the rowers is unlikely—generally the triremes had drummers and flautists to provide the rhythm of work, and there would have been little point in weakening a rower by corporal punishment. With this motive power, under favorable conditions, a trireme could manage an average of nine kilometers per hour over long distances, with bursts of possibly 12 kph when the ship was picking up speed to ram an enemy vessel. For that purpose, it was built with a sturdy bronze-sheathed ram projecting forward, underwater, from its bow. The other weapon that proved decisive for the Romans was a massive hinged and weighted wooden hook known as a corvus, from its similarity to a raven’s beak; it was raised, the enemy ship was rammed, and then the “beak” was dropped, smashing through the opponent’s deck and grappling the two vessels together, so that the Roman soldiers could swarm to the attack. The width of the plank was about 1.2 meters, enough to form a bridge. The disadvantage of the corvus was its destabilizing clumsiness when raised upright, wobbling heavily in a seaway. Its great advantage was that it enabled Roman marines, always better soldiers than their Punic opponents, to board enemy ships on the high seas.
The cost of the war at sea, and of funding its mercenary army on land, put Carthage badly in debt. It could only raise money by launching a conquest of Spain, which it pursued under the generalship of Hasdrubal and Hannibal. This meant attacking Saguntum, a Spanish city south of the Ebro and an ally of Rome. The Carthaginians hoped to defeat Rome’s army in the field and thus cause at least some of her allies to desert. This, Hannibal expected, would not reduce Rome to being a minor power, but it might curb her aggression by rendering her one power among several. Carthage had no hopes or plans for conquering Italy as a territorial whole. “Italy” was not yet a unified state under the control of Rome—it was a patchwork of tribal principalities. But Carthage did hope to regain Sicily, Sardinia, and other lost territories. Hannibal was convinced that the only place for a war against Rome was Italy itself, “whereas if no movement was made in Italy, and the Roman people were allowed to use the manpower and resources of Italy for a war in foreign parts, then neither the king nor any nation would be a match for the Romans.”
The Romans did not believe this. They embarked on the Second Punic War confident of victory. Now they had a strong navy, and they designated two uses for it. The first was to take a Roman army under the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio to engage Hannibal in Spain and so neutralize him. The second was to send the other consul, Titus Sempronius Longus, to invade North Africa and conquer Carthage. This might have worked, but the Romans moved too slowly. Seeking a base in the Po Valley, the Carthaginian army under Hannibal marched through southern Gaul and across the Alps into northern Italy. Why did the Carthaginians not invade Italy by sea? Because, now that it had a navy, Rome could blockade any fleet that tried to carry an army along the Spanish coast and down into the Tyrrhenian. Moving elephants around was not easy, either—but the land route, including the perils of crossing the Alps, seemed (for all its difficulties) the only practicable choice. By the fall of 218 B.C.E. Hannibal and his army were among friendly Gauls in the Po. In December, the Romans lost the Po valley entirely to Hannibal.
And so began the Second Punic War (218–202 B.C.E.). When Hannibal began his legendary march with his twenty-one war elephants into northern Italy, he had an army of fewer than 35,000 men with which to confront a total Roman force of 700,000 infantry and 70,000 cavalry (not all of which, of course, could be marshaled together at the same time).
It is still a matter of argument among scholars which route Hannibal might have taken; the most favored view is that he led his army over the Western Alps, via the Mont Cenis pass. Even if he did, the conditions they all encountered were appalling; the descending path was so narrow and steep as to be nearly impassable to horses at one point, let alone to elephants. Landslides had carried away much of the mountain face. But, disheartened as many of his troops were, Hannibal was able to show them something of their destination from the top of the pass; on a clear day, you could see “the actual view of Italy, which lies so close under these mountains that when both are viewed together the Alps stand to the whole of Italy in the relation of a citadel to a city.”
One might have supposed that the odds were so much in Rome’s favor as to render Hannibal’s invasion hopeless. There is still disagreement over the usefulness of those elephants to Hannibal’s campaign, but there is little doubt that they terrified many a Roman soldier, and the effort of getting these great beasts sliding and stumbling over the rocks and through the ice and snow of the Alps must have struck most of those who saw or even heard about it as astonishing. The march from Carthago Nova (Cartagena) had taken five months, and fifteen days had been spent in crossing the Alps. Hannibal arrived in Italy with his force reduced to 12,000 African and 8,000 Iberian foot soldiers, backed up by only 6,000 horseback—and the remaining elephants, of which about half had died on the way. He was, however, able to pick up some reinforcements in northern Italy from the formidable Cisalpine Gauls, who were no doubt attracted by the prospect of loot in Rome.
Rome, of course, had long known that Hannibal was coming. The first encounter between a Roman army, two legions led by Publius Cornelius Scipio, and Hannibal’s forces took place near Ticino, in northern Italy—gateway to the plains through which an army could move south toward Rome—in 218 B.C.E. The engagement was won by Carthage, so convincingly that thousands of tribesmen of the Boii, hitherto allied to Rome, defected to Hannibal’s side. Like a snowball gathering mass as it rolls downhill, Hannibal’s army grew as it moved south. It crushed the Romans at the Battle of Trebia, crossed the Arno swamps, kept going past Faesulae (Fiesole) and Arretium (Arezzo), and reached Lake Trasimene in the spring of 217 B.C.E. Here, it was confronted by an army led by the consulGaius Flaminius. It was another rout. Apparently, the Romans failed to see the Carthaginians, hidden by early-morning mist on the high ground beside the lake. By the end of that morning, 15,000 Romans were dead, including the luckless Flaminius.
The Roman response to this disaster was to appoint a dictator to lead its army. The tactics followed by this supremo, Quintus Fabius Maximus, earned him the nickname of “Cunctator,” “the Delayer.” Instead of confronting Hannibal’s army head-on, he chose to follow and harass it, in the hope of distracting and enfeebling it without a definitive engagement. But Hannibal’s forces kept marching unstoppably south, down past Rome, toward the Adriatic coast. Before long, the Romans had tired of delays and longed for a decisive, head-on encounter with Hannibal’s army. On August 2, 216 B.C.E., sixteen Roman legions advanced to battle against the Carthaginians near the town of Cannae, in Apulia, south of Rome. The result was the bloodiest and most costly defeat Rome had ever suffered, or ever would.
At Cannae, in one day, Hannibal’s army slaughtered some 50,000 of the Romans and their allies, out of 75,000–80,000 men who took the field. For comparison, one should consider that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, there were some 57,000 British casualties, most of whom survived; fewer than 20,000 were killed outright, and the weapons they faced were German machine guns, not Punic spears and swords. The sheer efficiency of the slaughter Hannibal’s army inflicted on the Romans is amazing. Roman losses in a single day at Cannae were almost as great as American combat losses (58,000) in the entire Vietnam War. And it all happened within about nine hours, on a late-spring or early-summer day, blindingly hot, fogged with the clouds of dust kicked up by thousands of men in their relentless, terminal struggle. Varro, the Roman commander, had put the mass of his infantry in the center, leaving his wings, with cavalry, weak and mobile. This was the classical deployment. But Hannibal reversed it, concentrating his weight of infantry on the flanks. In this way, the Romans were soon enveloped, and then cut off from retreat by a Carthaginian cavalry charge across their rear. When the Romans tried to retreat, they were massacred.
They had little experience of defeat, certainly none on this scale. Defeat did not make sense to the Roman army. Rome was first and foremost a military state. The prime qualification for citizenship was the ability to bear arms against her enemies. The Roman army was organized as a militia: service in it was an inflexible condition of citizenship, and by the time of the Punic Wars, it was a highly sophisticated and organized machine.
Its higher officers were aristocrats, but the centurions, who commanded the basic fighting units (“centuries” of one hundred men) were commoners, from the same social class as the line soldiers. This contributed greatly to esprit de corps, as did the frequent swearing of loyalty oaths. The army had never previously lost a major battle against a foreign enemy, and this time the scale was near apocalyptic. In terms of discipline, arms, disposition of forces, and chain of command, the Roman army was meticulously organized against such an event.
The key figure in this organization was the centurion, who had been chosen for his valor and efficiency in leadership. The centurions, as John Keegan has pointed out, were “long-service unit leaders drawn from the best of the enlisted ranks, [who] formed the first body of professional fighting officers known to history.” They were the backbone of the army, the repository of its accumulated service skills, and it was due to them and the example they set that the Romans fought better and with more tenacity than any other tribe or nation in the known world. The centurions turned soldiering into a self-sufficient profession; they did not see their work as a way of entry to the governing class; this was what they were born and trained to do, and there lay much of their strength.
Numerically, the building block of the Roman army was the legion, normally made up of 4,200 men; in times of crisis, its strength was raised to 5,000. They were divided by age and experience. The youngest and rawest recruits were called velites. The next-older ones were hastati, or spear carriers. Above them in seniority, the men in the prime of life, were the principes, and above them came the triarii. Typically, a legion had 600 triarii, 1,200 principes, 1,200 hastati, and the remainder velites. The velites, besides being the least experienced, were also the lightest armed, with a shield (laminated wood, with a metal rim, about three feet in diameter), two javelins, a sword, and a helmet. Often the tyro would cover his helmet with a piece of wolf skin, to make him look fierce, but also to make it easier for his commanding officer to identify him in a fight.
The hastati were more heavily armed. Each man carried a full shield (scutum), two and a half feet wide and four deep, giving maximum coverage to the body. Its convex curvature deflected the enemy’s spears and arrows better than a plane surface. It, too, was made of wood planks glued together, probably with splined joints; then it received a canvas cover—animal glue again—and an outer sheathing of calfskin. Its edges were iron, and in its center was an umbo or iron boss, which gave further protection against sling stones and pikes and was good for bashing in the face of an opponent. It was heavy: reconstructions, iron and all, have weighed in at nine to ten kilos.
Each man carried his gladius, a double-edged sword, designed for thrusting, though it was excellent for slashing too. Called a “Spanish sword,” it may have been adapted from the weapon carried by Carthaginian mercenaries in the First Punic War, a tribute to its qualities as a killing tool. It was short-bladed (about 60 cm including the tang) and therefore suitable to closely pressed fighting; infantrymen did not fence like d’Artagnan, they stabbed like butchers. A soldier would probably have a pugio or dagger on his belt as well. He would also be equipped with a relatively long-range missile, the pilum or heavy throwing-spear, weighing perhaps 3.5 kilos, with an ash shaft, an iron shank, and a barbed point. The soldier was normally issued two of these javelins, although lighter ones were available. Their accuracy, when thrown, was of course variable, and their effective range was at the most thirty meters, but within their limits the pila were formidable weapons, with enough inertial energy to penetrate the opponent’s shield and the opponent himself. On the attack, the Roman soldier would hurl his pilum and then charge forward to close combat with the gladius. Descriptions of Cannae feature the frightful hissing noise made by volleys of pila, which must have been as scary as the shriek of incoming shells in twentieth-century battles.
The two other types of pointed weapon in the Roman army were the cavalry lance, longer than the pilum and not thrown as a missile, and the hasta, a long thrusting-spear. There was also artillery, of a primitive and awkward kind—large arrow-shooters or stone-flingers, which relied on the stored energy of twisted animal sinew. But these clumsy devices seem never to have played a decisive role in warfare: they possibly had some psychological effect, but their range was limited and their accuracy slight.
So much for weaponry. What about defense? On the collective level of the army on the march, the Romans displayed unique fortitude and energy in self-protection. Knowing that “barbarians” in occupied territory were likely to attack at night, when the Roman invaders were tired from the day’s exertions and darkness was likely to favor confusion and panic, the Romans did not end their day’s labor at the finish of each day’s march. They first put up a camp: not a mere array of tents, but a fully fortified square castrumor encampment, almost an overnight town, with a wall, a ditch (produced by digging out the earth to throw up the wall), and everything that was necessary to protect the mass of troops. The wall or “circumvallation” was some two hundred feet out from the tents, so that missiles, shot or thrown from outside the barrier, could not reach them or do much harm if they did. The space between the wall and the tents also allowed for quick mustering, or for holding booty such as cattle. The whole perimeter was closely guarded, and fearful punishments awaited any soldier delinquent in his sentry duty. The customary one was the bastinado, or fustuarium, described by Polybius. The accused man was tried by a court-martial of legionary tribunes. If found guilty, he was touched by one of the tribune’s cudgels, whereupon the whole camp attacked him with sticks and rocks, usually killing him in the camp itself. “But even those who manage to escape are not saved thereby: impossible! for they are not allowed to return to their homes, and none of their relatives would dare to receive such a man in his house. So that [he is] utterly ruined.”
For defense of individual soldiers, armor existed. Each man had a helmet, either a plain basin of metal or the so-called (by archaeologists) Montefortino pattern, with a narrow neck-guard and large protective cheek-pieces. Shin-protecting greaves are mentioned in the literature, though none have been found. Bronze pectorales to protect the heart were not uncommon, though not every soldier got one. Those who could afford it—it was not a cheap item—wore a lorica, or chain-mail cuirass, a shirt made from metal rings, worn over a padded undergarment. This probably weighed about fifteen kilos and would have been exhausting on a hot day like the one on which the Battle of Cannae was fought.
The Roman system was designed to produce identical fighting men with the same basic training. Hannibal’s troops were not like this. Being mercenaries, they came from Africa and all over the Mediterranean, and had their own traditions and techniques of fighting, though their higher-ranking officers seem to have all been Carthaginian. The army contained Numidians, Iberians, Libyans, Moors, Gaetulians, and Celts. There were specialists in types of warfare who came from particular areas. Thus the Balearic Islands (Majorca, Minorca, Formentera, and others) got their name from the slingers they produced in antiquity—ballein being Greek for “to throw,” as in “ballistics.”
The Punic forces did not have the fierce allegiance to the legionary standards that helped rally the Roman army in moments of crisis, and only two things mattered to them in the end—winning, and getting paid. And this time, win they did, fighting with the most furious determination until the trampled soil of Cannae was a marsh of blood, guts, excrement, and hacked limbs, so thick and slippery that a man could scarcely move on it without falling.
Cannae caused a paroxysm of social superstition in Rome. The winter of 218 B.C.E. became a time of witnessed prodigies. In the Forum Boarium (Cattle Market), an ox escaped from confinement, climbed to the third story of a house, and then leapt out, as though committing suicide in despair. In the Forum Holitorium (Vegetable Market), the Temple of Hope was struck by lightning. A shower of pebbles fell out of a clear sky in Picenum. Men in shining garments were glimpsed in the sky. A wild wolf ran up to a sentry somewhere in Gaul, grabbed his sword from its scabbard with its teeth, and ran off with it. Worst of all, two vestal virgins, named Opimia and Floriona, were convicted of unchastity; one killed herself, and the other was buried alive, as ritual demanded.
The number of prisoners taken in Hannibal’s victory was so great that the Roman Senate had to devise a plan to rebuild the army. Hannibal was known to be short of cash; was he perhaps open to bribery? Could the captives be ransomed? No, said the Senate; that could exhaust the Roman treasury. Then the consul Tiberius Gracchus proposed that slaves should be bought with public money and be trained to fight. About ten thousand were forcibly enlisted in this way. Great emergency efforts, urged on by Scipio the Carthage Destroyer, were made to build up Rome’s fleet. The keels of thirty ships—twenty quinqueremes and ten quadriremes—were laid, the timber and all the gear brought from all over Etruria; within forty-five days of the arrival of the first consignments of timber, Livy recorded, the first ships were launched, “with their tackle and armament complete.”
The defeat at Cannae also spread panic among Rome’s allies in southern Italy, although the central Italians remained steadfast in their loyalty. “The Campanians,” observed Livy, “could not only recover the territory taken from them unjustly by the Romans, but could also gain authority over Italy. For they would make a treaty with Hannibal on their own terms.” This hope was delusive; after Hannibal’s defeat, the Romans recaptured Capua, the capital of Campania, and inflicted dreadful reprisals on its citizens.
Hannibal’s presence in Italy did not and could not last, although the Romans, thanks to his military genius, were unable to beat him on their own land. They slowly drove him southward, and his army weakened as it went. His brother Hasdrubal led an army to Italy to strengthen Hannibal, but it failed, and in 207 B.C.E. a Roman army defeated him at the Metaurus. In the end, Hannibal could only leave Italy because Rome launched an expedition, under Scipio, against Carthage itself. This compelled Hannibal to withdraw to Africa to fight in defense of his own country. In 202 B.C.E., Hannibal was defeated by an Italian for the first time, at the Battle of Zama, in North Africa, on Punic territory. The Romans now had at least a partial revenge for Cannae, though not on the same scale of slaughter. But Carthage would never be a Mediterranean sea-power again; her place had been wrested from her, finally, by Rome.
The Hannibalic wars had inflicted changes on Rome that were longer-lasting and in some ways deeper than military loss. Sometimes an extreme and traumatic defeat in war will provoke a spasm of religious faith among the losers, and this appears to have happened in Rome in the years after Cannae. All sorts of cults and previously exotic or marginal beliefs began to make their appearance, especially among Roman women, who could always be counted on for religious experiment. People traumatized by colossal defeat will not be satisfied by a merely ceremonial state religion. They will want the gods to come closer, to care and protect, to be more responsive to prayer and sacrifice.
These needs would not be met either by the vague gods of traditional Roman religion or by the sterner new ones. But Greek gods filled the bill. Their images, and the rituals addressed to them, were less rigid, more humanly sympathetic and participatory. Rome now saw an expansion of Greek-based mystery religions. And there was a growing constituency for them, because Rome had an immense desire to be regarded as a part of the Greek-civilized world. Rome wanted a national literature along Greek models, starting with Homer. More and more, its intellectuals and politicians regarded Greek as the true language of civilization, especially now that so much of Greece had been absorbed by conquest and treaty into the heart and soul of Rome.
Rome was full of émigré Greeks, and its air was dense with their voluble, seductive arguments, as the floors of temple and villa were thick with Greek (or Greekish) sculpture. True, some Roman shellback traditionalists resented and resisted the growing influence of Hellenic culture and philosophy on Roman ways. One of them was Cato the Elder, who “wholly despised philosophy, and out of a patriotic zeal mocked all Greek culture and Greek learning.… He declared, with a rasher voice than became one of his age, as it were with the voice of a prophet or a seer, that the Romans would lose their empire when they began to be infected with Greek literature. But indeed time has shown the vanity of this prophecy of doom, for while the city was at the zenith of her empire she made all Greek learning and culture her own.” Cato was such an extremist in his dislike of luxury as a Greek distraction that he even tried—fortunately, without success—to have water mains laid into private Roman houses ripped out.
The most consequential Roman to be formed, in a fundamental way, by Greek ideas and rhetoric in the midst of republican Rome was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), Rome’s greatest orator and a fervent supporter of the Republic. His education as a public speaker had begun when he was sixteen, under the consulship of Sulla and Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (Pompey) (89 B.C.E.). His cultural influence went far beyond the spoken word and did not diminish after his death. His letters were collected, and he wrote treatises on rhetoric, morals, politics, and philosophy; he thought his most durable achievement was to be his poetry (though he was wrong about that: Tacitus acidly observed that as a poet Cicero was less fortunate than Caesar or Brutus, because his verse became known and theirs did not). He could be deadly in attack even against minor figures: an otherwise forgotten politican was skewered by a single remark. “We have a vigilant consul, Caninius, who never slept once during his entire term of office.” Caninius’ term had lasted only one day.
Much of what he said about Rome and its rulers remains true today: “Nothing is more unreliable than the populace, nothing harder to read than human intentions, nothing more deceptive than the whole electoral system.” He was completely undeceived about the wellsprings of most social action: “Men decide far more problems by hate, love, lust, rage, sorrow, joy, hope, fear, illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, authority, any legal standard, judicial precedent, or statute.” And he was very sharp about human weakness: “The greatest pleasures,” he remarked, “are only narrowly separated from disgust.” What a psychotherapist this Roman would have made! One can always read Cicero with profit, and English writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Shakespeare, incessantly did, quoting from him freely.
Of all the currents of Greek thought that flowed into Roman intellectual life, Stoicism had the greatest effect on Cicero and on Roman ideas in general. Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by one Zeno of Citium in the early third century B.C. (The name came from a gathering place in Athens where Zeno taught, a colonnade overlooking the Agora known as the Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch.) The basic assumption of Stoicism was that extreme, possibly destructive emotion was to be shunned; the wise man would free himself from anger, jealousy, and other distracting passions and live in a state of calm and contemplative peace of mind; only in this way could he see what was true and guide his actions appropriately. “Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow on you that may give you agony when it is torn away,” counseled the Stoic Epictetus (c. 55–c. 135 C.E.). The ideal was askesis, “inner calm”; the Stoic did not preach indifference or anesthesia, far from it, but, rather, a reasoned concentration on the truths of life. Only thus could human reason be brought into accord with the “universal reason of nature.” In the words of one of the more famous Stoics, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–80 C.E., reg. 161–80), “Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and evil.… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry.…”
Clearly, Stoicism went well with the Roman sense of duty and pietas. The Romans with whom it was popular—and there were many—were perhaps less interested in the Stoic view that all men were necessarily imperfect than in Stoic injunctions to face misfortune, grin and bear it, which had a powerful resonance throughout the culture of Rome and with many of its intellectuals and public figures. Cicero was one of these, and he also had a strong philosophical and meditative bent, which displayed itself in his many orations and voluminous writings. The great project of his political life was holding and defending the ancestral system of republican government. He wanted to bring about a “concord” of the conservative, senatorial aristocrats and the rapacity of the growing class of equestrians, but this was beyond his powers, as it would have been beyond anyone’s. Neither Cicero nor anyone else could deflect the movement toward one-man rule in Rome, which, in the first century B.C.E., was the chief direction of its politics.
The emblematic figure of this movement was Julius Caesar.
Some family lines last for centuries, are of the utmost nobility, and yet for unknown reasons produce no individuals of special achievement or eminence. One of these was the Julian clan—one of the oldest and most distinguished in Rome, with a generally accepted claim to be descended from Aeneas himself, from his mother, the goddess Venus, and from his son Iulus. Most of its members did little and were mediocrities. But there were two blazing exceptions, men who utterly transformed Rome, its internal politics, its culture, and its relations with the rest of the world, and were, without competition, the outstanding figures of power in their times.
The first of these was Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.). The second was his grandnephew, his legal and political heir and Rome’s first emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (63 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) known at first as Octavian and later, to Rome and the world, after his thirty-sixth birthday, as Caesar Augustus.
Julius Caesar’s career had a slow start. He had spent the years 75–74 B.C.E. studying oratory and rhetoric in Rhodes, from which he emerged as a perfected and highly polished speaker, superbly equipped for public political life. He was not a florid speechifier—that, as anyone knows who reads the crisp, unadorned prose of his later war commentaries, was not his way—but he had an exemplary talent for singling out the heart of an issue and driving straight to it. On the voyage back from Rhodes, he gave a foretaste of his future toughness when his ship was taken by pirates and Caesar briefly became their prisoner. He swore that he would crucify every last one, and in time he did.
Cicero, so great an orator himself, was a more astute critic of oratory than any man alive and called him the most elegant of all Roman speakers. But others could perhaps rival Julius Caesar on the podium. Where he excelled was in the manipulation of politics and, later, in the command of armies on the battlefield. In politics, he first briefly inclined toward the optimates, or “top people.” This was the name adopted by the Roman upper class, the party of wealth and power, which defined itself and its interests against thepopulares, a “people’s party” of workers, farmers, and small traders originally mobilized and led by the brothers Gracchi c. 133 B.C.E. Before going to Rhodes to study rhetoric, Caesar had confirmed his growing allegiance to the popular party by marrying Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, who was a chief opponent of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138–78 B.C.E.), leader of the optimates, who had given Pompey his basic political education.
Sulla was a vengeful and merciless patrician, who by sheer drive and cunning had obtained a consulship and the command against Mithridates, the Persian king of Pontus, who had rashly invaded Rome’s provinces in Asia. Political enemies at home, members of the populares faction, canceled Sulla’s command, whereupon he retreated to Capua and gathered six legions that were prepared to go with him against the government in Rome and, once they had taken over the city, to go after Mithridates in Asia. In 86 B.C.E.Sulla and his legions invaded Greece and captured Athens. From there he returned to Italy, his army laden with booty. Landing at Brundisium in 83 B.C.E., he and his army were joined by Pompey, Marcus Crassus, and an ultraconservative senator, Metellus Pius, with all their men. The Roman government was not able to withstand them for long. Within a year, Sulla had taken Rome and was proclaimed dictator of Italy. He now began a reign of terror through “proscription,” publicly listing for death everyone who was or might have been an enemy; any soldier could murder such enemies, their property went to the state (namely, to Sulla), and all citizens were encouraged to betray and denounce whomsoever they chose—it was proleptic Stalinist justice, pure and simple. In this way, Sulla is thought to have eliminated forty senators and 1,600 equites, knights, whose sons and grandsons were also excluded from public life. Such was the exemplar and political patron of Pompey.
In 68 B.C.E. Caesar had been dispatched as a quaestor or magistrate to Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain); in that year, his wife, Cornelia, died, and he made what was clearly a political marriage to Pompeia, a girl in Pompey’s family. Now he was elected an aedile, a position of great importance to the plebeians of Rome, since it gave him charge of temples, markets, and (most telling of all) the corn supply, a great collector of votes. During this time, he spent lavishly on the restoration of temples and the holding of public entertainment, especially gladiatorial shows. He had to borrow the money from the immensely wealthy consul Marcus Crassus, destroyer of Spartacus’ slave revolt, who distrusted Pompey but was not above financing his son-in-law’s strategies for ingratiating himself with the commoners. Naturally, the cost of winning popularity in this way put Caesar heavily in debt to Crassus and the optimates, who did not altogether trust him. To get further as a politician, he needed to bypass their suspicions: to become a consul and then obtain a major military command, whose victories would be as irrefutable as Pompey’s. In Rome, Caesar had in 59 B.C.E. become a senator. He made an alliance with Pompey and Crassus (the “First Triumvirate”) and joined with Pompey—now consul—in repealing some of Sulla’s more extreme and biased alterations to the constitution. There was no sign, as yet, of any discord between Pompey and Caesar. In fact, in 59 B.C.E. Pompey married Julia, Caesar’s own daughter by his first wife, Cornelia, thus completing a neat matrimonial symmetry.
In 58, as proconsul, Caesar took on the control of both Cis- and Transalpine Gaul (the Po Valley in northern Italy, and southern France, which he called “the province,” a name commemorated ever since as Provence) as well as Illyricum (Dalmatia). From 58 to 50B.C.E., Caesar concentrated on Rome’s northern, Gallic frontiers, methodically wearing down all resistance from them. He did not hesitate when it came to deciding what Rome’s overseas policies should be. Rome had to conquer and intimidate any state or people that might give it trouble. That had been the chief lesson of Cannae. Everyone concurred in this, including Cicero, who rather disliked Caesar personally but admired him politically:
He believed not only that it was necessary to wage war against those who he saw were already in arms against the Roman people, but also that all Gaul must be subjected to our sway. And so he has fought with the fiercest peoples, in gigantic battles against the Germans and Helvetians, with the greatest success. He has terrified, confined and subdued the rest, and accustomed them to obey the empire of the Roman people.…
Caesar’s conquest and pacification of Gaul was approaching completion by 56 B.C.E. Most of the country had come to heel and was now a Roman province, except for sporadic outbreaks of fierce resistance. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar described how the ferocious Helvetii, having left their territory of what is now Switzerland, had migrated into Gaul, intending to get as far as the English Channel and resettle there. Caesar’s armies attacked them in their migration, and in Annecy, on the river Arroux, he wiped them out by the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands, turning the survivors back toward Switzerland. The same infiltration into Gaul, followed by the same costly expulsion, was attempted by German tribes. North of the Seine were the so-called Belgae, a warlike people consisting mainly of Germans intermarried with Celts. They were extremely suspicious of Caesar, and should have been. When Caesar established his winter headquarters on Gallic territory, and gave every sign of meaning to stay, they mobilized a full 300,000 warriors. Caesar’s reply was to raise two more legions in Cisalpine Gaul, bringing his total force to eight.
The coherence of the Belgic armies now began to disintegrate, largely because of supply shortages. Only the tribe known as the Nervii could keep an army in the field, and Caesar annihilated them in a battle on the Sambre in 57 B.C.E. Thus the resistance in Gaul only lasted for two military seasons. In the end, fully a third of all Gauls of military age were killed, and another third were sold into slavery: a toll which all but destroyed the masculine population of the province, made it incapable of further resistance, and made Caesar even more colossally rich than before. The Gallic leader Vercingetorix, a brilliant, charismatic figure who had given Caesar the most difficult and stubborn resistance of his career, was besieged and finally captured at Alesia in 52 B.C.E. Brought back to Rome in chains, he was paraded in Caesar’s triumph and then ignominiously strangled in a dungeon.
By 52 B.C.E., little opposition to Rome was left; by 50, there was none. The conquest of Gaul changed Rome from a Mediterranean power to a pan-European one, since (in the words of the historian Michael Grant) “a vast conglomeration of territories in continental and northern Europe had now been opened up to Romanization.” It also radically changed Gaul, transforming it, in effect, into an embryonic form of France. It was opened, though at great cost in blood and suffering, to classical culture.
With long-term thoughts of enlarging Rome’s imperium still further, Caesar dispatched an expedition across the Rhine to Germany in 55 B.C.E., with inconclusive results; this was less an invasion than a probe. Its purpose was to show Roman power to the Germans on German territory, which would deter them from crossing into Gaul. A friendly, or at least complaisant, German tribe called the Ubii offered him boats in which his troops could cross the Rhine, but Caesar refused—it would not look good to depend on the Germans to get him into Germany. Instead, by engineering means that are not clear from his own account, his men built a timber bridge across the mighty river. His army spent three weeks or so marauding and burning villages on the German side, and then withdrew, having made its point, and demolished its bridge behind it.
Next came an expedition to Britain. Why Caesar wanted to invade the island, which had never been attacked by Rome before, is unclear. Perhaps he suspected that the Britons would join with the Gauls in some later counterattack; perhaps he was lured by exaggerated stories of fabulous wealth (gold, silver, iron, and pearls) to be looted there. Or perhaps he merely wanted intelligence about this unknown place, and nobody could supply it to him. Whatever the motive, in 55 he led a fleet of transports and men-of-war directly to the southeastern coast of Britain, where they met with vilely contrary weather and stiff resistance from the “barbarian” infantry and cavalry. The Romans eventually succeeded in landing (at the present site of Deal) and making the Britons sue for peace, but they did not penetrate far inland, it was a shallow victory at best, and they brought back little information and less booty.
Caesar tried again the next year, 54. He assembled a new fleet of some eight hundred vessels, carrying five legions and two thousand cavalry. This time the conditions were more favorable, and the Romans fought their way north, crossing the Thames with intent to attack the British commander Cassivelaunus. They besieged this king’s stronghold in Hertfordshire, and captured him; terms were made. But then news arrived that an insurrection was brewing among the Gauls, so, with reluctance, Caesar withdrew his army across the Channel; the complete conquest of Britain, and its reduction to a province of Rome, would have to wait for nearly a century, until it was achieved by the armies of the Emperor Claudius.
But precisely because so little was known about Britain in Rome, the very fact of going there endowed Caesar with mystique and celebrity at home, on top of the glory he had earned with his conquest of Gaul and the readership his brilliant Commentaries, the best book on war a Roman had ever written, had acquired. He was, moreover, extremely wealthy now from the sale of Gallic prisoners-of-war as slaves. He raised the scale of his influence-buying. One of the consuls of the year 50 B.C.E., Lucius Aemilius Paullus, is said to have raked in 36 million sesterces from Caesar—this at a time when a line soldier in the Roman army was paid a thousand sesterces a year. Surpassingly rich, overwhelmingly popular: nothing could have been more propitious for a major political career in Rome.
The big problem was that he could not return to Rome. He could not come back with his legions, because by law no commander could enter the city with his troops. But he could not come back without them, for that would have meant laying down his command and exposing himself to prosecution by his many enemies.
But he had been moving south. In January 49, the Senate sent him orders to disband his army. Caesar received them on the northern side of a small river called the Rubicon, the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper. (The name, deriving from the Latin ruber, red, referred to the color of its clay-filled water.) Caesar’s reaction to this letter was prompt and decisive. “As for myself,” he declared in his Civil War (1.9), “I have always reckoned the dignity of the Republic of first importance and preferable to life. I was indignant that a benefit conferred on me by the Roman people was being insolently wrested from me by my enemies.” And so, in that legendary phrase which has come to mean taking any fateful and irrevocable decision, he crossed the Rubicon and entered Italy with his troops.
This inevitably meant civil war. The commander of Rome’s troops in the war was Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106–48 B.C.E.), known to history as Pompey, a resourceful and highly skilled commander, the only man in Rome capable of standing up against Julius Caesar. Pompey’s career, up to this point, had been marked by brilliant successes which also served dramatically to highlight the weaknesses of the aging republican system. From now on, Roman politics would have less and less to do with democracy, becoming more and more determined by ambitious individuals backed by their own armies.
Quite early in his career, Pompey showed every sign of developing into just such a prototypical strongman, utterly ruthless and bent on power. Sulla had recognized that Rome’s growing empire could not possibly be governed by popular acclamation, by democratic votes. That system was too unwieldy. His policy, therefore, was to shift the authority of the state away from Rome’s tribunes, magistrates and popular assembly, which he regarded as mere rabble, and return them to the Senate. Under Sulla’s new system, the senators got all their judicial powers back, while consuls and praetors, shorn of their military power, had to content themselves with being the Senate’s good servants. But there was a question: what if some new Roman warlord turned on the Senate with his forces and simply threw them out? Sulla’s solution was to pass a law whereby there would be no Roman armed force in Rome. As soon as any returning soldiers, or their officers, crossed the limits of the urbs Romae, they would automatically have to lay down their arms, surrender their command, and become private citizens once more. Of course, this needed enforcement, which Sulla, the winner of the war against Mithridates, king of Pontus, was prompt to supply. He had accumulated huge reserves of booty and cash, and these financed his own invasion of Italy in 83 B.C.E. Naturally, this did not go without a hitch, for there were strong anti-Sulla feelings in both Sicily and North Africa, and Sulla enlisted the brilliant and ruthless young Pompey to suppress them—which he did with unrestrained butchery and bloodshed. By 81 B.C.E. the anti-Sulla factions were crushed, and Pompey—who was only twenty-five at the time—was in a position to demand a full triumph from Sulla on his return to Rome, and the cognomen Magnus, “Pompey the Great,” attached to his name. There was no denying that Pompey had burst through the exclusive ranks of Rome’s upper establishment, the optimates. No previous Roman had won such an honor so early in his military career.
In 70 B.C.E., he was appointed consul. The other consul, his reluctant and watchful yokefellow, was Marcus Licinius Crassus, the man who had put down Spartacus’ slave revolt (it particularly irked him that Pompey, who had mopped up a last remnant of Spartacus’ defeated army, took credit for suppressing the whole rebellion) and made a huge fortune by corralling the confiscated property of Roman citizens stripped of their assets in the proscriptions. Friction and ill-submerged conflict between the two billionaires, Crassus and Pompey, were inevitable.
In January 49 B.C.E., seeing that the Rubicon had been crossed and Caesar was now on Italian soil, the Senate voted martial law against Caesar and turned over the government of the Republic to Pompey. But Caesar did not delay for a moment after crossing the Rubicon. He led his ever-growing army in a whirlwind march down the east coast of Italy, and Pompey and the Senate had to skedaddle out of Rome so fast that they even left the national treasury behind. The continuous presence of senators turned out to be a great encumbrance to Pompey. They kept demanding reports, criticizing plans, and in general getting in the way. This did much to neutralize what would otherwise have been a clear advantage for the Pompeians. They had ships, and Caesar had no navy. They were able to assemble and train a large army at Dyrrhachium in the west of Greece. Caesar’s troops were so poorly supplied that many were reduced to eating the bark off trees. And yet, by a combination of superior generalship and good military luck, Caesar was able to beat Pompey, who offered him battle at Pharsalus in August 48 and was roundly defeated. Unnerved, Pompey fled to take refuge in Egypt, where the Ptolemaic government—fearing reprisals from the dreaded Caesar—cut off his head and dispatched that grisly trophy to Caesar.
Julius Caesar now ruled Rome and its enormous, ever-growing empire without opposition. In 46 B.C.E. he made himself dictator for ten years, and in February 44, the appointment was extended for the whole of his future life. The official calendar, which stood badly in need of revision, was indeed revised, with the month which had been known as Quintilis renamed “July.” Caesar’s head began to appear on coins, an homage which up to then had been reserved for kings and gods. Caesar was the first man to overcome, and in essence overthrow, the ancient Roman republican aversion to kingship. Plutarch believed that Caesar planned to have himself turned into a deified king, and he was probably right, though the issue is still debatable. Certainly the masses of Rome came very rapidly to view him as the next thing to a living god, and a kind of Caesarian cult was fostered by his closest friend, Mark Antony.
Now that the wars were over and won, Caesar, with the support of a thoroughly complaisant Senate, awarded himself no fewer than five complete triumphs, four after destroying Scipio (at Thapsus in North Africa, April 46 B.C.E.) and one more for smashing the sons of Pompey (at Munda in Spain, March 45 B.C.E.). The grandest was the triumph awarded him for his conquest of Gaul, but it was in his Pontic triumph at Zela over Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates, whom he suspected of trying to restore his father’s kingdom in the east, that Caesar was inspired to produce the most famous phrase in military history. On the victorious march-past, he displayed on a placard the three laconic words: “Veni, vidi, vici”—“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
These Roman triumphs were ceremonies of great importance, and they followed a set pattern, whose origins lay in the Etruscan past. To qualify as a triumphator, the conquering hero had first to be acclaimed by his soldiers. He must hold a magistracy withimperium, the autocratic power to command. (If he did not have such a magistracy, there could be no triumph for him, no matter how resounding his victory.) He must show that he had killed at least five thousand enemy soldiers, and brought home enough of his army to demonstrate their complete victory. Because Rome itself did not fall within his imperium, he must now wait outside the city limits until the Senate had agreed to grant him that absolute power for a single day. Once that was done, the triumphant leader could enter at the head of his troops, preceded by his lictors, each of whom carried a bundle of rods and an ax—the fasces re-adopted by Mussolini in the twentieth century—to symbolize his power to arrest, punish, and execute. A dictator had twenty-four lictors, lesser officials fewer. The soldiers raised a chant of praise, “Io triumphe,” and sang mildly obscene songs, the “Fescennine verses,” poking fun at their leader; a typical verse about Caesar (who was bald, and renowned for his sexual appetites) ran:
Home we bring the hairless Fucker,
Roman maidens, bar your doors—
For the Roman gold you sent him
Went to pay his Gallic whores.
Usually the appearance of the victor would be preceded by a long parade of his spoils. Thus the triumph of Aemilius Paullus was preceded, according to Plutarch, by an entire day’s march-past of some 250 wagons bearing the statues, paintings, and colossal images looted from Perseus, king of Macedon. The next day, looted Greek silver, bronze, and gold were displayed on a similar train of chariots, along with captured armor. Not until the third day did triumphant Aemilius Paullus make his appearance, followed by Perseus, “looking like one altogether stunned and deprived of reason through the greatness of his misfortunes,” as he must indeed have been.
The conquering hero would, of course, dress for the occasion. His face would be painted with red lead, to signify his godlike vitality. He would be arrayed in triumphal purple, with a laurel crown on his head and a laurel branch in his right hand, and wear amulets to avert the evil eye. Addressing a mass gathering of civilian citizens and his troops, he would praise the patriotism of the former and the noble courage of the latter. He would distribute money and decorations to them. These gifts were expected to be lavish. And, coming from Caesar, they were: every foot soldier of his veteran legions got twenty-four thousand sesterces as his booty, over and above the two thousand he had received as wages. If you pay a lot for gratitude, Caesar well knew, it is likely to stay bought. But his men did love him, and for other, equally compelling reasons: his tremendous daring and military skill, his powers of charismatic leadership.
Mounting in a quadriga or four-horse chariot with his children and relatives around him on horseback, the victorious general would now begin his progress toward the Capitol; riding with him in the chariot would also be a public slave, holding over the victor a gold crown studded with precious stones, and repeatedly intoning the mantra “Remember that you are a mortal man.” The processional route ran from the Campus Martius through the Triumphal Gate, to the Circus Flaminius—an anomalous public square in which, despite its name (circus = race course), races seem never to have been held, and in which there were no banks of seating for spectators, but where the spoils of triumph were displayed—and thence to the Circus Maximus. Then the procession would wind round the Palatine Hill, along the Via Sacra—the oldest and most famous street in Rome—and thence to the Capitol. In the Forum, he would order some captives of high rank imprisoned and put to death, and then ride on to the Capitol, where further rituals including sacrifices would be performed at the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Julius Caesar’s sense of display and drama was so developed that when he walked up the final steps to the Capitol, he had forty elephants deployed to his right and his left, each carrying a torch in its trunk.
Naturally, these long and impressive ceremonies required a grand architectural backdrop. All during his campaigns in northern Europe, Caesar had built nothing; there was no time. But in 55–54 B.C.E., he decided to leave a permanent architectural mark on Rome: a magnificent colonnaded square, the Forum Julii or Forum Caesaris, with a temple dedicated to Venus Genetrix, mythical ancestress of the Julian line, at one end of it. It bordered on the more ancient Forum, which had begun as a general meeting-place and market and had become known as the Forum Romanum, to distinguish it from other existing fora such as the Forum Holitorium (Vegetable Market) and Forum Boarium (Cattle Market). Over the years, a clutter of functions had converged and taken root in it. Lawyers, money changers, and senators mingled in its ancillary buildings, which sometimes served as markets. State archives were held in its tabularium, an all-important archive. Shrines were built—a circular Temple of Vesta, the Roman hearth goddess, was attended by sixvestal virgins, whose duty was to tend the city’s sacred fire. The Forum Romanum also contained the small but ritually important Shrine of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose gates were ritually closed whenever peace in the Roman world was announced.
Julius Caesar’s forum was the first of a number of fora to be built next to and north of the Forum Romanum; its successors were the Forum Augusti, the Forum of Nerva, and the Forum of Trajan. The huge costs of Julius’ forum would be met by the sack of Gallic cities and shrines, and of course by the slave trade, which Caesar dominated by now with his prisoners-of-war. The final cost of the land—and only the land—for the Forum Julii is said to have been 100 million sesterces, because every square foot of it had to be purchased from private owners at a time of fierce commercial speculation.
This did not matter to Caesar; he was determined to put his parcel together at any cost, and he did. Inside it he erected a marble temple in a colonnaded square. He filled it with expensive works of art, including paintings of Ajax and Medea by the famous painterTimomachus, a golden statue of Cleopatra, a corselet made of British pearls, and a plethora of portraits of himself. Outside its entrance he is said to have installed the Equus Caesaris, another sculptural portrait of himself mounted on a portrait of his favorite horse. Ancient accounts—Pliny, Suetonius—concur that this was a peculiar animal, recognizable by its near-human forefeet. But it is not clear whether it had toes, or just malformed hooves.
He was entirely the master of the Roman Empire now. For twenty years he had been head priest of the state religion, the pontifex maximus. It seemed that Caesar could go no higher, except by becoming a deified king.
Even that was on the cards. In 44, his portrait head had begun appearing on Roman coins. Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius, c. 81–30 B.C.E.), a close adherent of Caesar’s, tried (but failed) to establish a cult of the living Caesar with himself as its priest. Caesar also inflated the numbers in the Senate with hundreds of patricians and equestrians he personally chose. He appointed many new magistrates, equally obliged to him, and established scores of new Latin colonies outside Italy to reward loyal army men. Buoyed by his successes, feeling invulnerable, he also made a fatal mistake. He dismissed his Praetorian Guard.
Conservatives were waiting in the wings, burning with anger at the sight of Caesar’s growing autocracy, and determined to return Rome to its supposedly pristine virtues as a republic. The only way, they reasoned, to be rid of Caesarism was to kill Caesar. They rapidly formed a cabal. Its leaders were Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus.
Cassius had fought on Pompey’s side against Caesar’s army during the civil war, but Caesar, with his usual magnanimity toward defeated Roman foes, had pardoned him, raised him to praetor in 44, and then made him consul designate.
Brutus, who led the cabal, was a man of intense probity and patriotism—“This was the noblest Roman of them all”—whom the other would-be assassins thought indispensable to the plan of killing a hero so worshipped by the plebs. The fact that he was a usurer—Cicero, whom Brutus had served as quaestor in Cilicia, discovered that Brutus was getting 48-percent annual interest on a loan he had made to a city in Cyprus—did nothing to diminish his reputation. To kill a man who had too much power and abused it was not necessarily repugnant to Romans. They had before their eyes the example of such heroic figures as Harmodius and Aristogiton, the Greek lovers who in 514 B.C.E. assassinated the tyrant Hipparchus and were honored by a statue in the Agora, much copied by Roman sculptors (or Greek ones working for Roman clients). That was how the cabal saw Caesar, and they resolved to kill him, which they did with their daggers on the floor of the Senate House in Rome on the Ides of March 44. Shakespeare has the unprotected Caesar exclaiming “Et tu, Brute?” (“Even you, Brutus?”), but his last words were apparently not in Latin. They were Greek—“Kai su, teknon?,” “You too, my son?”—as befitted one highly educated Roman patrician addressing another, even at the point of death.
Chaos followed. The assassins left Caesar’s corpse where it had fallen on the floor of the Senate House, at the foot of a statue of Pompey. They rushed out into the street brandishing their daggers and shouting “Libertas!” and “Sic semper tyrannis!”(“Freedom!” “Thus always to tyrants!”) The general populace was unconvinced; they milled around, some hysterical with grief and confusion; they drove the conspirators to take shelter on the Capitoline Hill. Meanwhile, Mark Antony, Caesar’s consul, seized the dead man’s papers, last will, and money, and prepared to speak at Caesar’s public funeral. His speech incited the crowd to a frenzy, and the conspirators, who had convinced themselves that they would be hailed as saviors, hurriedly left Rome for the Eastern Provinces of the Empire.
At this early stage of post-Caesarian sorting out, nobody paid any attention to Caesar’s only male relative, his grand-nephew, a weedy eighteen-year-old named Gaius Octavius. But it turned out that in his will Caesar had posthumously adopted him as his son and heir, and left him three-quarters of his enormous fortune. Antony, who had usurped the role of Caesar’s executor, flatly refused to give the lad this inheritance and, just as foolishly, refused to pay out the three hundred sesterces Caesar had willed to each and every citizen of Rome. This incredible act of parsimonious folly sealed Antony’s fate, depriving him of the goodwill of most Romans.
Meanwhile, barred from access to Caesar’s fortune, Gaius Octavius used his own lesser but still-considerable funds to raise a private army from among Caesar’s veterans who had been settled in Campania and Macedonia. The name of Caesar was still magical to these old campaigners, and Octavius had inherited its mana. And although he was no warrior with any weapon but his tongue, Cicero attacked Antony with fourteen “Philippic Orations,” a title he had borrowed from Demosthenes for the hysterically ferocious speeches he made against the dead Caesar’s friend.
Octavius now marched his army of hardened professionals on Rome. At the age of nineteen, he was elected consul—the youngest in the city’s history—and thenceforth was styled Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus: Octavian for short. After a meeting near Bononia (modern Bologna) with Mark Antony and the governor of Transalpine Gaul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Octavian announced that the Second Triumvirate had been formed; this was confirmed by the Roman Senate, which had no choice about the matter, shortly after. The triumvirs would hold office for an initial five years. They would have absolute power over taxation and the appointment of officials, high and low. They would be free to proscribe whomever they wished, and they did so mercilessly—three hundred senators and two thousand equestrians died in the purges, their money and property gobbled up by the triumvirs.
And Cicero paid dearly for his insults to Mark Antony. He had scarcely begun his flight from Rome when a party of Octavian’s soldiers overtook him on the Via Appia, in early December of 43 B.C.E. They buried his body but brought his head back to Rome. There are two versions of its fate. “It is said,” wrote the chronicler Appian, “that even at his meals Antony placed Cicero’s head before his table, before he became satiated with this horrible sight.” Another version related that the head was nailed up for all to recognize in the Forum. Fulvia, Mark Antony’s wife, pried open its jaws, pulled out the tongue, and transfixed it with her hatpin: a fitting insult, she and others felt, for the organ which had so often and so calamitously libeled her husband.