Roman geopolitics — an exercise in myth-making

Once established, Roman exceptionalism and empire needed to be justified and maintained. The practical application of mythology was one way in which this was achieved.

Romulus and Remus, Rome's founding fathers depicted in the Duomo of Siena
Romulus and Remus, Rome's founding fathers depicted in the Duomo of Siena. Credit: Fred de Noyelle via Getty

The use of modern terms in relation to the ancient Mediterranean world often leads to well-founded fears of anachronism. However, although the Romans had no term to precisely define geopolitics, broadly defined as the nexus between geography, politics and inter-state strategy, it certainly existed, particularly in the arenas of diplomacy and war.

This essay will argue that mythology often provides the most lucid insights into republican-era (fifth to first centuries BC) Roman geopolitics. Once Rome had largely established the extent of its empire by the end of the first century AD, its seemingly fixed frontiers (limes), such as the rivers Rhine and Danube, often became the focus for what we would identify as Roman geopolitical ambitions and fears. However, in earlier centuries when Rome’s frontiers ebbed or expanded by the year or even the month, it was the stories of gods, heroes and men that the Romans had created or appropriated for themselves, that often acted as the most potent vehicles for their geopolitical aspirations.

Geopolitics and mythology might appear to be odd bedfellows, yet they share many characteristics. Geopolitics is essentially about shaping, organising, defining and ultimately controlling environments. In the ancient Mediterranean world, mythology – particularly the tales of wandering heroes – often acted as a potent metaphor for laying claim to territory, or disputing the claims of enemies to ownership of land, resources and even identity. More generally, this paper underscores the centrality of storytelling in geopolitical discourse, and serves as a reminder that geopolitics has always been as much about the imaginaire as about reality, although that does not make its consequences any less real or hard-edged for winners and losers alike.

Rome’s ascent from an obscure central Italian city state to the dominant hegemon of the Italian peninsula and much of the central and western Mediterranean between the fifth and second centuries BC has fascinated and exercised historians from Polybius (the Greek who wrote the best history of Rome in this period) to the present day. What was most striking about republican-era Rome was the sheer relentlessness of its territorial advance. It was, however, hardly a seamless rise. There were almost as many defeats and reverses as victories, but the Romans appeared to have no reverse gear. Even enemies who scored initial victories against Rome were eventually ground down and defeated. An aristocratic value system that promoted individual and inter-family competition, and an oligarchic constitution that allowed its political elites only limited opportunities to display superiority in government or on the battlefield, helped fuel this collective over-achievement.

Rome was an extraordinarily aggressive and acquisitive state. By the early third century BC, Rome controlled around 14,000 sq km of territory on the Italian peninsula, more than two-and-a-half times what it had held just 50 years before. Every year Roman armies were engaged in grinding military campaigns aimed at extending their hold over territory in Italy and then beyond. The material rewards that these campaigns garnered from war booty and tribute was vast. For instance, in the early third century after their final victory over their greatest Italian rivals, the Samnites, the Roman army seized, among other goods, assets that included 830 kg of silver and 1,150,000 kg of bronze, a vast quantity of precious metals. The Roman economy was therefore increasingly sustained by the profits garnered from armed conflict (booty, both material and human) and conquest (territory and other resources).

But it was in the area of controlling and absorbing, rather than merely conquering new territory, that Rome really developed a blueprint that was distinctive from its rivals. The building of key infrastructure, particularly roads that joined these newly won territories with the city of Rome, quickly followed conquest. Thereafter, large numbers of colonists were settled, further strengthening Roman control. At the same time, attractive incentives to integrate were offered to local elites. Religion played a key role in this process, with Roman religious rituals and festivals being quickly introduced and the key deities of the conquered being incorporated into the Roman pantheon of gods. The chief vehicle for the absorption of foreign gods was the evocatio, a ceremony by which deities were lured away mythology, geopolitics and early roman imperialism. Map of Hannibal’s campaigns. from their home cities with offers of a bigger temple and greater offerings in Rome. Lastly and most significantly, by using legal status rather than ethnicity or geography as a basis for membership of the state, the Romans could incorporate large numbers of free manpower into their army, an immediate advantage over many of their rivals.

Roman geopolitical strategy, therefore, was largely centred on the construction of connections – religious, cultural and political – that created a back story and legitimacy for their claims to territory over which, in reality, they had no right beyond that of conquest. It was precisely for this purpose that mythology came to play an increasingly important role in Roman imperialism.

The Romans were not the first to see mythology as a way of defining or justifying a geopolitical aspiration or reality. As with many aspects of Roman aristocratic culture, it was borrowed from the Greeks. When the first Greek traders arrived in southern Italy, Sicily, Gaul, North Africa and other areas of the central and western Mediterranean from the eighth century BC onwards, they brought their gods and heroes with them. Increasingly, as they permanently settled in these regions, the Greeks used stories, particularly of their wandering heroes such as Odysseus and Heracles, to lay a prior claim to territory that they had in fact simply seized by violence from its original occupants. The close alignment of present political needs with a constantly evolving mythic past was further fuelled by the development in the late fourth century BC of the philosophical tradition of euhemerism, which maintained that gods were just deified human beings – and that mythology was based on traditional accounts of real people and events. As memories of their original human founders began to fade, these Greek settlements increasingly began to view those mythic wandering heroes as their true colonial progenitors.

Heracles, tamer of the uncivilised and barbarous, destroyer of monsters and prodigious begetter of children with indigenous women, was a particular favourite because his activities seemed to mirror the spectrum of dealings that the Greek colonists had with local populations. It was a testament to Rome’s rapid upward mobility that by the fourth century BC there was a growing interest in its origins among Greek geographers who dominated the field. The scholarly consensus was that Rome had been jointly founded by Odysseus and the Trojan prince, Aeneas, who had sought refuge in Italy after the destruction of his home city by the Greeks. The ability to define yourself and others is a potent tool, and Greek scholars had long dominated this key area of the knowledge economy. However, what is striking is how quickly and skilfully the Roman elite integrated this seemingly bewildering and contradictory proliferation of myths into a stratified mythological pre-history that reflected their own geopolitical ambitions.

There were three main strands to Rome’s foundation mythologies:

• The visit of Heracles to what would become the site of Rome. The story which developed was that Heracles camped for the night at the future site of Rome while on his way, droving the cattle of Geryon (his tenth labour), from Spain to Greece. There, an ogre, Cacus, stole a number of the cattle and tried to confuse Heracles by dragging the cattle backwards by their tails to his cave. Heracles found them by driving his remaining cows past Cacus’ cave on the Palatine Hill where the others, hearing and smelling their fellow cattle, revealed their position by bellowing. Heracles then battered Cacus to death with his giant club before smashing the cave down on his lifeless corpse. The grateful locals, who had also suffered from Cacus’ thefts, set up an altar to Heracles on the future site of Rome and it was decreed that an annual sacrifice should be made to the hero.

• The arrival in Italy of the Trojans under the leadership of the Trojan prince, Aeneas. Aeneas had eventually established his people in Latium where he married Lavinia, the daughter of Latinus, the king of the Latins, and overcame Turnus, the leader of the Rutuli. Aeneas’ son Ascanius then went on to found the Latin city of Alba Longa.

• The foundation of the city of Rome by the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. The product of a union between Mars, god of war, and Rhea Silvia, the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, Romulus and Remus were abandoned to die in the Tiber river by an uncle who had usurped the throne. Saved by a she-wolf and brought up by a shepherd and his wife, the twins eventually killed their uncle and restored Numitor to the throne of Alba Longa. They then founded Rome before falling into dispute with one another over exactly where the city should be situated. Romulus eventually murdered Remus after the latter had mocked the lowly height of the walls of the new settlement.

These foundation theories represented something far more than mere obtuse scholarly speculation about Rome’s origins. They were a body of ideas in which there was considerable material and political investment, for not only did they create an ordered and prestigious pre-history for Rome but they also came increasingly to provide the intellectual justification for Roman geopolitical strategy, war being waged, territory being conquered and treaties being signed.

Thus, as the Romans attacked and conquered their Latin neighbours in central Italy, a new detail of Heracles’ visit to Rome emerged in which, as a result of a tryst with a local woman, he had fathered Latinus, the eponymous founder of the Latin people. Heracles, the original ‘founder of Rome’, was also therefore the founder of the Latin people, a convenient ‘fact’ that bolstered Rome’s burgeoning claims on the leadership of Latium and its peoples.

In Rome, the fourth and third centuries BC saw the steady establishment of the Romanised cult of Hercules Invictus – the unconquered. The ‘presence’ of Heracles at Rome also lent the prestige of a Heraclean legacy to the city and suggested cultural parity with the Greek cities of southern Italy (many also claimed the hero as their founder), with which Rome was increasingly diplomatically and militarily engaged. By 270 BC, when the last southern Italian city, Tarentum, had been captured – a victory that gave Rome control over the whole of Magna Graecia – the Romans issued a silver coin with Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf on the obverse, and, on the reverse, Hercules with his club. The message was clear that Rome was now the leader of the Heraclean commonwealth of cities – a message that had ominous overtones for Greek settlements right across the Mediterranean, which also claimed the hero as founder.

The legacy of Heracles/Hercules was further utilised by Rome to secure Greek support in its protracted, bloody First Punic War with Carthage from 264 to 241 BC, with the Greek city states of Sicily wooed by Rome as natural allies against the Carthaginians, who were cast as barbarian alien interlopers despite the fact of their presence on the island for centuries.

Rome’s supposed Trojan heritage played to a more internalised set of collective aspirations. In Greek epic, the Trojans were the only non-Greeks who had Hellenic qualities and attributes. Rome’s supposed Trojan origins, therefore, allowed the Roman senatorial elite the opportunity to share in the prestige of the Hellenic cultural tradition while maintaining their own ethnic exceptionalism. The myth of Romulus and Remus also emphasised Rome’s non-Greekness by reaffirming a chronological and conceptual bridge between its Trojan past and Latium.

By the third century BC, it was not just the Romans themselves but also their rivals who attempted to make geopolitical capital from the city’s supposed origins. The Hellenistic warlord and sword-for-hire, Pyrrhus of Epirus (of ‘Pyrrhic victory’ fame), who provided a serious military challenge to Rome in the 270s, proclaimed that as a descendant of the Greek hero Achilles, Greeks should unite under his command against the Romans so that he could enact another victorious Trojan War.

However, the most effective challenge to the new geopolitical order established by the Romans was issued by the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, who came very close to defeating them in the Second Punic War. Hannibal, a man who was not only a brilliant military strategist but also a leader who understood the power of propaganda, set out, with the aid of a coterie of Greek historians who were hostile to Rome, to subvert the mythological tales on which much of the geopolitical realities of Roman power had been built.

In his propaganda, Hannibal was portrayed as the true heir of Heracles, particularly on a series of gold coins in which the general’s image was merged with that of the hero. This representation cleverly appealed to an old religious syncretism between the Carthaginian deity, Melqart, and Heracles, a consequence of the centuries in which Greek and Carthaginian communities had lived as neighbours in Sicily and other areas of the Mediterranean. Hannibal and his advisers hoped to bring Italian and Sicilian Greeks, who had begun to question the ever-tightening control that their Roman ‘liberators’ held over them since their victory in the First Punic War, into an alliance against Rome. Hannibal, therefore, presented himself as the new tyrant slayer charged with the destruction of the tyrannical Roman barbarians.

Ultimately, Hannibal, like all others before him, failed to break Rome – and after more than a decade and a half of struggle Carthage was eventually ground down and forced to submit to a humiliating peace. Within another half century, Carthage was reduced to a smoking ruin by the Roman legions, with its citizenry either killed or enslaved. Historians have long deliberated over Hannibal’s defeat, particularly his failure in 216 to march on Rome after he had completely destroyed the Roman legions at the Battle of Cannae. Much has been made of Hannibal’s supposed inability to turn military advantage into decisive victory. To my mind, however, it serves to highlight Hannibal’s fundamental lack of understanding of the collective Roman psyche. In not marching on and capturing Rome while he had the opportunity, Hannibal was merely following contemporary diplomatic and martial norms. Warfare was not about obliteration but forcing the enemy to the negotiating table. For the leaders of the Hellenistic world, territory was often just a useful bargaining chip that could be traded in treaty or even sold. Yet for the Romans, all their territory, however far away or recently won, was considered to be as Roman as the city of Rome itself – and to be defended with the very last drop of Roman blood if needed.

Like many before him, Hannibal made the costly mistake of under-estimating Roman exceptionalism. It was an error at least partly rooted in the tendency of Rome’s rivals to view Roman geopolitical ambitions and rules of engagement as similar to their own. The myths of Rome’s Greek and Trojan antecedents that elided the differences between the city and its rivals merely encouraged such miscalculation. Despite his clever manipulation of Rome’s claimed Heraclean heritage, Hannibal would have been wise to spend more time studying the more prescient local Latin myths that involved Romulus and Remus and other early Roman heroes. If he had done so, the Carthaginian general would have learned that the integrity of the city of Rome was to be defended whatever the cost.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Mythology, geopolitics and early Roman Imperialism’ in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.


Richard Miles