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Gaius Paulinus Maximus

The Roman declaration of war

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In Book I of Livy's History of Rome he takes time out to give an exact description of the ancient way that the Romans would declare war upon their enemies.

 

The procedure goes as follows.....

The ambassador binds his head in a woollen fillet. When he has reached the frontiers of the nation from whom satisfaction is demanded, he says, "Hear, O Jupiter! Hear, ye confines" - naming the particular nation whose they are - "Hear, O Justice! I am the public herald of the Roman People. Rightly and duly authorised do I come; let confidence be placed in my words." Then he recites the terms of the demands, and calls Jupiter to witness: "If I am demanding the surrender of those men or those goods, contrary to justice and religion, suffer me nevermore to enjoy my native land." He repeats these words as he crosses the frontier, he repeats them to whoever happens to be the first person he meets, he repeats them as he enters the gates and again on entering the forum, with some slight changes in the wording of the formula. If what he demands are not surrendered at the expiration of thirty-three days - for that is the fixed period of grace - he declares war in the following terms: "Hear, O Jupiter, and thou Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye, gods of earth and of the lower world, hear me! I call you to witness that this people" - mentioning it by name - "is unjust and does not fulfil its sacred obligations. But about these matters we must consult the elders in our own land in what way we may obtain our rights."

 

 

With these words the ambassador returned to Rome for consultation. The king forthwith consulted the senate in words to the following effect: "Concerning the matters, suits, and causes, whereof the Pater Patratus of the Roman People and Quirites hath complained to the Pater Patratus of the Prisci Latini, and to the people of the Prisci Latini, which matters they were bound severally to surrender, discharge, and make good, whereas they have done none of these things - say, what is your opinion?" He whose opinion was first asked, replied, "I am of opinion that they ought to be recovered by a just and righteous war, wherefore I give my consent and vote for it." Then the others were asked in order, and when the majority of those present declared themselves of the same opinion, war was agreed upon. It was customary for the Fetial to carry to the enemies' frontiers a blood-smeared spear tipped with iron or burnt at the end, and, in the presence of at least three adults, to say, "Inasmuch as the peoples of the Prisci Latini have been guilty of wrong against the People of Rome and the Quirites, and inasmuch as the People of Rome and the Quirites have ordered that there be war with the Prisci Latini, and the Senate of the People of Rome and the Quirites have determined and decreed that there shall be war with the Prisci Latini, therefore I and the People of Rome, declare and make war upon the peoples of the Prisci Latini." With these words he hurled his spear into their territory. This was the way in which at that time satisfaction was demanded from the Latins and war declared, and posterity adopted the custom.

 

My question is, How long did the Romans keep up this long and drawn out declaration of war? Livy states that the ritual was continued by the fetials right up until the time of the writing of his History of Rome but I just can't see it. I can believe it was performed in the old days when Rome under the kings was still a growing power and constantly quarrelling with the surrounding city states like Veii or the Albans and Sabines. But would they have still performed it when Rome had become a great power and began expanding across Europe and North Africa?

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In Book I of Livy's History of Rome he takes time out to give an exact description of the ancient way that the Romans would declare war upon their enemies.

 

The procedure goes as follows.....

The ambassador binds his head in a woollen fillet. When he has reached the frontiers of the nation from whom satisfaction is demanded, he says, "Hear, O Jupiter! Hear, ye confines" - naming the particular nation whose they are - "Hear, O Justice! I am the public herald of the Roman People. Rightly and duly authorised do I come; let confidence be placed in my words." Then he recites the terms of the demands, and calls Jupiter to witness: "If I am demanding the surrender of those men or those goods, contrary to justice and religion, suffer me nevermore to enjoy my native land." He repeats these words as he crosses the frontier, he repeats them to whoever happens to be the first person he meets, he repeats them as he enters the gates and again on entering the forum, with some slight changes in the wording of the formula. If what he demands are not surrendered at the expiration of thirty-three days - for that is the fixed period of grace - he declares war in the following terms: "Hear, O Jupiter, and thou Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye, gods of earth and of the lower world, hear me! I call you to witness that this people" - mentioning it by name - "is unjust and does not fulfil its sacred obligations. But about these matters we must consult the elders in our own land in what way we may obtain our rights."

 

 

With these words the ambassador returned to Rome for consultation. The king forthwith consulted the senate in words to the following effect: "Concerning the matters, suits, and causes, whereof the Pater Patratus of the Roman People and Quirites hath complained to the Pater Patratus of the Prisci Latini, and to the people of the Prisci Latini, which matters they were bound severally to surrender, discharge, and make good, whereas they have done none of these things - say, what is your opinion?" He whose opinion was first asked, replied, "I am of opinion that they ought to be recovered by a just and righteous war, wherefore I give my consent and vote for it." Then the others were asked in order, and when the majority of those present declared themselves of the same opinion, war was agreed upon. It was customary for the Fetial to carry to the enemies' frontiers a blood-smeared spear tipped with iron or burnt at the end, and, in the presence of at least three adults, to say, "Inasmuch as the peoples of the Prisci Latini have been guilty of wrong against the People of Rome and the Quirites, and inasmuch as the People of Rome and the Quirites have ordered that there be war with the Prisci Latini, and the Senate of the People of Rome and the Quirites have determined and decreed that there shall be war with the Prisci Latini, therefore I and the People of Rome, declare and make war upon the peoples of the Prisci Latini." With these words he hurled his spear into their territory. This was the way in which at that time satisfaction was demanded from the Latins and war declared, and posterity adopted the custom.

 

My question is, How long did the Romans keep up this long and drawn out declaration of war? Livy states that the ritual was continued by the fetials right up until the time of the writing of his History of Rome but I just can't see it. I can believe it was performed in the old days when Rome under the kings was still a growing power and constantly quarrelling with the surrounding city states like Veii or the Albans and Sabines. But would they have still performed it when Rome had become a great power and began expanding across Europe and North Africa?

 

This is a tough but very interesting question. It seems that the major source on the subject is F.W. Wallbank who wrote a whole paper on the subject. My less than scholarly interpretation of a couple of points is as follows.

 

By the time of the Punic wars, Senatorial Legati had replaced the Fetiales in the process of the declaration of war. This change was to ensure that if terms could not be reached, there would be no delay in mobilisation, in as much as when the Legati had spoken their final words, the two peoples would be at war. Previously, the Fetiales would state the grievances of Rome and follow, given that no arrangement was arrived at, with a declaration of war but that would need Senatorial and popular consent.

 

Whether or not, by the end of the third century BCE, the Legati still threw a bloodstained spear into enemy territory or employed all or a portion of the elaborate ritual used by the Fetiales seems very difficult to establish. I will look forward to your responses and those of others; after all most of us are here to learn and this is just the type of post that provokes really useful enquiry.

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This is a tough but very interesting question. It seems that the major source on the subject is F.W. Wallbank who wrote a whole paper on the subject. My less than scholarly interpretation of a couple of points is as follows.

 

By the time of the Punic wars, Senatorial Legati had replaced the Fetiales in the process of the declaration of war. This change was to ensure that if terms could not be reached, there would be no delay in mobilisation, in as much as when the Legati had spoken their final words, the two peoples would be at war. Previously, the Fetiales would state the grievances of Rome and follow, given that no arrangement was arrived at, with a declaration of war but that would need Senatorial and popular consent.

 

Whether or not, by the end of the third century BCE, the Legati still threw a bloodstained spear into enemy territory or employed all or a portion of the elaborate ritual used by the Fetiales seems very difficult to establish. I will look forward to your responses and those of others; after all most of us are here to learn and this is just the type of post that provokes really useful enquiry.

 

Early Roman society felt the need to provide both religious and moral justification for every war that it fought. The ancient fetial law stated that " no war was acceptable to the gods unless it was waged in defence of one's own country or allies" Though the Romans weren't unique in maintaining that they acted in response to the needs of their own security, they claimed the morale high ground in a uniquely Roman way. The appeal to the gods whose authority underlay the fetials actions was essential to make Rome's wars appear legitimate in the eyes of the people.

 

As you say the decision to go to war would have already been made by the senatorial powers in Rome regardless of the so called negotiating of the fetials, the demands made by Rome in order to avoid war would probably have been set at an unacceptable level, well out of proportion to the injury or offence reportedly committed. In other words Rome would want it to look like they'd done everything in their power in order to avoid an all out war, in order for it to appear legitimate, when in fact Rome thirst and hunger for expansion would have probably been the main instigation for war.

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We are talking here about universal traits; no country has ever pretended to go against the will of their own patron deities.

Even comrade Stalin asked for the blessing of the orthodox church for his Great Patriotic War.

That the hunger of power is the origin of the vast majority (if not all) wars has been common knowledge since the Neolithic.

However, the Roman attitude regarding this issue was, as usual, rather pragmatic; for them, religion and politics (eg, fetiales and senatorial legati) were not opposites, but complementary.

Naturally, almost always it was politics which bended or even distorted religion, not the other way.

It

Edited by sylla

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