Rome’s expansion in the Mediterranean world

After resolving her internal political issues and consolidating the constitution, Rome focused on foreign affairs. The third century BC is marked by Rome’s wars with Carthage, a great maritime power governed by an oligarchy of merchant families.1 Initially, the Romans maintained good relations with Carthage, but shortly after Rome’s subjugation of the Greek city-states in Southern Italy this precarious coalition turned into open rivalry. The First Punic War erupted in 264 BC when Rome, fearing that a threatened Carthagenian conquest of Messina in Sicily might be a prelude to an attack on mainland Italy, assisted that city and thereby clashed with Carthage. The war ended with victory for Rome in 241 BC. As a result, Rome acquired her first overseas provinces (Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica) and asserted her position as a flourishing international power. In the following years, a resurgent Carthage sought to recover the lost ground by embarking on a programme of military expansion in Spain under Hamilcar Barca and his son, Hannibal, leaders of the Carthaginians who craved revenge on Rome. The Romans attempted to curb the Carthaginian expansion by treaty, but conflict ensued after Hannibal’s attack on one of Rome’s Spanish allies in 219 BC. In 218 BC a large expeditionary force led by Hannibal was dispatched to attack the Romans in Italy. Despite the initial successes of her armies, Carthage was eventually overwhelmed by the Romans in 201 BC. The political and commercial supremacy of Carthage dissolved and she was reduced to the position of a client-state of Rome. As a result of her victory in the Second Punic War, Rome established herself as the dominant power in the western Mediterranean.

Shortly after the subjugation of Carthage, Rome embarked on another series of wars, this time in the Greek East. To fathom the reasons for her actions, one must consider the political conditions of the Hellenistic world in the third century BC. After the empire of Alexander the Great disintegrated, a complex state system emerged in this highly civilized, cosmopolitan world. It consisted of three great powers, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid Empire of Syria and Macedonia, and several smaller states, such as Athens, Rhodes and Pergamum. The ambitions of Syria and Macedonia to extend their influence at the expense of smaller states in the region presented Rome with the opportunity to enter the scene of Hellenistic politics, first as a guarantor of the existing balance of power and, subsequently, in pursuit of her own imperialistic designs. Rome’s decision to interfere in Greek affairs was also prompted by the realization of the commercial advantages of imperialism, even though economic rather than political motivations were initially far less important.

During the protracted wars fought between 200 and 146 BC, the Romans eventually realized that sustained peace could only be created if their involvement in the East entailed the direct annexation of the besieged territories. However, they initially withdrew their expeditionary forces following their victories over Macedonia (197 BC) and Syria (188 BC), and granted the Greek city-states and leagues the freedom to govern themselves; they even declared themselves liberators of Greece and protectors of Greek freedom (196 BC). As their influence expanded, the Romans perceived themselves as patrons and the Greeks as clients who had to pursue policies congruent with Roman interests. The Roman interference in Greek affairs was deemed intolerable and prompted some disgruntled states to form an alliance with Macedonia’s new king, Perseus, who was a self-proclaimed champion of the Greek interests against Roman intervention. To prevent the expansion of Macedonian influence in Greece, Rome declared war on Perseus in 171 BC. Following Perseus’s defeat in 168 BC, the Macedonian kingdom was carved into four separate republics. In 148 BC, after a short-lived revolt, the republics were dissolved and Macedonia transformed into a Roman province. Finally, the dissolution of the Achaean League and the sacking of Corinth by the Romans in 146 BC engendered Rome’s domination of the entire Greek world. However, unlike Macedonia, Greece was not organised as a Roman province. The Greek city-states were compelled to form treaties of alliance with Rome and the whole country was consigned to the supervision of the governor of Macedonia. The same year marks the end of the Third Punic War (149–146 BC), which resulted in the complete destruction of Carthage and the annexation of her territory as part of the Roman province of Africa.

In 133 BC the rich kingdom of Pergamum (situated in the north-west part of Asia Minor) was gifted to Rome under the will of its last king, Attalus III. The province of Asia was created from the kingdom of Pergamum in 129 BC. Moreover, after Rome’s victory in the war against Jugurtha, ruler of the North African kingdom of Numidia, in 105 BC, further territories were added to the Roman province of Africa. In 88 BC Rome embarked on a series of wars in the East against the king of Pontus, Mithradates IV the Eupator. The King had declared himself liberator of the Greeks and launched a campaign designed to expel the Romans from Asia Minor and Greece. Although for a time Roman power in the East seemed doomed, Mithradates was finally defeated in 63 BC. Rome regained control of Greece and a continuous belt of Roman provinces was created along the coasts of the Black and Mediterranean Seas from northern Asia Minor to Syria and Judaea.2 Behind these provinces to the East, Rome’s sphere of interest was safeguarded through a band of client states, which formed a buffer zone against the powerful Parthian Empire. This phase of Roman expansion ended with the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar (58–53 BC) and the annexation of Egypt by Octavian in 30 BC.

Internal developments during the late Republic

The organization of the Roman state displayed no major changes during the Punic wars and the wars in Greece. Although in theory democratic, Rome continued to be governed by a few powerful patrician and plebeian families – an oligarchy that developed in the closing stages of the struggle of the orders, when office holding ceased to be a prerogative of aristocratic birth. Since the Roman senate mainly consisted of members from leading families who had served as magistrates, this new nobility was identified as the senatorial class (ordo senatorius).3 The chief source of the senatorial families’ wealth was landed property, as senators were precluded by custom and law from engaging in commerce and industry. Notwithstanding their internal divisions, the members of this class were united in their determination to exclude outsiders from high office and prevent any single statesman from gaining control of the state.

In this period, two interconnected trends characterized Roman political life: the mass of Roman citizens scattered in colonies throughout Italy increasingly failed to exercise their political responsibilities; and the senate completely dominated the people’s assemblies. The Roman successes during the wars of expansion enhanced the senate’s prestige and reinforced its pivotal position in Rome’s political system. The magistrates and the assemblies exhibited their readiness to follow its lead and, although only popular assemblies had the constitutional right to enact legislation, senatorial resolutions (senatus consulta) were regarded practically as possessing the force of laws. Moreover, even though the actual ratification of treaties or declarations of war fell in the province of the comitia, the senate usually carried matters so far that there was nothing for the comitia to do but grant their assent.

Over the second century BC, Rome became an important commercial centre and all kinds of private businesses were established to provide services and manufactured goods. The proliferation of economic activity is evidenced by the development and widespread use of currency, and the establishment of financial institutions in Rome and other Italian cities.4 Rome’s increasingly sophisticated economic life required enterprising men to direct her trade, undertake the construction of public works, manage war contracts and collect taxes.5 This entailed the emergence of an important new class of merchants and entrepreneurs, which were known as the equestrian class (ordo equester).6 An active and visible minority within the equestrian class acquired their wealth by entering into contracts with the Roman state for the collection of public revenues. The Roman revenues were derived partly from lands and other forms of state-owned property, and partly from taxes paid by the citizens of Rome or her subjects in Italy and the provinces. These contractors, referred to as publicani, assumed the risk and expense for exploiting the state’s assets and paid an annual fixed sum to the Roman state treasury.7 The wealth and influence of this class of businessmen grew rapidly as Rome’s territory and revenues expanded. Although excluded from the aristocracy and basically non-political, the equestrians were inevitably drawn into politics whenever the senatorial oligarchy threatened to infringe on their economic prerogatives.

In the social hierarchy, the position below the equites was occupied by the upper classes of the various communities in Italy and the provinces, whose members tended to loyally support Rome and adopt the Roman culture and lifestyle. Lower down in the social hierarchy were the members of the lower middle class: the small landowners in the country, and the artisans and small traders in the cities. The same broader class also comprised most of the urban and rural proletariat, whose chief means of support was the grants obtained from the state or from the wealthy families to which many of its members had attached themselves as clients. As Rome’s urban proletariat was susceptible to political manipulation and prone to violence, it came to constitute a serious threat to political stability, especially during the last century of the republican era.8

The most vulnerable group in society were the slaves (servi). In the early republican period a relatively small number of slaves lived in Rome; but from the mid-third century BC the slave population expanded rapidly and, by the end of the Republic, slave labour was the predominant factor in economic life. Numerous foreign slaves were transferred into Italy during Rome’s wars of expansion.9

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