History of Rome, part two

The peninsula Italy looks much like a boot, with the city of Rome situated on the shin. The island Sicily appears to be a rock being kicked by the boot. When Rome had consolidated power over Italy, it turned its attention to Sicily, which brought it into conflict with the north African city Carthage, once a colony founded by the Phoenicians. War erupted between Rome and Carthage over control of Sicily. The result of that fight, known as the First Punic War, was that Rome gained control of Sicily and also damaged the Carthaginian navy, making Rome the prevalent power of the western Mediterranean Sea.

Treaties were signed between Rome and Carthage, but Roman leaders were not content with the treaties they had signed. Almost immediately, they sought ways to violate the treaties and return to war with Carthage—preferring, if possible, to make Carthage seem guilty of the breach rather than Rome. The desired conflict was sparked to the west, in what is now Spain. Rome sent its armies to defend Roman interests in Spain, but Hannibal—a general from Carthage—responded by transporting troops and supplies across southern Gaul (which is now France), over the Alps, and into Italy. (He was forced to use the land route because of the previous damage to Carthage’s naval forces.) His army was too weak to lay siege to Rome itself, largely because of reductions in strength during the long voyage to Italy; but they devastated the Italian countryside, hoping to draw Roman forces into an engaged battle. The Roman commander, Fabius, preferred to avoid battle and wait for Hannibal’s troops to run out of supplies. When Roman citizens tired of the impasse, other Roman generals took command and brought the fight to Hannibal. The Romans were solidly defeated. In the end, though, Hannibal still could not attack Rome itself. Another Roman general, Scipio (later given the title Africanus for his victory) moved his troops from Spain to north Africa, attacking Carthage and ending the Second Punic War in Rome’s favor.

Now masters of the western Mediterranean Sea, the Romans turned their attention to the east, to the land of Greece and the kingdoms ruled by descendants of Alexander’s generals. Over the course of many years, with a combination of negotiations, treaties, and military victories, Rome captured all the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean basin. But some Roman politicians feared a revival of Carthage. A Senator named Cato ended every speech he gave, on any topic whatsoever, with the words, “Moreover, Carthage must be destroyed.” Eventually, his opinion prevailed. Rome attacked Carthage, initiating the Third Punic War, which Rome easily won, and Carthage was destroyed.

As Roman power expanded, the system of the Republic became increasingly unwieldy. Between bouts with other kingdoms, Rome was threatened with civil war. Several generals seized political power, generally with the support of their troops, who were demanding better retirement plans for veterans of the Roman army. Gaius Gracchus, his younger brother Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, and Gnaeus “Pompey” Pompeius all sought power and influence to reform Roman law, to care for soldiers and veterans, and to establish a government capable of handling the larger land mass and population Rome was now ruling.

The most famous in this line of reformers was Julius Caesar. Like the other reformers, Julius Caesar rose to power within the Roman military system. Like the other reformers, he seized political power in Rome, working to adjust the government to face the changing reality of its power. Along the way, he reinvented the calendar (and the Julian Calendar, with some tinkering from a pope named Gregory, is still used around the world today). He revised the judicial system and the welfare system of Rome. He sent citizens to colonize various regions in conquered lands, relieving overpopulation in the city of Rome and other Italian municipalities. He rewrote the rules of local government in the places ruled by Rome. He planned new construction, including highways and harbors.

The opponents of Julius Caesar warned that their leader was becoming a king. (Remember that the word king—“rex”—was one of the most frightening words in the Latin language.) Graffiti even appeared in Rome with the words “Rex Julius.” To prevent his coronation, a group of Senators assassinated Caesar, stabbing him to death on the Senate floor. They believed that they had preserved the Republic. Instead, the provoked a new civil war, one which ended when Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian Caesar, defeated his opponents in battle. Octavian made it clear that he did not want to be a king. “Just call me Emperor,” he said, borrowing a word from legal practice that did not yet have the meaning it acquired. Octavian completed the reform that Julius began, finally bringing peace to the Roman Empire. A grateful Senate granted him a new title, making him Caesar Augustus. In time, the family name of Caesar would become a title equivalent to king or emperor—in Germany it was spelled Kaiser, and in Russia it was spelled Czar or Tsar.

But Caesar Augustus could not anticipate that a Jewish baby, born in his empire and counted in his census, would rise to outshine him in power and in glory. J.