Roman Imperialism: defensive or just an aggressive attitude from the beginning?

Theodor Mommsen was one of the leading historians of 19th century Germany. A great defender of the unification program that Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was trying to carry out at the time, his History of Rome marked an important milestone in the process of renewal of studies on Antiquity carried out by German historiography.

His History of Rome is today largely out of date. However, one of Mommsen’s theses has given rise over time to a debate that, on the contrary, is still alive: was Roman imperialism something merely defensive or, rather, a reflection of an inherently aggressive attitude from the beginning?

The question is not without interest. Of course, we must not confuse the terms empire and imperialism . Although it may seem like a contradiction in adjecto to speak of an imperial republic, the truth is that it is not. And few historians doubt that Rome itself had become an Empire long before Octavian was titled Augustus (27 BC). Defenders of the defensive imperialism thesisThey consider that Rome did nothing more than react to the enemies that surrounded it, first, and help its allies, in turn threatened by other powers, later. Defending against enemies would include defending her sources of supply and trade routes, critical to her survival.

Thus, from the times in which Rome was just one city among others in the fertile region of Lazio , subjected to the powerful Etruscan influence, Rome would only fight not so much because of its territorial ambitions but as a necessary measure to avoid succumbing. in a hostile world.

On the other hand, the defenders of aggressive imperialism , who are usually condensed in the name of the Englishman William Harris , born in 1938, think that Rome, for whatever reasons, was clear from the beginning. And if for centuries the doors of the temple of Janus were open (they were closed in times of peace) it was because the Urbs wanted to expand and the means of doing so was war.

What seems evident is that at the end of the Punic Wars , at the beginning of the 2nd century BC , Rome fully understood its status as the first world power and, in a way, its status as an empire. Around the same time, however, he appears before the Greek world as its liberator .

At this point, we must mention the story narrated by Polybius (by the way, a Greek defender of Rome) and later by Titus Livy , when during the inauguration of the Isthmian Games , in Corinth, a Roman herald announced to the Greeks present that After having defeated  Philip V of Macedonia , Rome, the victorious power, declared them free.

Polybius speaks  of the joy experienced then among the crowd because of the unexpected news. It was 196 BC Less than five years later, the Greeks had already experienced what the word libertas pronounced by a Roman concealed, and they would have no hint of doubt when contemplating, in 146 BC, the complete destruction of Corinth for wanting to rebel.

Here they go: messengers of a republic that is actually already an empire conquering the world (especially the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East, Western Asia…) and proclaiming the freedom (or, tant pis , democracy ) of the conquered, even when no one has asked them and despite the fact that for this they have to take so many lives… I think I have a deja vu. Or worse: a headache.

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