Greed and grievances, violence and bloodshed: the archaeology of civil war in late republican Italy

By BRIHC Scholar George Harrold

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a research lecture presented by ArchSoc (the university’s Archaeology Society). The lecture was entitled ‘Greed and Grievances, Violence and Bloodshed: The Archaeology of Civil War in Late Republican Italy’, and was delivered by Dr Dominik Maschek.

Dr Maschek began with a graphic excerpt from Lucan’s Pharsilia, describing the horrific atrocities committed in Rome by Sulla in 82 B.C., following the civil war. Sulla’s vindictive reprisals against his political enemies in Rome are illustrative of the bloody violence that sporadically yet repeatedly occurred in Italy from the late-2nd to the late-1st Centuries B.C., and which rendered Italy the most violent region of the Mediterranean – and by a considerable margin – during this period. Dr Maschek argued that the violence and bloodshed of this civil war and of others had a significant influence on the development of Roman and Italian culture in the 1st Century B.C.

He explained that historians and archaeologists have for many decades recognised the effects of Rome’s imperialism and greed in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries B.C. on its culture. Rome’s expansive conquests throughout the Mediterranean incurred an influx of wealth and slaves into Italy, fundamentally affecting the local societies, economies, and cultures. Dr Maschek also explained that the current trend among scholars has shifted to focus on multiculturalism in the Roman Republic, emphasising the exchange of culture between the Romans and the various Italian peoples, and also highlighting how Italy was influenced by its interactions with Hellenic culture.

Dr Maschek acknowledged both imperialism and multiculturalism as important influences on Roman and Italian culture, but he argued that the violence and bloodshed of the Roman civil wars also had a significant effect on Roman and Italian culture, and this this effect has been very much neglected by scholars. The basis of his argument was a comparison between the violence of the civil wars in Italy and the violence of Rome’s imperial conquests elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

He argued that the brutality and savagery of Rome’s imperialism had deliberate cultural effects on the peoples and communities conquered by Rome. When a foreign city resisted Roman imperialism, it would be methodically besieged and captured, and then the local aristocrats would typically be executed. This elimination of the ruling class would inevitable provide ample opportunities of social mobility for local persons, but the success or failure of their endeavours to seize this opportunity to replace their deceased aristocrats would depend partly on the securing the support of their local peers, and partly on the support on their new Roman suzerain. In the chaotic aftermath of a city’s violent integration in the Roman empire, persons would typically seek to strengthen their positions by investing in ‘charismatic authority’, as tends to be the case in times of crisis throughout history. Roman culture would be adopted and incorporated by local persons in order to appeal to Roman favour, and this could also be utilised as source of charismatic authority. These cumulative effects promoted significant cultural change.

Dr Maschek argued that this methodology of waging war was also implemented in Rome’s civil wars – whether deliberately or not is unclear. Naturally, this had similarly drastic effects on local culture, via the replacement of the local aristocracies and the accompanying cultural changes. Hence, the devastating violence throughout Italy during the civil wars of the 1st Century B.C. has significant effects on the development of Roman and Italian culture, and also on the exchange of cultural influences between the two.

This research lecture was both enjoyable and informative. Despite my personal interest in the warfare of the Late Republic, I was unaware of the cultural aspects of these conflicts, and I very much appreciate Dr Maschek’s excellent presentation of the subject. I would like to take this opportunity to thank both him and ArchSoc for presenting this lecture, and I trust that I will continue to enjoy the work of both parties in the future.

George Harrold

George Harrold, a BRIHC Scholar with a particular interest in warfare in the ancient world, currently researching the Peloponnesian War, reviews a recent ArchSoc lecture by Dr Dominik Maschek.