Rome on the eve of the First Romano-Punic War

February 25 2014

In the course of seventy years – 342-272 B.C. – Rome had imposed political unity, under her own ascendancy, on the whole of Peninsular Italy south of, but not including, the basin of the River Po.

342 was the year, at the beginning of the First Samnite War, in which the Romans defeated the Samnites at Mount Gaurus, and also the year in which Aristotle became tutor to the young Alexander at the court of Philip II at Pella.

These Roman conquests in Cisappennine Italy, rapid though they were, were neither so rapid nor so spectacular as the contemporary conquests of Alexander the Great in South-Western Asia.

Why Cisappennine if they were of the entire peninsula south of the Po? The word must mean south of where the Appennines start, but it seems odd to use it, since the Appennines run north-south, not west-east.

They were, however, not less momentous; for, as a result of them, the Roman Commonwealth made its entry on to the stage of Greek history as one of five Great Powers in an expanding Greek world. Two of the other four – the Carthaginian Empire and the Kingdom of Macedon – had already been on the map before the face of this map had been changed by the Macedonians’ and the Romans’ military achievements. The other two – the Achaemenian Empire’s Seleucid successor-state in South-West Asia and an insurgent native Egyptian Kingdom’s Ptolemaic successor-state in the Lower Nile Valley – were also old empires under new management. The Roman Commonwealth was the only one of the five that was new in reality. Rome had turned herself from a middle-sized city-state into a Great Power by imposing military and political unity upon Italy – an enterprise which had proved to be beyond the strength of the Etruscans in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. and of the Siceliot Greeks in the fifth and fourth.

An expanding Greek world had begun to impinge upon Italy 400 years before the Roman conquest of Italy, and the Roman Commonwealth was entangled in the Greek world because it included two important Italian pieces of it: Magna Graecia (what was left of it, after the infiltration of the Oscan barbarians in the fourth century B.C.) and a semi-Hellenized Etruria, particularly the Etruscan black country (Elba and Populonia).

Black country must refer to Greek-influenced black-figure Etruscan vase painting (seventh century BC-circa 480 BC).

This political entanglement raised questions that were social and cultural; for by the time, in the third decade of the third century B.C., when Rome’s conquest of Italy had thus brought Rome back into the Greek World again, Rome herself and the central Italian heart of her newly-built commonwealth had been out of touch, for some 150 years, with the main movement of Greek history. In the sixth century B.C. Rome had been a partly commercial and industrial city-state ruled by a despot, like the neighbouring Etruscan city-states and the leading Greek city-states of the day: Corinth, Sicyon, Miletus, Athens. But when, towards the end of the sixth century, Rome – again behaving like her more eminent contemporaries – had turned her despot out, she had had to pay for her self-liberation by falling into a state of isolation and weakness that had lasted for about a century; and, when she had exerted her reviving strength in the military and political enterprise of conquering Italy, she had built up her power by turning inland into a culturally and socially backward interior, into which the city-state dispensation had not yet penetrated and in which the native population was therefore more malleable than it was in older and more advanced communities with more deeply engraved memories of a more glorious past. In moulding this native central Italian human raw material, Rome had the institutional advantage of being, herself, a city-state of old standing; but, by the third century B.C., Rome’s way of life had come to be old-fashioned. It was a way that had been put out of date, east of the Adriatic, by the sweeping social and political revolution there in the generation of Alexander the Great; and in 264 B.C. there were at least four signal differences between Rome and some or all of the other Great Powers in the new world into which Rome had now been drawn as a result of her Italian conquests.

One of these differences was constitutional. Since the days of Alexander and his father Philip, the typical constitution of a Great Power in the Greek world had come to be monarchy. Carthage was the only third-century Great Power besides Rome in which the sovereign authority was a city-state. A second difference was a military one. In accordance with the pre-Alexandrine Greek city-state tradition, Rome’s fighting-force was a compulsory levy of free citizens possessing property of at least a minimum value; and the contingents furnished, under treaty, by Rome’s Italian confederate communities were levied from the same class. But there was only one other Great Power, besides Rome, that now still had a citizen army, and this was Macedon. The other three contemporary Great Powers – Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Seleucid Asia – all employed professional armies largely composed of foreign mercenaries. A third difference, closely connected with the military one, was economic. Rome’s citizen fighting-force consisted of farmers who made their living by subsistence farming, whereas all the other contemporary Great Powers, except Macedon, had gone over to cash-crop farming with a labour-force, not of citizen-soldiers, but of serfs or slaves who were exempt from military service. In the fourth place, there was an administrative difference which distinguished the Roman Commonwealth sharply from contemporary Ptolemaic Egypt, though not so sharply, perhaps, from any of the other three Great Powers. The Roman Commonwealth in the third century B.C. did not possess anything like the contemporary Ptolemaic professional civil service.

272 was the year of the surrender of Tarentum, the last stronghold of Pyrrhus of Epirus, which brought the cities of Magna Graecia under Roman control and left Rome free to complete its subjection of the Samnites. It was also the year, during the First Syrian War, in which Ptolemy II turned Egypt into the leading naval power in the eastern Mediterranean by defeating Antiochus I Soter.

Economic and Social Consequences of the Hannibalic War, lecture, John Rylands Library, Manchester, March 10 1954; Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol 37, No 1, September 1954

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