Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Roman Conquest of Italy

Steve Muhlberger
In a previous lecture, we saw Rome an archaic community on the make.  It was a little city-state that had established itself on the Tiber River in central Italy, at a good ford.  According to its own early
legends, the new town was a haven for outlaws and other refugees looking for a new start.

At first Rome, which was founded in the 750s, was a kingdom.  Under the kings, Rome became the leading state among the Latin tribes, who occupied a small area south and east of the Tiber.  Its kings were more comparable to the tyrants of archaic Greece than to Persian or Assyrian monarchs.  They were not mighty figures, but elected headmen whose power was limited by the heads of the chief clans.

One of the kings, Servius Tullius was especially tyrant-like.  He reduced the power of the clans by
reorganizing the citizens into classes whose membership was determined by income and ability to fight, not by descent.  This can be compared to the reforms of Solon in Athens.

In 510 B.C., an aristocratic reaction threw out the kings, and established a republic.  The patricians, or chief families, took control of the state, and ruled it through their monopoly on high office and the
senate, an aristocratic council.  The non-patrician citizens, the plebeians, did not like being excluded, and they fought the patricians on and off until they were given important concessions.  These concessions included the ability of rich plebeians to enter the senate and hold high office; the abolition of debt-slavery; and the right of the plebeians to elect tribunes to protect them against unjust actions by the consuls or other magistrates.

This conflict between patricians and plebeians, which we discussed last time we looked at Rome, was spread out over a long period, from 500 to about 300.  The same period was very eventful for Rome's relations with its neighbors.  In particular the years 400-300 were a key phase in the
expansion of Rome.  Between 400 and 300, which is the century after the Peloponnesian War in Greek terms, the century of Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great, Rome perfected the techniques of imperial expansion.

By 266, Rome dominated the entire peninsula of Italy.  Roman imperial success depended on its ability to turn former enemies not into subjects, but into allies or even fellow citizens.  Our subject for today is how they did it.

To understand Rome's policy and success, we have to go back for a moment to 509, the first year of the Roman Republic, and understand Rome's position.  The Romans of this time were just one group among several who made up the Latins of central Italy.  The Latins, Romans included, were neither completely insignificant nor a big deal in Italy.  They were distinguished by having a common language and some common religious festivals, just as the Greeks were distinguished from non-Greeks by
language and religious custom.  Like the Greeks, the Latins were politically disunited.  There were a number of different towns, each with a moderately aristocratic government.  By 509, Rome was already the most important.  Under the kings, Rome had dominated the rest.  In 509, for instance, Rome and Carthage made a treaty in which Carthage recognized Latium as Rome's sphere of influence.

Rome's influence fell far short of mastery.  The other Latin towns had an alliance called the Latin League, which as a body could treat with Rome as a near-equal.  Rome and the Latin League had some common interests.  Latium was a reasonably fertile plain by the sea, and Etruscans, Sabines,
and various hill-tribes wanted either to take it over or raid it for profit.  So the Latin League and Rome had an army, for which each partner supplied half the troops.  Rome may have supplied the commander all the time, as Roman tradition tells us, or maybe only half the time.  During the
first century of the Roman Republic, then, Rome's victories were the victories of the Latins as a whole.  The land that they captured from their non-Latin neighbors was sometimes claimed by Rome; other times, the Latin League set up a new colony on the land, to which all the Latins, including
Rome, contributed settlers.

For a long time there was a rough balance between Rome and the League.  But Rome, which was a fair-sized city already in 500, benefited more than its partners did.  In the years after 400 it grew to a population of 100,000 or more and controlled a great deal of land directly.

By 358 strains had accumulated in the alliance.  In that year, the Latin League approached Rome and asked for a renegotiation of the terms of the alliance, in hopes of gaining some new advantages.  Rome, however, refused this initiative, leaving the Latins to stew in their own resentment.  In 340, after nearly twenty years of stewing, the Latin League revolted against Rome.  This presented a major challenge to Rome:  its nearest neighbors and most important allies were fighting it.
Nevertheless, with the help of the Samnites, a confederacy of hill tribes in the south, Rome beat the Latins in two years.  In 338, Rome was able to impose a new arrangement on its fellow Latins.

In some ways the new arrangement was much stricter than the old.  Now Rome was unambiguously the leader of the confederacy.  The Latin League, except for its religious functions, was broken up.  Each Latin town was allied directly with Rome, and they were forbidden to have any political or
economic relations with each other.  Everything had to go through Rome.

But there were benefits to the Latins, too.  The inhabitants of some Latin towns were made Roman citizens with all the duties and privileges of citizens.  This means that, like older Roman citizens, they paid taxes, served in the army in proportion to their income, were allowed to vote in the assembly and run for public office.  As a result of this grant of citizenship, Rome increased significantly in size in one leap.

Other Latin towns were given some but not all of the rights of citizens.  These citizens without the suffrage, often called half-citizens, were required to fight and pay taxes, like full citizens, but were not permitted to vote or hold office.  What they did receive was the right to trade freely with Roman citizens, and the right to intermarry with Roman citizens.  Furthermore, if a half-citizen moved to Rome, or to a town with full citizen rights, that half-citizen acquired full rights.  The same sort
of rights were granted to Etruscan and Greek cities under Roman domination.  It was believed that differences of language and customs made full citizenship for such foreigners impossible.

Finally, there were some Latin towns that got neither full nor half-citizenship.  They remained allies.  They paid no taxes to Rome; they only contributed troops when required to do so.  Allies had no political rights, but retained full autonomy within their own territories.

Rome had now created a confederacy that was focused on itself.  How can we characterize it?
 First, Rome itself was much stronger than it had been.  By victory in
war and by its peace settlement, it had greatly expanded the number of its
citizens and the amount of land it controlled.  This had a direct impact on
its military and political strength.

Second, by introducing the concept of half-citizenship, it had gained access to considerable monetary and military resources without threatening the dominance of the capital city.  It should be noticed that Rome's chief requirement of its dependents was to supply troops.  Citizens fought, half-citizens fought, allies fought for Rome.  This distinguishes Rome from most of the empires we have seen,
where dependents paid taxes to a group that fought or at least controlled the military.

For the new citizens and half-citizens, there were both advantages and disadvantages.  Whether they were full or half-citizens, rich or poor, it meant new burdens.  Half-citizens in particular may have felt that they lost more than they had gained.  But there were advantages.  Service in the successful Roman army would give some individuals access to loot.  Roman victories in the future would make possible new colonies, in which citizens of all sorts and allies could settle in, if they wished.  And there was the advantage of protection.  Although the Roman confederacy was now the leading Italian power, it had its enemies.  The Gauls or Celts who lived in the Po valley had long been a threat -- they had sacked Rome itself in 390, two generations earlier.  In unity there was strength.

What is most noticeable is that among the new citizens, the rich gained much more than the poor.  The right to vote at Rome (the only place that voting took place), the right to trade with Romans, the right to marry into Roman families, all of these things meant most to the leading members of any given Italian town.  Poorer people's interests were almost entirely local.

Further, the rich gained an important advantage within their home communities.  As part of the confederation, their domination of their neighbors was guaranteed by Rome.  Rome did not
tolerate democratic movements or sedition within confederate territory.

Here we see something that characterizes Rome almost throughout its history.  It acquired and ruled a wide empire by co-opting urban elites across first Italy and then the rest of the Mediterranean world.  The aristocracy of Rome allied itself with similar aristocracies in other towns, granting them certain advantages, and requiring them to do the work of local government:  that is, raise taxes, police their districts, and raise troops for the armies.

In this settlement of 338, we also see an important difference between the Roman style of politics and the Greek style.  For the Greeks, the ideal was the hermetically sealed polis.  Greek cities might be forced to enter leagues with each other, or submit the domination of a king, but as much as
possible the rights and privileges of citizenship were jealously guarded.  Rome was able to expand in part because it was willing to recruit outsiders. 

This was a long-standing characteristic:  in legend it went back to Romulus and Remus recruiting outlaws, and to the Rape of the Sabine Women.  Unlike the Greeks, Romans often freed the more useful of their slaves, who gained full citizenship, though they continued to have obligations to their old masters.  In the fourth century, and later too, recruiting took the form of allowing certain groups some or all of the rights of citizenship, if such a grant looked like it would strengthen the citizen body as a whole.

The carefully calculated grant of privileges to useful outsiders also served to Romanize large parts of Italy.  Even in 338, Italy was a much more diverse country than Greece.  There were many different Italic languages, and at least two languages that were not even Indo-European.

The establishment of the confederacy with Rome as the undoubted center of central Italian life, began the process of turning all these peoples into one.  The annexation of land by Rome itself promoted settlement by old Romans over wide areas.  The establishment of Latin colonies, which were
open to full citizens, half-citizens, and allies alike, created new towns where Roman custom was dominant.  The right of many new citizens and allies to move to Rome or its immediate territory, and thereby take part in its political and economic life, induced a mixing of peoples, all of whom
were trying to become as Roman as possible.  It was now, and would be for centuries, cool to be Roman, and many people climbed on the bandwagon.

This new, centrally controlled confederacy was militarily powerful and had a certain essential aggressiveness.  After all, the main thing it derived from its dependents was soldiers, soldiers who had to be used if they were to produce profit, and buy the loyalty of its new citizens and
allies.  So further warfare, war on a bigger scale than before, was likely and perhaps inevitable.  The Roman confederacy soon found itself a new enemy -- the very Samnites whose help against the Latin League in 340 had made the new confederacy possible.

The Samnites lived in the interior of southern Italy, up in the hills.  Like highlanders in many
times and places, they were accustomed to raiding their lowland neighbors for fun and profit.  They were a pretty tough bunch, especially since they had a tradition of common action when needed.

Rome and the Samnites came into conflict over Campania, the area around Naples.  It was a
Greek district -- Naples itself was known in antiquity by its Greek name "Neapolis,"  New City.  Naples and Capua and other Greek cities in Campania were under pressure from the Samnites, just as many other Greek colonies in the fourth century were being pressed by their inland neighbors.  The colonists were no longer militarily superior to the colonized, and were losing ground.  In 326, Rome and the Samnites came to blows over who would dominate the area.

The Samnite Wars lasted from 326 to 290.  They were a tough test of the Roman system.  The Samnites were a military challenge.  As mountaineers, they were able to use guerrilla tactics against the Romans.  They inflicted some heavy defeats on the Romans; on one occasion they trapped a whole Roman army in a gorge and forced it into a humiliating surrender.  Surrender was a rarity in Roman history, and this battle was long remembered as a unique disgrace.  The Samnites also tested the solidity of the Roman confederation.  They attempted to rally all of the other states of Italy against Rome.  At one point they were allied with both the remaining free Etruscan cities and the Gauls of the far north.  But despite Samnite victories and their appeals throw off Roman domination,
most of Rome's allies and new citizens stayed loyal -- perhaps in part because they were afraid of the Gauls.

Despite the challenge of the Samnites, the years before 300 B.C. showed Rome on the ascendant.  In 312, for instance, the censor Appius Claudius Caecus commissioned two great public works.  One was the Via Appia, the first great Roman road, which enabled Roman soldiers to get to
the Campanian battle front faster.  The other was the first aqueduct, which was necessary because Rome was still growing and needed a new supply of water.  These undertakings show that even before the Samnites were defeated, Rome the city and Rome the state were flourishing.  Rome the city held perhaps 150,000 people, and was one of the largest towns in the Mediterranean basin.  Rome the state had a population of perhaps 1,000,000 citizens and their families, not including allies or slaves.  The new wealth was being put not just into roads and waterworks, but in monuments
to the glory of the state.  Eleven major temples were built between 302 and 272.  {Cornell and Matthews, 37, 42}

When the Samnites were finally beaten and forced into allied status, Rome was close to domination of all of peninsular Italy.  The last years of the war allowed the Romans to take 60,000 slaves out of southern Italy {C & M, 39}.  Huge amounts of land were acquired.  For instance, the Bruttians, who fell under Roman rule soon after the Samnites, were forced to give up half their mountain forests to the Roman people.  This area supplied Italy with enough wood for both ship building and house building for a good long time {Dudley, 29}.  And this is just one confiscation.  The new resources made Rome even more formidable than it had been before.

The defeat of the Samnites also brought Rome into more direct contact with the Greek world than ever before.  The cities of Greater Greece, along the south coast of Italy, had long been under the same kind of pressure from the interior that Campania had suffered.  Rome's victory had removed
the old threat -- but maybe Rome was not a savior, but just a new threat.

In 280, the city of Tarentum (Taranto) decided that Rome was too powerful, and a danger to its independence.  In that year the Tarentines decided to appeal to Epirus, a Greek-Macedonian kingdom ruled by King Pyrrhus, for help.  Pyrrhus was willing to fight anybody if the odds looked
good, and he crossed to Italy with a full-blown Hellenistic army, including elephants.  His idea was to act as the savior of the Greeks against the barbarians, and to pick up at least some loot and perhaps a whole empire.

The first time Pyrrhus fought the Romans, he beat them, but suffered severe casualties.  The Romans, despite their defeat, refused to negotiate with Pyrrhus.  The next year, there was another battle, and
Pyrrhus again won.  Again, however, his army was bloodied.  His losses were so bad they inspired his famous comment:  "A few more victories of this sort and I will be ruined."  Indeed, the next year, Pyrrus crossed from Greater Greece to Sicily, in an attempt to make himself king by uniting the
Sicilians against Carthage under his leadership.  This did not work out either.  The Sicilians were happy to have Pyrrhus fight Carthage, but were unwilling to contribute to the war effort.  So in 275, Pyrrhus went back to Italy and fought Rome one more time.  This time he lost badly; he ended up
retreating to Greece, never to return.

The defeat of Pyrrhus was a great day for Rome.  They had fought a Hellenistic king, armed with the best military technology known to the Greeks, and come out on top.  The victory demonstrated to Italy just how great Rome was.    It took them only a few more years for Rome to secure the rest of Italy south of the Po Valley.

The victory over Pyrrhus also attracted the the notice of the Greek world to a people whom they had yet paid little attention.  In 273, King Ptolemy II of Egypt sent an embassy to Rome, and
the Romans sent one in return.  The sober Romans must have been quite a curiosity in the sophisticated Hellenistic court of Alexandria.  The Roman ambassadors were embarrassed by the gifts that Ptolemy showered on them.  They thought they were being bribed; the king was merely following accepted diplomatic custom, bribery or not.  This stern new race of warriors became
a trendy subject for a while.  The Alexadrian scientist Eratosthenes wrote a treatise on Roman government; there were poems and epics written about Romans, real and fictional; and Timaeus, a Sicilian exile at Athens, wrote a history of the wars of Pyrrhus, and a geography of the west featuring the Romans.

The fad soon burned itself out, but the real importance of the Romans remained.  By 264, Rome was the biggest state west of Syria, having incorporated all of Italy -- the Latins, the Etruscans, the Sabines and Samnites and many others -- into their confederacy either as citizens or allies.  There were other challenges -- particularly the Gauls -- but the Romans had a good track record.  In the next few decades, the Romans would improve it dramatically, by fighting and beating its greatest western rival, Carthage.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.