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Impearls: CotRCS: The situation in the provinces

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Earthdate 2007-10-13

The situation in the provinces   by G. H. Stevenson

We will now turn once again to historian G. H. Stevenson’s (Fellow and Praelector in Ancient History, University College, Oxford) strangely fascinating work Roman Provincial Administration — from which will be drawn the entirety of Prof. Stevenson’s final Chapter VI: “The Municipal System in the Provinces” — detailing how those splendid, autonomous cities spangling the diverse reaches of the vast empire organized their own affairs to accomplish the task of self-government.

It will be clear from what has been said in previous chapters that from the earliest days of Rome’s hegemony in Italy till the time when her rule extended from the Atlantic to the Euphrates she did much to foster the survival and creation of autonomous cities.  Until late in her history Rome shrank from centralization.  In the period when her authority was mainly confined to Italy she concluded treaties with other cities which merely secured for her their assistance in times of war, and at a later stage when she had extended her citizenship over the whole peninsula this incorporation was consistent with the retention of a considerable amount of local autonomy by individual cities.  The Romans deserve great credit for grasping so clearly the distinction between central and local government, a distinction which had not been appreciated by the Athenians, whose rule was unpopular because of its interference with the internal affairs of the cities of their Empire.  Even under the Principate Rome herself retained much of the machinery of the city-state, and preferred to deal with communities whose institutions bore some resemblance to her own.

In Italy itself it was not till late in the republican period that political units other than the city disappeared.  Rome’s opponents in the Social War [90-89 b.c.] were to a large extent still organized in tribes, and one of the consequences of the gift of citizenship which followed was the extension of the municipal system to the whole peninsula.  It is probable that by the beginning of the Principate every Italian south of the Alps was, if not a full member of a city, at least connected with one by attributio.

In the provinces Rome had to deal with areas who past history had been very varied.  In those parts of the Empire which had come under Greek or Carthaginian influence she found cities more or less of the kind to which she was accustomed in Italy.  The Greek fringe of Asia Minor contained many whose history went back for centuries, and even further east the successors of Alexander had created famous towns.  In the provinces of Africa and in those parts of Spain which had been ruled by Carthage cities were numerous.  At the beginning of the Principate southern Spain (Baetica) was almost entirely a land of cities, while elsewhere most of the inhabitants were organized in small tribal units with no well-defined urban centre.  Even in Asia Minor, which had for so long been subject to Greek influence, city life was by no means universal.  A large section of the population was accustomed to tribal life, or was attached to great estates belonging to private individuals or to temples.  Many provinces, notably Africa, contained extensive saltus, which were the property of the crown and were administered by imperial procurators, and which generally owed their origin to the expropriation of the original owners.  The mining community of Vipasca in southern Spain, of which mention has been made above [previous chapter, not quoted], was probably not unique.  It was entirely devoid of self-government, and was controlled by the procurator metallorum.

The persistence or creation of such communities as have been enumerated is an admirable example of that adaptability of Roman rule which it has so often been necessary to emphasize.  The Roman government preferred that its subjects should belong to cities of the Greco-Roman type, but was prepared to tolerate or even create other forms of organization if for any reason this seemed desirable.

This feature of Roman administration can be illustrated from Gaul, a province in which Roman methods are seen at their best.  Readers of Cæsar will remember that at the time of its conquest Gaul was simply a geographical expression, and that its inhabitants owed allegiance not to Gaul as a whole but to tribes, such as the Sequani, Aedui, or Arverni, between which no permanent political ties existed.  “Until it came under our rule,” says a speaker quoted by Tacitus, “there was nothing in Gaul but despotisms and wars.  All that we have done is to keep the peace.”

This disunion did much to facilitate Cæsar’s task, and his successors fully realized that the discord which normally existed among the Gallic tribes was an asset which should not lightly be destroyed, provided that it did not actually lead to civil war.  So long as it existed there was little danger that the whole country would rise against its Roman rulers.  Accordingly when Augustus reorganized the newly-conquered part of Gaul he decided to make no change in the political system and to allow the tribes to survive.  The cities of modern France, such as Paris, Rheims and Soissons, take their names from the tribe of which they were the leading community.  Each of these tribes had a well-defined form of government, aristocratic in principle, with which it was possible for the Romans to enter into relations, and which could make itself responsible for the payment of taxation.  The leaders of these tribal aristocracies, who had held all the offices in their own state, as the inscriptions so often record, met each year outside Lugdunum to participate in religious ceremonies at the altar of Rome and Augustus and elected one of their number to be sacerdos and to preside for the year over the concilium Galliarum.

In this way Rome secured the loyalty of the most influential men in Gaul, many of whom were citizens of Rome and who from the time of Claudius could even aspire to membership of the Senate.  It is worth noting that in spite of this unwillingness on the part of Rome to interfere with tribal organization the official terminology of municipal towns was taken over by the Gallic tribes.  We find duumviri and quaestors among such tribes as the Aedui and Sequani, and the word ordo could be used to designate the governing body.  On the other hand if a tribe wished to employ old titles, such as Vergobretus, for its magistracies it was at liberty to do so. 

In Spain, the municipal system was at first confined to Andalusia and the coastal districts which had been under the rule of Carthage.  But in her Spanish provinces Rome pursued a less conservative policy than in Gaul, and encouraged the growths of town.  The small Spanish tribes possessed less vitality than the larger tribes of Gaul, and there is no reason to think that the gradual municipalization of the country was resented.  When once it was conquered no province gave Rome less trouble than Spain.  In the statistics quoted by Pliny, which were probably derived from Agrippa, we find that under Augustus Hispania Tarraconensis contained 179 towns and 114 non-urban communities.  The gift of Latin Right to the whole peninsula by Vespasian must have led to the disappearance or transformation of many of the latter, for Ptolemy, writing under Antoninus Pius, enumerates 248 towns and only twenty-seven communities outside the municipal system.

Fig. 2. Map of Roman Britain (Sheppard Frere, Oxford University) f2

The policy of Rome was to foster municipal life in those parts of the Empire where it was welcome to the inhabitants, and to wait for the “psychological moment” before introducing it into regions where it was not familiar.  Thus Britain retained a tribal organization throughout the Roman occupation, and possessed only a handful of regular municipalities.  Many cities of some importance, e.g., Silchester [Calleva Atrebatum] and Wroxeter [Viroconium Cornoviorum], remained merely tribal capitals.  That the British, like the Gallic tribes, adopted some features of municipal organization is proved by an inscription which mentions the ordo of the civitas of the Silures in South Wales.

Thrace again was almost devoid of cities in the early Principate, and it was not till the time of Trajan, who founded seven cities, that any serious action was taken to municipalize the province.  Galatia retained throughout its tribal organization, and its few towns “remained mere islands of urban life in their vast territories, where the Gallic and Phrygian peasants still maintained their primitive village economy, hardly affected by Greek civilization.”  When after his defeat of Mithradates Pompey drafted the Lex Provinciae of Bithynia and Pontus he was hampered by the absence of local government.

In these districts “the Roman republic was for the first time brought face to face with a system of administration totally alien to its traditions and unsuitable to the scheme of provincial government which it had built up.”  In order therefore that it might be possible to entrust the government of the province to a proconsul quite unqualified to control a centralized bureaucracy he founded several self-governing cities.  That city-life was at a later date highly developed in Bithynia is clear from Pliny’s letters to Trajan, but it is probable that even in his time part of the province was not included in the municipal system.

It would be beyond the scope of this work to attempt a detailed account of the growth of city-life in the more backward parts of the Empire.  It was an inevitable result of the process of romanization.  The status of a Roman colonia or municipium within a province was an enviable one, and it was natural that districts which preserved an older type of organization should so re-organize themselves that they might hope one day to attain the status of these favoured communities.  In order to do this it was necessary to acquire a constitution similar to that which belonged to cities in which the municipal system was of long standing. 

A considerable number of cities throughout the Empire owed their origin to the army.  It was to be expected that settlements would grow up in close proximity to a military station, inhabited by those who provided for the needs of the soldiers, and these canabae often developed into regular towns.  There was such a settlement at Vetera on the lower Rhine by a.d. 69, which according to Tacitus almost amounted to a municipium, and which was given the status of colonia by Trajan.  A similar community existed at Troesmis on the lower Danube, closely connected with Legion V. Macedonia, and presided over by magistri and aediles.  Legionary headquarters like Lambaesis in Africa, Lincoln and York in Britain, and Carnuntum in Pannonia became important towns.

Each city in a Roman province was responsible for administration of a considerable surrounding district, part of which was inhabited by men who were not regarded as being qualified for full municipal citizenship, and who were grouped in units “attributed” to the city concerned.  This device of attributio was known in Italy under the Republic, and was employed in Cisalpine Gaul when it was organized as a province after the Social War.  Such cities as Tridentum, Verona, Brixia, and Mediolanum were made responsible for the administration of Alpine districts not yet fully romanized.  In the south of France certain cities exercised authority over many small communities, and in Asia Minor the large territories of cities contained paroeci whose status was inferior to that of full citizens.  The interesting document which records the recognition by Claudius of the claim of the Anauni to the full citizenship of Tridentum, suggests that in practice no very sharp line was drawn between the attributi and their fully qualified fellow-citizens.  Some of the Anauni had served in the Prætorian Guard or even as iudices in the Roman courts.  Men who had earned these distinctions might well claim the right to attend the not very important meetings of their local assembly.

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