They came, they saw, and they kept on conquering. Why did the Romans expand their empire so dramatically? And who benefitted most from Roman imperialism? These are questions Harry Sidebottom needed to confront while writing his latest novel, The Return, he tells Historia.
In the last two and a half centuries BCE Rome expanded from a provincial Italian power to an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from the English Channel to the Atlas mountains.
Roman imperialism is at the heart of my new novel, The Return. Researching the book made me look again at the causes and effects of Roman expansion, as well as its ancient justifications and criticisms. All these themes are the subject of much contemporary scholarly debate.
In the 19th century the great German scholar Theodor Mommsen originated the concept of Roman defensive imperialism: an empire dragged ever outwards as it reacted successfully to one threat after another. The idea was congenial to the colonial age when most classical scholars came from imperial powers.
To be fair, it finds a measure of support in the ancient sources. Cicero famously said that Rome had won her empire pro fide aut pro salute, by keeping good faith (fides), in other words protecting her allies, and looking to her safety (salus). But Cicero’s statement does not amount to even a retrospective commitment to defensive imperialism.
At times Rome entered into alliances knowing that they would lead to war with a third party. Notoriously this was the case with her treaty with the Spanish town of Saguntum that led to war with Hannibal (the Second Punic War). Similarly the mere existence of another power (such as that of Mithradates of Pontus) could be interpreted as a threat to the safety of Rome, and thus justify a pre-emptive war of aggression.
In the last fifty years (since the 1970s, the time of the Vietnam War, and the European withdrawal from empire) defensive imperialism has fallen out of scholarly favour. Most now concentrate on what are called ‘the expansion-bearing structures in Roman society and organisation’.
Two were crucial. Roman senators needed the large amounts of ‘windfall capital’, which came from successful war-making, to maintain their status, both individually and collectively, and it was the senate that decided war and peace. Furthermore Roman senators needed the plebs to vote them into further office. There was no greater vote-winner than military glory, and as military commanders the senators won most of that glory.
Like the causes, the effects of Roman imperialism are debated. Rome`s expansion brought a huge influx of wealth (plunder and slaves, war reparations and taxes from the defeated) into Italy. The majority of this wealth found its way into the hands of the elite.
According to the traditional scholarly argument, the elite used this new found wealth to create large landed estates (the so-called latifundia), usually worked by slaves. Things were very different for the legionaries.
The Roman army in the Republic was essentially a peasant militia. With expansion came overseas campaigns that kept the legionaries away from their peasant farms for lengthy periods. While they were away their families often got into debt, which led to eviction. The peasant smallholdings were incorporated into the estates of the elite. The legionaries were, in the phrase of the late Keith Hopkins, ‘fighting to dispossess themselves’.
Recently this model has been repeatedly challenged. Archaeologists have argued that field surveys do not reveal evidence for large ‘agri-businesses’ employing slave labour. However three things must be remembered. Firstly, most of Italy has not been surveyed. Secondly, latifundia could only exist where they could sell or ship their produce, so close to either cities or water transport. Finally, archaeology is very good at revealing how agricultural land was farmed (for instance, for cereal or olives or stock), but can seldom show the legal status of those doing the work (whether they were peasant proprietors, tenants, or slaves).
In the Aeneid Virgil made Jupiter, the king of the gods, promise the Romans imperium sine fine (empire without limit or end). However, as we have seen with Cicero, the Romans were not unthinking imperialists. For divine favour to work the Romans both had to act justly towards the gods, and towards other peoples. Unlike the 19th-century European empires, Rome did not boast a ‘civilising mission’.
The one thing that Rome claimed to bring was peace, the famous Pax Romana. If the conquered acquired civilisation, as Strabo claimed had many of the tribes in Gaul, that was a fringe benefit. The Roman stress on peace seems to have encouraged the downgrading of native rebellions and unrest to the category of ‘banditry’.
At times Romans could criticise their own acquisition of empire. Usually this criticism was inward looking, focusing on the effects of empire on Roman society. Expansion was held to have caused the replacement of Italian peasants by slave labour. The acquisition of luxury (especially after 146 BCE, the year in which Roman armies destroyed the cities of Corinth and Carthage) was considered to have undermined the ancient virtus (virtue) of both the Roman elite and the urban plebs of the city of Rome.
Yet a type of literature did exist which criticized the motives of Roman expansion. Roman historians put savage denunciations into the mouths of various enemies of Rome. In these speeches Rome is motivated by naked greed and lust for power. “They create a desert and call it peace”, as Tacitus made Calgacus the Caledonian say. Similar sentiments are given to Mithradrates by Sallust, and Boudicca by Cassius Dio.
Modern scholars usually depoliticise these speeches by pointing to the rhetorical education of the Roman elite, including these historians, which trained them to argue both sides of any case. While this is certainly true, these passages show that Romans could imagine a very different narrative from either the divine justification of Virgil, or the good faith and safety of Cicero. No scholarly study, that I have found, looks at these anti-imperial passages as a group, and considers their wider implications.
The Return explores all these themes of Roman imperialism in a novel of military action and murder. A veteran returns from the Achaean War and the sack of Corinth to his small farm in Calabria. No sooner is he back than the first mutilated victim is discovered in the surrounding hills.
Find out more about The Return.
Battle scene, part of a Roman sarcophagus (Dallas Museum of Art): via Wikimedia
Coin of Mithridates VI: via Wikimedia
The Triumphs of Caesar, no 9. Caesar on his Chariot, by Andrea Mantegna (Royal Collection): via Wikimedia
Statue called The Dying Gaul, 1st century CE (Capitoline Museums): via Wikimedia