World History 1 96 - 6.4.2 The Expansion of the Roman Republic

The early Romans did not plan on building an immense empire. They were surrounded by hostile city-states and tribes, and in the process of defeating them they made new enemies even as they expanded their network of allies. Thus they were constantly sending armies farther afield to crush these threats until Rome emerged in the second century BCE as the most powerful state in all the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

The Roman Senate developed certain policies in conducting wars that proved quite successful (Figure 6.29). One was to divide and conquer. The Romans always tried to defeat one enemy at a time and avoid waging war against a coalition. Thus they often attempted to turn their enemies against each other. Another tactic was to negotiate from strength. Even after suffering enormous defeats in battle, Rome would continue a war until it won a major engagement and reach a position from which to negotiate for peace with momentum on its side. Yet another successful strategy was to establish colonies in recently conquered lands to serve as the first line of defense if a region revolted against Rome. Well-constructed roads were also built to link Rome to these colonies, so armies could arrive quickly in a region that rebelled. Thanks to these networks across Italy, the language and culture of Rome eventually spread throughout its empire as well. Romans also transformed former enemies into loyal allies who could enjoy self-government as long as they honored Rome’s other alliances and provided troops in times of war. Some even received Roman citizenship.

A map is shown with water highlighted blue and a boot shaped piece of land in the middle. The land to the north of the boot-shaped mass is highlighted all gray and a small section of land in the southwest corner of the map is highlighted gray as well. The map is labelled “Rome’s Italian Conquests.” An anvil-shaped area at the north of the boot and three islands to the west of the boot are highlighted purple indicating “218 BCE.” Below the purple area an “H” shaped area is highlighted bluish green indicating “264 BCE.” In the middle of the “H” shaped are as well as a bit south of are oval areas highlighted yellow indicating “290 BCE.” In between the two yellow areas is a “U”-shaped area highlighted orange indicating “298 BCE.” To the west is a long thin area highlighted pink indicating “c. 338 BCE.” In the middle of that is a very small area highlighted brown indicating “c. 500 BCE.” Inside the brown area the city of Rome is labelled with a black dot. At the bottom of the boot shaped area is a section highlighted green indicating “272 BCE.”.
Figure 6.29 This map shows the expansion of Rome across Italy over time and its addition of new allies. (credit: modification of work “Map of the Roman conquest of Italy” by “Javierfv1212”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Roman Conquest of the Mediterranean

After conquering most of the Italian peninsula, Rome came to challenge the other major power in the region, Carthage. A series of wars ensued, called the Punic Wars, in which Rome and Carthage vied for dominance. During the First Punic War (264–241 BCE), Rome and Carthage battled for control of the island of Sicily. Although Carthage had the largest fleet at the time, the Romans won by dropping a hooked plank on the deck of an opposing ship and using it as a causeway to cross over, transforming a sea battle in which they were at a disadvantage into a land battle where they could dominate. After the destruction of its fleet, Carthage sued for peace, and the war ended with Rome annexing Sicily.

Carthage desired revenge. In the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE), the Carthaginian general Hannibal marched his army, along with dozens of war elephants, from Hispania (modern-day Portugal and Spain), across southern Gaul, and then over the Alps into Italy. Hannibal hoped Rome’s allies would abandon it and leave the city at his mercy. Most of Rome’s Italian allies remained loyal, however, even after Hannibal repeatedly defeated Roman armies, and after his decisive victory at the Battle of Cannae. As Hannibal’s army was rampaging through Italy, Rome sent an army across the Mediterranean to Africa to attack Carthage, which summoned Hannibal back to defend his homeland (Figure 6.30).

A map is shown with water highlighted blue and land highlighted yellow. The Atlantic Ocean is shown in the west, the Mediterranean Sea is shown in the middle and the Black Sea is labelled in the east. A small area of land in the east middle of the map is labelled “Asia.” And the land across the bottom of the map is labelled “Africa.” An area at the north of Africa is labelled Numidia. “Hispania” is labelled at the west of the Mediterranean and “Gaul” is labelled northeast of that. In the middle of the Mediterranean two islands are labelled “Corsica” and “Sardinia.” A red dotted arrowed line begins in Cartagena in Spain and heads north to Saguntum, then north through Gaul past the city of Massilia on the coast and up toward an area labelled “Alps.” The line heads east past the city of Turin and backtracks west toward Turin. Then it heads southeast to the city of Arretium. South of Arretium it heads in a zig zag fashion toward the city of Cannae on the east coast of a boot shaped country. The line zigs back and forth between the cities of Rome, Capua, Tarentum, and Messina. It makes an arc heading southeast away from the bottom of the country then heads straight west past the city of Syracuse and Sicily to the city of Zama in the area labelled “Numidia.” The city of Gades is labelled in the south of Hispaniola.
Figure 6.30 This map shows the route Hannibal followed from Hispania over the Alps to attack Italy before finally returning to defend Carthage in the Second Punic War. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

At the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE, the Roman army defeated Hannibal, and the Roman commander Scipio earned the nickname “Africanus” (Figure 6.31). Carthage sued for peace and was stripped of all its overseas territory. Rome thus acquired Carthage’s lands in Hispania.

An image of a painting is shown. This richly painted image shows a battle being waged with a very large group of warriors against the backdrop of a blue-gray swirly sky. In the back of the image one group on the right is heading to the left and the group on the left is heading toward the right. Two rows of soldiers on horseback are seen with intricately detailed helmets heading toward each other. Tall long pointy spears can be seen in neat rows on both sides as well as long golden bugles. In the forefront if the image individuals can be seen fighting with each other. At the left a soldier in gold and silver armor on a black horse with no saddle or reins plunges a long thin spear into the check of a solider wearing a red shirtdress below him on a white horse. To the tight a figure in yellow with a small silver helmet plunges a stick into the neck of a man on the ground in a helmet and red and blue clothing grasping the stick. Two soldiers in blue and beige shirts with silver helmets are seen on brown horses with swords to the right. In the middle bottom a figure in yellow lays on the ground with other figures laying on the ground behind them. To the right a soldier in blue and red on a white horse aims a pointed stick at a figure in a green shirt and white turban holding a brown shield.
Figure 6.31 This classical battle scene, painted by the Italian artist Bernardino Cesari in the early 1600s, is believed to represent Hannibal’s defeat by the Roman commander Scipio in 202 BCE. (credit: “Hannibal and Scipio Africanus” by Bernardino Cesari/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

During the war, King Philip V of Macedon, concerned by the growth of Rome just across the Adriatic Sea from his own kingdom, made an alliance with Carthage. After Rome’s victory against Carthage, Rome declared war against this new enemy. Philip’s Macedonian troops won numerous victories over Roman armies, but in 196 BCE at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in northern Greece, Philip suffered a defeat and lacked the resources to continue. Consequently, he agreed to become an ally of Rome. Rome also liberated all regions in Greece formerly under Macedonian control.

Philip’s defeat emboldened the king of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus III, to advance his army into Greece, hoping to obtain the territory Philip had vacated. Rome feared that Antiochus’s occupation of Greece posed a threat to Italy, just as Philip had. In 190 BCE, Roman armies smashed the forces of Antiochus III at the Battle of Magnesia in western Asia Minor. Antiochus then agreed to withdraw from Asia Minor.

Rome discovered in the second century BCE that there was no end to the threats from hostile powers. Perseus, the son of Philip V, renounced the alliance with Rome. When he made alliances with Balkan tribes that threatened to invade Italy, Roman armies invaded Macedon and defeated his army at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. Rome then dissolved the monarchy in Macedon, which soon afterward became a Roman province, and Perseus died of starvation as a prisoner in Rome. When the Achaean League in the Peloponnese in Greece challenged Roman control of Greece and Macedon, Rome declared war and sacked Corinth, the League’s largest city, in 146 BCE. In that same year, Roman armies also destroyed the city of Carthage in the Third Punic War, fearing the city’s revival as an economic and military power. After 146 BCE, no power remained in the Mediterranean that could challenge Rome (Figure 6.32).

A map is shown labelled “Expansion of Rome.” Water is highlighted blue and land is highlighted beige. At the northwest the Atlantic Ocean is labelled and the Mediterranean Sea is labelled running along the middle bottom of the map. The Black Sea is labelled in the east. An area labelled “Gaul” is at the north of the map while and area labelled “Hispania” is at the west. “Mauretania” and “Numidia” are labelled along the southwest of the map and an area labelled “Cyrenaica” is along the bottom in the south. A boot shaped peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea is labelled “Italy” and an area southeast of that is labelled “Macedonia.” Southeast of that between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea an area is labelled “Asia.” All of Italy, the three islands west of Italy, and the southeastern section of Spain are highlighted green indicating “Roman Republic in 201 BCE.” The middle of Spain, an area along the coast south of Gaul and a northern section of Numidia are highlighted orange. All of Macedonia, with a thin strip north of there as well as the area labelled Asia are also highlighted orange indicating “Additions by 100 BCE.”
Figure 6.32 This map shows Rome’s expansion in the second century BCE as it responded to perceived threats to its power from neighboring kingdoms. (credit: modification of work “Expansion of Rome, 2nd century BC” by The Department of History, United States Military Academy/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

A Republic of Troubles

Rome’s constant wars and conquests in the third and second centuries BCE created a host of social, economic, and political problems for the republic. The Roman people grew dissatisfied with the leadership of the Senate and the aristocratic elite, and they increasingly looked to strong military leaders to address the problems.

A number of factors contributed to these problems and transformations. From the foundation of the republic, most Roman citizens had owned and operated small family farms. Indeed, to serve as Roman soldiers, men had to own property. However, the Punic Wars had strained this traditional system. Roman soldiers were often away from home for long periods of time, leaving the women and children to maintain their holdings. When they ultimately did return, many found their property in another’s hands. Others decided to sell their neglected farms and move their families to the expanding city of Rome, where they joined the growing ranks of the landless working class known as the proletariat. By the first century BCE, the population of the city of Rome may have exceeded one million.

The growth of the proletariat disrupted the Roman political system and invited large-scale corruption. The traditional patron-client system collapsed, since landless Romans didn’t need the assistance of patrons to settle property disputes. Politicians therefore had to win the support of the urban masses with free food and entertainment, such as gladiatorial combats, and promises to create jobs through public works projects. Some even organized the poor into violent gangs to frighten their political rivals. These conditions resulted in widespread dissatisfaction with the government of the republic.

To meet the growing demand for grain, wine, and olive oil to feed the urban population, large landowners bought land from poor Roman farmers and leased public land from the Roman state to create large plantations. These were very profitable because landowners could cheaply purchase enslaved people, who were plentiful. For example, after the defeat of Perseus of Macedon in 168 BCE, the Romans enslaved 150,000 people from Epirus as punishment since this kingdom had been allied with Perseus in the war. Pirates from Cilicia (in southeast Turkey) and from the Greek island of Crete also kidnapped people throughout the eastern Mediterranean and sold them to Roman traders. The island of Delos in the Aegean Sea became a massive human market in the second century BCE, where reportedly ten thousand people were bought and sold every day.

Terrible working conditions resulted in massive revolts by the enslaved, beginning in the second half of the second century BCE. The most famous was led by Spartacus, an enslaved man and gladiator from Thrace (modern Bulgaria). In 76 BCE, Spartacus and other enslaved gladiators rose against their owners and were quickly joined by hundreds of thousands of others (Figure 6.33). Spartacus’s forces defeated two Roman armies before being crushed in 71 BCE. The Romans crucified thousands of the rebels along Italy’s major roads to send a warning to enslaved people across Italy.

An image of a photograph of a beige stone statue is shown with beige buildings with windows in the background. The view is from the bottom looking up. The man’s face is shown with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He has wavy hair, large half-circle eyes, flaring nostrils, and a downturned mouth. One of his wrists shows a bracelet and he holds a knife in his right hand.
Figure 6.33 This is a detail of a larger-than-life marble statue by the nineteenth-century French sculptor Denis Foyatier, showing Spartacus breaking his chains. Now in the Louvre, the statue originally stood in Paris’s famous Jardin des Tuileries on the Avenue of Great Men. (credit: “Spartacus, Denis Foyatier, 1830” by Gautier Poupeau/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In addition to the proletariat and enslaved people, new classes of wealthy Romans were also unhappy with the leadership of the traditional elite. The most profitable enterprise for these new Roman entrepreneurs was acting as bankers and public contractors, or publicans. The republic relied on publicans to construct public works such as aqueducts and theaters, as well as to operate government-owned mines and collect taxes. Roman governors often looked the other way when publicans squeezed additional tax revenues from the populations of the provinces.

This tumultuous and complicated environment led to the rise of two of the Late Republic’s most intriguing political figures, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The Gracchi, as they are collectively known, were plebeian brothers whose families had been members of the elite for generations (Scipio Africanus was their grandfather). Tiberius, the elder brother, was concerned to see the large plantations being worked by enslaved foreigners rather than Roman farmers. He feared Rome’s military was in danger since Rome relied on its land-owning farmers to equip themselves and serve in the army. In 133 BCE, as a tribune, he proposed a law to distribute public land to landless Romans. This measure struck a blow at the senatorial class, many of whom had accumulated huge swaths of land formerly owned by independent farmers who had gone to war. The assembly voted to approve the proposal, but many senators were horrified not only because they stood to lose land but also because, to win the vote, Tiberius had violated the traditions of the Republic. The Republic was ruled by the upper classes, and in courting popular opinion, the brothers had challenged elite control over high political institutions. Convinced he was assuming too much popular support and violating the traditions of Rome, the Senate declared a state of emergency and a group of senators beat Tiberius to death.

Ten years later Tiberius’s brother Gaius, an astute politician as well, was also elected tribune. He won over poor Roman farmers with his proposal to establish new colonies to give them land. He also provided free grain for the poor and called for new public works projects to create jobs for the working class and lucrative contracts for wealthy publicans. His measures passed the Plebeian Assembly. Gaius was also elected tribune for two years straight, in violation of Roman political tradition. The final straw for the Senate was Gaius’s proposal to establish a new court system that could try senators for corruption. In 121 BCE, the senators took action to subdue Gaius. He attempted to use force himself to resist the Senate, but in the end his supporters were massacred and he died, either by his own hand or at the hands of senators who had opposed his rise to power.

The Rise of Client Armies

After the assassination of Gaius Gracchus, Rome’s political class was divided into two warring factions. The populares were politicians who, like Gaius, sought the political support of discontented groups in Roman society, whereas the optimates were the champions of the old order and the traditional leadership of the elite in the Roman Senate. In 112 BCE, Rome went to war against Jugurtha, the king of Numidia (modern Algeria/Tunisia) in North Africa, after he slaughtered Romans there who had supported his brother as king. Roman armies suffered defeat after defeat, and due to the decline in numbers of Roman farmers, Rome was having difficulty filling the ranks.

Gaius Marius was a plebeian and commoner who rose up the ranks of the Roman army and emerged as the leader of the populares. In 107 BCE, he ran for consul by denouncing the traditional Roman elites as weak and ineffective generals and promising to quickly end the war with Jugurtha. Such rhetoric was wildly popular with the common people who supported him. Once in power, Marius reformed the entrance requirements for the army to open it to proletariats, extending them the opportunity for war gains and even land for their service. These reforms led to the emergence of professional client armies, or armies composed of men more loyal to their commander than to the state.

By 105 BCE, Jugurtha was captured and then paraded through the Roman streets in chains. That same year, Rome faced new threats from the north in the form of Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine River and seeking to invade Italy. The Romans elected Marius consul for five consecutive terms (105–101 BCE) to lead his professional army against these enemies. After his victories, however, his enemies in the Senate wanted to embarrass him politically, so they prevented his proposal to give veterans land from becoming law. Marius was intimidated by these events and retired from politics.

In 90 BCE, Rome was again in turmoil when its Italian allies revolted after years of providing troops without having any voice in governing. During this “Social” War (90–88 BCE), the Romans under the leadership of Sulla, an optimate, defeated the rebels. Shortly thereafter, in 88 BCE, Rome’s provinces in Greece and Asia Minor also revolted, after years of heavy taxes and corrupt governors. The rebels massacred thousands of Roman citizens and rallied around Mithridates, the Hellenistic king of Pontus in north Asia Minor. Optimates in the Senate appointed Sulla to lead an army against Mithridates. Like Marius, Sulla had promised his recruits land in return for their service. Populares in the Plebeian Assembly, however, assigned command of the army to Marius, who had come out of retirement.

Sulla, then outside Rome with his client army, convinced his soldiers to choose personal loyalty to their general and his promise of land over their allegiance to Rome, and they marched on the city. Sulla’s army hunted down and murdered many populares, and after establishing his own faction in charge of Rome, Sulla marched against Mithridates (Figure 6.34).

An image of an old map is shown. It is labelled “Asia Minor II (before the outbreak of the Mithradatic Wars, 90 B.C.). The Scale is labelled “1: 25 000 000.” The Caspian Sea is labelled in the northeast corner of the map, the Black Sea is labelled in the north. The Mediterranean Sea is labelled in the southwest. All are highlighted blue. North of the Mediterranean Sea an area of land is highlighted pink. These areas include: Macedonia, the southern end of Thrace, Achai, Asia, and the southern areas of Pisidia and Traches indicating “Roman provinces.” Areas highlighted light pink include: Crete, Bithynia, Galatia, Lycia, the northern parts of Pisidia and traches, Lycaonia, Nia, Cappadocia, Cyprus, Crete, and the northern borders of Cyrenaica indicating “Roman protectorates.” Areas to the north and south of the Black sea highlighted dark blue indicating “Kingdom of Mithradates VI (Eupator)” include: Kingdom of the Cimmeria Bosporus, Paphlago, Pontus, Colchis, and Lesser Armenia. Land highlighted light blue to the southeast of the Black Sea, indicating “Allies of Mithradates” include Greater Armenia. Other areas not highlighted include: Caucasus Mts. West of the Caspian Sea, Aeropatene east of Greater Armenia, Kingdom of the Arsacids (Parthian Empire) southwest of the Caspian Sea, Syria (Kingdom of the Seleucids) on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and a portion of the Kingdom of the Ptolemies at the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Figure 6.34 As Rome expanded far beyond Italy, keeping its citizens in distant provinces safe could be a challenge. That was the case when parts of Greece and Asia Minor rebelled and rallied around King Mithridates of Pontus. This 1911 map of the eastern Mediterranean in 88 BCE shows Rome and its allies (red) and King Mithridates’s kingdom and his allies (gray). (credit: modification of work” Asia Minor at the time of the First Mithridatical War” by The Historical Atlas by William River Shepherd, University of Texas Libraries/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 87 BCE, Marius, who had been in hiding, rallied his old veterans and marched on Rome, marking the second time in two years that Roman soldiers had chosen personal loyalty to their general over obedience to Rome’s laws. Marius’s men now hunted down and murdered optimates. After winning his seventh term as consul in 87 BCE, Marius died in office from natural causes. Having forced Mithridates out of Greece and restored Roman rule there, Sulla led his army back to Rome in 83 BCE to overthrow the populares who were still in charge. While in Rome, he compelled the Senate to appoint him dictator. The office of dictator was an ancient republican office used only during emergencies because it granted absolute authority for a limited time to handle the emergency. When Sulla assumed the office, it hadn’t been used since the Second Punic War.

During Sulla’s time as dictator, he ordered the execution of his political enemies and reformed the laws. In 79 BCE, he relinquished the office and retired from public life, convinced he had saved the republic and preserved the power of the traditional elite in the Senate. Instead, however, within half a century the Roman Republic was dead.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax