Sharp Blue: Flamininus at Corinth


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During the Isthmian Games at Corinth in the year 196BC, the Roman consul Titus Quinctius Flamininus made one of the most extraordinary and surprising announcements in the history of the ancient world. The previous year, Flamininus and his legions, including many veterans of Scipio Africanus' campaigns in Spain and Africa, had utterly defeated the armies of Philip V of Macedon at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly. To the astonishment of the Greeks, an army from the obscure regions of Italy, a country of little note on the frontiers of civilisation had vanquished the might of the King of Macedon, one of the most powerful rulers of the Hellenistic world. Flamininus was truly a mighty conqueror, and the Greeks knew what to expect of conquerors: subjugation, brutality, and the exaction of tribute. So when Flamininus' herald proclaimed that the Romans had come not as conquerors but as liberators and that Greece would henceforth be free to govern itself according to its ancestral laws without Roman garrisons or the paying of tribute, the consul was almost mobbed by the euphoric crowds. The causes and consequences of this singular event deserve closer scrutiny, and provide a salutary lesson for the modern world.

Rome had only recently come into contact with the Greek world on a large scale. The First Punic War (264-241BC) between Rome and Carthage (the other rising power of the western Mediterranean) had seen extensive fighting in Sicily, an island of Greek cities, which became a Roman province. During the epic Second Punic War (218-201BC), a side campaign, the First Macedonian War, was fought for control of the Adriatic after Philip had allied with Carthage. The struggle with Hannibal also saw Roman armies on the march in Sicily once more. After these wars, Roman soldiers returning from the campaigns in Sicily and Illyricum had brought with them a flood of Greek culture. To the Romans, who had little in the way of literature, philosophy, history or science, the intellectual glories of Greece were an awesome revelation. New religious ideas from the Hellenistic world transformed the religions of Rome. Greek drama was performed on Roman stages. Greek arts and fashions swept through Italy. Many Roman nobles, including Flamininus and the Scipios, became ardent philhellenes. At the same time, conservatives centred around Cato the Elder struggled to resist Greek influences, which they thought were corrupting Rome's moral purity and the primitive simplicity of its culture and society. The struggle between the philhellenes and the conservatives would shape Roman foreign policy for decades to come.

By the beginning of the second century BC, the centres of power of Greek civilisation had moved far beyond Greece. More than a century before, Alexander the Great of Macedon had swept eastward, conquering the Middle East as far as the borders of India. After his death his empire had fragmented, leaving in its wake three great kingdoms ruled by his generals and a host of smaller states. The Hellenistic powers were Macedonia itself, Syria and Egypt. At the time when Roman eyes turned eastward, the old city-states and leagues of mainland Greece were firmly under the domination of Macedonia and the Greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor were in the sphere of Syria. The ruler of Macedonia, Philip V, was the greatest, most powerful and most ambitious ruler that state had seen since Alexander himself. Furthermore, he had formed an alliance with Antiochus III of Syria (himself surnamed "the Great") to dismember and absorb Egypt, then ruled by the child king Ptolemy V. The Romans soon realised that after Egypt they might well be next and the Senate decided that this threat must be pre-empted. Despite Philip having behaved entirely legally towards Rome, a pretext was found and a Roman army dispatched to Greece with the high moral purpose of defending the smaller Greek states against Macedonian aggression. Roman self-interest and moral generosity thus mingled in the causes of the Second Macedonian War (200-196BC); and after Flamininus' victory they equally contributed to its consequences. The Roman consul's promise was upheld and, for the moment, Roman troops withdrew from the east.

Therefore, Rome's career as the preeminent power of the Mediterranean began not just with fire and the sword but with generosity of spirit. The legions that had smashed Carthaginian power in Spain, driven Hannibal's armies from Italy and finally defeated them at Zama in Africa would not be unleashed in wars of conquest that would sweep all before them, but would instead preserve the peace and independence of the nations. (Rome had by then acquired provinces - Sicily, Spain, Corsica and Sardinia - but these were the barest minimum required to preserve the security of Italy. Rome might now be imperialistic, but it was a defensive, minimal imperialism.) For a while, many Romans were blinded to the decadence of the Greek present by the greatness of the Greek past, but the Greeks soon proved unworthy of their new freedom. Roman philhellenism was rapidly eroded by the constant quarrels of the Greeks, which Rome was expected to resolve. Furthermore, the Romans found that when they had once been drawn into the Hellenistic vortex, they could not disengage. Soon the they were forced to act once again as preservers of Greek freedom by fighting the Syrian War against Antiochus. Macedonia was divided into four republics following a Third Macedonian War, and finally reduced to a Roman province after a Fourth. All the while, Cato spoke out against this engagement with the feeble and enervating Greeks. In his opinion, Italy formed the proper compass of Roman dominion, and rivals overseas should be defeated and annihilated, not humbled and made clients or provinces. He spoke especially of the urgent need to destroy Carthage. For decades, Rome struggled with its own destiny, reluctant to turn inward and yet becoming steadily disillusioned with its Greek allies.

The next watershed in Roman foreign policy after Flamininus' declaration at Corinth was the ominous and traumatic year 146BC. In Africa, Cato finally got his way: Scipio Aemilianus defeated and destroyed Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War. The city burned for ten days, the smouldering ruins were razed and the ground sown with salt and cursed. Fifty thousand Carthaginians were carried away into slavery. However, those who wanted Rome to look outward also shaped Roman policy: Africa became a province. It seemed that the Romans would fuse the worst of the two parties. The same year, in Europe a Roman army commanded by Lucius Mummius suppressed a revolt of the Achaean League, sacked and razed Corinth, and then enslaved its people. Nor were these extirpations a brief spasm. Rome's next major conflict, the Third Celtiberian War, ended with Scipio's razing of Numantia. Henceforth, power and military glory would increasingly decide the fate of Rome's client states and rivals. It would be another century till Rome, after class struggles, dictatorships, civil wars, overseas conquest and revolts, would have an emperor; but it was clear that the Senate and People of Rome had already chosen an Empire over their Republic. During the transition, power slipped from the Senate into the hands of independent and charismatic military leaders. Eventually, the Romans would gain a Pax Romana that endured (more or less) for centuries but lose their ancient freedoms. Under the Principate of Augustus and his successors, the forms of a Republic endured, but not the spirit. Hundreds of years later, Diocletian's Dominate would sweep away even that pretence, without so much a whimper of protest.

There are, of course, no exact historical analogies. Nevertheless, events and circumstances of the past may be more nearly or less nearly like those of today, and examination of the ancient may shed light on the modern. The foreign policy of Rome during its initial entanglements with Greece provide such a model for the stance of America with respect to the world today. America, like the Rome of the elder Scipios and Flamininus, uses its vast military power decisively and yet with restraint. It is the sole superpower. It acts in its own interests, yet those interests are often also those of morality and freedom. It is a young nation in the west that is deeply involved with the older nations of the east, which are the source of culture and ideas and yet no longer of power. It is seemingly willing to go to war preemptively to protect its interests. It has a genius for organisation and administration. And, in these early years of the New American Century, we see signs and portents that the United States, like the Roman Republic, might trade its freedoms for the world. Unlike Rome, though, the United States of America is a true democracy, with a thriving civil society and a constitution protecting fundamental civil rights. Let us hope that the American electorate chooses carefully, and that if they choose empire they do so not blindly but with a determination to uphold and extend their freedoms, and to carry those freedoms to the whole world. And let us hope that Europe, having twice been given its freedom by an American Flamininus, will continue to work with determination and vision to preserve that freedom. And finally let us all hope that we are wiser than the Romans, whose genius and fortune and power and ambition led to tyranny.

This is an interesting article, equating the US with ancient Rome, something which I have been inclined to do. Were it not for the erstwhile presence of the Soviet Union, well within the sights of the US, one could more easily see a parallel between Rome(US) and Britain(Greece) and their respective empires; however, with the demise of the Soviet Union, it would seem that the US and Europe gaze antipathetically at one another now. As they say, we live in interesting times.

Cato the Elder was, I think, a more complicated character. Didn't he tell one ambassador from one Greek city that in asking for more in the treaty he was like someone who, having escaped from the Cyclops's cave, went back for his hat? Didn't he model his own rhetorical advice to his son on the Greek styles of Thucydides and Demosthenes?

Well, it was Harold MacMillan who started the parallels.

Me, I say U.S.=Rome, Britain=Greece, Russia=Macedonia.

But then you have to say Hitler=Darayavush III, which is just silly...

So, you've managed to do some of that reading on ancient Rome then?

Yes, I finally read Scullard's History of the Roman World 753-146BC, which I thought was pretty good. I think that the Republic as far as the end of the Punic Wars was my weakest era but I feel a bit more confident talking about it now. (I was much more confident on the period from then till the collapse in the West, and pretty okay on Byzantium too.) Initially I was planning to read a whole mass of books on Roman history in one go but I seem to have been distracted by other things...

As for Cato, he was clearly more complex than my few lines on him might suggest. He was, for example, a patron of the poet Ennius, who brought lots of Greek literary ideas to Rome. Nevertheless, during the 180s he was a stern critic of most Greek influences (and used his censorship of 184 to try to restrain the new extravagant luxury of the nobility). He was also obsessed with the destruction of Carthage, including the words "Carthage must be destroyed!" whenever he expressed an opinion on any subject in the Senate. But, as Brad says, his position softened later in his long life and he finally learned Greek and studied Greek literature.

Ennius wrote absolute drivel though... as Greek poets go he was a very long way down the list.

If I recall correctly, the British Victorians made the same sort of comparison: they were the Romans and the Continentals the Greeks. Everyone wants to rule the world?

Very insightful. I too began to draw the parallels early in your article, well before you made them explicit.

Indeed, I hope the US keeps its Republic and acts to spread freedom in the future.

Too many Catos running around these a bad sense.

I think (of course 5 years hence) that the time-frame of your analogy is a couple of centuries off. Current era, seems to be around the time that the main Roman empire centre was established in Byzantium (by analogy: modern Europe), when Rome was too tired fighting, with its civil structure hopelesly deteriorating into a mob-centric populism (Obama may be an exception that proves the rule - let's see how he fares). This, certainly, is not the new American century.

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