Rome and the Sea: The Role of the Mediterranean in the Development of a Mighty Empire
The growth and destiny of the Roman Empire, from a crude collection of huts in Latium on the Palatine Hill to the greatest empire the world had ever known was inextricably bound and shaped by her close proximity to the sea. Like her Greek neighbors to the East, Rome is situated on a large peninsula jutting far out into the Mediterranean. Mediterranean waters catch and hold the sun's rays during all seasons of the year, and release their warmth to the surrounding lands and littoral areas each winter. While a blizzard might rage on the other side of the Alps a few hundred miles to the North, the great body of water of which the Mediterranean consists releases its gift of the sun's stored energy slowly, causing winters to be mild and balmy except at the highest elevations.
The peninsula of Italy and the island of Sicily effectively divide the Mediterranean into two halves, the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. To the West lie the Balearic Islands, Mallorca and Minorca, the Southern coasts of France and Spain, the Northern coast of Africa, and the Straits of Gibraltar, known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules. To the East lie the Achaian Peninsula of Southern Greece, the Cyclades, Crete, and the coast of Lebanon where the ancient Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon are located. Every six hours the tides cause the waters flowing between Sicily and Italy in the narrow Straits of Messina to change direction as the Eastern Mediterranean fills with water and then drains itself under the influence of the Moon's gravitational pull. This often gives rise to violently churning waters and the eerie swirling phenomenon known as the Maelstrom, or the demon whirlpool Charybdis which sought so lustily to swallow Odysseus' men and ship as he worked his way homeward after King Menelaus' ten year War with Troy .
Like the Greek, the life of the Roman was often regulated by the sea. Unlike the Greeks, who carried on an intense love affair with the sea throughout their history, the Romans considered the sea a mistress to be taken for granted, exploited when she was needed, and cast out of one's mind when she was not. You will find no epic voyages in Rome's history and literature such as the Greeks have. The quest by Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece and the wanderings of Odysseus are not a part of the collective Roman consciousness. The one exception is the Aeneid, written by Vergil at the behest of Rome's first emperor who needed a suitably heroic ancestry for his new empire. On the contrary, the Roman's heritage and soul are tied to the Earth, the good ground beneath his feet. The Greek drew his life and livelihood from the sea, be he fisherman or seafaring trader. He worships Poseidon and Serapis. The Roman's roots were firmly embedded in the Earth, and the Lares and Penates were worshipped as gods of the fields and hearth. Look into the eyes of a Greek and you will be looking at the sea, and perhaps a ship tossed upon her billowing crests. Look into the eyes of a Roman, and you will see the rich Earth, and perhaps a bullock pulling the plow which turns over the good soil.
The sea for the Greek was the road to economic wealth and prosperity. To the Roman, the sea became a road for conquest and empire. The sea formed a major focal point of Greek culture and civilization. After the period of expansion and conquest, the sea became for the Romans merely a facilitator of easy transportation, a conveyor belt on which provincial governors and armies traveled outbound and North African grain ships traveled inbound with a regularity like clockwork.
Save for a few fishermen, the average Roman whose roots lay in Latium or Campania had no overpowering attraction for the sea. These birthplaces of the Roman civilization and people were richly productive breadbaskets in ancient times. Not so the southern tip of Italy's heel and toe of the boot, the regions of Tarentum and Calabria. The somewhat more mountainous terrain and rugged coastline resembled a geography closer to that of Greece. Fishing and other maritime activities played a much greater role in the people's lives than in the daily activities of their cousins to the North. Then again, these southern regions were where the Greek colonies in Italy known as Magna Graecia were found.
On occasion, the Mediterranean played a more sinister role in Roman history. Seemingly to spite her arrogant master for the caddish and trifling way in which she was regarded, the sea at times provided an avenue of approach and a quick escape route for Rome's enemies, great and small. During the First Century B. C., the problem of piracy became rampant throughout the Mediterranean world. Striking swiftly at rich coastal villas, they could plunder and be away before their rural victims could raise the alarm. They could slip into their lairs on a rugged coast in a remote part of Sicily, Corsica, a small island in the Cyclades somewhere, or North Africa. Both Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar had to mount major, sweeping naval expeditions to catch the pirates in their tiny seaside bases and sweep the Mediterranean clear of them, crucifying many a captured freebooter on the spot. One poignant irony comes to light as the curtain falls on this tempestuous relationship. In 480 B. C., the haughty Persian conqueror Xerxes sent a massive fleet to squash those impudent Athenians who dared to resist him and eradicate their memory from the face of the Earth. As this armada was rounding the promontory at the tip of Mount Athos, the Mediterranean remembered her amorous Greek suitors and sent a storm which destroyed a great part of the Persian fleet and turned the spines of their surviving sailors into something resembling applesauce. It only took a little cunning on the part of Themistocles to finish off the rest of them at Salamis. The Sea at the Middle of the World looks out for her own. On the contrary, the scorned Mediterranean bided her time with Rome. In A. D. 429, the Vandal nation embarked on ships from southern Gaul (which was well on its way toward becoming France by that time) and landed in North Africa, where they established their kingdom. Twenty - six years later, the mighty Roman Empire had dwindled to the point that it consisted of little more than the Eternal City herself and a small amount of surrounding territory in central Italy. Meanwhile, the Vandals still had their ships, and more of them yet. They also had a great pirate chieftain who was their king, Gaiseric. On pretext of hurrying to the aid of a great Roman lady who had been wronged, Gaiseric and his Vandals took to their ships. Fear and despair clutched at the hearts of the citizens of Rome as reports filtered in of great numbers of shallow draught ships advancing up the Tiber. Gaiseric easily overcame the feeble resistance and entered the prostrate city. Unlike the more gentle Alaric who stayed only three days and treated the Eternal City with a degree of awe and respect, Gaiseric stayed for a two week spree of plunder, rape, mayhem, and destruction although Pope Leo was able through his pleas for mercy on the helpless city to cause Gaiseric to stay his hand from excessive killing and burning. Gaiseric sailed off at the end of these two weeks with his booty leaving the once proud city of Rome lying in the gutter, her face bruised and covered with mud and her garments torn. The history of the Roman Empire for its remaining twenty - one years of existence is a pathetic farce. Count Ricimer governed and the emperor reigned in name only until the last one was ordered into retirement. The sack of Rome by Gaiseric was the final act of humiliation that brought down the Roman Empire. It was the Mediterranean that conducted the once proud city's ravisher swiftly to her, and once more carried him away in safety. In the end, the sea had the final word.
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The Fall of the Roman Empire by Arther Ferrell Gaiseric sacks Rome, pp. 153 - 155
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