The Etruscans, advanced and warlike, dragged the Romans into a conflict with the city of Veii in the early fourth century BC that acquired a legendary status comparable to the siege of Troy. Not long afterwards, the Gauls sacked and burned Rome, earning a rare status as the boogeymen of the Roman psyche in the process. That particular ghost was only exorcised by Julius Caesar in the 50s BC, and later, when Rome was captured by the Goths in AD 410, historians and commentators had to return to that ancient Gallic nightmare to find anything worthy of comparison. Others, such as the Samnites, and the charismatic Greek military adventurer Pyrrhus of Epirus, scarred the battle honours of the Roman army. The most famous (and arguably most dangerous) adversary of the Republic was Hannibal of Carthage, who came the closest of any of Rome’s Italian or Mediterranean neighbours to exterminating the fledgling empire. On one hot summer afternoon in 216 BC, Hannibal left 80,000 Roman soldiers dead on the southern Italian battlefield of Cannae, capping a string of victories that caused tremendous damage to Roman morale.
The Romans were western upstarts in an ancient world sophisticated in its technology, literature, culture, art, and architecture. Although the city of Carthage lay in North Africa, its roots, like those of the Etruscans, lay in the eastern Mediterranean, whose great players—Macedonians, Greeks, the Ptolemies of Egypt, and the Seleucids, based in Syria—were systematically reduced after the stunning Roman victory over Hannibal. Many of these states had a better claim to imperial power than Rome, and indeed any one of them could have supplanted Rome as the dominant force in the Mediterranean. Rome’s grittiness in the face of adversity—even at the point of annihilation—made all the difference. But the next time you find yourself in the Eternal City, pondering the great monuments to the victorious past, consider this: had Rome faltered in any way, our shared heritage would be that of the Hellenistic world and its eastern kingdoms—forever altering the fate of European history, and skewing Europe’s communal heritage not to Italy, but to the Balkans and the Middle East.
By Greg Fisher