The History of Rome (Mommsen)/Book 1/Chapter 1



Ancient history. The Mediterranean Sea with its various branches, penetrating far into the great Continent, forms the largest gulf of the ocean, and, alternately narrowed by islands or projections of the land and expanding to considerable breadth, at once separates and connects the three divisions of the Old World. The shores of this inland sea were in ancient times peopled by various nations, belonging in an ethnographical and philological point of view to different races, but constituting in their historical aspect one whole. This historic whole has been usually, but not very appropriately, entitled the history of the ancient world. It is in reality the history of civilization among the Mediterranean nations, and as it passes before us in its successive stages, it presents four great phases of development,—the history of the Coptic or Egyptian stock dwelling on the southern shore, the history of the Aramæan or Syrian nation, which occupied the east coast and extended into the interior of Asia as far as the Euphrates and Tigris, and the histories of the twin-peoples, the Hellenes and Italians, who received as their heritage the countries bordering on its European shores. Each of these histories was in its earlier stages connected with other regions and with other cycles of historical evolution, but each soon entered on its own peculiar career. The surrounding nations of alien or even of kindred extraction,—the Berbers and Negroes of Africa, the Arabs, Persians, and Indians of Asia, the Celts and Germans of Europe,—came into manifold contact with the peoples inhabiting the borders of the Mediterranean, but they neither imparted unto them nor received from them any influences of really decisive effect upon their respective destinies. So far, therefore, as cycles of culture admit of demarcation at all, we may regard that cycle as an unity which has its culminating points denoted by the names Thebes, Carthage, Athens, and Rome. The four nations represented by these names, after each of them had attained in a path of its own a peculiar and noble civilization, mingled with one another in the most varied relations of reciprocal intercourse, and skilfully elaborated and richly developed all the elements of human nature. At length their cycle was accomplished. New peoples who hitherto had only laved the territories of the states of the Mediterranean, as waves lave the beach, overflowed both its shores, severed the history of its south coast from that of the north, and transferred the centre of civilization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. The distinction between ancient and modern history, therefore, is no mere accident, nor yet a mere matter of chronological convenience. What is called modern history is in reality the formation of a new cycle of culture, connected at several epochs of its development with the perishing or perished civilization of the Mediterranean states, as that was connected with the primitive civilization of the Indo-Grermanic stock, but destined, like that earlier cycle, to traverse an orbit of its own. It too is destined to experience in full measure vicissitudes of national weal and woe, periods of growth, of full vigour, and of age, the blessedness of creative effort, in religion, polity, and art, the comfort of enjoying the material and intellectual acquisitions it has won, perhaps also, some day, the decay of productive power in the satiety of contentment with the goal attained. But that goal too will only be temporary: the grandest system of civilization has its orbit, and may complete its course; but not so the human race, to which, even when it seems to have attained its goal, the old task is ever set anew with a wider range and with a deeper meaning.

Italy. Our aim is to exhibit the last act of this great historical drama, to relate the ancient history of the central peninsula projecting from the northern continent into the Mediterranean. It is formed by the mountain-system of the Apennines branching off in a southerly direction from the western Alps. The Apennines take in the first instance a south-easterly course between the broader gulf of the Mediterranean on the west, and the narrow one on the east; and in the close vicinity of the latter they attain their greatest elevation, which, however, scarce reaches the line of perpetual snow, in the Abruzzi. From the Abruzzi the chain continues in a southerly direction, at first undivided and of considerable height; after a depression which forms a hill-country, it splits into a somewhat flattened succession of heights towards the south-east, and a more rugged chain towards the south, and in both directions terminates in the formation of narrow peninsulas.

The flat country on the north, extending between the Alps and the Apennines as far down as the Abruzzi, does not belong, geographically, nor until a very late period, even historically, to the southern land of mountain and hill, the Italy whose history is here to engage our attention. It was not till the seventh century of the city, that the coast-district from Sinigaglia to Rimini, and not till the eighth, that the basin of the Po became incorporated with Italy. The ancient boundary of Italy on the north was not the Alps, but the Apennines. This mountain-system nowhere rises abruptly into a precipitous chain, but, spreading broadly over the land and enclosing many valleys and tablelands connected by easy passes, presents conditions which well adapt it to become the settlement of man. Still more suitable in this respect are the adjacent slopes and the coast districts on the east, south, and west. On the east coast the plain of Apulia, shut in towards the north by the mountain-block of the Abruzzi, and only broken by the steep isolated ridge of Garganus, stretches in an uniform level with but a scanty development of coast and stream. On the south coast, between the two peninsulas in which the Apennines terminate, extensive lowlands, poorly provided with harbours, but well watered and fertile, adjoin the hill-country of the interior. The west coast presents a far-stretching domain, intersected by considerable streams, in particular by the Tiber, shaped by the action of the waves and of the once numerous volcanoes into manifold variety of hill and valley, harbour and island, and forming, in the regions of Etruria, Latium, and Campania, the very flower of the land of Italy. South of Campania, the land in front of the mountains gradually diminishes, and the Tyrrhenian Sea almost washes their base. Moreover, the island of Sicily adjoins Italy, as the Peloponuesus adjoins Greece, the largest and fairest isle of the Mediterranean, having a mountainous and partly desert interior, but girt, especially on the east and south, by a broad belt of the finest coast-land, mainly the result of volcanic action. Geographically the Sicilian mountains are a continuation of the Apennines, hardly interrupted by the narrow "rent" (Ῥήγιον) of the straits; and in its historical relations Sicily was in earlier times quite as decidedly a part of Italy as the Peloponnesus was of Greece,—an arena for the struggles of the same races, and the seat of a similar superior civilization.

The Italian peninsula resembles the Grecian in the temperate climate and wholesome air that prevail on its hills of moderate height, and on the whole, also, in its valleys and plains. In development of coast it is inferior; it wants, in particular, the island-studded sea which made the Hellenes a seafaring nation. On the other hand, Italy excels its neighbour in the rich alluvial plains, and the fertile and grassy mountain-slopes, which are requisite for agriculture and the rearing of cattle. Like Greece, it is a noble land, calling forth and rewarding the energies of man, providing for restless adventure paths to distant lands, and for quiet exertion modes of peaceful gain at home.

But, while the Grecian peninsula turns towards the east, the Italian turns towards the west. As the coasts of Epirus and Acarnania had but a subordinate importance in the case of Hellas, so had the Apulian and Messapian coasts in that of Italy; and, while the regions on which the historical development of Greece has been mainly dependent—Attica and Macedonia—look to the east, Etruria, Latium, and Campania look to the west. In this way the two peninsulas, such close neighbours and almost sisters, stand, as it were, averted from each other. Although the naked eye can discern from Otranto the Acroceraunian mountains, the Italians and Hellenes came into earlier and closer contact on every other pathway rather than on the nearest across the Adriatic Sea. In their case too, as has happened so often, the historical vocation of the nations was prefigured in the relations of the ground which they occupied; the two great stocks, on which the civilization of the ancient world grew, threw their shadow as well as their seed, the one towards the east, the other towards the west.

Italian history. We intend here to relate the history of Italy, not simply the history of the city of Rome. Although, in the formal sense of political law, it was the civic community of Rome which gained the sovereignty first of Italy, then of the world, such a view cannot be held to express the higher and real meaning of history. What has been called the subjugation of Italy by the Romans appears rather, when viewed in its true light, as the consolidation into an united state of the whole Italian stock—a stock of which the Romans were the most powerful branch, but still were only a branch.

The history of Italy falls into two main divisions, (1) its internal history down to its union under the leadership of the Latin stock, and (2) the history of its sovereignty over the world. Under the first section, which will occupy the first two books, we shall have to set forth the settlement of the Italian stock in the peninsula; the imperilling of its national and political existence, and its partial subjugation, by nations of other descent and older civilization, Greeks and Etruscans; the rebellion of the Italians against the strangers, and the annihilation or subjection of the latter, finally, the struggles between the two chief Italian stocks, the Latins and the Samnites, for the hegemony of the peninsula, and the victory of the Latins at the end of the 4th century before the birth of Christ—or of the 5th century of the city. The second section opens with the Punic wars; and embraces the rapid extension of the dominion of Rome up to and beyond the natural boundaries of Italy, the long status quo of the imperial period, and the collapse of the mighty empire. These events will be narrated in the third and following books.