Before the Punic Wars

. Rome's Conquest of Italy (510-264 BC)

Roman writers like Livy took patriotic pride in recounting Rome's rise to domination of the entire Mediterranean world, which they portrayed as part of a divine plan. Rome's conquests began with the defeat of the Etruscans and Rome's other Latin neighbors, whose lands were placed under Roman rule. Eventually Rome conquered the communities in the central mountains, the Greek cities of the south, and the Gauls of the Po River valley. And since the winners write history, little is known of how the defeated peoples viewed these wars.

The Latins lived in Italy, squashed between the Etruscans, a mysterious people, probably Greeks of some sort driven to settle in Italy by the chaos of the bronze dark age, and Greek colonies in the south. Their principal city was Rome, a small settlement on the Tiber river in central Italy. The Greeks started colonizing the south of Italy and Sicily around 750-700 B.C. Caught between these two civilizations, the Latins rapidly changed from simple farmers to hard-bitten warriors.

Conquered by the Etruscans, the Latins gained a hatred for monarchy and looked to Greek democracy as a model of political freedom. The Latins adopted Greek religion, worshipping Greek Gods (with Latinized names), and admiring Greek Culture. When the Etruscan Empire fell apart, the Romans were quick to fill the political vacuum. The Romans, like the Greeks, saw military service and citizenship as inseparable. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not deliberately temper the bloodshed in their battles. The Greeks fought in phalanxes, dense rows of infantry armed with long spears. Greek battles were basically huge rugby scrums, filled with pushing and shoving but rarely involving more than twenty percent casualties. The Romans main weapon was the far less subtle and far more effective Gladius, or short sword. The Romans fought battles of butchery and annihilation, and though they lacked the will or ability to engage in tactical finesse their infantry was the best on Earth until the third century A.D.

In 510 B.C. the Romans gained their independence from the Etruscans, and by 398 B.C. they captured the Etruscan city of Veii, the first time foreign troops had set foot in any of the original twelve cities of the Etruscan league.

Rome was a small city, but it had inherited a tradition of expansion from the Etruscans. The drive for expansion and acquisition of new territory was fueled by a growing population, the need for land grants for the plebeians, a competitive ethic among the leading families, and their need for property to give to their sons. Rome was able to expand in part because it was more politically stable than its enemies. Despite the social turmoil of the early republic, the Romans usually settled conflict by compromise as increasingly empowered plebs provided the manpower for Rome's armies.

The Romans adopted an aggressive military policy, but they were not strong enough to become masters of the Italian peninsula immediately. They fought for nearly a century just to ensure their safety from the Etruscans.


They also faced invasion by the Gauls, a people of the Celtic language group who inhabited most of modern-day France and northern Italy. The disastrous sack of Rome by the raiders from Gaul in 390 BC could well have ended the city's history, even though patriotic fiction has since minimized the event. At that time some Romans argued that they should emigrate; instead, citizens made the momentous decision to rebuild Rome.

During the next century the Romans capitalized on their advantageous geographical position in the center of the peninsula, as the Etruscan cities to the north and Greek cities to the south fought amongst themselves. The Romans made their army more flexible by adopting javelins, using cavalry, and organizing the infantry in small groups (called maniples) which were superior in mountain fighting.

These new military methods eventually allowed Rome to conquer all of Italy and achieve the first political unification of the peninsula. Immediately to the south of Rome was the Latin League, composed of 30 cities that shared their language and religious festivals. During the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Rome increasingly dominated these cities and eventually dissolved the league and made subjects of both the Latins and the Etruscans. About the same time, Rome expanded further southward and annexed the rich farmland of Campania, a region bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Second Treaty between Rome and Carthage (348 BC)

During the 40 years after the second treaty with Carthage, Rome rapidly rose to a position of hegemony in Italy south of the Po valley. Expansion brought Rome into conflict with the mountain peoples of central Italy, the Samnites, who conducted frequent raids against the cities of Campania. The Campanians formed a league centered on the town of Capua and invited Rome to defend them against the Samnites. The Romans fought three bitter campaigns against the Samnites between 343 and 290 BC. Despite some serious losses, Rome ultimately prevailed. The Samnites initially were not politically unified but coexisted as separate Oscan-speaking tribes of the central and southern Apennines. Rome's expansion was probably responsible for uniting these tribes militarily to oppose a common enemy. Both the rugged terrain and the tough Samnite soldiers proved to be formidable challenges, which forced Rome to adopt military innovations that were later important for conquering the Mediterranean.

First Samnite War (343-341 BC)

Latin War (340-338 BC)

Alexander the 'Molossian'

The Second (Great) Samnite War (326-304 BC)

During the final phase of the Second (or Great) Samnite War, Rome, on another front, concluded its third treaty with Carthage (306 BC), in which the Carthaginians acknowledged all of Italy as Rome's sphere of influence.

Third Samnite War (298-290 BC)

After the end of the Samnite Wars, all of central Italy was under Roman control. This brought Roman territories much closer to the cities of Magna Graecia in southern Italy that still controlled the peninsula south of the Bay of Naples. This would soon lead to conflicting interests and subsequent war.

Confrontation with Magna Graecia

These cities sought aid against the Romans from King Pyrrhus of Epirus in northern Greece. Pyrrhus had gained a reputation as a brilliant adventurer who had won many battles, although with huge loss of life (thus the term Pyrrhic victories). He invaded Italy, but despite early victories against Roman armies, he was eventually defeated.

The Pyrrhic War, 280-270 BC

From 285 to 282 BC Rome was engaged in a short and sharp was with the Gallic Boii and Senones in the north, which destroyed the latter and pacified the former for forty years to come. But even before that was finished, Rome was drawn in to the southern complications.

By 266 BC Rome controlled Italy from the plains of the Po River valley in the northern part of the peninsula to its southernmost tip. The city on the Tiber River had vanquished all enemies within Italy. The next step was to cross a narrow waterway, the Strait of Messina, to the fertile island of Sicily.

The Romans referred to the defeated Latin, Italian, and Greek cities as allies, but they were, in fact, Roman subjects. Rome gave full citizenship to the people of only a few of these cities; most others received more limited privileges such as intermarriage and trading rights. Rome required these cities, known as municipia, to pay taxes and to supply detachments for the Roman army, but otherwise allowed self-government in internal affairs. Rome also established military colonies throughout the peninsula to ensure loyalty and protect the coast from pirates and invaders. The Romans, in comparison to other ancient peoples, were generous in granting citizenship to freed slaves. They were slower in extending citizenship to newly conquered peoples, although in time they did grant citizenship to their loyal subjects throughout Italy and eventually, after 212 BC, throughout the entire Mediterranean world. That generosity and Rome's adaptability to new circumstances were, perhaps, the chief reasons for the success of this small city in conquering, and ultimately transforming, so many neighbors.

With Phoenicia no longer existing and the Persians having left Carthage to its own devices, Carthage soon began expanding and extending its empire across North Africa. Carthage gained control of Northern Africa, from Libya to the Straits of Gilbratar, southern Spain and the island of Corsica and Sardinia in Europe. By early third century BC, Carthage dominated most of the commercial trade in the Mediterranean and managed to exploit vast amounts of gold and silver from mines in Spain. Carthage collided head on with the large and expanding Roman Empire in the middle of the third century BC. Rome had already conquered all the city-states south of the Rubicon river and the entire Italian peninsular by 265 BC. The Romans were fully aware of Carthaginian history and called the Carthaginians by their ancient name, Phoenicians. Between the Italian peninsula and Spain lay the island of Sicily, of which the western half was controlled by Carthage. The tip of the Italian peninsula, controlled by Rome, was just a stone's throw away from the Carthage empire, making war inevitable.

Carthage engaged in war almost continually with Greece and with Rome for 150 years. Wars with Greece, beginning in 409 BC, concerned the control of Sicily, which lay only about 160 km (about 100 mi) from Carthage and formed a natural bridge between North Africa and Italy. Carthage first encountered defeat in Sicily in 480 BC, when the Carthaginian general Hamilcar (flourished 5th century BC) commanded a force that hoped to expand Carthaginian influence throughout Sicily, but was defeated by Gelon, the tyrant (ruler) of Syracuse. Further Carthaginian attempts to conquer Sicily were thwarted by armies under the command of the Syracusan tyrants Dionysius the Younger, Dionysius the Elder, Agathocles, and Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. After their final defeat in 276 BC, the Carthaginians continued to hold territory in Sicily; 12 years later the first of the Punic Wars against Rome began.

Beginnings of the First Punic War