September 18, 2009

The dangers of Empire

Livy's approach to empire through looking at the First Samnite War highlights both the ways in which imperium can be justified and the ways in which dissention from the city's sphere can boil over into the imperial sphere. But Livy, in addition to being a theorist of empire and the contract that underlay it, was also keenly aware of what empire did to a state's external relations and ultimately fortunes. The relationship between domination and success was, in his view and that of modern historians, far from simple. The best example of Livy's subtle treatment of this theme comes at the end of the First Samnite War. The Samnians had sued for peace and the Romans rewarded them with it (VIII 1), however the Samnians were still at war with another group within Italy, the Sidicini. Despite the fact that the Sidicini appealed to Rome and were rejected, Rome's allies- the Latins and the Campanians announced that they would support the Sidicini against the Samnians (VIII 1). Rome's allies committed themselves so far as to draw up a large army and oppose the Samnians on the field- at which point, understandably, the Samnians came back to the Romans and asked them what kind of a treaty was it that permitted a war to continue (VIII 3).

Livy's description of the Roman response is interesting. Despite the fact that the Romans were in no way responsible for their allies' decision, he shows that they were unable to say that they would not protect their allies:

To this plea, they [the Samnians] were given an ambiguous reply; for the Romans disliked having to admit that they no longer had the Latins under their control, and were afraid of provoking them to disaffection if they censured them. The Campnians they said were on a different footing because they had come under Roman protection by surrender, not by treaty, and therefore should maintain peace whether they wanted it or not; but there was nothing in their treaty with the Latins that enabled the Romans to prevent them making war on anyone they liked. (VIII 3)


Notice that the Romans clearly divided two groups- the Campanians whom they had recently rescued who had to follow Roman policy and the Latins- who were their allies in a confederation that Rome led. This latter group provided an informal foundation of their empire but in this case the informal empire threatened to drag the imperial centre into quarrels it wished to have no part in.

What this episode suggests and the fact that both Campania and Latium went to war with Samnium afterwards, is that external policy as much as internal dissention could shake any dominant power. The Romans for their own reasons did not want war- their fellows in Campania and Latium did and ultimately were determined enough to go to war without the Romans. That faced the Romans with a dilemma, either acknowledge the loss of Campania and Latium and fight with the Samnians to regain them or to let their subordinates lead them. In a different sense what Rome discovered during the First Samnian War and what Livy brings out is the difficult nature of imperium: we tend to think of empire as a simple relationship- the imperial centre gives orders, the provinces follow- but actually it is incredibly complicated. The provinces can lead the centre and their different relationships to the centre govern how far the centre perceives itself to have sway. By entering upon even the small dominance and empire that it exerted at this early stage, Rome did not close down Italian politics: she merely transferred the languages of politics and transformed the balance of power within that politics.

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