Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Nicola Terrenato, The Early Roman Expansion into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xx, 327. ISBN 9781108422673. $99.99.

Reviewed by Fred K. Drogula, Ohio University (drogula@ohio.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[Chapters are listed below.]

Everyone who studies early Rome is confronted with the same conundrum: what do you make of the ancient sources that provide written histories of the period? Authors such as Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus provide clear and detailed narratives describing how the city of Rome was established, how it grew and expanded to control other cities, and how it gradually conquered the whole of Latium and then Italy. Faced with the clarity of these written accounts, and assuming that they are based on reliable, earlier evidence that is now lost, readers over the past two millennia have generally accepted their description of how the early Romans came to conquer and rule Italy. Of course, modern scholars generally recognize that these ancient accounts contain numerous mistakes, misinterpretations, and clear inaccuracies, and that ancient writers used issues and events of their own times to shape their narratives of Rome's earliest days. Some believe these problems undermine the fundamental reliability of the narrative account, and have thus offered different reconstructions for the development of early Rome, while others believe the basic historical framework of the traditional narrative is reliable, and so prefer to follow it with more or less latitude. A common question for all who engage in this debate is this: if we distrust the traditional narrative, what other sources of evidence do we have for this early period?

In his book The Early Roman Expansion into Italy, Nicola Terrenato makes a valuable contribution to this debate by offering a new approach and a new perspective for understanding how and why Rome came to dominate Italy. He argues that the traditional narrative is over-reliant on Roman sources, which glamorize and romanticize Rome's unification of central and southern Italy by portraying it as the product of constant and relentless conquests by Rome's indefatigable legions. Written long after the fact, and for an audience living in an already successful Roman Empire, these sources primarily give a Roman perspective and interpretation for the empire's expansion, overemphasizing the importance of military conquest and domination. Terrenato instead suggests examining the broader contexts within which Rome's unification of Italy took place, in particular the motivations, strategies, and actions of non-Roman cities and peoples that were eventually absorbed by Rome. He notes, "while the textual material is skewed in favor of the Romans, archaeology and epigraphy have made contributions that enable us to begin rebalancing our perspective. Relying on local evidence, it is possible to determine who actually benefited from the conquest" (29-30). Using this approach, he argues that the elites who exercised the greatest influence in non-Roman states very often chose—for their own unique reasons—to join the expanding Roman state voluntarily. In this way, he envisions "a grand bargain between elites across the peninsula that would be been the main catalyst of its political unification" (xv). Rome's unification of Italy, therefore, was achieved as much—or more—through negotiation than through conquest.

Chapter One ("Views of Roman Imperialism through Time") provides a detailed survey of how Roman expansion has been discussed by scholars from Cicero to the present day. It argues that early Roman writers glorified their country by overemphasizing the role that military valor and conquest played in Rome's unification of Italy, and that this vision of all- conquering Rome became enshrined in the mind of European culture and has continually provided the starting point for all discussion of Roman expansion. This has prevented scholars from looking for other explanations for Rome's success, or imagining that its expansion took place in any way other than through military conquest. In the second chapter ("The Long- Term Context of Roman Expansion: Central Italian Society and Politics in the Early First Millennium BCE"), Terrenato recontextualizes Rome's unification of Italy by placing it within larger themes that are apparent in the ninth to fifth centuries BC. Examining patterns of urbanization, state formation, and the integration and mobility of elite groups, he emphasizes that the behavior of Rome and its elites was not special or unusual, but followed patterns and norms that were widespread throughout central Italy. Rome and its elite groups were part of a larger and integrated Italian culture, so Rome's expansion should be studied through the window of that shared culture. By showing that "many of the elements that are often perceived by modern historians to be radical innovations of the age of conquest can instead be seen as refunctionalizations of cultural and behavioral material that had been around for centuries" (72), he argues that Rome's expansion is best studied not as the achievement of a single exceptional state or culture, but as the product of interactions among elite groups that acted in fundamentally similar ways.

Building on this argument, Chapter Three ("The Global Context of Roman Expansion: The Central Mediterranean between the Late Fifth and the Early Third Century BCE") examines the history of Syracuse, Carthage, Marseille, and Tarquinia from the late fifth to the early third centuries BC, providing comparative examples that give insight to Rome's unification of Italy. He argues that several states adopted imperialist attitudes during this period, and so Rome was only one of several mid-Mediterranean states seeking to conquer territory and expand its influence at this time. Some states were naturally more successful than others—often because of changes in their agricultural patterns—and those states that could not compete or maintain their independence often had to capitulate, but this does not mean they had no agency in the outcome. Smaller cities "acquired a modicum of bargaining power, in that they could decide to side with (or in any case put up less resistance against) the bid that they found less disagreeable" (104). This was possible because the elite groups in less powerful states had close connections with their counterparts in expanding states, connections that could be used to ensure that the former benefitted from facilitating the absorption of their city into the 'conquering' state. While this seems like treason to modern eyes, it was normal behavior for elite groups that had long been mobile and integrated with elites in other states, and that prioritized the success of their own clan over that of the state in which they lived.

Chapter Four ("A Heterogeneous Conquest I: A Cross-Section of Polity Biographies and Types of Conflicts") builds on the previous chapter by examining Rome's conquest of Veii, Caere, Capua, the Samnites, and Arezzo to reveal thematic patterns that are not obvious in a strictly chronological narrative of Roman expansion. Terrenato argues that although violent conquest (such as that of Veii and the Samnites) did occur, it was comparatively rare, and that the majority of recorded Roman military campaigns took place in fairly few areas, whereas many parts of Italy came under Roman domination without any mention of violent conquest. He suggests this was so because Rome's strong support for the rights of the landed aristocracy, the relatively light demands it made on those it conquered, and its openness to allowing absorbed Italian elites to assume places among Rome's ruling aristocracy, made it "at worst the lesser evil and at best a golden opportunity" for elites in smaller cities, who used their networks and connections to facilitate Rome's absorption of their state (153).

This idea is expanded upon in Chapter Five ("A Heterogeneous Conquest II: Family Biographies and Agendas"), which argues for abandoning the monolithic narrative of Roman expansion because "individuals, lineage groups, factions, and other kinds of private agents were often operating on another plane from the state-sanctioned one, and at times they were able to manipulate the latter for their own purposes" (155). Examining how family agendas influenced Roman military campaigns and expansion, and looking at the activity of Italian elites in the face of Roman expansion, he argues that Roman and Italian elites collaborated in Rome's unification of Italy, with both gaining advantages as 'conquered' elites moved horizontally to become elites in Rome: "caring little for the destiny of any specific state and much about that of their own lineage, they weaved in and out of the various political systems, jumped on passing bandwagons, and jockeyed for position, all the while trying to stay on the winning side" (192). Naturally, many Italian elites chose to oppose Rome and suffered for the choice, but those that joined themselves to Rome shared in its successes. As a result, Rome gradually lost its original identity as a specific city, and instead became a center for Italian aristocratic factionalism and a capital of an Italian empire.

Chapter Six ("The Consequences of Expansion") supports the argument of the previous chapter by using archaeology, epigraphy, architecture, and other material evidence to argue that non-Roman elites were often the immediate beneficiaries of Roman expansion. Rather than a revolution caused by violent conquest and upheaval, Terrenato argues that—when viewed from the non-Roman perspective—Roman expansion caused little immediate change for Italian elites. He emphasizes the specific things that Romans did (and did not) do when absorbing a community, and the limited resources the Romans had for bringing about deep structural changes in that community. For this reason, he argues that tools of Roman expansion such as colonies and roads actually benefitted non-Roman elites more than subjected them, and suggests that "the situation in central and southern Italy after the conquest is essentially compatible with a model that regards wide-ranging elite interaction and negotiation as the primary factors that drove the transition" (248). The final chapter is a lengthy conclusion, and the book ends with a bibliography and an index.

Terrenato's argument is provocative and offers a new reconstruction of Rome's unification of Italy by changing the perspective from which one views the unifying process. Although the argument is structured thematically rather than chronologically, it does not ignore the traditional historical narrative, but rather seeks to balance it by developing a better understanding of the behaviors of non-Roman elites and their agency in Rome's expansion. Terrenato acknowledges that the scope of his argument has required him to condense his discussion of many large topics, and occasionally one does wish for more discussion of certain subjects or more examples of a phenomenon. For example, his discussion (174-181) of ways the Plautii manipulated Roman expansion in the fourth century BC to benefit their interests in their native Italian town is excellent, but more examples would help show whether this was an exceptional incident or a recurring pattern of elite behavior. Terrenato recognizes that the limited nature of the evidence on early Rome means that some parts of his reconstruction must be conjectural, and his argument does indeed stimulate many questions. For example, one wonders about the role of the general populations in the cities Rome absorbed: did they have agency in the decision to capitulate to Rome, or did they simply follow the lead of their elites? Elites may have prioritized their success of their clans, but were the commoners as willing to participate in a grand bargain and come under Roman control? Such a question is perhaps impossible to answer given the nature of the evidence, and it highlights the challenge that Terrenato has undertaken. Yet he synthesizes complex cultural developments effectively and marshals a wealth of recent archaeological data to develop a compelling argument.

The book is aimed at a wide readership, and so it deliberately avoids some conventions that are normally looked for by researchers, such as the inclusion of passages of ancient texts and standard citations to Latin and Greek authors (except Livy, who is cited). Some will wish for these absent details, but their omission makes the book more accessible to non-specialists, and the bibliography is extensive. The book is also handsomely produced with forty-three maps and images.

Terrenato bridges the gap between textual and archaeological evidence to offer a new and valuable perspective for Rome's unification of Italy. Some readers may believe that his interpretations of the archaeological data are too conjectural and do not outweigh the concrete statements made by ancient authors, but others will find his argument thoroughly convincing. Historians have long recognized that it was the Romans' capacity to absorb the inhabitants of Italy on agreeable terms that enabled them to build an alliance network that remained mostly loyal even in the wake of Hannibal's victories in the early years of the Second Punic War. Terrenato expands our understanding of this phenomenon and provides new perspectives from which to reconsider how Rome succeeded in unifying Italy. It is a valuable contribution that will surely interest all who study early Rome.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1: Views of Roman Imperialism through Time
2: The Long-Term Context of Roman Expansion: Central Italian Society and Politics in the Early First Millennium
3: The Global Context of Roman Expansion: The Central Mediterranean between the Late Fifth and the Early Third Centuries BCE
4: A Heterogeneous Conquest I: A Cross-Section of Polity Biographies and Types of Conflicts
5: A Heterogeneous Conquest II: Family Biographies and Agendas
6: The Consequences of the Expansion
7: Conclusions

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