“Who is so worthless or indolent as to not wish to know by what means, and under what system of government, the Romans in less than fifty-three years have subjected nearly the whole inhabited world to themselves – a thing unique in history?”
Who indeed? The rise of Rome from an insignificant town on the banks of the Tiber to a world-empire in a few short generations is one of the most inspiring dramas in the western historical imagination. Discipline and virtue, it teaches, can conquer the world. Many people who watched this drama as it unfolded were just as impressed their descendants. They found their historian in Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC), a Greek aristocrat held in genteel captivity by the Romans. Although technically a hostage who might have to be executed, he was shown every courtesy, and even made the tutor to a young Scipio Aemelianus – later Africanus Minor, conqueror of Carthage. While “visiting” he wrote a history of Rome’s rise in forty “books,” only five of which survive today. They remain our principle source for the Punic Wars. (264 – 146 BC)
Excepting perhaps the Gauls, Carthage was Republican Rome’s most serious foreign enemy. It was rich, powerful, had an expert navy, and knew how to use elephants. By the time the Romans had unified central and southern Italy, the Western Mediterranean was very nearly a Carthaginian Lake. When they seemed on the verge of conquering Sicily too, the Romans decided to act. (264) Although they had no naval experience to speak of, the Romans built a fleet from nothing and beat the Carthaginians at Ecnomus. (256) The Roman fleet was wiped out in a storm, and its accompanying expeditionary force massacred by the Carthaginians. They sent Regulus, their captive Roman general, back home to negotiate a peace, but made him promise to return if they refused. He promised, they refused, and he went back. The Carthaginians could not help but be amazed by his integrity, but eventually decided to torture him to death as a message to the Romans. His sons avenged themselves in like manner on some high-born Carthaginian captives. Both sides built new fleets and clashed again. This time the Carthaginians won (249), but after twenty-five years of war they, like the Romans, were too exhausted to continue.
By the time the next war began (219) Hanibal “Barca” ("lightning," 247 – 182) had risen to command. He was in Spain with the main Carthaginian army, and hit upon the unlikely plan of attacking the Romans from the north. He lost half his army crossing the Alps, but once in Italy found new allies, and wiped out major Roman armies at Ticino, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae. (218, 17, 16) The Roman alliance began to crumble, for most of the legionaries were dead on the field, and those that remained were bottled up inside the city, preparing to resist a siege that might end of the Republic. However, it never came. Hannibal’s army was inexperienced in siege warfare, he had received no help from Carthage, and he was reluctant to surrender the mobility that had won so many of his battles. With the Italian theatre temporarily in stalemate, the Romans decided to counter-attack in Spain. Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, destroyed one of the invading armies at Ebro (215), but was himself defeated at the Metaurus River (207) by the Roman answer to Hannibal – the dashing young general Scipio (later Africanus Major.) In 205 he landed an army in Africa, threatening Carthage for the first time. Hannibal abandoned Italy in order to rescue the city, but lost the decisive battle at Zama. (202)
The Romans inflicted a humiliating peace – Carthage was stripped of its navy and its overseas empire, pledged not to make war without Roman consent, and was burdened with a massive indemnity. Hannibal used his reputation as a war hero to reform the government, but the mercantile aristocracy, fearing for their money, their power, and perhaps their lives, warned the Romans that he was planning to renew the war. Hannibal fled, was pursued to Bithynia, and committed suicide rather than allow himself to be captured. “Let us relieve the Romans of their anxiety,” he said, “since they think it taxes their patience to await the death of an old man.”
Carthage might have eventually renewed the contest, for its port made it one of the richest cities in the Mediterranean, and it paid off the Roman indemnity early. But it was ruled by a corrupt and short-sighted oligarchy, and found an implacable foe in Cato Censor. (234 – 149) During a diplomatic mission he was astonished at Carthage’s rapid recovery. When he returned he denounced the Senate for its inactivity, held up a fist full of figs as a symbol of the ancient enemy’s renewed prosperity, and made it his habit to end every speech with the motto “Carthage must be destroyed.” Under his prodding the Senate began to make impossible demands. The Carthaginians fulfilled them, but the Romans declared war anyway. They burned the city to the ground, massacred its inhabitants, salted the earth, and invited the gods to ruin anyone who ever tried to rebuild it. The brief, inglorious, and final Punic war ended in complete victory. (146) The last serious challenge to Roman hegemony had been removed. Henceforth, the real dangers to the Republic would all come from within.
Herodotus and Thucydides wrote the history of individual peoples, but did not attempt any broader perspective of the Mediterranean world. It is unlikely that they could have found one if they had, for they had no unifying theme apart from the folly of hubris. The rise of Rome, however, gave Polybius just such a theme. The history of all the different peoples in the Mediterranean could now be told as the history of Rome and its enemies. This remained the basic framework for much Latin history well into the Midi Eval period, and persisted in the Greek east until 1453. It still exerts a powerful hold on our historical imagination today – for who knows the history of the Carthaginians, or of the Persians, except through Roman eyes? They are forever cast as the villains in the saga of Rome’s rise to power. That saga was, for Polybius, no mere tale of adventure, but the history of the world.
What of the question with which we started? How did Rome do it? Polybius was a Greek, and he wrote in order to explain Rome to his countrymen. Indeed, he hoped they would submit to it, for he would probably be executed if they did not. But he also had more formidable reasons. First, Rome’s rise was a matter of institutions, for their government was Aristotle’s ideal mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and it contained checks and balances which the unruly Greek democracies lacked. It was also a matter of character. The Romans were tough, virtuous, hard-working, loyal, disciplined, and strangers to luxury – as the Greeks had been in the days of Marathon. The Carthaginians, by contrast, were spoiled by wealth, found it impossible to work together, and left their fighting to mercenaries. It was also a matter of religion, for “the very thing that among other nations is regarded as an object of reproach – i.e. superstition – is that which maintains the cohesion of the Roman state.” “This might not have been necessary,” he continued, “if it had been possible to form a state composed of wise men; but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, it must be held together by invisible terrors and religious pageantry.” Following the logic of this argument, he presented Rome’s rise as the decree of the ultimate power – Fate, which not even the gods can resist. His explanation was thus an appeal to all Greeks, whether pious or skeptical, to submit to the new power. It would be hubris, he implied, to resist.
In the centuries since Herodotus and Thucydides, Plato and the Stoic philosophers had developed a cyclical view of time which held that the rise and fall of states is a part of a natural rhythm in which virtue brings victory, victory temptation, temptation vice, and vice defeat. It seems that this may have been a popular model in Greek historiography after Thucydides, although so much has been lost it is difficult to say. Polybius agreed that it held for lesser peoples, even for the Greeks, but not for the Romans. Fate, he said, had given them an Eternal City, and an Eternal Empire. It was destined to rise, but never to fall.
Summary of Polybius and his work
Full Text of the Histories
Part of a series on Philosophy of History (VI of XXXV)
(The picture is an ancient bust of Hannibal)
Questions: Do you find Polybius' argument persuasive? Is character a decisive element in history? What about religion? Is it a necessary prop to social order, as Polybius argued, or mere ignorance, as we are so often told today? What about institutions? What is their role in history? Finally, do you see the hand of fate in history? Or is it principally the result of our freely chosen actions?