Rome’s relationship with her closest neighbours in Central Italy and the city gradually emerged as the most dominant military and political power in the region. This was a long process, which had as much to do with Rome’s internal political and civic development as it did with Rome’s external military success (although obviously the two are related), and the city’s resultant supremacy could arguably be seen as a triumph of the community’s increasingly single-minded determination against the diverse interests of the Latins. With the ‘birth of empire’ and Rome’s varied approach to a range of new peoples and stimuli, many of the same themes which defined Rome’s rise to power are still visible. While the late fourth and third centuries BC saw Rome’s armies and envoys venturing further and further afield, for increasingly diverse reasons and interests, the core themes of integration and a developing civic identity are still evident and arguably still driving much of Rome’s military expansion and development.

Rome’s wars during this period, from the mid-fourth century to the mid-third century BC, have been the subject of intense study and debate – particularly during the past fifty years. Beginning with Rome’s great conflict with the Samnites (most notably the Second Samnite War or The Great Samnite War), and followed by Rome’s war against Pyrrhus and the first conflict with the Carthaginians, the city’s foreign interactions during this period were influenced heavily by her new alliance structures and her purported desire to defend the interests of her allies against foreign enemies. Rome’s histories for this period are therefore often framed in terms of a ‘defensive imperialism’, where Rome is portrayed as the reluctant conqueror – being dragged into war after war by her allies, arguably against her will or in pursuit of a greater strategic security. These wars are therefore seen as iura bella (‘just wars’), or defensive wars, although once Rome became involved in a conflict, however reluctantly, the city pursued it to the end – throwing the entirety of her resources into it. It was this dedication to warfare on the part of the Romans, the ability and determination to return to the battlefield time and again after defeats to Pyrrhus or to build a fleet from scratch in order to engage with the Carthaginians, which is often thought to be the secret to their success in this period. That, and an increasingly evolved army which learned from and adapted to each enemy it fought. Or at least this is what the Romans later claimed.

This simple motif of Rome as the reluctant conqueror has rightly been challenged in recent decades, with W.V. Harris and more recently Nathan Rosenstein both presenting the case for Rome being anything but an unwilling or unenthusiastic participant when it came to war. Warfare formed an important part of elite identity going back to the early Iron Age, and Rome’s aristocracy – although increasingly sophisticated and urban – retained a strong martial character throughout the Republican period. However, the tension between the Roman elite’s desire to engage in warfare for personal reasons and the evident awkwardness and unpreparedness which seems to have marked the city’s approach in the aftermath of this warfare has generally defied a single explanation. Rome’s apparently ad hoc approach to empire in the middle Republic suggests that a grand strategy was lacking during this period. But at the core of Rome’s foreign interactions, underpinning her reaction and response to the requests of her allies and driving the ambitions of her elite, were a set of cultural principles with their origins back in the Archaic period. As a result, although this period clearly represents a new stage and period in Roman warfare and the development of empire, it also needs to be understood as a continuation of previous practices and the result of the same forces which led to Rome’s consolidation and her domination over the Latins.

Our understanding of the development of the Roman army as a fighting body, and as a social and cultural institution, has also been revised in recent years. The nature and characteristics of the Roman army during this period have been a subject of interest since the time of Livy, as this period marks the first time that the surviving literary accounts offer anything which resembles a real description of battlefield tactics and organization (Livy 8.8, discussed in detail later, being the most obvious example). This period is therefore generally recognized as the point of origin for not only Rome’s territorial empire, but also the Roman army which won it – the so-called manipular legion – although what made the Roman army so different during this period is sometimes hard to determine. Rome’s historians all held that the Roman army, at its core, had remained remarkably stable and static during the Republic. The Servian Constitution, supposedly set out in the late Regal period, created the wealth and age-based framework whereby Rome’s population was divided up, equipped and organized into a civic militia. While many superficial details changed during the following centuries (most notably the equipment), and sometimes quite quickly, the core principles which underpinned the army were thought to have remained roughly the same. What made the army so successful was therefore thought to be the way in which it changed its superficial aspects – its equipment, formation and tactics – in response to different enemies and situations. And as Rome faced off against more and stronger opponents during the late fourth and third centuries BC, these enemies were thought to have shaped the Roman army – like a whetstone on a sword edge – into the supreme fighting force which ultimately conquered the entirety of the Mediterranean world. However, this development narrative has been slowly revised as the major changes which are evident in Roman society during the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BC have also been applied to the army, and as military change is more clearly understood. It was once thought, based on military models produced during the Enlightenment, that armies acted rationally and could change their tactics and equipment as easily as one might change a set of clothing. However, an increasing body of sociological and anthropological work has revealed that these types of superficial changes are subject to the same social and cultural rules which govern other aspects of society – and indeed these rules are arguably more important in the sphere of warfare. Military changes very rarely occur in response to the simple arrival of a new technology or approach, but are instead dictated by a range of principles which actually favour conservatism over innovation. The emergence of the manipular legion of the fourth century BC, although most likely a response to new stimuli, was therefore also probably part of a much longer sequence of development in Rome.

Samnite Wars

Rome’s empire arguably began with the Samnites. Though the Romans had increasingly extended their power and influence during the fifth century and first half of the fourth century BC, conquering and integrating various Latin peoples and even the Etruscan city of Veii, the extent of her territorial empire was limited. It was really only with the Samnite wars that Rome’s reach began to extend beyond the immediate confines of Latium and southern Etruria, grasping at the wealthy Greek communities of Campania and the south. So the Samnites and the Samnite wars represent a key moment of transition for Rome, and the beginnings of an outward push. Additionally, although the Gauls seem to have had the largest impact on Rome’s psyche during the fourth century BC, in large part because of the Gallic sack of Rome, Rome’s wars against the Samnites seem to have been the greatest test of her army. The Gallic assault at the River Allia, while not a complete surprise or ambush, still seems to have caught the Romans somewhat unprepared as the army is recorded as fleeing almost immediately in the face of the Gallic charge. However, while every subsequent battle against the Gauls was seen as a major engagement (and the spectre of Allia was evidently always in the back of the Roman mind), the Romans seem to have fared quite well against the Gauls during the rest of the century. The Samnites, on the other hand, seem to have regularly tested the Roman army and, even after Rome’s victory in the Third Samnite War, remained a dormant but very real threat until the Social War of the first century BC, where the Samnites once again played a significant role.

The First Samnite War, which lasted from 343 to 341 BC, was a reasonably minor undertaking in the grand scheme of things. The conflict arose out of Rome’s increasing involvement in southern Italy, and particularly the region of Campania (which bordered Latium to the south), as part of her general expansion during the course of the fourth century BC. As Rome slowly expanded her interest and influence amongst the communities of Latium, she integrated and incorporated many of their existing interests and associations – which included connections with the south. So although Rome may have had only a passing interest in the region previously, through her allies (and particularly those communities located in southern Latium, like Satricum), the rich communities of southern Italy gradually took on a new meaning and importance. This region, however, was already the focus of a number of groups. Campania had a native population of Oscan-speaking Italians, but had also been settled by the Greeks as early as the eighth century BC with a number of major colonies (including Cumae and Neapolis – modern day Naples) and was increasingly under threat from the Samnites, who had been venturing down to the rich coastal regions from the mountainous areas of south-central Italy since the middle of the fifth century BC. As a result, the region was both divided and already in a state of almost constant low-level warfare, offering an ideal situation for an expansionist Rome to get involved.

The Samnites are an enigmatic people as our only literary descriptions of them were written by outsiders (and enemies) like the Romans, often centuries after they had been incorporated into the Roman state. As a result, ancient authors often seem to have relied on Samnite stereotypes or tropes when describing them, or simply used the Samnites of their own day as a model (for instance, the equipment associated with the Samnites in the fourth century BC seems to have been drawn directly from the Samnite-style gladiators popular during the late Republic). Despite these issues, a few basic aspects of archaic Samnite culture are increasingly clear from a combination of more critical readings of the literature and, more importantly, the available archaeological evidence. The Samnites seem to have been a tribal people who did not have cities or major urban centres themselves. Instead they favoured small, fortified sites on top of centrally-located hills – the famous hillforts of Samnium – which probably served as refuges for tribes which lived and worked in farms located in the valleys below. But although they did not build cities themselves – as the mountainous region of Samnium was decidedly illsuited to them – they seem to have increasingly realized the wealth and potential which lay in Italy’s growing urban centres and, following the general trend for migrations from the Apennine Mountains down to the coastal plains of western Italy which marked the fifth century BC, the Samnites increasingly ventured down into Campania. But while Rome’s rise to power, coupled with the strength of the Latins, seem to have put a halt to the progress of similar mountain tribes like the Aequi and Volsci in Latium by the late fifth century BC, the Samnites – either because they were stronger or their opponents were weaker – were able to continue to gain ground in Campania well into the fourth century BC.

The Samnites were not always enemies of Rome. In fact, Rome and the Samnites seem to have had a reasonable working relationship during the early fourth century BC – and even an alliance of sorts – with each accepting and respecting the other’s sphere of influence. Rome was only drawn into conflict with the Samnites by her new alliance network when a group of Samnites attacked the Sidicini, a small tribe in northern Campania. The Sidicini themselves were not allies of Rome. They were a tribal people living in northern Campania who, probably realizing that they most likely did not stand a chance against the Samnites alone, asked the people of Campania for assistance – and particularly the major Greek colonies located there – as the Samnites represented a common enemy. The Campanian Greeks agreed and marched out to war, only to be soundly defeated, leaving the Samnites free to push even further into the region. The Samnites very quickly overran the Sidicini and turned their attention to the rich colony of Capua, winning a couple of significant engagements and forcing the citizens of Capua to retreat behind their walls. The Campanians (and particularly the besieged people of Capua) were now very much on the back foot and quickly looked around for allies of their own, and the emerging power of Rome to the north seems to have represented the most viable (and perhaps the least threatening) option. While the Greek communities of Campania may have been wary of involving the Greeks of Apulia or elsewhere in southern Italy in the conflict, perhaps for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of power which existed between them, the Romans may have seemed a safe choice as they had displayed no previous imperialistic tendencies in addition to representing an increasingly formidable military power. So the Campanians went to Rome asking for help against the Samnites – only to be rebuffed by the Senate, supposedly citing their pre-existing agreement with the Samnites (although scholars have often debated how likely this version of events is). But the Campanians, and specifically the people of Capua, were evidently desperate for help and so returned to the Senate and surrendered themselves completely to Roman power – an act known as deditio. This act of subjugation was obviously extreme (and, again, some scholars have wondered if this represents a Roman interpretation, or reinterpretation, of events and not what the Campanians intended) but it was also apparently successful and won over the Senate, who then stepped in to help – initially with emissaries (which were unsuccessful) and then via direct military action. Once war was engaged, however, it was actually quite limited. The Romans were active in 343 BC, with both consuls winning a number of battles against the Samnites, albeit sometimes with heavy losses, but there was no reported activity in 342 BC and the Romans and Samnites negotiated a peace treaty in 341 BC – possibly because both sides had trouble to deal with at home. So the First Samnite War was concluded with only one real season of campaigning and without a decisive victory for either side. This is not to say, however, that the situation in 341 BC was the same as in 343 BC. A key development which emerged from the First Samnite War was that the Romans ended the war with a permanent foothold in Campania and an abiding interest in the region – something which would eventually lead to further tension with the Samnites and ultimately a renewing of the conflict.

Between 341 and 338 BC, the Romans were concerned with Latium and the so-called Latin Uprising or Latin War. Following this war, however, the city turned its attention south once more. From 338 to 326 BC, the Romans slowly pushed south, planting a number of colonies on the coast (the coloniae maritimae) along with a massive expansion of ager publicus in the interior. As suggested previously, Rome had spent much of the fourth century BC trying out various approaches for how to deal with the issues of paying off her soldiers and what to do with conquered land. This had involved the foundation of traditional colonies, the creation of municipia and finally true citizen colonies. But by the late fourth century BC Rome seems to have settled on a new philosophy when it came to captured territory which seems to have become the Roman modus operandi for the next century or more. When Rome conquered a new territory, some of the land was set aside for new colonies but the bulk of it was held communally as ager publicus (public land) which could be utilized by all Romans. Access to ager publicus, coupled with the stipendium (a limited salary for soldiers) and cash donatives paid out by the general at the end of a campaign, seems to have been enough to keep at least most of Rome’s soldiers happy while also solving the problem of losing manpower or territory when it came time to paying off her troops at the end of the season. But more importantly, it also meant that Roman warfare increasingly benefited the entire community – and particularly the elite who were quickly able to dominate the ager publicus – making warfare an ever more appealing activity, even for those not directly involved. The foundation of citizen colonies on captured land was also vital to this new system, as they served to secure the territory and extend Rome’s power across the region. Many of these new colonies were located on the coast and seem to have been intended to protect Rome’s budding maritime interests, but a few were also planted in areas which had previously been considered Samnite territory – particularly in the Sacco-Liri River valley – leading to a renewal of the conflict with the Samnites in 326 BC.

The Second Samnite War, or ‘The Great Samnite War’, lasted over twenty years (326–304 BC) and seems to have been the result of aggressive Roman expansion associated with this new approach to land. Although the Roman sources accuse the Samnites of various nefarious acts leading up to the war (inciting Neapolis to attack Rome’s interests in Campania, etc.), the conflict actually seems to have been sparked by Roman belligerence as she continued to push her interests further south. Successful warfare had always benefited the victorious general and his soldiers, but the possibility of creating more ager publicus seems to have been increasingly appealing to the Roman populus, and particularly the senatorial elite, meaning that warfare and the conquest of new land was now a top priority. Indeed, even the Roman sources, which generally attempt to paint these wars as defensive, cannot completely hide the fact that the war was precipitated by Rome’s planting of colonies in Samnite territory and Roman provocation.

The record for the early years of ‘The Great Samnite War’ are incredibly hazy, although things seem to have generally gone the Romans’ way between 326 and 321 BC, as in 321 BC the Samnites reportedly sued for peace. However, Livy reports that the terms put forward by the Romans were incredibly harsh and the Samnites were forced to continue the war. Only weeks later, however, the Romans may have regretted this harshness as in the same season they experienced one of their worst defeats since the sack of Rome by the Gauls – the disaster at the Caudine Forks – which saw an entire Roman army surrounded in a narrow ravine and defeated, with the survivors forced to pass ‘under the yoke’ by the Samnites. This was followed by several years of relative inactivity, although Livy suggests that the Romans were active in 320 and 319 BC trying to exact revenge for the defeat (many scholars question this, as it seems to represent a bit of Roman revisionism), and it was not until 315 BC that they seem to have fully returned to the offensive. But despite the reprieve and the chance to regroup after the Caudine Forks, the Romans still seem to have struggled against the Samnites and suffered yet another major defeat, this time at Lautulae. To make matters worse, the Samnites were joined by the Etruscans in 311 BC, meaning that the Romans were facing threats to both the north and the south.

At this point in the war, something seems to change in Rome. Despite this precarious position, from 311 BC onward everything seems to have gone the Romans’ way. After 311 BC they went on to win a string of victories and eventually forced peace with the Etruscans in 308 BC and the Samnites in 304 BC, ending the war. What happened around 311 BC to allow this change is still unknown, although some scholars have suggested the Roman success in the final years of the war may have been the result of military developments sparked by the defeats – and indeed the Romans themselves seem to remember the Samnite wars as marking a period of military change, as will be discussed in the next section. The Third Samnite War, which lasted from 298 to 290 BC, can be viewed as an extension of the second and it was again started through Rome’s alliance with a people (the Lucanians) who asked for help against the Samnites. The Samnites were once more joined by the Etruscans in the north, this time aided by Gauls, although the Romans seem to have had little trouble dealing with both the threats and the war was concluded in 291 BC with Rome the effective master of both southern Etruria and Samnium.

Rome’s Manipular Army

The Second Samnite War was the background which Livy, our only major literary source for this period, used to describe the changes in Rome’s army during the fourth century BC and the advent of the so-called ‘manipular legion’. In the following passage, which is arguably one of the most famous and important relating to Rome’s early military development during the Republic, Livy offers a general description of Rome’s military development to that time along with one of the most detailed descriptions of Rome’s military tactics:

The Romans had formerly used small round shields; then, after they began to serve for pay,4 they made oblong shields instead of round ones; and what had before been a phalanx, like the Macedonian phalanxes, came afterwards to be a line of battle formed by maniples, with the rearmost troops drawn up in a number of companies. The first line, or hastati, comprised fifteen maniples, stationed a short distance apart; the maniple had twenty light-armed soldiers, the rest of their number carried oblong shields; moreover those were called ‘light-armed’ who carried only a spear and javelins. This front line in the battle contained the flower of the young men who were growing ripe for service. Behind these came a line of the same number of maniples, made up of men of a more stalwart age; these were called the principes; they carried oblong shields and were the most showily armed of all. This body of thirty maniples they called antepilani, because behind the standards there were again stationed another fifteen companies, each of which had three sections, the first section in every company being known as pilus. The company consisted of three vexilla or ‘banners’; a single vexillum had sixty soldiers, two centurions, one vexillarius, or colourbearer; the company numbered a hundred and eighty-six men. The first banner led the triarii, veteran soldiers of proven valour; the second banner the rorarii, younger and less distinguished men; the third banner the accensi, who were the least dependable, and were, for that reason, assigned to the rear-most line. When an army had been marshalled in this fashion, the hastati were the first of all to engage. If the hastati were unable to defeat the enemy, they retreated slowly and were received into the intervals between the companies of the principes. The principes then took up the fighting and the hastati followed them. The triarii knelt beneath their banners, with the left leg advanced, having their shields leaning against their shoulders and their spears thrust into the ground and pointing obliquely upwards, as if their battle-line were fortified with a bristling palisade. If the principes, too, were unsuccessful in their fight, they fell back slowly from the battle-line on the triarii. (From this arose the adage, ‘to have come to the triarii,’ when things are going badly.) The triarii, rising up after they had received the principes and hastati into the intervals between their companies, would at once draw their companies together and close the lanes, as it were; then, with no more reserves behind to count on, they would charge the enemy in one compact array. This was a thing exceedingly disheartening to the enemy, who, pursuing those whom they supposed they had conquered, all at once beheld a new line rising up, with augmented numbers. There were customarily four legions raised of five thousand foot each, with three hundred horse to every legion.

Although Livy seems to suggest that many of the changes he described took place half a century earlier, back in the early fourth century, many scholars have argued that the Samnite wars may have also played a significant role in the development of Rome’s equipment and tactics. As the Romans were traditionally thought to have fought in a phalanx formation, a catalyst or impetus was needed to break apart this formation into the more flexible and fragmented army which historians, such as Polybius, describe for the third and second centuries BC. The phalanx formation had been proven to be incredibly successful across the Mediterranean, so long as armies were fighting on reasonably level terrain – like the great coastal plain of Latium. However, moving into the rugged and mountainous land of south-central Italy where the Samnites lived would have been problematic for a phalanx, and it was suggested that this is why the Romans may have struggled in the middle years of the war. These issues, along with the precarious position in which the city found itself in 311 BC, might have led to the Romans breaking up their phalanx into the manipular formation – a loose checkerboard made up of groups of 120 men of various equipment types. An army broken up into maniples or manipuli, which literally means ‘handfuls’ in Latin, would have been able to maintain tactical cohesion across broken terrain far more easily than a phalanx. Additionally, texts like the Ineditum Vaticanum, which purportedly records an interaction between a Roman envoy and the Carthaginians before the start of the First Punic War, have provided fuel for this fire.

The Ineditum Vaticanum records the Carthaginians asking the Romans why they think they can engage in a naval war with them when the Romans have no experience of naval combat, and indeed no fleet. The Romans respond that they have long excelled by learning from their opponents, adapting to new types of warfare and borrowing tactics and equipment when it suited them – becoming ‘masters of those who thought so highly of themselves’. This speech and the idea of the student overcoming the master is quite clearly a rhetorical trope, although it is one in which the Romans seem to have believed – at least in the late Republic – as it generally sums up the broad narrative of military development which we find in other sources as well. Looking specifically at the manipular legion, this passage suggests that the Romans acquired oblong shields and javelins – two key pieces of equipment used by the manipular legion – from the Samnites, furthering the association between the adoption of this formation and this period. Our changing understanding of the Roman army in the fifth and early fourth century BC, however, coupled with some interesting developments in archaeology, has suggested a somewhat messier, but far more organic, sequence of development.

As already suggested, the traditional starting point for the Roman army in the early fourth century – as a civic militia fighting in a hoplite (or possible Macedonian) phalanx formation – has generally been discarded by most modern scholars for a number of very good reasons. As a result, entering the fourth century BC there is no need to search for a reason to ‘break up’ the phalanx into a more flexible formation, as it is likely that the Roman army – based previously on a collection of disparate clans – already deployed in something resembling a manipular formation. Although they may have stood next to each other on the battle field, Rome’s military was probably still organized in small groups (based on either clans or curiae), was used to engaging in raiding activities which favoured small flexible groups and so was most likely made up of a number of individual and independent units – or manipuli – anyway. The real change in the fourth century BC was therefore not the breaking up of the phalanx, but actually bringing these various units, or manipuli, together into a single entity and fighting consistently under a single banner.

The real strength or advantage of Rome’s manipular army was not new equipment or tactics per se, although the structure did allow for these, but its ability to include and incorporate a range of different units into a single military structure. This ability to integrate new groups and units seems to have originated within the community of Rome itself, as the Romans needed to have a military system which allowed her clan-based units to fight alongside community-based units, although during the course of the fourth century BC the system was also required to integrate an increasing number of allied units – most notably the Latins, but also, by the late fourth century BC, Greeks. Each of these groups seems to have had their own tactics and style of combat, in addition to different goals and aims, and the Roman system had to be able to accommodate this while still fielding an effective overall fighting force. The result was an incredibly flexible system, particularly in the fourth century BC, where the Roman army would have resembled a patchwork of different units when mobilized on the battlefield: Roman and Latin gentes, equipped in their classic equipment; soldiers from the city of Rome itself, likely equipped in newer and perhaps lighter equipment; Campanian horsemen, etc. – all drawn up in their individual groups. Each unit would then go on to fight and act largely independently, utilizing their individual strengths and abilities for often quite personal gains (spoils and booty, acquired in individual combat, were still key), albeit generally working together for a common victory. Indeed, there seems to have been quite a bit of space within the Roman battle line (if this term can even be used), as the sources are full of stories of individuals and war leaders seeking each other out, riding up and down (and sometimes through) the army while it was evidently engaged, even at this late date.

While the Roman army of the fourth century BC seems to have featured a number of different troop types, this sort of open formation would have also made quite a bit of sense given what the archaeology suggests was occurring in terms of military equipment in Central Italy. The region’s archaic gentes seem to have preferred fighting with large, circular shields (the aspis or hoplon), heavy body armour and thrusting spears. Although these pieces of equipment became associated with the hoplite phalanx and hoplite warfare in Greece, evidence suggests (as argued convincingly by van Wees, amongst others) that this type of equipment was initially designed to provide optimal protection in individual combat. In fact, once a dense formation is adopted, much of the defensive equipment usually associated with hoplites becomes redundant (the formation providing the bulk of the defence), as seen in the gradual removal of equipment in Greek hoplite armies – when Athens distributes equipment to hoplites for the first time in the late fourth century BC it is just a helmet and shield – and in the ‘enhanced’ phalanx deployed in Macedon where the armour is almost entirely removed in favour of a dense formation armed with sarissae. It is probable that the archaic Roman and Latin gentes continued to equip themselves in this manner in the fourth century BC, in large part because this was the equipment they already owned, and fought in a similar manner on the battlefield.

Romans and Latins who had not regularly participated in warfare previously (or who at least did not have their own equipment) but who wanted to (or were expected to) join the army in the fourth century BC would have had a few more options – and it seems that quite a few adopted a new style of equipment which was increasingly in fashion at the time. Most likely introduced by the Gauls (there is extensive archaeological evidence for this type of equipment in southern Austria and other Gallic regions going back to the late Bronze Age), this equipment featured a handful of javelins and an oblong shield (offering better protection against thrown javelins, particularly for the legs). Far cheaper than the heavy bronze equipment which had been used in the Archaic period by the gentilicial elite, this new panoply was gradually adopted throughout Central Italy during the course of the fourth century BC – and particularly by the Lucanians and Samnites of South-Central Italy. The Roman association between the Samnites and this style of equipment is somewhat fitting then, although it seems as if they were not its point of origin. Instead, the Samnites could possibly be described as ‘early adopters’ – perhaps because they lacked a strong, alternative tradition of military equipment from the Archaic period. This new reliance on the javelin throughout Central Italy, albeit likely in conjunction with a backup weapon like a sword or axe, would have also encouraged a more open and flexible battle order. Unlike the Roman armies of the late Republic – where it is often thought that the Romans would follow a hail of pila with a charge and direct, hand-to-hand combat – the javelin-armed soldiers of the fourth century BC seem to have been far more lightly armed and armoured (if the depictions from tombs at sites like Paestum can be trusted). As a result, it is likely that a battle would have featured several volleys of javelins before more direct battle was eventually engaged – if it ever was. In order to allow as many units, let alone individuals, to throw their javelins as possible (and to avoid hitting allied units) a fairly loose battle order would have made sense – and here some parallels can be drawn from tribes like the Yanomamo in Brazil, which still featured this type of javelin-based warfare (including oblong shields) well into the twentieth century.

The manipular army of the fourth century BC should therefore not be seen as the highly regimented and organized Roman legion described in Livy 8.8, although one can see hints of the truth behind Livy’s anachronistic façade. Livy’s velites, hastati, principes, triarii, etc. are likely the later formalizations of what were originally de facto divisions or troop types; the triarii representing the archaic warbands, with their heavy armour and long tradition of warfare, while the other groups represented various cultural, ethnic or merely economic groups, featuring the equipment which they had traditionally utilized or which they could now afford. Amongst these other groups the javelin was clearly key, although they also probably utilized a range of other equipment types and varying levels of armour. Over the course of the fourth and third centuries BC, things were gradually formalized and standardized, and the massive impact of battles like Cannae – where a generation of soldiers and a huge amount of equipment was lost – cannot be overstated, but the army’s origins seem to have been far more fluid.

Despite these more organic (and possibly less impressive) origins, the development of the manipular legion in the fourth century BC still represented a major achievement. It should be noted that the ability to effectively combine units of different types, and from a number of different socio-political entities, in a single army was not unknown at this time. Indeed, the army of Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedon arguably represents another example of this ‘combined arms’ approach – with the army unified by both the promise of payment and, later, the charisma of the leader. And of course the use of mercenaries in the Greek world more generally in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, particularly with regards to light infantry (peltasts), would have offered another example. But what made Rome’s manipular army so interesting and effective was its ability to effectively combine various units into a single army without relying on payment by the state. Instead, Rome seems to have relied upon a sense of obligation (civic duty for her citizens and treaties for her allies), along with the promise of booty after the war which included both the usual forms of portable wealth (gold, silver, arms, armour, etc.) and increasingly land (although this was reserved for her own citizens during this period). But this system allowed Rome to have an almost endless supply of soldiers for her armies, which was not limited by troop type, organization, tactics or formation, or even state finances. The strength of the system was not in its inherent tactics, formations or equipment, but actually the absence of these things. The Roman military system, like Roman society at this time, was all about integration and incorporation.

The War Against Pyrrhus

Rome’s expanded (and expanding) army was very quickly put to the test against one of the very best armies that the Mediterranean world had to offer in the early third century BC: that of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, who came across to Italy at the request of the Greeks living in southern Italy. By the late fourth century BC, Rome was increasingly making her presence felt in southern Italy, having gobbled up the Greek communities in Campania, and started venturing into territory which had previously been controlled by the Greek poleis further south – causing regional tensions to rise. Although the Romans seem to have adopted a reasonably tempered approach to the Greeks as a whole, rarely attacking them directly and never without being provoked or at least a nominal invitation by an ally, it is clear that the Greeks had started to see the writing on the wall. Rome was coming. This led to Rome suddenly appearing more prominently in Greek histories and literature, as Greeks across the Mediterranean (but particularly in southern Italy) began to wonder about this new and emerging power, and an increased interest on the part of Greek poleis in Roman military actions as they worryingly watched the tide of Roman expansion creep ever closer to their doors.

The situation came to a head at the Greek community of Tarentum, near the heel of Italy. Tarentum initially came into conflict with Rome during the Second Samnite War, as she felt Rome was moving too far into her traditional sphere of interest and was increasingly in a position where she felt she must either ‘push back or be pushed out’. However, as the people of Tarentum did not really want to try their luck against Rome’s armies on their own, they asked their traditional ally Sparta for help. So in 303 BC, King Cleomenes of Sparta arrived in southern Italy with an army of 5,000 mercenaries (which was bolstered with 22,000 from Tarentum and her allies) to fight against Rome. Despite the fact that the Romans had just defeated the Samnites and had a powerful and seasoned army in the field, the unified Greek army was initially very successful and Cleomenes was able to win a number of battles and unify much of Magna Graecia under his banner. The Greeks were ultimately stopped by the Romans, but Tarentum seems to have been reasonably successful in her goals as she was able to sign a treaty with Rome in 302 BC which recognized the city’s power in southern Italy, particularly in the Gulf of Tarentum. This was never going to be the end of the conflict, however. Roman expansion seems to have reached a critical mass and become a chain reaction which was almost impossible to contain, while on the other hand the entire Greek world was increasingly caught up in the Wars of the Successors following the death of Alexander the Great and the dissolution of his empire, resulting in a large number of powerful, ambitious and expansionist kingdoms looking for easy targets.

The next major development occurred in 282 BC, when a small Roman fleet arrived at Tarentum. Although the fleet was supposedly forced to land at Tarentum because of weather, the people of Tarentum seem to have seen this as a breach of the treaty of 302 BC and attacked the fleet, killing the Roman commander and sinking a number of the ships as they sat in the harbour. They then attacked the nearby community of Thurii, an ally of Rome, which they blamed for Rome’s presence in the region, and readied for war. From the outset, the Tarentines knew they could not defeat Rome on their own, so they once again went to Sparta for help. However, this time Sparta had her own troubles to deal with and so the Tarentines had to look further afield for allies – ultimately recruiting the brilliant King Pyrrhus of Epirus. From the Tarentine point of view, this was something of a coup, as Pyrrhus was a renowned commander and a reasonably major figure in the Wars of the Successors, whose army represented one of the best the Mediterranean had to offer at the time – including both a sarissa-armed phalanx and elephants. For Pyrrhus, the invitation of Tarentum to come to Italy was also quite appealing. By 282 BC, Pyrrhus had lost most of his power in Greece to Lysimachus and was looking for a new region to focus on (and perhaps easier opponents to face than the great Hellenistic armies of the east) to try and carve out his own empire. The Tarentines also came offering an army of 350,000 local infantry and 20,000 cavalry (very little of which ever actually materialized) to bolster his forces once he arrived, making the deal almost irresistible. So in 281 BC, Pyrrhus crossed the Adriatic with an army of 3,000 cavalry, 20,000 infantry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers and twenty elephants – a very formidable force (despite losing a number of elephants in the stormy crossing).

Pyrrhus went on to fight two major battles against the Romans, at Heracleia in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC, and technically won both – inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans and controlling the field of battle afterwards – although they famously came at a heavy cost, resulting in the phrase a ‘Pyrrhic victory’. Indeed, after the Battle of Asculum Pyrrhus supposedly noted that ‘if we are victorious in one more battle against the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.’ The problem which Pyrrhus seems to have faced is that while the Romans were able to feed more and more soldiers, both allied and Roman, into their manipular structure, most of the losses that Pyrrhus took were irreplaceable. Like the army of Alexander the Great, the army of Pyrrhus featured a number of distinct and highly specialized units (the sarissa-armed phalanges which represented the core of his arm, the heavy cavalry which was his strike force, elephants as a terror weapon, light infantry to connect and screen the various other units, etc.) and in order to function effectively each unit needed to perform its duty. If any particular unit or facet of the army suffered heavy casualties, then the entire system broke down. Unfortunately for Pyrrhus, while active in Italy he was not able to replace any of the losses to his specialist units and was forced to simply reinforce his army with local forces from Tarrentum and her allies, including some of the Samnite tribes. Conversely, the manipular system of the Romans allowed them to field an army composed of any number of units from Roman, Latin and other allied areas, as most of them looked and fought in roughly the same manner, featuring the increasingly common Italic combination of an oblong shield and javelins.

Following the Battle of Asculum, Pyrrhus appears to have lost interest in Italy and crossed to Sicily to get involved in the ongoing conflict there. This seems to reflect something of a character flaw in Pyrrhus in that, although he was a brilliant tactician and was recognized as one of the best commanders in the field in all of antiquity (famously, Hannibal Barca noted that Pyrrhus ranked just behind Alexander the Great in this respect), he lacked the single-minded focus and strategic foresight to convert his victories on the battlefield into winning a war. Indeed, Antigonas Gonatas, one of Pyrrhus’ contemporaries and rivals, once noted that Pyrrhus was ‘very much like a player throwing dice that was able to make many fine throws but never understood how to use them when they were made’. So in 278 BC, despite defeating the Romans in two successive battles, Pyrrhus left Italy for Sicily at the request of Syracuse to help them against the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus was active in Sicily for three years, leaving the Greeks of southern Italy to continue the war against Rome on their own, and only returned in 275 BC having become bored (and probably having worn out his welcome) in Sicily. In his absence, the Romans had been able to put together a string of victories against the Terrentines and, when he arrived, Pyrrhus and his forces found themselves engaged in a last-ditch effort to hold back the Roman tide. Pyrrhus’ final battle against the Romans was at Beneventum, where the Romans were finally able to defeat him and his Greek and Samnite allies, forcing him to leave Italy permanently. The reasons for this victory are a bit hazy, although it most likely had something to do with the Romans finally finding a way to combat Pyrrhus’ elephants (something which they may have figured out at Asculum), his losses over the past four years of war and probably some fatigue on the part of his army (as Pyrrhus had supposedly attempted a night march/assault on the Roman camp). The end result, however, was Rome’s complete domination of southern Italy and a famous and resounding victory over one of the great armies, and great generals, of the Hellenistic world.

This seems to have been the moment when all in the Mediterranean turned their heads towards Italy and took notice of the new power in the region. Although Rome had been a budding power for almost a century before, the victory over the army of Pyrrhus (even if weakened by years of warfare) demonstrated that the Romans were more than just a regional force. Up to this point, the great Hellenistic kings and armies of the Mediterranean had only really had to worry about each other. Other local powers had occasionally presented some resistance, most notably the Carthaginians in Sicily, but for over fifty years the only significant defeats of Hellenistic kings and armies had come at the hands of other Hellenistic kings and armies. Rome’s victory at Benventum in 275 BC changed that, and marked the beginning of the end for the Hellenistic way of war. Although the Hellenistic kingdoms would continue to fight and squabble over boundaries, from 275 BC onward there was a gradual swing in the balance of power in the Mediterranean from the east to the west.


In the western Mediterranean, the other player was the great maritime power of Carthage. Founded by Phoenician sailors in the ninth century BC, as part of a wave of migration and colonization which started in the Levant and moved west, Carthage slowly emerged as one of the most important powers in the west by virtue of its territorial empire in North Africa, its trading network and an increasingly powerful navy. From the sixth century BC onward, the city represented one of the most powerful states in the western Mediterranean, jockeying for power and control of trade with the Greek communities of Sicily and Magna Graecia, and regularly venturing further north in Italy in search of both resources and trading partners. Rome’s relationship with Carthage therefore went back centuries. Archaeology suggests that Punic merchants were active along the Tyrrhenian coast back in the Orientalising period and the Romans are recorded as signing a treaty with Carthage, which outlined zones of control and limited naval activity, back ‘in the first year of the Republic’ (although what this means and the exact date of the treaty have long been debated). The initial treaty between Carthage and Rome was followed up by two more in the fourth and third centuries BC which further defined the relationship, although overall things seem to have been generally amicable during this period as the interests of the two polities appear to have been confined to entirely different zones. Carthage, based in North Africa (modern day Tunisia), was predominantly a maritime power. With a massive trading network stretching across the Mediterranean, it was happy to leave Central and even Southern Italy to Rome so long as her ships remained unmolested, the markets stayed open and her influence in Sicily remained secure. From Rome’s perspective, there was little reason to get into conflict with Carthage either. Although Rome was increasingly beginning to dabble in naval technology and maritime affairs, this was still, predominantly, a private enterprise. By the late fourth century BC, there seems to have been a move to secure the coast of Italy using military outposts (coloniae maritimae) and the creation of two small fleets in 311 BC led by duovir navalis, but for the most part Rome’s interests were land-based at this time. Carthage and her naval empire were safe.

The expansion of Rome’s empire into Southern Italy, however, and her conquest and integration of the Greek poleis of Magna Graecia changed the dynamic. When Rome conquered and integrated communities such as Neapolis, Capua and eventually Tarrentum, she also took on some of their interests – and these interests put the city into direct conflict with Carthage. The Greeks of Southern Italy and Sicily had been engaged in a long and sometimes violent struggle with Carthage over control of trade and harbours in the west. As a result, both Carthage and the various Greek communities had built huge navies to protect and extend their interests at sea and often fought major battles and minor engagements in and around the island of Sicily, whose key position in the Mediterranean allowed anyone who controlled it to control the trade around and across it. Previously, Rome’s interests (as indicated by the early treaties) seem to have been generally concerned with securing her position in Central Italy. But with Rome’s victory over Pyrrhus, and her incorporation of the Greek communities of Southern Italy, her interests expanded and seem to have increasingly aligned with her new Greek allies toward control of Sicily. This did not happen immediately it seems, as Sicilian historian Philinus reported that the final treaty between Rome and Carthage, dated to 279/8 BC, once again reaffirmed Carthaginian control of Sicily. However, by the mid-260s BC, Rome had thought better of the matter.

In 264 BC, Rome was yet again (nominally at least) drawn into conflict with a great Mediterranean power by the entreaties of a weaker entity – in this instance, by the Mamertines of Messina who lobbied for help against the tyrant Hiero II of Syracuse – although it is likely, as with the war against the Samnites, that Rome was not an entirely unwilling participant. Quite the opposite in fact as, even if the account of Philinus regarding the treaty of 279/8 BC is to be ignored and the Romans had not recognized Carthaginian control of Sicily in the 270s BC (and there is sustained scholarly debate on this issue), the Romans would have known, based on over 200 years of treaties and a longstanding relationship, that any activity on the island would likely be taken as an overt act of aggression against Carthaginian interests. Crossing the Straights of Messenia might not necessarily mean war, but it was not an act which would be taken lightly. When Rome joined the side of the Mamertines against Syracuse, Hiero turned immediately to the other great regional power – Carthage – for help. Given Carthage’s foothold and long-standing involvement in the area, not to mention her overwhelming naval advantage, it is probable that Hiero thought he had enlisted a ‘ringer’ – although the long-term implications of this involvement may have been worrying as it is likely that Carthage would have claimed all of the spoils of war (including territory) for herself.

In the end, however, Hiero and Syracuse did not have to worry about Carthage’s increased influence or claim on Sicily as the Romans were able to win a comprehensive victory, despite the initial Carthaginian advantage at sea. The war itself went back and forth over its twenty-three-year run (264–241 BC), but the Romans were largely the aggressors throughout. In 261 BC, Rome won the Battle of Agrigentum in southern Sicily, which represented the first major engagement and one of the only significant land battles fought. This was followed by a Carthaginian victory at sea in 260 BC at the Lipari Islands. After this defeat the Romans quickly bolstered their fleet and added some interesting pieces of equipment – most notably the famous corvus, or boarding bridge, which allowed them to engage and board enemy ships far more efficiently – which may have led to the subsequent naval victory at Mylae. However, following this loss at sea the Carthaginians were able to win back some territory in 260 and 259 BC, only to lose it again the next year. In the early 250s BC, the Romans attempted an invasion of Africa, which was thwarted by the loss at Cape Ecnomus in 256 BC, although the Romans continued to engage the Carthaginians on their home soil through the general Regulus and his army until he was eventually defeated by the Spartan mercenary Xanthippus, who had taken service in Carthage. Things swung back and forth, and indeed the Carthaginians were able to win some significant gains on Sicily, until 241 BC and the Battle of the Aegates Islands where a Roman fleet was finally able to comprehensively defeat the vast majority of the remaining Carthaginian fleet, effectively ending the war.

Rome’s conflict with Carthage obviously continued and Rome went on to fight her greatest war against the Carthaginians in the final years of the third century BC – the Second Punic War, against Hannibal Barca. But despite the fact that her most significant conflicts were arguably yet to come, the Roman approach and attitude toward Carthage, and possibly the wider Mediterranean world, seems to have been firmly established by this point. The transition from Rome’s early treaties with Carthage (and possibly as late as the 270s BC), where the Romans seem to have been largely concerned with securing their position in Italy, to Rome’s aggressive expansion into Sicily, nominally at the request of a minor power but clearly pushing her own agenda in the region, shows a dramatic shift in attitude. Rome was no longer content to sit on the sidelines. Filled with confidence after the victory over Pyrrhus and backed by a large, ever-increasing collection of allies (mobilized and unified via the manipular army), Rome increasingly pushed her interests further and further afield.

Rome’s Concept of Empire

The late fourth and third centuries BC witnessed the real birth of empire in Rome. While the second century BC saw the most significant expansion of Rome’s foreign territories – with the conquest of Spain along with parts of the eastern and southern Mediterranean – all of this merely represented the expansion of a system created during the preceding period. Rome laid down the basic principles of her empire with her expansion beyond the close confines of Central Italy and measures like the creation of her first province (Sicily) and the development and delineation of powers such as imperium. Fundamental to this was the creation of a ‘philosophy of empire’, or approach to conquered lands and peoples, which set out the principles which governed Roman interactions with these entities.

A huge amount has been written on this topic and, while some broad areas of agreement have emerged, a detailed model – particularly for the third century BC – has yet to be established. One of the reasons behind this continued debate is the perceived lack of a consistent attitude or approach displayed by Rome’s assemblies or the Senate in foreign policy and relations. In interactions with various communities and kingdoms, even as late as the mid-second century BC, Rome’s actions and reactions are often seen as erratic and inconsistent, which arguably reflects the highly personal nature of Roman politics. Each situation seems to have been dealt with in an ad hoc manner as it arose, and although the Roman penchant for precedent was always present, the immediate needs and desires of the Roman Senate (and those individuals who happened to hold sway in the Senate at a given time) seem to have been given priority. This means that Roman foreign policy is often seen as an extension of domestic policy and the personal competition which defined the Roman elite. While this is clearly true, at least to a certain extent, there are still broad principles which generally governed these interactions.

One of the most important principles, and one which was often ignored by scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (writing in an age of nationalist empires), is that in the early third century BC, Roman identity and Romanitas were still reasonably new things – that Rome, as a state and the head of an empire, was still figuring out her own identity at the same time as she was imposing her political will on others. Although Rome’s victory over the Latins in 338 BC clearly indicates a terminus ante quem for the creation of a distinct Roman political identity – a mid-fourth century BC date which is actually indirectly supported by Gelzer and more recently Hölkeskamp’s arguments concerning the origins of a distinctly Roman elite – this means that when Rome began to put together the first major pieces of her empire in the early third century BC this identity was only a generation or so old. While in some cases, for instance in the creation of modern nation-states, this recent birth could have resulted in a more fervent or defensive attitude towards it, in the case of Rome it seems to have led to the opposite. While Rome’s elites, and their fortunes and futures, were permanently linked to the community by this point, Roman citizenship had yet to develop into a sought-after commodity and Roman politics – even the uppermost levels – were relatively open. The ending of the Struggle of the Orders in the final years of the fourth century BC had finally and permanently mixed the heterogeneous plebeians and the gentilicial patricians in almost every facet of Roman politics and society. The result of this was a new Roman citizen body, but one which was still finding its feet. When it came to foreign policy then, although the Romans clearly did have a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – particularly when it came to truly foreign peoples – this was not as pronounced as often thought. Roman society and Roman politics were therefore relatively open during this period, and capable of true integration – something reflected in the Roman approach to things such as citizenship, the position of manumitted slaves, etc. – although whether the foreign peoples were themselves open to this integration is another matter entirely.

A second key principle to understanding Rome’s approach to empire was that it was based on a centuries-old approach to warfare embodied by the archaic grant of imperium which, as argued previously, seems to have represented a contract between the community and a warlord/clan leader whereby the community bound itself to the clan and clan leader, possibly in the form of clientes, in exchange for protection. This relationship, and imperium itself, naturally developed in significant ways as both the community and the warlords/clan leaders evolved during the course of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, but some of the basic principles remained intact. One of the most fundamental of these was the strictly extramural and highly individual nature of the power which a Roman general wielded, whereby – although imbued with power by the civic authority – he acted and commanded based on his own right and auspices. As a result, the degree to which Roman generals in the field should be viewed as representatives of Rome must be weighed against how much they still existed as independent warlords – a tension which seems to have existed throughout the Republican period. Roman generals were clearly understood to have responsibilities and obligations to both the community and their soldiers, but these should be understood as existing in the same sphere as those between a patron and a client – and were therefore flexible and open to interpretation.


The 100-year period from 350 to 250 BC represents a period of massive change in Roman society, as it saw Rome evolve from a single city-state in Central Italy to master of a substantial territorial empire encompassing all of Italy and Sicily and saw her ascension to the single most dominant entity in the western Mediterranean. But despite the creation of an empire, Rome and her generals were still a product of their development and the city’s approach to her newly-won territory reflected this. Rome did not suddenly learn how to govern her captured lands and peoples or change her personality or character overnight. Instead, the Romans continued to approach matters largely as they had before, allowing individual elites to dictate war and foreign policy as suited their needs (albeit with the rest of Rome’s elite taking a keen interest, lest their own interests be affected) and with Rome’s armies acting as the mechanism to accomplish this, albeit in an increasingly regularized fashion. This is why Rome’s approach to empire in the third century, and even the second century BC, seems so haphazard. There was no single Roman foreign policy or grand strategic plan. Rome’s elites continued to function much as they had before, using warfare as a means for personal and family competition, largely irrespective of the benefit to the state or community. Indeed, what benefits there were, were often incidental during this period, and it was only with the campaigns of the second century BC – after the great watershed moment of the Second Punic War – that Rome’s armies and Roman foreign policy began to reflect the will of a coherent and cohesive state. Although, as anyone familiar with the events of the first century BC will know, things would very soon revert back to this more archaic modus operandi.

The development of Rome’s early armies and early Roman warfare have always been thought to mirror the development of early Rome itself. Roman historians such as Livy presented Rome as largely eternal and unchanging – at least at its core. The outward trappings changed, the city grew and transitioned from one made of brick to one of marble, and the appearance of Rome’s armies changed, from Romulus’ ragtag tribal army to the victorious legions of Augustus, but what it meant to be Roman never changed. And indeed, this was the point of Livy’s work and why he chose to write about early Rome in the first place – by explaining what it meant to be a ‘good Roman’ in the past, he could provide examples (exempla) which Romans in his own day could follow. Livy, and the rest of Rome’s historians, needed to make the early city relevant to their contemporary population in order for their works to be effective – and the way they did this was by suggesting that the core attributes of Rome, including the principles underpinning her army, had changed minimally if at all.

This is not to say that nothing changed, however. Despite the limited and cryptic evidence which Rome’s early historians had to work with when trying to piece together the early history of the city, there were clearly a number of dramatic changes which did occur, which were recorded and needed to be explained – the transition from a monarchy to a Republic, Rome’s various constitutional reforms in the mid-fifth and mid-fourth centuries BC, Rome’s various military developments, etc. But despite their superficial impact, the society which witnessed these developments was always framed in a way where it seems to have remained largely unchanged throughout. The aristocracy before and after 509 BC was described as being largely the same, as was the plebeian population, and indeed both bear a striking resemblance to the same groups as they appeared in late Republican society. Similarly, the army, although it regularly changed its equipment, tactics and formation during the Archaic period, maintained a shockingly similar makeup and character in the narrative – which also (suspiciously) mirrors what one would expect from a late Republican army. So was Livy right? Did Rome really remain largely unchanged, at least socially and culturally, for all of those years? As you will have learned from the preceding chapters, the answer is ‘probably not’.

Reading outside of Livy’s (and his colleagues’) explicit narrative of consistency, there is strong evidence for quite a bit of change in Roman society during the period from c. 753 BC to c. 250 BC – and indeed, common sense should suggest this. No society remains static for over 500 years, and particularly not one which came into contact with so many different cultures on such a regular basis. Perhaps the biggest difference which emerges from exploring this ‘alternate’ history of early Rome is that the social and civic cohesion which Roman historians suggested was present from the city’s very foundation actually took quite a while to develop, and that the various struggles which Rome witnessed – between the aristocracy and the rex, between the patricians and the plebeians, etc. – were not necessarily internal struggles for power, but growing pains caused by the incorporation of new groups.

Roman society, far from being static and eternal, was actually constantly growing and developing. The image which emerges from a more detailed study of the evidence can be interpreted as a community slowly bringing the region’s powerful, warlike, rural clans together around an urban hub during the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries BC, with the resulting res publica representing a flexible power-sharing arrangement between the various groups. The process was long and messy, and it is highly unlikely that any of the early systems or institutions had anything resembling the complexity of Rome’s later magistracies and laws. Instead, Rome’s monarchy – and later the Republic – seem to have relied upon existing standards which did not require a strong state backing (family laws and the power of the paterfamilias, religious laws, economic norms, etc.) as the basis for their government and society. However, Livy was not wholly wrong in arguing for consistency. Some of the main characters in his narrative – particularly the powerful clans or gentes and Rome’s urban population – do seem to have existed throughout, although their role, relationship and arguably aspects of their character obviously changed.

Mapping this revised version of early Roman society back onto the development of warfare and the Roman army, the end result is a slightly different picture from that explicitly presented in the literary sources. Although the basic battle narratives arguably remain intact (if these can be believed at all for the early period), the military structures, aims and motivations for warfare all appear to have changed. Most notably, the resultant model is one where Roman warfare during the Regal period and first century of so of the Republic, even that conducted by magistrates like the rex and the archaic consuls, actually seems to represent clan-based warfare (and indeed where the Roman army can be considered a gentilicial or clan-based army for all intents and purposes) until it is gradually replaced by ever more civic and community-based forces during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. These armies were organized and mobilized by powerful clan leaders, either occupying an official position within the city as a rex or consul, or not – as there are countless references in the sources to private warfare conducted by clans. The armies, both nominally ‘Roman’ or private, seem to have pursued the same objectives – largely raiding for portable wealth – and their victories (and indeed their losses) generally had little impact on the community as a whole. It was only in the second half of the fifth century BC that Rome’s armies began to separate themselves from their strictly gentilicial or clan-based counterparts. Likely linked to a range of different factors, including the increase in agriculture and the desire for land as a spoil of war, the rise of non-gentilicial nobles in the city, the increasingly settled nature of the clans around the city and their strengthening attachments to the city, etc., Rome experimented with a number of different innovations which served to make warfare more communal. This included the creation of the consular tribunes and likely a tinkering with the archaic power of imperium (itself probably based on the awesome power of the paterfamilias), although all of these seem to have failed – more than likely stymied by the egos of clans – until the entire city was brought to its knees by the Gallic sack c. 390 BC.

The Rome which emerged from the Gallic sack seems to have been a rather different city from that which existed before it. While previously Rome’s elites had been happy to continue the old ways of doing things and prefered engaging in individual and clan-based warfare, the sack by the Gauls had demonstrated the weakness of disunity. Following the sack, Rome quickly reverted full-time to the consular tribunes as military leaders and scrambled to secure her position and expand her military base. The city quickly created new tribes out of the territory captured from Veii a few years previously and started to create citizen colonies, or municipia as at Tusculum, which were liable for military service, along with new alliances with her neighbours. All of this suggests a new defensive imperative in Rome which resulted in a throwing out of the old, aristocratic mode of warfare and raiding which had lingered on to the end of the fifth century BC and the full-time adoption of a more unified approach. All of this was evidently reactionary though, and did not seem to represent a perfect or indeed well thought-out system, as Rome’s continued experiments indicate. A few decades later, Rome once again tinkered with her military command structure. This moment, in the 370s and 360s BC, represents the real introduction of a coherent military system for the community, marked by Rome’s reintroduction of a revised form of the consulship and the construction of her great city walls. The city walls clearly delineated ‘us’ and ‘them’ in (literally) concrete terms, while the reinvented consulship seems to have represented the true precursor to the middle and late Republican office. Rome also began to expand territorially during this period. In previous years, Rome had acquired territory in a limited and generally piecemeal fashion, and usually only when portable booty was unavailable. In the fourth century BC, Rome gradually expanded her territorial holdings, and particularly ager Romanus (land held communally by the Roman state) – a process which picked up steam as Rome neared the end of the fourth century and entered the third century BC.

As noted previously, much of this interpretation flies in the face of the standard view of early Roman warfare and society. This model suggests that Rome’s early armies were not really ‘Roman’ in the same way as later forces, as they effectively functioned as extensions of aristocratic clans, and hints at a fragmented society which was driven together (at least in part) by fear and desperation in the fourth century BC. Additionally, this reinterpretation casts doubt on the traditional sequence for Roman political development. The army was traditionally seen as the voice and embodiment of the state, most notably through the Centuriate Assembly, which should mean that any warfare performed by the army was, by definition, an act of the state. Indeed, how Rome’s political system and its development are mapped on to this military model still represents a major issue. By far the easiest approach has been simply to move the development of Rome’s various institutions later in the Republic – and many scholars have done just that. Although the literary sources ascribe the creation of the Centuriate Assembly to the Regal period and the reign of Servius Tullius, the account is so full of anachronisms that it is clear that at least some aspects represent later additions. Taking the mid-fifth century BC as the starting point for this assembly does make some sense, as associating the creation of economic classes with the creation of the censorship is logical, as is its association with a new form of military leadership in the consular tribunes. Additionally, it is clear from a number of laws (most notably the lex Papiria Julia of 430 BC) that Rome was increasingly shifting over to an economy based on bronze currency, hinting that this is an appropriate time to suggest the beginning of this type of economic differentiation. But although this reinterpretation makes logical sense, it relies more on deduction and logic than solid evidence, and is therefore open to critiques of circularity and bias.

The end result of all of this is that the Roman army which marched into the late fourth and early third centuries BC – which defeated the Samnites, Pyrrhus and eventually the Carthaginians – was most likely a slightly different entity than previously thought. It suggests that the existence of a Roman army which regularly acted in the interests of the community as a whole was a relatively new phenomenon in this period. But with the acquisition of more and more ager Romanus in the late fourth and early third centuries BC, increased strategic conquests and the creation of new alliance networks, by the end of the fourth century BC Roman warfare had changed its goals dramatically from the old days of raiding for portable wealth. Indeed, with the reinvention of the consulship in 376/367 BC and the eventual ending of the Struggle of the Orders, both Rome’s army and her political system finally reflected the unity which Livy and Rome’s other historians wanted to see far earlier. However, this youth was not a detriment, but rather an advantage. Although Rome’s army was not in fact the well-honed and long-established fighting machine which had learned from various enemies (including the Etruscans, Gauls, Greeks and Samnites), but instead a new creation, formed from the remnants of Rome’s aristocratic, clan-based warbands which had only recently fully unified in the face of a Gallic threat, this meant it was also adaptive. The fact that Rome’s army was so young, and was formed from uniting the previously disparate elements of the city, is probably why it was able to integrate new units and peoples so effectively during this period. The manipular system, rather than representing a broken-up phalanx, instead may have represented an increasingly formalized and cohesive collection of clans and other military groups. So, although Rome’s army c. 300 BC was arguably still struggling to find its identity, as was the city it emerged from, both had settled on a defining theme – strength through integration and expansion.

Jeremy Armstrong

Rome Military mid fourth century to the mid third century BC

Early Roman Warfare: From the Regal Period to the First Punic War

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