Quora Question: When and Why did the Romans Begin to Conquer Other Peoples

The Romans were always warlike. Their only prolonged period of peace was under their second king, Numa. The doors to the Temple of Janus were closed only during time of peace, and they were only closed once during the period between the reign of King Numa and the Principate of Augustus, a period of perhaps seven hundred years.

At first, the Romans made war with neighboring peoples, the Latins, the Sabines, the Etruscans, and the Samnites. When they conquered their neighbors they formed confederations with them, granting them some form of “Latin rights.” in return for the right to levy auxiliary forces from these tribes.

In the mid fourth century B.C. Rome was attacked and temporarily seized by the Gallic Senones under Brennus. There is a story that the Romans tried to buy the Senones off with gold. Brennus threw his sword and belt on the scales to demand more gold. When the Romans objected he said “vae victis”-woe to the conquered. At that point the exiled dictator Marcus Furius Camillus arrived, saying “Non auro, sed ferro, recuperando est patria.”- The fatherland is not redeemed by gold but by iron. Camillus defeated the Senones and retook the city.

Early in the third century B.C. Italy was invaded by Pyrrhus of Epirus. The Romans fought two battles which were technically victories for Pyrrhus, but they were so costly that he gave up the effort to conquer Italy. “One more such victory and we’re ruined!” he complained. This is where we get the term “Pyrrhic victory.”

The Romans did not venture outside of the Italian Peninsula until the First Carthaginian war, when they fought in Sicily and invaded Africa. Most of Sicily was ceded to the Romans in the Treaty of Lutatius which ended the First Punic War, and not long afterward the Romans also took possession of Sardinia and Corsica, an act that contributed to the causation of the Second Punic War. Sometime between the First and Second Punic Wars, the Romans also established a base in northern Spain. Southern Spain was ruled by the Carthaginians, and they made a treaty with Hasdrubal the Fair dividing their respective spheres of influence at the Ebro (Iberus) River.

Shortly before the Second Punic War, the Romans invaded Illyria, whose queen, Tuetta, was encouraging pirates. They were also in the process of spreading Roman Rule northward, planting colonies such as Placentia and Cremona in areas previously inhabited by Gallic tribes. When Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 B.C. he took advantage of Gallic hostility to Rome and recruited many Galls to his standard.

The Second Punic War left Rome in charge of all of Spain, and Carthage, although nominally independent, was under Roman domination. After the Second Punic War, Rome turned its attention to Greece, fighting wars with Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire. The historian Polybius writes of this period:

“For who is so worthless or indolent as not to which to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole of the inhabited world to their sole government, a thing unique in history?”

The following century Caesar conquered Gall. The Emperor Claudius conquered Britain in the first century A.D. The empire reached its maximum under the Emperor Trajan, around the end of the first century A.D. with his conquest of Dacia (modern Romania.)

Generally, the Romans ruled by co-opting the elites of the conquered peoples and Romanizing them. They could be benign rulers in some cases and ruthless in others. If there was prolonged resistance to their rule, they were ruthless as the fates of Numantia, Corinth, and Judea attest. The historian Tacitus quotes a Gallic chieftain as saying “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant,”-they make a wasteland and call it peace.

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