Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Early Rome and Carthage

Steve Muhlberger

In a lecture last term I pointed out that the development of urban culture took place almost simultaneously all over the central and western Mediterranean.  This near-simultaneous development needs to be underlined.  We generally think of Rome and Carthage as being later in time than the classical Greeks. Not true.  Post-Homeric Greeks and Romans were always contemporaries, and so were the Carthaginians, until the Romans destroyed their national identity.  Many important developments among the Greeks and their western neighbors took
place about the same time.

My reaction to this fact is to put a lecture on early Carthage and Rome between my lectures on classical Greece and those on Alexander and his successors.  This lecture will try to put across some of the basic background about these rival civilizations.

Since Carthage rose to prominence well before Rome did, let's look at it first.  And let's begin with a review of material I brought up earlier in the year.


What did this trade consist of?  Carthage seems to have become wealthy by selling trinkets, low-cost practical goods and perishables, including luxuries like wine, to people who could not
produce them themselves.  Carthage did not necessarily make much of this stuff itself.  It simply monopolized the carrying trade.  In exchange, the Carthaginians received valuable resources:  tin, copper, iron, gold from West Africa.  Perhaps slaves, too.

Carthage was the most important rival of the Greeks, who also sought to colonize the west.  In the 6th century, Carthage was allied with the Etruscans in an attempt, mostly successful, to contain
the prolific Greeks.  Sicily, with its natural resources and its strategic position, was the battleground.  For a long time, the Carthaginians had the upper hand, and the Sicilian Greeks felt threatened.

 The Carthaginian threat receded a bit in 480 B.C.  In the same year that Xerxes was beaten by Athens and Sparta, the Greek city of Syracuse defeated the Carthaginians at the battle of Himera.  Greeks soon began to say that Himera took place the same day as either Thermopolae or Salamis.  This was another way of saying that two enemies of Greek liberty had bit the dust at the same time.

 Between 480 and 410 B.C., the whole period between the defeat of Xerxes and the end of the Pelopennesian War, Carthage was quiet.  Archaeology seems to show that its trade became poorer.  What energy it had was devoted to its first inland territorial conquests:  Carthaginian generals
carved out a hinterland for the city in Tunisia.  By 410, a few years after the failure of the Athenian expeditions to Sicily, Carthage was again strong enough to exert itself on the island.
For a century or more after 410, central Mediterranean politics were characterized by a rivalry between Carthage and Syracuse.  Syracuse was a big, rich city, comparable in its energy to Athens.  Sometimes, Syracuse had an aristocratic government; when this was so, the city was rather
quiet.  The oligarchs were content to enjoy their wealth.  But when Syracuse was ruled by a popular or tyrannical government, it became expansionist.  Carthage, which still had important interests in Sicily, consistently opposed Syracusan imperialism.

This long-standing hostility shapes our view of Carthage.  We have no Carthaginian records, but lots of stories from the Greek side.  The Greeks saw their enemy as a grim people in thrall to bloodthirsty superstition.  There was a basis for this.  For instance, in 409 B.C. the Carthaginian
Hannibal (not the famous Hannibal) took Himera and sacrificed 3,000 male prisoners to the memory of his ancestor Hamilcar, who had been humiliated at Himera in 480.  This earlier Hannibal was a vicious sort, and can't be considered a typical Carthaginian.  But one part of Carthaginian religion
that repelled the Greeks was pretty routine:  the sacrifice of infants, the children of the Carthaginian aristocracy themselves, to the god Baal Hammon, especially in times of national emergency.    The sacrifice of children, which is well-attested in the Syrian and Palestinian homeland of the Carthaginians, has been confirmed by archaeology.

But Carthage was seldom an aggressive power. Carthage was, like Athens, or early Rome, an
urban republic, but in some ways it was quite different from the other two.  Its power was not based on a fighting citizenry and a land-holding aristocracy, but a mercantile aristocracy, content in most cases to hold the sea lanes and fight with mercenaries only when its established sphere
of influence was threatened.  Was it like Venice later?

Rome, according to tradition, was founded at almost precisely the same time as Carthage.  One of the biggest differences between early Rome and early Carthage is that we can easily visualize what early Rome was like.  English scholars have a phrase:  "every schoolboy knows."  They use it to
describe historical facts or clichés familiar to large numbers of people.  In many centuries, not the least in the 19th, "every schoolboy." at least in the better schools, knew tons of stories and legends about early Rome:  the tale of Romulus and Remus; how Horatio held back an entire army by himself while the rest of the Romans, to defend the city, destroyed a bridge behind him; how the impoverished aristocrat Cincinnatus left the plow to become dictator of Rome, and then retired from this position of ultimate power to return to his plow and his bit of land.

Most of these stories go back to one man, the Roman historian Livy, or Titus Livius.  Livy had no personal experience of early Rome.  He lived between 59 B.C. and A.D. 17; in other words, during the time of the last Republican civil wars and the creation of the emperorship under Augustus
and Tiberius.  It was a tough period, when the Romans, born pessimists, commonly believed that ancient virtue had been extinguished.  Livy was a great proponent of this view.  In the introduction to his history, he said he would invite his reader's attention to

     consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were
     the men and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome's
     power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have
     him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the
     sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed
     to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final
     collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day
     when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to
     cure them. (p. 18 of the Penguin translation)

To illustrate this he wrote 142 books of history, roughly 79,000 pages of a modern Penguin-style paperback.  To the secret relief of classicists, most does not survive.  But Livy has always been particularly prized for his stories of the ancient heroes.  The first five books showed why the
good old days were good.  In his own words,

     I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer
     than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds; none has been
     free for so many generations from the vices of avarice and luxury;
     nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such

Thanks to Livy, the early Roman Republic has always been the inspiration for those who wish for a stern, moral, self-sacrificing, militaristic society:  men such as Machiavelli, or the Jacobins of the
French Revolution.

Livy certainly embroidered his material, but he made up neither the traditional stories he used nor
the virtues they were supposed to illustrate.  Livy is still worth a look by anyone who is really interested in the emergence of Rome to the status of world power.

Livy's account of the foundation of Rome is as good as any for our purposes.  He shows the Romans in book one as what they were, one group among the various Latin tribes of central Italy.  He also shows them as something less likely:  the descendants of the Trojans who had fled from
Asia many centuries before Rome was built in 753 B.C.  The founders were Romulus and Remus, descendants of Aeneas and other kings of Alba Longa, the chief Latin city.  Their grandfather had been king, and deposed.  Their mother had been made a Vestal Virgin, a virgin priestess of Vesta, against her will, to wipe out the royal line.  She became pregnant anyway, by Mars, the war god, or so she claimed (even Livy was "modern" enough to doubt this).  When she bore twins, they were abandoned to the wild animals, but were rescued first by a wolf who suckled them, and then by the king's herdsmen.

On reaching adulthood, they became aware of their royal birth.  Rather than make trouble at home, they started a new town, at a spot where the Tiber river could easily be crossed.  Romulus, after killing his brother in a quarrel, became the first king of Rome.  It was a very unimpressive
little place.  According to Livy, Romulus recruited his population from outlaws and criminals:

"Hither fled for refuge all the rag-tag-and-bobtail from the neighboring peoples:  some free, some slaves, and all of them wanting nothing but a fresh start.  That mob was the first real addition to the City's strength, the first step to her future greatness."(p. 26)
A second addition came from the neighboring Sabines, a non-Latin tribe from the northeast.  The earliest Romans, wifeless, stole the Sabine's women, in the famous Rape of the Sabine Women.  Later on, their involuntary in-laws made peace with the Romans, and some came to live with them.  Their they all lived under a kingship.

Even this short sketch shows something of the state of central Italy before 700 B.C.  It was inhabited by a variety of peoples, who lived by herding and agriculture, and settled in small villages sited, as Rome was, in easily defended places.  Rome and its neighbors were the equivalent of
the  poleis of early archaic Greece, to which they were exactly contemporary.  Archaic Italy looks a bit different from Greece in one respect:  there seems to have been more mixing of peoples.  Indeed, as Livy implies, the ability of Rome to absorb outsiders, even slaves, became a historic source of strength.

According to the traditional chronology, Rome was a monarchy for almost 250 years.  Supposedly there were only seven kings over that whole period.  This can't be true, and many of the early stories must be false.  But some of the basic institutions of Roman society must have emerged in this period.

The kingship, for instance, was never hereditary.  The kings were elected by the heads of the leading clans.  These men, the  patres or "fathers," made up the senate.  For a long time this senate was the
monopoly of a hereditary group, the patrician families.  The patricians based their power on landed wealth and, very importantly, on their domination of other men and families -- their clients.  The  patronus, or patron, looked after his clients, and they were supposed to defer to and support him.   If this sounds like the power that leading men in archaic Greece held within their phratries, you
are right.  Roman clientage, however, was never broken down, and remained a
basic part of their society through ancient times and beyond.

There were poor citizens who were not entirely dependent on patrician patrons, and they did have some political rights.  Early Rome, like archaic Greek cities, had their citizen assemblies.  But the individual citizen was restrained by the fact that Romans did not vote as individuals, but as members of a tribe.  Voting in groups helped the more powerful influence the poor -- and voting in groups
remained part of the Roman constitution for as long as voting meant anything at Rome.  Voting by groups helped give republican Rome its aristocratic flavor.

In the 7th and 6th centuries, Rome slowly became the most important Latin town.  As a result, sometime after 600 it became the target of a takeover bid by neighboring investors.  According to tradition, the last three kings of Rome were Etruscans.  There is no reason to doubt this tradition, or even attribute the Etruscan take-over to violent conquest.  The years between 600 and 500 were the peak of Etruscan influence all over north and central Italy.  It was cool to be Etruscan.

Of the three Etruscan kings, the most interesting is Servius Tullius.  Servius Tullius was a contemporary, almost exactly, of Peisistratos the Athenian tyrant.  Servius himself can usefully be considered a tyrant:   he reorganized and modernized a traditional state.   He did this to increase his own power at the expense of the aristocratic clans.  He broke down the tribal and family structures of early Rome and substituted others that are again comparable to archaic Greek institutions.

Servius reorganized the citizenry to make it more militarily effective.  The citizens were all assigned to 7 ranks, on the basis of income.  Each man in a given rank was expected to arm himself with specified equipment.  The top rank was the equestrian rank, who formed the cavalry.  Under them were five classes of infantry.  The first class was to be equipped with helmet, shield, greaves, breastplate, and sword and spear; the fifth were to have only slings or stones, or to serve as buglers.  The last rank was no rank at all -- citizens too poor to perform any service or pay any taxes.

 The reform is very similar to the one carried out in Athens by Solon.  Servius cut through traditional tribal and clan allegiances, to reorder the whole citizen body and create an effective hoplite army.

Of course this imposition of duties had political consequences.  A new type of assembly was instituted, where the citizens voted not by tribes but by classes and centuries (the military companies of 100).  This did not eliminate the influence of the rich.  The knights and the first class could outvote all the rest.  But it was a blow at  hereditary  aristocracy.  Like Solon's reforms, the "assembly of centuries" gave the new rich their share of power.  And Servius did not stop there.  He reorganized the tribes of Rome, like Cleisthenes did in Athens.  So when the tribal assembly met, as
tradition demanded that it do occasionally, the influence of the old aristocratic networks was diminished.

Under Servius and the other Etruscan kings, who were from the Tarquin family, Rome was by far the most important Latin town.  In about 500 B.C., just after the expulsion of the kings, just before the Persian Wars in Greece, Rome held 1/3 of the Latin territory, Latium, and 30-40,000 people
{Cornell and Matthews, 28}.  This is much smaller than contemporary Athens.  Where Athens covered perhaps 1000 sq. mi., Rome held about 317;  Athens at its peak may have had 250,000 to compare to the 30-40,000 of Rome.  But Athens, both in land area and in population was unusually large for a Greek city.  Instead of thinking of Rome as being a little more than 1/10 the size of Athens, we should probably think of it as being 1/3 the size of Corinth, which was a first-rank city in the Greek homeland {Bury, 360-1}.

The patricians thought of the Etruscan kings as tyrants in the modern sense of the term, men who abused power.  In 510 B.C., the patricians revolted against Lucius Tarquinius, whom they called Tarquin the Proud.  What brought him down was not something he did, but a crime committed by
his son Sextus Tarquinius, who raped the most beautiful and virtuous matron of the time, Lucretia.

Lucretia remained in the land of the living just long enough to tell her husband and father what had happened, then committed suicide, despite the arguments of both the men that she was blameless.  She said, according to Livy, "What you do to him is for you to decide.  As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment.  Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve."

For the Romans, the story of Lucretia illustrated both inflexible virtue of the old school and the dangers of kingship.  It would all seem too melodramatic if it weren't for that passage of Herodotus where sexual violence is also identified as characteristic vice of kings.  But we can be skeptical enough to think that there was more to the aristocratic revolution that followed Lucretia's death that the rape.

Kingship was replaced by the rule of the patricians.  The leading officers of the state were now two consuls, who were elected yearly.  In the early days these consuls were always patricians, and they leaned heavily on the advice and help of the patrician senate.

This new, aristocratic republic, whose first consuls date, traditionally, to 509 B.C., faced tough sledding at first.  It had to repel Etruscan aggression and re-establish its ascendancy over the other Latins.  But the situation remained unstable for a good long time.  Rome remained a coalition of aristocratic clans whose position was uncertain.

A key factor in the early days of the republic was the hostility of the plebeians against the ruling families.  It is a mistake to think of the plebeians as "the poor."  They were not the entire rest of the population of Rome, either.  They were a group of free citizens who much outnumbered the patricians but who were excluded from the senate, the high offices of state, and the prestigious priesthoods.  The plebeians, though more numerous, were not militarily superior to the patricians -- the patricians and their clients must have been fairly formidable.  The fall of the kings exposed the
plebeians to the arbitrary power of the old families.  In an earlier interregnum, they had complained that in the gaps between kings they had 100 masters instead of one.  This was now the permanent situation.  In fact, the patricians were tightening their grip.  In 450, for instance, they forbade intermarriage between the two so-called "orders."

There was one thing that gave the plebeians bargaining power.  Rome was surrounded by states and alliances of comparable power to itself, and needed all the fighting strength it could muster for the nearly-constant wars.  The plebeians knew this, and could secede from the state in times of crisis to push forward their demands.  The secession was like a general strike, only more complete:  the plebeians would threaten to or actually withdraw to a near-by hill with the announced intention of setting up their own city.  A less drastic step, and a more common one, was the holding of a
"people's" assembly, and the election of tribunes to protect plebeian interests.  The tribunes were considered sacrosanct by the plebs, who swore to take vengeance on anyone who harmed a tribune.  These tribunes had the duty of preventing any magistrate from abusing his power.

The struggle between the orders was a recurring feature of Roman life for over 200 years after 509.  The main issues boiled down to two.  First, there was debt slavery.  As in Athens before Solon, a man in debt eventually became a slave, and in an agricultural community, this was a present danger to a good many poor citizens.  Second, there was the monopoly on office, priesthoods, and senate seats held by the patricians.  This was most galling to rich men of the plebeian class, who were denied the influence they might otherwise hold.

The struggle of the orders was eventually settled by patrician concessions to both the poor citizens and the rich plebeians.

The senate and patricians, by giving up some of their monopoly, preserved their leading part in the state.  This was a settlement that Solon would have approved of.

The last traditional secession of the plebs took place in 287 B.C.  Well before this, Rome had achieved sufficient unity to master its Latin neighbors and extend its influence beyond Latium.  The next step would be to conquer all of Italy.  This would happen with amazing swiftness.  But before we treat that we will return to Greece to examine important events that took place during the last years of the struggle of the orders in Rome:  the rise of the Macedonian dynasty in Greece, followed by the conquests of Alexander.


J.B. Bury,  A History of Greece.

Tim Cornell and John Matthews,  Atlas of the Roman World.

This is one of the excellent Facts on File historical atlas and combines text by experts with excellent maps and illustrations.   Good for all periods of Roman history.
Donald Dudley,  Roman Society

B.H. Warmington,  Carthage.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.