Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part I

I am going to embark on a series of posts that describe the fall of the Roman Republic and what it reveals to us about governments and human behavior. We can argue back and forth about the value of history to the present, but I happen to believe that human beings have acted the same way for several thousand years, so we can use history as a lens into the future of contemporary political systems.

The Roman Republic experienced a radical impoverishment of the lower class, starting around the mid-second century B.C. Since the army was made up of landholders, those killed in battle left families challenged with respect to maintaining the farms, and those who did not die went into debt while they were away, because their land was not worked. Citizens lost their property which fell into the hands of the rich and the newly impoverished migrated to the city looking for work. On top of all this, Rome began to import large amounts of grain (particularly wheat from Sicily), which drove prices down for the Roman farmer. The end result over time was the concentration of farmland in the hands of the rich and the growth of a permanent underclass in the city.

The aristocratic class was divided over what to do about the problem – liberals wanted to help the poor; conservatives did not care to.

Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, attempted to put forward agrarian reforms designed to return land to people who had lost their farms. The goal was to relieve poverty and create more recruits for the army. Both brothers pushed hard on the Senate, acting legally but setting precedent in some cases. In the end, the Senate saw them as becoming too powerful so they were murdered (Tiberius in 133 and Gaius in 122). The Senate had started an awful trend – killing the people’s tribunes for threatening the status of the aristocracy. This kind of political murder would be repeated with regularity later on.

What followed the Gracchi was the “reign” of Gaius Marius, an Plebian general who was favored by the lower classes. When the Senate’s hand-picked generals failed to win in battle the people forced the selection of Marius to lead the Roman Army. During the period 107-87 he served as consul seven times, won many victories for Rome, and put down an insurrection in 87 B.C. In 107, he reformed the army and made soldiers professional for the first time. This was a dangerous precedent because it made the army loyal to their commander instead of the people.

Marius was an excellent general but a terrible politician. He could rule Rome by force only but was unable, without surrogates, to create any kind of political stability. Rome would not be stable again until a general with political instincts would emerge.

In 83, Marius was defeated by the Patrician general Sulla who proclaimed himself dictator. Sulla was one of the last idealists in the Republic, spending a year reforming the governmental apparatus as an attempt to save the Republic. When his work was complete, Sulla retired and gave up his position. His reforms came to nothing as is always the case in history when men think idealism can overcome political momentum.

The seventies and sixties B.C. brought many wars and the emergence of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus as military rivals. These three men would seal the fate of the Republic when they formed the first triumvirate in 59 B.C.

In all, the republic lasted as a stable political system from 509 to 150 (half again as long as the US has existed), and then took another one hundred years to slide into one man rule.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lost in Translation?

I was reading Livy the other day (Penguin Classics version) and chuckled when I saw the following from Book Two Section 56:

“Appius stuck to his guns, ugly though the situation was, and serious bloodshed was avoided only by the action of the other consul, Quinctius, who prevailed on the other senators on consular rank to get Appius out of the forum by force, if necessary.”

I was amused by “stuck to his guns” because that was an obviously modern term applied to the translation. I wondered what the exact Latin text was and how much was added to the literal translation. After all, they say you can’t read Pushkin in English. Is the lost meaning as significant in Latin as Russian?

The Latin for the quote above with literal translation (my rough attempt) is:

sustinebat tamen Appius pertinacia tantam tempestatem, certatunque haud, incruento

held up not withstanding, Appius persistence, at this point of time, conflict by no means, bloodless,

proelio foret ni Quinctius, consul alter, consularibus, negotio dato ut collegam ui si aliter

battle exist Quinctius consul other occupation deliver colleagues differently

non possent, de foro abducerent, ipse

have power forum remove person

Following is a different translation from the Tufts University Rev. Canon Roberts project.

Appius braved the storm with inflexible determination, and the conflict would have ended in bloodshed had not the other consul, Quinctius, entrusted the consular--Men who having themselves been consuls were in a position to restrain an acting consul. with the duty of removing, by force if necessary, his colleague from the Forum.

I find it interesting to examine the vocabulary of the Latin language and compare it to modern languages. One may incorrectly assume that the number of words used in ancient Rome was small and unsophisticated when, in fact, it was quite developed. I imagine that the majority of words in English that do not exist in Latin are technology related – reflecting the development of science, mathematics, and industrial production. I will look at that in a future post.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Humor of Livy?

Titus Livius was perhaps Rome’s greatest Historian. Born in 59 B.C. in Padua, Livy died there in 17 A.D. after living most of his adult life in Rome. He spent most of his life writing a history of Rome from its beginning to 9 B.C. This history was named Ab Urbe Condita (From the City Having Been Founded).

There were in total 142 volumes in Livy’s chronology, but only 35 volumes (1-10 and 21-45) are extant.

Livy has enjoyed both popularity and ridicule in the modern age: popularity over his work as one of the primary surviving windows into the early history of Rome and ridicule over the factual basis of his writing. There is no question that much of the history is composed – more literary than factual, more mythical than real. Sometimes Livy tells us when he is weaving myth.

Before criticizing, however, we must be careful not to compare contemporary historical writing with the ancient type. Historians in that age did not view their work as historians do now – dependent on rigorous fact verification. Ancient historians were, in fact, part story tellers who helped create the myths and lore of their cultures. What could they be expected to do in cases were there were no facts available? They had to find a way to fill in the blanks.

I ran across a humorous section (not intended?) of Book Three Section 10, which describes events from the year 461 B.C. when Volumninus and Sulpicius were serving as consuls.

“That year was marked with ominous signs: fires blazed in the sky, there was a violent earthquake, and a cow talked – there was a rumor that a cow talked the previous year, but nobody believed it: this year they did. Nor was this all: it rained lumps of meat. Thousands of birds (we are told) seized and devoured the pieces in mid-air, while what fell to the ground lay scattered for several days without becoming putrid.”

It takes a great imagination to create a story like this. Livy goes on to say.

“The Sybilline Books were consulted by two officials, who found in them a prediction that danger threatened from a ‘concourse of alien men’, who might attack ‘the high places of the city, with the shedding of blood.”

According to Livy the attack that was anticipated never occurred.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Geography and the Beginning of Rome

Geography determined the site which became Rome because there were important benefits to settling there.

The story starts with the Italian Peninsula as a whole. Running down its spine stretches the Apennine Mountains, which take up some three fourths of the total area of the peninsula. The area east of the mountain range, that bordering the Adriatic Sea, is pinched and narrow with little arable land. North and east winds make the eastern shore cool and drafty. Nature planned for Italy to look westward rather than eastward.

With a two thousand mile coastline, one would imagine Italy as a seafaring nation -- but no. There are very few natural harbors and those were taken by the Greeks for their Magna Graecia. With virtually no tidal activity, the Mediterranean cannot wash away the silt from the river deltas to help make them into adequate harbors.

South of the hills of Etruria, where the Tiber and Arno flow, there are two plains named Latium and Campania. The soil there is rich, fertile, and full of volcanic ash. Abundant streams provide irrigation and a gentle southwest wind blows across the plains. But for many centuries the plain of Latium was inhospitable to man. As late as 1000 B.C. there were active volcanoes in the region -- more than fifty craters within twenty five miles of Rome.

Fifteen miles from its mouth, the Tiber winds through a group of hills that rise from the plain of Latium. Far enough from the sea to be protected from piracy, the original Roman settlements occupied six of the famous seven hills of Rome. The heights commanded a view of the Tiber valley adjacent to the best ford on the river. The hills were wooded, precipitous and defensible even though the lowlands between them were marshy and subject to flooding from the river. Geography provided protection from enemies. Geography through the Tiber and its ford provided the opportunity for trade. Geography described a soil rich in nutrients -- the same soil that would build a great agrarian society.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fasces As A Symbol of Roman Power and Authority

The word fasces comes from the Latin word fascis which means bundle. The fasces was a bundle of white birch rods tied with a red ribbon to form a cylinder. Protruding from the side of the bundle was an axe head. The bundle symbolized unity, the axe power, and the red ribbon careful restraint of that power.

During the period of the Republic, fasces were carried by a group of lictors, who accompanied all public officials granted imperium (power of life and death). Included in this group were Praetors, Consuls, Dictators, and Masters of the Horse. The Axe head was not part of the fasces when it was carried through Rome, indicating that only the assembles had power of life or death within the city.

The fasces were probably adopted from the Etruscans, based on the discovery of an ancient Etruscan Fasces in recent times. That fasces featured a two-headed axe which was a common military weapon during the time of the Etruscan civilization.

Fasces were also adopted by the United States as an important symbol of power. They are displayed in the House of Representatives, Oval Office (no axe), on the Seal of the United States, on the Supreme Court Building, and under the hands of Lincoln in his memorial (no axe).

The Fasces were used as a party symbol by Mussolini during his reign as Italian dictator.

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

The city of Cincinnati Ohio is named after the Society of Cincinnati, an organization founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the officers of the Revolutionary War. George Washington served as the first president of the society, which is still in existence today.

The society was named after the Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who abandoned his plow in 458 B.C. to save the Roman Army. Lucius, a Roman politician and leader, served as Consul in 460 B.C. When it became time for his re-election, Lucius refused to be nominated because he believed a temporary dictatorship was needed to protect Rome from its enemies. He also felt the consular position was not powerful enough to withstand the new found power of the Tribunes.

Lucius retired from politics and returned to a small farm he owned on the west side of the Tiber, but soon the Roman army got into trouble. Attacks came from the Aequians and the Sabines, who wanted to flex their muscles against the growing influence of the Romans. The Consuls Minucius and Natius were dispatched with armies but Minucius found his troops surrounded by the Aequian leader Gracchus and came under siege.

A mission from the city was sent to find Lucius and when they arrived they found him plowing his fields. They begged him to put on his Toga, take the title of dictator, and lead an army to save Minucius and his men. Lucius agreed to serve and was given an army by the Senate.

Lucius reconnoitered the enemy position after dark and deployed his men so they would encircle the Aequians. As a arranged signal, a war cry was let out to frighten the Aequians and signal the Army of Minucius. Then the army of Lucius began to dig trenches and place palisades in the ground to make sure the enemy could not escape. Meanwhile, the surrounded army took hope from the shouts of their countrymen and began an attack of their own. Pinched from the front and behind, the Aequians were forced to surrender.

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was granted a triumph and marched through the city on a chariot. He resigned as dictator fifteen days after being asked to serve his country.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rome as a Fountain of Religion (Part I)

The Romans were by nature practical people -- simple farmers raising crops to sell or eat. Isolated from the rest of the world because they lacked a port, the Romans used their unique character to build a great culture. What was it is that made them aspire to greatness when their neighbors were happy in a tribal existence? There is no doubt they were driven by a passion for organization and a spirit determined to move forward and make life more efficient.

Romans were not idealistic. They admired the Greeks, but didn’t want to be like them. They looked at philosophy with disdain because it had no practical value, and were also practical about religion. They started, as all early peoples, with the belief that gods live in nature and animal form. Later they came under the influence of the Etruscans who controlled them for a couple of centuries. The Etruscan list of gods was extensive, and the Romans borrowed it almost completely.

In one important respect, however, the Romans did not borrow from the Etruscans. They would not accept the concept of predestination and its consequent fatalism. The Etruscans employed a book of fates, called the Libri Rituales which was divided into three parts: Fatales which predicted the lifespan of peoples and individuals, Acherontici which described the rituals needed for salvation, and Ostentaria which gave rules for the interpretation of portents and omens. In the Fatales the Etruscans predicted the demise of their own culture. They defined an interval of time called a saecula which spanned about eighty years. According to their tradition, the Etruscan people were allocated ten saecula by the gods, and when the endpoint was reached the Etruscan civilization would come to an end. Each year at a festival the Etruscan priests would note the number of years they had left. This fatalism was too depressing for the Romans who adopted the Ostentaria and discarded the rest.

As the Romans moved away from the Etruscans, they carried on their adoption of gods. Following the military victory over the Latins at Lake Regullus in 496 B.C, they brought home the Latin gods Castor and Pollux and built temple to them in the Forum. Below is a picture of the remains of the Temple of Castor & Pollux standing behind the ruins of the Temple of Vesta.

The Roman Kings had been political and religious leaders, but under the Republic, the new position of religious leader, the Pontifex Maximus, was separated from the offices of government. The Pontifex was responsible for divining the wishes of the gods and making sure those wishes were satisfied.

His staff included Haruspices, Flamines, and Vestels. The Haruspices were responsible for the interpretation of signs from nature, the Flamines caretakers to the state supported gods, and the Vestals were responsible for keeping the eternal flame lit in the Temple of Vesta. This odd view of authoritative religion separated the people from the beliefs of the state, leaving only family worship to be practiced by the people.

As time went on during the period of the Republic, the Greek and Roman gods began to merge. The educated Romans had become tired of their old religious forms and were looking for something new. Although a combined Roman-Greek mythology would open the door for religious skepticism, it provided a pathway to Greek Philosophy which eventually became interesting to the upper classes. The Plebs never gave up their historical connection to the old religion.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Maniple as a Tactical Unit in the Roman Army

The Manipular Formation was adopted by the Roman Army about 315 B.C. after their use of the Phalanx on uneven ground proved to be a liability against the Samnites. Analyzing the battle, the Roman commanders realized that infantry units needed to be broken down into smaller parts for better maneuverability.
The graphic below shows how the Roman commanders created a new model for infantry deployment.
Each legion was divided into three fighting types: Hastati, Principes, and Triarii. Hastati were closest to the enemy with Principes and Triarii behind them. The wealthier and most experienced soldiers were in the rear – the poorest and least experienced in the front. In front of the Hastati was a line of Velites; the weakest and most vulnerable unit of the army. They did not wear armor but carried wooden shields, javelins and short swords. Velites were not organized as units but were attached the other groups.

Maniples were a subdivision of the type of infantry. Hastati and Principes had twenty maniples of one hundred and twenty men. Triarii had twenty maniples of sixty men. The maniple was a very flexible because it was isolated from the other units, allowing more movement. Each maniple could adapt to the changing pressure of the enemy force and concentrate their own pressure where needed. This offered more flexibility than the Phalanx, which was a large unwieldy configuration.

In most battles the manipular formation proved superior to anything the enemy could deploy, and the Romans were typically able to destroy the enemy's center. Many times the Triarii were not even engaged. When the Romans ran into trouble it was usually due to an undersized or inexperienced cavalry. In the great battles against Hannibal, particularly Cannae, the Carthaginians were able to turn the wings of the Romans and attack the infantry from the sides. In their final battle against Hannibal at Zama, however, Scipio deployed strong cavalry to protect his wings and they were able to resist a flanking attack. The manipular formation also worked exceptionally well against elephants when the Romans created lanes for the elephants to run into so they could not trample the Roman lines.

The Romans used the Manipular Formation described here until 107 B.C. when Marius made changes to the formations. The number of maniples was decreased to ten and the number of men in a maniple was increased to one hundred sixty. Marius also made the army professional, inadvertently transferring the soldier's allegiance from the Senate to the commander and paving the way for the downfall of the Republic.

The Psychology of the Romans

If you look at the psychological drivers of the Roman society during the early Republican period you see the influence of tribe, family, and culture.

The early Republicans were tribal -- three original tribes whose leaders became the patrician class -- and then additional tribes added over time to reach a total of thirty-five. This merging of Roman tribes is an interesting contrast to others in Italy and Gaul which resisted cooperation. Five hundred years after the Romans adopted a combined tribal structure the Gauls were still separated.

Within the tribal system, the people were organized by gens and family. Gens is the class of families with the same nomen or name. For example, Publius Cornelius Scipio (Africanus) had the nomen Cornelius because he was a member of the gens Cornelii. His brother was Lucius Cornelius Scipio. Their father was Publius Cornelius Scipio. There grandfather was Lucius Cornelius Scipio. Gens affiliation was fundamental to the power structure of the government – particularly in the Senate, as father, son, nephew, and cousin were all elected to serve.

Within each gens was the nuclear family, under control of the paterfamilias or senior adult male. This individual exerted absolute control over all other family members with regard to lifestyle, education, and wealth. Women and children had no rights; they were solely under control of the males. Roman families engaged in ancestor worship. The homes of the wealthy contained a shrine called the Lararium containing masks of ancestors. Prayers were offered at the shine asking the deceased to watch over and protect the living. The living sought to bring honor to the dead – to carry on the family name with distinction.

Romans were strongly committed to principles they felt were fundamental to life. These principles included personal virtues: Dignitas (having dignity), Gravitas (a sense of importance), Pietas (respect for the nature order), Veritas (truthfulness), and public virtues: Concordia (Harmony among the Roman people), Fides (Good faith), and Virtus (Courage). Many times Rome went to war for honor, because she had engaged in treaties with implied Fides. If the friend was attacked, good faith required assistance against the aggressor.

Gens and family retained their importance even into the time of the Empire. The tribal organization, however, disappeared as a more modern societal model came into being.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Greeks and their “Pyrrhic” Victory

I ended the last post talking about the Roman’s growing interest in the foot of Italy after the appeal of Thurii in 285 B.C. Later, in 282, Thurii again asked for help so Rome sent a small fleet to the Gulf of Tarentum to assess the situation. More than likely the Romans were exercising a show of support for the aristocrats of Tarentum who were trying to regain power from the democratic faction running the city. Whatever the reason, the convoy was attacked by the Tarentines, and four of the Roman ships were sunk.

Rome dispatched an envoy carrying a protest and he was purposely insulted. The Tarentines clearly wanted a war and they appealed to the Greek King Pyrrhus of Eprius for support.

In 281, the consul L. Aemilianus Barbula was sent with an army and an ultimatum for Tarantum to compensate for the attack on the convoy or face the consequences. The Tarentines were at the point of capitulation when the envoy from Pyrrhus arrived with a message saying the king would lend them a hand.

Pyrrhus, always the adventurer, was ready to move away from the frustrations of Greek politics and pursue something more interesting. As the son-in-law of Agathocles King of Syracuse and a relative of Alexander the Great, he had a legacy to apply to empire building in the west. Courageous, ambitious, and skillful, Pyrrhus would present a challenge to the Roman citizen army.

He arrived in Tarentum in 280 with 25,000 professional soldiers and 20 elephants. That summer he met the consul Valerius Laevinus in the Battle of Heraclea. The Romans had never fought the Greek Phalanx before and the horses of their cavalry were frightened by the elephants. Pyrrhus won the battle, leaving 4,000 men on the field versus Rome’s 7,000, but his victory was dubious (dubbed Pyrrhic later) because in a foreign land he could not afford significant losses with no way to obtain new recruits.

After the battle, Pyrrhus, anticipating Hannibal, raced for Rome hoping to turn the Roman allies to his side. Forty miles from the city, he gave up and returned to Tarentum after the Roman allies closed their gates to him. In the spring of 279, he fought the Romans again at Asculum and won a second dubious victory, but by then he had become bored with Italy and looked to move on to the next adventure. He transferred his army to Sicily in 278 after an appeal for help from Syracuse, was proclaimed king, and defeated the Carthaginians before heading back to Tarentum in 276.

The Romans used two consular armies to push Pyrrhus out of Italy in 275 and he was finished in Rome for good. Two years later he was killed in Argos when he was hit in the head by a roof tile thrown by a woman during a riot.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Greeks in Italy

The Greeks began to colonize the Italian Peninsula around the second half of the eighth century B.C. Those early settlements were agricultural communities, built by Greeks looking for a better life. Trade was also a factor, as they moved north to create contact with the Etruscans, who eventually became great trading partners.

The Italian Greek cities, called Magna Graecia, shared the great accomplishments of the motherland including town planning, art, coinage, science, and philosophy, but remained closed off from the rest of Italy. They quarreled among themselves often leading to civil war within the cities, and lacked the power to expand their area of dominance. Not able to stimulate the Latins to significant imitation, the Greeks had to be content to see their gods absorbed into the religion of Etruria and Rome.

A list of the leading cities of Magna Graecia would include:

Syracuse – a powerful city-state aligned with Sparta and Corinth

Tarantum – a wealthy and powerful seaport, center of trade with Greece, powerful enough to pursue expansion

Neopolis (Naples) – seaport and ally of the Romans against Carthage

Cumae – early Greek settlement, defeated by the Oscans in 421 BC, survivors founded Neopolis

Paestum – also defeated by the Oscans, stayed loyal to Rome against Hannibal

Rhegium – ally of Syracuse, occupied by the Romans during the First Punic War

Thurii – late Greek colony, constantly under attack from neighbors, defended by Rome

During the fourth and fifth centuries B.C, the Greek cities came under pressure from native Italian tribes. The most notable, the Lucanians, pushed into the foot of Italy and encroached on the land of the Greeks. Many times the Greek cities appealed for help from the motherland against them. Many times Athens or Sparta sent an army, but the cities never realized a permanent peace.

The Romans were not interested in the Greek cities during this period because they were distracted by invasions from the north and Samnite Wars, which lasted until 290 B.C. In 285 B.C, Thurii and Rhegium appealed to Rome for help against the Lucanians. These appeals forced Rome to create a policy for southern Italy designed to prevent the involvement of outsiders, and signaled the end of Magna Graecia as an independent entity.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Formidable Opponent and a Self-made Handicap Produce Disaster for Rome

The second Punic War began in 218, and immediately after the onset of hostilities, Hannibal made his way across the Alps to the region the Romans called Cisalpine Gaul. His plan was to march down the Italian peninsula, defeat the Roman Army, turn the non-Roman Italians to his side, and force the Romans to surrender. Strategically innovative, a quick thinker tactically, and courageous in battle, Hannibal had all the attributes of a military genius. Even so, his personal ambition was placed above the goals of the Punic War Council, and he assumed that continuing victories would maintain support for him back home.

Hannibal had an army of forty to fifty thousand men so the Romans knew it would take a large coordinated force to defeat him. Unfortunately, they could not assemble one because they were handicapped by their command structure and the arrogance of their leaders. As we have discussed before, the Republic had two senior magistrates (consuls) who were elected simultaneously for one year. In time of war, each consul served as commander of one of the two armies. Jealousy and personal ambition often put the two commanders on different paths and divided the army - often with disasterous results as the story of the battle of Trebia will show us.

In this case, the two consuls prepared to face Hannibal were Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of Africanus) and Tiberius Sempronius Longus. Scipio had been severely injured in a skirmish with Hannibal a week or two before Trebia. His losses were heavy and Scipio was humbled by his first encounter with the Carthaginian general. Longus, however, was newly arrived and anxious to fight. He immediately sent out a reconnaissance force which surprised and defeated a Carthaginian raiding party. This small victory fooled Longus into thinking he could defeat Hannibal in a larger battle.

Longus argued with Scipio about what they should do. Scipio was cautious and advised against a major battle before the end of the year (it was late December). Longus sought the glory of victory and the rare chance to command two armies. He knew if Rome waited until the next year to fight Hannibal, consular elections would intervene and the glory might go to the next commander instead of himself. Longus foolishness would set the stage for disaster.

Hannibal knew, from spies, the new Roman commander was anxious for battle so he set a trap. He located his camp on the west side of the Trebia River and then found a place to hide 2000 hand-picked men south of the camp. Early, on the day of the battle, Hannibal sent his cavalry to the Roman camp. Their purpose was to feign an attack and induce the Romans to fight. Longus took the bait, brought is army out, and followed the Carthaginians. When Longus reached the east side of the river he could see that the Carthaginians were on the opposite side so he sent his men across. The water was chest deep and freezing. The Roman army had not eaten breakfast so they were exhausted by the time they reached the other side. Meanwhile Hannibal’s men ate at their leisure and warmed themselves in front of campfires.

The battle began in a snowstorm with the Romans pushing into the middle of the Carthaginian line. Once the Romans were deep in the center, the Punic cavalry closed the wings against an inferior Roman cavalry and began to destroy the Roman infantry. Then, when the moment was right, the hidden Carthaginian force attacked from behind the Roman position. After heavy losses, Longus decided to retreat, so he took the majority of his force northward to a bridge, crossed the Trebia, and proceeded to the town of Placentia. Many of his men tried to cross the river to return to the Roman camp but were cut down by the Carthaginians.

The Romans had lost 15,000 men, a number that would have been greater if the snowstorm hadn’t prevented a stronger pursuit. Defeat meant Longus’ career was over, but the Romans didn’t learn their lesson. They would have to be crushed at Lake Trasimene and Cannae, before adopting a war of attrition against a man they could not defeat in a face to face battle. Later, in 202 BC, the younger Scipio was able to defeat Hannibal using tactics the Romans had learned from him.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Crazy Roman Calendar

This the the Roman Calendar for March. The Roman month had three key days: Kalends, Nones, and Ides. The Kalends originally designated the day of the new moon and was called the first of the month, the Nones designated the day of the half moon, and the Ides designated the day of the full moon.

The days of the month are referenced to the NEXT key day, so for example, the second day of March is ad VI Non Mar, meaning the sixth day before the Nones. The Romans counted inclusively so the key day itself is counted in the number. After the Nones the countdown starts to the Ides and then after the Ides the countdown starts to the next Kalends (first day of the next month). Once the Ides is passed, the days reference the next month rather than the current month, so the day after the Ides is sixteen days before the first of April.

The Roman “week” had eight days although they didn’t think in terms of weeks. Every ninth day was Market day. No assemblies could meet on market day because the people had to buy food for the next eight days. Market days are shaded tan on the calendar.

Everyone knows the English rhyme used to remember the length of the months: thirty days hath September….

The Romans had their own to account for the different positions in the month for the Nones and Ides:

In March, July, October, May
The Ides fall on the fifteenth day
The Nones the seventh; all besides
Have two days less for Nones and Ides.

Beware of the Ides of March. Its coming.