«Meghan Poplacean Fall of Saguntum 17 Gambling, Threats and Miscalculations: Discussing Rome’s Reaction to the Fall of Saguntum and the Beginning of ...»
Meghan Poplacean Fall of Saguntum 17
Gambling, Threats and Miscalculations:
Discussing Rome’s Reaction to the Fall of Saguntum and the Beginning of the
Second Punic War
The debate surrounding the causes of the Second Punic War is by no means a
new one. Ancient and modern scholars alike have debated, examined and subsequently
re-examined the data countless times. Whether Hannibal was fueled by sacred oath, as Polybius posits, or the fervor for war came to him in a dream1, the result was the same;
Rome and Carthage would engage in yet another long and bloody war. Traditionally, the fall of Saguntum is seen to be the catalyst to warfare. And to some, including Polybius himself, the Mediterranean was seen as a veritable powder keg on the brink of explosion.
Rome and Carthage would eventually and inevitably collide. Following the events of the late third century, each party expanded their influence throughout the Mediterranean, and it was in Iberia that these spheres would eventually overlap, resulting in unavoidable hostilities. However, both Rome and Carthage refrained from engaging openly. Each was awaiting a pretext to strike – a pretext that Saguntum would readily provide. While the fall of Saguntum, in retrospect, may conveniently fit within this theory of expanding spheres of influence, the political nature surrounding 218 BC and the years leading up to it may not have been so clear cut. This should bring pause to those ready to retroject modern models of state conduct onto an ancient past. As the following will reveal, the events surrounding Saguntum quickly become confusing and contradictory to this theory.
Rome’s reaction to the siege of Saguntum was inherently ambivalent. Despite sending an embassy to Hannibal outwardly threatening the general in an effort to dissuade him from attacking the city, they did nothing during the siege of Saguntum in 219 BC. At times, seemingly on a whim, Rome places grave importance on the city and then shortly thereafter dismisses it entirely. The role that Saguntum itself played during the late third century BC becomes quickly confusing. Was the city a catalyst to warfare or something else? Were both parties simply looking for a reason to strike?
Polybius states firmly that the siege served as the spark for the entire affair that, to him, was clearly inevitable.2 But whether or not that notion can be taken seriously first requires a deeper study of Saguntum as a city itself, in addition to their bond with Rome.
Polybius suggests that there were ties between Saguntum and Rome previous to its fall, and that Rome had arbitrated a civil dispute resulting in the execution of some Saguntine officials some years earlier. Kramer credits Roman involvement in Saguntine affairs to strong diplomacy on the part of the Massilians – a northern city with established trading
connections to Rome.3 Kramer posits that the Massilians, concerned with Hannibal’s northward expansion and the threat it would present to Massilian economic interests, went to Rome and urged her to become more concerned with Iberian affairs. It was this involvement that enabled the Saguntines to realistically seek Roman arbitration during the 220s. This arbitration would result in some bound, formal or informal, between the two cities. When Hannibal finally attacked Saguntum, Rome was ready to respond in arms on account of her connection. However, there are two critical problems with this theory. Firstly, Kramer bases the “effectiveness” of Massilian diplomacy not on any formal inscription or evidence of an existing treaty between Massilia and Rome, but rather on the invocatio of Massilian Artemis into Rome proper in 229 BC.4 A great deal of speculation has surrounded this idea, and the sway that the Massilians realistically had upon Roman senatorial matters has likely been grossly exaggerated. Secondly, it implicitly resides upon the notion that Rome did indeed seek war and that they were prepared, if not waiting, to act.
Hoyos and Scullard both build upon this idea of jilted Roman fides as being the source and pretext for a war the Romans themselves would immediately initiate with the embassy sent to Carthage in 218 BC. All these theories seem to posit, though implicitly, that Saguntum was the ultimate catalyst to warfare.
While this jilted fides is integral to the progression towards war, it is unlikely that it was the immediate factor to produce it. The hesitation on Rome’s part to intervene during the siege of 219 BC suggests that they were either not prepared or not moved enough to act. Further, the embassies sent to Iberia and Carthage throughout the third century BC may not have been acts of war, but rather diplomatic attempts (or miscalculations) to avoid it. The nature of these embassies was not to stimulate war, but rather to keep a reign upon Carthaginian affairs in Iberia while Rome was preoccupied elsewhere – nominally northern Italy and Illyria. Rome had no real designs for Iberia proper, at least not before the war itself began. The beginning of the war for Rome actually came sometime after the fall of Saguntum, only after news indicating Hannibal’s swift movement north reached Rome. In short, Saguntum did not serve as a direct catalyst to warfare from the Roman perspective.
The progression to war itself was more slow, and even more undesirable, than previously believed. To better illustrate this, the following will focus on a chronology of the events leading up to and following the fall of Saguntum as described by Polybius with the aid of Dio where appropriate, followed by a more focused discussion surrounding Saguntum’s connection with Rome directly.
When attempting to decipher the nature of the events surrounding Saguntum, it 3 Frank R. Kramer, “Massilian Diplomacy before the Second Punic War.” American Journal of Philology. 69.1 (1948): 1 4 Kramer 1948,15 Meghan Poplacean Fall of Saguntum 19 is best to begin with a historical discussion of Rome’s involvement in Iberia prior to 218 BC. The earliest record of contact between Carthage and Rome concerning Iberian affairs is preserved in a fragment of Cassius Dio.5 The fragment states that in 231 BC, Rome sent legati to investigate Hamilcar’s involvement in Spain. To this, Hamilcar replied that his occupation of Iberia was for the purpose of acquiring enough money to repay the war indemnity after the First Punic War. At this time, according to Errington, Dio suggests that the legati “were at a loss how to censure him”6. Though the veracity of this fragment is debated, if it is believed to be true, would suggest that Rome was at least mildly interested in Carthaginian movement relatively early on. The purpose of this embassy, however, may have been missed by Dio. It is unlikely that the legates actually desired to intervene in Iberian affairs at this time, but rather the purpose of the embassy was rooted in observation.
Mobilizing a force to quell Carthaginian “threat” in Iberia would not have been practical at this time being so far from where Rome was currently operating in Italy. Simply to understand Hamilcar’s movements, his pace, and whether or not he may prove a threat to Roman interests in the future seems a more practical explanation for the embassy. The legates’ inaction is not one out of frustration, but is rather indicative that at this time, Rome was not concerned with interfering in Spanish affairs. Rome had interest in what was occurring within Spain in so far as acquiring information, but acting, at least aggressively, on this information was not seen as a priority.
When this fragment is taken into account with the start of Gallic intervention in 225 BC7, it makes sense that Rome would want to insure that all fronts would be accounted for prior to engaging in a potentially drawn out war with their northern enemies. It is unlikely that in 231 BC Rome expected Hamilcar to pose any real threat to their dealings with Gaul. However, as noted before, it was the potential future of this threat with which Rome concerned itself. Even in 226 BC, when the Ebro treaty was signed between both parties, Hasbrudal’s armies were some 200 kilometers south of the river.8 This would suggest again that Rome did not see Carthage, at this moment, as a direct threat to their operations in Italy, however to ignore their presence completely would be imprudent and foolhardy. The line of the Ebro river itself seems arbitrary. Whether the line was to be drawn at the Ebro or the Pyrenees, the purpose of the treaty was not to secure territory but rather to avoid any Carthaginian involvement, now or future, with the Gauls of northern Italy.
Polybius furthers this argument, stating: “So they sent envoys to Hasbrudal and entered into a formal treaty with him, in which no mention was made of the rest of
Iberia, but the Carthaginians undertook not to cross the Ebro river for military purposes”.
Polybius’ phrasing is pertinent. He stipulates that the treaty was not only formal, but that 9 Carthaginian (and only Carthaginian) movement was bound in a strictly militaristic sense.
Nowhere is trade controlled, nor is it stipulated that Rome shall not operate south of the river. The Ebro treaty and the possible embassy to Hamilcar demonstrate Rome’s sentiments towards Iberia as a whole – implying they were not interested in directly intervening nor conquering the region. This is further emphasized through the lack of mention within the treaty to Iberia’s interior. Carthage had full dominion to act as they desired but within their bonds. Rome was invested in other regions and in order to secure these interests, Rome had to ensure that Carthage kept within Iberia and Iberia only.
A year after the Ebro treaty, Rome went to war with Gaul.10 The Boii in a coalition of kings marched towards the Po, threatening Italian colonies. This was in direct response to recent Roman occupation of land.11 Land redistribution was conducted in 232 BC under Flaminius’ agrarian law concerning the ager Gallicus. This occupation posed a shift from seasonal warfare in which the Romans would periodically war with the Gauls and then leave to permanent Roman involvement and settlement.12 The Ebro treaty, then, appears to be a document in which Rome is attempting to avoid Carthage’s involvement while they consolidated their hold on the north. The war with the Boii was ultimately successful with uprising quelled in 222 BC, however tensions persist in the region despite this. It would not be too great of a stretch of the imagination to presume that Rome worried about the future of their colonies, namely Cremona and Placentia, in the region. The Gauls were prone to aggressive military behaviour and it was unlikely that this would be their last attempt at uprising. While things were quiet now, Rome likely wanted to avoid the potential of future disturbances instigated through Carthaginian, albeit distant, involvement.
In 221 BC, Hannibal receives command and begins expanding north.13 Within the year, settlements south of the Ebro with the exception of Saguntum were “too cowed to resist Hannibal with any effectiveness”14. The success of the general and the appeals from Saguntum piqued the interest of the Roman senate which sent an embassy to him in 220 BC, stating that Saguntum is not to be harmed and reaffirming the Ebro line.15 Despite the
threat, Hannibal would attack the city in 219, resulting in its fall eight months later with no Roman intervention16. There was no real help for their aggrieved ally beyond yet another embassy sent to Carthage during the same year. Before discussing Rome’s reaction to the siege, however, a further study of Rome’s foreign obligations beyond Iberia is necessary.
As previously stated, Rome’s policy towards Carthaginian involvement in Iberia was one of containment. This is well demonstrated through the Ebro Treaty of 226, which allowed Rome to war with the Gauls in Northern Italy without fear of foreign intervention.
Another opportunity for containment presented itself in 220 BC. It was during this period that Hannibal was moving rapidly throughout southern Iberia. An embassy was then sent to Hannibal, warning him not to attack Saguntum lest they force Rome to act.17 Superficially, this embassy may be interpreted as being prompted by fear of a strengthening Carthaginian presence in Iberia. Further, the message carried by the embassy was also a direct threat to Hannibal himself, representative of a mounting aggression towards Carthage on behalf of the Romans. However, this would be to ignore Rome’s foreign interests. It was during this year that Rome began yet another war – this time with Illyria.18 During this war, both consuls were called outside of Rome to fight east of the Adriatic sea, far from Iberia. It is very unlikely then, given the position of the consuls, that Rome would choose to push for another conflict at this time. It is even more unlikely that they were even preparing for the notion of war with Carthage – their legions were spread thin and those who were not were still recovering from years of warfare in the north. Further, memories of the first Punic War, though perhaps distant now, would still have held a significant weight. It is unlikely, given their military capability at the time that Rome was prepared to fight another lengthy war with an opponent that had proven difficult to subdue before. If they were in no position to wage war, then, why is it that they sent to Hannibal at all? Why would they then choose to outwardly threaten Hannibal if they were not prepared to act accordingly? Why not simply leave Saguntum to fall quietly?
The situation in Saguntum during the 220s is characterized by urban and local tensions exacerbated by Carthaginian expansion.19 Polybius makes mention of the domestic dispute within Saguntum as being so severe that it warranted foreign arbitration.
Hannibal, having established himself around the city, called officials of the city before him and offered to arbitrate the matter himself.20 To this, the officials responded with a scoff 16 Polyb. 2.20 17 Polyb. 2.15 18 Polyb. 3.16 19 B.D. Hoyos, Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. (1998): 190 20 Ibid.
22 HIRUNDO 2014 and instead stated that they would seek the help of the Romans. Rome responded positively and through their arbitration, some Saguntine officials were executed in an effort to restore order to the city.