Ancient History & Civilisation

KEY DATES IN CHAPTER VII

146 BC

Both Carthage and Corinth sacked by Roman armies

133–129BC

Rome takes control of the kingdom of Pergamum, creating the province of Asia and making client kings out of the rulers of Bithynia, Pontus, Cappadocia

133 BC

Tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus marks the beginning of popularis politics in Rome

125–122BC

Roman armies campaign in the Rhône Valley

123 BC

Tribunate of Gaius Gracchus marks an acceleration of urban violence in Rome

120 BC

Mithridates VI succeeds to the throne of Pontus

112–104BC

War in North Africa against Jugurtha of Numidia

110–101BC

Wars against the Cimbri and Teutones in Gaul, Spain, and north Italy. Marius held an unprecedented six consulships in this period

103–100BC

Tribunates of Saturninus. Pitched battles in Rome, as tension increased between Senate and people, Senate and equestrians, and Marius and the Senate

102 BC

Antonius’ campaign against the pirates

91–87 BC

The Social War in Italy. Rome at war with her allies, defeats them, and then grants most Roman citizenship

89 BC

Mithridates invades Asia, orders the killing of around 100,000 Roman and Italian residents, and crosses to Greece where he is welcomed into Athens. All Roman territory east of the Adriatic was now in enemy hands

VII

CRISIS

As Scipio watched the city completely destroyed while the flames consumed it he is said to have shed tears and lamented openly for his enemies. After reflecting for a while he considered that all cities and peoples and empires pass away, just as all men have their own fates. Troy had suffered this, although once a prosperous city, and the empires of the Assyrians and the Medes, and that of Persia, the greatest empire of its day, and of Macedon that had just recently been so famous. Whether or not deliberately, he quoted the following lines of the Poet

The day will come when Holy Ilium will perish
And Priam, and his people, will be slain

And I spoke to him—for I was his teacher—and asked him what he meant. Without any dissimulation, he answered that he was thinking of his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all mortal things.

(Polybius, Histories 39.5)

The destruction of Corinth and Carthage in 146 BC, following hard on the dismantling of the kingdom of Macedon, and the humiliation of Syria and Egypt, made the Romans masters of the Mediterranean world. Polybius was right about that. Yet within fifty years, they temporarily lost control of all their eastern territory, and nearly lost Italy too in a war against their Italian allies that caught them completely unprepared. Romans were also compelled to fight major wars against new enemies emerging from the interiors of Africa and Spain, Gaul and Germany, and to deal with the growing menace of piracy. Even worse, the crisis of the Republican empire coincided with the onset of internal strife that would lead to multiple political murders and civil wars. Rome survived this bloody century, just. But its civil institutions did not. The assemblies and the Senate lost their power, the courts were first politicized and then marginalized, and the army found a permanent place at the heart of Roman politics. This chapter asks how Rome nearly lost the imperial plot for ever.

The Last Superpower

Polybius’ eyewitness account of Scipio weeping to see Carthage burn is a nice anecdote, but it expresses a sense of Rome’s historic destiny, not a genuine consciousness of risk. There is no sign that either Roman generals or Greek historians really understood the volatile condition to which the Mediterranean world had been reduced by the middle of the second century BC. The neglect of the seas that had allowed piracy to flourish was just one symptom of a much wider problem. Throughout the middle Republic, Roman armies had demonstrated their capacity to smash rival power blocks. But almost nothing had been put in their place. Rome was still much more of a conquest state—a society whose ideologies, economies, and political institutions were geared to constant expansion—than a tributary empire with stable fiscal, governmental, and security systems. Conquest states are common enough in world history, but most have been short-lived and failed to institutionalize their power. Rome nearly joined them.

At the time (167 BC) when Polybius declared Rome ruler of the inhabited world, its directly administered territory consisted of a scatter of colonies and public lands up and down Italy; the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica; and a strip of territory along the Mediterranean coast of Spain. By 146 BC there had been some modest expansion in the Iberian peninsula; otherwise the only additions were a province replacing the former kingdom of Macedon in the central Balkans, and another cut out of the immediate hinterland of Carthage. Rome’s informal authority extended beyond these territories, but quite how far no one knew for sure. Even within areas that were certainly under Roman hegemony, such as the allied communities in Italy, the Greek cities of the Aegean world, and the minor kingdoms of western Asia Minor and North Africa, it was unclear precisely what level of control Romans wished to exercise. Perhaps Romans themselves had not agreed on this question.

That uncertainty was an unfamiliar feature of international relations in the ancient world. Politically pluralist systems, like the world of the classical Greek city-states or the mosaic of Macedonian kingdoms that succeeded them, had tended to develop common rules of engagement. Rome’s first decades in the eastern Mediterranean were marked by attempts to observe some of the diplomatic protocols developed between Graeco-Macedonian kingdoms.1 A city-state could never deal with kings entirely on an equal footing. Cato the Elder was said to have defined a king as ‘a creature that ate flesh’: he put it in Greek, so it might not be misunderstood. Offers of crowns to Roman senators—and reputedly the occasional marriage offer made by a king to an aristocratic Roman woman—caused more tension than help. But Romans learned the slogans and the critical terms of Greek diplomacy, such as the special nuances of terms like autonomia (the right to use one’s own laws), and they learned Greek.2 During the early second century, some senators became quite skilled in the complex diplomatic world of the Greeks, just as some Greeks made themselves experts on Roman habits. But progressively, Rome seemed to depart from the rules, or perhaps to revert to her own. For Greeks, a treaty that concluded a war—like the Peace of Apamea signed with Antiochus III of Syria in 188—recognized the independence of the two parties. The Roman presumption that they could still order around his successors—like Antiochus IV en route to conquer Egypt—must have seemed very odd. Romans, perhaps, were simply treating kings the way they treated Italian allies. Cultural misunderstanding only explains so much, however, given how well some Greeks and Romans knew each other. This sort of treatment was humiliating for kings, and perhaps that was the point. But the behaviour that caused the greatest difficulties was probably not intentional. This was the fact that Rome’s interventions in the east were inconsistent and unpredictable. A number of allies increased their power by stages with no reaction from Rome, only to find that some final expansion provoked a savage response. Rhodes had been an ally against Philip V and Antiochus III and gained territory and influence after their defeats, but fell spectacularly from grace in 167. Delos’s infamous rise was the result of the Romans deliberately deciding to limit Rhodian naval influence by creating a free port in the middle of the Aegean. I have already described how even Polybius, who knew Roman decision-making better than most, was astonished at the treatment meted out to the Achaean League.

One cause of Roman unpredictability was the volatility of domestic politics. A characteristic of all imperial systems is that disputes in the centre of power—the metropole—have disproportionate ramifications in the imperial peripheries.3 Cities, kings, and tribes around the Mediterranean were now peripheral to Rome. It is too simple to say that the Roman Senate was divided into advocates of expansion and those who opposed it. It seems to have been common ground that the expansion of Roman power, of the rule or majesty of the Roman people, was a good thing. But on specific issues there were disagreements. Some were generated by personal rivalries. The enemies of Fulvius Nobilior and Manlius Vulso claimed that their campaigns against the Ambraciots and the Galatians respectively, both waged in the 180s in the aftermath of the great wars against Macedon and Syria, were opportunistic and unnecessary wars carried out for personal glory and gain. They were probably right. Other disagreements may have been on more fundamental principles. Cato campaigned for years before persuading the Senate that the city of Carthage, already twice defeated and subjected to crippling terms, should be destroyed. Eventually he won, but the obliteration of an ancient city shocked others besides Scipio. There was a particular reluctance to expand the areas under direct rule, perhaps from apprehension of the new costs and responsibilities that might follow annexation. Many of those reluctant were apparently senators on whom those responsibilities might fall, while some of the advocates of expansion were those who hoped to benefit from the public contracts that new provinces tended to generate. Tension began to rise between the senatorial aristocracy and the equestrian order from which many of the richer contractors, thepublicani, were drawn.

Pressures for expansion were not always internally generated. For a variety of reasons, most to do with their short-term interest, a number of kings made Rome or the Roman people their heirs.4 When Attalus III of Pergamum died in 133, leaving his royal lands and prerogatives to Rome, many senators did not wish to accept the legacy. But the tribune Tiberius Gracchus, desperate for additional revenue to fund his populist programme of land reform, took the issue to the assembly. As a result Rome acquired first a rebellion, and then a province in western Asia Minor. A decade later Rome acquired permanent responsibilities in southern France after a series of wars to protect her ally Marseilles and the land route to Spain. It is not clear whether a province was set up in 125 or a little later. Republican provinces are easier for us to spot when they were created by absorbing a preexisting kingdom like that of Syracuse or Pergamum: in the west it is more a matter of noticing that the presence of pro-magistrates and armies had become regular instead of periodic.

Even when Romans did take overseas territory into direct rule, they were very selective in doing so. The kings of Pergamum had made their name defending Greek cities from Galatian attacks, and became powerful when Rome excluded the Seleucid kings of Syria from Asia Minor. Their kingdom included a number of ancient Greek cities grown rich on the wealth of the fertile river valleys that flow west from the Anatolian plateau into the Aegean, and also some much poorer highland marches, their defensive line against aggressors from the Anatolian interior. These border territories Rome had no interest in, and promptly handed them over to the minor kings to which she was allied. The security consequences should have been predictable. Yet similar decisions were taking place at the other end of the Mediterranean. Rome administered directly what had been the rich agricultural hinterland of Carthage. But the rest of Carthage’s African empire, the defensive hinterlands, was handed over to the lesser kings of the Numidians and the Moors. The policy, in both spheres, was short-sighted. By the end of the second century, some of Rome’s fiercest enemies were to be drawn from the petty monarchs that she had strengthened in Asia and Africa. The parallels with recent events are depressingly obvious: Manuel Noriega in Panama, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq all began their rise to power as allies of the West.

The career of Jugurtha, King of Numidia, provides a case in point. The Numidians were a federation of peoples living south and west of Carthage’s territory. On the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC these allies were not just given territory and booty, but as Roman allies were also expected to provide troops for Roman wars. Jugurtha enters history in 133 BC as a leader of an allied Numidian detachment supporting Scipio Aemilianus’ eight-month-long siege of the Celtiberian fortress of Numantia in northern Spain. The Roman historian Sallust tells the story of how, immediately after the victory, Scipio took Jugurtha aside, praised his ability, but then advised him to cultivate the friendship of the Roman people as a whole, not of individual Romans. Jugurtha proceeded to do the opposite. The lack of political consensus in Rome meant that it was always possible for him to find some supporters among the Senate, and as he murdered and intrigued his way into a more and more powerful position at home, he protected himself from the complaints to the Senate by bribing prominent figures. Sallust puts into Jugurtha’s mouth the famous description of Rome as ‘A city for sale and ready for destruction just as soon as it finds a buyer’.5

By 118 Jugurtha had murdered one heir to the throne and was at war with another, in 112 he ignored a senatorially mediated partition of the kingdom and two Roman embassies, killed his brother (massacring a group of Italian merchants in the final siege of Cirta), and survived both a Roman invasion and a summons to Rome. Eventually Rome could ignore the situation no longer: a half-hearted war was fought by a succession of senatorial generals until the arrival of Gaius Marius. Jugurtha’s capture in 107 and execution in 104 marked the end of a very long defiance of Rome.

Others watched and learned. Mithridates V of Pontus was one of those minor kings of Asia Minor whose power grew in the power vacuum created by Rome’s defeat of Seleucid Syria. Anatolia had been within the sphere of influence of the Seleucid monarchs, even if not always very firmly under their control, until Rome’s defeat of Antiochus III first at Thermopylae in Greece and then at Magnesia in what is now western Turkey. The Treaty of Apamea signed in 188 BC effectively excluded the Seleucids from any further involvement in Asia Minor. A series of minor kingdoms grew up, some looking more Macedonian in style, some more Persian, all revolving around Rome. Pontus, which stretched along the southern coast of the Black Sea, formed its own hybrid identity, combining Greek titles with Iranian dynastic names. The King of Pontus too sent troops to help Rome against Carthage. When Attalus III of Pergamum, the most important of the Anatolian kingdoms, left his royal lands and prerogatives to Rome in 133, Pontic troops were among the allies helping Rome claim her inheritance, and the king was rewarded with some of the territory Rome did not want. Like Jugurtha, Mithridates V also exploited Roman friendship to expand his power at the expense of his rivals, in particular the kings of Cappadocia. On his death in 120 BC his son, Mithridates VI, used this territory as the basis for an empire that included much of the Black Sea coast and more territory in Anatolia. Soon he too was a threat to Rome’s interests, ignoring diplomatic warnings and gradually accumulating power. But the Romans were unable to confront him, for by then their hegemony was under threat from other directions.

Image

Fig 7. Mithridates VI Eupator King of Pontus portrayed as Hercules

The Limitations of Mediterranean Hegemony

Roman hegemony created problems across the Mediterranean. A few historians have imagined a great conspiracy emerging between Mithridates, rebel slaves, and pirates. But the root cause was an imperialism that generated few structures of security to replace those it destroyed, and responded in an inconsistent way to challenges to its authority. This was not the only structural weakness of the Republican empire. Even if the Senate and people had been able to agree on how to exercise their power, had compelled generals on the ground to toe the line, and had conveyed a clear set of expectations to the cities, kings, and peoples under their indirect authority, Roman rule faced another fundamental weakness, this time geographical.

The defeats of Carthage, Macedon, and Syria had won Rome a Mediterranean empire. It was not just that the directly governed territories were easier to reach by sea than by land. This was in fact true; even provinces that were not actually islands were often separated from Italy by territory not under direct control. But a bigger difficulty was that Romans were most interested in controlling landscapes like those of Italy. Republican imperialism, taking direct rule and informal hegemony together, was exercised over a collection of coastal plains and islands. That is unsurprising. Most imperial nations begin by expanding within a single ecological zone. Chinese empires did not really expand into the tropical south until the Middle Ages.6 European empires fought in the eighteenth century mostly over temperate territories—the so-called Neo-Europes7 —before eventually trying to control sub-Saharan Africa and east Asia; the various central Asian empires— Persian, Macedonian, and Islamic—expanded east and west rather than north. Empire is rarely ecologically adventurous. Settlers prefer familiar landscapes where familiar crops may grow. Romans were slow to master mountains or forests, and treated these landscapes, and their inhabitants, with distrust.8

Unfortunately for Rome, however, the Mediterranean has never been a closed system. The Middle Sea is located at the junction of three continents, the interiors of which have always been closely linked to the coastal fringe.9 Ecotones between Mediterranean landscapes and continental hinterlands promoted exchanges of goods, technologies, and peoples since the beginning of the Holocene.10 In Africa and Asia Minor, in Gaul, Spain, and the Balkans, Rome tried to separate off the upland interiors from the parts they wished to control. That strategy was doomed to failure. Rome never had any chance of staying within her ecological comfort zone. It was not the first Mediterranean city-state to underestimate the economic and demographic resources of areas they regarded as barbarous. Greek history is littered with accounts of the terrifying power of groups from the interior, such as Scythians and Thracians and in the end Macedonians. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw a great pattern in Middle Eastern history in which nomads from the margins repeatedly invaded the settled civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, and were then absorbed by them. Chinese history too has been written in terms of a constant struggle for control of its Inner Asian Frontier, the long boundary between the lands or rice-cultivating city dwellers and peoples of the Steppe.11 Both Jugurtha and Mithridates challenged Rome with resources drawn from outside the Mediterranean world. In Jugurtha’s case the Romans had only themselves to blame, since it was they who had tried to restrict him to the Wild West of Numidian territory. From the uplands of the Maghreb he created a powerful army, and based himself in a landscape that Roman armies found hard to deal with. Mithridates made similar use of Anatolia and the Pontic regions, areas that Rome had disdained to rule.

Roman generals were progressively drawn into other continental interiors. The occupation of what is now Andalusia and Mediterranean Spain brought Rome into contact with the much larger tribes of the Meseta, tribes like the Celtiberians with whom two generations of Romans fought between the 180s and the fall of Numantia in 133 BC. There were no easy frontiers before the Atlantic, and it took until the reign of Augustus to reach it. Possession of the Po Valley involved Romans in campaigns to control the Alpine valleys and Liguria. That, together with alliances left over from the war with Hannibal, brought Roman troops to the mouth of the Rhône and the territory of the Greek city of Marseilles. Minor campaigns escalated during the 120s into conflicts with the much larger tribal confederacies of the Allobroges, based in the middle Rhône Valley, and the Arverni of the Central Massif. Rome also exercised some sort of hegemony over the Greek cities and Illyrian tribes of the eastern Adriatic. But behind them, and to the north of the new province of Macedonia, were powerful nations like the Dacians and the Bastarnae and to their east the Thracians.

Rome had little experience to draw on in dealing with threats of this kind. The major tribal confederacies of temperate Europe could marshal armies numbered in the hundreds of thousands, were technologically on a par with Roman troops, and had impressive fortified sites, even if they did not possess an infrastructure of cities and roads.12 Greek and Roman sources presented northern barbarians as unpredictable savages. But these barbarians were also feared. Romans never forgot the Gallic sack of Rome in 390: traditions varied about whether all or part of the city had fallen, and who should take the credit for Rome’s survival, but treasure was piled up against further Gallic menaces until Julius Caesar’s day, and the constitutions of Italian cities long had a clause in them requiring them to provide troops in the event of a tumultus Gallicus. Greeks on the other hand remembered the events of 279 BC when a raiding party from the Balkans, identified as Kelts or Galatai, had got as far as the sanctuary of Delphi before being driven off,perhaps by the god Apollo himself. Not long after these events three Galatian tribes had crossed over into Asia Minor and set up tribal kingdoms on the plateau, from which Galatian raiding parties held coastal cities to ransom. The reputation of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamum had been founded on their success in containing the Galatian threat. After the defeat of the Seleucids the Roman general Manlius Vulso marched up onto the plateau and defeated them once again, bringing back great quantities of booty to Rome. But Romans and Greeks alike were well aware that great populations of similar barbarians occupied Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic, and further migrations and invasions were possible in the future.

That fear was rekindled in 113 when another horde ran into a Roman army in Noricum in the eastern Alps. Over the next dozen years the horde passed through Switzerland and the Rhône Valley, through central France, down into Spain, and then back again into Italy. En route they defeated a second and a third Roman army in 110 and 105. It was only Marius, the victor of Jugurtha, who finally defeated the two parts of the migration, the Teutones in 102 at Aix-en-Provence, and the Cimbri in 101 at Vercellae in northern Italy. Romans did not feel like rulers of the world now. Eastern kings openly defied their requests for help, watching the growth of Mithridates’ power closer at hand. Marius, despite his origins outside the charmed circle of the nobles, and his links with the equestrians and populist politicians, was elected to an unprecedented six successive consulships to deal with the emergency.

Solutions and Failures

Romans were no fools, and the failures of their second-century hegemony were clear to them. Their analysis, however, was rather different from ours. We see inadequate infrastructure; an unsustainable preference for occasional booty over a tributary economy; and an unrealistic desire to control familiar landscapes, while ignoring the hinterlands with which they were joined. Knowing what came next we find it difficult to see why Rome did not move more quickly to institutionalize her power. Romans, however, saw a lack of the moral qualities advertised in the tomb of the Scipiones.13 Both the rise of Jugurtha and the ineffectiveness of the first armies sent to deal with him was laid, by Sallust, at the door of the inner circle of the aristocracy, the nobles. Their susceptibility to bribery and their failures of generalship were signs of moral weakness. It was Marius, a man with no senatorial ancestors yet possessed of traditional virtues, who had saved the day first against Jugurtha, and then against the Germans.

One of Marius’ associates, Marcus Antonius, was appointed to a command in 102 against the pirates. By good fortune we have large parts of a law passed around this time designed to improve the government of Rome’s directly administered territories in the east.14 One revolutionary feature was that it required Roman governors and commanders to coordinate their efforts to suppress piracy. It is a sign of a new consciousness of the obligations of empire, and of the will of at least some of Rome’s leaders to try to design solutions that went beyond telling a general to raise an army and deal with this or that king, or people, or threat, in whatever manner he thought fit. The law was inscribed on stone and set up in a number of Greek cities. That fact too shows some awareness on the part of the drafters that Rome was no longer regarded as the liberating power. They were certainly right about this. A permanent law court had been set up in 123 BC to hear corruption cases brought by provincials against Romans in the provinces, one with more powerful provisions than its predecessor. It had received a good deal of use.

The decision of the assembly to accept the legacy of Attalus III, the passing of this great law, the commands of Marius and of Antonius, all emerged from a new style of politics that appeared in Rome in the late second century. It was created and led by a small group of senators who presented themselves as champions of the people, the populus Romanus. All Roman politics was cast in traditional terms, and they too claimed precedents and predecessors. But in reality both the problems they addressed and the solutions they proposed were new, as was in fact the politicized urban crowd to whom this politics was addressed.15 The most common term for the new leaders was populares.

The most prominent members were Tiberius Gracchus and his brother Gaius, tribunes of the people in 133 and 123 respectively, and descendants of a family that had intermarried with the Cornelii Scipiones, and played a prominent part in the conquest of Spain. Other leading figures included some men from quite different backgrounds, like Marius, but also others from ancient families. Julius Caesar was later to be associated with this movement. They sought the support of the popular assemblies, as their views could not achieve consensus in the Senate, and their rhetoric spoke of the ancient rights and prerogatives of the people. Their legislation included proposals to distribute public land to poorer citizens, to found new colonies outside Italy, and to provide subsidized (and later free) grain to the population of the city of Rome. Many chose to stand as tribunes of the people, converting what had been a minor political office designed to protect the interests of plebeians, into a platform for wide-ranging reform. But they were hardly revolutionaries. Introducing the secret ballot into elections was the limit of their constitutional reform, and they seemed quite content with the structure of assemblies that gave more influence to the propertied classes, and with the senatorial monopoly of magistracies and priesthoods. Nor were their laws limited to matters of immediate concern to the people, let alone the poor of the city of Rome. No issue of Roman politics, from diplomacy and war to state revenues, the law courts, and Rome’s deteriorating relations with her Italian allies, was beyond their interests. What united their proposals was a willingness to form radical solutions to the crisis of the empire, and the oratorical skill to persuade the assemblies to back them when the Senate would not.16

The programme of the Gracchi and their successors was no more consistent than the policies of earlier generations of senators. The proposal to redistribute public land brought howls of protest from allied communities, many of whose members had quietly if irregularly rented it for generations. Yet they also proposed more rights for the Italians. Their improved corruption court put senators at the mercy of Rome’s equestrian order, ostensibly to improve the capacity of provincials to get redress against governors. But the organization of Asia handed the provincials over to those same equestrians by allocating them tax-farming contracts in a way that encouraged short-term exploitation from which governors were now afraid to restrain them. Opponents of these proposals found a common thread in the challenge posed to the leadership of the Senate. The law on piracy required magistrates to swear one by one to uphold it. Clauses like this appear in other legislation of the period. The implication was a grave insult to those who felt part of a class with a hereditary right to rule.

Mutual frustration and distrust led to ferocious condemnations and eventually violence. Both Gracchi brothers died in pitched battles in the streets of Rome, effectively between rival mobs of senators reinforced by their clients. Invoking the rights of the people and proposing radical legislation was not original in Rome. Cato too had made political capital out of his allegedly humble origins as a weapon against opponents of most ancient families. But political murder was something new. The deaths of the Gracchi were only the beginning. Marius was, for a while, an active supporter of another radical tribune, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus. Colonization, land distribution, and attacks on the nobles were once again on the agenda, the popular assemblies were again used to circumvent the Senate, and once again it ended in violence. Marius could have summoned his veteran soldiers to save Saturninus, but he refused to do so. This was the last time such restraint would be shown.

Roman orators and historians since Cicero spent a good deal of time wondering how things had come to this pass. Modern scholars have done the same. Ancient accounts stress the corrupting effects of wealth, and the arrogance brought by empire. Modern writers note the explosive potential of the city of Rome, doubling in size each generation, a good part of the population composed of migrants without secure employment or close links of clientage to the ancient houses. The measures proposed show a keen sense of the scale and range of Rome’s problems, and the solutions included genuinely innovative ideas, some borrowed from Greek history and philosophy. Most of all they show how dealing with the structural problems of the city of Rome, the Italian alliance, and the Mediterranean empire were no longer within the competence of the Senate alone. That these radical solutions were first proposed by political insiders perhaps tells us something of unrecorded collective failures of nerve and imagination by the ruling classes of Rome in the decades following the destruction of Corinth and Carthage.

Perhaps the most surprising failure was closest to home. By the late second century the role of Rome’s Italian allies had become increasingly problematic: they shared in the strains of continual warfare, but received only a fraction of the benefits. When warfare pressed hard on the Roman citizenry, it pressed hard on the allies too. But the allies did not have a chance to vote on declarations of war, and although they usually received a share of the booty it was not always an equal share. Their commanders took orders from Roman magistrates in the field. The Italians were partners in profiteering from empire, as well as in its acquisition. We find their names on inscriptions set up around the marketplaces of Delos, and in the politics of the great cities of Asia Minor. Overseas they all spoke Latin and were collectively known, and treated, as Romans. Often the same families can be traced making money overseas and spending it in the towns of central Italy. Italians were energetic members of the trade networks that linked the slaving grounds of the east and north, the breadbaskets of the south, the vineyards of Tuscany and Campania, and the metal sources of Spain and the Alps to Rome.

At the centre of these networks was Rome, and many Italians visited, but their interests were generally excluded from the new politics of the populares. At best this meant they were excluded from some of the rewards of empire: cheap grain, grand building schemes sponsored by the state, lavish festival games and triumphs, the lucrative opportunities offered by public contracts for which only Roman citizens were eligible, the growing protection offered by Roman courts. At worse they might be the collateral damage of Roman politics, as when the Gracchan land redistributions unintentionally dispossessed Italian tenants on state land. Roman rule over Italy also seems to have become more autocratic. Ancient testimony gathers anecdotes about arrogant acts on the part of individual magistrates. These were the grievances of which they were conscious, but there were certainly other causes of tension. The growth on the peninsula of a city of half a million must have had profound effects on other Italian towns, especially drawing manpower to Rome. Colonization initiatives had petered out with the final conquest of the lands north of the Apennines: that removed both a possible source of tension, and also opportunities for allies who had sometimes been allowed to share in the schemes. The enrichment of the Roman elite and their investment in slave-villas had effects that are difficult to map. But in every case the Italians suffered from a lack of representation, creating a need to depend on Roman aristocrats who were willing to patronize them. Thedomi nobiles (men who were aristocrats in their own communities) were forced to behave as clients.

The problem had begun to be noticed by the end of the second century, even by the populares. But schemes to offer the Italians various kinds of citizenship or legal redress came to nothing. Expectations were repeatedly raised only to be disappointed when the Senate and/or the people refused to back them. The flashpoint finally came in 91 BC. A tribune named Marcus Livius Drusus had proposed a comprehensive political programme designed to heal the political rifts opened by the proposals and murders of the Gracchi and of Saturninus. The plan was an ambitious one, including bringing 300 equestrians into the Senate to smooth over relations there, and a great colonization programme. Some of these elements would re-emerge in Sulla’s dictatorship. But it also included granting citizenship to the Italians. Hopes were raised again, and then dashed. The laws he had passed were abolished, and Drusus himself was murdered. This was the final straw. A great alliance appeared almost overnight, one in which the hill peoples of the Apennines, the Marsi, the Samnites, and others, took the lead. Historians disagree about their precise aims—did they want to destroy the Roman state, or become a full part of it? Perhaps the allies themselves were divided.17 Italian voices are now lost: the speeches made at the time were not recorded, and all historical accounts of the Social or Italian War are coloured by a desire for reconciliation and the teleology of the fall of the Republic. But their tactics were well worked out. Italian leaders knew each other well from service together on Roman campaigns and from participating in a social world that centred on the great houses of their Roman friends. A new capital was declared at Corfinium (renamed Italia), in the heart of the Abruzzi mountains. Coins were issued for a new Italian state. Some depicted an Italian bull trampling on a Roman wolf. Rome suddenly found herself struggling for control of the peninsula for the first time since Hannibal’s rout.

Politicians of all sides rallied to Rome’s cause. Marius, no longer as popular as when he had routed the Cimbri and Teutones, fought alongside his rival Sulla. There were two frantic years of fighting, between 90 and 89, with a couple more years of mopping-up actions. Rome won the battles, but conceded all that had been demanded. By 87 most Italians were Roman citizens. The reasons were straightforward. Rome had been fighting wars she had not chosen for nearly two decades, she had only just escaped a repeat of the Gallic sack, and the domestic political system was imploding. Survival without the Italians was unthinkable. And just to encourage them to do the right thing, yet another threat emerged.

War in Italy offered Mithridates of Pontus an unmissable opportunity. His armies annexed the neighbouring kingdoms of Bithynia and Cappadocia in 89 BC. The deposed kings bribed the Roman ambassador Manius Aquillius to compel Mithridates to restore them. But when Aquillius ordered Bithynia to invade Pontus in punishment, Mithridates invaded the Roman province of Asia, executed Aquillius by pouring molten gold down his throat to punish him for his greed, and instructed the Greek cities to demonstrate their loyalty by killing all their Roman residents. Estimates of the Roman and Italian dead range between 80,000 and 150,000. The Pontic armies swept across the Aegean to Athens; there the anti-Roman faction welcomed them with open arms. Victory was short-lived. Sulla marched east to sack Athens. The peace he made with Mithridates was not a permanent solution, but enough to allow him to return to Rome determined to purge the city of popularis politics, and of its main exponents. At home and abroad politics had entered a new, and bloodier, phase.

Further Reading

Robert Morstein-Marx’s From Hegemony to Empire (Berkeley, 1995) expertly tracks the evolution of Roman rule in the east between the fall of Carthage and the supremacy of Pompey. The opening chapters of the first volume of Stephen Mitchell’sAnatolia(Oxford, 1993) set this story in a rich geographic frame. Rome’s equally tentative search for stable limits of power in the western Mediterranean is the subject of Stephen Dyson’s The Creation of the Roman Frontier (Princeton, 1985); one of the many strengths of this work is the inspiration it draws from comparative studies. The implications of seeing the Mediterranean as a region in which continents meet, rather than a world enclosed in itself, are discussed in several contributions to William Harris’sRethinking the Mediterranean (Oxford, 2005).

The best single account of the collapse of the Republican system is the title essay in Peter Brunt’s The Fall of the Roman Republic (Oxford, 1988). Mary Beard and Michael Crawford’s Rome in the Late Republic (London, 1999) is full of ideas. Anyone seeking a detailed account of the period is referred to volume ix of the Cambridge Ancient History, edited by Andrew Lintott, John Crook, and Elizabeth Rawson (Cambridge, 1994). Howard Scullard’s brilliant textbook From the Gracchi to Nero, 5th edn. (London, 1982) is still difficult to beat. Modern understandings of what the populares thought they were doing, at home and in the provinces, have been revolutionized by the publication of a marvellous edition of their epigraphic laws, in Michael Crawford’s Roman Statutes(London, 1996). Andrew Lintott’s Judicial Reform and Land Reform in the Roman Republic (Cambridge, 1992) contributes to the same debate. Important essays on the role of the people in this period are now helpfully gathered in the first volume of Fergus Millar’s collected papers, Rome, the Greek East and the World (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002).

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