Is there any wonder that the reins of government in such an exigency slipped from the hands of a deliberative assembly and of commanding burgomasters?
It was plain, that at the beginning of the war the Romans did not know what they were undertaking; it was only during the course of the struggle that the inadequacies of their system, one after another, forced themselves on their notice--the want of a naval power, the lack of fixed military leadership, the insufficiency of their generals, the total uselessness of their admirals. In part these evils were remedied by energy and good fortune; as was the case with the want of a fleet. That mighty creation, however, was but a grand makeshift, and always remained so. A Roman fleet was formed, but it was rendered national only in name, and was always treated with the affection of a stepmother; the naval service continued to be little esteemed in comparison with the high honour of serving in the legions; the naval officers were in great part Italian Greeks; the crews were composed of subjects or even of slaves and outcasts. The Italian farmer was at all times distrustful of the sea; and of the three things in his life which Cato regretted one was, that he had travelled by sea when he might have gone by land. This result arose partly out of the nature of the case, for the vessels were oared galleys and the service of the oar can scarcely be ennobled; but the Romans might at least have formed separate legions of marines and taken steps towards the rearing of a class of Roman naval officers. Taking advantage of the impulse of the nation, they should have made it their aim gradually to establish a naval force important not only in numbers but in sailing power and practice, and for such a purpose they had a valuable nucleus in the privateering that was developed during the long war; but nothing of the sort was done by the government. Nevertheless the Roman fleet with its unwieldy grandeur was the noblest creation of genius in this war, and, as at its beginning, so at its close it was the fleet that turned the scale in favour of Rome.
Far more difficult to be overcome were those deficiencies, which could not be remedied without an alteration of the constitution. That the senate, according to the strength of the contending parties within it, should leap from one system of conducting the war to another, and perpetrate errors so incredible as the evacuation of Clupea and the repeated dismantling of the fleet; that the general of one year should lay siege to Sicilian towns, and his successor, instead of compelling them to surrender, should pillage the African coast or think proper to risk a naval battle; and that at any rate the supreme command should by law change hands every year--all these anomalies could not be done away without stirring constitutional questions the solution of which was more difficult than the building of a fleet, but as little could their retention be reconciled with the requirements of such a war. Above all, moreover, neither the senate nor the generals could at once adapt themselves to the new mode of conducting war. The campaign of Regulus is an instance how singularly they adhered to the idea that superiority in tactics decides everything. There are few generals who have had such successes thrown as it were into their lap by fortune: in the year 498 he stood precisely where Scipio stood fifty years later, with this difference, that he had no Hannibal and no experienced army arrayed against him. But the senate withdrew half the army, as soon as they had satisfied themselves of the tactical superiority of the Romans; in blind reliance on that superiority the general remained where he was, to be beaten in strategy, and accepted battle when it was offered to him, to be beaten also in tactics. This was the more remarkable, as Regulus was an able and experienced general of his kind. The rustic method of warfare, by which Etruria and Samnium had been won, was the very cause of the defeat in the plain of Tunes. The principle, quite right in its own province, that every true burgher is fit for a general, was no longer applicable; the new system of war demanded the employment of generals who had a military training and a military eye, and every burgomaster had not those qualities. The arrangement was however still worse, by which the chief command of the fleet was treated as an appanage to the chief command of the land army, and any one who chanced to be president of the city thought himself able to act the part not of general only, but of admiral too. The worst disasters which Rome suffered in this war were due not to the storms and still less to the Carthaginians, but to the presumptuous folly of its own citizen-admirals.
Rome was victorious at last. But her acquiescence in a gain far less than had at first been demanded and indeed offered, as well as the energetic opposition which the peace encountered in Rome, very clearly indicate the indecisive and superficial character of the victory and of the peace; and if Rome was the victor, she was indebted for her victory in part no doubt to the favour of the gods and to the energy of her citizens, but still more to the errors of her enemies in the conduct of the war--errors far surpassing even her own.
Notes For Chapter II
1. II. V. Campanian Hellenism
2. II. VII. Submission Of Lower Italy
3. The Mamertines entered quite into the same position towards Rome as the Italian communities, bound themselves to furnish ships (Cic. Verr. v. 19, 50), and, as the coins show, did not possess the right of coining silver.
4. II. VII. Submission Of Lower Italy
5. II. VII. Last Struggles In Italy
6. The statement, that the military talent of Xanthippus was the primary means of saving Carthage, is probably coloured; the officers of Carthage can hardly have waited for foreigners to teach them that the light African cavalry could be more appropriately employed on the plain than among hills and forests. From such stories, the echo of the talk of Greek guardrooms, even Polybius is not free.