Livy II: Rome’s Italian Wars

August 10, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri VI-X
Rome’s Italian Wars
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2013) [c.20 BC]
448 p.

The first volume in this series covered the history of Rome from its legendary founding down to 390 BC, the year of Rome’s “second founding” after the city was sacked by the Gauls. This second volume continues the story for another century.

This was an important period in the history of Rome. After the Gauls sacked the city there was serious consideration given to abandoning Rome altogether, and she had, in any case, been little more than a local power up to that point. However, by the end of this period Rome was the dominant power in the region, ruling most of the Italian peninsula. The story of how this transformation came about — essentially, through a series of wars — is the central thread of Livy’s narrative in these books.

Livy remarks at the beginning of Book VI that his history will be presented henceforth “with greater clarity and certitude” than was possible for the history prior to the Gallic sacking, for the simple reason that the sacking had destroyed the records. We can therefore probably (?) be quite clear and certain that it was Camillus, the man who had led the army in the successful, last-ditch effort to drive out the Gauls, who convinced the Roman people to remain and rebuild their devastated city, and who is therefore honoured as “the second founder of Rome”.

Rome’s neighbours, seeing her in her weakened state, pressed their own advantage, and Camillus led the Roman army in a series of battles with these unneighbourly neighbours: the Volsci, Aequi, Etruscans, Latins, Tibur, Tarquinii, Falisci, Veitrae, Aurunci, and Hernici. The fact that these names are unfamiliar tells you something of how they fared; Rome was, almost invariably and certainly ultimately, victorious in these skirmishes. Her usual pattern, both now and in future, was to defeat the opposing army, subdue the population, pull down fortresses, and, in many cases, send Roman colonists to establish a permanent Roman presence in the conquered city. In some cases she granted a degree of Roman citizenship (which came in carefully graduated kinds). Defeats were seldom permanent however: we often read of Roman victories over so-and-so, but then so-and-so pops up again and again, ready for another drubbing. As we’ll see, even the Gauls, the boogeymen of the Roman psyche, came back.

Although Livy’s focus in this segment of his history is strongly focused on military affairs, we do learn about some of the principal developments in Rome’s internal politics during the rebuilding period. There had always been tension between the patricians and the plebs, and the plebs now sought greater power through a series of reforms: they wanted debt-free loans to finance the rebuilding of their homes, they wanted limits placed on the amount of land any one person could own, and they wanted the consulship to be open to plebs. They were partly successful: interest rates were reduced but not eliminated, land ownership was regulated, and the patricians granted that one of the two consuls could be a pleb (although it would be some years before a pleb was actually elected). In response, however, the patricians created several new offices, the praetorship and curale aedileships, open only to themselves. It was ever thus.

A memorable drama occurred during the rebuilding: Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, who had been trapped on the Capitol during the Gallic siege, and who had thrown down several attacking Gauls attempting to scale the Capitol, thinking himself the saviour of Rome, began to seek power for himself by giving gifts to the plebs and sowing seeds of conflict with the patricians. This aroused suspicions, first of the patricians and soon of the plebs, and he was eventually charged with aspiring to kingly power, high on the list of the worst offences a Roman citizen could commit. The Romans acted decisively: he was thrown to his death from the Tarpeian Rock, his house was razed to the ground, and patricians were henceforth barred from being named Marcus Manlius. Half measures were not the Roman way.

The Gauls returned in 349 BC, and occasioned the emergence of one of Rome’s great heroes: Marcus Valerius Corvus. The story is rather similar to that of David and Goliath: young Marcus volunteered for a one-on-one fight with a Gallic giant who was taunting the Roman army. As he approached, sword in hand, a raven is said to have descended, landed on his helmet, and then, in dramatic fashion, to have attacked the face of the Gallic foe, helping Marcus to a victory, and earning him his cognomen (corvus = raven). The Romans invested great importance in the behaviour of animals, and especially of birds (parenthetically, an entertaining history of Rome could be compiled simply by recounting all of the interventions into Roman politics and international relations made by Rome’s sacred chickens), and the good omen that attended Corvus’ rise to fame foretold good things to come, and so it proved, for it was Corvus who became the principal military leader in the conflicts which would eventually propel Rome into a major regional power, waged against a foe that was the most challenging that she had yet encountered: the Samnites.

The Samnites lived in the hilly country to the south and east of Rome. They were a reasonably wealthy people, their armies were highly disciplined and tenacious, and they were not afraid of the Romans. Rome was to wage three distinct wars against them: the First Samnite War (343-341 BC) opened the hostilities and allowed the two armies to test their strength against one another in three main battles, each of which was won by the Romans, albeit with some difficulty; the Second Samnite War (326-304 BC) was a much more serious and protracted conflict that required the Romans to occupy Samnite territory in order to secure a victory; and, finally, in the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC) the remnant Samnites joined forces with the principal powers surrounding Rome — the Gauls, the Etruscans, and the Umbrians — but even this alliance could not defeat Rome. When the dust settled, her enemies destroyed, what didn’t kill her had made her stronger: Rome was a major regional power.

Part of the reason for Rome’s consistent military success was that she invented new battlefield tactics. During the First Samnite War she deployed soldiers in the phalanx system that served the Greeks so well. However it was found that on hilly terrain the phalanx was too clumsy, and was especially vulnerable to flanking maneuvers. Therefore during the interval between the First and Second Samnite Wars, while they were fighting another campaign called the Latin War, the Romans developed the maniple system that would become their standard fighting formation for centuries: three staggered lines of small groups of men arrayed along a front. The maniple allowed tired soldiers to be replaced by fresh ones in an orderly way, and because of the reduced size of each group they could be more responsive and flexible than the phalanx had permitted.

The Second Samnite War very nearly ended in catastrophic defeat for the Romans. By cunning use of counter-intelligence the Samnites managed to lure the marching Roman army into a gorge — the Caudine Forks — where they became trapped. The Samnite leader consulted his aged father for advice about how to proceed, and the advice came back: let them all go unharmed. Balking, and thinking it must be some mistake, he sent again for advice, and this time the advice came back: kill them all. Confused, he sought clarification, and was told that only two courses were open to him: let them go and thereby make the Romans lasting friends, or kill them and thereby destroy their power to attack. This was wise advice, but he chose instead a middle course: he made the Romans surrender, but confiscated their weapons and humiliated them by making them pass under a yoke as they marched home. Predictably, this did nothing to harm Roman military might, but it did inflame Roman pride and a desire for revenge, and it wasn’t long before the Roman army was back on the field, this time with a focus and power that the Samnites would not withstand.

One of Rome’s great political and military leaders (and Roman leaders tended to be both) during this war was Papirius Cursor, a man whom Livy feels comfortable comparing to Alexander the Great. In fact, there is a very interesting digression (Book IX, 16-19) in which Livy pauses to speculate on how various Roman generals would have fared against Alexander.

Another important figure in Rome during this time was (another) Appius Claudius — in this case, the Appius who conceived and spearheaded the effort to build a major road running south from Rome so as to enable faster and more reliable transport of troops and goods into war zones and occupied territories. It was the first such thoroughfare the Romans built, and it served as the model for many such roads that would eventually cover the Empire; to this day, the road bears his name.

As I mentioned above, the Third Samnite War drew in a number of regional powers who saw it as being in their interest to contain the bourgeoning Roman power, but they proved unequal to the task. When this war ended, Rome was the sole power in central Italy, her rule extending from the Alps in the north to the southern parts of the peninsula, where, however, the Greeks retained control over some coastal regions and of Sicily. Naturally, the Romans would fight them before long, and soon another power from across the sea would enter Rome’s ambit, a power that would be her most formidable opponent yet: Carthage. But that is a tale for another time.

I greatly enjoyed reading this segment of Livy’s history. Whereas the first five books were a nice balance of internal politics and military history, in these five books the military matters moved very much into the foreground. While the long series of battles and skirmishes was sometimes confusing, Livy leavened the narrative with enough asides and personal portraits to hold my interest, and the overall arc of the story was clear. Unfortunately Books XXI-XXX of Livy’s history, covering roughly 290-220 BC, have been lost, so I will have to resume with Book XXXI, which treats of Hannibal and the Second Punic War. I’m looking forward to it.

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