Ancient History & Civilisation


Diplomacy and Dominance

As a superior power is naturally disposed to press ever harder on its subordinates, is it in our interest to work with the impulses of our masters and not to make any obstacle, so that very soon indeed we experience even harder commands – or is the opposite our interest, to wrestle with them, as far as we can, and to hold out to the point where we are completely [exhausted]… and by reminding them of these things, we can put a check on their impulse and to a degree curb the harshness of their authority, especially as up to now, at least… the Romans do set more store on observing oaths and treaties and good faith towards their allies?

Philopoimen, in Polybius, 24.13

The Roman magistrates and commanders in these epic years were men with military life in their bones. They all underwent ten years of military service before they were eligible for office. Every magistrate was a horseman, capable of serving his fatherland on horseback on a horse which was underwritten and maintained by public funds. In the age of kings, the cost of the Roman cavalry-horses’ maintenance had been levied, magnificently, from Roman widows and unmarried women. In the Republic, orphans were made liable too. The idea of state-maintained horses had been copied from Greek city-states. Romans like the Scipios or the Fabii were hardened riders, a necessity in Roman republican life which our modern studies of their oratory and political programmes incline to overlook.

These mounted warriors were not deterred by Italy’s surrounding seas: the Adriatic had already been crossed by Roman armies before Hannibal invaded. His first victories then coincided with important business in Greece and Asia, the world of Alexander’s successors. The year 217 saw action on all fronts. In Italy, Hannibal won his devastating victory at Lake Trasimene, but in Asia, King Ptolemy IV and a newly trained army (including Egyptian infantry) won a fine victory at Raphia, to the south-west of Gaza, against the Seleucid army led by King Antiochus III. In Greece, in late summer 217, Greek envoys then met to discuss a continuing war between Greek states. At the time, the Ptolemies were at the forefront of the news after their mid-June victory. One speaker warned, nonetheless, of Rome, ‘the cloud in the West’.1 Within thirty years, this Roman ‘cloud’ would have burst decisively over Greece and the Seleucids’ empire in western Asia. The Ptolemies, by contrast, would have lost their many forts and bases across the Mediterranean and would be further weakened by revolts within Egypt itself.

The Romans’ eastward push into Greece and Asia was most remarkable. They had had a friendship with the Ptolemies since the 270s, in the aftermath of Pyrrhus, but they did not send armies into Greece for that reason. Rather, since the 280s they had settled colonies on the eastern coast of Italy and so, naturally, the Adriatic Sea had become an area of activity for the settlers and their associates. On the other side of the sea lay Illyrian tribes with a long history of raiding. By the 230s they had formed themselves into a more coherent kingdom and so complaints about Illyrian ‘piracy’ could be referred to a recognized authority there. In 229 Roman troops were sent across the Adriatic to uphold such complaints from Italian traders. Romans were also acting once again on an appeal to them from Greek petitioners, this time from Greeks on the intervening Adriatic island of Issa.2

After a quick campaign, the commanding consuls were granted a triumph. The news of Roman victories against the ‘barbarian’ Illyrians was then carefully publicized among the watching Greek states, including Athens. A second ‘Illyrian’ war followed which tidied up threads from the first and brought Rome more directly into contact with the then king of Macedon, young Philip V. In 215 Romans found that this King Philip had been offering his alliance to none other than Hannibal, with the possibility of Macedonian reinforcements in Italy. That discovery was enough to guarantee that a Roman war in Greece would eventually be resumed.

There was ample scope for interference. For a hundred years Greek city-states had remained under the control of the Macedonian kings. There had been periods of war, in which some of them, including Athens, fought for ‘freedom’, but these ventures had usually been helped by a rival Macedonian king, including the Ptolemies in Egypt. Macedonian rule remained in place, drawing revenues from those under it and relying on its garrisons at important points in Greece, as first instituted by Philip II. Within this general framework, power-politics had continued in directions which a Demosthenes or a fourth-century diplomat would readily understand. The ‘leagues’ of that era had gained in strength, especially the Aetolian League in western Greece and the Achaean League, which was now focused on Sicyon in the northern Peloponnese. Within the city-states, there were continuing factional splits between leaders favouring democracy and those favouring oligarchy. In the 220s the longest-running terror in Greek history had returned, a reformed and newly aggressive Sparta under able kings, first Agis, then Cleomenes. The prospect of renewed Spartan rule was enough to turn the Achaean League back to an alignment with the Macedonian king and to give a new twist to a war with the other Greek power-blocs.

The Romans, then, could side with one or other league, respond to one or other faction in the divided city-states or even challenge the Macedonian kings directly. For the time being they were preoccupied with Hannibal in Italy and their next moves in Greece were blunt and ill-judged. In 212/11 they agreed an alliance with the Aetolians in central Greece, the dominant power at Delphi but the least civilized element in all the political divisions in Greece. There was no question of Rome offering ‘freedom’ or even liberation to Greeks under Macedon or anyone else. The Aetolians were to keep any cities taken in war, while Romans would take any movable booty, including quantities of slaves. Other Greeks regarded this sort of robbers’ deal as barbarous and alien.3

For more than ten years Hannibal and Spain distracted the Romans, but in 200 they were free once more, so they returned to Greece in force. They would have returned anyway, but they could point to the useful fact that King Philip of Macedon had meanwhile been attacking friends of Rome in the east Aegean. By autumn 200 the Athenians had joined Rome’s side (they would stay loyal for more than a hundred years), and in 197 the flexible lines of the Roman legionaries, with 2,000 Roman cavalry, won a good victory over Philip’s traditional Macedonian formations at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly. It was now in Rome’s power to announce a settlement of Greek affairs. The hit-and-run style of the earlier treaty with Aetolia had been abandoned and no favour was being shown to its Aetolian partners, despite their help with cavalry at Cynoscephalae: they remained very pained by their rejection. Instead, the Roman commander, Flamininus, declared the ‘freedom of the Greeks’. It was not just a freedom within which key points in Greece would continue to be garrisoned (this limited ‘freedom’ was familiar since Philip II in the 330s). It was a freedom for those key points too. Flamininus had an unusual feel for Greeks’ interests. The announcement was made at the Isthmian Games in 196 and was greeted with such thunderous Greek applause, people said, that birds dropped dead from the sky.4

Even so, the Romans’ horizons were not confined to the Greeks in Greece. They had already begun to make public references to the status of Greek cities in Asia and Europe who were under royal Seleucid rule. Artfully, they presented themselves here too as if they were intervening on behalf of friends. For there were fellow ‘Trojans’ in Asia around the site of Troy, and further south Romans had their long-standing ‘friends’, the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had recently lost a whole cluster of their overseas Greek bases in western Asia; they were even alleged to be at risk from a ‘secret pact’ between King Philip of Macedon and the Seleucid King Antiochus III. To foster their image the Romans publicized their conviction that, as their successes were proving, the gods were on their side and their foreign campaigns were justified.

In 192 the disgruntled Aetolians invited the alarmed King Antiochus to cross over from Asia into Greece with an army. Nonetheless, the Romans had already decided on a direct campaign against him, to be taken east into his own historic territories. First they won a clever victory at the historic site of Thermopylae in Greece and forced Antiochus back into western Asia. In 189 their legionaries then won the final battle at Magnesia in western Asia. The territory of Seleucid kings here was ‘liberated’ after a hundred and fifty years of Greek rule since Alexander the Great, a ‘liberator’ too. But much of it was promptly given over to friends of Rome, in the south to the islanders of Rhodes, in the north-west to King Eumenes, who was based in his royal city of Pergamum. The interests of the Ptolemies were bluntly dropped from consideration.

The Romans, meanwhile, received the immense sum of 15,000 talents, to be paid in instalments. Carthage, too, was still paying them yearly sums and the 15,000 talents did not even include the copious booty from Asia. Their public finances were transformed. At the same time, their economic strength was helped by a simultaneous increase in the numbers of Romans established up and down Italy. The years from 200 to 170 saw a surge of new Roman colonies in Italy which extended up into rich northern farmland near the river Po. It has been estimated that as many as 100,000 settlers were sent out to take up to a million acres of land; great Italian sites like modern Parma or Bologna began their ‘Roman’ history in these years.5 The settlements were an outlet for poorer Roman citizens, who were a possible source of social tension at Rome. Once again it was a classic transformation of an ancient economy, in which war multiplied income and assets, and land-settlements changed the conquering state’s social profile.

After Rome’s victories in Greece, justice, of a sort, followed for Greeks in the new age of publicly declared ‘freedom’. The Roman Senate and Roman commanders found that they were now a frequent resort for appeals from Greek states for impartial justice and territorial arbitration in their own internal disputes. Romans repeatedly heard these requests, but when they reached decisions, quite often they departed from what had seemed to be their previous inclinations. This inconsistency suited the Romans’ new policy of profiting from Greek weaknesses and internal strife. One after another, their former Greek friends and beneficiaries became disgruntled at Romans’ answers to them: Rhodes, King Eumenes of Pergamum and eventually the important Achaean League in the Peloponnese. Ominously, individual Romans began to be remembered for outbursts of ‘anger’ when dealing with Greeks and their business.6 There was a further shift of sympathy. Until the late third century BC democracies had been relatively widespread in the Greek cities. After 196 Romans favoured their avowed friends in the cities and reckoned that these individuals would best advance their interests against an unreliable populace. These friends were usually the richer citizens who stood for ‘order’, not popular rule. It is no coincidence that increasingly dominant big ‘benefactors’ emerge in many of the Greek city-states, as the checks and balances of the democracies began to be set aside, first in the more recently founded Greek city-states, then in the older ‘mother-cities’ in Greece.7 Romans combined the role of ‘policemen of the Mediterranean world’ with an awareness that they were now the most powerful force and could act more or less as they thought fit. Then, too, it was a dangerous combination for their ‘allies’ abroad and those around them.

Between 168 and 146 Roman power was forcefully exercised against remaining ‘enemies’, the king of Macedon (Perseus in 168), the Seleucid king in the Near East (Antiochus IV in 165), tribes on the Dalmatian coast (156) and both the Achaean League in Greece and the remaining territory of Carthage in north Africa (146 BC). Against the Macedonians, the Romans cited their King Perseus’ attempts to provoke revolution in Greece. These attempts were a comment, in fact, on the Greeks’ worsening economic situation since their restored ‘freedom’ in 196. There were also said to be signs that Perseus had been trying to ally himself too closely with the Seleucid kings. It was more correct to admit that Perseus had inherited his predecessor Philip V’s disgust at Roman ‘justice’ in action during the past thirty years. In 168 BC, at the battle of Pydna, Roman legionaries proved once and for all that they were militarily superior to traditional Macedonian tactics and the revered infantry phalanx. After the defeat the kingdom of Macedon was split into four separate districts, but the Macedonians were not used to democracy and, as usually happens, they were quickly at odds with what was imposed on them.

The following years, from 168 to 146, were regarded by a sharp Greek observer, the historian Polybius, as real ‘times of trouble’.8 Certainly, the Romans showed no quarter to those whom they declared to be enemies. In 149 they announced their decision to dismember the long-established Achaean League in Greece, and in 146 they duly did so and destroyed the ancient city of Corinth. In the same year, they utterly destroyed what remained of Carthage (its years of paying reparations had recently ended). Already in 168 their victor at Pydna, Aemilius Paullus, had taken fearful reprisals against the peoples of Epirus in north-west Greece, who had aided adjacent Macedon. The Senate ruled that seventy towns in Epirus were to be plundered and, as a result, as many as 150,000 people were brutally sold into slavery. Masses of Greek works of art were also shipped back to Rome with huge quantities of gold and silver objects. After that horror, it is hard to accept that Rome somehow deteriorated.9

Within seventy years, from the disaster at Cannae in 216 to the ruination of Carthage in 146, the Romans had become the one superpower in the Mediterranean. The results are instructive. Romans now expected ‘obedience’ to orders which they issued of their own accord; Roman commanders were used to exercising ‘command’ (imperium) as magistrates at Rome. When they declared war (as in 156 BC) they were careful to give out a ‘just’ pretext for public consumption, although the real reasons lay elsewhere. By following these pretexts, modern historians have sometimes argued that Rome was only drawn step by step into Greek affairs, that her attacks were usually in self-defence and that, as she did not immediately form her conquests into new provinces, she began with no fixed aim of exploiting them. Fascinating problems of chronology and evidence can be brought against this interpretation, quite apart from the reported views of contemporaries. They also overlook important elements in the Roman mentality and the interrelated complex of glory and gain in Roman society; there was an urge among aspiring commanders to live up to family-ancestors who had aspired to the same achievements, and the goals were booty and a public triumph. It is more cogent to credit Romans with bold designs and decreasing scruples about duplicity and frank aggression in attaining them. Some of the Romans did pick out a ‘new-style wisdom’ among their politicians in the 170s BC which involved telling outright lies and assuming that ‘might is right’.10 Arguably, the ‘new wisdom’ was only an intensification of pre-existing practice. Rome’s success in Greece and western Asia rested above all on her vastly superior manpower and the flexible military tactics which had been adopted before the 320s and had already been proven against Carthage. Her behaviour to her enemies in Greece in these grim years is less of a surprise to those who begin by studying her previous behaviour in Greek Sicily in 212/11. To exploit her conquests, she did not need to class them into territorially defined provinces. Her dominance could be less direct, even if we hesitate to call much of it an outright ‘empire’ as yet, in our understanding of the word.

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