Ancient History & Civilisation


272 BC

Rome defeats Tarentum, the major Greek city of southern Italy, just three years after the departure of Pyrrhus


The first Punic war resulting in the defeat of Carthage and Rome’s first overseas province, Sicily

225 BC

The battle of Telamon marks the defeat of the Gauls of northern Italy. Conquest and colonization of the area resumed after the defeat of Hannibal


The second Punic war, during which Hannibal invaded Italy and remained there until 203

216 BC

The battle of Cannae, Rome’s most serious defeat at the hands of Hannibal


Siege and capture of Syracuse by Marcellus

202 BC

Battle of Zama. Scipio defeats Hannibal just outside Carthage

197 BC

King Philip V of Macedon defeated at the battle of Cynoscephalae. The next year Flamininus declares the freedom of the Greeks


War between Rome and Antiochus III of Syria. Antiochus defeated first at Thermopylae and then Magnesia, and in the Treaty of Apamea in 188 renounced all Seleucid claims to Asia Minor

189 BC

Manlius Vulso campaigns against the Galatians in central Anatolia

184 BC

The censorship of Cato the Elder

168 BC

King Perseus of Macedon defeated at the battle of Pydna. Macedonian kingdom dismantled

168 BC

The Seleucid King Antiochus IV is forbidden to invade Egypt by an envoy of the Senate


Polybius of Megalopolis a hostage in Rome, where he becomes a friend of Scipio Africanus and accompanies him on his campaigns


Third Punic war culminates in the Roman destruction of Carthage

146 BC

Roman destruction of Corinth

133 BC

The capture of the Celtiberian stronghold of Numantia in Spain

133 BC

Attalus III of Pergamum dies leaving his kingdom to Rome



What man can be so frivolous and lazy that he does not wonder how it has come about, and under what kind of political regime, that almost the entire civilized world has in less than fifty-three years been brought under the sole rule of Rome? These events are unprecedented.

(Polybius, Histories 1.1.5)

The Rivals of Rome

The expansion of Roman influence within Italy, related in Chapter 3, had been a slow process. But during the century and a half that followed Pyrrhus’ invasion, Roman hegemony mushroomed out to cover the entire Mediterranean world. That did not mean that second-century BC Rome (yet) ruled a well-ordered tributary state, divided into territorial provinces over which were extended imperial systems of law and taxation, administered by a colonial bureaucracy. Roman rule remained, in modern terms, both informal and indirect. Supremacy meant simply that Rome no longer had any rival in the region. And Polybius was correct that the rulers of Rome in the mid-second century BC (many of whom he knew well) felt they could issue orders to whomever they wished. This chapter tells how this was achieved.

Rome’s unification of the Mediterranean was the culmination of processes of political growth that characterized the last millennium BC.1 By the third century, Mediterranean politics was dominated by a small number of great powers. At the western end of the Mediterranean, that meant Rome and—until 201 BC—Carthage. Less powerful cities retained their nominal independence in North Africa, Italy, and southern France. Around them were tribal societies of various kinds and sizes. During the third century the biggest cities had either challenged Rome and lost—as had Syracuse and Tarentum—or else were now subordinate allies, like Marseilles and the major cities of Etruria and Campania. East of the Adriatic, the political map was dominated by the kingdoms formed when Alexander’s empire fragmented on his death in 323 BC. The Big Three were Antigonid Macedon, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt. Around them were a plethora of smaller states. These included Persian successor kingdoms in Anatolia, breakaway Greek kingdoms in Afghanistan and western Turkey, federal leagues of communities in southern and north-west Greece, and a few independent city-states including Sparta, the naval power Rhodes, and a much diminished Athens. This was the Greek—sometimes called the Hellenistic—world into which Rome would expand. No nation could take on and defeat every single city and tribe, and the Romans did not try. Hegemony only required the defeat of all conceivable rivals. That was the process that Polybius claimed had taken less than fifty-three years, from the outbreak of the second Punic war, that is, until the defeat of Macedon in 167 BC.

Events unfolded at a breakneck pace.2 The retreat of Pyrrhus, his death, and the fall of Taranto in 272 removed all Rome’s rivals south of the Apennines. Carthage and Rome had allied against Pyrrhus, but their spheres of influence were now so close it is rather surprising it took them until 264 to fall out. The cause was, unsurprisingly, control of the island of Sicily that lay between them. The first Punic war, fought mainly in naval engagements around the Tyrrhenian Sea, ended in 241 with Rome controlling most of Sicily as a province, and the remainder through an alliance with Syracuse. Shortly afterwards Romans seized control of first Sardinia and then Corsica. The second Punic war broke out in 218 when spheres of influence in Spain clashed. A new Punic empire had been created there, based on New Carthage (Cartagena) and the rich silver mines in the vicinity. Geopolitical considerations suggest the competition for influence in Iberia was as inevitable as it had been in the case of Sicily: Roman historians preferred to believe the real reasons lay in bitter resentment of Rome fostered by the Barcid dynasty of whom Hannibal was the most famous member. The conflict begun in Spain was swiftly carried into Italy by Hannibal’s audacious march through southern France and across the Alps. Initial victories at Trasimene (217) and Cannae (216) seemed to bring Rome to the brink of disaster, and Hannibal went on to occupy much of the south, detaching Roman allies. But the long-feared assault on Rome never materialized. During the deadlock Rome made advances in other theatres, especially in Spain and Sicily. After more than a decade in southern Italy, Hannibal was eventually forced to return to North Africa to meet a Roman army outside the walls of Carthage itself. Scipio’s victory at Zama in 202 ended the war.

Between the first and second Punic wars, while the Barcids had been busy in Spain, the Romans had continued to extend their influence in Italy, especially over the Gallic peoples north of the Apennines.3 Major victories had been won over Gallic armies at Telamon in 225 and Clastidium in 222. As soon as Carthage was defeated, Roman generals resumed this priority. During the 180s a series of colonies were founded north of the Apennines, anchored on the via Aemilia that remains today the main highway down the Po Valley.4 Roman magistrates led campaigns against either Gauls or Ligurians almost every year until the start of the third Macedonian war in 168. There were further campaigns in Liguria in the 150s. By the end of the second century the whole area up to foothills of the Alps was in effect a Roman province. The defeat of Hannibal allowed Rome to increase its influence elsewhere in Italy too: exemplary punishments were handed out to former Roman allies who had defected to the Punic cause, and much of their territory was confiscated.5 New Roman colonies were founded on spear-won territory in southern Italy, some imposed on existing cities and others on greenfield sites. Syracuse had picked the wrong side in the war: her defeat left Sicily entirely under the rule of the Roman praetors. Spain too was now available for conquest, thanks to the campaigns of Scipio which had swept the Carthaginians out of the peninsula. By 197 there were two provinces, one in the south where local societies were most urbanized and where there were rich supplies of silver, and another in the north-east, the territory of the Iberians. Up until the end of the 170s there were generally four legions in Spain at any one time. Like the campaigns in north Italy, these wars could usually be put on hold when Rome was occupied elsewhere, and started up again when other fronts closed down. Major campaigns restarted in Spain in the 150s and culminated in great wars against the Celtiberians of the interior that only ended with the capture in 133 of their great citadel at Numantia. There were other conflicts around the Alps in this period too, and two short but ferocious wars in the Rhône Valley in the mid-120s. Not all these campaigns were of Rome’s choosing. There were colonists and settlers to defend in northern Italy, and Rome faced attacks from the Lusitanians in Spain and the Arverni in Gaul. Nor was Rome always fighting flat out: there were decades of intensive warfare, and others when fewer troops were in the field each year.6 All the same, it is impossible to avoid the impression that Rome was now geared up to more or less continuous expansion and that the Roman west was always available when more lucrative or threatening campaigns were not available.

For Rome’s greatest rivals during the second century BC were the rich monarchies of the eastern Mediterranean. It was the humbling of the great kingdoms of Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt that Polybius had in mind when he wrote of Rome’s takeover of the entire civilized world. Those kingdoms had squabbled since the death of Alexander the Great for control of the Greek world and its Balkan, Asian, and African hinterlands. The defeat of Carthage in 202 left Rome free to join—and end—this competition.

Two years after Scipio’s victory over Hannibal at Zama, Roman armies crossed the Adriatic to take on Philip II, King of Macedon. The reasons remain a matter of controversy. One provocation was a treaty made between Philip and Hannibal when the latter was still a threat to Rome. Another may have been earlier attempts by Philip to expand his interests at Roman expense in the Adriatic, although this was really a minor part of his wider ambitions in the Balkans and beyond. A number of Greek states were anxious about Philip, and Rome’s status as a world power was now clearer than ever. Embassies came to Rome from Attalus of Pergamum, from Rhodes, and from Athens, and Roman ambassadors were sent to other parts of Greece. But the Romans could certainly have safely ignored these requests and left Macedon alone had they wished for peace. Clearly they did not. Or at least a majority did not, since the first time the Roman assembly was asked to approve war it refused. That decision was rapidly reversed. What arguments were used to persuade the people to assent? Were they terrorized with stories of Philip’s aggression, reminded of his past hostility as Hannibal’s ally, or just encouraged with the hope of more booty? During the Hannibalic war Rome had fought a brief war with Macedon: in 211 the Romans had made an alliance with the Aetolians of north-west Greece agreeing that in any joint actions the Aetolians should keep any territory captured, while Rome would take any slaves and booty. Not much had come of this in practice, but perhaps Macedon was still looked on as a good place to plunder. And perhaps a generation of warfare had actually accustomed Rome to conflict, inspiring a new generation of Roman leaders to seek conflicts in which to distinguish themselves, and a new generation of soldiers to seek their fortune in wars of conquest?

Whatever the reasons, the vote for war was won in 200. The next year a Roman army invaded Macedonia, once again in alliance with the Aetolians. The command passed to Titus Quinctius Flamininus in 199. Hard fighting in the Balkans and tough diplomacy gave him the advantage over Philip and made allies of the Achaean League, to which most of the important cities of southern Greece belonged. Philip rejected terms and Flamininus pushed on to defeat him decisively early in 197 at the battle of Cynoscephalae. Rome’s new allies the Achaeans were delighted. But the Aetolians felt they had not received all the rewards they deserved. Macedon was left intact, but compelled to stay out of southern Greece, and a heavy indemnity was imposed as in fact it had been on Carthage. At the Isthmian Games in 196 Flamininus declared the freedom of the Greeks. The language of his proclamation and its location echoed Alexander’s proclamations at Corinth in 337 BC, and also much subsequent Hellenistic diplomacy. Romans had evidently learned the diplomatic manners of the Greek east. Their ambitions were different but they were not about to let any other power replace Macedon. The Seleucid King Antiochus III was warned off and Flamininus fought another campaign against Nabis, tyrant of Sparta, before in 194 Roman armies returned home.

Diplomacy did not keep Antiochus at bay. In 192 he crossed into Greece, now in alliance with the Aetolians. The Roman response was immediate. Antiochus was met and defeated at Thermopylae in 191 and retreated to Asia, pursued by the consul Scipio (the brother of Africanus the conqueror of Carthage) who would take the title Asiaticus after this campaign. Antiochus was defeated at Magnesia, sued for peace, and by the Treaty of Apamea signed in 188 renounced all Seleucid claims of territory in Asia Minor. Like Macedon, the Seleucid kingdom was permitted to survive on condition it paid an indemnity, and like Macedon its sphere of influence had been limited. The western Balkans, southern Greece, and Anatolia were now no longer dominated by any of the great powers.

Roman armies campaigned in these regions for a little while. During 189 Fulvius Nobilior fought wars in Ambracia on Macedon’s western borders, and Manlius Vulso campaigned against the Galatians of central Anatolia. Both wars were infamously profitable, and Rome swooned before spectacular triumphs and monuments. But when the booty was gone, the Romans left too, abandoning their former allies and defeated enemies to jostle for positions in a new world order. From now on all politics in the eastern Mediterranean was referred to Rome. Embassy after embassy sought the support of the Senate or its envoys in tiny disputes. Rome’s allies, like the kingdom of Pergamum, the Achaeans, and (for a while) Rhodes, grew in influence. Yet often Romans seemed uninterested in what they did. Military attention was diverted to wars in north Italy and Spain. Philip himself died in 179 and was succeeded by Perseus, who cautiously began building up alliances with other kings. His ambitions were denounced to the Senate by Eumenes of Pergamum in 172 and the next year Roman soldiers were back in the Balkans. This third Macedonian war took a little longer to bring to a conclusion, perhaps because Rome’s allies seemed not wholeheartedly in support. But in 168 Aemilius Paullus defeated Perseus at Pydna. The kingdom of Macedon was abolished, its territory divided between four republics. Roman armies sacked city after city; a rumoured 150,000 people were enslaved in Epirus. The king was captured and brought back to march through Rome in the triumphal procession of his victor. Meanwhile the leading members of anti-Roman factions from the cities of Greece were taken into exile in Italy. Polybius was among them.

The same year Antiochus IV tried to restore Seleucid fortunes by invading Egypt. A Roman envoy, Popilius Laenas, met him and his army just outside Alexandria and ordered him back home. Antiochus asked for time to consider his response. Laenas drew the original line in the sand, a circle around the king, and insisted:

Before you step out of that circle give me your reply to bring to the Senate.7

Antiochus had no option but to obey. Livy followed up this anecdote of Antiochus with an account of how the Senate had received embassies from the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, and ambassadors from the kings of Pergamum and Numidia, bringing congratulations on the defeat of Macedon.


Fig 4. The monument at Delphi that commemorated Aemilius Paullus’ victory at Pydna

Roman hegemony did not, however, ensure political stability. Greek observers were evidently a little puzzled by Roman objectives east of the Adriatic. Rome’s victories in 197, 188, and 168 had each changed the balance of power in the east. Yet, after each campaign, the Roman armies had returned home. Between these wars their diplomacy seemed inconsistent. Even Polybius, who had the best position of all to observe Roman policy-making in action, was caught out, believing a watershed had been reached after the obliteration of Macedon. Beginning with his deportation to Rome in 167 BC, he spent nearly twenty years as a kind of honoured prisoner in Rome, in the process getting to know some of the leading figures of the day including Cato the Elder and the Scipio brothers. Yet he was not ready for the sequel.

During the aftermath of Pydna, relations between Rome and her allies in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorated rapidly. Rhodes was felt not to have given the support it might have done in the war with Perseus. In 167 it was punished when the Romans declared Delos a free port in a successful attempt to damage Rhodian commercial interests. Next, Pergamum fell temporarily from grace, and its power in Asia Minor was limited. During the 150s and 140s Rome made sporadic diplomatic interventions in conflicts between the cities and kingdoms of Anatolia, and they kept an interest in succession disputes in Syria and Egypt. But there were no more military expeditions until 149 when a pretender to the throne of Macedon had some brief success before being defeated by a Roman army supported by Pergamese allies. But Roman attention had been attracted. By now Rhodes and Pergamum were back in favour, but the Achaean League was not. To the horror of Polybius, war broke out between Rome and the Achaeans, and this time Roman victory did not simply result in indemnities and loss of territory. The ancient city of Corinth was sacked, its treasures plundered by Mummius and given to his soldiers and as rewards to allied communities, and the city of Corinth was abolished. This was an atrocity not seen in the Greek world since Alexander the Great had destroyed the city of Thebes as a symbol of what he could do if he wished.

Polybius’ world revolved around Greece. But the Romans had a different perspective. The Achaean war was something of a sideshow. During the 150s more Roman eyes had been fixed on the recovery of Carthage. It posed no realistic threat to Rome, even if its offer to pay off its war indemnity early showed its economic recovery. Its political and diplomatic actions were confined to Africa, and seem mostly designed to protect itself from the neighbouring Numidian tribes. But successive Roman embassies returned from Carthage to fuel domestic anxieties. Cato the Elder was among the most influential advocates of striking at Carthage before it could grow any stronger. Eventually the Senate issued an ultimatum requiring them to move their city inland, an impossible demand. The result was a Roman invasion in 149 and the capture of the city in 146. Polybius travelled with Scipio Africanus on the campaign that resulted in the final destruction of Carthage and watched the city burn. Like Corinth it was simply destroyed, and in the same year. The synchronism provides a vital clue to the Roman perspective.8 Greeks inhabited a political world centred on the Aegean Sea, a world of old cities surrounded by new kingdoms—and Rome. They were not used to being on the periphery of politics. Yet Romans were just as interested in Carthage as in Corinth.

Mid-Republican Imperialism

Rome’s expansionist dynamic looks clear enough to us, but maybe did not seem quite so obvious to the Romans. Did they conceive of Mediterranean hegemony as a goal? If not, they would not have been the only nation to discover their imperial vocation only in retrospect. Romans had, after all, no model of empire to follow. Greek writers of the imperial age sometimes set up Alexander as a kind of rival to Rome. But during the last centuries BC, Alexander was mostly looked back on as a model king and conquering general. When Roman hegemony was thought of as a system, it was compared to the hegemonies of other ‘tyrant cities’, Athens and Sparta above all.

The first attempt to account for the rise of Rome—the first we can read, that is—was that of Polybius. Polybius’ answer was based on the superiority of Rome’s institutions relative to those of her rivals, although it also gave roles to chance and geography, and also to the virtue and foolishness of various individuals. Perhaps his investigations helped the Roman ruling class formulate their own ideas about hegemony. Or perhaps they reflect in part ideas they already had. Fragments of Cato the Elder’s writings sometimes seem to contain some of the same ideas, for example the notion that Roman institutions and public conduct had worked better in the recent past. But then Roman society was still a very small world, and intellectual society smaller still. Perhaps the clearest sign that the Roman elite agreed that the world was now subject to their power alone was the decision to destroy both Carthage and Corinth. Ancient wars typically ended in treaties. The obliteration of two ancient cities is one indication that Romans had come to think of their hegemony as unlike any other.

Roman expansion in the middle Republic was remorseless. No sooner was one war done than another was started. Republican Rome sometimes had several fronts open at the same time, and two years in a row rarely went by between wars. War touched all levels of society. It was difficult to have a successful political career without also holding one or more military command. Between 10 and 25 per cent of the male population were under arms during any one campaigning season. These figures bear comparison with the level of participation in warfare of the general population of European countries during the First World War. During the worst days of the Hannibalic war, between 218 and 215 BC, one in six adult males died on the battlefield. But when a campaign went well, the booty was spread widely, if unevenly, among the participants. During the conquest of Italy, some citizens would be allocated grants of land and places in new colonies on spear-won territory. The whole population of the city witnessed the triumphal processions that followed each successful campaign. Prisoners and booty were paraded through the streets in a pageant that might last days. Games and feasts were provided and afterwards temples were built to repay the gods for the favour they had shown Romans during combat.9Looking back on Rome’s rise to power, it is very tempting to look for some one single force propelling their martial march through history. Many Romans eventually came to believe in a divine mandate, while their enemies saw them as unusually militaristic. The reality is more complex.

Explanations for Roman expansion tend to stress either internal or external factors. Internal factors include the variety of political and economic pressures that made Romans take opportunities for conflict when they presented themselves. External factors include actual threats (both real and imagined), but also the political configuration of the world into which Rome expanded. Naturally internal and external factors interacted, the external environment shaping the evolution of Roman society as it sought ways to out-compete its rivals and in turn the internal dynamics of Roman society impacting on the wider world. Over time, Rome behaved less and less like other states, for example by dropping the conventional diplomatic language with which it first of all presented itself to the Greeks. The more powerful Rome became the more it shaped the world it had to deal with.

Let us begin with internal factors. I have already described how Rome became hooked on annual warfare probably during the fifth century BC. The attraction of booty and prestige is obvious; both could be represented as in the interests of the community as well as of the individuals concerned. But this is not a sufficient explanation for Roman imperialism since many ancient states were geared to frequent warfare, and very few became hegemonic powers. It was the structure of alliances built up from the fourth century that locked Rome into expansion. The process had its own outward dynamic. It was not simply that the Romans could only exercise their leadership by summoning the allies to fight alongside them: the more peoples were reduced to allied status, the further away from Rome potential enemies came to be located. There are many parallels for such a process, from the imperial expansions of the ancient Near East to those of the New World empires of the Aztecs and the Inka.10 Meanwhile Roman institutions, Roman ideology, and even Roman religion were progressively adapted to incremental expansion.11 I described already how it was institutions—not technology or motivation or resources—that gave Rome its comparative advantage over its earliest enemies. But those institutions—the sequence of triumphs, the aristocratic families tending their ancestors’ victory temples, the frequent distributions of booty and especially of land—raised expectations. Once again there is a close parallel with the success of the Qin state in contemporary China, one among a group of rival kingdoms in what is known as the Warring States Period, which had in the fourth century BC developed a powerful set of administrative and agrarian systems, and the ideologies to accompany them that enabled it to mobilize land and population much more effectively than its rivals. Qin expansion too involved drawing on the resources of the conquered and programmes of settlement, and culminated in 221 BC in the creation of the first unified empire.12 Unlike Rome, however, it then faced no external rivals of equivalent power.

Rome emerged from Italy into a hostile world. Stopping expansion after the defeat of Pyrrhus might have been possible—after all, Augustus would later be able to stop the much bigger juggernaut of late first-century expansion—but only if Italy been a remote island. The presence of Carthage close at hand, and the anarchic politics of the eastern Mediterranean, required the expansionist dynamic to be stepped up, not wound down. By the time Rome and her allies faced no serious competition within Italy, their future rivals were already watching them with apprehension. The wars with Carthage, Macedon, and Syria were of a different nature from any that Rome had fought within Italy. They were larger in scale, were sometimes fought on multiple fronts, and once started they were difficult to disengage from until a decisive victory had been won. The Punic Wars threatened Rome with much more than humiliation in the event of defeat. Hannibal was quite successful in detaching some allies from Rome. Signs of the seriousness with which the Senate treated Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in 216 included a collection of almost all gold jewellery from Roman matrons, and apparently also the live burial of a Gallic couple and a Greek couple in the Roman forum. The kingdoms of the east were also serious opponents. When Antiochus III invaded Greece in 191 he was making an explicit challenge to Roman hegemony in the Balkans. Like Pyrrhus, he saw himself following in the steps of Alexander, but his resources were vastly greater. His kingdom stretched to the border of modern Pakistan. He had personally defeated rebellions in its eastern provinces and Anatolia, had won back southern Syria and Asia Minor from Egypt, and conquered Armenia and Afghanistan. Rome, in other words, was faced with genuine and major threats in the late third and early second centuries BC.

The result was a transformation of Roman warfare and the way Romans managed their hegemony. For a start the number of legions levied each year increased significantly, being reduced in the 160s only after the defeats of Carthage, Macedon, and Syria, the completion of the conquest of Italy, and major advances in Spain. Back in the fourth century it had generally been possible to confine warfare to a short summer campaigning season, allowing generals to revert to being civil magistrates and soldiers to working their farms at other times of the year. That alternation came under increasing pressure as some wars grew in scale and length, and as theatres of war were increasingly located further and further from Rome. Rome found herself fighting Carthage by sea in the third century, and the second-century wars in Spain and the Balkans required generals to lead out armies that might not return for years. Magistrates could not always command distant armies along with all their other duties. The Roman elite, innovative as ever, developed new ways of managing warfare. Former magistrates, and sometimes just experienced leaders, were increasingly given commands, and some were extended year after year. Generals operating overseas had to be allowed greater freedom of action too, to decide in effect on war and peace within only fairly broad parameters set by their initial commands.13

The armies they commanded were also changing. The core of a Roman army remained its citizen levies until the reign of Augustus, but in terms of equipment, tactics, and support troops it was in constant evolution. City-state warfare in the classical Mediterranean had been conducted between bodies of heavy armed spearmen, formed up in the formation called a phalanx and supported by small numbers of missile troops and lightly armed cavalry. Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Etruscans, and Campanians all fielded different versions of this kind of army in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Armies grew more complex when warfare came to involve populations who fought in other ways, as did Gauls, Samnites, Thracians, Iberians, Numidians, and so on. Not only did the emergent imperial powers have to be able to deal more flexibly with their opponents: they were increasingly able to draw on conquered or allied populations or else hire mercenaries to supplement heavy armed infantry. Carthaginians and Romans alike relied on a wide range of troop types on the battlefield. The Greek armies used by Macedon, Syria, and Egypt were also supported by cavalry, light infantry, and missile troops, in their case supporting a phalanx that employed very long pikes. Between the fourth and second centuries BC, the core of the Roman army was transformed from a phalanx of spearmen to a body of heavily armed troops equipped with heavy javelins and swords. A variety of smaller tactical units were developed, in particular the maniple of around 120 men and the cohort of around 400. The flexibility allowed by these systems and weapons gave Roman armies some advantages over both the phalanx of Greek armies (as happened at Cynoscephalae) and less well-equipped opponents like the Gauls.

Empire’s Rewards and the Cost of Empire

Meanwhile the economics of hegemony became more complex. Apart from booty and initial confiscation of land, Rome regularly extracted only levies of manpower from her defeated Italian enemies. Carthage and the kings could be made to pay indemnities extended over decades to provide the Roman state with a regular income. That income was largely spent funding grandiose building in the capital.14 Building works were contracted out by the censors to Roman citizens, who in this way shared in the proceeds of empire. Polybius was struck by the scale of this operation.

The people are subordinated to the Senate and must defer to them both collectively and also as private individuals. For a very great number of public contracts are issued by the censors for the construction and repair of public works all over Italy. It would not be easy to enumerate them all: and there are also contracts for the management of rivers, of ports, of orchards, of mines and land: in short, all those things that are in the power of the Roman state. The general populace is involved in all these affairs, so much so that one might almost say that everyone has an interest in these contracts and projects. For there are some who bid before the censors in the forum to have the contracts for themselves; others go into partnership with them; some stand surety for the sums involved; while yet others pledge their own wealth to the state for them.15

From the 180s we begin to hear of great construction projects around the forum, spending on the harbours of Rome, and on roads and colonies. During his censorship Cato the Elder commissioned a vast covered hall for indoor meetings, known grandiosely as the Basilica Porcia after the Royal Stoa (the Stoa Basilike given to Athens by the King of Pergamum). It was funded not from booty or private wealth, but from public revenues. The final defeat of Macedon resulted in a permanent exemption for Roman citizens from direct taxation. From the 160s on the Roman people were, in this sense at least, all beneficiaries of empire. The destruction of Carthage was followed almost immediately by the construction of the magnificent aqueduct known as the Aqua Marcia. Less welcome was the effective end to colonial settlement, a practical consequence of the conquest of Italy linked to a less rational refusal to settle Romans beyond the peninsula. Spending in Rome and the end of colonization helped swell the size of the capital, and so the demand for public works. Rome was now locked into a cycle of urban growth as well as one of imperial expansion.

Indemnities were extracted from rich and complex societies whose economies had been left intact. Like booty, the proceeds were spent mostly in Italy. The needs of armies in the new overseas territories had to be supplied by other means. The cities of Sicily had paid an annual tithe to Syracuse, and Rome appropriated this. Spanish tribes supplied their occupiers first with grain, and then with cash tribute. Roman power over Spain also allowed them to license exploitation of the silver mines around Cartagena (New Carthage), the former Punic capital.16 These origins of a provincial tax system do not seem to follow a grand plan. It was often left to Roman conquerors and generals to devise systems that worked locally, and these were often based on pre-Roman precedents. Fragments of the fiscal systems of Hiero of Syracuse and of the kings of Pergamum survived long into the imperial taxation systems. Wherever locals did not undertake the relevant collection or exploitation themselves, contracts were once again issued to Roman citizens. The attractions of running an empire through public contracts are obvious: the state did not need to create a colonial administration, what risks there might be were borne by private individuals, and a wide circle benefited from the proceeds of victory. Polybius added that their dependence on the Senate and the censors kept those who wanted contracts subservient. But the downsides to public contracting are only too well known today. Contractors took the short-term view, and were prepared to exploit provincial subjects without mercy while they held the contract. The Roman term for a contractor, publicanus, is regularly paired with ‘sinners’ in the Gospels.

Rome’s struggles with other Mediterranean hegemonic powers also changed the politics of warfare. Alongside the increased scale of conflict, there appear voices of restraint. Real differences seem to have emerged both in the Senate and the assembly about the advisability of particular wars. The war against Philip V of Macedon was almost headed off in the assembly. Cato the Elder had to badger the Senate for years to finish off Carthage. The destruction of Carthage and Corinth clearly appalled some Romans. One reason Rome’s eastern allies found it difficult to second-guess Roman policy in their region during the second century was that it genuinely was unpredictable. There was a marked resistance to acquiring territory east of the Adriatic, even after Rome had more or less had to create a province in Macedonia in the 140s. When, in 133, Attalus III of Pergamum died leaving his kingdom to Rome, the legacy was only accepted when Tiberius Gracchus took it to the popular assembly and promised that the proceeds would be used to fund renewed land distributions within Italy.

Not all the wars of the late third and early second century were conflicts between great powers. Roman armies fought in Spain and north Italy for much of the period, ventured into the Gallic interior, were drawn into, or provoked, secondary wars in the Balkans and Asia Minor. Generally these wars were less controversial, but occasionally senators complained about wars fought, with no formal authority, against distant peoples; attempts were made to deny triumphs to some of these generals. Generals might well respond that the Senate did not understand the situation on the ground, and some pointed to the proceeds of their victories. Competitive building enriched the monumental fabric of Rome, triumphal festivals, historical dramas, and epics all involved the people in the imperial project. Occasionally, commissions of senators were dispatched to regularize post-campaign settlements, or to inspect colonies. Embassies visited Rome from all sides. It is a sinister sign that in 149 BC a law court was set up to deal with accusations of corruption by representatives of the Roman state abroad. The leadership of allies under arms had mutated into a different form of imperial rule.

Comprehending Empire

Looking at Roman expansion in terms of the comparative advantages of its institutions makes good sense to us, as it did to the Greek Polybius. Like him, we are heirs to a style of political analysis that goes back to Aristotle. But it is worth asking how the Romans comprehended this extraordinary story. A rich example is provided by one family that did more than most to lead Rome over these centuries.

The Cornelii were one of the largest of the clans out of which the Republican aristocracy, or rather its inner circle, was comprised. The Cornelii Scipiones comprised one section of the clan. The family is well known from historical writing and would be famous even if their rock-cut tomb had not been found beside the Appian Way leading out of Rome and excavated in the late eighteenth century. The tomb contains nine sarcophagi—there would once have been many more—each with an epitaph. As it happens these fill out parts of the family tree least well known from the narratives of Polybius and Livy. The family was of patrician status, which Romans sometimes understood to mean descendants of the aristocracy of the Regal Period. By the third century patrician families no longer monopolized high political office or the great priesthoods, but they were certainly over-represented in them.

The eldest of those whose epitaphs were found in the tomb, Scipio Barbatus, was consul in 298 BC, his two sons were consuls in 260 and 258, and one held a rare second consulship in 254. The next generation held consulships in 222, 221, and 218 and their children in 205, 191, 190, and 176. The consul of 205 was the victor of Zama, the battle that had ended the second Punic war. He took the name Scipio Africanus and held a second consulship in 194. Through his influence his brother was consul in 190 and led the war against Antiochus, for which he took the title Asiaticus. These continental nicknames accurately express the scale of their reputations, or egos.

Livy tells the story of how, late in life, Africanus was tried before the people for corruption. On the second day of the trial he was summoned before the tribunes. He approached them where they were seated on the Rostra at one end of the Roman forum, accompanied by a great crowd of his friends and clients. Silence fell, and he addressed them

On this very day, tribunes of the people and you too my fellow citizens, I fought a battle against Hannibal and the Carthaginians, with good fortune and with success. So, since it seems reasonable that all cases and procedures be suspended for today, I am going at once from here up onto the Capitol to praise Jupiter the Greatest and Best, to Juno, to Minerva and to the other gods who preside on the Capitol and the Citadel. And I will thank them that on this very day, and on other occasions, they gave me the strength and wisdom to do great service to the state. Citizens, those of you who are able, come with me and pray to the gods that you may always have leaders like myself. For from time when I was seventeen years old right up to my old age you have always given me honours appropriate to men older than myself, and I have always anticipated your honours by my deeds.17


Fig 5. The sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus, Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican

The court rose, the story goes, and followed him in a tour of the temples of the city. Maybe it is a fiction, and Africanus seems to have lived his last years in a voluntary exile in Liternum on the Bay of Naples, so perhaps he did not get off scot free. But the anecdote tells us how he was remembered.

The next generation of the Scipiones was not so distinguished, although one was consul as late as 138. But the name was unstoppable. By adopting the son of another great family, the Aemilii Pauli one of whom had destroyed the Macedonian kingdom in 168, the family recruited Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus: he served as consul in 147 and commanded the force that finally destroyed Carthage once and for all, a second Africanus. As a statesman and a patron of the arts, he was idealized by Cicero as guiding the state during the years before civil war became endemic.

Family traditions are created by remembering, and memory is always selective. The epitaphs in the tomb were particularly susceptible to this process, but for what it is worth the image that emerges is a consistent one.18 Each of the Scipiones is praised for personal qualities—often beauty as well as virtue—and some at least of their offices are listed, but the great field of achievement is war. Barbatus won wars against Etruscans and Samnites and subdued all of Lucania in the south of the peninsula. As well as the consulship he was elected censor and held the most prestigious priesthood in Rome, the position of pontifex maximus. His son, the consul of 259, also made censor. His victories were naval ones, conquering almost all of Corsica from the Carthaginians. On his return he set up a temple to the goddesses of the storms. His brother triumphed in 253 after capturing the city of Panormus in Sicily. And on and on. The consul of 222 led the conquest of Milan and the Gallic tribe of the Insubres whose capital it was. His son was selected in 204 as the noblest Roman citizen and so the best suited to welcome the arrival of the Great Mother Goddess from Asia Minor when her cult statue was brought to Rome. He too had his victories over the Gauls. Successive victories were won further and further afield, the honours expressed in the same words generation after generation. From our perspective, we see the profound structural changes Rome underwent as it moved from an aggressive Italian city-state to ruler of the Mediterranean. But for the Cornelii Scipiones—and doubtless too for the Fabii Maximi, the Sempronii Gracchi, and all those other great families that rivalled them, married into them, and told the same story of Rome with only slightly different inflections—their family history formed part, a leading part, of a narrative of conquest that lasted for centuries.

Further Reading

William Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome (Oxford, 1979) changed the way Roman imperialism is discussed, moving attention from Roman justifications for wars to the political, social, and ideological factors driving expansion. The Roman takeover of the Greek east is chronicled in Erich Gruen’s Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Berkeley, 1984). Arthur Eckstein’s Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome (Berkeley, 2006) offers an interpretation based on political science. Graham Shipley’s The Greek World after Alexander (London, 2000) is a marvellous guide to the world that Rome destroyed. John Richardson discusses Rome’s less glamorous, but enormously significant, first experiments in imperialism in the west inHispaniae (Cambridge, 1986).

Modern debates over the domestic consequences of Roman overseas expansion begin from Peter Brunt’s Italian Manpower (Oxford, 1971). The first chapters of Keith Hopkins’s Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge, 1978) present a lucid argument relating imperialism to the growth of slavery and the expansion of the city of Rome. But the demography has recently come under renewed scrutiny. Excellent starting points for this debate are Nathan Rosenstein’s Rome at War (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004) and a collection of papers edited by Luuk de Ligt and Simon Northwood under the title People, Land and Politics (Leiden, 2008).

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