Monday, 9 May 2011



We’ve all heard how Hannibal, in the second war between Carthage and Rome, in 218 B.C., invaded Italy from the north, passing through Switzerland at the height of winter. And how he then resoundingly defeated Rome four times, after which, they refused to meet him again in open field. And so for fifteen years, the gates of Rome were shut, and Hannibal, for much of that time, was master of the Italian countryside. Many years later, in a third and final war with Rome, Carthage was defeated and destroyed. Nonetheless, the question can be asked, “Did Hannibal destroy Rome?” 

Yes, in the sense that the issues and problems that emerged, in the aftermath of the wars with Carthage, proved intractable, and, ultimately, led to the fall of Rome, albeit some 500 years later…

Hannibal thoroughly ravaged the Italian countryside, thereby devastating the Roman agricultural community which was at the base of its democracy. It was the small to middle sized farmers who furnished the manpower for the army, and at the same time kept the Roman war machine an essentially people’s institution. After the wars with Carthage, Rome’s veterans had to find their farms laid waste, and the land itself in the hands of the wealthy, absentee land owners of the upper (patrician) class. Many thus went back to the army to cast their lot, not with the state so much as the general under whom they served. 

And the generals, after the Carthaginian wars, were of a different sort. Whereas before, military commanders received their posts based strictly on seniority, the need to put the best strategist at the helm, when fighting a genius the caliber of Hannibal, led to the rapid promotion of commanders, based strictly on performance. Thus the cult of personality (that eventually yielded Julius Caesar and the Roman emperors) was allowed to grow. Pretty soon the top Roman generals were the top political figures. Yes, the army became much more efficient, but the government also became more of a military dictatorship. 

Now that is not to say that Rome had prior been a model of democracy. It was a republic, run by a conservative oligarchy. The Etruscan Kings that ruled Rome in its infancy, and set it on the road to empire, were not mindful of the needs of the masses, the plebian class, than the oligarchs that succeeded them. They also treated women with a greater degree of equality. 

And so in the years after the Carthaginian wars, Rome’s first military ventures outside of Italy, Roman armies, led by ambitious, charismatic generals fanned out throughout the Mediterranean world conquering all in their path. Their unstoppability fueled a cruel streak in the Roman psyche. And so Rome became ruthless abroad and, increasingly, at home too…

The spoils, what to do with the vast spoils of war? That was the question. The aristocrats sought to acquire it wholly for themselves, at the expense of the people. And many of the conquered peoples were put into bondage, and brought as slaves into Italy in tremendous numbers, leaving little, beyond soldiering, for the common man to aspire to. Which, in turn, fueled the power of the generals who eventually fell upon each other in a series of retracted civil wars? Eventually the institution of the emperor emerged.

And so Rome ended up in the administrative center of a stupendous empire with a largely impoverished populace. Though poor, they were nonetheless Roman, and had the power, through their riots and uprisings, to gum up the machinery of empire. They were thus given free bread and circuses, that is, gladiatorial shows and other spectacles…. There were only the rich and the poor, not only in Rome but throughout Italy, and on the frontier the superb Roman fighting machine. There was no middle ground, no middle class. In time, ultimate power produced ultimate decadence, and when the army too became dissipated, the empire fell resoundingly….

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