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Mythical Period of Kings to beginning of Punic Wars (? 753-264 b.c.). page 3


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The next contest comes in the south, and shows us one of the most chivalrous of ancient warriors, the brilliant royal adventurer and something more, known as Pyrrhus, already seen by us in Sicilian warfare. A Roman war-fleet on its way to the coast of Umbria, in the Adriatic, anchored in the harbour of Tarentum. It seems that its presence in those waters was a violation of an old treaty forbidding Roman ships of war to pass the Lacinian promontory, on the south-west end of the Gulf of Tarentum. The vessels were attacked by the mob of the city, and five were taken, and the crews either killed or sold as slaves. The Romans sent an embassy demanding redress, the chief of the envoys being a citizen of one of the noblest houses of Rome, a man who had been thrice consul At the audience in the Tarentine theatre, the Roman envoy's mispronounced Greek aroused the laughter of the people. His remonstrances raised a cry of "barbarian!" and at last he was hissed off the stage like a bad actor. As the stately Roman retired, a drunken buffoon came up and bespattered the senatonal gown with filth. Postumius the envoy turned round to the multitude, and held up the gown, as if appealing to the universal law of nations Ibis action only increased the insolence of the Tarentines. They clapped their hands, and set up a shout of laughter which shook the theatre. "Men of Tarentum," cried the Roman, "it will take not a little blood to wash this gown." This gross outrage had been inflicted on the last people in the world who were likely to submit to it. A Roman army marched into the Tarentine territory, and the Tarentines appealed for help to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, who availed himself of this opportunity of carrying out his ambitious plan of conquering a new empire in the west for himself and the Hellenic nation. In 280 b.c. he landed in Italy with 25,000 men and 20 elephants, creatures then for the first time seen there. An easy victory for the Greeks was anticipated. The fame of Alexander was still fresh. The Romans were regarded as mere barbarians, and that their forces should win a pitched battle against Greek valour guided by Greek science seemed as incredible as it would now appear that Soudanese or Ashantis should, in the open plain, put to flight an equal number of the best British troops. Pyrrhus, however, when his practised eye had surveyed the Roman encampment, cried, "These barbarians have nothing barbarous in their military arrangements." He was at first victorious, for his own abilities were superior to those of the generals opposed to him, and the Romans were baffled and somewhat daunted by the onset of the elephants. At Heraclea, in Lucania, after a fierce and long doubtful struggle, the Epirot king, with great loss to himself, won the day. In the following year, 279 b.c., at Asculum, in Apulia, he was again victor in a two-days' struggle, but paid so dearly for it that he spoke of his success as "ruinous." Pyrrhus then went to Sicily for two years, and after his return he again met the Romans, in 275 b.c., at Beneventum, in Samnium. The Roman commander was the famous consul Curius Dentatus, who now won a complete victory, capturing some elephants and many hundreds of prisoners. The Epirot king returned to his own country, and the war ended in 266 b.c. with the subjugation of Lower Italy. The state had now become the most powerful and compact that then existed in the world. The political wisdom of Rome was shown in her permitting the conquered peoples of Italy to retain their own laws, dialects, and administrations, while they looked up to her as their leader and centre of life and strength.

A great increase of wealth came in the possession of large tracts of land, with forests, mines, and harbours from which a great public revenue accrued. The three political classes were the Roman citizens in the full sense, the governing body, who lived in the city or the adjacent territory divided into the tribes (parishes or wards), and in the Roman colonies established in different parts of Italy; the inhabitants of municipal towns, having the citizenship without the suffrage or the right of holding public offices; and the allies or federated cities, existing in various degrees of subjection as regulated by special treaties, bound to furnish auxiliary troops or ships of war, but not to serve in the legions.

Note: For details on the Roman religion, private and public life, and literature the reader is referred to Roman Antiquities and Roman Literature, in Macmillan’s History and Literature Primers.

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Map. Ancient Italy.
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