The Gauls Sack Rome

The Grandeur That Was Rome
Page Two

Date: 2002

The Early Republic, 509-133 B.C.: Foreign Affairs

The growth of Rome from a small city-state to the dominant power in the
Mediterranean world in less than 400 years (509-133 B.C.) is a remarkable
success story. Roman expansion was not deliberately planned; rather, it was
the result of dealing with unsettled conditions, first in Italy and then
abroad, which were thought to threaten Rome's security. Rome always claimed
that its wars were defensive.

By 270 B.C. the first phase of Roman expansion was over. Ringed by
hostile peoples - Etruscans in the north, predatory hill tribes in central
Italy, and Greeks in the south - Rome had subdued them all after long,
agonizing effort and found itself master of all Italy south of the Po valley.
(After Rome's fall in the fifth century A.D., Italy was not again unified
until 1870.) In the process the Romans developed the administrative skills and
traits of character - both fair-minded and ruthless - that would lead to the
acquisition of an empire with possessions on three continents by 133 B.C.

Roman Conquest Of Italy

Soon after ousting their Etruscan overlords in 509 B.C., Rome and the
Latin League, composed of other Latin peoples in Latium, entered into a
defensive alliance against the Etruscans. This new combination was so
successful that by the beginning of the fourth century B.C. it had become the
chief power in central Italy. But at this time (390 B.C.) a major disaster
almost ended the history of Rome. A horde of marauding Celts, called Gauls by
the Romans, invaded Italy from central Europe, wiped out the Roman army, and
almost destroyed the city by fire. The elderly members of the Senate,
according to the traditional account, sat awaiting their fate with quiet
dignity before they were massacred. Only a garrison on the Capitoline Hill
held out under siege. After seven months and the receipt of a huge ransom in
gold, the Gauls retired. The stubborn Romans rebuilt their city and protected
it with a stone wall, part of which still stands. They also remodeled their
army by replacing the solid line of fixed spears of the phalanx formation,
borrowed from the Etruscans and Greeks, with the much more maneuverable small
units of 120 men, called maniples, armed with javelins instead of spears. It
would be 800 years before another barbarian army would be able to conquer the
city of Rome.

The Latin League grew alarmed at Rome's increasing strength, and war
broke out between the former allies. With Rome's victory in 338 B.C., the
League was dissolved, and the Latin cities were forced to sign individual
treaties with Rome. Thus the same year that saw the rise of Macedonia over
Greece also saw the rise of a new power in Italy.

Border clashes with aggressive highland Samnite tribes led to three
fiercely fought Samnite wars and the extension of Rome's frontiers to the
Greek colonies in southern Italy by 290 B.C. Fearing Roman conquest, the
Greeks prepared for war and called in the Hellenistic Greek king, Pyrrhus of
Epirus, who dreamed of becoming a second Alexander the Great. Pyrrhus' war
elephants, unknown in Italy, twice routed the Romans, but at so heavy a cost
that such a triumph is still called a "Pyrrhic victory." When a third battle
failed to induce the Romans to make peace, Pyrrhus is reported to have
remarked, "The discipline of these barbarians is not barbarous," and returned
to his homeland. By 270 B.C. the Roman army had subdued the Greek city-states
in southern Italy.

Treatment Of Conquered Peoples

Instead of slaughtering or enslaving their defeated foes, the Romans
treated them fairly, in time creating a strong loyalty to Rome throughout the
peninsula. Roman citizenship was a prized possession that was not extended to
all peoples on the peninsula until the first century B.C. Most defeated states
were required to sign a treaty of alliance with Rome, which bound them to
adhere to Rome's foreign policy and to supply troops for the Roman army. No
tribute was required, and each allied state retained local self-government.
Rome did, however, annex about one fifth of the conquered lands, on which
nearly thirty colonies were established by 250 B.C.

The First Punic War

After 270 B.C. only Carthage remained as Rome's rival in the West. Much
more wealthy and populous than Rome, with a magnificent navy that controlled
the western Mediterranean and with a domain that included the northern coast
of Africa, Sardinia, Corsica, western Sicily, and parts of Spain. Carthage
seemed more than a match for Rome. But Carthage was governed by a commercial
aristocracy which hired mercenaries to do the fighting. In the long run, the
lack of a loyal body of free citizens and allies, such as Rome had, proved to
be Carthage's fatal weakness.

The First Punic War (from punicus, Latin for "Phoenician") broke out in
264 B.C. when Rome sought to oust a Carthaginian force that had occupied
Messina on the northeastern tip of Sicily just across from Roman Italy.
According to Polybius, a Hellenistic Greek historian, the Romans "felt it was
absolutely necessary not to let Messina fall, or allow the Carthaginians to
secure what would be like a bridge to enable them to cross into Italy." ^3
Rome and its Italian allies lost 200,000 men in disastrous naval engagements
before Carthage sued for peace in 241 B.C. Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were
annexed as the first provinces of Rome's overseas empire, governed and taxed -
in contrast to Rome's allies in Italy - by Roman officials called proconsuls.

[Footnote 3: Polybius Histories 1.10, trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh.]

The Contest With Hannibal

Thwarted by this defeat, Carthage concentrated upon enlarging its empire
in Spain. Rome's determination to prevent this led to the greatest and most
difficult war in Roman history. While both powers jockeyed for position, a
young Carthaginian general, Hannibal, precipitated the Second Punic War by
attacking Saguntum, a Spanish town claimed by Rome as an ally. Rome declared
war, and Hannibal, seizing the initiative, in 218 B.C. led an army of about
40,000 men, 9000 cavalry troops, and a detachment of African elephants across
the Alps into Italy. Although the crossing had cost him nearly half of his men
and almost all of his elephants, Hannibal defeated the Romans three times
within three years.

Hannibal's forces never matched those of the Romans in numbers. At
Cannae, for example, where Hannibal won his greatest victory, some 70,000
Romans were wiped out by barely 50,000 Carthaginians. On the whole, Rome's
allies remained loyal - a testimony to Rome's generous and statesmanlike
treatment of its Italian subjects. Because the Romans controlled the seas,
Hannibal received little aid from Carthage. Thus Hannibal was unable to
inflict a mortal blow against the Romans.

The Romans finally found a general, Scipio, who was Hannibal's match in
military strategy and who was bold enough to invade Africa. Forced to return
home after fifteen years spent on Italian soil, Hannibal clashed with Scipio's
legions at Zama, where the Carthaginians suffered a complete defeat. The power
of Carthage was broken forever by a harsh treaty imposed in 201 B.C. Carthage
was forced to pay a huge indemnity, disarm its forces, and turn Spain over to
the Romans. Hannibal sought asylum in the Seleucid empire where he stirred up
anti-Roman sentiment.

Roman Intervention In The East

The defeat of Carthage left Rome free to turn eastward and settle a score
with Philip V of Macedonia. Fearful of the new colossus that had risen in the
west, Philip had allied himself with Hannibal during the darkest days of the
war. Now, in 200 B.C., Rome was ready to act, following an appeal from
Pergamum and Rhodes for aid in protecting the smaller Hellenistic states from
Philip, who was advancing in the Aegean, and from the Seleucid emperor, who
was moving into Asia Minor. The heavy Macedonian phalanxes were no match for
the mobile Roman legions, and in 197 B.C. Philip was soundly defeated. His
dreams of empire were ended when Rome deprived him of his warships and
military bases in Greece. The Romans then proclaimed the independence of
Greece and were eulogized by the grateful Greeks for playing a role similar to
that assumed by Americans twenty centuries later:

There was one people in the world which would fight for
others' liberties at its own cost, to its own peril, and
with its own toil, not limiting its guaranties of freedom
to its neighbors, to men of the immediate vicinity, or to
countries that lay close at hand, but ready to cross the
sea that there might be no unjust empire anywhere and that
everywhere justice, right, and law might prevail. ^4

[Footnote 4: Livy Roman History 33, trans. E. T. Sage, The Loeb Classical
Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 9, p. 367.]

A few years later Rome declared war on the Seleucid emperor who had moved
into Greece, urged on by Hannibal and a few greedy Greek states that resented
Rome's refusal to dismember Macedonia. The Romans forced the emperor to vacate
Greece and Asia Minor, pay a huge indemnity, and give up his warships and war
elephants. The Seleucids were checked again in 168 B.C. when a Roman ultimatum
halted their invasion of Egypt, which became a Roman protectorate. A year
later Rome supported the Jews in their successful revolt against the Seleucids
by addressing this message to the Seleucid ruler:

Wherefore hast thou made thy yoke heavy upon our friends
and confederates the Jews? If therefore they complain any
more against thee, we will do them justice, and fight with
thee by sea and by land. ^5

[Footnote 5: 1 Macc. 9:3132 (King James Version of the Bible).]

Most of the East was now a Roman protectorate, the result of a policy in
which Roman self-interest was mingled with idealism. But Roman idealism turned
sour when anti-Romanism became widespread in Greece, particularly among the
radical masses who resented Rome's support of conservative governments and the
status quo in general. (The Romans, for example, helped crush a socialist
revolution in Sparta.) The new policy was revealed in 146 B.C. when, after
many Greeks had supported an attempted Macedonian revival, Rome destroyed
Corinth, a hotbed of anti-Romanism, as an object lesson. (It is not
coincidental that the predominantly working-class population of Corinth was
anti-Roman, and that later, after the city was resettled, they would welcome
Paul "teaching Christ" for a lengthy eighteen months.) The Romans also
supported oligarchic factions in all Greek states, and placed Greece under the
watchful eye of the governor of Macedonia, which had been made a Roman
province two years earlier.

Destruction Of Carthage

In the West, meanwhile, Rome's hardening policy led to suspicion of
Carthage's reviving prosperity and to a demand by extremists for war -
Carthago delenda est ("Carthage must be obliterated"). Treacherously provoking
the Third Punic War, the Romans besieged Carthage, which resisted heroically
for three years. They destroyed the city in 146 B.C., the same year they
destroyed Corinth, and annexed the territory as a province.

Rome, Supreme In The Ancient World

In 133 B.C. Rome acquired its first province in Asia when the king of
Pergamum, dying without heir, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. Apparently he
feared that the discontented masses would revolt after his death unless Rome,
with its reputation for maintaining law and order in the interest of the
propertied classes, took over. Rome accepted the bequest and then spent the
next three years suppressing a proletarian revolution in the new province
called Asia. With provinces on three continents - Europe, Africa, and Asia -
the once obscure Roman Republic was now supreme in the ancient world.

You Might Also Like