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Lessons in Leadership from the Great Conqueror
By Bill Yenne
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Bill Yenne
All rights reserved.
Roman Military History before Caesar
The Rome into which Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC was the superpower of the Western world. Culturally, it was the most important civilization to exist in that world since Greece reached its cultural apogee during the golden age of Athens in the fifth century BC, and the most important military superpower since Alexander the Great had crushed the power of the Persian Empire in the fourth century BC.
Unquestionably, Rome was a legendary city. Indeed, the city was born of legend, beginning in the eighth century BC with a pair of twins named Romulus and Remus who are said to have founded the city. Whether the twins actually existed is not known, though archeological remains on the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Forum in the heart of what would become the city of Rome, indicate that an early settlement did exist there at that time. However, whether the twins actually existed is irrelevant. The Romans of Caesar's time, and for many centuries before and after, believed that the twins had, and their existence was a keystone of classical Rome's sense of time and place.
The mother of the twins was, according to legend, Rhea Silvia, a descendant of the Trojan prince Aeneas. She was the daughter of Numitor, the king of an ancient city-state in the Alban Hills about 15 miles southeast of Rome. As the legend goes, the father of the twins may have been the war god Mars or the heroic demigod Hercules. In ancient Greco-Roman legends it was not uncommon for a family to claim descent from a patriarch of such status. As with many ancient tribes around the world, the Romans had come to think of themselves as people descended from a deified mother. In the case of the Romans, especially certain Roman gentes, or families descended from a common ancestor, she was an aspect of the goddess Venus, called Venus Genetrix, or Mother Venus. Indeed, Julius Caesar's family, the gens Julia, was such a family. It believed itself to be descended from the mythological Ascanius (also called Iulius).
When Numitor was deposed by his brother, Amulius, Rhea was enslaved and the twins were left in the woods to die. However, they were suckled by a female wolf, discovered by a shepherd, and raised to manhood. In turn, Romulus and Remus killed Amulius, restored Numitor to his throne, and decided to build a new city. According to Plutarch, Remus was killed as the twins squabbled about its location, and Romulus established his city on the Palatine Hill. If the origin is the stuff of legend, the rest is, as they say, history.
Rome emerged early as an aggressive and acquisitive military power, destined to become the superpower of the Mediterranean. Rome soon became the most important power in central Italy, and later all of southern Italy as well. By the sixth century BC the Romans had conquered and subjugated the Etruscan civilization, as well as the civilizations of the Sabines and the Samnites.
Romans pioneered democracy, replacing their monarchy with a constitutional republican form of government at about the time that Athens was becoming a representative democracy. Caesar was born into the Roman Republic, which is said to date from 509 BC, although before that Rome had a powerful senate and the king was elected, albeit to a life term. The government of the Roman Republic was officially called Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and People of Rome, abbreviated as SPQR), indicating that true national sovereignty resided in Roman citizens, not in a king or leader.
Victory over Carthage in the First Punic War in 241 BC brought the first two provinces outside the Italian peninsula, Sicily and Sardinia, into the Roman Republic. Parts of the Iberian Peninsula followed, and at the beginning of the second century the Romans got involved in the affairs of the Greek world. By then all Hellenistic kingdoms and the Greek city-states were in decline, exhausted from endless civil wars and relying on mercenary troops. (The Battle of Corinth in 146 BC cemented the Greeks' fall and resulted in the establishment of Roman control over Greece.) Militarily, the politically sophisticated Roman Republic continued to expand its domain, until, by the third century BC, the Romans controlled all of Italy south of the Po River valley. North of this lay what the Romans called Gallia Cisalpina, or Cisalpine Gaul. In the Pyrrhic War of 280–275 BC the Romans defeated the former Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily, except Syracuse, and then absorbed them.
For all its success in land warfare, Rome had virtually no naval warfare experience and was therefore reaching the limits of its potential for expansion. The dominant naval power in the Mediterranean at this time — indeed, the preeminent Mediterranean superpower before Rome — was Carthage. This empire had originated in the ninth century BC as a Phoenician colony in North Africa based near modern-day Tunis. Of course, the Phoenicians had been the dominant maritime presence in the Mediterranean for centuries. Carthage was not only a naval power; it also had a land empire that comprised the coastline of North Africa and what is now southern Spain, as well as the islands of the western Mediterranean, including Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and much of Sicily.
As the Mediterranean superpower of the third century BC, Carthage would not go unchallenged by the ambitious Romans. This inevitable contest would occur over more than a century in the three major campaigns between 264 and 146 BC that are known as the Punic Wars.
The first of the three Punic Wars began with a Roman invasion of northern Sicily in 264 that resulted in the capture of the key Carthaginian fortress city of Agrigentum in 262. At that point Rome finally decided to build a navy. By copying Carthaginian shipbuilding techniques, and introducing some design innovations of their own, the Romans built a fleet that won the Mediterranean naval battles of Mylae, near Messina in Sicily, and Cape Ecnomus, on Sicily's south coast. The latter paved the way for a seaborne Roman invasion of North Africa that threatened the Carthaginian capital itself. However, the campaign ended in a resounding Roman defeat in the spring of 255 BC.
Having realized that they had overextended themselves by taking the war to North Africa, the Romans next concentrated on attempts to expand their control of Sicily. However, Roman land victories in Sicily were offset by Carthaginian successes in the Mediterranean, culminating with a major Roman defeat in the naval Battle of Drepana in 249 BC. This battle resulted in a near total loss of the Roman fleet and an apparent decision by Rome not to rebuild it. In 244, after five years of going unchallenged at sea by the Romans, Carthage naturally assumed the war was over and began a general demobilization of its own fleet as a cost-cutting measure. However, the Romans used this opportunity to rebuild their navy, and in 241 they achieved a decisive naval victory in the Battle of the Aegates Islands. This really did end the First Punic War — with Rome as the victor. Rome now controlled all of Sicily except independent Syracuse, and Carthage no longer held naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.
The Second Punic War began in 218 BC as a dispute about Saguntum, a Mediterranean coastal city in what is now Spain (called Hispania by the Romans) that had ties to Rome. The prominent Carthaginian general Hannibal captured it and used it as the jumping-off point for his famous attempt to conquer Rome by land through a march over the Mediterranean coast of Europe and across the Alps. Hannibal's bold move in crossing the Alps to invade Italy and threaten Rome itself caused Rome to shelve a plan to bring the war to a fast conclusion by once again invading North Africa near Carthage. It would remain on the shelf for more than 15 years.
Hannibal managed to get across the Alps with more than 30,000 troops and three dozen elephants. Though he never reached the city of Rome, he did manage to defeat Roman armies east of Rome in the battles of Trebia in 218 BC and Lake Trasimenus in 217, and decisively at Canae in 216. Hannibal's biggest success was establishing a Carthaginian presence within Italy and causing several Italian cities to switch their allegiance from Rome to Carthage. Hannibal was also able to enlist support against the Romans from across the Adriatic in Macedonia, the ancestral home of Alexander the Great. Hannibal's incursion reached its high-water mark in 212 when Tarentum, the biggest Greek city in Italy, joined his coalition. For the moment he appeared invincible, having broken Rome's hegemony in its own backyard.
The Romans met Hannibal tactically on Italian battlefields, but their big-picture strategy involved hitting the Carthaginians farther afield, a strategic paradigm that would be revisited by Julius Caesar many years later. The brothers Scipio, renowned Roman generals, led a flanking action aimed at hitting the Carthaginian rear in Iberia. Though they failed to decisively defeat the Carthaginians, the Scipio brothers were able to bring the Kingdom of Numidia into the war on the Roman side. This ethnically Berber kingdom, which corresponds roughly to modern Algeria, had long been allied with and dependent upon Carthage. By seducing the Numidians away from their traditional loyalties, the Scipios opened up a new front in Africa, Carthage's home turf.
When both Scipio brothers were killed in 211 BC in Iberia, Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of one of the brothers, led a Roman force to the region. After capturing Cartegena (New Carthage), the center of Carthaginian power in Iberia, in 209, he went on to win a series of important actions against the Carthaginians, including the Battle of Baecula (208 BC) and the Battle of Ilipa (206 BC). When Publius Cornelius Scipio was finished, so too was the centuries-old Carthaginian rule in Iberia.
By now Hannibal's luck was also running out, and the Carthaginian hold on parts of Italy was beginning to unravel. The Romans retook Tarentum in 209 and began to slowly roll back Hannibal's gains.
Meanwhile, the Romans dusted off the long-shelved plans for direct action against the city of Carthage itself. With Scipio in command they landed in North Africa at Utica in 203 and defeated the Carthaginian army in the Battle of the Great Plains. With this the Carthaginian government negotiated a peace treaty that might have ended the war. Essentially, it called for hostilities to end without either side relinquishing territory that it had occupied. Carthage would be allowed to keep its dominions in North Africa while officially ceding all the territory in Europe and the Mediterranean islands, including Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, that it had already lost to the Romans.
In the meantime, after almost 15 years in Italy, Hannibal had been recalled to Carthage to direct the defense of his homeland against the Romans. When the great hero of the war arrived home, many Carthaginians who had accepted the ceasefire were reenergized and resumed the fight. When Carthaginians sacked some Roman ships, the treaty, by now ratified by the Roman Senate, was rendered moot.
The climax of the Second Punic War came in October 202 in the desert at Zama, south of modern Tunis, with Hannibal leading an army of about 50,000 — plus his signature war elephants — and Scipio an army of about 40,000.
The Battle of Zama went back and forth, but finally Scipio took and held the initiative. Hannibal went down in defeat, and Carthage was forced to accept a treaty with far harsher terms than the one it had abrogated. The Romans demanded reparations, required the Carthaginian army to disband, and limited the navy to a few ships for antipiracy patrols. For his great and final victory, Scipio was called Scipio Africanus.
In looking at the military history of Rome before Julius Caesar, historians tend to concentrate on the Punic Wars and the grand struggle between Rome and Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean. For the half century following the Second Punic War, as Carthage dutifully paid its reparations, Rome sought to pacify its newly won Iberian and Mediterranean island dominions — and looked eastward to the Adriatic Rim.
Italy sits on the western shore of the slender Adriatic Sea. On the opposite shore were a number of organized and disorganized states with limited military power, all generally unfriendly to Rome. In the north, roughly in the area now known as the "former Yugoslavia," was a place the Romans called Illyria, or Illyricum. Just as Yugoslavia was an amalgam of ethnically and linguistically unrelated populations, so too was the generally disunified Illyria. Some groups had become Roman subjects, while others sanctioned pirate fleets that harassed Roman shipping on the Adriatic.
Farther south, on the eastern part of the Adriatic Rim, lay Macedonia, the empire built to greatness in the fourth century BC by Philip II and maintained by his son Alexander the Great. As it had since the time of Philip, Macedonia's sphere of influence extended throughout Greece and the rim of the Aegean Sea. Unlike Illyria, which posed no serious conventional military threat, Macedonia was a military power to be reckoned with.
During the Second Punic War, when Hannibal occupied much of eastern Italy along the Adriatic Rim, Philip V of Macedonia spotted an opportunity and allied himself with Hannibal. Philip's contribution to the alliance consisted mainly of harassment of Roman shipping, and Rome took limited action to combat this. Meanwhile, Rome reinforced friendly enclaves and cultivated friendships and alliances with anti-Macedonian entities. These alliances gave Rome the pretext for a major war against the Macedonians.
After the conclusion of the second war with Carthage, Rome launched major operations against Macedonia in 200 BC. Rome's justification for this attack was that it was intervening to aid the Greek people who were being repressed by the Macedonians. The decisive Roman victory came in 197 BC with the Battle of Cynoscephalae. Thereafter, Philip V surrendered Macedonia to Rome as a client state, agreeing to pay reparations and never to conduct military operations outside his country. This marked the end of the era of Macedonian power that had begun with the father of Alexander the Great.
Parenthetically, the wars with Macedonia proved the tactical superiority of the versatile and adaptable Roman legion over the rigid phalanx organization that had served the Macedonians so well against the Persians and that had taken an invincible Alexander to the ends of the earth.
With the defeat of Macedonia, Rome's influence extended one sea farther east, from the Adriatic Rim to the Aegean Rim. This in turn brought the Romans on the western side of the Aegean face to face with the Seleucid Empire in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Another remnant of the once vast empire of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire had long been an important center of Hellenistic culture that incorporated most of what today is the Middle East, from Turkey through Syria and Iraq to Iran and beyond.
Having successfully eliminated Seleucid enclaves in Greece, the Romans took the fight into Asia Minor, where Scipio Africanus decisively defeated the army of Antiochus III the Great in the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC. The subsequent Treaty of Apamea in 188 BC forced the Seleucids to pay reparations to the Romans and to give up Asia Minor.
With Rome's total dominance in the Mediterranean by the middle of the second century BC, that there should have been a Third Punic War seems counterintuitive but it happened. Among other provisions, the agreement that had ended the Second Punic War called for finite reparations to be paid by Carthage, and this tab was finally paid off in 151 BC. After half a century of kowtowing as the people of a Roman vassal state, the Carthaginians felt that all their obligations had now been met and that they were free to move on.
Rome disagreed and declared war in 149 BC. The Carthaginians could do little to resist a Roman invasion but pull into their fortified capital. The besieged city of Carthage finally fell three years later, whereupon the Romans sold the starving survivors into slavery and burned the city. The Romans sought to destroy Carthage stone by stone so as to erase its existence from the face of the earth, although stories that they salted the ground to prevent anything from growing were probably invented in later years.
After Carthage ceased to exist, Rome absorbed all its territories and client state relationships in the Mediterranean. The military history of Rome for the remainder of the second century BC would be dominated by efforts to compel obedience and subservience from these places and from other Roman territories.
In 135 BC, and again in 104 BC, Roman troops were called upon to put down major slave revolts in Sicily, leading to a series of conflicts known as the Servile Wars. The revolt in 73–71 BC led by the gladiator Spartacus, which has been embellished by modern popular culture, is also listed among the Servile Wars. Meanwhile, between 113 and 101 BC the Romans found themselves battling Germanic tribes from northern Europe in the Cimbrian War.
Excerpted from Julius Caesar by Bill Yenne. Copyright © 2012 Bill Yenne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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