When Charity Saved Rome

[ed. I originally wrote this essay in 2009.]

Roman civilization is remembered for a plethora of reasons: her expansive empire, her roads, Roman jurisprudence, and her aqueducts, amongst others. Perhaps one of the most well known “qualities” was the wars she fought. Indeed, Roman military history is so extensive that a historian could spend his or her entire career researching the topic. For many centuries, Rome was the premier military power in Europe and the Middle East. Like any military controlled by the State, the Roman army and navy were built via tax money. These riches were squandered on large-scale wars meant to protect the Empire from foreign invasion or to increase the size of the Empire proper. However, despite the fame and glory attributed to Roman military power, her legions and fleets were not invincible. Roman armies as large as eighty thousand men were lost in single battles: one can recall the battle of Cannae, where it is thought that Rome lost 70,000 men alone. But, for the majority of the Roman Republic and the first centuries of the Empire, the Roman government had the ability to rebuild its lost cohorts and continue to wage war. But, the Roman government did not always have the money to rebuild its forces.

One such rut the Roman government found itself in was during the First Punic War. This war, first in a series of three, was fought between 264 and 241 B.C.E. Its origins can be traced back to Roman and Carthaginian political and economic interests with the island of Sicily, which at the time divided both States from each other. Much of the campaigning was done on land, in Sicily proper. However, the Romans quickly realized that the only way of decisively occupying the entirety of the island was to use a navy to defeat the Carthaginian fleet, which at the time was considered the best in the Mediterranean, and to blockade the several port cities controlled by Punic armies. Also, naval units were necessary to protect Roman supply and transport vessels. Despite the paramount importance of naval units during this war, the Roman Republic did not dispose of a navy immediately upon declaration of war. Prior to the First Punic War the Republic had relied exclusively upon allied ships, and so it became necessary to fund a ship construction program at the onset of war with Carthage. In Roman tradition, the Roman government funded a huge project to build over one hundred warships (100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes, according to Adrian Goldsworthy).

According to Polybius, a contemporaneous historian, the Romans scavenged their shipbuilding technology from a Punic warship which had run aground near the city of Rhegium, on the southern part of the Italian peninsula. In any case, they immediately put their new fleet to use. A series of small scale naval battles were fought in the coming years, including several Roman setbacks. Finally, however, the Roman navy was able to meet the bulk of the Punic fleet in a large naval battle called Ecnomus. According to Polybius, the Romans had amassed an estimated 330 warships for the impending invasion of North Africa, while the Carthaginians had put together a naval force of some 350 war vessels. The battle ended in Roman victory, temporarily giving them command of the sea and allowing their army to land in North Africa. Ultimately, the North African land campaign ended in defeat, forcing the Romans to muster a large naval rescue force to bring back their North African forces to Italy. This led to a second large naval battle at Aspis, ending in a second Carthaginian defeat. With this newfound naval success, the Roman government ordered their fleet to tour the Carthaginian held Sicilian coast in an effort to “shock and awe” the local populations and persuade them to defect. As the fleet sailed close to the coast, it was caught in a massive July storm and the fleet was literally thrown against the cliffs. Their first fleet had been destroyed not by enemy action, but by Mother Nature.

Unaltered, the Republic set on to build a second great fleet in 254 B.C.E. 220 warships were constructed in three months and then were immediately deployed to war. They aided in the capture of the Sicilian coastal town of Panormus and then proceeded to raid the North African coastline. Upon their return to Italy the fleet was caught in another storm and destroyed, again. However, the Romans still maintained large fleets elsewhere, allowing them to continue naval operations around Sicily, although much less aggressively. Ship constructed continued, as well, although much less intensively. Emboldened by their prior victory during the siege of Panormus, the Romans decided to blockade the city of Lilybaeum. During the siege, the Roman navy launched a surprise attack on the Carthaginian fleet at Drepana, in 249 B.C.E. This would go down as a costly mistake. The ensuing battle claimed a large portion of the Roman navy, and the engagement would be followed by a series of other Roman naval disasters. For example, a convoy of 120 warships and 800 transports stopped near Syracuse to wait for stragglers. Half of the convoy was sent north, towards Italy, and was soon trailed by Carthaginian warships. Hugging the coastline, the Romans set themselves up for destruction. While the Punic naval expedition avoided the coastline, the Roman ships were destroyed by yet another storm. It is suspected that these losses were greater than earlier losses combined. Following the debacle, the Roman Senate abandoned any attempts to build a brand new fleet.

Unsurprisingly, the State was penniless. It could not afford a new fleet. The expense was not only in the cost of constructing the ships. The Senate had spent massive sums of money supplying replacement rowers for the fleets while they had been besieging multiple Carthaginian cities. Rowers and other sailors who had died to disease had to be replaced, and experienced rowers were expensive to train. To give an idea of the true magnitude of the loss the Roman censors registered a total of 241,712 citizens for 247-246. For 265-264 292,234 citizens were recorded and for 252-251 a total of 297,797. In other words, the Romans suffered a loss of 50,000 citizens between 251 and 247. This figure should be even larger when considering the fact that a large portion of the warships’ manpower came from allied cities. The loss in manpower symbolizes a gargantuan loss in investment. After a decade of war it is unsurprising that the Senate ran out of money. Nevertheless, the Republic continued to prosecute the war on land. It turned to private merchant ships to carry out the war on sea. As expected, this was not very successful and it became necessary to build yet another fleet. With no money to fund this new project the Senate must have found itself in despair.

In financial morass, the government turned to the private sector. A new fleet was built in 243 B.C.E., but this time funded voluntarily by some of the wealthy citizens of the Republic. Polybius (I.59) wrote:

Yet the effort sprang from sheer resolution rather than material resources. There were no funds in the treasury to finance the enterprise; but in spite of this, thanks to the patriotism and generosity of a number of leading citizens, the money was found. Single individuals or syndicates of two or three, according to their means, each undertook to build and fit out a quinquereme, which was fully equipped on the understanding that they would be repaid if the expedition was successful. In this way a fleet of 200 quinqueremes was quickly made ready…

The State was effectively lent the money to pay for a new fleet. Andrian Goldsworthy points out:

The money was a loan to be paidback after the victory when the State’s finances had recovered, but it appears to have been interest free and should be interpreted as a gesture of genuine patriotism.

Admittedly, it would be difficult to know whether or not there were political considerations behind the decision to donate the necessary money to the State (even if the State ultimately had to return the loan). However, it seems as if the main motives for the act were “patriotism” and “generosity”. It should also be noted that ultimate the money was given to the State so that it could continue to fight what could only be considered an unjust war, as the Romans were not fighting in self-defense. They were fighting the Carthaginians over the fate of another people altogether. But, it is also fair to say that the fact that a large naval fleet had been funded privately was unprecedented for the era. As aforementioned, the rational behind the loans were patriotism and generosity. This interpretation is extremely important, given that it highlights people’s willingness to donate to a common pool of funds to raise an army in times of need.

It would not be correct to assume that Rome would have lost the war had she not been able to raise a new fleet as early as she did, thanks to the assistance of her private sector. But, the fleet was crucial for ending the war as early as she did. In 242 B.C.E. this brand new fleet defeated the Carthaginian navy at the Aegetes Islands and finally wrestled away ownership of the Western Mediterranean. The Roman fleet could now conduct raiding operations around Sicily and North Africa with impunity, and the Carthaginian army in Sicily was doomed as it could not be supplied as easily or safely. The year following Carthage’s defeat at the Aegetes Islands she sued for peace. It was only thanks to the charity of the private sector that the Senate was able to raise a fleet fast enough to end the war two years after the fleet had been raised.

The exact reasons behind the donations are irrelevant. Polybius’ writings suggest that it was merely out of generosity and patriotism to the Roman State. On the other hand, it is also true that many wealthy Romans got even wealthier thanks to the grain market opened with the conquest of Sicily. But, where the State failed the private sector succeeded. It would be impossible to know whether this final fleet was in any way better prepared for the war than the last fleets. This is not an example of a military in a free market. Rather, it illustrates that in times of crisis individual citizens can band together to jointly pay for an effective defense. It shows that national security provided by the State is not more efficient, or in any way better, than the national security that can be provided by the private sector itself. Just as important, it also proves that private citizens can pay for a defense on the same scale as the State. The Roman Empire was not built with the State’s treasury; it was built by the wealth accumulated by its people.

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