Thursday, February 24, 2011

Midterm Post

The issue I am looking at is how greed and conquest relates to ancient Roman imperialism. I am particularly interested in what fueled the Roman’s desire for conquest. Were the Romans acting defensively, aggressively, or was conquest primarily fueled by greed. These three concepts of defensive imperialism, aggressive imperialism, imperialism fueled by greed, along with the role economy and politics will serve as the main parameters of this discussion.
The first of my sources Fear, Greed, and Glory discusses the notions of defensive imperialism and aggressive imperialism. Before 1979, the widely accepted theory pertaining to Roman imperialism was that it served a primarily defensive purpose. By constantly going to war with neighboring states and those that presented a threat, Rome was able to keep their enemies weak. However, the author William Harris shattered this theory in 1979 with his book War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 B.C. which presents the theory of aggressive imperialism. Harris argued that, “the most important of the factors which brought about the wars was the Romans’ desire for the glory and economic benefits which successful warfare conferred.” While Harris’ categorization of Roman imperialism as “aggressive imperialism” is more intuitive than the previously held notion of “defensive imperialism”, the assumption of constant warfare and expansion is largely inaccurate. Factors such as politics complicated the process of war and how Roman imperialism was not as simple as following an aggressive or defensive strategy. Some of these politics become apparent when looking at the assembly's authority in declaring war or lack thereof. The ancient Roman historian Livy gives one account of the assembly raising objections to declaring war (during the 2nd Macedonian War). The overview of the event includes the tribune Q. Baebius convincing the people to reject the proposal for war, but the consul then convincing the assembly to reverse their decision soon after.
        "This province fell to P. Sulpicius, and he gave notice that he should propose to the Assembly that "owing to the lawless actions and armed attacks committed against the allies of Rome, it is the will and order of the Roman people that war be proclaimed against Philip, King of Macedonia, and against his people, the Macedonians." The other consul, Aurelius, received Italy for his province. Then the praetors balloted for their respective commands. C. Sergius Plancus drew the City; Q. Fulvius Gillo, Sicily; Q. Minucius Rufus, Bruttium, and L. Furius, Gaul. The proposed declaration of war against Macedonia was almost unanimously rejected at the first meeting of the Assembly. The length and exhausting demands of the late war had made men weary of fighting and they shrank from incurring further toils and dangers. One of the tribunes of the plebs, Q. Baebius, too, had adopted the old plan of abusing the patricians for perpetually sowing the seeds of fresh wars to prevent the plebeians from ever enjoying any rest. The patricians were extremely angry and the tribune was bitterly attacked in the senate, each of the senators in turn urging the consul to call another meeting of the Assembly to consider the proposal afresh and at the same time to rebuke the people for their want of spirit and show them what loss and disgrace would be entailed by the postponement of that war." (Livius, T. (n.d.). Chapter 6. In T. Livius, The History of Rome, Book 31.)

My second source Imperialism, Empire and the Integration of the Roman Economy explains the role the Roman economy had in conquest. First it’s worth describing who had the most influence on the Roman economy and conquest. The Roman Empire was largely imperialistic in its nature and the surpluses extracted from Roman citizens and provinces under Roman rule were reinvested by the elites of society on infrastructure and other means of maintaining their power. Much of the Roman  Empire's resources and energy was spent on securing revenue streams and supplies of labor and agricultural produce from the regions under Roman rule. Due to the hierarchy of power in ancient Rome, the profits extracted were distributed to groups of Roman elites which help them to consolidate their power. Taking a closer look at the economy it is important to examine both local trade and trade reaching throughout the empire and how they relate to imperialism at the time. The two main arguments describing the Roman economy and empire are that of a locally and regionally based economy and a completely integrated economy in which politics were important. Support for the notion of an integrated Roman economy can found in evidence of wide spread trade throughout the empire. By researching remains of trade such as the amphorae (a ceramic jar commonly used by Romans to store goods like wine and olive oil), we can understand the extent of Roman trade and the rate of trade throughout different periods of the Roman Empire.
(Ancient Roman amphorae)

An interesting discovery which sheds light on the relationship between economy and conquest is the distribution of Italian wine which began gradually in the 3rd century BC, reached its peak during the 3rd quarter of the last century BC and then declined rapidly afterwards. This pattern of wine distribution matches that the rhythm of Roman imperial expansion which supports the notion that the Roman economy and therefore the prosperity of the Roman elite was fueled by Roman imperialism.
For contemporary culture, I juxtaposed ancient Roman imperialism and modern American imperialism. I was interested in which aspects of conquest were different in the ancient world and which aspects continue to this day. In examining modern imperialism, the source I looked at was I Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins along with the corresponding documentary. At the beginning of the documentary there is an interesting quote from one of this country’s founders, John Adams. Adams pointed out that, “There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword, the other is by debt.” This statement captures the essence of imperialism in ancient Rome which took the visible form of a sword and bloodshed and the modern form of imperialism which is much more subtle. Roman imperialism was highly publicized with large events celebrating a conquest known as triumphs. Conquering other regions was glorified and was turned into a spectacle. Modern imperialism has taken on a subtle form which uses economic tools such as debt to obtain and consolidate power throughout the modern world. In his book, Perkins describes how we use debt to conquer nations and force them into acting in our best interest. The underlying mechanics of the strategy work by us first identifying a nation of interest (with desired resources for instance), then a loan to the nation (typically from the World Bank etc. and these are very large loans), the large loans will end up going to an American corporation to develop infrastructure etc., the nation clearly cannot pay off the loan and is then forced to accept terms such as access/rights to resources we desire. This is one example of how conquest takes place in the modern world, with other tools such as fluctuating monetary values also being applied.
Imperialism in the ancient Roman Empire was utilized for a variety of reasons including defensive reasons, aggressive reasons, and those solely due to greed. Today however, greed plays a much larger role in imperialism. The true reason behind modern conquest is financial not for “the glory of Rome”.  This is the largest difference I determined.



  1. I think the differences of the rationales for imperialism between Roman imperialism and more modern are very interesting. Money has become a driving factor for imperialism. I think looking at the vast (former) British Empire might have more similarities in terms of rationale for imperialism with Rome than that of America. There is an old saying that goes, "The sun never sets on Union Jack", with Union Jack, the British flag representing the British Empire as a whole.

    The Brits, in my opinion, were focused on expanding their empire for obvious financial gains, but also for glory. This strive for glory parallels that in Rome--there is a balance between wealth and glory as determining factors in expansion policies. There are numerous similarities in terms of pillaging, etc. that I think would be beneficial for you to examine. I enjoyed reading your midterm comments.


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