THE WAR WITH HANNIBAL WAS OVER AND PEOPLE were worn out. The Italian countryside was devastated, the economy wrecked, the public finances deep in the red, and hundreds of thousands of citizens and allies had lost their lives in eighteen years of fighting. Victory was usually sweet, but this time it tasted bitter. There was no life-threatening enemy in sight, and for once Romans had had enough of the battlefield. Everybody was looking forward to a period of peace and recuperation. And yet, within a couple of years of the Battle of Zama, the Senate entered into a major new war. The People vetoed the enterprise when the question was broached, but, when invited to return to the subject, gave its reluctant consent.
How could this be?
THE REPUBLIC WAS unprepared for greatness. As the heir of Carthage, it now controlled the islands of the Western Mediterranean and most of Spain, but it had no other territorial ambitions. The old enemy was allowed to manage its own affairs in northern Africa but could not act independently at home or abroad without the Senate’s express permission. Italy, although not yet the Celtic Po Valley, was well used to the yoke and after Pyrrhus and Hannibal the legions were invincible. Now in charge of half the known world, Rome had become a superpower, without being fully aware of what this might mean.
For many of its citizens, by contrast, the Eastern Mediterranean was terra incognita. Of course, traders traded and from time to time inquirers made the arduous trip to Delphi to learn about the future. In the third century, the Senate entered into friendly but remote relations with Egypt, but otherwise it had little direct experience of the world of Hellenic politics, and little interest in acquiring more. However, this was about to change.
Rome was now more open than ever to foreign, especially Greek, cultural influence. This seemed to some dangerously intoxicating, and to others an irresistible means of civilizing a provincial people. The contradiction in Roman attitudes was a proxy for a deeper uncertainty. Was the Republic to hoard its new power and live within an old, comfortable but limited mindset? And would the outside world allow it to do so? Multiple appeals for political and military assistance from across the known world began to pour into Rome. Cato and his puritans were fighting against human nature when they argued that these things had to be rejected. If a state has power and refuses to use it, it may create a vacuum that other unfriendly interests will seek to fill.
Was the Republic to welcome the prospect of empire and a mission civilisatrice? If so, somehow traditional ways would have to be adapted to new conditions. Men like Scipio Africanus envisioned a Hellenized Rome ready to embrace cultural diversity, to police the Mediterranean, and to operate a disinterested hegemony. Of course, this was a utopian vision. Imperialists may comfort themselves with their benevolence, but it is in their nature to intrude, to decide from a distance, to believe that the consent of provincials to foreign rule is freely given and not simply a rational response to the use of force.
Cato and Scipio represented two different responses to Rome’s military successes. The former inherited the native, negative caution of Fabius Maximus the Delayer, of whom he was an admirer: he was a narrow nationalist and had no ambition for a wider empire. Although he knew a good deal more about Greek language and literature than he let on, he wanted nothing to do with Hellenic culture and the East. It was enough to have expelled Hannibal from Italy. By contrast, Scipio was a natural expansionist. The two men embodied the dilemmas facing the Republic—between tradition and innovation, Hellenism and the mos maiorum, patriotism and internationalism, superstition and mysticism, severity and tolerance, self-denial and extravagance. Which direction would Rome take? Cato and his principles won many supporters, but, with his acceptance of Rome’s imperial destiny, Scipio saw a long way further into the future.
MORE THAN A century had passed since the death of Alexander the Great, and his Oriental empire had broken down into three large pieces—the kingdoms of Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt, which jostled among themselves in an uneasy balance of power. To them should be added some smaller fragments—including the mercantile island of Rhodes and the compact but wealthy kingdom of Pergamum, in Asia Minor. The tiny city-states of Greece had long since lost their international importance and dwelled reluctantly in the chilling shadow of Macedon, which kept them under control by garrisoning three strategic fortresses, nicknamed the “fetters of Greece,” at Corinth, Chalcis, and Demetrias. Some of them gathered together into federations—the most important being the Aetolian League, in the northern half of Greece, and the Achaean League, in the Peloponnese. Athens lived off its past glories and had dwindled into a center for the ancient equivalent of postgraduate studies, especially in philosophy.
The intervention of Pyrrhus had been an unpleasant introduction to Hellenic belligerence, but, as already noted, Rome’s first military operation on Greek soil had been against the Illyrians, a half-Hellenized and piratical kingdom along the Dalmatian coastline, which in the mid-third century expanded downward into today’s Albania. No doubt they were alarmed by the establishment, in 244, of a Latin fortress-colony just across the strait at Brundisium, one of the finest harbors on the peninsula’s east coast. During the Second Punic War, the murder of a Roman envoy at the hands of Illyrian privateers led the Senate to authorize a decisive intervention on their home territory.
This annoyed the king of Macedon, Philip V, a ruthless and impulsive ruler with a black sense of humor. He objected to intrusion into what he regarded as his sphere of influence. The Battle of Cannae persuaded him to join what he wrongly guessed would be the winning side, and he concluded a treaty of mutual assistance with Hannibal. Nothing very much happened as a consequence except for some desultory fighting on the Greek mainland. By 205, with Scipio on the point of invading North Africa, the king realized that he had misjudged the situation and negotiated a peace. He was in a strong military position at the time. The Romans usually discussed terms only when they were the victors, but on this occasion they were too busy to pursue Philip and agreed a treaty. However, they had not closed their account with Macedon.
Philip was always on the lookout for an unfair advantage. When a six-year-old boy acceded to the throne of the Ptolemies, he judged that the time was right to grab some of Egypt’s overseas possessions. Not for nothing did the (possibly contemporary) author of Ecclesiastes write: “Woe to you, oh land, where your king is a child.” In the winter of 203–202, the Macedonian monarch reached an understanding with his royal colleague and competitor, Antiochus the Great of Syria, according to which they would share the spoils.
While Syria marched southward, Philip indiscriminately assaulted unoffending cities on the Bosphorus, annexed the Cyclades, and took the island of Samos. Pergamum and Rhodes were outraged, and it was not long before the king went on to attack them, too. This uncalled-for aggression infuriated his victims, but what could they do? Macedon and Syria were in cahoots, and Egypt was impotent. Philip would not have had to answer for his crimes had it not been for the arrival of Rome as a new actor on the geopolitical stage.
Pergamum and Rhodes appealed to the Republic for assistance. The Senate was minded to send out an expeditionary force at once, but the Assembly’s opposition made it hold its hand. The truth was that Philip had acted perfectly properly toward Rome, and none of the complainants were officially allies, requiring or permitting intervention. This was awkward if the law, the ius fetiale, was to be obeyed. It stipulated that war could be declared only in the Republic’s or its oathbound allies’ self-defense.
So in 200 the Senate sent Philip an ultimatum so severe that he would be compelled to reject it. The king duly obliged. In a sharp exchange, a senior senatorial envoy blamed him for his aggression, to which the king replied that if there had to be war his Macedonians would give a good account of themselves. The envoy broke off the discussion and reported unfavorably to the Senate in Rome. Philip had to be taught a lesson. When the subject was broached a second time the People gave way and war was declared.
The sequence of events is clear, but no record survives of the Senate’s debates which might explain its motives. So we have to speculate. Some have argued that this was a case of naked imperialism. But there is little evidence that the ruling élite was set on a course of territorial enlargement. It had annexed no Carthaginian land in North Africa, and at present its hands were full dealing with recalcitrant Spaniards and unsettled Celts in northern Italy. Senators were as reluctant to go to war as the rest of the population.
Others have said that the Senate was packed with idealists who wanted to free Greece from its Macedonian despot, that it was willing, for no advantage, to be the known world’s “policeman.” Certainly aristocrats like Scipio Africanus were steeped in Greek culture, but they had no special fondness for modern Greeks and deployed their philhellenism strictly for Rome’s benefit.
We must not exclude the possibility that miscalculation played a part in the slide towards conflict. Neither side knew enough about the other; Rome may have exaggerated the threat Macedon posed, and Philip simply would not take the Senate’s interference in his own internal affairs seriously until it was too late.
In all likelihood, there was one main reason for the outbreak of hostilities, and two subordinate background motives. The Senate took the long view and was anxious to allow no hostile power to gather strength in the Eastern Mediterranean, as Carthage had done in the West. The military partnership between Macedon and Syria might well now be directed against Egypt, but it was easy to imagine Rome becoming a target in the future. It was wise to cut Philip down to size when the opportunity offered. After all, he had already fought a war against Rome, and (here was one of the secondary motives) he had not yet been punished for it.
Finally, there were the individual ambitions of those who governed the Republic. They were essentially a closed group of about two thousand men, a gentlemen’s club, to which only a few “new men” (such as Cato) were admitted. Competition among them was more or less friendly, but at any given time most would be without a public commission. Following the defeat of Hannibal, Rome’s new possessions in the Western Mediterranean (Near Spain and Further Spain, Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia) all required governors and other officials, opening new opportunities for political action, military adventure, and self-enrichment. And now that the complicated, glamorous polity of the Orient had come within the Republic’s purview there were jobs as ambassadors, advisers and, it could safely be predicted, army commanders. Roman travelers—officials and businessmen—stepped expectantly into this new world, and it is easy to imagine their mixed feelings of excitement and greed as they explored great cities such as Athens, Antioch, and Ephesus, toured the Seven Wonders of the World, and admired the amenities of Hellenic civilization.
AS USUAL, THE legions were slow off the mark, and Philip’s energy and his willingness to deploy pillage and massacre as tools of policy gave him the initiative.
In the second year of the war, the tempo changed when an attractive and talented young man took over command of the Roman war effort. He was Titus Quinctius Flamininus (brother of the Flamininus who killed a Celt to amuse his lover and the same man who, later in his career, pursued Hannibal to his grave—see this page). Charismatic, charming, and a philhellene, he was a Scipio mark two. Against some opposition, he was elected consul at the unusually early age of twenty-nine.
Consul and king met for a conference at which Flamininus bluntly told Philip to unlock the fetters of Greece (in other words, withdraw his garrisons) and compensate the states whose lands and cities he had plundered. The king replied that he would never free cities that had previously been under Macedonian control, and that any claims for damages should be submitted to arbitration. The consul hit back: “There is no need for referees; it is obvious who is the aggressor.” Philip lost his temper. He objected to being treated as if he had already been defeated, he said, and stormed out.
It was clear that Flamininus intended to eject the Macedonians from their three fortresses and then chase them from Greece altogether. Philip knew he did not command the manpower to survive a war of attrition and, betting on a quick victory, took the offensive. However, the Romans, supported by the Aetolian League, drove him back into Thessaly. The furious king adopted a scorched-earth policy as he withdrew, while the more astute Flamininus avoided looting and atrocities. Although one or two of his allies in the Peloponnese remained loyal, Philip could see that Greece was slipping from his grasp. He asked for another conference.
Someone at the meeting took notes, and a detailed account has survived that throws light on how international relations were conducted in those days, and on Philip’s personality. The subtext is that, despite his readiness to talk, Flamininus never had any intention of agreeing a peace, whereas the king was eager for one, provided he could avoid complete capitulation.
THE ENCOUNTER TOOK place in the open air on a beach near Thermopylae. Captains and kings did not trust one another, and it was essential to choose a spot where the chances of an ambush were reduced to a minimum. A built-up area was risky, and in any event it would be hard to find a town or city that was reliably neutral. The coast had the advantage that one party could travel to the rendezvous by land and the other on water. This meant that neither could easily pursue and capture the other.
On this occasion, Flamininus and various delegates from Greece, Pergamum, and Rhodes gathered on the beach and waited for Philip to turn up. He arrived in a warship escorted by five galleys. He sailed close to the shore but refused to disembark.
The consul asked, tactlessly, “What are you afraid of?”
“I fear nothing but the gods, but I don’t trust many of those present, especially the Aetolians,” the King replied.
This was an inauspicious beginning, but Flamininus invited the king, who had requested the meeting, to raise whatever topics he wished.
“It is not for me to speak first, but rather for you. Kindly explain what I must do to have peace.”
The consul set out his terms, of which the most important was that Philip should withdraw completely from Greece. Then the other representatives itemized detailed shopping lists. So, for example, the envoy from Pergamum wanted the king to restore thesanctuary of Aphrodite and the Temple of Athena the Bringer of Victory, near Pergamum, both of which he had destroyed during his foray into the kingdom.
A certain Phaeneas from the Aetolian League spoke at great length, making the point, with copious examples, that Philip had a habit of impartially devastating the territories of friends and allies as well as foes. This riled the king, who approached closer to the shore and criticized Phaeneas for speaking in “typically theatrical and Aetolian style.” He went on to reject his charges, while conceding that commanders sometimes had to do things they would rather not do.
Phaeneas, who had very poor eyesight, interrupted and pointed out that words were not the issue: “The truth is that you must either fight and conquer, or else obey those who are stronger than you.”
Philip, who had a reputation for being more satirical than was entirely suitable for a king, could not resist a sarcastic (and un-amusing) joke at the speaker’s expense: “Yes, even a blind man can see that!”
A disjointed conversation followed, in which the king continued to grumble about the Aetolians. He then put a clever question to those at the meeting: “In any case, what is this Greece you want me to evacuate? Most of the Aetolians themselves are not Greek.” He cited other territories that were not regarded as genuinely Hellenic. “Am I allowed to stay in these places?” he asked.
He then turned his attention to the other speakers, dealing brusquely and mordantly with each issue they raised, point by point: “As for the damage done to the sanctuary of Athena and the shrine of Aphrodite, I can’t help with the restoration, but I’ll send some gardeners to look after the place and see to the growth of the trees that were cut down.” Flamininus smiled.
Finally, Philip turned to the consul. “Is it the general’s wish that I should withdraw from those towns and places I myself conquered, or that I should leave those which I inherited from my ancestors?” Flamininus remained silent, although some of his delegates were ready and primed to reply. However, the hour was getting late and Philip concluded by asking all the parties present to give him written statements of their positions. “I am alone and have no one to advise me,” he explained. “I would like to reflect on your various demands.”
The consul was amused by the mockery in Philip’s tone of voice. He replied, “Of course you are alone by this time, Philip, for you have killed off all those friends who could give you good advice.” The king grinned sardonically and said nothing. Everyone agreed to meet again the next day.
The Romans arrived punctually, but there was no sign of the king. They waited all day, and at last the Macedonians arrived just before dusk. Philip said in excuse that he had been delayed studying all the submissions. This was gamesmanship, for what he wanted was to finesse a tête-à-tête with Flamininus. The hour being late, the assembled dignitaries agreed that the two men, accompanied by only a few members of their staffs, should confer privately. The king disembarked and he and the consul talked together for a long time in the fading light.
Flamininus reported back to his delegation on the complicated but limited concessions the Macedonians were prepared to make. All present loudly declared their dissatisfaction with the proposals. Philip could see that an animated discussion was going on and proposed another adjournment to the following day.
The next morning, the king arrived on time. He gave a short speech, in which he said that he would be willing to send an embassy to the Senate for these matters to be determined if agreement was not possible now. Flamininus was happy to concede the point, for he wanted time to arrange for the Senate to approve the extension of his command. One may surmise that the idea of a reference to Rome had been mooted in quiet conversation on the darkened beach the night before.
THE SENATE DEBATED Philip’s peace proposals, rejected them, and gave the consul the extension he was seeking. For all his cleverness, the king’s diplomacy had failed and hostilities resumed. By the spring of 197, Flamininus had won over almost all of Greece, except for the fetters. More than twenty-three thousand Macedonians marched south into Thessaly, where they approached a Roman army of about the same size. The ground was unsuitable for a battle and Philip and Flamininus led their men along each side of a chain of hills called Cynoscephalae (Greek for “dogs’ heads”). They collided more or less by chance. A battle ensued on uneven ground, which suited the flexible legion more than the unwieldy phalanx. A Roman detachment managed to outflank the enemy and fell on their rear. The day was won.
Since the reigns of Alexander the Great and his talented father, Philip, during the fourth century, the Macedonian phalanx had been insuperable. Now, to the amazement of the Hellenic world, it was destroyed as a fighting force. The initiative had shifted decisively to the still unfamiliar invaders from the west.
The ambitious and overbearing Aetolian League, whose soldiers had fought alongside the Romans, wanted to see Philip’s power destroyed, but Flamininus knew better. It was enough that Macedon had been humbled and pushed back behind its borders. Its complete elimination would create a vacuum, upsetting the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and encouraging Celts in the north to march down into Greece. A tamed Philip was left on his throne, stripped of his external dependencies, including the fetters, and bound into an alliance with Rome. Nothing if not a realist, he accepted his new, reduced status.
The senatorial decree that laid down the peace terms was more than a treaty with the king of Macedon; it was also a manifesto, which announced that Greeks everywhere (that is, in Asia Minor as well as the Balkans) were to be free. Rome was arrogating to itself the authority to determine the governance of Alexander’s fractured empire. It not only decided the fate of Philip, its defeated enemy, but also warned Antiochus, whose path it had never crossed, to behave himself.
But what, exactly, was freedom to mean? As soon as Philip had withdrawn his garrisons from the fetters, the Senate substituted its own. Cynics wondered if one despot was to be replaced with another. Rome wanted to avoid military occupation and direct rule, which would bring much convenience and no obvious advantage, but was worried by a possible threat from Antiochus in the east; without the deterrent fortresses manned by Romans, he might be tempted to invade. Also, there were a number of awkward disputes that only Rome was in a position to settle. An ambitious king of Sparta needed to be restrained. The Aetolians were furious that the Senate had not rewarded them generously enough for their help in the war; they wanted additional territory, even though this was obviously inconsistent with giving the Greek city-states their independence. They put it about that the plan to free Greece was a fraud, claiming, “Flamininus has unshackled the foot of Greece only to put a collar round her neck.”
There was something in these rumors. Ten senatorial commissioners advised Flamininus on the details of the settlement of Greece, and took the view that the fetters should remain in Roman hands. This would be a disaster, the commander felt, for when announced it would justify the suspicions of the Aetolians. With some difficulty, he persuaded the commission to change its mind.
Flamininus decided to dispel the fractious mood by staging a public-relations spectacular in Corinth, the wealthy entrepôt on the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese to northern Greece and the capital of the Achaean League. The Isthmian Games, an athletics and arts festival, were held there every two years (before and after the quadrennial Olympic Games) in the summer. A general truce was declared, to guarantee free passage to athletes, and people came from all over Greece to watch chariot races, boxing, wrestling, and the pankration, a blend of boxing and wrestling but with no rules except for a ban on eye-gouging and biting. There were also poetry and music contests, in which women were, apparently and unusually, allowed to compete.
At the Games of 196, the first peacetime festival for some years, a large crowd gathered in the stadium. Flamininus arranged for a trumpeter to signal a general silence. A public crier then stepped forward and announced:
The Senate of Rome and Titus Quinctius Flamininus the proconsul, having defeated King Philip and the Macedonians in battle, leave the following states and cities free, without garrisons, subject to no tribute and in full enjoyment of their ancestral laws: the peoples of Corinth, Phocis, Locri, Euboea, Phthiotic Achaea, Magnesia, Thessaly and Perrhaebia.
The states and cities mentioned were all those which had recognized claims to independence and had been directly governed by Philip.
At the beginning of the proclamation, there was a deafening shout and some people did not hear what was said. Most did, though, and could not believe their ears. Polybius writes:
What had happened was so unexpected that it was as if they were listening to the words in a kind of dream. They clamored and shouted, each of them moved perhaps by a different impulse, for the herald and the trumpeter to come forward into the middle of the stadium and repeat the proclamation. They wished, no doubt, not only to hear the speaker but to see him, so difficult did it seem to believe what he was saying.
As requested, the trumpeter blew his trumpet and the crier read out the text for a second time. A tremendous burst of cheering arose, so loud that it was heard at sea, and the entire audience got to its feet. Eyewitnesses many years later said it was difficult for those who could only read of the event in the present day to imagine how it sounded. Some ravens that happened to be flying over the stadium were so startled by the unexpected noise that they fell out of the sky.
When the shouting finally died away, it was replaced by a hubbub of excited chatter. Nobody paid the slightest attention to the athletic contests, but mobbed Flamininus. People pressed forward to touch his hand, garlands and headbands made from ribbon were thrown over him, and he was hailed as the savior of the Greeks. He only just escaped from the congratulations unharmed.
This was the reception that every liberator throughout history has dreamed of, but, as so many benevolent invaders have found to their cost, the moment of joy was shortlived.
The Greek cities, now to be freed, were as unquenchably quarrelsome as ever; Flamininus and his commission had to spend a year adjudicating and settling various disputes. Inevitably, this was unpopular work, not helped by the proconsul’s de haut en bas manner, but once it was completed the Senate fervently hoped that it would not have to concern itself any more with Greek affairs. In the fall of 194, the Romans at last removed their garrisons from the fetters, and evacuated from Greece. Flamininus brought back cartloads of Greek art and much treasure, which decorated his triumph.
PHILIP OF MACEDON’S onetime partner in crime, Antiochus the Great, was tired of Rome’s intrusion into what he regarded as his sphere of influence—namely, Asia Minor. For its part, the Senate feared that he planned to attack Rome—a fear much enhanced by Hannibal’s arrival at his court. In fact, the Syrian monarch had no such intention. His vision was to restore the empire that his dynastic ancestor, Seleucus, had carved from the dead Alexander’s domains, and that was the extent of his ambitions. As far as the Romans were concerned, he simply wanted them to leave him alone. If only a pact could be agreed, along with a few platitudes about perpetual friendship, the two states could pursue their separate courses unhindered.
On the face of it, Antiochus was a highly successful ruler. Born in about 241, he was a young man when he inherited the throne and a disorganized realm from his elder brother, who had been assassinated. He and the other Successors were of Macedonian or sometimes Greek stock. They were absolute despots, devoted to the perpetuation of their dynasties and to enriching themselves at the expense of their subjects. Seleucus told his army bluntly toward the end of his reign, “And I tell you that it is not the customs of the Persians and other such nations that I shall impose on you rather than this one law, common to them all, that whatever the king decides is always right.”
Philosophers developed a meritocratic theory that kingship was a reward for noble deeds, and the next natural step upward (not unlike the cursus honorum for elected magistrates in Rome) was promotion to godhead. Heracles (the Greek version of Hercules) had pointed the way, transcending his mortality. Homer had given his imprimatur to the concept of a divided self, when his wanderer Odysseus descends into hell and meets the hero’s ghost:
I observed the powerful Heracles—his image, that is, but he himself banquets at ease among the immortal gods.
Some monarchs reserved their divinity à la Heracles until after their death, but alive they were at least isotheoi, or godlike. Others put in a claim to deification before the tomb. A king of Macedon in the previous century was greeted on his entry into Athens by a choir singing a specially written hymn:
The other gods are far away,
or cannot hear.
Or are non-existent, or care nothing for us;
but you are here, and visible to us,
not carved in wood or stone, but real.
So to you we pray.
This attitude, which combined rational skepticism with divine worship, was widespread in the sophisticated East among rulers such as Antiochus and his subjects.
On his accession, the energetic and ambitious Antiochus set about rebuilding his empire. He failed to take back from the Ptolemies Syrian lands into which they had encroached, but he had more success in pressing his cause in Asia Minor. Then he decided to follow in Alexander’s footsteps and marched east into Parthia and Bactria. He crossed into the Kabul Valley and descended into India, where he made friends with an Indian king, Subhashsena, from whom he procured elephants for his army. After a short expedition down the Persian Gulf, he returned home to general applause. He had restored his father’s empire and on his return acquired the complimentary title of “the Great.” He took to styling himself the Great King, after the long-gone Persian monarchs.
Antiochus’s reputation was at its height, and from Rome’s viewpoint he presented a serious threat. He was apparently an able general and now commanded a supply of manpower that outmatched that of the Republic. In fact, though, his seven-yearanabasis(“journey up-country”) had as much to do with public relations as with actual conquest. We do not know whether the Senate had any inkling of this, but the king had managed only to win friendly allies rather than to impose satrapies or annex provinces. He controlled nothing much beyond Persepolis. What he had done, admittedly with some skill, was to erect a sword-and-sandals film set, impressive from a distance but lath and plasterboard in close-up.
Having won the coastal cities of Asia Minor, the spoils of his mutual aggression pact with Philip, he decided to fit into place the last piece of the Seleucid imperial jigsaw—Thrace, Greece’s unruly, semi-barbarous neighbor. To secure this, he crossed the Bosphorus onto European soil in 196. It was a truly momentous mistake, made from nostalgia rather than necessity.
Understandably, the Romans were displeased. In their view, Thrace was the essential no-man’s-land between their sphere of influence and that of Antiochus. But the Syrian king located his neutral buffer zone somewhere west—the liberated Balkans. The sooner the Senate pulled back its troops from there, the better. This mismatch of understandings led inexorably to war.
The king opened negotiations with the Romans, but to little purpose. His embassies were rebuffed and he was infuriated by the Senate’s patronizing assumption that it had the right to tell him how to govern in his own lands. Meanwhile, Pergamum, as alarmed by Syrian expansionism as it had been by that of Philip, dripped poison about his hostile intentions into the Senate’s receptive ear. It was against its better judgment that it had endorsed the evacuation of Greece.
In 193 Flamininus, now back in Rome and speaking with the full authority of the Senate, at last offered Antiochus, through his envoys, a clear if cynical deal: “If he wishes us to take no interest in the concerns of the [Greek] cities of Asia, he on his part must keep his hands off any part of Europe.” In other words, provided that Antiochus gave up Thrace, Rome would give him a free hand in Asia Minor (so much for the liberty of the Greeks!). But this was the one thing he would not do, so dear to him was his dream of reassembling Seleucus’s vast domain.
It was at this awkward moment that the leaders of the Aetolian League moved to avenge themselves on an ungrateful Rome. They looked about for allies, and first of all they made overtures to King Philip. But bitter experience had taught him to stay in the Senate’s good books, and he declined to join any insurrection. Finally, the Aetolians invited Antiochus to liberate Greece from the Romans. Most observers would have thought that it was not the Republic that posed any threat (after all, the legions had left), but, rather, the Aetolians themselves, ambitious to fill the space left by the Romans and a reduced Macedon.
While waiting for an answer, they set about making trouble. They assassinated the—admittedly annoying—Spartan king. The league then tried to capture Chalcis, one of the fetters, but was told sharply by its inhabitants that since Chalcis was already free it did not need freeing. The port of Demetrias, whose citizens were nervous that Rome might hand them back to Philip as a reward for his loyalty, was another of the fetters, and here the Aetolians were successful.
After a pause for thought, the Great King accepted the invitation. What persuaded him to take such a foolhardy step? Surely he could see that the Aetolians were unreliable, and that the Romans, who had already defeated the Hellenic phalanx, would return to Greece in force. In the autumn of 192, his fleet arrived at Demetrias and a small body of only ten thousand men and six of his famous elephants disembarked. This would hardly frighten off the Romans. It seems that all he wanted was respect.
Antiochus spent a lazy winter enjoying his recent marriage to a pretty local girl from Chalcis, and a more trying spring being unceremoniously chased out of Greece. A Roman army thrashed the invaders so overwhelmingly at that most symbolic of locations, Thermopylae, that the king lost no time in setting sail for home. If he hoped that the legions would now leave him be in his eastern empire, he was to be disappointed.
The Senate intended to teach him a lesson. Lucius Scipio, consul, with his much more famous brother Africanus as his deputy, or legatus, headed an army of about thirty thousand men. They were assisted by Philip, who, as a token of gratitude, had his war indemnity reduced and his son Demetrius, a hostage in Rome, sent back to Macedon. Pergamum and Rhodes were, of course, on Rome’s side. Despite some setbacks, the legions crossed over into Asia for the first time and in December 190 met Antiochus’s host, twice their number, at Magnesia, a city in Lydia not far from Smyrna.
The Great King, on his army’s right wing, led a successful cavalry charge and galloped off in hot pursuit of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Romans routed and methodically butchered the phalanx. Antiochus only turned around when he met resistance at the Roman camp. He presumed that he was the victor and rode back in a haughty frame of mind. But when he saw the battlefield strewn with the dead bodies of his own men, horses, and elephants and his camp captured, he precipitately fled. Darkness fell, but still he rode on, reaching the Lydian capital, Sardis, and safety at midnight.
This was the end of Syria as a great power. Rome set an indemnity at fifteen thousand talents, the highest ever recorded. Antiochus was barred from Greece and most of Asia Minor, and was compelled to abandon his ancestral claim to Thrace. But, as with Philip, he was left on his throne. At this time, the Senate preferred to neutralize a fallen enemy, rather than to totally destroy him. In that way, it ensured the region’s stability without being obliged to govern it itself.
That said, the message of Magnesia was unmistakable. The Successors to Alexander were no longer free agents. Rome insisted on obedience to its wishes, so they had to think twice before doing anything that might disturb the always uneasy equilibrium in the region.
By contrast, Pergamum, Rhodes, and the free Greek cities along the Aegean coastline had cause to be thankful to their protector. The Senate could depend on them to keep a watchful eye on behalf of Roman interests.
A small town off the beaten track on the coast of Phrygia was surprised to receive largesse from the victors, in the form of an exemption from taxes. This was Troy, now a mound of multidated ruins beside an unimpressive village that made a living from tourism. It had rendered no recent services to merit the award. But for Romans this was their once-upon-a-time patria, their land of lost content.
And what a pleasure it was to enjoy at leisure the humiliation of the once triumphant Greeks!
PHILIP’S SON BY a legal wife, Demetrius, now back home, was a charming and attractive young man. During his enforced stay in Rome, he had become popular in leading circles. How much more congenial it would be, senators mused, if they could deal with him on the Macedonian throne rather than with his prickly father or the heir apparent, his older brother Perseus, the offspring of a mistress. Perseus became convinced that Demetrius was plotting to oust him from the succession; he may well have been right in suspecting that attention and flattery had turned the inexperienced prince’s head.
Unfortunately, there was no evidence, so Perseus manufactured some. He produced a forged letter from Flamininus spelling out Demetrius’s treasonable plans. The king was taken in, and in 180 arranged his son’s murder. At a dinner party, poison was added to Demetrius’s drink. Draining the cup, the boy instantly realized what had happened and before long the pains began. He withdrew to his bedroom and raged against his father and brother, whom he correctly blamed for his death. The noise was embarrassing, and a man was sent in to smother him.
Too late, Philip became convinced that the letter was a fabrication. He blamed Perseus, who was fortunate that the king soon died. Apparently, his final illness was psychological rather than physical: he could not sleep for remorse.
Safely enthroned, Perseus did all he could to calm any fears the Senate might harbor about him. But he was an energetic ruler, determined to turn over a new leaf after his father’s long reign. His aim was to reestablish Macedon’s good name in Greece and the wider East. Openness and generosity marked a break with his father’s caustic machtpolitik. Measures such as an amnesty for debtors signaled support for the democratic masses rather than the local aristocracies with whom the Senate preferred to do business. His marriage to Antiochus’s daughter and his half sister’s union with the king of Bithynia improved his international standing. While keeping carefully to the terms of the treaty with Rome, the king built up and trained his army.
All this activity disturbed the Senate. In recent years, it had become much more aggressive in Greece, irritated by the city-states’ endless sniping at one another and, in particular, the ambition of the Achaean League to take over the entire Peloponnese. But Perseus’s new popularity was a sign of something much more serious. Pergamum still had the Senate’s ear, into which it continually whispered far-fetched accusations, and did all it could to turn opinion against the king.
Was a revived and renewed Macedon preparing a fresh challenge to the Republic? Yes and no. Perseus certainly wanted to improve his kingdom’s political position, but Philip had recognized that Macedon could not compete with Rome, and so, surely, did his son. The Romans reacted evasively to requests for dialogue and agreed to a deceitful truce to allow time to recruit troops. It was as if they wanted war however weak the case for it. Eventually, in 171, the Senate sent an expeditionary force to Greece.
As in the conflict with Philip, the campaign got off to a desultory start, but in 168 Perseus, who was not a confident commander, lost a decisive battle at Pydna. This was the end of Macedon as a political entity. The kingdom was split up into four self-governing republics and its former ruler walked in his victor’s triumphal procession. Perseus spent the rest of his days under house arrest in a small hill town not far from Rome. He was allowed to live in some comfort, supplied with palace furniture from Macedon and servedby former court attendants. A disappointed man, he lasted for only a couple of years, starving himself to death in 166.
By an irony of fate, his throneless son was named Alexander, a sad echo of the most glorious of Macedonian monarchs. He was left to make his own way in the world. He learned Latin, and made a living as a skilled metalworker in gold and silver and as a public notary.
THE MAN WHO broke the phalanx at Pydna was a veteran Roman general, Lucius Aemilius Paullus. On his way back to Rome, he received an appalling instruction from the Senate. Epirus had not distinguished itself greatly since the days of its glamorous king Pyrrhus, and had unwisely favored Perseus in the war now ended. In order to supply the legions with booty, the Senate instructed Paullus to pillage every Epirote city, town, or settlement that had come out for Macedon. The general was a connoisseur of all things Hellenic and had just finished a sightseeing tour of Greece, but he set his hand to this new task with a will.
Leading men from each community were ordered to bring out the silver and gold in their houses and temples; legionary detachments spread out across the territory to collect this treasure. This they did, and then simultaneously and without warning overran and sacked each settlement. In a single day 150,000 men, women, and children were made slaves and Epirus became a wasteland, a condition from which it never fully recovered.
There had always been slaves in Rome—serfs, bankrupt citizen peasants who sold themselves as labor, and, as the legions marched through Italy, captured enemies. They were a common feature of life—noticeable but not dominant. It was only when the Republic fought and won its overseas campaigns that the number of slaves rose to the point that it transformed the city’s way of life—that, in a word, Rome became a slave society.
It has been estimated that the first Carthaginian war produced some seventy-five thousand slaves. In the struggle with Hannibal the capture of a single city, Tarentum, saw the sale of thirty thousand prisoners. Now, with the collapse of Macedon and the defeat of Syria, slaves and money flooded into Italy. People could also be purchased through organized piracy and trafficking.
A slave had no rights: he or she was a res mancipi—the property of an owner who was entitled to do with it as he liked, including inflicting death. Varro said, with a Roman’s carelessly brutal frankness, that, along with a propertyless farmworker, a slave was “a kind of speaking tool.”
A wealthy man would dispose of many, perhaps hundreds, of slaves, but even a lowly artisan owned one or two. The worst fate was to lead a short life working in the mines. Diodorus Siculus observed that many of these slaves preferred death to survival:
Day and night they wear out their bodies digging underground, dying in large numbers because of the terrible conditions they have to endure. They are allowed no restbreaks or holidays and under their overseers’ whiplashes are forced to suffer the most dreadful hardships.
Almost as bad as the mines was hard labor on the great landed estates that were replacing peasant smallholdings across the peninsula.
To be a house servant was also bad, but better. Owner and slave could get close. Good-looking boys and girls fetched large sums at auction, and a master might well expect sexual favors. “I know of a slave who dreamed that his penis was stroked and aroused by his master’s hand,” wrote an expert on the interpretation of dreams, adding ominously that this meant he would be bound to a pillar and “receive many strokes.” In this way, the dream elided many slaves’ two recurring fears—of sexual and physical abuse.
Slaves often managed to have a family life, even if it was the master who allocated partners. But, having produced children, they had to live with the permanent anxiety that their offspring might be sold off or, conversely, that the children might have to watch their old or sick parents auctioned or abandoned.
Open resistance was dangerous, although unhappy slaves sometimes absconded. This was a dangerous thing to do, though, for the reach of the Roman state was long. Cicero, in the following century, was upset when his highly educated slave, Dionysius, ran off with some books from his library. The man was tracked down to the province of Illyricum, and his disgruntled owner asked two successive governors to help him retrieve the fugitive. History does not record the outcome, but the incident shows how hard it was for a man on the run to vanish without trace.
Uniforms were forbidden on the grounds that this would show slaves how many of them there were and encourage solidarity and conspiracy. And indeed a slave revolt would occasionally terrify the authorities, but they all failed and were savagely put down. The most famous was that of Spartacus, a Thracian slave who led a revolt that began in 73 at the gladiatorial school at Capua. He routed three Roman armies before being cornered and destroyed in 71. Interestingly, rebels did not criticize the “peculiar institution” as such; they merely wanted to escape its grip.
One of the most remarkable, and in part mitigating, features of the Roman slave system was the widespread practice of manumission. Slaves were often freed, although they were likely to remain in their former owner’s employ and were bound by theclientelasystem of mutual obligations. Affection may often have been the motive (although freedom was sometimes bought with hard-won savings), but liberation as a promised ultimate goal was a means of ensuring obedience and hard work.
Former slaves automatically became Roman citizens and (in theory, at least) their male progeny could stand for public office, although in practice a man’s servile origin was remembered negatively for generations. The Romans had no concept of racial purity and, just as they had welcomed conquered states into partnership with them since the days of Romulus, so they invited individuals whom they had oppressed and degraded to join them as collaborators in their imperial project. Over time, Rome became the most culturally diverse of cities and its population mirrored the ethnic composition of its growing empire.
AT SOME POINT in the 190s, when the memory of the war with Hannibal was still sharp, Plautus wrote a comedy called The Little Carthaginian (in Latin Poenulus). What is striking is that the juvenile leads are sympathetically drawn in spite of the fact that they are all Carthaginian. One of them is a young man who is sold into slavery and adopted by his wealthy purchaser, and the other two are kidnapped girls bought by a pimp for prostitution.
A businessman named Hanno, the girls’ father, has long been looking for them and arrives from Carthage. He gives his opening speech in the Punic language before slipping into fluent Latin. He is a typical, shrewd, polyglot Carthaginian who astutely conceals his linguistic ability, but he is also an affectionate parent and a man of authority. The play leaves the impression that the Carthaginians were regarded as a clever race but had had bad luck. There is no residual enmity from the years of war, and we may suppose that this reflected the general opinion among Plautus’s audiences.
It was not at all how the eighty-one-year-old Cato the Censor saw things. A member of a senatorial commission, he visited Carthage in 157, and was shocked by what he found. The city had recovered from its defeat and was enjoying an economic boom. It no longer had to bear the costs of running an empire and hiring mercenaries. In the old days, its wealth derived from trading in the Western Mediterranean, but Rome had annexed its possessions in Sicily, Spain, Corsica, and Sardinia and its prosperity now depended on the agriculture in its North African hinterland. It exported foodstuffs and developed a thriving trade with Italy. The envoys were disturbed by the evidence of revival. Appian writes:
They carefully observed the country; they saw how diligently it was cultivated, and what great estates it possessed. They entered the city and saw how greatly it had increased in wealth and population since its overthrow by Scipio not long before.
On their return to Rome, Cato and his colleagues reported what they had seen and argued that Carthage would once again become a threat to the security of the Republic. The aged censor would not let the matter drop. On one occasion, he spoke on the subject from the speakers’ platform in the Forum; he took a large and appetizing Punic fig from the folds of his toga. The country where it grew, he said, was only three days’ sail from Rome. At the end of every speech he made in the Senate, he added the sentence“Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (“In addition, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed”).
This is very odd. Carthage had behaved toward Rome as a faithful and assiduous ally for half a century and had made no attempt to run an independent foreign policy. It supplied large amounts of grain as gifts during the Macedonian Wars and the war with Antiochus. It also helped stimulate the Republic’s economy by importing vast quantities of ceramics and kitchenware from Campania and elsewhere in central Italy. Although the city restored its great military and commercial harbors at about this time, it had adhered to the terms of the peace treaty. Hardly a single Carthaginian citizen had done any serious military service since Zama. What’s more, it was obvious that, without an army and with no fleet to speak of, Carthage no longer had the resources, let alone the will, to mount a serious challenge against Rome.
There was one difficulty, which took the form of the irrepressible Numidian ruler Masinissa, now an old man in his late eighties. He had lost little of his energy over the passage of time; in his personal life he was philoprogenitive, having sired fifty-four children by numerous women, of whom the youngest was an infant. The king had a policy of settling and uniting the nomadic tribes over which he ruled; he admired Punic cultural values and wanted his subjects to adopt them. But he coveted Carthaginian land. According to the peace treaty of 201, he was entitled to claim back any territory that lay outside Carthage’s borders and had originally been a part of his domain. Unfortunately the terms were vaguely expressed and Masinissa constantly encroached on real estate that the Carthaginians knew was theirs. The Council of Elders regularly complained to the Senate, which sent out delegations to arbitrate, including the one on which Cato served. These invariably found for the king or suspended judgment, whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular case.
However, despite this open wound Carthage continued to thrive and to do all it could to placate the Senate. Why, then, was Cato so monomanic on the subject? He had fought in the war against Hannibal and his memories were bitter. He may have seriously believed that the old enemy was making a comeback. His political opponents did not disagree with his analysis of Carthage’s growing strength, but they argued that without a strong potential enemy Rome would grow soft and decadent.
A growing number of Romans supported Cato, but for more cynical reasons. They were aware that war was a highly profitable business. Carthage was a ripe fruit ready to fall from the tree into their grasping hands. Plutarch tells the story of a rich young Roman who held an extravagant dinner party. The centerpiece was a honey cake designed to look like a city. He said to his guests, “This is Carthage, please plunder it.” Rome was becoming both greedy and ruthless. As with Philip of Macedon the Senate secretly made up its mind for war and waited for an excuse to act.
Two events precipitated the crisis. In 151, Carthage paid its last installment of reparations, so a useful source of income for the Republic now dried up. And then, with the self-confidence and independence of spirit of a house owner who has paid off a mortgage, the Council of Elders lost patience with Masinissa, who had made an encroachment too far.
THE 150S WERE an uneasy time. The men who had defeated the Carthaginians were leaving the stage. They had had quick and easy successes in the Eastern Mediterranean and long, hard campaigns as they slowly Romanized Cisalpine Gaul in the north of the peninsula, but now their experience and skills gradually faded away. There was less fighting to be done, and in the absence of grand campaigns the Republic’s legions were demobilized. When an army was needed, the business of training had to start again from scratch. Younger commanders placed less emphasis on discipline, development, and high-quality logistics.
Since acquiring Spain from the Carthaginians and establishing two provinces, the Romans had had trouble taming the Spaniards, who resented being plundered by venal governors. Cato campaigned successfully there in the year after his consulship and was awarded a triumph, but trouble continued. A great insurrection broke out in 154 and raged until 133. Roman generals combined incompetence with treachery. Even the Senate was shocked when a proconsul invaded Lusitania (roughly today’s Portugal) and agreed to a peace treaty with the rebels. On his promise of resettling them on good farming land, he persuaded them to gather on three separate plains, where he would assign them their new territories. He asked the Lusitanians to lay down their weapons, an order they unwisely obeyed, for, one after another, each group was massacred. Back in Rome, the proconsul was brought to trial and Cato spoke against him, but he deployed his ill-gotten gains to procure an acquittal.
One of the few to escape the butchery was a shepherd and hunter, who carried on the struggle. A stickler for fair dealing and true to his word, Viriathus was a shining and shaming contrast to his Roman opponents. He was also a guerrilla fighter of genius, who deployed small bands that made sudden raids and then disappeared into the sierra. Eventually, in 140, a proconsul bribed three of Viriathus’s senior followers to kill him while he slept. This they did, but when they asked for their money the general refused, saying, “It never pleases the Romans that a general should be killed by his own soldiers.” The remark was a fine example of that fusion of high-mindedness and fraud that was becoming a routine feature of Roman public life.
The great hill fortress of Numantia (Cerro de la Muela, near Soria), which stood at the junction of two rivers running between steep banks through wooded valleys, repelled Roman attacks for ten years. Bungling legionary commanders behaved with their usual bad faith, but eventually, in 133, Numantia fell to the able Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus: he was the birth son of Aemilius Paullus and had been adopted by Scipio Africanus’s childless son (hence the “Aemilianus” at the end, to signal the original genetic connection). Noble families often helped out those facing extinction because of an absence of male heirs by allowing one of their boys to be adopted. Without consulting the Senate, Scipio razed the town to the ground, as a layer of burned material found on the site testifies to this day.
At last, Rome had a firm hold on Spain.
WITH APPALLINGLY BAD judgment, the Carthaginians laid a trap for themselves and then, eyes wide open, walked into it.
They had agreed never to make war without the Senate’s permission. In 152, they raised an army to put an end to Masinissa’s depredations and went on the offensive. They did not inform Rome. Scipio Aemilianus happened to be in the country and tried unsuccessfully to mediate a cease-fire. The Numidian king then cornered and besieged the Punic forces, which were gradually weakened by disease and shortage of food and forced to capitulate. Harsh terms were agreed, and the Carthaginians were allowed to march away with nothing but a tunic each. As they were leaving, Numidian cavalry fell on the defenseless men and massacred most of them. Of an estimated twenty-five thousand men, only a handful returned to Carthage.
When the Senate learned of these events, it began to raise troops without offering an explanation, except to say that it was “just in case of emergencies.” The Council of Elders was not deceived and immediately sent envoys to Rome. They explained that the war with Masinissa had not been approved by the government and that those responsible for it had been put to death. The Senate, aware that it now had its casus belli, refused to be appeased. Why, a senator inquired, had Carthage not condemned its officers at the first opportunity instead of waiting until they were beaten? It was an unanswerable question. The envoys asked what they could do to win a pardon. “You must make things right with the Roman People” was the alarmingly obscure response. A second embassy pleaded for specific instructions. The Senate dismissed it with the words “You know perfectly well what is necessary.”
The Carthaginian authorities were at their wits’ end. Their only hope, they decided, lay in unconditional surrender. A third delegation made its way to Rome to announce this, only to find that war had already been declared. Neverthess, the Senate cynically accepted the surrender and demanded three hundred child hostages.
There was no difficulty in attracting recruits to the legions, for it was clear to everyone that Carthage could not conceivably achieve victory and soldiers could expect rich pickings, treasure, and slaves. In 149, an unusually large army of eighty thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry crossed the sea to Africa. The two consuls were in command and carried secret orders to destroy the city utterly when they captured it. Very helpfully, the important Phoenician port of Utica, a few miles from Carthage, which was “well adapted for landing an army,” came over to the Romans.
The Punic leadership was appalled by news of the invasion and was willing to do almost anything to avoid fighting an unwinnable war. Yet more envoys were dispatched to plead for peace, this time to the Roman camp. When they arrived, the consuls, surrounded by their chief officers and military tribunes, were seated on a high dais. The entire army, with polished armor and weapons and erect standards, was drawn up to attention. A trumpet blew and, in dead silence, the Carthaginians were then obliged to walk the length of the camp before they reached the consuls. A rope cordon prevented them from drawing near.
They asked why an expeditionary force was necessary to defeat an enemy that had no intention of fighting. Carthage would submit willingly to any penalty. In response, the consuls demanded the city’s complete disarmament. This was at once conceded, and soon a line of wagons brought to the camp armor and weapons for twenty thousand men and many artillery pieces.
Only then did the consuls show their hand. They complimented the Carthaginians for their obedience so far, and asked them to accept bravely the Senate’s final commands: “Hand over Carthage to us, and resettle yourselves wherever you like inside your own borders at a distance of at least nine miles from the sea, for we have decided to raze your city to the ground.”
This was unendurable. The people would wither away if banished from their traditional element, the sea. They rose up in rage and grief. They stoned to death the hapless envoys on their return and any pro-Roman politicians they could find. Roman traders who by ill chance happened to be in the city were set upon and killed. With magnificent, despairing defiance, Carthage made the decision to resist Rome.
If the Carthaginians knew they could not vanquish their opponents, they were no walkover. They were greatly assisted by the poor quality of the Roman commanders. The city’s triple defenses, its high walls, and its fortified towers presented the besiegers with a very considerable challenge. Two years of hard but inconclusive fighting ensued. From the Roman perspective, the only bright spots were the valor and presence of mind of Scipio Aemilianus, who at this point in his career was a military tribune in his mid-thirties. Among other things, he arranged the defection of Carthage’s Numidian cavalry.
The two very old men who were largely responsible for the war, Cato and Masinissa, died before its outcome was known. They shared a high opinion of young Scipio. Despite his dislike of the Scipio clan and his destruction of the grandfather Africanus’s career, Cato recognized talent when he saw it. He campaigned successfully for Scipio’s election as consul and army commander, despite the fact that he was officially too young to hold the post. Giving the lie to his pretended ignorance of all things Greek, Cato quoted theOdyssey:
Only he has wits. The rest are fluttering shadows.
The Numidian monarch, anxious to protect his hard-won kingdom, decided that it should be divided among three of his sons. Wiser than King Lear, he knew that he would need external guarantees. So in his will he charged Scipio with the disposal of his territories and powers.
Now that Scipio had consular imperium, he tightened the discipline of his troops and in lieu of training launched some exploratory assaults on the walls. He completely blockaded the city by building vast fortifications on the isthmus that connected it to the mainland and a mole across the harbor entrance. Once that was done, the fall of Carthage was only a matter of time. Food grew short and the Punic commander-in-chief, Hasdrubal, seized autocratic powers.
Before the final assault, Scipio conducted an evocatio, as Camillus had done before the sack of Veii, luring the Punic divinities to desert their temples and migrate to new homes in Rome. Carthage was now a godless community on which any kind of misery could be inflicted. Then the legions marched from the Roman mole along the twin harbors and up the narrow streets leading to the city’s high place, the Byrsa. Scipio fired and demolished houses to make space for the advancing infantry. The grim, methodical fighting went on day and night for nearly a week. Some men were detailed as street cleaners, sweeping away rubbish, corpses, and even the wounded. Suppliants walked out of the Byrsa and asked Scipio for the lives of the survivors. The consul agreed, and fifty thousand exhausted and famished men, women, and children emerged, their ultimate destinies to be determined at slave auctions.
Only nine hundred or so Roman deserters remained, who could not expect forgiveness and had no choice but to make a last stand. They occupied the Temple of Aesculapius, the god of healing, which was built on a highly defensible rocky outcrop. They were joined by Hasdrubal and his family.
Hasdrubal could see that his position was hopeless and slipped across the Roman lines. Scipio accepted his surrender, despite the fact that he had committed atrocities and had tortured to death some prisoners of war, and showed him to the deserters. When they saw him, they asked for silence and hurled insults at him. They then set the temple on fire. Hasdrubal’s wife was made of sterner stuff than her husband. After reproaching him, she killed her children, threw them onto the flames, and plunged in after them. The deserters, too, burned themselves to death.
Now that resistance was over and the war won, Scipio surveyed the scene and, like Marcellus at Syracuse, burst into tears. The long, proud history of Carthage was at an end. He stayed wrapt in thought for a long time, reflecting on the mutability of fortune. He thought of the rise and fall of great cities and empires—Troy, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and, most recently, the dominions of Alexander. Did a similar fate in some future age await Rome?
He turned to a friend who was with him, the historian Polybius, and, as educated Romans tended to do in moments of high emotion, quoted some lines from Homer. They appear in the Iliad and are spoken by Hector, Troy’s leading soldier, on the eve of his death:
For in my heart and soul I also know this well:
the day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him,
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear.
This outburst of fine feeling did not deter the victorious general from razing the city to the ground and uttering a solemn curse that where Carthage once stood should forever be pasture for sheep.
THE ROMANS HAD behaved very badly toward Carthage. They had, in truth, no real justification for the Third Punic War, and even less for the city’s annihilation. As we have seen, they liked speaking sarcastically of Punica fides, but their own reputation for fair and honest dealing took many knocks in the second century. They must have felt uneasy about what they had done. So it is no accident that they began to rewrite the legendary past, in an attempt to retrieve their good name.
The early histories of Rome were written in Greek. In the opening chapters of this book, I showed how the Romans linked themselves to the myths and legends of the Greeks. In this way, they acquired Hellenic credentials and proved that they were not barbarians beyond the pale of civilized life. Of course, in reality they had no connection that we know of with Trojans and (if it ever took place) the Trojan War.
Cato was the first to write a history of Rome in Latin: this was Origines (Origins), a substantial prose work of seven books that have, unfortunately, been lost. From what is known of it and the fragments that survive, it was a massive exercise in collective self-justification. The man who willfully advocated the destruction of Carthage highlighted the typical Roman virtues of valor, obedience to law, honesty, and respect for the family, the state, and the gods.
Two books were devoted to the beginnings of the peoples of Italy, perhaps to assert Rome’s national integrity and right to leadership. The early centuries were described in only one book, while the two wars with Carthage were allocated one book each, and finally two books covered the first half of the second century down to the fateful year 149. This emphasis on the recent past no doubt reflected reader interest, but it also gave the author an opportunity to explain, excuse, and celebrate Rome’s genocidal victory. He presented a dossier of seven alleged breaches by Carthage of its obligations to Rome. We may surmise that the Punic version of events received little notice.
Rome’s first epic poets, Gnaeus Naevius and Quintus Ennius, from Calabria, also focused on the Punic Wars. Their poems have been lost, but we know that they interwove historical events with the legends of Greece and made much of Rome’s genetic link to Troy. In Naevius’s Bellum Punicum (Punic War), one or two fragments reveal Venus, Rome’s traditional protectress, begging her father, Jupiter, to calm a storm that threatens to destroy Aeneas’s fleet. We can just detect, offstage, the malign presence of Juno, for it appears that one hundred and fifty years later Virgil, in his masterpiece the Aeneid, which we have in full, lifted the entire episode from Naevius. Virgil blames the storm on the Queen of Heaven, and so, no doubt, did his predecessor. The earlier version probably also has Aeneas being blown off course onto Dido’s shore. Their tragic relationship sets the stage for the struggles between their descendants.
Ennius, friend and admirer of Cato, saw himself as a second Homer. His masterpiece, Annales, or The Annals, took as its subject the whole of Roman history from the fall of Troy in 1184 (according to the calculations of Eratosthenes, a famous Greek mathematician and the inventor of the word and discipline of geography) to Cato’s censorship in 184. It was a remarkable compliment to close his thousand-year saga at this apex of the aged statesman’s career. Ennius’s theme was the unending growth of Roman rule and the eventual defeat of the Greek powers that had once destroyed Troy. Three books, or chapters, are devoted to the Carthaginians; in one fragment, they are “boys in frocks,” and in another “wicked haughty foes” who hamstring their opponents. The poet shows that during the Second Punic War Juno at last moderates her wrath and shows goodwill; and he has her all-powerful husband, Jupiter, swear the overthrow of Carthage.
The underlying purpose of the poets and early historians is to maintain an artificial equivalence between the two nations; this is why Dido and Aeneas were wrongly made out to be contemporaries. The argument is that the quarrel between Rome and Carthage had nothing to do with the motives of greed, fear, or self-interest among mortals but was a foreordained encounter governed by the loves and hatreds in the Olympian pantheon.
Fate follows a circular or repetitive course. Thus Hannibal is Dido’s avenger and Flamininus and his successors have paid back the Greeks with interest for their capture of Troy. No wonder Scipio Aemilianus feared for the future, for he knew the wheel of fortune would continue turning.
BY A MACABRE coincidence, Rome destroyed another famous and outstandingly beautiful city in the same year that Carthage met its end. With the ruin of Corinth, the Greeks lost their freedom. By a savage irony, it was here that Flamininus had told the Greeks, exactly fifty years earlier, that Rome would guarantee it.
In 167, after the Battle of Pydna, the Romans decided to teach the disputatious and unreliable Greek states a lesson. Their conduct during the Third Macedonian War had fallen below expectations. Of the two leagues, the Aetolians fared worse, for more than five hundred of their leading men were liquidated. As for the Achaeans, one thousand named individuals, whose loyalty was suspected, were deported to Italy (history is grateful, for the list included Polybius, who spent many years in Rome studying its politics and, as already noted, became a close friend of Scipio Aemilianus).
A generation passed without incident. It was not until 150 that the surviving exiles, now well on in years, were allowed to return to their homes. The Senate discussed the topic at length, and Cato was moved to complain, “Just as if we had nothing else to do, we sit here all day debating whether some ghastly old Greeks should be buried in Rome or in Greece.” In fact, the men’s long absence had serious consequences, for it fanned the flames of anti-Roman feeling.
In the following year, a pretender to the throne of Macedon turned up out of the blue. He quickly took control of the four miniature republics; these had been designed to be unable to harm Rome, but by the same token they were unable to protect themselves. The revolt was soon put down, but the Senate realized that the only way to ensure stability was to annex Macedon and turn it into a province. A great road, the Via Egnatia, was built from the western coast of Greece to the Bosphorus, linking Roman colonies and enabling rapid access to trouble spots in the Balkans and the Hellenic kingdoms of the East.
In Greece, a quarrel with the embittered Achaeans led to an international incident. Some Roman ambassadors visited the capital, Corinth, and were beaten up. Rome’s patience snapped. In 146, a consular army defeated the Achaeans in battle and entered the undefended city. To set an example, all the inhabitants who had not already fled were sold into slavery and its buildings and temples were leveled. Its treasures and centuries’ old works of art were looted. A century later, the place was still deserted. Greece was added to the province of Macedon. It has been estimated that during the first half of the second century the region lost one quarter of its inhabitants.
The fates of Macedon, Carthage, and Corinth taught the world that the Romans were changing. Wealth beyond imagination and the absence of any enemy that could seriously imperil their military dominance lured them to act without restraint. They were no longer willing to tolerate dissent. Diodorus Siculus, perhaps drawing on Rome’s affectionate but honest critic Polybius and writing from the vantage point of the first century B.C., remarked that the Republic used to be noted for “the kindest possible treatment of those whom it defeated.” He continues:
In fact they were so far from acting out of cruelty or revenge that they appeared to deal with them not as enemies, but as if they were benefactors and friends.… Some they enrolled as fellow citizens, to some they granted rights of intermarriage, to others they restored their independence, and in no case did they nurse a resentment that was unduly severe. Because of their exceptional humanity, kings, cities, and whole nations went over to the Roman standard. But once they controlled virtually the entire inhabited world, they confirmed their power by terrorism and by the destruction of the most illustrious cities.
This new brutality was accompanied by rising corruption in public life. Sooner or later, it would corrode the institutions of the Republic. The bacterium of self-destruction began to multiply beneath the glittering carapace of glory.
Cato was a humbug and a hypocrite, but when he denounced the moral devaluation of his times he spoke of what he knew.