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Divide and conquer – Romans’ method of conquest

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Legionnaires in combat during Trajan's war with the Dacians (early 2nd century CE)
Legionnaires in combat during Trajan's war with the Dacians (early 2nd century CE). | Photo: Angus McBride

Divide and conquer (divide et impera) is the principle of the conquest and subjugation of peoples by constantly inciting internal conflicts in conquered territories and acting as the mediator of conflicting parties. This method was already known in the ancient world, and the ancient Romans were the masters in its application.

The Romans were the first to apply divide et impera1 in practice. A great example was the conquest of the Apennine Peninsula – a process that stretched from the 5th century BCE. until 264 BCE when the Romans captured the last Etruscan free city – Volsini. Rome now ruled over lands ranging from Arno and Rubicon to the Strait of Sicily.

The “sons of the she-wolf” grew from the small city-state to enormous proportions, influencing all of Italy. Their conquest was largely based on signing agreements with conquered peoples, henceforth called “allies”. These, in turn, could not sign contracts with each other, and therefore could not come together to defeat the Romans. Moreover, the Romans demanded military contingents from the conquered peoples that they could use in the event of a war with the enemy.

An example of the policy of “dividing and ruling” is the treatment of Jews by Aulus Gabinius – a proconsul in Syria in 57 BCE – who deliberately divided their lands into 5 smaller districts. It is mentioned in Josephus Flavius in Book I of De bello Judaico.

  1. It is widely accepted in science that these words were first spoken by the Macedonian king Philip II.
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski

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