The Punic Wars - Subjugation of Foreign Nations - Administration of the Provinces

Masters of Italy, it was not long before the Romans found themselves in collision with the nations surrounding the great basin of the Mediterranean; and as the last 125 years of the existence of the Roman state had been spent in the gradual conquest of the Italic nations, so the next 130 years (Y. R. 490-620, or B.C. 264-434) were spent in a series of conquests, by which various foreign countries were reduced to the condition of mere provinces of Italy. This series of conquests may be designated generally by the title of 'the Punic Wars, and the Wars with the Greek States.' A bare enumeration of them, with a statement of their results, is all that our limits will allow.

The first foreign people with which the Romans came into collision were the Carthaginians - a people of Phoenician lineage, who, settling in that part of Africa now called Tunis, and building a city there, about a century before Rome was founded, had in the interval become a great commercial nation, with ships sailing to all parts of the Mediterranean, and with colonies along the coasts of Algiers, in Sardinia and Corsica, and even in Spain. They had recently gained a footing in Sicily, and now shared it with the Greeks of Syracuse; and it was on this rich island as a battle field that the Romans first came into conflict with the merchant-people of Africa. Invited over by the Mamertines, a robber-people who inhabited the north-eastern corner of the island, the Roman soldiers fought the armies of mercenaries hired by the Carthaginians. The war thus begun, the 'First Punic War,' as it is called, lasted twenty-three years (Y. R. 490-513, or B.C. 264-241). During it the Romans first learned to build ships of war, and to fight naval battles; and they were soon able to defeat the Carthaginians on their own element. On land they were sure of victory against mere mercenaries, collected, as these were, from all nations, and commanded by Carthaginian generals of ordinary capacity. In 249 B.C., however, the Carthaginians sent over the great Hamilcar Barca to command their forces in Sicily; and his efforts checked the Romans, who, meanwhile, had invaded Africa, and been repulsed. A victory or two, however, gained by the Romans over other generals than Hamilcar, disposed the Carthaginians for peace, who accordingly agreed (B.C. 241) to evacuate Sicily, and to pay the victors a large sum of money. The Romans then made themselves masters of Sicily; and shortly afterwards they found a pretext for wresting Corsica and Sardinia from the Carthaginians. For twenty-two years after these conquests (B.C. 241-119) the Romans were engaged in wars with the Cisalpine Gauls and other nations in the north of Italy, the effect of which was to extend their dominion to the foot of the Alps. Beyond the Alps, also, Illyria, a country skirting the east coast of the Adriatic, was at this time annexed to the dominions of the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile the Carthaginians had not been idle. During several years they had, in accordance with the advice of Hamilcar, been establishing their dominion in Spain, intending to repay themselves with that fine peninsula for the loss of Sicily and Sardinia. Killed in battle by a native tribe, Hamilcar was succeeded in Spain by his son-in-law Hasdrubal; and on his death, which took place soon after, Hannibal Barca, the son of Hamilcar, and then only twenty-six years of age, was appointed to the command. The siege by him of Saguntum, an independent Spanish town, which had claimed the assistance of the Romans, led to the Second Punic War (B.C. 218-201). Little did the Romans know what a war it was to be! Crossing the Pyrenees, the young Carthaginian general, the greatest military commander probably, and certainly one of the ablest men the world ever saw, pushed his way through the Gallic tribes, and effecting the passage of the Alps, descended into Italy with an army of 12,000 Africans, 8,000 Spaniards, and 6,000 Carthaginian horse. Rousing the Cisalpine Gauls, and defeating in several successive battles the Roman generals sent against him, he made his way into the south of Italy (B.C. 217); and having in the following year inflicted on the Romans at Cannae the greatest defeat they had ever received, he remained in Italy fifteen years (B.C. 217-202), moving hither and thither, keeping seven or eight Roman generals, and among them the wary Fabius and the bold Marcellus, continually employed, scattering the Romans like chaff wherever he appeared, exhausting the finances of the state, and detaching the Italian nations from their allegiance. Had he received reinforcements, as he expected, from Spain, where he had left his brother Hasdrubal in command, Rome might have fallen. Fortunately, however, for the Romans, while they were manfully opposing Hannibal in Italy, one of their generals, the great Scipio, was busily engaged in Spain. To prevent Spain from falling into Scipio's hands, Hasdrubal was obliged to remain in it; and it was not till B.C. 207, when all hope of retaining his footing in that peninsula was lost, that he set out to join his brother. He crossed the Alps in safety, but was attacked, defeated and slain on his march through Italy; and Hannibal was left to his own resources. These, however, were exhaustless; and with the assistance of the Italian nations, who, especially the unprivileged classes, were friendly to the Carthaginians, and hated Rome, he might still have shattered the Commonwealth in pieces, had not Scipio passed over from Spain into Africa, and defeating the Carthaginians in several battles, with the help of a Numidian prince named Masinissa, compelled them to recall their greatest man for the defense of his native city. In B.C. 202, or the year of the city 552, Hannibal quitted Italy, where he had spent the best period of his life. Not long after his landing in Africa, he was defeated by Scipio at Zama, and his countrymen were obliged in consequence to agree to a peace on very severe terms.

The Second Punic War concluded, and Italy once more pacified, the Romans made war on Philip III. king of Macedonia, and virtual ruler of all the Greek states, who had offended them by entering into a treaty with Hannibal. The war was protracted over seventeen years (B.C. 214197), but ended in the reduction of Macedonia, and the proclamation by the Romans of the independence of the other greek states. Seized with a desire to assume the place which the Macedonian king had been unable to maintain, Antiochus the Great, king of Syria, and representative therefore of the Greek empire in Asia, crossed into Greece, where he joined the Aetolians against the Romans. Defeated, however, in Greece, and forsaken by the Aetolians, he was pursued into Asia, and after the loss of a great battle at Magnesia, obliged to submit to the Romans, who thus became virtual masters of the various kingdoms and states of Asia Minor (B.C. 188). Meanwhile they had been engaged in suppressing various movements among the Ligurians, Boians, Istrians, and other nations in the north of Italy, as well as among the Spanish tribes and the savages of Sardinia. A declaration of hostilities by Perseus, the successor of Philip in Macedonia, in conjunction with Genthius, king of Illyria, led to another war against these countries, which terminated in their complete subjugation (B.C. 168). The next twenty years were spent in securing these conquests, and in establishing relations, virtually those of sovereignty, with various states of Asia Minor, such as Bithynia and Rhodes; and with various others of Africa, as Egypt and Numidia. The whole circuit of. the Mediterranean in their power, and their ships respected in all its ports, as belonging to the 'sovereign people of Italy,' the Romans at length executed their long-cherished project, and pounced upon Carthage (B.C. 149), whose existence, even in its fallen condition of a mere commercial capital, they could not tolerate. Hannibal had been dead more than thirty years; but under such generals as they had, the wretched Carthaginians offered a desperate resistance to the Roman commanders. After a horrible siege, the city, containing a population of 700,000, was taken and sacked by Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted son of the son of the great Scipio (B.C. 146). The houses were razed to the ground, and the province of Africa was the prize of this third ' Punic war.' The fall of Greece was contemporary with that of Carthage. The Achaian League, a confederacy of cities in Greece proper and the Peloponnesus, showing a disposition to be independent of the Romans, provoked their vengeance; and the destruction of Corinth in the same year as that of Carthage extinguished the last sparks of liberty in Greece. The whole of the Greek countries were parceled out into Roman provinces, and from that time Greeks became the slave teachers of the Romans, their secretaries, their sycophants, their household wits. Yet out of Greece thus ruined there afterwards arose many great spirits; for no degradation, no series of misfortunes, could eradicate the wondrous intellect which lurked in the fine Greek organization. The last scene in this long series of wars was enacted in Spain, where, roused by a noble patriot called Viriathus - the Wallace of that day the native tribes had revolted against the Romans. The fate of Spain, however, was sealed by the destruction of Numantia by Scipio Aemilianus (B.C. 133).

By the wars of 130 years which we have thus enumerated, the following countries had become subject to Rome: - Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the smaller islands of the Mediterranean; Macedonia; Illyricum, with Thessaly and Epirus; Greece, including Greece proper and the Peloponnesus; Spain; and the whole northern coast of Africa. The Romans had likewise established their influence in Asia. The conquered countries were divided into provinces, so that the designation for the Roman dominion be came 'Italy and the Provinces.' The provinces received each an organization at the time of its formation, according to its circumstances. Retaining their national habits, religion, laws, etc., the inhabitants of every province were governed by a military president, sent from Rome, with a staff of officials. Unlike the Italic nations, who furnished only subsidies of men to the sovereign states, the provincials were required to pay taxes in money and kind; and these taxes, were farmed out by the censors Roman citizens, who, under the name of Publicans, settled in the various districts of the provinces, and proved a great scourge by their avarice and rapacity.

To some towns and localities in the provinces, the Italic franchise was extended as a token of favor. Altogether, the government of the provinces was one which, although it led to beneficial results, in binding together a large mass of the human race, and carrying on various races and languages simultaneously in a career of civilization, yet gave great scope for oppression. Like a network proceeding from a centre, the political system of the Romans pervaded the mass of millions of human beings inhabiting the shores of the Mediterranean, holding them together by its mechanical tenacity, and slowly working them into union by its own powers of impregnation, as well as by means of those ideas and moral agencies whose dissemination and operation over large areas at once it so marvellously facilitated. What a career was thus opened up for those who occupied the centre of this network - the population of Rome! What a grand thing in those days to be a Roman citizen; so that, wherever one walked - in Spain, in Africa, or even in once great Athens - one was followed, feasted, flattered to one's face, and mocked behind one's back! What means of moneymaking in the provinces for the avaricious Romans! What opportunities for well-doing for the philanthropic! Alas! a philanthropic Roman was al most a contradiction in terms. To be patriotic was the highest virtue; and if a Roman, along with his patriotism, possessed a just disposition, those who were under his government might consider themselves fortunate. Nor was the career of administration in the provinces open to all Roman citizens. The following passage, which we translate from a French work - (' Etudes sur l'Histoire Romaine, par Prosper Mérimée, Paris, 1844,') - will give an idea of the manner in which a Roman citizen attained to public honors, and will illustrate the general spirit of the Roman administration. The laws,' says this author, opened to all the citizens the career of magistracy; but in reality it was shut against all but those whom fortune or family credit placed in an exceptional situation. As all public offices were obtained by the suffrages of the people, it was of the utmost importance to make creatures in every class of society. In order to muster all these on the great day of election, there were no labors, fatigues, and even meannesses to which Romans of illustrious families did not submit from their earliest boyhood. Some offered the patronage of their families to embarrassed pleaders; others opened their purses to poor artisans; whoever had a vote in the comitia was flattered and cajoled in every possible way. From the time that the candidate had attained the age at which the law permitted him to stand for the dignity of the quaestorship - that by which he must make his debut in public life - he appeared in the Forum clothed in a white robe, shook hands with all the country folks, and with the lowest plebeians, solicited their votes, and often purchased them for money. The quaestor, once appointed, found the doors of the senate open for him. Ordinarily he was attached to the person of a consul, or a magistrate of superior rank, becoming his lieutenant; sometimes he obtained a little government for himself. In these offices he could learn business habits and find occasions for distinguishing himself, and for causing his name to be mentioned often in the senate or the assemblies of the people.

After the quaestorship came the Curule Edileship, a purely civil magistracy, whose duties consisted in watching the arrival of provisions, guarding public monuments, seeing to the embellishment of the city, and finally, in preparing the games and solemn shows. This charge entailed enormous expense on those ediles who wished to make themselves popular. They built temples and porticoes at their own cost, opened roads, constructed,. aqueducts; above all, they tried to surpass their predecessors by the magnificence of the games which they caused to be celebrated, and the truly colossal expense which they in part sustained. A happy man was that edile who had been able to exhibit in the arena the deaths of an unusual number of able gladiators, or who had presented to the people animals of a rare species or unknown before. His name was in every mouth, and all applauded his sprouting ambition. The edileship lasted a year. After it came the praetorship. There were six praetors - two presided over the tribunals at Rome, the others governed provinces or commanded armies. Finally after having successively gone through the three previous stages, one presented himself as a candidate for the consulship. Intriguing, corruption, manoeuvring of all kinds was now redoubled; for this was the goal of a Roman's ambition. The consuls presided over the government of the republic, or directed important wars in person. At the expiration of their magistracy - that is, after a year they were sent to a province with the title of Proconsuls; often to command military expeditions, almost always to administer an extensive government. In turn to amass and expend great wealth, was thus the chief care of candidates for honors. The profits of the quaestorship enabled one to make a brilliant curule edileship. Ruined by his extravagance, the edile repaired his fortune in the praetorship, and returned to Rome rich enough to buy votes at the consular election. Frequently he staked his all on this last election, confident of more than making it up again in the province which would be assigned him after his consulship. In a word, the career of public employment was a species of gambling, in which one's profits were proportional to one's stakes.'

Such a state of things as is here described, implies that an immense change had taken place in the character of the Roman society during the rapid career of foreign conquest which had elevated Rome from the position of metropolis of Italy to that of metropolis of the civilized world. The distinction between patrician and plebeian was now scarcely heard of (in B. c . 172 both consuls had been plebeians for the first time); it was superseded by that between illustrious and obscure; rich and poor. Al though, however, the system of corruption was so general, that scarcely any one could attain to office except by unworthy means, yet there were at that time, and in the midst of that system, many men of really noble character. Among these must not be forgotten the honest old censor Cato, the enemy of Carthage, who kept up a constant protest all his life against what he called the growing luxury of his countrymen, and died declaring that they were a degenerate race. Of equal integrity with Cato, although of altogether a different form of character, were the two brothers of world-famous name, whose actions we shall now briefly notice.