A Ligurian Nightmare

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The historian Livy compares the Roman military campaigns in Asia and Liguria to show the striking difference from each other. Rome was engaged in a war against Carthage for the second time in the late third century BC and after defeating them they became the main power in the west of the Mediterranean. The Macedonian king, Philip V, had tried to interfere with the war by striking an agreement with Hannibal, the leader of the Carthaginians in Italy, to become allies and fight each other’s enemies. Philip specifically wanted to take the Roman possessions in Illyria back for his ally Demetrius. Philip lost a number of engagements with the Romans and the First Macedonian War ended but it did draw Rome into the Greek world of the eastern Mediterranean.


Throughout the next few decades Rome collected allies in the region while Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire was expanding in Anatolia. It was made worse by Hannibal becoming an advisor to the Seleucids. Eventually, Antiochus invaded Greece and the Romans responded by bringing their own army there. Over the course of the Seleucid War the Romans scored multiple victories against them in Greece and Anatolia, culminating in the surrender of the Seleucids. The loss was a great success for the Roman allies Pergamum and Rhodes but the Seleucids lost most of their land in Anatolia.

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Conversely, another front had opened up. The Ligurians were people who lived in the mountains of modern, northwestern Italy. They would occasionally raid the Romans and after the 2nd Punic War ended they continued to be a nuisance. When the Romans left Anatolia to fight in Liguria they found a very different battlefield. Livy describes Asia, their word for western Anatolia, as full of luxuries from the land and sea, cities filled with pleasure, effeminate enemies and plenty of wealth to loot which heavily enriched the armies. Effeminate enemies is an old insult to Anatolia and the older Persian Empire as a whole since they were always portrayed as being similar to women for various reasons. The wealth corrupting the army is another theme that reappears constantly within the downfall of the republic. Different authors would claim that the virtuous Romans became corrupted by wealth and subsequently they abandoned their morality in favor of the pleasures of luxury. Whether or not it is true, it was a popular idea during the time period and reinforced Roman ideals concerning the power of certain vices.

Liguria is described by Livy as ideal for a soldier. The country is a rough and difficult series of mountains filled with high forts which were hard to build or take by force. The roads were steep and narrow, the country had no riches, the food was minimal and there were no camp-followers, baggage animals or anything else aside from the soldiers. You could be ambushed anywhere and the Ligurians wore little armor and had light weapons which meant they could move fast and they knew their home well. Their style of warfare was guerrilla since they had little wealth in their country which was why they were raiding Roman territories. They also rarely engaged in pitched battles, something the Romans counted on for decisive victories. Thus, the wars here were long, difficult campaigns lasting for years and tested the Romans daily. Compared to the heaven of Asia, Liguria was a grinding hell.

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Livy, The History of Rome – Book 39, Chapter 1


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