ALL RHODES LEAD TO ROME By Roger Lucy (Article)

Roger Lucy

All Rhodes Lead to Rome - a Middle Power’s Course Through a Uni-polar World

The following is an object lesson to what happens to smaller states that wittingly or not ruffle the feathers of the super-power of the day.

In the mid-second century BC, the Greek historian Polybius, an enforced guest of the Romans, chronicled how, in the space of half a century, Rome came to dominate the Oekumenie, the known world.

At the start of his survey, the eastern Mediterranean was dominated by three great Hellenistic kingdoms, ruled by descendants of Alexander the Great’s generals. The Ptolemies in Egypt also controlled eastern Libya, the southern coast of the Levant, Cyprus, much of the coast of Asia Minor and some small footholds in Greece. The Seleucid kingdom, centred in modern-day Syria and Iraq, also embraced much of inland Asia Minor, and (but decreasingly so) western Iran. Once the heartland of Alexander’s empire, Macedonia, dominated much of the Balkans.

Rome had through the third century slowly impinged on the consciousness of the Hellenistic world. The Greeks were not sure how to regard the Romans. On one hand their culture and constitution had much in common with their own- the Roman elite often spoke fluent Greek and appreciated the Greek art and philosophy. The Roman Republic’s awesome ability to mobilize its military strength and win wars was eagerly enlisted to protected isolated Greek states from Italian, Gallic and Illyrian (Albanian) depredations. On the other hand many Romans displayed a greed and crassness that offended trans-Adriatic observers. Their accents were barbarous, and their popular culture Philistine. Roman generals eagerly looted Greek objects d’art but failed to appreciate their true value. One Roman general imported a Greek orchestra to play at his triumph. The crowd left in droves until he made the players stage a brawl with their instruments. The crowd flocked back. Worse still, in war, the ferocity of the Romans could be appalling. Polybius cited cases where as a matter of deliberate policy cities were sacked so throughly that every human being and even the dogs were systematically slain. In 144 BC, Carthage and Corinth were taken and destroyed by the Romans, not to be rebuilt (and only then as Roman colonies settled by Italians) for another century.

Polybius described Rome’s constitution as a mixed one - a democracy where laws were enacted and magistrates elected by a popular assembly, tempered by an oligarchy where real political power and influence lay in the hands of nobles - the Senate, whose ancestors had held major public offices. Public policy was largely directed by the Senate. That is not to say that, at this period in its history, Rome had anything like a government, political parties or a civil service - most functions now performed by bureaucrats were contracted out. There was no standing army per se. The main role of the two annually elected chief magistrates, the Consuls, was to command Rome’s armies in whatever theatre the Senate decreed, raising new legions (and matching allied contingents) for that purpose. Only when on extended foreign service did Roman units take on any permanency. That said, because the Romans were very liberal with their franchise (even legally freed slaves became citizens), and because they shared the proceeds generously with their Italian allies, the armies they could raise were huge. Rome was almost constantly at war with somebody. As military glory was the ultimate source of prestige (and wealth) it was every general’s aim to be awarded a triumph. These were granted if a commander could document at least 5,000 enemy dead.

In two great wars with Carthage, the Romans suffered horrendous losses, but kept raising new fleets and armies until that once great north African merchant state was humbled and Rome had won control of the western Mediterranean. During the Second Punic War, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal had almost brought Rome to ruin, and when, after his defeat in 202 BC, Carthage surrendered, its fleet and army were dismantled and its overseas possessions were stripped away. Rome’s immediate concerns were digesting the Spanish territory it had won and closing off the invasion route that Hannibal had taken through Gaul. However the Senate was determined that no future potential threat to Rome would be allowed to exist. With Carthage humbled, the most obvious such threat was Macedonia, with which, to divert Roman resources, Hannibal had concluded an alliance.

The Romans viewed the Greeks with admiration- for their cultural achievements; and contempt - for their fratricidal politics and seemingly decadent lifestyles. Many of the Roman elite embraced Greek high culture, but did so discreetly. It was political death to be seen as a “Greekling” or worse still to be discovered in Greek dress (or lack thereof) hanging around a gymnasium. The Senate, however, showed little interest in a permanent trans-Adriatic presence. While Rome found it good optics to recruit allies to give backing to a common cause, it rarely actually needed them, and was quick to distrust them if their power grew too great. Few senators had actual expertise in the area and its complex politics. This left them vulnerable to those states able to persuade them that their particular enemies posed a threat.

The exploits of Alexander the Great and his father Phillip II had not extinguished the city states of Greece and the Asia Minor coast, although many, even Athens, had to flatter and bend to the demands of the Macedonian dynasts. Various city leagues such as the Aetolians and the Acheans were themselves significant players, while in the western Anatolia, the rulers of Bithynia and Pergamon were skilful at playing off great power rivalries to further their own interests. One of the most important of the middle powers was the island republic of Rhodes. Strategically located at the nexus of eastern Mediterranean trade routes, it had built up the strongest merchant marine and, from the mid 3rd century BC, the strongest war fleet in the region. Rhodian maritime law was adopted as the international standard, its fleet kept the seas free of pirates, and ensured the smooth flow of Egyptian and Black Sea grain to the cities of the region. While more oligarchic than democratic, the wealth generated by harbour dues and the carrying trade was allowed to trickle down, creating a strong social consensus. This served Rhodes well in 305 BC, when Demitrius Poliorcetes (breaker of cities) the heir to the then dominant power on the Asian mainland tried to pry Rhodes away from its traditional alliance with Ptolemaic Egypt. Rhodes withstood Demitrius’ epic siege, which he had to break off after accepting token concessions. He left behind a wealth of military stores and equipment, which the Rhodians sold to finance an enormous statue of their patron deity, the sun god, Helios. The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders stood for half a century till an earthquake, which devastated the city, toppled it. The statue lay in ruins by the harbour for the next 800 years, but Rhodes’ neighbours gave generously to her reconstruction, a mark of Rhodes’ importance to maintenance of the sea lanes and the region’s economic health.

While Ptolemaic Egypt was heading into terminal decline, both Phillip V of Macedonia and Antiochus III, the Seleucid king, were determined to restore the past glories of their respective dynasties. Their expansionism unsettled their neighbours, and disturbed the Romans. In particular Phillip’s creation of a fleet, and his reliance on piracy to finance it seriously threatened the interests of Rhodes and Pergamon (although eventually their combined forces destroyed it). They lobbied the Romans to intervene. So soon after the defeat of Hannibal, Roman public opinion did not favour another major war, but Roman representations to Phillip were rebuffed, indeed defied, verbal exchanges escalated, troops were mobilized and in 200 BC Rome and Macedonia found themselves at war. In 196, after some initial reverses and much campaigning, the Romans crushed Phillip’s army at Cynocephale. Phillip sued for peace, and received generous terms. The Romans planned to evacuate Greece as quickly as they could, in anticipation of which their commander Flamminius proclaimed the “freedom” of the Greek city-states, something proclaimed often before by Hellenistic rulers, but this was sincere, Flamminius actually withdrew his garrisons.

Antiochus’ efforts to follow in the footsteps of the dynasty’s founder Seleucius I and gain a foothold in Europe, egged on by Rome’s erstwhile allies the Aetolian League, threatened the interests of both Rhodes and Pergamon. Rhodes could not afford to let any one power gain control of the Dardanelles, while many of Antiochus’ conquests were at Pergamon’s expense. The king of Pergamon, Eumenes, proved a particularly effective lobbyist, stirring up Roman concerns about Antiochus’ ambitions. That he had taken Hannibal into his employ was presented as the formation of an axis aimed at an attack on Italy. The Romans were persuaded that their vital interests were at stake. Like Phillip, Antiochus unwisely ignored Roman ultimata and war ensued. Backed by the Rhodian fleet and contingents from Macedonia and Pergamon, the Romans carried the war into Asia. In 189, at Magnesia, the Romans again proved the crushing superiority of the legion over the phalanx. Antiochus was forced to pay an indemnity of 45 tons of silver and withdraw south of the Tarsus mountains. Macedonia, Rhodes and Pergamon were allowed to pick up the pieces. Phillip recouped many of his past losses, Rhodes won significant footholds on the Asiatic mainland, and Pergamon took over most of western Anatolia.

The new world having redressed the balance of the old, the Romans retired behind the Adriatic, more interested in subduing Spain and cis-Alpine Gaul. The Senate would, when importuned, send out a commission to mediate quarrels between Greek states, but their decisions tended to be ambiguous, and no force was applied to back them up. For twenty years Rome left the Hellenistic world to own internicine devices until the ambitions of Perseus, the new Macedonian king, revived concerns about a threat to Italy. These were fed by Eumenes of Pergamon, whose own territorial ambitions ran up against those of Perseus.

While Pergamon had eagerly egged the Romans on, Rhodes stood aloof, although when war broke out it obediently contributed a naval contingent. The war proved far more difficult than anticipated. The final victory at Pydna, was hard won. Perseus had reformed the organization of his phalanx to match the Roman legions. A tightly knit formation of 30,000 men wielding 6 metre long pikes, its charge was, said Paullus, the Roman commander, the most frightening thing he had ever seen in his life. The war had little popular support in Rhodes and as it dragged on trade suffered. The Rhodians offered to mediate between Rome and Macedonia. Their timing could not have been worse, their delegation arrived in Rome just as news of Pydna was received. To the Romans this offer of mediation was an act of betrayal. Why did the Rhodians wait till Rome was winning? Why hadn’t they intervened with Macedonia when it was in the ascendant? The Romans were in a vindictive mood. They rued their allowing the recovery of Macedonian power. Perseus was deposed and dragged off to grace Paullus’ triumph. Macedonia’s army was disbanded, its gold mines were shut down, and the kingdoms broken into four cantons. Even traditional allies were now distrusted. Those which seemed too independent were quickly put in their place. Eumenes, having egged Rome into a near disastrous war, was snubbed. A Senatorial decree forbidding kings from appearing in the Senate House kept him at arms length, tribal revolts in the interior of his realm were encouraged. To add to the insult, his arch rival, Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, who had stayed out of the war was welcomed and rewarded when he appeared before the Senate dressed as a freed slave. Rome also intervened in the perennial wars between the Ptolemies and Seleucid. Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king was on the verge of taking Alexandria and extinguishing the Ptolemies. A senatorial commission was dispatched. Popillius, the Roman head of delegation, met Antiochus at Eleusis on the outskirts of Alexandria in July 168 BC and delivered a decree from the Senate demanding the immediate evacuation of Egypt. When Antiochus protested, with his cane, Popillius drew a circle around him in the sand and told the Great King that he was not to step outside it until he complied. Antiochus backed down and the “Day of Eleusis” became a hallmark of Roman self-confidence, and arrogance.

In such an atmosphere, Rhodes was made to pay dearly for its “betrayal”. Rome stripped Rhodes of its subject cities on the Asian mainland. The island of Delos was given to Athens and made into a free port, diverting much of Rhodes’ trade, and costing her dearly in harbour dues. One senator even introduced a motion in the popular assembly declaring war on Rhodes. It was vetoed and Cato the Censor spoke vigorously in Rhodes defence (he was more concerned with the regrowth of Carthage’s powers, pointing out that North Africa was only three days sail from Rome). Popillius, en route to Egypt, stopped in Rhodes to make clear the Senate’s displeasure. One of the more conciliatory members of his delegation suggested that the punishment of those Rhodian politicians responsible for ill-timed peace initiative would be appreciated. The Rhodians were quick to have them exiled or executed and pass laws forbidding anti-Roman activity. An ostentatious temple to the goddess Roma was set up in the centre of Rhodes. Previously, Rhodes had stood aloof from any formal relationship with Rome, now three successive delegations were sent to Rome to implore the conclusion of a treaty of friendship. They were rebuffed and it was not until 164 BC, with Rhodes’ economy in ruins, and its mainland holdings lost, that the Romans relented.

Slowly, Rhodes power and prosperity recovered, but not completely. Threatened by pirates based in Crete, Rhodes mounted a punitive expedition which went disastrously wrong. The Romans forced cease-fire, leaving the pirates free to continue and indeed flourish. Eventually even the Italian coast fell prey to their depredations. Rome’s favour was not fully restored until the early in the following century. By this time Pergamon had been annexed, and Rome was encroaching on its neighbours. In 88 BC Rome’s arch-enemy of the day, Mithridates (“he died old”) king of Pontus, engineered a general revolt against Roman rule in Asia Minor and the wholesale massacre of all Italians resident there. Rhodes was one of few states to remain loyal, it resisted a siege almost as epic as that of Demitrius, and its fleet helped
the Roman campaign of reconquest. Later the Rhodian fleet assisted in Pompey’s great crusade to cleanse the Mediterranean of pirates. For this Rhodes was well rewarded, regaining some of its lost mainland territories.

Forty years later Rhodes again fell victim to the whims of Roman politics. After Caesar’s assassination, the tyrannicides tried to raise money and troops in the eastern provinces to oppose Mark Anthony and Octavius. Rhodes again tried to prove its loyalty, but the old internal consensus was no longer there. A popular uprising opened the gates to Cassius and Rhodes was sacked. A year later the Rhodian fleet was finally destroyed. Rhodes never recovered from Cassius’ depredations and for a time its status varied according, as the historian Tacitus expressed it, ” their service to us in our foreign wars or their seditious misdeeds at home”. It seems, however that Rhodes did not formally lose its independence. Officially it remained an ally of Roman, not part of a province. Successive emperors confirmed this. As late the 2nd century AD Rhodes even continued to contribute two small warships to the Roman fleet in Corinth, a pale shadow of the great fleet that had once swept the Aegean of pirates. As trade recovered under Augustus’ Pax Romana, Rhodes regained its prosperity, and acquired a reputation as a university town. But Rhodians remained somewhat aloof from the Imperial system, few adopted citizenship. Unlike the masses of other Greek cities, Rhodians did not eagerly embrace such elements of Roman popular culture, as gladiators. Nonetheless, the bumpier bits in the history of Roman Rhodian relations were edited out, and Rhodians professed pride in their long history of loyalty to Rome. This was reciprocated. Imperial indulgence sometimes extended to financing public works. Reportedly Hadrian even offered to re-erect the Colossus, while his successor Antoninus Pius generously financed Rhodes recovery from another great earthquake.
The end seems to have come with a whimper. In 212 AD the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known to posterity, but not to his face, as Caracalla) issued the Antonine Constitution, which made all free inhabitants of the Empire Roman citizens, governed by Roman law. About that time Rhodes’ distinctive drachma coinage with the Sun God on one side and a rose on the other, faded away, a victim of “denarianization” . Was there a Council of Rhodians to protest these moves, any hint of an anti-Oekumenie movement? If so, they received little sympathy. The prevailing mood was summed up in a late 1st century AD speech to the Rhodians by the rhetorician Dio Chrysostom:
In the current world order now what cause is there for faction, or what lack of opportunity for a pleasant life? Is not all the earth united, is there not one emperor and common laws for all, and is there not as much freedom as one wishes, to engage in politics and to keep silent, and to travel and to remain at home?

Roger Lucy

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