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 in Rome in 273 BC.

In 272 BC, the year of Pyrrhus'' death, the powerful Greek city of Tarentum in the south of Italy was surrendered to the Romans, other Greek cities and the Bruttian tribes with their valuable forest-country surrendered likewise, undertaking to supply Rome with ships and crews in future.

New Roman colonies were founded in the south to further secure the territory to Roman domination. In the north the last free Etruscan city, Volsinii, revolted and was destroyed in 264 BC. There, too, new colonies were founded to cement Roman rule.

Some Greek cities may still have seen themselves as mere allies of Rome. But in effect all Italy now, from the Straits of Messina to the Apennine frontier with the Gauls became governed by one singular power, - Rome.

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 large use of free companies of highland irregulars from the mainland. And the town of Messana had fallen at Agathocles' death into the hands of one of these free companies - the Mamertini ('sons of Mars') - who made themselves a nuisance to their neighbours on both coasts, and to all who used the Strait of Messina.

They had recently been in league with a company of their Campanian countrymen, who, being in the Roman service, had mutinied, seized Reghium, and held it against the Romans for ten years. The revolt had been suppressed in 270 BC by the aid of the commander of the Syracusan forces, who bore the name Hieron (or Hiero as the Romans called him), and immediately after had made himself king of Syracuse (270-216 BC). In 265 BC Hiero thought it time to make an end of the Mamertine pirates. And so far as their own merits went, no one was likely to be aggrieved. But if he did, what was to happen to Messana and who had something to gain by using the Mamertines to obtain a footing there, or to prevent Hiero from gaining one?

The Mamertines were not Greeks, and could make themselves very useful to Carthage, the traditional enemy of all things Greek. On the other hand, they were of Italian origin, and Rome now stood as the conscious and very efficient protector of all Italian interests. The Mamertines offered themselves and their Sicilian city to the Romans and thereby brought Rome itself to the cross-roads of destiny.

If the Romans helped the Mamertines, who were at best pirates, they would offend Hiero, their friend as well as their own Greek allies whose seaborne trade was suffering under Mamertine piracy.

They would probably also offend Carthage, and Carthage could put much trouble in their way. The Mamertines, while they were of Italian origin, were being threatened by the city which had shown most capacity for managing Greek interests on a large scale. If Rome refused help, would Carthage herself step in ? And what were the prospects of legitimate Italian trade, with Carthage in control of the Strait ?

Left to itself, the senate might have abandoned the Mamertines to their fate, and Carthage, evidently expecting this, and encouraged by another faction in Messana, sent their required help. This settled the matter. Popular clamour and business interests combined to force the senate's hand. The senate itself though was still reluctant to intervene and simply passed the buck to the comitia tributa. And so it was decided not to declare war, but to send an expeditionary force which would try to restore Messana to the Campanian mercenaries.

At the sight of a Roman force arriving the Carthaginian commander lost his nerve, embarked his troops and sailed home. This in turn angered the Carthaginian government felt humiliated, angrily executed its own general and resolved to recapture Messana.

For this the Carthaginians made alliance with Syracuse, reconciled Hiero with the Mamertines, and sent over a fresh force to support both against the Romans. By the end of the years, however, they had been expelled from the neighbourhood of Messana, and Hiero was shut up in Syracuse. But the main issue was now clear, wether Rome or Carthage was to guide the fortunes of Sicily. Hiero saw this clearly, and for the representative of Greek interests there was but one course of action possible. For nearly five hundred years Greek and Phoenician had worked and plotted and fought for this central region of the west.

To co-operate with Carthage now, against the new power which had delivered the Greeks of Italy from Etruscan, Samnite and Lucanian, repelled the Gauls and wrecked the designs of Pyrrhus for an empire of Epirus, would be folly.
Under Roman protectorate, Syracuse and all western Greeks would be safe. With Greek subsidies, ships and crews Rome could be trusted to win and Roman victory would mean the expulsion of the Phoenicians from Sicily.
Hiero accordingly offered the Romans the possession of Messana and a subsidy of one hundred talents annually for fifteen years if they would guarantee his 'kingship' of Syracuse. It was a small price to pay for security unattainable otherwise. And for the Romans, too, the bargain was a good one (263 BC).

And so began almost by accident the first major war in world history to be waged, not for gold, territory or power, but for principles. The Punic Wars lasted, in three parts with intermediate breaks, for over a century. By the time they finally ended, Carthage, a once shining city state with, according to the Greek geographer Strabo, 300 cities in Lybia and 700'000 people in its own city, would have been annihilated.


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