Chapter 2: The rise of Ancient Rome and the early confrontation with the Greeks


2.1 The mythical foundation of Rome, blood of royals—and of scoundrels

Rome is one of the few cities with a precise birthday: April 21, 753 BC. It is reported in the Roman annals, which used to refer to it as the defining moment in time, ab urbe condita (since the foundation of Rome), before the beginning of the Christian era in the West, that then divided time into before and after the birth of Christ.

Nothing is certain about the ancient history of Rome and thus everything is open to question. There are no contemporary historical records left, and it is not clear whether this is because of a systematic later process of ideological construction or reconstruction of history, because of lack of alphabetization due to the very primitive nature of the early kingdom, or because of both[1]. However, it is still important to follow the original myth, as it casts a light of some of the features of the original Rome and the ideas Romans later had of themselves. The history on this period is recounted by ancient historians Livy, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

The most ancient part of Rome was founded at a strategic point of a ford of river Tiber, not far from the sea and possibly on the hill of Palatine, according to the myth.

The birth of Rome happened on the mythical day when Romulus traced the perimeter of the walls of Rome with an oxen-pulled plow, following a ritual practiced by the neighboring Etruscans. Yet the history of Rome begins before that. Romulus had a twin brother, Remus, and both were orphaned children of the god of war, Mars, and Rhea Silvia, daughter of the former king of Alba Longa, Numitor[2].

In fact, Numitor’s reign had been usurped by his brother, Amulius, who forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal, a priestess to the ancient goddess of fire, Vesta, and their task was to keep the holy fire always burning (the temple of Vesta is still existent in Rome today, and keeping the fire alive harks back to a very ancient time, tens of thousands of years ago when humans could not make fire at will). Vestals were supposed to remain virgins all their lives, but according to legend, she was actually raped by Mars and because of that she was kicked out of Alba Longa and her temple. Before following Silvia further, we need to go back to her ancestry. She came in fact from very noble stock[3]. Her father was a direct descendant of Ascanius who had founded Alba Longa in the 12th century BC. Ascanius was the son of Aeneas, the prince of Troy who after the destruction of the city by the Greeks fled across the Mediterranean, stopped in Carthage (as we saw), and eventually landed in central Italy. Here he fought the local population, the Rutuls, defeated them, carved for himself a little kingdom, and founded the city of Lavinium. After that Ascanius left Lavinium and founded Alba Longa.

There is scant historical evidence supporting this legend, although the modern piecemeal findings about Etruscan human and cattle DNA and their language point at a link with Asia Minor, where Troy was located. The point of the legend was to clearly establish a very royal bloodline at the beginning of Rome. In fact, it was the most illustrious of all, as the poem Iliad, written by Homer, was the most important literary work of the ancient times. Not only that, the legend points also at a righteous motive for the Romans, heirs of Troy (a city that in 13th century was at least many hundreds of years old), to move against the Greeks. The Greeks had sacked Troy centuries earlier, and conquering them was a form of vindication for the burning their ancient place. Last, but not least, the legend laid claim to Rome’s righteous role in Asia Minor and in the city of Constantinople (the second Rome, as we shall see), located just a few miles from the primeval site of Troy.

Still, nobility was only part of the Roman genes, another part was made of genes of scoundrels. Silvia (whose name “Rhea” also means “guilty”) gave birth to twin boys, Romulus and Remus. She had been sentenced to death by drowning, as a Vestal who had betrayed the virginity vow. The river took pity on her, the body reemerged, and the twins were born. They were put in a basket (as it happened in the story of Moses in Egypt) and were picked up and raised by a she-wolf (there are pictures and statues everywhere even now in Rome showing two babies suckling from a mother wolf). Then they were found and raised by a shepherd, Faustulus, and his wife. Some interpret the word “lupa” (she-wolf) as its other Latin meaning, “prostitute” (hence the word “lupanare” dwelling where prostitution takes place).

As if this was not enough for of wild upbringing, the two growing up set up some kind of gang of thieves. In one of the raids Remus was captured and brought to Amulius. Just as he was about to discover the truth about the young man, Romulus organized an attack that freed Remus, killed Amulius, and restored Numitor to his throne. The old man then granted the two the right to establish a new city, yet the two soon quarreled over this. They were to have they would have their own town, but after whom would it be named? The winner would be the one who could see more birds, another ritual of Etruscan tradition. Romulus won and thus plowed the perimeter of the city.

Remus was not content with it and jumped over the furrow (urvus, and from that comes the word urbs, city in Latin, and the English word “urban”). This action was highly sacrilegious, and as Etruscan religious practices claimed, it would cast a spell on the city: the walls had been breached by Remus’ jump and the city would fall. A guard left by Romulus then killed Remus. The legend says: Romulus cried, but in fact he did not blame the guard who followed the tenets of the old religion.

This episode is even more violent than the biblical killing of Abel by Cain, something that to the Jewish damned humanity forever to fratricidal war and strife. Romulus and Remus were not only brothers, they were twins, two sides of the same coin, and there is no innocence here like with Abel. Romulus de facto, with only the thinly veiled story of the guardian, killed Remus, but then Remus had tried to destroy Romulus (by acting profanely against him). In other words, Romans acknowledged their city had blasphemous, fratricidal genes since the beginning, but this was possibly not considered a mark of shame, rather it was something used to intimidate the enemies and recognize the deep reasons for the many internecine feuds and wars in Rome. Only later was the Christian tradition to change this cultural DNA.

There are two other interesting stories that belong to Romulus. There is the kidnapping of Sabine women and then his demise. Old Rome had only a few women so Romulus decided to kidnap those from the neighboring tribe of the Sabines. War ensued but then the Sabine women interceded with their old family, and the Romans and Sabinians lived together, to the point that a Sabine king, Titus Tatius, reigned in the city with Romulus, a clear limit to his own power and admission of the power of the Sabines in Rome.

Eventually, after 40 years of rule, Romulus was brought to heaven during a storm, almost like what happened later to the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, according to the biblical account. That is, later Romans made a god of him.

2.2 The early kings of Rome

The following six kings of Rome are divided in two phases. The first three kings were of Latin or Sabine origin until 616 BC, and the latter three of Etruscan origin until 509 BC. After that the monarchy fell.

The early kings of Rome were elected through a complex process[4]. There was passage through the Roman Assembly, the Comitia curiata set up in its original form by Romulus and made up of nobles (patricians, from pater familiarum, the heads of the important families). Later elections became more complex with clientes (minor people closely associated with one important family) and possibly also plebeians (lower people yet not slaves). Then there was the Senate, where the heads of the most important families would sit and a divination of Auspices, priests who would confirm the favor of the gods for the new king.

The first king after Romulus was Numa Pompilius, who didn’t come to the throne immediately after Romulus. For a certain period the Senate took over[5] and senators tried to set up an oligarchy ruled in turns for a period of 10 days each. The system proved ineffective and the people protested forcing the choice of the king who was to be Numa, of Sabine origin and son-in-law of Titus Tatius. This seems to indicate that despite oldest official records the Sabines had extended their power over Rome.

Numa allegedly ruled for 43 years until 673 BC and did not wage any war. He seems to be a legendary person. His name Numa (from nomos, norm) and Pompilius (from pompa, religious garb) indicates a figure who set up the religious norms[6] of Rome. He is said to have extended the religious traditions of Rome and instituted even the post of the Pontifex Maximus, the top priest. Numa in the beginning was the first Pontifex Maximus. He also set up the calendar of 12 months based on lunar phases for a total of 355 days. He then divided days into auspicious and inauspicious. It seems[7] that he did this by adding two months, January and February, to a calendar previously made of 10 months (the English words: September, October, November, December come from the original Latin seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months).

He promoted the cult of gods parallel to those of the Greek Olympus (Jupiter was the Roman version of Zeus) but also of older and original deities like that of Vesta, goddess of fire.

His heir, who reigned until 641 BC is of completely different character, Tullius Hostilius (from hostile, belligerent). Like Romulus he was elected among shepherds (Romulus as we saw despite his divine origin was raised by a shepherd). He waged war against other neighboring towns, Latin sister cities like Alba Longa and Sabines[8]. This latter war seems to indicate an effort by Rome to shake off the Sabine rule.

As for Alba Longa the war was decided in a “friendly” symbolic combat where three twins from each side fought each other: the Oratii for Rome and the Curiatii for Alba. The Oratii won and Rome extended its rule over its neighbor, which despite being the mother of Rome was razed to the ground and its population brought into Rome. No friendly combat was reserved to the Sabine city, whose defeated king was killed by two charts pulling him apart. A war against the Etruscan city of Veius was also recorded, a first military clash with the strong neighbor. Rome appeared to be testing its limits.

The Sabine rule however seems to have persisted as Ancus Marcius, who reigned until 616 BC, was the grandson of Numa Pompilius. He pushed against the Latins in south, founded Ostia, the harbor of Rome in the west, and built the first bridge on the Tiber. The neighboring defeated Latins were brought into Rome as slaves and he also established the plebeians, the low-class people of Rome, who did not belong to important families and yet were free men.[9] In a way, all of this seems to confirm the legendary figure of Ancus. As Numa set up the religious rules of Rome, Ancus set up the social organization of the city, which was to exist for many centuries in Western society. Slaves existed in the West basically until a century and half ago, and the idea of “plebeian,” people of lesser birth, not as worthy as the patricians, in many ways still exists now, although the rise of market economy and capitalism has created greater great social mobility.

After Ancus, Rome possibly went from a Sabine rule to the Etruscans. The fifth king of Rome was Tarquinius Priscus who ruled until 579 BC and boosted Roman power. He was Etruscan by birth, but the family was originally from Corinthus[10]. According to legend, he came from the neighboring city of Tarquinia, where he faced hostility because of his Greek origin, and thus he moved to Rome. There he changed his name from Lucumones (the name of the Etruscan priests) to Lucius Tarquinius, that is the “the Etruscan priest from Tarquinia.” In Rome he was the tutor of Ancus’ children and managed to succeed to him after his death following a plot against him.[11]

The story indicates that during the last part of Ancus’s reign, the Etruscans extended their influence over Rome and eventually took over the city.

After taking power Tarquinius went to war with both the Latins and some Etruscans who came to help the Latins. He massively reformed the military. He increased the number of the infantry, which were organized into centuries (groups of one hundred men) and no longer according to the three original tribes of Romulus: Tities, Ramnes, and Luceres. He introduced the cavalry. That is, under Tarquinius Rome became much richer and more populous—otherwise it could not afford more men-at-arms and especially the costly horses. This growth in wealth and strength proves Rome was developing and definitely was somewhat independent, and this seems especially true if compared with the fate of other cities, razed to the ground by Rome. Then, although Sabines and Etruscans ruled, Rome the city overall managed to avoid destruction and increased its power.

Tarquinius was seminal in Rome. Not only did he reform the army and push back Rome’s neighbors, but he introduced a whole set of Etruscan customs and expanded the city. He started building the cloaca maxima (the main sewage system) and also the circus maximus (the main stadium for the games, like horse racing). The latter especially was to become an important element of life as well as of political rule in Rome. He set up the Forum, the main place where Romans, especially those of wealth and power, met and talked of business and political affairs; increased the number of senators to 200 from the original 100; and rebuilt the walls, a sign of the increased dimensions of the city.

After him came Servius Tullius (578–535 BC), whose name (servius means slave) indicates humble origins. Later imperial sources say he was originally an Etruscan mercenary[12]. He is credited with some very important reforms in the organization of the city. He introduced the first coinage, a sign of the growing political wealth and importance of the city, and improved the living conditions of the lower classes, although he met resistance from the patricians. The monetization of the economy had a massive impact on future developments.

He divided the population into classes according to their income, and he realized the city needed a bigger army than the original one made of only 3,000 people, coming from the three original tribes.[13] He allowed plebeians to join the army, which was also a conduit for future social advancement. Military merit could lead to promotion in the army and thus in society.

The whole fabric of society was transformed and set the stage for the even more sweeping republican reforms. Before him, the Senate advised the king, devised laws in his name, and was felt to represent the entire Roman people; but it could only debate and discuss. Its decisions had no force unless approved by the comitia curiata. By the time of Servius, if not long before, the tribes of the comitia were likely to be a minority of the population, ruling a most people who had no effective voice in their own government. Rome’s far more populous citizen-commoners could participate in this assembly in limited fashion, and perhaps offer their opinions on decisions, but only the comitia curiata could vote.

A minority thus exercised power and control over the majority. Roman history holds that Servius formed a comitia centuriata of commoners to displace the old comitia curiata as Rome’s central legislative body. This required him to develop the first Roman census. Citizens assembled by tribe to register their social rank, household, property, and income. This established an individual’s tax obligations, his ability to muster arms for military service when required to do so, and his assignment to a particular voting bloc. Tribes were also expanded to include people living out of the city, in the countryside controlled by Rome.

The reform changed the political and social structure taking power away from the family of the original Romans to include people who had joined the city at later stages. This policy of expansion of citizenry was to be used periodically until the end of the empire, and it allowed Rome to adapt to different social, economic, and political circumstances.

The first census registered some 83,000 citizens[14], including those living in the countryside. Although the figure has to be taken with caution, we are looking at a city with a total population of perhaps of about 300,000 people (women, under age children and slaves would not be counted in the census).

The reforms cost Servius his job and life. He was assassinated in the first of many plots punctuating Roman history. Like the following ones, the conspirators were his closest people—his son-in-law Tarquinius, called “Superbus.”

Tarquinius Superbus (“proud, arrogant”) was the last king of the city and after him Rome began its long republican era. His reign was said to be disrupted by killings and violence. His first action was to put to death a number of senators still loyal to Servius. Yet not everything was bad during his reign. He is credited with establishing very important progress in the expansion of Roman power. Through threats and discussion, he negotiated the first agreement with the Latins to set up a joint military force[15]. He also waged war against basically all Rome’s neighbors, and it was during one of these campaigns that his opponents staged a coup, forced Tarquinius into exile and established the republic.

2.3 The foundation of the republic

Moving from the kingdom to the republic, we are on much sounder historical ground, as records are more abundant and stories told appear more real and less mythical.

One important element is the “international context” as we would put it modern times. We are in the early 5th century BC. Around the time Rome did away with its Etruscan king, Sparta and Athens were leading a coalition of Greek city-states who opposed and eventually defeated the Persian advance to the west. This also coincided with a time when Carthage, possibly allied with Persia, was making a move on Greek cities in Sicily, and there had been an agreement between the Phoenicians and Etruscans since the battle of Allia a century and a half before.

Rome then adopted a system of electing two consuls, at the beginning both patricians, who would rule for one year, in turns, for one day each. The system was de facto copied from that of Sparta. All these elements point to waning Greek power in Italy, and Rome starting to move out of the Etruscan orbit and into a Greek one.

The preceding history of Rome, with the strong influence of Etruscans and Sabines on a Latin foundation, shows that we didn’t have domination in a pure sense. Yes, enemy cities were razed to the ground, as happened to fellow Latin city Alba Longa, but other cities were simply cast under a yoke and thus survived. It is possible that for most of its early history, Rome was under a Sabine and then an Etruscan rule, yet this did not destroy Rome and did not hamper its expansion, although it was quite limited. The rise of Rome later took place by contrasting the then-dominant Etruscan power and then confronting the power of other belligerent Italic tribes, most notably the Samnites.

The context changed dramatically as Etruscan power dwindled, Greek power rose, and Rome moved from an Etruscan-style king to Spartan-style consuls. In the following centuries, two aspects are also worth following, one external and one internal.

Externally, after the early ill-fated alliance with Persia, Carthage became friendly with Rome, a rising power in central Italy, obscuring the early Etruscan influence, against the common Greek enemy then expanding in Italy. Internally, Rome faced a number of mounting social problems that on the one hand periodically brought chaos to the city, but on the other hand also solved the social tensions between lower and upper classes that eventually were to break apart Sparta after the victory over Athens a century later, at the turn of the 4th century BC. It is important to note that at least since then, Rome, following the Greek example, clearly became obsessed with the fear of the concentration of power with one man, therefore establishing the two consuls that would rule one day each, limiting and checking on each other’s power. This legacy, although it waned during the imperial time, was to become part of the Western cultural DNA.

It is interesting to note that China did not fear this unification of power, but historically compensated for the mistakes brought by concentrating power in the hands of one man who ruled poorly by toppling the dynasty altogether. As we know, unlike Chinese dynasties that lasted 200-300 years, the Roman state lasted over 2,000 years and balanced constantly for the possible mistakes of unified power rather than counterweighing every couple of centuries with dramatic falls of kingdoms and massive bloodbaths.

Moreover, the fall of Sparta at the turn of the 4th century BC occurred when Rome, having somehow subdued the Etruscans, was battling the Samnites in central Italy.

What we see in the move from monarchic to republican Rome is a change of pace in its wars. There is debate over why Rome became more aggressive and expansionist[16]. It is possible that as with its domestic ruling structures, Rome then came to follow the Spartan warring mode, or it could be simply Rome had managed to shake off the Etruscan and Sabine influence and was pushing south against other aggressive tribes like the Volsces and the Samnintes, who were pushing west and north.

At the turn of the sixth century, one by one Rome defeated both the persistent Sabines and the local cities that were either under Etruscan control or Latin towns that had cast off their Etruscan rulers[17]. Rome defeated Latin cities in the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BC, the Battle of Mons Algidus in 458 BC, the Battle of Corbione in 446 BC, and the Battle of Aricia in 495 BC, and an Etruscan city in the Battle of the Cremera in 477 BC. By the end of this period, Rome had effectively completed the conquest of its immediate Etruscan and Latin neighbors, as well as securing their position against the immediate threat posed by the tribesmen of the nearby Apennine hills.

It was not a proper domination but rather a kind of forced alliance, like those of the Greeks, of Athens with its allies, with Rome as a “hegemonic” power.

As this was happening, the Gauls stormed south into Italy. This warlike, ferocious population thrashed through Etruscan cities, which then alerted Rome[18]. By 390 BC, several Gallic tribes had begun invading Italy from the north as their culture expanded throughout Europe. The Etruscan towns, overwhelmed by the size of the enemy in numbers and ferocity, called on Rome for help. The Romans met them in pitched battle at the Allia River around 390–387 BC. The Gauls, under their chieftain Brennus, defeated the Roman army of around 15,000 troops, proceeded to pursue the fleeing Romans back to Rome itself, and sacked the city before being either driven off or bought off with a massive ransom. The Gallic attack ended the power of the Etruscans, who then apparently sided with the Romans against the more combative Gauls. This also provided both a buffer and security for Rome to pursue its expansion elsewhere.

After recovering surprisingly swiftly from the sack and confining the Gauls to northern Italy, the Romans immediately resumed their expansion east and south within Italy. The First Samnite War (343 BC–341 BC) was a relatively short affair: the Romans beat the Samnites in two battles, but were forced to withdraw from the war before they could pursue the conflict further due to the revolt of several of their Latin allies in the Latin War. That is, the seams of their system of alliances were fraying and had to be restored. Rome bested the Latins in two battles, after which the Latin cities were obliged to submit to stricter Roman rule[19].

The Second Samnite War (327 BC–304 BC) was a much longer and harsher affair for both the Romans and Samnites. The fortunes of the two sides fluctuated throughout its course. The Romans proved victorious at the Battle of Bovianum and the tide turned strongly against the Samnites from 314 BC onwards, leading them to sue for peace with progressively less generous terms. By 304 BC the Romans had effectively annexed the greater portion of the Samnite territory, founding several colonies. This was also possibly a way to expand Roman influence besides imposing alliance. Roman citizens were sent over to former enemy territories to buttress the alliance and undermine local efforts to organize an anti-Roman uprising.

Seven years after their defeat, with Roman dominance of the area looking assured, the Samnites rose again and defeated a Roman army in 298 BC, kicking off the Third Samnite War. With this success in hand, they managed to bring together a coalition of several previous enemies of Rome, including some Etruscan cities. Then, in the Battle of Populonia in 282 BC Rome finished off the last vestiges of Etruscan power in the region and dominated the Samnites.

At the turn of the 3rd century the Roman had become the leading power in central Italy. Had absorbed the Etruscan cities, absorbed all other Italian states, confined the Gauls threat and were now ready to meet the super power of the time, the Greeks.

2.4 The early Roman political, legal, and military system

The crucial political change in the passage from monarchy to republic was who would be head of state. Under the monarchy, a king would be elected by the senators for a life tenure, a model taken from Etruscan cities. In the republic, two consuls were elected for a period of one year and would rule one day each in turns. In this way, each ruler would be checked by the other after his day-long tenure, a model taken from the kings of Sparta[20]. Consular political powers, when exercised conjointly with a consular colleague, were no different from those of the old king. However, the power was firmly in the hands of the patricians, despite the reforms by Servius Tullus.

In 494 BC, just a few years after the fall of monarchy and when the city was at war with two neighbors, the plebeian soldiers, who made up the bulk of the army, refused to march against the enemy and instead seceded to Aventine Hill. They demanded the right to elect their own officials to represent them politically. The patricians had to agree, and the plebeians returned to the army. The new representatives were called “plebeian tribunes”: they would have veto power on decisions taken by the consuls and were assisted by two more magistrates called “plebeian aediles.” As we can see, representative politics and military organization were intertwined in ancient Rome, as the army was made of citizens willing to shed blood for their city and not of troops forced into the army by an absolute ruler. This military structure, reflected in the military organization, was in theory similar to that of the Greek cities, who also called on common citizens to man the phalanx, a fairly egalitarian compact structure where nobles and plebeians would serve shoulder to shoulder. Social protests were a common feature of Greek cities, where oligarchs, democracies, and tyrants fought and succeeded one another in the same or different cities.

However, unlike the Greek cities, Romans seemed right from the beginning more ready to find a social compromise and not challenge the stability of the city to the extreme, as political fights would often do with Greek cities, where fortunes were made or lost because of internal power struggles. The patricians quickly gave in to requests of the plebeians at the beginning of the republican time, setting a pattern that was to mark the city until the first century BC, when social fights spilled into civil war. But then the global position of Rome was so strong that no external enemy could challenge the city and civil war never went as far as to break the unity of the republic.

Shortly after the establishment of the republic, the Comitia Centuriata (“Assembly of the Centuries,” a civil organization but also the basis for a military unit called the centuria, the body of hundred men commanded by a captain and the origin of the modern military company) became the principal legislative assembly. In this congress, magistrates were elected and laws were passed. During the fifth century BC, a series of reforms gave power to the Plebeian Council to approve decisions with the full force of law. This gave the tribunes (who headed the Plebeian Council) the opportunity to make proposals for the first time.

In 443 BC, the censorship was created to review corruption in public offices, as we would put in modern terms. However, this did not stop social unrest. From 375 BC to 371 BC, the republic experienced a constitutional crisis that was also caused by the tribunes using their vetoes to prevent the election of senior magistrates. In 367 BC, a new law required the election of at least one plebeian aedile each year.

In other words, as Rome was battling its way around central Italy, it needed to strengthen its army by requesting greater efforts from its lower ranks. These men in return demanded more rights as a class and also more opportunities for social mobility for individuals in their ranks, as one can see from the promotion of plebeians to tribunes and eventually also to the role of consul. On the other hand, wars became a conduit for social promotion and improvement of lower orders, who might even have a direct interest in war as they could become personally richer with the spoils of war. Then, plebeians perhaps became possibly interested in waging more wars to advance themselves.

After the plebeian aedileship had been created, the patricians created the curule aedileship to balance what was perceived to be excessive power of the plebeians. After the consulship opened to the plebeians, the plebeians were able to hold both the dictatorship (in special times the office of the two consuls was suspended and all the power was concentrated in the hands of just one man, the dictator, modeled on the office of the Greek Tyrant) and the censorship. The plebiscite (a vote in which plebeians were asked to approve or reject a law) of 342 BC placed limits on political offices: an individual could hold only one office at a time, and ten years must elapse between the end of his official term and his reelection. Further laws attempted to relieve the burden of debt from plebeians by banning interest on loans. In fact, a man could be forced into servitude because of personal debt.

This was an important principle of Roman civil law: economic enterprise would be collateralized with a person property and ultimately one’s own freedom, which had a certain market value, so one could become slave to pay off his debts. This was supposed also to make one fully responsible for his own enterprise. The tricky part was interest, which could run to high and thus cause loans to spin out control. A crucial element for the life and wellbeing of the common people was to control interest, which had to be kept low. This element was to assume religious significance with Christianity. The church tried to protect the poor and accused those charging interest on loans with speculating on time, something that belonged to God and not to men. At the same time, allowing no interest on loans, or too low interest, cut most incentives and rewards in economic initiatives. This dialectic was already active in Greek towns, where social uprisings against oligarchs or democratic rulers were moved by social dissatisfaction. However in Rome it took a form that was to last for hundreds of years: the state adapted by fighting recurring wars (that by pouring these internal pressures outside) and adjusting social structures without totally disrupting the state, as it happened with Greek cities.

In 337 BC, the first plebeian praetor was elected. This was the time when the Roman army underwent a deep reform, moving from the organization of the phalanx, inherited from the Greeks through the Etruscans, to the more agile cohort, requiring more initiative at a lower level of military organization.

During these years, the tribunes and the senators grew increasingly close. The Senate realized the need to use plebeian officials to accomplish desired goals. To win over the tribunes, the senators gave the tribunes a great deal of power and the tribunes began to feel an obligation to the Senate. As the tribunes and the senators grew closer, plebeian senators were often able to secure the tribunate for members of their own families. In time, this post became a stepping stone to higher office.

Around the middle of the fourth century BC, the Plebeian Council enacted the “Ovinian Law.” During the early republic, only consuls could appoint new senators. The Ovinian Law, however, gave this power to the censors. It also required the censor to appoint any newly elected magistrate to the Senate. By this point, plebeians were already holding a significant number of magisterial offices. Thus, the number of plebeian senators probably increased quickly. However, it remained difficult for a plebeian to enter the Senate if he was not from a well-known political family. Yet in this way a new patrician-like plebeian aristocracy emerged. The old nobility existed through the force of law because only patricians were allowed to stand for high office; the new nobility existed due to hard-won social reforms.

However, even bigger changes were in store. By 287 BC, well after the end of Samnite wars, when Rome solidly ruled central Italy but was checked in its expansion by the Gauls in the north and Greeks and Phoenicians in the south, the economic condition of the average plebeian had become poor. The problem appears to have centered around widespread indebtedness, due to high interest rates, as we mentioned. The plebeians demanded relief, but the senators refused to address their situation. The result was the final plebeian secession. The plebeians seceded to Janiculum Hill. To end the secession, a dictator was appointed. The dictator passed a law (the “Hortensian Law”), which ended the requirement that the patrician senators must agree to any bill before it could be considered by the Plebeian Council. The significance of this law was in the fact that it robbed the patricians of their final weapon against the plebeians. The result was that control over the state fell not onto the shoulders of common voters, but to the new plebeian nobility, who were the virtual leaders of most of the citizens.

The plebeians had finally achieved political equality with the patricians. However, the plight of the average plebeian had not changed and a new social dynamic was starting. A small number of plebeian families achieved the same standing that the old aristocratic patrician families always had, but the new plebeian aristocrats became as uninterested in the plight of the average plebeian as the old patrician aristocrats had always been.

2.5 The early Roman army and legal philosophy, 509-315 BC

2.5.1 The early army and its social order

During this period, the Roman army seems to have been modeled after that of the Etruscans to the north, who apparently copied their military organization from the Greeks. Traditionally, the introduction of the phalanx formation into the Roman army is ascribed to the city’s penultimate king, Servius Tullius[21]. According to Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus[22], the front rank was composed of the wealthiest citizens, who were able to purchase the best equipment: the front plate and the shield protecting them in an attack.

The front soldiers were given also the best spoils of war, and with their role bearing the brunt of the clash of arms, proved they deserved the privileges they had in civil life. Each subsequent rank consisted of those with less wealth and poorer equipment than the one before it.

Therefore one can see that the toil of war was borne by front-line rows, while plunders would provide new opportunities for the brave and entrepreneurial. There was then a direct tie with social mobility, for individuals and whole classes, in wars. In a way, the tougher the fight and the harder the victory, the greater the reward for the plebeians.

Changes in military tactics and organization reflected social changes, as during the time of the Samnite wars (the mid- and late fourth century) and the rise of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), the Romans modified the phalanx by adopting an original smaller “manipular” formation, more agile and able to overcome the many problems the Greek phalanx had. This was the seminal change that brought about the birth of the legion, which is the standard large military organizational unit in the West up to this very day. Divisions, brigades, and army groups are basically new names for slight modifications brought to the Roman legion[23].

But before going into this, let’s first have a look at the phalanx, the betrayed mother of the legion.

2.5.2 The Phalanx

The phalanx was a huge tactical innovation in the wars of antiquity, able to beat for the first time the war carts, which had been hitherto the tanks of antiquity. The phalanx was also cheaper than carts and didn’t require long, difficult training in maneuvering horses and a cart while fighting at the same time. Moreover, it was made up of people who de facto shared a sense of social equality (they died or won shoulder to shoulder) for a common purpose, the survival or aggrandizement of their city or kingdom.

The survival and victory also depended on the trust each had in his comrades. This special feeling of deep camaraderie had a special name, “agape” (love, although without sexual connotation), that created the bond between warriors and also gave them a reason to fight and stand in line, to save one’s comrade and be saved by him[24].

Phalanx encounters were relatively short, a few minutes of fast march forward and pushing would resolve the fight. Warriors were then free to go back to their own businesses. Although hoplites (the name of the single phalanx fighter) had to train constantly to keep the difficult battle formation, this training was certainly not as extensive and time-consuming as the ability to fight with a cart or excel in individual combat skills. Moreover, the constant training reinforced or strained (in case of hatred and great tensions) the social bond linking fighters in civil life.

The basic combat elements of the phalanx were the stichos (meaning “file,” usually 8–16 men strong) and then the enomotia (meaning “sworn” and made up by 2-4 stichœ, totaling up to 32 men), both of which were led by a dimœrites, assisted by a decadarchos and two decasteroi (sing. decasteros). Four to a maximum of 32 enomotiæ (depending on the era in question or the city) formed a lochos led by a lochagos, who was in command of initially 100 hoplites, up to a maximum of about 500 in the late Hellenistic armies. Here, it has to be noted that the military manuals of Asclepiodotus and Aelian use the term lochos to denote a file in the phalanx. A taxis (mora for the Spartans) was the greatest standard hoplitic formation of 500 to 1,500 men, led by a strategos (general). The entire army, a total of several taxeis or moræ was led by a generals’ council. The commander-in-chief was usually called a polemarchos or a strategos autocrator.

The fighting moved in clear stages, which in a way were as simple as the battle formation of the phalanx. These were:

Ephodos: The hoplites sing their pæanes (battle hymns) and then charge toward the enemy, gradually picking up pace and momentum. Shortly before impact, they would yell war cries (alalagmoi). The Athenians for instance cried, “elelelelef! elelelelef!” and the Macedonians, “alalalalai! alalalalai!”

Krousis: The opposing phalanxes meet each other almost simultaneously along the front. The promachœ (the front-liners) had to be physically and psychologically fit to sustain and survive the clash.

Doratismos: Repeated, rapid spear thrusts are carried out to disrupt the enemy formation.

Othismos (literally, “pushing”): After most spears have been broken, the hoplites begin to push with their large shields and use their secondary weapon, the sword. This can be the longest phase, lasting until one formation gives in.

Pararrhexis: “Breaching” the opposing phalanx occurs, the enemy formation shatters, and the battle ends.

The phalanx yielded the best results when used against other formations, as the invading Persians were to see in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). Facing the much larger army of Darius I, the Athenians thinned out their phalanx and consequently lengthened their front, to avoid being outflanked. Even a thin phalanx proved unstoppable to the loose formation of the Persian infantry. At Marathon, the Athenians first routed the Persian flanks, then the hoplites wheeled inwards, destroying the elite troops at the Persian center, resulting in a crushing victory for Athens. Throughout the Greco-Persian Wars, the hoplite phalanx was to prove superior to the Persian infantry, as at the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea.

The phalanx in any case had an inherent weakness: it would tend to lean on one side, the right, while the left, where hoplites held the shield, would tend to push harder for defense. The first notable tactical innovation was brought by the Thebans of Epaminondas during the battle of Leuctra (371 BC). Epaminondas organized the phalanx in a diagonal, to give more thrust in one point, and deepened the phalanx there to an unheard of 50 men deep. This allowed the Thebans to strongly assault the elite Spartan troops on the right flank of the opposing phalanx. Meanwhile, the center and right flank of the Theban line pushed back and held ranks, keeping the weakened parts of the formation from being engaged. Once the Spartan right had been routed by the Theban left, the remainder of the Spartan line also broke. Thus, by localizing the attacking power of the hoplites, Epaminondas was able to defeat an enemy, the Spartans, previously thought invincible. The tactics prevailed over an ancient unbeatable “organization” the long training of the Spartans, which gave that city a matchless strategic advantage over all other cities.

The organizational innovation of the Thebans was further improved by Philip II of Macedonia (359–336 BC). He was in Thebes as a hostage and studied Epaminondas’ techniques. On his return to Macedonia, he raised a revolutionary new infantry force, which was to change the face of the Greek world. Phillip’s hoplites were the first force of professional soldiers seen in ancient Greece apart from Sparta and were not supported by the cumbersome social organization of Sparta, where most of the population was held slave to support the elite warriors in constant training. Macedonians could do so possibly also because at the time of Philip, they were the largest producer of silver in the Greek world and had a rich agricultural system[25]. Later, in the their Hellenistic states that came up after the break down of Alexander’s conquests, the Macedonian professional phalanx was supported by the servitude of most population in new large states. The system was de facto similar to that of the late Republican army and the expansion of slavery working in mining and agriculture.

Macedonian hoplites were armed with longer spears and were drilled more thoroughly in more evolved, complicated tactics and maneuvers. More importantly, Philip’s phalanx was part of a multifaceted combined force that included a variety of skirmishers and cavalry, most notably the famous Companion cavalry, the personal guard of the king, which could intervene in the crucial last moment of the battle as a reserve force.

The Macedonian phalanx was now used to pin the center of the enemy line, while cavalry and more mobile infantry struck at the foe’s flanks. It proved to have supremacy over the more static armies fielded by other Greek city-states. The Macedonian superiority was confirmed as the Macedonian phalanx, robust yet agile, crushed all possible enemies during Alexander’s conquests. This experience changed war tactics in the ancient world and slowly spilled over to the whole Mediterranean.

Yet despite its innovation, the Macedonian phalanx also had weaknesses similar to its predecessor. Theoretically indestructible from the front, its flanks and rear were vulnerable, and once engaged it could probably not easily disengage or redeploy to face a threat from those directions. Thus, a phalanx facing non-phalangite formations required some sort of protection on its flanks—lighter or at least more mobile infantry, cavalry, etc. That is, the phalanx itself was too rigid. Once outflanked it could be crushed.

The Macedonian phalanx could also lose its cohesion without proper coordination or while moving through broken terrain; doing so could create gaps between individual blocks/syntagmata or prevent a solid front within those sub-units as well, causing other sections of the line to bunch up[26]. In this event, as in the battles of Cynoscephalae (197 BC), the phalanx became vulnerable to attacks by more flexible units—such as Roman legionary centuries, which were able to avoid the sarissae and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the phalangites.

Another important area that must be considered concerns the psychological tendencies of the hoplites. Because the strength of a phalanx depended on the ability of the hoplites to maintain their frontline, it was crucial that a phalanx be able to quickly and efficiently replace fallen soldiers in the front ranks. If a phalanx failed to do this in a fast, structured manner the enemy could breach the line, which could lead to defeat. This then implies that the hoplites ranks closer to the front must be mentally prepared to replace a fallen comrade and adapt to his new position without disrupting the whole battle structure. This would need in turn great social cohesion between hoplites: once society was shaken, so was also the agape between soldiers.

Before considering further the weaknesses of the Greek phalanx, which led to the successes of the Roman legion, one should underscore that by the end of the fourth century, Alexander’s phalanges had conquered half of the world, going as far as to the borders of China, modern Xinjiang, where they possibly brought the first grapes. The influence of Greek art was strong in Central Asia and India. Hellenistic kingdoms sprang up in about half of Asia. Greek culture and language became the most important in the eastern Mediterranean and covering definitely Egyptian and Babylonian influence, by absorbing them in the newly established Hellenistic cultured centered on the works of Plato and Aristotle.

But before returning here we have to take several steps back and see how Greeks were faring in Italy when Rome was moving south.

2.5.3 Thinking and social ideas structuring Roman law

For China, the rule of law is a modern concept and to a great extent a Western import. In the Western model, the efficacy of law requires a sense of responsibility towards the state on the part of ordinary citizens. It is not simply a matter of the state providing justice from the top down, but rather a complex of mutual obligations between state and citizens.

Precisely this sense of responsibility for the state is difficult to identify in traditional Chinese culture. The obligations of traditional China were compelling: the Chinese had a strong sense of duty to family, to friends, to the emperor, to the boss. The modern concept of “state” itself is an innovation for the Chinese. The standard Chinese translation of “state,” namely guojia, does not capture the meaning of a term derived from the verb “to be.” Instead, the term guojia derives from the words for families/clans (jia) and walled territory (guo)[27].

The new modern Chinese emphasis on the rule of law (yi fa zhi guo) implies a deep cultural shift, from the traditional reference points of clan and emperor to the Western concept of a public entity (res publica), or public state of being (state), with its attendant rights and duties and civic responsibilities. In Western history, civil responsibility is the other side of the coin of civil rights. This notion of civic responsibility is critical to China’s future success, and challenges the way Chinese have thought of society for millennia.

In the Chinese view, the law is a formality and often a hindrance: doing things according to the law is inefficient, slow, and uncertain in its outcome. The law is something to be circumvented through power relationships that cut through hindrances. Yet the Chinese look to other societies where the rule of law prevails as exemplars of what they hope China might become.

a population accustomed for centuries to the unrestrained exercise of imperial power will have little sense of responsibility or duty towards the common good of the country represented by the institutions of the state. There is no fabric of civic rights and responsibilities which delimit the action of the state, so that the risk always remains present that the state can run amok with the exercise of naked power.

Without a popular sense of civic responsibility, the state must use unlimited power to restrict the unrestrained power of individuals to act in ways harmful to others (for example through corruption). But the same unlimited exercise of state power suffocates the lives of ordinary people, who respond by undermining it or running away from it. That is the vicious circle of state power that the “rule of law” can break. The issue is extremely complex and in Rome start with the social structure. The specific mix of rights and responsibilities is expressed in the relationship between the Roman state and the pater familias (“father of the family” or “owner of the family estate/assets”), the model Roman citizen.

The pater familias had a series of rights related to the members of his family and the state, but he also had a series of obligations toward his family members and the state. From that came the modern conception of a citizenry with rights and responsibilities, a word that comes from “response”: in response to one’s rights, one has to do something. The pater familias with his rights and responsibilities made up the basic building-block of the res publica, the public/common thing, the name of the Roman state, where its ancient citizens shared a sense of equality, were all the same before the law as they were all the same in the battlefield arrayed in the ancient phalanx.

The principle survives even in western societies today: you do something you are required to as a citizen and thus you are entitled to your rights. Rights do not come gratis; they are a kind of “compensation” for performing your responsibilities, obligations, and duties. However, once you perform your duties you are entitled to your rights, and if you do not get them there is a kind of “breach of contract,” and you are entitled to protest and claim your due.

Roman laws were conceived around these principles, that is, regulating rights and duties. Moreover, laws were conceived in Rome as derived from the customs of the older/better people (mores maiorum), possibly against the challenges to those customs posed by the new additions to the res publica, the plebeians and their allies (socies), a growing part of the Roman state. Leges (laws) derives from the word legare, to bind the res publica together with a form of equality before the law, in keeping with the understanding of the state as a “public thing.”

In classical China, there were no citizens. Everything started from the concept of state (guo or bang), which at the beginning was a walled city, later extended to a walled-in territory, managed in a very strict manner to maximize social and political order, tax revenues, and military service. The unified empire of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor, started with the annihilation of all other competing states and the superimposition on their former territories and people all the norms and standards of the Qin state (guo). Conquered people and territories were managed according to Qin’s principles.

Within the state there were the emperor, his officials (senior or minor), and the common people, small and large farmers and the like. Notably, nothing was fixed. Through a system of exams or merit-based selection and appointments, common people could be elevated to higher positions and become officials. Moreover, periodic revolutions and invasions would topple emperors and their aristocracy, which would routinely change the top ruling class, bring social mobility, and grant stability for a few years or centuries.

But in this system, no-one had rights and responsibilities. Subjects were to do what they were ordered to do; they might hope to be rewarded in some way for obedience. Or if they were not satisfied, they could try to stage a revolution and hope to be successful and become emperors or imperial aristocracy. If they didn’t obey the orders or failed to succeed in a revolution, they would face stark punishments.

Laws were in substance simple punishments - xing (penal law) is cognate with xing (shape), i.e. reshaping a person with mutilation (cutting the nose or ears) or tattoos - and rules for administration of the state. Therefore, since Confucius’ time, punishments were for common people (xiao ren); the people above, gentlemen (junzi), were dealt with according to codes of courtesy (li). The word law (fa) in Chinese originates from the concept of standard for measurement: Qin’s original standards and norms applied to all conquered people and territories, used together with “punishments” (xing). These were ways to enforce a norm, but included nothing that binds people together with some form of equality.

That is, there was no principle of responsibility in classical China, as there was no idea of rights, much less a structural link between responsibilities and rights.

The idea of rights and equality before an authority came to China in the early 20th century. Communist Party doctrine spoke of the rights of workers and peasants; after this came the broader (Western) idea of human rights. However, rights were structurally de-linked from responsibilities. The words rights (quanli) and responsibilities (zeren) do not have the meaningful linguistic link we find in their Latin counterparts.

The link between rights and duties means that common people must obtain what is theirs if they perform their duties. If rights are given without a request for duties, then they can become privileges to be granted or denied based on the whims of power. Power has no duty to grant the duties it promises.

It was communism, a western ideology transplanted in China, that broke with China’s traditional conception of the Chinese state and society, by promulgating the concept of rights for workers and peasants, according to Marxists tenets. Their vigorous campaign for such rights helped the communists gained popularity, and contributed to their victory in the Civil War against the Nationalists. Without the complementary idea of civic duties, however, the concept of rights introduced by the Communists remained a foreign Western import. The result was a perverse form of social contract, in which the people have rights but no responsibilities, and the state in consequence retains the old, arbitrary power of the imperial system.

Until the late 1980s, if for whatever reason one was unhappy with his office or how he was treated, he could fake all kinds of sickness and refuse to go to work. As long as he did not directly fight the state, the state did not bother about him. This led to immense inefficiencies that were addressed by “bribing” people, that is, giving them monetary rewards to perform what would otherwise, in a duty-rights system, be simply their duties.

This is no longer the case on such a large scale, but the problem is still there. Money is still the main motivator for actions in China, not responsibility towards one’s job or the public welfare.

This also creates a situation where no law is paramount, and the law does not give a sense of protection to the people “below the law,” who also have no sense of responsibility. Common people do not feel they belong to a “public entity,” and the state largely has no obligation to common people. The absence of responsibility works two ways: common people have no sense of duty to the res publica, and the res publica is not common/public at all - in fact, it is the res, the thing of a few privileged people.

Again, this clash of old and modern state principles was creating a number of problems in China at the beginning of the third millennium, as the country was caught between its own antiquity and “modernity” which is in reality a very different cultural system. Common people have no sense of identification with the state that issues the laws, which are not yet laws of a res publica, but no longer the xing or li of ancient times.

To create such a sense of national responsibility would change the dynamic of power and the sense of the state in China.

People would be responsible to the state, and the state would be responsible to the people. A deep implication is that this expression of the rule of law would structurally limit power, a crucial problem for present China. That is: the introduction of the conception of a sense of responsibility de facto would limit the concept of total power of the present Chinese State.

The trouble is that if power is without limit, in order to challenge this boundless power, one might not work for small changes but rather for total revolution - which is in fact the logic of past revolutions in Chinese history. On the other hand, to limit power with laws creates a broader base for state power, because it gives people hope that changes can occur, and that one can hope for the protection of the law from the errors committed by the state itself. Then the state becomes stronger.

This may explain why the Roman state, for all its deviations and occasional degeneration, persisted in one form or another for over 2000 years, from the founding of the Republic in the 6th century BC to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Chinese dynasties, with their absolute power, lasted at most two or three hundred years.

2.6 Athens and Sparta battle in Sicily

Italy was a part of the Greek-Persian wars, as we saw, and it had an even greater part in the fierce conflict between Athens and Sparta for prominence in the Greek world, which had just defeated the Persian Empire. In fact, during a crucial time of the conflict with Sparta, Athens intervened in Sicily to try cut back a crucial support for its enemy there. Yet there Athens suffered a crushing defeat that turned the war to Sparta. In this case, Sicily was not simply the backwater of a fight happening in the east, it had become the decisive field to turn events in one or another direction.

Athens had never been very involved in Italian affairs, its allies were the eastern Ionian cities, whereas Italian Greece was made of Dorian cities, close to Sparta. To many smaller Italian cities vying for prominence, Athens was a potential counterbalance to the local power of Syracuse[28]. Moreover to the Athenians, Sicily was a threat—an unencumbered Syracuse might send grain or other aid to the Peloponnesians—as well as a venue for possible conquest and plunder[29].

In 427 BC, Athens sent twenty ships in response to an appeal for help of Italian rivals of Syracure. The expedition operated from Rhegium (modern Reggio Calabria) and remained in the area for several years, without achieving any dramatic successes. In 425 BC, Athens planned to reinforce their contingent with forty more triremes, but that fleet was delayed. By the time that fleet reached Sicily in late summer, Athens’ Sicilian allies had grown weary of the stalemate and negotiated with Syracuse, and the Athenian fleet departed for home.

Athens and Sparta were formally at peace since 421 BC. The terms of that peace, however, had never been fulfilled: the control of some cities was never returned. Besides in 418 BC Athens was supporting Argos, Mantinea, and other Peloponnesian cities to try to establish a stable anti-Spartan alliance in the Peloponnese. The idea, coming from the Athenian Alcibiades, failed, but Alcibiades was elected general anyway in the spring of 417 BC, and Athens’ foreign policy remained divided between a “peace party” (or pro-Spartan party) led by Nicias and a “war party” led by Alcibiades. In this situation in 416 BC, In Sicily Segesta—an Athenian ally —went to war against Selinus and, after losing an initial battle, asked Athens for help.

Athens agreed a force of over 100 ships and 5,000 hoplites. The force had been approved after a debate between Alcibiades (for the war) and Nicias (against it). Nicias de facto bungled the debate and reinforced the argument of his enemy and thus had altered the strategic situation; whereas the loss of 60 ships would have been painful but bearable, the loss of the larger force would be catastrophic. “Without Nicias’ intervention,” wrote Donald Kagan, “there would have been an Athenian expedition against Sicily in 415 BC, but there could not have been a disaster.”[30]

Many people in Syracuse, felt that the Athenians were in fact coming to attack them under the pretense of aiding Segesta in a minor war. Some Syracusans suggested asking for help from other Sicilian cities and from Carthage. Meanwhile the Athenian force had three leaders, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus, who each proposed different strategies: more conservative Nicias, more aggressive Alcibiades, and Lamachus, who held the middle ground. They headed a fleet consisting of 134 triremes (100 of which were from Athens), 5,100 hoplites (of which 2,200 were Athenians), 480 archers, 700 slingers, 120 other light troops, 30 cavalry, 130 other supply ships, and all the crews of the triremes and other non-combatants.[31]

Yet, the expedition had not started well. At the onset some holy statues in Athens had been destroyed, and Alcibiades seemed involved in it. Segesta had promised money to Athens but as soon as the fleet got to Sicily the money was not there. At the same time, Athens issued an order of arrest for Alcibiades for the destruction of the statues. Alcibiades ran away and sought refuge with its archenemy Sparta. Here he provided crucial information on the Athenian empire.

In Sicily, Athenian troops landed outside Syracuse and lined up eight men deep, with the Argives and Mantineans on the right, the rest of the allies on the left, and the Athenians themselves in the center. The Syracusans were deployed sixteen men deep, in order to offset the advantage of the Athenians in experience. They also had 1,200 cavalry, vastly outnumbering the Athenian cavalry, although the total numbers of men were about the same. The Athenians attacked first, believing to have a stronger and more experienced army, and after some unexpectedly strong resistance, the Argives pushed back the Syracusan left flank, causing the rest to flee. The Syracusan cavalry prevented the Athenians from chasing them, thereby averting a catastrophe for the Syracusans, who lost about 260 men, while the Athenians lost about 50. But the battle was not decisive.

The Syracusans tried to reorganize their army. Athens reached out for help to the Carthaginians and Etruscans, and both Athens and Syracuse tried to gain assistance from the Greek cities in Italy. Alcibiades informed Sparta that there would be an invasion of the Peloponnese if Sicily were conquered, and that they should send help to Syracuse and also fortify Decelea near Athens. The Athenians, he said, feared nothing more than the occupation of Decelea. Sicily had become decisive in the war. In the spring of 414 BC, reinforcements arrived from Athens. They landed on the Epipolae, the cliff above Syracuse. Shortly after even Sparta sent its troops.

They battled for some months until a crucial naval encounter, when Athens decided to sail home. The defeat was massive. The Athenians tried to run on foot, but were harried and attacked by the Spartans. Tens of thousands died, the survivors were forced into slavery, and only a few managed to reach Athens, where they brought news of the disaster. There people did not at first believe the defeat. Plutarch, in his Life of Nicias, recounts how the news reached the city:

“It is said that the Athenians would not believe their loss, in a great degree because of the person who first brought them news of it. For a certain stranger, it seems, coming to Piraeus, and there sitting in a barber’s shop, began to talk of what had happened, as if the Athenians already knew all that had passed; which the barber hearing, before he acquainted anybody else, ran as fast as he could up into the city, addressed himself to the Archons, and presently spread it about in the public Place. On which, there being everywhere, as may be imagined, terror and consternation, the Archons summoned a general assembly, and there brought in the man and questioned him how he came to know. And he, giving no satisfactory account, was taken for a spreader of false intelligence and a disturber of the city, and was, therefore, fastened to the wheel and racked a long time, till other messengers arrived that related the whole disaster particularly. So hardly was Nicias believed to have suffered the calamity which he had often predicted.”

When they realized the size of the defeat, there was panic. The loss caused a great shift in policy for many other states, as well. Many who had been neutral joined Sparta, others, Athens’ allies in the Delian League also revolted. In 411 BC, the Athenian democracy was overthrown in favor of an oligarchy, and Persia joined the war on the Spartan side. In 404 BC, Athens was defeated and occupied by Sparta.

It was not only the end of Athens but it was the end of a political model, that of democracy in ancient times. In many ways it was not simply the fact that the Spartan oligarchic political process proved more efficient than Athenian democratic one, it was that Athens’ democracy factually proved it could be easily turned on and betrayed from within for petty personal interests against the benefit of the country in the most crucial of times: during wartime. Alcibiades, the warmonger against Sparta, turned on his city to Sparta to save his skin, while Nicias, who had opposed war, fought it to the bitter end and lost it. The city should have chosen Nicias over Alcibiades but the agorà had thought otherwise for some petty reward. It was a broad ideological shift, in favor of Parmenides and Zeno, against the Ionian tradition.

The Athenian system had impossible flaws. The city could not get its priorities straight: in times of war, when you appoint a general (Alcibiades), you can’t try to imprison him back over the controversial issue of the destruction of some statues.

On the other hand, the political defeat of democracy in Athens over the years proved another aspect of democracy that was to shine over the centuries. Sparta, the winner, did not leave much cultural legacy, while the loser, Athens, had been home of Plato, Aristotle, and many other thinkers and writers who were to shape the way of thinking not only in the Western, Christian world but also in the Islamic world. Both of them were conservatives, Plato taking as a model Syracuse or Tarentum (modern Taranto) and their tyrants, and Aristotle, the teacher and mentor of Alexander the Great, the man who destroyed the independence of Greek cities and expanded the Greek civilization to the whole eastern Mediterranean. While both were critical of Athens’ democracy, both were raised and bred in its democratic atmosphere, without which they possibly would have smothered their revolutionary ideas in childhood.

In modern terms: Athens had been a better breeding ground for new ideas and the “soft power” of Athens was to conquer the world, east and west. Athens though defeated would win and totally vanquish its enemy – Sparta.

The concept of the ultimate victory of the vanquished was reinforced a couple of centuries later by the Romans, who militarily conquered Greece only to be then ultimately conquered by its culture and civilization. The culture was that of Athens and its democracy, something that gave life for centuries to democracy, to which the Roman republican model owed very much.

Finally, the Sicilian campaign proved the new centrality of Italy, which was in a way reinforced as Alexander conquered Greece and then moved eastward, leaving Syracuse and Tarentum independent.

2.7 Second Sicilian War between the Phoenicians and Greeks

When Rome was expanding in central Italy but had not yet engaged the Samnites, and as we saw Sicily had been ravaged by the spillover of the war between Athens and Sparta, by 410 BC Carthage had recovered from its defeat by the Greeks. It had conquered much of modern day Tunisia and strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa; Hanno the Navigator had made his journey down the African coast[32], and Himilco the Navigator had explored the European Atlantic coast. Expeditions were also led into Morocco and Senegal, as well as into the Atlantic. In the same year, the Iberian colonies seceded, cutting off Carthage’s major supply of silver and copper, while Hannibal Mago, the grandson of Hamilcar, began preparations to reclaim Sicily. In 409 BC before returning to Carthage he captured the smaller cities of Selinus and Himera in an apparent attempt to prepare a beachhead on the island. In 405 BC Hannibal Mago led a second expedition to try to conquer the entire island. This time, however, he met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the siege of Agrigento, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague, and Hannibal Mago himself died of it. His successor, Himilco, successfully extended the campaign by breaking a Greek siege, capturing the city of Gela, and repeatedly defeating the army of Dionysius, the new tyrant of Syracuse, while he, too, was weakened by the plague and forced to sue for peace before returning home. The situation stalled for seven years, with the Phoenicians in the west and the Greeks in the east and the center.

In 398 BC, Dionysius had regained his strength and broke the peace treaty, striking at the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina[33]. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself. The siege was close to a success in 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces and they collapsed.

This did not stop the war. The fighting swung in favor of Carthage in 387 BC. After winning a naval battle off the coast of Catania, Himilco laid siege to Syracuse with 50,000 Carthaginians, but yet another epidemic struck down thousands of them. Dionysius then launched a counterattack by land and sea, and the Syracusans surprised the enemy fleet while most of the crews were ashore, destroying all the Carthaginian ships. At the same time, Dionysius’ ground forces stormed the besiegers’ lines and routed the Carthaginians. Himilco and his chief officers abandoned their army and fled Sicily. Himilco returned to Carthage in disgrace and starved himself to death.

Sicily by this time had become an absolute priority for Carthage, the key to control the region and to stop Greek advances in the Mediterranean. Over the next fifty years, Carthaginian and Greek forces engaged in a constant skirmishes. By 340 BC, Carthage had been pushed entirely into the southwest corner of the island, and an uneasy peace reigned over the island. Both main powers of Italy were battling each other, while Rome had moved south in the peninsula, challenging the Greek colonies. Rome and Carthage were allied against the Greeks, and the Roman army had applied some dramatic innovation, which were to prove successful against the phalanx.

2.8 The manipular formation: the development of the legion

The Roman-Etruscan phalanx met with great problems when fighting fellow Italic tribes like the Volsces or the Samnintes[34]. Traditionally the introduction of the manipular (the name comes from manus (hand), as in the English word manipulate, easy to maneuver with the gesture of one hand) formation, more flexible than the phalanx, is attributed to consul Marcus Furius Camillus, who allegedly introduced it shortly after the bitter defeat of Gallic invasion in 390 BC. It is likely however that it was introduced after the many setbacks and defeats of the second Samnite war (326–304 BC). Here the agile tactics of the Samnites proved unbeatable for the cumbersome phalanx when moving in the rugged forest terrain of central and southern Italy. The change was radical and of huge consequence for the history of the world. Rather than having a massive force of thousands of men deployed along a few parallel lines, the Romans organized maniples, units of 120 men each based upon social class, age, and military experience. They were typically deployed into three discrete lines based on the three heavy infantry types.

Each first-line maniple consisted of leather-armored infantry soldiers with a bronze breastplate and a bronze helmet adorned with 3 feathers approximately 30 cm in height who carried an iron-clad wooden shield about 120 cm high, almost rectangular in shape, wider at the center and smaller at the two ends. They were armed with a short sword with a fairly large blade and two throwing spears.

The second infantry line was armed and armored in the same manner as was the first infantry line but wore a lighter coat of mail rather than a solid brass breastplate. The third infantry line was the last remnant of the hoplite-style troops in the Roman army. They were armed and armored in the same manner as the soldiers in the second line, with the exception that they carried a lighter spear.

The weapons indicate a very important change in tactics, underscored by Santuosso. The spears were not used to thrust against the enemy front line. They were shorter and lighter than those of the phalanx and were thrown at the enemy or used in close-contact fights where the hoplite fought behind the heavily armored shield. The shield itself started becoming an instrument of offense as well as defense. Holding it in an angular position, it defended the legionaries as well as attacked and hurt the enemy at very vulnerable points, the feet and shins. The enemy, hurt by the iron hem of the shield, would trip, fall, and could be finished with the spear or the sword (gladius) ably maneuvered behind the shield. The shield, inclined at different angles, could also deflect the longer and stronger spears of the phalanx. Moreover the smaller maniples would protect each others flanks and could move independently, limiting the tactical risk of a flanking maneuver, which since Epaminondas had be shown to be the weak point of the phalanx.

The timing of the introduction of the maniples is also interesting. The Romans came to use at the turn of the 4th century, at the end of the time of Alexander the Great, when the Macedonian phalanx had proved its might but also shown it was extremely mighty but not invincible. Moreover, unlike the Macedonian phalanx, by then a body of professional warriors who did nothing but fight, Romans were still part-time warriors and citizens. The three infantry classes retained some slight parallel to the social divisions within Roman society, although they were officially based upon age and experience rather than social class. Young, unproven men would serve in the first line, older men with some military experience would serve in the second line, and veteran troops of advanced age and experience would serve in the third line.

The heavy infantry of the maniples were supported by a number of light infantry and cavalry troops, typically 300 horsemen per manipular legion. The cavalry was drawn primarily from the richest class of equestrians. There was an additional class of troops who followed the army without specific martial roles and were deployed to the rear of the third line. Their role in accompanying the army was primarily to fill any vacancies that might occur in the maniples. The light infantry consisted of 1,200 unarmored skirmishing troops drawn from the youngest and lower social classes. They were armed with a sword and a small shield, as well as several light javelins to be thrown at the enemy before the actual clash to try to thin enemy ranks.

War also was a way to gain honor and riches, something that guaranteed upward mobility, even for slaves, who in dire times would be pushed up the ranks of the legion.

Therefore at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, Rome had the social structure and incentive (promise of a better life), the political structure (greater integration of plebeians into the life of Rome without falling into the distorted trappings of Athenian democracy), and a tactical instrument and weapons (the manipular legion based on iron-clad shields) to start facing its next formidable opponent, the Greeks of southern Italy in Tarentum supported by the Macedonian war machine. Moreover, Rome had structured a very effective system of alliances with the defeated Italic tribes, which although beaten were not vanquished or razed to the ground by the winning Romans and were granted rights as socii (associated) similar to those of Romans.

But to defeat Tarentum they also needed a new element, an alliance with the old power in the Mediterranean, the Carthaginian Empire.

2.9 Rome fights the Greeks allied with Carthage

Peace in Sicily between Greeks and Carthaginians was fragile. Carthage had made inroads in the island, the crown prize of the war between Sparta and Athens. Yet in 315 BC Syracuse seized the city of Messina, reclaiming some of its old possessions, and in 311 BC it invaded the last Carthaginian stronghold on Sicily and laid siege to Agrigento.[35] The Phoenicians did not stay idle. Immediately Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, led the Carthaginian response and met with tremendous success. By 310 BC, he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself. In a move that was later to be imitated by the Romans of Scipio the African during the second Carthaginian war against Hannibal, Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, sent an expedition of 14,000 men to the African mainland, Carthage’s heartland. Carthage fearing a direct threat to itself recalled Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected challenge. Agathocles’ army was eventually defeated in 307 BC, but Syracuse was able to negotiate a peace that maintained its power in Sicily.

But just as the Macedonians were bringing Greek civilization all over the eastern Mediterranean and up to India, Greek power was waning in Italy. About a generation after the last war between Phoenicians and Greeks, Romans descended south and challenged a power greater than Syracuse in southern Italy, Tarentum. The city had been ruled by mathematician cum inventor cum philosopher Archytas (428–347 BC), who had been the model for Plato in his Republic. He is credited with inventing, designing, and building the first artificial self-propelled flying device, a bird-shaped model thrust by a jet of what was probably steam and said to have flown some 200 meters[36]. He was allegedly undefeated as a general in campaigns against southern Italian neighbors. The “Seventh Letter” of Plato asserts that Archytas attempted to rescue him when he was imprisoned by Dionysius II of Syracuse for attempting to stage some kind of coup there.

His writings are all lost, but his achievements had left the city in a very strong position at the turn of the century. Extremely rich—it was possibly the center of gold manufacture[37] in the central and western Mediterranean—Taranto had supported the Macedonian kingdom of Epirus in its fights in what is now roughly modern Albania.

The fight began because another Greek city, Thury, set near old Sybaris, sent for the Romans in its quarrel with Taranto. Rome sent diplomats to Taranto, but the Roman ambassador was insulted and mocked by members of the popular party. The senate declared war on Taranto. In 281 BC, Roman legions entered Taranto and plundered it. Taranto, with Samnite and Salentinian reinforcements, had lost a battle against the Romans. But the war was not over, since the Tarentines called on support from Pyrrhus and 3,000 soldiers from Epirus came to the town forcing the withdrawal of the Romans[38].

Pyrrhus believed he could count on help from the local populations: Samnites, Lucanians, and Bruttii, all enemies of Rome. He planned to help Taranto, then move to Sicily and attack Carthage. After winning a war there and capturing southern Italy, he would have enough money to organize a strong army and conquer all of Macedonia. He took in some phalanxes from Macedonia and ships, money, warriors, and elephants from the Hellenistic kings of Syria and Egypt. He also recruited warriors in Greece, who caved in to his requests to avoid a war with him. Some of these forces were to defend Epirus when he was away, others had to be brought to Italy to fight Rome and Carthage. If Pyrrhus had managed to conquer Macedonia, the heartland of Hellenistic power then, he could become the heir to Alexander’s greatness. As with Sparta and Athens, Italy was once again the main theater of a war with vast implications for the Greek power, then the center of the Western world.

In the spring of 280 BC, Pyrrhus landed without losses in Italy. He had 20,000 infantry (pike-men from Epirus and Macedonia, mercenary hoplites from around Greece), 500 slingers, 2,000 archers, 3,000 cavalry from Thessaly (the elite horsemen of the time), and 20 elephants, a new war machine Macedonians learned to use from the Indians, probably when Alexander’s phalanxes were scared and crushed by the huge beasts with armored plates and carrying warriors on top.

After Pyrrhus’ arrival, the Romans mobilized eight legions with auxiliaries, for a total of about 80,000 soldiers (each legion at the time had some 5,000 men plus about as many auxiliaries), and divided them into four armies. The size of the Roman army then gives an idea of how powerful and rich Rome had become if it could mobilize and equip this many people. A Roman army marched to Taranto, with 30,000 legionnaires and auxiliaries. Pyrrhus moved from Taranto to regroup with its allies, but met the Romans and decided to fight them next to Heraclea. Pyrrhus won this first encounter, but it was not as easy as anticipated and his casualties were very high. Pyrrhus thought that the Roman army would be an easy target for his Macedonian phalanx, but legions proved immediately to be stronger than expected. Plus, Rome, fighting on its own terrain, could raise a large army, while Pyrrhus, far from home, could count on fewer veterans. Lastly, as Pyrrhus moved toward Rome after his first victory, he did not meet with much support. Many of the people ruled by Rome stayed loyal, and Pyrrhus did not manage to rally them. He was forced to return near Taranto and wait for the Romans to get to him.

They came a year later, in 279 BC, and Pyrrhus defeated them again and again with many casualties. But by then, most men Pyrrhus had brought over from Epirus were disabled or dead, including nearly all of his officers and friends. Recruiting locally was very difficult, and his allies were unreliable. The Romans, on the other hand, quickly replaced their losses with fresh men, and with every defeat, the Romans were becoming more determined to win. In fact, the Romans had lost but stood their ground against the most powerful army of the time, the Macedonians. This proved to the Romans their own strength and emboldened them.

Moreover, the overall result of the war—Pyrrhus growing weaker at each victory and the Romans growing stronger at each loss—gave Rome a new strategic dimension in the conflict, which was named after the Macedonian general and passed on to all of the Western culture: the of “Pyrrhic victory,” a very costly victory in a battle that undermines the ultimate victory in the war.

Romans had time to make up for their losses also because Pyrrhus was asked by Syracuse to fight the Carthaginians. Initially, his Sicilian campaign against the Phoenicians was a success, pushing back the Carthaginian forces and capturing the Carthaginian stronghold of Eryx, even though he was not able to capture Lilybaeum[39]. Carthage sued for peace, and it may have been time for Pyrrhus to cash in on his victory after the inconclusive campaign against Rome, but he actually thought otherwise. Pyrrhus demanded Carthage to renounce all its claims on Sicily. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus set his sights on conquering Carthage itself, and to this end, began outfitting an expedition.

Still, his ruthless treatment of the Sicilian cities in his preparations for this expedition and his execution of two Sicilian rulers whom he claimed were plotting against him led to a rise in animosity towards the Greeks, so Pyrrhus withdrew from Sicily and returned to deal with Taranto, with the front against Carthage still open. He proved to be a very good tactician but a very bad strategist.

The war with Rome revived in 276 BC, but in 275 BC the Romans matched and beat Pyrrhus in Beneventum. There Romans used incendiary arrows trusting the local winds (notoriously evil, thus the original name of the place, male ventum, “bad wind”) to turn the flames against Pyrrhus. And so it happened: the Macedonians were routed and the city was renamed Beneventum (good wind) for the battle. Clearly this battle reminds the other fought over half a millennium later in China on a river by Cao Cao and the state of Chu and won then by Zhuge Liang, also a master tactician but a poor strategist, who won many battles but failed to secure the war for his master Liu Bei.

After the defeat Pyrrhus sent for reinforcements but none came and so he returned to Epirus, with only 8,500 men. The Romans conquered Taranto in 272 BC, due to the treachery of the local soldiers, and demolished its defensive walls. Some 30,000 of the Greek inhabitants were sold as slaves and many works of art were carried off to Rome.

It was the end of the Greek power in Italy. The former Greek colonies were de facto split, the Sicilian ones went under the Phoenician sphere of influence, the rest of southern Italy fell under Rome.

Rome had come out of its political and military infancy. It proved to itself and to the world it could fight and defeat the best army of the time, something that not even the powerful Phoenicians had been able to do, as they lost in Sicily against Pyrrhus. Besides all the structural elements the Roman republic had, the Pyrrhic wars gave Rome a strategic depth and sense of resilience that was to be essential for all its history and its wars. Limited, restricted defeats should not make the Roman strategist lose focus on the main strategic objective, which was to be the ultimate goal. This was to be extremely important for the victory in the Punic wars, which were to bring the Roman power to the beginning of its maturity.

[1] See also Mary Beard “SPQR” 2015. Her detailed and accurate examination of roman history has been very important for my understanding of the period although I don’t always share her conclusions.

[2] See Livius. Ab Urbe Condita. Book I, 4.

[3] Strabo. Geography. V, 3.2.

[4] For the following, see Pietro De Francisci’s Sintesi storica del diritto romano, p. 51 and following.

[5] Plutarch. Vita di Numa, Italian edition. II, 6-7.

[6] Brancati, Antonio. Civiltà a confronto, Vol. I. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1984. 293.

[7] Plutarch. Vita di Numa. XVIII, 1-4

[8] See Theodor Mommsen’s Storia di Roma antica (Florence: Sansoni, 1972) and Massimo Pallottino’s Origini e storia primitiva di Roma (Milan: Rusconi, 1993.

[9] See Strabone. Geografia, Italian edition. V, 3, 7.

[10] Strabone. Geografia. V, 2.2.

[11] Livius, Periochae ad Urbe condita libri. 1.36.

[12] Cornell, T.J. The Beginnings of Rome. London: Routledge, 1995. 135–139.

[13] Floro. Epitoma de Tito Livio bellorum omnium annorum DCC. I, 6.3.

[14] Livy. Periochae ab Urbe condita libri. 1.40.

[15] Livy. Ab urbe condita. 1.50-52

[16] See Eckstein, Arthur. Rome Enters the Greek East. 42.

[17] Grant. The History of Rome. p. 33 and following.

[18] Livy. The Rise of Rome. 329. See also: Fox, Lane. The Classical World. 283.

[19] Grant. The History of Rome. 49. See also: Pennell. Ancient Rome. IX, 14.

[20] Abbott, Frank Frost. A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics, 1901. p. 20 and following.

[21] Sekunda. Nicholas V. Early Roman Armies. p. 17 and following

[22] Livy. History of Rome, 1.43 ; Dyonisis of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities, 4.16–18

[23] I owe this detailed explanations to conversations with general Fabio Mini.

[24] I am grateful to James Barker for having brought this up to me.

[25] Green. Greek History 480–431 BC. 1–13.

[26] All the above is based on Goldsworthy, A. “The Othismos, Myths and Heresies: The Nature of Hoplite Battle.” War In History. 1997. 4, 1. Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. Hanson, Victor Davis. Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience. 1991. Lazenby, J.F. The Peloponnesian War: A Military Study, Routledge, 2004. Lendon, J.E. Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity, Yale University Press, 2005.

[27] The following article was first suggested by talk with Mu Chen. However, in the course of the years I have talked about the subject with many people but particularly with Mr Huang Feng, Mr Xu Guodong and Ms Fei Anling.To all of them I am grateful. All mistakes are in any case mine.

[28] Kagan. The Archidamian War

[29] Fine, The Ancient Greeks, 476. See also Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 3.86.

[30] Kagan. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. 191.

[31] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. 6.43.

[32] See Miller, M. C. J. Periplus: Or, Circumnavigation (of Africa). 1995. Brodersen, Kai. Geography in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge University Press.

[33] See Bath, Tony. Hannibal’s Campaigns: The Story of One of the Greatest Military Commanders of All Time. Barnes & Noble, 1992. Kern, Paul B. Ancient Siege Warfare. Indiana University Press, 1999.

[34] The following account is based mainly on the following works: Santosuosso, Storming the Heavens. Webster, The Roman Imperial Army. Smith, Service in the Post-Marian Roman Army. Gabba, Republican Rome, The Army and The Allies.

[35] See Finley, Moses I. Ancient Sicily. Rowman and Littlefield, 1979.

[36] Winter, Thomas Nelson. “The Mechanical Problems in the Corpus of Aristotle.” Digital Commons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 2007.

[37] See also the unique collection of ancient gold in the museum in Taranto.

[38] Zoronas. viii.2.

[39] For this and the following part, see Plutarch. Life of Pyrrhus. Tucker, Spencer. A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East. ABC-CLIO, 2009.