BBC History Magazine


At the end of the first century BC, the poet Virgil, in his great poem The Aeneid, proclaimed in ringing, self confident tones the Romans’ god-given mission and their unique contribution to history: “Remember, Roman, that your task is to rule peoples. These will be your particular skills: to impose the custom of peace, to show mercy to the defeated and to crush the arrogant by war.”

Approaching the entrance to the Roman forum, a contemporary could have read on inscriptions the long list of triumphs that started with Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, and stretched through the centuries – of the struggle to control Italy, the wars in the western Mediterranean against Carthage, and the takeover of the east from the Hellenistic rulers who succeeded Alexander the Great. In the first seven centuries of Rome’s existence there were hardly any years when it was not fighting someone.

The reasons for this highly successful aggressive, militaristic expansion by Rome are complex. Underlying it all, though, from which we derive ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’. In origin this was the legitimate authority granted to Rome’s senior magistrates to give orders to anyone of lesser status, and to expect them to be obeyed. Romans demanded that the authority of their magistrates was respected by everyone they encountered – not just by Roman citizens or by the inhabitants of the provinces directly controlled by the governors sent out annually by Rome.

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