Communication, Transportation, and Exploration: Overview

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

264-476: Communication, Transportation, and Exploration: Overview

Agricultural Foundations. From its very beginnings in prehistory, Rome was a place of travelers and transients. Long before the city acquired its empire, it was a collection of small, independent, hilltop settlements situated around a river crossing about sixteen miles inland from the sea. An island and a broad marsh broke up the current of the Tiber River and made it relatively easy for farmers, herdsmen, and merchants to traverse there; it became a crossroads for those traveling either along the east-west route of the river or along the north-south axis. An early road, the Via salaria (Salt Road), which followed the course of the river, provided access to the precious commodity found at the mouth of the river, and an agricultural marketplace emerged that served several distinct tribes of central Italy: the Etruscans, Sabines, and Latins. Archaeological evidence suggests that individual outposts at the site, over time, grew together and merged—a phenomenon called Synoecism. The result was a single city, with agricultural origins, composed of differentethnic groups and located, like a bull’s-eye, in the center of several distinct tribal regions. Archaeologists estimate that the unified city emerged around the middle of the seventh century b.c.e.

Mythology. Legends concerning the foundation of the city place its origins about one hundred years earlier, in 753 b.c.e. ; nonetheless, they reflect the same kind of cultural blending that is attested by archaeological evidence. In Roman historical myths one finds a multinational character for the early society of the city hidden underneath the obvious attributes of literary epic, such as the divine lineage of the first king, Romulus, and his miraculous rescue from exposure by a kindly she-wolf. As the story goes, in order to populate his fledgling city, Romulus, who was from Latium, accepted renegades and bandits from all over Italy, and then, in order to fill out the lopsided male population, kidnapped the women of the neighboring Sabines. When the Sabine king came to the rescue of the stolen women, Romulus negotiated a system of shared rule between them, and for the next few generations of mythical kings, the ethnic identities of the monarchs seesawed between Latin and Sabine. Etruscan kings also appeared later. The picture of early Roman society provided by myths and legends, in keeping with the material remains of archaeology, is one of intense cultural mélange and inclusiveness.

Language. Linguistic evidence also betrays the multiethnic origins of Rome. The many languages of the early hilltop communities and tribes must have posed initial challenges for communication. The Etruscan language, which has yet to be fully understood by modern scholars, does not belong to the same linguistic family as the other Italian dialects that were also spoken in and around the Tiber. Nevertheless, Etruscan loan words exist in Latin, in much the same way as some French and Spanish words have become standard in English. Several examples have to do with writing: litterae, the Latin word for letters, and stylus, a type of writing instrument, derive from Etruscan. Some Sabine words also worked their way into Latin: bos for cow and Scrofa for sow. The evidence of language thus suggests not only the close habitation of disparate groups, but also extensive interaction and even acceptance during the period of the Roman monarchy. Bilingualism, with all its attendant understandings and shared experiences between two cultures, must have been common, though Latin ultimately became the dominant tongue.

“Justified” Warfare. Most of what is known about Roman travel and communication following the period of the monarchy comes in the arena of warfare and military activity. Sources become more numerous and more reliable after the foundation of the Republic in 509 b.c.e., when Rome survived a political revolution and a series of wars against Etruscan opponents. After their territory was secure, the Romans began to look beyond their borders to the rest of the central Italian peninsula; through nearly constant warfare, their territory grew. Expansion into non-Roman land, however, required a just cause and consultation with the Roman gods. In early Rome, special priests called fetiales (singular, fetial), were responsible for carrying out religious rites of diplomacy in the declaration and conduct of wars. When Roman honor had been challenged, the priest would go to the enemy state and ask for retribution; if he received no response after thirty-three days, he approached the border between the two territories and hurled a spear across, ceremonially marking the start of the war. The gods also played a role in the aftermath of war. In a famous episode following a defeat of the Etruscans in 396 b.c.e., a boy asked the patron goddess of the city if she wanted to come to Rome, and the statue reportedly nodded yes (Livy, 5.22.5). She was then carried to Rome and given a new temple—the growth of the city included the absorption of foreign religions, and according to the Roman etiquette of diplomacy, it had to have the approval of the gods, both old and new.

Conquest and Incorporation. The status and treatment of the defeated depended on their behavior during the war. Roman responses to their enemies ranged from harsh enslavement, or even capital penalties, to benign incorporation of the conquered. In terms of the former, those who had fought the Romans tooth and nail, once they surrendered, were labeled as dediticii, meaning that they were entirely offered up to the Roman will, losing all measure of local autonomy. For the communities that surrendered with less of a fight, the Romans were willing to make extensive concessions in areas of local government and daily life. They conferred upon certain communities the so-called Latin rights, which meant that they could trade and intermarry with Romans, but did not, initially, hold the right to vote. Once Rome granted them suffrage, they could run for magistracies. The Romans also sent out new settlements, called “Latin colonies,” which were autonomous, but closely allied with Rome. In the course of the fourth century b.c.e., the Roman sphere of influence spread to include all of central Italy, most notably, the territory of the Samnites; part of the explanation for the success of Rome belongs to this system of alliances and shared rule.

Romans in Italy. As more and more Italians beyond the city of Rome gained privileges within the Republic, there arose a greater need to travel to and from the capital city. People might have to cover great distances to cast a vote, visit new in-laws, engage in trade, or participate in military endeavors. At the end of the fourth century the first great Roman road was constructed under the leadership of Appius Claudius. The Via Appia covered 132 miles from Rome southward into Samnite territory; it was later extended to Brundisium on the eastern coast for a total of 366 miles. At first, the surface was gravel; in the third century, broad, flat paving stones made the surface smoother. The Via Appia was the first of many high-quality, paved roads that facilitated the critical communications between the central Roman authority and the peripheral allies. By the end of the second century b.c.e., a web of Roman roads held Italy together.

Romans Overseas. The record of international relations in the early Republic shows that the Romans kept abreast of the Mediterranean world beyond their Italian sphere of influence. They traded with the Greeks who had settled in southern Italy, Sicily, and southern France, as well as with the Gauls to their north. They formed diplomatic agreements with Carthage, the great naval power on the northern coast of Africa. Despite these increased ties overseas, the Romans had yet to develop a strong navy, and they suffered as a result. It was not until the First Punic War (264-241 b.c.e.) that the Romans became experts in seafaring. In the course of that twenty-year struggle with Carthage, they managed to capture and copy an enemy vessel and quickly fitted out their first permanent navy. When a band of pirates, allegedly at the command of the Illyrian queen Teuta, attacked Roman ambassadors and harried the Roman coastline shortly thereafter in 229 b.c.e., the Romans were able to respond swiftly.

Provinces. The First Punic War also yielded an innovation in the management of the defeated: the use of the provincia (province) rather than the colony or the grant of Latin rights. Once Rome won the islands of Sicily and Sardinia from Carthage, they were in need of a means of control that was more efficient than their Italian network. In response to this challenge, they overruled local control by installing permanent Roman institutions of administration. Romans who had already completed terms as high-ranking officials within the city became governors abroad and were put in charge of a battery of soldiers, scribes, judges, and engineers. Individual cities within a province might still retain nominal freedom, and the native aristocracy still retained their prestige and position, but they were increasingly encouraged to “become Roman” themselves. Citizenship was granted to select provincials in a piecemeal way. Soon a confusing array of social statuses, each with unique rights and privileges in Roman law, applied to residents of the Roman territories: Roman citizens, Italian allies, and varying ranks of provincial natives. An intricate bureaucracy was necessary to maintain order; a steady traffic in letters, edicts, and other sorts of correspondence began to move throughout the new empire.

Hannibal. The logistics of communication, recruitment, and troop deployment were determining factors in the outcome of the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.). In their second war with Carthage, the Romans experienced an innovative assault by Hannibal, who decided, rather than sailing to the Italian peninsula, to embark on an overland march through Spain, southern France, the southern Alps, and down into Italy. His journey, recorded in Livy, reveals much of the dangers and risks of travel. It was an exceedingly slow process, subject to natural disasters—storms, blizzards, and strong winds—and was complicated by an imperfect knowledge of local geography. Once Hannibal was in Italy, his plan was to convince the Italian allies to abandon Rome and to fight for him. Most, as a result of generations of incorporation and communication within Italy, felt their interests were inextricably interwoven with those of Rome; only a few defected to Hannibal’s side. When Hannibal did not receive the support he had counted on, the great size of his army quickly became a detriment; it had to keep always on the move in search of food and supplies to sustain itself. An army in ancient Rome operated without the benefit of a map or reliable intelligence; mass movement was always something of a gamble.

The Hellenistic Mediterranean. With the success of the Second Punic War and the acquisition of new provinces in Africa and Spain, the Romans, irreversibly, became members of an international community. They next came into contact with the great Hellenistic kingdoms in the East: the remnants of the conquests of Alexander the Great in Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. Complex games of diplomacy, as well as several violent wars, involved a frequent practice following the signing of treaties during the first half of the second century b.c.e. : as part of their diplomatic negotiations, the Romans would demand possession of adolescent or preadolescent royal heirs as hostages. The role of the hostages differed from that of the modern world in that their safety was never threatened; they were never used to coerce certain behavior from the defeated. Rather, their value was in their potential to learn a Roman way of life and to take it with them when they returned home following their period of detention. Hostages, with their non-Roman languages and customs, were highly visible in the city, and though the intent may have been to introduce Rome to them, they also had the effect of exposing the Romans to others. They could be a source of intelligence for Roman tacticians as well as “teachers” of non-Roman cultures to Roman “students.” The hundreds of hostages taken from all over the Mediterranean—from Macedonia, Sparta, Syria, Egypt, Spain, and other countries—were instrumental in the creation of a multicultural empire.

Philhellenism. A hostage’s first view of Roman citizens, and vice versa, typically came as part of a triumphal procession, when victorious generals paraded through the city streets with all the loot they had brought back from their campaigns. Works of art, piles of precious metals, posters of exotic locales, and throngs of prisoners of war, in addition to the hostages, were marched through the forum, broadcasting the glory of Rome to all spectators. Most Romans would never have seen Greece, Egypt, or Syria, and the images of the defeated lands would have been their only source of information about new Roman gains. The festivals became ever more elaborate and ostentatious, until the influx of Greek art and educated hostages and prisoners of war brought about in Rome a fascination for the cosmopolitan world of the East. As Romans increasingly traveled throughout the Greek world, they became enamored of Hellenistic history and the artistic and scientific accomplishments of the Greeks. Greek writers introduced the Romans to new genres of expression, as epic poetry, dramatic comedy, and annalistic history became popular in literary circles. The historian Polybius, who was taken as a hostage to Rome after the battle of Pydna in 168 b.c.e., boasted that he had become a tutor to his captor’s sons, who were eager to learn about Greek culture. In the end, it became both necessary and fashionable to speak Greek, and many Romans at the upper echelons of society took pride in their bilingualism. Horace, observing the phenomenon from a later period, remarked that Greece, though captured, had itself captured Rome.

Service Abroad. Escalating military campaigns exposed more and more Romans to the thrill—and danger—of travel and exploration in foreign lands. The triumphal processions that wove through the streets of Rome heaped great honors upon the handful of aristocratic families that controlled the generalships. The triumphator held a quasidivine status: he wore the purple of a king and was permitted to sit enthroned in the temple of Jupiter. Adding a new kingdom to the Roman empire became a virtue, and the political and financial value of provincial commands made service abroad an absolute necessity for any ambitious politician. Generals took huge armies to the frontier to fuel further expansion; these armies might remain overseas for years. Thousands of Roman soldiers were thus exposed to a world away from home on a scale that was unrivaled in the ancient world for their tenure of service and breadth of travel. In the late second century b.c.e., the consul Marius reformed the army in order to admit soldiers from the lowest ranks of society, who had previously been unable to serve. Romans from all classes were leaving Italy in huge numbers. Constant military activity changed the course of Roman social history and was instrumental in making the Roman world one of close overseas ties, with territorial borders diminishing in significance. There was a sharp increase in foreign trade, and Roman merchants could be found crisscrossing the Mediterranean Sea. Julius Caesar gave the citizenship to entire communities in Gaul, where large numbers of Roman veterans and merchants had settled, in return for their support of his causes. Roman soldiers who were permanently stationed abroad might marry into the local population, although such unions were not recognized in Roman law, and their children did not have, at first, the right of Roman citizenship.

Corruption and Civil War. Aristocrats began to compete viciously in their conquests, which were the keys to political success. Rivals secured nontraditional military commands in order to keep their armies employed on their side. Marius held multiple consulships in a row, ignoring the rule that a decade had to elapse between offices; Sulla acquired a command in the East by marching on Rome and forcing the senate to give it to him. In the next generation, the popularity of both Pompey and Julius Caesar depended on their conquests of non-Romans. The Roman people were ever hungrier for spectacle and for the display of the unknown, proof of their destiny to rule. So much wealth and power was caught up in the Roman provinces that corruption was perhaps inevitable. Some Roman provinces might be overtaxed to the point of exhaustion by their governors, as Sicily was by Verres in 73-71 b.c.e. To express their dissatisfaction, indigenous peoples might take aim at highly visible Roman populations of merchants, soldiers, and the like. Roman settlers in North Africa, for example, were butchered by supporters of the local king, Jugurtha, when war erupted with Rome.

Correspondence. In the midst of the civil conflict, missives of various sorts were sent back and forth, reporting late-breaking news of alliances and betrayals. Caesar, from his command in Gaul, wrote commentaries describing his conquest and, to add the element of the exotic, reported on the new cultures and religions he encountered. These letters were designed with a public readership in mind, similar to a modern public-relations campaign. Thousands of letters of Cicero survive from the turbulent period of the late Republic; a principal topic of these communications is the unfolding political maneuvering of his associates. He also wrote of the state of his meager military campaigns while he was in his province, Cilicia, and after he was exiled to Macedonia he sought forgiveness from the Senate and the Roman people by means of publicized written correspondence. Cicero’s letters also preserve, amid his political commentaries, aspects of his private life at home and with his friends; his correspondence with his wife and brother, and with his close confidant, Atticus, provide readers with a glimpse of his life away from the public eye.

Augustus. The constant civil war that had raged for nearly a century was brought to a close when Octavian defeated his rivals for power, Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He appears to have immediately recognized the difficulties inherent in controlling such a broad and far-flung empire. Without maps or reliable documentary evidence to describe the reality of Roman rule abroad, he was at a disadvantage, and accordingly, he set out to examine the provinces first-hand. He spent years after his victory at Actium circumnavigating the empire, lingering for a time in the particularly vexing trouble spots. Lest any political rivals try to challenge him again, Octavian, soon to be renamed Augustus, needed to impress upon his subjects that he had achieved great military victories. His public image relied heavily on fostering in the Roman populace a warped sense of what the world was like beyond Rome. The official record of his travels, propagated in a variety of media, presented him as a great and perpetual triumphator, even when his accomplishments against foreign enemies had included only a diplomatic agreement. One of his trusted generals, Agrippa, set up a public map for all Romans, for the first time, to track the growth of their domain; on his own public monument, the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), the emperor portrayed children from the East and from the West taking part in a procession of the royal family and Roman senators.

Discoveries and Disasters. Augustan art seemed to fan the fire for exploration of the unknown, and there developed in his regime a fascination for the exotic. Writers in the period published theories of what lay over the horizon, and ethnography became a salient feature of literature. Authors such as Strabo, writing under Augustus, and Pomponius Mela, writing under Claudius, described what the outer world was like, or at least what they thought the outer world was like. Mela described a race of people whose faces were down below their shoulders, and Strabo wrote of a land that had flying scorpions, enormous tarantulas, and three-foot-long lizards. Ethnographies such as these typically privileged the Romans themselves as superior and civilized. Despite their claims to understand remote civilizations, imperfect knowledge was, in fact, the rule, and ignorance of reality could lead to serious problems. Believing that German tribes had been pacified, and that the distance from the Rhine to the northern European coast was shorter than it was, Quintilius Varus took his army northward in 9 C.E. The locals were not at all ready to submit; the distance to be covered was not as short as he had thought; and he walked into a trap. Thousands of soldiers were killed because of the error.

Propaganda. Losses of this magnitude made deep cuts into an emperor’s prestige. Success over the unfamiliar was a hallmark of rule, and without it an emperor could be on shaky ground. Playing upon the fascination with the unusual, emperors would stop short of explorative campaigns, yet communicate to the people that they had continued. Instead of conquering Britain, Caligula, the third emperor and the great-grandson of Augustus, collected seashells from the English Channel to show the folks back home in a triumph, passing them off as loot that was legitimately seized by force of arms. He also dressed up prisoners of war as hostages in order to suggest that these victories might provide an investment in future generations. Nero compelled an Armenian king, Tiridates, to travel to Rome to receive his crown, so that the world would know that he could make or break a foreign regime—never mind that he exercised little true control over Tiridates thereafter. Representation of conquest through false communications and fanciful reports of exploration were as important as reality.

Client Kingdoms. Although alliances that were struck with nonprovincial kingdoms on the Roman frontier may have been depicted, misleadingly, as military feats, they still held a strong geopolitical significance. The Romans continued to lend support to Roman-friendly regimes and to back resistance movements against their enemies. The result was a network of client kingdoms, whose monarchs owed informal, but powerful, obligations to the Romans; in some cases, they became more reliably Roman than formal provinces. Juba II, a former hostage from Numidia in North Africa, was made king of Mauretania and was a loyal vassal to Augustus throughout his nearly fifty-year reign. Several sons of Herod the Great, while ruling Judaea, were beholden to the imperial throne because of the favors granted their father and because they were protected from their domestic rivals by Roman intimidation. The Romans tried several times in the first century C.E. to install client-kingdoms in Parthia, further East, but had less success.

Infrastructure. Trajan revived the moribund Roman army when he took the throne in 98 C.E. No longer relying on the rhetoric of conquest, he sought it out with deliberate intent. His conquest of Dacia faced many of the same logistical obstacles encountered by Hannibal in his overland route to Italy, but Trajan’s preparedness and wealth made his experience vastly different. Confronted with the raging current of the Danube, he had his engineer, Apollodorus, build a massive bridge in little time. He told his subjects back in Rome all about it on his column: a sculptured, narrative frieze that depicted the Dacian campaign spiraled up a massive trophy, standing in the bay between two libraries he had constructed. The empire reached its furthest extent under Trajan, and a period of relative stability ensued. Infrastructure throughout the empire improved at the behest of the emperors and local aristocrats, particularly during the reign of the well-traveled Hadrian, Trajan’s successor. New bridges and roads were built, along with aqueducts, which channeled water to cities and made drier areas habitable by larger numbers of people. For some projects, the emperors paid; for others, the expense was shared by indigenous grandees. Euergetism, or the voluntary contribution of funds by the wealthy for projects that benefited the people at large, was widespread; the public works sponsored by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Athenian of the second century, include an aqueduct in Troy, a covered theater on the south slope of the Acropolis in Athens, and a large fountain at Olympia.

The Concentration of Power. Political power became more concentrated in the person of the emperor; his orders radiated outward to the periphery like the spokes of a wheel. Communication through letters was of the essence in the success of this system. An imperial postal service conveyed messages quickly back and forth from the provinces, and imperial edicts were carved in stone and put up in public places for all to read. The emperor’s decisions had the force of law. A vast, international bureaucracy was in place, which was intended to keep the docket functioning smoothly. Records of an emperor’s daily routine mention that he typically rose early to work and spent a good amount of time hearing petitions or meeting with judicial advisers. The emperor personally certified dlplomata, which were permits or licenses guaranteeing an individual’s special rights and privileges, such as a soldier’s veteran status or an ambassador’s right to use certain imperial roads.

Internationalism. Tourism flourished in the empire, and the emperors themselves increasingly traveled for personal pleasure. Nero went to Greece to attend and participate in the Olympic Games; Hadrian toured the pyramids of Egypt. A travel writer, Pausanias, wrote a guide to Greece that suggested sight-seeing excursions and described the history of various landmarks. The Severan dynasty, which ruled from 193 to 235 C.E., is a vivid testimony of the ease of travel and the relaxing of the significance of territorial borders. The first emperor of the dynasty, Septimius Severus, was of North African descent; his wife, Julia Domna, was Syrian. Together they ruled from Italy, and Septimius raised their sons while on campaign in northern Europe. Multiethnic families such as these were common at every level of society, especially among the military, whose careers took them over great distances. The identity of “Roman” was changing; it came to have little to do with Italy proper. Caracalla, Septimius’s son and successor, formalized the trend in 212 C.E. when he granted citizenship to all free residents of the provinces.

The Devolution of Power. The Roman prosperity, which had lasted for so long, began to break down in the third century C.E. Smaller kingdoms sought to break free from the empire and become independent. Zenobia, queen of Palmyra in the East, ruled apart from Rome from 267 to 272 C.E.; Postumus, a Roman general in Gaul, established a separate kingdom at roughly the same time. They, and others like them, were eventually subdued, but not without great disruption in the general workings of imperial administration and the economy. One emperor, Diocletian, recognized that the empire was simply too large and too complex for power to rest in the hands of one man. In 293 he created a tetrarchy—a hierarchy of four separate rulers—whereby the empire was divided into four parts, each with its own “emperor” or “vice-emperor.” Diocletian, out to micromanage the empire back to solvency, redrew the boundaries of provinces and increased the size of government. His system was later overturned by Constantine, who reverted back to a system of one-man rule but retained the new provincial framework.

Fragmentation. Toward the end of the fourth century C.E., the Roman world gradually began to collapse under its own weight. Large non-Roman populations from the North were forced by their own difficulties—overpopulation, hunger, and invasion—to descend into Roman territories. At the battle of Adrianople in 378 C.E. they overwhelmed a Roman army that was sent to stop them; the emperor, Valens, was killed. Mass migrations continued apace thereafter; Goths, Vandals, Huns, and Franks crossed the Rhine and Danube Rivers in droves. In many cases they took up the preexisting Roman way of life: letters continued to be written, travelers continued to move from place to place, and Latin remained the dominant language. But the separate tribal identities of the European migrants persevered, and the empire was increasingly fragmented. Ever since its prehistory at the Tiber crossing, Rome had been an umbrella covering many different cultures and ethnicities; even after the empire broke into its constituent parts, the shadow still lingered.