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Red in Tooth and Claw: Roman War-Making: An Evolutionary Perspective

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posted on 2024-01-18, 06:42 authored by Glenn Dare

Rome, during the period of the middle-Republic came of age as an imperial power. Yet, this trajectory from one-of-many city states of Latium to hegemon of the Mediterranean world was one that involved a complex mix of endogenous and exogenous factors. The objective of this thesis is to use evolutionary theory to re-examine this often-described phenomenon. The historiographical tradition related to this subject matter is long and fascinating but has, at times, fallen short of providing theories with not only explanatory power but with some form of scientific basis. International Relations theories (IR) have gone some way to contributing to this deficit by foregrounding the ecological factors that affected Rome’s interfacing with other groups of people in the Mediterranean. However, to produce a more nuanced explication of Roman aggression during this period, an evolutionary approach is both efficacious and beneficial. Humans are a product of evolution by natural selection; that is, we possess certain behaviours that are, to a degree, determined by genes in a particular environmental situation. Thus, from this perspective, the Romans were little different from contemporary cultures or even us. The ancient Mediterranean world of the middle-Republic was one of anarchy, self-help, and power maximization; it was a zero-sum world and so aggression was often adaptive. Nonetheless, learning and cultural transmission have become the true determinant of human behaviours, guided by and altering our evolved psychological mechanisms. Therefore, cultural processes did indeed make the Romans idiosyncratic in many respects. Humans are highly social, and we evolved in a small group environment. Multilevel selection tells us that selfishness is often a successful strategy within a group, but groups that are constituted of altruistic members, and are thus integrated, will out-compete groups of selfish individuals. This is, in a nutshell, the key to Roman success. Roman society evolved norms and institutions that created a society that was highly amalgamated and focused on acting for the good of the state because that was also beneficial to the individual in tangible ways. Service to the state could bring political power, prestige, and wealth to one’s family and it could be generational. Moreover, Rome itself was the product of cultural group selection; in short, its norms and institutions were more adapted to be successful in inter-group competition. To be sure, this need not be conflict, but in the ecological conditions of the time, it often was. One externality that is emphasised in this thesis is the shared frontier with the Gauls, as well as the lesser frontier with the Etruscans. Frontiers are where potential empires were formed because of the highly intensive and volatile conditions which drive groups towards higher solidarity. My overall objective of this thesis is to highlight that the Romans were, like all species, a product of their genes, culture, life history and ecology. They were both all-to human, and, at times, exceptional in there expression of their humanity.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Anthropology; Classical Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

139999 Other culture and society not elsewhere classified

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

1 Pure basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Tatum, W. Jeffery