HALF A CENTURY AFTER THE CELTIC INVASION CAME another disaster, as humiliating and apparently as complete as the first. An entire Roman army surrendered, en masse, to the enemy, Samnite hill-tribesmen from the central Apennines. This was a more serious threat to Rome’s existence than the fact that the city had been without walls when the barbarians came.
In 321, both consuls led their legions, one each probably, southward along the route of what in a few years’ time would be Rome’s first great road, the Appian Way. The Samnites had recently suffered a heavy defeat and disconsolately sued for peace. The Senate had refused to negotiate, and the Samnites were so furious that they recovered their morale. They laid a trap for the approaching Romans at a place called the Caudine Forks (furculae Caudinae).
According to Livy, this was a small, grassy, and well-watered plain surrounded by steep wooded hills. Two narrow defiles at its western and eastern ends were the only means of entry. The very able Samnite leader, Gaius Pontius, advanced his army in the greatest possible secrecy and set up camp nearby. He sent out ten soldiers disguised as shepherds, with orders to scatter and graze their flocks not far from Roman outposts. Whenever they came across enemy raiding parties, they were all to tell the same story—that the Samnite army was campaigning miles away to the south, in Apulia. A rumor had already been spread to this effect, and the shepherds’ reports would be convincing confirmation.
The ruse worked, and the consuls decided to make their way to the Samnite legions by the shortest route, even though it meant marching, via the Caudine Forks, straight across the middle of enemy territory. They entered the first, western gorge and were shocked to find the second obstructed by a barricade of felled trees and huge boulders. Samnite troops were seen at the head of the pass.
The Romans turned back, only to realize that the road by which they had arrived at the Forks was now blocked with its own barricade and armed men. They were trapped. The consuls ordered their legionaries to set up a full Roman camp, with trenches, ramparts, and palisades, although this seemed a pointless exercise.
Meanwhile, the Samnites could not believe their luck, and were unsure what to do next. Pontius sent a letter to his father, Herennius Pontius, elderly and astute, asking for guidance. Herennius replied, “My advice is that you should let all the Romans go away free.” His opinion was brusquely rejected and he was asked to think again. In that case, he said, “they should all be put to death, down to the last man.”
Pontius feared that his father’s once acute mind was softening, but he gave way to a general wish that the old man be brought to the camp for a consultation in person. He declined to change his opinion, but gave his reasons. Livy writes:
“My first advice,” he said, “which I thought the best, would establish lasting peace with a very powerful people by conferring on them an immense benefit. The second would postpone war for many generations during which the Romans would not easily recover their strength.… There was no third option.”
But what if the Samnites took a middle course, letting the Romans go unhurt but imposing terms on them as defeated men according to the laws of war? Herennius would have none of it. “Your idea will neither win friends nor remove enemies,” he said. “The Roman People does not know how to lie down under defeat.” His advice was rejected for a third and final time, and he went home.
The Romans made a number of unsuccessful attempts to break out. Food stocks began to run very low, and the consuls sent a delegation to Pontius to seek terms. If they failed to win a peace, they would challenge the enemy to fight. “You Romans never admit catastrophe even when conquered and taken captive,” the Samnite leader responded. “So I will send you under the yoke unarmed, with a single item of clothing each.” (By “yoke,” he meant the arch made of three spears beneath which defeated and captured soldiers were obliged to walk in return for their freedom.) He added that the Romans should immediately evacuate Samnite territory and withdraw its two forward colonies at Cales and Fregellae.
It was self-evidently a disgraceful settlement, but, thought the consuls, better than the alternative—the complete destruction of their army. However, Livy assures us, they were only in a position to offer a personal guarantee that Rome accepted the terms (asponsio). A final treaty (or foedus) would have to await approval by the Assembly at Rome. The trusting Pontius took the point and allowed the legions to depart in return for a sponsio, to which the consuls and senior officers subscribed. However, he demanded six hundred Roman cavalry as hostages. A dramatic scene ensued:
The Consuls, pretty much half-naked, were the first to be sent under the yoke, then their officers were humiliated, each in order of rank; then the legions, one by one in turn. The enemy stood round, taunting and jeering at them; many were threatened with swords, and some were wounded or killed if the expressions on their faces showed too much resentment at their intolerable position.
Once the troops were back in Rome, the public mood darkened. Many people went into mourning, feasts and marriages were canceled, shops closed, and official business in the Forum suspended. New consuls were elected, and the Senate held a debate on whether or not to endorse the sponsio. One of the defeated commanders advised his colleagues, self-sacrificially, to reject it on the bare-faced excuse that he and his fellow consul had not acted of their own free will but from necessity, thanks to the enemy’s treacherous ambush. But as a matter of honor, he went on, he and all the other army officers involved should be handed over to the Samnites.
This was agreed, but, on their arrival at the Samnite camp, Pontius refused to accept their surrender. He argued that if the treaty was refused everything should revert to the status quo ante. In other words, the legions should go back to the Caudine Forks. “You are never without a reason for not keeping your word in defeat?” he asked. “You agreed with us on a peace, so that we should return you the legions we had captured. Now you have nullified that peace. And you always give your fraud some semblance of legality.”
It is hard to disagree with this judgment, which is remarkable in that it is Livy, the most patriotic of authors, who put these words into the mouth of the Samnite commander. The Romans placed a very high value on fair dealing. On this occasion, they claimed to be keeping to the letter of the law, but one has the impression that they sensed, guiltily, that they were not keeping to its spirit. According to one report, the Romans, far from being grateful to the Samnites for letting their soldiers go, “actually behaved as if they had been the victims of some outrage.”
In any event, war resumed and the Romans allegedly won a resounding victory, after which they compelled Pontius and his fellow captives to submit to the yoke themselves, a remarkable example of instant and mirror-imaged retribution that probably never took place.
In fact, we have good grounds for supposing that the official version of the affair does not square with what actually occurred. Some ancient writers asserted that the agreement between the warring parties was in fact a foedus, not a sponsio, and that Roman apologists tried to hide the fact. Cicero, for example, an intelligent and thoughtful voice, twice speaks of a foedus.
What happened to the six hundred hostages? These are the dogs not barking in the night. Were they killed, or released? A suspicious silence hangs over their fate. They are needed to back up a sponsio, but once a foedus was in place they would become superfluous and be handed back. But if the sponsio was rejected, the presumed consequence would be their execution. From the fact that nothing is said about them, we may infer that a treaty was approved by the Roman Assembly. It looks very much as if the aborted sponsio was a later invention designed to excuse Roman bad faith.
A further problem muddies the narrative. The description of the Caudine Forks is only very roughly right. We are not absolutely certain where they are, but the only plausible candidate is a pass in Campania between the two modern Italian towns of Arienzo and Arpaia, which was helpfully known in ancient times as Furculae or Furcae—namely, “forks.” Here there were two entrances leading into an area surrounded by mountains and steep hills, as Livy says. However, while the eastern gorge was narrow enough to be easily blocked, the western defile was two miles wide—far too long for the Samnites to have erected barricades capable of bottling in a Roman army. There must have been a battle of some sort that led to a surrender. Why the inaccuracy? Perhaps because it was less shameful to capitulate to deceit and trickery than to do so after a straightforward defeat in the field.
It is certain that the Romans suffered a devastating military setback at the Caudine Forks. It is now too late to establish the details of what took place beyond doubt, but a plausible scenario might run as follows: The Samnites forced a battle by blocking the eastern defile of the Caudine Forks and then turning up en masse at the western entrance. A battle ensued and the Romans were routed but had nowhere they could escape to, so they surrendered. A sponsio was agreed while Rome was informed and approved afoedus.
It is likely that the terms of the foedus were abrogated and hostilities resumed. This was a dishonorable thing to do (and something, as far as possible, to be hidden from posterity), but there is evidence of continued fighting (in 319, a Roman general is recorded as celebrating a triumph de Samnitibus). Alternatively, it has been contended that Rome in fact abided by the treaty it had accepted and that hostilities ceased for a few years. But if that was the case it is difficult to explain why some ancient authors should concoct a canceled sponsio and others a broken foedus, for both of these acts are more to Rome’s discredit than a perfectly respectable truth.
The debacle of the Caudine Forks and its aftermath is a useful reminder, if that were needed, that, whatever their high principles, the Romans were more than capable of cynical and self-interested behavior. They criticized Pontius for outmaneuvering an army by a trick, but throughout their history many of their own generals acted just as deceitfully. Cassius Dio judged that the Samnites were unfairly treated, and his assessment is not far off the mark: “It is not inevitable that those who are wronged should conquer; instead, war, in its absolute sway, adjusts everything to the advantage of the victor, often causing something that is the reverse of justice to go under that name.”
THE FIFTY-YEAR INTERVAL between Rome’s two massive setbacks illustrates its capacity to regenerate after failure. The Republic, battered but unbowed, pressed ahead with its program of reconciliation at home and expansion abroad.
The Conflict of the Orders had not gone away. Once the dust had settled after the Celtic invasion, domestic hostilities resumed, with a vengeance. Debt remained a crushing burden for the poor, whose landholdings were too small to make even basic subsistence easy, and wealthy plebeians were still finding it hard to gain access to high office. In effect, the patricians maintained their monopoly on power.
Some fifty-three patrician clans, or gentes, are known to have existed during the early Republic, making a closed community of not more than a thousand families. There was a small inner ring of especially powerful clans—in particular the Aemilii, the Cornelii, and the Fabii. To them can be added the immigrant Claudii. In total, the patricians amounted to one-tenth of the citizen population of Rome and possibly not more than one-fourteenth.
A revolutionary moment seemed to be approaching, but once again the Romans found their way to a workable compromise. Plebeians wanted the state to release plots of ager publicus, public land, to individual farmers rather than hold it as common land. We do not know how much of Veii’s land was expropriated by the Republic, but it may have been half or even two-thirds. Two tribunes of the plebs, Gaius Licinius and Lucius Sextius, got themselves reelected year after year and argued for root-and-branch reform. In 376, they put forward three bills, the Licinio-Sextian Rogations (a rogation is a proposal placed before the People’s Assembly for its decision), aimed at breaking the dominance of the patricians. The first one dealt with debt: interest already paid should be subtracted from the original debt, and what remained should be paid in three equal annual installments. The second forbade anyone to own more than five hundred iugera (one juger was about two-thirds of an acre) of public land. The third abolished the post of military tribune and brought back the system of two consuls. The real innovation here was that, in future, one consul was always to be a plebeian.
As Livy tells the story, the tribunes repeatedly called an assembly, but a body of armed patricians refused to allow the voting to go ahead. “Very well,” shouted Sextius. “As you are determined that a veto shall be so powerful, we will use that very weapon to protect the People. Come on, Senators, call an assembly for the election of Military Tribunes. I’ll see that you get no joy out of that word ‘veto,’ which now so delights your ears.” This was not an idle threat, for the tribunes aborted the elections, at least for a year.
The crisis trundled on angrily for a decade. In 368, the number of commissioners who looked after the Sibylline Books and organized the annual Games of Apollo was increased from two patricians to ten men, five of whom had to be plebeians; these were thedecemviri sacris faciundis. It was clear which way the wind was blowing, and the following year the aged Camillus presided over a historic compromise. The Licinio-Sextian Rogations were finally passed and, as a concession to the opposition, the post of praetor was created as a junior colleague for the consuls to be reserved for patricians. The praetor became the acting chief magistrate in Rome when the consuls were away on military business, as they often were, and came to specialize in running the law courts.
It is perhaps no accident that in this year Camillus promised a Temple of Concord, for the new legislation went a long way toward pacifying the plebeian movement. The poet Ovid wrote:
Camillus, conqueror of the Veian people,
vowed the old temple and kept his vow.
The cause: the mob’s armed secession from the Fathers,
and Rome itself, fearful of its power.
A small mystery adheres to this gift: the grateful People absolved the old dictator from his pledge and said they would fulfill it in his place, but for some reason failed to do so. Its site, in the Forum just below the Capitol, was designated for the temple and kept as an open space. The temple was finally built in the second century, following the violent death, at the hands of senators, of a turbulent tribune—a bitter irony.
The Rogations did not finally settle the great quarrel between patricians and plebs, and further measures of social appeasement were undertaken. Above all, the problem of indebtedness remained despite the lawgivers’ best intentions. In 326, a scandal led to the reform of debt bondage, the nexum. An attractive youth sold himself into bondage to a creditor of his father. The creditor regarded the youth’s charms as an additional bonus to sweeten the loan and tried to seduce his new acquisition. Meeting resistance, he had the boy stripped naked and flogged. Bleeding from the lash, the boy rushed out into the street. An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Senate House for general redress.
The consuls, taken aback, conceded the point. They won the People’s approval of a law limiting the nexum to extreme cases, which, in addition, had to be adjudicated by a court. As a rule, to repay money lent him, a debtor’s property could be seized, but not his person. This was tantamount to abolition, and, in Livy’s slightly overheated opinion, “the liberty of the Roman People had, as it were, a second birth.”
IT IS AT this point that we meet the first truly historical, truly alive personality in Rome’s story so far. This was Appius Claudius Caecus, or the Blind (he lost his sight toward the end of a long life). He was as arrogant and awkward as most of his clan. An individualist to the core, he wrote a series of sharply turned moral sayings in verse. The most famous asserts, “Every man is the maker of his own luck.”
A wealthy patrician, Appius Claudius served twice as consul and once as dictator. A radical populist who aimed to win a following among the masses, he was a ferocious partisan for the plebs, as he made clear during his famous censorship of 312. Every four years or so, two censors were elected to hold office for eighteen months. They were usually former consuls, and although they did not have imperium, they wielded great influence. The post was regarded as the pinnacle of a Roman’s career.
Censors had two main tasks. Their primary function was to make up and maintain a comprehensive list of Roman citizens. They were also charged with the supervision of morals; if they agreed that a citizen deserved censure, they set out their reason and marked his name on the list. This had the effect of disqualifying him from his tribe and removing his voting rights. Sometime in the second, third, or the fourth century, the censors took over from the consuls the responsibility for appointing senators, who served for life. (Over time, membership became ex officio for present and former public officials.) They also reviewed the behavior of senators and excluded those they deemed guilty of serious misconduct.
Appius Claudius seized the hour. His basic aim was to bring plebeians into public life, and he particularly wanted to further the interests of the lowest of the low, the landless urban population. These were the capite censi, the “head count”; they were so poor that they did not have any property to be assessed in the census and so were disqualified from military service. No reformer had ever tried to help this group before.
Some were not necessarily without funds but owned no land or property—for example, freedmen and their sons. With astute generosity, the Romans often liberated their slaves (although they remained in the owner’s clientela), and so, in effect, gave them citizenship. However, they were not allowed to run for elective office. Scandalously, the radical new censor enrolled some sons of freedmen in the Senate. His colleague as censor resigned in disgust, but Claudius obstinately stayed in office and, indeed, did not step down until well after the eighteen-month limit had expired. The concession was quickly revoked by the following year’s consuls, and for centuries afterward it remained only a revolutionary idea.
Appius Claudius also distributed landless city dwellers among all Rome’s thirty-one tribes, not simply the four urban ones. This was a most ingenious move, for they would then have an advantage over their rural fellow tribesmen because they were on the spot and some of the latter would be unlikely to bother traveling to Rome to cast their votes (despite the impact of the Via Appia—see below). The reform significantly enhanced the power of the urban proletariat.
Censors had other duties—certain kinds of tax collection and the letting of contracts for public works. Appius Claudius commissioned two vastly expensive building projects that emptied the treasury—Rome’s first aqueduct (aqua Appia) and the Appian Way (via Appia). The aqueduct is evidence of the growing size of Rome and the probable overuse of the city’s wells. For most of its ten-mile course, it ran underground, partly because of the layout of the land and partly to protect the water supply from enemies. The builders may have borrowed the tunneling techniques of Veii’s irrigation experts. The aqueduct dropped only 30 feet over its entire length and delivered 240,000 cubic feet of water every day—a remarkable feat of engineeering.
The Roman road was the outcome of military necessity. At the time of Appius’s censorship, the Republic was absorbed in a life-and-death struggle with the Samnites. The Via Appia led south to Capua, in Campania, and was an invaluable communications link, facilitating resupply and reinforcement of Rome’s armies in the field, its bases, and coloniae (settlements of Roman citizens or Latins in former enemy territory); the road also made it easier for voters living in outlying areas to get to Rome for Assembly meetings and elections. Over the years, it was extended across the Apennines to the Greek seaport of Tarentum. It finally reached Brundisium, today’s Brindisi, the customary port of departure for sea voyages to the Eastern Mediterranean. Originally surfaced with gravel, its first few miles from the city were paved and became an ideal place for wealthy families to memorialize their dead. By Cicero and Varro’s day, two long lines of grand marble tombs and mausoleums bordered the road and stretched far into the distance. They can still be visited today.
Appius Claudius had not finished. Despite the publication of the Twelve Tables, the system of law and government was still infuriatingly opaque, and the Senate was unwilling to go to the trouble of cleaning its windows. So some years after the censorship, a secretary of his, a freedman’s son who had become a state official, leaked a confidential manual of legal procedures, the legis actiones. He also posted in the Forum a list of the days on which official business could be conducted, whether the courts could sit, and when the Senate and the Assembly could meet. These things were decided behind closed doors by the patrician college of pontifices. The disclosures, no doubt inspired by Claudius, created a furor, but once out the cat could not be put back into the bag. The secretary was pleased with himself and marked his achievement by erecting a shrine, not altogether appropriately, to the spirit of Concord in the Comitium, the assembly area in the Forum. Respectable opinion disliked being teased in this way, and a law was quickly passed forbidding anyone in future to dedicate a temple or an altar without the Senate’s permission or that of a majority of the tribunes of the plebs.
The great censor was a man of contradictions. Despite his political beliefs, he remained a noble snob at heart. He vigorously opposed the admission of plebeians into the two senior religious colleges, the pontifices and the augurs, and on two separate occasions he tried to exclude plebeians from the consulship. It is this inconsistency that allows us to detect in Appius Claudius a genuine human being, warts and all.
His career was spectacular, but it ended in failure. The reforms of his high-handed censorship were unpicked by his opponents in the Senate. His attempts to empower the Assembly turned out to be fruitless, and until the end of its days the Republic was never anything more than a partial democracy. However, his two astonishing construction projects are a lasting monument to one of Rome’s most remarkable characters.
ROMANS WERE FINE builders and engineers, and much of their work still survives (in particular, structures dating from the imperial period—i.e., the first century A.D. onward). Dionysius of Halicarnassus was not far wrong when he wrote:
In my opinion, the three most magnificent works of Rome, in which the greatness of her empire is best seen, are the aqueducts, the paved roads and the construction of the sewers. I say this with respect not only to the usefulness of the work, but also to the magnitude of the cost.
The Aqua Appia was the first of eleven aqueducts that were constructed over the centuries, channeling water into an ever more thirsty Rome. They provided drinking water and supplied the city’s many public baths and elaborate fountains. They complemented the complex sewage system, which (as we have seen) originated in the sixth century, when the first Tarquin built the Cloaca Maxima to drain the marshy Forum. By the first century A.D., “gray,” or used, water was being channeled into the sewers, clearing out wastes and emptying into the Tiber.
Fresh running water became a symbol of civilized urban living. Among Rome’s greatest accomplishments, especially in western Europe, was the promotion of the pleasures and uses of towns and cities. Wherever the legions marched and conquered, temples, amphitheaters, forums, triumphal columns, and arches sprang up, and, of course, as the necessary precondition for health and happiness in crowded conurbations, aqueducts and drains. From the second century, vast utilitarian edifices—warehouses, basilicas, and apartment blocks—also became routine features of the built landscape. Such large-scale developments were made possible by technical advances, especially the introduction of concrete during the third century, which allowed architects to cover wide spaces with domes and vaults.
None of this was done purely from kindness of heart but from imperial self-interest. Monumental architecture became a powerful and persuasive tool of Romanization.
The Via Appia opened the way to the construction of a web of roads, throughout Italy and later farther afield. Their purpose was primarily military, but they also linked communities and facilitated trade. They were punctuated by milestones, which enabled a more accurate measurement of distance and of the size of Rome’s territory than had been possible in the past.
Wherever feasible, the engineers who built roads made them run showily straight, bullying and overriding the landscape through which they passed rather than working cooperatively with its hills and valleys. A Roman road was well designed, and typically consisted of two parallel trenches and a well-drained core. Packed stones allowing water to run away formed the foundation. These were covered with layers of concrete and concrete gravel, and topped off by gravel, packed stones, or sometimes paving stones. Roads were made to last, and some of them have, to the admiration of the modern tourist.
When searching for the origins of Rome’s power, we should not forget its engineering record, evidence as it is (alongside its commitment to legal process) of an energetic, practical orderliness.
THE CONFLICT OF the Orders was at last nearing its conclusion. Long years of war meant that farms and smallholdings had fallen into decay, and their owners into debt. In 287, the plebs seceded again, this time to the Janiculum Hill across the Tiber. A dictator, one Quintus Hortensius, took some economic measures to ease the crisis. What these were we do not know, but he also passed a remarkable constitutional law. This gave the resolutions of the Plebeian Council—that institutional symbol of estrangement and revolt, of the state within the state—the full force of law. At last, a right that had been claimed for one and a half centuries was conceded. The long bipolar episode was over, and Rome’s fragmented persona re-formed into an integrated whole.
Not that the results were neat. The Romans were no theorists and, constitutionally speaking, they hated throwing anything away. So, for example, they now had four popular assemblies: the comitia curiata, from the days of the kings (by the first century, its duties had dwindled to confirmation of official appointments and the authorization of adoptions and wills); the loaded-against-the-poor comitia centuriata, which decided elections of senior officials; the concilium plebis; and, a new institution, the comitia tributa, which imitated the concilium but was convened by consuls and praetors, incorporated the entire male adult population, patricians as well as plebeians, and approved bills.
However, the fruits of victory were not exactly what might have been expected. It became clear that the different components of the plebeian movement did not share the same fundamental interests. The poor were concerned to improve their financial situation by means of the assembled People. The wealthy plebeians had now achieved their goal, access to public office, and gradually made common cause with their old enemies, the patricians. A new mixed nobility came into being, and the tribunes of the plebs were absorbed into the official processes of the state, cooperating with the Senate and introducing agreed legislation.
There are two ways of looking at this development. On the one hand, it was a betrayal of the head count, of the oppressed and the dispossessed. Ordinary people could vote on legislation and elected officials, but the rules of procedure forbade debate and access to the levers of executive power was denied them. The confident senatorial oligarchy adjusted itself to the new political situation and remained in charge. One step back, two steps forward.
On the other hand, there was no denying that reconciliation of warring interests had taken place, and without bloodshed. Greeks, who were beginning to be aware of this new aggressive state in central Italy, looked on with a certain jealousy, for the popular and aristocratic factions in Hellenic city-states had a habit of butchering one another, whereas the Romans solved their political difficulties by painful give-and-take.
Writing in the first century B.C., Cicero has one of the speakers in his fine dialogue, The Republic, make the explicit comparison: “Our own commonwealth was based upon the genius not of one man [sc., as often in Greece], but of many; it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men.” A well-informed Greek observer commented that the Romans arrived at their form of government “not by abstract reasoning, but rather through the lessons learned from many struggles and difficulties.” They were the complete pragmatists.
THE LATINS HAD jumped at the chance to free themselves from Roman dominance after the Celtic invasion. The Latin League was broken up. It took some time for its members to be brought to heel, but by 358 the Republic had reasserted its authority. The confederacy was reconvened, but with a difference. The post of commander-in-chief no longer alternated yearly between Rome and the Latins. Now it was controlled by two praetors who were accountable to the consuls in Rome.
The Latins deeply resented being treated as subjects rather than as partners, and in 341 their simmering feelings boiled over into open revolt. Four years of bitter campaigning followed. The consuls for 340 were remarkable men. The first of them, Titus Manlius, acquired the cognomen of Torquatus after having killed in battle an enormous Celt and stripped him of his torque. He sent some cavalry off to reconnoiter in all directions, but strictly enjoined them not to take part in any fighting. Among the squadron leaders was his son Titus. The young man managed to ride with his men beyond the enemy camp until he was hardly a spear’s throw from their nearest outpost. Here he was jeered at by some enemy horse from Tusculum and its commander challenged him to a duel. He shouted, “The outcome will show how much better a Latin cavalryman is than a Roman.”
Titus’s blood was up and, forgetting his father’s orders, he threw himself into a fight that had little tactical point. The rest of the cavalry were made to stand back as if to watch a riding display. The two men rode at each other, spears leveled. Manlius’s spear glanced off the helmet of his opponent, whose own missed the mark altogether. As they wheeled for a second encounter, Titus pricked with his spearpoint the forehead of the Tusculan’s horse, which reared up and threw its rider. As the man struggled to his feet, Titus ran through his throat, so that the spear came out between his ribs and pinned him to the ground. The brief fight was over.
Titus rode back to camp, surrounded by his cheering men. He proudly presented the dead man’s armor. The consul abruptly turned away from his son and gave orders for a trumpet to summon an assembly. “Titus Manlius, you have respected neither Consular authority nor your father’s dignity,” he said. “I believe that you yourself, if you have any drop of my blood in you, would agree that the military discipline you undermined by your error must be restored by your punishment. Go, lictor, bind him to the stake.”
The ax struck and blood gushed from the severed neck. The army was horror-struck, but it was noticed that from then on better attention was given everywhere to guard duties, night watches, and picket-stationing. The execution of Titus Manlius on his father’s orders was one of the most celebrated morality tales in Rome’s history, matching the examples set by Brutus and Verginius. It was a reminder that a father had the power of life and death over his children, and that virtus trumped parental love.
Soon afterward, another never-to-be-forgotten case of self-sacrifice took place. It so happened that both consuls, Manlius and his colleague Publius Decius Mus, dreamed that a man of superhuman size told them that, if either army’s general should “devote” to death the enemy’s army and himself, his side would win the coming battle. Shortly afterward, an engagement was fought near the foot of Mount Vesuvius. As usual, before the opening of a battle an animal was sacrificed in the name of each consul. An Etruscan diviner scrutinized their livers for any abnormality that might reveal the displeasure of the gods. He gave Manlius a clean bill of health; however, he pointed out that the head of Decius’s liver had been cut in the wrong place. Otherwise, the victim was acceptable to the gods.
Decius replied coolly, “If my colleague’s sacrifice went well, then that should be all right.” The army advanced, with Manlius on the right wing and Decius on the left. The lines clashed and the Romans were pushed back. In this moment of crisis, Decius called to a priest from the college of pontifices, who presided over the army’s religious rituals, “We need the gods’ help. Come on now, you are a state pontiff of the Roman People. Dictate to me the form of words by which I may ‘devote’ myself to the legions.”
The priest told him to put on his purple-edged toga, veil his head, and, with one hand protruding from the toga, touch his chin, stand on a spear laid under his feet, and repeat the following words:
Janus, Jupiter, father Mars, Quirinus [a name for the deified Romulus], Bellona [goddess of war], Lares [household gods], New Gods, Native Gods, divinities who have power over us and our enemies, and gods of the Underworld: I supplicate and revere you, I seek your favor and beseech you, that you prosper the might and victory of the Roman People, the Quirites, and afflict the enemies of the Roman People, the Quirites, with terror, dread and death. As I have pronounced the words, even so on behalf of the Republic of the Roman nation of Quirites, and of the army, legions and auxiliaries of the Roman nation of the Quirites, do I devote myself and with me the legions and auxiliaries of our enemies to the gods of the Underworld and to Earth.
Decius then sent a message to his colleague telling him what he had done. He reorganized his toga so that his arms were free, leaped on a horse, and rode directly into the enemy’s ranks. He fell under a hail of missiles.
In due course, the battle was won and the Latins fled. The spell had worked. Decius was found under a pile of corpses and given a hero’s funeral (if he had survived, the rules of devotio dictated that an effigy of him would have been buried instead, for the gods of the Underworld could not be cheated of their dead man). Did these episodes take place? We cannot be absolutely sure, but they probably have a basis in fact. The ancient accounts of events in the fourth century that have come down to us are on the cusp of genuine historical memory.
HARD FIGHTING CONTINUED, but by 338 the war was over and the Latins had definitively and permanently been defeated. The League was dissolved forever. The settlement that followed was of historic importance, for the Romans established a system of governance that gave them security but was also acceptable to the Latins. Rather than echo the Celtic leader Brennus’s vindictive cry of triumph, vae victis, they devised ways and means of binding conquered peoples to them. They invited their victims to join them in their enterprise of territorial expansion. The prudence of this policy is borne out by the fact that never again would the Latins rebel.
Just as in the distant mythical past Romulus granted citizenship to the Sabines, so now the Republic offered the Latins civic rights. In this way, it enlarged the pool of potential military recruits to the legions. A human reservoir was created that gave Rome a unique staying power in times of war. Defeat could follow defeat, if the Fates willed it, and still there would be new conscripts to replace lost armies.
In place of a federation in which each member was connected to one another, Rome set up bilateral relations with individual communities, which were forbidden to undertake treaties among themselves. They were also compelled to surrender substantial tracts of land. The Latins and some others were divided into three different constitutional and legal classes. First of all, some defeated statelets were incorporated as municipia, or free towns, in the Republic and their inhabitants given full Roman citizenship. One example was Antium (today’s Anzio), the onetime Volscian capital, but not before it was obliged to surrender its fleet after a sea battle. Some ships’ prows or “beaks” (rostra, in Latin) were displayed in the Roman Forum on the main speakers’ platform, thereafter known as the Rostra.
The second category consisted of communities that kept their independence—at least in theory, for they forfeited the power to conduct their own foreign policy. These “allies” had rights of connubium and commercium—that is, their citizens were allowed to marry Romans and enter into contracts with them, according to Roman law. When asked, they had to supply troops.
Finally, for those more distant communities in the new Roman “commonwealth” that lay beyond the borders of Latium, such as the Campanian cities of Capua and Cumae, partial enfranchisement was granted: civitas sine suffragio, or citizenship without the vote. This included the rights of connubium and commercium, and liability to the obligations of full Roman citizenship, especially military service. They were entitled to move to Rome, if they so wished, and in that case could acquire full Roman citizenship. The duty to fight alongside the legions sounds more punitive than it actually was, for, as when Rome won its wars, these compulsory comrades would have their share of the spoils of victory.
Another innovative device helped the Romans not only to secure their conquests, but to unify them with their conquerors. This was the foundation of coloniae, “colonies,” by which small groups of Latin, Campanian, and Roman settlers established their own townships on annexed enemy territory; sometimes these were new foundations, but on occasion they were attached to existing settlements. They were useful watch posts that could detect early signs of trouble in the surrounding population; they also alleviated economic pressures at Rome by providing farms and jobs for the landless poor. Coastal coloniae relieved the Republic of the need to build a fleet to defend home waters. Above all, this colonial system, as it developed over time, contributed powerfully to the cultural Romanization of Italy.
It took some time for the settlement to bed down. Many Latin communities resented the loss of their age-old freedoms, and Rome took care to leave them free to run their own local affairs. Their city walls were not leveled but left standing—clever and persuasive symbolism.
It has been estimated that the extent of territory now occupied by Roman citizens of every kind, the ager Romanus, was 3,400 square miles, and that of the larger Roman commonwealth as a whole 5,300 square miles. According to a modern calculation, the total population of the ager Romanus was 347,300 free persons and that of the commonwealth 484,000 free persons.
Rome had become a substantial state, by Greco-Roman standards; it was a token of its growing power that a second treaty of friendship with Carthage was negotiated in 348. Its conquests meant, among other things, that the problem of poverty and indebtedness that beset the young Republic was alleviated, although it never vanished. As we have seen, an indigent Roman would be paid a salary if he fought in the army. He might be allocated a smallholding in freshly conquered territory and, if he was willing to leave the city, he could join a colonia and make a new life for himself.
IF EVER A landscape made its people, it was Samnium.
This is a mountainous, landlocked plateau in central Italy. Here the Apennines are not so much mountains as a tangled maze of massifs, spurs, and reentrants. The region is roughly rectangular and is cut through by steep valleys often ending in culs-de-sac, down which rivers or seasonal torrents cascade. Here and there gray limestone mountains push up toward the sky, and are covered in snow for most of the year. Much of the usable land is suitable only for grazing, but there are many fertile pockets where earth can be tilled and crops grown. Rich, narrow fields lie alongside streams. Winters were wild and austere, summers arid and baking hot. Earthquakes racked and eroded the hills.
As we have seen, the Samnites were among the infiltration southward, propelled by Sacred Springs, of Oscan speakers in previous centuries. By 500, if not earlier, they had settled in their new rugged homeland. They coveted the flat, fertile earth of Campania and its cultured cities. Some of them descended from their aeries, conquered the inhabitants, and took over the territory. They soon learned to enjoy an easier way of life and forgot their highland ancestry.
The Samnites were fierce and hardy mountaineers. Excavated skeletons show that they were ethnically homogeneous and dolichocephalic (that is, their heads were unusually long from front to back), from which we can infer that, isolated among their peaks, they did not intermarry with their Latin neighbors. Pre-urban, they lived in scattered villages and built many small stone forts on remote hilltops (about ninety of which have been located by archaeologists); most were not for living in but were a temporary refuge in times of trouble.
There were four Samnite tribal groups, each forming a community called a touto. The Hirpini lived in the south, the Caudini in the west, the Carracini in the northeast, and the largest, the Pentri, occupied the center and east of Samnium. The total number of inhabitants was surprisingly high for a remote rural area and is estimated at about 450,000 persons.
In general, the Samnites were poor and relatively unsophisticated, with no coinage and little trade. There seems to have been an aristocracy with large landholdings, but their politics were democratic and simply organized. One or more villages made up a pagus, an economically self-sufficient and independent-minded canton. It elected a governing official called a meddis. A group of pagi made up the tribal touto, whose annually elected chief magistrate was a meddis tovtiks. There appears to have been a council that magistrates were obliged to consult. Despite their decentralized political system, Samnites possessed a powerful sense of cultural identity.
The economy—landlocked as it was, and lacking in raw materials for industries—was centered on animal husbandry and peasant farming. The Samnites raised horses, poultry, pigs, and goats. Above all, they were sheep breeders. In the summer, their animals grazed on high ground; for the winter months, they were taken down to the plains along wide drovers’ trails, which doubled as the main means of human communication in Samnium. Among the region’s specialties were fine wines and sweet Sabellian cabbages.
Only glimpses of daily life have come down to us. Oscans, such as the Samnites, were known for their barbaric and uncouth ways, although their addiction to obscenity may, as often happens, have been a jokey stereotype attributed to them by their neighbors and based on an ecccentric etymological derivation of obscenus, from O(b)scan. They appear to have had some odd habits. They had their pubic hair shaved off in barbershops, in full view of passersby, for example. According to Strabo the geographer:
The Samnites have a splendid law, well designed to foster excellence. Every year ten virgins and ten young men are chosen as the best of their sex. And the best young woman is given to the best youth, the second to the second and so on. If the youth who wins the prize changes and turns out bad, they dishonor him and take away the woman he has been awarded.
Little is recorded of the place of women in Samnite society, but the first-century poet Horace, who came from the southern Samnite town of Venusia and was in a position to know, implies that they exercised authority in the household; they brought up the children and had a reputation for severity.
In their scant leisure time, Samnites hunted, as much for food as for amusement. They were very fond of the theater, with a pronounced taste for farce, satire, and crude invective. A fresco of dancing girls has survived, and perhaps folk dancing was among their entertainments. It is said that the bloodstained diversions of the arena were invented by Oscans. It cannot be proved that gladiators derive from Samnium itself, but their emergence in Campania coincided suspiciously with the Samnite invasion in the fifth century. It may be no accident that, in later times, the most popular type of gladiator, equipped with a short sword, a rectangular shield, a greave, and a helmet, was called a Samnite.
THESE WERE THE people with whom Rome found itself in a long life-and-death duel in the latter part of the fourth century. To begin with, the two nations were friends, signing a treaty in 354. However, Rome wished to expand, and the Samnites were compelled to do so as well. Their growing population spilled out in all directions of the compass, into adjoining lands. Rome’s new dominance in Campania was a particular affront. A collision was inevitable.
A short first war only temporarily interrupted the alliance. Then, in 328, the Romans planted a colonia, Fregellae, in the western valley of the river Liris, a provocative act because this territory was claimed by the Samnites and led up into their heartland. Then, in the following year, the Samnites could not resist taking advantage of internal dissension at the port of Neapolis, in Campania, and occupying it. The Romans reacted strongly to this challenge to their authority; they drove out the occupiers and thus precipitated the Second Samnite War.
This was a long and bitter struggle that lasted on and off for more than twenty years. Samnium was a vast natural fortress, with few points of access. Any army determined enough to enter it was confronted by a labyrinth of narrow valleys and tight gorges—ideal terrain for the layer of ambushes. Not unnaturally, the Romans fought shy of a direct assault and much of the fighting occurred on or near the Samnite borders. The Caudine catastrophe of 321 was an example of this, taking place as it did on one of the two main routes that led from Samnium and Campania to Latium. Although it was a grave setback, recovery was swift.
Rather than seek to invade Samnium itself, with all the risks that entailed, Rome’s strategy was to surround the Samnites with enemies. Alliances were struck with communities in Apulia, on the eastern seaboard, and Lucania in the foot of Italy, thus opening up a second front. In 315, a Roman consul captured the key town of Luceria on the far side of Samnium, near the Adriatic coast, a potential third front. The enemy counterattacked in the west, threatening Latium. They successfully pushed down the river Liris valley—and took Fregellae, the cause of all the trouble. They reached the coast, where they inflicted a heavy defeat on the Romans near the seaside city of Tarracina. The road to Rome lay open, and it may be that only the new walls dissuaded the Samnites from marching up to it.
The important city of Capua revolted, and other Campanian towns wavered. The Republic was shaken but unbowed. The wisdom of its generous Latin settlement now became clear, for no Latin community changed sides. They remained loyal to their conqueror. In the following year, the legions regrouped and doggedly went on the offensive. A second hard-fought battle was waged near Tarracina. One Roman wing was nearly put to flight but was rescued by the prompt arrival of the other. This time the Romans gained a famous victory and, according to tradition, thirty thousand Samnites were killed or captured—almost certainly an exaggeration, but a sign of the importance of the engagement.
The first stretch of Appius Claudius’s great strategic road, 132 miles long, from Rome to the gates of Capua, was completed; rapid communication was now ensured between the capital and any recrudescence of trouble in Campania.
The Samnite moment had come, and now it had gone. Capua was brought to heel, and Fregellae resettled. Perhaps inspired by their new Greek friends in Naples, the Romans created a small sea squadron, but they did not really understand ships and fighting at sea, so little came of the experiment. Nevertheless, all things considered they had seized back the initiative.
For many years, little had been heard from the Etruscans, now in a condition of decay. Veii, of course, had been lost and the Celts were harrying the northern outposts of their empire. They had contentedly watched the conflict between Rome and Samnium from the sidelines. They had little sympathy with the latter, who had, after all, driven them out of Campania a hundred years earlier. However, the apparently irresistible growth of Roman power was alarming. Taking advantage of the fact that a forty-year truce between Rome and the Etruscan city of Tarquinii had expired, they threw in their lot with the Samnites.
To dampen down this fire, in 310 a Roman consul boldly forced his way through the unbroken, primeval Ciminian Forest into central Etruria. A natural barrier between the two nations, this trackless wilderness was believed to be impassable, and the news alarmed public opinion at home. Another Caudine Forks was predicted. In fact, the consul won a battle, Etruscan towns made peace, and the treaty with Tarquinii was renewed.
The struggle with the Samnites dragged interminably on. In 305, they launched an attack on the wine-rich ager Falernus, in northern Campania. They were repulsed and a relieving army was defeated. By the next year, after further setbacks, the Samnites had had enough and accepted not ungenerous terms. They were made to withdraw into their own territory. Their onetime allies were to transfer their allegiance to Rome, and would lose some of their land. Rome made solid but not spectacular gains, winning a number of frontier towns and completing its hold over Campania. But one thing was clear beyond any doubt. The Republic was now the first state in Italy and, it followed, a power to be reckoned with on the Mediterranean political stage.
At the beginning of the war, Livy had made a Samnite ambassador tell his Roman counterparts, “Let us pitch camp facing each other, and determine whether the Samnite or the Roman shall govern Italy.” That question had now been settled, except for the awkward fact that it was not in the former’s character to accept the decision of history. When he said pax, he plotted war.
In 298, Roman attention was distracted by a new Celtic incursion, probably only marauding bands and mercenaries but dangerous nonetheless. The Samnites indulged themselves with one last throw of the dice. They attacked a new Roman ally, the Lucani, on their southern border. During this third war, the legions did not linger on the edges of Samnium but marched directly into enemy territory.
Nothing daunted, the Samnite commander-in-chief, Gellius Egnatius, assembled a remarkable pact. Its members had little in common, apart from fear and hatred of Rome and a sense that this would be their last chance to destroy the monster before it grew too great ever again to be suppressed. Egnatius’s bold plan was to join forces with the Etruscans, the Umbrians (a long-standing enemy), and the Celts in the north and launch a combined attack against the irrepressible Republic.
The existence of this alliance became a matter of common knowledge in 296 and caused a panic at Rome. One of the consuls, the democratic reformer Appius Claudius Caecus, was in command of an army commissioned to keep a watch on the Etruscans, and he warned the Senate to take the threat posed very seriously. Every category of men was called up, even former slaves, and special cohorts of older citizens were formed. The two consuls for the following year commanded an army of four legions, and a special force of two legions guarded Campania from Samnite incursions. If they were at full strength, that added up to 25,200 legionaries, as well as a strong contingent of cavalry. Also, two legions were dispatched to ravage the Etruscan countryside, to discourage the Etruscans from marching to Egnatius. This wasn’t all. The citizen legions were accompanied by a greater number of troops contributed by the allies and the Latins—further witness, if it were needed, of the success of the Latin settlement. In total, this was the largest force Rome had ever assembled.
The consuls hurried to prevent the Celts from joining up with the Samnites. But they arrived too late and their advance guard was badly mauled. However, the Etruscans and the Umbrians were absent and, when the two armies met for a full-scale battle at Sentinum (near the modern town of Sassoferrato, in the Marche), they were probably evenly matched.
The hour of reckoning had arrived and, to mark it, a portent occurred. A female deer was chased by a wolf across the open space between the front lines. Then the animals veered off in opposite directions. The wolf ran toward the Romans, who opened a pathway for it to pass through. The deer rushed into the arms of the Celts, who struck it down. A Roman front ranker made the obvious connection. “On that side lies flight and slaughter,” he shouted. “The deer, the goddess Diana’s beast, is dead, but here on this side the wolf is the winner, whole and untouched. He reminds us of our descent from Mars, god of war, and of Romulus our founder.”
It does not matter much whether or not this incident is a historical event, for, one way or another, it is evidence that the Romans saw this day as a turning point in their history. The battle at Sentinum, like Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing.” The Roman left, commanded by Publius Decius Mus, the son of the commander who had “devoted” himself during the Latin war, was hard-pressed by the Celts and their chariots. In a bid to redeem the situation, Mus followed his father’s example. After saying the ritual prayers, he galloped on his horse into the Celtic lines, to his death. The army’s priest cried out that the Romans had won the day, now that they were freed by the consul’s fate. Meanwhile, the Roman right wore down and eventually routed the Samnites. They then turned back and smashed the Celts from the rear.
Victory was complete, but it came at a cost. According to Livy, 25,000 of the enemy were killed and 8,000 taken prisoner, while the Romans lost 8,700 men. The decision of Sentinum was permanent: Egnatius’s grand alliance was broken for good, and its inventor lay dead on the field of battle.
The Samnites still would not give up. Even the ultra-patriotic Livy acknowledged their stamina. He wrote:
They could carry on no longer, either with their own resources or with outside support, yet they would not abstain from war—so far were they from tiring of freedom even though they had not succeeded in defending it, preferring to be defeated rather than not to try for victory.
Fighting continued for a few years, and finally Samnium was penetrated by Roman forces and ravaged from one end to the other. Resistance was no longer possible. To judge by the amount of loot seized and the number of captives enslaved, little mercy was shown: auctions of booty and prisoners raised more than three million pounds of bronze—a windfall that funded the Republic’s first ever issue of coinage. For the fourth time, the Samnites signed a treaty with their conqueror. They became “allies” of the Republic—in other words, a vassal nation liable to send its young men not to fight its conqueror but to help it win its future wars.
The struggle had lasted half a century. The Samnites were down, but even now they refused to be counted out. Sullen, resentful, and subjugated, they nursed their grievance against Rome and awaited an opportunity for revenge.
FOR AN INDIVIDUAL Roman soldier, a battlefield was a narrow and constricted place, electric with fear and tension. As most fighting took place in the summer, the air would be filled with dust raised by thousands of tramping feet, the ancient equivalent of von Clausewitz’s fog of war. Rain brought no relief, for an army soon turned wet ground into a quagmire. Sharp and repulsive smells spread through the armies—caused by sweaty unwashed men, the panicked loosening of sphincters and bladders, and, in due course, the cutting open of guts. There was a tremendous noise of metal on metal, of war cries and screams, of regimental trumpet blasts. The soldier was surrounded by comrades but could not see anything that was going on beyond them, nor easily hear orders. He had no idea how the battle as a whole was going. At best, he might glimpse his general riding past, himself hardly able to descry events. In the middle of a crowd, our Roman was fearfully on his own.
In modern warfare, combatants are often more or less remote from their opponents, and so are insulated from the terrors of hand-to-hand fighting. For the Roman, a javelin could perhaps be thrown thirty meters, but once two armies collided he was in touching reach of his enemy. His duty was to try to kill or disable him with his trusty gladius, a short cut-and-thrust sword, and to avoid getting killed by use of his shield, or scutum, two and a half feet in width and four feet in height.
In the fourth century, military reforms improved the effectiveness of Roman arms but probably made the battlefield a more frightening place than it had previously been. Originally, a legion fought as a phalanx. A phalanx was a tight infantry formation, eight and, later, twelve or sixteen ranks deep. It was a Greek invention that the Romans copied. As if they were a single invincible organism, soldiers marched close together shield to shield. They carried long spears thirteen to eighteen feet in length that, like a lethal porcupine, presented an impenetrable thicket of shafts. The phalanx crashed into the enemy line and usually prevailed by virtue of its sheer momentum and perfect drill. Not for nothing is the word phalanx the Greek for “roller,” or heavy tree trunk.
However, the phalanx had weaknesses. It was vulnerable to attack from the sides and men found it hard to stay in formation on rough ground. Once broken up, this monument of human solidarity disintegrated into a collection of individual soldiers, easily picked off and put to flight. Except in the Po Valley, Italy is not a land of flat plains, and during the fourth century Rome found that the phalanx was at a disadvantage when confronting the loose, open tactics of the Celts, with their terrifying chariots, or the guerrilla tricks of Samnite mountaineers.
So the Romans abandoned the phalanx for a more flexible arrangement. Rather than form a single deep rectangle, a legion’s heavy infantry was divided into three successive lines. The first consisted of hastati, young soldiers; the second, principes, men in their prime; and, finally, the triarii, mature veterans in reserve. The hastati and the principes carried two throwing javelins a man, six feet long and made from wood and iron, and the triarii one long thrusting pike. Each line was broken down into ten subunits, or maniples (from the Latin manipulus, or “handful”) of about 120 men. Maniples were separated from one another by intervals equal to their own frontage. The gaps in the front line were protected by the maniples of the second, and those in the second line by the third.
The formation resembled a checkerboard and allowed fighters in the first line to withdraw and be replaced by fresh troops. The task of the triarii was defensive. If both the hastati and the principes had been forced to retreat, they were the last obstacle before an ignominious defeat. They knelt down beneath their banners, held up their shields, and pointed their pikes into the air, a kind of human barbed-wire entanglement. The phrase “to have come to the triarii” was a common expression that things were going badly.
Severity was essential if men were to be serious about fighting. We have no eye-witness testimonials to the experience of battle in classical times, but research into modern warfare offers findings that doubtless have a general application. It seems that comparatively few soldiers put their heart into fighting. Battles often have a rhythm, with waves of men pushing forward, feinting, and then rushing back. Men are usually capable of facing the danger they are in, but only a quarter of them actually attack with a will to kill. A paralysis of terror overtakes some soldiers; they are unable even to surrender, much less fight back, and are killed where they stand or lie.
Joy in combat and the taking of an almost sexual pleasure in killing occurs but is rare. In a modern survey, about one-third of combatant soldiers show strong or mild fear, another third are “in the middle ground of tension and concentration,” and about one quarter are “calm and neutral”: these last may be presumed to be the effective combatants. A small number are stunned or incapacitated.
According to a recent sociological study of violence, “in ancient and mediaeval warfare, there appears to have been a high degree of incompetence in the use of … weapons.” As is usually the case, most wounding and killing took place when the opposing forces were unequal—for example, during a rout or an ambush. “Forward panic” is a kind of fever that maddens advancing troops, who may then commit atrocities. Likewise, after victory in the field or the capture of a besieged city, soldiers allow themselves a temporary moral holiday. Individuals feel protected by the crowd and behave with great cruelty to the vanquished. When normal social controls have resumed, the same men may share their rations with surviving victims.
One way of reducing fear and tension has been to put troops into massed formations, such as the phalanx, where they must act in concert and there is little or no room for individual initiative. Rome’s new manipular formation offered more scope for individual initiative but also (it follows) for cowardice or, at least, ineffectiveness in the face of the enemy.
So it is no surprise that, to maximize fighting efficiency, discipline had to be fierce. Two centurions stood at either end of a maniple’s front row, each commanding one half of the unit, while a third officer, an optio, kept watch in the rear. Great care was taken in appointing men to these crucial positions. According to Polybius:
The Romans look not so much for the daring or fire-eating type, but rather for men who are natural leaders and possess a stable and imperturbable temperament, not men who will open the battle and launch attacks, but those who will stand their ground even when worsted or hard-pressed, and will die in defense of their posts.
It was an understood right of war for the winner to take as booty anything of value that could be found. A Roman soldier, both citizen and ally, could count on a fair share of the spoils. But the most persuasive encouragement to valor was the fact that Rome established a habit of winning its wars. Yes, there could be terrible setbacks and high casualties, but the Roman Republic now controlled most of central Italy; its territory had grown to more than 6,000 square kilometers at the turn of the century and ballooned to more than 15,000 square kilometers by the 280s. There was an unparalleled increase both in public and private wealth.
The wars of the fourth century made Rome into a warrior state. Campaigns took place more or less every year. The regular annual levy rose from two to four legions during the Samnite Wars—that is, about eighteen thousand men—and during the Sentinum crisis six legions were under arms, perhaps twenty-five percent of all adult male citizens. However nerve-racking the experience of battle, warfare paid, and there was now no other power in the peninsula that dared challenge Rome’s supremacy.
SO WHAT WAS it like to be a Roman, as the Republic found itself on the threshold of history and greatness? And how did he or she see the world? It is hard to be certain in the light of an unreliable written record that later imaginative historians tampered with and “improved,” but a recognizable personality begins to emerge into the light of day.
The vast majority of people were poor and scratched a hard living from the land. Although Latium was fertile, hostile marauders trashed crops and burned down huts and houses. Smallholders were often absent on service with the legions. Women and children presumably worked the fields when not forced to make their escape to nearby strongpoints. However, with the expansion of Rome’s territories, fighting increasingly took place on the territory of others.
The problem of indebtedness remained endemic, and it was many years before the humiliation of debt bondage, the nexum, was outlawed. Economic hardship was never totally dispelled, but foreign conquests relieved its worst symptoms. As the Republic became wealthier, rural austerity, exemplified by the experience of Cincinnatus, came to be regarded with a certain nostalgia.
With migrants moving about the peninsula and rising populations, war was a way of life in central Italy. The Romans learned to be extraordinarily aggressive. There were few periods in their early centuries when the Republic was not invading its neighbors or resisting invasion by them. Little wonder that a constitution was devised which intermingled the military with the political.
A fierce culture of self-sacrifice developed, at least in the ruling class, illustrated not only by such legends as Brutus’s execution of his delinquent sons but also by the (apparently historical) deaths of Decius Mus père et fils—suicide for the greater good, negation of the individual for the deliverance of the collective.
Two factors kept the Roman’s instinct for aggression under control: religion and the law. Both were systems of regulation. Spiritual experience was regarded with deep suspicion; what was required was a ritual formula for ascertaining the will of the gods and averting their displeasure. Likewise, the Twelve Tables set out in grinding detail rules for managing relations between citizens.
These two systems helped to ensure good behavior, dutifulness, trust, fides. Bad faith brought with it divine disappproval and legal sanctions. But the Roman was crafty and, while very free with his condemnation of others, was willing enough to favor the letter rather than the spirit of the law in his own affairs; on occasion, he might even rewrite the letter.
Prescription is insufficient by itself; goodwill has to be added to the mixture. The remarkable story of how Rome’s class struggle was resolved is evidence that generation after generation of pragmatists were willing to compromise, to make do and mend, to strike deals with their political opponents.
THESE WERE THE people who were about to encounter, for the first time, the armed might of Greece.