How did the Romans build their armies for the First Punic War?

The Romans built a great and vast empire, my question is what were some of the military techniques they used to build, train, and use their army? Specifically during the period of the First Punic War.

I know one way was through battle, they would adapt an enemy's formation they liked and that's how they grew. Any other ideas?


Prior to the Marian Reforms (107 BC), Roman Legions were primarily comprised of conscripts (the word Legion actually derives from the Latin word for conscription/selection). This was limited to able-bodied, property-owning Roman Citizens. Soldiers paid for their own equipment, which dictated the formation and structure of the legion. The poorest folk who could not afford to properly equip themselves formed the Velites, a light infantry usually tasked with skirmishing, raiding, and harassing the enemy. The heavier main infantry were wealthier men, but not the wealthiest, who could afford proper gear. These soldiers formed three ranks based upon experience called Hastati, Principes, and Triarii, from least to most experienced. The wealthiest men, those who could afford horses, formed the cavalry known as the Equites. These men were usually wealthy enough to become influential in later life, and might be likened to the later Equestrians of the Imperial period.


The Legion has about 5,000 men on average, with about 3/4 heavy infantry and 1/4 Velites, give or take. It was broken into Maniples, a unit comprised of two Centuries. A century was a unit of 100 men commanded by a pair of Centurions, junior and senior. Maniples themselves tended to have local maneuvering autonomy in battle (or the most autonomy that was possible in such a battle) and were largely responsible for the success the Romans had against the Greek Phalanx formation.


There is a decent amount of debate among historians as to how ancient battles actually played out, but in general the Roman legion would bunch up into a block, or several blocks depending on the situation, and use their superior heavy infantry to defeat the enemy. The Greek Phalanx, a similar block formation, was quite formidable but stood little chance against the Maniples of the legions, since a Maniple could break off from the main line and pursue an objective, something not allowed in a phalanx. Roman Cavalry is generally regarded as poor, and tended to prefer shock-and-awe charges rather than more sophisticated tactics.


The legion tended to construct fortified camps on the march (remember pre-Marian legions were not standing, but temporary) and would drill when necessary, but not as much as the later Standing Legions were prone to do. The camp was always laid out the same way, making for easy construction and break down, and easy of navigation in the camp. Much like the Roman people, the legion was quite good at logistics and organization.


Most of this comes from Polybius, a Greek hostage in Rome who wrote extensive histories.

Why ancient Romans built statues of their greatest enemy

Imagine the U.S. building a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the middle of New York City. Or one of Nikita Khrushchev in Washington DC. As unlikely as its sounds for a mighty empire to build such a monument to a once-great, potentially vanquished foe, that’s how Ancient Rome used to roll. No matter what your high school history teacher told you, the Romans were not always the preeminent ancient group of ass-kickers history gives them credit for.

Mighty Carthage would field its greatest commander, Hannibal Barca, against Rome. He would turn out to be a leader so great even the Romans would build statues in his honor.

It didn’t end well for Carthage but Rome famously got its ass handed to it a few times.

Don’t get it twisted, Rome in its heyday did kick a lot of barbarian ass from Londinium to Mesopotamia and is worthy of its reputation. But before any of that, the young Roman Empire wasn’t even as big as modern-day Italy. In the Punic Wars, they chose the wrong empire to square off against. Carthage was much more powerful than tiny Rome, and its leadership was much better at fielding armies. One of those was Hannibal Barca, known to history simply as “Hannibal” (when you’re famous on the level of Cher, Madonna, or Jesus only one name is required).

Hannibal fought Rome from the start of the very first Punic War, but it was the Second Punic War where Hannibal was really unleashed. After crushing Roman allies in modern-day Spain, he left on his now-famous crossing of the Alps to hit Rome from behind, a move no one expected, least of all Rome. It was a move that shocked the ancient world and allowed Hannibal to plunder parts of northern Italy for almost a year. The following Spring, he crushed a Roman army at Cannae, killing or capturing some 70,000 men.

That face when you kill 70,000 Romans on their home turf.

For almost a decade, Hannibal and his army slogged around the Italian Peninsula, defeating the Romans and killing thousands in battles at Tarentum, Capua, Silarus, Herndonia, and Petelia. Tens of thousands of Romans died at the hands of Hannibal and his army, but time was not on his side. The Romans would not give in, and Carthage was losing ground elsewhere. Rome gained new allies and fresh troops, while Hannibal couldn’t take a Roman harbor. It ultimately doomed him. He would be recalled to Africa where he was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Zama, his invincibility finally shattered.

Rome would never get its hands on its greatest enemy. Hannibal died after escaping from Roman soldiers, circumstances unknown. To this day, no one is sure where he escaped to or where his final resting place was. What they know is that for decades, Romans lived in fear that he might mount an army and return to exact revenge. When Rome was in its full glory days, and the threat of Hannibal’s return was diminished by time, the Romans built statues of the man in the streets, an advertisement that they were able to beat such a worthy adversary.

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Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

The Roman Legion was one of the most feared armies of the ancient world. Through the might of the Roman Legion, the Roman empire&rsquos influence spread from Scotland to Northern Irag and to the borders of Ethiopia. For centuries they were considered to be almost invincible on the battlefield, defeating fierce enemies such as the Celts and the Persians. If the Roman Legion was ever defeated they would quickly retaliate and their revenge would brutal.

One of the reasons why the Roman Legion was so feared was that it was always changing. The Legion was never stuck in past traditions. If they were defeated by an enemy they would quickly reorganize and learn from the defeat in order to come back tenfold. The strategies of the Roman Legion changed to match changing technology and the needs to each battle. They were successful in a wide range of battlefields no matter the terrain or climate. Even today many military commanders and historians look to the Roman Legion as one of the most superior fighting forces in history with much that can still be learned from them. Some of the greatest military minds have given credit to studying the tactics of the Roman Legion as part of their successes.

Here are ten little-known facts about the Roman Legions.

Roman Weapons and Armor

Throughout history the Roman armies have been regarded as one of the most effective and strong war machines. Roman armies can be seen in film and in book even today in our modern world discussing their strength and level of fighting. Part of the reason they were so successful in conquering and battling their enemies was there superior armor and weapons that were effective throughout centuries. Below you can find information on some of their most famous and efficient weapons, as well as types of armor that served the Romans well over many years of warfare.

Roman Weapons

One of the Romans most recognizable weapons is their strong short sword the Gladius. The Gladius is a short sword that was often used in Spain. During the Second Punic Wars Roman General Scipio Africanus liked the sword and began implementing its use in roman forces. The Gladius had a 50 cm two-edged blade. Although it could be used to slash enemies it was much more effective and often used for stabbing your opponent. It was an effective weapon for up close hand to hand combat when a long weapon such as a spear would be ineffective. Roman legionnaires trained extensively for stabbing the enemy in certain vulnerable areas (

The Romans are well known for their use the Pilum. The Pilum was a roman version of a spear or javelin and could be used in hand to hand combat or thrown at the enemy. The Pilum was often thrown toward the enemy before engaging the enemy with a short sword. There are a few varying types of the Pilum. There is the thin Pilum which is about two meters long. The thick Pilum which is nearly the same length as the thin Pilum, but had a large wooden block connecting the metal head with the wooden shaft. This block also was in place to protect a soldiers hand when stabbing someone with the Pilum. The weighted Pilum was created when later versions of the Pilum were made much lighter than the original. A weight was added on the top of the shaft to help balance out the spear so it can be thrown and used more accurately. The iron head of the Pilum was also made softer so on impact it would bend making it harder for the enemy to throw back the Pilum once the head bent ( Roman soldiers commonly carried two Pilum and threw them at their enemy when charging into battle. This would often shock and injure the enemy making them more vulnerable to the Romans when the battle turned too close quarters fighting. The long Iron head of the Pilum was very effective for attacking the enemy. Not only was it strong and lethal it could also pierce through an enemy’s shield with ease. This would then render the enemies shield useless because of the awkward large spear hanging from it. Often it the Pilum would also leave a hole in the enemies shield weakening it. This made the Pilum a highly efficient weapon when dealing with unarmored or light armored enemies. Once their shield was useless they had little defending them from being killed (

From left to right: A thin pilum,
thick pilum, and weighted pilum

The Romans also had an array of long range weapons used to attack the enemy from a distance. One of these weapons was the Plumbata. The Plumbata was a throwing dart weighted with lead making it heavy and able to do serious damage when hitting a target. Plumbata were often carried by Roman Legionnaires, up to six Plumbata could be carried attached behind their shield. This made heavy infantry troops able to attack on their own from a distance as well as up close effectively ( Roman Roman light armed trooped called Velites often used throwing javelins to engage the enemy from a distance. These were lighter and smaller than the heavy pilum but could be thrown further. The Romans also had roman archers called the Sagittarius which used a composite bow made of wood, sinew, and horn.

Roman Armor

Roman armor around the years 200-150 BC was mostly comprised of a shield called a Scutum, a helmet, and some kind of body armor depending on rank and position. The Scutum is a very large oval shield that had one main hand grip. It was comprised of wood that is glued together and covered usually in leather. On the outer rim of the shield metal is added to help reinforce its strength. Roman soldiers often tucked their right shoulder into the large shield and charged their enemies. Once they hit them they would crouch behind their shield and fight around it usually with a sword or spear (

Similar body armor was worn by all of the different types of heavy infantry soldier. The principes (heavy infantry), hastati (front-line soldiers), and triarii (veterans) consisted had armor consisting of the same materials. They wore a small 20 cm square or round breastplate called a Pectorale. They also wore one greave covering their left leg. This was the leg that would have been exposed in combat. Some of the wealthier soldiers would wore chain-mail shirts that weighed around 15 kilograms. The Velites who were light armed troops usually wore no armor besides having a helmet and a Scutum. This allowed them greater mobility and speed but offered less protection. This would be useful for them to swiftly move, launching javelins from a distance. Calvary troops wore almost identical armor to the heavy infantry troops but had a rounder shield that differed from the Scutum

The Roman helmet changed and evolved throughout its use. The port helmet was made out of iron that had a neck guard going over the back of the soldier’s neck. It also had a topknot that was used to hold the Mohawk looking crest. This helmet evolved the imperial Gallic helmet which is probably what most people now would picture a roman soldier wearing. The Gallic type helmet elongated the neck guard and metal cheek guards running down the face to protect a soldiers face and head. A reinforced metal strip was added along the forehead to protect against downward blows. A crest and feathers were often worn in the helmet in an attempt to make the soldiers look taller and more intimidating to their opponent.

Romans armor and weapons were so efficient because of their experience with many different types of opponents. They had encountered a vast range of weapons and armor and they took the best equipment they saw in battle and adapted it and innovated it to work for them. The Romans superior weapons and armor coupled with their armies versatility and fighting ability made them one of the most if not the most powerful force to be reckoned with in the ancient world.

How did the Romans build their armies for the First Punic War? - History

Reproduced by kind permission of the author, Paul Basar , and Jason Bishop (aka Wijitmaker) from the highly recommended website: Wildfire Games

Note: References to Greek means Macedonian.

"Carthage: Warriors From the Sands, Arms of Carhage"

Carthage the most powerful nation in the western Mediterranean during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, thanks to its powerful navy and vast trading network. Originally settled by Phoenicians in the 9th century on the north coast of Africa in modern Tunisia, Carthage had grown by the 3rd century BC to control Northwestern Africa, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and large parts of Spain. Militarily it was unique in its heavy reliance on mercenaries to fight its wars abroad. Monetarily this was not a problem due to the Carthaginians vast wealth gained from trading all over the Mediterranean. Carthaginian citizens did train for battle, but only fought if there was an immediate threat to their homeland. As with many nations during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, Hellenistic phalanx tactics had reached Carthage and had been embraced. Most of its richer citizens fought armed in Greek equipment, although often embellished with uniquely Carthaginian features, using the sarissa as their main weapon. Carthaginian citizens unable to procure the expensive armor of a phalangite were employed as light infantry, using javelins as their main weapons. One special unit was the Sacred Band, an elite corps of soldiers whose patron deity was the goddess Tanit.

Abroad the Carthaginians used mercenaries, notably Spanish (Iberian) soldiers recruited from their territory in Spain. They brought heavy infantry, as well as cavalry and light troops such as javelin throwers and slingers. From Africa, Numidians provided light cavalry, among the best ever produced by any nation. They rode without saddles and bridles, controlling their horses by using their riding sticks and voice commands. They also served as light infantry using javelins and slings. Another large population that the Carthaginians drew mercenaries from was Celtic peoples of modern day France and Northern Italy. In combat they used swords and spears in massive charges, screaming as they did so. Another unique tool available to the Carthaginians was the war elephant, used to crush opposing infantry. Although powerful and psychologically imposing, disciplined infantry could drive off an elephant so that it would run back on its own lines. Hannibal, the most famous of Carthaginians, used all of these mercenaries and elephants as well as Carthaginian citizen soldiers in his famous campaign against the Romans during the Second Punic War. In the end Roman won all three of the wars it fought with Carthage, the last one completely destroying Carthage in 146 BC.

Armor – Carthaginian armor was based on Greek styles, the linothorax being especially popular. The Carthaginian heavy infantry did not differ greatly from any of the Hellenized armies that existed around the Mediterranean in the period after Alexander the Great.


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Many pieces of Greek equipment were used by Carthaginians troops, one popular piece being the linothorax, a cuirass made of layers of linen glued together to make a tough shell. Elite troops of the Sacred Band used the linothorax and it was distinctively painted with symbols of Tanit, the patron goddess of the unit. The early Carthaginian citizen army rank and file used the linothorax but after extensive contact with the Romans, superior chain mail replaced it.

Chain Mail

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Initially Celtic, the Romans were the first major proponents of chain mail and during the First Punic War the Carthaginians were treated to a front row demonstration of its protective abilities. Needless to say they were highly impressed. Hannibal’s African troops often stripped dead Romans for their elaborate hauberks, wearing them instead of their own linothorax cuirasses. Among the Carthaginian troops the chain mail hauberk, or lorica hamata as the Romans called it, proved to be extremely popular. And since the Carthaginian troops were allowed first pick of captured equipment, many of them ended up with chain mail.


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Greaves were standard Hellenistic infantry equipment and the Carthaginians used them to a large degree. Heavy citizen infantry used them, as well as cavalry. Usually made of bronze, they could be tied or be held in place by squeezing against the wearer’s legs.

Helmets – Again, Greek styles were popular, especially the Thracian among the Carthaginians. In addition, many of the helmet styles made by their mercenaries were also used by Carthaginian troops.


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Among Carthaginian citizen troops, the Thracian helmet was the preeminent style. The elegant bronze helmet was often painted, usually with a black band across the front of the helmet, above the eyes. Crests made of horsehair were commonplace, adding to the contrasting colors of the Carthaginian panoply. Heavy infantry were especially attracted to the Thracian, being a large, heavy helmet with good protection for the head, neck, and face but affording a considerable field of vision to the wearer.


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Used by both Celtic mercenaries and Carthaginian citizen soldiers, the Montefortino helmet was also used their Roman enemies. As with chain mail hauberks, helmets were stripped from Roman corpses, one of the most common being the Montefortino. The bronze helmet was protective, gave good visibility, and was comfortable to wear. While the Carthaginians obtained their Montefortinos from dead Romans, the Celts manufactured their own, and it is not improbable that during Hannibal’s campaign in Italy helmets were produced by Celtic blacksmiths for use in his army. In many cases Montefortino helmets were decorated with horsehair plumes and feathers.


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Originating in Spain, the Iberian style helmet was widely used by Spanish mercenaries, as well as by Carthaginian citizen troops, especially light infantry. A simple conical bronze helmet fitted with cheek guards, the Iberian helmet provided good protection and could be fitted with a crest.

Weapons - Thanks to the broad range of soldiers employed by the Carthaginians, it was one of the most cosmopolitan armies in existence. Weapons from many unique backgrounds were used, allowing for a broad range of tactics.


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The 15 to 19 foot long sarissa was popular all over the Greece, Middle East, and North Africa during the 3rd century BC, thanks to Alexander the Great’s army. Carthaginian citizen soldiers used the sarissa in phalanxes two handed, with their shield hanging from a strap across their neck and left shoulder. As with other pikemen, the Carthaginian soldiers were at a severe disadvantage when facing swordsmen like the Romans, who attacked the inevitable weak spots of the phalanx that formed as it moved over uneven ground.


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The native Carthaginians used the extremely popular Greek xiphos, the roughly 30-inch straight double-edged slashing sword. In combat they would wear it on their left hip on a baldric that went over their right shoulder. Cavalry also used the xiphos to great effect.

Celtic Long Sword

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The Celtic mercenaries in Carthaginian armies fought using there own equipment and the famous Celtic long sword was their most prized weapon. Roughly 36 inches long and made of an early form of steel, it was one of the finest sword types every produced. Used by wealthy chieftains and nobles, it was uncommon in the ranks where spears were the main weapons. In combat the double-edged Celtic sword would be used as a slashing weapon, a task to which it was ideally suited.


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As with most of the mercenaries in Carthaginian armies, Spanish troops used their own cultural weapons. One of these was the espasa, a short double-edged stabbing sword. Roughly 25 inches long, the Spaniards were famous for their use of it. When Spanish mercenaries in the service of Carthage fought Roman soldiers in Sicily during the First Punic War the Romans were so impressed by the espasa that they adopted it and called it the gladius hispanicus. The gladius went onto conquer the known world with the legions of Rome.


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Another Spanish weapon, the falcata was a descendent of the famous Greek kopis, the heavy curved saber. Made of high quality steel, the falcata was feared for its ability to chop through shields and crush helmets like tin cans. Used by infantry and cavalry, the falcata was a favorite among Spanish troops, who were highly sought after by the Carthaginians as heavy infantry and light troops.


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Javelins were popular weapons in the Carthaginian army, used by both citizen soldiers and mercenaries. Light Carthaginian troops used javelins to engage their opponents at range before close combat began, while Numidian light cavalry hurled javelins while riding bareback. Spanish mercenaries used a special javelin made completely out of iron called a saunion, measuring roughly 4 to 5 feet long. As well young Celtic warriors fighting under Carthaginian banners used light javelins randomly in combat.


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Balearic slingers were valuable components of the Carthaginian mercenary army. Using a simple leather strap and a stone, slingers were able to kill opponents at ranges that archers could not dream of reaching. At the Battle of Cannae, Carthage’s greatest victory, Balearic slingers wounded one of the consuls in command of the Roman forces near the beginning of the battle. Numidians also used the sling on foot.

Shields – As with weapons, shields were taken from a broad range of cultures and martial traditions. Carthaginians used Greek style shields, while the mercenaries used their own national shields. Although not listed here, the Numidians used a round shield on horseback and on foot.

Short Answer: His army was too small to either assault or securely besiege Rome. Rome itself remain defended by two legions and a large, conscriptable population. Marching on and laying siege to Rome was beyond his logistical capacity.

The final episode ended with Graham and Lecter taking on the Red Dragon/Francis Dolarhyde, as Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees sang a stirring and original tune, aptly titled “Love Crime.” The episode ends with the two very, very close friends embracing each other, before they fall off a cliff together.

Summary of the Punic Wars

Over the space of just under 120 years there were three great wars between two powers jostling to control the seas and the lands of the Italian peninsula, Sicily, Northern Africa and the southern lands of Spain.

The two powers in question were the Romans and the Carthaginians, two forces that really wanted to gain a foothold and control the lands and seas of the Mediterranean. As you are about to find out these three wars were probably the biggest wars to have ever happened before the birth of Christ so were greatly influential in changing the world at the time.

The causes of the Punic Wars boiled down to the Carthaginian Empire and the Roman Republic both wanting to expand their lands and build on the empires they had already started. The Romans were new to the development of capturing land and thus had not quite built their Empire yet which does happen later in history as we know.

At the outbreak of the First Punic War the Carthaginian Empire was the super power of the western side of the Mediterranean and as such many would have seen Carthage as the winner in the battle between the two powers.

The First Punic War

This war started as the Romans moved over the sea and marched on Sicily to gain lands there. The war ran between 264 BC and 241 BC. The initial battles were on land with the Battle of Agrigentum being a massive learning curve for the Carthage army as it was routed by the Romans.

After this the Carthaginian Empire decided to use their Navy, which ruled the seas, as a means of winning the war. What they didn’t know is that the Romans had built many ships and armed them with a new invention that was pretty much a pivotal bridge thrown across ships for legion soldiers to march across and do battle. This new invention was a huge success and the Roman Navy, while suffering some losses, was able to beat the Carthage Navy overall.

The outcome of the First Punic War was a resounding victory to Rome and the Carthage leadership signing a peace treaty advising as such.

The Second Punic War

The Second Punic War happened between 218 BC and 201 BC. While this war was a lot shorter than the First Punic War, it is most well known for the Carthage leader Hannibal who caused massive damage to the Romans.

This war was fought over three fronts with Sicily never being a problem and the Romans defending resolutely, southern Spain where Carthage was able to hold on for quite a while before relinquishing control and retreating and the most well known being that of the battles in Italy.

Hannibal took an army of men and elephants through the Alps and surprised the Romans in Northern Italy where he won many great battles these include the Battle of the Trebia, the Battle of Lake Trasimene and the Battle of Cannae.

As Hannibal moved in the north he requested more soldiers, something Carthage never gave him. It could be said that for this reason Hannibal was never able to complete his task even after 16 years in Italy.

The Romans realised they were going to find it difficult to beat Hannibal so they decided to cut off supplies to make life hard for Hannibal before then counter attacking by crossing over to Africa and attacking Carthage. This move was a great one as it meant Hannibal rushing back to defend his homeland before being demolished by the Romans at the Battle of Zama on October 19th 202 BC.

Again Rome gains victory in the war and now controls much of the Western Mediterranean meaning the Carthage Empire losses a lot of control.

The Third Punic War

The Third Punic War happened between 149 BC and 146 BC and it was the Romans on the offensive again. This war is the shortest of the three and seems to have been the final nail in the coffin of the Carthage Empire.

The Romans crossed the seas to North Africa and besieged the Phoenician city of Carthage (currently in Tunis). The Carthage Empire surrendered after only a few years and handed up weapons and men as prisoners, the Romans were not content with this and wanted to raise Carthage to the ground.

For the first two years the Roman siege was unorganized and the Carthaginian’s were able to defend their walls and make masses of weaponry inside.

After two years a young Scipio Aemilianus organized the Roman troops and after a field battle which the Romans won resoundingly the Roman truly besieged the city.

It wasn’t long before the Romans broke through the Carthage city walls and close quarter fighting took place in the streets and dwellings of the city. Once the Romans had gained control they simply destroyed the city totally before selling off the 50,000 or so survivors as slaves.

The Romans won the third and final Punic War leaving the Carthaginian’s to sign a treaty giving Rome control and leaving Carthage with no military at all.

Results of the First Punic War

While the Roman "victory" was achieved at a terrible cost, they did receive complete control of Sicily through Carthaginian withdrawal, and the assurance that Syracuse would be unmolested in the future. Carthage was forced to pay 3,200 gold talents in total over a period of 10 years while also paying heavy ransoms for its prisoners. As a direct result of this compensation, Carthage found itself unable to pay her mercenary army leading directly to a devastating revolt. Sicily was organized into Rome's first province soon after the end of the war, and a veritable gold mine in grain wealth was secured.

Casualties for both sides must have been devastating. Polybius suggested that the war was the most destructive in the history of warfare. Rome lost at least 50,000 actual citizens, with Latin rights, allied and auxilia numbers higher exponentially. In the end, Rome lost over 600 ships while Carthage at least 500. Rome never having been a sea power only used the navy as needed in warfare and not as a permanent institution, so its vessel losses were less significant. Carthage, however, by virtue of losing its sea advantage had to find other means to regain its strength and position.

In another direct result of the war, Rome was able to secure both Sardinia and Corsica as a second Roman province. While Carthage, under the leadership of Hamilcar, was busy fighting off its own 'mercenary war', Rome was able to snatch Sardinia away and secure its position on Corsica by 238 BC. Carthage protested, but in its current state, could do nothing more than that, and in fact, was forced to pay more tribute. An additional 1200 talents were sent to Rome while it also took control of the 3 major western Mediterranean Islands. Carthage would be forced to seek ways to expand and pay Rome though other means than the navy, and led to the eventual colonization of Hispania. Lingering animosity wouldn't take long to resurface, and the emergence of the Barca (Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal) family in Carthage would have a lasting and horrific impact on the new masters of the Mediterranean.

The Romans were able to shift attention to the North and the troublesome Gauls and Illyrians while Carthage dealt with its own internal affairs. They learned some important lessons in this war including the use of the sea in strategic warfare. While never becoming great sailors themselves, they used technology, the corvus, to their advantage and included more sea adept Greek officers and crews whenever possible. More importantly, Rome learned how to conduct war on a massive scale and to survive the turmoil it could cause. The Senate became masters of financing these expansionist activities, while the areas of legion recruiting, logistics, political espionage and fleet building all were part of the invaluable knowledge and experience gained. This already lengthy and costly war, while greatly beneficial to Rome was only the beginning of a longer and bloodier conflict by far, and both sides knew it.

War and Expansion During the Republic

The major wars fought by the Romans in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean region during the time of the Republic resulted in a tremendous expansion of Roman territory. This creation of a territorial empire&mdashcontrol over lands previously ruled by others&mdashhad enormous consequences for Roman society. Many historians use the label &ldquoimperialism&rdquo to characterize Rome&rsquos expansion of its power through war. That word comes from the Latin term imperium, the power to compel obedience, to command and to punish. The negative meaning attached to imperialism today comes primarily from criticism of the history of modern European states in establishing colonial empires in Africa and Asia. To decide how&mdashor whether&mdashthis term is a fair description of Rome&rsquos expansion requires us to try to understand what motivated the Romans in this process. As we will see, it is a controversial question to what extent Rome&rsquos wars and conquest during the Republic were the result of a desire to profit from dominating others, or of the belief that preemptive wars to weaken or absorb perceived enemies were the best defense against attacks by others. Therefore, the most debated question about Roman expansion through war under the Republic concerns the intentions motivating it.

What is clear is that the great expansion of Rome&rsquos territory and international power brought major changes to Roman society and culture. Rome&rsquos overseas wars meant long-term contacts with new peoples that produced unexpected and often controversial influences on Roman life. To give one major example, increased interaction with Greeks led to the creation of the first Roman literature written in Latin. A different kind of change came from the effects on Roman values of the stupendous wealth and personal power that Rome&rsquos upper-class leaders acquired as their rewards in the wars of conquest under the Republic. On the other hand, Rome&rsquos expansion also meant that many of Italy&rsquos small farmers, the main source of manpower for the army, fell into poverty that contributed to social instability. Rome&rsquos political leaders disagreed fiercely about how, or even whether, to help their impoverished fellow citizens. The disagreements became so bitter that in the end they created a violent divide in the upper class, destroying any hope for preserving the Republic.


499: The Romans defeat their neighbors in Latium.

396: The Romans achieve final victory over the Etruscan town of Veii, doubling their territory through the conquest.

387: Invading Gauls (Celts) attack and sack Rome.

300: As many as 150,000 people now live in the city of Rome.

280&ndash275: The Romans fight and defeat the mercenary general Pyrrhus commanding the forces of the Greek cities in south Italy.

264&ndash241: The Romans defeat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War, with great losses on both sides.

Late third century: Livius Andronicus composes the first Roman literature in Latin, an adaptation of Homer&rsquos Odyssey.

227: The Romans make provinces out of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, beginning their territorial empire.

220: After centuries of war, the Romans now control the entire Italian peninsula south of the Po River.

218&ndash201: The Romans defeat the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War despite Hannibal&rsquos invasion of Italy.

196: The Roman general Flamininus proclaims the freedom of the Greeks at Corinth.

149&ndash146: The Romans defeat the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War, converting Carthage and its territory into a province.

146: The Roman general Mummius destroys Corinth Greece and Macedonia are made into a Roman province.

133: Attalus III, King of Pergamum, leaves his kingdom to the Romans in his will.

Late 130s and late 120s: Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus as consuls stir up violent political conflict and are murdered by their opponents from the Senate.


Rome&rsquos first wars were fought near its own borders, in central Italy. Soon after the establishment of the Republic, the Romans won a victory over their Latin neighbors in 499 B.C. They then spent the next hundred years fighting the Etruscan town of Veii situated a few miles north of the Tiber River. As a consequence of their eventual victory in 396 B.C., the Romans doubled their territory. The ancient sources present this first stage of expansion as a justified extension of Rome&rsquos defensive perimeter rather than as the result of premeditated wars of conquest. However, these accounts were written in a much later period and may be offering a justification for early Rome&rsquos expansion that created a historical precedent for what their authors thought should be the moral basis for Roman foreign policy in their own time.

Whatever the truth is about the Romans&rsquo motives for fighting their neighbors in the fifth century B.C., by the fourth century B.C. the Roman army had surpassed all other Mediterranean-area forces as an effective weapon of war. The success of the Roman army stemmed from the organization of its fighting units, which was designed to provide tactical flexibility and maneuverability in the field. The largest unit was the legion, which by later in the Republic numbered five thousand infantry soldiers. Each legion was supplemented with three hundred cavalry troops and various engineers to do construction and other support duties. Roman legions were also customarily accompanied by significant numbers of allied troops, and sometimes even mercenaries, especially to serve as archers. The legion&rsquos internal subdivision into many smaller units under experienced leaders, called centurions, gave it greater mobility to react swiftly to new situations in the heat of battle. Since the foot soldiers were drawn up in battle formation with space left between them, they could stand behind their large shields to make effective use of their throwing spears to disrupt the enemy line, and then move in with their swords drawn for hand-to-hand combat. Roman infantrymen&rsquos swords were specially designed for cutting and thrusting from close range, and men underwent harsh training to be able to withstand the shock and fear that this emphasis on close combat generated not only in the enemy but also in the Roman troops who had to carry it out. Above all, Romans never stopped fighting. Even a devastating sack of Rome in 387 B.C. by marauding Gauls (a Celtic group) from the distant north failed to end the state&rsquos military success in the long run. By around 220 B.C., the Romans had brought all of Italy south of the Po River under their control.

The conduct of these wars in Italy was often brutal. The Romans sometimes enslaved large numbers of the defeated. Even if they left their conquered enemies free, they forced them to give up large parcels of their land. Equally significant for evaluating Roman imperialism, however, is that the Romans also regularly extended peace terms to former enemies. To some defeated Italians they immediately gave Roman citizenship to others they gave the protections of citizenship, though without the right to vote in Rome&rsquos assemblies still other communities received treaties of alliance and protection. No conquered Italian peoples had to pay taxes to Rome. They did, however, have to render military aid to the Romans in subsequent wars. These new allies then received a share of the booty, chiefly slaves and land, that Rome and its allied armies won on successful campaigns against a new crop of enemies. In other words, the Romans co-opted their former opponents by making them partners in the spoils of conquest, an arrangement that in turn enhanced Rome&rsquos wealth and authority. All these arrangements corresponded to the Romans&rsquo original policy of incorporating others into their community to make it larger and stronger. Roman imperialism, in short, was inclusive, not exclusive.

To increase the security of Italy, the Romans planted colonies of citizens and constructed a network of roads up and down the peninsula. These roads aided the gradual merging of the diverse cultures of Italy into a more unified whole dominated by Rome, in which Latin came to be the common language. But the Romans, too, were deeply influenced by the cross-cultural contacts that expansion brought. In southern Italy, the Romans found a second home, as it were, in long-established Greek cities such as Naples. These Greek communities, too weak to resist Roman armies, nevertheless introduced their conquerors to Greek traditions in art, music, theater, literature, and philosophy, thereby providing models for later Roman cultural developments. When in the late third century B.C. Roman authors began to write history for the first time, for example, they imitated Greek forms and aimed at Greek readers with their accounts of early Rome, even to the point of writing in Greek.

Rome&rsquos urban population grew tremendously during the period of expansion in Italy. By around 300 B.C., as many as 150,000 people lived within the city&rsquos fortification wall. Long aqueducts were built to bring fresh water to this growing population, and the plunder from the successful wars financed a massive building program inside the city. Outside the city, 750,000 free Roman citizens inhabited various parts of Italy on land taken from the local peoples. For reasons that are uncertain, this rural population encountered increasing economic difficulties over time, whether from a rise in the birth rate leading to an inability to support larger families, or from the difficulties of keeping a farm productive when many men were away on long military campaigns, or perhaps from some combination of these factors. It is clear that a large amount of conquered territory was declared public land, supposedly open to any Roman to use for grazing flocks. Many rich landowners, however, managed to secure control of huge parcels of this public land for their own, private use. This illegal monopolization of public land contributed to bitter feelings between rich and poor Romans.

Map 4. Major Roman Roads under the Republic

The ranks of the rich by now included both patricians and plebeians both these orders included &ldquonobles.&rdquo In fact, the tensions of the Struggle of the Orders were so far in the past by the third century B.C. that the wealthy and politically successful patricians and plebeians saw their interests as similar rather than as conflicting and competing. Their agreement on issues of politics and state finance amounted to a new definition of the upper class, making the old division of the &ldquoorders&rdquo obsolete for all practical purposes. The members of the upper class derived their wealth mainly from agricultural land, as in the past, but now they could also increase their riches from plunder gained as officers in successful military expeditions against foreign enemies. The Roman state had no regular income or inheritance taxes, so financially prudent families could pass this wealth down from generation to generation.

After their military success in Italy, the most pressing issues for Romans continued to be decisions about war. When the mercenary general Pyrrhus brought an army equipped with war elephants from Greece to fight for the Greek city of Tarentum against Roman expansion in southern Italy, Rome&rsquos leaders convinced the assemblies to vote to face this frightening threat. From 280 to 275 B.C. the Romans battled Pyrrhus in a seesaw struggle, until finally they forced him to abandon the war and return to Greece. With this hard-earned victory, Rome gained effective control of Italy in the south all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean at the end of the peninsula.

This expansion southward brought the Romans to the edge of the region dominated by Carthage, a prosperous state located across the Mediterranean Sea in western North Africa (today Tunisia). Phoenicians, Semitic explorers from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, had colonized Carthage around 800 B.C. on a favorable location for conducting trade by sea and controlling fertile agricultural areas inland. The Carthaginians had expanded their commercial interests all over the western Mediterranean, including the large island of Sicily, located across a narrow strip of sea from the toe of the Italian peninsula. Their centuries of experience at sea meant that the Carthaginians completely outstripped the Romans in naval capability the Romans in the third centuryB.C. had almost no knowledge of the technology needed to build warships or the organization required to field a powerful navy. The two states were alike politically, however, because Carthage, like Rome, was governed as a republic dominated by a social elite.

Since the Romans were no rivals for the Carthaginians in overseas trade and had never conducted a military campaign at sea or even on land outside of Italy, the two states could have gone on indefinitely without becoming enemies. As it happened, however, a seemingly insignificant episode created by third parties under the control of neither Rome nor Carthage drew these two powers into what became a century of destructive wars that changed the power structure of the Mediterranean world&mdashthe Punic Wars, so called from Punici (&ldquoPhoenicians&rdquo), the Roman name for the Carthaginians. In 264 B.C., a band of mercenaries in the city of Messana at Sicily&rsquos northeastern tip close to Italy found themselves in great danger of their lives, after the military service for which they had been hired ended in failure. In desperation, the mercenaries appealed for help to Rome and Carthage simultaneously. There was no obvious reason for either to respond, except geography: Sicily was located precisely on the edge between the two powers&rsquo spheres of control in the region. In short, Messana was perfectly positioned to become a flashpoint for conflict between Roman and Carthaginian ambitions and fears.

Figure 10. On a painted plate, a war elephant carries warriors in a tower on its back, followed by its calf. The Romans first faced these beasts on the battlefield in the third century B.C., but, like the Greeks, they learned to disrupt their attacks by placing spiked traps in their way to injure the behemoths&rsquo soft feet. Scala/ArtResource, NY.

The Senate could not agree about what to do about the mercenaries&rsquo request to be rescued, but a patrician consul, Appius Claudius Caudex, persuaded the people to vote to send an army to Sicily by promising them rich plunder. In this way, sending troops to Messana became Rome&rsquos first military expedition outside Italy. When Carthage also sent soldiers to Messana, a battle erupted between the forces of the two competing powers. The result was the First Punic War, which lasted a generation (264 B.C.&ndash241 B.C.). This decades-long conflict revealed why the Romans were so consistently successful in conquest: they were prepared to sacrifice as many lives, to spend as much money, and to keep fighting as long as necessary. Staying loyal to their traditional values, they never gave up, whatever the cost. The Romans and their allies persevered in the First Punic War despite losing 250,000 men and more than 500 warships from their newly built navy. The Greek historian Polybius, writing a century later, regarded the First Punic War as &ldquothe greatest war in history in its length, intensity, and scale of operations&rdquo (Histories 1.13.10&ndash13).

The need to fight at sea against an experienced naval power spurred the Romans to develop a navy from scratch. They overcame their inferiority in naval warfare with an ingenious technical innovation, outfitting the prows of their newly built warships with a beam fitted with a long spike at its outer end. In battle, they snared enemy ships by dropping these spiked beams, called ravens because of their resemblance to the sharp-beaked bird, onto the enemy&rsquos deck. Roman troops then boarded the enemy ship to fight hand-to-hand, their specialty. So successful were the Romans in learning and applying naval technology that they lost very few major battles at sea in the First Punic War. One famous loss in 249 B.C. they explained as divine punishment for the consul Claudius Pulcher&rsquos sacrilege before the battle. To meet the religious requirement that a commander take the auspices before beginning battle, he had sacred chickens on board ship. Before sending his force into action, a commander had to see the birds feeding energetically as a sign of good fortune. When his chickens, probably seasick, refused to eat, Claudius hurled them overboard in a rage, sputtering, &ldquoWell, then, let them drink!&rdquo (Cicero, The Nature of the Gods 2.7). He began battle anyway and lost 93 of his 123 ships in a spectacular naval defeat. The Romans later punished him for his arrogant defiance of tradition.

The Romans&rsquo victory in the First Punic War made them the masters of Sicily, whose ports and fields had brought prosperity to the island&rsquos diverse settlements of Greeks, Carthaginians, and indigenous peoples. The income from taxes that the Romans received from Sicily proved so profitable that in 238 B.C. the Romans also seized the nearby islands of Sardinia and Corsica from the Carthaginians. In 227 B.C., the Romans officially converted Sicily into one overseas province and Sardinia and Corsica into a second. These actions created the Roman provincial system, in which Romans served as the governors of conquered territories (&ldquoprovinces&rdquo) to oversee taxation, the administration of justice, and the protection of Roman interests. Unlike many of the peoples defeated and absorbed by Rome in Italy, the inhabitants of the new provinces did not become Roman citizens. They were designated &ldquoprovincials,&rdquo who retained their local political organization but also paid direct taxes, which Roman citizens did not.

The number of praetors was increased to fill the need for Roman officials to serve as governors, whose duties were to keep the provinces paying taxes, free of rebels, and out of enemy hands. Whenever possible, Roman provincial administration made use of local administrative arrangements already in place. In Sicily, for instance, the Romans collected the same taxes that the earlier Greek states there had collected. Over time, the taxes paid by provincials provided income for subsidies to the Roman poor, as well as opportunities for personal enrichment to the upper-class Romans who served in high offices in the provincial administration of the Republic.

Following the First Punic War, the Romans made alliances with communities in eastern Spain to block Carthaginian power there. Despite a Roman pledge in 226 B.C. not to interfere south of the Ebro River, the region where Carthage dominated, the Carthaginians were alarmed by this move by their enemy. They feared for their important commercial interests in Spain&rsquos mineral and agricultural resources. When Saguntum, a city located south of the river in the Carthaginian-dominated part of the Spanish peninsula, appealed to Rome for help against Carthage, the Senate responded favorably, ignoring their previous pledge. Worries about the injustice of breaking their word were perhaps offset by the Roman view that the Carthaginians were barbarians of lesser moral status. The Romans condemned the Carthaginians for what they (correctly) believed was the Punic practice of sacrificing infants and children in national emergencies to try to regain the favor of the gods.

When Saguntum fell to a Carthaginian siege, the Romans launched the Second Punic War (218 B.C.&ndash201 B.C.). This second long war put even greater stress on Rome than the first because the innovative Carthaginian general Hannibal, hardened by years of warfare in Spain, shocked the Romans by marching a force of troops and elephants through the snow-covered passes in the Alps to invade Italy. The shock turned to terror when Hannibal killed more than thirty thousand Romans in a single day at the battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. The Carthaginian general&rsquos strategy was to try to provoke widespread revolts in the Italian cities allied to Rome. His alliance with King Philip V of Macedonia in 215 B.C. forced the Romans to fight in Greece as well to protect their eastern flank, but they refused to crack under the pressure. Hannibal made their lives miserable by marching up and down Italy for fifteen more years, ravaging Roman territory and even threatening to capture the capital itself. The best the Romans could do militarily was to engage in stalling tactics, made famous by the general Fabius Maximus, called &ldquothe Delayer.&rdquo Disastrously for Hannibal, however, most of the Italians remained loyal to Rome. In the end Hannibal had to abandon his guerrilla campaign in Italy to rush back to North Africa with his army in 203 B.C., when the Romans, under their general Scipio, daringly launched an attack on Carthage itself.

Map 5. Roman Expansion During the Republic

Home at last after thirty-four years in the field in Spain and Italy, Hannibal was defeated at the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. by Scipio. He received the title Africanus to celebrate his outstanding victory over such a formidable enemy. The Romans imposed a punishing peace settlement on the Carthaginians, forcing them to scuttle their navy, pay huge war indemnities scheduled to last for fifty years, and relinquish their territories in Spain. The Romans subsequently had to fight a long series of wars with the indigenous Spanish peoples for control of the area, but the enormous profits to be made there, especially from Spain&rsquos mineral resources, made the effort worthwhile. The revenues from Spain&rsquos silver mines were so great that they financed expensive public building projects in Rome.

The Romans&rsquo success against Carthage allowed them to continue efforts to defeat the Gauls in northern Italy, who inhabited the rich plain north of the Po River. Remembering the sack of Rome by marauding Gauls in 387, a success that not even Hannibal had achieved, the Romans feared another invasion. The Romans therefore believed their wars against these Celtic peoples were just because they were, in Roman eyes, a preemptive defense. By the end of the third century B.C., Rome controlled the Po valley and thus all of Italy up to the Alps.

Expansion eastward followed Rome&rsquos military successes in the western Mediterranean. In the aftermath of the Second Punic War, the Senate in 200 B.C. advised that Roman forces should be sent abroad across the Adriatic Sea to attack Philip V, king of Macedonia in the Balkans. Philip&rsquos alliance with Hannibal had forced the Romans to open a second front in that difficult war, but the Macedonians then made peace with Rome on favorable terms in 205 B.C., when the Romans had their hands full dealing with Carthage. Now, the senators responded to a call from the Greek states of Pergamum and Rhodes to prevent an alliance between the kingdom of Macedonia and that of the Seleucids, the family of a general of Alexander the Great who had founded a new monarchy in southwestern Asia in the tumultuous aftermath of Alexander&rsquos conquests. These smaller powers feared they would be overcome, and the senators took the invitation to help these faraway places as a reason to extend Roman power into a new area. Their motives were probably mixed. Most likely they both wanted to punish Philip for his treachery and also demonstrate that Rome could protect itself from any threat to Italy from that direction.

Figure 11. This Greek-style theater seated thousands of spectators in Pergamum, the capital of the Attalid kingdom in Asia Minor (today Turkey). Used for theatrical performances and festival shows, its size testifies to the popularity of large-scale entertainments in the Greco-Roman world. Erika Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons.

After defeating Philip, the Roman commander Flamininus in 196 B.C. traveled to a popular and well-attended international athletic festival near Corinth in southern Greece to proclaim the freedom of the Greeks. The locals were surprised and confused by this announcement. It certainly was not obvious to them why, or with what right, this foreigner was telling them that they were free. They assumed that freedom was their natural condition. Despite their puzzlement at the circumstances, the long-established cities and federal leagues of Greece certainly believed that the proclamation meant that they, the Greeks, were free to direct their own affairs just as they liked, so far as the Romans were concerned. After all, the Greeks thought, the Romans have now said we are their friends.

Unfortunately for them, the Greeks had misunderstood the message. The Romans meant that they had fulfilled the role of a patron by doing the Greeks the kindness of fighting a war on their behalf and then proclaiming their freedom, instead of asking for any kind of submission or even compensation for their losses in war. Therefore, in Roman eyes, their actions had made them the patrons of the liberated Greeks, who should then behave as respectful Roman clients, not as equals. The Greeks were their friends only in the special sense that patrons and clients were friends. They were politically and legally free, certainly, but that status did not liberate them from their moral obligation to behave as clients and therefore respect their patrons&rsquo wishes.

Since the Greeks&rsquo customs included nothing comparable, they failed to understand the seriousness of the obligations, and the differences in the kinds of obligations, between superiors and inferiors that Romans attributed to the patron-client relationship. As can happen in international diplomacy, trouble developed because the two sides failed to realize that common and familiar terms such as &ldquofreedom&rdquo and &ldquofriendship&rdquo could carry significantly different meanings and implications in different societies. The Greeks, taking the Roman proclamation of freedom literally and therefore thinking that they were free to manage their political affairs as they wished, resisted subsequent Roman efforts to intervene in the local disputes that continued to disrupt the peace in Greece and Macedonia after the proclamation of 196 B.C. The Romans, by contrast, regarded this refusal to follow their recommendations as a betrayal of the client&rsquos duty to respect the patron&rsquos wishes.

The Romans were especially upset by the military support that certain Greeks requested from King Antiochus III, the ruler of the Seleucid Kingdom, who invaded Greece after the Roman forces returned to Italy in 194 B.C. The Romans therefore fought against Antiochus and his allies from 192 to 188 B.C. in what is called the Syrian War. Again victorious, they parceled out Antiochus&rsquos territories in Asia Minor (today Turkey) to friendly states in the region and once more withdrew to Italy. When the expansionist activities of the Macedonian king Perseus led King Eumenes of Pergamum to appeal to Rome to return to Greece to stop Macedonian aggression, the Romans responded by sending an army that defeated Perseus over the course of 171 to 168 B.C. Not even this victory settledmatters in Greece, and it took yet another twenty years before Rome could decisively restore peace there for the benefit of its friends and supporters in Greece and Macedonia. Finally, after winning yet another Macedonian war in 148 B.C.&ndash146 B.C., the Romans ended Greek freedom by beginning to bring Macedonia and Greece into the system of Rome&rsquos provinces. In 146 B.C., the Roman commander Mummius destroyed the historic and wealthy city of Corinth as a calculated act of terror to show what continued resistance to Roman domination would mean for the other Greeks.

The year 146 B.C. also saw the annihilation of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War (149 B.C.&ndash146 B.C.). This war had begun when the Carthaginians, who had once again revived economically after paying the indemnities imposed by Rome following the Second Punic War, retaliated against their neighbor the Numidian king Masinissa, a Roman ally who had been aggressively provoking them for some time. Carthage finally fell before the blockade of Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus. The city was then destroyed and its territory converted into a Roman province. This disaster did not obliterate Punic social and cultural ways, however, and later under the Roman Empire this part of North Africa was distinguished for its economic and intellectual vitality, which emerged from a synthesis of Roman and Punic traditions.

The destruction of Carthage as an independent state corresponded to the wish of the famously plainspoken Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder. For several years before 146 B.C., Cato had taken every opportunity in debates in the Senate to demand: &ldquoCarthage must be destroyed!&rdquo (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder 27). Cato presumably had two reasons for his order. One was the fear that a newly strong Carthage would once again threaten Rome. Another was a desire to eliminate Carthage as a rival for the riches and glory that Cato and his fellow nobles hoped to accumulate as a result of the expansion of Roman power throughout the Mediterranean region.

The Romans won every war they fought in the first four hundred years of the Republic, although usually only after years of fierce battles, terrible losses of life, and enormous expense. These hard-won victories had both intended and unintended consequences for Rome and the values of Roman society. By 100 B.C., the Romans had intentionally established their control of an amount of territory more vast than any one nation had conquered since the time of the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. But as said at the start of this section, even experts disagree concerning to what extent the Romans originally intended to fight wars of conquest, as opposed to attacking enemies for self-defense in a hostile and aggressive world.

Roman expansion was never a constant or uniform process, and Roman imperialism under the Republic cannot be explained as the result of any single principle or motivation. The Romans exercised considerable flexibility in dealing with different peoples in different locations. In Italy, the Romans initially fought to protect themselves against neighbors they found threatening. In the western Mediterranean and western North Africa, the Romans followed their conquests by imposing direct rule and maintaining a permanent military presence. In Greece and Macedonia, they for a long time preferred to rule indirectly, through alliances and compliant local governments. Roman leaders befriended their counterparts in the social elite in Greece to promote their common interests in keeping the peace. Following the destruction of Carthage and Corinth in 146 B.C., Rome&rsquos direct rule now extended across two-thirds the length of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece. And then in 133 B.C. the king of Pergamum, Attalus III, increased Roman power yet further with an astonishing gift: in his will he left his kingdom in Asia Minor as a bequest to the Romans. They were now the unrivaled masters of their world.

In sum, it seems fair to explain Roman imperialism as the combined result of (1) a concern for the security of Rome and its territory leading the Senate and the Assemblies to agree on preemptive strikes against those states perceived as enemies (2) the desire of both the Roman upper class and of the Roman people in general to benefit financially from the rewards of wars of conquest, including booty, land in Italy, and tax revenue from provinces and (3) the traditional drive to achieve glory, both among men of the upper class for personal gratification but also among Romans in general for the reputation of their state. Power was respected and honored in the world in which the Romans lived, and conquest was therefore not automatically regarded as a dirty word. At the same time, the Romans were always careful to insist&mdashand sincere in believing&mdashthat they were not the aggressors but were fighting in defense of their safety or to preserve and enhance their honor. Whether we today should criticize them as more insincere or mistaken than modern imperialists is a question that readers must answer for themselves, while being careful to avoid the arrogance in judgment that modernity sometimes ignorantly assumes in comparing the contemporary world&rsquos moral scorecard of good and evil to that of the ancient world.


The Romans&rsquo military and diplomatic activity in southern Italy, Sicily, Greece, and Asia Minor intensified their contact with Greek culture, which deeply influenced the development of art, architecture, and literature in Roman culture. When Roman artists began creating paintings, they found inspiration in Greek art, whose models they adapted to their own taste and needs, and the same was true of sculpture. Painting was perhaps the most popular art, but very little has survived, except for frescoes (paintings on plaster) decorating the walls of buildings. Similarly, relatively few Roman statues are preserved from the period of the Republic. The first temple to be built of marble in Rome, erected in honor of Jupiter in 146 B.C., echoed the Greek tradition of using that shining stone for magnificent public architecture. A victorious general, Caecilius Metellus, paid for it to display his success and piety in the service of the Roman people. This temple became famous for starting a trend of expensive magnificence in the architecture and construction of Roman public buildings.

Roman literature also grew from Greek models. In fact, when the first Roman history was written about 200 B.C., it was written in Greek. The earliest literature written in Latin was a long poem, written sometime after the First Punic War (264 B.C.&ndash241 B.C.), that was an adaptation of Homer&rsquos Odyssey. The diversity that was driving Roman cultural development is shown by the fact this first author to write in Latin was not a Roman at all, but rather a Greek from Tarentum in southern Italy, Livius Andronicus. Taken captive and enslaved, he lived in Rome after being freed and taking his master&rsquos name. Indeed, many of the most famous early Latin authors were not native Romans. They came from a wide geographic range: the poet Naevius (d. 201 B.C.) from Campania, south of Rome the poet Ennius (d. 169 B.C.) from even farther south in Calabria the comic playwright Plautus (d. 184 B.C.) from north of Rome, in Umbria his fellow comedy writer Terence (190 B.C.&ndash159 B.C.) from North Africa.

Early Roman literature therefore shows clearly that Roman culture found strength and vitality by combining the foreign and the familiar, just as the population had grown by bringing together Romans and immigrants. Plautus and Terence, for example, wrote their famous comedies in Latin for Roman audiences, but they adapted their plots from Greek comedies. They displayed their particular genius by keeping the settings of their comedies Greek, while creating unforgettable characters that were unmistakably Roman in their outlook and behavior. The comic figure of the braggart warrior, for one, mocked the pretensions of Romans who claimed elevated social status on the basis of the number of enemies they had slaughtered. These plays have proved enduring in their appeal. Shakespeare based The Comedy of Errors (A.D. c. 1594) on a comedy of Plautus so, too, the hit Broadway musical and later film (A.D. 1966), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, took its inspiration from the bawdy humor of Plautus&rsquos The Braggart Warrior.

Figure 12. An actor or author of the kind of Greek comedies that inspired Roman ones inspects the masks that comic actors wore on stage. The masks&rsquo broad features helped spectators tell one character from another when viewing shows in giant theaters such as the one pictured in Figure 11. David C. Hill/Wikimedia Commons.

Not all Romans found Greek influence a good thing. Cato, although he studied Greek himself, repeatedly thundered against the corrupting effect that he believed the weakling Greeks were having on the sturdy Romans. He established Latin as a proper language for writing prose with the publication of his treatise on running a large farm, On Agriculture (published about 160 B.C.), and his history of Rome, The Origins (which he began writing in 168 B.C. and was still working on at his death in 149 B.C.). Cato glumly predicted that if the Romans became thoroughly infected with Greek literature, they would lose their power. In fact, early Latin literature reflected traditional Roman values despite its debt to Greek literature. Ennius, for example, was inspired by Greek epic poetry to compose his path-breaking epic, Annals, in Latin. Its subject, however, was a poetic version of Roman history from the beginnings to Ennius&rsquos time. Its contents were anything but subversive of ancestral tradition, as a famous line demonstrates: &ldquoOn the ways and the men of old rests the Roman commonwealth&rdquo (preserved in Augustine, City of God 2.21 Warm-ington vol. 1, pp. 174&ndash175, frag. 467). This was Ennius&rsquos poetic restatement of the traditional guide to proper conduct for Romans, the &ldquoway of the elders.&rdquo

The unanticipated social and economic changes brought about by Roman imperialism were far more destabilizing to Roman society than was Greek influence on literature. Rome&rsquos upper class gained extraordinary financial rewards from Roman imperialism in the third and second centuries B.C. The increased need for commanders to lead military campaigns abroad meant more opportunities for successful men to enrich themselves from booty. By using their gains to finance public buildings, they could then enhance their social status by benefiting the general population. Building new temples, for instance, was thought to increase everyone&rsquos security because the Romans believed their gods to be pleased by having more shrines in their honor. Moreover, some festivals associated with temples provided benefits to the general population because their animal sacrifices meant that meat could be distributed to people who could not afford it otherwise.

The creation of the provinces created a need for an increased number of military and political leaders that could not be provided by the traditional number of elected officials. More and more officials therefore had their powers prolonged to command armies and administer provinces. Because a provincial governor ruled by martial law, no one in the province could curb a greedy governor&rsquos appetite for graft, extortion, and plunder. Not all Roman provincial officials were corrupt, of course, but some did use their unsupervised power to exploit the provincials to the maximum. Dishonest provincial officials only rarely faced punishment the notorious Verres, prosecuted by Cicero in 70 B.C. for his crimes as an administrator in Sicily, was a rare exception. Enormous and luxurious country villas became a favorite symbol of wealth for men who had grown rich as provincial administrators. The new taste for a lavish lifestyle stirred up controversy because it contradicted Roman ideals, which emphasized moderation and frugality in one&rsquos private life. Cato, for instance, made his ideal Roman the military hero Manius Curius (d. 270 B.C.), legendary for his simple meals of turnips boiled in his humble hut. The new opportunities for extravagance financed by the financial rewards of expansion abroad fatally undermined this tradition among the Roman elite of valuing a modest, even austere life.

The economic basis of the Republic remained farming. For hundreds of years, farmers working modest-sized plots in the Italian countryside had been the backbone of Roman agricultural production. These property owners also constituted the principal source of soldiers for the Roman army only men who owned property could serve. As a result, the Republic encountered grave economic, social, and military difficulties when the successful wars of the third and second centuries B.C. turned out to be disastrous for many family farms throughout Italy.

Before the First Punic War, Roman warfare had followed the normal Mediterranean pattern of short military campaigns timed not to interfere with the fluctuating labor needs of agriculture. This seasonal warfare allowed men to remain at home during the times of the year when they needed to sow and harvest their crops and oversee mating and culling of their flocks of animals. The long campaigns of the First Punic War, prolonged year after year, disrupted this pattern by keeping soldiers away from their land for long periods. The women in farming families, like those in urban families, had previously worked in and around the house, not in the fields. A farmer absent on military campaigns therefore either had to rely on hired hands or slaves to raise his crops and animals, or have his wife try to take on what was traditionally man&rsquos work. This heavy labor came on top of her already full day&rsquos work of bringing water, weaving cloth, storing and preparing food, and caring for the family&rsquos children and slaves. The load was crushing.

The story of the consul Marcus Atilius Regulus, who commanded a victorious Roman army in Africa in 256 B.C., reveals the severe problems a man&rsquos absence could cause. When the man who was managing Regulus&rsquos four-acre farm died while the consul was away fighting Carthage, a hired hand ran off with all the farm&rsquos livestock and tools. Regulus therefore begged the Senate to send another general to replace him, so he could return home to prevent his wife and children from starving on his derelict farm. The senators provided support to save Regulus&rsquos family and property from ruin because they wanted to keep Regulus as a commander on the battlefield (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 4.4.6). Ordinary rank-and-file soldiers could expect no such special aid. Women and children in the same sorry plight as Regulus&rsquos family faced disaster because they had no marketable skills if they moved to a city in search of work. Even unskilled jobs were largely unavailable because slaves were used for domestic service, while manufacturing took place in small-scale businesses run by families through the labor of their own members. Many rural women, displaced from their farms and reduced to desperate poverty by their husbands&rsquo absence or death in war, could earn money only by becoming prostitutes in the cities of Italy. The new pattern of warfare thus had the unintended consequence of disrupting the traditional forms of life of ordinary people in the Roman countryside, the base of Rome&rsquos agricultural economy. At the same time, women in the propertied classes gained further wealth through dowry and inheritance, as the men in their families, who filled the elite positions in the army, brought home the greater share of booty to which their high rank entitled them under the Roman system of distributing the spoils of war.

The farmers&rsquo troubles continued with Hannibal&rsquos decade-long stay in Italy at the end of the third century B.C. during the Second Punic War. The constant presence of a Carthaginian army made it impossible for farmers to keep up a regular schedule of planting and harvesting in the regions that he terrorized, and the Roman general Fabius&rsquos tactics of delay and attrition made their losses worse. Farm families&rsquo troubles were compounded in the second century B.C. when many men had to spend year after year away from their fields while serving in Rome&rsquos nearly constant military expeditions abroad. More than 50 percent of Roman adult males spent at least seven years in military service during this period, leaving their wives and children to cope as best they could for long periods. Many farm families fell into debt and had to sell their land. Rich landowners could then buy up these plots to create large estates. Landowners further increased their holdings by illegally occupying public land that Rome had originally confiscated from defeated peoples in Italy. In this way, the rich gained vast estates, called latifundia, worked by slaves as well as free laborers. The rich had a ready supply of slaves to work on their mega-farms because of the great numbers of captives taken in the same wars that had promoted the displacement of Italy&rsquos small farmers.

Not all regions of Italy suffered as severely as others, and some impoverished farmers and their families in the badly affected areas managed to remain in their native countrysides by working as day laborers. Many displaced people, however, immigrated to Rome, where the men would look for work as menial laborers and women might hope for some piecework making cloth. It has recently been suggested that part of the reason that there were so many people on the move is that, for unknown reasons, there had been a surge in the birth rate that led to pockets of over-population in the countryside, with too many people to be supported by local resources. Whatever the reasons, the traditional stability of rural life had been terribly disrupted.

The influx of desperate people to Rome swelled the poverty-level population in the capital. The ongoing difficulty that these now landless urban poor experienced in supporting themselves from day to day in the closely packed city made them a potentially explosive element in Roman politics. They were willing to support with their votes any politician promising to address their needs. They had to be fed somehow if food riots in the city were to be averted. Like Athens before it in the fifth century B.C., Rome by the late second century B.C. needed to import grain to feed its swollen urban population. The Senate supervised the market in grain to prevent speculation in the provision of the basic food supply of Rome and to ensure wide distribution in times of shortage. Some of Rome&rsquos leaders believed that the only possible solution to the problem of the starving poor was for the state to supply low-priced and, eventually, free grain to the masses at public expense. Others vehemently disagreed, though without an alternative solution to propose. So, distributions of subsidized food became standard government policy. Over time, the list of the poor entitled to these subsidies grew to tens and tens of thousands of people. Whether to continue this massive expenditure of state revenue became one of the most contentious issues in the politics of the late Republic.

The damaging effect of Roman expansion on poor farm families became an issue heightening the conflict for status that had always existed among Rome&rsquos elite political leaders. The situation exploded into murderous violence in the careers of the brothers Tiberius Gracchus (d. 133 B.C.) and Gaius Gracchus (d. 121 B.C.). They came from one of Rome&rsquos most distinguished upper-class families: their prominent mother Cornelia was the daughter of the famed general Scipio Africanus. Tiberius won election to the office of plebeian tribune in 133 B.C. He promptly outraged the Senate by having the Tribal Assembly of the Plebeians adopt reform laws designed to redistribute public land to landless Romans without the senators&rsquo approval, a formally legal but highly nontraditional maneuver in Roman politics. Tiberius further outraged tradition by ignoring the will of the Senate on the question of financing this agrarian reform. Before the Senate could render an opinion on whether to accept the bequest of his kingdom made to Rome by the recently deceased Attalus III of Pergamum, Tiberius moved that the gift be used to equip the new farms that were supposed to be established on the redistributed land.

Tiberius&rsquos reforms to help dispossessed farmers certainly had a political motive, as he had a score to settle with political rivals and expected to become popular with the people by serving as their champion. It would be overly cynical, however, to deny that he sympathized with his homeless fellow citizens. He famously said, &ldquoThe wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens.&hellip But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy nothing but the air and light without house or home they wander about with their wives and children.&hellip They fight and die to protect the wealth and luxury of others they are styled masters of the world, and have not a clod of earth they can call their own&rdquo (Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus 9).

Just as unprecedented as his agrarian reforms was Tiberius&rsquos persuasion of the Assembly to throw another tribune out of office: he had been vetoing Tiberius&rsquos proposals for new laws. He then violated another longstanding prohibition of the &ldquoRoman constitution&rdquo when he announced his intention to stand for reelection as tribune for the following year consecutive terms in office were regarded as &ldquounconstitutional.&rdquo Even some of his supporters now abandoned him for disregarding the &ldquoway of the elders.&rdquo

What happened next signaled the beginning of the end for the political health of the Republic. An ex-consul named Scipio Nasica instigated a surprise attack on his cousin, Tiberius, by a group of senators and their clients. This upper-class mob clubbed Tiberius and some of his companions to death on the Capitoline Hill in late 133 B.C. In this bloody way began the sad history of violence and murder as a political tactic in the late Republic.

Gaius Gracchus, elected tribune in 123 B.C., and then again in 122 B.C. despite the traditional term limit, also initiated reforms that threatened the Roman elite. Gaius kept alive his brother&rsquos agrarian reforms and introduced laws to assure grain to Rome&rsquos citizens at subsidized prices. He also pushed through public works projects throughout Italy to provide employment for the poor and the foundation of colonies abroad to give citizens new opportunities for farming and trade. Most revolutionary of all were his proposals to give Roman citizenship to some Italians and to establish jury trials for senators accused of corruption as provincial governors. The citizenship proposal failed, but the creation of a new court system to prosecute senators became an intensely controversial issue because it threatened the power of the Senate to protect its own members and their families from punishment for their crimes.

The new juries were to be manned not by senators, but instead by members of the social class called equites, meaning &ldquoequestrians&rdquo or &ldquoknights.&rdquo These were wealthy men who mainly came from the landed upper class with family origins and connections outside Rome proper. In the earliest Republic, the equestrians had been what the word suggests&mdashmen rich enough to provide their own horses for cavalry service. By this time, however, they had become a kind of second level of the upper class tending to concentrate more on business than on politics. Equestrians with ambitions for political office were often blocked by the dominant members of the Senate. Senators drew a status distinction between themselves and equestrians by insisting that it was improper for a senator to dirty his hands with commerce. A law passed by the tribune Claudius in 218 B.C., for instance, made it illegal for senators and their sons to own large-capacity cargo ships. Despite their public condemnation of profit-seeking activities, senators often did involve themselves in business in private. They masked their income from commerce by secretly employing intermediaries or favored slaves to do the work while passing on the profits.

Gaius&rsquos proposal to have equestrians serve on juries trying senators accused of extortion in the provinces marked the emergence of the equestrians as a political force in Roman politics. This threat to its power infuriated the Senate. Gaius then assembled a bodyguard to try to protect himself against the violence he feared from his senatorial enemies. The senators in 121 B.C. responded by issuing for the first time what is called an Ultimate Decree: a vote of the Senate advising the consuls to &ldquotake care that the Republic suffer no damage&rdquo (Julius Caesar, Civil War 1.5.7 Cicero, Oration Against Catiline 1.2). This extraordinary measure authorized the consul Opimius to use military force inside the city of Rome, where even officials possessing imperium traditionally had no such power. To escape arrest and execution, Gaius ordered one of his slaves to cut his throat for him.

The murder of Tiberius Gracchus and the forced suicide of Gaius Gracchus set in motion the final disintegration of the political solidarity of the Roman upper class. That both the brothers and their enemies came from that class revealed its inability to continue to govern through a consensus protecting its own unified interests as a group. From now on, members of the upper class increasingly saw themselves divided into either supporters of the populares, who sought political power by promoting the interests of the common people (populus), or as members of the optimates, the so-called &ldquobest people,&rdquo meaning the traditional upper class, especially the nobles. Some political leaders identified with one side or the other out of genuine allegiance to the policies that it proclaimed. Others simply found it convenient to promote their personal political careers by pretending to be sincere proponents of the interests of one side or the other. In any case, this division within the Roman upper class persisted as a source of political unrest and murderous violence in the late Republic.

The Roman Empire Achieved Its Conquests Through Brutality and Death

Key Point: Glory is built on horror.

“Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble” is an expression pegged to the first of the Roman emperors. And indeed Rome flourished around the time of Christ, erecting magnificent arches and columns, palaces and public buildings, temples and baths, coliseums and aqueducts. The world had never seen such a place.

Rome was a winner. It was the rest of the Mediterranean world that paid the price. The minerals of Spain and the farms of Sicily and North Africa produced the wealth that found its way into the grand architecture of the Italian city.

Conquest Always the Goal

Mainly, what is recalled of Rome is this contribution of astonishing construction, along with its administration of a vast empire. Less remembered is how it got there: Brutally.

To rise to the level of masters of the Mediterranean the Romans wielded their legions with astonishing ruthlessness. Conquest was the goal, and never mind the means. By about 150 bc, Rome had twice humbled Carthage in the first two Punic Wars.

Carthage was then attacked by Masinissa of nearby Numidia and, disobeying the treaty that ended the Second Punic War, Carthage warred back. Rome, troubled by the economic rebound of its rival during the peace following the Second Punic War in 202 bc, and lustful of North African fields to be tilled by new slaves, declared war on Carthage.

Ships, Arms, and 300 Children

By this time Rome controlled Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and the sea lanes, which gave it the upper hand in any contest. Blocked from the interior by Masinissa and from the sea by Roman fleets, Carthage understood this, too. So when Rome promised Carthage that if it sent 300 children of its noblest families to Rome as hostages, the African city’s freedom would be assured, Carthage complied, to the great lamentation of its first families.

Then Rome demanded that Carthage surrender its ships, arms, and weapons of war, again that the city might save itself. This the Carthaginians also did, leaving themselves defenseless. But to the Romans this was all a ruse. They sent a fleet and army to the vicinity and demanded that the Carthaginians evacuate their city to a spot 10 miles away, the city itself to be leveled.

Here the Carthaginians balked. They decided to fight and to defend their city. They melted down statues of their gods to make new swords and demolished public buildings to construct catapults. The women cut their hair in order to make ropes. For three years the Carthaginians held out against the Roman siege. Starvation killed off most of the estimated quarter- or half-million inhabitants.

The Death of Carthage

Roman legions finally won a toehold in the city proper, but the Carthaginians fought tenaciously street by street. The Romans torched any city block within reach to rout out individual defenders.

Most Carthaginians chose death rather than capitulate to the Romans. The Queen threw her sons and herself into the flames. Ultimately, the remaining 50,000 Carthaginians surrendered. The Romans sold them into slavery. Then the Senate in Rome instructed the local commander to destroy the city and to sow its soil with salt. Indeed, the city burned for 17 days until nothing was left. The Carthaginian race and glory was erased.

Its Horrors And Its Glories

In his eulogy of Neville Chamberlain in November 1940, Winston Churchill said, “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes.…” Indeed, the history each person knows is imperfect, a mere glimpse, a refraction of the whole truth.

It is easy to see only the glories of Rome. But it is just as important to bear in mind the horrors committed for their sake. History’s flickering lamp also needs to illuminate the rot beneath the gloss. This would remind us that military might should be exercised only in the defense of just

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. This piece was originally featured in February 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.