The ancient Romans cast a long shadow over the peoples of Europe. Even the vocabulary of modern European expansion is Roman: The words imperialism, empire, colonialism, colony, proconsul, procurator all come from Rome. In addition, Roman approaches towards acquisition and administration of conquered territory and individuals provided the foundation, the blueprint, for later European expansion and rule. This was true not just for the Latin-based cultures, such as France and Spain, where Roman institutions and traditions occasionally survived intact, but also for nations of Germanic ancestry, such as Britain, Holland, and Germany, where the Roman legacy was less direct but still intentional.

The study of the Romans, their literature, and institutions was an integral element in the education of the ruling classes of all European nations, from primary to university levels. This curricular focus was due in large part to the Roman Catholic Church (and its Protestant successors), which had preserved the works of master Latin stylists like Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bce), Julius Caesar (ca. 100-44 bce), Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55-ca. 120 ce), and Livy (Titus Livius, 59 bce-17 ce) as teaching tools and examples of “proper” Latin. Although the focus of study was the language itself, the student could not help but absorb the detailed information offered about the experiences and institutions of the Romans. Therefore, it was because of the church’s dedication to preserve ”things Roman,” and its universities’ emphasis on the literature of antiquity, that Roman examples were well known to the educated ruling classes of any would-be imperialist nation.

Almost instinctively, it seems, the ruling elites of Europe turned to the Roman models, drummed into their heads from youth, when they began to acquire lands and subjects beyond Europe. And because of the narrow focus on a few “great” authors, these Roman models came largely from the Republican period of Roman history (509-31 bce), especially from the Late Republic (133-31 bce), which saw the mature articulation of Roman imperialism. During the entire Republic, but most actively during the Late Republic, Rome was at its most expansive, first overwhelming the tribes and cities of Italy and then, by 31 bce, dominating the entire Mediterranean basin.


The Romans were unique among ancient peoples in that they willingly and freely incorporated newly conquered people into their own society, freely giving citizenship to outsiders in order to Romanize them and make them willing participants (instead of unwilling subjects or enemies) in the Roman imperial system. Romans preferred government on the cheap and as such chose to administer new lands and peoples indirectly, through indigenous collaborators, who were awarded Roman citizenship or other benefits. The Romans called this system divide and rule because they literally divided up conquered peoples into their component units (usually tribes and city-states), made separate alliances and treaties with each, and induced each, through a complex system of rewards, to keep an eye on the others and provide for the common defense.

All of this the later Europeans would inherit and modify, though perhaps the purest examples of the unaltered Roman system are best seen in British and French India. Although the Romans used this system, with slight modification, from their inception to destruction, the best and classic example is the Roman consolidation of the Italian peninsula south of the Rubicon and

Arno rivers, described by the Late Republican historian Livy.

From its earliest days, Rome was surrounded by many powerful, independent city-states and tribes that were intent on Rome’s destruction. In the rich alluvial plain of Latium alone, Rome lived among at least twelve independent Latin-speaking nations. To Rome’s north was the ancient, wealthy, and highly civilized Etruscan confederation. To the south, around the Bay of Naples and beyond, were the large Greek cities of Cumae, Neapolis (modern Naples), and Posidonia. Thanks to its position on both the last available crossing of the Tiber River near the sea and the great salt trade route, Rome became a natural contact point for all of these cultures. And because of its location, and the rich trade in salt and other commodities it encouraged, Rome was coveted by all its neighbors.

To ensure its independence, Rome first needed to establish a buffer zone. The Romans did this by conquering their closest Latin neighbors, but instead of destroying them or levying taxes, as the Etruscans and Greeks did, Rome granted those closest in proximity full Roman citizenship—now these Latins would be Romans—and in return all Rome asked of its new citizen-allies was that they contribute troops to the common defense.

Of course, with these new allies, Rome inherited new enemies—that is, Rome inherited its new allies’ ancestral enemies. But with a larger army Rome was able to launch many “defensive” campaigns, ostensibly to protect its new citizens, but really for the purpose of subduing the Latin nations farther away from Rome, right to the edge of Greek- and Etruscan-controlled areas.

To these newly conquered people Rome did not offer citizenship, as it had to their closer Latin brothers, but rather alliance and confederation. These allies of what the Romans would come to call Latin-rights status would contribute troops to the common defense, in return for which Rome would grant some of the perks of citizenship: (1) the right to do business at Rome; (2) the right to appeal the actions of Roman officials in Roman courts; and (3) the right to marry Roman citizens, the children of which unions would then be legal Roman citizens.

But the genius of this system was that Rome made a separate alliance with each Latin-rights city it conquered (the divide element of the equation), and each city would be offered a slightly different perk. As a result, each Latin-rights city had a separate relationship with Rome but was barred from having alliances or treaties with anyone else, including other Latin-rights peoples. Rome effectively held all of the cards, and since each city received different perks, those who espoused the Roman cause most vocally, or reported potential rebellion among the neighbors, gained the most perks.

To ensure and encourage mutual suspicion, Rome dangled the carrot of further perks, even full Roman citizenship, for those who supported Rome best, contributed the best troops, and above all kept an eye on the neighbors and alerted Rome of any disloyalty or rebellion. This was a highly competitive system and as a result, each city was intensely suspicious and jealous of the others, and thus policed the neighbors on Rome’s behalf (the rule element).

Thus, Rome gained a group of loyal, mutually suspicious states that the Romans did not have to control by force, that would act as a buffer zone in case of invasion, and that would serve as an army for common defense and imperialist expansion. And expand Rome did, but never offensively; Rome only responded “defensively” when its friends were attacked. As had happened with the first Latin conquests, Rome continued to inherit enemies. Because of the alliance system, once Rome conquered a city-state, kingdom, or tribe, it inherited the enemies of that city-state, kingdom, or tribe. Rome thus expanded defensively into Italy, granting unequal alliances with each new ally, offering full Roman citizenship to those who had proved their loyalty, and the different perks associated with Latin rights to others—even though they were not ethnically Latin—depending on their loyalty and strategic value. Latin rights had become an administrative term for the Romans, and once Rome had expanded beyond Latium and the Latins, the term had come to apply to all inferior alliances in which some of the Latin perks were granted.

Rome did not rely solely on its conquered enemies to rule. In some cases, since the city of Rome itself began to grow dramatically, the Romans took land from particularly dangerous conquered people and settled colonies of Roman urban poor on it. Most often these Roman colonies were located in strategic areas. Their purpose was to control and stimulate trade, to guard against rebellion, and to protect resources and infrastructure such as roads, passes, and mines. These coloniae (literally, “cared-for regions”) were places of opportunity, where upward mobility was possible, where people could start anew and reinvent themselves. As such, the coloniae were immensely popular among the masses in the city of Rome. In time, Rome eventually planted such colonies all over the Mediterranean basin, western Europe, and North Africa. These prosperous, military-economic outposts of Rome were the direct models for modern European colonies.

This system of dividing up the enemy into component units, making unequal alliances, and offering unequal perks was used quite effectively by all modern European imperialists: The British and French used the divide-and-rule system in North America, in India, in Africa, and the in Far East; the Dutch in Africa and Southeast Asia; and the Spanish in South and Central America. This Roman system of government on the cheap—using groups of the conquered, who have been selectively rewarded, to rule on behalf of the overlords— is often termed indirect rule by historians of modern imperialism. Indeed, many of the ethnic conflicts that plague postcolonial nations to this day have their roots in the selective rewards associated with indirect rule—the Turkish-Greek conflict over the island of Cyprus being just one of the most visible and intractable. In this case, the British empowered the Turkish minority to control the Greek majority, and the Greeks still resent it.


So far this entry has addressed indirect rule on the national level, but the Romans employed this method even more effectively on the individual level with what they called clientela, or “clientage.” It is clientage, even more than the group system of divide and rule, that later Europeans would use to great advantage.

The system of clientage was as old as Rome and originally applied only to Romans. Clientage bound one Roman to another through unequal ties of obligation. The Romans called the two participants the patron and the client. The patron was to care for the client—that is, the patron ensured the client had employment, food, shelter, and legal representation. In return, the client gave the patron public respect and service in the form of work or goods, and, above all, was legally bound to vote as the patron decreed.

The bonds of clientage were permanent, passed down through the generations—one had the same clients and patrons as one’s father. The only way to break the bonds of clientage was to prove, in court, that the other member of the relationships had not fulfilled his obligations. Since Romans preferred personal relationships to official ones, and private, face-to-face systems to government-sponsored ones, clientage was encouraged by the ruling elite—who were, of course, Rome’s patrons. The clientage system thus served as the social glue of Rome. Best of all, the system of clientage cost the Roman government nothing, but ensured that everybody had a place in Roman society, and that everybody was connected to his fellow citizens through mutual obligations.

When Rome began to expand beyond its city limits, it incorporated the newly conquered into this existing social network. Powerful Romans, especially the generals who brought new territories and peoples under Rome’s protection, formed clientage relationships with these non-Romans. For example, the family of Marcus Claudius (Claudii Marcelli, ca. 268-208 bce) provided the general who conquered Sicily in the middle of the third century bce, and two hundred years later, by the time of Cicero, the ruling elite of that island were still Claudian clients. In return for Roman support, Roman protection, and a local share in Roman commerce, these clients ensured their region’s loyalty to Rome and paved the way for the commercial enterprises of their patron and his friends—essen-tially, these clients acted as Roman watchdogs. Modern parallels from every continent abound in which later Europeans, officially and unofficially, would form similar bonds of dependency with members of indigenous groups.

As Rome began to expand into the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, where kings rather than independent city-states ruled, the Roman elite included these powerful men among the lists of their clients. In fact, even before Rome had conquered an area and brought it into the Roman imperial system, the ruling elite in the Romans Senate—the body that controlled all Roman foreign policy—bound “client-kings” to Rome and used these kings to control areas of interest.

Perhaps the most famous of these client-kings was Herod the Great, king of Judea (73-4 bce). Officially, Herod was independent from Rome and held the status of “friend and ally of the Senate and people of Rome.” But he was far from autonomous as client to some of the most powerful Romans of the day—Mark Antony (ca. 83-30 bce) and the first Roman emperor, Augustus (63 bce-1 4 ce). As a loyal client, Herod had to act as his patrons wished if he was to retain their support. And Herod needed Roman support. He was a usurper to the Jewish throne, as well as a foreigner, and the Jews hated him. Only Roman support kept him on the throne, and that was the way the ruling elite in the Roman Senate wanted things.

By keeping a dependent and disliked Herod on the Jewish throne, Rome did not have to expend precious resources to conquer and administer Judea. Again and again Rome would use this inexpensive, effective method to dominate regions the Romans did not need to control directly. Yet, as the Romans discovered in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and the British and French discovered in India and elsewhere, client-kings often have agendas of their own—they often intrigue secretly against their patrons, and they require a great deal of effort to put down once they turn rogue.


Once Rome moved beyond Italy, the Romans became much more guarded in their grants of citizenship. The system of divide and rule still applied but now the Romans added a new dimension: The perks for the conquered began with tax exemption rather than citizenship. Once Rome moved beyond Italy, it no longer rewarded former enemies quite so generously. Because of the costs incurred with overseas expansion, Rome could not afford to allow its overseas subjects to go untaxed.

Yet Rome wanted to preserve that mutual suspicion that had controlled Italy so well. The solution was selective taxation. Rome would reward especially loyal or strategic allies with tax-exempt status. This tax exemption, or partial tax forgiveness, was always held out as a reward for special clients or whole communities. Over time, many individual clients, cities, and tribes passed through tax exemption and “Latin rights” to full citizenship. By 212 ce, all areas under Roman control were given full Roman citizenship by Emperor Caracalla (188-217 ce). But as a result of this system of selective taxation, the Roman tax code was bewilder-ingly complex, and the Roman government, always hesitant to increase the bureaucracy, required a cost-effective, nongovernmental way to collect revenue.

In order to maximize profits and cut costs, the Romans used private corporations to collect all manner of taxes, from personal income taxes to port dues to pasture taxes. These “tax-farming” companies, as the Romans called them, would submit bids for the amount they could collect for a given region over a time period set by the government, ranging from one to ten years. The highest bidder won. Once chosen, the winning corporation would then pay the Roman government the entire sum up front—what amounted to at least one year’s worth of all taxes for all inhabitants. Then, for the amount of time agreed upon in the contract, the corporation would be given government permission to collect both the original outlay and any greater amounts desired to cover expenses. Everybody won: Rome got money when it needed it without having to expend precious public resources, the tax-collecting company made a profit, and the provincials got taxed, sometimes overtaxed, although rarely dramatically and harmfully overtaxed. After all, the tax-farmers were aware of how much the taxed could pay, and they wanted to ensure that taxpayers remained healthy and taxable in the future.

In addition to tax-farming, these large corporation would also engage in other, related financial activities, such as moneylending, banking, and commodities speculation. Unfortunately, as Cicero’s speeches against the Sicilian governor Gaius Verres (ca. 115-43 bce) and private letters to his friends make clear, the tax-farmers often lent money to individuals at exorbitant rates (48 percent per annum and higher) so that the borrowers could pay taxes to those same tax-farmers. But it was not always easy to collect, and so the tax-farming corporations were permitted by the Roman government to maintain paramilitary forces in order to ”shake down” local taxpayers.

The powers and authority of the tax-farmers were wide-ranging, especially in regions such as Sicily, Sardinia, and North Africa where the head tax was paid in the form of grain and other agricultural goods. Here, the tax companies would essentially control the agricultural economy. Because of their oversight of all taxes, even harbor dues and import-export fees, the tax corporations controlled trade, both in and out of the region. Cicero’s speeches against Verres make clear that the tax-farmers of Sicily ran both the economy and politics of Sicily.

Because the Roman government wanted revenues without bureaucracy, and local Roman governors like Verres wanted money in the form of bribes and company shares, the tax-farming companies were allowed to grow into pseudogovernmental entities that for a short time during the Late Republic acted as if they were the Roman state. From 133 to 44 bce, the independent, private tax companies collected taxes, lent money, fielded troops, and controlled the economies of Roman possessions outside of Italy. All of these pseudogovernmental powers were replicated by the great, modern colonial corporations—the French, Dutch, and British East India companies. The works of Cicero, especially his speeches against Gaius Verres, were perennial favorites in public school curricula. It is surely no accident that the great companies associated with European imperialism resembled their Roman predecessors so closely.

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