roman rulers -- 5/13/14

Today's selection -- from Taken at the Flood by Robin Waterfield. When Rome was a republic, in the days before it was an empire, it was nevertheless an oligarchy ruled by a relatively small number of fabulously wealthy families. And the best way to gain or augment that tremendous wealth was through the plunder that came from being a victorious general:

"Rome was governed ... by an elite, with a relatively small number of families repeatedly holding a proportionately large number of senior offices. They even kept all the most important priesthoods to themselves, to prevent the emergence of a powerful priestly estate. They fought together, dined together, shared cultural interests, intermarried, adopted one another's sons, and loaned one another money. They were almost obsessively concerned with maintaining the status of their ancestors, revealing an assumption that there would be a continuity of status over the generations. Nevertheless, it was a permeable elite: 'new men' (novi homines), or men whose families had not produced a high officeholder for some generations, could rise to the very top, and old families could fall by the wayside, if in any generation they did not produce male offspring, or at any rate suitable or willing male offspring, or could not afford to take part in the competition for office. But there was an inner core of about 40 percent of the senators of consular rank whose fathers and grandfathers had also been consuls, the highest political and military office. They were consulted first in all debates, and they formed a self-perpetuating oligarchy, in the sense that their prominence and wealth gave them opportunities to influence voters that were denied to others.

"There were no hereditary ranks in the Roman aristocracy, no 'dukes' to rank per se above 'earls': position in the hierarchy depended on prestige, and that was a precarious commodity. ... Competition was understandably intense.

"The best way for a man to add glory to his own and his family's name was on the battlefield. In fact, in Rome most civic posts were simultaneously military positions. A consul, for instance, whatever civic duties he may have had, was first and foremost the general of an army, which was assigned to him, along with his 'province' (theater of operations), immediately after his election. The preeminence of military service was enshrined in the regulation (which was hardly ever broken) that a young man could not even embark on the lowest rungs of a political career until he had served for ten seasons in the field. ...

"The Senate was known for its warmongering -- at any rate, Livy has a tribune of the people accuse the senators in 201 BCE of constantly stirring up fresh wars as a way of keeping the ordinary people occupied and in their place -- and it is easy to see why: it was driven not just by its desire as a body to extend Rome's power and influence (and hence its own auctoritas), but also by the desire of its members for fields of glory. Of course, very few could hope to gain the very top jobs, but even so the general impetus of the Senate was warlike. Public [military] service was a kind of sacred trust for these elite families, so at the same time as increasing his personal glory, a successful young man was serving his family, the state, and the gods -- a heady mix.

Detail from the Arch of Titus depicting the booty Titus pillaged from his successful Sack of Jerusalem.

"The first two Punic wars raised the bar in a number of respects. Most importantly, individual commanders showed future generations what was possible in the way of personal glory, and the spoils of past Italian wars paled beside the riches of Carthage and the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy. Military success had always led to enrichment, but not on this scale. As until recently in European history, systematic plundering was part of every military campaign. ...

"In addition to his generous share of the booty, a Roman general also got rich from what went on before and after battle. Communities that were affected or likely to be affected would approach him to see if they could steer the action away from their land, or reduce the quantity of grain they were supposed to provide; in the time-honored Greek way, they would pay him either to settle their affairs or to stay out of them altogether. ... There were always ways for a general to make money, by fair means or foul."


Robin Waterfield


Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece (Ancient Warfare and Civilization)


Oxford University Press


Robin Waterfield 2014


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment