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Chapter VI

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

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter VIII

 p115  Chapter VII

The Second Punic War

Hannibal's Invasion. In the spring of 218 Hannibal, having heard that the Roman envoys had been rebuffed at Carthage and that Rome had declared war, set out for New Carthage on his march of a thousand miles. Envoys were sent to the Po valley to gain the support of the Gauls. Spain meanwhile was entrusted to his brother, with a strong force; for the peninsula must serve as Hannibal's recruiting ground if Carthage failed him. He entered Gaul with a veteran army of more than 50,000 foot and 9,000 horse and some two score elephants, all in as perfect training and condition as any ancient army had ever been. This was no mean force for the Romans to meet with their recruits just called from the fields and led by consuls trained in senatorial debate rather than in the arts of war.

Hannibal was crossing the Rhone when the consul Scipio sailed into Massilia bound for his task of diverting Hannibal in Spain. Here the Romans learned for the first time of Hannibal's movements. It is typical that Scipio obeyed senatorial orders and sent the army on to Spain. Quite alone, he hurried back to the Po valley to take charge of the northern borderguard with the hope of holding Hannibal in check till reënforcements and winter might come to his relief. Sempronius, the other consul, who was well on his way to Africa, was of course recalled and sent north at once.

Hannibal pushed on over the pathless Alps, his army suffering badly from the attacks of the mountain tribes, from cold, from lack of food and fodder, and the dangers of untracked and icy mountain passes. The trail was lost  p116 and a road had to be cut through glacier and rock. Hannibal's "war correspondents," two Sicilian Greeks of facile pens, made lively accounts of their difficulties which are reproduced with due appreciation by Polybius and Livy. Hannibal's losses on the road were heavy, and he had to leave garrisons to keep the road open for the Spanish recruits which he expected. But he was later able to restore his foot and horse to nearly their original number by enrolling Gallic mercenaries and volunteers. The few elephants that survived the trip over the Alps perished in the following winter.

Scipio, on reaching the Po to face Hannibal, found the Gauls in rebellion. They had already prevented the settlement of Placentia by the Romans. In order to check their further defection, he boldly advanced towards the Taurini (modern Turin) with his inadequate northern guards, meeting Hannibal beyond the Ticinus river near modern Pavia. A cavalry skirmish, in which Scipio was wounded, proved to him that his raw army was no match for the finished troops of Hannibal.

The Defeat at Trebia, 218. Scipio retreated below the Po, taking his stand in a pass before Placentia.​1 Here many of his Gauls deserted, he saw that without them a battle in the open was impossible and he withdrew again, this time to high ground behind the Trebia, to await his colleague. Hannibal could not attack a Roman camp on a hill, depending largely as he did on cavalry; but when Sempronius came, eager for battle, Hannibal succeeded in drawing the Romans across the river into the open plain. Here by skilful use of hidden troops and outflanking horsemen, he quickly surrounded the Roman army. Of some 40,000 Romans that went into battle only 10,000 broke through in any semblance of order and escaped to the walls of Placentia.

In the spring Hannibal, leaving those in his rear as quite  p117 negligible, marched on south, intent on striking boldly for central Italy. The new consul was Flaminius, the old democratic champion, who took charge of a reconstructed army and followed Hannibal's rearguard into Etruria. Flaminius had doubtless been chosen by the democratic element to show the Senate how their favorite could save Rome when aristocrats like Scipio and Sempronius had failed. He was committed to a policy of speed. Hannibal seems to have known this — his "intelligence" service was highly trained — and he drew Flaminius on by cruelly burning and devastating the country of Rome's allies. His purpose was to win a battle before Flaminius' colleague could come up with his army of recruits.

The defeat at Lake Trasimenus in 217. In the early spring of 217, Flaminius' army was lured into a trap on the edge of the Trasimene lake near Perugia, where a narrow plain bordering the lake was skirted by hills, behind which Hannibal had hidden his most mobile troops. It is a question whether the trick would have succeeded had the enemy not been aided by a low‑lying mist that blinded the Romans in the valley while it left the hills clear for concerted action on the part of the enemy. The Romans were attacked along the whole line of march without a moment's notice, and in three hours of hopeless fighting they were thoroughly beaten. Flaminius fell with 15,000 of his army; an equal number were taken prisoners. Some 10,000 stragglers survived. Hannibal had lost only about 2,000 men, and these were chiefly Gauls. In the hand to hand contests of that day all depended on winning the first advantage by surrounding the opponent, the rest was butchery of the losing side.

Hannibal did not march upon Rome. He had of course no siege engines with which to ram its strong walls, and the great extent of Rome's area with its broad river flowing through made an attempt to storm the city into submission unwise. Besides, if Rome's allies outside the city proved loyal, he might readily be hemmed in by them. To risk  p118 the attempt and fail would completely destroy his prestige. It seemed better tactics to raise a revolt among Rome's allies, and then force Rome to submission. By all the calculations that Hannibal could base on Punic experience, subject people ought to revolt when given a fair chance. So he sent broadcast his message: "I have come not to fight against you but to attack Rome on your behalf; if you will consider this you will be my friends. I have come to restore freedom to the Italians and to assist you to recover the cities and lands that you have one and all lost to Rome."2

There was not a response. Hannibal turned upon Spoletium, a Latin colony, to give it an excuse to secede, and thus start a movement of revolt. But the colonists left their fields for him to ravage and manned the walls of their town, beating him off. He departed, marching east and south, ravaging and plundering to pay his troops and give an object lesson to what he considered stupid loyalty.

Fabius the Slow-goer, 217. Rome meanwhile was as near despair as Rome could be. Nothing seemed to stop the invader. Fifteen legions had been crushed with but small damage to the opponent. Hannibal too had escaped to the south of Italy, where he could presumably seize a port town, open up communications with Carthage, and so bring in supplies from home as well as from Gaul. Dictators had long ago fallen into disfavor with the democracy, but now the populace was not only ready to elect a dictator but to elect the most conservative of senators, Quintus Fabius Maximus, to this position. It was his duty to gather the fragments of defeated armies, to levy new recruits and to avoid a battle till these could be trained into a reliable army.

Meanwhile in view of Hannibal's command of the south a large fleet must be built in order to keep Punic transports from reaching Italy. Freedmen were gathered for service in the fleet, but much money was needed for its building as  p119 well as for providing the land-army with arms and armor. Loans and contributions had been relied upon in the first Punic war. Now, however, when Hannibal was plundering the length of Italy money suddenly disappeared into secret hoards. Not only did the treasury suffer but private business came to a stop for lack of currency.

At this point the state tried an interesting experiment in order to elicit the hidden metal and increase the circulation. Scarcity of copper had raised the price of it. The state accordingly struck a new issue of asses in one‑ounce pieces, i.e. one‑half of the former weight, and recognized their new market value by issuing a new silver denarius a trifle lighter than the old and equating it with sixteen asses instead of ten. In other words, they recognized a marked rise in the price of both metals and issued the silver and bronze at the ratio of 108:1, which was probably their relative market value. Needless to say, when these smaller pieces came into circulation, the larger coins of old issues came out of their hoards and were brought to the mint for reissue at a profit. Thus the state got money back into circulation, relieved the strain, and did something to meet the question of new prices. In order that the soldiers might feel that their pay would not suffer under the new arrangement, their monthly stipendium was calculated in denarii instead of in asses. And the courts doubtless settled all old contracts on the basis of denarii. It will be well to remember that after 217 B.C. the so‑called denarius exchanged for sixteen asses, the sestertius for four, and that the bronze as weighed but one ounce. This is the last important change in Rome's currency until late in the Empire.

The Fabian policy. Fabius gathered his disconsolate army and followed Hannibal, bent on doing what he could to prevent depredations without risking battle. He could not afford to let the enemy have the honor of a third victory, after which Rome's allies could not reasonably be expected to resist Hannibal's blandishments. The enemy's  p120 prestige must be dimmed by an interval of failure and the Roman troops must be hardened and accustomed to meeting the enemy in skirmishes. The strain upon Rome's patience was great, but Fabius Cunctator, "the slow-goer," as he was now called, held the reins doggedly. How difficult it was for him is shown by the fact that when in his absence Minucius, the "master of horse," magister equitum, gained a slight victory, the populace at once voted Minucius dictatorial powers also. It required one more disastrous lesson before the Romans learned that in an empire trained armies and trained generals were absolutely essential. Meanwhile Fabius saved the army that year to little purpose unless it be that he provided an object lesson in the years to come.

In the year 216 the impatient populace clamored for a change of policy. At the election of consuls there were five candidates from the old noble families and one candidate of humble station, Terentius Varro, a business man who had vigorously criticized Fabius as being a coward. He alone secured a majority on the first ballot. On the next ballot the conservatives combined to elect Aemilius Paullus. The historians of this period were aristocrats and, therefore, doubtless partial to the latter. At any rate they claim that when Paullus wished to continue the "Fabian" policy he was prevented by Varro, who insisted upon immediate battle. An early contest was just what Hannibal desired; for his Gauls were growing restless and his supplies were giving out. The consuls at this time held the supreme command by turns, each being in full charge every other day. Hence Paullus was helpless when Varro insisted upon offering battle.

Cannae. In the summer of 216 Hannibal was at Cannae in an open plain where he could use his cavalry to advantage. He also chose his position in such a way that the Roman army would have to face the sirocco, the strong southeast wind that can generally be counted on in the summer. The plain is sandy, so that this wind could become  p121 very annoying. Varro knew no strategy but that of massing his troops deep and driving straight forward, and though he had 80,000 men, their value was far less when a great number was employed for weight and not for fighting. As they dashed forward Hannibal let his center yield in a curve so as to break the Roman phalanxes, then scattering the Roman wings with a brilliant cavalry dash, he shot out his own concealed wings to cover the right and left flanks of the Romans and sent his cavalry to shut in the rear. Varro's army was now one surrounded mass, a great part of which huddled in the center unable even to fight.

Polybius says what can scarcely be believed — indeed this author is not favorable to Varro — that 70,000 Romans perished that day. Hannibal apparently gave no quarter. Among the slain were Paullus, Minucius, Servilius and 80 men of senatorial rank. Scarcely 10,000 soldiers escaped. The story is told that a group of the young nobles who had escaped so despaired of Rome that they planned to take refuge in Greece or the East. Young Scipio, the hero of the war fourteen years later, came upon them and compelled them to take an oath that they would not desert Rome. Varro, who survived, gathered the remnants of the army within the walls of Canusium and reported to Rome. Rome acted with speed. Manning the walls with old men and marines, the Senate ordered the streets cleared, forbade all mouthing and discussion of the disaster, and insisted that only the proper officials should enter the temples. Four new legions were formed by arming strong boys under seventeen. Slaves were asked to volunteer on promises of freedom. The state paid the price of their liberation to their masters. Thus 8,000 more men were secured. When Hannibal offered to release his prisoners upon the payment of ransom, the state refused to make such payment, arguing that Hannibal wished to establish a precedent which would weaken the morale of Rome's army as well as to acquire funds.

 p122  But Hannibal did not march upon Rome as the Romans expected. He never had hoped to destroy Rome, and saw no need of risking his great prestige in a siege that might fail. He thought, however, that the fruit was now ripe for his picking, that the allies of Rome could hardly resist him now that he could threaten.

Some fruit indeed fell into his hands. Capua went over to him, though on such terms that the town was of little service to him. It stipulated that it was not to be called upon for any aid whatsoever. Capua, therefore, simply became a vulnerable spot that Hannibal had to protect. Other allies in Samnium and the south followed Capua's example, but usually on similar terms. Such additions did little to increase the Carthaginian resources, though they drew from Rome's. Unfortunately for Hannibal they decreased the territory which he could plunder in case of need, and every new addition required a garrison, besides hampering his movements. What he most wanted, a Greek city like Naples or Tarentum with a good harbor through which to communicate freely with Carthage, it seemed impossible to get. Naples resisted every attack, and Tarentum, though the lower city surrendered, kept its fort, which commanded the harbor, in Roman hands.

The next year, 215, brought two new disasters. Philip V, the ambitious king of Macedonia, when he had learned of the defeat at Lake Trasimene, had decided that the time had come to aid Hannibal and thus force Rome to withdraw from the Illyrian shore. His envoys to Hannibal, however, had been captured by the Romans and the attempt came to nought. After the reverses at Cannae he succeeded better. An alliance was made in which Philip promised to provide Hannibal with a fleet, and, if need be, an army. It seemed to Rome at this time that she might have to face a new Pyrrhus in addition to Hannibal. She saw that Philip must at all hazards be kept at a distance. A strong fleet, her third, was fitted out to patrol the Adriatic and  p123 hold Philip back. In addition, envoys were sent to the Greek states that were known to be unfriendly to Philip, especially to Aetolia and King Attalus of Pergamum, that they might be encouraged to continue their struggle against the king. Thus began the First Macedonian War.

The news from Sicily was no more encouraging. Rome's faithful ally, King Hiero, died in 215, and his grandson, who succeeded him, a boy of fifteen, fell under the influence of courtiers in the pay of Hannibal. There was a revolution, the boy was killed, and Syracuse came into the hands of Hannibal's partisans. With the splendid harbor at Syracuse in her control, Carthage could have had Sicily back at once if she had acted with vigor. Fortunately for Rome, Carthage continued to do little and that inefficiently. Marcellus was sent to Sicily with a small army and began a protracted siege of Syracuse. The final calamity of a long series of disasters came in 212 when Hasdrubal, in Spain, gained reënforcements from home and defeated the two Scipios, who had not been able to get aid from their hard-pressed city. Spain also now seemed lost, and Hasdrubal might be expected to cross the Alps at any time unless a new army was sent out quickly to prevent him.

The situation during these years was indeed a test of Rome's powers of endurance. The two consuls were kept busy watching Hannibal with the main forces, an army was besieging Capua, another Syracuse, the Gallic frontiers must have two legions to keep back Gallic recruits, Etruria, Sardinia, Sicily and the loyal harbor towns of the south must have garrisons against Punic invaders, a new army must be raised for Spain, and three fleets must be manned, one on the Adriatic against Philip, one to patrol the African coast, and one to keep open the passage to Spain. Rome had long ago tried every new device for raising the necessary funds. The public lands were all mortgaged, taxes were increased time and again, a special graduated property tax was levied for the support of the fleet, and corporations  p124 were formed of men who undertook to supply the Spanish army on bills payable after the war. To add to the distress unscrupulous war‑profiteers tried to get the public contracts for the army and navy. We hear of one corporation which, after demanding that the state insure its ships and cargoes, collected insurance on unseaworthy hulks, and tried to escape condemnation by hiring thugs to break up the trial which followed.

But the worst period was over. After Cannae, the popular party showed little inclination to elect demagogical consuls. The Senate, under the guidance of men like Fabius, settled down to the slow but safe policy of tiring out the enemy. The various armies were broken up into mobile detachments, kept out of battles, and sent here and there to win back town by town. Hannibal, unable to be at all places at once, was reduced to the uncongenial task of garrisoning and defending a large number of places. In 212 Syracuse fell before Marcellus' attacks. In 211 Capua seemed also about to fall. Hannibal made a sudden dash against Rome in the hope of forcing the city to recall its army from Capua and thus raise the siege. But though he camped under the walls of Rome, he dared not attack the well garrisoned city, and soon withdrew to the south. Capua surrendered. The Romans, embittered and not a little barbarized by the long years of bloodshed, made a terrible object lesson of the city. The senators of Capua — not the old body but a newly formed senate of Hannibal's partisans — were executed, and the inhabitants dispersed among the Latin towns or sold into slavery. The land of Capua was made ager publicus to be rented out by the Roman censors for revenue.

The Battle of the Metaurus. Hannibal's hope now lay in help from his brother Hasdrubal in Spain, but the young Scipio had been sent there to engage Hasdrubal's attention. In 209 Scipio succeeded in surprising and capturing New Carthage, the Punic base of supplies in Spain, but in the  p125 next year Hasdrubal somehow eluded his vigilance and escaped with a strong army over the Pyrenees, following Hannibal's route into Italy. Rome sent one consul, Livius, north to meet him, the other, Nero, to watch Hannibal. Hasdrubal's messenger, with important information regarding his proposed movements, fell into Nero's hands. Nero accordingly was able to adopt a daring stratagem that, had it failed, Roman prudence would hardly have condoned. Leaving behind him but a small force which Hannibal could readily have crushed, had he known the facts, Nero slipped away at night, and dashed northward with his best troops to join his colleague, Livius, three hundred miles away. Combining their forces, these two generals attacked Hasdrubal on the Metaurus river and won a complete victory over him. Carthage tried to retrieve her fallen fortunes by abandoning Spain and sending Mago from Cadiz to Northern Italy by sea, in order to effect a landing and bring up Gallic and Ligurian mercenaries. But Mago met with little success and was defeated before he could reach Hannibal; meanwhile Spain was quite lost and Scipio quickly took complete control there.

Scipio Africanus and the end of the war. In 205 Scipio returned to Rome, and though little over 30 years of age, stood for the consulship on his record of Spanish successes and on a program for invading Africa. The senators were naturally dubious about trusting one so young to such a great task. Some of them may have pointed out that it was Scipio's fault that Hasdrubal had so nearly succeeded in becoming a determining factor in the war. Polybius, a personal friend of Scipio's son, may be charged with some partiality when he attributes the hesitation of the Senate to jealousy. Scipio, however, was elected and given a chance to see what he could do without involving the state's mortgaged resources in the venture. He was assigned to the province of Sicily — which carried with it a fleet and the nucleus of a good army — was given the privilege of calling  p126 volunteers and making use of any volunteer contributions that the cities cared to offer, and finally of crossing into Africa if he chose. The venture appealed to many Italian cities which hoped once and for all to have the war carried elsewhere. So they severally offered arms and armor, ships, food, and money. Scipio remained a year in Sicily patiently gathering his forces and training them. Meanwhile to cut down expenses elsewhere, Rome came to terms with Philip in 205, giving him practically all that he asked, and "hauled down the flag" on the Illyrian shore.

In 204 Scipio landed in Africa. Carthage had no strong army of her own to put into the field against him, but received support from the Numidian king Syphax. In 203 these forces were completely shattered by Scipio, who gave the Numidian kingdom to his partizan, Masinissa, and through him secured a strong contingent of Numidian cavalry for his own army. Carthage sued for peace and Scipio offered terms, subject of course to the Senate's approval. Carthage was to cede Spain to Rome, pay by annual instalments an indemnity of 5000 talents ($5,000,000), surrender her fleet, and furnish hostages till the treaty obligations should be fulfilled. The Senate accepted these terms, but before the fact became known, the Punic navy through some misunderstanding seized several Roman transports, and, when Scipio demanded reparation for the offense, Carthage, emboldened by the presence of Hannibal who had returned during the armistice, refused to come to terms. Hannibal supported the refusal, and the war was on again with Hannibal in charge of the Punic forces.

In 202 Hannibal and Scipio in the decisive battle of the war met at Zama west of Carthage. This time the Romans had a general who, like Hannibal, had grown up in the war, and, thanks to Masinissa, had the advantage in cavalry. Scipio in fact adopted the manoeuvres that Hannibal had employed at Cannae, the success of which he had every reason to remember from bitter personal experience. He held  p127 his supporting maniples in the rear as usual during the first onset. But as soon as his cavalry had scattered the wings of the Punic army and returned to attack on Hannibal's rear he threw the third line maniples out around the two flanks of the army, thus surrounding him. The victory was complete, and Hannibal himself used all his authority in the Punic senate to advocate submission.

Scipio's terms were now very much more severe. The indemnity payable in fifty years was doubled, an amount, however, that Carthage could still readily pay, having so carefully hoarded its wealth despite Hannibal's needs. Numidia was given to Masinissa and declared independent of Carthage. But the hardest item in the terms was the stipulation that Carthage could carry on no wars outside of Africa, and must submit her disputes even in Africa to Rome's arbitration. Clearly Carthage was no longer a sovereign state. Indeed a few years later, Carthage, realizing the real significance of her position as a dependency and hoping to alleviate that position by winning Rome's good-will, asked to become an ally (socius), and this of course was granted.

Results. The damage done to Italy in this war was beyond repair. For twelve years the hostile armies had driven each other over southern Italy burning and devastating, each doing everything in its power to damage the opponent. When the war was ended there was little left south of Beneventum. What with the dead, the slaves, the prisoners, and the emigrants who had sought refuge in Greece, whole districts lay without claimants, and the cities had been reduced to villages. After the war Rome saw the need of making the land productive again, but colonization and viritane assignments were out of the question since her own citizen body had been reduced by half, and the border colonies in the north and the seaports of the south must for political reasons receive first attention. What Rome did was the best that could be done in the circumstances: she  p128 let Romans who had the means, the credit, or the courage, rent large farms and ranches under the rules of the Licinian law. This to be sure extended the area of the latifundia and of ranches and consequently the number of slaves, but there seemed to be no other way out. We shall see how this policy, when not limited or changed in time, led to very great evils.

The effects of the war on the constitution were quite as serious though not as apparent. No alteration was made in its form, the change came on gradually by acquiescence. The popular party had suffered in prestige so severely because of imprudent elections in the early stages of the war that it had learned to leave administration in the Senate's hands. Not only did the consuls employ the Senate as an advisory body but frequently, when in haste, they acted upon senatus consulta with reference to taxes and expenditures which the assemblies would have been called upon to vote had there been time. The Senate, therefore, assumed final administrative and even legislative powers that it was not allotted by the constitution.

Rome learned later that the Senate had a plausible excuse for saying that it possessed these powers, and that the people's tacit consent to its exercise of wide power was as good as a permissive statute, a position which we can only consider well taken. In respect to the executive office, however, the new habits contracted during the war were not permitted to continue unchecked. During the war consuls had in fact been repeatedly reëlected when the Romans saw that to contend with Hannibal consuls must have long experience. Both Fabius and Marcellus held the consulship five times and were usually given some promagistracy between their consulships, and the elder Scipios were continued as proconsuls in Spain without interruption till their death in 212. But the Senate, while wisely permitting this state of affairs during the war, put an end to such practices as soon as the war was over. To permit one man to remain in power for  p129 a series of years endangered the supremacy of the Senate.

On the whole one may say that despite its flaws the constitution owed much to its aristocratic qualities. Had Rome been an autocracy during the war, with all her discovered potentialities she would very soon have become an imperialistic state. On the other hand had not the democracy been checked and guarded by the Senate it would probably have been led to disaster by some Flaminius or Varro, or have exalted some military hero to the position of autocrat.

Rome's prestige in the federation. The war materially changed the nature of the Roman confederation, by elevating Rome into a position far above the allies. In fact we cannot hereafter consistently speak of a federation at all. During the war Rome had to assume the responsibility at every turn, and when Italy began to sink under the burden and various allies began to yield to the pressure of the enemy, Rome had to assume the position of judge and master. Capua was most severely punished, and twelve colonies which, while asserting their continued loyalty, affirmed that they had reached the end of their resources, had to be denied some of their treaty rights if only to prevent others from giving in. But since Rome was judge and executioner, she was necessarily master, and after the Punic war, while she generally observed the old treaties of the league, she continued at critical moments the custom that had to be adopted during the war of assuming full responsibility for the internal safety and good order of Italy. Accordingly she was henceforth considered the virtual ruler of Italy.

Of greatest moment, however, was the change, perhaps unconscious, in the spirit of the people. The struggle had revealed an unknown power of endurance, of loyalty, and of persistence in the temper of the people, as well as the apparent adequacy of the constitution to withstand the worst strains. The nation seemed to have stood as severe a test as could be applied. Had they not cause to grow self-confident? If Rome soon became impatient at the tedious  p130 methods of older powers that merited her respect, if she began to command where she should have followed, if she presently betrayed a desire to impose her form of polity upon neighbors who failed to conducted their government efficiently, if finally she ceased to revise her constitution to fit her growing needs, her perilous pride is but a very natural result of an overconfident faith in herself acquired during years of misfortune that hardly any other state could have survived.

Economic conditions. We need finally to glance about for a moment at the economic conditions of Rome. Of industry and commerce in this period we have little information. War‑industries must of course have flourished. We hear of towns like Arretium, Tarquinii and Populonia that could provide large orders of arms quickly, and we hear of navies built with expedition. Commercial corporations also arose as we learn from the incident of the insurance "grafters," though we learn that Rome's harbor on the Tiber was not laid out till after the war. Some of this business may have continued after the war. It is, however, more probable that the capital thus accumulated was quickly employed in the excellent opportunities for investment in devastated lands. Here the returns were sure to be good, and furthermore land ownership was considered so much more respectable than commercial activity that the temptation would hardly be resisted. Parents who cared for the future of their children bought estates and became landlords if that was in any way possible. This is probably the reason why again during the following century we find hardly any records of trade or manufacture.

Religion. The period of the Punic War contained experiences that deeply affected the attitude of the people toward their religion. Contact with the Greeks in the First Punic War and extensive experience in political matters had begun to make the foremost Romans skeptical about their crude mythology. In that former war, for instance, the consul  p131 Claudius had thrown the sacred fowl into the sea when they had not provided good auspices. In 217 Flaminius had completely ignored the auspices, and Marcellus, who came to be called "The Sword of Rome" for his courage and persistence, made it a custom to ride in his litter with blinds drawn so as to avoid having to take cognizance of evil omens. But this tendency was generally checked as the war continued. When death invades every household, and the victorious enemy is at the gate men have little patience with skeptical speculation. To quiet the fears of the superstitious, and to prove that no risks were being taken, the officials of the state now observed every possible rite with scrupulous care. After the defeats at the Trebia and Trasimene Lake the pontifex carefully took note of every bad omen reported from any source and provided the time-honored expiations whether or not he took them seriously. The people must be reassured. After Cannae of course the superstitious terror broke out again. The populace naturally supposed that some god had been offended, and again the priests did all they could to show clearly that no rites were neglected. It was at this time that the priests made the Etruscan haruspex a familiar figure and that the Sibylline rite of having public banquets (lectisternia) with the images of the gods as guests became a common feature of the cult. But even this was not enough to pacify the populace, practically all of whom had lost near kinsmen in that one terrible battle. Etruscan and Greek soothsayers who had always strolled freely about Italy suddenly became popular. In anguish the distressed people resorted to every strange and mysterious cult that offered itself. Rome was inclined to allow freedom of worship, but here was a danger that might corrupt the whole people, and the Senate took firm measures. The praetor ordered everyone to bring to the Forum whatever books he had on religious charms or prophecy not recognized by the state, and to do so by a given day, and he forbade worship according to foreign  p132 religious rites. This was an unusual interference on the part of the state in "liberty of conscience," and we can see that it might prove to be a dangerous precedent leading to religious persecutions. But Rome believed firmly in the sovereignty of the state, and was absolutely consistent in this action. The praetor's interference bore fruit at once. It removed a dangerous plague and brought the people back to their senses.

The state itself adopted one new cult for political reasons. The Sibylline oracles that had been brought to Rome long before contained references to Cybele or Magna Mater, a mysterious Goddess of Phrygia, the land of ancient Troy. Wishing doubtless to encourage the people to think of themselves as descended from Troy, a thought that might arouse self-respect and hope during the long war, the priests found a Sibylline oracle which could be interpreted as an order to bring the Goddess from Phrygia to Rome. In 205 she was sent for and set up on the Palatine. To the disappointment of the Senate, however, the rites of worship were orgiastic and seemed dangerous in character. So foreign priests were imported to observe the rites for the state, and Romans were for the present forbidden to take part in them. The experience served as an object lesson. It was long before Rome brought in another unknown cult at the suggestion of the oracles. To give the people some harmless part in the worship which had to be duly observed, the Senate instituted annual games in Cybele's honor. These were called the Megalensia and were selected as the special season for the performance of comedies and tragedies. The result of the whole experience with religious innovations during the war was negative. Distress had temporarily made the people more careful of the old religious cults, but it had also forced the state officials for reasons of policy to introduce too many Etruscan and Greek rites which later seemed offensive and meaningless to the people. The result was that, although the priests  p133 organized the cults with greater strictness, skepticism had more reason to criticize, and after the war the old contaminated religion meant less than ever. Before long observance of auguries came to be largely a matter of partizan politics, to be used by any party in power in hampering the election and legislation of its opponents.

Literature. Strange to say the period of the war was one of great literary activity, especially in the production of comedies. The state doubtless realized the special need of keeping the people wholesomely amused on holidays at a time when there were so many disasters. So the praetors and aediles were voted funds by the Senate to use in providing public games and plays. These officials would erect a temporary stage at the foot of the Capitoline hill and thousands of people would gather on the slopes above. A contract would be made with a manager of a troupe of actors to present the required number of plays and this manager would place his order with playwrights who were to have plays ready in time to be learned before a given holiday. Naevius, who wrote the Bellum Punicum and whose first play was presented in 235, and Livius Andronicus were thus engaged during the war. For hurried orders style usually translated Greek plays, but Naevius wrote not a few original plays on Greek models. Of his plays we have only fragments that happen to have been quoted by later authors and makers of dictionaries, but we have the names of over thirty comedies and some six tragedies. They include two chronicle plays, the "Romulus and Remus" and the "Clastidium," a pageant-play presenting the famous combat of Marcellus with the Gallic chief in the battle of 222 B.C.

Naevius unfortunately was very fond of satire, and had the courage to ridicule some of the dignitaries of Rome in his plays, especially Metellus who became consul in 206 by accident. Though Rome ordinarily believed in freedom of speech, censorship is apt to be strict in wartime. As a result Naevius was imprisoned through the influence of  p134 Metellus (about 205), and when released by the tribune was sent into exile where he died very soon after the war.

Plautus (flourished 204‑184) had become a prolific writer of plays before Naevius met his misfortune. Of his rollicking comedies, full of uproarious fun, we fortunately still have twenty. Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" is an adaptation of his Menaechmi and Molière's "Amphitryon" is made from his Amphitruo. The nature of his comedy can well be judged from these adaptations. It is rather astonishing now to think of such plays being produced at Rome at the time that the state was fighting for its very life.

The greatest poet of the period is Ennius (239‑169) who served in the army for many years and who began to produce plays near the end of the war. His greatest successes on the stage were his adaptations of Greek tragedies which were produced during the first two decades of the new century when Rome entered so eagerly into a coalition which liberated the Greeks from Macedonian rule. Indeed the enthusiasm at Rome for this sentimental policy may have been due in no small measure to the success of Ennius in reproducing the best of Euripides and Sophocles on the Roman stage. However, the plays were much more than poetic translations. Ennius, though he used the old Greek myths that came so fresh to the Roman public, thoroughly nationalized the plays. Constantly in comparing the fragments (that is all we have) with the original we find new interpretations, new psychology, new solutions of the plots. Questions of ethics and morality for instance rest less upon fanciful quibbles and more on Roman ideas of social order in family and state. His greatest work, however, was a national epic in eighteen books called the Annales. It was really a series of Roman epics from the story of Aeneas to his own day, written in rather rough but nevertheless vigorous hexameters which reveal great poetic powers. This historical  p135 epic it was that once and for all sketched the characters of the great Roman statesmen of the heroic age while the memory was still recent, men like Appius Claudius, Curius Dentatus, Decius Mus, Camillus, Fabius and Scipio. The book was read for centuries and did much not only in teaching the young a love for the high ideals of the heroic days, but also in setting a standard for later poets like Vergil. Again the original is lost, but we have some 600 lines of fragments that have been saved in the quotations of essayists like Cicero.

Finally we should mention the first prose history of Rome, which was written at the close of the century by Fabius Pictor, a senator and statesman related to Fabius Maximus. For the early part of his story he did the best he could with the priestly records, treaties and laws stored in temples, and with oral tradition. For more recent history he consulted the aged statesmen and his own memory and notes. Strange as it may seem, he wrote this history in Greek. He was eager that the cultured peoples of Greece who had a much older civilization should be able to read the story of Rome's remarkable rise. The work became the standard sourcebook of all careful historians, and seems to have deserved the high rank it held. To our regret only brief quotations from it have survived.


The Author's Notes:

1 The first colony of Placentia was apparently twenty miles west of modern Piacenza.

2 Polybius III.77.


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