Episode 2 - The Romanization of Italy, how Rome conquered the peninsula

Monday, 08 March 2021 16:43 Written by
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From the year 509 BC, when the Republic was founded, all the monuments that the Romans raised anywhere bore the acronym SPQR, meaning Senatus Populus-Que Romanus, that is, the Senate and the Roman people.

We've talked about the Senate before. But what about the people? The people did not correspond at all to what we mean today by this word. In those distant days, it did not include all citizens but only two orders, that is, two social classes: the “patricii” and the “equites”. The “patricii”, the aristocrats, were the descendants of the Patres, that is, the founders of the city, and were also the most prominent landowners. They formed the Senate, which was accessible only to the members of their families, each of them bearing the name of the ancestor who founded it. In fact, Julius, Valerius, Aemilius are family names.

With King Tarquinius Priscus, merchants and artisans had also settled in the city, but the Patricians kept them at a distance: these were called Plebeians. Under King Servius Tullius, this class had already differentiated itself: on the one hand, those who devoted themselves to activities of pure subsistence, herding, agriculture and in general all manual jobs; on the other, a large bourgeoisie, or middle class, quite numerous and very strong financially. They called themselves the Equites, the cavalrymen, and outnumbered the Patricians.

With the advent of the Republic, the Patricians understood that they could not be alone against all others, and so they allied with the Equites. They co-opted the Equites, that is, they allowed them to the Senate. But even on the day when the eques finally managed to become a senator, he was not welcomed as a “pater”, that is, patrician, but as a conscriptus; the assembly was in fact made up of “patres et conscripti”.

After the Republic was founded, the Consulate came as a consequence: 2 consuls with the imperium, the supreme military command and the powers to convene the Senate, administer justice, chair the rallies. It was two because they should control each other, which will last until the empire is established. In wartime, they led the army, each consul half of it. The Consuls took office on March 15, the Ides of March, and ruled for one year; they were also religious leaders and directed the State’s most important rites.

The richer a citizen was, the more taxes he had to pay, the more years he should serve in the army. For those who wanted to start a public career, the minimum in the military was ten years, and therefore only the rich could practically undertake it because only they could spend so much time away from the farm or the shop. But even if you wanted to exercise your political rights first and then your voting rights, you should have been a soldier because only then you could take part in the Comitia Centuriata, the highest legislative body in the state.

The young man who survived ten years of military life could embark on a political career that went step by step; it was wholly elective and subject to all sorts of precautions. The Comitia Centuriata examined the nominations and awarded the appointments, which were all multiple: 2 Consuls, 2 to 6 Ediles, civil magistrates, 2 to 8 Quaestores, the officials who supervised the state treasury and made audits.

The Comitia Centuriata was not a permanent Assembly; it met at the call of a Consul or a Tribune and could not issue laws by itself but only vote the magistrate's proposals by a majority yes or no.

The Senate met in the Curia in front of the Forum at the Consul's request, who presided over the assembly. Its decisions did not have the force of law; they were only a suggestion to the magistrates, but a magistrate would seldom bring before the Comitia a proposal that had not received the prior approval of the Senate. When a crisis was imminent, the Senate resorted to a special emergency decree, the "Senatus Consultum Ultimum", by which it decided irrevocably; so, the Senate was actually the ultimate ruler of the State. It could appoint a “dictator” for six months or a year during a crisis, investing him with full powers.

As I said before, the two Consuls led the army. In the Republican period before the Punic Wars, there were two armies, one consular army for each consul. If the army was just one, as was the case in Cannae, the consuls alternated daily. Often, they, or the dictator and his lieutenant, were personal and political rivals, which obviously did not favour the unity of command. From this, some of the worst defeats of the Romans will originate.

Another weakness of this system was that, while everyone had some military experience, the Consuls often did not have a command experience. Many times, they had no competence at all as generals and, if armies won, it was not thanks to them; perhaps the greatest mistake of the Romans of those times was to change commander every year, depriving him of command just when he was beginning to learn the art of war.

Generally speaking, within the Roman political system, and the military hierarchy was an extension of it, the principle of preventing an individual from gaining overwhelming power was deeply rooted: for example, in the military, there were two centurions for each platoon, three prefects for each cavalry wing and six tribunes, that is colonels, for each legion. From a military point of view, the consular system was also weak because every time the legions were discharged and then a new army needed to be formed; the whole process would restart from scratch.

The defence of the state was considered, at least by the Senate, as a duty, a responsibility and a privilege; but, besides aristocracy, most citizens were, in principle, farmers, they could only afford to spend a few weeks of their time on a military campaign, because they should return to their fields as soon as possible. The interruption of everyday working life could ruin these soldier-farmers, who traditionally formed the troops' base. As a result, conflicts were short and were usually determined by a single clash of enemy forces.

At the end of the 5th century, Rome was competing with Etruscans and Greeks in central Italy. In these years, the Etruscans were defeated from time to time by Carthaginians, Greeks and Celts, and started to lose their influence on the area north of Rome. And in 390, the Celts from the north invaded their territories. The Romans intervened but were severely defeated in the Tiber valley, at the confluence with the River Allia, on July 18th 390. From that moment on, this will be the “Dies Alliensis”, that is an “unfortunate day”. Clashing for the first time with a large unconventional army, the legions found themselves too slow and heavy to cope with agile, fast, sword-armed troops.

After this defeat, the city, which did not have strong fortifications, remained open and defenceless; the Gauls occupied it but renounced to seize the stronghold of the Capitol. The invaders, led by King Brenno, were content to be paid a large sum of money to withdraw from Rome. "Vae Victis”,  woe to the losers, King Brenno said when the Romans argued about the amount of gold they should pay to have the Celts leave the city. But even with this defeat, Rome increased its prestige, as it had been the only city to force the Gauls to withdraw from a location that had already been in their hands.

This military disaster severely shook the Romans, and many historians believe that the reforms to prevent a future one set them on the road to military superiority. The genius of Roman military commanders was their ability to learn from their opponents and adapt their techniques and their technology to suit their purposes.

From 389 on, Rome had formed a League with the other Latin cities, by which it managed to keep them under its complete control, and in 360, it had defeated the Etruscan town of Veio after a long struggle and extended its influence to southern Etruria. But, in 340, the Latins rebelled. Rome crushed the Latin revolt and forced the Latins to sign a new alliance: the faithful cities were rewarded with admission to Roman citizenship, the others remained formally independent. From now on, the Latins will become an integral part of the Roman State. Latin cities had no relations with each other, but only with Rome; this was the first application of the famous motto “divide et impera” (divide and rule).

Meanwhile, in 366 Plebeians got the chance to become consuls, then other offices will be accessible. Also, plebiscites, that is, the decisions of the Assembly of the plebeians, were granted legal value.

Now the Romans turned south. First, from 343 to 341, they fought the Samnites in what is called the 1st Samnite war. Later on, they extended their influence on Campania and in 327, they occupied Naples and forced it to an alliance. From 326 to 304, Rome was once again at war with the Samnites. The Consuls, who had entered Samnite territory in a region unknown to them, were surrounded in the Caudina valley and had to surrender. It is the famous episode of the so-called “Caudine Forks”: Romans had to hand over all weapons and 600 hostages and pass below a wooden trunk as a sign of defeat. But after some years of peace, Romans resumed war with the Samnites and with the Etruscans, who were now allies: in 310, they defeated the Etruscans and then the Samnites, who demanded peace.

From 298 to 290, Rome and the Samnites fought the 3rd and final war. The Samnites had again allied with the Etruscans, the Celts, the Sabini, the Lucani, Umbrians, practically all of Italy except the Greeks. But in 295 in northern Umbria, the Romans defeated the army of the allied enemies in the so-called “battle of the nations". Following this defeat, the Etruscans agreed to make peace. Five years later, so did the Samnites. And, between 285 and 282, the Romans conquered the territory of the Galli Senoni in the north. Now, almost all Etruscan cities recognized the supremacy of Rome and lost their independence. With the end of Etruscan power, Rome now controlled the whole of central Italy. The final step to the conquest of the Italian peninsula was the war against the Greek city of Taras, nowadays Taranto.

This leads us into Greek territory. In the 9th and 8th centuries BC, trade and the search for raw materials, especially metals, had brought the ancient Greeks to the shores of southern Italy and Sicily. This had led to permanent settlements, which then had turned into independent city-states, and these cities had developed their own distinctive culture and identity within the Greek world. Many aspects of Greek culture, especially writing and artistic styles, were transmitted to local communities in Italy, especially the Etruscans. Southern Italy and Sicily, which the Romans called Magna Graecia (Great Greece), were home to some of the wealthiest communities in the Greek world. You can see the best examples of Greek art and architecture in some extraordinary archaeological sites, such as Paestum, near Naples, and Agrigento in Sicily.

Paestum, which was once called Poseidonia, was founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists from Sybaris, then it fell under the control of the Lucanians and later of Rome. Walls of almost 5 Km encircled the city, these walls still surround the urban core, and their height could be up to 7 mt. Paestum is famous for its three Doric temples, still in excellent condition - so much so that they are considered unique exemplars of the architecture of Magna Graecia. The three temples were built between 550 and 460 BC, using brown-tinted local limestone. The oldest is the Temple of Hera 1, also known as the Temple of Neptune. Then, we have the Temple of Athena, and finally, the Temple of Hera II, the best-preserved: the facades have 6 fluted columns and the long sides 14. Inside, a double row of slim Doric columns divided the cella into three aisles and once supported a ridged roof of wood and tiles.

Further south, on the shores of Sicily facing Africa, in an almost enchanted valley full of almond trees, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is the most impressive group of monuments of Hellenic origin in Sicily. The eight temples in the valley all date from the 5th century BC - the golden age of the Greeks in Sicily. The majority of the temples are constructed from local sandstone and tufa rock. Inside the sanctuaries, a deity statue was on display flanked by a colonnade of columns on three sides.

Except one, all temples are based on the classical Doric style of architecture and are similar to temples and buildings built during the Golden Age of Athens. The best-preserved temple is the Temple of Concordia, dating back to 420 BC, it was named after the Roman god of Concordia, but it was most likely dedicated originally to a Greek god. It is regarded as one of the most remarkable surviving temples in the Doric style. Situated on a set of steps, it has many well-preserved fluted columns that are 6.5 meters high. Among the others, you may admire the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Jupiter), which was built to thank Zeus for the Agrigentines’ victory over the Carthaginians in 480 BC. Here are the famous atlases, some gigantic statues with a human shape, once used as columns or pilasters.

Back to Rome, the cities of Magna Graecia, which were increasingly threatened by the expansion of the Italic peoples, turned towards Rome as a natural ally. In 285, the towns of Turii, Locri and Reggio asked Rome to defend them from a local population, the Lucanians. But the Greek city of Taras, then the main centre of Magna Graecia, felt threatened by this interference in its sphere of influence. In the same year, a small Roman naval team penetrated the Gulf of Taranto to test Taras’ defences, and the Tarantine fleet attacked it and half-destroyed it. War broke out between Rome and Taras, and the Greeks asked for the help of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, a region north of Greece.

Pyrrhus landed in Taras with a strong army, including 20 war elephants, and clashed with the Romans at Heraclea, close to Matera, in 280. He defeated them, as the Roman cavalry was no match for the cavalry of the Greeks and Romans were not trained to defend themselves from the assaults of the elephants. But Pyrrus’ losses were just slightly lower than the Romans’. Rome and its allies could easily replace their losses by enlisting more soldiers among the allied cities, unlike Pyrrhus, who was far from his homeland.

In 279, the king of Epirus clashed for a second time with the Romans, near Foggia: Pyrrhus won, yes, but once again it was a "Pyrrhus’ victory", with so many losses that, according to Pyrrus himself, “another victory like this and I’ll be lost”. In fact, to avoid the 3rd battle, he preferred to enter into peace negotiations with the Romans. He had not foreseen that, after two serious defeats, Rome would not surrender.

In 278, Pyrrhus was called by Syracuse and landed in Sicily with the secret goal of creating a kingdom that would include Sicily, taking it from the Carthaginians and Southern Italy. So, facing this new enemy, the Carthaginians proposed the Romans an alliance. The Romans were granted the right to intervene freely anywhere in the Italian peninsula, and Carthage would not oppose them. For the first time, the Treaty constituted the recognition of Rome as a great power.

In 275, Pyrrhus was forced to return to the continent by a revolt of the Greek cities of Sicily; in the last battle near Benevento, the Romans beat him and forced him to embark back for Epirus. Three years later, Taras surrendered.

The defeat of Pyrrhus meant that the Roman infantry could defeat the strongest armies of the time, trained on the model of the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great and led by the best commanders. Now, Rome was the new ruler of the maritime trade in the low Adriatic and could deal on an equal footing with the most powerful states of the Mediterranean. The Romans extended their influence to several cities in Magna Graecia, where they placed their contingents. In 312, they began the construction of the Appian Way, the Regina Viarum, the Queen of the Ways from Rome to Capua, under the direction of the magistrate Appius Claudius. The Appian way was then extended to Brindisi and Taras, and on it marched the settlers who will romanize Benevento, Brindisi and many other Greek cities. The Romanization of Italy had begun.

Obviously, the Carthaginians were alarmed. This solidarity of interests between the Romans and their new allies, their common aspirations for maritime expansion, clashed with Carthaginians’ interests. This rivalry would turn soon into open war.

Read 1212 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 November 2023 07:49
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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