Shit’s about to get Dr. Who, so strap in for a whistlestop tour through space and time because what’s coming up in Rome’s history cannot be suitably talked about without discussing the other major players in Italy and the Mediterranean basin.
You see the area we’ve been looking at so far has basically been the middle-bit of Italy, The shin of the leg, if you will. The shoe? Well that wasn’t Roman, it wasn’t Etruscan either. Areas on a lot of the islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, they weren’t Roman, and the rest of the Mediterranean was far from Roman.
We’ll start, then, with the Phoenicians. There are, as best as we can tell, a group of Semitic people from the middle-east/fertile crescent region, some people think them indistinguishable from the Canaanites (of biblical fame). Sometime around the 15th century BCE they started actively trading out of Phoenicia, the land around the Lebanon/Syria area of the Med-Coast.
These will be a predominately mercantile people, known for their coastal trade and thus were one of the key factors in texts from the ‘ancient kingdoms’ – the old lands of the east, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians, finding their way across the Mediterranean to the Greeks.
Anyway, kingdoms rise and fall and around the 11th and 12th centuries BCE a lot of those ancient cultures fell apart but somehow Phoenicia pulled through and became more of a distinct ‘culture’ of their own. They were permitted to expand from their middle-eastern bases in Byblos, Sidon, Tyre etc. and found settlements elsewhere. One of these settlements would be Carthage, generally believed to have been founded sometime around the 9th century BCE.
Given the semi-independent nature of Phoenician settlements, Carthage would go on to great power on its own, founding its own little empire within an empire of the Phoenicians.
These Carthaginians held much of Northwest Africa, linked to a larger Phoenician network that controlled much of the North African coast.
In that same time another fragmented culture was coming together and starting to dominate.
I don’t know if you’ve ever played the videogame Civilisation – If you haven’t you basically take a culture from plains-dwelling Neolithic grunters to nuclear powered cultural powerhouses via a series of turn-based decisions. It’s very good, I recommend it.
Anyway, there are a few paths to victory – Conquest (fight for, and own the whole world), Technology (win the space-race for example), Trade (earn so much money nobody can fight you), culture (become so culturally dominant every civilisation is basically you) and Religion (ruin everything with beliefs).
The Phoenicians and, by extension the Carthaginians, were very trade based, with a little conquest thrown in.
The Greeks, though, had their fingers in science and technology, culture and religion all at once, as well as dabbling on conquest during their awkward teenage years!
Now given that there are entire textbooks dedicated to periods of only a few hundred years of this shit forgive me for paraphrasing and cutting it down.
Around 4,000 years ago (20th century BCE) the area of Greece was as wanky as anywhere else and then some people started to make nice patterns and pictures and write shit down. By about the 17th or 16th century BCE Minoans started making nice pots and writing stuff down on Crete and something similar to this style would find its way over to the main land around the 12th and 11th centuries BCE.
For a few hundred years we have fuck all idea what was going on but we know something must have been because by 800 BCE Greek people are writing out complicated ideas including epic poems that appear to be the first writing of an extant and complex oral tradition of stories of Gods, heroes and wars. These ‘writers’ whether real people or semi-legendary, would go on to continue to influence European, and world culture to this day.
Far from being a unified culture Greece was divided into a bunch of city states, an individual of which was called a Polis, plural Poleis, and these fuckers loved to fight each other whilst also sometimes trading.
Two major powers, Athens and Sparta, would come to blows around the 5th century BCE in the Pelopennesian wars, but soon some Persian fellas started making moves and Greece kinda got its shit together a bit better to deal with this external threat. Once the external threat was mostly nullified they got back to fighting each other.
Then around the 4th century BCE a Macedonian fella named Phillip 2: Electric Boogaloo decided this was all taking the piss, Athens could fuck off, Sparta could fuck off and Persia definitely needed to fuck off. He united a lot of the Greek cities under the League of Corinth and set about turning Persia Greek. This Macedonian Empire, at the birth of its most famous son, would already stretch from the Adriatic coast to the Bosphorous and be allied with most of mainland Greece via the League of Corinith. Sparta and Crete held out.
Of course then Phillip’s son happened. He started life as Alexander the baby, quickly became Alexander the overenthusiastic, was for a short while Alexander the Twink, before he started getting a bit uppity at which point he was Alexander the Uh-Oh! Then he took Egypt and he was Alexander the Alright, then he rampaged through Mesopotamia and Babylon in very short order and became Alexander the Yeah! Before basically turning the Persians into mince, carrying on basically into India, becoming Alexander the Fucking Hell, before he died, becoming Alexander the ‘Great’, now what are we going to do, he died young leaving behind little idea of how to manage this huge fucking empire and who will inherit it.’ – Or Alexander the Great, for short.
After his death the Empire was divided. The Eastern portion became the Seleucid Empire, this included much of Asia minor, into Persia. Egypt, Cyprus and the small area of modern Turkey just north of Cyprus became the Ptolemaic empire. Much of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Thrace (Modern Bulgaria/Romania) became the Kingdom of Lysimachus. The mainland Greek area would become the kingdom of Cassander.
What’s quite important here, however, is Greece still had colonies elsewhere, specifically on the south of the Italian peninsula with the major cities of Tarentum on the mainland and Syracuse on Sicily. They also had a small enclave around the modern Sorrentine peninsula, including Neopolis (modern Naples) and in the South of France they had Massilia (modern Marseille). Amongst other settlements, of course, and areas settled and control or ownership of towns and cities did change over time but Tarentum, Syracuse and Massilia remained very Greek.
Not far from Neopolis were the mountains where the Samnites lived. We will cover the Samnite wars next, for as much as the First Samnite War does not involve a lot of these other places, eventually a war with the Samnites will lead to a war with the Greeks.
Of course once you go to war with the Greeks you’re going to war with the people who share the Island of Sicily with them, the Carthaginians.
So what’s about to happen is Rome is about to step into some shit that, the process of wiping it off of their boot will turn them from an upstart city-state-turned-territory into a major, trans-Mediterranean empire over the course of around a hundred to two hundred years.
Sorry for the rush-through but 1) It’s difficult to put into context the size, scale and scope of what Rome is about to do without first making these territories clear and 2) Again, with the Greeks alone entire textbooks are written about hundreds of year spans. I’d love to go into detail but I don’t know the detail as well as I do the Romans, and it would take forever for me to learn enough. Never mind the Carthaginians!
So that’s the deal. As far as the Med superpowers go, the central Italian peninsula is dominated by Rome and its allies, the South is very Greek, most of what’s West is Carthaginian and Rome is about to kick off with all of it.
Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before
The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE
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