Colonization and Rome’s Early Navy

In this period of political fragmentation amongst the Latins, marked by the rise of more powerful and cohesive polities, we also have some very intriguing developments in the area of colonization. As noted previously, early Roman colonization probably resembled the Greek practice in many ways. This was not because the Italian practice was in any way based on the Hellenistic model. In fact, the Italians had most likely been founding colonies before the Greeks arrived in the early Iron Age. There is a long tradition of Italic tribes, when their population reached a critical amount, splintering off to form new groups and settlements. This was sometimes accomplished with the splinter group sighting and following a particular animal, often a boar or a wolf, until the animal settled down, and then founding the new settlement at that location. This practice was naturally laden with ritual and religious connotations, but was also incredibly practical as the locations where these animals settled down were usually well away from existing populations and contained the basics needed for a small settlement, including food and water. This practice naturally became more formal and sophisticated as time went on, but the basic system of forming new colonies in order to keep a population within the carrying capacity of the land was one with which the Romans and Latins were very familiar. As with Greek colonies, these new settlements usually became entirely independent after they were founded, although they often maintained sentimental links with their mother community, in addition to the very real bonds of kinship and blood. Despite the anachronistic assertions of Rome’s late Republican historians, who viewed all colonization through the lens of ‘empire’, this more independent type of colonization probably typified the Roman practice during the Regal and early Republican periods. As a result, the concept of Roman or Latin colonies during this period is arguably inapplicable. Although possibly founded by Roman or Latin populations, or indeed jointly, the colonies would have effectively become new Latin settlements (based solely on culture and language) once they were founded, and would not have owed any real allegiance to their mother communities. Although there seems to have been a rough sense of Latin identity, there was no such thing as Latin ‘citizenship’ (and even Roman citizenship is problematic), even in the middle of the fifth century BC – ‘Latin Rights’ being likely based on cultural identity and not political affiliation. As a result, early colonization seems to have had the same fluid character as much of the rest of Latin society during this time.

With the advent of the fourth century BC and the rise of more cohesive urban polities, it seems that the community of Rome recognized that the old way of colonizing was no longer in the city’s best interests. The needs which drove colonization in the Archaic period were naturally still there. Rome had to be very careful that her population did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land around the community and indeed it is likely that she was pulling more and more resources from further and further afield in order to feed her growing citizen body. Additionally, the literary sources and archaeology are unanimous in suggesting a growing desire for and exploitation of land by the Romans in the fourth century BC. As already argued, this is one of the reasons behind Rome’s increasing bellicosity during the period, but it is likely that it would also have led to an increased desire to found new colonies – as this represented the traditional, and by far the easiest, mechanism for acquiring new land for poorer citizens. However, colonization would have also served to weaken Rome, taking citizens away from the community and spreading them across new lands, right when she was desperately attempting to increase her manpower reserves. As a result, although Rome founded four new colonies (Satricum, Sutrium, Nepete and Setia) in the 380s BC, she did not create any further colonies for an entire generation. Instead, Rome attempted a number of new ways to deal with this situation, including the creation of municipia, like that at Tusculum, and the increased use of ager publicus. It was only in the final decades of the fourth century BC that Rome returned to colonization as a viable option, when the city founded a series of new colonies along the coast. It is clear from the nature of these new colonies, however, that things had definitely changed during the intervening years. While Rome’s earlier colonies seem to have been independent, and indeed even the late foundation at Satricum (founded in the 380s BC) evidently had to be recaptured in 346 BC, these new colonies were ‘full citizen colonies’ and extensions of Roman military might. The colonists at these new foundations, dubbed coloniae maritimae (maritime colonies), all explicitly retained their Roman citizenship and association. Although limited in size, with only 300 initial colonists, these new foundations were also planned as part of a new, larger military strategy. This can be seen through their grant of sacrosancta vacatio militia, a military exemption supposedly held by all members of the coloniae maritimae which required them to stay on site at the colony but, evidently in recognition of their importance in guarding the coastline, exempted them from normal military obligations and duties. Between 340 and 240 BC, Rome founded ten of these colonies down the west coast of Italy (Ostia, Antium, Tarracina, Minturnae, Sinuessa, Sena Gallica, Castrum Novum, Pyrgi, Alsium and Fregenae) as part of a concerted pattern of expansion aimed at controlling the sea.

Rome’s apparent interest in naval affairs during this period might strike the casual observer as a bit odd. After all, Rome was supposedly a novice in naval combat in the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC), without a ship of her own and entirely reliant on her allies’ navies until stolen Carthaginian naval technology (the fortuitous wreck of a Carthaginian trireme which gave the Romans the plans for their construction) allowed the creation of her own fleet. Or at least that is the traditional narrative. There are some slight discrepancies to this story, however. The creation of the coloniae maritimae clearly signals an increased interest in at least controlling the coast from the late fourth century BC, although this was done from the land in what might be considered a more traditional Roman approach. Linked to this interest, however, was the creation in 311 BC of the duovir navalis, a team of two magistrates tasked with buying or building ships and conducting naval operations. This indicates that, contrary to the generally accepted narrative, Rome did in fact have at least a nascent navy active in the late fourth century BC, almost fifty years before the First Punic War. In fact the sources record that one of these new naval magistrates was active the year after the office’s creation, raiding near the Bay of Naples in 310 BC. So the Romans seem to have had a navy of their own from at least 310 BC, although how this is reconciled with Polybius’ claim that the Romans did not build their own ships until the 260s BC is uncertain. It is possible that the Romans actually purchased their ships in this early period, thus making Polybius technically correct in that they did not build them, or perhaps they utilized the more common, multipurpose ships during this time and did not have custom-built warships until the 260s BC.

The advent of Rome’s navy and the coloniae maritimae not only suggests that Rome’s interests were expanding beyond the confines of Central Italy and towards the Mediterranean more generally, but also an increasing strategic awareness and both the foresight and ability to invest in military infrastructure. The creation of both the coloniae maritimae and a fleet required a form of delayed gratification on the part of the Romans. With regards to the coloniae, despite the Romans’ evident desire to increase their military manpower during the fourth century BC, they granted the colonists sent to these new foundations an official exemption from service – provided that they maintained Rome’s naval security at these new coastal locations. This hints that the Romans recognized that the long-term control of the coast was a benefit which outweighed the short-term boost in manpower which these colonists would have provided. The creation of a fleet represents an even more extreme example of this. Roman warfare was generally a rather inexpensive enterprise; it was primarily about acquiring portable wealth as opposed to spending it. In the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Roman soldiers would supply their own equipment and often their own supplies, with some of this cost being offset by the stipendium collected from the populace. The army would then venture out, acquire wealth via either raiding or conquest in the fourth century BC, and then return home at the end of the campaigning season. The only costs for the community as a whole was therefore the stipendium, which was both limited and irregular. Instead, it was generally assumed that any costs of warfare incurred by the army would be taken out of the spoils of war, and the stipendium was supposed to have been refunded out of these – although how often this actually happened is debated. Indeed, the reason Roman soldiers fought during this period was unlikely to have been from either a sense of protonationalism or duty, or because of the limited stipendium, but rather from the desire for booty and spoils – this was the main motivator. Warfare was therefore something which occurred largely out of the civic sphere. The generals were elected by the community and the soldiers were associated with Rome, either as citizens or allies, and of course there was a stipendium available in case the war was unsuccessful or did not recoup its expenses. But once the army was in the field, it existed as a discrete and separate entity from the urban city of Rome and was generally supposed to earn its own keep. Navies, however, were very different creatures – particularly by the fourth century BC.

The earliest ancient navies, both in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, seem to have followed roughly the same model as Rome’s early armies. In a time of need, wealthy individuals would lend their ships (and likely their crews) to the community for use in war. Many of these ships, although primarily used for trade, were eminently serviceable as warships as well – as noted before, the difference between an ancient merchant and an ancient pirate was often simply a question of opportunity. So although they were not custom-built for war, they could easily handle a complement of soldiers and were reasonably manoeuvrable and effective fighting platforms. From the seventh and sixth centuries BC, there was an incremental move in the eastern Mediterranean toward more purpose-built warships, most notably triremes (named because of their three banks of oars), although the cost and single function limited their popularity. Although triremes were incredibly effective in military situations, being far faster and more manoeuvrable than the multipurpose ships utilized before, it was hard to convince the wealthy citizens to invest in them. To build, equip, and staff one trireme seems to have cost between 10,000 and 12,000 drachmas, which was a significant outlay. While a multipurpose ship could be used for trade and other activities when the community was not at war, a trireme was suited for no other purpose and had to be carefully maintained (kept out of water in a ship shed) in order to maintain its seaworthiness. These ships were the high-end sports cars of their day – expensive luxury items which were not suited for everyday use. During the fifth century BC, however, the rise of the powerful Greek navies (like that of the Athenians) and the wars against the Persians changed the equation. In conflicts with these types of enemies, the old-fashioned, multipurpose ships were simply outclassed, although they did continue to play a role, and triremes were a ‘must-have’ item if one wanted to compete. As a result, communities like Athens and others around Greece poured immense amounts of state money into their navies – investing heavily in this technology. Moving away from privately-funded initiatives, Greek states built hundreds of triremes and their associated ship sheds, in addition to spending huge amounts on the salaries of rowers – in the case of Athens, effectively creating an entirely new class of citizen. This development turned warfare, or at least naval warfare, into an almost entirely state-based, state-centred activity. This would, eventually, have a knock-on effect on land warfare, which became increasingly mercenary in nature and which ultimately, by the fourth century BC, had also become effectively a state expenditure with the rise of professional and mercenary armies like those of Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedon. This was the world of naval warfare into which Rome was venturing in the late fourth century BC – a world of highly professional and specialized fleets which required an enormous ‘buy in’ from the state in order to simply participate. Given this situation, it is no surprise that Rome took so long to get involved and, even once the city did, was not completely sold on the idea. The requirements of naval warfare went against many of the basic premises which underpinned Roman warfare to that point.

But in the late fourth century BC, Rome did slowly invest in naval infrastructure. Although the details are hazy to say the least, Rome’s duoviri navalis evidently acquired ships and were active in raids up and down the coast of Italy. So, although it represents an arguably minor and often ignored aspect of Roman warfare, it actually represents a significant turning point in Rome’s approach to war. It suggests that Rome was willing to invest a significant amount of state money, something which was limited given the absence of taxation at this time, in order to buy and maintain ships as part of a larger strategic plan. When this is combined with the contemporary construction of the Via Appia (Appian Way), a military road designed to move Rome’s armies south faster and more effectively, an entirely new phase in Roman warfare seems to have dawned. Gone were the days when warfare was expected to pay for itself, an activity which occurred largely outside of the state’s concern, and instead there existed a mindset where Rome was willing and able to invest state resources in military infrastructure to encourage and allow long-term success. Rome seems to have finally entered an era of truly state-based warfare.

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