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Beyond Polybios: quantifying Roman imperialism East and West

Jonathan R. W. Prag

Beyond Polybios: quantifying Roman imperialism east and west

The principal ancient narrative of Roman transmarine imperial expansion is the fragmentary history of the period 220-146 BCE by the Greek historian Polybios. Polybios made 200 BCE the turning point in this narrative. In the first half of his original work (books 1-15) he covered the First and Second Punic Wars, which he saw as the springboard for Roman imperial expansion: ‘For it was owing to their defeat of the Carthaginians in the Hannibalic War that the Romans, feeling that the chief and most essential step in their scheme of universal aggression had now been taken, were first emboldened to reach out their hands to grasp the rest and to cross with an army to Greece and the continent of Asia’ (1.3.6). As that sentence already indicates, his concern, as a Greek, was with Roman expansion eastwards, and indeed that becomes explicit in his second introduction: ‘Next, after summing up the doings of the Romans and Carthaginians in Spain, Africa, and Sicily, I shall shift the scene of my story definitely, as the scene of action shifted, to Greece and its neighbourhood’ (3.3.1). In what survives of Polybios’ Histories, there is then after book 15 almost nothing about the Mediterranean west of the Adriatic until we reach the geographical excursus of book 34 and the Celtiberian war of 154 BCE in book 35. This wholly hellenocentric narrative of the main 50 years of Roman imperial expansion has visibly dictated the pattern of modern narrative also.

This paper will begin by comparing the Polybian and Livian balance of narrative, as well as briefly considering other, mostly lost, Roman narratives of the second century, and will set these against the prevailing modern narrative. The second part of the paper will then consider ways in which we might overcome the Polybian bias, by offering a series of quantifications of Roman imperial behaviour across the period. These will include the distribution of serving Roman soldiers over time and space; the use of foreign auxiliary soldiers over time and space; the distribution of provincial commands over time and space; the pattern of military triumphs over time and space; the sources and amounts of booty; and the distribution of known repetundae trials over time and space. These various datasets provide a strong corrective to the typical Hellenocentric narrative of Roman imperial expansion in the second century. The paper concludes by considering the implications of such datasets for the ways in which we might try to construct a less east-west focused narrative of Roman imperial expansion, and one which instead concentrates on the evidence for Roman behaviour across the Mediterranean as a whole.

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number


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