Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.
The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?
In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!
Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).
As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).
Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.
He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.
His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.
Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:
one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.
Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.
This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.
The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.
Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations
But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.
In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.
But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?
There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.
Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!
Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.
Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.
Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.