Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Italian Niche: Early Italy-Sources of Information(1)

In the fourth century B.C., just when the Greek world, in spite of a background of flourishing civilization, was falling to pieces politically, the opposite process was going on in another part of the world. In Italy political unification was in full swing, and a powerful empire including the whole peninsula was in process of formation. This development took place, not among the Greek colonists of italy and Sicily, who, as we have seen already, were unable to maintain a permanent union even among themselves, but among the Italian tribes, who had for a long time kept up relations with the Etruscans and Greeks and gradually adopted their culture. By virtue of this process of union, Italy came quickly to the front in the politics of the fourth century B.C.: and from the end of the second century her voice is decisive in the public affairs of the East, and the Greeks have to obey her bidding.

This state of things, which fixed the course of man's development for many centuries, suggests a fundamental question. How was it possible, on italian soil and on the basis of a league presided over by one of its members, to create a single power with a strong army and a rich treasury, whereas Greece, in spite of her creative genius, never succeeded in any of her attempts to secure the same result? In other words: why did Rome, just such a city-state as Athens or Sparta, succeed in solving the puzzle which had baffled both Athens and Sparta and even the Greek monarchies founded upon military strength by the successors of Alexander?

The rise of this empire with Rome for its capital, and its extension over the peninsula and later over the world, was enormously impressive, as an historical fact, to the thinkers and historians of antiquity, whether they were natives of Italy and therefore themselves makers of that empire, or Greeks and therefore forced to submit to its sway. Great intellects, such as Polybius, the Greek historian who described the palmy days of Rome and her brilliant victories in East and West in the second century B.C., and a succession of prominent Roman statesmen__men of light and leading__all gave their thoughts to this problem and tried to find a satisfactory explanation. The explanation they gave was dictated by the political and philosophical ideas current at the time.

Starting from the position that the welfare of a state depends partly upon the moral qualities of individuals and partly upon the excellence of its constitution, the Greek philosophic historians attributed the success of Rome to just these two causes: the virtues of Roman citizens, and the perfection of the Roman constitution__a constitution which realized in practice the ideal shaped long before by Greek philosophers, from Plato downwards. We, however, cannot accept this explanation as sufficient. Investigation into the conditions of life in Rome and italy have proved to us, What Polybius himself was beginning to realize at the end of his life__that the view held by the ancients concerning the Roman constitution and the moral and civic virtues of the Roman people is exaggerated and does not entirely correspond with the facts, and, at all events, is not a complete answer to the question.

It is clear that the causes of Rome's success are more complex and lie depper: they can only be discovered by careful study of the historic environment which moulded the course of life in Italy from remote antiquity. But of that early development we know little. The Greeks were chiefly interested in the fortunes of their own colonies in Sicily and south italy. They knew of the italian tribes as early as the seventh century B.C., but took no keen interest in them till two centuries later; they were most concerned with them at the end of the fourth century and beginning of the third. It must be added that the copious historical literature produced by the Sicilian and italian Greeks has not reached us or has reached us only in sorry fragments. The most valuable of these fragments were taken by Roman writers between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 from the Greek historian Timaeus, a native of Tauromenium (now Taormina) in Sicily, who lived at the end of the fourth century and in the first half of the third, and collected whatever was then known concerning the history of the different Italian clans.

To be continued: (2)

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