From Maleventum To Beneventum: Rome’s Ascension From Republic To Empire


By the middle of the second century B.C., Rome had finalized its coming to absolute power by transforming itself from a powerful republic into an absolutely powerful empire. Rome had conquered and established a vast empire spanning from Spain and North Africa to Greece and Macedonia, clawing its way from a polity of potential to an empire of eminence. The Mediterranean, with the evolution of Rome’s power and ascension, had also transformed from being Rome’s playground into Rome’s dominion.

In the matter of discerning Rome’s rise from a republic to an imperium, the outcome is not as telling as the journey; in simpler terms, before attempting to determine why Rome became an empire, we must first address how it became one. On the grander scale of empires and their stories, it would seem Rome, like Xerxes’ Persia or Alexander’s Macedonia, was ultimately destined to exist with such a revered reputation in the spectrum of human history. Rome becoming an empire, overruling the Mediterranean in a supreme fashion, may not entirely be a matter of pre-determined destiny but rather, a combination of events and sentiments in both the internal and external affairs of Rome that allowed it to claim such a destiny. In another format, one could say, Rome became an empire in reaction to the happenings in itself and around it, retaliating against its enemies and reforming its own structure.

The coming to an imperial age had proven to be a very problematic time period in the life cycle of Rome. With the attainment of more power through conquest of neighboring polities, the constantly changing internal structure and the heavy implications the two aforementioned reasons had on Rome, an empire would be forged. To ascertain that Rome singlehandedly chose to and became an empire may seem too romantic of a perception about Rome. However, to assume that Rome had the considerable potential given its pre-existing history at this turning point combined with the outside forces pushing it to evolve and create a set of circumstances that if reacted to adequately would create more power, may be quite a reasonable deduction.

To be more precise with the layout of Rome’s evolution from republic to empire, the methodology of such an evolution revolved around a two-way complimentary system, which could be flipped inversely depending on the circumstances. The interesting factors in the Roman equation during their primitive learning phase when becoming an empire are not the interacting variables of what happens in or out of Rome; what is most peculiar is the quintessential aspect in the equation of Rome’s evolution which highlights whatever the reaction to a happening may be, is always the reaction that is most beneficial to Rome’s power and longevity in the end.

  • The first variation of the two-way model: Rome participates in some war or battle and in return the repercussions would affect the internal structure of Rome which would force it to react accordingly.
  • The second variation of the two-way model: Rome faces an internal dilemma in either reacting to an external problem or realizing they had reacted previously in an unsuitable manner, which in turn forces them to reshape and redeem their status quo through war or internal reformation.

To assess the models and apply their variations, Roman warfare must be addressed first and after, the internal Roman affairs during those time periods. In the case of the Pyrrhic War (280-275 B.C.), one of the several large-scale wars that Rome would partake in in the years to come, Rome is confronted with a new caliber of a powerful enemy. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, had come to aid the Greek city of Tarentum which has been in conflict with the Romans. Pyrrhus had defeated the Romans in a few battles in the beginning, such as Asculum and Heraclea, while suffering many losses to which Pyrrhus had stated that if he has another victory, where many on his side have to die for, then he would be utterly ruined. Such victories gave birth to the term a ‘Pyrrhic victory’. Pyrrhus had later demanded for Rome to accept peace treaties, ultimately meaning for them to succumb under his rule to which the interference of Appius Claudius Caeces, the Blind, vehemently opposed the idea of losing to Pyrrhus and agreeing to the terms of defeat. Appius Claudius Caeces urged the senate not to accept the terms which encouraged the Romans to fight on and eventually defeat Pyrrhus and his allies with the help of, ironically, Carthage. The battle in Maleventum, where Rome defeated the forces of Pyrrhus, marked a new beginning for Rome’s hegemony in the region as the rulers and defenders of the Mediterranean. A symbolic occurrence after the victory in Maleventum had the name changed to Beneventum, changing ‘bad wind’ to ‘good wind’ as a foreshadowing change, prophetic even, in regards to Rome’s near future.

The Pyrrhic War served as the initial domino to the rise of Rome’s imperium, where warfare in the region forced the likes of Appius Claudius to have Rome persevere. Rome’s victory and the ensured enlargement of its hegemony in the region as well as its sphere of influence and power would be later put to further testing in more wars. A few years after the Pyrrhic War, the first Punic War with Carthage and Hamilcar would come into play. Rome’s sphere of influence was on fast flight towards that of Carthage where they would be clashing with each other in Sicily, a powerful hub to control as it enabled power over the Mediterranean’s waterways. Messana, a city in the northern parts of Sicily, called for aid against the forces of Syracuse. Sicily’s Lilybaem and Drepona, Carthaginian-controlled states, ultimately clash with the Romans as both Rome and Carthage heed the calls of Messana. Eventually, Rome defeats Carthage’s Hamilcar and his mercenary armies lead by Xanthippus, a former Spartan general turned mercenary, along with Syracuse’s Hiero. With their defeat, Rome ensures tributes and monetary reimbursements whilst also having Hamilcar venture into Spain and conquer it to afford paying such tributes to Rome.

So far, the Pyrrhic War could be stated to be as the first training grounds to Rome as a growing power and empire. Whereas the case of the first Punic War with Hamilcar and Hiero, the turning point of Messana in Rome’s overall historical plotline could be stated to be the moment where the domino effect of Rome’s conquest-based behavior was in full momentum. Rome, by this point, had both assured itself and the area it now controls that it is the superior power.

However, it is not until after the second Punic War, the Hannibalic wars, that Rome completely becomes the notorious Roman Empire and claims its destiny as the empire we know today.

At this point of the Roman timeline towards its emergence as the supreme ruler of the Mediterranean, Rome’s internal structure is well developed, wisely aged and remains to perfect itself in matters of politics and military. Polybius, the Greek historian, lays out a well detailed account to the incredible design and meticulous creation of the Roman martial forces. The account describes the logistics of the military formations, their developed arsenal of war tactics and, most importantly, the Hellenistic approach towards war; the Romans adopted the methods of Lycurgus where the principle of perfecting one’s rule while maintaining internal order and stability is key to martial success. The Romans had also established, according to Polybius, a legislative system that revolved around checks and balances, ensuring the political stability that would keep Rome standing firm in matters of personal affairs, unshaken if an external problem would arise. (Book 6, Polybius.)

Given the well-established ideals and structure in Rome, the growing empire was ready to face, arguably, its most devastating enemy yet: Hannibal. The second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) with Carthage proved to be highly damaging to Rome’s forces, economy and morale. Hannibal, being the aggressively intelligent war tactician, defeated Rome in many battles by allying himself with those in Northern Italy such as the Gauls and Etruscans. In the year 219 B.C., a year before full out war between Rome and Carthage, the battle of Seguntum against the Carthaginians initiated a massively destructive war between the two powerful juggernauts of the region. The battle of Seguntum was won by the Romans, which by proxy meant that the Romans offered Carthage a deal as it does to all that lose against the power of Rome. The deal would be that Carthage forfeits Hannibal to Rome or, if the term was rejected, the two would go on to a larger war. Rome’s hubris-induced ultimatum and Carthage’s angry rejection of it would eventually lead to the most tragic battle in Rome’s ascension as an empire, if not in all of its history, which is the battle of Cannae. In the year 216 B.C., the battle of Cannae furthermore stressed the arrogance and cockiness of Rome where the forces and efforts of Rome’s Fabius, Paulus and Varro proved to be worthless in facing that of Hannibal, his brother Mago and their allies. Cannae ended with Carthage decimating Rome’s forces where it imprisoned a large portion of Roman soldiers, eliminated approximately 30% of Roman senators (who joined the war for easy glory) and left thousands of Rome’s army butchered in the battlefield. Rome, by Carthage, was given the choice to pay for the ransom of the prisoners taken and ultimately yield to this greater power. Rome’s senate had now to face the ultimate question of Rome’s destiny, whether it is to be forfeited or fought for. As in the case of Appius Claudius Caeces, Rome would receive another moment in the senate that would ship its coming future with the efforts of Manlius Torquatus. Efforts made by one Junius are also worth mentioning as he urged the senate not to agree with paying the ransom informed by Carthalo, Hannibal’s war ambassador, by heatedly expressing that a Roman life is far much worth than 300 coins. However it was not Junius who ultimately convinced the senate, Manlius urged the senate not to give in to the ransom or the deals promised by Hannibal, reminding the senate that it is un-Roman to give in to any power but its own. Manlius continued with a passionate and furious speech stating that it is pathetic of those who were captured to have been captured in the first place, explaining a true Roman would eviscerate his way out of trouble or die trying. (Book 22, Livy.)

The nature of Romans and their Romanism is also reiterated by the poet Ennius in Cicero’s De Republica as he states:

 “The Commonwealth of Rome is founded firm on ancient customs and on men of might.”

The previous statement could be best exemplified by correlating the ‘ancient customs’ to the perseverance conveyed by Manlius and the ‘men of might’ to the war efforts of Scipio Africanus. Scipio, after the battle of Cannae, leads the Roman army against Hannibal and Carthage in the battle of Zama (202 B.C.), taking the war to Carthaginian soil, which eventually ensures Romans victory whilst also humiliating Hannibal. The Romans, with the defeat of Carthage, began to focus on settling all the war-related loose ends by defeating King Philip IV of Macedonia along with continuing to reinforce their dominance with some minor future wars in the region with Spain, Syria and others.

The warfare in Rome’s timeframe of rising to imperial power, as explained in the models previously, interrelates with its internal system and structure. In Klaus Bringmann’s History of the Roman Republic, the crises, as he describes, that arise with Roman imperialism are mostly related to their dying morality. Bringmann explains the ideological struggle of Romans by analyzing their Mos Maiorum and Ambitio, the ancestral customs and ambition. Bringmann argues that the decadence of the ancestral customs had lead the Roman political scene, despite economic growth and a boom in the reconstruction of the empire, to greed and corruption by their vast spoils-of-war giving way to weakening luxuries. Whereas the ambition aspect, the Romanism and the will to be conquerors, has had Rome venture in many destructive wars that not always benefit the wellbeing of Rome. An example of that would be the damaging efforts to control Spain, an area where not all are allied or subservient to Rome’s power and an area that had Rome suffer from guerilla tactics given the unfamiliar geography.

However, despite the moral decay and economically unfair distribution of power, Rome developed another man of might who would come to the rescue. As the moral decay increased, the emergence of a reforming influence was necessary which gave rise to M. Porcius Cato or Cato Censorius, the Censor. As explained by both Bringmann and in Rosenstein’s The Impact of Imperium, Cato had rejuvenated the Roman internal scene as a moral war of sorts against the fallacies of the senate lead to many legal changes as well as charging many of those in political power to their wrong doings. An example would be the taking to court of Scipio Africanus and his brother, another Scipio, by Cato on charges of corruption and embezzlement. Cato, with others, continued to influence the legal system into creating more laws that would prohibit those of political power to exploit their positions financially.

Rome, in both warfare and internal affairs whether one affected the other or the other way around, did not falter in the long run. Rome’s men of might and ancient customs working in a complimentary fashion, often as substitutes when one fails the other, ensured Rome’s prevalence over its enemies and itself. Thus enabling Rome to adjust to its newly founded imperium and to grow into the sandals of this new identity, one that was no longer a republic but an empire.

The tale of Rome’s evolution continued to be that of stable power, until a Prophet would come along.

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