When Rome Conquered Italy

Emma Dench

  • Rome’s Cultural Revolution by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
    Cambridge, 502 pp, £29.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 72160 8

We used to be told that Rome rose to imperial greatness through the native wit and lean frames of its farmer soldiers. And that if it wasn’t lead poisoning, orgies and overindulgence of every kind, it was race-mixing that brought about its fall, the descendants of Oriental slaves having weakened the native stock. As for Roman culture, that was a contradiction in terms: Roman art consisted almost entirely of thefts or copies of Greek masterpieces, while Roman literature was translated, generally rather badly, from Greek classics. The Romans were a capable people, there was no doubt about that, but their capabilities lay in more practical pursuits: conquest, engineering – roads, aqueducts and drains – and getting the barbarians to take a bath and appreciate a little solid urban architecture. For all the snobbery of Cicero, with his habit of dropping the Greek equivalent of le mot juste into his correspondence or of writing conceitedly about his art collection, to attribute creativity, originality or sophisticated ideas to the Romans would have been laughable.

We knew all this because we could demonstrate that the Romans had said it themselves. If one glosses over the unfortunate anti-democratic tendencies, the story of Cincinnatus called from his plough to save Rome from the Aequi, triumphing and then going back to the plough, sent the right sort of no-nonsense message. Moral decline inevitably accompanied the acquisition of empire, though different authors chose different turning points to mark the beginning of the end. Among the souls of Romans yet to be born in the epic underworld of the Aeneid, Anchises instructs his son Aeneas on the ‘arts’ that would distinguish Rome, the ‘arts’ of imperial rule that lay in making war and peace, leaving to ‘others’ the creative arts of working in bronze and marble, and the intellectual arts of rhetoric and astronomy. No contemporary would have missed the implication that those ‘others’ were Greeks.

The Romans had a good line in hagiographical accounts of their own past, before they had achieved (as they thought) mastery of most of the known world, or at least the parts that really mattered. They also located themselves in relation to the Greeks: we owe to the Romans the propagation of the name ‘Greek’ itself, the concept of something approaching a Greek national dress, the pallium, and a whole range of persistent stereotypes about the Greeks, including their inclination to sit around and talk rather than get down to business. This dichotomy between Romans and Greeks didn’t so much describe or prescribe behaviour, talents or tendencies, as assign roles that could serve useful purposes in the management and manipulation of power. Individuals and states continue to identify themselves either with the Greeks (inevitably Athens or Sparta) or the Romans. Harold Macmillan notoriously imagined a role for the British as the Greek educators and civilisers of Americans when the US seemed to be on its way to becoming ‘the new Roman Empire’. For the British to give up their starring role as imperialists and adopt a supporting role as intellectuals was perhaps less of a comedown at a time when it was increasingly embarrassing for Europeans to play at being Romans, Mussolini having claimed Roman roots for himself (‘civis Romanus sum’), taken pride in the fasces, and ‘re-created’ the Passo Romano, an Italian goose step.

Instead of focusing narrowly on the individuals and events that made Rome great, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill is concerned with the way Italy became Roman and Rome became Italian. This process, which began with the Roman conquest of Italy in the fourth and third centuries BCE and was accelerated by the enfranchisement of peninsular Italy after the Social War of 91-89 BCE, was inextricably tied to the breakdown of the Roman Republic, with its comparatively exclusive governing elite, and the emergence of the Augustan principate after the battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

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