Rome’s progress towards domination of southern Italy was opposed, in the early third century BC, by Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose hard-won victories added a new term to the military vocabulary.

Ancient Authorities

The career of Pyrrhus of Epirus is obviously in the essence of our theme. For the life of Pyrrhus, Plutarch is our main extant source; Plutarch relies on the valuable contemporary evidence offered by Hieronymus of Cardia. Hieronymus’Histories of the Successorsprovided important material for the relevant period in Diodorus’ Bibliothekè, as well as for Arrian’s history of post-Alexandrian events; it was also a source for Plutarch in other Lives: those of Eumenes and Demetrius. Hieronymus had fought in the army of Eumenes who, like himself, was a native of Cardia in the Thracian Chersonese (Gallipoli peninsula). When Eumenes was captured and put to death by Antigonus, Hieronymus, with a facility characteristic of the times, transferred his allegiance to the latter. He witnessed the battle of Ipsus in 301 BC and was later made governor of Boeotia by Demetrius, Antigonus’ son. The Histories of the Successors included events at least until the death of Pyrrhus and perhaps until even later.

Nearly all our knowledge of early Roman history is derived from later writers. Before the fourth century BC, some records were kept at Rome. Presumably, they will have suffered at the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC. From the early fourth century, at any rate, the compilation and display of yearly calendar events, under the names of magistrates for the year, was the responsibility of the Roman chief priest (Pontifex-Maximus).

The first Roman historians were themselves public men: often senators who had held important offices. Their purpose was largely patriotic and they wished to present Roman history in a favourable light to the Greek world, in which the writing of history was a cultured and honourable preoccupation. The early Roman writers, like Quintus Fabius Pictor, who took part in the second war against Carthage, wrote in Greek. But Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Censor) compiled his work in Latin, and from his time (234–149 BC) the use of Latin in historical writing became general. Such writing made use of the early pontifical annual records; its exponents are known as annalists. The culmination of their vogue was the publication in the late second century BC of 80 books of annals by the pontifex Publius Mucius Scaevola. These records, regarded as authoritative, were little questioned or disputed by the annalistic historians of the following century.

The work of the early annalists was used not only by the Roman historians of the first century BC and after, but by Greek historians who dealt with Roman history, including both Diodorus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a contemporary of Livy. However, the contents of the annalistic accounts relating to early centuries of Rome’s history are best known to us through Livy’s work. His prose epic, spanning the period between Rome’s foundation (traditionally 753 BC) and his own times (59 BC–17 AD), is permeated by a sense of national destiny. Of its original 142 books, Books 1–10 and Books 21–45 have survived. Apart from excerpts and fragments of the remainder, summaries of Livy’s complete work, made by later writers, are still extant. Unfortunately for our subject, Livy had no experience of warfare, but the annalistic records from which he notably derived his method and much of his material had in many cases been assembled by men who played a leading part in the wars and politics of their nation. Conversely, Livy’s literary genius ensured that the testimony of these writers would not be lost; hardly any Roman historical records prior to the first century BC have been preserved independently.

Archaeology has done much to distinguish fact from legend in the early history of Rome. It has tended very often to confirm the ancient literary traditions; for example, by providing evidence as to the prosperity and decline of towns at certain epochs. Ancient coins and inscriptions supply their own form of documentation. Of course, the credibility of the old stories which inspired the Roman poets remains largely controversial, but the main outlines of early Roman history are generally accepted. For example, without crediting every legend that relates to the Roman kingdom, no one would wish to deny that Rome was originally governed by kings who normally reigned for life after accession, but that in the sixth century BC some fundamental change transferred sovereignty into the hands of two annually elected magistrates, who were known as consuls.

Historical Background.

In the middle of the fourth century BC, the Dorian Greek colonists of Tarentum in southern Italy had appealed to Sparta, their mother city, for help against the indigenous population which threatened them. At a time when northern Greece was crucially involved against Philip of Macedon, Sparta had sent a force under King Archidamus III, who had subsequently been killed fighting in Italy. Later, when Alexander the Great was in the east, his mother’s brother, also named Alexander, who had made himself ruler of the tribes and cities of Epirus, gladly accepted another Tarentine invitation to intervene in southern Italy. He, too, was killed fighting there. A third episode of this kind occurred in 303 BC, when Cleonymus, a Spartan mercenary general, with 5,000 men, championed the Tarentines against Italian neighbours. Cleonymus used Italy as a base against Corcyra (Corfu) and eventually quarreled with the city which had engaged him. For Tarentum, the most natural sources of Greek aid in these recurrent situations were Sparta, their mother city, and Epirus, conveniently situated opposite the heel of Italy across comparatively narrow seas. In 281 BC, at last in open conflict with Rome, the Tarentines issued an invitation to King Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Among the tribal peoples of Epirus, the comparatively Hellenized group of the Molossi were a dominant force. Their kings traced descent from Achilles, and the sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona, celebrated throughout Greece for its oracle, lay in their vicinity. The contact of Epirus with Greek civilization was facilitated by many Corinthian and Elean settlements on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. Alexander had done much to enrich the country before embarking on his Italian adventure and Pyrrhus’ father, the Molossian king, had married a lady of the Thessalian nobility. In general, Epirus may be classified as a semi-Greek territory.

Pyrrhus inherited his title to the throne as a child and as a consequence his position long remained precarious. However, he at last enlisted the help of Ptolemy and, after establishing himself powerfully in Epirus, ruled at first jointly and then as sole monarch. In this capacity, he allied himself with the Thracian dynast Lysimachus to drive out Demetrius, who had claimed the throne of Macedon on the death of Cassander in 297 BC. Demetrius’ claim was based on his marriage to Antipater’s daughter Phila and he derived support from some of the Greek states, to whom he had at one time presented himself as a champion of constitutional liberty. Pyrrhus and Lysimachus, in combination, succeeded in defeating Demetrius, but when the victors competed for domination of the Macedonian kingdom, Pyrrhus was forced to withdraw. Thus frustrated, he was ready to direct his ambitions westwards.

The Tarentines, who gave Pyrrhus his opportunity, had an old treaty with Rome, perhaps describable as obsolete, according to which the Romans were not to send warships into the Tarentine Gulf. In 282 BC, the Romans installed supporting garrisons in the Greek cities of Thurii, Locri and Rhegium. These measures were directed against the Italian people of Lucania, to the north. Thurii, however, lay at the western corner of the Tarentine Gulf and, probably as a demonstration of strength, the Romans sent warships there.

The matter could have been overlooked by the Tarentines, but they were already anxious at the expansion of Roman power and decided on war. They accordingly attacked and sank several Roman warships, drove the Roman garrison from Thurii and sacked the city. The violence of their reaction may be explained ideologically by the hatred of Tarentine democrats for Thurian oligarchs. Committed now to war against Rome, the Tarentines made their invitation to Pyrrhus not only in their own name but on behalf of other Greek cities in Italy. As a contribution to the common war effort, they offered both their own armed forces and substantial levies of indigenous Italian troops, comprising Lucanians, Messapians and Samnites: in all, according to Plutarch, 20,000 cavalry and 350,000 infantry. Whatever the accuracy of the figures, they were high enough to attrack Pyrrhus and to arouse popular enthusiasm for the war in Epirus.

Pyrrhus Invasion Force

Pyrrhus immediately sent Cineas, his Thessalian staff officer and diplomat on whose education and intelligence he placed great reliance, to Tarentum with an advance party of 3,000 men, while he himself assembled the main body of the invasion forces. Vessels for the convoy and an accompanying escort of war galleys were provided by Tarentum itself. In the past, Cleonymus had been similarly supplied. In a fleet which included horse-transports and a variety of flat-bottomed boats, Pyrrhus embarked 20 elephants, 3,000 cavalry, 20,000 infantry, 2,000 archers and 500 slingers. According to Plutarch, a rough crossing awaited them and an unseasonal north wind began to blow when they were halfway across. The result was that many ships were carried southwards past Sicily and towards Libya. It became impossible to round the heel of Italy and enter the Tarentine Gulf; those vessels which had not been blown hopelessly off course evidently looked for a haven on the Adriatic shore. Plutarch says that the on-shore wind that first battered many of them on the harbourless coast veered suddenly and prevented Pyrrhus’ own flagship from reaching the shore. Perhaps it is not necessary to assume a diametric change of wind. Ships closely following the irregular contours of the coastline must themselves often have altered course. There was in any case a danger that it would be impossible to beach the royal galley at all, and rather than be blown out to see again Pyrrhus transferred to a small boat1 while it was still dark and reached shore, exhausted, in the light of dawn. The wind dropped and some other elements of the scattered fleet came up with him. They were well received by the local Messapian inhabitants, who were Tarentine allies and did their best to help. At last, having collected 2,000 infantry, very few cavalry and two elephants, Pyrrhus pushed on overland to Tarentum to join his advance party.

Plutarch’s account of the storm is rather garbled and seems to be affected by the confusion of the event itself, but the episode is worthy of note to anyone who is interested in ancient navigation. It appears that Pyrrhus’ flagship alone of all those which had hugged the inhospitable Italian coast had been able to hold its course in the heavy sea. Perhaps this galley is to be identified with the septireme which Pyrrhus later used in Sicily and which, according to Polybius2, ultimately fell into the hands of the Carthaginians. In any case, we have here additional testimony as to the enhanced seaworthiness of the larger and heavier vessels. Plutarch says explicitly that Pyrrhus’ ship was preserved by its great size and strength.

As the king approached Tarentum, Cineas came out to meet him with such forces as were already stationed in the city. Whatever the precise terms of Pyrrhus’ agreement with the Tarentines, he was very careful not to do anything which might offend them until his own widely dispersed fleet had at last made its way into harbour at Tarentum. He then took charge of the situation, placed the whole city on a war footing, closed all places of entertainment and sport, suspended all festivities and social events and conscripted the population for military service. Some of the citizens, who objected very strongly to this treatment, left the town.

Pyrrhus soon learned that a formidable Roman army was approaching, plundering the Lucanian hinterland on its way. The large force of allies which had been promised him by the Tarentines had not yet arrived, and Pyrrhus would gladly have waited until he had the support of greater numbers. To delay longer, however, leaving all initiative to the enemy, would clearly have been strategically inadvisable and bad for morale. He therefore led out his men to confront the Romans. Perhaps for the sake of further procrastination, he sent forward a herald to enquire whether the enemy would accept him as an arbitrator of their differences with Tarentum. The reply was, as at this stage he might have expected, that the Romans neither wanted him as an arbitrator nor feared him as an enemy.

Pyrrhus watched from his camp near Heraclea as the Romans crossed the river Siris and was impressed by their good order and military discipline, which, as he remarked to one of his officers, seemed surprising in “barbarians”. More than ever, he was disposed to wait for his reinforcements, but this was precisely what the Romans were determined to prevent him from doing. Pyrrhus deployed his men along the river bank in defensive positions, but the Romans were beforehand. Their infantry crossed the river at fordable points in some strength, and Pyrrhus’ men, threatened with encirclement, had to withdraw.

The Battles of Heraclea and Asculum

In the circumstances which we have just outlined, as the battle of Heraclea began Pyrrhus realized that he must seize the initiative without further delay and, adopting the time-honoured tactics of the great Alexander, left his phalanx to hold the enemy in front, while he himself led a cavalry charge at the head of 3,000 horses. But unlike Alexander, he had timed the move badly. His attack came too late. The Romans themselves were usually weak in cavalry, but on this occasion they seem to have been well supported by the horsemen of their Italian allies, and Pyrrhus’ Thessalian cavalry were driven back. The king then ordered his phalangists to attack, though an offensive role was not normal or suitable for them and they might well have found themselves encircled by the opposing cavalry if the enemy’s horses had not taken fright at the elephants and become uncontrollable. In these circumstances, the Thessalian cavalry was able to resume the offensive and soon carried all before it.

The victory, though not decisive, was something better than what we usually describe as “Pyrrhic”. According to Dionysius, Roman casualties were 15,000; according to Hieronymus, 7,000. Pyrrhus’ casualties were by Dionysius’ account, 13,000; by Hieronymus’, 4,000. Perhaps we should not sneer at such widely divergent statistics. Casualty reports from modern theatres of war often show similar discrepancies. In any case, Pyrrhus possessed himself of the abandoned Roman camp, and his prestige was much enhanced, so that many of the hesitant Lucanians, Samnites and other allies, whom he had awaited in vain before the battle, now joined him.

Pyrrhus did not expect to take Rome itself, but he advanced northwards, to within 37 miles (60km) of the city walls, hoping to negotiate out of strength. However, his presence by no means intimidated the Romans. No fear that he would detach their allies from them, ravage their lands or lay siege to the city itself induced them to make peace on terms that would safeguard the Tarentines. Their friendship remained conditional on the unconditional departure of Pyrrhus and his army from Italy.

Meanwhile, two Roman consular armies had been brought up to strength and remained at large in Italy. Pyrrhus could not afford to ignore them. They might threaten his rear; they might threaten his communications; they might threaten his allies. Above all, prestige and morale were at stake. He must not appear reluctant to engage the enemy. He broke off negotiations with the Roman government and went campaigning again. Confronting the Romans at Asculum in Apulia, he fought them on rough and wooded ground which gave little opportunity to his elephants or cavalry and turned the fight into an infantry engagement. The ground seems also to have hampered the phalanx; the Romans prolonged the battle all day and night fell without a decision having been reached.

On the following day, Pyrrhus contrived to fight on open ground which was less to the enemy’s advantage, giving them no occasion for the tactics of flexible response, such as they had adopted in the wilder country. Even so, the Romans, with their short swords, striving desperately to reach a decision before the elephants could be brought into action, seem to have been a match for the long pikes of the Greek phalanx. In the end, the elephants once more gave Pyrrhus his victory – which this time was more “Pyrrhic” in character. The Romans merely retreated into their camp. Pyrrhus himself was wounded in the arm. Hieronymus’ figures are of 6,000 Roman casualties, as compared with 3,550 on Pyrrhus’ side. But many of Pyrrhus’ ablest officers were among the dead and he was not in a position to recruit new troops, as the Romans were.

Pyrrhus was a brave and inspiring if rather flamboyant commander, who was well capable of keeping his head even in the middle of a most desperate fight. Yet he does not seem to have excelled either as a strategist or a tactician. At Heraclea, by waiting for reinforcements, he conceded a valuable initiative to the Romans, without receiving the reinforcements for which he had waited. The timing of the battle’s opening cavalry charge was also tardy. At Asculum, he could not make the right choice of ground until a day of indecisive fighting had taught him costly lessons.

Pyrrhus in Sicily

Two new warlike prospects now invited Pyrrhus. Both offered him the opportunity – which he always coveted – of championing Greek civilization. One opportunity lay in Greece itself, where an irruption of Celtic hordes from the north had produced turmoil; the other lay in Sicily, where the Greek cities, lacking a military successor to Agathocles, were again menaced by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture. Certainly, it looked less like a retreat from his present unsatisfactory situation. To the disgust of the Tarentines, after unsuccessful peace overtures to Rome, he suspended operations in Italy, placed a garrison in Tarentum, and sailed for Sicily with 30,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry. His consequent success was quite unequivocal; he swept the Carthaginians before him, soon reaching Eryx, their strongly fortified city at the western extremity of the island.

Eryx was taken by storm. A trumpet blast gave the signal for a missile barrage which dispersed the defenders on the walls. Scaling ladders were swiftly brought up and Pyrrhus was himself the first man to mount the battlements, dealing death to left and right of him and emerging at last unscathed. This was a victory after his own heart and he celebrated it, as he had vowed to do, with athletic events and displays in honour of Heracles.

The Carthaginians having been thus subdued and already inclined to negotiate terms, Pyrrhus found himself in the role of a keeper of the peace. A community of Italian brigands, originally hired from Campania as mercenary troops by Agathocles, had been in the habit of extorting payments from Sicilian cities. These lawless and violent men, who styled themselves Mamertini (“The War God’s Men” in their dialect), were to play a crucial part in later history; but for the time being Pyrrhus managed to suppress them, defeating them in pitched battle and capturing many of their strongholds. Even here, however, his achievement was incomplete. The Mamertines survived to embarrass the Mediterranean world at a later date.

As for the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus refused them the peace they asked and required that they should totally evacuate Sicily. But by this time he had himself begun to quarrel with the Greek Sicilian cities, some of whom were ready to support the Carthaginians, while others rallied surviving Mamertines to their aid. News that the people of Tarentum and other Greeks of the Italian mainland were hard pressed by the Romans in his absence now gave him the opportunity of extricating himself from yet another deadlock, and he took it.

In Sicily, Pyrrhus’ reputation, both as a triumphant war leader and as a liberal ruler, had ultimately suffered. He had failed to capture the remaining stronghold of Lilybaeum, which the Carthaginians had established on the westernmost point of Sicily after the destruction of Motya at the beginning of the previous century. Planning the invasion of Africa, in imitation of Agathocles, he had made himself unpopular by what amounted to press-gang recruitment of rowing crews. But at the same time it must be admitted that the Greeks were never an easy population to deal with. Every successful champion of their liberties was sooner or later bound to be suspected as a potential tyrant.

It is related that Pyrrhus left Sicily conscious that it would become a battlefield for hostilities between Rome and Carthage. Perhaps the remark attributed to him on this occasion was the invention of historians who enjoyed the advantage of hindsight. But Sicily had always been a cockpit and it was easy to see here an area in which any widely expanding power must be challenged.

Rome and Carthage as Allies

At the time of Pyrrhus’ operations in Italy and Sicily (281–275 BC), Rome and Carthage were in fact associated by a series of treaties which dated from very early times. The precise number of these treaties is a subject on which neither ancient historians nor modern scholars agree. Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s wars against Carthage, paraphrases these treaties, the earliest of which was preserved at Rome in an archaic form of Latin. According to Polybius, the treaty forbade the Romans to sail south of the “Fair Cape” (just north of Carthage) unless driven there by weather or warfare. A Roman finding himself accidentally in this area was not allowed to carry anything away with him save what was necessary for repairs to his ship or sacrifice to the gods, and he was obliged to leave the country within five days. Any business contracts in the scheduled zones were to be concluded in the presence of a herald or notary. Such contracts could be enforced by law in Libya and Sardinia. In Sicily, a Roman was to enjoy equal rights with others. Carthage, for her part, was bound to maintain friendly relations with Rome’s Latin satellites, and this applied even to other Latin cities, though rather equivocally; if the Carthaginians captured such a city, they were obliged to hand it over to Rome without sacking it. The Carthaginians, moreover, were forbidden to build any fort in Latin territory, and if Carthaginians by chance entered the territory under arms, they were not to pass the night there.

At a later date, says Polybius, another treaty was made. Areas in which the Romans might neither trade nor practise piracy were more specifically defined. If the Carthaginians captured any Latin city, they could retain valuables and captives but must surrender the city itself to the Romans. There are detailed provisions relating to the taking of slaves, and again a reference to Sardinia and Libya as sensitive Carthaginian zones. The Romans were not to trade or found settlements in either of these territories.

The last of the three treaties mentioned by Polybius was occasioned by Pyrrhus’ invasion and may confidently be assigned to 279 BC. It provided that, should either the Romans or Carthaginians subsequently reach terms with Pyrrhus, these should be subject to a reservation: namely, that if either of the two parties became a victim of the king’s aggression, they might both collaborate within the resulting theatre of war. In any such case, the Carthaginians would provide ships for transport and hostilities, but each government would pay its own troops. The Carthaginians would assist in war at sea but could not be obliged to land any forces. The representatives of the contracting parties swore solemnly to this agreement, each by his own gods, and the terms of the treaty, inscribed on bronze tablets at Rome, were preserved at the temple of Jupiter. Polybius expressly denies the assertion of the pre-Carthaginian Greek historian, Philinus, that another treaty existed according to which the Romans and Carthaginians were respectively forbidden to enter Sicily and Italy.

It is not always easy to distinguish between the commercial and strategic activities of the ancient world. A major sector of commerce was the slave trade and the capture of slaves was necessarily accompanied by violence and warlike action. Nor was piracy regarded as an infringement of any international code, although one might be obliged to refrain from it locally under treaty pledges. However, the first two of the above-mentioned treaties seem to have been mainly commercial in scope; the third, military and naval. The underlying principle seems to have been that Carthage should offer naval aid in return for Roman military support.

It is indeed on record that, hoping to hinder Pyrrhus’ intervention in Sicily, a Carthaginian admiral arrived with 120 ships to dissuade Rome from making peace with the king. The Romans were not at first willing to commit themselves. The Carthaginians then sailed off to negotiate with Pyrrhus. These negotiations also led to nothing, but when the Carthaginian mission returned again to Rome, the Romans were more amenable. The Carthaginian negotiators had made their point. The 120 ships could be thrown into either scale; Rome continued its war against Pyrrhus’ allies in Italy. In fact, the Carthaginian commander, on his way back to Sicily, even transported 500 Roman soldiers to Rhegium, on the straits of Messina, in order to reinforce the garrison.

The End of Pyrrhus

The Carthaginian diplomatic initiative against Pyrrhus certainly seems to have borne fruit. Moreover, the Carthaginian navy attacked the king’s forces as they returned from Sicily and destroyed a substantial number of his ships. About 1,000 Mamertines had also crossed into Italy to afflict Pyrrhus with guerrilla warfare. Their crossing had no doubt been much facilitated by the Carthaginian fleet.

In Italy, the Samnites, disgusted by Pyrrhus’ neglect of their cause, were no longer willing to rally round him in great strength. Two Roman armies, respectively under the two consuls of the year, were now campaigning separately. Pyrrhus detached half his force to deal with the enemy in Lucania, while he himself marched northward to confront the Romans near Malventum (later renamed, more propitiously, Beneventum). Here, he attempted a night attack. Night attacks, in ancient warfare, were notoriously prone to miscarry. It will be remembered that Alexander had refused to be tempted into night operations at Gaugamela. Pyrrhus’ attempt was no exception to the general rule. His advancing forces lost their way in wooded country during the hours of darkness and at dawn found themselves deployed in positions for which they had never bargained. The Romans, at first alarmed by the unexpected presence of the enemy, soon realized that it was possible to attack the isolated vanguard and rout it. Thus encouraged, the cautious consul gave battle to Pyrrhus’ main body in the open plain. On this occasion, the Romans seem to have discovered a method of dealing with elephants; though the animals at first moved onward with their usual irresistible momentum, they were eventually frightened and induced to turn against their own troops. As a consequence, Pyrrhus was obliged to retreat.

He was now left in command of 8,000 infantry and 500 cavalry and, as Plutarch convincingly assures us, for lack of money to pay them, he was obliged to look for a new war. This he found in Macedonia, which Antigonus Gonatas, Demetrius’ son and successor, proceeding from his rather precarious foothold in Greece, now occupied. Gauls, whose presence in southern Europe was at this period a menace to Mediterranean civilization, were, like Illyrians, nevertheless found useful by Greek warlords; both Pyrrhus and Antigonus employed them. Pyrrhus was successful against Antigonus’ elephants and won over the opposing Macedonian infantry by an appeal made to them on the battlefield. Antigonus fled, but the Macedonian population was soon alienated from Pyrrhus; the Gauls, whose military advantage was that they required little cash payment, remunerated themselves by the plunder of friend and foe alike. On this occasion, they ransacked the tombs for treasure, scattering the bones of the occupants. Pyrrhus’ Greek sentiments were outraged, but he could do nothing.

As ever, turning from a task which left uncompleted, would have been better unattempted, Pyrrhus answered an invitation to meddle in Spartan politics, hoping thereby to make himself master of the Peloponnese. He was killed in Argos during a street fight, having been felled by an accurately aimed tile from a woman’s hand.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the garrison which Pyrrhus had left at Tarentum defied the Romans until 272 BC. It then surrendered, but was allowed to withdraw on honourable terms, while the Tarentines gave hostages to Rome and accepted a Roman garrison. The Romans dealt sternly but not vindictively with the Italian populations which had supported Pyrrhus. Important sectors of their territory were confiscated in order to provide for Latin colonial settlements, linked to Rome by ties of citizenship. At Rhegium, the garrison installed by the Romans had been composed largely of Campanian mercenaries; Campania, like Arcadia in Greece, was a traditional source of mercenaries. These had mutinied and attempted to pursue an independent line in the manner of the Mamertines (who were also of Campanian extraction). When the Romans reoccupied Rhegium, they showed no mercy to the mutineers and executed 300 of them in Rome.

The Political and Military Emergence of Rome

Rome now dominated southern and central Italy, including Etruria and the Greek cities. Northern Italy, of course, remained largely occupied by the Gauls, and the Gauls remained a menace. The process by which Rome had developed from a small military outpost on a river-crossing to become the dominant power of the Italian peninsula had been by no means swift or continuous. It had taken the greater part of five centuries, and during that time Rome itself had twice been occupied by a foreign power.

According to traditional stories, the last of Rome’s kings, Tarquinius Superbus, an Etruscan, had been expelled late in the sixth century BC after his son had villainously raped the wife of a noble kinsman. Etruscan armies under Lars Porsenna had attempted to restore Tarquinius but had been thwarted by the heroism of Horatius who, with two comrades, defended the Tiber crossing against them until the demolition of the bridge was completed. The Latin cities to the south had then combined to replace the exiled monarch on his throne, but had been defeated by the Romans at the battle of Lake Regillus (where the Romans were assisted by the gods according to the legend!).

Illustrated Etruscan tomb inscriptions, taken in conjunction with the existing legends, suggest that the underlying historical facts were very different. It is clear that Porsenna was not the friend but the mortal enemy of Tarquinius, his fellow Etruscan. He probably conspired with aristocratic, partly Etruscan elements in Rome to precipitate Tarquinius’ downfall, and then himself occupied Rome. He certainly advanced south of Rome, to fight the Latins and their Greek allies of Cumae – where according to one story Tarquinius ultimately took refuge. When the Etruscans were defeated by the Latin League at Aricia (as described by Livy), their fugitives were received and protected in Rome. Moreover, Livy stresses the friendship of Porsenna towards the Romans and his chivalrous respect for their way of life. One would guess that Rome had accepted the position of subject ally to Etruria. The Roman population, despite its Etruscan overlordship, was of course Latin; their Etruscan allegiances brought them into conflict with the other Latin cities, who were allied to the Greek maritime states – Etruria’s commercial rivals.

At Rome, Latin patriotic sentiment may have accepted Etruscan kings and welcomed their leadership against Etruria itself, just as English patriotic feeling in the Middle Ages accepted French-speaking Plantagenet kings as leaders against the French. The early Roman historians, however, did not like to contemplate their city as a mere catspaw in Etruscan dynastic politics, let alone a puppet state to be employed against their Latin brothers. Consequently, these chroniclers substituted history of their own invention, assigning fictional roles to historic characters.

As the strength of Etruria diminished, Rome asserted its authority over both the Etruscans and the Latins, but at the beginning of the fourth century BC the city was overwhelmed, after the disastrous battle of the Allia, by a vast horde of Gallic raiders. The Romans retreated into their citadel on the Capitoline Mount; they eventually bought off the Gauls, whose immediate interest was in moveables and not in land. Roman history records that the great Camillus, Rome’s exiled war leader, was recalled to speed the parting Gauls with military action, but this thinly veils the fact that the Gauls departed of their own accord, having obtained what they wanted. Livy blames Roman decadence and impiety for the disaster, but the Romans must in any case have been vanquished by sheer weight of numbers. Apart from that, they were never at their best when dealing with a strange foe whose weapons and methods of warfare were new to them.

Roman military history is chequered by catastrophes. Few great empires can have sustained more major disasters during the period of their growth. Nobody would deny that the Romans were a formidable military nation; yet the genius which enabled them eventually to dominate the ancient world was as much political as military. Their great political instrument was their concept of citizenship. Citizenship was not simply a status which one did or did not possess. It was an aggregate of rights, duties and honours, which could be acquired separately and conferred by instalments. Such were the rights of making legal contracts and marriages. From both of these the right to a political vote was again separable; nor did the right to vote necessarily imply the right to hold office. Conquered enemies were thus often reconciled by a grant of partial citizenship, with the possibility of more to come if behaviour justified it. Some cities enjoyed Roman citizenship without the vote, being autonomous except in matters of foreign policy. Even the citizens of such communities, however, might qualify for full Roman citizenship if they migrated to Rome; where this right was not available, citizenship could be obtained by those who achieved public distinction in their own communities.

The Roman Army in Early Times

Citizenship, of course, implied a military as well as a political status. For the duties which it imposed were, above all, military. The Latin and other Italian allies, who enjoyed some intermediate degree of citizenship, were in principle required to supply an aggregate of fighting men equal to that levied by the Romans themselves. In practice, the Romans relied on their Italian allies particularly for cavalry: an arm in which they themselves were notoriously weak. The Greek cities did not normally contribute military contingents, but supplied ships and rowers. They were known as “naval allies” (socii navales) because of this function.

Any army whose technical resources are comprised by hand-arms, armour and horses, will, at all events in the early years of its development, reflect an underlying social order. Combatants who can afford horses and armour will naturally be drawn from the aristocracy. Others will have little armour and less sophisticated, if not fewer, weapons. This was true of Greek armies and also of medieval armies. It was certainly true of the Romans, whose military class differentiation was defined with unusual care and with great attention to detail. The resulting classification is associated with the military and administrative reorganization of Servius Tullius, traditionally sixth and penultimate king of Rome. His name suggests a sixth-century date for the reforms in question, though some scholars think that the so-called Servian organization was introduced later than this.

The “Servian” infantry was divided into five property classes, the wealthiest of which was armed with swords and spears and protected by helmets, round shields, greaves and breastplates. All protective armour was of bronze. In the second class, no breastplate was worn, but a long shield was substituted for the round buckler. The third class was as the second, but wore no greaves. The fourth class was equipped only with spears and javelins; the fifth was composed of slingers. There is no reference to archers. The poorest citizens were not expected to serve except in times of emergency, when they were equipped by the state. However, they normally supplied artisans to maintain siege engines and perform similar duties.

The army was also divided into centuries (i.e., “hundreds”), as the citizens were for voting purposes. However, a century soon came to contain 60, not 100 men. The first property class comprised 80 centuries; the second, third and fourth class had 20 centuries apiece; the fifth class had 30. A distinction was made between junior and senior centuries, the former containing young men for front-line action, the latter older men, more suitable for garrison duty. A single property class was equally divided between the two age groups.

The cavalry was recruited from the wealthiest families to form 18 centuries. A cavalry century received a grant for the purchase of its horses and one-fifth of this amount yearly for their upkeep. The yearly grant was apparently provided by a levy on spinsters! In general, the financial burden of warfare was shifted from the poor on to the rich. For this imposition, the rich were compensated by what amounted to a monopoly of the political suffrage. Inevitably, it was felt in time that they were overcompensated, but that is a matter which must not detain us here.

During the early epochs of Roman history, as archaeological evidence indicates, Greek hoplite armour was widely imitated throughout the Mediterranean area. Italy was no exception to this rule and, as Livy’s description suggests, Rome was no exception in Italy. Greek weapons called for Greek skill in their use, and this in turn assumed Greek tactical methods. The Romans were in contact with Greek practice, both through their Etruscan northern neighbours, who as a maritime people were more susceptible to overseas influences, and through direct contact with Greek cities in Italy, notably Cumae. The Roman army, as recruited on the Servian basis, must have fought as a hoplite phalanx, in a compact mass, several ranks deep, using their weight behind their shields as well as their long thrusting spears. The light troops afforded by the fourth and fifth infantry classes will have provided a skirmishing arm, and the cavalry held the wings on either side of the phalanx. There were also two centuries of artificers (fabri) attached to the centuries of the first class, and two of musicians (made up of hornblowers and trumpeters).

The Military Reforms of Camillus

The next great landmark in Roman military organization is associated with the achievements of Camillus. Camillus, credited with having saved Rome from the Gauls and remembered as a “second founder” of Rome, was a revered national hero. His name became a legend, and legends accumulated round it. At the same time, he was unquestionably a historical character. We need not believe that his timely return to Rome during the Gallic occupation deprived the Gauls of their indemnity money, which was at that very moment being weighed out in gold. But his capture of the Etruscan city of Veii is historical, and he may here have made use of mining operations such as Livy describes. Similarly, the military changes attributed to him may in part, if not entirety, be due to his initiative.

Soon after the withdrawal of the Gauls from Rome, the tactical formation adopted by the Roman army underwent a radical change. In the Servian army, the smallest unit had been the century. It was an administrative rather than a tactical unit, based on political and economic rather than military considerations. The largest unit was the legion of about 4,000 infantrymen. There were 60 centuries in a legion and, from the time of Camillus, these centuries were combined in couples, each couple being known as a maniple (manipulus). The maniple was a tactical unit. Under the new system, the Roman army was drawn up for battle in three lines, one behind the other. The maniples of each line were stationed at intervals. If the front line was forced to retreat, or if its maniples were threatened with encirclement, they could fall back into the intervals in the line immediately to their rear. In the same way, the rear lines could easily advance, when necessary, to support those in front. The positions of the middle-line maniples corresponded to intervals in the front and rear lines, thus producing a series of quincunx formations. The two constituent centuries of a maniple were each commanded by a centurion, known respectively as the forward (prior) and rear (posterior) centurion. These titles may have been dictated by later tactical developments, or they may simply have marked a difference of rank between the two officers.

The three battle lines of Camillus’ army were termed, in order from front to rear, hastati, principes and triarii. Hastati meant “spearmen”; principes, “leaders”; and triarii, the only term which was consistent with known practice, meant simply “third-liners”. In historical accounts, the hastati were not armed with spears and the principes were not the leading rank, since the hastati were in front of them. The names obviously reflect the usage of an earlier date. In the fourth century BC the two front ranks carried heavy javelins, which they discharged at the enemy on joining battle. After this, fighting was carried on with swords. The triarii alone retained the old thrusting spear (hasta). The heavy javelin of thehastati and principes was the pilum. It comprised a wooden shaft, about 4.5 feet (1.4m) long, and a lancelike, iron head of about the same length as the shaft; which fitted into the wood so far as to give an overall length of something less than 7 feet (2.1m). The Romans may have copied the pilum from their Etruscan or Samnite enemies; or they may have developed it from a more primitive weapon of their own. The sword used was the gladius, a short cut-and-thrust type, probably forged on Spanish models. A large oval shield (scutum), about 4 feet (1.2m) long, was in general use in the maniple formation. It was made of hide on a wooden base, with iron rim and boss.

It has been suggested that the new tactical formation was closely connected with the introduction of the new weapons. The fact that the front rank was called hastati seems to indicate that the hasta, or thrusting spear, was not abandoned until after the new formation had been adopted. Indeed, cause and effect may have stood in circular relationship. The open formation could have favoured new weapons which, once widely adopted, forbade the use of any other formation. At all events, there must have been more elbow room for aiming a javelin.

Apart from these considerations, open-order fighting was characteristic of Greek fourth-century warfare. Xenophon’s men had opened ranks to let the enemy’s scythe-wheel chariots pass harmlessly through. Agesilaus used similar tactics at Coronea. Camillus was aware of the Greek world – and the Greek world was aware of him. He dedicated a golden bowl to Apollo at Delphi and Greek fourth-century writers refer to him. It is at least possible that the new Roman tactical formation was based on Greek precedents, as the old one had been.

Officers and Other Ranks

The epoch of Camillus also saw the first regular payments for military service. The amount of pay, at the time of its introduction, is not recorded. To judge from the enthusiasm to which it gave rise and to the difficulty experienced in levying taxes to provide for it, the sum was substantial. It was a first step towards removing the differences among property classes and standardizing the equipment of the legionary soldier. For tactical purposes, of course, some differences were bound to exist: for instance, in the lighter equipment of the velites. But the removal of the property classes produced an essential change in the Roman army, such as the Greek citizen army had never known. The Athenian hoplites had always remained a social class, and hoplite warfare was their distinctive function. The Spartan hoplites had been an élite of peers, every one of them, as Thucydides remarks, in effect an officer.

At Rome, however, the centuries of which the legions were composed were conspicuously and efficiently led by centurions, men who commanded as a result of their proven merit. The Roman army, in fact, developed a system of leadership such as is familiar today – a system of officers and other ranks. Centurions were comparable to warrant officers, promoted for their performance on the field and in the camp. The military tribunes, like their commanding officers, the consuls and praetors, were at any rate originally appointed to carry out the policies of the Roman state, and they were usually drawn from the upper, politically influential classes.

Six military tribunes were chosen for each legion, and the choice was at first always made by a consul or praetor, who in normal times would have commanded two out of the four legions levied; as colleagues, the consuls shared the army between them. Later, the appointment of 24 military tribunes for the levy of four legions was made not by the consuls but by an assembly of the people. If, however, additional legions were levied, then the tribunes appointed to them were consular nominations. Tribunes appointed by the people held office for one year. Those nominated by a military commander retained their appointment for as long as he did.

Military tribunes were at first senior officers and were required to have several years of military experience prior to appointment. In practice, however, they were often young men, whose very age often precluded them from having had such experience. They were appointed because they came from rich and influential families and they thus had much in common with the subalterns of fashionable regiments in latter-day armies. Originally, an important part of the military tribune’s duties had been in connection with the levy of troops. In normal times, a levy was held once a year. Recruits were required to assemble by tribes (a local as distinct from a class division). The distribution of recruits among the four legions was based on the selection made by the tribunes.

“Praetor” was the title originally conferred on each of the two magistrates who shared supreme authority after the period of the kings. The military functions of the praetor are well attested, and the headquarters in a Roman camp continued to be termed the “praetorium”. In comparatively early times, the title of “consul” replaced that of “praetor”, but partly as a result of political manoeuvre, the office of praetor was later revived to supplement consular power. The authority of a praetor was not equal to that of a consul, but he might still command an army in the field.

The command was not always happily shared between two consuls. In times of emergency – and Rome’s early history consisted largely of emergencies – a single dictator with supreme power was appointed for a maximum term of six months, the length of a campaigning season. The dictator chose his own deputy, who was then known as the Master of the Horse (magister equitum).3

The allies, who were called upon to aid Rome in case of war, were commanded by prefects (praefecti), who were Roman officers. The 300 cavalry attached to each legion were, in the third century BC at any rate, divided into ten squadrons (turmae), and subdivided intodecuriae, each of which was commanded by a decurio, whose authority corresponded to that of a centurion in the infantry.


1 Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, 392. The Greek could mean that he plunged into the sea and swam, but this seems unlikely.

2 Polybius I.23.

3 The late revival of the dictatorship against Hannibal was in many ways exceptional.

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