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Essay: Roman expansion

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  • Roman expansion
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Rome is commonly known as one of the most powerful empires in the ancient world with territory and authority spreading throughout the Mediterranean. Rome falls into a grey area of history. Often it is thought that Rome expanded aggressively, that it was an established goal that Rome set out to conquer Italy and large amounts of surrounding territory. However, this may not be the case as much of the territory acquired was not due to methodically planned Roman expansion, but rather it paints a picture of a civilization attempting to assert their power and protect their own in a particularly violent time in history. Although Rome benefited from expansion through the increase of profitable territory and cultural influence as well as the elimination of enemies who could threaten their security, there were consequences as well. The increase in land and power acted as a catalyst to provoke new enemies and expansion lead to new political and logistical pressures on the Roman government. Through military strength inspired by Roman ideals and virtues, Rome was able to thrive and assert their dominance in the ancient world. This paper will seek to establish that Rome grew from a small civilization into one of the most formidable empires of the ancient world due the required necessities of survival and profited as well as suffered due to its expansion.
Rome began as a small settlement on the Tiber River it was not the empire that comes to mind when one thinks of Rome. As it began to grow much of the territory they acquired was as a result of conflicts with neighboring groups. Livy writes about this period but often romanticizes the “glory days” of the Roman republic, and this lens must be taken into account. Livy describes the period of monarchical rule as having been under the rule of seven kings; several are noted as having reignited wars and expanding territory including Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Martius. Not much is said about these kings besides how they conquered peoples in the surrounding area of Rome, this indicates that depending on who was in control in times of absolute rule indicated whether Rome was expanding aggressively or not. This writing also shows that there was significant expansion occurring at this time. (Livy 161) Beyond this period into the Republic it appears to be much of the same trend, conflict that leads to expansion although the Republic’s intentions were more complicated as power was not concentrated to one man.

The Punic Wars were a costly example of how Roman expansion served as a catalyst for further conflicts with other large powers in Europe and North Africa. The Punic Wars showed how war could result in the expansion of territory but at a steep cost in time, money, and life; as a result Rome acquired southern Italy, territory in North Africa, and Spain. The Second Punic War in which Hannibal attempted to defeat Rome by moving his army throughout Western Europe is a perfect example of how Rome went to war out of necessity, defending them from an aggressive power. It also proved that Rome was not invincible, having lost several battles such as that at Lake Trasimene and Cannae badly against Hannibal’s army. Cornelius Nepos writes, “After having fought the battle, Hannibal advanced upon Rome without resistance. He halted in the hills near the city… But Hannibal, although caught in a defile, extricated himself by night without the loss of any of his men, and thus tricked Fabius, that most skillful of generals.” (Nepos 22) This passage shows us the threat that faced Rome during this war, the skill and talent that Hannibal displayed as a general. His hatred for Rome was stoked by the previous conflicts and his actions were that of aggression to which the Romans must defend themselves.

War contributed greatly to Roman expansion and the territory they accumulated as a result. It has been suggested that the Romans actively sought war as a way of conquering new territory and expanding their empire. However, it seems more likely that for the most part the Romans did not make war frivolously. War was seen as an honorable and sacred act, proven by the temples built to celebrate victory and the accumulation of new gods from places they conquered. All of these traditions support the idea that Romans held war in high regard and would typically need a purpose before going to war. Their commitment to the army was so ingrained and the fear of punishment so severe that soldiers would not abandon their group even when death was certain. Polybius writes, “Men in covering forces often choose certain death, refusing to leave their ranks even when vastly outnumbered, owing to dread of punishment they would later face.” (Polybius 376) Soldiers were also a valuable asset to Rome, the power and size of the army gave Rome legitimacy to deter foreign powers from invasion but also gain support from the people of Rome. Often when a new territory was conquered their taxation would be in the form of able men to act as soldiers in the Roman army. Using the time of a valuable general or losing soldiers lives without a worthy cause would have not made sense, and therefore pointless war is an unworthy expense. This idea is supported by the rigorous requirements that go into war preparation as well as the general disposition of the Romans. Polybius says about the Romans, “they do not want them to make attacks or initiate hostilities as much as to be ready and willing, when the battle is going against them and they are being hard pressed, to stand their ground and die on behalf of their country.” (Polybius 369) This gives one a good sense that Rome by no means was a victim but also cannot be considered an active aggressor or bully.

An issue that arose from expansion was the new pressure that was put on the Roman government to successfully maintain control and govern new provinces that they acquire. The Roman territory became extremely large; inconsistencies in governmental rule in the provinces as well as corrupt activity within the provinces became common. Often publicans, the overseers of these provinces, were corrupt and would take a share of tax money they collected for themselves. Typically when a new territory was acquired Rome would not necessarily abolish their government and cultural practices and instead include them in the taxation of wealth and men to serve in the army, yet this does draw the question of what is the Roman identity and how can Rome maintain consistency in both political influence and power throughout their land? The answer is that there is no simple solution and often military power would need to be exercised in provinces such as Spain who’s native people constantly threatened uprising. The Roman identity that had become integral to Roman society was threatened by the influence of outside cultures, gone was the identity of the proud yet humble Roman solider and Rome became a collage of different lands, cultures, and religions which needed to be held together by military and political strength.

In spite of the possible motivation and challenges, Rome did see benefits from expansion. The most obvious benefit was the accumulation of large amounts of territory, increasing the reach of Roman power, taxation, and cultural influence. Expansion also lead to infrastructural innovation such as the implementation of a new sewer system and an aqueduct that allowed for the actual city itself to expand and for the quality of life to improve for all classes. By the time of the second century Rome was accumulating massive wealth through taxation and resources from the territories they acquired. This lead to the creation of a new bourgeoisie upper middle class called the equestrians; wealth and property were now no longer exclusively reserved for only the aristocracy and nobility. This new class, as well as the honor and fame associated with successful soldiers in war allowed for mobility between classes that was not commonly seen before. This mobility also allowed for equestrians to become publicans, a political position in which they are responsible for managing a province within the Roman Empire. Class mobility is significant because it creates a better standard of life for citizens of Rome and gave rise to many prominent political figures such as Cato the Elder who were able to rise from a lower class. This mobility was often due to military success, creating a larger and lengthier reward to being apart of the military. As discussed previously, the army held many severe consequences for those who failed or betrayed them, but equally grand rewards for those who are successful. Polybius writes, “For the rest of their lives, the men who were saved revere their rescuers like fathers and feel obliged to serve them in every way, as a son would a father. These incentives inspire not only those present in the ranks but also those back home to strive to outdo each other on the battlefield.” (Polybius 377) This passage indicates the social reward such as fame and glory, as well as the tangible rewards such as weaponry and wealth that awaited soldiers that were successful. Men like Cato the Elder were able to use this fame and success from the military to become politicians and hold great sway over the Roman Empire.

The incorporation of new cultures, specifically Greek culture, into the Roman Empire is yet another way that Roman expansion falls into a grey area. On one hand Roman culture willingly took much from the Greeks such as the model for their gods and theater. On the other, there was a significant push back against this merger as many element of Roman culture and ideals did not mesh well with the Greek culture and other places that now fell under Roman rule. One example of this pushback was towards the religious cults that were coming to Rome, specifically that of the Dionysus cult, to which the senate responded by implementation legal restrictions on these groups. Cato the Elder was one of the most outspoken in the opposition of Greek culture. Cato very much idealized the idea of traditional Roman values, and the image of the Roman farmer soldier. This is displayed in the writing of Plutarch who writes, “Here he was, the greatest Roman of his time, who had subdued the most belligerent tribes, and driven Pyrrhus out of Italy. Yet, he tilled this tiny plot of land himself and lived in this simple cottage – even after his three triumphs!” (Plutarch 334) As a prominent public figure, he had influence over the way the public perceived the world around them. His viewpoints idealized the Roman characteristics of the farmer soldier, of conservatism and masculine virtue. He perceived the Greeks to be men of words and philosophy rather than of military service and mighty acts as Plutarch says (350). These are just some of the ways in which ideologically Rome conflicted with cultures under their rule.

Each of these factors led to a rather complex web of both benefits and downfalls for Rome. In many cases Rome expanded as a way of defending itself and partook in the resulting benefits. Rome saw many positive effects such as acquiring profitable lands, expanding the reach of its power, and improving the quality of life for many of its citizens. Yet, in spite of these benefits the pressure to stretch governmental power, the resulting violence of war, and influence of newly incorporated cultures complicated and in many ways had a negative impact on Rome. This conflict between good and bad defines Roman expansion, in the grey area that cannot be simply defined as good or bad.

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