With the Carthaginians, who in concert with the Greeks had driven king Pyrrhus from the island, there was at that time peace. The immediate foes of the Syracusans were the Mamertines. They were the kinsmen of those hated mercenaries whom the Syracusans had recently extirpated; they had murdered their own Greek hosts; they had curtailed the Syracusan territory; they had oppressed and plundered a number of smaller Greek towns. In league with the Romans who just about this time were sending their legions against the Campanians in Rhegium, the allies, kinsmen, and confederates in crime of the Mamertines,(2) Hiero turned his arms against Messana. By a great victory, after which Hiero was proclaimed king of the Siceliots (484), he succeeded in shutting up the Mamertines within their city, and after the siege had lasted some years, they found themselves reduced to extremity and unable to hold the city longer against Hiero on their own resources. It is evident that a surrender on stipulated conditions was impossible, and that the axe of the executioner, which had fallen upon the Campanians of Rhegium at Rome, as certainly awaited those of Messana at Syracuse. Their only means of safety lay in delivering up the city either to the Carthaginians or to the Romans, both of whom could not but be so strongly set upon acquiring that important place as to overlook all other scruples. Whether it would be more advantageous to surrender it to the masters of Africa or to the masters of Italy, was doubtful; after long hesitation the majority of the Campanian burgesses at length resolved to offer the possession of their sea-commanding fortress to the Romans.

The Mammertines Received Into The Italian Confederacy

It was a moment of the deepest significance in the history of the world, when the envoys of the Mamertines appeared in the Roman senate. No one indeed could then anticipate all that was to depend on the crossing of that narrow arm of the sea; but that the decision, however it should go, would involve consequences far other and more important than had attached to any decree hitherto passed by the senate, must have been manifest to every one of the deliberating fathers of the city. Strictly upright men might indeed ask how it was possible to deliberate at all, and how any one could even think of suggesting that the Romans should not only break their alliance with Hiero, but should, just after the Campanians of Rhegium had been punished by them with righteous severity, admit the no less guilty Sicilian accomplices to the alliance and friendship of the state, and thereby rescue them from the punishment which they deserved. Such an outrage on propriety would not only afford their adversaries matter for declamation, but must seriously offend all men of moral feeling. But even the statesman, with whom political morality was no mere phrase, might ask in reply, how Roman burgesses, who had broken their military oath and treacherously murdered the allies of Rome, could be placed on a level with foreigners who had committed an outrage on foreigners, where no one had constituted the Romans judges of the one or avengers of the other? Had the question been only whether the Syracusans or Mamertines should rule in Messana, Rome might certainly have acquiesced in the rule of either. Rome was striving for the possession of Italy, as Carthage for that of Sicily; the designs of the two powers scarcely then went further. But that very circumstance formed a reason why each desired to have and retain on its frontier an intermediate power--the Carthaginians for instance reckoning in this way on Tarentum, the Romans on Syracuse and Messana--and why, if that course was impossible, each preferred to see these adjacent places given over to itself rather than to the other great power. As Carthage had made an attempt in Italy, when Rhegium and Tarentum were about to be occupied by the Romans, to acquire these cities for itself, and had only been prevented from doing so by accident, so in Sicily an opportunity now offered itself for Rome to bring the city of Messana into its symmachy; should the Romans reject it, it was not to be expected that the city would remain independent or would become Syracusan; they would themselves throw it into the arms of the Phoenicians. Were they justified in allowing an opportunity to escape, such as certainly would never recur, of making themselves masters of the natural tete de pont between Italy and Sicily, and of securing it by means of a brave garrison on which they could, for good reasons, rely? Were they justified in abandoning Messana, and thereby surrendering the command of the last free passage between the eastern and western seas, and sacrificing the commercial liberty of Italy? It is true that other objections might be urged to the occupation of Messana besides mere scruples of feeling and of honourable policy. That it could not but lead to a war with Carthage, was the least of these; serious as was such a war, Rome might not fear it. But there was the more important objection that by crossing the sea the Romans would depart from the purely Italian and purely continental policy which they had hitherto pursued; they would abandon the system by which their ancestors had founded the greatness of Rome, to enter upon another system the results of which no one could foretell. It was one of those moments when calculation ceases, and when faith in men's own and in their country's destiny alone gives them courage to grasp the hand which beckons to them out of the darkness of the future, and to follow it no one knows whither. Long and seriously the senate deliberated on the proposal of the consuls to lead the legions to the help of the Mamertines; it came to no decisive resolution. But the burgesses, to whom the matter was referred, were animated by a lively sense of the greatness of the power which their own energy had established. The conquest of Italy encouraged the Romans, as that of Greece encouraged the Macedonians and that of Silesia the Prussians, to enter upon a new political career.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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