Chapter 3: Conquering the Mediterranean and the Western world: the Punic and domestic wars

3.1 Context of the wars and the role of the Mediterranean

The Punic wars, stretching for about a century from 264 BC to 146 BC[1], were for the Western world what the wars of unification in China were with the first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi at about the same time. They unified the Western world by imposing the power of one entity over what was the centerpiece of the West, the Mediterranean Sea. This sea was in many aspects what the central plain stretching around the lower reaches of the Yellow River was to China, a space of exchanges and communication. However because of its different nature—a sea and not an expanse of land—the means for control and power had to be very different. The sea could not be controlled in detail, parceled, and taxed to peasants or landlords for production and effective harnessing. It was more about regulating trade and exchanges on all sides of the known world.

The importance of the Mediterranean can’t be overstated in history: since the Romans conquered it in the Punic wars and lost it with the fall of the Western empire in the late fifth century AD, every power up to now has been trying to establish its own exclusive control over the Mediterranean and all have failed so far. The control of Chinese central plains establishes a very strong, self-sufficient, powerful yet defensive position[2]. With sea to the east, mountains to the south and southwest, and highlands and steppes in the north and northeast, old Chinese enemies had to cross formidable physical barriers to attack the rich empire in the central plains. Then they would meet a well-organized army able to keep them at bay. Thus they would run this double risk (crossing the barrier and challenging the army) only in times of dire desperation or great perceived weakness in the Chinese empire. The dire straits of the neighbors could be staved off, as the central empire would gladly pay off its enemies, who were surely more inclined to gain a little for no risk than to try to get a lot with a lot of risks.

However, if the empire was facing political difficulties it would not have enough resources to pay off the enemies, and thus it would create a double incentive for neighbors to probe in the central plains: they would not receive resources to live on from the Chinese empire and this lack of supply would also indicate that resistance to invasion would be weaker.

The Mediterranean was a completely different affair. It was not a defensive barrier geographically—if anything, it was a conduit for offense. Fleets could set off from afar and move undetected for months until they pounced on the enemies on any shore of this sea. The first occasion of this, as we saw, was the offensive of the Sea People, who around the 12 century BC managed to ruin both the Egyptian and the Hittite empires (the latter heir of the Mesopotamian empires) on the east and southeast end of the sea. These two empires were undoubtedly the most powerful of the time and yet suffered greatly from the undetected attack coming from afar and from the sea. The same was de facto true until the invention of radar in the 1940s! A powerful hold on this sea route provided an ability to strike a surprise attack on any of the states with a beachhead in the Mediterranean. Even if the attack was not conclusive, it would be in any case very disruptive and thus it would deter any state without sea power in favor of the state with sea power.

In other words, the control of the Mediterranean granted the upper hand and an offensive posture and could bend into submission especially organized states and imperial organizations whose internal structure could be upset by a well-aimed assault. The Romans, who in 146 BC had bested not only the Phoenicians but also the Phoenicians’ longtime adversaries, the Greeks, were the first and thus far the only power that could do that. They could threaten any power reaching into the Mediterranean Sea. Then, by the dominating the Mediterranean, they became virtually without external enemies and this in turn, as we shall see, set forth other domestic dynamics.

An important element in these wars was also that Greek power in the eastern Mediterranean, until then the paramount force in the ancient world, was shattered. Alexander’s conquests were divided among his generals, and the new Hellenic states were competing among each other, each more worried about its neighbor than about the two rising powers in the west, Carthage and Rome. The defeat of Pyrrhus and of the Greek colonies in Italy led by Taranto did not create great alarm or reaction among the Hellenistic states.

Nobody saw in the loss of Italy a move foreshadowing a larger bid for the whole Mediterranean. At the beginning of the First Punic War, Hellenistic states may have considered the rise of Rome a counterbalance in the west to their old enemy–the Phoenicians of Carthage. In fact, at its onset, Romans intervened in favor of Greeks, the Mamertines of Messana (modern Messina), against attacking Carthage. Then the fight of the Romans, allied to the Greeks and Carthage, could be seen as a latest development in an old script. It was in fact set against the backdrop of decades of struggle between the Greeks and Phoenicians over Sicily, this was far more apparent rather than the rise of a new power. The fact that Romans had fought the Greeks just before with the support of Carthage could have been a small incident in light of centuries of Greek-Phoenician rivalry.

Moreover the fight between Alexander’s successors had stabilized only around 280 BC, shortly before the beginning of the Punic wars. Then there were four main competing domains: the Antigonid Dynasty in Macedonia and central Greece, the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt based in Alexandria, the Seleucid Dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia based in Antioch, and the Attalid Dynasty in Anatolia based in Pergamum. Each domain saw its rivals as the main threat and overlooked the rise of Rome especially until the end of the First Punic War, in 241 BC. By then the balance of power in the Mediterranean had already shifted and Rome was able to play one Hellenistic state against the other and defeat, as we shall see, both Carthage and Hellenistic states at the same time.

3.2 The First Punic War, the largest war of recorded Western antiquity

The First Punic War ended with Rome’s victory over its enemy. It was very long—23 years, from 264 to 241 BC—and it did not grant an ultimate victory to Rome. But it established a firm basis for Roman power and the stamina to win the even more complicated and challenging Second Punic War against Rome’s single greatest existential threat: Hannibal Barca, one of the greatest generals of all times.

At the onset of the war in 264 BC, Carthage had all the advantages: a large, organized empire; an experienced fleet; extensive, tested practice in warfare abroad; and a rich mercantile domain that supplied plenty of different resources. Rome conversely had none of that. It had fought and won many wars, but only within its own home turf, Italy. It had no fleet to speak of, no experience fighting afar, and no mercantile power to fund its war efforts. Yet Rome proved very skilled at quickly adapting to its enemy and possibly it felt it had more to lose in a defeat. Carthage had suffered many setbacks in its history, against the Greeks for instance, and none of them had proved fatal. Every time, Carthage had bounced back stronger than ever. Rome was possibly not in the same position. Fresh from victories against the formidable Samnites and Greeks, it had a momentum Carthage didn’t have but may have also had unprecedented worries. A defeat would send Rome back with no guarantee of future ways of recovering from that defeat.

The beginning of the war was very controversial in Rome, according to Roman historian Polybius[3]. Romans debated at length whether to adhere to the request for help coming from the Mamertines, who had occupied Messana and were being attacked by Carthage, who in turn had just defeated Syracuse. Certainly at the beginning nobody saw a long and difficult war, it was viewed as more a limited effort and at the beginning it seemed so.

Two Roman legions landed in Sicily, broke the Messana siege, and marched to Syracuse, which sided with Rome by providing supplies and a fleet, two crucial elements in the future fight with Carthage, which had both a fleet and shorter supply lines from the neighboring north African coast in modern Tunisia. Then many Sicilian cities, Carthage’s subjects, turned with Rome and against their former master, and thus Carthage prepared for a larger war. It built a mercenary army in Africa, partly composed of Ligurians, Celts, and Iberians, indicating the strength of the reach of Carthage, but also possibly a sign of weakness against the Romans, whose legions were made up of servicemen fighting for their own home. According to the historian Philinus, Carthage had a massive army composed of 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 60 elephants[4]. Against this the Romans fielded four legions, which met the Carthaginians in Agrigentum and defeated them.

This could have been the end of the conflict, as it happened many times with the Greeks, but the Romans had already been preparing for the next stage of war, which seems to indicate a broader strategic ambition of the Romans. They were not happy with just securing Sicily but understood the strategic importance of naval warfare for the outcome of the hostilities[5], so basically from scratch they built a fleet. It is still open to debate how the Romans came to have a fleet with no previous experience. They might have had some help from old seafarers the Etruscans and certainly Syracuse played an important role. The ships’ designs could have come from Phoenicians, with their triremes and quinquiremes[6]. Crucial in any event was Roman engineering ingenuity. To their ships they added a mobile bridge, the corvus, which allowed Roman soldiers to board an enemy ship by having their own ship alongside that of the enemy, not ramming it. This skirted the naval confrontation to an almost land fight, where Roman soldiers hand-to-hand experience would prevail on that of the Phoenician mariners.

The new tool would prove its worth in the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC, the first Roman naval victory, when they captured some 50 Carthaginian ships. They would continue to do so in the following years, especially in the huge Battle of Cape Ecnomus. The addition of the corvus forced Carthage to review its military tactics, and since the city had difficulty in doing so, Rome had the naval advantage.

As a result of the Ecnomus battle, the Roman army led by Regulus landed in North Africa. At first, Regulus won and forced Carthage to sue for peace. But the terms were so heavy that negotiations failed and, in response, the Carthaginians hired Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary, to reorganize the army. Xanthippus defeated the Roman army, captured Regulus at the Battle of Tunis, and then managed to cut off the remainder of the Roman army from its base. The Romans then sent a rescue expedition that managed to recover the rest of the troops, but was caught in a storm and perhaps over 90,000 men were lost. Carthage then went back to Agrigentum, retook it, and razed it to the ground.

That war, waged mainly in Sicily, proved extremely costly in terms of soldiers lost and resources squandered to build new ships. The turning point came not from a decisive victory on the field but from a domestic turn of events in Carthage. The Carthaginian faction that opposed the conflict, led by the landowning Hanno the Great, gained power and in 244 BC, and considering the war to be over, started the demobilization of the fleet, giving the Romans a chance to again attain naval superiority. Inconclusive fighting went on until 241 BC when the Romans won the naval battle of the Aegates Islands. By then Carthage had lost most of its fleet and was economically incapable or unwilling of funding another or finding manpower for new crews[7]. Conversely the richest Romans had put in their own money to fund their fleet. This was a decisive factor in the war. The Roman Republic was able to attract private investment in the war effort to fund ships and crews with the promise of high returns in the case of victory. This pattern contrasted with the Carthaginian nobility’s apparent unwillingness to risk their fortunes for the war effort. Possibly the Carthaginians, who still had large possessions in Africa and Spain, could hedge their losses while the Romans could not, and had to use all their resources or lose everything.

The Romans won at sea, yet they lost large forces in storms. It is thought that the heavy corvus made ships unstable in bad weather, and so this bridge was made detachable to give more maneuverability to the mariners.

According to Polybius, it was the most destructive conflict in terms of casualties in the history of warfare, including the battles of Alexander the Great, who conquered half of the world and reached India and Central Asia. Possibly over 300,000 men in all were lost. The Romans gained much less than Alexander, but the body count was less than the wars of Qin Shi Huangdi, who according to historian Sima Qian came to power by killing well over a million, including the battle of Fei in 233 BC in which more than 100,000 were killed in a single battle[8].

However, the differing scale of human losses in Rome and China might have been caused also by a different ways of dealing with prisoners of war. In China prisoners were often executed; in Rome they were enslaved.

In any event, with the peace Rome and Carthage agreed upon the following:

● Carthage evacuated Sicily and the small islands west of it (Aegadian Islands).

● Carthage returned their prisoners of war without ransom, while paying a heavy ransom on their own.

● Carthage refrained from attacking Syracuse and its allies.

● Carthage transferred a group of small islands north of Sicily (the Aeolian Islands and Ustica) to Rome.

● Carthage evacuated all of the small islands between Sicily and Africa (Pantelleria, Linosa, Lampedusa, Lampione, and Malta).

● Carthage paid an indemnity of 2,200 talent (66 tons) of silver in ten annual installments, plus an additional indemnity of 1,000 talents (30 tons) immediately.

Rome also took Sardinia and Corsica from Carthage while Carthage was putting down a mercenary uprising. Carthage had refused to pay its mercenaries after the conflict and they revolted.

The end of the First Punic War marked the start of the expansion beyond the Italian peninsula. Sicily became the first Roman province (Sicilia) governed by a former praetor instead of an ally. Sicily would become very important to Rome as a source of grain. From here came the special durum wheat necessary to make Italian noodles, still a staple food in Italy.

Carthage, seeking to make up for the recent territorial losses and in need of a plentiful source of silver to pay the large indemnity owed to Rome, turned its attention to Iberia; and in 237 BC, the Carthaginians began a series of campaigns to expand their control over the peninsula. It was this expansion that led to the Second Punic War when Carthage besieged the Roman protected town of Saguntum in 218 BC, igniting a conflict with Rome

3.3 Hannibal, Carthage’s defeat, and the end of Punic and Greek wars

The Second Punic War, from 218 to 201 BC, is the war of Hannibal, the most famous enemy of the Romans. All historical accounts are Roman and the conclusion of the story was, if even the great Hannibal could not beat us, then nobody can. It was a cautionary tale, a warning to Rome’s enemies. So Rome turned its greatest enemy into its best ally, building a narrative of Rome being invincible and thus eternal.

Rome had won the First Punic War in an indecisive way. The Carthaginian aristocracy had grown tired of funding the conflict and the mercenaries revolted—in other words the internal fiber of Carthage had changed during the conflict; it was not that Rome marked a clear result. Rome’s stamina proved greater, its aristocracy more willing to suffer, but on land the legion had no clear advantage over the Phoenician army made of trained professionals hired for their skills from all of the known world. Clearly the Roman fleet had established its supremacy over the Phoenicians, winning all major clashes. But it was on land that the Romans had been checked, and the Roman general Regulus caused the conflict to turn by bringing the war to Carthage’s doorstep, with the battle of Bagradas (255 BC) which took place in Africa. Regulus was beaten, but possibly the Carthaginians understood that the threat had come closer to home. Then this was an indication of how to fight the next war.

Hannibal devised the Second Punic War not simply as a great tactician, but also with a broad strategic and political view. He would bring the war to Rome, sow discord among Roman allies, break down the social pact holding the Roman state together, and not only reestablish Carthage’s supremacy but also expand it in unprecedented ways.

For this Hannibal had ample resources, in both material in and ideals. The new Carthaginian expansion in Iberia gave Hannibal substantial funds to pay for his campaigns; moreover the recent Roman extensions have made a lot of new enemies—first of all the belligerent Gauls living across northern Italy and France. They felt pressured and threatened by the new Roman ambitions and provided a crucial element for Hannibal’s strategy: they helped him cross the Alps for the first time with a large and organized military expedition. Hannibal arrived with at least 28,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 30 war elephants in the territory of the Taurini Gauls, in what is now Piedmont, northern Italy. While this crossing was expected by the Romans, they had not anticipated such an early arrival and their forces were still in their winter quarters[9]. His crossing is considered one of the greatest achievements in military logistics, as he crossed the Alps through hostile territory in late autumn with no supply line. His surprise entry into the Italian peninsula led to the termination of Rome’s main intended thrust, an invasion of Africa.

Hannibal then immediately won a series of battles especially at Trebia and Lake Trasimene, which put the Roman troops on the defensive. One of Rome’s best generals, Publius Cornelius Scipio, was wounded in an early engagement, Gallic Italy revolted, and Romans were afraid to engage Hannibal directly. The Romans then turned to a strategy of skirmishes led by Quintus Fabius Maximus that would weaken Hannibal while strengthening the alliance with its central Italian allies.

The war dragged on without any decisive move on either side. The Romans didn’t break up or seek peace with Hannibal, and neither did Hannibal move into Rome. In the meantime Hannibal’s forces were dwindling and a massive Roman army moved to close in on Hannibal in Cannae, Apulia. On August 2, 216 BC, possibly the most famous battle of Western antiquity took place with the first detailed encirclement maneuver. Here a force of some 50,000 Carthaginians faced an army of some 86,400 Romans. At the end of the battle, some 75,000 Romans were killed and 10,000 were taken prisoner, versus only 5,700 Carthaginians killed. Basically the Carthaginian infantry made an orderly retreat and held its ground after the first clash; then Hannibal’s cavalry, more numerous and better trained, prevailed on the Roman cavalry from the wings, attacked the Roman infantry from behind, and routed it. The problem was also the system of command, which changed every day between the two consuls in charge of the army and the republic.

Hannibal made the most of his own tactical advantage: his better and more numerous cavalry, whose were deployed before the legion’s heavy infantry could be lined up.

For Rome it was a blow of historical proportions—the lesson of Cannae was played and replayed for centuries in Roman and Western history books. Yet the most important element is that despite the enormous massacre, Rome did not seek peace, and Hannibal did not rush to set siege to Rome. The battle if anything underscored the Roman resolve to fight Carthage whereas in time it shook the Phoenician confidence that Rome could be beaten.

In effect the battle of Cannae started a process of reforming the structure of the Roman army that boosted the power of the army but also eventually forever changed Roman political institutions.

In the years following Cannae, striking reforms were introduced to address these deficiencies. First, the Romans “articulated the phalanx, then divided it into columns, and finally split it up into a great number of small tactical bodies that were capable, now of closing together in a compact impenetrable union, now of changing the pattern with consummate flexibility, of separating one from the other and turning in this or that direction.” For instance, at battle of Ilipa and Zama, the principes were formed well to the rear of the hastati—a deployment that allowed a greater degree of mobility and maneuverability. The culminating result of marked the transition of the basic infantry unity of the Roman army from the traditional manipular system to the cohort under Gaius Marius.

In addition, a unified command came to be seen as a necessity. After various political experiments, Scipio Africanus was made general-in-chief of the Roman armies in Africa and was assured this role for the duration of the war. This appointment may have violated the constitutional laws of the Roman republic but, as Delbrück wrote, it “effected an internal transformation that increased her military potentiality enormously”[10] while foreshadowing the decline of the republic’s political institutions. Furthermore, the battle exposed the limits of a citizen-militia army. Following Cannae, the Roman army gradually developed into a professional force: the nucleus of Scipio’s army at Zama was composed of veterans who had been fighting the Carthaginians in Hispania for nearly sixteen years and had been molded into a superb fighting force.

With these reforms Scipio Africanus brought the war back to Africa and beat Hannibal in Zama in 202 BC with the same tactics used by Hannibal—having the Roman cavalry attack the Phoenician forces from behind. The defeat broke Carthage’s mettle to fight. Carthage surrendered, and Hannibal tried to push some reforms but was sent into exile. He offered military aid to the Hellenistic kingdoms in the east but was pursued by Romans who were then expanding east into the Greek world.

After the political demise of Carthage, Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire were the two major powers of the eastern Mediterranean during the period the wars were fought, and their defeat brought the Greek world, indirectly at least, under Roman control. The most significant war was that fought with the Seleucid Empire, while the most significant adversary was Macedonia, which was closer to Rome. Both of these wars effectively marked the end of these empires as major world powers, even though neither of them led immediately to overt Roman domination[11] in the conquered territories. Four separate wars were fought against the weaker power, Macedonia, due to its geographic proximity to Rome, though the last two wars were against haphazard insurrections rather than powerful armies. Roman influence gradually dissolved Macedonian independence and digested it into what was becoming the leading empire of the Western world. The outcome of the war with the Seleucid Empire was ultimately fatal to it as well, though the growing influence of Parthia and Pontus prevented additional conflicts with Rome.

From the close of the Macedonian wars until the early Roman Empire, the eastern Mediterranean had remained an ever shifting network of polities with varying levels of independence from, dependence on, or outright military control by Rome. According to Polybius, who tried to understand how Rome came to dominate the Greek east in less than a century, Rome’s wars there were set in motion after several Greek city-states sought Roman protection against the Macedonian Kingdom and Seleucid Empire in the face of a destabilizing situation created by the weakening of Ptolemaic Egypt, also an Hellenistic empire, which was crumbling and opened opportunities for expansion by the more aggressive Macedonia and Seleucid Empire.

In contrast to the western Mediterranean, largely in the hands of the Phoenicians, the Greek east had been dominated by major empires for centuries, and Roman influence and alliance-seeking led to wars with these empires that further weakened them and therefore created an unstable power vacuum that only Rome was capable of filling.

Some historians[12] see the growing Roman influence over the east, as with the west, not as a matter of intentional empire-building, but constant crisis management narrowly focused on accomplishing short-term goals within a highly unstable, unpredictable, and interdependent network of alliances and dependencies. With some major exceptions of outright military rule (such as parts of mainland Greece), the eastern Mediterranean world remained an alliance of independent city-states and kingdoms (with varying degrees of independence, both de jure and de facto) until it transitioned into the Roman Empire[13]. It wasn’t until the time of the Roman Empire that the eastern Mediterranean, along with the entire Roman world, was organized into provinces under explicit Roman control.

This expansion of political control, which was later consolidated into more formal and direct power took place from about 214 to 148 BC—that is, at the same time Rome was battling Carthage, the Roman republic took on the Macedonian kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean, defeating them time and again with a reformed army, based on more mobile cohorts made of soldiers who were largely professional and loyal to generals with ample command powers. Then, in the final stages of these wars in the east against the Hellenistic empires, in 149–146 BC, Rome also wanted to secure its position and decided to annihilate Carthage under the slogan Carthago delenda est, “Carthage is to be destroyed.”

It was an action that sealed the fate of Rome’s most formidable enemy and rival in the Mediterranean. After that Rome’s republic had been largely transformed, starting with its army.

The link that had bolstered the republic—between citizenship, military service, and civil service—was broken. Even slaves had been drafted into the army during the Punic wars, and military and civil duty were not simply a revolving door. Soldiers were required to be more professional; that is, they had to neglect their civil duties and accept serving full time in the army for long stretches of time, in return for which they were compensated with land appropriated from conquered territories. Civil duties, or tending to the fields had to be neglected. Their command was no longer changing and in the hands of elected republican officials, but since Scipio Africanus there were generals commanding direct loyalty of the troops. All these measures were taken from Hannibal to defeat him. The innovation extended to, as we saw, changing the structure of the legion, which was divided into smaller, more flexible units able to combine or divide according to the demands of battle. Even the fighting tactics changed, with the adoption of the gladius, a two-edged short, sturdy sword brought to Italy by the Phoenicians. This became a formidable weapon especially in close combat behind the protection of a thick, large, convex shield.

3.4 Civil wars, Marius versus Sulla, and popular versus conservative: the fabric of the Roman republic is torn apart

At the end of the Punic and the Macedonian wars, the republic was a skeleton on which the army and its generals were very powerful and growing autonomous elements. In fact, with professional soldiers, independent generals, and large conquered territories tended by slaves (not citizens-peasants who would take their temporary turn in the army) to dispose of as loot, each legion was a body largely separated from the republic. Moreover, all the conquests had filled the Roman states with slaves who were being employed in growing, exploitative enterprises—mines or large agricultural estates in Sicily, for instance—and were ill treated, because there were simply too many of them. In return, the slaves were more prone to escape, turn into bandits, and thus invite further repression until the situation exploded in slave wars. The overabundance of slaves also created unprecedented social pressure on the lower ranks of society, where some, thanks to the plunder of wars managed to move upwards, but others without much spoils or who had squandered their spoils, were pushed down.

Roman society had become again highly stratified with a new class system different from the patricians and plebeians of the fourth century BC, whose conflicts were bubbling below the surface. This new system consisted of noble families of the senatorial rank, the knights of the equestrian class, and the common citizens, mostly large landowners and plebs or small tenant freemen. Moreover there were free noncitizens who lived outside of southwestern Italy and, at the bottom, slaves. Yet only citizens could vote in certain assemblies, and thus had active participation in the political decision-making of the republic, and only those who owned a certain amount of real property could serve in the military, which would grant them social prestige, the opportunity to gain a share of the conquest, and thus access to the ladder of social promotion[14].

Most of the power remained with the Senate, which had the sole power to pass legislation, and only members of the upper classes, such as former magistrates, were eligible to run for and serve in the Senate. The republic as such had vast estates, which it then let to large landowners who farmed themselves or sublet to free tenants. The estates were mostly newly conquered lots. Since 133 BC Tiberius Gracchus, himself a patrician, took up the cause of the plebs and a law passed limiting the land belonging to the state and stating that any individual could farm. The law aimed at breaking up large estates.

This was a turning point for social struggles in Rome. Passing the new law was part of an intense political in-fight in the Senate. Gracchus bypassed regulations empowering the Senate and limiting the times one could be reelected, and the Senate reacted eventually by assassinating Gracchus. In response to this, mass plebian riots broke out in Rome. Eventually agrarian colonies, distributing conquered land to Roman plebs and modeled on Gracchus’s requests, were established in southern Italy and North Africa. Moreover, Tiberius’ younger brother, Gaius, managed to have a new law approved that allowed the poor to buy grain at subsidized prices. Yet some of his more radical reforms were blocked by the Senate, which established a special Senatorial commission, senatus consultum ultimum (“ultimate decree of the Senate”). Gaius eventually fled Rome and was also killed.

The failure of the two Gracchi brothers to pass reforms that gave necessary status to the poor paved the way for the political arrival onto the scene of Gaius Marius (157-86 BC). He was a populist, like the Gracchi, but unlike them, also a general with a large army loyal only to him and not to the Senate.

Marius was not Roman by birth but born in a small town near the capital and very young when he served under the famous general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal.[15] Marius also married Julia, aunt of Julius Caesar, and ran for consul in 108 BC, after military success in Spain and in the war against the North African king Jugurtha.

At his election, Marius announced his fears of a Barbarian invasion from the northern Gallic tribes and vastly increased the troop numbers, relaxing recruitment requirements. This was something that dramatically changed the Roman army and the fabric of Roman society and its dominions.

Until Marius, the standard requirements to become a soldier were very strict. An individual was required to provide his own arms and uniform. Marius removed the necessity to own land and allowed all Roman citizens entry, regardless of social class. This expanded the pool of potential soldiers, many eager to prove themselves in combat as a path to wealth. It also broke old social barriers and created new ones. The unemployed masses were enlisting alongside the more fortunate citizens, and this created a new social bond (soldiers of different classes fought side by side) and friction (fortunate soldiers felt deprived of their birthright to wealth through war by poorer fellow legionaries).

Poorer citizens were drawn to military service as they were rewarded with the prospect of settlement in conquered land. This also “Romanized” the population in newly subjugated provinces, thus reducing unrest and lowering the chance of revolt against the republic. The new Roman army, its numbers vastly bolstered by lower-class citizens whose futures were tied to their permanent careers, was always able to provide reserves in times of disaster. In addition, the growth of the army ensured continued military success due to the high number of recruits available for each campaign.

From then on, Rome’s legions would largely consist of poor citizens (the capite censi, “headcount”) whose future after service could only be assured if their general could somehow bring about a land distribution for them. Thus the soldiers had a very strong personal interest in supporting their general against anybody else, for instance the Senate (i.e., the oligarchy) and the “public interest” that was often equated with the Senate. Marius did not avail himself fully of this potential source of power, but in less than two decades Marius’ ex-quaestor Sulla would make full use of it against the Senate and Marius.

Large numbers of people relatively new to combat and without experience or tradition called for changes in the organization of the legion. The basic unit was changed from smaller maniples to larger cohorts. Marius formed for the first time a standing army with standardized training and equipment. Drills took place year-round, even in times of peace. The full strength of his legion was about 6,000 men, of whom 4,800 were actual soldiers. The rest were classified as non-combatants. The internal organization of a legion consisted of ten cohorts of six centuries each. The century consisted of 100 men: 80 legionaries and 20 non-combatants.

The century fought as a unit, marched as a unit, and camped as a unit. The century carried with it all the arms and accouterments required to feed and maintain it as a fighting unit. Each man was responsible for carrying his own supplies, weapons, and several days’ worth of rations. This drastically reduced the size of the baggage train required as support and made the army much more mobile. All stressed the esprit de corps against other units and the rest of the Roman society, which felt distant from the experience of the veterans.

Marius was accused of paving the way for the so-called lawless, greedy soldiers whose activities were thought to have contributed largely to the decline and fall of the republic a few generations later. Marius certainly was not the first to enlist the capite censi. At times of extreme crisis in the past, the Senate had pressed plebs, along with convicts and slaves, into service as legionaries. Marius however made a rule of what had been the exception.

Marius employed his soldiers to defeat an invasion by the Germanic Cimbri and Teutons—the first time Rome confronted the tribes that eventually, five centuries later, brought down its western empire. Marius’ political influence and military leadership allowed him to obtain six terms as consul in 107 BC, and 103 to 99 BC. In 99 BC, the Senate used renewed domestic violence to declare another senatus consultum ultimum. The conservative voices against Marius eventually coalesced around one of Marius’ former lieutenants, Sulla.

In 88 BC, the Senate awarded Sulla over Marius the lucrative and powerful post of commander in the war against the Macedonian king Mithridates. However, Marius managed to secure the position anyway through some political deal-making. Sulla initially went along with the situation, but finding support among his troops, seized power in Rome and marched to Asia Minor with his soldiers anyway. There, he fought a largely successful military campaign and was not persecuted by the Senate, that is the Senate didn’t sanction Sulla for having monopolized power in Rome. Marius himself launched a coup in Sulla’s absence and put to death some of his enemies. He instituted a populist regime, but died soon after.

Sulla made peace with Rome’s enemies in the east and began to arrange for his return to Rome. Meanwhile, Cinna, Marius’s populist successor, was killed by his own men as they moved to meet Sulla on foreign soil. Sulla openly rebelled in 84 BC, and when invading the peninsula, he was joined by many aristocrats including Crassus and Pompey and defeated all major opposition within a year. He began a dictatorship that would set the dangerous precedent for Caesar to seize power a few years later, and purged the state of many populists through proscription. A reign of terror followed in which some innocents were denounced just so their property could be seized for the benefit of Sulla’s followers.

Sulla’s coup resulted in a major victory for the oligarchs. He reversed some of the reforms of the Gracchi brothers and other populists, stripped the tribunes of the people of much of their power, and returned authority over the courts to the senators. But he retained the main feature of Marius’ military and social reforms: the popularization of the army. This was to prepare for the populists to return to power and the eventual creation of the empire.

However, other momentous threats were confronting the republic.

3.5 Spartacus and the rebellion of the slaves

Slavery, always a feature of Roman society, had grown immensely with the conquests, and the increased number of slaves had also worsened their living and working conditions[16]. They became cheaper and more easily replaceable, yet the worsening conditions also led to increased desperation of the slaves: if they had nothing to lose and they were already beyond redemption, they might as well kill their masters in trying to rescue themselves. Romans were in particularly grave danger of being harmed by their slaves’ hatred and resentment, and this brought as a reaction further oppression of the slaves, which further spun the vicious circle of danger and threat.

Moreover it was not simple naked cruelty by the Romans. The Roman republic believed in a moral sense of slavery. Slaves consented to their slavery by going after passions rather than liberty: “Slaves were human, but they were the lowest kind of humans, because they … had given up their freedom to chase after an animal, a woman, or life.”[17] Honor was in fact only for free people while “children, women, and slaves were soulless bodies.” Slaves were men lacking animus, dependent, living in degradation, and looked upon merely as “doubles” of their owners.

The inflating number of slaves further debased their status. Actually, Roman slaves could hold property that, despite the fact that it belonged to their masters, they were allowed to use as if it were their own[18]. Skilled or educated slaves were allowed to earn their own money and might hope to save enough to buy their freedom. Such slaves were often freed by the terms of their master’s will or for services rendered. A notable example of a high-status slave was Tiro, the secretary of Cicero. Tiro was freed before his master’s death and was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99.[19] However, these were exceptions for urban slaves, as also described by the great playwright Plautus (251–183 BC) in his Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus, and Mostellaria, telling the story of the wily and entrepreneurial slave Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master to woo the girl next door[20].

The life of Pseudolus was becoming more exceptional after the victories against the Phoenicians in the south and west and the Greeks in the east. In the first century BC, there were between one and two million slaves in Italy, about one slave for each free person. In this situation, the agrarian reforms brought winds of change by breaking the system of large estates and eliminating the necessity of employing large numbers of slaves. This in turn must have given some hope to the slaves, physically and socially close the plebs, who were working their way up the social ladder thanks to Gracchi’s reforms. Rebellions and uprisings of slaves had occurred in Sicily, where slavery in mines was most cruel, but took a new, unprecedented dimension with the revolt of former legion auxiliary and gladiator Spartacus in 73 BC.

It was not the first of these revolts. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that slaves sometimes banded together to plot a revolt, and he chronicled the three major slave rebellions: 135–132 BC (the First Servile War), 104–100 BC (the Second Servile War), and 73–71 BCE (the Third Servile War), the one led by Spartacus.[21]

Spartacus, a Thracian with military experience with the Romans, had become a slave because he tried to desert the army. In 73 BC he fled a gladiator training camp near Capua, next to Naples, and with a few dozens fellow gladiators and the school’s arsenal of weapons took refuge in the wild woods around Vesuvius. On his route he freed many other slaves, and free shepherds and peasants also joined the revolt, proving how thin the line was between certain freemen and slaves and how deep their hatred was for the dominant Roman patricians.

Spartacus was at first considered no more than a small case of banditry, which proved to be a gross mistake. The slaves beat the small detachment of troops sent to fight them and killed most of the Roman soldiers. These successes swelled Spartacus’ ranks to possibly as many as 70,000 fighters. Then Rome detached two consular legions to confront the slaves and, much to Rome’s surprise and panic, they were defeated[22]. This brought great alarm that the rebellion was apparently unstoppable The Senate charged Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, with ending it. Crassus mobilized eight legions, a very large army that he treated with harsh, brutal discipline, reviving the punishment of unit decimation. This may have been a sign of how much the Roman legionaries were scared of the slaves.

Yet even he could not stop Spartacus, although at least he thwarted the slaves’ plans to leave the peninsula by boat. Upon his return from a campaign in Spain, Pompey was ordered to join Crassus. In a vice of enemy forces, the slaves lost discipline and small groups fought the Romans independently. Spartacus confronted Cassius directly and was defeated in a battle at High Sele Valley in modern Basilicata. All historians agree that he was killed in the fight, although Appian claims his body was never found. The 6,000 surviving captured rebels were crucified along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome. This was to be a macabre sign of admonition against future rebellions, but in fact it was also testament to the bravery and skill of the slaves, who had won so many victories against the formidable Roman legions.

In fact, Spartacus possibly introduced two concepts to Rome: plebs had to be better treated as they were the last line of defense against slaves and too much pressure against them could unite them with the slaves, as it happened with the shepherds and small farmers who joined Spartacus. Moreover, slaves proved to be a strong match for the honorable Roman legionaries—even in the historical chronicles of the time one can see the respect Spartacus commanded. This possibly was a blow to Roman culture’s view of slaves and slavery. Slaves, in Roman culture, were previously considered people without honor, because they failed their word-bond or were humiliated by defeat. Spartacus and his men were given a degree of admiration that ran against the common lore of self deserving servitude. In a way, Spartacus’ revolt broke the cultural and moral basis of slavery in Rome.

This took place shortly before Virgil in his Aeneid (written between the 29 and 19 BC) stressed the importance of the virtue of pietas, feeling for the other as for oneself, an important concept that was present also with the Greek Stoic philosophers and even more so with Christianity, the religion that later was to spread through the empire. The basis of the empire was set by Caesar, a man whose very name became the paradigm for an empire. The Russian Czars and German Kaisers took their names after him.

3.6 The return of social wars and the rise of Caesar

In the midst of the Servile wars, the conservative Sulla had for the first time marched with his army on Rome and taken power, establishing himself as dictator, a title once reserved for times of extreme necessities of war. Sulla nevertheless resigned his near-absolute powers, restoring constitutional government in late 81 BC. He then retired to private life and died shortly thereafter in 78 BC.

However, first Marius and then even more so Sulla de facto broke the mold of the republic, moving it toward a single center of power. In this situation, and in the middle of the fights between Marius and Sulla, Gaius Julius Caesar (July 100 BC–March 15, 44 BC) was born, undoubtedly the greatest political figure in Western history. His family boasted being the progeny of Romulus, the founder of Rome, and thus descendants of Ascanius and Aeneas, who came to Italy fleeing Troy after its destruction at the hands of the Greeks. In some ways, his legacy could be compared to that of Qin Shi Huangdi in China. However, the first emperor was for centuries considered a kind of a bad example in China, whereas for two millennia, until the spread of democratic systems, Caesar was to a smaller or larger extent the model of almost every political figure in the West. Moreover, Caesar is considered the best general of Roman times, and generations of military strategists have studied his battles and campaigns, conducted with a mix of guile and full use of Rome’s greatest advantage, its military engineering and ability to build fast bridges, fortifications, and siege machines. He was a skilled politician able to navigate the complex Roman environment and gain more power than anybody before him—to the point of de facto founding the premise of the Roman Empire. Besides he was an unparalleled writer with a sharp, keen, and understanding eye for his enemies, the Gauls in particular.[23]

Caesar came from an aristocratic family that had previously been particularly prominent. Yet he was a populist, his aunt was Marius’ wife, and he himself married the daughter of Marius’ lieutenant Cinna. He was first appointed priest of Jupiter, a political appointment, but then fled the city fearing Sulla’s persecutions. He fought with distinction in Asia Minor; returned to Rome and for a spell practiced law, where he proved to be a brilliant orator; and then was famously captured by pirates while traveling. When his ransom was paid, he armed a fleet to hunt down the pirates, caught them, and crucified them, as he had promised them during his captivity.

In 63 BC, he ran for the post of pontifex maximus, chief priest of the Roman state religion. Caesar won comfortably, despite his opponents’ greater experience and standing. That year the great Roman orator and conservative politician Cicero was consul and exposed populist Catiline’s conspiracy to seize control of the republic. Caesar was probably involved in this plot, but managed to avoid persecution by distancing himself at the last minute from Catiline.

Catiline, heir of one of the oldest families in Rome, the Sergii, became the banner-bearer of radical popular reforms at a time when many plebeians lost their land because of an economic downturn in Rome and came to the city, swelling the ranks of the urban poor[24], as did many of Sulla’s former legionaries as well as old Senatorial families with their estates. Catiline eventually organized an army that was defeated north of Rome, but his conspiracy was a seminal moment for Rome. The bloody wars between Marius and Sulla proved social tensions had not decreased, but on the contrary had grown worse. Moreover, the fact that Catiline attracted support all over Italy and occasioned even a small slave revolt in Capua[25], where Spartacus’ uprising had started, proved that the line between the cause of the impoverished urban plebs and the very lowest rung of society, the slaves, had begun to blur once again.

Caesar managed to navigate these turbulent times without falling either with Catiline’s camp (although he was close to his cause) or with the conservative opposition. In 62 BC, he was appointed to govern Spain, with the support of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome and main enemy of the strongest general in Rome, Pompey. In Spain, Caesar conquered two tribes and was hailed as “imperator” (something like “great commander,” the title assumed by certain military commanders and then used for the supreme leader of the Roman Empire) by his troops. After Spain, in 59 BC, Caesar ran for and won the consulship, and in this position, being a friend of Crassus, he made overtures to Pompey aiming at mediating the rift between the two. The three of them had enough money and power to control Roman politics. This informal alliance, known as the First Triumvirate (“rule of three men”), was cemented by the marriage of Pompey to Caesar’s daughter, Julia. With this Caesar proposed and forced through a law more radical than the one the Gracchi tried to push decades before: the redistribution of public lands to the poor. The proposal was supported by Pompey, who filled the city with soldiers, a move that intimidated the Triumvirate’s opponents. Moreover, Caesar secured the post of governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (southeastern Europe), with Transalpine Gaul (southern France) later added, giving him command of four legions. The term of his governorship—and thus his immunity from the threat of prosecution that was following him since his time as consul—was set at five years, rather than the usual one.

3.7 The conquest of the Gauls and the rise of the empire

Although Governor Caesar was again heavily indebted, having to buy favors left and right during his consulship, and the provinces he was set to govern could not be squeezed further. It was not a rare practice in ancient Rome for governors to extract wealth from provinces. He needed more money to pay off his debts and further advance his political goals.

At this point, Caesar had four legions under his command, two of his provinces bordered unconquered territory, and parts of Gaul were unstable because of friction between the tribes and outside pressure from Germanic tribes. Some of Rome’s Gallic allies had been defeated by their rivals at the battle of Magetobriga with the help of Germanic tribes. There was reasonable concern that these tribes were preparing to migrate south, closer to Italy, as was done in the past centuries by Gauls who descended into Rome and Germanic tribes that were defeated by Marius a few years earlier. Caesar raised two more legions and defeated these Gallic tribes. In response to Caesar’s earlier moves, the Gauls in the northeast began to organize, so he moved against them and conquered the tribes piecemeal. Meanwhile, one of his legions began the conquest of the Gauls in the far north, directly opposite Britain.

During the spring of 56 BC, the Triumvirs held a conference, as Rome was in turmoil and Caesar’s political alliance was coming undone because of backlash from the conservative opposition. A conference in Lucca renewed the Triumvirate and extended Caesar’s governorship for another five years. After this the conquest of the north Gaul was soon completed, and in 55 BC Caesar repelled the invasion of two Germanic tribes and launched an invasion of Britain, which did not get far from the coast. Better prepared, Caesar again advanced to Britain and conquered large portions of the island until a revolt in Gaul called him back.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Triumvirate was unraveling. Caesar’s daughter, Julia, Pompey’s wife, died in childbirth, and Pompey refused to renew the alliance by marrying Caesar’s great-niece. In 53 BC Crassus was killed in a battle against the Parthian. The remains of Crassus’ legion were captured by the Persians and ended up settling in the western provinces of the Han Empire in the first meaningful historical encounter of the two civilizations[26].

In Rome, at this point without Crassus, Pompey was appointed sole consul as an emergency measure, and married the daughter of a political opponent of Caesar—de facto a declaration of war against Caesar.

Yet Caesar was stuck in Gaul where in 52 BC another, larger revolt was led by Vercingetorix, who managed to unite the Gallic tribes and defeated Caesar in several engagements. Still Caesar’s elaborate siege of the engineering works at the Battle of Alesia finally forced Vercingetorix to surrender. Gaul was effectively conquered in the largest expansion of the Roman territory since the Phoenician wars, which had taken about a hundred years to achieve. Historically it was second only to the earlier Persian conquests or Alexander’s campaigns. Yet in both these precedents, the conquerors took over preexisting, fairly structured “states”: the Lydian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian kingdoms (for the Persians), and the Persian Empire (for Alexander). Caesar conversely had to win over a motley array of separate tribes in a large and unstructured territory. Plutarch claimed that during the Gallic wars the Romans had fought against three million men, of whom one million died, another million were enslaved; 300 tribes were subjugated, and 800 towns destroyed[27]. The size of the feat had possibly no precedent in antiquity, especially in so few years, and the strength of his conquest carried Caesar to Rome.

In 50 BC, the Senate, led by Pompey, ordered Caesar to disband the army and return to the capital. Here Pompey was accusing Caesar of insubordination and treason. In January of 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River (the border of Roman Italy), which no general was permitted to pass with his army. Caesar had only one legion, but that was enough to push Pompey and most of the Senate to flee south, despite their troops vastly outnumbering those of Caesar. On crossing the Rubicon, Caesar pronounced to his troops, “alea iacta est” (“the die is cast”), the Latin translation of a quote from a Menander’s Greek play. The crossing of the Rubicon and that sentence have since become classic cultural references in Western culture meaning irrevocable actions have been taken.

Caesar pursued Pompey, hoping to capture him before he could join his legions, but he fled to Spain and Egypt. Caesar then embarked on swift military and political maneuvers. In Rome he secured the post of dictator while battling Pompey and his lieutenants in Italy, Spain, Illyria, and Egypt. He defeated them everywhere, somehow reconquering the whole territory of the Roman republic around the Mediterranean. Pompey’s was killed, and his sons followed. Among Caesar’s main opponents, Cato took his life and Cicero was about to do the same. In 45 BC Caesar defeated the remnants of his opposition in the Battle of Munda and upon his return to Rome, he won unprecedented powers: dictator for life, while he or some of his followers, wanted to elect him king of Rome.

Caesar set out to pass an ambitious legislative agenda that for the first time took comprehensive care of the impoverished plebs. He ordered a census that tightly regulated the purchase of state-subsidized grain and reduced the number of recipients to a fixed number. From 47 to 44 BC he made plans for the distribution of land to about 15,000 of his veterans. He restricted the purchase of certain luxuries. There was a law rewarding families for having many children, passed to speed up the repopulation of Italy, depopulated after so many wars. He outlawed professional guilds, except those of ancient foundation, fearing that many had become subversive political parties. He passed a debt-restructuring law, which ultimately eliminated about a fourth of all debts owed. The most lasting change, possibly, was his reform of the calendar, which was then regulated by the movement of the moon. Caesar replaced it with the Egyptian calendar, which was regulated by the sun and set the length of the year at 365.25 days by adding an intercalary/leap day at the end of February every fourth year. With some small changes, this calendar has been used ever since in the West.

Yet it was his great, unprecedented powers that led to the conspiracy that took his life on the Ides of March (March 15) of 44 BC. It was the seminal plot of Western political history posing a number of political questions that are still tormenting Western thinking. Was Caesar acting like Washington, Napoleon, Lincoln, or even Lenin 2,000 years ago? Was Brutus—Caesar’s estranged son who thrust the last blow, hitting Caesar’s soul before his body—fighting for the shattered freedom of the republic? Or was Brutus acting as Judas did with Jesus some 80 years later, betraying his father, his best brother? Should loyalty to the state and ideals come before that of kinship and brothers-in-arms? These questions even now have no definite answers in the Western culture, but took their most dramatic form with the assassination of Caesar.

It was a moment of unprecedented crisis for Rome. After almost half a millennium of Republic, Rome seemed to want to go back to its origins in the rule of one man, one king, like the three last kings of Rome coming from of Etruria, the region where Catiline established the political base for his conspiracy. The influence came also from the recently conquered eastern Mediterranean, where Hellenistic rulers had taken on the political customs of Mesopotamian monarchs and Egyptians pharaohs.

The lasting lesson of Caesar’s assassination, however, was that killing a dictator kills the man but can eventually reinforce the dictatorship. Or at least, so it happened with Caesar, whose death killed the republic and marked the start of the empire.

3.8 Augustus and the establishment of the empire

Caesar’s assassination was a classic example of misperception of the problem. The aristocrats involved in the conspiracy thought that by removing Caesar, they would regain control of the city and reestablish their powers and privileges. Actually, that had happened with Marius’ demise and the advent of Sulla. But this time it was very different. Rome’s middle and lower classes took to the streets and forced the plotters to leave the city. Mark Antony, Caesar’s lieutenant, took the lead of the mob and threatened to unleash it on the optimates, the rich of the city. In an unexpected turn of events, Caesar had named his grandnephew Gaius Octavian his sole heir, bequeathing him the immensely potent Caesar name and making him one of the wealthiest citizens in the republic. Yet, name and money were far from enough in the beginning for young and physically frail Octavian, especially if compared with the energetic and experienced Antony.

In any case, the first challenge was to face the plotters who were organizing and concentrating an enormous army outside of Italy. On November 27, 43 BC, the Second Triumvirate was officially formed, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Caesar’s cavalry commander, Lepidus. It formally deified Caesar as Divus Iulius in 42 BC, and Caesar Octavian henceforth became Divi Filius (“Son of a God”). Caesar was the first Roman historical figure to be deified, a practice formerly used in the eastern Mediterranean. His deification, with hindsight, was an important step in breaking with the republican tradition and in concentrating power.

Also, the new Triumvirs felt Caesar’s assassination was the result of his clemency toward his enemies; therefore it went on a rampage of arrests and summary executions unknown since the times of Sulla. This wave of political terror also secured the funding to arm the 45 legions that were to fight and win the civil war against Brutus and Cassius. They were defeated at Philippi in 42 BC. After that the three divided the Roman dominion, each ruling as dictator his own territory. The republic was definitely finished, but it was still unclear what would come next.

Lepidus was defeated by Octavian’s political maneuvers: in a moment of confrontation Lepidus’ legions sided with Octavian, forcing Lepidus to surrender.

Antony was a much tougher customer. He took refuge in Egypt, an officially independent territory, living with famed beautiful queen Cleopatra, formerly the lover of Caesar. Egypt, the largest producer of grain of the region, was the cash cow of the Mediterranean, and Antony could use the wealth of Egypt to finance his armies and take over from Octavian. Octavian took him on and defeated Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. Following that Antony killed himself, Octavian took over Egypt, and remained sole commander of the Roman dominions.

Octavian then officially restored all republican institutions but concentrated with himself a vast array of powers, including that of supreme military commander. He took the title of Princeps Civitatis, first of all citizenry. The title reinstated the idea of equality of the Roman citizens, and yet underscored that in this equality there was an order and he was the first. It was the beginning of the empire in Rome.

Augustus dramatically enlarged the Roman territory, annexing formerly client dominions such as Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum, and Raetia; expanded possessions in Africa; expanded into Germania; and completed the conquest of Hispania. Beyond these frontiers, he secured the empire with a buffer region of client states, and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy. He reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, reinforced the standing army, established the Praetorian Guard, created official police and firefighting services in Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign. He gave the institutional framework and also the territorial perimeter of the Roman Empire that were to last for the next couple of centuries.

Werner Heck said of Augustus, “the sum of his power derived first of all from various powers of office delegated to him by the Senate and people, secondly from his immense private fortune, and thirdly from numerous patron-client relationships he established with individuals and groups throughout the Empire. All of them taken together formed the basis of his auctoritas, which he himself emphasized as the foundation of his political actions[28].”

What is important is that the framework of this auctoritas, once established became in some way hereditary, and could be passed on to future leaders, something that was unprecedented since the early kings of Rome, and that was a very different thing from the massive territory stretching around the Mediterranean. Future rulers of this territory, which came to be known as an empire (literally: “to be commanded by a supreme commander”), would rule like Octavian. Octavian, who also assumed the honorific name of Augustus, set up a comprehensive reform of the administration and of the tax levy. He brought a far greater portion of the empire’s land under consistent, direct taxation from Rome, instead of exacting varying, intermittent, incoherent, and somewhat arbitrary tributes from each local province as Augustus’ predecessors had done. This reform greatly increased Rome’s revenues from its territorial acquisitions, stabilized its revenue flow, and regularized the financial relationship between Rome, and the provinces, rather than provoking fresh resentment with each exaction of tribute. This also gave Rome a first standard basis for financial and administrative management of the empire, which had been growing in a very fast but disorderly fashion for over a century.

The basis of this administration was the number of people, not the quantity of land or the economic activity of any given group of people, and thus the census was essential to determine taxation.[29] Yet each province received somewhat different treatment. Citizens of Rome and Italy paid indirect taxes, while direct taxes were exacted from the provinces, the conquered lands administered by Roman governors. Indirect taxes included a 4% tax on the price of slaves, a 1% tax on goods sold at auction, and a 5% tax on the inheritance of estates valued at over 100,000 sesterces by persons other than the next of kin.

Augustus also created a system of salaried civil service tax collectors, replacing the old system where the state granted a license to private contractors to collect taxes on behalf of the republic. Private contractors raising taxes had been the norm in the republican era, and some had grown powerful enough to influence the amount of votes politicians in Rome received. They also had great discretion in the amount of tax to collect or not collect. Thus “tax farmers” became notorious for their depredations, as well as for their vast, ill-gotten private wealth.

In fact the tax-collecting system was flawed. Rome’s revenue was the amount of the successful bids placed by the tax farmers to purchase their licenses to tax a certain area. The tax farmers’ profits consisted of any additional amounts they could wring from the populace. The lack of effective supervision, combined with tax farmers’ desire to maximize their profits, had produced a system of arbitrary exactions that was often barbarously cruel to taxpayers, widely perceived as unfair, and very harmful to investment and the economy.

The difficulties in running an effective and overall fair administration of the empire limited its size and also any future expansion. Despite being built on the idea of endless conquest that could bring new riches and glory to Rome, with Augustus the empire reached de facto its outer limits and basically all future wars were waged to secure those borders and fend off attacks of foreign populations attracted by the prospect of looting rich Roman lands and cities. Over two centuries, since the beginning of the Punic wars, Rome had multiplied many times the size of its territory and went from ruling a part of Italy to ruling the Mediterranean. Nothing of this kind ever happened in the following centuries of imperial rule. No massive expansion took place after Augustus, and although new provinces were in time added to the empire, they were only comparatively minimal incremental gains.

The only empire that stood in the way of Rome’s power was for centuries that of the Persians, which blocked Roman expansion east and gained wealth by being a bridge of trade and culture between the Mediterranean and the other two large civilizations of the time: India and China.

“Opposites do not have to be mutually exclusive, and we are not obliged to choose one or the other. The story of his career shows that Augustus was indeed ruthless, cruel, and ambitious for himself. This was only in part a personal trait, for upper-class Romans were educated to compete with one another and to excel. However, he combined an overriding concern for his personal interests with a deep-seated patriotism, based on a nostalgia of Rome’s antique virtues. In his capacity as princeps, selfishness and selflessness coexisted in his mind. While fighting for dominance, he paid little attention to legality or to the normal civilities of political life. He was devious, untrustworthy, and bloodthirsty. But once he had established his authority, he governed efficiently and justly, generally allowed freedom of speech, and promoted the rule of law. He was immensely hardworking and tried as hard as any democratic parliamentarian to treat his senatorial colleagues with respect and sensitivity. He suffered from no delusions of grandeur.”[30]

3.9 The imperial army and the military organization

Possibly to prove he was a righteous heir of the great Roman military and political genius Caesar, by the year 13 AD, Augustus boasted 21 occasions on which his troops proclaimed “imperator” as his title after a successful battle. Almost the entire fourth chapter of his publicly released memoirs of achievements, known as the Res Gestae, was devoted to his military victories and honors. Yet rather than true new conquests, Augustus consolidated the control of areas that were de facto already under Roman control. Egypt had been only loosely independent since Caesar and this was possibly only because of the charms of Cleopatra. So were the parts of the Iberian peninsula[31]. Again, no military effort was needed in 25 BC when Galatia (the eastern part of Anatolia peninsula) was converted to a Roman province shortly after Amyntas of Galatia was killed by an avenging widow of a slain prince from Homonada.

Although Parthia always posed a threat to Rome in the east, the real battlefront was along the Rhine and Danube rivers. The nomadic tribes had no strong link with the territory so they would retreat when Rome pushed forward, but return when the legions went back to Rome. Thus victory in battle was not always a permanent success, as newly conquered territories were constantly on the verge of being retaken by Rome’s enemies in Germania.

Moreover, hostile territory per se was difficult to conquer and provide a solid basis for settlement and conquest. The Germanics tribes were for over four centuries—until the time they sacked Rome and brought down the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD—the primary security concern for the empire. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, where three entire legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus were destroyed by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci and an apparent Roman ally, with few survivors was to be a lasting lesson for Roman about trusting the Germanics as an ally and about trying to expand further into the densely forested Germanic lands. Augustus then retaliated by dispatching Tiberius and Drusus to Rhineland to pacify it. The Roman general Germanicus took advantage of a Cherusci civil war between Arminius and Segestes; his troops defeated Arminius, who fled that battle but was killed in 21 AD due to treachery. This episode was meant to draw a line with the Germanic tribes and prevent further attempts to push back Roman tribes, not to conquer them.

The primary force to hold together the empire was the legion, which for centuries was to remain basic principle of Western army organization. During the imperial times, the legions went from recruiting only Roman citizens to a force of mixed conscripts and volunteer corps soldiers serving an average of 10 years to all-volunteer units of long-term professionals serving a standard 25-year term. Conscription was only decreed in emergencies. In the later first century, the size of a legion’s first cohort doubled, increasing the strength of a legion to about 5,500.

To complement the legions, Augustus established the auxilia, a regular corps with numbers similar to those of the legions, but recruited from the peregrini, or free non-citizen inhabitants of the empire, with no right to vote or participate in the political life of Rome. With the auxilia, the force of a legion came in fact to be of over 10,000 fighting soldiers. Peregrini constituted approximately 90 percent of the empire’s population in the first century. In addition to large numbers of heavy infantry equipped in a similar manner to legionaries, the auxilia provided virtually all the army’s cavalry, light infantry, archers, and other specialists. The auxilia were organized in units about 500 strong. These units were termed cohortes if they consisted of infantry, alae if they consisted of cavalry, and cohortes equitatae if they were composed of infantry with a cavalry contingent attached. Auxiliaries were also required to serve a minimum of 25 years, although many served for longer periods. On completion of their minimum term, auxiliaries were awarded Roman citizenship, which carried important legal, fiscal, and social advantages. Around 80 AD, a minority of auxiliary regiments were doubled in size.

Moreover, alongside the regular forces, the army employed allied native units (called numeri) from outside the empire on a mercenary basis. These were led by their own aristocrats and equipped in traditional fashion. Numbers fluctuated according to circumstances and are largely unknown. As all-citizen formations and symbolic protectors of the dominance of the Italian “master-nation,” legions enjoyed greater social prestige than the auxilia for much of the empire. This was reflected in better pay and benefits. In addition, legionaries were equipped with more expensive and protective armor than auxiliaries, notably the laminated-strip armor. However, in 212, the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to nearly all the empire’s freeborn inhabitants to reward and boost loyalty in the empire. At this point, the distinction between legions and auxilia became moot, the latter becoming all-citizen units also. The change was reflected in the disappearance, during the third century, of legionaries’ special equipment and the progressive breakup of legions into cohort-sized units like the auxilia.

By the end of Augustus’ reign, the imperial army numbered some 250,000 men, equally split between 25 legions and 250 units of auxiliaries. The numbers grew to a peak of about 450,000 by 211, making up 33 legions and about 400 auxiliary units. By then, auxiliaries outnumbered legionaries substantially. From this peak, numbers probably underwent a steep decline by 270 due to plague and losses during multiple major Barbarian invasions. Numbers were restored to their early second-century level of about 400,000 under Diocletian (284-305). After the empire’s borders became settled (on the Rhine-Danube line in Europe) by 68 AD, virtually all military units (except the Praetorian Guard) were stationed on or near the borders in roughly 17 of the 42 provinces of the empire during the reign of Hadrian (117–138). That is, the security of the empire was seen as threatened by outside forces, not internal. The Praetorian Guard in Rome was to secure the safety and power of the emperor in the capital.

The military chain of command was relatively flat. In each province, the deployed legions’ legati (legion commanders, who also controlled the auxiliary units attached to their legions) reported to the legatus Augusti pro praetore (provincial governor), who also headed the civil administration. The governor in turn reported directly to the emperor in Rome. There was no general staff in Rome, but the commander of the Praetorian Guard often acted as the emperor’s de facto military chief-of-staff.

Compared to the subsistence-level peasant families from which they were mostly originated, legionaries enjoyed considerable disposable income, enhanced by periodic cash bonuses on special occasions such as the accession of a new emperor. In addition, on completion of their term of service, they were given a generous discharge bonus equivalent to 13 years’ salary. Auxiliaries were paid much less in the early first century, but by 100 AD, the differential had virtually disappeared. Similarly, in the earlier period, auxiliaries appear not to have received cash and discharge bonuses, but probably did so from the reign of Hadrian onwards. Junior officers (principales), the equivalent of non-commissioned officers in modern armies, could expect to earn up to twice the base pay. Legionary centurions, the equivalent of senior warrant officers, were organized in an elaborate hierarchy. Usually promoted from within the ranks, they commanded the legion’s tactical subunits of centuriae (about 80 men) and cohorts (about 480 men). They were paid several multiples of the base pay. The most senior centurion, the primus pilus, was automatically elevated to equestrian rank on completion of his single-year term of office. The senior officers of the army, the legati legionis (legion commanders), tribuni militum (legion staff officers), and the praefecti (commanders of auxiliary regiments) were all of at least equestrian rank. In the first and early second centuries, they were mainly Italian aristocrats performing the military component of their conventional career path. Later, provincial career officers became predominant. Senior officers were paid enormous salaries, multiples of at least 50 times a soldier’s pay.

Soldiers spent only a fraction of their lives on campaigns. Most of their time was spent on routine military duties such as training, patrolling, and maintenance of equipment. Soldiers also played an important role outside the military sphere. They performed the function of a provincial governor’s police force. As a large, disciplined, and skilled force of fit men, they played a crucial role in the construction of a province’s military and civilian infrastructure. In addition to constructing forts and fortified defenses such as Hadrian’s Wall, they built roads, bridges, ports, public buildings, and entire new cities (colonia, settlements of Roman people among barbaric people), and cleared forests and drained marshes to expand a province’s available arable land.

Soldiers, mostly drawn from polytheistic societies, enjoyed wide freedom of worship in the polytheistic Roman system. Only a few cults were banned by the Roman authorities for being incompatible with the official Roman religion or politically subversive, notably Druidism and Christianity. The later empire saw a rise in popularity among the military of Eastern mystery cults, generally centered on one deity, and involving secret rituals divulged only to initiates. By far the most popular cult in the army was Mithraism, an apparently syncretistic cult that mainly originated in Asia Minor.

[1] Scarre, Chri. “The Wars with Carthage.” The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. London: Penguin Books, 1995. 24–25. (I must also thank prof the very generous assistance of professor Dadiel L. Overmyer in checking and polishing this chapter)

[2] I owe these thoughts to conversations with Lu Xiang at CASS, and Nicola Di Cosmo at the Princeton Center for Advanced Studies.

[3] This account is largely based on Starr, Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. Oxford University Press, 1965. Warmington, Brian Herbert. Carthage. Barnes & Noble, 1993. For this specific instance see Polybius. The Histories, 1:11.3.

[4] Warmington, op.cit. 1993. 171–172.

[5] Zoch, Paul A. Ancient Rome: An Introductory History. University of Oklahoma Press., 2000. 94–96.

[6] Roberts, Peter. Ancient History, Book 2. Pascal Press, 2006. 64–65.

[7] Mokhtar, Gamal. Ancient Civilizations of Africa. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1981. 457.


[9] Livy. XXI, 32-38.

[10] Delbrück, Hans. Warfare in Antiquity, 1920.

[11] For the following account see Eckstein, Arthur. Rome Enters the Greek East.

[12] Goldsworthy. In the Name of Rome. 36.

[13] Madden, Thomas. Empires of Trust. 62.

[14] The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic. Ed. Harriet I. Flower. Cambridge University Press, 2004. This book includes the essay by Jurgen Von Ungern-Sternberg (translated by Harriet I. Flower), “The Crisis of the Roman Republic” (pp. 89–109).

[15] Plutarch. Life of Marius. 6.

[16] For this part part see Dupont, Florence. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Trans. Christopher Woodall. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992. Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah and Luis Roniger. Patrons, clients, and friends: interpersonal relations and the structure of trust in society. “Themes in the social sciences” series. Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[17] See Dupont. p. 62 and then also pp. 53 and 56-69.

[18] Gamauf, Richard. “Slaves doing business: the role of Roman law in the economy of a Roman household”. European Review Of History 16.3 (2009): 331–46.

[19] Cicero. Ad familiares. 16.21. Jerome. Chronological Tables 194.1. Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Vol. 3. 1182

[20] This was turned into a Broadway musical and then an American movie in the 1960s starring Zero Mostel and directed by Richard Lester.

[21] Siculus, Diodorus. The Civil Wars. 73-71 BC. 111-121.

[22] These defeats are depicted in divergent ways by the two most comprehensive (extant) histories of the war by Appian and Plutarch. See Appian. Civil Wars. 1:117 and Plutarch. Crassus. 9:7. “Spartacus and the Slave Rebellion”. Retrieved 24 February 2013. Shaw, Brent D. Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

[23] A selected bibliography on Caesar: Appian. Book 13 (English translation). Dio, Cassius. Books 37–44 (English translation). Plutarch. Antony (English translation, Dryden edition). Plutarch. The Life of Julius Caesar (English translation). Plutarch. The Life of Mark Antony (English translation). Suetonius: The Life of Julius Caesar. (Latin and English, cross-linked. Trans. J.C. Rolfe). Suetonius. The Life of Julius Caesar (Trans. J.C. Rolfe). Canfora, Luciano. Julius Caesar: The People’s Dictator. Edinburgh University, 2006. Freeman, Philip. Julius Caesar. Simon and Schuster, 2008.

[24] Sallust. Bellum Catilinae. XXXVII.

[25] Cicero. Pro Murena XLIX.

[26] Dubs, Homer H. “An Ancient Military Contact between Romans and Chinese”. American Journal of Philology 62.3 (1941): 322–330.

[27] Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Chapter 48.

[28] Eck, Werner. The Age of Augustus. Trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider; new material by Sarolta A. Takács. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. For this part we based vastly on Dio, Cassius. The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. Trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert. London: Penguin Books, 1987. And Davies, Mark, Hilary Swain, and Mark Everson Davies. Aspects of Roman History, 82 BC-AD 14: A Source-based Approach. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2010.

[29] See also Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

[30] Everitt, Anthony. Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor. Random House Books, 2006. 144–145

[31] This section is based mostly on E. Luttwak’s works The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and The Grand Strategy of Byzantium.