The Roman Republic can be broken into two primary stages, the Early Republic and the Late Republic.
The Early Roman Republic
The rise of the Roman Republic starts with an uprising against the last Roman king.
The Revolt against King Tarquin
In 510 BC Rome witnessed a revolt against the rule of the Etruscan kings. The traditional story goes as follows:
Sextus, the son of king Tarquinius Superbus raped the wife of a nobleman, Tarquinius Collatinus. King Tarquinius’ rule was already deeply unpopular with the people. This rape was too great an offence to be tolerated by the Roman nobles.
Lead by Lucius Iunius Brutus, they rose in revolt against the king. Brutus was the nephew of King Tarquin by marriage. Related he may have been to the king, but he had no reason to love him.
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Brutus was the son of Marcus, whose substantial wealth had been illegally seized by King Tarquin at his death. Not only had Tarquin abused his power to steal Brutus’ inheritance. Brutus’ older brother had been murdered as part of the plot.
Believed somewhat of a harmless fool, he had been ridiculed by Tarquin by being made second in command (Tribunus Celerum). There seems little doubt that Brutus’ elevation to this position was not meant as a promotion, but a humiliation. His inheritance stole and his brother murdered, Brutus was being mocked by a tyrant.
Now Lucius Iunius Brutus took revenge and led the city’s nobility in revolt.
Prince Sextus fled to Gabii but was killed. Meanwhile the King with his family escaped to Caere. His palace was demolished.
The rebellion against Tarquinius failed to achieve final independence for Rome, but it should be the birth of the Roman republic. It was after this revolt, that the senate handed power to two consuls, although at first they were called praetors (a title which later should come to be the name of a different office of the republic). These consuls each held power for one year, in which they ruled much like joint kings of Rome.
What also needs to be kept in mind is that this rebellion was indeed a revolt by the aristocracy of Rome. Rome was never a democracy as we would understand it today, nor as the Greeks understood it. In the early days of the Roman republic all power would reside in the hands of the Roman aristocracy, the so-called patricians ( patricii).
The first ever two elected leaders of Rome were Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. But the people soon turned against Brutus’ colleague who was a Tarquin and hence directly related to the despised king. It wasn’t long before he left for exile, being replaced by one Publius Valerius Publicola.
Soon after a substantial plot was discovered, the aim of which was to place King Tarquin back on his throne. The conspirators were sentenced to death. Among them were Brutus’ own two sons.
It is no surprise that after his ridicule, the theft of his inheritence, his brother’s murder and the execution of his sons Brutus was filled with hatred toward King Tarquin.
Aided by the city of Veii, King Tarquinius in 509 BC sought to win back his city in battle, but failed. The battle saw the death Brutus, the founder of the Republic. With Brutus dead, it fell to his co-consul Publius Valerius Publicola to lead the Romans to victory. It was therefore he, who was the first ever Roman commander to lead his troops in triumph through Rome.
But king Tarquinius, though defeated, was not yet dead. And so he called upon the help of the fellow Etruscan king of Clusium, Lars Porsenna. Porsenna duly besieged Rome. Legend tells us of the one-eyed hero Horatius Cocles fending off the Etruscan hordes at the Sublician bridge over the Tiber which he asked to be destroyed behind him as he fought.
Other legend tells of Porsenna eventually calling off the siege. A Roman hero, Mucius Scaevola, terrified Porsenna with a demonstration of how determined the Romans were to defeat him, by holding his hand over a naked flame and not removing it until it had burned away.
Consul Publius Valerius Publicola thereafter sought to win over Porsenna arguing it was for him to judge if Tarquin had not been a terrible tyrant whom the Romans were right to depose. Porsenna should decide if Tarquin or the Romans should rule Rome. Tarquin angrily refused the suggestion that Porsenna should be a judge over him. Offended, Porsenna lifted the siege and left. So much to legend.
In reality, the opposite seems to have been the case. Porsenna captured Rome. He didn’t place Tarquinius back on the throne, which seems to indicate that he instead planned on ruling the city himself. But Rome, though occupied, must have remained defiant. In an attempt to quell any future revolts Porsenna banned anyone from owning iron weapons.
But this tyranny wasn’t to last. Under Roman encouragement other cities in Latium revolted against Etruscan domination. Finally, in 506 BC things came to a head. The allied Latin forces, led by Aristhodemus, met at Aricia with an army which Porsenna had sent against them under the command of his son Arruns.
The Latins won the battle. This was a decisive blow against the Etruscans and now, at last, Rome had won its independence.
War with the Sabines
Consul Publius Valerius was now at the height of his powers. It was at this point people began calling him ‘Publicola’ (‘people’s friend’). A war with the Sabines granted him the opportunity to accompany his brother, who had been voted consul after his own term was up, in leading the army to war. The brothers fought a succesful campaign, winning several victories (505 BC).
More so, Publicola managed to befriend some of the Sabine nobility. One of their foremost leaders in fact decided to become Roman, bringing with him his entire tribe comprising five thousand warriors. This leader was Attius Clausus. He was granted patrician rank, land beyond the river Anio and adopted the name Appius Claudius Sabinus.
He was the original ancestor of the Claudius clan. Publius Valerius Publicola was not finished yet. The Sabines launched another attack and And Publicola was at hand to reorganise the campaign. A crushing blow to the Sabines was finally delivered at their capital Cures by the commander Spurius Cassius (504 BC). The Sabines sued for peace.
Soon later Publicola died. The people of Rome granted him a state funeral within the city walls.
War with the Latin League
Rome was evidently the largest city within Latium. And the confidence it gained from this knowledge made it lay claim to speak on behalf of Latium itself. And so in its treaty with Carthage (510 BC) the Roman republic claimed control over considerable parts of the countryside around it.
Though such claims the Latin League (the alliance of Latin cities) would not recognize. And so a war arose about the very matter. Rome, having won independence from the Etruscans already faced its next crisis. The very Latin force which had defeated the Porsenna’s army at Aricia now was used against Rome.
On the other hand, the man leading the Latin league against the Romans was Octavius Mamilius, the son-in-law of King Tarquin.
There may therefore have been other reasons than merely the question of supremacy within the league. In 496 BC the Roman forces met those of the Latin League at Lake Regillus. (Legend has it that the divine twins Castor and Pollux, the Gemini, appeared to senator Domitius before this battle, foretelling the Roman victory.)
Very tellingly King Tarquin was present at the battle, fighting the side of the Latin League.
The leader of the Latins, Octavius Mamilius, was killed in battle. King Tarquin was wounded. Rome claimed victory. But if this was really so, is unclear. The battle may well have been an indecisive draw. In either case, Rome’s ability to withstand the combined might of Latium, which had earlier defeated the Etruscans, must have been an astonishing fete of military prowess.
In about 493 BC a treaty between Rome and the Latin League was signed (the foedus Cassianum). This might have been due to the Latin League admitting to Roman superiority on the battle field at Lake Regillus. But more likely it was because the Latins sought a powerful ally against the Italian hill tribes who were harassing them.
Either way, the war with the Latin League was over. The Roman republic now firmly established, King Tarquin retired to exile in Tusculum, not to be heard of again.
The Early Conflict of the Orders
The revolt against King Tarquin and Porsenna was led entirely by the Roman nobility, so it was essentially only the Roman aristocrats (the patricii) who held any power. All decisions of note were taken in their assembly, the senate.
Real power rested perhaps with little more or less than fifty men. Within the nobility of Rome itself power centred around a few select families. For large part of the fifth century BC names such as Aemilius, Claudius, Cornelius and Fabius would dominate politics.
There was indeed an assembly for the people, the comitia centuriata, but its decisions all needed the approval of the patrician nobles.
The economic situation of early Rome was dire. Many poor peasant fell into ruin and was taken into slavery for non-payment of debt by the privileged classes.
Against such a background of hardship and helplessness at the hands of the nobles, the commoners (called the ‘plebeians ‘ (plebeii) organized themselves against the patricians. And so arose what is traditionally called ‘the Conflict of the Orders’.
One believes that the plebeians were partly inspired by Greek merchants, who most likely had brought with them tales of the overthrow of the aristocracy in some Greek cities and the creation of Greek democracy.
If inspiration came from Greek traders within Rome’s walls, then the power the plebeians possessed stemmed from Rome’s need for soldiers. The patricians alone could not fight all the wars which Rome was almost constantly involved in.
This power was indeed demonstrated in the ‘First Secession’, when the plebeians withdrew to a hill three miles northeast of Rome, the Mons Sacer (or possibly to the Aventine).
Several such secessions are recorded (five in total, between 494 and 287 BC, although each one is disputed).
Leadership of the plebeians was largely provided by those among them, perhaps wealthy landowners with no noble blood, who served as tribunes in the military. Accustomed to leading the men in war, they now did the same in politics.
It was most likely after the First Secession in 494 BC that the patricians recognized the plebeians rights to hold meetings and to elect their officers, the ‘tribunes of the people’ (tribuni plebis). Such ‘tribunes of the people’ were to represent the grievances of ordinary people to the consuls and the senate.
But apart from such a diplomatic role, he also possessed extraordinary powers. He possessed the power of veto over any new law the consuls wanted to introduce. His duty was to be on call day and night to any citizen who required his help.
The fact that plebeian demands didn’t seem to go further than adequate protection from the excesses of patrician power, seems to suggest that the people were largely satisfied with the leadership which the nobility provided.
And it should be reasonable to suppose that, despite the differences voiced in the ‘Conflict of the Orders’, Rome’s patricians and plebeians stood united when facing any outside influence.
Coriolanus and the War with the Volscians
Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a figure of whom we are today not sure if he ever existed. He may indeed be a myth, yet one can never be certain. The story goes that Coriolanus was defeated in his bid to get elected consul.
This was largely so because he had vehemently opposed the creation of the office of Tribune of the People after the ‘Conflict of the Orders’. Coriolanus, however, was a man to bear grudges. When during a famine grain was shipped from Sicily, he proposed that it only be distributed to the plebeians once they had forfeited their right of representation by the Tribunes.
The suggestion outraged Rome. His fellow senators would not agree to starve their own people for political gain.
Instead the grain was distributed without condition and Coriolanus was charged with treason by the Tribunes. It was his record as a war hero in the war with the Volscians which saved Coriolanus from death, though he was exiled from Rome (491 BC).
Coriolanus’ skills as a military commander now attracted the attention of his old enemy, the Volscians. Their leader Attius Tullius now offered him command of their forces.
The talented Coriolanus soon defeated the Roman army, driving them before him, until he and his Volscian army besieged Rome itself. The Romans sent delegations, including his wife and mother to beseeching him to lift the siege.
Finally, Coriolanus did retire his army, though it is unclear why. Possibly, the Romans ceded them control of cities they had conquered from them, yet this is little more than guesswork.
Coriolanus never returned again. But the war with the Volscians was to continue on and off for decades.
Rome as a Regional Power
Rome had rid herself of Etruscan despots and achieved supremacy within the Latin League. Now she stood at the head of Latium. But enemies still loomed all around; the Etruscans were still a potent force and hill tribes such as the Volscians and Aequians threatened the plain of Latium.
Rome was therefore always at war, attacked or attacking her Etruscan neighbor Veii, or the Volscians or Aequians, or an occasional Latin foe.
Meanwhile, the Hernicians (Hernici), who were a Latin tribe wedged between the Aequians and the Volscians, were won over as allies by Rome (486 BC). It was a typical example of the Roman motto ‘divide and conquer’.
When the Etruscan sea power was shattered by Hieron of Syracuse at Cumae in 474 BC, the menace from Etruria was so much weakened that for nearly forty years there was no war with Veii.
Capitolinus and Unrest in Rome
Back in Rome itself the Conflict of the Orders remained an ongoing problem. In 471 BC the consulship was shared between Appius Claudius (we are not sure if this was in fact the original Attus Clausus, or his son) and the impressive Titus Quinctius Capitolinus Barbatus.
The former carried on in much the same vein as Coriolanus and many proud and arrogant patricians, whereas the latter tried to steady the ship of state at a tumultuous time.
When Claudius was provoking the crowds in the forum with an arrogant speech, it fell to his consular colleague Capitolinus to order him removed from the forum by force before a riot ensued. Capitolinus was widely trusted and respected. This popularity showed at the ballot box. He was already re-elected consul by 468 BC.
Rome desperately needed the steady, calm nerve of Capitolinus. The war with the Volscians and Aequians continued and Rome was in ferment. The city was growing at a startling rate. The men of voting age now numbered no fewer than 104,000. These were volatile, unpredictable times.
One day a wild rumour circulated that a Volscian army had evaded the legions and was marching on the undefended capital. Panic gripped the city. Once more it was Capitolinus who calmed the people, urging them to wait until it could be confirmed if the story were true or not. It wasn’t.
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In 460 BC such was the chaos in the city that a Sabine called Herdonius, leading a party of slaves and exiles captured and occupied the Capitol. Consul Valerius lost his life retaking the Rome’s most prestigious hill.
His replacement was one Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, whose name should come to be the embodiment of republican virtues to all Romans (and not merely to Romans, as the US city of Cincinnati illustrates).
Cincinnatus was a patrician and opposed to greater rights for the plebs. He used his consular office to block legislation put forward by the tribunes of the people in favour of the plebeians. However, for the next year his political opponents proposed the very same tribunes as candidates for office to see the legislation forced through regardless.
The senate, outraged at such selfish behavior immediately nominated Cincinnatus to take the office of consul again, in order to maintain the stalemate. Cincinnatus refused the honor. He made it quite clear that he had no intention of breaking the rules of office and standing in successive years, albeit that his opponents were cheating. May they be disgraced, but no he. All Rome was impressed.
When an army under the command of Furius became trapped in Aequian territory Capitolinus, no sooner had the news reached him, gathered up what soldiers he could, called upon the allied Hernicians for support and marched on the Aequians and drove them off, allowing Furius and his men to withdraw safely.
If Rome was straining in her war with the Aequians and Volscians, the situation became yet more serious when the fierce tribe of the Sabines now also joined the fray. With one consular army fully deployed, the other, under the command of consul Lucius Minucius, advanced to attack the Sabine enemy garrison on Mt Algidus and found itself cut off and besieged.
The situation was dire and the Romans elected to appoint a dictator. This man, freed from the usual restraints of office, should tackle the crisis. To grant such limitless powers was of course a great risk. The appointment of a dictator always begged the question if the chosen man would readily hand back power when his task was fulfilled.
The choice fell upon Cincinnatus. No doubt all Rome still remembered him as the man who rejected the opportunity of being made consul for a successive year. The delegation of senators sent to bring him the message needed to travel to his farm.
The story goes that Cincinnatus had fallen on hard times. Paying the bail for his son Caeso who, accused of murder, had fled into exile, had cost Cincinnatus his entire fortune. He’d retired to a small holding outside Rome and living as a humble peasant farmer.
Now, one suspects that there was an element of political theatre involved here. Cincinnatus was from an extremely rich family which owned vast swathes of land. Nevertheless the delegation found him ploughing his fields (or digging a ditch) when they brought him the news of his election to the office of dictator. What followed was remarkable.
Cincinnatus left his farm, levied an army in Rome, marched on the Sabines defeat them in battle and enabled Minucius’ army to retreat safely. On his return Cincinnatus celebrated a triumph and resigned his powers. He had been dictator, – the supreme commander of Rome, – for only 15 days. Only one extravagance had he allowed himself.
He saw to it that the witness who had testified against his son Caeso was expelled from Rome. He otherwise did not abuse his power in any way, did not seek to extend it for a day longer than necessary. He merely did his duty and then returned to his farm.
In 439 BC Capitolinus was elected consul for sixth time. He and his colleague, Menenius Agrippa, soon learned of a plot led by Spurius Maelius to seize power. At once they proposed that Cincinnatus be made dictator for a second time to prevent this outrage.
Cincinnatus, by now in his eighties, soon dealt with the matter and Maelius came to a bloody end. Once more he resigned his commission immediately. Within his lifetime Cincinnatus became a legend to the Romans. Twice granted supreme power, he held onto it not for a day longer than absolutely necessary.
The high esteem in which Cincinnatus was held by his compatriots is best illustrated with an anecdote towards the very end of his life. One of Cincinnatus’ sons was tried for military incompetence.
He was defended by none other than the great Capitolinus, who simply asked if the accused was convicted, who would go to tell the aged Cincinnatus the news. The son was acquitted. The jury couldn’t bring itself to break the old man’s heart.
One demand voiced by the plebeians as part of the Conflict of the Orders was that of written law. For as long as there was no simply code of written rules, the plebeians remained virtually at the mercy of the patrician consuls who decided what the law was.
So three eminent Romans were sent to Athens in 454BC to study the code of laws created by the great Solon. The fact that they were sent to Athens once again suggests there being a strong Greek influence upon the demands made by the plebeians.
In 451 BC the delegation returned.
Their proposal was that for one year not two consuls but a group of ten men should run the affairs of state and prepare the new code of laws. In practice this meant they would act as supreme judges and their collected judgments would be used to build the code of laws over the twelve months they were in office.
So in 451 BC a commission was set up. It consisted of ten patricians. They were called the decemviri (‘the ten men’) and were charged with creating a simple code of laws within a year.
The man who should emerge as their leader was Appius Claudius Inregellensis Sabinus Crassus. If his full name seems a bit of a mouthful it is no great surprise that today he is generally referred to as Appius Claudius ‘the Decemvir’.
He was possibly the son or the grandson of the first Appius Claudius who came to Rome from the Sabines. The two great men of Rome, Capitolinus and Cincinnatus, were excluded from the decemviri, most likely due to their involvement with the expulsion of the witness in the trial of Cincinnatus’ son Caeso.
After the year had passed, the decemviri had produced ten tables, listing the laws which should govern Rome.
The plebeians were delighted. But it was judged by all that the work was unfinished and so another ten men should be appointed, this time consisting of five patricians and five plebeians, to complete the work.
The immense popularity of the Tables meant that now political heavyweights were keen to become decemviri. Capitolinus and Cincinnatus were now also running.
Appius Claudius was the only of the previous decemvir to seek re-election. This was frowned upon as an ominous thirst for power, contrary to the traditions of the republic. Capitolinus and Cincinnatus instead proposed for him to preside over the election. If they assumed this would stop him from standing as a candidate they were wrong.
Appius Claudius manipulated the rules so that the only major candidate in the election was he himself. This was a frightful sign of what was to come. No sooner were the ten new decemviri elected, then Rome awoke to a tyranny.
During the time in which the decemviri were in office the Roman constitution was no longer in place, for they ruled in place of the consuls. The first year had seen the ten dutifully performing their office as intended. However, the second year saw blatant injustice and their judgments being made in favor of friends and cronies.
The rich and powerful could leave for their villas in the countryside and wait for the inevitable end to come. But the plebeians had no means of escaping the tyranny.
The work to codify the laws of Rome was completed. The year passed. Yet the decemviri did not stand down.
Some patricians such as the Horatii and Valerii, tried their best to oppose the tyrants, yet with little success. But with the plebeians being tyrannized, the army quickly was virtually refusing to fight. Meanwhile the Aequians and Sabines were pressing hard. Disaster was looming.
Finally, Appius Claudius ‘the Decemvir’ utterly over-reached himself. Smitten with a girl called Verginia who was engaged to another man, he fabricated a story by which a Marcus Claudius claimed she was his slave.
Appius Claudius presided over the trial himself and of course proclaimed Verginia was indeed the slave of Marcus Claudius. No doubt this meant her betrothal was invalid – and he therefore would be able to make his own move on Verginia.
Entire Rome was outraged. The girl’s father, a centurion called Verginius, killed her on hearing the verdict rather than allowing her to be enslaved. The deed done he then fought his way out of the city.
It appears a large part of the city’s plebeians joined him. They took to the Janiculum Hill on the far side of the Tiber and refused to return unless the decemviri resigned. So began the Second Secession (449 BC).
With the Aequians and Sabines bearing down on Rome the surrender of the decemviri was inevitable. Rome needed her army and for this she urgently needed the plebeians. The decemviri resigned on one single condition; that they not be turned over to the plebeians who would have torn them to pieces.
If the other nine escaped punishment, the despised Appius Claudius now got his just desserts. Verginius accused him of breaching one of the very laws laid down in the Twelve Tables; that no-one should be permitted to falsely enslave a free person. He was thrown into prison where he took his own life.
Although it is also possible that the Tribunes of the People killed him.
It is worth mentioning that, apart from the above version of the tale, some historians believe that the same ten patrician devemviri ruled for two years, preparing the Twelve Tables.
But when the plebeians deemed the laws not far-reaching enough, they forced them to resign and instead brought about the appointment of two more radically-minded consuls. In that case, the tale of the outrages of Appius Claudius would be a mere fabrication.
In any event the creation of the Twelve Tables was a milestone in Roman history. Rome henceforth should be a society ruled by law rather than by men.
The Twelve Tables
So came about the famous written Roman law, the Twelve Tables. The laws were engraved in copper and permanently displayed to public view. The twelve copper tables were a simple set of rules governing the public, private and political behavior of every Roman.
War with Etruria, the Volscians, Aequians and Falerians
The power of the Aequian, Sabine and Volscian hill tribes was eventually – and inevitably – broken. The Aequians were defeated on their stronghold on Mt Algidus in 431 BC. In all wars of the fifth century BC the balance of victory lay with Rome and her allies.
Usually this involved a gain of territory by the victors, the lion’s share going to Rome whose strength therefore constantly increased.
By the end of the fifth century BC Rome had in fact become all but the mistress of Latium. The Latin cities, known as the Latin League, might have still been independent, but they were increasingly subject to Roman power and influence.
A final war with the Etruscans of Veii led to the great city’s fall in 396 BC when Marcus Furius Camillus and his second-in-command Cornelius Scipio besieged it and successfully undermined the walls.
Veii was so important and beautiful a city, it’s conquest was a substantial victory for Rome and marks a significant step in her ascent to power. Famously, the great statue of Juno, queen of the gods, was taken from Veii, moved to Rome and placed in a temple specially built for her.
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The decisive victory over Veii, which added a great area on the west of the Tiber to Roman territory, was in part due to pressure on Etruria by a new enemy, the Gauls, who by this time had completely overrun the basin of the Po and from there were crossing the Apennines into Etruria itself.
The Etruscans had also been driven out of their possessions in Campania, south-east of Latium, by the Samnites, descending from the hills.
Rome virtually remained at a constant state of war. In 394 BC it was the turn of the Falerii. When Camillus arrived to lay siege, a teacher kidnapped several noble children in his charge and delivered them to the Romans, promising that with these hostages in Roman hands, the Falerians were bound to surrender.
Camillus would have none of it. He freed the children and returned them to the Falerii, with the treacherous teacher as their captive. The result was startling. So struck were the Falerians by the honorable act of their enemy, they surrendered to him at once.
The surrender of the Falerii proved bad news for Camillus, for his army had hoped for plunder. The division of the spoils from Veii had already disappointed many, now the failure to win any loot from a foe that turned friend erupted in anger.
His celebrations in Rome when on his triumph having his chariot pulled by four white horses (deemed sacrilegious at the time) also had done little for his popularity.
As was so often the case in the history of the republic, it ended in the courts. Camillus was charged with stealing loot (from Veii) that belonged to the state.
He was sent into exile. Legend has it that Camillus in outrage at such injustice and ingratitude prayed to the gods to make it so that Rome should be in need of his return.
Invasion by the Gauls
Camillus soon got his wish. The Gauls were coming. The invasion by the Gauls from the north may have weakened Etruria so much that Rome had at last succeeded in conquering its old enemy Veii, but it wasn’t long before the flood of Celtic barbarians should be heading for Rome itself. There was no stopping this ferocious barbarian onslaught.
The Gauls rolled through Etruria and headed towards Rome. In 386 BC they met the Roman army at Allia (11 miles outside Rome). The Roman allies broke and fled. The legionaries were outflanked and crushed. It was a massive defeat.
Legends afterwards tell us of the invasion of the city. Barbarians are said to have broken into the senate house and been awestricken by the dignity of the silent, seated senators, before massacring them all. The attempt of a surprise attack on the besieged Capitol was frustrated by the cackling of sacred geese of Juno which warned the Roman guards.
Rome’s desperate plight called for the exiled Camillus. Appointed dictator, he raced to gather what forces he could. Shattered Roman contingents were drawn together and allies summoned. As Rome bled the man she had so ungratefully thrown out was now was her only hope for rescue.
Romans and Gauls, after months of occupation, sought to reach a settlement. The Gauls (from the powerful tribe of the Senones) were falling prey to disease and had also received news that their own territory was invaded by the Veneti in their absence.
Food was also in short supply and any sorties into the countryside to loot foodstuffs were met by Camillus and his forces. A famine was threatening. No doubt the Gauls were keen to turn home, though no more than the Romans wished them to leave. So it was agreed that a ransom was to be paid. The sum was colossal: one thousand pounds of gold.
Legend gave us the famous scene of the huge ransom being weighed out on scales fixed by the Gauls. When Quintus Sulpicius complained at such cheating, the Gallic chief Brennus added his sword to the counterweight with the words ‘Vae victis’ (‘Woe to the vanquished’).
Before the ransom was ever paid, Camillus and his army arrived. Brennus was told by his new adversary that Rome would pay not in gold, but in steel.
This story of Camillus and his ramshackle forces defeating the Gallic horde has a hint of propaganda about it, invented to disguise a defeat and – worse – Rome being at the mercy of barbarians and needing to buy her freedom.
Yet we cannot discount entirely that the story may be true. The recurring theme of Roman history is the strength of her resources. When defeated she always regrouped and fought back again and again. Also, there may have been allies willing to support Camillus, if only to prevent the Gallic rampage from heading their way from Rome.
So the tale of Camillus’ victory over the Gauls may possibly be true.
The definite fact which survives is that the Gauls, having swept devastatingly over Etruria, poured into Rome, sacked it, and then rolled back to the north.
Etruria never recovered from the blow, whilst Rome reeled under it.
The city of Rome had been ravaged by war. The Gauls may have not been able to take the Capitol, yes, much of the remaining city had been laid waste.
So badly mauled had the city been by the barbarian sacking, it was even considered to abandon Rome and to move the population to the beautiful city of Veii instead. Of course this never happened. Instead building materials were provided at public expense, that every citizen should rebuild his home, as long as he gave an undertaking to do so within the year.
It was often said that Rome’s ramshackle layout and its chaotic city streets were direct result of this rushed reconstruction. So too it appears that the Romans, as part of this rebuild, now finally decided on a proper city wall.
What is called the Servian Wall, as Romans attributed it to King Servius Tullius (who much more likely only built the agger earthworks on the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline Hills), is generally believed to have been built after the retreat by the Gauls.
The wall spanned five miles in circumference with nineteen gates, embracing all seven hills of Rome. This new impenetrability only further re-enforced roman claims to dominance over the wider region. Hence she could wage war in the region with no fear for her own safety, as the tribes had not the means of breaching such defences.
The Later Conflict of the Orders
The Gauls having withdrawn and Rome being the confirmed leader of Latium, the old struggle between the patricians and the plebeians renewed in intensity again.
Naturally, it had in effect never gone away but had continued on as a process which now came to a head.
The small plebeian landowners ached under the strain of military service and the terrible losses they had suffered during the invasion of the Gauls.
They looked with resentment upon the patricians who still commanded the consulship and so had access to decisions regarding what should happen to conquered land. Land no doubt many plebeians hoped for receiving a share of to alleviate their hardships.
One major effect the wars had had on Roman society was to reduce the number of patricians significantly. Having a share of the army beyond their proportion of the populace, the patricians had had to suffer terrible losses during the wars.
Apart from this, several patrician families saw political advantages in championing the cause of the plebeians, so gaining vast popularity, but serving to further undermine the status of the patrician class. Largely these will have been the families of those who had intermarried between the classes, ever since it had been allowed in 445 BC.
Aside from this, the wealthier plebeians now had their eyes on power, seeking to hold office themselves rather than merely attending the senate.
With the patricians weakened and the aspirations of the plebeians on the rise, the erosion of the constitutional differences between the two classes was inevitable.
The ‘Licinian Rogations’
It fell to two tribunes of the people, Caius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius to propose a great reform bill. The bill dealt with matters of debt and land reform, but most significantly it proposed admission of plebeians to the office of consul.
Naturally, the patricians rejected the proposal out of hand, for it seemed to undermine their wealth, their land holdings and their privileges of office in equal measure. But Licinius and Sextius were made of stern stuff. They now followed a policy of vetoing any election, making state business impossible.
This period in Roman history is at times referred to as ‘the anarchy’, as Rome possessed no government to speak of. The only elections which the two permitted were those for the tribunes of the people.
The people again and again saw to it that Licinius and Sextius were re-elected and could continue to block any government matters, until the patricians gave way.
The patricians put up a brave struggle to defend their privileges. But the writing was on the wall. In fact it was the very hero of the patrician faction, Camillus, who in his final dictatorship, granted him to fight off the second invasion of the Gauls, forced the senate to accept the ‘Licinian Rogations’ (367 BC). With a stroke, the consuls were now to be one patrician and one plebeian. The principle was now established that plebeians could indeed rule. The deadlock was broken.
The rich and powerful soon found ways around those parts of the Licinian Rogations which dealt with debt and land distribution. But the requirement that one of the consuls must be a plebeian was the death-blow to the privileges of the old aristocracy.
The Conflict of the Orders should last for several decades thereafter, but the winners were inevitably going to be the plebeians. If the patrician struggle for their exclusive right to various offices continued, the law of 367 BC was the beginning of the end.
In 356 BC Rome saw the first plebeian dictator take office. By 351 BC the first plebeian took the office of censor. By 342 BC both consuls could be plebeian. By 300 the praetorship was open to plebeians.
Rome rising power within Italy
In 367 BC the Gauls came south anew, but Camillus now had the measure of them. They were unceremoniously defeated and driven back north. That same year, 367 BC, the great tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse died, leaving to his son an empire which at that moment seemed destined to dominate Italy, a more mighty power than the expanding republic on the Tiber.
Syracuse stood supreme as the most powerful Greek city state. Yet it soon crumbled, having been held together largely by Dionysius’ personal genius, rather than being a coherent empire. So, as Syracuse waned its dominions in southern Italy represented tempting prizes to whomsoever could muster the strength to conquer them.
Of course the lack of a strong, well established imperial power on Italian soil proved of immense benefit to the expansion of the Roman state. Though initially it only benefited the wild Italian hill tribes who now began to harass the rich Greek merchant cities of the Magna Graecia (southern Italy).
Rome may have been a significant power in Italy, but the area of her supremacy was still limited to Latium and a portion of Etruria.
Now she was to be faced with a new and formidable foe, the Samnite confederacy.
A major part in Rome’s continual ascent was played by the series of Samnite wars beginning in 363 BC and ending in 290 BC. But even before the struggle with the Samnites opened, Rome’s ascendancy after the Gallic invasion was seriously threatened.
It was perhaps only because the neighbors who feared her dreaded still more the Gallic menace from which they had already suffered so severely, that Rome was able to do more than merely hold her own. There were, moreover, Latin cities that even allied with the Gauls against her, thereby forcing the rest of the Latins, however reluctantly, to throw themselves under the protection of Rome.
The Latin League was renewed on terms more definitely emphasizing the superior status of Rome (358 BC), and the third Gallic tide was rolled back in 358 BC (or possibly 360BC). But not without Rome heaving to retire behind her new walls and await the Gallic retreat.
Etruscan cities seized the opportunity to attack Rome in the hour of her embarrassment. She suffered some defeats, but by 351 BC the Etruscans were forced to accept a peace for forty years.
After this Gallic invasion the Romans decided it wise to set up an emergency fund (the aerarium sanctius) that was to be used in the event of another invasion. This special reserve was kept in the state treasury at the temple of Saturn at the Roman Forum.
In that year and the next the Gauls renewed hostilities yet again, only to be driven off by the son of the great Camillus who had beaten them forty years before.
The Latins were held well in hand, and Etruria was bound to peace for many years to come. Rome now stood virtually unchallenged in her immediate region.
At this stage, Carthage recognized Rome as the coming great power, and agreed with her the momentous treaty of 348 BC – in the view of some authorities, the first between the two states, while others regard it as a simple renewal of a treaty supposedly made in 509 BC, the very first year of the republic.
If the Gallic menace persisted it was diminishing. By 331 BC the fierce Gallic tribe of the Senones finally sued for peace.
Roman Treaty with Carthage
In the treaty of 348 BC Carthage undertook to respect all Latin territory and coast towns as a Roman sphere of influence.
Carthage was barred from possession of territory, but not from action.
In particular, if the Carthaginians should sack a town in Latium which was not under Roman protection, captives and loot may be taken away, though the site was thereafter to become a Roman possession. The treaty seems to have made a significant distinction between areas under direct Roman protection and cities who were mere allies of Rome. Cities under Roman rule were to be immune from Carthaginian attack altogether, whereas allies were not.
Roman traders and merchants were granted admission to the ports of Africa, Sardinia and Sicily, as well as to Carthage itself. Roman ships of war were to enjoy access to these ports in wars against third parties.
Carthaginian merchants were granted access to Rome.
The Romans in turn were excluded from settling in Sardinia and Africa and accepted limits on Roman seafaring. Importantly, Carthage was granted freedom of military action in Italy.
It seems to have been a major Carthaginian concern to prevent Rome interfering in any of its attacks on Greek cities in the south. Evidently Carthage was aware of Rome’s growing military prowess.
First Samnite War
Five years after the conclusion of the treaty with Carthage, Rome was at war with the Samnites. For centuries the hill tribes of the Appennines had sought to conquer the plains below. In Latium such tribes as the Aequians, Volsquians and Sabines had come up against the Romans.
Yet further south, in the Campania the Samnite confederacy was now surging into the plain of Campania. The Samnites had a reputation as fearsome, only half-civilised mountain warriors. Ironically the vanquished Campanians largely proved to be descendants of previous Samnite invaders who had settled down to less warlike living.
Rome had wisely chosen to ally with the Samnites. It may in fact have been the case that some previous campaigns against the Gauls had seen Samnite allies fighting alongside Roman legionaries.
Yet now a great price beckoned that would divide them. Capua, one of the richest cities of Italy.
As the hill tribes in the south of Italy were battering Greek cities no longer protected by the great naval power of Syracuse, these appealed to Greece for help.
However, Capua and the Campanians turned to Rome. The city itself has seen its army defeated and driven behind its walls, with the Samnites not camped out on Mount Tifata just outside the city.
Rome renounced her treaty with the Samnites and marched her armies south to Campania. The Roman hero Marcus Valerius Corvus headed one consular army. He defeated the Samnites at Mount Gaurus and again at Suessula.
The other army, commanded by Cornelius, was first trapped in the Samnite valleys. But once extracated by the intervention of a third Roman force commanded by Publius Decius Mus, Cornelius went on to add yet another decisive victory to the Roman campaign.
The Samnites were roundly defeated and driven out of the plain of Campania.
The victory was impressive. Italian hill tribes were usually not that easily dealt with. In two years, 343 and 342 BC, Rome had extended her sphere of influence with consummate ease. So striking was this success that Carthage sent an embassy to congratulate Rome on her triumph.
Mutiny of the Army
Yet Rome was not to have it all her way. Far from it. In 342 BC she was struck by the mutiny of some of her own troops in Campania. Rome had never stationed garrisons such a distance from the city itself and the men proved unwilling to protect Capuans from Samnites indefinitely.
Yet there were also problems within the structure of the army itself as some of the privileged abused their positions to bestow favours and the equestrian horsemen were paid three times the rate of ordinary infantry.
If the mutiny started in Campania it soon spread and a rebellious army was eventually camped only eight miles from Rome. Meanwhile there was the war with the Samnites to consider. It was clear one could not continue a war with a mutinous army camped outside one’s own gates.
Somehow at the moment of victory against the Samnites, where foreign powers acknowledged Rome’s prowess, the Roman mutiny had managed to turn a triumph into an utter fiasco.
Marcus Valerius Corvus was appointed dictator to deal with this debacle. Rather than seek a fight he chose to negotiate a settlement and address the concerns of the soldiery. Rules were introduced to discourage abuse of privilege and promises were made to address matters of unfair pay.
Also Valerius had the wisdom not to seek punishment of any ringleaders. He had realized that initial promises of negotiation that disguised a desire to separate, arrest and punish the leaders of the mutiny had only further inflamed feelings among the ranks.
Rome’s temporary weakness forced her to settle the war with the Samnites who luckily were also being challenged on another frontier at the time and hence sued for peace (341 BC). The treaty provided not only for peace between the two sides, but renewed their old alliance.
The Great Latin War
Yet a much greater crisis loomed as a consequence of the Roman mutiny.
When the mutiny forced Rome to make peace with the Samnites, the Campanians, depending on their ally, found themselves suddenly abandoned. More so, the Latins who had been forced into a war with the Samnites they had never asked for, suddenly felt themselves still at war with the fierce hill tribe, while the Romans who had dragged them into it had bailed out and come to terms.
Worse, Rome was now allied with the Samnite enemy!
It was therefore perfectly understandable that the Latins and the Campanians felt betrayed. They now formed an alliance of their own, which the Volscians also joined).
Further, the Latins demanded of Rome that the treaty of the Latin League be re-negotiated allowing the Latins equal say in matters, that they never be drawn into a war against their own will again.
This may indeed have been a challenge to Roman dominance but, given the recent fiasco, it sounded perfectly justifiable. Had it remained at that Rome may well have come to terms with her neighbours. Fatally, the Latins went further. They demanded that the Roman constitution be amended, whereby one of the consuls and a significant proportion of seats in the Roman senate be set aside for Latins.
This Rome could never accept. The Latins had been foolish enough to provide the Romans with a cause for war.
Marcus Valerius Corvus had very quickly succeeded in quashing the mutiny, mainly by reconciliation. His forces were ready the moment war was declared (340 BC). While the Latins were still gathering their forces, Valerius marched his troops south, united with an army of Samnite allies and then, at Suessa Aurunca, descended upon a Latin-Campanian army which was utterly defeated.
Rome now offered the Campanians a favourable peace. Of course they accepted. It was a classic example of the motto: ‘divide and conquer.’
This left the Latins to face the Roman-Samnite war machine with only the Volscians as allies. The outcome was inevitable. In two years of campaigning Rome thoroughly defeated the Latins and conquered the city of Antium.
The effect of the ‘Great Latin War’ was to tighten Rome’s grip upon Latium and to provide her with more lands upon which to settle her ever-increasing agricultural population. The Latin League was finally dissolved (338 BC). Some of the cities were granted full Roman rights, others were admitted to civil but not to political rights of Roman citizenship.
All were debarred from forming separate alliances with each other or any external power.
Rome no longer dominated a Latin alliance. Rome now ruled Latium.
Alexander ‘the Molossian’
The south of Italy with its Greek colonies had fallen under Syracusan dominance during the reign of Dionysius. However, with his death in 367 BC and the subsequent demise of Syracusan power, this area, known as Magna Graecia, had become disputed territory.
If Dionysius had used the fierce Italian hill tribes against the Greek cities in order to bring them under his sway, then now these same hill tribes formed the Bruttian League and set out to conquer these dominions for themselves.
In 343 BC the city of Tarentum finally appealed for help to the mighty city state of Sparta.
In response, the Spartan King Archidamus headed an expedition. Yet it failed disastrously and the king was killed in battle with the Lucanians in 338 BC.
Next in 334 BC, when Alexander the Great was starting on the great eastern venture, his uncle Alexander ‘the Molossian’ of Epirus answered the call of the Tarentines, very likely with imperial dreams of his own.
Alexander of Epirus proved himself an able general and Rome soon saw it wise to form a treaty with him promising not to intervene in favour of the Samnites (334BC). Given that the Samnites were allies of Rome at the time this was a clear breach of faith.
Yet Rome was most likely concerned about the strength and quality of Greek military power being deployed and hence sought to remain neutral.
The Molossian’s success was rapid, as he defeated the Samnites and Lucanians in battle and conquered town after town.
So startling were these successes, Tarentum now grew worried about the ambitions of the man whose help she had sought.
Yet Alexander’s career was to be cut short. In 330 BC a Lucanian assassin stabbed him before he could consolidate his power in Italy. He left no successor to carry on his project in Magna Graecia.
The Second Samnite War
The period between the Great Latin War and the Second Samnite War saw the two main military powers jostling for position on the Italian mainland. The Romans gradually increased their influence in Campania, founding colonies in strategic places, helping to secure Capua against any threat from the Samnites. Meanwhile the Samnite confederacy continued to make war upon Tarentum to the south.
So far, the supposed allies could continue their uneasy peace. But when in 334 BC the Romans agreed a treaty with Alexander ‘the Molossian’ not to aid the Samnites any illusions of their being allies were dispelled.
For several years the anxious piece held. Finally, in 327 BC a local dispute in the city of Neapolis saw the Samnites establish a garrison there. Capua inevitably complained to Rome. The Romans sought to negotiate with the Samnites but were rebuffed.
What had seemed inevitable all along had now come to pass. The two chief military powers were going to fight it out for predominance on the Italian peninsula. The Romans laid siege to Neapolis and the Second Samnite War began (326 BC).
This war posed a new challenge altogether to the Romans. Had the first war against the Samnites proven that the legions could deal with the hill men in the plains of Campania yet taking them on in their mountain strongholds was an entirely different matter.
So at first a stalemate ensued, whereby the Samnites could not venture into the plains, yet the Romans could not ascend into the mountains.
In 325 BC Rome began to venture further afield, for the first time having an army cross to the Adriatic coast. Minor victories were won and valuable allies gained.
The war moved slowly, yet the initiative seemed to lie with the Romans.
Then in 321 BC disaster struck.
The Caudine Forks
As Rome attempted a frontal assault on the Samnite heartland an army of 20,000 Romans and allies, led by the republic’s two consuls, was trapped by the Samnite general Caius Pontius in a mountain pass between Capua and Beneventum known as the Caudine Forks, where it could neither advance nor retreat. The Roman army faced certain annihilation and was forced to surrender.
The terms imposed were one of the gravest humiliations Rome suffered in all her history. One had lost without a fight.
The troops were disarmed and compelled to undergo an ancient ritual of subjugation. Man by man, as a foe vanquished and disgraced, they were made to pass ‘under the yoke’. In this case it was a yoke made from Roman spears, as it was understood to be a greate indignity to the Roman soldier to lose his spear.
Meanwhile the captive consuls agreed to a peace treaty by which Rome would surrender several of her Campanian towns and hand over no less than six hundred equestrians as hostages.
The army returned home in disgrace. The consuls resigned. Rome was humiliated.
The senate refused to accept the treaty. It argued that the two consuls had not possessed the authority to accept such conditions without prior sanction by the senate of Rome (Technically, power over declarations of war and peace lay with the comitia centuriata and foreign policy with the senate).
Of course this was pure semantics. Rome would use any excuse to allow her to fight on and expunge the humiliation she had just suffered.
Cruelly the two consuls were delivered to the Samnites as that the enemy may do to them as they wished, as punishment for their agreeing to a treaty without proper authorization.
The only to emerge from this affair with honour was Caius Pontius. For when the Samnite general was presented with the two Romans he simply rejected any idea of punishing them and sent them back to Rome as free men. Pontius knew that his rejection of savagery added only further to Rome’s shame.
The war now returned to the slow pace it had taken prior to the rash attack that had led to the Caudine catastrophe.
At first the Samnites held the upper hand. Rome was forced out of some strongholds and in 315 BC Roman strategy to push onward toward the Adriatic suffered a crushing blow at the Battle of Lautulae.
Rome reeled. Campania was on the verge of deserting. Capua briefly even switched sides and allied with the Samnites.
But Rome, as was her strength through out the ages, redoubled her efforts. Her infantry levy was increased from two to four legions.
The war began to turn in Rome’s favour. In 314 BC the Samnite stronghold of Luceria was conquered and made a Roman colony. Importantly, the 600 equestrians held as hostages ever since the Caudine Forks were freed with the conquest of Luceria.
The Samnite confederacy found itself invariably pushed back on every front.
Capua hastily surrendered and became a Roman ally yet again (314 BC).
In 312 BC by order of censor Appius Claudius Caecus, Rome began construction of the Via Appia, the first of her famous military highways. It was to connect Rome with Capua, allowing her to move troops and supplies to her ally with much greater ease.
In 311 BC a new challenge arose. The Samnite managed to rouse several allies to revolt against Roman overlordship. After forty years of peace the Tarquinians and Falerians led the Etruscan revolt. So to the old enemies, the Aequians, rose up. In the central mountains the Marsi and Paeligni also changed sides. Even Rome’s old allies, the Hernicians, rebelled.
Serious as all these revolts sound, they could only have helped tip the balance if the Samnites still were equal to Roman power. Yet clearly they were so no longer.
Rome was now capable of fighting on two fronts at once, holding and defeating the Etruscans whilst continuing their advance against the Samnite mountain strongholds. In 304 BC the Samnites sued for peace. Treaties were concluded all round with the Samnites, the Etruscans, and the minor hill tribes who had risen.
Rome could afford to be generous, having established her military supremacy over all parties involved.
The Third Samnite War
After the end of the Second Samnite War Rome was at liberty to take her time and tie up any loose ends left by the war.
It seemed obvious that the contest with the Samnites was not yet over and so Rome sought to set her affairs in order in expectation of the inevitable contest. Having gained peace with the Etruscans and the Samnites Rome sought to settle the smaller tribes.
The Hernicians were granted citizenship. The Aequians were crushed and had their mountain strongholds dismantled. The Via Valeria was then begun to connect Roman with the Aequian territory. Once no longer of any military threat, the Aequians too were granted citizenship.
A brief war with the mountain tribe of the Marsi in central Italy saw them defeated and thereafter granted a renewed alliance.
The war with the Etruscans had brought their northern neighbors, the Umbrians, into the Roman sphere of influence. In a brief war, the Umbrian city of Narnia was conquered and saw a Roman colony established in its place. The Via Flaminia was begun to allow easy Roman access to her new colony. Alliances with several Umbrian cities were entered into.
After this brief period of consolidation, Rome dominated a wide area of central Italy, was the senior power in a great many alliances and possessed crucial military roads leading north, south and west.
In 298 BC the Lucanians in the south of Italy approached Rome for help against the Samnites who were invading their territory. No doubt Rome, now truly the major power in Italy, must have been eager to settle this old rivalry once and for all.
For the sake of formality the senate demanded the Samnites withdraw from Lucania. As expected, the Samnites rejected this demand and war as declared.
Lucius Scipio Barbatus marched his army south of Campania into Lucania where he swiftly drove the Samnites out of the region. Yet Rome’s forces were now stretched. Never before had she operated with her troops so far south.
In 296 BC the Samnites attacked with two separate forces. The lesser army moved into Campania, the major force, commanded by one Gellius Egnatius, moved north through Sabine territory and Umbria until it reached the boarder with the Gallic tribe of the Senones.
All along its march it had gathered further forces. Now it was joined by the fierce Senones and many Etruscans. This vast host now met the army of Scipio Barbatus who had been following Egnatius ever since he broke out of Samnite territory.
The Romans under Scipio Barbatus suffered a crushing defeat at Camerinum (295 BC).
The Samnites, conscious of the enormous power their enemy was becoming, had raised the stakes to heights never yet seen in Italy.
Having been made aware of the tremendous danger by the defeat of Camerinum, Rome levied an unprecedented force in response and put 40,000 men into the field under the command of Fabius Rullianus and Publius Decius Mus.
It must have been apparent to all that the contest of these two great forces would decide the fate of Italy.
The armies met at Sentinum in 295BC. Fabius commanded the left and calmly held the Samnite force in check, gradually gaining the advantage. Decius saw his right wing gruesomely mauled by the fierce Gauls and their terrifying chariots.
The Roman right held, though only just. Decius lost his life stemming the Gallic charge. It was enough. With the right wing holding, the gradual advance of the left against the Samnites decided the battle. The Samnite leader Egnatius died in the slaughter and his coalition lost a very great number of men.
Within the year (295 BC) Fabius received the surrender of the Umbrian rebels and the Gauls sued for peace. By 294 BC the Etruscan cities who had joined in revolt also had made their peace with Rome.
The crushing defeat of the Samnites and her allies in the north, now left Rome to deal with Samnite territory.
Lucius Papirius Cursor invaded Samnium and at Aquilonia in 293 BC achieved a crushing victory over the enemy, not merely defeating their main host but crushing the infamous ‘Linen Legion’ which represented the elite fighting force of the Samnites. The battle of Aquilonia also saw Lucius Scipio Barbatus redeemed from his defeat at Camerinum. Commanding the left wing, he rushed the gates of the city which had been opened to allow the defeated army to retreat to safety.
The Battle of Aquilonia therefore saw the Samnites lose their elite fighting corps, the city of Aquilonia, suffer the death of 20,000 men and the capture of 3,500 more.
Rightly famed for their courage and tenacity the Samnites fought on, yet their case was hopeless. Consul Manius Curius Dentatus defeated them a last time in 290 BC and thereafter the Samnites simply could fight no more.
In 290 BC peace was agreed, perhaps on more favourable terms for the Samnites than Rome would have granted any less dogged foe.
They lost territory and were forced to become allies. Virtually all around the Samnites their neighbours now were allied with Rome, so making any further, independent Samnite actions impossible.
Roman military colonies were settled in Campania as well as on the eastern outskirts of Samnium.
The ‘Hortensian Law’
The year 287 BC saw the final episode of the Conflict of the Orders. The Licinian Rogations in 367 BC had primarily dealt with the right of plebeians to stand for election to the consulship. However it also dealt with land reform and debt.
Yet, the latter two points had easily been circumvented by the rich and powerful. But after the end of the Third Samnite War the issue of debt boiled over yet again. The last secession saw the plebeians yet again abandon Rome and take to the Janiculum Hill across the Tiber.
Q. Hortensius was elected dictator to resolve the crisis.
He set in place several laws to satisfy plebeian demands. The laws provided for the distribution of public land to the citizens and the cancellation of debts.
One suspects that, as usual, such legislation will have met with only limited success.
Most significantly though, the Hortensian Law also granted the plebeian assembly (concilium plebis) the right to pass laws which would be binding for all Romans, be they plebeians or patricians.
In this last leap, power had finally been established in the hands of the ordinary people of Rome. The privilege of the aristocracy had been broken.
Yet one needs to be cautious not to overstate this change. The Hortensian Law was a momentous step, no doubt. It brought to an end the gradual erosion of the power of those whose sole qualification was aristocratic birth. The patrician cause was lost.
Yet power and privilege remained entirely with the rich. Sure, it no longer matter if an individual’s wealth had descended from patrician or plebeian ancestry. Nonetheless, wealth remained the main requirement to achieving any position of power.
Even if the concilium plebis had gained the right to pass laws, the ordinary citizens had no voice in those meetings. The speakers in both law-giving chambers, the concilium plebis and the comitia tributa, were always the privileged rich. So if it was the poor who dominated those councils by vote, it was the privileged who decided on what they would be voting.
War with the Etruscans and Gauls
The unrest stirred up by Egnatius and his northern campaign in the Third Samnite War reverberated from some time in the north of Italy. In 284 BC an army of Etruscans and Gauls from the Senones tribe laid siege to Arretium. The Roman force sent to relieve the city suffered a crushing defeat, losing 13,000 men.
Several Etruscans cities now joined the revolt. Pockets of unrest ranged as far as Samnium and Lucania. The war was brief, yet fought with startling intensity. Rome, her troops not tied down by any other conflict, was at liberty to commit as many troops as necessary to root out the problem once and for all. She did so harshly.
The Etruscan uprising was crushed. Manius Curius Dentatus led a powerful force into the territory of the Senones.
The Gallic army was wiped out and the wider area was put to the torch. The tribe of the Senones was driven out altogether from the lands lying between the rivers Rubicon and Aesis. Into this devastated region the Romans then planted the colony of Sena to dominate it henceforth.
So brutal had the campaign been, the territory around Sena was laid waste for fifty years.
The Gallic neighours of the Senones, the Boii, now feared similar fate and invaded Etruria in great numbers. The Etruscans saw this once more as an opportunity to join the fight against Roman rule.
In 283 BC P. Cornelius Dolabella met their joint forces near Lake Vadimo and defeated them.
In 282 BC the Boii attempted yet another invasion, yet were again severely defeated.
They sued for peace and gained a treaty on fairly easy terms, most likely as by now Rome’s attention was drawn to the south of Italy where trouble was stirring with Tarentum and King Pyrrhus. So heavily had the Gauls been defeated, the peace should hold for another fifty years.
The Etruscan rebels would fight on for some time longer yet eventually capitulated in the face of inevitable defeat. They two were granted easy terms, at a time when Rome urgently required peace in its northern territories.
Pyrrhus of Epirus (318-272 BC)
Since the death of Alexander ‘the Molossian’ in 330 BC, the contest between the hill tribes of southern Italy and the Greek cities had continued unabated.
The city of Tarentum had continually sought help from Greek powers but had achieved little. Neither the intervention of Cleonymus of Sparta in 303 BC nor Agathocles of Syracuse in 298 BC had led to any improvement.
More so, had some of these interventions seen Tarentum act in selfish disregard for the interests of other Greek cities in Magna Graecia, then these cities had come to view Tarentum with suspicion.
In 282 BC the Greek city of Thurii on the Gulf of Otranto at the very heel of Italy asked Rome for help against persistent attacks from Lucanians and Bruttians.
When Rome intervened, sending a consul C.Fabricius with a force and a small fleet, Tarentum protested. The Tarentines saw it as a breach of their treaty of 302 BC, which barred Roman vessels from entering the Bay of Tarentum.
Rome argued that the treaty was obsolete given that the political situation had since substantially changed, not least with the destruction of Samnite power. Also, they argued, they were merely there to help defend a fellow Greek neighbor of the Tarentines.
Meanwhile, the Tarentines still harbored resentment for the perceived insult they had suffered when Rome had rebuffed any of their efforts to mediate between the warring factions in the Third Samnite War. Now this intervention into their sphere of influence was seen as a further provocation. Yet still, the uneasy peace held.
Fabricius’ campaign was swift and successful. Having expelled the Lucanian and Bruttian invaders he returned to Rome with his main force, leaving behind a protective garrison and some of the patrol vessels.
It was then the Tarentines lashed out. They mobilised their forces and attacked the Roman garrison in Thurii and sank or captured several Roman ships in the bay. This extreme reaction may be explained by volatile factors in interior Tarentine politics at the time. It is also likely that Tarentum was willing to grudgingly tolerate Roman intervention at Thurii, yet saw a Roman garrison remaining behind as a step too far.
The Romans reacted surprisingly peaceably. Possibly because they were still engaged with settling the short and sharp war with the Gauls of the Boii and Senones tribes and some Etruscan cities. They may have had no appetite for a major engagement in the very south of the peninsula and hence sought to come to a peace agreement.
All that was asked of the Tarentines was to provide compensation for the sunken ships.
Tarentum however felt buoyed by the news that yet another foreign ruler had committed himself to fight for their cause and rejected the Roman demand. The man who had pledged his assistance was no lesser than King Pyrrhus of Epirus.
Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, was nephew and successor of Alexander ‘the Molossian’ who had brought help before. He was married to a daughter of Agathocles of Syracuse which thereby may have given him hope of succeeding to that throne in time. Sicily may therefore have been his real objective, southern Italy merely being a stepping stone to that end.
Pyrrhus may well have seen this as his opportunity to do in the west, what Alexander the Great had achieved so famously in the east. This may not have been a vain hope. King Pyrrhus possessed a reputation as the greatest military leader since Alexander the Great.
As befitting his reputation, Pyrrhus arrived with an army of 25,000 men, drawn from various quarters of the ‘successor states’ to Alexander’s empire. He was also to introduce the war elephant onto the western battle field, bringing with him twenty of these fearsome animals.
The Tarentines quickly realized that they had got more than they had bargained for when they were placed under martial law (281 BC). The other Greek cities remained at a distance, not having asked for the famous general’s services in the first place.
Rome naturally was worried. She faced a challenge as never before. The very finest in Greek arms was assembled against her. A very large force was raised, down to the lowest class of citizens, who were least likely ever to be called up.
One consular army was dispatched north to put down yet another rising by the Etruscans. The other, commanded by Publius Valerius Laevinus, was sent south to meet Pyrrhus. Laevinus marched through Lucania where he needed to garrison some of his forces to secure his retreat. With a force of 20,000 men Laevinus then met with Pyrrhus at Heraclea (280 BC).
The battle was ferocious. The Roman legions proved a match for Pyrrhus highly trained phalanx. Even the notoriously unreliable Roman cavalry gained some success. At one point Pyrrhus had his horse killed from under him and needed to be saved.
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Yet the Romans had never yet seen, no matter fought, an elephant. The war elephants threw the Roman cavalry into disarray and the horsemen were driven off.
This left the Roman legions’ flanks exposed. They were outflanked and put to rout. The Roman losses are reported to have been 15,000 men. Given their initial total of 20,000, that was a crushing defeat.
Yet Pyrrhus army itself had not fared much better. So severe had his own losses been, he famously commented that one more such victory would lose him the war. It is therefore to King Pyrrhus that we owe the expression of a ‘Pyrrhic victory’, defining a victory won at too great a cost.
Had Pyrrhus suffered heavy losses on the battlefield, his overall position improved dramatically. News of his victory at Heraclea brought the Lucanians, Samnites and Greek cities onto his side. Rome was in headlong retreat.
At Rhegium the Roman legion which garrisoned the city mutinied.
It was in the light of such crisis that Pyrrhus chief advisor, Cineas, was sent to Rome to offer peace. Cineas addressed the senate, proposing that if Rome would forfeit all her territories won from the Lucanians, Bruttians and Samnites and guarantee to leave the Greek cities in peace, Pyrrhus would offer an alliance.
The senate indeed wavered in. To concede the Samnite territories after the terrible wars Rome had undergone to win them would be extremely harsh. Yet could Rome another test of strength against Pyrrhus now that he enjoyed the alliance of all of southern Italy?
It fell to Appius Claudius Caecus, a former censor now aged, infirm and struck blind, who had to be carried to the senate, to address his fellow senators, urging them not to give in and to hold firm against the invader. Appius Claudius won the day and Cineas’ peace proposal was rejected.
Pyrrhus’ force now marched on Rome. Through Campania, they pushed into Latium and reached as far as Anagnia, or possibly even Praeneste.
Though unexpectedly for Pyrrhus, as he marched into these areas no new allies joined his camp. Campania and Latium, so it seemed, preferred Roman rule to his.
Finding himself far from his base of power, with no local support, news now reached him that the consular army under Coruncianus which had been sent north to deal with the Etruscans was now returning to reinforce the forces of Laevinus. Meanwhile in Rome new levies were being raised.
Faced with such a show of strength, Pyrrhus deemed it wise to retire to winter quarters at Tarentum.
The year after Pyrrhus was on the advance again and took to besieging the city of Asculum. Rome came to meet his army with a force of 40,000 men, led by both consuls. Pyrrhus’s forces were equal in number.
The battle of Asculum (279 BC) ended in stalemate, the Roman forces after a long, hard battle not able to make any further impression on the Macedonian phalanx, retired back to their camp. On balance victory was granted to Pyrrhus, yet no significant advantage was gained.
So hard had the fighting been that either side retired seeking no further contest that year. Yet diplomatic developments were to provide a new twist.
If it is suspected that King Pyrrhus’ aim was always to seek to dominate Sicily then the appeal for help by the city Syracuse must have been a dream come true. At last he was provided with an excuse to campaign in Sicily.
The city of Syracuse was blockaded by Carthage so it was in need of urgent help. Many Greek cities upon the island had fallen to the Carthaginians in recent years.
Carthage itself approached Rome, offering financial and naval aid. No doubt it was the hope of the Carthaginians that Rome might keep the adventurer from Epirus busy in Italy, leaving them free to conquer all of Sicily.
If at first this was rejected, Rome did eventually agree to such an alliance, recognizing that whatever Pyrrhus’ plans, he was their joint enemy.
Had Carthage hoped to keep the Greek general lodged in Italy, her plan failed. Leaving a garrison behind to secure Tarentum, he sailed for Sicily in 278 BC.
With Pyrrhus gone, Rome found the hill tribes of southern Italy easy prey. The Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians were swept off the field and their lands ravaged.
For three years Pyrrhus fought in Sicily, at first with great success, yet finally reaching a stalemate at the impregnable Carthaginian fortress of Lilybaeum.
Final victory in Sicily eluding him he abandoned this venture and returned to Italy, responding to the desperate calls for his return by the hill tribes and the Greek cities (276 BC).
The decisive battle was fought at Beneventum in 275 BC. Pyrrhus sought to achieve a surprise attack on the army of Curius Dentatus but was repelled, not least as the Romans had learned how to deal with his phalanx and elephants.
With the second consular army under Cornelius closing to join Dentatus, Pyrrhus had to give way and retreat. Following his Sicilian adventure he no longer commanded the manpower that could match two Roman consular armies in the field. King Pyrrhus was severely defeated.
Recognizing that the tide had turned against him, Pyrrhus returned home to Epirus. His parting words were memorable “What a battlefield I am leaving for Carthage and Rome!”
The tale goes that Pyrrhus later died during an assault on Argos, where an old woman seeing him fighting her son sword to sword in the street below supposedly threw a roof tile on his head. Although other sources read that he was assassinated by a servant.
The victory over Pyrrhus was a significant one as it was the defeat of an experienced Greek army which fought in the tradition of Alexander the Great and was commanded by the most able commander of the time.
Rome dominant power of Italy
After her defeat of Pyrrhus Rome was recognized as a major power in the Mediterranean. Nothing makes this clearer than the opening of a permanent embassy of amity by the Macedonian king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, in Rome in 273 BC.
In 272 BC, the very year of Pyrrhus’ death, the powerful Greek city of Tarentum in the south of Italy fell to Rome. Phyrrus’ general Milo, realizing the situation untenable once his master was dead, simply negotiated his withdrawal and surrendered the city to the Romans
With no major force to oppose them the Romans ruthlessly cleared any last resistance to their supremacy from southern Italy. They stormed the town of Rhegium which was held by Mamertine rebels (271-270 BC), forced the Bruttian tribes to surrender, crushed the last remnants of Samnite resistance and brought Picenum under Roman rule.
Finally, in 267 BC a campaign against the tribe of the Sallentines in the very heel of Italy handed Rome the important harbour of Brundisium brought her conquest of southern Italy to an end.
In gaining control of the south Rome possessed valuable forest-country of the tribes and wealthy Greek cities which undertook to supply Rome with ships and crews in future. If Rome now controlled the Italian peninsula, essentially there was three different categories of territory within her realm.
The first was the ager romanus (‘Roman land’). The inhabitants of these old, settled areas held full Roman citizenship.
The second were new Latin colonies (or in some cases Roman colonies), which were founded to help secure strategically important areas and which dominated the outlying land around them. A additional benefit to the foundation of these colonial territories was that they provided an outlet for the demand for land by the Latin peasantry.
It appears that the colonist forfeited some of their privileges as full Roman citizens in exchange for land in these colonies. The colony therefore seemed to have held an intermediary status between the ager romanus and the allied Italian territories.
The third type of territory was made up of the civitates sociae (allied territories). Theirs covered the majority of the Italian mainland.
The status of these communities was that they remained fairly independent of Rome. Rome didn’t interfere in their local government and demanded no taxes of her allies.
In fact so free from direct Roman domination were the allies that they could accept citizens exiled from Rome. (Therefore some citizens forced into exile, could simply settle in towns as near to Rome as Tibur and Praeneste.)
But the allies had to submit to Roman foreign policy (They could not entertain any diplomatic relations with any foreign powers.) and they had to provide military service.
The details of the arrangement with the Italian allies varied from the town to town, as Rome made individual agreements with each one of them separately.
(So if allies generally did not have to pay taxes, this was not universal. For example: as punishment for her collusion with Phyrrus the city of Tarentum was required to pay an annual tribute.)
Be it as an ally, a colony or as a territory under direct rule, in effect all Italy now, from the Straits of Messina to the Apennine frontier with the Gauls, recognized the supremacy of one singular power, – Rome.
The conquest of Italy provided political stability and the opportunities for trade such stability invariably brings. Yet the brutal warfare which had been necessary for this to be achieved had laid waste large tracts of land. Areas which had once supported large populations now merely hosted a few herdsmen who tended the flocks of their wealthy masters.
More so, with Rome’s acquisition of the mountain forests, she soon began the irresponsible logging of these important woodlands. This in turn led to floods in many low lying areas, rendering rich agricultural lands useless.
Already at this early stage the decline of the Italian countryside began.
At this stage in history things might have rested for some while in Italy, if it had not been for the legacy of Agathocles of Syracuse. During his reign Agathocles had made great use of free companies of tribal highland mercenaries from the mainland in his various military schemes.
At Agathocles’ death, the town of Messana at the northeastern tip of Sicily had fallen into the hands of one of these free companies (ca. 288 BC) – who called themselves the Mamertini (‘sons of Mars’) – and made themselves a nuisance to their neighbors on both coasts, and to all who used the Strait of Messina, where they operated as pirates.
The Mamertini had recently been allied to the rebel force of their Campanian countrymen, who had mutinied, seized Reghium, and held it against the Romans for a decade.
Rhegium had finally been stormed by the Romans in 270 BC with the aid of the commander of the Syracusan forces, who bore the name Hieron (or Hiero as the Romans called him), who immediately after seized the throne of Syracuse for himself (270-216 BC).
By 264 BC Hiero deemed it time to make an end of the Mamertine pirates. Given their conduct, no one was likely to be aggrieved. But to seize this strategic town would mean to change the balance of power for the Sicily and the Straits of Messana.
If Hiero’s motives were entirely understandable, his decision bore consequences far beyond anything he possibly could have intended. Hiero placed Messana under siege. In the face of so powerful an enemy, the Mamertines stood little chance on their own.
Yet, not being Greeks, they had little qualms about asking Carthage for help against their besieger. The Carthaginians obliged by dispatching a flotilla which in turn soon persuaded Hiero to call off his siege.
Meanwhile, the Mamertines now sought a mans by which to rid themselves of their Carthaginian guests. They were of Italian origin and Rome now stood as the champion of all Italians. Invariably it was to Rome that they sent for help.
Rome unwittingly found herself at the cross-roads of destiny. For the first time her gaze was drawn beyond the immediate confines of the Italian peninsula.
Was the city of Messana any of her concern? What possible obligation was there to protect a bunch of renegade mercenaries? Yet to allow Carthage to seize the town might damage the mercantile interests of the wealthy Greek cities Rome had recently acquired. Clearly the port was of strategic importance. Could it be left to Carthage? Would not a successful military expedition into Sicily promise glory for the commanders and plenty of booty for the soldiers?
Rome was utterly divided. The senate simply couldn’t make up its mind. Instead the matter was referred to the popular assembly, the comitia tributa.
The assembly was also unsure of what action to take. Had not Rome suffered a bitter war against King Pyrrhus? But it was the consuls who spoke to the gathered populace and swayed them towards action, with the prospect of booty for the troops.
Yet the assembly did not choose to declare a war. Instead it decided to send an expeditionary force to Messana which should try to restore the town to the Mamertines.
Diplomatically, the Romans worded their plans to be an action against Syracuse, as it was this city who had initially attacked. No mention at all was made of Carthage.
As things turned out, Rome scored a very easy victory. A relatively small detachment was sent to relieve Messana. When the Carthaginian commander learned of their approach he withdrew without a fight. Keeping up appearances, Rome remained officially at war with Syracuse.
This again could have been the end of it all. Rome had not harmed a single Carthaginian and had actually taken up arms against Carthage’s old rivals, the Greeks of Syracuse.
But Carthage was not going to suffer what it saw as a humiliation, executed the commander who had withdrawn from Messana without a fight and at once dispatched a force of her own to recover the town. Remarkably, Carthage managed to ally herself with Hiero against Rome.
Rome at once responded by sending an entire consular army to reinforce their small garrison. What had begun as a scuffle between three parties over a small town, now had become scale war between the great powers of the western Mediterranean.
In spite of how bizarrely this war appears to have begun, it is hard not to see some sort of Roman design in starting this conflict. Her conquest of Italy had brought her vast new manpower and wealth, but also shipwright and navigational skills.
Rome now possessed real power and was seeking to use it. Being now the protector of Greek trading bases such as Capua and Tarentum, Rome no doubt inherited the Hellenistic role of rival to Carthage.
Sicily represented the focal point of conflicting interests between Greek and Punic power in the Mediterranean. To the east of Sicily lay the realm of Greek domination, the west of it, that sphere of Carthage. Yet no treaties between the various sides had ever stipulated the spheres of influence upon this important island.
With Rome’s conquest of southern Italy, or Magna Graecia as it was known, she now invariably entered the contest of commercial interests on the side of the Greeks.
The First Punic War (264-241 BC)
The Punic Wars is the generally used term for the lengthy conflict between the two main centres of power in the western Mediterranean, Rome and Carthage. Carthage was originally a Phoenician colony. The Latin name for a Phoenician is ‘Poenus’ which leads to our English adjective ‘Punic’.
The period in which the three Punic Wars were set spans over a century. Once the wars were at an end, mighty Carthage which held sway, according to the Greek geographer Strabo, over 300 cities in Libya alone and 700’000 people within its own walls, was annihilated.
If the the first act of the war was the siege of Messana, by the joint forces of Carthage and Syracuse, the arrival of the Roman consular army under Appius Claudius made an end of it. (264 BC) At once it was clear that the two old enemies of Syracuse and Carthage were not capable of operating as effective allies.
The siege of Messana lifted, in 263 BC Manius Valerius led an army into the territory of Syracuse and laid siege to the city itself. The ill-judged attack on a city so marvelously as Syracuse fortified led to an inevitable failure.
Yet Valerius more than made up for this with a diplomatic success. After negotiations, Hiero switched sides and joined with the Romans in opposing Carthage.
Evidently Hiero saw the writing on the wall. The days of Syracusan power were numbered. The sheer scale of the armies committed by Rome and Carthage must have made that abundantly clear to him. Syracuse could simply no longer compete.
Sicily would henceforth be dominated by either Carthage or Rome. Faced with that choice it was little wonder Hiero chose the Romans rather than Greece’s ancient Phoenician enemy.
In the deal Hiero ceded to Rome the town of Messana and the greater part of his Sicilian domain. He also promised payment of one hundred talents annually for fifteen years. In return Rome confirmed him as King of Syracuse. (263 BC)
Rome’s foray into Sicily, despite its initial setback at the siege of Syracuse, began well. Driving the Carthaginians from Messana and establishing an alliance with Hiero, mean that Carthage enjoyed no access to the straits.
If anything, this means that Rome’s primary war aim was achieved within a single year.
The war however was far from over.
Carthage responded to Roman successes by landing an army of no less than 50,000 men in Sicily under the command of a general called Hannibal (it was a fairly common Punic name), establishing its headquarters at the fortress of Acragas (later called Agrigentum), the second city after Syracuse on the island of Sicily.
The Roman army under the command of the consuls Lucius Postumius and Quintus Mamiluius, reinforced by Syracusan forces, marched across the island and placed Acragas under siege (262 BC). The campaign proved very hard.
Not least for the arrival of powerful Carthaginian reinforcements under a commander called Hanno. Rome managed to defeat Hanno’s forces in battle, nonetheless they couldn’t prevent Hannibal’s forces from extricating themselves from the siege and withdrawing.
Even though their victory had failed to result in the destruction of the enemy’s army, Rome had triumphed, taking and sacking the city of Acragas, renaming it Agrigentum.
The taking of Agrigentum marked a vital step in the war. Were the Roman war aims unclear, now they had established that they could overcome Carthaginian arms, no matter what the scale of Punic resistance. It seems clear that it was at this point in time that Rome undertook to conquer all of Sicily.
The Carthaginians in turn were forced to realize that, whatever their supremacy might have been at sea, on land they were no match to the Roman legions. For the remainder of the war they would not seek to enter into any pitched battles with Roman forces anymore.
Meanwhile Carthaginian supremacy at sea remained untouchable. Carthage had some 120 quinqueremes, whereas Rome possessed at best a few cruisers furnished by her Greek ports in southern Italy.
But initial Roman confidence after the clash at Agrigentum would prove ill-founded. 261 BC proved a year of indecisive campaigns which led to no tangible advances.
However, in 260 BC Rome was ready to challenge the Carthaginian domination of the sea. She was completing the construction of a battle fleet of 140 ships of war, which was to set out to do battle with the famous Punic navy.
Roman shipwrights had learnt much regarding the construction of a quinquereme (something of which previously they knew nothing at all) from a Carthaginian vessel which had been captured early in the war.
The command of the Roman forces was now split between Consul Gaius Duilius, who commanded the forces on land and his consular colleague Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio who commanded the fleet.
Scipio set out to Sicily with the first 17 vessels to be completed to organize for the arrival of the whole fleet, once it was completed.
However, Scipio got distracted by the promise of a quick, easy victory and managed to get himself captured in a foolish escapade over the island of Lipara, where he steered his flotilla of 17 vessels right into a Carthaginian trap. It earned him the eternal sobriquet ‘Asina’ (the ass) after his name. Meanwhile Scipio’s capture left command of all of Rome’s forces to Gaius Duilius.
The first ever proper Roman naval engagement happened at an unspecified stretch of the Italian coast, when the completed Roman battle fleet sailed toward Sicily to meet its commander-in-waiting, Duilius.
The very same Carthaginian commander, again a man called Hannibal, who had earlier captured Scipio Asina now commanded a flotilla of 50 ships to investigate the new Roman fleet. Somehow he was foolish enough to get drawn into a fight with the much larger force, whereby he lost most of his ships. Nonetheless he managed to slip away with the remainder of his force.
The Battle of Mylae
Soon after being united with its new commander at Messana, the Roman fleet set out to challenge the main Carthaginian war fleet in the area, which was based at Panormus, along the north coast of Sicily. The Punic fleet some 140 or 150 vessels strong, expecting an easy victory, accepted the challenge and put out to sea to meet in battle.
Carthaginian confidence was justified. Carthage had a great naval tradition, whereas Rome had virtually no experience at sea at all. The two great fleets met off the coast of Mylae. (260 BC)
Duilius achieved a complete victory. (260 BC)
The Carthaginians suffered the loss of 50 ships before they fled.
Much is made of the Roman invention of the corvus, a barbed drawbridge attached to the ships mainmast, which can be let fall into the enemy’s deck and so acts as a walk way across for the Romans to deploy their superior soldiers.
The invention of the corvus is traditionally credited to Gaius Duilius, the new commander of the fleet.
Ancient naval warfare relied heavily on the use of ramming. One can but speculate if the superior skill and maneouvrability of the Carthaginian fleet allowed them to ram their foes successfully, yet the deployment of the corvus did not allow them to withdraw, holding the ships locked in place.
The victorious Romans would then abandon their sinking vessel for the intact Carthaginian warship. That said, it is all speculation. Nothing is really known about the nature of this first Roman victory at sea other than that the corvus played a part.
Gaius Duilius was awarded a triumph through the streets of Rome for this victory over the Carthaginian fleet. A commemorative column was erected in the Roman forum celebrating his great victory at Mylae.
The Roman victory at Mylae was not followed up by any significant advances. Achieving a satisfactory end to the war seemed elusive. Instead Rome wasted much of the advantage gained at Mylae in naval operations in Corsica and Sardinia (BC 259), which proved of no lasting benefit.
Meanwhile the Roman army on land gradually edged Carthaginian forces out of the centre of the isle of Sicily in hard, increasingly bitter fighting.
Carthage remained unchallenged in her three main strongholds on the island: Panormus (Palermo), Drepanum (Trapani) and Lilybaeum (Marsala)
The war dragged on and on without either side making any significant inroads. Hamilcar was leading an effective defensive campaign against superior Roman forces.
The Battle of Ecnomus
Rome now looked to history for an example of how to deal with their hardy opponent. Some fifty years earlier the powerful Syracusan King Agathocles had broken through the crushing naval blockade of his city and landed troops in Africa, causing havoc in the Punic heartland and all but conquering Carthage itself.
Now Rome sought to emulate Agathocles’ achievement. A fleet of 330 ships under the command of the consuls Manlius Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso anchored off Ecnomus along the southern coast of Sicily.
The Roman army of 40,000 men embarked and prepared to do battle with the Carthaginian fleet commanded by Hamilcar, which approached from the direction of Lilybaeum. Carthage, aware of Roman intentions to land in Africa, desperately sought to engage its enemy at sea to prevent an invasion.
The Battle of Ecnomus (256 BC) was the greatest sea battle in history at the time. Many of the Roman war ships were encumbered by having transport ships in tow. Yet it seems that the Carthaginian captains in turn were greatly worried by the use of the corvus.
Had the Carthaginians the superior naval skills and greater maneouvrability in their superior vessels, it appeared the sheer number and the quality of Roman soldiers among the Roman fleet which made any Carthaginian victory impossible. In the end, Rome had lost 24 ships. Yet the Roman fleet had sunk 30 Carthaginian warships and captured 64 complete with their crews.
With the Punic fleet driven off at Ecnomus the way was now clear for a crossing of the Mediterranean and the invasion of Africa.
Regulus campaign in Africa
The Roman army landed at Clupea (Kelibia). The fleet then returned home under the command of consul Manlius, whilst Regulus stayed behind leading a force of 15,000 men.
Regulus’ army advanced with ease and laid siege to the town of Adys. A Carthaginian army, hastily flung together and placed under the joint command of Hamilcar and a general called Hasdrubal hastened to relieve the town.
Regulus enjoyed a total victory over his Carthaginian foes, not least because the terrain upon which the battle was fought did not favour the cavalry and the elephants of the Punic army. Knowing of the Roman prowess on the battle field, the Carthaginians sought to avoid meeting them in open terrain.
The Carthaginian opposition crushed at Adys, the Roman army could now Rome the countryside at will, destroying and plundering as it went.
To make matters worse for Carthage, many native peoples now rebelled, seeing a chance to free themselves from their Punic rulers.
Regulus now lodged himself one day’s march away from Carthage. The city of Carthage was filled to bursting with fugitives. A famine threatened. Much of the countryside was in open revolt.
Rome finally gained what it sought to achieve. Carthage offered to negotiate. But at this very critical moment, Regulus was simply the wrong man for the job. His demands upon them were so exorbitant, that the Carthaginians thought it wiser to go on fighting, whatever the cost.
Shortly after the negotiations with Regulus had broken down a contingent of Greek mercenaries arrived led by a Spartan called Xanthippus.
Xanthippus was an outstanding soldier, who had already made a name for himself in the defence of Sparta against King Pyrrhus.
He quickly rose to be granted overall command of the Carthaginian forces and oversaw the training of the troops according to Spartan traditions. Morale soared. Xanthippus and his Greek lieutenants quickly established that the main error the Carthaginians were making was to avoid meeting in open terrain, where their chief weapons of war elephants and cavalry could be brought to bear.
He eventually marched his newly trained rag tag army of raw levies and mercenaries out into the open plain of Bagradas (Medjerda) where he offered battle.
The Carthaginian army consisted of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 elephants. Regulus, keen to crush this last Punic resistance, was no doubt confident that his superior infantry could destroy the Carthaginians in open battle. Roman reinforcements were already on their way to Africa in the returning Roman fleet. Regulus must have been aware of this, but chose not to wait.
As battle commenced the elephants charged and caused havoc among the Roman infantry. Enough to allow for the militia and ramshackle mercenaries to hold their own against the legions. Meanwhile, the superior Punic cavalry drove off the Roman horsemen.
When the cavalry returned, the Roman legions charged from behind, by cavalry, crushed by stampeding elephants and forced back by the Carthaginian phalanx, was cut to pieces. Five hundred were captured, including consul Regulus.
Of the Roman army, once 15,000 strong, only 2,000 managed to escape. All others perished at Bagradas. (255 BC) The survivors were picked up, besieged at Clupea, by the Roman fleet. So ended the Roman African expedition in the First Punic War.
Yet disaster followed disaster. On its way back, the Roman fleet under the command of Marcus Aemilius Paullus, against the advice of local pilots, stayed in too close to the southern coast of Sicily. It was caught in a sudden storm off Camarina and smashed to pieces against the rocky shore. 250 ships were lost, only eighty vessels survived. (255 BC)
By the end of 255 BC Rome seemed no closer to bringing the war to a conclusion than she had been after her victory at Mylae. This said, the gradual territorial gain across Sicily was ever more tipping the balance in Rome’s favor.
Having lost their fleet at the return from Africa, the Romans now set about building yet another. Rome was now fully ceased of the idea, that to defeat Carthage she needed a powerful navy. Now though the tactic changed. The navy was to operate in support of the armies on Sicily.
The first success came in 254 BC when the Punic stronghold of Panormus fell to a joint assault from land and sea. It was no lesser than Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina who held command of the attack on Panormus. The very man who’d been easily trapped by the Carthaginians, captured and later set free in a prisoner exchange, had recovered his position, been re-elected consul and now achieved a great military victory. It certainly was a comeback. He never though rid himself of the cognomen Asina (the ass).
The Legend of Regulus
The loss of Panormus caused dismay in Carthage. The Carthaginians sought to negotiate. Rome too was weary of war. The legend goes that among the Carthaginian ambassadors was Regulus. Carthage assumed that he, as a fellow Roman could help sway his countrymen toward peace. He had been forced to swear a solemn oath to return to captivity Carthage if the peace mission failed.
Regulus however successfully harangued the Roman senators to continue the fight against her enemy at all cost. Thereafter, true to his oath, he returned to Carthage where he was cruelly tortured to death. So goes the patriotic legend.
The story may however be a fabrication to excuse the vicious torture two Punic noblemen underwent in captivity of Regulus’ family, especially by the hands of his wife.
So vicious was the torture said to have been that it caused a public scandal, which was only ended when Roman magistrates finally intervened and put a stop to it.
This barbarity was generally explained as a reaction by his family to the cruel death of Regulus, but it may have been the underlying cause for the creation of a legend to justify a particularly savage Roman episode.
The war dragged on with neither side managing to achieve any significant advance.
For several years, the two warring parties remained at stalemate, unable to land a decisive blow. Though evidently Rome continued to inch Carthage out of territory as time went on, albeit against fierce opposition.
However, if Rome at times set out on naval raiding expeditions, it more often than not resulted in further loss of ships by storm, rather than enemy action. Evidently, Romans still were no sailors.
In 250 BC the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal sought to achieve a breakthrough, marched his army out of Lilybaeum and launching an attack on Panormus.
In the battle that ensued, the Romans achieved complete victory over the Carthaginian elephant corps, putting to rest the great fear of elephants they felt ever since the disastrous defeat at of Regulus at Bagradas.
In all 120 elephants were captured and the Carthaginian army was driven off in full flight.
Romans dominance on land now lay beyond doubt. On the island of Sicily she dominated all territory, but for the Punic strongholds of Drepanum and Lilybaeum.
Buoyed by their victory at Panormus, the Romans laid siege of Lilybaeum in the following year (249 BC). It was their first attempt of note at scientific siege craft and King Hiero’s Syracusan military engineers no doubt will have played a major part in it.
The Romans spared at nothing. The besieging Roman force outnumbered the Punic defenders by ten to one. Both Roman consuls were present, commanding the blockade and battery of the Punic fortress, the defence of which was organized by the Carthaginian general Himilco.
Achieving little progress against Lilybaeum, whilst suffering many setbacks and great loss of men, the Romans grew frustrated. One sortie by the Carthaginians under Himilco even saw all the Roman siege engines set alight.
Food shortages for the besiegers could only be overcome by Hiero of Syracuse sending grain.
Heavy Roman losses at sea
The siege of Lilybaeum (or at least that conducted by the navy) was commanded by Publius Appius Claudius Pulcher. Seeing a new Carthaginian naval contingent gathering at the port of Drepanum, Pulcher decided to act, before this fleet would come to challenge the Roman sea blockade of Lilybaeum.
The sea battle of Drepanum is also well remembered also for the anecdote regarding the sacred chickens. Prior to any great battle Romans would seek to take the omens and establish if the gods favoured their enterprise. For this they carried on the flagship a small group of hens in cages. If they ate heartily of the crumbs of sacred cake they were offered it was understood that the omens were good. If, however, they refused to eat, the omens were deemed bad.
Prior to the Battle of Drepanum the consul was informed that the chickens were not eating and that therefore the omens were bad. Unwilling to heed the advice of his augurs, Pulcher seized the cage holding the chickens and threw it over board, announcing “If they will not eat, they shall drink!”
As it proved the chickens were right all along.
Pulcher’s attack on the port of Drepanum was an utter disaster, brought about to no small extent by his incompetence as a naval commander.
He had not fitted his ships with the corvus which had served the Roman fleet so well in previous encounters and during the attack he chose to command from his flagship at the very rear of the Roman fleet.
Only 30 ships escaped, with 93 Roman vessels captured by the Carthaginians. (249 BC)
Only days after this defeat, another great Roman fleet, commanded by consul Iunius Pullus and bringing supplies and reinforcements for the siege at Lilybaeum, found itself manoeuvred towards the coast by an opposing Carthaginian fleet prior to the arrival of a tempest. Knowing the damage done, the Carthaginians withdrew, leaving the fleet to be dashed to pieces by the storm. Not a single ship is said to have remained. (249 BC)
However, Iunius Pullus, gathered the survivors of this disaster, reformed them into some sort of army, and marched and succeeding in taking the mountain stronghold of Mount Eryx (Erice), with its famous temple to Aphrodite.
Rome now was exhausted. The war had lasted for 15 years. The manpower lost at sea was staggering. For all her efforts there remained almost nothing of her navy. Drepanum and Lilybaeum remained under siege, though little result was produced, as both Carthaginian strongholds continued to be supplied by sea.
Once more the two weary opponents opened negotiations. Yet they come to nothing.
With Rome’s power depleted for the moment, the initiative fell to Carthage.
In 247 BC Hamilcar Barca was granted overall command of the operations in Sicily.
He led several daring raids on the coast of Italy, took the stronghold at Mount Hercte (near Panormus, today Monte Pellegrino) from which he led guerilla-style operations against the Romans and, after three years of further fighting, Hamilcar reconquered Mount Eryx. Yet for all his ability, Hamilcar never had enough troops under his command to do anything more than to harass and stifle Roman efforts.
Battle of the Aegates Islands
In turn Rome recovered. With forced loans upon members of the senate, Rome raised yet another fleet of 200 galleys, which was sent forth to enforce a complete blockade on Lilybaeum, where the siege continued unabated and Drepanum, which now was also besieged.
It was indeed one last desperate throw of the dice by Rome, seeking to bring a near-endless struggle to a conclusion.
The Carthaginians had meanwhile led their fleet fall into disrepair and had laid up many of their ships. Most likely they too were now at the brink of financial exhaustion and could simply no longer maintain a fleet of such proportions.
Also prior to this sudden decision to take to yet sea again, Rome had seemed thoroughly dispirited by her losses at any idea of fitting out another fleet. Carthaginian supremacy at sea had seemed assured.
Hearing of the Roman efforts the Carthaginians scratched together what fleet they could, hastily crewed the ships with raw recruits and sent this desperate relief force to the aid of their Sicilian strongholds.
Consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus heard of their coming and sought them out before they could reach the safety of the harbour of Drepanum. Is chief fear seems to have been that the Carthaginian reinforcements could unite with Hamilcar Barca and cause untold carnage in the hands of such an able commander.
The two fleets met at the Aegates Islands (Egadi) in summer of 241 BC.
Both sides were fighting were hampered by various disadvantages. Rome’s commander Catulus was still severely injured from a wound to the thigh he’d received when preparing the siege at Drepanum. At the meeting of the fleets Rome had to advance toward the enemy into a gale in rough seas.
Meanwhile, the Punic ships were burdened down with cargo for the besieged forces on Sicily. The fleet’s commander had hoped in vain to reach landfall to unload the vessels prior to meeting the Roman fleet.
Yet Rome’s secret advantage lay in the fact that their new ships were all built to a model of a particularly fast, captured Carthaginian vessel which had repeatedly managed to run the blockade at Lilybaeum. Compare this with the rather ramshackle nature of the hastily assembled Punic relief force.
When the ships met the outcome became clear almost instantaneously. Rome’s better trained and equipped fighting men, combined with her superior vessels left Hanno no chance of success.
50 Carthaginian ships were sunk. 70 were captured with their crews. Rome took 10,000 prisoners that day. Meanwhile, the Roman fleet suffered the loss of 30 ships and saw a further 50 badly damaged.
Hamilcar Barca now was cut off from any possible Carthaginian reinforcements or supplies. The cities of Lilybaeum or Drepanum were under siege without any hope of aid. The Carthaginian situation was hopeless.
Hamilcar Barca, though willing to fight on, was instructed to seek to come to terms with Rome. Catulus led the negotiations for Rome. Unlike Regulus years earlier, he was not going to let the opportunity go by to bring this war to a close.
The First Punic War was finally at an end. (241 BC)
Settlement of the War
The First Punic War was an epic contest in which either side readily put armies of 50,000 men into the field and sent fleets of 70,000 into battle.
Yet so too were both parties taken to the brink of their financial capacity by these exertions. In fact, Carthage sought very much to draw out the war into a battle of exhaustion, whereas Rome tried to force the issue.
In the end Rome achieved victory, as she could rely on her near limitless resources in manpower, whereas Carthage largely conducted the war by use of mercenaries. The sheer incompetence of Rome’s efforts at sea, saw her lose over 600 ships; a figure larger than that suffered by the war’s losers.
The losses Rome has suffered were terrible. The Roman terms for peace were severe.
Carthage was to evacuate Sicily and the Liparean Islands, hand over all prisoners and deserters and to pay a vast compensation of 3200 talents over ten years.
She was also to promise not to make war with Syracuse or any of her allies.
Hiero’s territory of Syracuse was enlarged and his independent status as an ally of Rome was guaranteed.
Messana and a handful of other cities received the status of allies. The rest of Sicily however fell to Rome as conquered territory. It was to be overseen by a Roman governor and to be taxed on all imports, exports and produce. (241 BC)
Roman Annexation of Sardinia and Corsica
The peace settlement of 241 BC had left the islands of Corsica and Sardinia within the sphere of Carthage. However, in 240 BC Carthage suffered a major revolt of its mercenaries.
Part of this revolt saw the garrison of Sardinia rebel against its Punic masters. (Only Sardinia was really occupied. Corsica was seen as a minor, dependent neighbour.) Rome at first resisted any appeals for help by the mercenary renegades, staying true to her obligations under the peace treaty.
The situation remained unchanged for some time, with the garrison getting itself into increasing trouble with the native tribes (possibly even being driven out).
The status of the islands remained in limbo, for as long as Carthage struggled for her survival, desperately seeking to reestablish control over her African territories.
At last Hamilcar Barca reestablished order. No doubt Rome despaired at seeing the power of a resurgent Carthage fall to the very man who hated her most.
238 BC then brought news that Hamilcar was about to set sail for Sardinia. The sheer power of his name most likely provoked panic in Rome. The senate chose to declare this action a breach of the treaty and immediately dispatched a force to occupy Sardinia. When Carthage protested, Rome declared war.
Of course Carthage was in no position to fight. She’d lost the First Punic War and had spent the past three years fighting off rebellion. She could do little but accept defeat and cede control of Sardinia and Corsica to the Romans. Technically, being at war again, Rome could stipulate new conditions. Not merely was she demanding control of the islands but a further 1700 talents in compensation.
Understandable as the fright might have been that the sheer thought of the deadly Hamilcar at sea might have caused in Rome, it is self-evident that this episode must have given rise to bad blood in Carthage.
Not merely had Rome helped herself to Carthaginian territory without due cause, but she had then also extorted a further vast some of money in reparations.
It is little wonder that there was thirst for revenge in Carthage thereafter.
Sardinia was mainly of strategic importance. It’s grain harvest no doubt proved useful, but else the island was of little value to Rome. Corsica meanwhile was merely a derelict territory with some timber and limited mineral wealth.
In 231 BC the two islands were formally made a province of Rome, following the example of Sicily.
First Illyrian War
The trade routes of the Adriatic Sea had, prior to Roman dominance in Italy, been subject to the Tarentine fleet.
But with the loss of independence of Tarentum, responsibility for securing the sea ways of the Adriatic now fell to Rome. The coast of Illyria was rife with pirates under the rule of King Agron, who had just died from the excesses of celebrating yet another successful raid. The rule over the pirates had now fallen to his widow Teuta.
Under Agron the Illyrians had enjoyed an alliance with Macedon and had shown care to just whose ships they attacked. Their activities had hitherto concentrated on the southern waters of Epirus and the coast of western Greece.
However, under Teuta they now attacked any vessel at sea.
Rome sent emissaries were sent to Queen Teuta, urging her to cease any attacks on Roman shipping. But the queen haughtily rejected any such attempts at diplomacy. Worse still, she arranged for the assassination of Coruncianus, the chief Roman envoy, escalated her people’s piracy to unprecedented levels and began raiding the eastern coast of Italy. (230 BC)
After an unsuccessful raid on Epidamnus (later Dyrrachium, today Durres, Albania) the Illyrians even conquered Corcyra (Corfu) and installed a garrison commanded by a Greek adventurer called Demetrius of Pharos.
It is hard to see how Teuta, having seen Rome’s power demonstrated in the defeat of Carthage, ever hoped to avoid any consequences to these actions. Perhaps the belief was that the alliance with Macedon would deter the Romans from any action against Illyria.
Rome however showed no such scruples. In 229 BC both consuls were dispatched, leading an army of 20,000 men and the entire Roman war fleet of 200 quinqueremes to deal with the Illyrian menace.
The Illyrians stood no chance. Their ramshackle fleet was swept from the sea and the Roman army drove into the interior, subjugating town after town.
The cities of Epidamnus and Apollonia, glad to see an end to the pirate menace, opened their gates to the Romans. Demetrius, having fallen out with Teuta, surrendered Corcyra to Rome.
By early 228 BC Teuta, besieged in her last remaining stronghold, made piece with Rome, agreeing to give up most of her territory, disband the remainder of her fleet and pay tribute. Rome now established a protectorate over various Greek towns along the eastern Adriatic, declaring them amici (friends): Corcyra, Apollonia, Epidamnus/Dyrrachium and Issa.
These towns were left completely free and independent, but enjoyed a guarantee of Roman protection. Only one condition was placed upon them; that they showed Rome ‘gratitude’. In essence Rome created a moral compact between herself and these towns, whereby she acted as a protective patron and they acted as her clients.
Thus the Roman ‘client state’ was born.
The Last Gallic Invasion
The boundary between the territories dominated by Rome and the Gauls was effectively marked by the rivers Arno and Rubicon.
The Gallic tribes remained quiet throughout the lengthy period of the First Punic War. No doubt the memories of the heavy defeats the Gauls had suffered in the past still remained, counseling them against any further action against Rome.
But more so, the lengthy Punic war and Carthage’s heavy reliance on mercenaries and granted them plentiful opportunity to make a living out of warfare under a foreign banner.
In 225 BC a great coalition of Gallic tribes, consisting of 50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, broke across the border into Etruria. Previously this would have been cause for panic in Rome.
Yet now things had changed. The Gauls faced the combined might of all of Italy. More so, Rome had her hands free, not being called to contest any other conflict.
It was in fact one of those very rare times when the doors to the Temple of Janus were closed. Something only permitted in times of complete peace.
Challenged by the Gauls, Rome now easily mobilized a force of 130,000 men. In fact Rome possessed several times that number of men of fighting age.
Roman records of the day suggested the total manpower among Romans and Italian allies to be a possible seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry!
That is not to say that Rome responded without a lapse into panic, superstition and viciousness, despite her obvious supremacy. A rumour of a dire portent made the rounds in the city which predicted that Gauls and Greeks would set up their abode in the Forum.
Read More: Omens and Superstitions in Ancient Rome
In a cruel turn the Romans took to satisfying the prophecy by burying alive two Greeks and two Gauls, a man and a woman in both cases, in the cattle market. Therefore the will of the gods was to be met whereby Greeks and Gauls had an abode in the Forum, albeit a subterranean one.
Meanwhile in the field two converging armies, under the overall command of consul Lucius Aemilius Papus, sought to force the Gallic invaders towards the coast. At Clusium the Romans suffered an ambush where they lost 6,000 men. Yet so vast were their resources that they could advance against the enemy virtually undaunted.
Meanwhile a third Roman force, commanded by consul Gaius Atilius Regularis, recalled from Sardinia, landed near Pisae.
The Gallic army now found its retreat cut off. They were trapped.
Close to the coastal town of Telamon the Gauls made their last stand. (225 BC)
Caught between two consular Roman armies simultaneously the Gallic invaders were crushed. It proved an epic struggle.
Roman losses are not known but the sheer scale of the contests suggests they will have lost a large number of men. Not least, as they suffered the death of consul Gaius Atilius Regularis early on in the fight.
In the chaos of battle, the bulk of the Gallic cavalry managed to extricate itself and flee. But the infantry was cut to pieces. 40,000 Gauls died. 10,000 were taken prisoner. One Gallic king was captured and another committed suicide rather than be taken.
The last Gallic invasion was at an end.
Rome, however, with such vast numbers of men under arms, was not to let the matter rest there. It was resolved that the troublesome Gauls of the Po valley, most of all the Boii and Insubres who had been chiefly responsible for the invasion, were to be brought to heel. The Romans achieved this in three successive campaigns.
In 224 BC they subdued Cispadane Gaul, the Gallic territory south of the Po (then, Padus). This saw the Boii subjugated. Next in 223 BC Gaius Flaminius and his consular colleague Furius crossed the river and defeated the Insubres in battle.
By 222 BC the Gauls sued for peace, but Rome was not yet willing to listen.
The consuls Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Gnaeus Cornelius drove onward into Gallic territory, until Cornelius succeeded in conquering the Insubres capital of Mediolanum (Milan). The Insubres surrendered and were granted peace.
It is noteworthy that during this campaign, consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus gained the spolia opima, a nigh on legendary award, granted to a Roman leader who slew an enemy king in battle by his own hand. Marcellus was the last of three reported occurrences of such an outrageous achievement in Roman history (the first: King Romulus who killed King Acron in 750 BC, the second: Cornelius Cossus who killed Lars Tolumnius in 437 BC).
By 220 BC almost all the Gallic tribes had submitted to Roman rule.
The same year saw the foundation of Roman colonies at Placentia and Cremona in order to further cement Rome’s hold over the newly won territory.
Also in 220 BC Gaius Flaminius, no censor, saw to the building of the Via Flaminia. The famous road ran north from Rome as far as Ariminium (Rimini). Around the same time the Via Aurelia extended from Rome along the Etruscan coast to Pisae. Thereafter, Rome’s rule over this conquered territory was beyond doubt.
Small conflicts, little of which is known, brought Rome control over the territories of Liguria and Istria, thus completing the conquest of the north, but for the Alps.
The conquest of some of Liguria brought also the establishment of an important naval base at Genua (Genoa), which further consolidated Roman hold over the area.
Second Illyrian War
The Second Illyrian War was the briefest of contests between the most unequal of foes. Clearly it barely deserves the term ‘war’ to describe it.
Yet it deserves a mention, not merely for its imposing name, but as it acted as a distraction to Rome while crisis loomed in Spain between Rome and Carthage.
The First Illyrian War had seen the Greek adventurer Demetrius of Pharos surrender the island of Corcyra (Corfu) to the Romans. In turn, he was rewarded with being confirmed the ruler of Corcyra and being granted the status of amicus (friend) of Rome.
But now he broke the peace with Rome by returning to his old pirateering ways. Worse still, he began to sack towns in Illyria which were subject to Roman rule.
Possibly Demetrius foresaw the crisis with Hannibal in Spain which was all but obvious by that time and thought he would go ignored whilst Rome dealt with Carthage and the menace of Hannibal Barca. In any case, he clearly miscalculated.
Rome, determined to make an example of these pirates, at once sent both consuls with a force to deal with the matter. (219 BC)
Within a week the fortress of Dimale (Krotine, Albania) had been captured. Next consul Lucius Aemilius set sail for Demetrius’ headquarters on the island of Pharos (Hvar, Croatia) which he took by the ruse of disembarking some of his troops at night and launching his assault the next day. While the defenders dealt with the apparent main attack.
The hidden troops who’d landed during the night took the fortress almost unnoticed. The Illyrian garrison took flight. Demetrius fled to the court of Philip of Macedon. So ended the Second Illyrian War, barely one week in length.
Carthaginian Expansion into Spain
While Rome had been dealing with piracy in Illyria, repelling Gallic invaders and extending her territory to the north, Carthage had not been idle.
Hamilcar Barca had led Punic forces into Spain (238 BC) and had established a thriving Carthaginian province there.
Carthage experienced startling success on the Iberian peninsula, playing one tribe against the other and quickly gaining control over a vast territory. At the death of Hamilcar his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Elder continued his work, founding the great city of Carthago Nova (Cartagena), which soon became a prosperous trading port.
This new Spanish province, which was run as the private domain of the Barca clan, provided not merely the wealth but so too the manpower for a new Carthaginian army. Carthage rose phoenix-like from the ashes of defeat in the First Punic War to pose yet again as the great rival to Roman ambitions.
It was due to a protest from the Greek city of Massilia (Marseilles) that Rome first sent envoys to Spain, seeking assurances that Carthage intended no aggression. (231 BC)
Hamilcar at the time successfully argued that, if Carthage was to pay the reparations to Rome, demanded of her in the terms of peace, she would have to be free to find new income, such as the rich mines of Spain.
In 226 BC Roman envoys were sent to meet Hasdrubal who agreed to limit Carthaginian expansion to the river Iberus (Ebro). Although Rome herself seems not to have been bound specifically to any details in this treaty, it does suggest itself that the river was to mark the boundary between the two spheres of influence.
However, in 223 BC the town of Saguntum, possibly of Greek origin, secured herself an alliance with Rome. The last remaining independent town south of the Iberus, it was perhaps not remarkable that Saguntum sought protection from the overwhelming new arrival on the peninsula.
However, it is hard to see why Rome had entered into an obligation with such an obscure town set within Punic territory.
Whichever way one views it, the alliance with Saguntum was a disaster waiting to happen.
Prelude to war
In 221 BC Hasdrubal the Elder was assassinated by a man whose chieftain he’d had executed. Hannibal Barca was 26 years old when he succeeded to supreme command in Spain.
Some among the Carthaginian aristocracy had sought to prevent him achieving this position as they saw him as a dire threat to peace. They had good reason to fear he would provoke war with Rome. Legend tells of his having been sworn to hatred of all Romans as a boy by his father Hamilcar. His hatred for Rome is beyond doubt.
It is very likely that Hannibal set out to plan war with Rome from the very moment he ascended to power.
Yet the cause for war is such one wonders if anything could have prevented a contest of arms, once Rome had allied herself with the town of Saguntum.
Small scale warfare arose between the town of Saguntum, no doubt emboldened by her alliance with Rome, against the neighbouring tribe of the Turboletae.
Overlordship over the Spanish tribes obliged Hannibal to intervene on behalf of the Turboletae. Meanwhile Rome was obliged by her alliance.
Saguntum applied to Rome for arbitration (probably 221 BC) who rather unsurprisingly favoured the Saguntine position. Rome intervened to enforce her judgment which led to some losses among the Turboletae. Blood had been spilt.
Hannibal knew well what weakness had cost Carthage in her dealings with Messana. Once again Rome was meddling in an area not within her sphere of influence.
He was now not going to flinch now in the face of adversity. Whatever Hannibal’s intentions were at the time, Saguntum felt threatened and appealed to Rome.
Rome sent envoys to Hannibal at his winter headquarters in Carthago Nova, but he insisted Rome had no authority in this matter. The Turboletae had been aggrieved and they were Carthage’s allies in an area of direct Carthaginian control.
Meanwhile the Roman envoys made it quite clear that an attack on Saguntum would be cause for war.
Rome next appealed to Carthage but little will existed in the Punic capital to oppose the Barcas after their staggering success in the conquest of Spain.
Seeing he enjoyed support in the capital and knowing that both Rome’s consuls and her entire fleet were currently tied up in fighting Illyrian pirates, Hannibal took action and in the spring of 219 BC laid siege to Saguntum.
Rome never came to the aid of her ally. Saguntum fell after a heroic struggle against impossible odds after an eight month siege.
This might have been the end of the matter. But Rome was now freed from her engagement in Illyria and reports on the sheer scale of Hannibal’s army suggested that his ambitions went well beyond the conquest of an obscure port on the Spanish coastline.
Rome’s emissaries to Carthage demanded the surrender of Hannibal.
The Carthaginians however sought to debate the issue of the treaty of 226 BC regarding the Iberus denoting the demarcation line between the two powers and how the Roman alliance with Saguntum stood in obvious conflict with this.
The chief envoy of the Roman delegation was Quintus Fabius Maximus. He was not here to split hairs over treaties.
Clutching his toga he addressed the Carthaginian senate (the ‘council of 104’), ‘I have two folds in my toga. Which shall I let drop? That holding peace, or that holding war?’ The Carthaginians told him to release whichever he wished. Fabius let fall that holding war. (219 BC)
The Second Punic War
The Romans began the war with a giant miscalculation. Having seen the Carthaginians driven from Syracuse and have achieved supremacy at sea, they saw the Carthaginian territories as being far afield and their enemy as incapable of taking any initiative against them. They believed it was theirs to fight a war in a manner of their choosing.
Two armies were consular prepared. One under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio, together with his brother Gnaeus Cornelius Scipios, was sent to Spain to confront Hannibal.
The second force was dispatched to Sicily to repel any possible incursions onto the island and to prepare an invasion of Africa. It was all to be straightforward. Predictable. Manageable.
However, Rome’s mistake was to believe that her chief enemy was an ordinary man. Whereas the young Punic champion facing her was one of the greatest military leaders in history. One thing was clear. Hannibal was not going to fight a war against Rome in a manner of Rome’s choosing.
In spring 218 BC Hannibal crossed the river Iberus into Gaul at the head of an army numbering some 9,000 cavalry, 50,000 infantry and 37 elephants.
He now set about fighting his way through hostile Gallic tribal territory toward the Alps.
Coincidence had it that a reconnaissance cavalry detachment of Scipio’s, scouring the coastal area as his fleet carried the army to Spain, met with some of Hannibal’s Numidian horsemen at the river Rhodanus (Rhône), shortly after Hannibal had crossed it.
Publius Scipio did follow up on this matter, establishing that Hannibal was indeed ascending into the Alps evidently seeking to cross this natural barrier.
Yet Roman military discipline triumphed over common sense. Would the best thing have been to abandon the attack on Spain and to hasten to the southern foothill of the Alps in expectation of the enemy, Publius Scipio merely sent a message to Rome, informing them of these developments. Then, as he had been ordered to do, he took his army onwards to Spain.
There are few examples that set the brilliance of Hannibal in such stark contrast against the unimaginative, stubborn approach of his Roman adversaries as does this moment. Given the good chance of an opportunity to forestall Hannibal’s plans, the Roman general instead boards his ship and takes his troops to Spain, following his orders to the very letter.
Hannibal crosses the Alps
Hannibal meanwhile crossed the Alps. Freezing weather and fierce mountain tribes made this a harrowing ordeal. His losses were very heavy. Yet as an example of logistics the crossing of the Alps in two weeks by an army, cut off from any means of support, stands as a staggering achievement.
When descending from the mountain passes, Hannibal’s force had shrunk to 26,000 men in total. But Hannibal was now descending into northern Italy, a territory only recently won by Rome in crushing and oppressive military campaigns against local Gallic tribes.
Should Hannibal be granted to opportunity to recruit among the Gauls, resentful and angry at their recent subjugation, thousands would flock to his banner.
Had now Publius Scipio’s consular army been waiting, history would most likely have been changed. But that army was in Spain.
Publius Scipio, by now having landed his army in Spain, returned to northern Italy with a small force. There he mustered the garrison forces of the Po valley into an army and marched them north to meet the exhausted invaders descending from the mountains.
Battle of River Ticinus
The forces gathered by Scipio numbered some 40,000. However, they were simply no match for the hardened Punic enemy which descended on them at the Ticinus River in 218 BC. The Carthaginian cavalry utterly dominated the field, inflicting heavy losses.
So ferocious was the Punic assault, the Roman skirmishers never even got to throw their javelins before they turned and ran to take cover behind the ranks of heavy infantry.
Albeit that the stalwart heavy Roman infantry succeeded in fighting its way right through the center of the enemy line, the rest of the Roman army were swept from the field. (218 BC)
Publius Scipio himself was severely wounded in a cavalry encounter and was only rescued to heroic intervention by his son (the later Scipio Africanus).
Only the successful crossing of the river Ticinus and the subsequent destruction of the bridge saved the Roman army from complete catastrophe.
True, Roman losses had not been severe at Ticinus. Many describe this encounter as a mere cavalry skirmish. Though this may belie the impact this initial meeting with Hannibal had on the Romans. It now seemed clear that they faced a very dangerous enemy.
Publius Scipio was forced to abandon the territory north of the river Padus (Po) and fell back to the northern foothills of the Appenines near Placentia (Piacenza).
News of Hannibal’s victory at the river Ticinus had spread like wildfire among the Gallic tribes. With Rome withdrawing from the territory north of the Padanus (Po) there was nothing to stop thousands joining his depleted ranks.
Worse still for Rome, some Gauls serving in her army mutinied and joined with Hannibal. So treacherous was the situation, Scipio needed to move camp to the river Trebia (Trebbia) where loyal tribes were to be found.
Hannibal soon arrived and pitched his camp on the opposite, eastern bank of the river.
Publius Scipio’s imperiled force was now joined by the army of his consular colleague, Titus Sempronius Longus, which had been recalled from Sicily. – Evidently any thoughts of invading Africa had now been abandoned.
Battle of River Trebia
With Public Scipio badly wounded from the battle of river Ticinus, Sempronius Longus now took sole command of the Roman forces. He was eager for battle.
Hannibal in turn was keen to seek a decision before any further Roman enforcements arrived and while the army from Sicily had recovered from its long march of 40 days.
At first light his Numidian cavalry crossed the river and provoked Sempronius Longus into fighting. The Roman forces waded through the freezing cold river in pursuit of their foe. They began the battle hungry, wet and half frozen.
Better yet, the Roman army had already spent the greater part of its javelins when chasing the enemy cavalry.
Hannibal commanded 20,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry and the elephants.
Titus Sempronius Longus had 16,000 Roman infantry, 20,000 allied infantry and 4,000 cavalry under arms. From the outset Hannibal’s forces seemed to hold the advantage. But the Romans met with disaster when suddenly in the rear 1,000 Carthaginian infantry men emerged under command of Hannibal’s brother Mago. They had been hidden in bush work in a bend of the river overnight.
The Roman ranks collapsed and the army soon found itself encircled. Once more the heavy Roman infantry managed to break out and get to safety at Placentia. But again Rome had met with disaster in the field against Hannibal. Only 10,000 had survived the onslaught (December 218 BC).
The year 218 BC did not an entire success for Carthage. She suffered setbacks at sea off Sicily (Lilybaeum) and on land in Spain against Gnaeus Scipio (Cissis).
But the losses suffered by the Romans at Ticinus and Trebia made such minor victories pale to insignificance. In two battles Rome had lost over 30,000 men. Meanwhile Hannibal was at large in northern Italy and growing in strength, as many Gauls joined up with him hoping to throw off Roman rule.
In spring 217 BC Hannibal began moving south again.
Again he surprised his foes by taking an utterly unexpected route. The north of Etruria then consisted of marshes fed by the waters of the river Arno and other tributaries. Crossing these foul swamps was a tremendous ordeal. But again Hannibal caused chaos by traversing what was believed to be an impossible natural boundary.
The four days it took to achieve this took the army to the limits of its endurance. Hannibal too paid a terrible price by suffering an agonizing eye infection which led to the loss of an eye.
The crossing of the Etrurian marshes now had gained Hannibal a vital head start on consul Gnaeus Servilius Geminus who was based at Ariminium (Rimini). Instead his path took him close by consul Gaius Flaminius who was encamped at Arretium (Arezzo) with his army.
Having noted Hannibal’s march south, Servilius was already on the march, heading toward his consular colleague. Flaminius did not take the bait of heading out to meet Hannibal on his own, much as the Carthaginian would have hoped.
But as Hannibal’s forces passed him on their way south, Flaminius deemed he had little choice but to give chase. The Carthaginians were plundering and burning as they went. It was important Italy be spared such fate.
But as Flaminius rushed after Hannibal he failed to send out proper scouting parties to provide reconnaissance of the way ahead. Invariably, Hannibal set Flaminius a trap.
Battle of Lake Trasimene
North of Lake Trasimene he hid his army in the bushes and woodwork of the steep slopes.
These concealed troops then sprung upon the marching Roman army as passed the next day. Trapped between the enemy and the lake, taken utterly by surprise, the Roman soldiers didn’t stand a chance.
Flaminius perished along with much of his army at Lake Trasimene (21 June 217 BC). It was a sad end to a man who gave his name to the great Via Flaminia and to the Circus Flaminius in Rome.
The scale of losses at Trasimene was vast. 15,000 were killed in battle. Another 15,000 were taken prisoner at the end of the battle. 6’000 who had managed to fight their way out were rounded up the next day. Hannibal decided to deal with the prisoners according to their status.
Whereas the Romans were abused and kept it harsh conditions, their Italian allies were treated well and released without ransom. Hannibal was at pains to show that he meant no harm for the Italians and that his quarrel was solely with Rome.
The mention of ransom suggests that possibly some Romans were set free against payment. But overall there are said to have been no more than 10,000 survivors. This suggests a gruesome fate for most of the prisoners taken at Trasimene.
Rome itself was gripped by panic.
The praetor’s famous words to the gathered multitude, ‘We have been defeated in a great battle’ scarcely convey the feeling of deep despair that overcame the capital. Hannibal, it seemed, was not to be defeated.
Worse, not enough that Hannibal had just destroyed a consular army at Lake Trasimene. Only a few days later news arrived that one of Hannibal’s chief officers, Maharbal, had wiped out a detachment of cavalry 4,000 strong which had rushed ahead of Servilius’ army coming from Ariminium (Rimini). (217 BC)
Rome in her despair now turned to Quintus Fabius Maximus. This was the very man who had been the chief Roman negotiator at Carthage; he who had let fall the fold in his toga that held war.
His mild manner and calm temper had so far earned him the cognomen Ovuncula (‘the lamb’). One doubts it was a term of endearment. Yet it explains why he would be chosen as Rome’s chief diplomat in times of crisis. Now however, Fabius was elevated to sole dictator of Rome with the sole duty of saving her from Hannibal.
His election to this post is unusual, insofar that he wasn’t appointed in the regular constitutional manner. One of the consuls, Flaminius, was dead. The other, Servilius, was far afield, with Hannibal’s army between him and the capital.
So instead his name was put to the public assembly of the comitia centuriata where he was duly elected dictator.
As his second-in-command, – a position known as Master of Horse, the people appointed the very popular Marcus Minucius Rufus. It can not have been a happy partnership as the two were political enemies and utterly opposite personalities.
Whereas Fabius was calm and apt to delay and defer, Minucius was impulsive and hungry for action.
Fabius first act was religious. He offered the gods a ‘Sacred Spring’ (ver sacrum). If they would see Rome through the next five years unharmed, then Rome would offer the first born of all her flocks and herds on a date set by the senate. The anger of the gods allayed, Fabius now prepared to deal with Hannibal.
Yet if many expected Fabius to raised another great army and seek to destroy the Carthaginian in the field, that was not what Fabius intended.
First he secured Rome. The cities defences were repaired where their upkeep had been neglected. The bridges of the Tiber were broken.
Servilius was ordered to hand over his troops to Fabius and was instead assigned command of the Roman fleet. Meanwhile, two new legions were enrolled. Soon Fabius had command of no fewer than 60,000 men.
All the while Hannibal was at large in the Italian countryside.The sheer destruction wrought by his army was tremendous.
Very tellingly though, an attempt to storm the town of Spoletium (Spoleto) failed.
It is much doubted that Hannibal ever had any intention to make an attempt on Rome. But his inability to carry a fairly small Italian town, albeit a very well fortified one, in spite of his possessing overwhelming force, shows that his army would not have possessed the capacity to threaten the Roman capital itself.
Instead Hannibal marched his army south-eastwards, staying close to the Adriatic coast, pillaging as he went. He took care to move at a slow pace, allowing his men to recover from their great exertions, his force’s strength thereby increasing with every passing day. As it moved the vast army despoiled the countryside and put any Roman they found to the sword.
Not one single Italian city opened its gates to Hannibal. While his army could live off the land, the seat of true power lay in the towns and cities. For any prolonged campaign against Rome, Hannibal required a powerful base in central Italy. None was forthcoming.
It was in this setting that Fabius should rise to fame. He marched his vast army to meet with Hannibal’s, but never committed to a fight. Numerous were the times when Hannibal should march his army from its encampment on a slope to meet with Fabius’ men, if only they would descend from theirs.
But Fabius knew that he was no match for the Carthaginian general. He also knew that his soldiers feared their opposition and that his Italian cavalry was inferior to the African and Spanish horsemen of Hannibal.
But Fabius also understood that Hannibal was not at liberty to freely roam the Italian countryside with an army of 60,000 men shadowing him at every turn. He could never think of laying siege to a city with such a vast enemy looming up behind him.
And so it went. Wherever Hannibal ventured, so did Fabius follow.
It was a stalemate.
This strategy of simply shadowing his opponents every move, over being an ever present, though never attacking enemy, has been immortalized by the term ‘Fabian tactics’.
Fabius himself, previously deemed ‘the lamb’ (Ovuncula), now acquired the nickname by which his is known in the annals of history; cunctator, the delayer.
Unpopular these tactics may have been with his subordinates. Minucius openly accused Fabius of cowardice. But his approach earned Fabius the grudging respect of the man best able to judge its wisdom: Hannibal.
Hannibal in Campania
Hannibal now sought to force Fabius into a fight. He marched his army into Campania. This stretch of land was the garden of Italy, the most fertile and wealthy of all the peninsula.
As Hannibal moved through it he put it to the torch. How long could Fabius bear to stand by and watch the destruction of finest piece of land in all Italy?
Fabius endured. Though his men demanded to be lead into battle. Though Minucius grew ever more scathing in his criticism of his superior. Fabius watched on.
But he did not content himself with doing nothing. As Hannibal rampaged through the countryside, Fabius set about closing off all the passes out of Campania. It wasn’t long before Hannibal was trapped. Once more, however, the genius of the man proved too much for the Romans.
He rounded up 2,000 oxen and drove them up a hillside one night, each beast with a lighted torch tied to its horns. Thinking Hannibal’s army was launching a nocturnal attack on a neighbouring position, a garrison of 4,000 men stationed at a the pass by a mountain called Erubianus (by Polybius) or Callicula (by Livy) rushed to reinforce their comrades.
Once these guards had abandoned their position, Hannibal simply marched his army across the pass they were supposed to guard. (217 BC)
Fabius though now stood accused of letting his enemy escape. Also his standing idly by, while Hannibal lay waste to Campania, had rendered him deeply unpopular in Rome.
More so, the senate feared for the unity of the Roman domain. How much more pain could their allies bear before they would break away? Hannibal’s actions in Campania and in much of the Italian countryside had all but ruined Rome’s loyal allies.
Evidently, Hannibal was getting close to his objective of breaking the Italians away from their allegiance to Rome.
The Romans responded by appointing Minucius co-dictator. This marks the only time in Roman history that two dictators should hold office simultaneously.
The army subsequently was split in two, each dictator commanding a separate force. This played right into Hannibal’s hands, who immediately set about to set a trap outside a palce called Gerunium to ambush the overzealous Minucius.
Taking the bait, Minucius soon found his entire force enveloped by Hannibal’s army.
Had not Fabius intervened with his own force at the last moment, Minucius would have been hopelessly trapped and his army wiped out. By a hair’s breadth Rome had escaped yet another disaster. Though there was significant loss of life, albeit that we don’t know the numbers lost. (winter 217/216 BC)
Finally even Minucius accepted that Fabius’ method was the only way of dealing with Hannibal. He resigned his powers and accepted the position of second-in-command.
In spring 216 BC the term of the two dictators was at an end. The elections saw two new consuls take office. Lucius Aemilius Paulus was aristocratic, conservative and of the belief that Fabius’ tactics had been a wise policy.
Gaius Terentius Varro meanwhile had enjoyed a meteoric political career, having started as a butcher’s apprentice and now being sworn in as consul.
Varro, like Minucius had done before him, disagreed violently with anything but a policy of attack.
At first Paulus succeeded in enforcing a cautious approach. When Hannibal stormed the town of Cannae (Canne) to gain possession of its important military stores, the Roman army closed in, trapping Hannibal in a very disadvantageous position.
To his rear were marshes, to his left unsuitable, hilly terrain that restricted his cavalry.
Had Paulus had his way, Hannibal would have been kept penned in for some time, his position becoming more precarious with every day.
But tradition dictated that the consuls should hold supreme command on alternate days.
The Battle of Cannae
On 2 August 216 BC it was Varro’s turn to hold command. Befitting his temperament, he chose to attack. The battle of Cannae stands as one of the greatest contests in military history.
The Roman force was all but annihilated. The losses range between 50,000 and 70,000 men. Varro survived the onslaught. More than likely the consul and his staff were driven back at the initial charge of the Numidian cavalry.
The other consul, Paulus, died in battle.
The Aftermath of Cannae
The impact of the defeat at Cannae can hardly be imagined. Considering the relative scarcity of ancient population when compared to modern Italy, the loss of 50,000 to 70,000 men must have proved an equivalent to the dropping of a nuclear bomb on a modern capital.
If we consider that Rome had already sustained atrocious losses at Trebia and Trasimene it was indeed conceivable that now the Roman sphere of influence would collapse.
Indeed the foundations of Roman power were crumbling.
Capua, the second city of Italy and centre of Italian industry, opened its gates to Hannibal. The town of Arpi in Apulia fell to him immediately after the battle.
The Samnites, except for their main tribe, the Pentrians, all defected to Hannibal. So too did the Bruttians. In the north the praetor Postumius was trapped with his army by the Gauls.
Sardinia was asking for help, as the tribes were open revolt. In Sicily Rome’s loyal ally King Hiero of Syracuse had died and was succeeded by his grandson Hieronymus and was in talks with the Carthaginians.
Yet all was not lost. Who can forget that less than ten years earlier (ca. 225 BC) Roman records showed their resources of manpower to stand at a near limitless seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry?
Rome had lost over 100,000 men to Hannibal so far. Yet she could replenish them at will.
The great Carthaginian controlled much of southern Italy, but dotted throughout this territory were Roman fortresses, prepared to hold out and hindering his ability to manoeuvre.
Some tribes may have broken away, but the Sabellian tribes of central Italy remained resolutely loyal. Meanwhile, Hannibal was not being reinforced. Carthage was obstinately refusing to send men. To the west Gnaeus and Publius Scipio were keeping the Carthaginian armies tied up in knots, making it impossible for them to follow across the Alps and reinforce the invasion.
Hannibal could not react immediately after Cannae. True his army had lost only 6,000 men. But this does not account for the wounded and the sheer exhaustion his troops must have suffered from such a gargantuan fete.
The city of Rome itself still remained safe. The example of Hannibal’s failure to take Spoletium still bore witness to that. Also the corn lands and pastures of Italy needed to feed Hannibal’s army and horses lay in southern Italy, no closer to Rome than Campania at the most. In effect Hannibal was tied to the land that could sustain him.
The lessons of Cannae however were thus.
The senate under the guidance of Fabius largely took control of matters. The petty political rivalries between the aristocratic and the people’s faction had to be set aside.
More so, the armies were to be entrusted only to able, responsible commanders for a period of years if their task demanded it. No more alternate dates of command, no consular commands by political careerists.
The price of failure had simply proved too high.
Hannibal’s war thereby influenced future Roman history more deeply than anyone at the time could have foreseen. Rome’s decision to entrust its forces to the generals for prolonged times heralded a new era.
The times of political amateurs commanding the Roman war machine were at an end. This decision may at first have brought the Scipii to fame, but it inevitably led to the later careers of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar and to the eventual destruction of the republic itself.
The immediate reaction to the disaster among Romans was one of steely determination and unity.
Young Scipio (later Africanus), who is believed to have been at the battle of Cannae, is said to have drawn his sword at hearing young Roman nobles among the survivors who were debating if to flee the country. At pain of death he made them swear an oath to stay and fight on.
In the same spirit of dogged unity, Varro was welcomed back to Rome at the gate of the city by the senate and thousands of people in gratitude for not having despaired and fled, but instead having gathered what survivors of the battle he could find at the town of Canusium (Canosa di Puglia). Every single Roman now counted. There were to be no recriminations. Rome stood as one.
A new dictator was appointed, Iunius Pera with Sempronius Gracchus as his Master of Horse (second-in-command).
The senate refused to pay any ransom for captives Hannibal had taken. Instead eight thousand slaves were bought by the state and enrolled in the army. They formed a part of four new legions that were raised, which were then united with the ten thousand or so survivors of Cannae gathered at Canusium.
After Cannae, Hannibal almost reigned supreme in southern Italy. Yet to topple Rome more would be necessary. He would need to encroach further on the Rome’s territory, to diminish her power yet further, while she lay bleeding from the dreadful wound he had inflicted.
Having gained Capua he now determined on securing his grasp on Campania yet further. The fortress town of Nola (Nola) lay in central Campania, some nine miles north of Mount Vesuvius, was a strategic stronghold of the region.
However, Marcus Claudius Marcellus who had been on his way with an army to deal with the troubles in Sicily, was diverted as news reached him of the disaster at Cannae. This was the same Marcellus who had already achieved the spolia opima when campaigning against the Gauls.
As the general closest to the disaster at Cannae Marcellus was now ordered to lend support and help maintain order in the area where necessary. He disembarked his troops in Campania and set up camp in the fortress town of Nola.
With Marcellus at Nola and the victor of Cannae now heading towards it another great contest was set to take place. The outcome will have surprised many. When the town was being attacked by Hannibal’s troops, a sudden sally from within the city picked Roman troops rushed the Punic besiegers who were no doubt hampered by ladders and the various paraphernalia required to storm the walls. The Carthaginians fell into confusion and were driven off. (216 BC)
The detail we have of this encounter is vague and unsatisfactory. But that Hannibal could be halted from gaining ground at the very height of his powers, shows that he was critically hamstrung. His ramshackle army didn’t possess the necessary expertise for effective siege craft and clearly lacked the organization as well as the overwhelming force to take a city by storm.
If Cannae was a great advance for Hannibal, Nola proved that he could only achieve further gains by victories in the open field. The essential stalemate remained. Hannibal could defeat, yet he could not conquer.
So the fateful year of 216 BC came to an end. Rome had suffered a tremendous disaster, Hannibal had gained much ground. Yet still there was stalemate.
215 BC proved another eventful year. Having received some reinforcements from Carthage (thought most had had to be said to Spain, due to the brothers Scipio) Hannibal made another attempt on Nola. The record of this second attempt is more confused, but again Hannibal was repulsed.
In Sardinia the battle of Titus Manlius Torquatus, won a victory against a much superior force of Carthaginian troops and Sardinian tribesmen at the battle of Carales (Cagliari). In Spain the Scipios won victories at Ibera, Illiturgi and Intibili.
In avoiding a further clash with the deadly Hannibal, instead taking on other Carthaginian commanders abroad, Rome was beginning to tilt the balance of the war.
In Sicily Hiero’s successor Hieronymus, who had begun to side with the Carthaginian cause, was assassinated and a faction friendly to Rome gained control amid much bloodshed. Yet still the Roman praetor of the province, Appius Claudius, was urgently requesting help to quell the rebellious sentiment in ferment all over the island.
Most worryingly, news should come from the east. Hannibal achieved an alliance with Phillip V of Macedon.
Capture of Syracuse
As already mentioned above, Hiero of Syracuse had died in 216 BC. His successor Hieronymus had at once begun plotting with the Carthaginians, but had (no doubt with some encouragement from Rome) been assassinated and a political faction friendly to Roman interest had taken control of the city in 215 BC.
However, the rest of Sicily was in a state of turmoil and the supremacy of Roman allies in Syracuse proved short-lived.
A rebellion led by Hippocrates and Epicydes soon followed in Syracuse. The two were agents of Hannibal who had already been his representatives in negotiations with the slain King Hieronymus. Now they seized control of the city for Carthage.
Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who had already been posted to Sicily with an army in 216 BC, but had been recalled before he ever reached the island to sure up defences after the defeat at Cannae, finally arrived in Sicily in 214 BC.
Marcellus was a brilliant military commander, but a stern disciplinarian and ill-suited to winning over hearts and minds.
On arriving in Sicily he captured Leontini, one of the centres of resistance. Marcellus sacked the place and butchered 2,000 deserters he found there. (214 BC)
No doubt he had thought to make an example of the place to instill fear, instead he provoked an open rebellion of much of Sicily.
Uniting his troops with those of Appius Claudius, Marcellus first tried to take the city of Syracuse by storm. It proved impossible.
Not only was Syracuse one of the best fortified cities in the Mediterranean, but its defence was considerably strengthened by the sheer genius of the famous mathematician Archimedes. His unflinching application of scientific principles to engineering provided the Syracusan defenders with vastly superior catapults and cranes which could grapple and tip over any ships which sought to attack the harbour.
Repulsed by the towering walls and Archimedes’ unique war-engines, Marcellus could do little other than lay siege. (214 BC) The Carthaginians meanwhile did not remain idle, landed an army of some 30,000 men and captured the city of Agrigentum.
To make matters worse one of Marcellus officers massacred the inhabitants of the town of Enna. Following that, one Sicilian town after another begun to go over to Carthage. In time Marcellus found himself as much besieged as he was besieging. But he remained unflinching in pursuit of victory whatever the time and cost involved.
After two years, Marcellus troops managed to cross the first set of walls. Carthage immediately dispatched a relief force, seeking to rescue their ally. But the Punic army was gripped by disease and rendered ineffectual.
The remainder of Syracuse was eventually taken by treachery (a Spanish mercenary officer helped the Roman from within) and by storm (the final holdout of Ortygia).
Marcellus let loose his troops on Syracuse as was the fashion of the times and so the ancient stronghold of Greek power was ravaged in an orgy of violence. (212 BC)
Archimedes was killed in the onslaught. The historical sources, in this case more legend than fact, tell of Archimedes being so absorbed in a problem of geometry that the didn’t even notice the fall of his city. When finally a Roman soldier barged in on him, Archimedes told him to be gone. The soldier, be it through insult or sheer blood lust, cut him down on the spot.
Marcellus is said to have been much aggrieved at the death of the brilliant man, who to is believed he had given expressed orders not to be harmed. He saw to it that Archimedes was properly buried. (The tomb of Archimedes was later famously restored by Cicero, when quaestor in Sicily.)
With the fall of Syracuse the war for Sicily was now decided in Rome’s favour. Yet still hard fighting lay ahead, the last Carthaginians being expelled only in 210 BC.
First Macedonian War
As we have seen above in the eventful year of 215 BC, Philip V of Macedon allied himself with Hannibal against Rome. Given the sheer power the Kingdom of Macedon represented this alliance must at first have seemed a disaster to Rome. Yet the First Macedonian War proved a conflict without battles for the Romans.
Inspired by the fugitive Demetrius, who had sought refuge at his court at the end of Rome’s Illyrian wars, King Philip readied a small fleet of fairly light craft in the Adriatic. Most likely his naval ambitions centered on Illyria where his ally Demetrius might be installed and an Adriatic port might be gained for Macedon.
If Philip V ever intended any attempt on the Italian coast itself is at best speculation. For his naval preparations came to a sudden when news of a powerful Roman fleet sailing into the Adriatic to repel him reached his court.
Through skillful diplomacy Rome built a coalition which leveled the Aetolian League, the Illyrians, Elis, Sparta, Messene and Pergamum against Macedon.
With such enemies arrayed against him, Philip V of Macedon was kept sufficiently busy in Greece, never to trouble the Romans at all for the length of the so-called First Macedonian War.
It was the Aetolian League who bore the brunt of the war. As they gave ground, Epirus, no doubt concerned at being dragged into the conflict herself, negotiated a peace between the various parties. (205 BC)
Meanwhile in Italy the stand off between Hannibal and the Romans continued, both sides struggling to tilt the precarious balance their way.
The population of Tarentum, outraged by the vicious treatment of hostages from Brundisium (they were flung from the Tarpeian rock in Rome) applied for help to Hannibal. He was happy to oblige, withdrew from Campania and marched on Tarentum, one of Italy’s richest ports.
The Punic army arrived at night, while the city’s governor, Marcus Livius, was feasting at a banquet.
The gates were opened from within and Hannibal’s men took the city. Marcus Livius fled just in time to the city’s citadel, which enjoyed such a geographical advantage, it could not be taken. (212 BC)
All of southern Italy, save the town of Rhegium, now was in Hannibal’s hands. No doubt he prized the city of Tarentum above all for its possible importance in the alliance with Macedon. Should Philip V of Macedon ever send troops, there was now a ready gateway into Italy at which he could disembark.
Though the moment Hannibal had left Campania, the Romans had begun preparations to lay siege to Capua. Yet when Hannibal arrived back from his successfully foray to Tarentum, having received the call for help by the Capuans, the Roman army at once abandoned their operations and fell back. So powerful was still the name Hannibal, that no general wanted to be measured in open battle with him.
That said, 212 BC came to an end with a series of battles, all of which confirmed Hannibal’s supremacy.
First the proconsul Gracchus was successfully lured into an ambush which resulted in almost complete rout of his army. Next an improvised force of some 16,000 men organized by a centurion, Centenius, was utterly annihilated. Finally, praetor Gnaeus Fulvius saw his force of some 18,000 cut to ribbons at the battle of Herdonea. Only 2,000 are said to have escaped with their lives. (212 BC)
Fabius’ advice not to meet Hannibal in the field was still not being heeded, it seems. At last, winter called an end to the year’s warfare.
In 211 BC Hannibal returned to Tarentum, seeking to finally conquer the citadel of the city. Meanwhile the Romans returned to Capua and renewed their attempt at siege.
Appius Claudius and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus brought no less than 60,000 men to bear on the city. Two great defence works were drawn around the city. One to prevent the Capuans from breaking out, the second to defend against any attack from Hannibal. (211 BC)
When Hannibal eventually came rushing to Capua’s aid he was met by a system of trenches and wooden palisades that made any relief impossible. He attempted an assault on the great siege works, but was easily repulsed.
Instead Hannibal now once again undertook a bold move. He disappeared into the mountainous terrain of Samnium and then, marching only through hill country, drove northward, finally appearing before Rome.
‘Hannibal ad portas!’ went the famous cry. (‘Hannibal is at the gates!’) (211 BC)
No doubt there was a fair share of panic at the news that Rome’s most terrible enemy was before the very walls of the city. The campfires of the Punic army could be seen at night from the Capitoline hill. Hannibal’s gamble had obviously been that Rome would recall its armies from Capua at the news of his arrival.
But old Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator was still alive and at the head of the senate. He urged calm and advised that the siege of Capua should continue unabated.
Rome was not at all defenceless. She had three legions which were sent out, commanded by the consuls, to shadow Hannibal’s army, making any assault impossible.
There was a brief cavalry skirmish at the Colline Gate, when Hannibal and his horsemen ventured too close. (211 BC) Apart from that no contest of arms took place.
As quickly as he had appeared, Hannibal disappeared again, realizing his attempt at drawing off the siege from Capua had failed. It is not sure, if all the troops remained in place at Capua. The historian Polybius tells us that all troops remained at the siege. While Livy suggests that Appius Claudius remained with his forces, while Quintus Fulvius Flaccus was recalled to drive off Hannibal.
Either way, the siege of Capua remained unbroken.
Capua was eventually starved into surrender that same year. (211 BC)
The severity with which the Romans dealt with the city which had betrayed them. Proconsul Quintus Fulvius Flaccus watched 53 nobles scourged and beheaded in one single day, despite objections from his proconsular colleague Appius Claudius.
The whole citizenry of Capua was deported elsewhere, leaving only a remnant of artisans and tradesmen behind. The city’s lands were impounded by the Roman state.
Capua may have been Italy’s second city and chief industrial hub at the beginning of the conflict. At the wars end however, Capua would be a shadow of its former self. Its nobles dead, its population departed, its lands confiscated.
Capua and Syracuse fallen, the Sardinian rebellion at an end, Macedon embroiled in petty warfare with its Greek neighbors and the war in Spain ever more perilous, five years on from Cannae, the war was going badly for Carthage.
The War in Spain
The war in Spain waged to and fro. Rome may have seen a series of victories under Gnaeus and Publius Scipio, but never managed to land a decisive blow.
Their main achievement seemed to be to stop any reinforcements from Spain ever reaching Hannibal.
When in North Africa the Numidian King Syphax led a rebellion again Carthage and Hasdrubal was recalled to deal with it, it looked as though the brothers Scipio might indeed overrun Spain altogether, as they drove ever further south.
In 213 BC they achieved triple victory, defeating the Carthaginians at Iliturgi, Munda and Aurinx, the enemy losing over 30,000 men in total. But once Hasdrubal returned, Roman fortunes changed.
Perhaps the brothers’ principle mistake was to have split their forces in two, one commanded by Gnaeus Scipio, the other by Publius Scipio. Perhaps they were simply outgeneraled.
Publius found himself crushed at the river Baetis (211 BC) and Gnaeus in the same year, abandoned by his Spanish mercenaries whom he heavily depended on, was crushed by three converging Carthaginian armies at Ilorici (Lorca). Both brothers Scipio died in their respective encounters.
The Romans had at last been routed in Spain. But the successful end to the siege of Capua in the same year (211 BC) meant that Rome now had vast manpower available.
Rome sent two legions to Spain under the command of Claudius Nero. But Nero, an arrogant and harsh individual, made little impression on the Spanish tribes he needed to win over if ever Rome was to succeed in Spain.
Hence it was decided to replace him. The choice fell upon Publius Cornelius Scipio, the very son of the man who had been slain in battle at the Baetis river the year before.
What made the decision exceptional was that Scipio was only 25 years old. More so he was granted proconsular powers, something hitherto only given to consuls after their term in office.
But the Romans no doubt speculated on Scipio wishing to revenge his slain father and uncle. Also, the heroism he showed on Ticinus where he saved his father’s life and his patriotic stance among the survivors in the aftermath of Cannae may have marked him out as a man to rely on in a crisis.
Another reason for this surprising choice of commander may have been that few others wanted the job. Spain was far away. It was always least likely to receive reinforcements and any victories gained would scarce get a mention in Rome, as long as Hannibal was in Italy. In short, the command offered little chance of political advancement or glory, so nobody wanted it.
Yet Scipio made an almost immediate impact on arrival. His name alone swayed some Spanish tribes to renew their loyalties.
Then, in 209 BC, he made his first, bold move. Realising the Carthaginian armies too far away to intervene he struck out along the eastern coast for Carthago Nova (Cartagena), the very capital of Punic power in Spain.
Once there, he took the city in a stroke of brilliance. Having made detailed inquiries he learned from the local fisherman that the lagoon was shallow enough to wade through at low tide. To his soldiers however he declared that the god of the sea, Neptune, had appeared to him in a dream and promised to support a Roman assault.
At low tide, while his army assaulted the walls, Scipio led 500 of his men across the lagoon. The city’s defenders, assaulted from without and within simultaneously stood little chance. Scipio had taken Carthago Nova by storm. (209 BC) It was a stroke of genius.
With Carthago Nova also a vast amount of treasure fell into Roman hands. Better yet, within the walls of the city were 300 Spanish hostages who assured the allegiance of various Spanish tribes to Carthage. Scipio freed them and dismissed them to their homes with utmost courtesy, so winning the sympathies of many o the noble families of Spain.
Having secured an important base, Scipio did not seek to engage the enemy any more that year, but instead concentrated on drilling his army to perform tactical manoeuvres drawn from the examples of Hannibal. He was steeling his troops for a fight.
By 208 BC Hasdrubal was becoming aware of more and more Spanish tribes going over to the new Roman general and sough to put an end to it. Scipio too was eager to fight before the three Punic armies could unite.
Scipio set out of New Carthage to Baecula (Bailen) where he emerged victorious in a hard fought battle against Hasdrubal. (208 BC)
Hasdrubal though managed to withdraw unharmed, with his treasure and most of his troops, including his war elephants. Once aware of the challenge an encounter with Scipio represented, he had no intention of repeating the fete. He had much more pressing priorities, chiefest of which was to march on Italy and reinforce his brother in the struggle for Italy.
He hence marched his army northwards and crossed into Gaul. As the east coast of Spain was entirely under control of Scipio’s forces, Hasdrubal instead slipped into Gaul at the west coast of the peninsula.
Scipio made no attempt to hinder him at such endeavour. For this he was severely criticized by his political enemies – not least by Fabius. Gnaeus and Publius Scipio had known it their primary duty to safeguard Italy from any further invasion. For all his achievements, Scipio had failed in said duty once Hasdrubal succeeded in leaving Spain.
In Gaul Hasdrubal began recruiting, building up an army in preparation for a second invasion of Italy. So thorough were his preparations, he remained an entire year in Gaul, before, like his brother before him, he crossed the Alps and descended into northern Italy.
Rome dispatched its consuls. Marcus Livius Salinator headed north to face the new invader. Meanwhile Gaius Claudius Nero headed south to check Hannibal.
As in the north Hasdrubal was driving southwards, Hannibal manoeuvred restlessly, trying to shake loose Nero’s army in order to move north and join with his brother.
Rome was in dire danger, as any union of the two Carthaginian armies would have meant a catastrophe. At the brink of financial ruin by now, Rome was straining under the weight of war. She had 150,000 men under arms, two devastating armies in Italy and her Italian allies were growing restless.
Battle of the River Metaurus
The Romans met with some luck as they managed to intercept the Punic messengers who were carrying news of Hasdrubal’s planned route to his brother. None of the messengers ever succeeded in reaching Hannibal, leaving him unable to act decisively as he remained clueless as to his brother’s intentions.
It was at this point that consul Nero, whose job it was to keep Hannibal pinned down as best as possible, took a gamble.
He separated 7,000 picked troops (6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry) from his army and marched north, leaving his main force under his second-in-command in Canusium (Canosa). Within six days he crossed 250 miles to reach Livius and his army in Sena.
It was these additional troops which now granted Livius a critical advantage over his enemy. Hasdrubal, aware of this, fall back to the river Metaurus, but failed to find a suitable crossing point. His retreat cut off by the river, he had no choice but to fight.
As the two armies engaged the Romans struggled to make their advantage tell. The majority of fighting was on the Roman left and with the centre. The right, commanded by Nero, was inhibited very rough, steep ground which made any engagement by either party almost impossible.
Again Nero took the initiative and gambled. He separated several cohorts from his right wing, marched the length of the army, wheeled around Livius left wing and attacked Hasdrubal’s Spanish troops in the flank and from behind.
As a result, Hasdrubal’s right wing collapsed. The Romans having gained the tactical advantage the battle soon turned to butchery as the Carthaginian troops were encircled and slaughtered. The Carthaginian losses are unclear, yet any survivors will not have had any opportunity to rejoin their side, as they were cut off in deep in enemy territory with no where to go.
The historian Polybius states the Punic losses at no fewer than 10,000 men killed, with the Roman losses amounting to 2,000. Hasdrubal himself died a heroic death. Once realizing that all was lost his spurred on his horse and charged a Roman cohort. (23 June 207)
With the defeat of Hasdrubal not only did Rome remove a great danger, but so too did she gain possession of the great war chest that Hasdrubal’s army was carrying to Hannibal.
Gaius Claudius Nero now headed back south to rejoin his troops where Hannibal still waited for news from his brother completely unaware of the great battle that had just taken place.
He brought with him the head of Hasdrubal which, on his arrival, he ordered flung into the camp of Hannibal. The first that Hannibal knew of his brother’s fate was to be handed his very head. On seeing it he is said to have uttered, ‘I recognize the fortune of Carthage.’
The great plan had failed. Rome’s victory was now virtually inevitable.
Battle of Ilipa
Meanwhile the departure of Hasdrubal from Spain had tilted the balance yet further in favour of Scipio. The successor to Carthaginian power in Spain was yet another Hasdrubal, generally discerned as Hasdrubal, son of Gisco.
He had done his best to supplement his troops with new Spanish recruits, but they were not of sufficient quality to replace the troops lost in battle and by Hasdrubal’s departure for Italy. Most certainly they were no equal match for Scipio’s highly trained, perfectly drilled force.
Scipio’s breathtaking maneuvers on the battlefield utterly outclassed his opponent and were a perfect demonstration of just how far the Roman army had come since the beginning of the war. It had evolved.
Had it been a blunt, lumbering giant at Cannae, then in the hands of Scipio it had become a deadly precision tool of almost balletic virtuosity by the time it came to fight at Ilipa.
The scale of Carthaginian losses at Ilipa is not known. But with both wings being virtually annihilated, the loss of life must have been severe. Scipio in the aftermath of the battle ruthlessly hunted down the remnants of the Carthaginian troops, leaving the enemy with no field forces to speak of in Spain.
The Roman gamble of sending a twenty five year old aggrieved son, who had never ascended higher than the office of aedile in politics, to command the Spanish legions had paid off. He had defeated the Carthaginians and won Spain with all her mineral wealth and manpower for Rome.
On his return to Rome Scipio was elected consul for 205 BC on a wave of popular support. But Scipio was not yet finished with Carthage. At once he lobbied to take the war to Africa.
The senate though remained fearful of sending armies to Africa while Hannibal still remained on Italian soil with an army. Most of all Fabius, a determined political enemy of Scipio’s, opposed any venture in Africa. No doubt, he was mindful of Regulus’ disastrous expedition to Africa during the First Punic War.
It is also clear that Rome was fearful of placing yet further burdens upon her allies. The cost of the war was also proving ruinous.
But no doubt the political powers were beginning to grow worried at the rise of a military superstar such as Scipio. In the anxious minds of senators, the worry of what Scipio might do if he succeeded in Africa might well have outweighed the fear of a failure.
But Scipio persisted, indicating that if necessary he was going to seek the support of the people for such a campaign. There is no doubt that popular support for Scipio would have been overwhelming.
The senate reluctantly gave in, but did not grant Scipio the right of using the normal means of levying consular troops. He was allowed the use of the ten thousand survivors of the battle of Cannae who had been exiled to Sicily in disgrace ever since and of anyone else volunteering to join his force.
Scipio needn’t have worried. From several Italian allies volunteers arrived and from Etruria came plentiful provisions and equipment.
Read More: Roman Legion Equipment
Scipio made for Sicily where he spent the remainder of the year drilling his new army to his exacting standards.
Mago lands in Italy
In 205 BC Hannibal’s brother Mago landed at Genua (Genoa), no doubt hoping to draw upon Gallic support in northern Italy and wreak more havoc in Italy. But things had changed since the descent from the Alps of his brothers Hannibal and Hasdrubal. The Gauls had little fight left in them. For two years he struggled on in the Po valley achieving little to nothing.
Scipio lands in Africa
In 204 BC Scipio landed in Africa near the city of Utica.
But the Carthaginians were ready for him. He found himself held in check by two armies, a Punic force commanded by Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, and a Numidian force, commanded by their King Syphax.
It is not clear for how long Scipio remained trapped in this inextricable position. It was, however, early 203 BC by the time he offered peace negotiations with the enemy.
The talk of peace was merely a ruse to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. He suddenly broke off negotiations and attacked.
The Battle of Utica (203 BC) was not truly a battle as neither side truly fought. The Numidians and Carthaginians were utterly taken by surprise in their camps by a nocturnal fire attack. If the setting fire of the enemy camps involved sabotage or an attack with catapults and archery we do not know.
But with the camps aflame, the Romans cut down any desperate souls seeking to escape the blaze through the gates. As a result, the two armies were annihilated. Both enemy leaders managed to escape. Hasdrubal with 2,500 men in total. (early 203 BC)
Battle of the Great Plains
Yet despite their crushing defeat at Utica, Syphax and Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, within a month managed to raise another force totaling 30,000 men.
Meanwhile, Scipio was laying siege to the city of Utica.
On hearing that the enemy was gathering on the Great Plains (campi magni) some 75 miles to the west, Scipio left behind a force to continue the siege and marched the remainder of his army, estimated to be some 15,000 men, to meet the foe.
Five days later he arrived at the Great Plains. There followed two days of skirmishing before the armies met in battle.
Given the haste in which the Carthaginian force had been gathered, the troops cannot have yet been of any great quality. Scipio’s Italian and Numidian cavalry drove Syphax’ horsemen off the field.
All but the Spanish mercenaries at the centre of the Carthaginian army, crumpled. The Spaniards were encircled and slaughtered. The remainder of the army was either cut down as it fled, or dispersed into the countryside, never to be seen again. (203 BC)
Again Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, and King Syphax managed to flee.
King Syphax was pursued by a swift moving Roman force, commanded by Scipio’s trusted friend Laelius and Scipio’s Numidian ally Masinissa (an enemy of Syphax). They met him at the Battle of Cirta (Constantine, Algeria), where he force was driven off the field.
Syphax however fell from his horse in battle, was captured and taken prisoner and brought to Scipio’s camp.
Masinissa in turn now became King of Numidia, which meant the vitally important Numidian horsemen now would serve Rome in greater numbers than Carthage.
With the utter defeat of their armies and the capture of their chief ally, Syphax, things now looked bleak for the Carthaginians.
Envoys were sent to Rome to negotiate terms with the Roman senate.
But as not to rely entirely on the mercy of their enemy, Carthage also called home the two remaining sons of Hamilcar Barca; Hannibal and Mago.
Both brothers rushed home, but Mago died on the way from a wound he had suffered in a recent defeat in Italy by the tribe of the Insubres.
Scipio’s terms meanwhile had been accepted. Carthage was to pay 5,000 talents, surrender any claim to Spain and reduce its navy to twenty ships of war. The Roman senate too ratified the terms.
But Hannibal’s arrival with 15,000 battle-hardened veterans at Hadrumentum (Sousse) changed matters.
Battle of the Zama
The two armies commanded by the two greatest commanders of the age met at Zama. The two great generals met briefly to negotiate, but the talks came to nothing. The following day their armies met in battle. (202 BC)
Carthage stood utterly defeated after Zama and could do nothing else but seek terms from Rome yet again. There was a few voices who demanded that even now she should fight on, defying the inevitable siege that would follow. But these die-hards were silenced by Hannibal, who saw the futility of any further resistance.
The terms of peace were doubled from what they had been prior to the battle of Zama. Carthage was to pay 10,000 talents over 50 years and her navy was to be reduced to 10 triremes. In addition she was forbidden from any warfare without expressed Roman permission.
It was that last paragraph which caused great worry among the Carthaginians as it rendered their African territories helpless to the raids of their Numidian neighbours, especially as now their new king, Masinissa, was now Rome’s ally.
In general the terms of peace were generous. It was a sign of the magnanimity and humanity of Scipio’s that in victory he was able to show leniency, where some of his fellow Romans would have sought to utterly crush their helpless adversary.
It is in memory of his great victory that Scipio, the vanquisher of Africa, was henceforth known as Scipio Africanus.
Hannibal was permitted to stay on in Carthage. Most likely it was Scipio who refused to allow Roman vengeance to be enacted upon him. Though by 190 BC Hannibal was banished from Carthage, as his old political enemies reasserted themselves. Unquestionably Roman influence will have played its part.
After traveling to Tyre, it wasn’t long before Hannibal Barca should reemerge at the court of Antiochus III of Syria.
Rome now had become one the great powers of the ancient world. The reduction of Carthage to a client state, the subjugation of Syracuse and conquest of Spain meant she was the undisputed mistress of the western Mediterranean.
The Second Punic War had left the Gallic domains which had been conquered after the last Gallic invasion in utter chaos. The Gauls had revolted against Roman rule once Hannibal had descended from the Alps and Rome had not since been able to re-establish control.
The Romans still held control of their strategic colonies, but the countryside was in utter revolt. Foremost among the hostile tribes were once again the Boii and Insubres who had suffered so terribly in the fighting following the last Gallic invasion.
It was to take almost a decade of heavy fighting until Rome had fully reestablished her control over the north of Italy up to the Alps.
The scale of the major battles fought in this frequently overlooked contest indicates just how great a struggle it was for the Romans to regain control over the region of the Padus river (Po).
In 200 BC praetor Lucius Furius defeated a force of 40,000 Gauls at Cremona. But this was achieved only after the Gauls had sacked and put to the torch the city of Placentia (Piacenza). The Gauls were commanded by a Carthaginian called Hamilcar, who was still at large after the end of the Second Punic War. 35,000 Gauls were killed or captured.
197 BC may have seen yet another great battle of a similar scale take place at the river Minucius (Mincio). But many details surrounding the Gallic uprising are confused.
In 196 BC Claudius Marcellus defeated another large army of Gauls at Comum (Como).
Next Valerius Flaccus is reported to have defeated the Gauls at Mediolanum (Milan) in 194 BC. At this battle around 10,000 Gauls are said to have been killed.
Finally in 193 BC at Mutina (Modena) the last great battle of this conflict took place. Consul Lucius Cornelius defeated the fearsome Boii in a close, very hard fought battle. 14,000 Boii warriors were slain and 5,000 Romans fell, among them 2 tribunes and 23 centurions.
The fighting throughout the Gallic uprising seems to have been a desperate struggle. Yet the defeat of the Gauls was so crushing that the tribes should thereafter never rise again.
New Latin and Roman colonies were founded to further cement Roman rule over the north: Bononia (Bologna), Mutina (Modena) and Parma (Parma). Placentia (Piacenza) was reestablish after its destruction and expanded. Cremona was also further enlarged .
The radical colonization of the north proved very effective. When the historian Polybius visited the area some fifty years later, he reported it to be thoroughly italianised.
Second Macedonian War
Rome craved peace after the Second Punic war. Putting down the Gallic uprising was arduous enough a task, without any more demands on a drained treasury and exhausted Italian allies.
Yet Rome had unfinished business across the sea in Macedon. Great resentment was felt toward Philip V of Macedon for having allied with Carthage just after Cannae, when Rome was at her weakest.
It is true that Rome hardly suffered any consequences at all from the First Macedonian War. But Rome was not to forgive such treachery.
The first war against Macedon had introduced Roman interest yet further into Greece than they had been after the Illyrian wars. After all, her allies in the Macedonian conflict had included the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues and the kingdom of Pergamum in Asia Minor. Once such ties had been created they didn’t wither away overnight.
After the peace with Rome in 205 BC, Macedon continued an aggressive policy against the Greeks. Most notably Philip V of Macedon forged an alliance with King Antiochus III of Syria against Egypt under King Ptolemy V Epiphanes (203 BC).
Ptolemy of Egypt was a 4 year old child, which had recently been made a ward of Rome (no doubt with an eye on the grain supply). Rome found itself invariably drawn into the machinations of Greek politics and wars.
The war against the Egyptian possessions in the Aegean Sea saw the Macedonians deal savagely with captured islands. Yet, more importantly, some of the captains of the Macedonian fleet indiscriminately attacked shipping in the Aegean.
Such piracy called Rhodes and her powerful fleet into action. Rhodes declared war in 202 BC was joined by Pergamum (201 BC).
King Attalus I of Pergamum had of course been an ally of Rome in the First Macedonian War and still entertained friendly relations with the republic. Rhodes and Pergamum appealed to Rome for intervention. So too did the Athenians who also were under attack from Macedon (201/200BC).
If Rome was reluctant after the tremendous exertions against Hannibal, she now had ample reason to act. A valued ally was calling for help against a loathed enemy.
Egyptian territory was under attack. Meanwhile, piracy and unbridled aggression meant Macedon had no friends left in Greece. Rome surely would not be short of allies. Also, the battle of Chios Island in late 201 BC in which the joint Rhodian and Pergamene fleet emerged victorious demonstrated that Rome’s immediately allies possessed considerable force of arms.
What clinched it was the revelation of the pact between Syria and Macedon by the envoys of Pergamum and Rhodes. If Rome distrusted Philip V, then the prospect of him being allied with the powerful Seleucid kingdom of Syria was a menace that could not be ignored. Macedon was fierce, but Syria was a formidable power which had in recent years crushed Parthia and Bactria (212-206 BC). United they might prove unstoppable.
The senate was unanimous. War it was to be. But when this was put to the popular assembly of the comitia centuriata for a formal declaration of war, it was overwhelmingly defeated. The people were tired of war. Too great had the price of war been in the struggle with Carthage.
Also, the alliance with Pergamum was at best tentative. There was no formal treaty or understanding between Rome and King Attalus. So there was no immediate casus belli (’cause for war’).
But eventually consul P. Sulpicius Galba addressed the comitia centuriata again and told the gathered people that they really only had one choice. To fight Philip in Greece or in Italy. The memory of the Carthaginian invasions of Italy was still a fresh, painful wound. The fear of the re-visitation of such horrors helped swing the crowd in Sulpicius’ favour. War it was. (200 BC)
But Rome evidently hoped for a limited war, far from the scale seen in the two wars against Carthage so far. No extensive numbers of troops were levied. In all, the men raised to arms for the Second Macedonian War never exceeded 30,000. Furthermore, these were new recruits. All veterans of the war against Carthage were exempt from service.
One of the first actions of the war was the relief of Athens. The siege by the Macedonians depended heavily on their fleet which was greatly inferior to the might of the allied navy and was hence easily driven off without a fight.
P. Sulpicius Galba landed in Illyria in 200 BC at the head of this new army, rather late in the year, and made his way east. King Philip V marched an army of 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry to meet him. Yet nothing more ever came of it other than two skirmishes between the two sides. On either occasion King Philip withdrew. Finally Sulpicius pulled back for lack of supplies.
It had been a far from a convincing display by Rome thus far. Sulpicius had started his campaign too late in the year, had largely inexperienced troops under his command and was showing little initiative of his own.
More worryingly, the initial hope for a large number of allies had come to nothing. Rhodes and Pergamum contributed little. Neither did any other Greek state. Even the tribal Dardanians north of Macedon, whose loose alliance Rome had gained for the purposes of this war proved ineffectual.
Only the Aetolian League was the only significant ally gained in 200 BC, who put effective troops into the field.
Yet Rome proved no better an ally than most of the Greek states she had assumed would join against Macedon. All through 199 BC it was the Aetolians who bore the brunt of the fighting. Rome did advance at first, but only to retire due to insufficient supplies. If the Aetolians at first made good progress, they were soon thrown back, suffering great losses against the vastly superior Macedonians.
The joint Roman and allied fleets in the Aegean fared no better, achieving little, if anything at all.
Titus Quinctius Flamininus
In 198 BC, with the war a dismal failure so far, consul Titus Quinctius Flamininus, only 30 years of age, was dispatched to assume command. Flamininus was an exceptional individual, with great knowledge of Greek literature and culture. Militarily he was an adept commander. He had served as a tribune under Marcellus during the war against Carthage. But it was his diplomatic skill that should prove invaluable in labyrinthine Greek politics.
Right from the beginning of his involvement in Greece, Flamininus made it clear that his intention was to drive Macedon completely from all her Greek territories, to be confined within her own boundaries.
Yet Flamininus immediate concerns were that his army, as it marched east from Epirus, got pinned down in the valley of the river Aous for several weeks. After having held the Romans in check for a month, Philip V of Macedon offered to negotiate. But Flamininus terms remained unchanged.
t was six weeks into the stalemate until an Epirote shepherd revealed to the general a little known pass through which Philip’s fortified positions could be bypassed. Flamininus saw his opportunity and forced his way through the Aous valley into Thessaly. With this he had finally managed to reach his allies of the Aetolian League again.
Better yet, the Achaean League, who had remained resolutely neutral so far, now joined forces with Rome.
But still Flamininus did not attack, knowing that it would mean trying to force his way passed a firmly entrenched Macedonian army, a fete impossible with the forces he had available.
The end of 198 BC came to an end with Rome in a stronger position, but little actual achievement. Again Philip sought to negotiate. Again no resolution could be found. Rome considered withdrawing Flamininus from Greece (no lesser than Scipio Africanus wanted the position), but eventually decided to extend his tenure.
By 197 BC the strain of war began to become too great a burden for Macedon. King Philip was receiving no support at all from his ally, King Antiochus III of Syria.
Meanwhile, his borders were virtually besieged by a joint force of Romans and Aetolians and to the south, in the Peloponnese, the Achaean League was now at liberty to attack Macedonian territory. Even the city of Corinth, Macedon’s singular, yet faithful ally, was under siege.
Meanwhile the sea belonged to the Rhodes, Pergamum and the mighty Roman navy.
The Battle of Cynoscephalae
King Philip sought to achieve a decision and marched his army, 25,000 strong, into Thessaly. This changed matters for Flaminius. As the Macedonians marched down from their defensive positions on the border between Macedon and Thessaly, it was evident that victory would be sought in the field.
Flamininus gathered what Aetolian reinforcements he could and marched to meet the enemy.
Philip sought to reach Scotussa in the valley of Enipeus, where the open, flat ground was ideally suited his heavy phalanx.
However, before he managed to reach this desired location, the two forces met at a range of hills known as Cynoscephalae (Chalkodonion). (197 BC)
Battle of Cynoscephalae
The battle of Cynoscephalae was a crushing victory for Rome. It brought the Second Macedonian War to an end and allowed Flaminius to dictate his terms – not merely to his vanquished Macedonian opponent, but so too to his Greek allies.
He was charged by Rome with the settlement of Greek affairs and sent ten commissioners to assist him in this tricky task.
Macedon was to withdraw from all of Greece, was to surrender its fleet and was to provide hostages (among them King Philip’s own son, Demetrius).
Flamininus appeared at the Isthmian Games at Corinth in 196 BC and announced that Rome had only come to set free the Greek states from Macedonian tyranny and would withdraw once all was settled. The Greeks were jubilant.
Read More: Roman Games
Chief winners in his settlement was the Achaean League which now controlled almost all the Peloponnese. The Athenias received several islands (Paros, Scyros and Imbros). The Aetolian League though felt bitterly disappointed. Had Thessaly been freed from Macedonian occupation the Aetolians had expected it to be turned over to them. They were only to receive a small part of it, the rest of Thessaly’s towns being granted independent status.
It is clear that Flamininus was keen to preserve the balance of power in Greece. But the settlement felt like a betrayal to the Aetolians who had for much of the war borne the brunt of the fighting.
This ill feeling between Rome and the Aetolian League should have far reaching consequences, which at the time most likely no one could have foreseen.
True to his word at the Isthmian Games, Flaminius did withdrew the last Roman garrisons from the legendary ‘Fetters of Greece’ (the fortresses of Demetrias, Chalcis and Corinth) and sailed home (194 BC).
War against Nabis
Part of the mire of Greek politics which kept Flamininus from leaving was unfinished business from the Macedonian war surrounding King Nabis of Sparta.
As usual with all things Greek, it was a convoluted political affair which led to a war. At During the course of the war the city of Argos had left the Achaean League and asked Philip V of Macedon for help. It was an unwise choice as Macedon was clearly not in any position to provide help.
Instead Philip asked King Nabis of Sparta to intervene on his behalf. Nabis, keen to gain such a rich prize, did so willingly. Though this unexpected windfall did not stop him from allying with Rome and providing Flamininus with Cretan mercenaries at the battle of Cynoscephalae.
But with the Macedonian war over, the Achaean League now wanted to settle matters with Nabis, whom they considered little more than a bandit.
Importantly, Nabis’ rule of Argos was little more than a reign of terror.
Flamininus led an army into the Peloponnese and laid siege to Sparta. (195 BC) Nabis stood no chance against such an overwhelming force. He put up a valiant attempt at resistance but eventually had to submit.
The city of Argos was reintegrated into the Achaean League. So too were several other coastal towns of Spartan dominated Laconia made over to the Achaeans. But Flamininus resisted their demands to remove Nabis and do away with Spartan independence altogether. Once more Flamininus was keen not to provide any Greek state with too much power.
His work in Greece finally completed, Flamininus returned home. (194 BC)
War against Antiochus
Rome no longer had any troops in Greece, yet it was clear that the regional powers of Greece had been allotted their territories according to Roman will.
To the Aetolian League, who felt betrayed, this arrogant highhandedness seemed intolerable. To the Aetolians it appeared as though Greece was being treated as though she had been conquered.
Finally the Aetolian League appealed to King Antiochus III of Syria to come to their aid. Antiochus had concluded his successful war against Egypt and even achieved an alliance with King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. He had also made peace with Rhodes.
King Antiochus’ standing was unrivalled among the rulers of the successor states of Alexander’s empire.
Now this great king was called upon to liberate Greece from Roman oppression. More, so a ready, powerful ally already awaited him, promising other would follow if only he led his forces into Greece.
As it was, the two parties engaged in deluding each other. The Aetolian League had been desperately seeking to find supporters among the Greek states for action against Rome, but had found none interested.
In an odd reversal of their recent position, the Aetolians even approached Macedon. But King Philip V, having not received one scrap of support from Syria in his recent war against Rome, now had no intention of lending support to Antiochus.
Meanwhile, Antiochus who claimed that he could pour fourth the massed ranks of Asia, alike a second Xerxes, was truly in no position to do so.
Antiochus landed in 192 BC at Demetrias in Thessaly, which the Aetolian League had successfully acquired in a coup. But his forces numbered no more than 10,000.
The plentiful allies promised by the Aetolian League never came. Far more Philip V of Maecedon and, possibly, the Achaean League allied with Rome at the arrival of the Syrian army.
Rome again was ill prepared for another war in Greece. Not least as she had wars in Liguria and Spain to contend with. War commenced in 192 BC on a small scale. But what few Roman troops Rome used, soon found themselves cut off in Boeotia.
In 191 BC Rome therefore sent a force of 20,000 infantry, accompanied by cavalry and elephants under the command of consul M. Acilius Glabrio.
Glabrio marched on Thessaly and Antiochus at once retreated to the famed pass of Thermophylae, where once King Leonidas of Sparta had held back Xerxes’ vast host in battle.
In a strange parody of history, two foreign armies were about to contest the famous gates of Greece, both claiming to be liberators.
Antiochus set up camp in the pass of Thermopylae and blocked it with a stone rampart. Remembering how the Persians had defeated Leonidas, he sent 2,000 of his Aetolian allies to block the hidden path set within the heights above the pass.
When Glabrio arrived, he found his enemy well entrenched in an almost unassailable position. Nonetheless he advanced, pinning the great Syrian force into its defensive position, while he sent Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder) and Lucius Valerius with 2,000 men each up the path into the heights to meet the Aetolians.
Having twice the numbers, the Romans succeeded in forcing the pathway and then descended upon the pass from the rear.
Antiochus’ army, all aware of the importance of the path no doubt, panicked and began to flee. King Antiochus successfully got away. But his dissolving army was slaughtered as the men desperately sought to escape the crush of the advancing Roman pincer movement. (191 BC)
As Antiochus fled Greece, the Aetolian League requested Rome’s terms for peace. Consul Glabrio bluntly demanded unconditional surrender and prepared to attack.
The Fight for the control of the Aegean
Meanwhile at sea later that year, the Syrian navy would meet the joint navies of Rome and Pergamum, commanded by Gaius Livius and King Eumenes, at Cape Corcyrus (Koraka). King Antiochus’ admiral Polyxenidas sought to engage the allied navy before it could further unite with the Rhodian fleet. Again it was a dire defeat for the Syrians. (191 BC)
On the mainland of Asia Minor itself Rome’s ally Pergamum was being sore pressed, not least by the ravaging of the countryside by King Antiochus’ son, Seleucus.
In spring of 190 BC a surprise attack against the Rhodian fleet by the Syrian fleet under Polyxenidas all but destroyed the Rhodian navy.
Yet another naval encounter in the summer of 190 BC saw the return of Hannibal Barca. King Antiochus had so far made very little use of this military genius whose name was legendary within his lifetime.
Had he ever entrusted his land-based force to Hannibal one wonders what might have been. But with a fleet of over 50 ships the Carthaginian met the Rhodian fleet off Side. It was a close run affair and at one point the Rhodian flagship with admiral Eudamus aboard was almost overcome. But the Rhodians managed to make their greater naval skill tell. Not more than 20 Syrian ships, including that of Hannibal, managed to escape.
The decisive naval battle came followed later in 190 BC at Cape Myonnesus (Doganbey). A joint roman and Rhodian fleet of 80 vessels commanded by Aemilius Regillus met a fleet of 89 Syrian ships commanded by Polyxenidas.
The Syrian line of ships broke, its admiral fled and, seeing this, so too did the rest of the fleet. The Syrians may have lost as many as 42 ships. After this defeat King Antiochus was no longer able to challenge allied dominance of the sea. The way was now clear for Rome to invade Asia Minor.
Rome enters Asia for the first time
The consulship for 190 BC and the commission to oversee the war against Antiochus fell to Lucius Cornelius Scipio (the brother of Scipio Africanus). Lucius Scipio had no great experience of military matters and hence his older brother Scipio Africanus accompanied him to oversee the army.
Rome had no interest in releasing her armies upon the Aetolian League, as Glabrio had intended, while King Antiochus still posed a threat from across the sea.
The brothers Scipio were intent on taking the war into Asia Minor and hence granted the Aetolians a simple cease fire until terms could be agreed (which occurred in 189 BC).
The Roman army marched from Greece to the Dardanelles in preparation for an invasion. Macedon, now an ally of Rome, provided the brothers Scipio every help. King Philip V of Macedon even provided the Roman army with ready supplies and escort ships as they ferried across the straits to Asia Minor.
Antiochus III of Syria, who had lost control of the sea in the naval war, meanwhile withdrew his troops from the coasts in Asia Minor, awaiting the Roman attack. Syria may have been on the defensive but all was far from lost for her.
Rome may have defeated King Antiochus at Thermopylae, but that had been a smaller Syrian invasion force, short of useful allies. Now, on his own soil, King Antiochus could command a much greater force.
Having withdrawn across the river Phrygius ( Kum Cay), the king awaited the Romans with a force of 60,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. The Romans advanced on the Syrian position with 30,000 men.
However, King Antiochus was well aware of the disparity in quality of the two armies facing each other. In negotiations he hence offered to withdraw from the Aegean coastal territories of Asia Minor he had acquired recently and to pay half the Roman war expense. The Roman response was harsh.
Antiochus was to pay the entire cost of the Roman war and was to retire from all of Asia Minor. These were demands King Antiochus III of Syria couldn’t possibly accept. Rome was demanding he surrender half his kingdom, whilst putting into the field an army less than half the size of his. Inevitably a decision had to be sought in battle.
The Battle of Magnesia
It was December 190 BC when the two forces met in battle at Magnesia.
The vast force of 72,000 men King Antiochus had at his command was made up of warriors gathered from all over the vast Syrian kingdom, or mercenaries from beyond its far flung borders; Celts from Galatia, horsemen from Media, Scythians, archers from as far a field as Elam, even Arabian dromedary archers.
Aside from these impressive units, there were also numerous war elephants and four-horse scythed chariots present.
Yet this spectacular display of imperial grandeur lay at the heart of the very weakness of the king’s great army. The units, though most likely of superb quality, spoke different languages and had no experience of fighting alongside each other as an army.
The Romans meanwhile had a central force of 20,000 Roman and Italian men to count on, supported by 10,000 auxiliaries (Pergamene and, probably, Achaean forces). Scipio Africanus was seriously ill and could hence not play any part in the battle.
Joint command fell hence to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and King Eumenes II of Pergamum.
The battle was partly obscured to all present by thick mist, making it impossible for the centre of either army to observe what was happening on the wings.
Once battle commenced King Eumenes, leading his cavalry and light troops on the Roman right, drove off the cavalry and chariots of the Syrian left and successfully disrupted the flank of the Syrian phalanx. The Roman centre saw its chance and advanced, forcing back the Syrian phalanx which was struggling to maintain its line, due to the trouble on its left.
Only on the Syrian right wing did things go well. As it turned out, things went too well. King Antiochus himself led a cavalry charge which threw the Roman left into disarray. As the king drove home his advantage, his cavalry became detached from his army. Hidden in the mist, the great Syrian army was hard pressed and in dire need of leadership, yet it received none.
Antiochus himself was driven off, once he advanced too far and suddenly found his cavalry assailed from front and rear.
Stripped of its protective cavalry on right and left, the vast Syrian infantry now stood no chance. It eventually broke and fled. King Antiochus suffered a crushing defeat. He lost 50,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry.
The Romans lost 350 men.
Roman settlement of Asia Minor
The peace terms offered by the brothers Scipio were roughly the same as they had been prior to the Battle of Magnesia. King Antiochus was to retire from Turkey and pay 15,000 talents, a colossal sum.
Cappadocia and the two Armenian dominions were confirmed as independent kingdoms.
Pergamum received large tracts of land in Asia Minor and the Chersonese Peninsula (Gallipolli). Rhodes meanwhile received Caria and Lycia in reward for her vital alliance.
In keeping with Rome’s claim to be the guardian of Greece all Greek towns, but for those owned by Pergamum, were declared free. The Aetolian League suffered a loss of some land to Macedon and the Achaean League and was effectively made a dependency of Rome.
This settlement seems generally fair. But political enemies of the brothers Scipio back in Rome sought to discredit their opponents, by insisting the terms upon Syria must be more severe. Gnaeus Manlius Vulso was sent to take the role of Lucius Scipio.
New terms were stated, whereby King Antiochus now had to surrender all his fleet, but for ten vessels, and give up all his war elephants. Further he was to agree never to make war in Europe or in the Aegean Sea. He was not to make any allies among the Greeks.
The terms were harsh and the subsequent decline of Syria was no doubt a consequence of the senate’s insistence for the toughest terms possible. (188BC)
For the Scipii worse was to follow. Their enemies, foremost among them Cato the Elder, would not rest. On returning home the brothers were charged with embezzlement. Scipio Africanus escaped conviction as, by strange coincidence, the date of his trial fall on the very anniversary of his victory at the Battle of Zama. Rather than hold a trial, the people followed him to the Capitoline for a ritual sacrifice and thanksgiving.
Lucius Scipio was not so lucky. He was convicted and punished. Scipio Africanus thereafter retired to his villa at Liternum where he spent the last years of his life a recluse. It was a sad end to one of Rome’s finest generals and statesmen.
Meanwhile the man sent to succeed Lucius Scipio in 189 BC consul Ganeus Manlius Vulso saw fit to deal with the troublesome Celtic tribes who had invaded Asia Minor and had been harassing the various kingdoms.
This brief campaign, generally known as the Galatian Expedition, reached its climax when the Romans attacked the Celts fortified position on Mount Magaba (Elmadagi), ten miles south of Ancyra (Ankara).
The enemy was said to number some 60,000 men, of whom 8,000 were killed. After this the tribesmen sued for peace. They were granted independence, to act as a buffer between the territories of Rome’s allies and the remaining Syrian domain.
Death of Hannibal
Rome had one more item of unfinished business in Asia Minor. One of the specific conditions laid down in the terms for King Antiochus was that Hannibal Barca had to be surrendered to Rome. So terrifying was Hannibal still to Romans that his person obsessed their imagination.
But Hannibal received sufficient warning to flee to the court of King Prusias of Bithynia. King Prusias in turn had great use for a man of Hannibal’s talents, as in 186 BC he engaged in a war with Pergamum. Hannibal indeed achieved some successes against the forces of King Eumenes.
But before long no lesser than Titus Quinctius Flamininus, the victor of Cynoscephalae, was in the East on a diplomatic mission and sent a demand to King Prusias, on behalf of the Roman senate, that Hannibal be surrendered at once. (183 BC)
Bithynia was in no position to oppose the might of Rome. Prusias sent soldiers to Hannibal’s residence. Yet the Hannibal Barca, one of the supreme military geniuses of history, was not to surrender himself to the indignity of being dragged through the streets of Rome in chains. He took his life by poison. (183 BC)
The petty manner in which Rome pursued her erstwhile nemesis seems cruel and vindictive. But it is best explained as a measure of the sheer fear that the name Hannibal instilled in her. Also one should never forget the sheer loss of life Italy had suffered at the hands of Hannibal. With so many people having suffered bereavement it is hardly surprising that the appetite for revenge was there to drive Hannibal to destruction.
Aftermath of War against Antiochus
What is astonishing is that Rome had managed achieve dominance of the Greek world in only two major battles; Cynoscephalae and Magnesia.
Seen as a whole the Greek world represented a much greater military power than Rome. Yet the Alexandrian successor states of Egypt, Syria and Macedon, as well as smaller Greek kingdoms and Leagues were reduced to little more than the status of client states.
In a remarkably brief space of time Rome had achieved preeminence in the eastern Mediterranean, even if she didn’t own territory there. More remarkable, Rome achieved such power by conflicts into which she had entered only reluctantly.
Rome would hence be the arbiter to whom rival states would henceforth turn to settle disputes. Her prestige was such, that the disappointed party would not dare question the decision.
It is important to keep in mind Rome’s preeminence in the region, established after the Second Macedonian War and the War against Antiochus, when viewing the later eastern wars and subsequent conquest of the east. For the essential basis of Rome’s eventual rule over the region had been laid in those two great victories.
Rome’s later victories and conquests in the region came as a result of challenges to her dominance. Yet her de facto overlordship was established after Cynoscephalae and Magnesia.
Wars in Liguria and Istria
Rome had managed to establish two naval bases on the coast of Liguria, Genua ( Genoa and Luna (Spezia, before the Second Punic War. A pass connecting Genua with the Padus (Pod) valley had also been cleared in 197 BC.
The mountainous country of the Ligurians though remained otherwise untouched.
Ligurian and Sardinian piracy, however, meant that Rome soon had a strong interest in establishing her rule over this terrain. Also the fierce Ligurian tribes remained an irritation next to the newly pacified territory of Cisalpine Gaul.
Very little is known though about the details of the Ligurian Wars. What is known is that the Ligurian people proved incredibly resilient to Rome.
The Romans suffered several reverses as they sought to fight in unfamiliar terrain against a truly fearsome enemy.
The fighting was not merely restricted to Liguria itself. At times it would be the Ligurians who took the initiative. In 192 BC they were defeated at Pisae (Pisa), albeit that little is known about the encounter.
In the 180s BC at times not merely one, but two consular armies were sent to defeat them. Given the small size of Liguria, the fact that they should be able to hold two consular armies at bay regarding the ferociousness of the local tribes.
In 180 BC L. Aemilius Paullus succeeded in subduing the tribe of the Apuani who lived between Genua and Luna. So troublesome were these people deemed they were deported to live in Samnium thereafter.
In 177 BC a large battle took place at the river Scultenna Panaro near Pisae, consul Gaius Claudius leading the Romans. 15,000 Ligurians are said to have died in this encounter.
A year later, 176 BC, another battle at Campi Macri near Mutina (Modena) saw the Ligurians defeated again. So severe was the fighting though, that the Roman consul commanding, Quintus Petilius, died in the battle.
Throughout most of the 170s BC the Ligurians resisted valiantly. But gradually, one by one the hilltops were seized and Rome succeeded in stamping her authority over this barren strip of land.
The last decisive battle was north of Genua at a town called Carystus (173 BC). Consul Marcus Populius defeated the Ligurian army. 10,000 Ligurians died whilst the Romans lost 3,000 men. Thereafter the Ligurians surrendered unconditionally. A fete which had taken them a quarter of a century to achieve.
Another, though much shorter less bitter contest to secure the northern flanks of Italy was conducted in Istria. Rome intervened here for much the same reasons as with the Ligurians. The local Histri made much of their living, alike their Illyrian neighbours, by means of piracy.
Consul Aulus Manlius Vulso was to oversee a successful campaign (178-177 BC), albeit it that it begun with an embarrassing spectacle.
Having made his camp at the river Timavus (Timavo) he created several lightly manned outposts to guard against surprise attack. As some of these outposts were attacked by the Histri in the morning mist, panicked Roman guards came fleeing back to the camp, in their excitement exaggerating the size of the mainly unseen enemy and telling of a vast army approaching in the fog.
The news caused panic in the Roman camp and most present fled towards the ships. Only one tribune stayed behind with a handful of Roman units. They posed little problem for what limited Istrian force then finally did try an assault on the camp.
Once consul Manlius, already back aboard his ship, realized that there was no vast horde of barbarians the tribune and his few men had been overcome and slaughtered.
However, when the Romans reached their own camp again it was only to find the Istrians utterly drunk. They’d evidently come across the wine supply and thrown caution to the wind. 8,000 of them were killed. What number remained managed to make an escape.
This embarrassing episode behind them, the Romans succeeded in regaining their military discipline and subdued all of Istria within the following year.
Misrule of Spain
One unintended consequence of victory in the Second Punic War was that Rome gained possession of Carthage’s territories in Spain. The Spanish possessions however proved a difficult inheritance. The allegiance of the numerous Spanish tribes proved of very fickle. Meanwhile, the Spanish were fearsome warriors who proved nigh on impossible to subdue.
However, the sheer mineral wealth of the country, which had originally drawn the Carthaginians to the peninsula were a phenomenal prize and Rome was determined to secure permanent possession of these riches.
It was to prove an exceedingly long struggle.
Sixty years would pass before Roman authority was solidly established. Not until the rule of emperor Augustus would Spain finally be completely subdued. In 197 BC Spain was constituted into two colonies; Hispania Citerior (Hither Spain) and Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain).
Having seen the loyalty with which the Spaniards had adhered to Scipio Africanus the senate assumed the area as good as pacified, handed command of it to magistrates of rank of praetor only and withdrew most of the troops, leaving only 8,000 Italian auxiliaries in each colony. It proved a costly mistake. No doubt the senate’s attention was drawn to affairs of Macedon, Greece and Syria in comparison to which Spain an irrelevant backwater.
The bitterness of the fighting in Spain, however, was also reflected in the nature of provincial government. Spain was far from Rome and the senate. There were hence few restraints on a scrupulous governor. Just as the rule of Sicily was infamously savage, so too was that of the Spanish dominions.
Cruelty was the order of the day.
Treaties whereby some cities were free, were simply ignored by greedy governors who squeezed them for all they could. Any protests or petitions were answered with brutality. The brief tenures of Cato the Elder and Gracchus were merely short interludes in which governance was said to be fair due to the upstanding nature of these two individuals.
In any other year, Roman overlordship was tantamount to tyranny and oppression. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Spaniards were intent on resisting conquest to the last.
Rising in Spain
However, the very year in which the Roman provinces were established, 197 BC, and denuded of troops war broke out as the tribe of the Turdenati rose in revolt. The praetor of Hispania Citerior saw his forces routed and lost his life at an unknown location.
Two years later saw a general rising of the Celtiberian tribes of central Spain. In a pitched battle near Turda the Spaniards destroyed another Roman army, causing the loss of 12,000 men. (195 BC)
In the same year, as Marcus Helvius was leaving Hispania Ulterior for home with 6,000 troops they were ambushed near the town of Iliturgi by 20,000 Celtiberians. They succeeded in repulsing the attack, killed 12,000 of them. Already in these early years, the nature of warfare grew bitter. Having driven off the Spanish army, the Romans descended upon the town and massacred the population. (195 BC)
It wasn’t long before Rome posted a consul (Cato the Elder) to Spain with an army to try and quell the unrest. Marcus Porcius Cato landed his troops at Emporiae (Ampurias) where he brought the Spaniards to battle.
The losses on either side are unknown, but there are said to have been a meeting of two great armies. The defeat the Spaniards suffered when lured into an ambush was to have been a crushing one. In consequence the country and towns north of Ebro surrendered to Roman rule.
Some semblance of order may have been restored, but no sooner did the consular army withdraw then mayhem ensued again on the peninsula.
However, by 194 BC the Turdetani were finally defeated and subdued by P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica.
The Spaniards were a tribal people who knew how to make the most out the difficult, mountainous terrain they inhabited. Unlike in the wars Rome fought in the Greek world, decisions were usually not reached by one huge, pitched battle.
What followed instead were endless small engagements, never sufficient to crush the loser or grant the victor an unassailable advantage. The accounts of the wars in Spain are fairly patchy, so we lack the detail of knowledge which we have of the contemporary Roman wars against the Greeks.
In the large engagements into which the Spaniards did enter, Rome tended to emerge victorious. In 181 BC the Battle of Aebura saw an army of 35,000 Spaniards defeated, whereby 23,000 were killed and 4,700 were taken prisoner.
The very next year Fulvius Flaccus defeated another great force at the Battle of the Manlian Pass. 17,000 of the enemy lay dead and 3,700 were captured. Finally, in 179 BC the Celtiberian Rising was put down by praetor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus at the Battle of Mount Chaunus, where another 22,000 tribesmen lost their lives.
The success of Gracchus was not solely down to military prowess. Much more was it that, unlike anyone since Scipio Africanus, he gained the trust of the Spanish tribes. Spain, it seemed, could be pacified by a charismatic leader who won the respect of the chieftains.
Gracchus impact on Spain was so significant that the relative peace, established prior to his departure in 177 BC was to last for some 25 years.
Third Macedonian War
King Philip V of Macedon had died in 179 BC. In his latter years he may have been a reluctant ally of Rome, but he had also diligently rebuilt his military power since his great defeat at Cynoscephalae. By the time his son Perseus succeeded to the throne, Macedon had indeed recovered much of her wealth and military might.
Right from the start Rome distrusted Perseus as he had plotted against his younger brother Demetrius, assuring his execution for treason, during his father’s reign.
Demetrius had been on diplomatic missions to Rome, where he had been on friendly terms with the senate and had been seen as a possible alternative heir to Philip’s throne.
On taking power King Perseus began to expand the power and influence of Macedon. He had married Laodice the daughter of the King Seleucus VI of Syria (successor of Antiochus III) and had married his sister Apame to King Prusias of Bithynia.
Meanwhile, he was building diplomatic bridges in mainland Greece and finding ready followers among the many disaffected and bankrupted Greeks desperate for any dramatic turn of fate that might restore their fortunes.
His proclamation that all Greeks who were dissatisfied with affairs should gather at his court in Macedon was a clear statement of intent. He, King Perseus of Macedon, was the new liberator of Greece. Perseus also built alliances with the Illyrian chief Genthius and the powerful Thracian prince Cotys.
Even Rhodes appeared to take a friendly attitude toward the new king. Had Rome laboured to build a delicate balance of power within the Greek world, Perseus’ ambitiousness now threatened this.
Macedon’s implacable enemy was King Eumenes II of Pergamum. As Rome’s most trusted ally in the region he enjoyed considerable influence with the senate.
His warnings went unheard until in 172 BC he traveled to Rome himself and presented to the senate his warning of the danger Perseus represented.
(Such was Rome’s prestige by now that an eastern monarch would beseech the senate in person for her intervention!)
Most likely King Eumenes’ visit was sufficient to sway Rome to intervene, no matter how reluctant. However, if it did not suffice then the fact that Eumenes was ambushed on his way home and left for dead clearly made up their minds that a deadly network of intrigues and plots was being crafted by Macedon’s new ruler.
As a pretext for war, Rome demanded that Macedon pay reparation to allied Balkan tribes who had suffered attacks by Macedon. Perseus refused. (172 BC)
But as Rome was not in a position to engage in war at once, not least due to her commitments in Spain, she instead sent Quintus Marcius Philippus to open lengthy negotiations with Perseus, holding out the prospect of a peace. The gesture was utterly insincere as it was merely a ruse by which to buy enough time to secure Rome’s position in Greece and prepare an army.
Rome’s diplomatic interventions though also assured that, at the declaration of war, Macedon had no allies. Whatever the sympathies for Macedon may have been, no Greek state wished to stand in the way of Rome’s legions.
The preparations complete, Rome landed an army at Apollonia in spring of 171 BC. Just as she had drifted into the war reluctantly, even disinterestedly, then so too Rome’s initial conduct in the conflict was half-hearted.
Rome had sent forth consul P. Licinius Crassus to deal with an enemy who had already been defeated once and was no doubt not deemed as great a challenge as it had once been. The Roman consular army did indeed number 30,000 men, yet it was an ill-disciplined and ill-prepared force.
Just how badly prepared the Roman force was quickly emerged at its first major encounter.
They were to meet with the Macedonian army of 40,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry in Thessaly which Perseus had invaded at the beginning of the war.
At the Battle of Callinicus, which took place some 3 miles from Larissa (Larisa), the entire Roman consular force was put to rout by the army of Perseus. (171 BC) What saved the Roman force from total destruction was that in the headlong pursuit of the fleeing enemy, the Macedonian forces fell into disorder and hence chose to pull back.
Such was the success of Macedonian forces that Perseus offered peace.
Rome rejected it out of hand. Had she seen her dominance of the Mediterranean acknowledged as far as Syria and Egypt, a defeat by Macedon would rendered such Roman authority nil and void.
Rome would struggle on for two years, her armies demoralized and her generals incompetent or corrupt. Within this time Rome’s prestige within the wider region suffered. Her defeat at Callinicus, though not decisive had shown Rome’s hold on power was not as irreversible as most had thought.
Slowly resistance to Roman dominance began to stir. After Callinicus the republic of Epirus had decided to back Perseus.
In various parts of Greece, sentiments ran high. None of this was helped by Rome treating the forces of its own allies in the field with indifferent harshness. To add to this, several towns in Boeotia were sacked by the Romans.
With Rome seemingly unable to defeat Macedon, her grasp over the region was tottering. Back in Rome the envoys of Rhodes delivered an arrogant, haughty lecture to the senate upon the errors of her conduct – a misjudgment Rhodes later would pay for dearly. Macedon’s ally Genthius was beginning to cause trouble in Illyria.
It seemed the tide was turning against Rome.
Had Perseus acted decisively, had allies arisen in numbers, Greece may have regained her freedom. But King Perseus remained inactive and no great rising against Rome took place.
Finally in 169 BC Quintus Marcius Philippus (the man who had been stalling with insincere negotiations in preparation for war) forced his way through the heavily forested slope of Mt. Olympus on the border to Macedon.
It was a reckless manoeuvre which exhausted his army and left him beyond the reach of supplies.
Yet so taken by surprise was Perseus that, rather than exploit his opponent’s fatal error he abandoned the entire frontier of Macedon and withdrew further into his kingdom.
The stalemate now continued with the two armies facing each other until in 168 the veteran commander from the Spanish and Ligurian wars Lucius Aemilius Paulus was sent with reinforcements to take command. Remarkably, the war was now in its fourth year.
Paulus took himself several weeks to drill the army into shape and instill proper army discipline.
The Battle of Pydna
Paulus forced his way past the current entrenched positions at Mt Olympus and finally brought Perseus to battle at Pydna. (summer, 168 BC) The battle itself began by the most cursory of incidents. An attempt to capture a loose horse by the Romans resulted in a skirmish, which in turn escalated into a full-scale battle.
The Macedonian phalanx advanced, sweeping all before it. The Roman legions were simply driven back, unable to resist the drive of the Macedonian line. Paulus would later tell of his terror at the sight of the Macedonian phalanx advancing.
But as the Macedonian force advanced over rough ground small breaches appeared in its line. Paulus ordered small groups to attack these gaps when they occurred.
The phalanx not being designed to repel such impromptu assaults stood no chance and collapsed.
If 80 to 100 Romans are reported to have died in the advance of the phalanx, the slaughter which ensued once the Macedonian lines broke cost the lives of 25,000 of Perseus’ men. It was a thoroughly crushing defeat. The Roman legionary system had once again triumphed over the Greek phalanx.
Aftermath of Third Macedonian War
Rome’s behaviour following her victory at Pydna could be described as vengeance, tipped with malice.
King Perseus fled from the battlefield of Pydna and boarded a ship, but was soon forced to surrender himself to the Roman fleet. He was paraded to the Roman public at Paulus’ triumph and spent the rest of his days exiled to Alba Fucens in the Marsian hills in Italy.
Rome was not finished though after her victory at Pydna and dispatched a second force to Illyria. A swift campaign in 168 BC defeated the Illyrians and brought Genthius back a prisoner.
In 168 BC the Rhodians had sought to mediate between Rome and Macedon. Rhodes indeed had a longstanding tradition of such diplomacy in settling quarrels between Greek states.
However, the news of the victory at Pydna reached Rome in advance of the Rhodian diplomats. As a consequence their intervention right after Rome’s victory appeared to the Romans as an attempt to protect Perseus, once he had been defeated.
The senate also still remembered the arrogant lecture it had received by the Rhodians, when Roman power in Greece had seemed to be on the wane.
For Rhodes it spelled disaster. One praetor even suggested war. But Cato the Elder counseled against it, realizing that no real malice had been intended with the bid to mediate.
This was however not accomplished without the utter humiliation of the Rhodian envoys who prostrated themselves before the senators, pleading tearfully for their city not to be destroyed.
Rhodes was to lose her territories in Caria and Lycia which had been granted her after the War against Antiochus. Furthermore she was to suffer a terrible blow to its trade with the punitive creation of the famous free port on the island of Delos.
But by 165/164 BC Rhodes was at last recognized as an ally of Rome again.
The creation of the free port of Delos was to have significant ramifications upon the Mediterraenan. Rhodes’ economy was ruined by it and she could no longer afford to maintain her substantial war fleet. Without Rhodian patrols in eastern waters, pirates soon began to prosper. It would take a century before piracy was brought back under control.
In 171 BC, after the Roman defeat at Callinicus, Epirus had allied herself with Macedon. But all throughout the war Epirots had never provided the Macedonians with any help. Their allegiance may indeed have been induced purely by fear.
Now, however, this fateful alliance should cost them dearly.
In 167 BC Aemilius Paulus was charged by the senate with launching a punitive campaign upon Epirus. The raid by the Roman legions was horrific and no less than 150,000 Epirots were carried away into slavery and sold.
Flamininus and the Scipii may have shown leniency toward Greece in settling previous wars. But the likes of Paulus and Cato were vicious in their insistence on Roman vengeance.
In Aetolia the Romans granted their support to factions who set about massacring suspected friends of the Macedonian cause.
Perhaps most unfair of all was the treatment of the Achaean League.
Throughout the war against King Perseus the Achaeans had remained unwaveringly loyal to Rome. Yet now Rome extended a spy network across all Greece. A purge was organized to rid all Greece of anti-Roman leaders. Neighbour denounced neighbour. People deemed troublesome were simply deported to Italy.
Among such outrages 1,000 of Achaea’s leading citizen’s were deported to Etruria without trial.
The historian Polybius was perhaps to be the most famous among these hostages. It would be more than fifteen years, until in 150 BC the remaining 300 of these captives were freed and returned to Greece.
It is little surprise that all Greece henceforth harboured deep resentment toward Rome.
The Greek states were left free, albeit that they possessed virtually no independence anymore. Rome still sought not to absorb Macedon or Illyria into her empire.
Instead Macedon was divided into four independent republics, each administered by its own senate and each paying a tribute to Rome.
Illyria was divided into three republics along the same lines.
Rome it appeared still wanted to permanent commitment in the east. The creation of these feeble republics was always doomed to failure. The political and military conditions heaped upon them assured they could no longer pose a threat to Roman interest, but so too made them too weak to defend themselves.
Yet the division of Macedon and Illyria served as a perfect demonstration that Rome sought to exert influence upon the eastern Mediterranean, yet had no ambitions of seizing territory there.
Fourth Macedonian War
The weakness of the individual Macedonian republics was soon demonstrated, when an adventurer called Andriscus, who pretended to be the son of Perseus, sparked a rising and swept to power.
Impoverished by the crippling of her trade, Macedon in the twenty years following Rome’s victory at Pydna had fallen on desperate times.
The separate militias of the Macedonian republics simply could not contain the uprising. (150 BC)
Once again Rome’s efforts in Greece started badly. Andriscus crushingly defeated a hastily assembled Roman force and overran Thessaly in 149 BC.
Though Rome was not to underestimate her enemy twice and in 148 BC sent a powerful army under the command of Quintus Caecilius Metellus to deal with the matter.
Andriscus was defeated, driven from Macedon and finally run down and captured in Thrace. (148 BC)
As a consequence of the Fourth Macedonian War the experiment of dividing Macedon into republics was at an end. A new province of Macedonia was created mainly from the territories of Macedon, Thessaly and Epirus.
A new military highway, the Via Egnatia, was built from the port of Apollonia to the provincial capital of Thessalonica.
War against the Achaean League
The final disaster to befall Greece was the determination of Sparta to leave the Achaean League. The Roman senate, always keen to weaken any Greek state, indicated its consent. The Achaean League was outraged.
Given that only in 150 BC the surviving Greek hostages had returned which had been taken in the purge following the Third Macedonian War, hostility toward Rome ran high. Furthermore, Corinth was in a revolutionary ferment. The dictator Critolaus, who was fervently anti-Roman, had come to power in the city.
Rome meanwhile was busy in Spain and Carthage. Perhaps the Achaean League contented itself with the thought that Rome would not seek to engage in war over what was after all an interior and minor Greek affair, whilst she was occupied on several fronts.
In 148 BC the Achaean League marched on Sparta won victory in battle.
Matters may still have been resolved amicably. But Critolaus insulted and threatened Roman envoys which rendered any negotiations impossible.
Consequently, Quintus Caecilius Metellus marched his armies out of Macedon. There followed several smaller engagements, one of which saw the death of Critolaus. (146 BC) Metellus marched on Corinth, but the decisive battle fell to consul Lucius Mummius who had been especially dispatched with reinforcements from Italy and who arrived just in time to take command.
Roughly 14,000 Greek ramshackle infantry, consisting to a large part of freed slaves, and 600 cavalry faced 23,000 Roman infantry and 3,500 cavalry. The Greeks stood no chance. The exact Greek losses are disputed, but must have been very heavy. (146 BC)
The defenceless city of Corinth now faced the wrath of Rome. Most inhabitants had fled. Those who hadn’t were sold into slavery. The destruction of Corinth in 146 BC ranks among the most infamous occasions of Roman history.
ts instigator, the consul Lucius Mummius, is forevermore remembered as the figure of ham-fisted barbarity who destroyed one of the ancient world’s foremost cities of culture and learning.
Mummius may be best remembered for his instructions, when carrying off the manifold treasures of Corinth, that any man who broke one of the priceless works of art in transport, would have to replace it with an equivalent.
The defeat of 146 BC is traditionally determined as the end of Greek political history. Albeit that Greece technically remained as a collection of city states, free in all but name, she was effectively incorporated into the Roman province of Macedonia.
The governor of Macedonia was in fact authorized by the senate to interfere in Greek affairs, whenever he saw fit.
The tragic irony of Greek history is that Greece at last found a lasting peace under Roman domination; a peace she would most likely never have accomplished on her own.
Third Punic War
The settlement of the Second Punic War had seen the virtual monopoly of Carthaginian trade in the western Mediterranean broken, yet it had not succeeded in diminishing Carthage as an economic power. Within years Carthage was thriving anew, establishing new trade links deep into the African continent.
For all Rome’s military might she could not rival Carthage as the mercantile capital of the western Mediterranean. More so, Rome’s destruction of Capua, Italy’s foremost city of trade, during the war with Hannibal undoubtedly had only furthered Punic dominance.
Ten years after her surrender following the Battle of Zama, Carthage was able to repay in total the remaining 8,000 talents it was required to pay over the next 40 years. (The total sum had been 10,000 talents over 50 years.)
Furthermore Carthage had contributed free gifts of grain to Roman military operations in the east. Carthaginian ships and crews fought as part of the Roman navy.
There was no indication of Carthage possessing any further imperial ambitions. Her ruling class seemed to have dedicated itself to prospering by trade alone, leaving all ambitions of military supremacy firmly with Rome.
Yet, the peace treaty with Rome contained one fatal flaw. It forbade Carthage to take any military action, even in defence, without the expressed permission of Rome. However, the chief threat to Carthaginian territory was in fact King Masinissa of Numidia, who in turn was an ally of Rome.
Should trouble arise between Carthage and Numidia, it would be for Rome to choose if she would allow the Carthaginians to take up arms against one of her allies.
Masinissa knew all to well of the hatred Rome felt for Carthage, ever since the ordeal of Hannibal’s campaigns against her. Having secured his position in Numidia and having built a standing army of 50,000 men, Masinissa proceeded to invade Carthaginian territory, bit by bit.
Carthaginian protests to Rome went unanswered.
Masinissa had little to fear. He too was providing Roman armies with grain for free. He even provided war elephants to the Roman forces in Spain.
How possibly would Rome authorize Carthage to take military action against such a loyal ally?
In 152 BC a Roman delegation under P.Scipio Nasica did find in favour of Carthage and did order Masinissa to return some of the territory. The tradition of the Scipio family of showing leniency and fairness to the vanquished foe still seemed to hold. Rome meanwhile still seemed to respect the judgment of a Scipio concerning Carthage.
Masinissa however didn’t let such a minor setback deter him from resuming his incursions into Carthaginian territory. His ambition seemed to be nothing less than the conquest of all Carthaginian territory. But with his renewed aggression, Masinissa eventually pushed too far.
In 150 BC Carthaginian patience snapped. They assembled a force of fifty thousand and, in defiance of the peace treaty with Rome, confronted the Numidian army.
But Masinissa, by now in his nineties, was not to be defeated. The Carthaginian army was utterly destroyed. Yet Masinissa was not to enjoy his prize.
A much greater predator now cast its eye on Africa: Rome.
One might conclude that Rome sensed its opportunity of seizing its hated enemy, after it had suffered a defeat, before its avaricious Numidian neighbour conquered it.
But more so it was the ceaseless campaigning of Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder) which saw to it that the senate finally caved in and took action against Carthage.
Cato the Elder
Cato’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he truly believed that Rome could never be safe whilst a rich, powerful and independent port such as Carthage enjoyed her liberty.
Perhaps he was just a bitter old man, who saw the rich produce from the fertile fields of North Africa as a threat to the farmers of Italy. (One remembers how he is said to have dropped a African fig in the senate only to remind senators admiring the fallen fruit that Carthage lay only days away.)
Or, possibly, Cato’s political feud with the Scipii led him to seek to undermine their policy of leniency toward Carthage.
Either way, Cato succeeded in needling the senate and the comitia centuriata into action. In 149 BC war was declared on Carthage for breaching the terms of peace imposed by Scipio Africanus.
Rome now sent fourth her consuls Manilius and Censorinus at the head of an army of 80’000 infantry and 4’000 cavalry. They landed unopposed and set up camp near Utica.
Masinissa at once realized he was to be denied his prey and withdrew, refusing any support to the Roman enterprise.
Carthage surrendered at once.
What followed was a disgraceful charade, whereby the Romans apparently sought to negotiate terms with the Carthaginians.
First hostages were demanded. The Carthaginians without fail provided 300 youths from noble families. Next, all weaponry was to be surrendered. The Carthaginians handed over thousands of catapults and suits of armour, denuding themselves of any means of resistance.
At last the true terms were presented. The people were to abandon their great, ancient city and settle on a site ten miles removed from the coast.
The Roman terms were impossible. The Carthaginians were a people of the sea, a merchant nation founded on trade and seafaring.
But in her deceit Rome had made one vital miscalculation. Carthage was the fiercest foe she had ever met in the field. This city was imbued with an indomitable spirit which had brought forth a Hannibal Barca. She would not simply yield to trickery and disappear from history with a whimper.
The great city was now resolved on going down in history in a spectacular show of heroism that knows few equals. Knowing their case futile, the Carthaginians took on the might of the Roman empire one last time.
Punic resilience proved of epic proportions. In all of 149 and 148 BC the Roman troops made little progress against a city which had only recently surrendered them all its armaments. Even completing their siege works proved troublesome as they were harassed by Punic war bands in the hinterland.
To all intents and purposes the Roman campaign was in deep trouble, despite utter supremacy of arms.
Finally, in a remarkable turn of events a young officer serving in the army returned to Rome in 147 BC to stand for the office of aedile. Astonishingly the people conferred on him the consulship and command of their army at Carthage, albeit that he had no qualification for such high office and the senate counseled vehemently against such a move.
But he had shown great spirit and ability in Africa, even won the personal respect of the hostile Masinissa. – Most of all though his name was Scipio.
Better still he was the son by birth of Aemilius Paulus, the victor of the Third Macedonian War and the grandson of Scipio Africanus by adoption.
He was P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus.
What was needed to conquer Carthage was not brilliant strategy but drive, determination and most of all the ability to inspire. The Carthaginians, commanded by Hasdrubal, were contesting every inch of ground, accomplishing nigh on impossible fetes and appeared to all intents and purposes indefatigable. Rome needed a Scipio in whom to believe.
Throughout 147 CB Scipio Aemilianus pressed on with the siege, massive engineering works being undertaken to close the harbour entrance and so cut off the few vital supplies the enemy received by sea. Scipio Aemilianus then waited for winter to pass before in early 146 BC he ordered the assault. His troops clawed their way over the outer walls against ferocious resistance.
Even once the walls were taken, Carthage was not yet won. It took another week of vicious hand to hand fighting through day and night, the Romans needing to conquer one house at a time, until they reached the Byrsa, the city’s citadel. There, finally, the surviving 50,000 Carthaginians, after four years of struggle against the most impossible odds, surrendered.
Yet still there were many who preferred death by their own hand rather than to yield to the enemy. Most famous of all the wife of Hasdrubal flung her children and herself into the flames, rather than surrender.
The Punic Wars had been truly titanic struggles. The end of Carthage was equally epic, comparable in both spirit and scale to the destruction of Troy.
By order of the senate the city was razed to the ground, the place was ritually cursed and the soil was strewn with salt. Her remaining citizens were sold into slavery.
Aftermath to the Fall of Carthage
The immediately evident effect of Rome’s victory was that the city of Utica was now made the capital of the new Roman province of Africa.
Numidia remained a free ally of Rome, but with Masinissa having died during the first year of the conflict, his kingdom was now in the hands of his three quarreling sons and hence posed no threat. Tripolitania apparently also came under Roman rule, but was kept separate from the African province.
Rome’s destruction of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC was a hideous memorial to Roman supremacy of arms. There was now no foe who could oppose her.
The cruelty underlying such wanton destruction was most likely bred in the Second Punic War. The fight against Hannibal had hardened Roman hearts and fostered a generation of ruthless, even spiteful leaders who sought lasting, final solutions rather than mere victory. Although when one reads of Rome razing and despoiling great cities, one can but wonder what her contemporaries made of such apparent barbarity.
Yet the Roman victory established a new world order. Italian unity had overcome Greek politicking and Punic despotism. The defeat of the Greeks saw to it that Italy no longer lay under any threat from rivals to the east. More so, Rome dominated the east.
Meanwhile victory over Carthage had left no opposition to Roman occupation of the western Mediterranean other than the various tribes who lived there.
We must perhaps be forgiving towards the Roman acts of cruelty and deceit afforded the Carthaginians, Epirotes, Rhodians and Achaeans.
Rome was to be one of the great civilizing forces of history, destined to spread Hellenistic culture into the far flung reaches of the ancient world.
It appears unlikely that the bickering Greek city states or the despotic Carthaginians would have achieved this.
Nonetheless, it stands to reason that 146 BC was one of the darkest years of Roman history. Not by some grim defeat to barbarians, but by the shameful manner of her victory.
Desperate struggle in Spain
If Roman conduct in regards to Greece and Carthage was far from creditable, then Rome’s honor sunk to an all-time low in the Spanish wars.
The problems of campaigns in Spain remained the same as they had been ever since Rome had unwittingly inherited the Carthaginian territories there at the end of the Second Punic War.
Commanders and soldiers alike were aware of being a great distance from their homeland and away from prying eyes. Accountability slackened markedly, so too did army discipline. Army leaders knew they would have to make do with the personnel they had, as reinforcements were unlikely to be sent out.
In turn, soldiers knew they were likely to be stuck in Spain for a long time with no hope of relief. Morale hence was low among the ordinary ranks as well among commanders. The result was appalling.
The settlement achieved by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 179 BC had lasted a quarter of a century. In 154 BC the Lusitanians invaded Roman territory and in 153 BC the Celtiberians rose up.
Consul Fulvius Nobilor campaigned from 153 to 152 BC, only to suffer a crushing defeat at Numantia. Consul M. Claudius Marcellus was the man to succeed him in the field and managed to agree a peace with the Celtiberians (151 BC).
Rome now could concentrate its full force on the Lusitanians who had been achieving a string of successes. In 151 BC they severely defeated praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba.
Also in 151 BC the successor to consul Marcellus, L. Licinius Lucullus, then launched a sudden, unprovoked attack on the Celtiberian tribe of the Vaccaei, whereby he set upon the town of Cauca (Coca) and slaughtered all the men in the city. This set an unholy precedent for Roman behaviour.
Next Lucullus joined with Galba in the war against the Lusitanians (150 BC). Such were the losses of the Lusitanians they sued for peace. The negotiations were left to Galba who tempted a several thousand Lusitanians from their homes, by a promise of resettlement to better land. Having thus drawn them away from the safety of their homes, he had them slaughtered (150 BC).
This utter treachery backfired as it only instilled in the Lusitanians a bitter desire to henceforth resist at all cost. Had the Lusitanians been suing for peace, the war was now anything but at an end.
A survivor of Caepio’s massacre in 150 BC was to ascend to be the new Lusitanian leader. His name was Viriathus and he achieved the unlikely career of rising from a shepherd to being the king of the Lusitanians in all but name.
Viriathus was to lead the Lusitanians to an unbroken series of victories between 146 to 141 BC against five Roman commanders in turn. These crushing Roman setbacks had the Celtiberians clutching at the chance of throwing off Roman rule and they rose up anew in 143 BC.
In 141 BC Viriathus then achieved a crushing success against consul Fabius Maximus Servilianus at Erisana.
In a scene reminiscent of the infamous Caudine Forks (see: 321 BC), he outmanoeuvered the Roman consular army and managed to trap in a mountain gorge from which there was no escape.
His army at the mercy of the Lusitanians, Fabius negotiated a treaty. Rome recognized the freedom and sovereignty of the Lusitanians (141 BC).
The sheer fact that Viriathus sought to negotiate suggests that his people were indeed despairing of war by now, for he had always counseled them against any treaty, following the massacre of 150 BC.
The Roman senate did confirm the treaty with the Lusitanians that same year.
However, in the following year, 140 BC, Fabius’ brother Servilius Caepio won the consulship. Caepio persuaded the senate to now repudiate its own decision and annul the treaty with the Lusitanians.
He then took to the field and invaded Lusitanian territory. The Lusitanians found themselves once more attacked by the forces of both Roman provinces, as they had been in 150 BC. Again they could not sustain such a combined onslaught and Viriathus, facing increasing desertion by his own troops, was finally forced to sue for terms.
Yet even in victory, Caepio was still not to be trusted. He bribed the Lusitanian negotiators who then proceeded to murder Viriathus in his sleep (139 BC).
The Lusitanians, their inspirational leader dead, tried to continue to resist, but their cause proved futile. They were either completely subdued within the same year of Viriathus’ death, or by the time Caepio’s successor Decimus Iunius Brutus led Roman campaigns as far as Galicia in 137 BC.
The Celtiberian uprising had been swiftly dealt with by consul Q. Caecilius Metellus. From 143 to 142 BC he systematically swept them from the field, leaving his successors merely to reduce a few strongholds. Among these isolated strongholds was the small town of Numantia at the upper reaches of the river Durius (Duero).
This small town, whose military garrison never exceeded 8,000, was to go down in history for resisting continuous Roman attacks for nine years.
Numantia lay between to deep ravines and was surrounded by thick forest, making any direct assault impossible.
Metellus’ successor Q. Pompeius was the first to attempt to force the place into submission. Yet at some point during 141 and 140 BC Pompeius found his own camp besieged by the defenders of Numantia.
In the prevailing spirit of Roman operations on the Iberian peninsula, Pompeius agreed a peace treaty upon which Numantia was to pay reparations and would be left unharmed. No sooner had the town paid up Pompeius reneged on the agreement and renewed his attacks.
In 137 BC again a Roman army found itself trapped by those it was supposed to be besieging. Its commander, consul Hostilius Mancinus, again sought to negotiate his way out of a inescapable situation. Given their recent experience of Pompeius the Numantines were unlikely to trust in a Roman’s word again.
However, in the Roman camp was a young officer in whose guarantee they were willing to place their trust. His name was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the son of the very man who had in 179 achieved a lasting peace on the peninsula and whose name was held in high regard by the Spaniards.
But once more the word of a Roman consul didn’t amount to much. The senate simply refused to acknowledge the treaty reached. Rather than accept the treaty, the senate claimed Mancinus had had no right to negotiate it and decided to hand over the hapless commander to the Numantines.
Yet the people of Numantia disdained of wreaking vengeance upon a helpless man. As Mancinus was presented in chains at the walls of the town, they refused to take any part in this Roman charade.
Instead, once back in Rome, Mancinus was removed from the list of senators.
The injury done to the honour of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was however something which would linger much longer in Roman politics.
Scipio Aemilianus at Numantia
It was to fall to Scipio Aemilianus, the destroyer of Carthage, to finally bring Numantia to heel. His election to the consulship in 134 BC was once again to stiff opposition from the established order in Rome.
Once more his election represented the pure will of the people, coming about without any political campaign of sorts. The tribal assembly (comitia tribute) simply chose Aemilianus to be its champion in Spain and to bring the hideous, dishonourable war to an end. As a result the senate refused him the right to raise a regular consular army. However, his considerable authority mean that Scipio Aemilianus could draw upon an army of ready volunteers and friends.
As he had struck up a friendship with king Masinissa when serving at Carthage (he administered the will of the king after his death) he was now joined by the late king’s grandson Jughurta. Another notable addition to his expedition was Gaius Marius, who soon came to be noticed as a military star of the future.
On arriving in Spain, Aemilianus discovered just how low morale had fallen among the troops on teh ground. Realising the dire state of the main bulk of his army he is said to have uttered, ‘If they will not fight, they shall dig.’
Thus he resolved to besiege Numantia until it had fallen.
This said, the arrival of grandson of Scipio Afrianus in Spain brought plenty of loyal Spanish tribes to his standard. Not before long, Scipio Aemilianus presided over a force totaling 60,000 men.
Aemilianus ringed Numantia with a double wall and military camps. To prevent relief getting in by river a barrier, barbed with spears and blades, was flung across it, making any advance impossible.
An attempt by the Celtiberians to come to the aid of their beleaguered stronghold was repulsed.
After more than a year of this crushing siege the Numantines sought to sue for peace. Yet it was made plain to them that nothing other than unconditional surrender was acceptable. Many committed suicide rather than submit.
Those who did surrender, reduced to near skeletons by the prolonged famine, were all sold into slavery. As had been the fate of Carthage, the town of Numatia was obliterated (133 BC).
The First Slave War
It was in the very same year of Scipio’s election to the consulship that his consular colleague, Fulvius Flacchus, was required to intervene in Sicily.
As early as 139 BC a slave revolt had begun on the island. It had been gathering pace ever since, until in 135 BC nigh on the whole slave population rose as one.
As the leaders of the slave army emerged a Syrian conjurer called Eunus and a Cilician by name of Cleon. Their army was massive. No smaller than 60,000. Possibly as large as 200,000. Several fortified cities fell to them, casting a reign of terror over the province.
Savage atrocities were committed against Greek and Roman slave owners alike.
Not merely was this a rising of the slaves, but so too the poor and unprivileged had join in the rebellion.
Fulvius Flacchus however faired no better at quelling the uprising than had any before him. It was not until consul Publis Rupilius received some of the well trained soldiers of Scipio Aemilianus after the successful siege of Numantia that the revolt was at last crushed in 132BC.
Treatment of captured slaves by the Romans in this war was a savage as the treatment dished out by the slave army toward slave owners. Thousands were crucified.
The time of the First Slave War saw other outbreaks of unrest among the slaves, not least in Campania and in the annexed territory of Pergamum. As is often the case in history it may have been a time of general unrest.
Alternatively, the sheer mass of slaves so suddenly created by the victories of Rome and her allies may have been beyond the ability of ancient societies to absorb.
Yet clearly the war was an ominous sign of things to come; not least in fore-shadowing the likes of Spartacus and his massive slave revolt. Also it indicated the discontent and disillusionment of the poor, the indebted and smallholders.
Rome inherits the Kingdom of Pergamum
In 133 BC king Attalus III of Pergamum died without heirs. The dynasty had been loyal to Rome through all the shifting policies of the last seventy years. And Attalus, dying, bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman people, if only to solve the problem of succession.
This said, Pergamum was very much a Roman client state. Given the Roman dominance over the eastern Mediterranean it was not such a big step to grant them possession of an area in which they had already achieved a major military victory (Magnesia, 190 BC)
His only demand was that Pergamum and other Greek cities of his kingdom should not have to pay tribute to Rome. The senate accepted the condition joyfully, knowing that the kingdom of Pergamum was indeed extraordinarily prosperous. Even without income from the cities, there were fortunes to be made in Pergamum.
But this was a time of substantial social upheaval.
As a pretender to the inheritance of Attalus’ throne arose, many flocked to his support. His name was Aristonicus and he purported to be the illegitimate son of Attalus III. It wasn’t long before he had a rag-tag army of slaves, poor and discharged mercenaries under his command.
The Greek cities however resisted his advances.
Initially, Rome didn’t grant this rebellion much attention, no doubt thinking it would fizzle out. Yet by 131 BC they sought it necessary to send a force under consul P. Licinius Crassus to quash the revolt and hunt down Aristonicus.
It wasn’t to be that easy. The Roman army was defeated, its consul captured and put to death. The following year consul M. Perperna landed in Pergamum with yet another force. He swiftly gained victory and the rebellion was at an end (130 BC).
In 129 BC consul M. Aquilius created the province of ‘Asia’, thereby officially incorporating this wealthy territory into the imperial framework of the republic.
Aquilius maintained the immunity from taxation for those Greek cities that had resisted Aristonicus.
The Late Roman Republic
The story of the late Roman republic is essentially a tragic one.
Yet the various causes for the demise of the republic are far from clear cut. One can not point to one single person or act which led to the fall.
Looking back one feels that most of all the Roman constitution was never designed with the conquest of wealthy overseas territories in mind.
With the addition of ever more provinces, especially that of Asia (Pergamene), the delicately balanced Roman political constitution began to collapse from within.
For individual politicians, especially for those with a talent for military command, the prize of power became ever more extraordinary as the empire expanded.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Rome the will of the Roman electorate was of ever greater consequence, as their favour granted a politician ever greater powers.
In turn the electorate was flagrantly bribed and cajoled by populists and demagogues who knew that, on achieving power, they could recoup any costs simply by exploiting their offices overseas.
Had in the earlier days of Cincinnatus high office been sought for status and fame within Roman society, then the latter days of the Roman republic saw commanders win vast fortunes in loot and governors make millions in perks and bribes in the provinces.
The key to such riches was the Roman electorate and the city of Rome.
Therefore who controlled the Roman mob and who held the pivotal positions of tribunes of the people was now of immense importance.
The fate of the ancient world was now decided in the miniature world of one city. Her town councillors and magistrates suddenly were of importance to Greek trade, Egyptian grain, or wars in Spain.
What had once been a political system developed to deal with a regional city state in central Italy now bore the weight of the world.
The very virtue of Roman unchanging stoicism now became Rome’s undoing. For without change a catastrophe was inevitable. Yet adaptable as the Roman mind was to matters of warfare, it was resistant to any sudden change in political rule.
So, as the Roman elite did, what it was bred to do, as they competed ruthlessly with one another for the highest positions and honours, they unwittingly tore apart the very structure they were sworn to protect.
More so, those who possessed extraordinary talents and succeeded only reaped the suspicion of their contemporaries who at once suspected their seeking the powers of tyranny. Had previously Rome handed extraordinary commands to great talents when a crisis required it, then towards the end of the republic the senate was loath to grant anyone commissions, no matter how urgent the situation became.
Soon it therefore became a contest between those of genius and those of mediocrity, of aspiration and vested interests, between men of action and men of intransigence.
The descent was gradual, unperceivable at times. Its final acts, however, proved truly spectacular. It is little wonder that this period of Roman history has proved a rich source of material for dramatic fiction
Much more material has survived regarding this period of Roman history. Hence we are provided with much greater insight of the events of this era. Thus, this text can elaborate on the problems in much greater detail.
The Brothers Gracchus
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (Tiberius Gracchus)
The first fatal steps in the eventual demise of the republic can most likely be traced back to the disgraceful behaviour of Rome in the Spanish wars.
Not merely did the lengthy campaigns lead to an ever greater alienation between the citizens who supplied the soldiery for lengthy campaigns overseas and the leadership back in Rome. – It must be noted that in 151 BC citizens went as far as refusing the call up for another levy to be sent to Spain. So far had the resistance toward serving in Spain grown.
But more so, the scandalous Roman conduct in Spain most likely directly contributed to the eventual break with the nobility by the brothers Gracchus.
For it was at Numantia (153 BC) that a young tribune, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, staked his reputation on a treaty with the Spaniards in order to save the trapped army of Mancinus from certain destruction.
Once the senate dishonorably revoked this treaty, it not merely betrayed the Numantines, but so too it disgraced Tiberius Gracchus – and so set in motion a dreadful chain reaction which should play itself out over more than a century.
It is true that Scipio Aemilianus did his best to shelter his brother in law from the dishonour of the defeat at Numantia. Tiberius Gracchus could most likely have gone on to enjoy a distinguished senatorial career, following in his father’s footsteps to both the consulship and the censorship.
However, the outright betrayal by the senate evidently had some profound, lasting effect. If we consider the Roman understanding of family honour then it is perhaps not surprising that Tiberius Gracchus took grievance at his treatment.
The faith of the Numantines had been placed in the honour of his word, due to his father’s name. Once the senate revoked the treaty it will therefore have destroyed any honour and respect the name Gracchus commanded in Spain.
Tiberius saw not merely his own person disgraced, but also the memory of his father sullied.
Tiberius Gracchus shocked the Roman system by standing not for a magistracy, but for the office of tribune of the people for 133 BC. This was a momentous step. An outstanding member of the Roman nobles, who was clearly destined to be consul, instead was taking office as the representative of the ordinary Roman people.
Gracchus was hardly the first man of good family to seek the tribunate, but he was a man of extraordinary high standing, for whom the tribunate was never intended.
The tribunate, however, carried with it the powers of veto and to propose law. Clearly it had never been designed as an office to be held by a political heavyweight such as a Gracchus.
Nonetheless the moment Gracchus stood for the office it was clear that he was seeking to rival the consuls in their power. In doing this he was acting according to the letter of the law, but not in the spirit of the Roman constitution.
This set an ominous precedent that many would follow.
But so too Tiberius Gracchus was set on a collision course with the senate. Had previously other wellborn sons aspired to the tribunate it had been in a spirit of solidarity with the ruling class. Tiberius was to change this. He was looking for a fight.
The Roman senatorial class saw its first member break ranks, albeit that this at first will not have been apparent.
For a candidate to the tribunate Tiberius Gracchus had astounding backers.
He probably had the support of Servius Sulpicius Galba, who’d been consul in 144 BC, and Appius Claudius Pulcher, ex-consul of 143 BC and the leading senator of the day (princeps senatus).
Another former consul, M. Fulvius Flaccus, was also at his side. So too he enjoyed the support of the famous jurist P. Mucius Scaevola who was standing for the consulship in that very year. Further supporters were C. Porcius Cato and C. Licinius Crassus. It was a roll call of the great and the good.
More so the program of law he proposed for taking office was impressive. Most of all it hinged on his ideas for land reform.
On traveling to Spain he had observed the decline of farming in Etruria, seeing how the Italian smallholders, whom Rome depended on for her soldiery, were declining in numbers as they succumbed to the competition by the massive farms (latifundiae) of the wealthy, worked by armies of slaves.
Many of these vast farms of the rich were actually situated on public land (ager publicus), which they rented for pitifully small leases from the state, if they paid for it at all.
Gracchus made clear that public land was just that; public property. He was to attempt redistribution of this land to the poor. With such proposals, popular support came easy. Given Gracchus’ powerful backers victory was a foregone conclusion. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was hence elected tribune for the year 133 BC.
Tiberius Gracchus’ Land Reform
The sheer support that Gracchus had from the most powerful of Rome’s politicians demonstrates quite clearly that many saw land reform as overdue. This was not radical or extremist legislation.
Rome’s conquests had handed her vast tracts of land which were owned by the state. Only the wealthy and powerful had the necessary connections to secure the leases necessary to farm these lands.
By the time of Gracchus the rich had come to treat these lands as their own, leaving them in wills and passing them on as dowries.
This was utterly improper. More so it offended an ancient law which had fallen into disuse, the Licinian Rogations (367 BC). It is true that the Licinian laws on land reform never really had great effect, as they were easily circumvented. Nonetheless, they had never been revoked.
This provided Gracchus with a sound precedent in law.
Gracchus now proposed to reinstate the limit whereby no man could own more than 500 iugera of land (300 acres). To sweeten the pill, he offered that the current holders of public land could keep 300 acres as their undisputed property, including another 150 acres for every child. Any wealthy man with four children would therefore easily stand to keep 900 acres.
These lands would no longer be public in nature, held by lease, but would be private property.
Details are unclear, but the above suggests that the rich landowners would only be curbed in their holdings of public land. What other lands they already outright owned would have remained untouched. Thus, the old Licinian Law would have been superseded, legitimizing their vast properties. This in turn made the reforms attractive to some rich land owners.
The freed up land in the ager publicus was to be redistributed in plots of 30 acres to family smallholders.
By creating thousands of new landowners, Rome would refresh her stock from whom to recruit for her armies. The plots, once granted, were to be inalienable. This meant they could not be sold or transferred to new owners in any way, other than by inheritance passed from father to son.
It was no doubt a good idea at the time and Gracchus’ proposal seems indeed to have been heartfelt and sincere. But with hindsight it is unclear how these smallholders could have competed for any length of time with the slave run latifundiae of the rich – especially, if they were to be regularly called away on military service.
This said, smallholdings had by no means disappeared by this time and it is possible that Gracchus’ with his contemporary knowledge was indeed correct in his assertions and was laying down a long-term plan to distribute land to the urban poor and provide Rome with recruits into the far future.
But Tiberius Gracchus knew he’d have a fight on his hands. Similar land reform had been proposed some ten years earlier by C. Laelius (ca. 145 BC), who eventually withdrew it in the face of determined opposition.
The main opposition was invariably composed of those who held significant public lands. For those who were to lose the lion share of their public lands and had no great holdings of further private estates, Gracchus’ law could represent a crushing blow.
Chiefest among these opponents was to be Scipio Nasica, ex consul of 138 BC, who held vast amounts of public land.
Tiberius Gracchus’ land reform bill was meticulously drafted. Most likely due to the direct help of P. Mucius Scaevola who had indeed succeeded in gaining the consulship for that same year.
But Gracchus presented the bill directly to the people’s assembly (concilium plebis). He did not submit the law for review to the senate. Again, the latter was not required by law. Yet it was the established practice.
Why Tiberius Gracchus decided to proceed this way is unclear. It is very likely – feeling betrayed by the senate for the Numantia affair – he sought to by-pass them in contempt.
Whatever his reasons may have been, the senate took offence. There can be little doubt that Gracchus had formidable political support. His bill may indeed have been passed by the senate with little amendment, if any. After all, he had no less than the leader of the senate and one of the incumbent consuls on his side. The law seemed designed for the public good and its opponents had only self-interest at heart.
But Rome’s most powerful political body resented that it was not being consulted and sought to block the law’s progress. To this end the senators secured the services of another tribune, Marcus Octavius.
Octavius now vetoed Gracchus bill.
Tiberius Gracchus use of the tribunate was questionable. But Octavius now used his position to defy the will of the very people he was supposed to represent. For this the office had never been intended. The tribunate was being corrupted into the tool of the senatorial order.
People no doubt expected that Gracchus would either withdraw from his attempt or seek to somehow come to terms with the senate.
Tiberius Gracchus however intended no such thing.
Gracchus is said to have offered Octavius, who it seems had holdings of public land of his own, that he would compensate him personally for any losses he incurred, if only he would let the bill pass. Octavius refused, staying loyal to the senate.
Instead Gracchus now proposed the removal of Marcus Octavius from office, unless the latter was willing to withdraw his veto. Octavius remained defiant and was promptly voted out of office, dragged from the speaker’s podium and replaced with a more agreeable candidate.
Once again no-one knew if this was lawful or not. This was utterly unprecedented.
Gracchus actions were most likely not in breach of Rome’s constitution, though neither were they in the spirit of it.
With Octavius out of the way, the law passed unhindered. A commission was set up, to oversee the distribution of land to the people. The senate however withheld any moneys that were necessary to help stock the new smallholdings. Without any funds to provide the basic necessities, any plots distributed were bare parcels of land, not viable farms.
Tiberius Gracchus therefore seized on the wealth of the kingdom of Pergamene which in that very year had just been left to the Roman state by the late King Attalus III (133 BC).
He announced a bill whereby some of the money gained from this enormously wealthy new territory would be directed to agrarian commission in order to help set up farms for new settlers.
Once more the legality of all this was murky. The senate enjoyed sovereignty over all issues of overseas matters. Yet where was it explicitly written to be so?
Tiberius Gracchus was bending the rules to the utmost, in utter disregard of the senate and Roman tradition. So far though he had succeeded. He had both the land and the funds he needed to begin land distribution. His agrarian commission now went to work, handing out parcels of land.
Yet Gracchus had made powerful enemies. Worse, many of his allies had broken away, once he grabbed the Pergamene moneys in defiance of the senate.
It became clear that once his term of office came to an end, his foes would drag him through the courts, seeking to destroy him.
The only means of protection open to Gracchus was to stand for a new term of tribune, as this would extend his immunity from prosecution.
Roman law dictated that a successful candidate wait another ten years before standing for the same office again. But the law strictly speaking only applied to magistracies (lex villia, 180 BC). The tribunate, however, was technically not a magistracy. Yet tradition dictated that tribunes follow the rule nonetheless.
Once more it is unclear if Tiberius Gracchus was in breach of the law. But yet again it is self-evident that he didn’t follow the spirit of the law.
Gracchus’ chances on winning office for 134 BC did not look good. Many of his rural voters were busy with the harvest. His powerful political allies had abandoned him and he had clearly lost the support of his fellow tribunes.
Had he now simply lost the upcoming election much of what befell Rome in future years might still have been avoided.
Alas, Scipio Nasica, after haranguing the senate in vain to take action, took matters into his own hands and led a mob of supporters and nobles to the Capitol where Gracchus was holding an electoral assembly. Armed with clubs they set upon the meeting and beat Tiberius Gracchus and 300 of his supporters to death.
The rise and fall of Tiberius Gracchus set an awful example.
Not merely had Gracchus undermined the notion of communal spirit in the governing of Rome, but his vicious murder introduced plain brutality as a political tool onto the streets of Rome.
An unholy example had been set by which all involved declared that only victory – by any means – was acceptable. Neither side sought to compromise and neither side sought to adhere to the spirit of the republic. The rules, it appears, could be circumvented ‘for the public good’.
It may be true that Tiberius Gracchus was the instigator of the crisis. But the way in which Scipio Nasica and other forces in the senate responded was beyond the pale. They no doubt share as great a responsibility, if not a greater one, for the terrible legacy this case bestowed on Rome.
Ironically, Gracchus’ land law continued on for years to come. As a result by 125 BC seventy-five thousand citizens were added to the list of those liable for military service, when compared to the census figures of 131 BC. Undeniably, his policy did prove a success.
The Aftermath of Tiberius Gracchus
The death of Tiberius Gracchus was followed by a witch hunt by the senate, in which many of his supporters were sentenced to death. Tiberius younger brother Gaius was also prosecuted, but easily defended himself and was cleared.
Scipio Nasica meanwhile was posted to the new province of Asia, in order to protect him from the wrath of any Gracchan supporters. (His death soon after nonetheless was deemed suspicious.)
In 131 BC a tribune by name of C. Papirius Carbo proposed both that elections should henceforth be held by secret ballot and to clarify the law that tribunes should be able to stand for successive terms of office.
The former proposal was accepted, but the latter was defeated on the intervention of Scipio Aemilianus who had since returned from Spain. Such was the standing of the great commander that the popular will bent to his.
Though on Scipio’s death (129 BC), another tribune re-introduced the proposal and the measure was accepted. (This inadvertently cleared the way for the emperors who a century later would begin their rule by tribunician powers.)
There is the suspicion that Scipio Aemilianus was in fact murdered by his wife, Sempronia, who was the sister of Tiberius Gracchus. This suggestion, if true or not, is no doubt connected to Scipio’s refusal to openly condemn the murder of Tiberius Gracchus.
In a strange twist much of the political reform which had made Tiberius Gracchus such a problem was introduced or simply continued after his death. It appears a peculiar characteristic of Roman politics to seek to win the fight at all costs, yet to concede the point after victory has been achieved.
Prior to his death, however, Scipio Aemilianus sought to address the problem faced by the Italians.
The Gracchan land distribution dealt with all public land. Yet many public lands were used by the Italians, who had either never been removed from them on conquest, or had encroached onto them with the passage of time. Many therefore faced complete ruin, if the agrarian commission handed the land they farmed to new settlers.
Scipio was fully aware of the debt he owed to the Italian allies. His military victories were as much due to them as they were due to the Roman legionaries.
He therefore in 129 BC, shortly before his death, convinced the senate to transfer the power to settle disputes on public land held by non-Romans from the agrarian commission to one of the consuls.
This protected the Italians from mob’s clamour for land. However, it could not prevent the inevitable conflict, as the Italians continued to demand greater rights.
In subsequent years many Italians did begin to drift into Rome, lobbying and agitating for greater entitlements. In 126 BC the tribune Iunius Pennus even passed a law expelling non-citizens from Rome. It is unclear how many of the rich foreign merchants and traders circumvented this law, or to what extent it was ever enforced against them. For it seems clear that the measure was really targeted at evicting the Italian agitators.
But Italian discontent had not gone unnoticed. In 125 BC consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus proposed to grant them citizenship (or at least full citizenship to the Latins and Latin privileges to all Italians in preparation of eventual full citizenship) .
The opposition to this idea was two-fold. The poor saw any increase of the number of citizens as a lessening of the privilege of citizenship and the senators saw the mass of Italians as a threat to their political standing, as they held no traditions of political patronage over them. Invariably, the measure hence had little hope of success. But to curb any risk of it succeeding, the senate dispatched Flaccus off to Massilia at the head of a consular army to fend off the tribe of the Saluvii.
Conquest of Narbonese Gaul
The Massilians ranked among Rome’s most longstanding allies. In 154 BC they had already called on Rome for help against Ligurian raiders. The consul Opimius had been sent with an army to fend off the invaders.
It must be noted that since 173 BC Liguria was nominally a Roman territory. The marauders troubling the Massilians seem to be been tribes of the same Ligurian people, yet situated west of the Alps.
Now, in 125 BC, the Massilians once more called for help. Rome had thus far always maintained a policy of not seeking any territory in this area of southern Gaul. Things however, were about to change.
The man sent forth to the aid of Massilia was Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, whom the senate wanted out of the way for entirely political purposes. Flaccus led an army across the Alps, subduing first the Saluvii who were attacking the Massilians and then another allied Ligurian tribe in a campaign lasting two years.
The following two years a new commander, C. Sextus Calvinus, reduced the last remnants of Ligurian resistance in the area. To further secure the area, the colony of Roman veterans was founded at Aquae Sextiae (Aix).
It soon proved why Rome had hitherto stayed out of this area. Fighting one enemy inevitably embroiled you in conflict with another. The Celtic tribe of the Allobroges refused to hand over a Ligurian chieftain who had sought refuge. The tribe of the Aedui, previously Roman allies – or at least Massilian ones, – now also turned hostile.
In 121 BC proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus defeated the Allobroges at Vindalium. The Gauls it is said were panicked by the advance of the Roman elephant corps.
The Allobroges appealed for help to the most powerful Gallic tribe, the Arverni. Bituitus, the king of the Arverni, then put a gigantic army into the field to crush the Roman forces. A Roman army of 30,000, led by consul Quintus Fabius Maximus, met a joint force of Arverni and Allobroges totalling no less than 180,000 men.
We do not know much of the battle which followed, but that it took places at the confluence of the river Rhodanus (Rhone) and the river Isara (Isere).
As the Roman force succeeded in breaking the foe, chaos ensued among the Gauls. The two boat bridges which they had built to cross the Rhodanus (Rhone) broke as the stampeding Gallic army sought to cross them.
If true or not is hard to tell, but the Romans reported their own losses to be 15 whilst claiming to have slain 120,000. Either way, the Battle of the river Isara was a crushing victory (121 BC). It secured for Rome all the territory from Geneva to the river Rhone.
Domitius Ahenobarbus, to whom command fell again on Fabius’ departure, concluded the settlement of the area (120 BC).
A formal alliance was agreed with the tribe of the Aedui to the north. King Bituitus of the Arverni was taken captive despite a promise of safe conduct and sent to Rome. As the Arverni sued for peace the southern range of Gaul to the east of the Rhone, all the way to the Pyrenees fell under Roman rule, bringing under Roman control important regional towns such as Nemausus (Nimes) and Tolosa (Toulouse).
Domitius now saw to the construction of a road from the river Rhone to the Pyrenees, along the course of which Roman veterans were settled in a new colony called Narbo. The whole territory eventually was to become the province of Gallia Narbonensis (or Gallia Transalpina).
Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (Gaius Gracchus)
Gaius Gracchus had been biding his time ever since his brother’s death. He had maintained his seat on the land commission, served with Scipio Aemilianus at the siege of Numantia and served as quaestor in Sardinia in 126BC.
His power was already such that his quiet political support to the Carbo (131 BC) and Flaccus (125 BC) had meant a substantial boon for the two politicians.
His taking up the legacy of his brother was therefore seen as inevitable.
The nobles foresaw this and hence it was attempted to prosecute him on trumped up charges. Gaius easily shrugged them off. Not only was he a very astute politician, but he also possessed one of the greatest talents for oratory in Roman history.
When it become clear that Gaius was about to stand for tribune of the people in 124 BC, the senate went as far as voting for the commander of the army to remain with his forces in Sicily. With this trick they hoped to keep Gaius away, as staff officers were expected to stay with their commander.
This didn’t work, as Gaius defiantly returned home. He was called before the censors to explain himself, yet could point to 12 years of military service where only 10 were the maximum necessary.
Thus, following in his brother’s footsteps, Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people for the year 123 BC on a wave of popular support.
Gaius then embarked on a program of political reform.
First he introduced a law by which no Roman citizen could be put to death without a trial. Following the motto that all Romans were landowners of sorts by having a stake in the empire’s vast public lands, Gaius stabilized the price of grain – which fluctuated wildly – at a level more affordable to the city’s poor.
The price of corn was now fixed at 1 1/3 asses for each modius of grain.
This measure was not necessarily such a radical novelty as many would suggest. The Greek world had seen several examples of controlled grain prices. The Athenians had had controls on corn since the fifth century BC. Under the rule of the Ptolemies the city Alexandria even had minister in charge of keeping grain prices low.
To finance this policy, however, Gaius introduced a tax on the cities of Asia Minor. Financial syndicates, from which senators were excluded, could bid for the right to levy taxes. Thus began the infamous practice of ‘tax farming’. Gaius most likely could not have foreseen the consequences of this policy. Yet the ruthless extortion of the provinces by tax farmers which followed led to the hatred of Rome in her overseas territories.
Something Gaius though must have been well aware of was the will of King Attalus who had bequeathed the territory to Rome. The free Greek cities were not to be taxed. In the uprising which had followed Rome’s inheritance some cities had lost their tax free status. Yet it appears that Gracchus law applied to all cities and therefore was in breach of Attalus’ will.
This was a grave abuse of a bequeathal, but made even more noteworthy by the fact that King Attalus had been a close friend of the house of Gracchus. Yet such was the contest between Gaius and the senate, that such considerations counted for nothing.
Trying to further erode the senate’s power and to promote the equestrians as a rival political force, Gaius also introduced a law by which only equestrians would sit on juries in trials of provincial governors charged with extortion.
This had twofold effect. Its intended effect was to clearly establish a direct form of power of the equestrians over the leading senators who invariably enjoyed governorships at some point.
But it unwittingly also created a much more sinister effect. In many cases, the provincial governors were the only protection the provinces had against the worst excesses of the tax farmers.
These tax farmers in turn were of the same equestrian order which now dominated the law courts. Therefore any well-meaning governor who sought to curb the tax farmers from extorting undue amounts could find himself charged with extortion by on his return to Rome. Governors were therefore left with little other choice than to collude with the tax farmers in squeezing the provinces for all they were worth.
Any good governance of the provinces there had been, was thus being undermined by corporate greed and the threat of prosecution.
Another measure introduced by Gaius was a law by which the senate needed to specify the tasks it wished to charge the consuls with before the election took place. Thereafter it would fall to the electorate to decide whom it wished to see perform said tasks.
Gaius Gracchus had been an extraordinarily busy and energetic tribune. Yet he made it clear that he was not going to stand again for the following year (122 BC). No doubt the fate of his brother loomed large.
Yet, in a remarkable twist of fate Gaius Gracchus was elected nonetheless, without seeking another term. It seemed the people who already idolized Tiberius, were not to let his brother go so soon.
But this time the senate had manoeuvered its own champion into position to oppose their troublesome foe. Their man was Livius Drusus.
In his second year, Gracchus now took to settling people in new colonies in Italy. But more controversially he also proposed the re-settlement of Corinth and Carthage.
Meanwhile Drusus made every effort to be more populist than Gracchus, promising the people anything – and more. He proposed no less than twelve colonies in Italy, he relieved the newly created smallholders of the rent they were obliged to pay under the Gracchan land laws.
Drusus promised the world with no intention of ever delivering. His entire goal was to become the people’s champion in Gracchus’ stead.
The ordinary people were easily swayed. Gracchus hold on power began to crumble. When Gaius Gracchus finally presented his new bill to the comitia tributa to bestow citizenship on the Italians (full citizenship for those with Latin rights, Latin rights to all other Italian allies), the tide had decisively turned against him.
Granting rights to other Italians had previously proved impossible, yet it may have been within the reach of someone of Gaius influence over the people to achieve this. But now with Drusus having undermined his popularity it proved too much.
The defeat of this bill proved decisive turning point.
When Gracchus himself led the effort of establishing colonists in Carthage, things turned from bad to worse in his absence from Rome.
The work surrounding the re-creation of Carthage as the colony of Junonia was very controversial. The religious omens proved thoroughly negative.
So too many people in Rome were not convinced that the once cursed city should be allowed to rise again. The ghost of Hannibal still loomed large within people’s imagination.
Gracchus was at pains to point out that he was not creating a colony within the cursed boundaries of the razed city. But rumours abounded about sacred boundary markers having been moved. On returning from Carthage Gracchus entered a very different Rome.
With stories such as these circulating it is little wonder that the thoroughly superstitious Roman people could not be brought to vote for Gracchus again. In the summer of 122 BC elections were held for the tribunate for the next year. Gracchus failed to get elected.
No sooner had Gracchus’ term in office expired then the new consul, M. Minucius Rufus, at once proposed to revoke the act to create a colony at Carthage.
Seeing one of his policies threatened Gracchus and a large throng of supporters took to the streets to protest. In a scuffle on the Capitol, an overeager servant of the consul Lucius Opimius who went by the name of Quintus Antyllius pushed too close to Gracchus.
Gracchus’ supporters feared he was to trying attack Gaius. Thus they ceased him and stabbed him to death. Gaius Gracchus at once sought to distance himself from this killing, severely reprimanding his followers, but the damage was done.
Consul Opimius argued that this death was the first sign of a serious threat to the senate and the republic. He now proposed to the senate a new measure, that they issue a decree whereby the consuls could take any steps to protect the republic from harm.
This was an entirely new idea; being a substitute for the arcane position of dictator, not used since the times of Hannibal. The senate granted the proposal and thus issued the senatus consultum ultimum; the famous ‘last decree’.
As the other consul Quintus Fabius Maximus was in Gaul fighting the Allobroges at the time, in effect absolute power now fell to Opimius.
Gaius Gracchus and his close political ally M. Fulvius Flaccus were now summoned before the consul. But appreciating what sheer power the decree had given Opimius the two men were not minded to hand themselves over to one of their most determined enemies. Instead, they set themselves up on the Aventine with their supporters, at the Temple of Diana.
They sent the son of Fulvius to negotiate a solution with the senate. The senators were inclined to come to some sort of understanding. Yet consul Opimius rejected any talk of compromise out of hand. As he now was armed with the ‘senatus consultum ultimum’ no one could oppose him.
Opimius was bent on making an example of his opponents and set out with a force of armed men, including a unit of Cretan archers to take the Aventine by force. The presence of these archers seems to suggest that there was more than just a little planning to Opimius’ actions.
As it was it was these professional soldiers who did the most damage. Roughly 250 men were killed in the desperate attempt to defend the Aventine against Opimius. They never stood a chance. As all was lost Gracchus was persuaded to flee.
He descended the Aventine with only a small group for company and fled across the Sublician Bridge to the far side of the river Tiber accompanied only by one slave.
His friends sought to buy him time by heroically staying behind to hold off the pursuers. One last one made his final stand on the Sublician Bridge, ironically the very bridge Horatius was said to have held the Etruscans, trying to gain Gaius whatever time possible to get away.
But hotly pursued by Opimius’ henchmen, Gaius Gracchus realized the situation was hopeless. In a sacred grove, aided by his slave, he took his own life.
That grim day Gaius Gracchus, a former tribune of the people, and Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, an ex-consul of Rome lay dead. Worse, the body of Gracchus was decapitated and lead was poured into his skull.
Opimius’ wrath though didn’t end there. Without awaiting any further word from the senate he made widespread arrests. If there were any trials, they were a farce. Over 3,000 were executed as a result of this purge.
The memory of the Gracchi was officially damned. Cornelia, their famous mother, was even prohibited from wearing mourning garments. The ordinary people of Rome however venerated the Gracchi for generations to come.
The Legacy of the Gracchi
The Gracchi were, there is no doubt, incredibly influential figures. It is around this time that we start speaking in terms of optimates and populares, the factions of Roman politics.
At the heart of the issue which the Gracchi addressed lay the privilege amassed by the senatorial class and the increasing burden borne by the small holders of Italy. The destitution of the urban poor also raised the question for whose benefit the Roman state was being run, if people were starving on Rome’s very streets.
If the Gracchi perhaps didn’t have the answers, there is little doubt that they were posing the right questions. The republic was in crisis whether the ruling class wished to acknowledge it or not.
But perhaps more significant than the deeds of the brothers Gracchus was the nature of the demise.
Scipio Nasica played a leading role in the death of Tiberius Gracchus.
Lucius Opimius did the same with Gaius Gracchus. If we point to the Gracchi as instigators of much of the social upheaval that should befall Rome in the century ahead, then we must lay at least equal blame, if not more, with Nasica and Opimius.
For if the Gracchi were responsible for the nature in which they held office, challenging every convention, bending law to suit their purposes, then Nasica and Opimius must be held responsible for the nature of their deaths. Especially the actions of Opimius had more of a whiff of rule by terror.
More important than the flouting of rules and traditions by the Gracchi was the introduction of blatant mob violence into republican politics by those claiming to be the champions of the senate. To simply club your opponent to death, or to introduce dubious measures licensing you to kill political opponents, no questions asked, was an outrage.
Where politics and law alone no longer sufficed to perpetuate one’s wealth and privilege, the Roman ruling class would resort to gross brutality.
One could argue that the Gracchi were seeking to reignite the Conflict of the Orders, attempting to achieve a new settlement between the classes.
In some ways their means were not that dissimilar from those used by tribunes of the people in those earlier struggles.
Yet unlike their ancient predecessors those at the top of the Roman society decided not to brook any talk of change, making clear that anyone attempting to challenge the existing order was likely to end up dead. Thus, not the demands of the people, but the nature of their rulers had changed.
In effect the affairs of the republic were no longer a matter of politics, but were being dealt with by a brutal cartel which would see its will enforced on pain of death.
Thus we need to remember that the later violence of the Roman mob which would arise on the streets of the city had its roots in the very methods adopted by those acting on behalf of the senate.
The Jugurthine War
In 118 BC the king of Numidia, Micipsa (son of Masinissa), died, leaving the crown to his young sons Hiempsal and Adherbal jointly with a much older nephew (or adoptive son), Jugurtha, who was an experienced soldier. The idea of a crown shared by three separate heads was one which was unlikely ever to work.
Jugurtha arranged the assassination of Hiempsal, whilst Adherbal fled for his life and appealed to the senate (118 BC).
The senate decided to send a commission to Numidia to divide the kingdom between the two claimants. Jugurtha appeared to bribe the commission’s leader, Opimius, who returned to Rome a richer man. Adherbal received the eastern part of the kingdom, including the capital. Jugurtha meanwhile was granted the larger part of Numidia.
Though this was not enough for the ambitious Jugurtha who then marched on the territory of Adherbal and besieged him at Cirta. Adherbal no doubt will have been encouraged by the knowledge that Cirta contained a considerable number of Roman and Italian merchants, whom Rome would surely not wish to see come to harm.
At once a second deputation was sent by Rome to achieve a peaceful settlement. This time the leader was to be Aemilius Scaurus, a consummate politician with a liking for money. Scaurus was easily bribed by Jugurtha and sent on his way.
Rome’s feebleness in dealing with Jugurtha at this time may well have been the result of the emergence of the great threat of the Cimbri ad Teutones to the north. Only a year before the siege of Cirta a Roman consular army had been wiped out. Compared to such a tremendous threat, matters in Numidia must have appeared a mere sideshow to Rome’s senators.
No doubt Jugurtha will have known this. He starved Cirta into submission and had Adherbal tortured to death. The fall of the city though also saw the death of the Italian and Roman traders.
Rome was outraged. Her earlier settlement had simply been swept aside. Romans has been killed. Doing nothing was no longer an option.
Consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia was sent to Numidia with an army to deal with the usurper (111 BC). But the campaign was ineffective from the start, the heavily armed Roman legionaries struggling to make any impression on the swift Numidian horsemen.
Bestia had already been a part of the dubious Roman delegation sent to Numidia under Scaurus. Now once more some ignominious agreement was reached. Again it seemed bribery was involved. Rome was being humbled by the sheer greed of her politicians.
No sooner did news of the treaty reach Rome it was instantly rejected.
The comitia tributa summoned Jugurtha to Rome to give evidence against any senators who were alleged to have accepted bribes from him.
‘A City for Sale’
Jugurtha’s arrival in Rome posed a great threat to the established political powers. Opimius, Scaurus and Bestia were all ex consuls. Considering that two had led delegations and the third had led an army, the total number of senators imperilled by this trial must have been staggering.
It is therefore not surprising that once more political connivance Jugurtha appeared at the assembly as a humble supplicant, harangued by angry people’s tribune C. Memmius. But when it fell to Jugurtha to reply to the accusations, another people’s tribune intervened and used his veto to forbid the Numidian from speaking.
Who lay at the root of this political scandal is unclear. It is possible that Jugurtha had paid yet another Roman politician to do his bidding. But with such senatorial heavyweights as Opimius and Scaurus entangled, it is very likely that this corruption was an entirely Roman affair.
Jugurtha though was not yet finished. While he was still in Rome, he had a cousin and potential claimant to his throne murdered in the city; Massiva, grandson of Masinissa.
This was too much, and the senate ordered him to leave at once.
‘A city for sale !’ he is said to have sneered as he departed.
After the debacle of Jugurtha’s visit, Rome resolved to rid herself of him once and for all. In 110 BC consul Spurius Postumius Albinus was sent forth at the head of an army of 40’000 men. It wasn’t long before Albinus realised what a fruitless task it was to try and pin down a highly mobile enemy in a desert country.
He soon enough found some constitutional pretext, made his excuses and headed back for Rome, leaving the army in the hands of his brother Aulus.
Aulus did his best but proved a poor commander.
First he failed to take the fortress of Suthul in a direct assault and then he went chasing after Jugurtha personally without ever managing to pin him down.
These exertions being asked of the new, unseasoned army during winter through a period of heavy rains, morale and discipline suffered a catastrophic decline.
Jugurtha, well informed about his enemy’s troubles, launched a night attack on the Roman encampment and won a stunning victory. The Numidian successfully forced the surrender of the entire consular Roman army.
Jugurtha spared the defeated legions. No doubt he knew that to massacre them would bring upon him the full wrath of the power that had once destroyed Carthage.
Instead he chose to force them to pass under a makeshift yoke made of spears. A deliberate allusion to the ancient humiliation of Roman forces by the Samnites after the surrender at the Caudine Forks.
What followed in Rome was an inquiry into how such a calamity had ever come to pass. Once again it was an idealistic people’s tribune (C. Mamilius) who had forced the creation of a special court to investigate these affairs.
Spurius Postumius Albinus who had abandoned his army, Calpurnius Bestia who instead of fighting had made peace and even powerful Opimius were found guilty of wrongdoing and forced into exile. Though one other leading senator who clearly had been as embroiled in the whole sorry affair, succeeded in surviving the inquiry – by virtue of presiding over it; Marcus Aemilius Scaurus.
Metellus takes Command
In 109 BC Rome dispatched consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus to take command of the African army. He was deliberately chosen for his reputation of high principle, thus proving immune to Jugurtha’s bribery.
Furthermore, he was a commander of ability. Taking control of the ill-disciplined, broken army he reinforced them with steadier troops he brought with him and toughened them up with drills and forced marches.
Jugurtha must have been alarmed, at last being faced with a competent, dangerous opponent whom he could not bribe.
Steadily progressing Metellus carried one Numidian stronghold after the other, including the capital Cirta. At the river Muthul Jugurtha tried to ambush the Roman army on the march, but the newly steeled forces of Metellus were now no longer easily overrun.
The battle was a confused and bloody affair. Yet like King Pyrrhus of old, Jugurtha could not afford such losses. Metellus could. Henceforth the Numidian king was on the run, careful to avoid any further battle.
Metellus may have gained the upper hand, but finishing an enemy like Jughurta proved a very difficult matter indeed. Assassination attempts proved unsuccessful.
Far from just running from Metellus’ forces, Jugurtha used his time well, seeking new forces, building new alliances.
Soon find new mercenaries in the Gaetulians, the desert tribes living to the south of Numidia and Mauretania. Worse for Metellus, by promising to cede territory Jugurtha managed to win his father in law, King Bocchus of Mauretania, as an ally against Rome.
Metellus relieved of Command
All the while in the Roman camp a rift had opened up between Metellus and his second-in-command, the outstanding military talent Gaius Marius (108 BC).
Marius had sought leave from the army to stand for the consulship of 107 BC in Rome. Metellus indeed pledged to support him in such a bid, but only for a joint candidature with his son in a future election.
Much as the aristocratic Metellus thought he was doing the commoner Marius a favour by promising such powerful political support, his son was in his early twenties. He was in fact expecting Marius to wait another twenty years for his chance.
Marius was a man of burning ambition. Such a man could not be expected to wait for Metellus’ son to reach sufficient age to stand for high office.
Rather than appreciate Metellus’s proposal as an impractical, patronising, though well meaning offer, Marius took it as an insult.
One can see why. Metellus’ son was roughly 22. Marius was 48.
Furious, Marius succeeded in getting leave only twelve days prior to the election. But not content with putting forward his candidacy, Marius also oversaw a whispering campaign which undermined public support for Metellus’ command in Numidia.
Given the record of the grand senators against Jugurtha, it was easy for Marius to portray the lack of victory as the consequence of yet another noble commander’s bungling incompetence or corrupt political practice.
Further cementing that impression, news arrived in Rome that Jugurtha had retaken the town of Vaga.
As a result Marius was elected consul for 107 BC and the comitia tributa voted to send him to Numidia to replace Metellus. This despite the senate, the body who had authority over such appointments, having stipulated that Metellus should retain his command.
Therefore Metellus, who by all accounts had done a good job and was doing his best to see off the joint Mauretanian and Numidian army was informed that he was being replaced.
Furious, Metellus left it to his aide Rutilius Rufus to hand over command to Marius and returned to Rome early. He naturally assumed that, following the smear campaign against him, he would face a hostile reception. But to his surprise he was welcomed warmly by both the senate and the people, was granted a triumph for his efforts against Jugurtha and awarded the title Numidicus.
There was little doubt that Metellus had turned around Roman fortunes in this conflict and Rome showed her gratitude.
Gaius Marius Reforms the Roman Army
His first step in preparing for his upcoming command in Numidia may well have seemed a very small, even insignificant change at the time. Knowing the traditional levy from the landowning classes was deeply unpopular, Marius instead recruited his new troops largely from the proletarii; the lower class of the urban poor who owned nothing (108 BC).
What Tiberius Gracchus had tried to halt when he was tribune in 133 BC was a trend which had begun centuries earlier and which, by the very success with which Rome had conducted military operations, had become a vicious circle.
At the end of the second century BC the Roman legions were still manned by peasant farmers. A society constantly at war required a constant flow of conscripts. Smallholdings fell into disuse because there was no one to tend to them. As Roman conquests spread through the Mediterranean lands, ever more men were required.
Just as Rome’s success deprived her peasant farmers of the ability to tend their farms, it provided the wealthy with access to conquered land and armies of slaves to work it.
So while Roman peasant farms were burdened with ever more crippling military service, the rich were driving them out of business with giant farms worked by slaves.
The rural smallholders invariably lost everything, headed to Rome where they swelled the ranks of the urban poor – so becoming ineligible for military service as no longer owning property.
Not only was there therefore a shortage of recruits, but the soldiers would find themselves returning to ruined homesteads at the end of their service.
It is this problem which Marius solved recruiting the proletarii. It is most likely that he never foresaw what consequences his actions would have on the republic. He simply will have sought a simple solution to a shortage of men.
As it turned out he created the Roman army as it came to be known and feared all across the Europe and the Mediterranean. Rather than conscripting from landowners who had to provide their own weaponry, Marius recruited volunteers who were provided with standardised kit.
Once the idea of a professional army of mercenaries was introduced, it remained until the very end of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Marius introduced the idea of granting soldiers allotments of farmland after they hand served their term.
Marius in Numidia
It now fell to Marius to bring the war in Numidia to an end. First, he needed to bring his new proletarian recruits up to the standard of Roman legionaries. This he did with startling speed and success.
His earlier promises of bringing the war to a swift end soon proved impossible to fulfil. Not least as the Romans still suffered from a shortage of cavalry with which to successfully deal with the nimble Numidian mounted forces.
Indeed Marius’ strategy seemed to be that of Metellus, but on a greater scale, as he had a greater number of troops at his disposal.
In his first year Marius succeeded in destroying Jugurtha’s southermost stronghold of Capsa.
In 106 BC, having at last recruited sufficient cavalry, the army reduced one by one a string of enemy fortresses, advancing as far as the river Muluccha, which lay 600 miles west of Roman territory. There he captured the fortress which contained the enemy’s main campaign treasure.
Reeling from this blow Jugurtha and Bocchus at last sought battle. They were out of options. As the Roman army sought to retreat back east from the river Muluccha the allied king twice attacked the army on the march. The second assault (near Cirta) was so ferocious, the Roman forces were nearly overwhelmed.
The Roman victories in the two battles proved decisive. The Numidian and Mauretanian allies had suffered crippling losses.
Sulla ends the War by Diplomacy
King Bocchus had previously been approached by Metellus who had urged him to abandon the alliance with Jugurtha. Now knowing his own kingdom in peril, he now opened secret negotiations with the Marius.
A personal meeting between Marius and Bocchus was more than likely impossible. Also the Roman commander knew himself much too blunt and outspoken a person for diplomacy.
So instead a quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who commanded the Roman cavalry and had shown great promise in the recent fight, was sent to Bocchus in order to negotiate on Rome’s behalf.
It was a perilous mission, which could easily have seen Sulla handed to Jugurtha where he no doubt would have met with a grisly death.
Instead Sulla managed to convince Bocchus to make peace with Rome and – in matter of reparation for making war on her – to hand over Jugurtha as a prisoner. (106 BC)
The Aftermath of the Jugurthine War
The Jugurthine War might be seen as a minor episode in Roman history, but for the profound long term consequences which reverberated far beyond this immediate conflict. The aftermath of the war was to pitch several rising political forces against each other.
Metellus felt betrayed by Marius who in effect usurped command of his army. Meanwhile Marius was to feel betrayed by Sulla who claimed to have won the war with his diplomacy.
The latter rivalry would run so deep, in decades to come it would eventually pitch Rome into all out civil war.
The immediate effect on Roman politics though was the dramatic ascendency of the popular party with Marius at its head. Despite Metellus’ best efforts, the aristocratic grandees had so discredited their class with their conduct in Numidia that their standing fell to an all time low. So profound was the slump in support for the nobles that Marius now stood head and shoulders above all, able to completely dominate the Roman political scene.
King Jugurtha’s fate was to be paraded through the streets of Rome in Marius’ triumph. Having served his purpose in this public spectacle, he was flung into the Mamertine dungeon, where after six days of torture he at last expired (104 BC).
King Bocchus remained safely on his throne in Mauretania, being rewarded with stretches of Numidian territory for his help in capturing Jugurtha. The Numidian throne fell to Gauda, the half-brother of Jugurtha.
Rome herself did not advance her territory at all, but stayed within her existing borders. Though she was now recognised as he supreme power in North Africa, having successfully reduced Numidia and Mauretania to the status of vassal kingdoms.
Before Marius was back in Rome he was re-elected to the consulship (104 BC), though the law forbade re-election and required the candidate to be present in Rome. But Marius was the soldier of the hour, and the hour demanded Rome’s finest soldier of the day.
For during the Numidian war a tremendous menace had been gathering on the northern frontiers of Italy. The German tribes were making their first appearance on the stage of history.
The advance hordes of the Teutones and the Cimbri had rolled past the Alps and poured into Gaul, flooding down the valley of the Saône and the Rhône and also setting in motion the Helvetic (Swiss) Celts. They defeated the Roman consul Silanus in 109 BC and in 107 BC another consul, Cassius, was trapped by the Helvetii and lost his army and his life.
In 105 BC the forces of the pro-consul Caepio and the consul Mallius were annihilated by the Cimbri at the Battle of Arausio (Orange), ancient sources estimating the the losses up to even 80’000 or 100’000 men. Then for no apparent reason the tide relented for a moment.
Rome, desperate to use the time, turned to Marius, placing control and reorganization of her armies in his hands and making him consul year after year. And Marius did the unthinkable.
Marius defeats the Northmen
Marius’ revolution in the army came only just in time.
In 103 BC the Germans were again massing at the Saône, preparing to invading Italy by crossing the Alps in two different places. The Teutones crossed the mountains in the west, the Cimbri did so in the east. In 102 BC Marius, consul for the fourth time, annihilated the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae beyond the Alps, while his colleague Catullus stood guard behind them.
Next in 101 BC the Cimbri poured through the eastern mountain passes into the plain of the river Po. They in turn were annihilated by Marius and Catulus at Campi Raudii near Vercellae.
Marius reaped the benefit of his joint victory with Catulus, by being elected to his sixth consulship.
The Second Slave War
The atrocities of the First Slave War were anything but forgotten when in 103 BC the slaves of Sicily dared to revolt again. That after the cruelty in the aftermath of the first conflict they dared to rise again, hints how bad their conditions must have been.
They fought so stubbornly that it took Rome 3 years to stamp out the revolt.
The Social War
In 91 BC the moderate members of the senate allied themselves with Livius Drusus (the son of that Drusus who had been used to undermine Gaius Gracchus’ popularity in 122 BC) and aided him in his election campaign. If the honesty of the father is open to doubt, that of the son is not.
As tribune, he proposed to add to the senate an equal number of equestrians, and to extend Roman citizenship to all Italians and to grant the poorer of the current citizens new schemes for colonization and a further cheapening of the corn prices, at the expense of the state.
Though the people, the senators and the knights all felt that they would be conceding too many of their rights for too little. Drusus was assassinated.
Despite his eventually loss of popularity his supporters had stood by Drusus loyally. The opposition Tribune of the People, Q. Varius, now carried a bill declaring that to have supported the ideas of Drusus was treason. The reaction by Drusus’ supporters was violence.
All resident Roman citizens were killed by an enraged mob at Asculum, in central Italy. Worse still, the ‘allies’ (socii)of Rome in Italy, the Marsi, Paeligni, Samnites, Lucanians, Apulians all broke into open revolt.
The ‘allies’ had not planned any such rising, far more it was a spontaneous outburst of anger against Rome. But that meant they were unprepared for a fight. Hastily they formed formed a federation. A number of towns fell into their hands at the outset, and they defeated a consular army. But alas, Marius took led an army into battle and defeated them. Though he didn’t – perhaps deliberately – crush them.
The ‘allies’ had a strong party of sympathizers in the senate. And these senators in 89 BC managed to win over several of the ‘allies’ by a new law (the Julian Law – lex Iulia) by which Roman citizenship was granted to ‘all who had remained loyal to Rome (but this most likely also included those who laid down their arms against Rome).
But some of the rebels, especially the Samnites, only fought the harder. Though under the leadership of Sulla and Pompeius Strabo the rebels were reduced on battlefield until they held out only in a few Samnite and Lucanian strongholds.
Was the city of Asculum in particular dealt with severely for the atrocity committed there, the senate tried to bring an end to the fighting by conceding citizenship to by granting citizenship to all who laid down their arms within sixty days (lex Plautia-Papiria).
The law succeeded and by the beginning of 88 BC the Social War was at an end, other than for a few besieged strongholds.
Sulla (138-78 BC)
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was yet another nail in the coffin of the Republic, perhaps much in the same mold as Marius.
Having already been the first man to use Roman troops against Rome itself.
And much like Marius he, too, should make his mark in history with reforms as well as a reign of terror.
Sulla takes Power
In 88 BC the activities of king Mithridates of Pontus called for urgent action. The king had invaded the province of Asia and massacred 80’000 Roman and Italian citizens. Sulla, as elected consul and as the man who had won the Social War, expected the command, but Marius wanted it, too.
The senate appointed Sulla to lead the troops against Mithridates. But the tribune Sulpicius Rufus (124-88 BC), a political ally of Marius, passed through the concilium plebis an order calling for the transfer of command to Marius. Peaceful as these happenings may sound, they were accompanied by much violence.
Sulla rushed straight from Rome to his still undisbanded troops of the Social War before Nola in Campania, where the Samnites were still holding out.
There, Sulla appealed to the soldiers to follow him. The officers hesitated, but the soldiers did not. And so, at the head of six Roman legions, Sulla marched on Rome. He was joined by his political ally Pompeius Rufus. They seized the city gates, marched in and annihilated a force hastily collected by Marius.
Sulpicius fled but was discovered and killed. So, too, did Marius, by now 70 years old, flee. He was picked up at the coast of Latium and sentenced to death. But as no one could be found prepared to do the deed he was instead hustled onto a ship. He ended up in Carthage where he was ordered by the Roman governor of Africa to move on.
Sulla’s first Reforms
While he still held the command of the military in his hands, Sulla used the military assembly (comitia centuriata) to annul all legislation passed by Sulpicius and to proclaim that all business to be submitted to the people should be dealt with in the comitia centuriata , while nothing at all was to be brought to the people before it received senatorial approval.
In effect, this took away any which the tribal assembly (comitia tributa) and the plebeian assembly (concilium plebis) possessed. Also it reduced the power of the tribunes, who until then had been able to use the people’s assemblies to by-pass the senate.
Naturally, it also increased the power of the senate.
Sulla did not interfere in the elections for the offices of consul, but to demand from the successful candidate, L. Cornelius Cinna, not to reverse any of the changes he had made.
This done, Sulla left with his forces to fight Mithridates in the east (87 BC).
Marius and Cinna take Power
Though in his absence Cinna revived the legislation and the methods of Sulpicius. When violence broke out in the city, he appealed to the troops in Italy and practically revived the Social War. Marius returned form exile and joined him, though he appeared more intent on revenge than on anything else.
Rome lay defenseless before the conquerors. The city’s gates to Marius and Cinna. In the week’s reign of terror which followed, Marius wreaked his revenge on his enemies.
After the brief but hideous orgy of blood-lust which alarmed Cinna and disgusted their allies in the senate, Marius seized his seventh consulship without election. But he died a fortnight later (January, 87 BC).
Cinna remained sole master and consul of Rome until he was killed in the course of a mutiny in 84 BC. The power fell to an ally of Cinna’s, namely Cn. Papirius Carbo.
First Mithridatic War
When the Social War had broken out, Rome was fully occupied with its own affairs. Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, used Rome’s preoccupation to invade the province of Asia. Half of the province of Achaea (Greece), Athens taking the lead, rose against its Roman rulers, supported by Mithridates.
When Sulla arrived at Athens, the city’s fortifications proved too much for him to charge. Instead, he starved them out whilst his lieutenant, Lucius Lucullus, raised a fleet to force Mithridates out of the Aegean Sea. Early in 86 BC Athens fell to the Romans.
Though Archelaus, the ablest general of Mithridates, now threatened with a large army from Thessaly. Sulla marched against him with a force only a sixth in size and shattered his army at Chaeronea.
A Roman consul, Valerius Flaccus, now landed with fresh forces in Epirus, to relieve Sulla of his command. But Sulla had no intention of relinquishing his power. News reached him that general Archelaus had landed another huge force. Immediately he turned southwards and destroyed this force at Orchomenus.
Meanwhile, Flaccus, avoiding a conflict with Sulla, headed toward Asia seeking to engage Mithridates himself. Though he never reached it. His second-in-command, C. Flavius Fimbria, led a mutiny against him, killed him and assumed command himself. Fimbria crossed the straights and started operations in Asia.
Meanwhile Sulla opened negotiations with the defeated Archelaus. An conference was arranged in 85 BC between Sulla and Mithridates and a treaty was struck by which Mithridates was to surrender his conquests to Rome and retreat behind the borders he’d held before the war. So too, was Pontus to hand over a fleet of seventy ships and pay a tribute.
It now remained to settle the problem of Fimbria, who could only hope to excuse his mutiny with some success. With the war over and Sulla closing on him with his troops, his situation was hopeless. Alas, his troops deserted him and Fimbria committed suicide.
Therefore, in 84 BC, his campaigns a total success, Sulla could start making his was back to Rome.
Sulla becomes Dictator
Sulla should arrive back in Italy in the spring of 83 BC and marched on Rome determined to restore his will upon the city. But the Roman government controlled greater troops than his own, more so the Samnites wholeheartedly flung themselves into the struggle against Sulla, who to them represented senatorial privilege and the denial of citizenship to the Italians.
Alas, it came to the decisive Battle of the Colline Gate in August 82 BC, where fifty thousand men lost their lives. Sulla emerged victorious at the Battle of the Colline Gate and so became the master of the Roman world.
Sulla in no way lacked any of the blood-lust displayed by Marius. Three days after the battle he ordered all of the eight thousand prisoners taken on the battle field to be massacred in cold blood.
Soon after Sulla was appointed dictator for so long as he might think fit to retain office.
He issued a series of proscriptions – lists of people who were to have their property taken and who were to be killed. The people killed in these purges were not only supporters of Marius and Cinna, but so too people Sulla simply disliked or held a grudge against.
The lives of the people of Rome were entirely in Sulla’s hands. He could have them killed or he could spare them. One he chose to spare was a dissolute young patrician, whose father’s sister had been the wife of Marius, and who himself was the husband of Cinna’s daughter – Gaius Julius Caesar.
Sulla’s second Reforms
Sulla took charge of the constitution in 81 BC. All the power of the state would henceforth lay in the hands of the senate.The Tribunes of the People and the people’s assemblies had been by the democrats to overthrow the senate. Tribunes were to be barred from all further office and the assemblies were deprived of the power of initiating any legislation. The senatorial control of the courts was restored at the expense of the equestrians.
There were to be no more repeated consulships, like those of Marius and Cinna.
Consuls were not to hold military command until, after their year of office, they went abroad as proconsuls, when their power could only be exercised in their respective province.
Then in 79 BC Sulla lay down his powers as dictator and devoted his remaining months to the enjoyment of wild parties. He died in 78 BC.
Although the Roman Republic technically still had some fifty years to go, Sulla pretty much represents its demise. He should stand as an example to others to come that is was possible to take Rome by force and rule it, if only one was strong and ruthlessness enough to do what ever deeds were required.
The Age of Caesar
The twenty years following Sulla’s death saw the rise of three men who, if Rome’s founders were truly suckled by a she-wolf, surely had within them the stuff of wolves.
The three were Marcus Licinius Crassus (d. 53 BC), one of Rome’s richest men ever. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BC), known as Pompey the Great, perhaps the greatest military talent of his time, and Gaius Julius Caesar (102-44 BC), arguably the most famous Roman of all times.
A fourth man was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), is generally understood to have been the greatest orator in the entire history of the Roman Empire. All four were stabbed to death within ten years of each other.
The Rise of Crassus and Pompey
Two men had risen to prominence as supporters of Sulla. One was Publius Licinius Crassus (117-53 BC), who had played a major part in the victory of the Colline Gate for Sulla. The other, Gnaeus Pompeius (106-48 BC), known to the modern historians as Pompey, was a youthful commander of remarkable military talents.
Such talents in fact that Sulla had entrusted him with the suppression of the Marians (the supporters of Marius) in Africa. This command he had fulfilled so satisfactorily that it had earned him the complimentary title ‘Magnus’ (‘the Great’) from the dictator. Crassus had no little ability, but he chose to concentrate it on the acquisition of wealth.
Sulla was hardly dead, when the inevitable attempt to overturn his constitution was made by the consul Lepidus, the champion of the popular party. when he took up arms however, he was easily crushed (77 BC).
In one quarter, the Marians had not yet been suppressed. The Marian Sertorius had retreated to Spain when Sulla returned to Italy, and there he had been making himself a formidable power, partly by rallying the Spanish tribes to join him as their leader.
He was very much more than a mere match for the Roman forces sent to deal with him. Pompey, charged with the business of dealing with him in 77 BC, fared not much better than his predecessors.
More worryingly the menacing king Mithridates of Pontus, no longer in awe of Sulla, was negotiating with Sertorius with the intention of renewing the war in 74 BC.
But this alliance came to nothing as Sertorius was assassinated in 72 BC. With Sertorius” death the defeat of the Marians in Spain posed no great difficulty to Pompey anymore.
Pompey could now return home to Rome to claim and receive credit, scarcely deserved, for having succeeded were others had failed.
Third Slave War
Slaves were trained as gladiators, and in 73 BC such a slave, a Thracian named Spartacus, broke out of a gladiator training camp at Capua and took refuge in the hills. The number of his band swelled rapidly and he kept his men well in hand and under strict discipline and routed two commanders who were sent to capture him. In 72 BC Spartacus had so formidable force behind him, that two consular armies were sent against him, both of which he destroyed.
Pompey was in the west, Lucullus in the east. It was Crassus who at the head of six legions at last brought Spartacus to bay, shattered his army, and slew him on the field (71 BC).
Five thousand of Spartacus’ men cut their way through the lines and escaped but only to end up in the very path of Pompey’s army returning from Spain.
Pompey claimed the victory of quelling the Slave war for himself, adding to his questionable glories gained in Spain. Crassus, seeing that the popular soldier might be useful to him, did not quarrel.
Crassus and Pompey joint Consuls
So powerful were the positions of the two leaders, that they felt secure enough to challenge Sulla’s constitution. Both by the terms of Sulla’s laws were barred from standing for the consulship. Pompey was too young and Crassus was required to let a year pass between his position as praetor before he could stand for election.
But both men stood and both were elected.
As consuls, during 70 BC, they procured the annulment of the restrictions imposed on the office of Tribune of the People. Thereby they restored the lost powers of the tribal assembly. The senate dared not refuse their demands, knowing an army behind each of them.
Third Mithridatic War
In 74 BC king Nicomedes of Bithynia died without heirs. Following the example of Attalus of Pergamum he left his kingdom to the Roman people. But with Sulla dead, king Mithridates of Pontus clearly felt his most fearsome enemy had vanished from the scene and revived his dreams of creating his own empire. Nicomedes’ death provided him with an excuse to start a war. He supported a false pretender to the throne of Bithynia on whose behalf he then invaded Bithynia.
At first the consul Cotta failed to make any significant gains against the king, but Lucius Lucullus, formerly the lieutenant of Sulla in the east, was soon dispatched to be governor of Cilicia to deal with Mithridates.
Though provided only with a comparatively small and undisciplined force, Lucullus conducted his operations with such skill that within a year he had broken up the army of Mithridates without having had to fight a pitched battle. Mithridates was driven back into his own territory in Pontus. Following a series of campaigns in the following years, Mithridates was forced to flee to king Tigranes of Armenia.
Lucullus’ troops had subjugated Pontus by 70 BC. Meanwhile, however, Lucullus, trying to sort out matters in the east realized that the cites of the province of Asia were being strangled by the punitive tributes they had to pay to Rome. In fact, they had to borrow money to be able to pay them, leading to an ever-growing spiral of debt.
In order to alleviate this burden and to return the province back to prosperity, he scaled down their debts to Rome from the huge total of 120,000 talents to 40,000.
This inevitably earned him the enduring gratitude of the cities of Asia, but it also drew upon him the undying resentment of the Roman moneylenders who had until profiteered from the plight of the Asiatic cities.
In 69 BC Lucullus, having decided that until Mithridates was captured the conflict in the east could not be resolved, advanced into Armenia and captured the capital Tigranocerta. In the next year he routed the forces of the Armenian king Tigranes. but in 68 BC, paralysed by the mutinous spirit of his depleted troops he was forced to withdraw to Pontus.
Pompey defeats the Pirates
In 74 BC Marcus Antonius, father of the famous Mark Antony, had been given special powers to suppress the large-scale piracy in the Mediterranean. But his attempts had ended in dismal failure.
After Antonius’ death, the consul Quintus Metellus was set upon the same task in 69 BC. Matters indeed did improve, but Metellus’ role should be cut shorts, as Pompey in 67 BC decided he wanted the position. Thanks to no small part to the support of Julius Caesar, Pompey was given the task, despite opposition by the senate.
A commander free to do as he wished and with nearly unlimited resources, Pompey accomplished in only three months what no one else had managed. Spreading his fleet systematically across the Mediterranean, Pompey swept the sea clean from end to end. The pirates were destroyed.
Pompey against Mithridates
By popular acclaim, fresh from his brilliant triumph over the pirates, Pompey was given supreme and unlimited authority over the whole east. His powers were to be in his hands until he himself should be satisfied with the completeness of the settlement he might effect.
No Roman, other than Sulla, had ever been given such powers. From 66 to 62 BC Pompey should remain in the east.
In his first campaign Pompey forced Mithridates to fight him, and routed his forces on the eastern border of Pontus. Mithridates fled, but was refused asylum by Tigranes of Armenia who, after the onslaught by Lucullus, evidently feared Roman troops.
Instead, Mithridates fled to the northern shores of the Black Sea. There, beyond the reach of the Roman forces, he began to form plans of leading the barbarian tribes of eastern Europe against Rome. That ambitious project, however, was brought to an end as his own son Pharnaces. In 63 BC, a broken old man, Mithridates killed himself.
Meanwhile Tigranes, eager to come to an arrangement with Rome, had already withdrawn his support for Mithridates and had pulled back his troops based in Syria. when Pompey marched into Armenia, Tigranes submitted to Roman power. Pompey seeing his task completed, saw no reason to occupy Armenia itself. Far more he left Tigranes in power and returned to Asia Minor (Turkey), where he began the organization of the new Roman territories.
Bithynia and Pontus were formed into one province, and the province of Cilicia was enlarged. meanwhile the minor territories on the border, Cappadocia, Galatia and Commagene were recognized as being under Roman protection.
Pompey annexes Syria
When in 64 BC Pompey descended from Cappadocia into northern Syria he needed little more than assume sovereignty on behalf of Rome. Ever since the collapse of the kingdom of the Seleucids sixty years previously, Syria had been ruled by chaos. Roman order was hence welcomed. The acquisition of Syria brought the eastern borders of the empire to the river Euphrates, which should hence traditionally be understood as the boundary between the two great empires of Rome and Parthia.
In Syria itself Pompey is said to have founded or restored as many as forty cities, settling them with the many refugees of the recent wars.
Pompey in Judaea
However, to the south things were different. The princes of Judaea had been allies of Rome for half a century.
But Judaea was suffering a civil war between the two brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Pompey was hence asked to help quell their quarrels and help decide the matter of rule over Judaea (63 BC).
Pompey advised in favour of Hyrcanus. Aristobulus gave way to his brother. But his followers refused to accept and locked themselves up in the city of Jerusalem. Pompey hence besieged the city, conquered it after three months and left it to Hyrcanus. But his troops having effectively put Hyrcanus in power, Pompey left Judaea no longer an ally but a protectorate, which paid a tribute to Rome.
The Cataline Conspiracy
During the five years of Pompey’s absence in the east Roman politics were as lively as ever.
Julius Caesar, the nephew of Marius and son-in-law of Cinna, was courting popularity and steadily rising in power and influence. However, among the hot-heads of the anti-senatorial party was Lucius Sergius Catalina (ca. 106 – 62 BC) a patrician who was at least reputed to have no scruples in such matters as assassination.
On the other side the ranks of the senatorial party were joined by the most brilliant orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC).
In 64 BC Catalina stood as a candidate for the consulship, having just been barely acquitted in the courts on a charge of treasonable conspiracy. Though Cicero was not popular with the upper-class senators of the old families, his party nominated him as their candidate – if only to prevent Catalina from winning the seat. Cicero’s rhetoric won day and secured him the post of consul.
But Catalina was not a man to take defeat easily.
While Caesar continue to court popularity, managing even to secure election to the dignified office of pontifex maximus ahead of the most eminent senatorial candidates, Catalina began to plot.
The intrigue was afoot in 63 BC, and yet Catalina did not intend to move until he had attained the consulship. He also didn’t feel sufficiently ready to strike yet. But all should come to nothing as some information about his plans was passed on to Cicero. Cicero went to the senate and presented what evidence he had, of plans being afoot.
Catalina escaped to the north to head the intended rebellion in the provinces, leaving his accomplices to carry out the programme arranged for the city.
Cicero, by now having been granted emergency powers by the senate, obtained correspondence between Catalina and the Gallic tribe of the Allobroges. The principal conspirators named in the letter were arrested and condemned to death without trial.
Cicero told the whole story to the people gathered in the forum amid frantic applause. In the city of Rome the rebellion had been quashed without a fight. But in the country Catalina fell fighting indomitably in early 62 BC at the head of the troops he had succeeded in raising.
For the moment at least civil war had been averted.
The First Triumvirate
With Pompey about to return to Rome, no one knew what the conqueror of the east intended to do. Both Cicero and Caesar wanted his alliance. But Caesar knew how to wait and turn events in his favor.
At present Crassus with his gold was more important then Pompey with his men. The money of Crassus enabled Caesar to take up the praetorship in Spain, soon after Pompey’s landing at Brundisium (Brindisi).
However, many people took comfort when Pompey instead of remaining at the head of his army dismissed his troops. He was not minded to play the part of dictator.
Then in 60 BC Caesar returned from Spain, enriched by the spoils of successful military campaigns against rebellious tribes. He found Pompey showing little interest in any alliance with Cicero and the senatorial party. Instead an alliance was forged between the popular politician, the victorious general and the richest man in Rome – the so-called first triumvirate – between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.
The reason for the ‘first triumvirate is to be found in the hostility the populists Crassus Pompey and Caesar faced in the senate, in particularly by the likes of Cato the Younger, Cato the Elder’s great-grandson. Perhaps his famous namesake before him Cato the Younger was a (self-)righteous, but talented politician.
A fatal mix, if surrounded by wolves of the caliber of Crassus, Pompey and Caesar. He became one of the leaders in the senate, where he particularly rounded on Crassus, Pompey and Caesar. Alas, he even fell out with Cicero, the greatest speaker of the house by far.
The ‘first triumvirate was, rather than a constitutional office or a dictatorship imposed by force, an alliance of the three main popular politicians; Crassus, Pompey and Caesar.
They helped each other along, guarding each other’s backs from Cato the Younger and his attacks in the senate. With Pompey and Crassus supporting him Caesar was triumphantly elected consul.
The partnership with Pompey was to be sealed in the following year by the marriage between Pompey and Caesar’s daughter Julia.
The first Consulate of Julius Caesar
Caesar used his year as consul (59 BC) to further establish his position. A popular agrarian law, As his first act in office Caesar brought proposed a new agrarian law which gave lands to the veteran soldiers of Pompey and poor citizens in Campania.
Though opposed by the senate, but supported by Pompey as Crassus, the law was passed in the tribal assembly, after a detachment of Pompey’s veterans had by physical force swept away any possible constitutional opposition. The populace were gratified and the three triumvirs now had a body of loyal and grateful veteran soldiers to call on in case of trouble.
Pompey’s organization of the east was finally confirmed, having been in doubt until then. And finally Caesar secured for himself an unprecedented term of five years for the proconsulship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. The senate, hoping to be well rid of him, added to his territories Transalpine Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis) where serious trouble was brewing.
Before his departure though Caesar saw to it that the political opposition lay in tatters. The austere and uncompromising Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) was dispatched to secure the annexation of Cyprus. Meanwhile the arch-enemy of Cicero, Publius Claudius (known as Clodius), was aided in obtaining the position of Tribune of the People, whilst Cicero himself was forced into exile in Greece for having illegally killed without trial the accomplices of Catalina during the Cataline Conspiracy.
Caesar defeats the Helvetii, the Germans and the Nervii
In the first year of his governorship of Gaul 58 BC, Caesar’s presence was urgently required in Transalpine Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis) because of the movement among the Teutonic tribes which was displacing the Helvetic (Swiss) Celts and forcing them into Roman territory. The year 58 BC was therefore first occupied with a campaign in which the invaders were split in two and their forces so heavily defeated that they had to retire to their own mountains.
But no sooner was this menace dealt with another loomed on the horizon. The fierce Germans tribes (Sueves and Swabians) were crossing the Rhine and threatening to overthrow the Aedui, the Gallic allies of Rome on the northern borders of the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul.
The German chief, Ariovistus, apparently envisaged the conquest of entire Gaul and its partition between himself and the Romans.
Caesar led his legions to the help of the Aedui and utterly defeated the German force, with Ariovistus barely escaping across the Rhine with what was left of his forces.
With the Germans driven back, fear was aroused in Gaul of a general Roman conquest. The Nervii, who were the leading tribe of the warlike Belgae in the north-east of Gaul prepared an attack on Rome’s forces. But Caesar received warning from friends in Gaul and decided to attack first, invading Nervian territory in 57 BC.
The Nervii fought heroically and for some time the outcome of the decisive battle uncertain, but eventually Caesar’s victory proved overwhelming. It was followed by a general submission of all the tribes between the river Aisne and the Rhine.
Disorder in Rome under Clodius
With Julius Caesar campaigning in Gaul, Clodius exercised his powers as the virtual king of Rome with neither Pompey nor Crassus interfering. Among his measures was a law which distributed corn no longer at half price but for free to the citizens of Rome.
But his conduct was generally reckless and violent, as he employed a large gang of thugs and troublemakers to enforce his will. So much so, that it aroused the anger of Pompey who the following year (57 BC) used his influence to enable the return of Cicero to Rome.
Did the supporters of Clodius protest in a violent riot then this was met with equal brute force by Pompey, who organized his own band of thugs, made up partially of veterans of his army, which under the guidance of the tribune T. Annius Milo took to the streets and beet Clodius’ ruffians at their own game.
Cicero, finding himself still very popular on his return to Rome, proposed – perhaps feeling indebted – that Pompey should be granted dictatorial powers for the restoration of order. But only partial, not total power was conveyed upon Pompey, who himself seemed little tempted in acting as a policeman in Rome.
Conference of the Triumvirs in Luca
With Clodius reduced in power and influence, the senate was stirring again, seeking to gain back some power from the three triumvirs. So in 56 BC a meeting was held at Luca in Cisalpine Gaul by the three men, determined to hold onto their privileged position.
The result of the meeting was that Pompey and Crassus stood for the consulship again and were elected – largely due to the fact that Crassus’ son, who had been serving brilliantly under Caesar, was at no great distance from Rome with a returning legion.
Did Pompey and Crassus gain office in such way, then Caesar’s part of the bargain was that the two new consuls extended his term in office in Gaul by another five years (until 49 BC).
Caesar’s expeditions into Germany and Britain
Caesar went on, after the conference of Luca to reduce the whole of Gaul to submission in the course of three campaigns – justified by initial aggression from the barbarians.
The two following years were occupied with expeditions and campaigns of an experimental kind. In 55 BC a fresh invasion of Germans across the Rhine was completely shattered in the neighbourhood of modern Koblenz and the victory was followed by a great raid over the river into German territory, which made Caesar decide that the Rhine should remain the boundary.
Gaul conquered and the Germans crushed, Caesar turned his attention to Britain. In 55 BC he led his first expedition to Britain, a land so far known only by the reports of traders.
The following year, 54 BC, Caesar led his second expedition, and reduced the south-east of the island to submission. But he decided that real conquest was not worth undertaking.
During that winter and the following year 53 BC, the year of the disaster of Carrhae, Caesar was kept occupied with various revolts in north-eastern Gaul.
Pompey sole consul in Rome
In 54 BC Pompey’s young wife had died and with her death had disappeared the personal link between him and his father-in-law Caesar.
Crassus had started for the east to take up governorship of Syria. Meanwhile Pompey did little. He simply watched with growing jealousy the successive triumphs of Caesar in Gaul.
In 52 BC things in Rome reached another point of crisis. During the previous two years the city had remained in a state of near anarchy.
Clodius, still the leader of the popular extremists, was killed in an violent brawl with the followers of Milo, the leader of the senatorial extremists. Pompey, was elected sole consul and was commissioned to restore order in the ever more riotous city of Rome.
In effect Pompey was left virtual dictator of Rome. A dangerous situation, considering Caesar’s presence in Gaul with several battle-hardened legions.
Pompey himself achieved a five year extension for his own position of proconsul of Spain, but – very controversially – he had a law passed by which Caesar’s term in Gaul would be cut short by almost a year (ending in March 49 instead of January 48 BC).
A reaction of Caesar’s was inevitable to such provocation, but he could not respond immediately, as a large scale revolt in Gaul demanded his full attention.
Disaster at Carrhae
In 55 BC Crassus had, during his consulship, in the aftermath of the conference at Luca, managed to secure himself the governorship of Syria. Phenomenally rich and renowned for greed, people saw this as yet another example of his appetite for money. The east was rich, and a governor of Syria could hope to be much the richer on his return to Rome.
But Crassus was for once, it appears, seeking more than mere wealth, although the promise of gold no doubt played a major part in his seeking the governorship of Syria. With Pompey and Caesar having covered themselves in military glory, Crassus craved for similar recognition.
Had his money bought him his power and influence so far, as a politician he had always been the poor relation to his partners in the triumvirate. There was only one way by which to equal their popularity and that was by equalling their military exploits.
Relations with the Parthians had never been good and now Crassus set out on a war against them. First he raided Mesopotamia, before spending the winter of 54/53 BC in Syria, when he did little to make himself popular by requisitioning from the Great Temple of Jerusalem and other temples and sanctuaries.
Then, in 53 BC, Crassus crossed the Euphrates with 35’000 men with the intention of marching on Seleucia-ad-Tigris, the commercial capital of ancient Babylonia. Large though Crassus’ army was, it consisted almost entirely of legionary infantry.
But for the Gallic horseman under the command of his son, he possessed no cavalry. An arrangement with the king of Armenia to supply additional cavalry had fallen foul, and Crassus was no longer prepared to delay any further.
He marched into absolute disaster against an army of 10’000 horsemen of the Parthian king Orodes II. The place where the two armies met, the wide open spaces of the low lying land of Mesopotamia around the city of Carrhae, offered ideal terrain for cavalry manoeuvres.
The Parthian horse archers could move at liberty, staying at a safe distance while taking shots at the helpless Roman infantry from a safe range. 25’000 men fell or were captured by the Parthians, the remaining 10’000 managed to escape back to Roman territory.
Crassus himself was killed trying to negotiate terms for surrender.
The Rebellion of Vercingetorix in Gaul
In 52 BC, just as Pompey’s jealousies reached their height, a great rebellion was organized in the very heart of Gaul by the heroic Arvernian chief Vercingetorix. So stubborn and so able was the Gallic chief that all Caesar’s energies were required for the campaign. On an attack on Gergovia Caesar even suffered a defeat, dispelling the general myth of his invincibility.
Taking heart from this, all Gallic tribes, except for three broke out in open rebellion against Rome. Even the allied Aedui joined the ranks of the rebels. But a battle near Dijon turned the odds back in favour of Caesar, who drove Vercingetorix into the hill-top city of Alesia and laid siege to him.
All efforts of the Gauls to relieve the siege were in vain. At Alesia the Gallic resistance was broken and Vercingetorix was captured. Gaul was conquered for good.
The whole of 51 BC was taken up by the organization of the conquered land and the establishment of garrisons to retain its control.
Caesar’s breach with Pompey
Meanwhile the party in Rome most hostile toward him was straining itself to the utmost to effect his ruin between the termination of his present appointment and his entry into a new post.
Caesar would be secure from attack if he passed straight from his position of proconsul of Gaul and Illyricum into the office of consul back in Rome. He was sure to win an election to that office, but the rules prohibited him from entering such a position till 48 BC (the rules stated that he had to wait for ten years after holding the office of consul in 59 BC !).
If he could be deprived of his troops before that date, he could be attacked through the law courts for his questionable proceedings in Gaul and his fate would be sealed, while Pompey would still enjoy command over his own troops in Spain.
So far Caesar’s supporters in Rome delayed a decree which would have displaced Caesar from office in March 49 BC. But the problem was only delayed, not resolved. Meanwhile in 51 BC, two legions were detached from Caesar’s command and moved to Italy, to be ready for service against the Parthians in the east.
In 50 BC the question of redistributing the provinces came up for settlement. Caesar’s agents in Rome proposed compromises, suggesting that Caesar and Pompey should resign simultaneously from their positions as provincial governors, or that Caesar should only retain one of his three provinces.
Pompey refused, but proposed that Caesar should not resign until November 49 BC (which would still have left two months for his prosecution !). Caesar naturally refused. Having completed the organization of Gaul, he had now returned to Cisalpine Gaul in northern Italy with one veteran legion. Pompey, commissioned by a suspicious senate, left Rome to raise more troops in Italy.
In January 49 BC Caesar repeated his offer of a joint resignation. The senate rejected the offer and decreed that their current consuls should enjoy a completely free hand ‘in defence of the Republic’. Evidently they had resigned themselves to the fact that there was going to be a civil war.
Caesar was still in his province, of which the boundary to Italy was the river Rubicon. The momentous choice lay before him. Was he to submit and let his enemies utterly destroy him or was he to take power by force. He made his choice. At the head of one of his one legion, on the night of January 6, 49 BC, he crossed the Rubicon. Caesar was now at war with Rome.
Showdown between Casesar and Pompey
Pompey was not prepared for the sudden swiftness of his adversary. Without waiting for the reinforcements he had summoned from Gaul, Caesar swooped on Umbria and Picenum, which were not prepared to resist.
Town after town surrendered and was won over to his side by the show of clemency and the firm control which Caesar held over his soldiers.
In six weeks he was joined by another legion from Gaul. Corfinium was surrendered to him and he sped south in pursuit of Pompey.
The legions Pompey had ready were the very legions that Caesar had led to victory in Gaul. Pompey hence could not rely on the loyalty of his troops. Instead, he decided to move south to the port of Brundisium where he embarked with his troops and sailed east, hoping to raise troops there with which he could return to drive the rebel out of Italy. His leaving words are said to have been “Sulla did it, why not I ?”
Caesar, with no enemy left to fight in Italy, was in Rome no longer than three months after he had crossed the river Rubicon.
He immediately secured the treasury and then, rather than pursuing Pompey, he turned west to deal with the legions in Spain who were loyal to Pompey.
The campaign in Spain was not a series of battles, but a sequence of skillful manouvers by both sides – during which Caesar, by his own admission, was at times outgeneraled by his opposition. But Caesar remained the winner as within six months most of the Spanish troops had joined his side.
Returning to Rome he became dictator, passed popular laws, and then prepared for the decisive contest in the east, where a large force was now collecting under Pompey.
Pompey also controlled the seas, as most of the fleet had joined with him. Caesar, therefore, managed only with great difficulty to set across to Epirus with his first army. There he was shut up, unable to maneuver, by the much larger army of Pompey. With even more difficulty his lieutenant, Mark Antony, joined him with the second army in the spring of 48 BC.
Some months of maneuvering following Pompey, though his forces outnumbered Caesar’s, knew well that his eastern soldiers were not to be matched against Caesar’s veterans. Hence he wished to avoid a pitched battle. Many of the senators though, who had fled Italy together with Pompey, scoffed at his indecision and clamored for battle.
Until at last, in midsummer, Pompey was goaded into delivering an attack on the plain of Pharsalus in Thessaly.
The fight hung long in balance, but eventually ended in the complete rout of Pompey’s army, with immense slaughter. Most of the Romans on Pompey’s side though were persuaded by Caesar’s promises of clemency to surrender once they realized the battle lost.
Pompey himself escaped to the coast, took a ship with a few loyal comrades and made his way to Egypt, where he found awaiting him not the asylum he sought, but the dagger of an assassin commissioned by the Egyptian government.
Caesar in Egypt – The ‘Alexandrian War’
After Caesar’s great victory at Pharsalus, all was not yet won. The Pompeians still controlled the seas, Africa was in their hands and Juba of Numidia was siding with them. Caesar was not yet master of the empire.
Therefore, at the first possible moment, Caesar had set out with a small force after Pompey and, evading the enemy fleets, tracked him all the way to Egypt, where the Egyptian government’s envoys received him, not with his dead rival’s head.
But rather than being able to swiftly move on ad deal with the remaining Pompeians, Caesar became entangled in Egyptian politics. He was asked to help settle a dispute between the young king Ptolemy XII and his fascinating sister Cleopatra.
Though the arrangements Caesar suggested for the dynasty gave such offence to Ptolemy and his ministers that they set the royal army upon him and kept him and his small force blockaded in the palace quarter of Alexandria through the winter of 48/47 BC.
With his force of no more than 3000 men Caesar became involved in desperate rounds of street-fighting against the Ptolemaic royal troops.
Meanwhile, the Pompeians seeing their chance to rid themselves of their foe, used their fleets to prevent any reinforcements reaching him.
Alas, a makeshift force swept together jointly in Cilicia and Syria by a wealthy citizen of Pergamum, known as Mithridates of Pergamum, and by Antipater, a Judaean government minister, managed to land and help Caesar out of Alexandria.
A few days later the ‘Alexandrian War’ was ended in a pitched battle on the Nile delta, in which both the king Ptolemy XII and the true power behind the throne, his chief-minister Achillas, met their death.
The late king’s crown was transferred by Caesar to his younger brother Ptolemy XIII. But the effective ruler of Egypt henceforth was Cleopatra whom Caesar invested a co-regent.
Wether true or not is unclear, but Caesar is said to have spent up to two months with Cleopatra on a holiday tour up the Nile.
Caesar defeats Pharnaces of Pontus
In the summer of 47 BC Caesar began his way home. While passing through Judaea he rewarded the intervention of Antipater at Alexandria with a reduction of the tribute the Jewish people had to pay to Rome.
But more serious matters were still to be taken care of. Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates, had seized his opportunity to recover power in Pontus, whilst the Romans were tied up in their civil war.
In a lightning campaign Caesar shattered the power of Pharnaces. It was at the occasion of that victory on which Caesar dispatched the words back to Rome ‘veni, vidi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’).
Caesar’s final Victory over the Pompeians
By July 47 BC Caesar was back in Rome, and was formally appointed dictator for the second time. In Spain the legions were in mutiny. And in Africa the Pompeians were scoring victories.
He also found the legions in Campania in mutiny, demanding to be discharged. But what they really wanted was not a discharge, but more pay.
Caesar coolly complied with their demand, granting them their discharge together with a message of his contempt. Whereupon the distraught troops begged to be reinstated again, whatever his terms may be. A triumphant Caesar granted them their will and re-employed them.
Next Caesar carried a force to Africa, but was unable to strike a decisive blow until in February 46 BC he shattered the Pompeian forces at Thapsus. The senatorial leaders either fled to Spain or killed themselves, including Juba, king of Numidia who had sided with them. Numidia in turn was annexed and made a new Roman province.
Caesar returned to Rome and celebrated a series of triumphs. Having reconciliation in mind, he celebrated not his victories over other Romans, but those over the Gauls, Egypt, Pharnaces and Juba.
But more so he astonished the world by declaring a complete amnesty, taking no sort of revenge on any of his past enemies.
Confirmed as dictator for the third time, Caesar occupied himself with reorganizing the imperial system, legislating and planning and starting public works.
Then, for a last time, Caesar was called to deal with a Pompeian force. Two sons of Pompey, Gnaeus and Sextus, had, after fleeing from Africa been able to raise an army in Spain. Once in Spain, sickness kept Caesar inactive until the end of the year. But by 46 BC he moved on the Pompeians once more, and at the battle of Munda on 17 March 45 BC he finally crushed them, in his most desperately fought battle.
For six more months Caesar was occupied in the settlement of Spanish affairs, before in October 45 BC he returned to Rome.
Into the few months of his remaining regime Caesar compressed a surprising amount of social and economic legislation, most of all the granting of full Roman citizenship to all Italians.
It was in his many reforms and projects that it showed that Caesar was not merely a conqueror and destroyer. Caesar was a builder, a visionary statesman the likes of which, the world rarely gets to see.
He established order, begun measures to reduce congestion in Rome, draining large tracts of marshy lands, revised the tax laws of Asia and Sicily, resettled many Romans in new homes in the Roman provinces and reformed the calendar, which, with one slight adjustment, is the one in use today.
The Murder of Caesar
A notable situation occurred when, at the festival of the Lupercalia in February 44 BC, Mark Antony offered Caesar the crown as king of Rome. He rejected the offer dramatically, but with obvious reluctance. The idea of a king still remained intolerable to the Romans.
Read More: Roman Country Festivals
Many senators though suspected it only a matter of time until Caesar should accept such an offer, or that he simply would choose to rule as dictator forever as a quasi-king of Rome.
They saw their suspicions confirmed at hearing that a suggestion was to be put to the senate that Caesar should adopt the title of king for use outside of Italy. More so support for the idea was growing, if not in Rome itself, then with the people of Italy.
And with the appointment of new senators by Caesar, the senate as a whole was becoming more and more an instrument of Caesar’s will. A conspiracy was formed by a group which included senators of the highest influence, some of them even Caesar’s personal friends.
The organizers of the plot was Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus were pardoned Pompeians, but the majority of their accomplices were former officers of Caesar.
Caesar never took precautions for his personal safety. At a meeting of the senate on the Ides of March (15th March) 44 BC, they gathered round him on the pretext of urging a petition and then stabbed him to death.
The Second Triumvirate
For the moment Caesar’s fall produced sheer paralysis. The conspirators imagined that they were going to restore the senatorial republic mid general acclamation. The enemy they had most to fear was Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony, ca. 83-30 BC), consul designate and a favorite lieutenant of the murdered dictator, a man of brilliant, though erratic ability, boundless ambition and whole-hearted devotion to his dead chief.
There would almost certainly be a duel between the conspirators and Antony. Neither side took much notice of a youngster of eighteen years away in Macedon, whom the childless Caesar had adopted, his great-nephew Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.
The conflict did not begin at once, for at first there was hollow reconciliation. Antony however secured Caesar’s papers and secured from the senate the ratification of Caesar’s acts and a public funeral – at which Antony’s speech and the reading of Caesar’s will produced a violent popular outcry of revulsion against the self-styled ‘liberators’.
Under the threat of being lynched by the angry mob, the conspirators hastily left Rome, leaving Antony master of the situation.
The ablest soldier of the conspirators Decimus Brutus (not to be mistaken for the famous Marcus Junius Brutus !), took possession of Cisalpine Gaul.
the military situation was extremely uncertain, which is well reflected in the fact that the two parties were still corresponding with each other at that time.
The young Octavian suddenly appeared on the scene, announcing himself the heir to Caesar’s will, ready to make terms with either party – but only his own terms.
Antony feared a rival, the conspirators saw a remorseless enemy.
The Italian legions seemed likely to transfer their allegiance to the one they saw as Caesar’s son, Octavian.
Decimus Brutus was in Possession of Cisalpine Gaul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (d 13BC), Caesar’s former chief assistant, was in control of the old Transalpine Province. Caesar himself in his will (of course not knowing of his future assassination) had granted Macedon and Syria to his chief murderers Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, both of whom left Italy to raise troops for the coming contest.
A time of chaos followed in which Antony besieged Decimus Brutus, suffered defeat, was declared a public enemy after a series of brilliant speeches against him by Cicero, Octavian joined the new consuls Hirtius and Pansa who were soon killed in fighting Antony’s troops, Antony then allied with Lepidus and then jointly came to terms with Octavian.
Octavian with his legions then simply marched on Rome and at the age of twenty claimed the consulship for himself, no one daring to deny him. Then he trial Caesar’s assassins tried and, of course, condemned to death.
At last the governor’s of Spain and Gaul, so far prudently neutral declared their support. Antony, Lepidus and Octavian then met up at Bononia (Bologna) and constituted themselves (officially by decree of a powerless senate) Triumvirs, joint rulers of the Republic.
A part of this joint programme was, as with Sulla, a merciless proscription, Cicero being the most distinguished of their victims. Then the Triumvirs went about appointing their shares of the empire, with little regard for Lepidus.
Climactic End of the Roman Republic
Antonius versus Octavian
No heavy engagement took place before the two battles on the plain of Philippi in Macedonia, fought with an interval of three weeks in the late autumn of 42 BC. The first battle actually went to Marcus Brutus, although Cassius mistakenly believing the day lost, ordered his slave to kill him.
In the second battle however Brutus was defeated, his army refused another fight the next day, and so he was killed by the reluctant hand of a friend.
The victors, Antony and Octavian parted the empire between them, Lepidus having fallen by the side. In effect, Antony took the east, Octavian the west. However, they found an unexpected rival in Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great and having held a command in the Decimus Brutus’ fleet having achieved naval supremacy across the Mediterranean.
For ten years there was no open collision between Antony and Octavian, but there was much friction and actual war was overted several times only with great difficulty.
The root of the matter was, both were ambitious, but so too did the division of the empire prove that it required sole rule. For Rome, with its institutions of power lay in the west, whilst to the east lay the wealthiest regions of the empire. Octavian had naturally moved to Rome, Antony had set up camp in Egypt where he lived with Cleopatra.
Antony struggled in the east, Labienus one of his Roman officers joining with Pacorus, King of Parthia and invading Syria. Weakened like this, he only averted war with Octavian by marrying Octavian’s sister Octavia, much to the dissatisfaction of Cleopatra.
Meanwhile, Sextus Pompeius used his fleet to blockade Italy, finally forcing the triumvirs to admit him to partnership, receiving in his share Sardinia, Sicily and Achaea.
Ventidius Bassus, commanding troops for Antony, in 39 BC routed the Parthians and drove them over the Euphrates, then repeated his success in 38 BC against King Pacorus himself, who fell in battle.
Octavian prepared for a struggle with Sextus Pompeius and Antony, tired of his wife Octavia, returned to his Egyptian mistress Cleopatra. In 36 BC Antony flung himself into a new Parthian campaign but only narrowly escaped complete destruction by a hasty retreat. Back in Italy Antony’s brother Lucius; now consul tried to overthrow Octavian by armed force, but Octavian’s right-hand man Agrippa (63 BC-12 AD) compelled him in 40 BC to retire from Italy.
This was the occasion of the breach of the triumvirs, ended by the pact of Brundisium in 36 BC. Octavian still desperate to reorganize the west found Sextus Pompeius, still master of the seas, a growing embarrassment. Though the first attempts to challenge his power failed completely.
The invaluable Agrippa again came to the rescue. Only in 36 BC, having organized and trained new fleets, was his naval campaign begun. Sextus, defeated by Agrippa, then victorious over Octavian, was alas crushed by Agrippa at Naulochus, and having fled into the hands of Antony, was put to death.
Now Lepidus, the initial third triumvir, returned to the scene trying to reassert himself. But he quickly submitted as his troops deserted to Octavian and was relegated into dignified obscurity as pontifex maximus.
Finally things came to a climax when Antony in 32 BC openly repudiated his marriage to Octavia. Octavian’s time had come. Rome declared war on Egypt. Antony set out for Greece, designing on invading Italy. This was made impossible by Agrippa’s fleet. Octavian landed in Epirus, but wisely held back as he knew himself no match for Antony as a general. Though the winter both sides played a waiting game, which all worked to the favor of Octavian for Antony could trust none of his men.
In 31 Antony finally decided to abandon his army and retreat with his fleet. He embarked with Cleopatra at the end of August, but it was overtaken by Agrippa and forced to engage off Actium on September 2. Agrippa’s skill was the greater, yet Antony’s fleet was much the heavier. The battle hung in doubt, until Cleopatra with sixty ships broke away in full flight. Antony deserted the battle and followed his mistress.
The rest of the fleet fought on desperately, until it was totally destroyed or captured. The deserted army naturally went over to Octavian. The battle of Actium was decisive.
Antony was beaten though not yet dead. In July of 30 BC a well prepared Octavian appeared before Pelusium with his fleet. Hearing a false rumour that Cleopatra was dead, Antony committed suicide. Hearing of her lover’s death and that Octavian intended to parade the defeated queen through the streets of Rome, she too killed herself.
Alas Octavian stood alone and unrivalled, undisputed and indisputable rival of the civilized world.
Octavian sole ruler of Rome
He remained in the east for nearly a year before returning to Rome in triumph. He signalized the restoration of peace long unknown throughout the empire by closing the temple of Janus.
In 28 BC Octavian’s role as pacificator was further emphasized by his reversal of the illegalities for he and his colleagues had been responsible during the long period of arbitrary authority. He also revised the senatorial list, restoring some of the dignity of that body.
Then in a remarkable demonstration that the public good, not his own ambition were his motivation, Octavian in 27 BC laid down his extraordinary powers. Though there was no question of him retiring. Naturally he resigned his powers only that he might resume them in slightly different guise in constitutional form.
The titles conferred on him were such to concentrate attention on his dignity, not his power; on the reverence he commanded from a ‘grateful world’.
The Republic was finally dissolved, The imperator was proclaimed pater patriae, father of his country, princeps, first citizen, Caesar Augustus, – almost, but not as yet, divine.
Henceforth he was known no longer as Octavian, but as Augustus.