The Moral Decline of Ancient Rome

The period of the Punic Wars was a critical time in the history of Western civilizaition. They saw the rise of Rome as the dominant power in the civilized world and, no less important, its concomitant moral decline.

From its beginnings under its founder Romulus, Rome had always been a warlike society and its history recounts one war after another as Rome gradually extended its rule over more and more of Italy. The door to the Temple of Janus was only closed during times of peace. This happened only twice before the reign of Augustus, once during the reign of Numa Papilius from 716 to 673 B.C.  and once in 235 B.C. under the Counsel Titus Manlius.

Rome first went to war with Carthage in 265 B.C. This war lasted twenty-three years, until 241 B.C. and ended with a peace treaty on Roman terms.

It is said that Carthage worshipped Mammon while Rome worshipped Mars. There is some truth to this adage. However the First Punic War produced one very talented Carthaginian military leader who fought in Sicily and never lost a battle. His name was Hamilcar Barca. (Barca in the Phoenecian tongue meant “thunderbolt.”) Hamilcar Barca had three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago, and he transmitted to them his resentment of Carthage’s defeat at the hands of the Romans, and inspired in them the desire for revenge. The eldest, Hannibal, developed into a military genius who tormented Italy for sixteen years and was never defeated in a pitched battle until he confronted the equally gifted Scipio Africanus. It was Hannibal’s destruction of Saguntum, a Roman ally in Spain that initiated the Second Punic War in 218 B.C. This war lasted until 202 B.C. and ended in a peace treaty on Roman terms. The war brought about widespread devastation in Italy and appalling loss of life among the Romans and their allies.

As warlike as they were, the Romans of the third century B.C. maintained certain principles that were gradually lost during the second century B.C. The first of these principles was the notion that wars must be fought for just cause. In Livy’s account of the conference between Scipio and Hannibal, just before the battle of Zama, he had Scipio saying, “Neither did our fathers make war respecting Sicily nor we respecting Spain. In the former case the danger which threatened our allies, the Mamertines, and in the present the destruction of Saguntum, girded us with just and pious arms.”

The second of these principles was fides, the notion of good faith. When a Roman gave his word he kept it. Romans believed that the Carthaginians were prone to trickery and that their word could not be trusted. They called Carthaginian deceit “Punic faith.”

During the following century both of these principle fell into disuse. In 150 B.C., for example, the Praetor of Ulterior Spain, Publius Sulpicius Galba, offerred the Lusitanians a treaty of peace, promising to settle them on good farmland. He then divided them into three groups, disarmed then, and ordered his legionaires to slaughter the defenseless warriors.  In another example, Aemilius Paullus, after defeating Perseus of Macedonia, destroyed 70 cities in Epirus, enslaving 150,000 of the inhabitants. Rome had not even been at war with Epirus.

This moral decline is readily apparent in Rome’s conduct of the Third Punic War.  According to Adrian Goldsworthy in his book The Fall of Carthage,  “There is no doubt that the Third Punic War was provoked by the Romans who had made a conscious decision to destroy their old enemy. Roman negotiators shamelessly exploited the Carthaginian’s willingness to grant concessions in their desire to avoid war with Rome, stealthily increasing their demands to force a conflict on a weakened enemy. It was a far worse desplay than any of the recorded examples of ‘Punic treachery'”

Rome, during the second century B.C. was far more prone than before to annihilate their enemies rather than subjugate them. Not only was Carthage destroyed, but Corinth and Numantia suffered similar fates.

Moral decline is a slippery slope. The latter part of the second century saw the first massacres of Roman citizens at the hands of the minions of the aristocracy. In 231 B.C. the reformer Tiberius Gracchus was slain along with 300 of his followers, and in 221 B.C. his brother Gaius perished along with 3000 followers.  Things only got worse for Rome during the following century during which a long series of civil wars took place, ultimately culminating in one  man rule-the principate of Augustus.



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