Romans: Strabo on Roman superiority and conquest of peoples (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Romans: Strabo on Roman superiority and conquest of peoples (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024,

Ancient author: Strabo, Geography 6.4.1-2 (link).

Comments: In this section that immediately follows Strabo’s discussion of Italic peoples (link), Strabo affirms the superiority of the Romans by way of a story of their gradual dominance over peoples of Italy and, ultimately, over peoples throughout the Mediterranean area (Strabo is writing in the time of Tiberius, around 18 CE). Strabo’s sense of environmental determinism becomes clear as he progresses in his story of Romans being ideal for universal hegemony.


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of Italic peoples, go to this link]

[Reasons for the success and superiority of the Romans, including environmental causes]

(6.4.1) Such, indeed, is the size and such the character of Italy. And while I have already mentioned many things which have caused the Romans at the present time to be exalted to so great a height, I will now indicate the most important things.

One is, that, like an island, Italy is securely guarded by the seas on all sides, except in a few regions, and even these are fortified by mountains that are hardly passable. A second is that along most of its coast it is harbourless and that the harbours it does have are large and admirable. The former is useful in meeting attacks from the outside, while the latter is helpful in making counter-attacks and in promoting an abundant commerce. A third is that it is characterised by many differences of air and temperature, on which depend the greater variation, whether for better or for worse, in animals, plants, and, in short, everything that is useful for the support of life. Its length extends from north to south, generally speaking, and Sicily counts as an addition to its length, already so great. Now mild temperature and harsh temperature of the air are judged by heat, cold, and their intermediates; and so from this it necessarily follows that what is now Italy, situated as it is between the two extremes and extending to such a length, shares very largely in the temperate zone and in a very large number of ways.

And the following is still another advantage which has fallen to the lot of Italy. Since the Apennine mountains extend through the whole of its length and leave on both sides plains and hills which bear fine fruits, there is no part of it which does not enjoy the blessings of both mountain and plain. And add also to this the size and number of its rivers and its lakes, and, besides these, the fountains of water, both hot and cold, which in many places nature has provided as an aid to health, and then again its good supply of mines of all sorts. Neither can one sufficiently describe Italy’s abundant supply of fuel, and of food both for men and beast, and the excellence of its fruits.

Further, since it lies intermediate between the largest descent groups on the one hand, and Greece and the best parts of Libya on the other, it not only is naturally well-suited to hegemony, because it surpasses the countries that surround it both in the courage of its people and in size, but also can easily avail itself of their services, because it is close to them.

(6.4.2) Now if I must add to my account of Italy a summary account also of the Romans who took possession of it and equipped it as a base of operations for the universal hegemony, let me add as follows: After the founding of Rome, the Romans wisely continued for many generations under the rule of kings. Afterwards, because the last Tarquinius was a bad ruler, they ejected him, framed a government which was a mixture of monarchy and aristocracy, and dealt with the Sabines and Latins as with partners.

But since they did not always find either them or the other neighbouring peoples well intentioned, they were forced, in a way, to enlarge their own country by the dismemberment of that of the others. And in this way, while they were advancing and increasing little by little, it came to pass, contrary to the expectation of all, that they suddenly lost their city, although they also got it back contrary to expectation [i.e. the supposed first Celtic invasion]. This took place, as Polybios says, in the nineteenth year after the naval battle at Aigospotamos [ca. 405 BCE], at the time of the peace of Antalkidas [ca. 387 BCE].

[Romans’ conquest of various peoples]

[Italic peoples and Carthaginians]

After having rid themselves of these enemies, the Romans first made all the Latins their subjects. Then the Romans stopped the Tyrrhenians and the Celts who lived around the Padus [Po] river from their wide and unrestrained licence. Then they defeated the Samnites and, after them, the Tarantinians and Pyrrhus. Then, finally also the remainder of what is now Italy, except the part that is around the Padus [Po] river. And while this part was still in a state of war, the Romans crossed over to Sicily, and on taking it away from the Carthaginians came back again to attack the peoples who lived around the Padus. It was while that war was still in progress that Hannibal invaded Italy. This latter is the second war that occurred against the Carthaginians. Not long afterwards there was a third war in which Carthage was destroyed. At the same time the Romans acquired not only Libya [Africa], but also as much of Iberia [Spain] as they had taken away from the Carthaginians.

[Greeks, Macedonians, Thracians, and Illyrians]

But the Greeks, the Macedonians, and those peoples in Asia who lived on this side the Halys [Kızılırmak] river and the Taurus mountains [in Turkey] joined the Carthaginians in a revolution, and, therefore, at the same time the Romans were led on to a conquest of these peoples, whose kings were Antiochos, Philip, and Perseus. Further, those of the Illyrians and Thracians who were neighbours to the Greeks and the Macedonians began to carry on war against the Romans and kept on warring until the Romans had subdued all the peoples this side the Ister [Danube] river and this side the Halys river. And the Iberians, Celts, and all the remaining peoples which now give ear to the Romans had the same experience.

[Iberians, Celts, and Germans]

As for Iberia [Spain], the Romans did not stop reducing it by military force until they had subdued the whole of it. First, the Romans drove out the Nomantinians, later on they destroyed Viriathus and Sertorius, and, finallyl, they destroyed the Cantabrians, who were subdued by Augustus Caesar. As for the Celtic region (I mean the Celtic region as a whole, both this side and the other side of the Alps, together with Liguria), the Romans at first brought it over to their side only part by part, from time to time, but later the deified Caesar, and afterwards Caesar Augustus, acquired it all at once in a general war. But at the present time the Romans are carrying on war against the Germans, setting out from the Celtic region as the most appropriate base of operations. They have already glorified the fatherland with some triumphs over the Germans.

[Libyans and Egyptians]

As for Libya, so much of it as did not belong to the Carthaginians was turned over to kings who were subject to the Romans, and, if they ever revolted, they were deposed. But at the present time Juba has been invested with the rule, not only of Maurusia, but also of many parts of the rest of Libya, because of his loyalty and his friendship for the Romans.

The case of Asia was like that of Libya. At the outset it was administered through the agency of client kings who were subject to the Romans, but from that time on, when their line failed, as was the case with the Attalid, Syrian, Paphlagonian, Cappadocian, and Egyptian kings, or when they would revolt and afterwards be deposed, as was the case with Mithridates Eupator and the Egyptian Kleopatra, all parts of it this side the Phasis [Rioni] river [east of the Black Sea in Kolchis] and the Euphrates [in Iraq], except certain parts of Arabia, have been subject to the Romans and the rulers appointed by them.

[Armenians and Pontic peoples]

As for the Armenians, and the peoples who are situated above Kolchis, both Albanians and Iberians, they require the presence only of men to lead them, and are excellent subjects, but because the Romans are busy with other affairs, they make attempts at revolution. This is the case with all the peoples who live beyond the Ister [Danube] in the neighbourhood of the Euxine [Black Sea], except those in the region of the Bosporos and the nomads. The people of the Bosporos are in subjection, whereas the nomads, on account of their lack of intercourse with others, are of no use for anything and only require watching. Also the remaining parts of Asia, generally speaking, belong to the tent-dwellers and the nomads, who are very distant peoples.


But as for the Parthians, although they have a common border with the Romans and also are very powerful, they have nevertheless yielded so far to the preeminence of the Romans and of the rulers of our time that they have sent to Rome the trophies which they once set up as a memorial of their victory over the Romans. In addition, Phraates has entrusted to Augustus Caesar his children and also his children’s children, thus obsequiously making sure of Caesar’s friendship by giving hostages. The Parthians of today have often gone to Rome in quest of a man to be their king, and are now about ready to put their entire authority into the hands of the Romans.

[Praising emperors Augustus and Tiberius]

As for Italy itself, though it has often been torn by factions, at least since it has been under the Romans, and as for Rome itself, they have been prevented by the excellence of their form of government and of their rulers from proceeding too far in the ways of error and corruption. Yet is was difficult to administer so great a dominion without turning it over to one man, as to a father. Anyways, the Romans and their allies have never thrived in such peace and plenty beyond what was brought by Augustus Caesar from the time he assumed the absolute authority and is now being granted them by his son and successor, Tiberius, who is making Augustus the model of his administration and decrees, as are his children, Germanicus and Drusus, who are assisting their father.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of Celts and Germans, go to this link]


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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