In today’s edition of the Homewritten History of the World, we look at the unexpected and rapid rise of Rome to the status of superpower of the Mediterranean sea, from its mythological founding to the Punic and Macedonian Wars.
So far in this series, Asia has been given quite a lot of the attention, and the only place in Europe we’ve cared to talk about so far is Greece. (Well, you know, we all love Asia don’t we). Anyway, there’s no need to complain about this, because from here on Europe will be getting A LOT of attention, which means that finally I can be accused of being Eurocentric. Hooray.
Anyway, our focus today will be on Rome. Although pizza might seem to be Italy’s main source of fame nowadays, it should also be remembered as once being the heart of the Roman Empire, a realm stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Syria. The story of how the Romans conquered their empire is bloody but also fascinating. (There aren’t many empires that were built without shedding some blood, anyway. Being conquered is not the number 1 thing people like).
The legend is that the city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C by the two brothers Romulus and Remus. Inevitably, the two squabble over what they should name the city. Rome or Reme? Because of this, Romulus kills Remus, which shows amazing common sense. (Killing a sibling just to get your name on a city. Really?) We should be thankful that most couples aren’t keen on reading Roman history, for if they did the divorce rate of couples with newborn babies might be quite high. In any case, although this is probably just a myth, we are perfectly content to accept it because it’s much more fun than “Latin farmers were living there already and gradually their settlement got bigger”. Romulus became the first king of Rome, which marked the start of the period of the Roman Kingdom. The Roman Kingdom is also embroiled in myth, but according to the ancient Romans themselves, there were seven kings of Rome (each of whom were elected by the people and would rule for life).
The last king of Rome, Tarquin Superbus, was deposed by Lucius
Junius Brutus in 509 B.C, who in place of the kingdom proclaimed the Roman Republic. From then, the powers of the king were divided between two people: the consuls of Rome, elected magistrates who would exercise control over the city together for a year and had exactly the same amount of power. Never again would the Romans bear any royal tyranny; the word ‘king’ or ‘monarchy’ would from then on be regarded with disgust by the Romans. In the republic, all the magistrates would be elected by the people. (Or elected by the magistrates’s money. There was no law against using bribes). There would also be a Roman Senate, a body of (mostly elderly) men that were to be the most respected men in Rome.
The Roman Republic gradually looked to subdue the different cities in Italy. Like Greece, Italy was not a united nation and different city states and tribes lived independently. The Romans started expanding their control, however, which was a cause of alarm for the other cities. The Roman legions, with their extraordinary discipline and skill, slowly conquered their way according the peninsula. Tarentum, a Greek colony, decided to beg Pyrrhus, the king of the Greek kingdom of Epirus, for help. Pyrrhus, also looking to expand his own power, found Italy a great opportunity to do so and sailed across the Adriatic with an army (complete with war elephants). Pyrrhus won a few battles against the Romans, but the
battles were too costly. (When a man congratulated the king on a victory, he cried “One more such victory, and we are lost!”) In the end, Pyrrhus retreated from Italy, allowing the Romans to complete the subjugation of the entire peninsula.
And Rome would not stop there. They next expanded into Sicily, but they were not the first to arrive: the Carthaginians had already been there for centuries. Carthage, wealthy and powerful, stood in northern Africa, founded centuries earlier by the Phoenicians; they were hardly going to give in to some Italian upstarts. This led to a clash between Rome and Carthage starting in 264 B.C, now known as the First Punic War. The war lasted for more than twenty years (they really don’t get bored of fighting, do they) and it ended with the defeat of Carthage. Rome demanded war reparations from Carthage. A humiliating defeat, to be sure, but the city could still afford to rebuild. Soon enough, in 218 B.C, a Carthaginian general, Hannibal, laid siege to the city of Saguntum in the Iberian peninsula (where Carthage had some territorial control). Saguntum was a Roman ally and so appealed to Rome for help, but the Romans ignored the plee. Saguntum was sacked by Hannibal, who then led an army through Gaul (modern-day France) and over the Alps into Italy. The Romans, who were hardly expecting the Carthaginians to appear on their northern border, tried raising armies to combat the threat, but Hannibal, an excellent general, easily defeated them.
In the end, the Roman Senate decided to appoint a dictator to deal with the crisis. No, Rome could hardly allow a tyrant to seize control, but in an emergency like this, a dictator would be appointed who would have absolute control over the city for six months. Quintus Fabius Maximus was not a naïve man: he knew that Hannibal excelled in direct battles, and so he created his own strategy: continually harass the enemy, disrupt their supply lines, and surely Hannibal would have enough one day. The Romans, a people disdaining cowardice, hated this strategy, and so they elected two new consuls who then led an army against Hannibal. The Battle of Cannae was one of the most devastating battles of the ancient world, resulting in as much as 70,000 Roman deaths.
Despite Hannibal’s stunning successes, however, he could not bring the war to a close. He lacked siege engines, which meant he could not bring siege to Rome itself. Rome found the chance. They invaded Iberia, depriving Carthage of more precious territory, and then moved into Africa itself. The alarmed Carthaginian government ordered Hannibal to retreat back and join battle with Scipio, the Roman general, and save the city. The battle was closely fought in 202 B.C at the plains of Zama, but Scipio finally prevailed. Carthage lost all of its overseas possessions and had to pay a heavy tribute to Rome. Carthage had not had enough, however, and so in 144 B.C the Third Punic War commenced. It only lasted a few years, and ended with the complete destruction of Carthage. Rome was now the undisputed hegemon of the western Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the east also promised glittering opportunities for Rome. Macedon, no longer the world power it had been under Alexander, was still a major power in the Balkans. Its king, Philip V, had made the mistake of allying with Carthage during the First Punic War, however. (Allying with Rome’s enemies did not go well the Roman Senate). The First Macedonian War between Rome and Macedon did not produce any concrete results, but Rome, who was looking for an opportunity to conquer more, found out later that Philip and the Seleucid
king Antiochus III. (The Seleucid Empire, although much smaller than Alexander’s empire, still ruled much of the old Persian heartlands and Syria). Rome used the non-agression pact as an excuse to invade Macedon again, and the Roman legions proved to be a better killing machine than the Macedonian phalanx. Philip V was forbidden to intervene with the kingdoms outside his own borders for the rest of his life. Antiochus then invaded Greece (although Hannibal, now living in Syria, warned the king against warring with the Romans with a small army). The Seleucid king was easily defeated and he was forced to pay tribute and cede territory to Rome.
Although Philip did not meddle with outside affairs for the rest of his life, his son, Perseus, decided that provoking the Romans would be a fun thing to try, and so he began to move aggressively against his neighbors. Hardly a way to amuse Rome, who again dispatched her legions and conquered the whole of Macedon, dividing it up into puppet states, and when Macedon rebelled, formed the first Roman Province in the Balkans. The rest of Greece then rose up against the Roman presence, which gave the Romans easy excuse to invade and conquer the rest of Greece.
The world was being taught to tremble at the Republic’s name.
Next week, we look at Rome’s tumultuous civil wars between Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Octavian and Mark Antony, and then her transition from Republic to Empire.