Roman War History


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Warfare, it is always to be remembered, was a central preoccupation of Roman society, a normal part of life. There was the interval between 241 when the First Punic War ended after twenty-three years of protracted agony and monstrous casualties, and the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218 as a period of peace, briefly interrupted by Illyrian wars in 229-228 and 219 and by a Gallic invasion in 225.

Despite the meagreness of the sources for this ‘interlude’ there are only five years in which active warfare is not positively attested. Roman forces were repeatedly employed in the conquest of Sardinia and Corsica and against the Ligurians and the Gallic tribes of northern Italy, as well as in the two Illyrian campaigns; and at least thirteen Roman commanders celebrated public military triumphs. Nor were these the remote activities of a professional Army.

The Roman governing class itself was in no small measure a military aristocracy, in which long service as a junior officer was a prerequisite for a political career, and in which the major public offices combined civil and military functions. This was the class into which Cato was to make his way. Military prowess counted for much, and it was no irrelevance when he boasted of the martial qualities of his father and great-grandfather; but more relevant still were those of Cato himself, and there was no lack of opportunity to display them.

When Hannibal had crossed the Alps he defeated the Roman armies at the Ticinus and the Trebia. The massacre at Trasimene in 217 was followed in 216 by the catastrophe of Cannae, which to all appearances brought Rome to the brink of total disaster. Recovery was slow and arduous. Roman armies toiled and fought in Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, in Spain and Sicily, and ultimately in Africa.

Cato first enlisted, as he himself stated, ‘at the age of seventeen, at the time when Hannibal, enjoying the favour of fortune, was setting Italy aflame'-perhaps in 217, more probably in 216, and possibly at the emergency levy held after Cannae. By 214 he was in Campania during the operations of Q. Fabius Maximus and M. Claudius Marcellus, probably in Marcellus’ army. Later in that year Marcellus took his army to Sicily, where Cato served as a military tribune in a protracted campaign dominated by the siege of Syracuse. When he left Sicily is not known: the most likely guess is in 211 with his commander, but the legions which had accompanied Marcellus stayed on until 209 and Cato might have remained with them. On the other hand it is quite possible that in 209 he was present in the army of Q. Fabius Maximus at the recapture of Tarentum.

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