Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

The Story of Rome From the Earliest Times to the End of the Republic

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We have now reached the time when Rome had brought under her sway all the country towards Naples as far as the river Liris, and, gaining strength, she is about to add materially to her territory and to lay the foundation for still more extensive conquests. During the century that we are next to consider, she conquered her immediate neighbors, and was first noticed by that powerful city which was soon to become her determined antagonist, Carthage. It was the time when the great Macedonian conqueror, Alexander, finished his war in Persia, and the mention of his name leads Livy to pause in his narrative, and, reflecting that the age was remarkable above others for its conquerors, to enquire what would have been the consequences if Alexander had been minded to turn his legions against Rome, after having become master of the Eastern world. Alexander died, however, before he had an opportunity to get back from the East; but, as the old historian says, it is entertaining and relaxing to the mind to digress from weightier considerations and to embellish historical study with variety, and he decides that if the great Eastern conqueror had marched against Rome, he would have been defeated. While Livy was probably influenced in this decision by that desire to magnify the prowess of his country which is plainly seen throughout his work, we may agree with him without fear of being far from correct, especially when we remember that Alexander achieved his great success against peoples that had not reached the stage of military science that Rome had by this time attained. "The aspect of Italy," Livy says, "would have appeared to him quite different from that of India, which he traversed in the guise of a reveller at the head of a crew of drunkards * * * Never were we worsted by an enemy's cavalry, never by their infantry, never in open fight, never on equal ground," but our army "has defeated and will defeat a thousand armies more formidable than those of Alexander and the Macedonians, provided that the same love of peace and solicitude about domestic harmony in which we now live continue permanent." This is what patriotism says for Rome, and we can hardly say less, when we remember that when she came into conflict with great Carthage, led by diplomatic and scientific Hannibal, she proved the victor. We are, however, more interested now in what the Roman arms actually accomplished than in enquiries, however interesting, about what they might have done. They subjugated the world, and that is enough for us.

One of the most favored and celebrated families in the history of Rome for a thousand years was that called Valerian, and at the time to which our thoughts are now directed, one of the members comes into prominence as the most illustrious general of the era. Marcus Valerius Corvus was born at about the time when the rogations of Licinius Stolo became laws, and in early life distinguished himself as a soldier in an assault made on the Romans by the Gauls, who seem not to have all been swept away for a long time. It was in the year 349. The dreaded enemy rushed upon Rome, and the citizens took up arms in a mass. One soldier, Titus Manlius, met a gigantic Gaul on a bridge over the Anio, and after slaying him, carried off a massy chain that he bore on his neck. Torquatus in Latin means "provided with a chain," and this word was added to the name of Manlius ever after. It was at the same time that Marcus Valerius encountered another huge Gaul in single combat, and overcame him, though he was aided by a raven which settled on his helmet, and in the contest picked at the eyes of the barbarian. Corvus is the Latin word for raven, and it was added to the other names of Valerius. A golden crown and ten oxen were presented to him, and the people chose him consul.

Corvus was no less powerful than popular. He competed with the other soldiers in their games of the camp, and listened to their jokes like a companion without taking offence. He thus established a bond between the two orders. Six times he served as consul, and twice as dictator. Never was such a man more needed than was he now. At an unknown period there had come down from the snowy tops of the Apennines a strong people, known afterwards as Samnites, who now began to press upon the inhabitants of the region called Campania, in the midst of which is the volcano Vesuvius. [Footnote: Among the strange customs of the olden times in Italy was one called ver sacrum (sacred spring). In time of distress a vow would be made to sacrifice every creature born in April and May to propitiate an offended deity. In many cases man and beast were thus offered; but in time humanity revolted against the sacrifice of children, and they were considered sacred, but allowed to grow up, and at the age of twenty were sent blindfolded out into the world beyond the frontier to found a colony wherever the gods might lead them. The Mamertines in Sicily sprang from such emigrants, and it is supposed that the Samnites had a similar origin.] There, too, were Cumæ and Capua, of which we have had occasion to speak, and Herculaneum and Pompeii; there was Naples on its beautiful bay, and there was Palæopolis, the "old city," not far distant (Nea, new, polis, city; palaios, old, polis, city). This was a part of Magna Græcia, which included many rich cities in the southern portion of the peninsula, among which were Tarentum, and there had been the earliest of the Greek colonies, Sybaris, the abode of wealth and luxury, until its destruction at the time of the fall of the Tarquins.

The Campanians invoked the help of Rome against their sturdy foes, and a struggle for the mastery of Italy began, which lasted for more than half a century, though there were three wars, separated by intervals of peace. The first struggle lasted from 343 to 341, and is important for its first battle, which was fought at the foot of Mount Gaurus, three miles from Cumæ. It is memorable because Valerius Corvus, who lived until the Samnites had been finally subdued, was victorious, and the historian Niebuhr tells us that though we find it but little spoken of, it is one of the most noteworthy in all the history of the world, because it indicated that Rome was to achieve the final success, and thus take its first step towards universal sovereignty. After this victory the Carthaginians, with whom Rome was to have a desperate war afterwards, sent congratulations, accompanied by a golden crown for the shrine of Jupiter in the capitol. It is said that at the time of the expulsion of the Tarquins, the Romans and Carthaginians had entered into a treaty of friendship, which had been renewed five years before the war with the Samnites, but we are not certain of it.

The results of the burning of Rome by the Gauls had not all ceased to be felt, and many of the plebeians were still suffering under the burden of debts that they could not pay. A portion of the army, composed, as we know, of plebeians, was left to winter at Capua. There it saw the luxurious extravagance of the citizens, and felt its own burdens more than ever by contrast. A mutiny ensued, and though it was quelled, more concessions were made to the plebeians, and their debts were generally abolished. Meantime the Latins saw evidence that the power of Rome was growing more rapidly than their own, and they, therefore, determined to go to war to obtain the equality that they thought the terms of the treaty between the nations authorized them to expect. The Samnites were now the allies of Rome, and fought with her. The armies met under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. In a vision, so the story runs, it had been foretold to the Romans that the leader of one army and the soldiers of the other were forfeited to the gods; and when, during the battle, the plebeian consul, Marcus Decius Mus, who had been a hero in the previous war, saw that his line was falling back, he uttered a solemn prayer and threw himself into the thickest of the fight. By thus giving up his life, as the partial historians like to tell us that many Romans have done at various epochs, he ensured victory on this occasion, and subsequently the conquest of the world, to his countrymen. Other battles and other victories followed, and the people of Latium became dependent upon Rome. The last engagement was at Antium, an ancient city on a promontory below Ostia, which, having a little navy, had interfered with the Roman commerce. The prows of the vessels of Antium were set up in the Roman forum as an ornament to the suggestum, or stage from which orators addressed the people. This was called the rostra afterward. (Rostra, beaks of birds or ships.)

Thus the city kept on adding to its dependents, and increasing its power. In 329, the Volscians were overcome and their long warfare with Rome ended. Two years later, the Romans declared war against Palæopolis and Neapolis, and after taking the Old City, made a league with the New. One war thus led to another, and as the Samnites, getting jealous of the increasing power of their ally, had aided these two cities, Rome declared war the second time against them, in 326. It proved the most important of the three Samnite wars, lasting upward of twenty years. The aim of each of the combatants seems to have been to gain as many allies as possible, and to lessen the adherents of the enemy. For this reason the war was peculiar, the armies of Rome being often found in Apulia, and those of the enemy being ever ready to overrun Campania.

Success at first followed the Samnite banners, and this was notably the case at the battle of Caudine Forks, fought in a pass on the road from Capua to Beneventum (then Maleventum), in the year 321, when the Romans were entrapped and all obliged to pass under the yoke. Such a success is apt to influence allies, and this tended to strengthen the Samnites. It was not until seven years had passed that the Romans were able to make decided gains, and though their cause appeared quite hopeful, the very success brought new troubles, because it led the Etruscans to take part with the Samnites and to create a diversion on the north. This outbreak is said to have been quelled by Fabius Maximus Rullus, (a general whose personal prowess is vaunted in the highest terms by the historians of Rome,) who defeated the Etruscans at Lake Vadimonis, B.C. 310. Success followed in the south, also, and in the year 304, Bovianum, in the heart of Samnium, which had been before taken by them, fell into the hands of the Romans and closed the war, leaving Rome the most powerful nation in Central Italy.

Unable to overcome its northern neighbor, Samnium now turned to attack Lucania, the country to the south, which reached as far as the Tarentine Gulf, just under the great heel of Italy. Magna Græcia was then in a state of decadence, and Lucania was an ally of Rome, which took its part against Samnium, not as loving Samnium less, but as loving power more. The struggle became very general. The Etruscans had begun a new war with Rome, but were about to treat for peace, when the Samnites induced them to break off the negotiations, and they attacked Rome at once on the north and the south. The undaunted Romans struck out with one arm against the Etruscans and their allies the Gauls on the north, and with the other hurled defiance at the Samnites on the south. The war was decided by a battle fought in 295, on the ridge of the Apennines, near the town of Sentinum in Umbria, where the allies had all managed to unite their forces. On this occasion it is related that Publius Decius Mus, son of that hero who had sacrificed himself at Mount Vesuvius, followed his father's example, devoted himself and the opposing army to the infernal gods, and thus enabled the Romans to achieve a splendid victory.

The Samnites continued the desperate struggle five years longer, but in the year 290 they became subject to Rome; their leader, the hero of the battle of the Caudine Forks, having been taken two years previously and perfidiously put to death in Rome as the triumphal car of the victor ascended the Capitoline Hill. This is considered one of the darkest blots on the Roman name, and Dr. Arnold forcibly says that it shows that in their dealings with foreigners, the Romans "had neither magnanimity, nor humanity, nor justice."

The Etruscans and the Gauls did not yet cease their wars on the north, and in 283 they encountered the Roman army at the little pond, between the Ciminian Hills and the Tiber, known as Lake Vadimonis, on the spot where the Etrurian power had been broken thirty years before by Fabius Maximus, and were defeated with great slaughter. The constant wars had made the rich richer than before, while at the same time the poor were growing poorer, and after the third Samnite war we are ready to believe that debts were again pressing with heavy force upon many of the citizens. Popular tumults arose, and the usual remedy, an agrarian law, was proposed. There was a new secession of the people to the Janiculum, followed by the enactment of the Hortensian laws, celebrated in the history of jurisprudence because they deprived the senate of its veto and declared that the voice of the people assembled in their tribes was supreme law. Debts were abolished or greatly reduced, and seven jugera of land were allotted to every citizen. We see from this that the commotions of our own days, made by socialists, communists, and nihilists, as they are called, are only repetitions of such agitations as those which took place so many centuries ago.

In the midst of a storm in the especially boisterous winter season of the year 280, the waves of the Mediterranean washed upon the shores of Southern Italy a brave man more dead than alive, who was to take the lead in the last struggle against the supremacy of Rome among its neighbors. The winds and the waves had no respect for his crown. They knew not that he ruled over a strong people whose extensive mountainous land was known as the "continent," and that he had left it with thousands of archers and slingers and footmen and knights; and that he had also huge elephants trained to war, beasts then unknown in Italian warfare, which he expected would strike horror into the cavalry of the country he had been cast upon.

As we study history, we find that at almost every epoch it centres about the personality of some strong man who has either power to control, or sympathetic attractiveness that holds to him those who are around him. It was so in this case. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, was born seven years after the great Alexander died, and was at this time thirty-seven years of age. Claiming descent from Pyhrrus, son of Achilles, and being a son of Æacides, he was in the direct line the Kings of Epirus. He was also cousin of an Alexander, who, in the year 332, had crossed over from Epirus to help the Tarentines against the Lucanians, had formed an alliance with the Romans, and had finally been killed by a Lucanian on the banks of the Acheron, in 326. After a variety of vicissitudes, Pyrrhus had ascended the throne of his father at the age of twenty-three, and, taking Alexander the Great as his model, had soon become popular and powerful. Aiming at the conquest of the whole of Greece, he attacked the king of Macedonia and overcame him. After resting a while upon his laurels, he found a life of inactivity unbearable, and accepted a request, sent him in 281, to follow in the footsteps of his cousin Alexander, and go to the help of the people of Tarentum against the Romans, with whom they were then at war. This is the reason why he was voyaging in haste to Italy, and it was this ambition that led to his shipwreck on a winter's night.

Pyrrhus had a counsellor named Cineas, who asked him how he would use his victory if he should be so fortunate as to overcome the Romans, who were reputed great warriors and conquerors of many peoples. The Romans overcome, replied the king, no city, Greek nor barbarian, would dare to oppose me, and I should be master of all Italy. Well, Italy conquered, what next? Sicily next would hold out its arms to receive me, Pyrrhus replied. And, what next? These would be but forerunners of greater victories. There are Libya and Carthage, said the king. Then? Then, continued Pyrrhus, I should be able to master all Greece. And then? continued Cineas. Then I would live at ease, eat and drink all day, and enjoy pleasant conversation. And what hinders you from taking now the ease that you are planning to take after such hazards and so much blood-shedding? Here the conversation closed, for Pyrrhus could not answer this question.

Once on the Italian shore the invading king marched to Tarentum, and found it a city of people given up to pleasures, who had no thought of fighting themselves, but expected that he would do that work for them while they enjoyed their theatres, their baths, and their festivities. They soon found, however, that they had a master instead of a servant. Pyrrhus shut up the theatres and was inflexible in demanding the services of the young and strong in the army. His preparations were made as promptly as possible, but Rome was ahead of him, and her army was superior, excepting that the Grecians brought elephants with them. The first battle was fought on the banks of the river Liris, and the elephants gave victory to the invader, but the valor of the Romans was such that Pyrrhus is said to have boasted that if he had such soldiers he could conquer the world, and to have confessed that another such victory would send him back to Epirus alone. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that he sent Cineas to Rome to plead for peace. The Romans were on the point of entering into negotiations, when aged and blind Appius Claudius, hearing of it, caused himself to be carried to the forum, where he delivered an impassioned protest against the proposed action. So effectual was he that the people became eager for war, and sent word to Pyrrhus that they would only treat with him when he should withdraw his forces from Italy. Pyrrhus then marched rapidly towards Rome, but when he had almost reached the city, after devastating the country through which he had passed, he learned that the Romans had made peace with the Etruscans, with whom they had been fighting, and that thus another army was free to act against him. He therefore retreated to winter quarters at Tarentum. The next year the two forces met on the edge of the plains of Apulia, at Asculum, but the battle resulted in no gain to Pyrrhus, who was again obliged to retire for the winter to Tarentum. (B.C. 279.)

In the last battle the brunt of the fighting had fallen to the share of the Epirots, and Pyrrhus was not anxious to sacrifice his comparatively few remaining troops for the benefit of the Tarentines. Therefore, after arranging a truce with Rome, he accepted an invitation from the Greeks of Sicily to go to their help against the Carthaginians. For two years he fought, at first with success; but afterwards he met repulses, so that being again asked to assist his former allies in Italy, he returned, in 276, and for two years led the remnants of his troops and the mercenaries that he had attracted to his standard against the Romans. His Italian career closed in the year 274, when he encountered his enemy in the neighborhood of Maleventum, and was defeated, the Romans having learned how to meet the formerly dreaded elephants. The name of this place was then changed to Beneventum. Two years later still, in 272, Tarentum fell under the sway of Rome, which soon had overcome every nation on the peninsula south of a line marked by the Rubicon on the east and the Macra on the west,--the boundaries of Gallia Cisalpina. (Cis, on this side, alpina, alpine.)

Not only had Rome thus gained power and prestige at home, but she had begun to come in contact with more distant peoples. Carthage had offered to assist her after the battle of Asculum, sending a large fleet of ships to Ostia in earnest of her good faith. Now, when the news of the permanent repulse of the proud king of Epirus was spread abroad, great Ptolemy Philadelphus, the Egyptian patron of art, literature, and science, sent an embassy empowered to conclude a treaty of amity with the republic. The proposition was accepted with earnestness, and ambassadors of the highest rank were sent to Alexandria, where they were treated with extraordinary consideration, and allowed to see all the splendor of the Egyptian capital.

Rome had now reached a position of wealth and physical prosperity; the rich had gained much land, and the poor had been permitted to share the general progress; commerce, agriculture, and, to some extent, manufactures had advanced. Rome kept a firm hold upon all of the territory she had won, connecting them with the capital by good roads, but making no arrangements for free communication between the chief cities of the conquered regions. The celebrated military roads, of which we now can see the wonderful remains, date from a later period, with the exception of the Appian Way, which was begun in 312, and, after the conquest of Italy was completed to Brundusium, through Capua, Tres Taberna, and Beneventum. Other than this there were a number of earth roads leading from Rome in various directions. One of the most ancient of these was that over which Pyrrhus marched as far as Præneste, known as the Via Latina, which ran over the Tusculum Hills, and the Alban Mountain. The Via Ostiensis ran down the left bank of the Tiber; the Via Saleria ran up the river to Tibur, and was afterward continued, as the Via Valeria, over the Apennines to the Adriatic.


The population of Italy (at this time less than three million) was divided into three general classes: first, the Roman Citizens, comprising the members of the thirty-three tribes, stretching from Veii to the river Liris, the citizens in the Roman colonies, and in certain municipal towns; the Latin Name, including the inhabitants of the colonies generally, and some of the most flourishing towns of Italy; and the Allies, or all other inhabitants of the peninsula who were dependent upon Rome, but liked to think that they were not subjects. The Romans had been made rich and prosperous by war, and were ready to plunge into any new struggle promising additional power and wealth.

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