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Bellum se ipsum alet? Financing Republican Imperialism

Nathan Rosenstein

Bellum se ipsum alet? Financing Republican Imperialism

There is no clearer case of the vital link between money and empire at Rome than war: the Republic’s financial resources held the key to its military success. Because Rome paid its own soldiers and supplied grain to its allied contingents, armies were able to remain in the field for months and even years on end. Their long service together and the training they underwent during that time enabled legionaries and socii to develop a skill at arms, unit cohesion, and the ability to maneuver in combat that made them far superior to their opponents. The strategies their generals pursued in the conduct of campaigns were unconstrained by the demands of the agricultural calendar and the need of their men to return to their farms to plant next year’s crops. And monetary strength enabled Rome to field several armies simultaneously in the kind of coordinated grand strategy that not only enabled it to overcome Hannibal but then to go on to conquer the entire Mediterranean world within the span of a generation.

Given the vital importance of money in creating and sustaining Roman military power, understanding its source is of surpassing importance. One might naturally assume along with many scholars that it mainly came from the very wars and conquests that it made possible. As one eminent historian has put it, “[E]xpansion before the Second Punic War had greatly increased public revenues without a comparable increase in regular liabilities. Once the war was over, the impression must have returned to senatorial minds that in general both war and expansion were profitable to the state” (Harris 1979: 68-69). That assumption might seem to find support in a remark the Elder Cato reportedly made in 195 as he began his campaign in Spain: “The war will feed itself” (Bellum se ipsum alet: Livy 34.9.12). Yet Cato and his contemporaries knew that this could be true to only a limited extent. While victories yielded booty, that payoff came only at a war’s successful conclusion and reaching it could take many campaigns. This paper will argue on the contrary that although a few rich conquests during the early second century B.C. yielded enough spoils to offset the expenditures involved, most of the Republic’s wars in this period operated at a loss and that overall Rome’s acquisition of an empire in these years cost more than it brought in, at least in the short run. The deficit is even more in evidence for conquests prior to the Hannibalic War. Instead, funding for Rome’s wars depended principally on the tributum, the tax that Roman citizens paid to support the Republic’s military endeavors and the similar tax its allies contributed to pay their contingents. Regular payment of the tributum in turn depended on a robust class of assidui, the moderately prosperous citizens who shouldered most of the burden of financing the Republic’s military endeavors, a body of taxpayers that the Roman leadership took pains to foster and sustain. The Republic’s dependence on the tributum in turn gave the assidui substantial power within the state. However with the end of its collection after the conquest of Macedon in 168 and the acquisition of other rich sources of revenue, that power waned, presaging a shift in the balance of power between the senate and the assidui.

Session/Panel Title

Rethinking Roman Imperialism in the Middle and Late Republic (c.327 - 49 BCE)

Session/Paper Number


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