Ancient History & Civilisation


753–510 BC

The Regal Period of Roman history, as calculated by Varro (But an average reign of over 30 years for each of seven kings of Rome is implausible)

509 BC

Rome’s first treaty with Carthage (others followed in 348 and 306) supposedly following rapidly on the foundation of the Republic

496 BC

Traditional date of the battle of Lake Regillus in which Rome defeated the Latin League

494 BC

Traditional date for the first secession of the plebs , the beginning of a long struggle for political emancipation conventionally termed the Conflict of the Orders

396 BC

Traditional date of the destruction of Veii by Rome

390 BC

Traditional date of the Gallic sack of Rome

343–290 BC

Rome frequently at war with Samnites of central Italy (later remembered as three Samnite wars)

340–338 BC

War with the Latins ends in the disbanding of the Latin League.

336–323 BC

Reign of Alexander III (the Great) of Macedon, conqueror of Greece and the Persian Empire

287 BC

The Lex Hortensia makes decisions of the plebeians binding on the community as a whole. The conventional end of the Conflict of the Orders.

280–275 BC

Pyrrhus of Epirus campaigns in Italy against Rome and Sicily against Carthage and then returns across the Adriatic

NB Most dates before Pyrrhus’ invasion derive from conjectures made by antiquarians in the last century BC . The first serious histories of the west were those written by Timaeus of Sicilian Tauromenium and by Fabius Pictor (of Rome) in the early and later third century BC respectively. Both works are lost, but later writers made some use of them in works written in the second century BC and after.



What you see before you, stranger, now mighty Rome, were grassy hills before the days of Trojan Aeneas. Evander’s wandering cattle rested where now the Palatine temple to Naval Apollo stands high. These golden temples grew for terracotta gods, content to live in simple houses built without art.

(Propertius, Elegies 4.1.1–6)

Almost no Greek writer mentions Rome before 300 BC, and no native historian before 200 BC. By the time these histories were written, Rome was already the dominant power within Italy. During the third century BC, the Romans fended off Pyrrhus of Epirus’ invasion of southern Italy; fought and won a twenty-three-year-long naval war against Carthage; consolidated their power over the Greek cities of Campania and southern Italy and the peoples of the peninsula’s mountainous spine; and began the conquest of the Gallic inhabitants of the regions north of the Apennines and south of the Alps. The final two decades of the century saw Rome survive Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and carry war back to Carthage. Victory at Zama in 202 ended Carthaginian regional ambitions forever, even if the city survived another half-century before it was obliterated. Rome at the start of the second century BC enjoyed a dominant position at the geopolitical centre of the Inland Sea. It was equipped with institutions, ideologies, and experience geared to conquest. From that point on, control of the whole Mediterranean world was only a matter of time.

How the Romans reached that position is more puzzling. Ancient narratives are transparently written in the knowledge of (and often to explain) Rome’s imperial destiny. Myths of divine favour and mortal virtue, and tales of the heroic exploits of the ancestors of this or that aristocratic clan, can hardly be the basis for our history. Even those Roman historians who were reasonably sceptical of those stories tended to use the better-known histories of Greek cities as a pattern for their own reconstructions. Their accounts present a Rome at times impossibly primitive, like the pastoral idyll Propertius summons up beneath the golden temples of Augustan Rome, or else fantastic tales of palace intrigues worthy of Homeric courts. For all these reasons, a reliable account of early Rome must begin from archaeology.

The City on the Tiber

Perhaps no archaeological site has been the object of such intense scrutiny as the city of Rome.1 The site has been continually occupied since the Bronze Age. Layered remains of medieval, Renaissance, and later cities make it difficult to reconstruct even the imperial capital of Augustus in detail. That megalopolis, with its great monuments and a population of around a million, was itself the product of centuries of rebuilding. Construction reached a particularly frantic phase during the late Republic. It was already widely reported in Pliny the Elder’s day, (the early Flavian period) that in 78 BC

no house in Rome was more beautiful that that of Marcus Lepidus [the consul], but by Hercules within thirty-five years the same house did not rank in the top one hundred mansions.2

By the end of the Republic many aristocratic houses and temples were being reconstructed every generation on ever more lavish scales, funded by the proceeds of overseas conquest. Recovering material from the origins of Rome beneath all of this is very difficult, and its interpretation remains highly controversial.3

At the beginning of the last millennium BC communities of Iron Age farmers had already established villages on the tops of the low tufa plateaux that approached the River Tiber where it made a slow curve around the little plain that would become the Field of Mars. Each village had one or more cemeteries. The best known is at Osteria dell’Osa, in use from the ninth to the seventh centuries.4 The organization of the burials and the distribution of the grave goods suggest it was shared by a number of clans, and also that it was used both by families of high status and by their humbler dependants. It is likely that the separate identities of these villages, and of their ruling families, also explain the later location of a number of key temples on each of the hills of Rome. How, and how early, these communities began to work together as a single polity is obscure: there are far too many gaps in the record.

The story of urbanism in central Italy is interwoven with that of Phoenician and Greek penetration of the western Mediterranean. Phoenicians and Greeks first appeared in the ninth and eighth centuries respectively, powered by economic growth at home and exploiting slight but significant technological advantages in navigation and warfare.5 Indigenous Iron Age societies were everywhere drawn into relationships of one kind or the other with the new arrivals. Exploration and trade typically came first; colonial foundations followed in some areas. Eventually, Phoenicians would settle in North Africa, western Sicily, and southern Spain; Greeks in eastern Sicily and southern Italy and eventually Mediterranean France. Bases like Marseilles near the mouth of the Rhône, and Spina at the northern end of the Adriatic, opened up trade routes into central Europe. Phoenicians and Greeks went on to explore the Atlantic coast too, seeking tin from the British Isles and exotic goods such as ivory from West Africa. But at first things were probably much more confused. There is early evidence for both Phoenician and Greek presence in coastal Etruria. It was metals that first drew visitors to central Italy.6 During the eighth century the Etruscans to the north of Rome and Campanians to the south began to be enriched by trade with the newcomers. Etruscans had already begun to develop complex urban societies and states before easterners arrived; they were well positioned to repel would-be colonists, and enthusiastically traded metal grain for eastern luxuries.7Their enthusiasm was so marked that this period of Etruscan culture is often called the Orientalizing period, and for a while many scholars believed that in their case the myths of eastern origins were actually true. Further south, Campanians and others were less able to resist Greek settlement: a string of new Greek cities were founded in southern Italy, the most northerly being Cumae.

Rome was located between the two, in the region known to ancients as Old Latium. During the ninth and eighth centuries the material culture of this region diverged from that of neighbouring regions and developed a style of its own, but one noted for its relative poverty. There are fewer rich burials than in Etruria, its warrior graves contained many fewer eastern imports, its population probably did increase, but it was scattered in smallish settlements that could not compare either with southern Etruscan centres like Veii, Tarquinii, and Caere, or with the Greek cities at Cumae and Naples. At the northern edge of Latium was the cluster of villages at the Tiber crossing.

When did this cluster of villages first come to form the community of the Romans? Recent excavations have uncovered a number of huts and burials and some kind of defensive wall dating to the eighth century, but it is very difficult to be certain what these tantalizing fragments represent. Was Rome already on the road to urbanism? Or still just a scatter of villages? During the late seventh century the swampy valley north of the Palatine was drained, creating what would become the forum. At some point in the sixth century massive walls were constructed in some places. Both projects must have taken some labour and some organization. The earliest of Rome’s great temples, on and around the Capitol, are also sixth century in date. All these enterprises would have taken a great deal of manpower, and testify to some kind of collective organization. From the sixth century, too, survive the first traces of massive aristocratic houses, located on the southern edge of the forum. From this point on it seems reasonable to think of Rome as a city with defined districts and some centralized institutions. But the division of space was fairly rudimentary. The early forum perhaps served a whole range of commercial, political, and religious functions, and the Capitoline Hill would for centuries be both a religious sanctuary and a refuge/citadel. But for some purposes at least the inhabitants of Rome seem have come together as a single people.

This emergence of cities through the coming together of clusters of villages was a common process across the archaic Mediterranean world. Athens followed a similar sequence, growing out of hamlets each with their own cemetery in the area around the acropolis. The first public space of Athens, the agora, also served all sorts of functions as late as the sixth century; a more differentiated use of space followed only later. The history of early Corinth is not very different. Southern Etruria also followed this route to urbanism. Veii, just ten miles north of Rome, grew up on a plateau of the soft volcanic rock known as tufa. A cluster of villages, cemeteries, and hilltop sanctuaries gradually coalesced to form what by ancient standards was a massive city. Piecemeal fortifications closed the gaps in natural defences until, in the early fourth century, a six-kilometre-long circuit wall was built. Rome’s ‘Servian’ wall circuit, built almost contemporaneously, was eleven kilometres (about seven miles) long and enclosed over 400 hectares. By the standards of the age this was a huge occupied area, telling us that Rome already stood out among her Italian neighbours, and especially among the Latins who mostly lived in much smaller settlements.

Rome resembled Etruscan cities like Veii more than it did Athens or Corinth. Similarities of culture and technology—and also of geology and climate—had created a regional style of urbanism in central Italy. Perhaps too it made a difference that in the late Bronze Age there had been palaces and states in southern Greece with strong links to Egypt and the Near East, whereas the Italian Bronze Age had been organized on a much smaller and more local scale, more like that of northern Europe in fact. But central Italy had its own advantages. Then as now, it was a fertile region thanks to the combination of Atlantic rainfall and volcanic soils. The plateau sites favoured by Bronze and Iron Age farmers were also the product of volcanism, spurs of soft tufa formed from lava flows. Hilltop sites were not only preferred for defence: they were also healthier, given the prevalence of malaria in the marshes of the coastal plain. Architecturally too there was a regional style. While archaic Greek cities were building temples and carving sculpture out of the spectacular marbles found around the Aegean Sea, their western counterparts were constructing temples out of tufa and brick, roofing and decorating them with brightly painted terracotta tiles moulded with faces, images, and abstract designs. Even the statues of the gods were ceramic rather than stone. These were the ancient terracotta gods in their simple homes that Propertius contrasted with the marble splendours of his own day.

The most difficult thing to explain is what factors made Rome emerge out of the general poverty of Latial culture to rival the great cities of Etruria. Location probably played an important part. The Tiber is not one of the great rivers of the Mediterranean, but in ancient times it offered both a boundary between peoples, and a communication route from Rome down to the coast and into the interior. To the north of the river there were the Etruscans, to the south the Latins. The Tiber gave access to the Sabine hills to the east as well as to Umbria in the north. By the imperial period, the Tiber Valley provided timber and building stone for Rome, its tributaries supplied much of the aqueduct system, and its claybeds were exploited for brick production.8 Rome was located at the intersection of ecological zones, always an advantageous position. Rome is about fifteen miles from the sea. An outpost was established at the Tiber mouth at Ostia as early as the fourth century. Long before this there were coastal saltpans there, and the Salt Road (the via Salaria) ran through Rome and over the Apennines to the Adriatic. Rome did not sit in an area with great metal resources like the Colline Metallifere that had attracted Greeks to Elba. Nor was the countryside as productive of grain or as suitable for vines as that of Campania. But perhaps when the tendrils of exchange networks extended deeper into Italy, the river port of the city on the Tiber seemed a good entry point.

A second advantage was perhaps Rome’s location on the margins of the Etruscan world. Sixth-century Rome was in some senses a hybrid, and hybrids have their own vigour. Physically the city resembled the great cities of southern Etruria—Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Orvieto, and Vulci as well as Veii. Etruscan influence is everywhere in the form of the hard black Etruscan pottery called bucchero. But Romans shared a language and some sanctuaries with the Latins, whom they considered as their kin. Archaeologically the balance seems to have shifted over time. The ninth-century huts and burials of Rome are very similar to those known elsewhere in Latium. Rome did not participate in the growth experienced by Etruria and some other parts of Italy in the eighth century when the Greeks arrived in search of metals. Yet at some point in the seventh and early sixth centuries Rome began to stand out, and to stand comparison with its Etruscan neighbours to the north.

Etruscan cities had emerged as a cluster of what archaeologists sometimes call ‘peer-polities’, a group of states which for a while seem to develop on parallel lines at an accelerated rate as they compete with each other, and learn from each other’s successful experiments and mistakes.9 The same idea has been used in the Greek world to explain the rapid diffusion of innovations as varied as law codes, temple building, and tyranny. Etruscan cities had a common history of this kind from their first nucleations in the ninth century to the shared taste for oriental art in the eighth. Peer-polity systems have other effects, however, including a certain amount of institutional inbreeding and a tendency to limit the success of their strongest members. The Greek world in the fourth century offers a good example, with successive leading city-states brought down to size by alliances made among the others. The unification of Greece came, in the end, only in the form of conquest by a state that had developed on the geographical margins of the system, Alexander’s kingdom of Macedon. Growth at the margins is another common phenomenon. The ancient competition between Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and various Syrian and Anatolian states was ended in the Iron Age not when one drew ahead of the rest, but when all were conquered from outside by the Persians. Equally the first Chinese Empire was created by one of the marginal polities of the Warring States Period, the Qin. Rome would again enjoy the benefits of growth at the margin during the early second centuryBC, when it took over the Macedonian-led kingdoms to its east, kingdoms that had been engaged for a couple of centuries in expensive and inconclusive competition for influence over the Aegean, southern Turkey, and southern Syria. Perhaps at the start of its history, too, Rome’s rise was due in part to the fact that it was not central to developments in Etruria.

History and Myth

Tradition had a different take on the Latin–Etruscan hybridity of early Rome. The last kings of Rome were remembered as Etruscans, the Tarquins from—inevitably if suspiciously—the city of Tarquinii. It was they, so legend ran, who had drained the forum with forced labour. The traditional chronology is close enough to the archaeological traces of urban growth in the late sixth century to persuade some that the story preserves elements of fact.10 The Tarquins, the story goes, had also begun building the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, commissioning the master potter Vulca to come from Veii to create a spectacular terracotta cult statue. But they did not survive to see the work finished: the foundation of the temple of Capitoline Jupiter coincided with the birth of the Republic. The founding myth told how native Roman aristocrats had expelled the Etruscan tyrants, and set up a constitution in which popular assemblies were sovereign. Those assemblies would elect magistrates—first praetors and then consuls—who would govern in pairs, and for no more than one year at a time, advised by a council of former magistrates, the Senate. The most important decisions—declarations of war and the passing of new laws—remained the prerogative of the entire community. A conventional narrative of liberation from tyranny was thus given an ethnic dimension, and linked to the creation of a unique political system. Rome became more Roman by shedding its Etruscan rulers.

The foundation of the temple of Jupiter was a critical reference point for later reflections on the Roman past, just as the temple itself provided a central focus in the ritual year, and for the collective life of the city. At least one late fourth-century scribe dated events from the foundation of the temple. Augustus’ Fasti began in the same year with the first ever pair of consuls. So the expulsion of the Tarquins marked (for some) the beginning of Roman history.11 But it is not easy now to construct a narrative of events from that point until the end of the third century BC. Nor was it easy then. Pictor, Cato, Polybius, and their contemporaries looked back from the turn of the third and second centuries, but their vision was limited. There were hardly any written documents. To be sure there was a mass of traditions: some glorified particular families and individuals, some perhaps presented more or less popular views, some were perhaps in the form of dramas or songs, some linked to particular places, cults, or temples. Sifting contradictory and competing, versions and arranging them in time was a formidable task, for which the only tools were guesswork, analogy from Greek history, and imaginative reconstruction. When historians of the late Republic and early Principate set about completing the task, they faced even more formidable difficulties. Polybius had set out to write an account of Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean between 220 and 168: that story began around twenty years before his birth and he had witnessed the latter phases, from the vantage point of an honoured hostage, travelling in the train of Scipio Aemilianus. Polybius preceded his account with a shorter summary of events from 264 BC, the start of the first Punic war and the end of Timaeus’ Histories of the west. When, under Augustus, Dionysius set out to write Roman Antiquities that ended more or less where Polybius began, and when Livy around the same time began his total history of Rome From the Foundation of the City, they had to engage in a completely different enterprise, the rationalization of a set of memories organized around powerful social myths.

One set of stories chronicles the rise of Rome as military superpower. The Etruscans made repeated attempts to recapture Rome, but all of them were foiled. For over a century, Rome and Veii glared at each other across the Tiber—three separate wars and two great truces were remembered— before the Romans sacked the city. Traditionally this was dated to 396 BC. Meanwhile, Rome fought wars against and in alliance with the Latins, the Hernici, and more distant opponents, the Volsci and the Aequi. The world within which these conflicts took place was tiny—barely 50 kilometres across—yet they were remembered on an epic scale. Even more mythologized was the Gallic sack of Rome, conventionally dated to 390 BC.12 Traditions about this event varied wildly. Did the Gauls sack all or part of the city? Did they keep their ransom or was it recovered? Which Roman heroes were most responsible for survival and recovery? Or was it in fact an Etruscan army from Cerveteri which saw them off? That last version, unsurprisingly, occurs in Greek but not Roman accounts! Yet another set of traditions concerned the series of wars Rome fought against the peoples of the central Apennines.13 The Samnites were represented as barbarian highlanders. Roman tradition recorded three wars fought between the middle of the fourth century and the start of the third. No doubt these campaigns were in reality less coherent than they seemed in hindsight, and the Samnites were definitely not exactly the savages they were portrayed. In fact, monumental sanctuaries in the Abruzzi like that at Pietrabbondante made greater use of Greek architecture than did those of Rome in the same period.

Much of what was remembered is probably true, especially for the latter stages of the Samnite Wars that ended just before Pyrrhus’ invasion. Dates were only put to them much later, of course, and many depended on ‘synchronism’ with events in Greek history. Rome apparently ejected its tyrants around the same date Athens expelled hers; the century-long grudge match with Veii in the fifth century looks suspiciously like the long and contemporaneous rivalry between Athens and Sparta; even the Gallic invasion sets Romans alongside Greeks as victims of temple-pillaging northerners, or else might be paralleled to the Persian sack of Athens. How much massaging was necessary to give Rome a proper past? How far were events telescoped or compressed to bring out the correspondences? What was omitted because it was useless to the narrative being created, or even contradicted it?

A second problem is that many stories seem to have clear moral ends. Time and again, individual Romans put the survival of the city ahead of their own interests. Horatius fought off Lars Porsenna’s invading army in a series of single combats while the bridge over the Tiber was cut down behind him. Camillus, exiled by Rome, refused to lead an enemy army against his ungrateful homeland. The epic poet Ennius summed up the ideology in the line

The Roman state depends on its ancient customs and heroes.14

Or consider how repeated power struggles between aristocratic patricians and the excluded masses (the plebs)—social conflicts of a kind quite common in the archaic Mediterranean—are again and again resolved by compromise and constitutional innovations. Stories of self-sacrifice and affirmations of social solidarity were comforting ideals for an age in which civil conflict was tearing the state apart. But they are hardly reliable history, any more than the stereotypes such as Livy’s portrayal of Roman women either as victims of tyranny or inspirations to their men folk or both. All wars, naturally, were just wars, and the gods were always on Rome’s side.

Ways and Means

There are hints that even at the very beginning of the Republic, Rome was already a powerful state. Polybius described three treaties, each made between Rome and Carthage in the period before the Pyrrhic War.15 The earliest, written in archaic Latin, was dated to the first year of the free Republic. Its terms seem sufficiently anachronistic by Polybius’ day to be genuinely ancient, and he went to some lengths to try to explain them. In the treaty the Romans promise to respect Carthaginian territories in Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa and not to deliberately sail beyond ‘the Fair Promontory’ (probably Cap Farina just north of Carthage). The Carthaginians on their side promised not to intervene in Latium, either in the cities Rome controlled or in those she did not. Intervention of that kind was a realistic prospect. Three gold tablets from the Etruscan port city of Pyrgi, dating to about the same time, record dedications in both Etruscan and Punic to the goddess the Carthaginians called Astarte and the Etruscan ruler of Caere, Uni. Other provisions of this treaty provided for trade. Perhaps most significant of all, Rome treated on behalf of her allies as well as herself. The treaty, in other words, evokes a half-forgotten world of hegemonic politics and spheres of influence, a world in which larger communities dominated their smaller neighbours without absorbing them into formal empires, all at the end of the sixth century BC. We could compare the kind of leadership exercised by Carthage over other Punic cities, some of them named in the second of the three treaties, or Spartan leadership of the Peloponnese in the fifth century, and Athenian control of the islands and coasts of the Aegean only a little later. Marseilles in southern Gaul, Syracuse in Sicily, and Tarentum in southern Italy all acquired regional influence of this kind. The history of the fifth and fourth centuries may be maddeningly obscure, but by the time Pyrrhus crossed the Adriatic in 280 at the invitation of the Tarentines, Rome had joined this small group of leading cities. The big question is how Rome managed to get to this point, given the small scale of her fifth-century wars within Latium and its adjacent districts.

Rome’s comparative advantage over its rivals must have been institutional. No other explanation is really plausible. Geopolitics may have played a part, but Rome’s location was not so good, nor so unique. The economic resources of Rome’s immediate hinterland were not that impressive, especially when compared to those of Etruria or Campania. Romans enjoyed no technological edge over their opponents, not even in the field of warfare. The best that may be said is that at some period Roman citizen armies had become more experienced than those of some of their opponents. Nor is it really plausible to argue that Romans were more militaristic than their opponents. The celebrations of warriors in funerary art throughout central Italy, as well as those treaties, make it clear that it was not at all unusual for societies to be warlike. Short wars between neighbouring peoples were in fact probably more or less the norm, a competition for booty, prisoners, and prestige. It may be that many of the early wars remembered in Roman tradition consisted of raids and counter-raids of this kind.16

The difference came when Romans began to impose on their defeated opponents permanent obligations. During the fourth century it seems Romans began to institutionalize their position as pre-eminent city of Latium to create a federation of states with Rome at its heart. The innermost circle comprised the Latins, citizens of those communities with whom Romans enjoyed certain reciprocal rights, such as intermarriage and trade. Beyond them were other allies, the socii. Rome’s allies were communities, not individuals, and to begin with most were bound to Rome by permanent and unequal treaties. Imposing a treaty of this kind almost always followed military victory. Greek cities concluded wars with treaties and then reverted to splendid autonomy. Rome had, it was said, agreed to several limited-term truces with Veii, and its treaties with Carthage imply equality between the parties. But the treaties that created allies were signs of permanent subordination. Allied states retained a separate citizenship and a notional internal autonomy—not that Romans did not intervene when they wished—but they had to supply troops when Rome demanded and they had very limited independence when it came to relations with other states. By the early second century BC, Romans regarded these lesser allies as subject to other kinds of authority too. One of the earliest surviving decrees of the Senate is a bronze tablet recording restrictions issued in 186 BC on the worship of the god Bacchus. The decree applied throughout Italy. Defeated states also often lost land to Rome. Colonies were created in key strategic locations, like tiny Alba Fucens perched up in the Abruzzi to keep an eye on the neighbouring tribes. Other settlers were simply given conquered land to farm in return for paying a rent to the state. Roman control of Italy took the form of a growing network of bilateral alliances, an ever wider distribution of public land and settlers, and an increased sense of the prerogatives of power.

When a Roman army marched out against Samnites or Tarentines, Epirots or Gauls, its general commanded an army composed of citizens and allies.17 When consuls levied their citizen armies, each allied community was sent orders to provide their own quota of troops. Allied detachments were commanded by their own leaders, and brigaded alongside the Roman forces. Those leaders were drawn from the same sort of propertied classes as ruled Rome: Romans tended to support those classes in allied communities, siding with Greek aristocrats against democrats, and Etruscan nobles against their serfs.18 The ruling classes of Italian cities had much in common with each other, and a community of interest must also have consolidated Roman power. Athens’s short-lived empire had foundered in part on the promotion of democracy among its lesser allies, and on strengthening the ideology of citizenship: Roman hegemony, by contrast, always stressed class solidarity among the elites. The seeds of an aristocratic empire had been sown. Rome exacted no regular taxes, nor any tribute in kind from its allies: they generally received a share of booty from victorious campaigns, and in some colonial foundations some of the Latins even received grants of land. Perhaps Roman rule did not seem entirely oppressive to members of the propertied classes, more like a movement that benefited those drawn into it.

Pyrrhus and History

King Pyrrhus had ruled the tiny Balkan kingdom of the Molossians since 306 BC. Macedon had expanded on the margins of the Greek world to produce Alexander, who died in 323 BC master of the Persian Empire and overlord of most of the Greek world. Pyrrhus’ kingdom was on the margins of Macedonia, and he spent most of his career trying to imitate his great neighbour and predecessor. Epirus corresponds roughly to what is now north-west Greece. It looks westwards, towards the Adriatic, and beyond it to that part of southern Italy known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) because of the wealth accumulated there by the Greek cities founded in the archaic period. The Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily had had their own complex history through the archaic and classical periods, fighting wars between each other and against and alongside Etruscans and Carthaginians. During the fifth century some of the Greek cities immediately south of Rome were captured and taken over by peoples from the Italian interior. Lucanians took control of Posidonia around 390 and ruled it for just over a century before Rome took control in 273 and made it into the Latin colony of Paestum. Majestic archaic Greek temples, Lucanian tombs, and a model Roman city stand side by side today.


Fig 3. A bust of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, Roman copy after a Greek original, from the Villa of the Papyri, Ercolano (ancient Herculaneum), Campania Region, Italy

But in the far south of the peninsula, and in Sicily, the larger Greek cities were more successful. If Rome and Carthage were hegemonic powers, then so were Greek Syracuse and Taranto. It was Taranto which called in Pyrrhus. This was nothing new for them. They had had an alliance with one of Pyrrhus’ predecessors, and had tried to get help from Sparta and others in recent years. The novelty was the enemy, Rome, which in 284 had founded a colony on the Adriatic at Sena Gallica. For Rome, this was an extension of their wars in the Apennines: the name of the colony shows they had their eyes on the Gallic tribes of Marché and the Po Valley. But the Tarentines were right that the Romans had more grandiose ambitions. Two years later they intervened in the affairs of Rhegium, on the toe of Italy, and of Taranto’s neighbour Thurii, leading to direct conflict. No one can have been in any doubt that Rome was extending its hegemony in all directions. Taranto was next.

Pyrrhus’ expedition into southern Italy hardly changed the world. He arrived in 281, and inflicted a couple of defeats on the Romans: he may have won the battles but the cost was so high that it has given us the phrase ‘a Pyrrhic Victory’. He was then invited to Sicily to fight Carthage on behalf of Greek cities there, which he did with less success. Returning to Italy he was defeated by a Punic fleet, and then fought another, less conclusive, battle with a Roman army. Those reverses prompted him to return to Epirus in 275. Pyrrhus was no Alexander. Three years later he was dead, killed in a botched attempt to wrest control of the Greek city of Argos from Macedon. The Romans took Taranto the same year. The significance of the Pyrrhic War, however, was that it put Rome on the Greek map. From this point on, Rome has proper history. One of the Greeks who wrote an account of Rome’s war with Pyrrhus was his contemporary Timaeus, a native of Taormina in Sicily, who spent fifty years in exile in Athens writing the first connected history of the western Mediterranean. That work is lost, but it has left traces in the histories and geographies composed by Greeks and by Romans over the following centuries. Roman history was only a minor part of his output. But so little else had been written that it was a vital source even for the first Roman to write history, Fabius Pictor, and both directly and indirectly also for Polybius, the Greek historian who wrote a continuation during his own exile in Rome. Thanks to Timaeus and his continuators it is possible, from the third century on at least, to write detailed political history with secure chronology. Thanks to Pyrrhus, the scale of Roman hegemony was now clear across the Mediterranean. Greek cities began to send embassies to Rome from the early second century. Among them were appeals for military help, as Greek cities and Balkan peoples asked the Romans to cross the Adriatic in the opposite direction to Pyrrhus.

Further Reading

Archaeological understanding of the appearance of cities and states in the early last millennium BC is progressing rapidly thanks not only to new evidence but also to advances in the way we understand it. The state of the question is presented in a series of essays edited by Robin Osborne and Barry Cunliffe and entitled Mediterranean Urbanization 800–600BC. On the immediate vicinity of Rome see Christopher Smith’s Early Rome and Latium (Oxford, 1996). An excellent archaeological introduction to the Etruscans is provided by Graeme Barker and Tom Rasmussen, The Etruscans (Oxford, 1998). Guy Bradley, Elena Isayev, and Corinna Riva’s Ancient Italy (Exeter, 2007) gives a good sense of the wider Italian world into which Rome expanded.

Tim Cornell’s The Beginnings of Rome (London, 1995) is now the standard introduction to early Roman history. Mario Torelli’s Studies in the Romanization of Italy (Edmonton, 1995) gives an excellent sense of how archaeological and historical evidence can be effectively combined in the study of this period.

The earliest stages of Roman imperialism are the subject of William Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327–70BC (Oxford, 1979) and of several chapters of John Rich and Graham Shipley’s War and Society in the Roman World (London, 1993). Jacques Heurgon’s The Rise of Rome to 264BC (London, 1973) remains full of interesting insights. Jean-Michel David’s Roman Conquest of Italy (Oxford, 1996) tells the whole story up to the end of the Republic.


Map 2. The Mediterranean and its continental hinterlands, showing major mountain ranges and rivers


If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!