Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

 Roman Imperialism

Steve Muhlberger
In 146 B.C., there was no doubt that Rome was the paramount power of the Mediterranean basin; that it had the ability to beat any rival that it was likely to face.  The year 146 marks the beginning of a new world, one in which there were no other nations for Rome to fear or blush before (Scipio Nasica).

This does not mean that Rome had no problems in 146.  The dangers that Rome faced were internal dangers; dissension within the Roman people and the Roman confederacy which was the foundation of its wider empire.  (Empire means rule; Rome of course would still be a republic for
another century and more.)   Rome was quickly losing the very characteristics that had made this empire possible.

What in the Roman character had made empire possible?  Polybius, a Greek associate of the Scipio family in the 140s and a keen observer of Roman affairs had an answer:  what had made Rome great was its balanced constitution.  Aristotle and others had classified constitutions into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each.  It was commonly accepted that each type of constitution had a deadly fault that allowed it to be overthrown, and so Greek states went through a cycle of constitutions:  first an evil monarch was overthrown by freedom-loving aristocrats; they eventually turned into selfish oligarchs, who the people overthrew; the democracy they established would eventually degenerate into chaos, which would allow a new monarchy to arise.

Rome, said Polybius, had avoided this by incorporating monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into a single constitution:  the consulate, the senate, and the popular assemblies.  Each group kept the others in check, and so the Roman constitution had all the virtues and none of the vices.

Modern scholars might take exception to some of what Polybius said, but there is an essential truth to it.  Rich and poor citizens in the early Roman republic did work together well, almost all the time.  Early Rome had its struggle of the orders, and its secessions, but it did not have the bloody civil wars so common in the Greek states that it otherwise resembled so much.  The institutions of government, the state religion, and Roman  military discipline succeeded in creating a political regime and a
political culture of great stability.

Behind this stability was a crucial factor:  in the early days of the Roman Republic, the differences between rich and poor citizens were small.  Although Rome was early on a large urban center, the wealth of Rome was agricultural wealth.  Land was the safest investment, as usual in non-industrial societies, and gave one political clout.  In the early days of Rome, there were some families with much more land than others.  But all the evidence indicates that many poorer citizens owned their own land.  There was a rough equality of interests between peasant freeholders and senatorial magnates.  Certainly there were limits on the exploitation of the lesser citizens by the rich.  They were mutually interdependent, since the small landowners provided the soldiers who were the backbone of the Republic.
 If we look beyond the Roman people, the citizen body, and examine the relationship of the Romans with their allies and dependents, we see another rough balance.  In the years before the First Punic War, before Sicily became the first province, the benefits and burdens of war and conquest were distributed with some equity between Romans and allies.   The Roman system was far more open and inclusive than others we have looked at.

It is the balance and inclusiveness of the Roman community that made it into the military power that beat Hannibal.

  Even before Hannibal, and much more so after Carthage was beaten, Rome was becoming an imperial power marked by vast inequities between a few who ran the show and everyone else.
The "everyone else" does not just mean the subjects and slaves on the wrong end of the Roman army, though there were many of them, but also the lesser citizens and allies, who in theory were on the winning side.

The difference between early Roman society and the society of the later Republic can be traced to the different kind of wars fought in the two period.

The Romans liked to think that every war they fought was a war of self-defense.  Their sacred law forbade wars of pure aggression.  In the old days, say before 250 B.C., there was some truth to this theory.  Roman wars were entirely fought in Italy, mostly close to the city, against peoples who were much like the Romans.  The wars were generally seasonal.  They could be fought, and generally were fought, by a peasant militia.  The soldiers went out on campaigns of limited duration, and the survivors returned home to look after their own land (as best they could) every year.

The profits of such wars, once won, were not flashy.  Rome acquired land and slaves and military personnel in the form of allies, but not enough of them to change the nature of the society.  The key point is that it was possible for the average Roman peasant, the backbone of the army, to
take part in war and maintain his own family establishment at the same time.

The new wars, beginning with the First Punic War, were much more burdensome on this average citizen-warrior.  War was no longer a matter of seasonal campaigns near home.  A soldier might find himself fighting for years or even decades in Sicily, in Africa, or in Spain.

What did this mean to our citizen-warrior?  For one thing, it meant his hold on his land was endangered.  There was no protection for the absent soldier from debt, from agricultural catastrophe, or from any other accident.  We know that in the First Punic War, that even generals abroad worried about their families starving and estates falling apart during their absence.  It must have been
far worse for the men in the ranks.

After the First Punic War, Rome had almost a generation's break from large overseas commitments.
The Second Punic War, however, was the beginning of a prolonged period of foreign wars -- a period of over two centuries.  During these years, roughly 225 B.C. to 23 B.C., Rome was at
war continuously, and on a vast scale.  Roman Italy, which had by best estimates perhaps 6 million people, supported an army of 130,000 men, citizens and allies, every single year during that period.

The figures for citizens, both total citizens and numbers in the army can be estimated.  The average enlistment over the entire period was 13% of the adult male citizens in military service at any given time.  Keith Hopkins has estimated that in the years before 150 B.C., over half of male Roman
citizens must have spent at least seven years in the army.  This compares to the mobilizations enforced by Frederick the Great of Prussia and Napoleon in the years either side of 1800; but these men accomplished such mobilization for only short periods of time.

What did this mean for Roman society?  One thing it meant was the disruption of the Italian peasant society that had been the basis for earlier Roman society.  Peasants -- citizens and allies both -- were constantly taken off the land, and most of them never returned.

Casualties of course is one reason for this.  But after years abroad, some peasant soldiers did not want to return to the land.  This is the old phenomenon of "How can you keep them down on the farm, now that they've seen Syracuse?"

Those who did want to return to the land, probably a majority, usually had nothing to return to.  One simply cannot go back to a piece of land that has been neglected for years and expect it to support
you.  Both willing and unwilling peasant emigrants tended to congregate in cities.  This is the origin of the famous urban mobs of the later Roman republic.

What happened to the land these men left behind?

Constant war had made the life of the peasant freeholder precarious and often impossible.  But imperial conquest and the displacement of Italian peasants opened new opportunities to the newly wealthy and influential minority.

The Second Punic War and all the wars that followed opened great new fields of exploitation for those who ruled Rome.  Some of these sources were Italian.  Unfaithful allies lost vast amounts of land to Rome after Hannibal's defeat, and much of this was rented out at low cost to those
with ready money.  But the acquisition of loot and tribute abroad was the chief source of wealth, and a source more readily available to the elite.  Ordinary soldiers got a share of battle loot, of course, and sometimes that added up to a fair amount of wealth.  But the big gains, both in immediate
loot and tribute collected over the years, went to generals and governors.

Let's concentrate for the moment on the profits of ruling provinces once they were taken.  These fell into two parts.  First were the bribes and gifts that the governor of a province received.  These were staggering, simply because the Roman governor was, while he was in place, the absolute monarch of the people he ruled.  Getting on good terms with such a man was very important to the towns, the aristocrats, the priesthoods, and the chiefs of his territory.

A small example.  When Tiberius Quinctius Flaminius declared the freedom of Greece in 196 B.C., he was the recipient of honors throughout the country:  games, public festivals, religious cults
in his honor were established in almost every city.  Flaminius was not even governor; he was being thanked for withdrawing Rome from Greece.

Men who were governors were the object of much more assiduous attention.  Hopkins has said, referring to the 1st century B.C. (after 100 B.C.) "A cautious and unexploitative governor ... could make enough profit from a single year in office to set up his family in style for generations." {Hopkins 41}.  When Cicero was governor of Cilicia and Cyprus in 51 B.C. he found that the previous governor had extorted almost 5 million sesterces, enough to feed 10,000 families for a year, from the towns of Cyprus for the favor of not garrisoning them with troops, who themselves would have constantly pillaged the citizens.

The first permanent court in Roman history was set up in 149 B.C. just to deal
with provincial complaints of extortion.

Nor was it just governors who did well.  The publicans did if anything better.  Publicans were tax-farmers.  Tax-farmers were private citizens who collected provincial taxes for a profit.  Every five years, the right to collect taxes in a given province were put up for auction.  Syndicates of rich men at Rome bid for these rights; the winners paid the treasury their bid up front.  Then they sent their minions to the province in question, where, with the power of Rome behind them, they shook down the populace for as much money as they possibly could.  This is why publicans are constantly equated with sinners in the New Testament.  The publicans the Jews of Palestine saw were the lower level enforcers and thugs, feared and despised by everyone.  The profits of such operations tended to be enormous for the syndicate owners in Rome.  Most governors did little to
stand in their way.

Such opportunities set a whole new standard in wealth for the Roman elite.  No longer was the rich man just a country patriarch with a larger than usual estate or two.  He was a man who, by the mid first century B.C., had to have an income of 100,000 sesterces to be considered comfortable.
100,000 sesterces was enough to support 200 poor families.  To be rich, you had to have 6 times that much money -- enough to support 1200 families.

Much of this money was spent on palaces, political campaigns, and other forms of conspicuous consumption.  But much of it was plowed into the land.  Italian land.  Especially land near the capital.  Rome was getting bigger all the time.  It was full of both poor and rich people, and it consumed both the basics and luxuries in huge amounts.  If one had access to land, and to capital, one could make a very nice living in agribusiness.

The rich of course had that capital.  One important item in the list was slaves.  Slaves were always available, because of war.  Whole cities and countries were depopulated on occasion.  The year 146 B.C., both Corinth and Carthage were taken and their inhabitants sold off.  These were two of the bigger cities in the Mediterranean.  In an earlier Greek war, 150,000 inhabitants of Epirus were captured and sold, effectively depopulating the country.  The slaves were seldom dirt cheap, but they could be exploited in ways that citizens or even allies never could.

The endless wars of Rome formed a cycle that completely transformed Italian society.  Peasants, both citizens and allies, were pumped out of  Italy in great numbers, losing their connection to the land.  These free peasants were then replaced by slaves owned by great landowners, who took
over the land lost by the peasants.  It became very hard to make a living as a free peasant.  It became possible for the political elite to control huge areas and populations as never before, and to make immense profits both in the provinces and at home in Italy.

Keith Hopkins, who has traced the cycle in great detail, points out that expansionist war was a very efficient method of exploitation for those in control.  Peasant warriors in Italy were exploited through their military service.  They lost their connection to the land while they recruited their replacements, foreign slaves who would cultivate the land the soldiers had lost, for the benefit of the men who declared the wars and led the armies.  Italian peasants, in Hopkins' words, were fighting for their own displacement.

 There was a price to pay for such intense exploitation.

First, slavery grew out of control.  By the middle of the first century B.C., there were perhaps 1 million slaves in Italy -- perhaps a sixth of the population.  They were often both badly treated and poorly supervised.  The presence of so many potential enemies was a danger to their masters.  Major slave revolts took place in Sicily and Italy between 132 and 70 B.C.  The cause of the first
one, as explained by an ancient writer [Diodorus of Sicily] is worth noting:

"The Sicilians, having shot up in prosperity and acquired great
wealth, began to purchase a vast number of slaves...The young men were used
as cowherds...but they treated them with a heavy hand...and granted them
the most meager care, the bare minimum for food and clothing.  As a result,
most of them made their livelihood by brigandage, and there was bloodshed
everywhere, since the brigands were like scattered bands of soldiers"
This is a sketch of a countryside where social order has completely broken down, even before the revolt.

Second,  the balanced constitution of the Roman people broke down.  When the rich citizens were filthy rich, and the poor were very vulnerable and constantly subject to foreign service and the loss of land, the political institutions that had created consensus were unlikely to work well.  The ordinary citizens had won important rights in the past.  But what good were they now?  More on this later.

Third, the relations with the Italian allies of Rome deteriorated.   You will recall that in the past, Rome had distinguished itself by the reasonable and honorable treatment of defeated enemies.

In the 2nd and 1st centuries, however, the allies, like the poorer citizens, found themselves working harder and getting less from it.  The military service that they were required to give was no longer for self-defense, it was for imperial profit that went almost entirely to the Roman state and a Roman ruling elite.   There were no new colonies to give allies a chance to better themselves.  And the colossal metropolis of Rome was sucking away the best citizens.  In short, the allies found themselves becoming colonies in our modern sense of the word -- subordinates with little share in the common
benefits of the alliance.
So we see some of the threats to the solidity of the Roman people itself and the solidity of the Italian confederacy that still provided much of the resources that made empire possible.  If this were all, we might safely predict that trouble was coming.  But there is one more factor that needs to be added in:  the small ruling elite was divided against itself.

On one hand there were the senators.  As members of the senate, they controlled foreign and military policy; the right of the people to make laws and declare war and peace seldom inhibited the senators from doing what they liked.  Senators as individuals also were the generals and governors who had first crack at the profits of empire.

But the senators had rivals in exploitation:  the publicani, the publicans who farmed the taxes.  They were a distinct interest group, and none of them were senators.  This was because back in 218, a law had forbidden senators to engage in commerce.  It was probably a move to restrict the senate to established landowners and keep new men out.  But the prohibition meant that when the profits of tax collection, and other commercial and semi-commercial opportunities became available, those
profits and opportunities would go to a different group, just outside the innermost circle of power.

These men were the knights, in Latin equites.  The equestrian class had originally been men rich enough to ride to war on their own horses.  Now it was just an income category.  Most knights, no
doubt, were mainly landowners, but there was a minority who were money men in a big way.  There was a constant rivalry in the provinces between them and the senatorial governors who sometimes tried to control them.  This rivalry for profits of empire provided the split in the ruling class that
is usually the prerequisite for any revolution.

All the strains and conflicts caused by imperial expansion were long-term phenomena, and only slowly became evident to the Romans themselves.  In the 140s, Polybius was still praising the balance of the Roman constitution, unaware that Rome was about to explode into civil war.
Polybius still saw Rome as the great success story, the wave of the future.  He was right:  but that future was different than he might have expected.  The story of the late Roman Republic is not one of imperial tranquillity.

Rome, having built its war machine, had to keep using it.  A constant inflow of wealth and slaves was necessary to the power structure and the way of life practiced by the elite.  The imperial wars of Rome did not, however, stay comfortably far away, on the frontier.  The conflict of interests at created by wars abroad became so great that war seemed the only obvious solution to them.

In the 150 years following the destruction of Carthage, Rome was not only constantly involved in foreign wars, it was also afflicted by intestinal war -- an old fashioned term, but an appropriate one.  Various oppressed and aggrieved groups in the gut of the Roman state rose up to claim what they needed or wanted.  There were slave revolts; a great revolt of the Italian allies; and many wars within the citizenry as upper class competitors for power exploited, for their own advantage, the grievances of those left out of the profits.  Impoverished peasants, dissatisfied urbanites, and especially veterans looking for land to retire on provided the fuel for huge civil wars.   These wars, being byproducts of the late Republican war machine, could not end until that machine, the Roman state itself, had been transformed into something quite different -- the empire of Augustus.

Tracing these conflict and this transformation will be the business of the next few lectures.


Arthur M. Eckstein,  Senate and General:  Individual Decision-Making and Roman Foreign Relations, 264-194 B.C.

Keith Hopkins, "Conquerors and Slaves:  The Impact of Conquering an Empire on the Political Economy of Italy," in  Conquerors and Slaves:  Sociological  Studies in Roman History, Vol 1 .

Zvi Yavetz,  Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Rome.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.