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Chapter III

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter V

 p57  Chapter IV

Rome's Conquest and Organization of Italy

Discontent in the Latin League. The capture of Rome by the Gauls in 387 B.C. had severely shattered Rome's prestige, and old enemies, especially the Volscians on the south, took the occasion to advance. When these were beaten back Latin colonies were planted at Satricum (385) and Setia (382). But some of the Latins also showed signs of dissatisfaction. The Veian and Gallic wars had of course cost them much, and Rome had profited more than the Latins from the outcome since these attacks had been made on her northern boundaries. To many of the Latin cities Rome with her efficient government must have seemed dangerous to their independence. Furthermore, differences of ideals and customs were growing up which strained the old bonds of sympathy. Rome was rapidly becoming democratic and adopting advanced reforms while the Latin cities were clinging to the old aristocratic ideas of landholding communities. Rome also, being the largest city and offering a more varied and interesting life, naturally attracted many Latins away from their home towns. Praeneste was an example of a strong Latin city which refused to take orders either from Rome or the League, and Rome had for a long time to allow it to go its own way. Rome was also attracting more attention from foreigners than were the small Latin towns. She signed a treaty of friendship with the Samnites in 354, and a new one with far distant Carthage in 348.

This last treaty seems to be due to a new democratic policy on the part of Rome. The reforms of 367 had admitted  p58 vigorous plebeian blood into the government. Some of these men, like Marcius Rutilus and Publilius Philo, desired to see Rome act with more vigor, and strong minded patricians like Valerius Corvus were ready to act with them. It is doubtless due to men such as these that the seaport town at Ostia was rebuilt to encourage foreign traders, and that copper coins were first minted at Rome in order to facilitate trade. It was in fact one of the disgraces of the old landholding régime that it had so neglected trade and industry as to let the harbor go to ruin and to refrain from having any coinage though the Greek cities of Sicily had had metal currency for two centuries. As we have said, the Carthaginian treaty was only one of many indications of a new policy at Rome.

These innovations, however, could but disturb the slow-moving Latins. In 358 the League, now almost shattered, was patched up and the old treaty signed again, a proof that special efforts were needed to keep it from breaking. It was renewed, however, on terms that eventually brought more trouble, for some of the lands that had been taken from the Volscians south of Latium were now given to Rome for her poor. Rome made two new wards out of this territory, the Pomptina and the Publilia; a severed section of the city, as it were, about forty miles away, was thus laid out on the side of the Volscian hills. Surely the Latins must have felt within a few years that they could not well keep their equality if Roman magistrates and Roman troops must march through Latium in going from one part of the city-state to the other.

Economic disturbances at Rome. The legislation of the period at Rome proves that this was also a time of financial uneasiness. Roman farms were not yielding as much as they should. The land had become densely populated in the days when the soil was still very rich. Now signs of exhaustion were coming to view rapidly. In fact the land was so new — the surface had been laid by the last eruptions of  p59 the Alban volcano — that only a thin coat of humus was found on top, and this was now not only being exhausted by intensive farming but was being washed away by surface erosion. And though the volcanic ash beneath is fairly fertile, the weak roots of cereals do not readily break it up. Latian soil will generally recover from exhaustion in time, but periods inevitably come when it must be given a long rest as pasture land. This approaching exhaustion was one cause of trouble both at Rome and among the Latin farmers.

Another special cause of distress at Rome at this time was, apparently, financial dislocations due to the beginning of coinage. We have seen from our own experience (in 1918‑21) that when there is an unusual inflation of currency an era of buying, spending, borrowing, and speculation sets in, and when the excess has been used up, there is a sudden stringency. Then many who have been reckless find themselves in debt, with nothing at hand with which to pay their obligations. Failures and bankruptcy result. The Romans, never having had money before, made similar mistakes as soon as the government issued currency (about 350 B.C.), and the failures that resulted led to a strenuous cry for relief on the part of the poor. It was a new experience, and hence the popular leaders were at a loss what to do. They did at first the most obvious thing and cut the rate of interest in half, then they passed a law completely forbidding the taking of interest — both foolish measures aiming at the symptoms rather than at the evil. Finally, however, they learned from experience, appointed a commission to draw up a liberal bankruptcy law which enabled debtors to get on their feet again, and served as a warning to creditors not to lend recklessly; and then they ended by passing an excellent law putting a stop to imprisonment for debt. The experience proved well worth the price, when the simple old legislators learned so quickly how to draw the logical conclusion. In the future Rome carefully supervised her issues of currency, trying to issue the volume requisite  p60 to meet financial needs. In another chapter​a we shall see how she kept devising new systems to meet new demands.

The First Samnite War. Such were the experiences which Rome and Latium were passing through when in 343 the people were asked to make a momentous decision. Down in Campania, more than a hundred miles south of Latium, Samnite tribes had long before this driven out the invading Etruscans and taken possession of a plain even more fertile than Latium. In touch with the Greeks at Naples and Cumae, they had quickly taken on many of the customs of cultured people, had built a flourishing city at Capua and had broken off quite completely from their kinsmen who still lived in the mountains. Now the Samnite mountaineers began to make raids into the Campanian fields, and the Capuans appealed to Rome for help against their rude kinsmen. We do not know what arguments Capua used nor what inducement moved Rome to send an army down to help the Capuans. Rome usually acted from prudential motives and may have thought it the part of wisdom to combine with them against the rude and unrestrained mountaineers before the latter grew too strong, or perhaps Capua's promise of an alliance may have sufficed,​1 if Rome already foresaw that she might some day need an ally in a contest with the Latins. Finally, we need not entirely exclude sentiment as a possible motive. We know from recent events that democracies are quick to respond to the appeal of a people threatened by unjust invasion. Old‑fashioned nations may call such sentiment hypocrisy, and attribute the action to secret hopes of material benefits, but that is an inadequate view of human nature. The Roman democracy more than once was carried off its feet by an appeal to its altruistic sentiment.

The results of the brief war that followed (343‑1) were the salvation of Capua, and a close alliance between Capua  p61 and Rome, which later developed into a union whereby the Capuans became "half-citizens" of Rome.

One interesting incident of this war was that Capua coined considerable silver money for Rome to use in her southern campaign. The Campanian people were accustomed to the use of silver currency, and as Rome had none and needed not a little to buy supplies in Campania she contracted with Capua to make it. The same kind of silver currency was again issued for Rome's use during the second and third Samnite wars, though Rome still avoided issuing any silver at home. This arrangement shows how simple the economic system still was at Rome, and also how the Romans had come to dread the financial crises that seemed to follow new issues of money at home. Rome in fact coined no silver money of her own till the year 269 B.C.

The Latin War. No sooner was the First Samnite War at an end than the threatened break came with the Latins. In addition to the quarrels of the past decade, the Latins now found Rome involving them against their will in foreign enterprises, whereas the makers of the League had contemplated only united action in defensive wars. They thought that if Rome was thus to enter on an adventurous policy which was not only costly but also gave Rome great prestige abroad and threatened to hem in Latium completely, they ought to secure the right to participate in Rome's government. Hence they asked that Latins might become members of the Senate. This demand seems very reasonable and potentially productive of excellent results; it might indeed have led to representative government. But the Latins did not offer to give up their position in the League. They wanted complete "home-rule" as well as participation in Rome's government. That of course Rome was unwilling to grant, and war resulted. The Latins received aid from the Aurunci south of Latium and even from some of the northern Campanians, since these people were afraid of the strong Roman-Capuan alliance.

 p62  The Latins, however, did not act in complete accord, they also lacked an efficient central government and effective leader­ship. Their army was pushed back by the Romans to Sinuessa and was there defeated in 340 B.C. Rome continued the campaigns and sieges till Antium, Latium's best seaport, fell in 338, and Cales, which commanded the road to Campania, was taken in the same year.

The Publilian Law. In the midst of this war Publilius Philo, one of the new plebeian consuls — indeed elected to the office three times — passed a law which made the tribal assembly of the plebeians a full lawmaking body of the state by reducing the veto power of the Senate to a mere formality (339 B.C.). This was daring in that it empowered a part of the state to legislate for the whole, a part indeed which must have been almost the whole, but nevertheless a part. It was illogical not only because it disregarded patrician citizens but also because it placed the formulation of bills in the hands of young tribunes instead of in the hands of the real magistrates, the consuls; and furthermore it removed the wholesome veto power of the deliberative body, the Senate. The law shows how strong the democratic party had become, how it distrusted legislation of a body based upon wealth as was the centuriate comitia, and how firmly it believed in popular sovereignty. We need not object seriously to the fact that the patricians had no vote in the assembly; before long they acquired it and they proved to be so few in proportion to the plebeians that their presence made no difference. The serious matter was that ambitious young tribunes presided over the tribal assembly and that their power could not be checked except by the veto exerted by one of their nine colleagues. The only reason why reckless legislation was not indulged in was that one of the ten could always be found to listen to the arguments of conservative men and employ his right of veto. Publilius doubtless saw the dangers that we have indicated, but the old‑fashioned timocratic assembly which should have reformed  p63 itself and thus saved itself real power probably proved unreasonably stubborn. The Romans in general believed in majority rule, and if they could not get it through the old legitimate machinery of government, they were willing to create new machinery with which to achieve it.

For two centuries we do not find any serious trouble because of the existence of two legislative bodies. They worked side by side as two systems work in several of our states where the "referendum" exists. The old (centuriate) assembly continued to be used freely as a legislative body, and the plebeian tribal comitia came to be a kind of safety valve, providing for popular referendum in serious cases. The danger of the system was revealed only in the Gracchan days.

The passage of the Publilian law shows that it was the democracy that was in the saddle during this period of rapid expansion. And this suggests that it was probably nervousness due to land exhaustion which had consciously or unconsciously impelled the populace to adventurous policies such as were not customary in periods when the Senate and its nobility had a controlling hand at Rome.

The Roman Federation displaces the Latin League. Yet we must hasten to say that in the settlement of the subjected Latin peoples and their allies, land-grabbing and narrow selfishness are not the dominant motives. The intricate federation now formed to take the place of the Latin League was remarkably liberal and prudent, or perhaps we should say, prudent in its liberality. The government did not, as all ancient nations had hitherto done, take all the best lands, loot the subjects, and sell them into slavery or impose heavy taxes upon them. They imposed no taxes at all, continuing to tax themselves only, and what lands they took they selected chiefly for their suitability for garrison colonies. The inhabitants were treated as though they were to be made full citizens of Rome as soon as they had been Romanized, if not at once.

 p64  This liberal behavior toward subject states was one of Rome's first contributions to civilization and marks a great forward step in the history of government. We need not assume that this liberalism was based on sentiment or emotion. It was rather due to wise insight into human nature. The Romans somehow had learned that subjects can readily be ruled only by fair treatment. It was the example set by these great legislators that made Rome the first city-state  p65 capable of building an enduring empire, and it is a pity that we do not know their names. We may suppose that Manlius Torquatus, three times consul, Valerius Corvus, four times consul, Publilius Philo, and Furius Camillus, the grandson of the great dictator, had much to do with it. These men were at least the ones who were most frequently elected to the great offices of state during the period, and we assume that they were the most influential speakers in the unrecorded debates.

Let us now see what old Latin institutions were combined with the new ideas in the settlement of the conquered territory. The Latin League was abrogated, and Rome took the religious rites of the league under her own charge. The Latin people spoke the same language as the Romans and were in fact kinsmen. Hence (1) the nearest towns, like Tusculum, Aricia, and Lanuvium, were accorded full Roman citizen­ship and at the same time allowed to keep their own local governments. Eventually all cities in Italy were destined to become "municipia" of Roman citizens like these. (2) A probationary stage of half-citizenship — civitas sine suffragio — with the duties of Roman citizen­ship but without the privilege of a vote at Rome, was invented for citizens of towns less friendly, like the half-Volscian Velitrae and the Auruncan towns of Fundi and Formiae. Their local governments remained intact. Later these towns were promoted to the first class. (3) Antium, on the seacoast, had a good harbor and her fleet had proved dangerous during the war. The fleet was taken, the beaks of the ships (rostra) nailed to the platform of the Forum, and three hundred Romans were settled at the town to take charge of the government in the interest of the state. When the natives had proved that they could be trusted they were admitted to full citizen­ship at Rome and full participation in the government of their own town. This citizen colony (or "maritime" colony) of 300 citizens became the regular model for all future seaport colonies. Besides these three classes of  p66 citizens, Rome formed several classes of allies. (1) In the first place there were strong Latin cities like Tibur and Praeneste that preferred not to have Roman citizen­ship, being old cities proud of their own history. These were left independent and autonomous in theory, but by signing treaties of defensive alliance with Rome they of course recognized her leader­ship because the larger city would have more wars to fight, would assume hegemony, control policies, and make all future treaties. Thus such cities actually entered what we might call a protectorate, though nothing in the treaty indicated any difference between them and Rome. (2) A second class of allies was composed of those Latin colonies that had been founded by the Romans and Latins together before the abrogation of the League. These colonies Rome did not disturb; they retained their autonomy and the rights of trade and marriage (commercium and conubium) with Romans. They, therefore, were practically in the same position as Tibur and Praeneste. The more important of these old colonies were Norba, Signia, Sutrium, and Nepete. This class was destined to play a very important part in the Romanization of Italy, for by colonizing Romans and allies together in "Latin colonies" Rome henceforth shared all conquered land with her allies, thus gaining their good-will; and by mingling her people with theirs she made the colonies a means of getting acquainted, and learning each other's customs. Moreover by planting such colonies at strategic points she secured garrisons of reliable farmers who saved her the cost and the odium of keeping a standing army among the allies. Cales which commanded the road to Capua was the first new Latin colony founded on this principle. (3) Finally, with the various non‑Latin peoples Rome signed everlasting defensive alliances on the same terms as with Praeneste (the aequum foedus). Later Capua, Naples and several Campanian towns entered the federation on these terms. In theory such allies were Rome's equals; in practice Rome was their  p67 superior, since she was a unit, and they were not united. Throughout this very intricate federation Rome kept her leader­ship secure by a device which she had not used with the Latin League. She now made her alliance with each individual city and not with any group. The result of this was, that since no city could consistently form any outside alliances of the same nature, each came into close relations of commerce and kinship with Rome and with no other.2

[image ALT: A political map of Rome, its colonies, and its allies.]

The Roman Federation in 268 B.C.

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here.]

This federation was intricate and must have exercised the memories of senators in the discussion of international affairs. Indeed one reason why the plebeian assembly soon allowed the Senate to usurp administrative powers was that the governmental questions had now grown too complex for ordinary voters to handle. Their very intricacy is a mark of the unusual degree of patient sympathy with which the legislators tried to settle each case on its merits. The peoples affected differed in language, religion, custom, and locality, and no single system could have been suited to all. A flexible system whereby the closest of kin could be amalgamated with Rome at once and the rest in progressive steps in proportion to their adaptability to Roman customs was thus prudently devised, and with excellent results. A hundred years later when the federation had spread through Italy, Hannibal, who knew only how selfishly Carthage had exploited her subjects, expected Rome's allies to fly to him for liberation as soon as he entered Italy. To his great surprise he found that Rome's allies fought as bravely for the life of the federation as did her citizens. The wisdom of the fathers was then justified.

We must of course not suppose that Rome had the lofty ideal of governing subjects "for the good of the subjects." That, to be sure, was an idea later accepted by Cicero, and  p68 the Roman democracy sometimes was moved to individual acts on that theory. But it is only in recent years that governments — and only a few of them — have actually adopted this theory as a definite policy. What Rome actually set out to do was to build for peace, order, and safety on her border, to protect her hardworked lowlands against the raids of less advanced tribes, and to raise up a series of friendly buffer states for her own good. In order to accomplish this effectively she knew that she must show these states the amount of sympathy and justice that would at the critical moment make them her friends, not the friends of her enemies.

It is often asked why Rome did not devise some kind of representative government such as was proposed to her by the Latins. There were several serious objections. The Romans could hardly be willing to give up their democratic assembly, where every man had a vote, for a representative senate composed of peoples many of whom were strange to Roman ways. No government cares to give up its rights and privileges to some one else. Furthermore the people had long fought against a senate for the privilege of direct participation in the government, and a representative senate made up from Latin delegates might possibly restore the aristocracy which they had struggled so hard to subdue. Thirdly, if Etruscans, Volscians, Oscans, and Greeks were to help rule the state in a representative body, Rome would quickly be outvoted by foreigners who cared nothing for her culture and religion, and from their bickerings in various tongues there could hardly have emerged anything but divided purposes. The representative principle might later have been introduced, and was again proposed, but Italy needed first to be permeated with one language and one culture before it could be considered practicable. For the present no better means could have been devised than the flexible federation just made. Had the descendants of the Romans carried out the spirit of their institutions a representative  p69 republic might well have been created in the second century.

[image ALT: A relief map of Italy showing, from North to South, areas occupied by the Celts (the Ager Gallicus), the Umbrians and Sabines, the Etruscans, the Romans, the Samnites, the Apulians, Lucanians, and Greeks. The Roman area is colored; in a different color, the Celts, Etruscans, and Samnites who opposed the Romans in the Samnite Wars of 326‑280 BC]

Samnite Wars 326‑280

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here.]

The Second Samnite War, 326‑304. In 328 the Romans settled a colony at Fregellae on the Liris river, a town from which they had driven the Volscians in the last war. Samnite tribes in the mountains behind claimed a prior right to the land and a quarrel arose. Furthermore the Greek city  p70 of Naples joined Rome's alliance in 326 against the will of a large Samnite population in the city, and these Samnites appealed to their kinsmen in the mountains to help them keep the city out of the federation. Thus a very serious war broke out between Rome and the extensive tribe of the Samnites who held most of south-central Italy. At first the Romans made little headway because their unwieldy legion which resembled the Greek phalanx was not suited to warfare in the mountains and the mountaineers having no large cities to protect could keep up a guerilla warfare. The Romans, however, now adopted from the Samnites themselves a more flexible army system, breaking the legions into companies or maniples (handsful) of 120 men each. In 321, they attempted to break through the Caudine pass in order to approach the enemy from the rear but they were defeated and the consul had to surrender his whole army in disgrace, signing a treaty of peace which surrendered the disputed Fregellae to the Samnites. The peace, however, did not last long. Rome presently began to secure her safety by making treaties of alliance with all the peoples surrounding the Samnites who had suffered from their raids, the Apulians and Lucanians on the south, the Frentani on the east, and some Sabellian tribes on the north. This may be the reason why the war broke out afresh in 315. Both sides were now organized for a determined struggle. Rome's army succeeded this time in forcing the Caudine pass and invading the valleys of the south. The Samnites boldly made a countermove by marching on Latium. At Tarracina they defeated Rome's army of defense, and marched on within twenty miles of Rome, so that Rome had to call back her southern army. Now setting out from Rome once more the consuls slowly drove the foe back into the mountains again, and to secure ease of communication the Senate, following a suggestion of Appius Claudius, had the Appian Way built from Rome to Capua.

The Samnites, however, having learned from Rome the  p71 advantages of wise diplomacy, secured the aid of several Etruscan cities in the north. Rome now had to raise a new army to save her northern colonies. In 310‑08 the Etruscans were forced to make peace, but it was not till 304 that the Romans were able to capture Bovianum, the central Samnite stronghold. Then peace was made. The only advantages that Rome gained from the war were the return of her colony at Fregellae, and some strips of territory on the borders of Samnium where garrison colonies ("Latin colonies") of Romans, Latins, and Campanians were planted.

Among these Latin colonies were Luceria, founded to keep together the friendly peoples of the south (315), Saticula (313) to hold the Caudine pass, Suessa (313) to support Cales on the Latin road, Interamna (312) to support Fregellae, Alba (303) and Carsioli (298), to command the road north of Samnium. To secure the ports south of Rome opening into Campania, in case the southern land-roads from Latium should ever be blocked again, citizen colonies like that of Antium were planted at Minturnae and Sinuessa in 296. No further settlements were made in Etruria at this time. The Etruscans were a peculiar people, so different from the Latins that Rome had little desire to mingle with them or to have them in their federation. She did not even make her usual defensive alliances "for all time" with the Etruscan cities which she overcame, but adopted the Etruscan form of treaty establishing "friendship" for a given term of years.

The Third Samnite War, 298‑290. Within a few years the peace of Italy was once more broken by a Gallic invasion. A new horde of Gauls had crossed the Alps from central Europe and finding no lands among their brothers in the Po valley they decided to wrest them from Rome, as the Senones had so nearly done in 387. They invited the Etruscan and Italian tribes to share in the enterprise and at Sentinum in Umbria, the Roman general, Decius Mus, had to meet in 296 the Gallic forces augmented by bands of  p72 Etruscans, Samnites, and Umbrians. The battle was desperately contested and was not decided till the consul, offering himself as a sacrifice to the gods, rode to the front at the head of his troops, and fighting valiantly led the attack till he was killed. The story of this battle reached even the Greeks and was described by Greek historians. A Roman dramatist Accius nearly two centuries later made a chronicle-play out of the Greek account. After the battle the Gauls retreated, and the Umbrians and Etruscans made peace, but the war continued in Samnium till the enemy surrendered unconditionally in 290. Samnium was made an autonomous ally but surrendered territory for a new garrison of allies (i.e. a Latin colony) at Venusia. The Sabines who had aided the Samnites were overrun and subdued by the vigorous general Curius Dentatus and the inhabitants were at first made "half-citizens." A generation later they became full citizens of Rome, being taken into the two new wards, the Quirina and the Velina. Thus the boundaries of Rome's city-state were extended to the Adriatic sea, effectively cutting the south of Italy from the north.

The Northern boundary secured. Rome's federation had now spread so far that its buffer states came in contact with a score of other states and tribes, Etruscan, Umbrian, Gallic, and all the Greek city states along the southern sea‑coast. The Romans were gradually learning that every new alliance simply added to the number of problems they must settle, for every new ally brought with it new personal quarrels. Modern states find that all the arts of diplomacy hardly suffice to keep them at peace with three or four neighbors: what must have been the difficulty of Rome in trying to adjust the disputes of this unwieldy federation with their scores of neighbors, many of whom were barbarians that preferred war to peace? As England with her far‑flung empire is almost perpetually involved in some border dispute in some corner of the world, so now the Roman Senate was kept at its wit's end to adjust difficulties upon the boundaries.  p73 The Senate was probably beginning to realize that it would be well to find some good natural boundaries for the federation.

To this consummation events now quickly led. In 285 the Gauls broke loose again. The Senones, who had captured Rome in 387, led as usual, attacking Arretium, the Etruscan town, now an ally of Rome. The first army sent by Rome to the rescue was defeated, but a second, led by Curius Dentatus, succeeded better. Curius with characteristic thoroughness drove the dangerous Senones out of Italy beyond the Rubicon, appropriating the Ager Gallicus in Piceno as Roman public land. Colonies were gradually planted at Sena, Hadria, and Ariminum, to hold the coast. The rest of the land was left unsettled for the present, since Rome's population was too depleted by war to fill it up. However, another Gallic tribe, the Boii, then living at Bononia (modern Bologna) took up the quarrel, gathered contingents from several Etruscan cities and dashed southward. They were not stopped till they reached Lake Vadimon, fifty miles from Rome, where they were decisively defeated (284). The Gauls now had to sue for peace, and Rome took the occasion to reorganize all of Etruria and Umbria, which had not only showed themselves incapable of stopping Gallic raids, but even of holding their own people from partaking in such raids. Several cities were compelled to give up land for garrison colonies, and all were made to enter Rome's federation on more or less honorable terms. By 280 the federation had a natural boundary on the north, consisting of the Apennines north of Florence and of the Rubicon north of Ariminum.

[image ALT: A political map of Rome, its colonies, and its allies.]

Samnite Wars: 324‑280

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here.]

War with Pyrrhus. On the south a series of dangerous disputes soon brought the federation to the sea. Most of the famous old Greek colonies of southern Italy (Magna Graecia) had by this time fallen into decay. Interested chiefly in commerce they had never built up strong armies to protect themselves from the Lucanians and Bruttians.  p74 Hence when in trouble they had had to purchase the aid of Syracusan and Greek armies to save them. These helpers had, after the manner of "protectors," exploited them with little mercy. In addition, the recent decay of the Greek states at home had destroyed the profits of their commerce. In fact with Alexander's conquest the interests of the Greeks were turned eastward rather than westward. Tarentum still maintained some power by acting as entrepôt and manufacturing center, especially in the woolen trade of south Italy, and at times undertook — usually by means of mercenary armies hired in Epirus or Sparta — to play the part of protector to nearby Greek cities, not always to their advantage. Thurii, one of these Greek cities, tired of Tarentine protection, and comprehending the nature of Rome's strong federation in the north, sent envoys to Rome asking admission to her league and aid in defense against the Lucanians. Rome after much hesitation on the part of the Senate consented and sent an army to her aid. The Tarentines took offense at the fact that a Greek city should turn from them to Rome for aid, and set out to punish Thurii, at the same time​3 sinking several Roman ships that appeared in their harbor contrary to the terms of an old treaty. In the war, which Rome declared in 281, Tarentum secured the aid of many Lucanians and Samnites and hired the services of Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, a skilful Greek general who claimed to be a descendant of Achilles, and an army of mountaineers trained in the best Macedonian tactics. In 280 Pyrrhus met the Romans at Heraclea. The Roman legions dashed on the solid phalanx seven times without success. Then Pyrrhus charged with his elephants which, impervious to spears and swords, served as "tanks" and tore gaps in the legions everywhere. The Thessalian cavalry dashed into  p75 the breach and completed the work. Pyrrhus now marched on Rome unobstructed, not expecting to take the walled city, but thinking that the Roman federation would break up and join a new alliance with him. Nothing happened, however, and when only forty miles from that he concluded that he had miscalculated. He withdrew to southern Samnium to fight it out. Again he defeated the Roman army, and now offered to come to terms if Rome would surrender the South to him. A large element of the Senate, which had objected to the adventurous expansionistic policy of the democratic leaders, advocated peace. But the blind old Appius Claudius called the Senate back to a firmer stand by his insistence that Rome had never treated with an enemy who was still on invaded territory. Cineas, the envoy, returned to Pyrrhus, it is said, with the report that the Senate was an assembly of kings. Pyrrhus, on the other hand, gained the high respect of the Romans by turning over to them a traitor who had promised to assassinate the Roman general. For this magnanimous act the Romans never tired of singing his praises, and one of the most vigorous passages of Rome's first great poet, Ennius, lauds his chivalrous conduct of the war.

Pyrrhus, unable to secure peace on favorable terms, now made the mistake of leaving the Roman question unsettled and turning his ambitions to Sicily where he had been invited to help the Greek cities against Carthage. His weakened army, however, could not make much permanent progress. Returning to Italy after three years to complete his contest with Rome he was defeated in 275 by the veteran Curius Dentatus at Beneventum. Rome then drove the Epirote garrisons out of Italy, and invited the Greek cities to join her federation on terms of "equality," which they did. By the terms of the alliance, Rome was to furnish the land army in case of a war, while the Greek cities promised their service in the form of naval contingents if they should be needed. Rome was now master of Italy.

The Author's Notes:

1 Livy explains Rome's act by saying that Capua offered to become Rome's subject if she would help. The objection to this explanation is that Capua seems not to have been subject to Rome until some time later.

2 One strip of land, the Ager Falernus, above Cumae, was for some unknown reason divided up into small lots and given outright to Roman citizens without being organized into an independent municipality. This has rather suggestively been called "the American system" of land distribution. It was not often employed in later times.

3 There was an old treaty that Romans should not sail east of the Lacinian Cape. We do not know when it was made. Now, of course, that Rome had colonies on the Adriatic she must naturally have connections by sea. The Tarentines seem, however, to have been formally correct in their claim that the Roman ships had infringed upon the terms of a treaty.

Thayer's Note:

a Several other chapters, actually:

Ch. 5, pp76‑78 Ch. 6, pp118‑119 Ch. 13, p227 Ch. 28, p536

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