Editors’ note: This essay is adapted from The Golden Thread by Allen C. Guelzo and James Hankins, to be published by Encounter Books in 2024.

A classic debate among historians of Rome attempts to answer the question of how this city-state on the Tiber River succeeded in building an enormous empire, first in Italy and later across the entire Mediterranean world. Rome’s most significant early war was with the city of Veii, now a ruin you can visit by travelling an hour by bus from central Rome. By the first century A.D., Rome’s emperors were commanding armies from Spain to Persia. The debate goes back to the very first Roman history that survives, written in Greek in the late second century B.C. by Polybius. His preface reveals the astonishment of the Greeks, who had dominated the eastern Mediterranean since the time of Alexander the Great, at the sudden rise of Rome:

For the very element of unexpectedness in the events I have chosen as my theme will be sufficient to challenge and inspire everyone, young and old alike, to peruse my systematic history. For who is so indifferent or indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years [220–167 B.C.] succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government—a thing unique in history? Or who again is there so passionately devoted to other spectacles or studies as to regard anything as of greater moment than the acquisition of this knowledge?

Polybius himself gives us some of the more sophisticated answers to the question of how the Romans managed to defeat all their rivals for empire. He draws attention to the Roman regime, which he saw in Aristotelian terms as a mixed constitution, beautifully balanced to prevent factionalism. He also draws attention to the extraordinary discipline of the Roman army and to the Romans’ religion, which gave them a martial spirit lacking in other nations.

Livy . . . emphasizes the practical wisdom of the Romans’ ancestors, who had built an empire upon trust, virtue, and devotion to the gods

Subsequent historians added further explanations. Livy, writing in the time of Augustus after a long period of civil war and moral collapse, emphasizes the practical wisdom of the Romans’ ancestors, who had built an empire upon trust, virtue, and devotion to the gods: fides, virtus, pietas. Later Greek students of Roman history such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Aelius Aristides, and Cassius Dio credit Rome’s success to its extraordinary willingness to open its ruling class to men of obscure social origin and to foreigners. For them, Rome exhibited a praiseworthy kind of meritocratic pluralism unexampled in the old Greek city-states, with their fierce nativism. Modern historians since Machiavelli have noted the extraordinary social solidarity of Roman society in its great era of empire-building—a solidarity born, paradoxically, of the conflict between patricians and plebeians that long predated Rome’s conquests. It was the plebeians’ insistence on sharing political power and the material rewards and glory of empire that gave Rome its extraordinary competitive dynamism.

In our own time, when admiration for the ancient Romans has faded and obsession with the crimes of the West has intensified, a further reason for the Romans’ success in warfare has come to the fore: their calculated use of mass violence and terror to subdue enemies. This explanation, along with the Roman practice of slavery, counts also as an indictment of Roman civilization, and so requires careful analysis. We cannot dismiss the charge as mere politicized history, above all because it happens to be true. The “Roman custom,” as Polybius called it, of using terror as a tool of war cannot be ignored in forming our overall judgment of the Romans as a people. It inevitably raises questions about their other achievements as well as the suitability of using their great heroes as examples and their political system as a model for our own times.

Our most reliable source for Roman violence is Polybius, who bases his history primarily on eyewitness sources. He himself was a well-placed observer, being a close associate of Scipio Aemilianus and other Roman statesmen and military leaders. The impression that we are getting the “real story” about the Romans from the Greek historian is hard to resist. Polybius admired the Romans in many respects but is committed to telling the truth about them. The kind of prudential history he wrote—history designed as a casebook for statesmen, showing the motives and consequences of past decisions—is perfectly useless, he tells us, unless the facts are correct. And the facts of the Romans’ conduct in war, as he remorselessly reveals them, are horrifying.

The most shocking things Polybius tells us are usually related in a dry, unemotional tone, such as the following story about Scipio Africanus’s assault on New Carthage (modern Cartagena in Spain) in 209 B.C.:

Finally, when the walls had been taken in this manner, those who entered through the gate occupied the hill on the east after dislodging its defenders. When Scipio thought that a sufficient number of troops had entered, he sent most of them, as is the Roman custom, against the inhabitants of the city with orders to kill all they encountered, sparing no one, and not to start pillaging until the signal was given. The Romans do this, I think, to inspire terror, so that when they take towns one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half and the dismembered limbs of other animals, and on this occasion such scenes were very many owing to the numbers of those in the place [emphasis added].

This type of incident is by no means rare in Polybius’s pages; indeed he records dozens of such cases of mass violence in his narrative of just one century of Roman history. A reckoning by the historian Gabriel Baker of all known atrocities in war between 400 and 100 B.C. catalogues 124 incidents of mass violence committed by the Roman army. These include mass killings and disfigurement of prisoners, mass enslavements, looting, and punitive destruction of cities. Such acts varied in intensity depending on the situation. Sometimes only political leaders and their families were killed and enslaved; at other times, entire populations. Sometimes the Romans only tore down a city’s defensive walls; at other times, as in the cases of Carthage and Corinth, whole cities were razed to the ground.

The facts of the Romans’ conduct in war. . . are horrifying.

These incidents were as a rule not spontaneous outbursts of furious savagery against hated enemies or the work of frenzied soldiers run amok. They were deliberate tactics that were a regular part of Roman warfare, ordered by commanding officers, sometimes even by the senate. Like modern genocides, they required planning, organization, resources, and labor. They were a tool of empire calibrated to fit particular circumstances and to achieve particular objectives.

Perhaps the most infamous Roman atrocity was committed in the Epirus in the year 167 B.C. The Epirotes were a people who had broken their earlier agreements with Rome and sided with King Perseus during the Third Macedonian War. They had offered the king material assistance, sending him men and using their fortresses to block Roman access to the best invasion route. After the battle of Pydna the Roman general, Aemilius Paullus, marched his army back through the Epirus and, on specific orders from the senate, organized a massive operation to punish the Epirotes, even though they had already surrendered to Rome. He announced to their leaders that his troops would collect their gold, silver, and valuables from seventy fortified places in the region, implying that they would be spared further reprisals. The Roman forces timed their march to arrive at all seventy towns on the same day, early in the morning, and were allowed in by the inhabitants to collect the treasure. Once inside, the troops proceeded to sack the towns in a coordinated “orgy of violence.” In due course the Epirotes were herded into their town squares, put under guard, and marched to the coast for deportation to Italy. Our sources tell us that the Romans enslaved 150,000 Epirotes that day.

Why did the Romans engage in such horrific acts? The short answer is that they helped Rome achieve its war aims. These aims were of different kinds. Terror was most effective when Rome was close to victory or the tide of war had turned in their favor. Thus when the Romans took Agrigento in the Second Punic War, beheading all the civic notables and enslaving the rest of the population, forty Sicilian towns decided it was time to change sides and declare loyalty to Rome. Sometimes, as in the case of the atrocity in Epirus, the motivation was not only to make an example of what could happen to unfaithful allies, but also to pay off their own discontented soldiers with booty.

Sometimes the Romans concluded that their only alternative to losing control of a rebellious territory was to commit some conspicuous atrocity that would terrify enemies into submission. In Spain, after losing battle after battle to Lusitanian and Celto-Iberian warrior bands, enduring tens of thousands of casualties, and suffering continuous raids on their settlements, the Romans lost patience and resolved to quell resistance to their empire by “soaking the Spanish ground in blood” (as the poet Ovid later wrote). The Roman commander, Servius Sulpicius Galba, tricked the Lusitanians into disarming themselves. They surrendered to the Roman state in fidem, on trust, a type of surrender that, by well-known Roman custom, meant that they were supposed to be treated mercifully. Galba had them herded simultaneously into three Roman military camps. Armed legionaries then entered the camps, butchered the men, and enslaved the women and children. Ancient estimates claimed that as many as thirty thousand were massacred. This was a crime even by Roman standards, but it had the desired effect of quelling Lusitanian resistance.

Ancient estimates claimed that as many as thirty thousand were massacred.

A modern contextual explanation for the Romans’ reliance on mass violence looks away from the conscious motivations of the Romans themselves to the wider conditions that existed in their new empire. In the absence of any provincial administration, garrisons, or courts of justice in newly acquired territories, it is argued, the Romans had few means to ensure that their commands were obeyed apart from terror and naked force. In this early period, the word “empire” (imperium) meant the power to command, not a large political entity divided into provinces under central control. It is noteworthy that the Romans often engaged in organized atrocities just after decisive battles had been won, and more often in distant territories than in Italy. They were teaching their defeated subjects to be obedient. Very often terror was effective, but calculated acts of brutality could also inflame hatred, inspire rebellions, and bring new enemies into the field. Potential victims of Roman violence could be cowed, but they might also be roused to fight back.

Looking back later over the history of their own conquests, some Romans concluded that mass violence was a short-term strategy whose long-term effects were damaging to Rome’s authority. In the late republic, Cicero famously raised the question in his moral treatise On Duties whether it was better to be loved than feared. The Romans in the era of their great conquests preferred to be feared. In the end, however, though it took over a hundred years, they learned the advantages of being loved, or at least of making those they ruled contented and grateful.

In our own time, we need to exercise practical wisdom when making judgments about Rome’s atrocities.

In our own time, we need to exercise practical wisdom when making judgments about Rome’s atrocities. Mass murder and mass enslavement are monstrous evils that must be condemned in all times and places. There can be no question about that. But in making larger judgments about whole peoples and their ways of life, their exemplary figures, and their civilizational achievements, it is unjust and unwise to allow one set of practices, however horrible, to justify depriving later generations of the other fine traditions and the works of wisdom or beauty a particular society has left behind. To do so is to revert to the primitive concept of collective responsibility—always itself a premise of genocide and mass violence. To say that all parts of a civilization are tainted by sins committed by some persons at some times and places is tantamount to saying that we can admire nothing in the past and learn nothing from history. Horrible crimes have been sanctioned by authorities in all civilizations, but it does not follow that all civilizations are criminal. To appreciate the near absurdity of this notion of collective guilt, imagine some future empire claiming that American music and painting should not be studied because America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. To be sure, we must always make our own distinctions between good and bad, and choose the good. But mature prudence requires that we take into consideration the best actions that were possible to peoples in the past and what their realistic alternatives were. We need to recognize that all abstract doctrines of justice tend to lose their purity in real life, and that all historical societies have had collective moral strengths and weaknesses.

The Hellenistic Greeks, by our lights, were more merciful in war than the Romans, but the Romans allowed more liberty to women and freedmen than the Greeks did. And we should have the humility to admit that our own societies are by no means innocent of collective actions that are as bad or even worse than those of the ancients. We need to free ourselves of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the false inference that being more technologically advanced than the ancients makes us morally superior to them as well. The modern U.S. military, for example, does not massacre or enslave defeated enemies, but the torture of captives, aerial bombardment of civilian populations in undeclared wars, assassination of foreign leaders, and destabilization of foreign goverments in peacetime have all been sanctioned by our highest authorities. The mature response to such ghastly moral failures is not to forsake loyalty to one’s country, but to reform that country.

In the case of the Romans and other ancient peoples, we should consider that their customs and laws permitted the enslavement and expropriation of peoples defeated in war. The philosopher-warrior Xenophon in the fourth century B.C. wrote that “it is an eternal law among all men that whenever a city is captured in war, the bodies and property of the inhabitants belong to the conqueror.” Roman law, too, held that slavery could be justified, given that the victor in a just war had the right to kill defeated enemies. Enslavement in effect commuted the death sentence to a lesser punishment, and might even have been considered an act of mercy conferred on an enemy who, legally speaking, deserved none. From a modern point of view, that reasoning is rightly seen as little more than a specious fiction. The vile traffic of Roman slavers in human misery is not made acceptable by the rationalizations of jurists. But studying the Roman case can help us not to confuse what too often is confused in our own society, the distinction between the lawful and the moral.

Studying the Roman case can help us not to confuse what too often is confused in our own society, the distinction between the lawful and the moral.

Nevertheless, the Romans did have laws of war that forbade certain behaviors such as treachery and the breaking of treaties. Roman norms taught that generals should treat enemies who surrendered with moderation, especially women and children. This was what Virgil meant when he famously wrote that the destiny of Rome was “to show mercy to the conquered and defeat the proud” (Aeneid VI, 853). How well these laws and norms were enforced is another question. The Roman general Galba, the one who massacred the Lusitanians, was charged in Rome, not with the massacre, but for having used an un-Roman trick to entrap the enemy. A legislative bill was introduced in the centuriate assembly demanding that the enslaved Lusitanians be freed in redress of the harms they had suffered. It was further proposed that Galba be tried for breaking the laws of war, which included his failure to consult augurs and fetial priests. The latter were a priestly college that oversaw the moral rules of war and would certainly not have approved his actions. Galba, who was also a famous orator, appeared before the assembly with his weeping children in tow and persuaded his fellow citizens not to prosecute him. We know, in fact, of no Roman generals or promagistrates in the republican period who were convicted and punished for war crimes or corruption, though several were forced into exile.

The Romans, it must also be said, were by no means unique in their atrocities. In the same work by Gabriel Baker mentioned above, listing 124 Roman atrocities between 400 and 100 B.C., there is a second list of 184 documented atrocities committed between 500 and 100 B.C. by non-Roman armies, many of them against the Romans or their allies. Some of these were as sensational as Roman acts of mass violence. For example, when King Mithridates VI of Pontus invaded the Roman province of Asia Minor in 88 B.C., he ordered the massacre of every Italian male that could be found, tens of thousands at the very least, and had the Roman legate Manius Aquillius publicly humiliated before executing him by pouring molten gold down his throat. This was meant as a symbolic rebuke of the Romans for their bribe-taking and greed.

In evaluating the gruesome history of Roman mass violence, we should finally consider how the Romans’ own attitude to publicly sanctioned atrocities evolved over time. In the second century B.C., few if any doubts were raised about acts of cruelty to enemies per se, acts that (as far as we know) were not then regarded by the Romans themselves as barbarous or inhumane so long as they remained within the bounds of law. The Romans of that era were incapable of seeing the dark side
of their glittering triumphs, or, if they did, of expressing their misgivings in public. By the first century B.C., however, as the influence of Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism, spread, we hear voices such as Cicero’s that urge fellow citizens to restrain their greed and bloodlust and conform their behavior to the higher law of nature. The atrocities visited on the Romans themselves by the dictator Sulla in the 80s B.C. no doubt also had a chastening effect on moral attitudes.

The atrocities visited on the Romans themselves by the dictator Sulla in the 80s B.C. no doubt also had a chastening effect on moral attitudes.

When under the principate Stoicism became something of an official philosophy, the more civilized spirit of the Greeks began to soften Roman hearts. Some discovered that humanitas, the opposite of cruelty (immanitas), offered another path to nobility, the true nobility of a generous spirit. The consciences of many Romans, like Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and statesman, had been awakened, leading them to perceive publicly sanctioned atrocities as a kind of madness. The Romans now had “empire without limit,” as Virgil sang, but their greed and cruelty was equally unlimited. The only way to bring it within bounds was through the voice of an inner censor trained in Greek philosophy. As the madness of our public morals increases, our recourse to philosophy must increase as well. Seneca writes:

We are mad, not only individually, but in our public life together. We stop manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the glorious crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practiced in accordance with acts of the Senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by execution when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, by nature the gentlest class of animal, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to hand down the waging of war to his sons as a tradition when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 1, on page 23
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