Just after the Romans had gotten rid of the Carthaginians once and for all (they wiped Carthage off the map in 146 BC), a Greek named Polybius wrote a book about them. He was impressed.
“There can surely be nobody so petty or so apathetic in his outlook that he has no desire to discover by what means and under what system of government the Romans succeeded in less than fifty-three years in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, an achievement which is without parallel in human history.” (Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Book I).
Creative Commons Navngivelse-Del på samme vilkår 3.0 Unported photo
The fifty-three years were the duration of the second war with Carthage, when Rome was hanging on the edge. Hannibal had come with his army from Spain and right there on Italian soil he had destroyed one Roman army after another, almost within a stone’s throw—a catapult shot—of Rome itself. Yet he didn’t win: Rome never said pretty please. She just kept doggedly picking up the ever-fewer pieces, somehow finding soldiers to form new armies, somehow scraping up the money to outfit them and put them in the field. The Romans never thought of surrender. Where had that courage and that fortitude come from? Polybius didn’t see those virtues in the Greeks and other people he knew. What was the Roman secret?
The Romans themselves had started to wonder. They had suddenly become the kings of the World Roost. The last they knew they were near extinction with Hannibal ad portas, pushing at the gates of Rome. They had been fighting for their lives as long as they could remember. Were they good at something? They guessed so, given the results. But at what? What had they been doing right? You never understand yourself—you always take what you are good at for granted. What were they taking for granted that they should be proud of? Maybe this Greek could tell them.
The Oath of the Horatii by David (public domain photo)
“There are three ingredients to your excellence,” said Polybius. “One is your staunch morality, your principles. Another is your army, which is so well-disciplined and well-organized. And the last is the constitution of your government. It is unique.”
“We know all about our army,” said the Romans. They had all done long stints in arms and had become toughened and a little brutalized. “Tell us about those high principles of ours. We aren’t traitors like those Carthaginians, but otherwise we behave like everyone else, don’t we? Everyone fights to save his country.”
“No,” said Polybius. “You are as tough as they come, and you know it very well.”
And as an example he reminded them of how they had refused to take back their own soldiers who had become Hannibal’s prisoners.
“What was that story?” asked the Romans. “We can’t remember exactly.”
Nonsense. They just wanted to hear the Greek praise them.
See How Rome Conquered the World (Part 2) and hear Polybius tell the Romans how tough they are