The Rise of Rome (3rd century bce to 2nd century ce
The Rise of Rome (3rd century bce to 2nd century ce
Hannibal (247–183 bce ) led Carthage against Rome during the Second Punic War. He is best known for his brilliant strategies and for leading his troops and war elephants south across the near-impassable Alps to invade Italy, considered one of the most impressive feats in ancient military history.
Prelude to the Second Punic War
The First Punic War ended in 241 bce , Three years later, Rome took control of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, then turned most of Sicily into the first tribute-paying Roman province. Rome expanded to the north and east as well. Carthage, meanwhile, consolidated its power in Spain under General Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father. Hannibal inherited his father’s position at the age of twenty-six. He set off the Second Punic War when he laid siege to Saguntum for eight months. Saguntum, in northern Spain, was an ally of Rome.
Invasion of Italy
Hannibal expected Rome to declare war in response to Saguntum’s destruction, and he planned an invasion of Italy from the north. He led forty thousand troops and between thirty-five and fifty war elephants across the Pyrenees into Gaul (modern-day France). In Gaul, Hannibal added local tribal warriors to his mercenaries and outran the two Roman consuls sent to stop him, brothers Publius and Gnaeus Scipio. Over fifteen days in the early fall of 218 bce , Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy, battling early snow, rough terrain, and other hardships. He lost more than a third of his men and elephants in the effort.
Early Battles in Italy
Relying on his Numidian cavalry, Hannibal defeated Roman troops at the River Ticinus in what is now Switzerland. Publius Scipio was wounded and withdrew to the Trebia River, a tributary of the Po. Hannibal followed and fought the Battle of the Trebia, winning another victory for Carthage. By spring, the Carthaginians entered Etruria (northern Italy) and won the Battle of Lake Trasimeno. In 216 bce , Hannibal handed Rome the worst defeat it had ever suffered at the Battle of Cannae. As he hoped, many Roman-held cities in Italy rebelled and joined forces with him.
Problems Faced by Hannibal
Hannibal was not able to take full advantage of these victories because he had no reinforcements for his depleted troops. In Spain, the Scipio brothers and their legions tied up Carthaginian armies until both brothers were killed in 211 bce . Hannibal made the southern Italian city of Capua his base, but in a few years Rome was strong enough to lay siege to it. In response, Hannibal marched on Rome, hoping that his brother Hasdrubal would arrive with fresh troops from Spain.
Hasdrubal’s men and elephants crossed the Alps, but were defeated by a Roman force before they could reach Hannibal. Hasdrubal was killed, and his head was thrown before Hannibal’s outpost. Hannibal fought on for four more years without winning any substantial victories. After fifteen years in Italy, he was called back to Africa to defend the city of Carthage in 203 bce .
The Battle of Zama and Surrender
The final battle of the Second Punic War in 202 bce was named Zama for the place where Hannibal camped. The battle site itself was a plain southwest of Carthage. Roman historian Polybius writes that Scipio and Hannibal met at the Battle of Zama and fought: “the Carthaginians for their own safety and control of Libya, and the Romans for the empire and domination of the world.” Hannibal’s great victories were fifteen years behind him. The size of his army was impressive—he commanded forty thousand men and eighty elephants—but his men were inexperienced. Half his soldiers fell to Scipio’s slightly smaller, but better trained, force.
The peace treaty in 201 bce forced Carthage to pay heavy fines for fifty years and hand over all their elephants, but the Carthaginians were allowed to keep their cities.
Hannibal’s Later Life and Death
Hannibal lived another eighteen years after the defeat at Zama. In 197 bce he was elected civic magistrate and worked for social reforms. He fled Carthage two years later when Roman sources accused him of conspiring against Rome with the King of Syria, Antiochus III. Hannibal stayed at Ephasus in Syria until Antiochus was defeated by Rome some years later.
The kings of Armenia and Bithynia hosted Hannibal as well. He fought at the side of the king of Bithynia against Pergamum, a Roman ally. When, in 183 bce , the Roman senate demanded that the king give up Hannibal, the Carthaginian general poisoned himself rather than submit.
Julius Caesar (100–44 bce ): general, proconsul, and eventually dictator of Rome, affected the lives and fortunes of millions of people as he led the Roman army to war and conquest. His influence and the civil war he began ended the fabled Roman republic and pushed Rome toward becoming an empire.
Early Life and Career
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July of 100 bce to a patrician (noble) Roman family. The Julian family was well connected but not wealthy, although they claimed to trace their ancestry back to the goddess Venus. Much of what we know about Caesar comes from his own writings and those of his friend Cicero, as well as later historians in Greece and Rome.
He married for the first time while in his teens and was immediately caught up in political rivalries not of his making. He left Rome and enjoyed an eventful career in the army. As an officer, he was decorated for bravery during the siege of Mytilene, a Greek city. Pirates kidnapped the young Caesar; a suitable ransom was paid and they released him. Not one to forgive, Caesar gathered troops and pursued his erstwhile abductors. When he caught them, he had them crucified.
Before returning to Rome, Caesar traveled to the Roman province of Asia Minor, took command of local troops, and fought off an invasion by King Mithridates of Pontus—all on his own initiative, without orders. His daring acts and talent as a speaker and advocate prepared the way for him to enter politics in Rome.
Political and Military Achievements
Caesar was elected tribune (magistrate) in 73 bce , and many religious and state offices followed. He spent lavishly, as was expected of Roman politicians, and formed advantageous alliances (including two more marriages; his first wife died and he divorced his second). Caesar worked and bribed his way up the political ladder, increasing his prominence and influence. In 61 bce he went to Spain as proconsul (governor) for a year. During that time he raised the Tenth Legion and conquered new territory for Rome.
Back in Rome, Caesar formed an alliance with the fabulously wealthy Crassus and the noted general Pompey. Their alliance came to be known as the First Triumvirate. Pompey married Caesar’s only legitimate child, Julia, as well. Caesar supported his two partners with legislation and favors, and they secured for him a five-year appointment, later extended, as proconsul of two provinces: Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy south of the Alps). Caesar then spent eight years in the conquest of Gaul (modern-day France), a vast land beyond his province. The campaigns enriched him and added greatly to Rome’s growing domain.
Pompey’s wife Julia died while Caesar was in Gaul, and Crassas was killed during his own military campaign. Pompey and Caesar became rivals for power in Rome. Both men were skilled commanders, but the Roman Senate supported Pompey. In disobedience to senate orders, Caesar rode south with his army, crossing the Rubicon, a river that separated Italy from Cisalpine Gaul. This act started a civil war, as Caesar knew it would. The phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has since come to mean going past the point of no return.
The armies of Caesar and Pompey met in a decisive battle at Pharsalus, Greece, in 48 bce Caesar had four battle-hardened legions, including the tenth, and three new legions. Pompey had three times as many men, but Caesar’s troops fought fiercely and Pompey’s forces were defeated. Pompey fled to Egypt and was killed by agents of the pharaoh (Egyptian king).
Caesar in the East
Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt, and after Pompey’s death he became involved in a war between the two claimants to the throne of Egypt, Cleopatra VII and her younger brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII. Caesar not only won the throne for Cleopatra, but became her lover as well, and she bore him a son. He then fought a brief war with the son of Mithridates in Asia Minor. He described this action to the Roman Senate in his famous quote, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Caesar in Rome
Caesar became dictator in 46 bce and instituted reforms in Rome, many of them aimed at consolidating his own power. He tripled the number of senators, changed tax structures, and tried to reduce unemployment by forcing estate owners to employ free men in 1:2 proportion to their slaves. He revised the calendar, making a year 365 days long—and naming his birth month after himself. Caesar held multiple offices and took to wearing purple, which was considered the color of gods and kings. He also had coins struck with his own image; Roman currency had never carried the likeness of a living Roman before.
His growing power led sixty Roman politicians to plot to kill Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 bce They attacked him with knives as he entered the senate building and stabbed him twenty-three times. The assassins included former supporters and even Decimus Brutus, the son of Caesar’s favorite mistress. Many of the conspirators believed that Caesar had become a tyrant and must die so that the Roman Republic could be revived.
The assassins fled and hid after Caesar’s murder, but two days later the senate granted them amnesty. Caesar received a public funeral, and sentiment turned against the conspirators. Most left Rome. In the following year, Caesar’s heir and nephew Octavian (Augustus Caesar) began a series of civil wars to punish Caesar’s killers and establish himself as the first Roman Emperor.
Vercingetorix (?–46 bce ) was a prince of the Arverni tribe who emerged as a war leader during the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. Vercingetorix united the many Celtic tribes of Gaul to fight the Roman invasion and is considered one of France’s earliest national heroes.
Vercingetorix was the son of Celtillus, an Arverni ruler who (according to Caesar) had been killed by his peers for seeking to rule all of Gaul. Tribes in Gaul chose their rulers from the nobility, but kingship was not necessarily passed from father to son. Caesar’s writings assert that Vercingetorix was “a young man whose abilities were second to none.” The prince, probably born in the 70s bce , no doubt received the training of both a warrior and a nobleman as he grew up.
Encouraged by an act of rebellion against the Romans in a neighboring land, Vercingetorix tried to rouse his own people to fight the Romans in 53 bce . His uncle, Gobannitio, and other nobles discouraged him, then expelled him from the principal town of Gergovia. Undeterred, Vercingetorix assembled a motley collection of vagabonds as followers and soon won over most of the Arverni tribe to his cause and was proclaimed king.
Vercingetorix (the rix at the end of his name means “king”) formed alliances with most of the neighboring tribes of central Gaul, as far north as the Parisii (who settled what is now Paris), and west to the sea. All agreed to send warriors, horses, and weapons to the new king on certain dates. Caesar reported that Vercingetorix used severe punishments and torture to control his subjects. Most of our information about Vercingetorix comes from Caesar’s book De Bello Gallico, but Caesar, who viewed Gauls as his enemies, may have exaggerated or slanted his reports.
In the winter of 52 bce , Vercingetorix’s armies attacked and harried Roman allies among the Ruteni, Bituriges, and other tribes, forcing them to switch allegiance. He believed that snow would keep Caesar out of central Gaul for weeks, but the Romans crossed the Cevennes Mountains with a cavalry force and infantry raised in Cisalpine Gaul. Vercingetorix held his forces together and retreated to Arverni territory. He then attacked Gorgobina, a Boii tribal center with ties to Rome.
Caesar summoned his legions from their winter camps and attacked the towns of Vercingetorix’s allies. This drew the Celtic army from Gorgobina. The two sides fought in Bituriges territory. Caesar backed up his own forces with four hundred German cavalry, forcing the Gauls to retreat.
Siege at Avaricum
Vercingetorix proposed that the Gallic tribes burn their own towns to deprive the Romans of food and supplies. He persuaded his followers that giving up their own property was a worthwhile sacrifice, arguing that if they failed to drive out the Romans they would be killed and their families enslaved. The plan was accepted, but the Bituriges pleaded to spare the city of Avaricum (Bourges), because it was inaccessible except by one narrow road. Vercingetorix gave in to this request.
While his army suffered from hunger, Caesar laid siege to Avaricum and built up earthworks and two large towers. Vercingetorix camped nearby with his army, but could not lift the siege. The tribes questioned Vercingetorix’s loyalty to their Gallic confederation at that point, but he regained their support by portraying the Roman army as desperate, starved, and depleted. After nearly a month, Caesar overran Avaricum during a storm and later reported that all but eight hundred men, women, and children of the population of forty thousand were killed.
With winter ending, Vercingetorix sent emissaries out to renew alliances and led his army to Gergovia. The legions followed. Caesar ordered trenches and siege works built and tried unsuccessfully to lure his enemies from the high ground. He finally withdrew. The Roman and Gallic armies clashed in a fierce cavalry battle in Lingones tribal territory; Rome, with newly recruited German troops, routed the Gauls.
Caesar pursued Vercingetorix’s forces to Alesia, a hilltop stronghold. He surrounded the Gauls with eight camps stretching for ten miles. The Roman fortifications included walls and a series of ditches fifteen and twenty feet wide, some with rows of spikes buried in them. Vercingetorix had provisions for only thirty days, so he sent cavalry out before Rome’s siege works were complete. When the food ran out, Vercingetorix and his commanders sent noncombatants from Alesia.
A pan-Gallic army of 250,000 arrived to fight the Romans from outside Alesia. Despite its impressive size, the Gallic army was routed and destroyed. Vercingetorix, facing defeat, gathered his commanders and told them to decide whether to hand him over to Rome or put him to death themselves. They, in turn, sent envoys to Caesar.
Imprisonment and Death
Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar and was taken to Rome as a prisoner. There he languished in prison for nearly five years, until Caesar led him around in a belated twenty-day “triumph,” or victory celebration. After this final parade, Vercingetorix was executed.
Trajan (c. 52 or 53 ce –117 ce ) was a general and emperor whose conquests in northeastern Europe and the Middle East brought the Roman Empire to its largest size. After a successful military career, Trajan, who was raised in Hispania (what is now Spain) became Rome’s first non-Italian Emperor in 98 ce , reigning till his death in 117 ce
Early Military Career
Trajan’s father was a magistrate in southern Hispania who rose through the political ranks to become governor of Hispania, then proconsul (governor) of Syria. Trajan, whose full name was Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, enjoyed the benefits and training of a provincial aristocrat. He entered the army while still a teenager and served under his father in Syria before being posted back to Hispania.
Trajan served in Rome’s legions under the Emperor Domitian. He was a tribune (senior military officer) from 71 to 81 ce , rising to praetor, or field commander, in 87 ce Two years later, he became legionary commander in Syria. In 91 ce he was appointed consul of the relatively new province of Lower Germany. Rome’s control of all these areas was constantly challenged, and Trajan’s military and administrative skills were honed and sharpened with action and experience. His career kept him away from Rome and its political rivalries.
Trajan married Pompeia Plotina, a woman of Roman Gaul, but they had no children. The historian Dio Cassius—born nearly forty years after Trajan’s death—claimed that Trajan preferred attractive young men to women, but the source of his information is unknown and may simply be gossip.
Trajan: A Popular Choice for Emperor
The Emperor Domitian was murdered in 96 ce He had been popular with the army but hated by the senate and is remembered for both reforms and cruelty. The senate selected the former consul Nerva to be the next emperor. Nerva was not loved by the army, so he wisely chose Trajan, a military hero, as his heir and successor. Nerva, elderly and childless, died of a fever after only seventeen months in office, and Trajan took the throne.
Military Conquests of Trajan
Rome’s territory expanded under Trajan, an emperor with military expertise. After the Dacian Campaign, in which Trajan pushed into the kingdom of Dacia, the Empire’s borders stretched north of the Danube River for the first time, to include what is now Romania, part of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Moldava. The areas of modern-day Jordan and northern Arabia, east of the Sinai, came under the Empire’s rule by 107 ce . During that campaign, Trajan annexed the Nabataen kingdom, whose capital was Petra.
During the period of peace that lasted from 107 to 113 ce , Trajan held games to celebrate the completion of many civic projects, such as his forum, an aqueduct, and public baths. One such celebration, a gladiator festival at the Colisseum, an enormous arena that had been completed in 80 ce , lasted three months. Reportedly, five million spectators were entertained by the carnage and gore and up to eleven thousand people died in the arena.
Trajan’s Final Campaigns
Rome’s acquisition of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and parts of Iran) as a province is not well documented. Trajan sailed and marched to Asia Minor when he was sixty years old, and his wife accompanied him. He was determined to enforce a treaty that the Parthians had violated when they appointed a ruler for Armenia that Rome had not approved. Trajan’s campaign, called the Parthian War, was waged with troops from Syria, Egypt, Judea, Arabia, and Europe. Trajan subdued Armenia and established fortifications, including the harbor at Trabzon, along the southern coast of the Black Sea. He then pursued the Parthian king Osroes as far as the Persian Gulf. There, so the story goes, Trajan lamented his advanced age because it stopped him from marching on to India and following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.
Before he could return to Rome after his successes in the Middle East, revolts against Roman rule broke out. Trajan quickly put down rebellions in several places, including Mesopotamia and Judea. In Syria, he suffered a stroke, then recovered somewhat and sailed for Rome. His health forced the ship to stop in Cilicia (now southeastern Turkey), where he died in August 117 ce .
Trajan named Hadrian his successor while on his deathbed. His ashes were carried back to Rome and placed at the base of the one-hundred-foot column erected to commemorate his Dacian War.
Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian were the first three of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” of Rome. Trajan’s military accomplishments often overshadow his civic works, but Trajan set Rome on sound financial footing and opened the senate and the equestrian (knightly) class to non-Italian citizens of Rome. He repaved the Appian Way, built a new harbor near Rome, improved the aqueducts, and erected libraries, baths, and courthouses. He fought corruption in the cities and provinces, which expanded Rome’s power. In many ways, Rome under Trajan was Rome at its peak.
Mylae, 260 bce
The Roman victory at the Battle of Mylae in 260 bce was the first for the newly built Roman navy, and it signaled the slow transfer of sea power from Carthage to Rome during the First Punic War.
Background of the First Punic War
The First Punic War began as a fight for control of the sea between Sicily and Italy. Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse, directed an attack on Messina, ruled by the Mamartines. Messina asked Rome and Carthage for aid. Carthage sent troops and ships. This alarmed Rome, as Messina controlled the straight between the tip of Italy and the island of Sicily. Rome borrowed ships and sent an army, and a war began that would last for twenty-three years.
Rome Builds Ships
Roman legions won victories on land, but could not challenge the Carthaginians at sea. Three years into the war, in 261 bce , Rome began the construction of 120 warships. Most were quinquiremes: galleys with five men on each oar. Quinquiremes required crews of three hundred men. A few ships were triremes, with three banks of oars on each side. Rome had never built ships before, but they threw themselves into the endeavor boldly and with “unbelievable daring,” according to the historian Polybius.
Rome recruited and trained oarsmen on land while the ships were being built, so that they could rush into battle as soon as the vessels were completed. The first fleet of seventeen ships sailed from Messina for the island of Lipara, off the northeast coast of Sicily. There, a Carthaginian fleet trapped them in the harbor. The crew panicked and abandoned the ships. Commander Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio surrendered and was taken prisoner—a debacle that earned him the nickname Asino (donkey).
Innovation and Victory
After this defeat, an anonymous Roman shipwright invented a unique feature called a corvus (meaning “raven”). The corvus was a gangplank with an iron spike on one end. While sailing, the corvus was lashed to a mast, out of the way. During an attack, though, the corvus could be pivoted, dropped, and hooked to an enemy vessel, allowing Roman soldiers to quickly board and overcome their opponents.
After the defeat at Lipara, Rome’s second consul, Gaius Duilius, took command of the rest of the ships. The Carthaginians were ravaging the city of Mylae (now called Milazzo), which sat on a peninsula on the northeast coast of Sicily. Duilius sailed for Mylae. The two navies met at sea; the Carthaginian commanders were at first scornful of Roman seamanship. Once the corvi were put into use, though, Duilius’s navy captured thirty Carthaginian vessels, including the flagship. Thirteen enemy ships were sunk as well. Hannibal Gisco, the commander, was forced to flee in a small rowboat. (This was not Hannibal Barca, the general who crossed the Alps during the Second Punic War.)
Aftermath of the Battle of Mylae
Duilius, the first successful Roman admiral, then proceeded to Segesta to lift a siege and captured Macela. Returning to Rome as a hero, he enjoyed a triumphal parade in which the prows of the captured ships were displayed. Hannibal Gisco was crucified by his own people for his incompetence in losing the battle.
The Carthaginian fleet was still formidable, however, and new ships were built. The war dragged on and the Romans suffered a major naval defeat at the Battle of Drepana twelve years later. By this time, both sides were nearly bankrupt, but refused to surrender. A peace treaty was finally signed in 241 bce .
Drepana, 249 bce
The naval Battle of Drepana, fought between Rome and Carthage in 249 bce , was a devastating loss for Rome. Rome eventually rebuilt its navy and ended the First Punic War by defeating Carthage in a later battle in the same area.
Early Success of Rome’s Navy
The First Punic War, which was fought between Carthage and Rome for control of the Mediterranean, began in 264 bce The Roman navy enjoyed early victories in Sicily at the Battle of Mylae in 261 bce and later at Ecnomus in 256 bce , mostly due to the development and use of the corvus, which was a spiked gangplank that allowed the Romans to board and overcome the crew on enemy ships.
The War Drags On
After fifteen years of war, the treasuries of both Rome and Carthage were depleted, and the people could not afford any more taxes. Both sides were tired of war, but not ready to give up. Rome’s fleet of ships had been destroyed in storms several times. By this point in the war, Carthage knew how to avoid the corvus, and so the Roman ships were less effective. Using what vessels were available, Rome blockaded the port of Lilybaeum, but Carthaginian sailors easily ran the blockade. Rome was humiliated.
A Botched Surprise
In 249 bce , Consul Claudius Pulcher reasoned that an attack on the Carthaginian fleet would be unexpected and therefore successful. He decided to sail from Lilybaeum by night and attack Drepana (today’s Trapani in western Sicily), where Carthage’s ships were garrisoned. The attack was a disaster, however. The Romans could not keep their own ships in battle formation in the darkness. When dawn broke, their line was scattered across the harbor.
The Carthaginian fleet was not in the harbor anyway. Under the command of Adhurbal, Carthage’s faster ships and more experienced crews captured over ninety of the scattered Roman vessels. Consul Pulcher escaped, but returned to Rome in disgrace. Stories spread that Pulcher had recklessly ignored omens of bad luck on the morning of battle. The thirty Roman ships that got away from Adhurbal’s men were destroyed by a storm.
Return to Drepana
The war continued until 241 bce , but Rome withdrew from naval battles for seven years. Eventually, wealthy citizens funded the building of two hundred new ships, most of them quinqueremes (galleys manned by over three hundred men), hoping to finally end the war. Under Gaius Lutatius Catulus, the new navy besieged Drepana and Lilybaeum once more.
This time, the battle went in Rome’s favor. Off the Aegates Islands, Roman quinqueremes sank fifty Carthaginian ships loaded with supplies and captured seventy more. Carthage gave up Sicily and signed a peace treaty that inflicted punitive fines and taxes. Dissatisfaction with this treaty contributed to outbreak of war again twenty-three years later.
Trebia, 218 bce
During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal (247–183), defeated the Romans in three major battles in northern Italy. The Battle of Trebia (or Trebbia) was the first of these clashes.
Before the Battle
In 218 bce , Hannibal led his men and war elephants across the Alps to invade Italy. The trek cost him at least a third of his force. (The main historical sources, Roman writers Livy and Polybius, differ widely in their estimates of Hannibal’s army.) Whether he had twenty thousand or forty thousand men, though, he easily defeated a Roman detachment at the River Ticinus. Hannibal then moved his troops into Placentia (present-day Piacenza) and positioned them defensively west of the Trebia River. Because of his victory at Ticinus, tribal warriors and mercenaries joined his ranks, increasing his numbers.
Consul Titus Sempronius Longus led a Roman army toward Africa to fight Carthage. He was called back by a frantic Senate and dispatched to northern Italy to stop Hannibal. Once Sempronius arrived in Italy, Publius Scipio, the commander who had been wounded at Ticinus, cautioned him against bold moves. Sempronius did not listen. He encamped both Scipio’s army and his own along the eastern side of the Trebia.
Knowing of Sempronius’ reputation for rashness, Hannibal planned an ambush. He put his brother Mago in charge of two thousand troops who hid at night among brambles and thorn bushes on a flat, treeless plain through which an offshoot of the Trebia River cut deeply.
The Battle: December 18, 218 bce
In the morning, Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry attacked and retreated, luring the Roman forces out of their camp in spite of threatening snow and rain. Sempronius sent his entire force, more than forty thousand men, assuming they would easily defeat the enemy. The Roman troops had not even eaten their morning meal. They crossed the Trebia, getting soaked as they did so—hardly ideal conditions under which to engage a powerful enemy.
Hannibal deployed his largely mercenary army in two flanks, each equipped with war elephants. His cavalry troops far outnumbered the Roman cavalry and outflanked them. The Roman cavalry was forced back as the day wore on, and the infantry was left unprotected. As Hannibal hoped, the Roman infantry rushed into the river. Mago’s hidden troops then rose in ambush and the Romans were unable to climb up the steep banks to escape. An estimated twenty thousand Roman troops died or were injured in the battle.
It fell to the wounded Scipio to lead the surviving troops back across the Po River to Cremona, to winter in relative safety. Sempronius escaped with his life, but his reputation was ruined. Rome elected two new consuls the following year who would confront Hannibal once more at the Battle of Lake Trasimeno.
Lake Trasimeno, 217 bce
During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal (247–183 bce ) gained control of northern Italy. The Battle of Lake Trasimeno (or Lake Trasimene) was the second of three successful fights waged by Hannibal and took place in June of 217 bce .
Before the Battle
Hannibal had crossed the Alps in winter to invade and conquer Roman territory. With a depleted army supplemented by mercenaries and tribal enemies of Rome, Hannibal won battles—first in a skirmish at Ticinus, then at the larger Battle of Trebia. The anxious Roman Senate elected consuls Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and then sent them with newly raised legions to guard the Apennine Mountains, which run north-south along the Italian peninsula. Traveling separately, these generals took over the demoralized armies of the wounded Publius Scipio and the unsuccessful Titus Sempronius Longus.
Hannibal wanted to fight one army at a time, so he tried to lure Flaminius into battle before his army could join that of Servilius. Hannibal raided and attacked the land near Apulia until Flaminius, ignoring all his advisors, decided to pursue and engage Hannibal’s forces.
Hannibal’s Strategy at Lake Trasimeno
Lake Trasimeno was less than ninety miles north of Rome. Hannibal picked the north shore of the lake as an ambush site. There, the road forced men to march between high hills on either side and ascend toward a steep ridge. Hannibal sent some of his men far ahead to light fires, tricking the Romans into thinking that their enemies were camped much further away.
Throughout the night, Hannibal arranged his armies for battle. On the ridge at the east end of the road, Spanish and Libyan soldiers waited to charge down toward the Romans. To block a retreat, he deployed cavalry and Gallic (Celtic) allies in a line hidden by the forested hills, so that they could run and block the road after the legions passed. On the sides of the road, slingers and pikemen hid in the hills, waiting the signal to attack.
The Battle: June 23, 217 bce
Flaminius had pushed his men hard the previous day, not letting them make camp until late at night. In the morning, they hurried east along the road. Fog blocked their view. Hannibal waited until all the Roman troops were between and below his own forces before giving the signal to attack from all sides.
The Romans, taken by surprise, could not counterattack. Cavalry pressed their lines from the front and rear, while the Carthaginian troops harried the Romans from all sides. Polybius writes, “While they were still considering what they ought to do, they were being killed without knowing how.”
Flaminius, in the rear, died at the hands of the Celtic warriors. In all, 15,000 Romans, or two full legions, were killed on the road along the north shore of Lake Trasimeno, many during hand-to-hand combat.
Horrified by yet another defeat, the Roman Senate elected a dictator: Fabius Maximus. He carried out religious rites, which eased Roman minds (it was rumored that Flaminius had ignored these rites and thus had been doomed to failure by the gods). However well-favored, Fabius Maximus could not solve the problem of Hannibal either: his policy was rather to avoid battle, and he allowed Hannibal to ravage central and northern Italy. He aversion to action earned him the nickname the “Delayer.” Many Romans were disgusted by this policy of avoidance, and new consuls were elected. Rome would face Hannibal yet again, this time at Cannae.
Cannae, 216 bce
The Battle of Cannae in 216 bce , between Rome and Carthage, was the third of three major confrontations during the Second Punic War. No other single day of combat in Europe, ancient or modern, ever inflicted so many casualties.
The Second Punic War
The Carthaginian commander Hannibal crossed the Alps in late fall 218 bce to invade and conquer Roman territory in Italy. Hannibal quickly engaged and defeated Roman armies in a skirmish at Ticinus, the Battle of Trebia, and the Battle of Lake Trasimeno.
After such heavy losses, Rome elected a dictator, Fabius Maximus. Fabius applied a policy of following Hannibal’s armies but avoiding battle, which earned him the title Cunctator—the “Delayer.” He allowed Hannibal’s troops to pillage the Italian countryside without interference from Roman legions. Some Romans thought this a wise strategy, but many others considered it not only cowardly, but costly as well.
Varro and Paullus
When Fabius’s term as dictator ended, the senate elected two new consuls to lead the army: Gaius Terrentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. With the senate’s encouragement, the men quickly took command of the eight consular legions and an equal number of allies southeast of Rome near the Adriatic Sea. They decided to make a stand and attack Hannibal at the hilltop village of Cannae, in Apulia.
Varro and Paullus took turns commanding their legions, auxiliaries, and allies, which numbered 6,000 cavalry and 80,000 infantry. Paullus argued against fighting at Cannae, but when Varro took his turn at command, he deployed the troops at sunrise. The Roman forces ranged along a river, most facing south and deeply massed in the center. Hannibal had a larger cavalry, about 10,000 from Numidia, Gaul, and Spain, but only 40,000 infantry made up of Celts, Spaniards, Libyans, and Carthaginians. He split his force into three groups. A thin line faced the Romans across the river, while most of his cavalry were positioned left and right.
In the early morning, the worst fighting took place on the left flank, where Hannibal’s Spanish and Celtic cavalry dismounted and forced the Romans into hand-to-hand fighting. As the day wore on, Rome threw more legions against this force and pushed them back. The center of the Roman line, where most legionaries were positioned, forced their way across the river and broke through the Carthaginian lines.
Hannibal had anticipated the the frontal attack. The Romans were caught between groups of skilled Libyan fighters, armed heavily in spoils taken from previous battles with the legions. In addition, the wind blew dust directly at the Romans, blinding them.
Hannibal’s brothers Hasdrubal and Mago commanded different groups. While the Libyans pressed in on the Romans from left and right in a double enveloping maneuver, Hasdrubal led his men to attack the Romans from the rear. Paullus was killed in the fighting, along with many officers. Only 70 of the 6,000 cavalry escaped the slaughter with Varro. While Hannibal lost fewer than 6,000 men (most of them Celtic troops), 70,000 soldiers and allies of Rome died that day.
Before the battle, Paullus had left 8,000 troops to guard a distant camp. These troops were captured. A deputation was sent to Rome, but Rome refused to ransom the men. Instead, the senate passed a resolution saying that the army must “Conquer or Die!” The 8,000 men were sold into slavery by Hannibal.
In the wake of this terrible defeat, Fabius Maximus’s old policy of avoiding battle seemed, in retrospect, quite wise. The historian Polybius reported that most Romans gave up on the idea of supremacy in Italy and lived in fear that Hannibal would attack their city at any moment. He never did; without reinforcements from Carthage or Spain, Hannibal was unable to follow up on his victories and the Second Punic War dragged on for years.
Siege of Syracuse, 213 bce
The Greek city of Syracuse had retained its independence from Rome for years, but when Syracuse supported Carthage during the Second Punic War, Rome laid siege to the city in 213 bce . Although its defenses were designed by the great inventor Archimedes, Syracuse eventually fell.
Syracuse, a large Greek city on the southeast coast of the island of Sicily, warred with Carthage for centuries over territory on the island. From 270 through 215 bce , Syracuse flourished under the leadership of Hiero II, also called Hieron II. Hiero came to power by defeating the Mamartines in the Battle of Mylae. Like many rulers of Syracuse, Hiero was a tyrant. In those times the word simply meant a man who held the power of a dictator, usually with the support of his people.
Hiero allied with Rome during the First Punic War, although most of Sicily was under Carthaginian control until the Battle of Deprana. That naval battle ended the war in 241 bce and made Sicily a Roman province. When Hiero died during the Second Punic War and his position as tyrant passed to his grandson Hieronymus, the Carthaginian general Hannibal was invading Italy and defeating the Romans handily in battle after battle.
War with Rome
Hieronymus opened negotiations with Hannibal, but was assassinated by pro-Roman agents after one year as tyrant. Civil war erupted in Syracuse and after much bloodshed two brothers emerged as rulers: Hippocrates and Epicydes, of Carthaginian descent and sympathy. Alarmed, Rome sent Appius Claudius Pulcher to command land forces, and Marcus Claudius Marcellus in charge of a naval fleet, to stop Syracuse from aiding Carthage.
Marcellus sailed with his fleet to the Sicilian city of Leontini, where Hieronymus had been killed. There, he captured Carthaginian sympathizers and beheaded some of them. Reports of great slaughter were carried to Syracuse ahead of Marcellus; whether the stories were true is not known. Marcellus prepared to lay siege to Syracuse. His sixty ships were manned with archers, slingers, and javelin throwers. Appius’s land troops carried ropes and ladders to scale the city walls. But their initial attacks failed, due to the ingenuity of Syracuse’s great inventor, Archimedes.
Rome Takes the City
The Romans had siege engines with wicker screens for protection and concealment, but were unable to deploy them against Archimedes’ defenses. After eight months of failure, Appius and Marcellus split their forces: some remained to blockade the city while others took to raiding the towns and countryside throughout Sicily. The Romans seemed neither able to breach the city walls nor to stop supplies from reaching the city, so the siege dragged on until luck finally turned in favor of the Romans. The Syracusans neglected their defenses during a festival dedicated to the goddess Artemis, which gave Rome the opportunity to conquer the city. The historian Livy says that Marcellus noticed a tower in which he could hide his troops during the celebrations.
Exact details have not survived about how Syracuse fell. Roman soldiers swept through the city, and several stories were told about how the aged Archimedes was killed. A popular version had him so absorbed in a mathematical problem that he did not notice his enemy about to strike. Marcellus took the small planetarium that Archimedes had built back to Rome as a trophy.
Conquest of Gaul, 58–50 bce
Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul altered the map of Europe and brought power and wealth to Rome from both slaves and loot. The conquest also enriched Caesar himself and established him as a successful military leader. His exploits in Gaul (which covered the areas we now call France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and part of Germany) set the stage for Roman civil war and the development of the Roman Empire.
A Brief History of Gaul and Rome
Rome considered the Celtic tribes of Europe its enemies, at least since 390 bce , when a force led by the Celtic warrior Brennus sacked and occupied Rome itself. Celts fought Romans during the Punic Wars, and afterward Rome drove the Celts from the Italian peninsula. The Celts of Iberia (Spain) battled Rome throughout the second century bce and were eventually conquered. In 118 bce , Rome established a province, Cisalpine Gaul, in what is today northern Italy. The Celtic tribes of Gaul remained independent until the invasion of Julius Caesar and his legions.
Julius Caesar Begins the Conquest
Julius Caesar became proconsul of both Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul in 58 bce . From the beginning, Caesar meant to use this position to amass wealth, victories, and prestige, so he watched for opportunities. When the Helvetian tribe, with a population of 368,000, began a westward migration that skirted Roman territory, Caesar led six legions into Gaul to stop them. Allying with local tribes like the Aedui, he quickly defeated the Helvetians. He forced one-third of them back to their old territories; the other two-thirds were either killed or enslaved.
An assembly of Gallic leaders then asked Caesar to rid them of an invader named Ariovistus and his Suebi followers. The Romans pursued and defeated Ariovistus’s army. Rather than returning to Roman territory, Caesar quartered his legions in Gaul for the winter.
Conquest and Rebellion
In the following year, Caesar raised two more legions and marched to Gaul’s Belgic area, north of the Seine River. Confronted with forty thousand legionaries and twenty thousand auxiliary troops, most of the Belgic tribes surrendered to Caesar without fighting. The Nervii, however, battled fiercely and Caesar admitted that victory “rested on a knife-edge.” Although the Nervii fought until only five hundred of their sixty thousand warriors remained alive, Rome was victorious in the end. In 56 bce , Caesar turned his attention to the west, defeating the seagoing Veneti tribe with his own navy and subduing much of Aquitaine (what is now southwestern France).
Roman armies traveled as far north as the Netherlands in 55 bce and battled German tribes. The legions built a bridge across the Rhine, burned and terrorized the Sugambri for two weeks, then crossed back into Gaul and tore down the bridge. Towards the end of the campaign season, having learned that British allies were reinforcing the warriors of Gaul, Caesar sailed with two legions to Britain, but soon returned. In 54 bce , he again crossed the English Channel, this time with five legions, and established treaties with several tribes.
The legions returned and settled into winter quarters in Gaul, but food shortages in the Belgic region increased resentment towards Rome. A Celtic force under Ambiorix ambushed and massacred five cohorts—most of Caesar’s Fourteenth Legion. Other tribes attacked a Roman camp, and only a quickly assembled rescue mission led by Caesar lifted the siege and stopped the rebellion from spreading further.
Following yet another year of fighting in the north of Gaul and across the Rhine, Caesar faced his most formidable foreign opponent in Vercingetorix, an Arverni chieftain who was able to unite many of Gaul’s tribes against Rome. Caesar claimed that Vercingetorix used torture and death threats to control his warriors and portrayed Vercingetorix as a leader of vagabonds. Vercingetorix, however, proved himself a skilled warrior and commander.
Caesar learned of Vercingetorix and his confederacy during the winter, while cut off from the legions. He crossed snow-covered mountains with allies and troops from Cisalpine Gaul to get to Vercingetorix’s own territory. While Vercingetorix attacked Caesar’s Celtic allies, Caesar summoned his legions from their winter camps and attacked the towns of Vercingetorix’s allies. Roman troops burned and sacked Cenabum (today’s Orleans), a trading town of the Carnutes, before drawing the rebel forces out to engage him. Rome won that fight, so Vercingetorix changed his strategy.
The Gauls decided to burn their towns to deprive the legions of food and supplies. In Bituriges territory, only Avaricum (Bourges) was spared because it was believed to be impregnable. With his army suffering from hunger, Caesar laid siege to Avaricum, building earthworks and two large towers. After many weeks, Caesar took Avaricum and killed nearly forty thousand men, women, and children.
The struggle moved to Gergovia, where Caesar failed to oust Vercingetorix from his home fortress. Rome suffered a blow when its former allies, the Aedui, joined the Gallic rebellion as well. Caesar requisitioned thousands more troops from Cisalpine Gaul as well as cavalry and infantry from Germany. A disastrous cavalry loss caused the Gauls to withdraw to Alesia where a final siege took place.
Caesar surrounded Alesia with eight camps and built up massive fortifications. Vercingetorix sent for reinforcements, and an intertribal army of up to 250,000 men arrived to batter the Roman positions from the outside. Roman men and siege works held out, though, and starvation forced the eventual surrender of Vercingetorix.
Rebellions and uprisings in Gaul continued through the next winter, and Caesar attacked the Bituriges, the Carnutes, and the Belgic tribes. Only in 50 bce did Caesar return to Cisalpine Gaul and eventually to Rome. The Greek historian Plutarch estimated that Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul killed a million people and enslaved another million.
Conquest of Britain, 43–138 ce
Since the time of Julius Caesar, Britain had been a tributary of Rome—paying so much into the imperial coffers, in fact, that Rome judged it made no economic sense to take over the region, since it would make less in taxes than in tribute. In 43 ce , however, Rome changed its mind and invaded. Once Rome forced Britain into the Empire, the island became the westernmost outpost of Roman rule. In three and a half centuries of occupation, Britain’s original Celtic tribal leadership was effectively destroyed, and its culture dramatically changed.
Background and Initial Invasion
Julius Caesar made two forays into Britain, resulting not in conquest, but in expanded contact and trade with the Celtic tribes that lived there. Roman legions did not return to the island to conquer it until the Emperor Claudius’s reign, almost one hundred years later. Claudius, who was not a popular choice for emperor, needed a military victory to support and validate his authority.
In 43 ce , Claudius sent a large fleet which landed in what is now Kent and took the tribes in the area by surprise. Claudius then sailed to Britain himself, so that he would be in command as his armies captured Colchester (then called Camulodunum). This earned him a celebratory triumph in Rome and the prestige he sought. The actual warfare was left in the capable hands of General Aulus Plautius and his forty thousand troops.
Conquest and Accommodation
General Vespasian, who later became Emperor, led a legion through the south, while other commanders fought in the east and the Midlands. Within ten years, the Romans had effective control of most of south Britain, except for Wales in the west. In some cases, Rome accepted tribute from powerful tribal rulers and allowed those chieftains independence. This freed the Roman military leaders to concentrate their forces in the west, where they faced fierce resistance.
The Conquest in the North
In 78 ce , Vespasian, now Emperor of Rome, appointed an able administrator named Agricola as governor of Britain. Agricola finally subdued Wales, introduced reforms, and pushed Roman control to its furthest point north, into Scotland. There, he defeated the Caledonian tribe decisively in 84 ce at the Battle of Mons Graupius.
Forty years later, Emperor Hadrian built the stone and turf wall across Scotland that bears his name today, marking the Roman Empire’s northern boundary just south of territory controlled by the Pictish tribes. Hadrian’s Wall once stretched 73 miles and included 158 towers, 16 forts, and 80 gated milecastles (small forts). In 138 ce , Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, pushed 80 miles further north and began the Antonine Wall. The extended border could not be held, though. When Hadrian’s Wall was constructed, approximately fifty thousand Roman soldiers were in Britain, but the empire could not afford to maintain the number. By 180 ce , the Romans were pushed back to Hadrian’s Wall, which remained the border until the fourth century ce .
The End of the Occupation
Like other Roman provinces, most of Britain became Romanized over the years, and as the empire declined, so did its provinces. Possibly as few as four thousand Roman troops remained in Britain by the end of the fourth century. Information is sparse, but by 410 ce , Roman officials in Britain knew they were responsible for their own security. Tribal conflicts consumed the island, with German tribes invading while Romans either fled or joined Celtic forces to hold on to their lands.
Dacian Campaigns, 101–106 ce
The Dacian Campaign was a series of wars waged by the Roman Emperor Trajan that pushed across the Danube River into modern-day Romania. Roman victory turned Dacia into a Roman province and brought tremendous wealth to the Empire.
Background of the Dacian Wars
The Roman Empire in 101 ce extended to the Danube River, which runs from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea. The rich Dacian kingdom counted the Black Sea as its eastern boundary. Dacia extended south into modern Bulgaria and west across the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary, an area then called Pannonia. Fighting and raids between Rome and Dacia had gone on for years.
The Emperor Domitian had defeated the Dacians and entered into a peace treaty with them in 89 ce , making the Dacian king Decebalus a client of Rome. The peace was an uneasy one, however; the Dacians continued to raid in Roman territory.
The First Campaign
Trajan became emperor in 98 ce . His background was in the military, having served in Syria and as governor of Lower Germany. Trajan studied the problem of supplying a large army and made careful plans before starting his war against Dacia. Not much information exists about how and why the war started, though clearly Dacia was perceived as a threat to Rome. Dacia also made an attractive target because of its gold and silver mines.
Trajan employed the services of Apollodorus of Damascus, a brilliant engineer. Apollodorus designed and built a bridge to cross the Danube and completed roadworks begun a century before. Trajan led his legions in person as they crossed the Danube into Dacia.
The Second Battle of Tapae
In 101 ce , Trajan’s army of fourteen legions defeated the Dacians under King Decebalus at Tapae. Few details are known, but the victory had a symbolic aspect. Fourteen years earlier, an entire legion under the command of Cornelius Fuscus had been wiped out by a Dacian army at the same spot.
After this victory, Trajan decided to wait until the following spring to press further. Decebalus led a coalition of tribes to cross the frozen Danube and raid Roman territory to the south, but the ice gave way under the weight of the army. Rome and Dacia fought two more battles that winter, including the Battle of Adamclisi. Rome claimed victory, but losses on both sides were heavy.
A Temporary Peace
Trajan left Decebalus in power after the Battle of Adamclisi, which leads some historians to wonder just how decisive Rome’s victory had been. Border raids and incursions on Roman territory continued. By 105 ce , Emperor Trajan decided to wage a war of total conquest against the Dacians.
The Second Dacian Campaign
Apollodorus designed another bridge to cross the Danube. This stone bridge spanned more than 3,600 feet and stood for a thousand years. Its entrances are still visible on the riverbanks. He also designed a twelve-mile cantilevered supply route, carved into the Carpathians, to ensure supplies for the Roman legions. By the next summer, the legions were besieging Sarmizegethusa, the Dacian capital. They forced its downfall by destroying the water pipes that supplied the city’s water. The Romans then burned Sarmizegethusa.
An informant told the Romans that the gold of Decebalus’s treasury had been hidden in the River Sargesia. Tons of gold and silver were found and confiscated by Rome. Trajan’s camp, called Porolissum, guarded the main passage through the Carpathian mountains. There, Rome and the Dacians met one last time. The result was Roman victory in 106 ce .
The Dacian kingdom became a Roman province and today carries the name Romania. Roman legionaries settled there; the Dacian capital Sarmizegethusa was rebuilt and named Ulpia Traiana—today it is called Varhely. A huge memorial column was built in Rome and carved with detailed scenes of the Dacian Campaign, but no text.
A Final Discovery
On Trajan’s Column, one carving shows Decebalus committing suicide as a Roman soldier rides forward to stop him. In 1965, the tombstone of a Roman soldier named Tiberius Claudius Maximus was discovered in Greece. The entire career of this cavalry officer was described on the tombstone, including the line, “I captured Decebalus.” Tiberius Claudius Maximus may well have been the soldier depicted on Trajan’s Column.
Key Elements of Warcraft
The Professional Army
The Legions of the Republic
The Roman army, like most armies of its day, started out as a citizen militia with men enlisting for short campaigns, expecting to serve no more than one year. Soldiers had to be citizens, meaning men of property, and they provided their own arms. Even during the Punic Wars, when troops were paid for the first time, the army of Rome was still a militia.
The standard legionary unit before 100 bce was the century. It may have originally been one hundred men, which would explain the name. In all recorded instances, though, a century was made up of sixty to eighty men. Two centuries made up a maniple, and thirty maniples made one legion. The first cohort of any legion (a cohort is three maniples) included the most experienced and skilled fighters. Tribunes, the high-ranking officers of the legion, were usually political appointees and members of the nobility.
Conquest Changes the Army
As the Roman Republic grew, so did its need for armed men who could serve for longer stretches of time. During the third and second centuries b.c.e , economic changes meant fewer men of property were available to fill military needs. While no one is sure exactly when Rome’s army became “professional,” Gaius Marius is usually credited with reforming the army and turning it into the legionary forces that became the backbone of Roman conquest and control.
By allowing landless men to enter the military, Marius created a “client army.” Generals became responsible for acquiring land to distribute to their soldiers. The unforeseen (at least by Marius) consequence of this was that soldiers owed their loyalty now to their general, rather than to Rome. In addition, these new soldiers fought to earn their pay, rather than to protect their homes.
Marius may not have been responsible for all the changes the army underwent at this time. The eagle, or aquila in Latin, became the standard for all of the legions. One writer says gladiatorial instructors (gladiators were fighters who engaged in combat for public entertainment) were used to teach the recruits to fight. Another major change was that the standard unit of men became the cohort, rather than the maniple. A cohort consisted of three maniples, and there were ten cohorts in a legion. A maniple was made up of two centuries, or about 160 men. A legion, then, was 4,800 men (160 times 3 maniples times 10 cohorts).
Each century, led by a centurion, was further divided into contubernia of eight men who shared a tent together. Another reform was that all soldiers carried their own baggage and cooked their own meals. This made the army more mobile. The legionary soldiers were called “Marius’s Mules.” By Julius Caesar’s time, legionaries customarily served for twenty years or sixteen campaigns.
The Imperial Army and its Equipment
Besides the legions, the Roman Empire’s army included auxiliaries. These were foreign troops, consisting of allies who were not Roman citizens. Usually, they carried light-arms, such as bows, slings, and javelins. Often an army had as many auxiliaries as legionaries. A small portion of both the legions and auxiliaries were comprised of mounted cavalry.
Equipment became standardized after Marius’ time. Legionaries wore armor to protect their chest and back—either chainmail, metal scales, or metal bands. Helmets, greaves, and a leather skirt completed the protection. Each legionary carried a heavy curved shield made of wood and covered with leather and metal. Swords and javelins were of regulation length.
The Army on the Move
The necessity of moving and feeding a force of several thousand men through forests and fields made for difficult logistics. As Rome’s wars were carried out on the frontier, the army foraged for food or demanded supplies from the local populace—demands that could leave a region to starve during the winter.
At night, the army’s camp was surrounded by wide ditches, palisades, and towers. Often a camp was abandoned after one night, and fifteen miles further along the road, another camp was built for the next night. Written accounts survive about the efficiency with which a Roman camp was erected. Every man knew his job, and the tents and fortifications went up in just a couple of hours.
Reforms of Augustus
As Augustus became emperor and the Roman Republic transformed into an empire, the Roman legions changed too. They became a standing army, readied for defense and peacekeeping as well as conquest. Legions were posted to border areas and provinces on a permanent basis. Augustus set up a military treasury to distribute both the pay and retirement funds to legionaries. Augustus also began the practice of awarding Roman citizenship to auxiliaries who served for twenty-five years.
Impact on World History
The conquests of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire tied together much of Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa with a common language, law code, and shared customs. This shared Roman influence laid the groundwork for Western civilization as it is today.
A Culture of Administration
Rome’s constant militarism and conquests were unique. While vast empires such as Alexander the Great’s collapsed or fragmented after the death of a strong leader, Rome held its far-flung provinces together for many generations. It did so by building up a strong but flexible governing structure, and by creating transportation and administrative networks. These permitted Rome and its provinces to live in relative security.
Rome combined its military achievements and conquests, professional army, and political organization into a culture that prized law, order, and administration. Unlike other conquering powers, Rome achieved peace after conquest by imposing order and sharing citizenship. This served as the foundation for future civilizations and states, many of whom who looked back to Rome as an example of a strong, benevolent, and productive world power.
Arts, Architecture, Science, and Religion
Rome modeled many of its artistic and societal norms on those of Greece. Greek architectural forms, deities, philosophy, and politics were all adopted and adapted by Rome. In Rome, artistic achievement was appreciated and could be shared through a vast network of commerce and exchange. Again, Greek ideals of beauty predominated. Once standards of aesthetics and intellectual concepts were accepted by the ruling elite in Rome, the entire Empire embraced and imitated them. After the conquest of Gaul, for example, towns with Roman baths, stone aqueducts, and forums sprang up throughout Gaul (modern France). Statuary became Romanized and less abstract. The same process of “Romanization” took place in most Roman provinces.
Customs and Law
The changes were not entirely aesthetic. Writing became the mode of communication in formerly illiterate lands. Women lost legal standing in the few places where they had enjoyed it. Roman virtues and habits often supplanted indigenous customs. Those who wished to prosper learned Latin, and that language endured as the language of commerce and politics for well over a thousand years and eventually developed into such modern languages as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
Maintaining an empire of conquered peoples required constant refinement and codification of the law. A process had been in place since before Punic Wars that modified Roman laws so that new territories and citizens could become part of the empire. Roman law, which would continue to be modified through Emperor Justinian’s reign in the sixth century ce , became the basis of legal systems throughout western Europe.
As a republic, and later as an empire, Rome created a stable and protected society in which its institutions could grow and develop. While the authority of the state could be repressive and cruel, there can be no doubt that the relative stability of the Roman Empire allowed art, literature, and libraries to flourish in areas that, before and after the Roman Empire, were plagued by tribal warfare.
Assimilation had its brutal side as well. In Judaea, where religious leaders resisted Roman rule, Rome responded to revolt with the total destruction of the Jewish temple. In other areas, rich cultures that had lasted centuries simply disappeared with their languages, art, beliefs, and homes, to be supplanted by the stone structures and Latin inscriptions favored by their conquerors.
Dillon, Matthew, and Lynda Garland. Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2005.
Julius Caesar. The Gallic War, translated by Carolyn Hammond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Polybius. The Histories. Internet Public History Sourcebook. <(accessed March 22, 2007).