Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2007-10-07 Archive

Earthdate 2007-10-13

Constitution of the Roman city-state

Fig. 1. Map of Roman Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) [click on image for larger image] (Courtesy: Director, Reading Museum) (Sheppard Frere, Oxford University) f1

Impearls’ earlier piece on the autonomy of cities and provincial peoples in the Roman Empire deserves a more thoroughgoing follow-up, in my view.  To answer the implicit question posed in that preceding piece — namely, how did those cities do it? — we’ll spend the remainder of this essay (organized as usual in such cases in Impearls, as an associated set of postings occupying a single archive page) considering the matter.

Turning once again to historian G. H. (George Hope) Stevenson’s (Fellow and Praelector in Ancient History, University College, Oxford) oddly fascinating work Roman Provincial Administration (1939, which we’ve referred to before) for pertinent details, we draw from (the entirety — at least for now excepting most footnotes — of) Prof. Stevenson’s final Chapter VI: “The [Roman] Municipal System in the Provinces,” to explain how all those splendid, autonomous cities spangling the diverse extent of the vast empire, organized their own affairs to accomplish the job of self-government. 1

To accompany the chapter from Stevenson’s book, a Foreword to the beginning as well as an Afterword providing ex post facto observations have been attached, bracketing Stevenson’s essay.  In a subsequent posting to follow on later we’ll also try to add further illuminating comparisons that can be undertaken with regard to these Roman provincial self-governing states.

Now, forthwith the hypertext Contents to G. H. Stevenson’s “The Roman municipal system in the provinces” (including fore and after commentary).

The Roman municipal system in the provinces   by G. H. Stevenson

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Foreword   by Michael McNeil

For each of our own personal political and historical edifications, in my view we oh-so-sophisticated moderns might want to glance, at least once in our lives, over the constitution(s) of ancient Rome — particularly that (or those) which held force among the panorama of multitudinous, autonomous republican local statelets that persisted for long (centuries) under the Roman Empire system (among which Calleva Atrebatum, aka Silchester in modern England, illustrated above [f1, see also f2], will serve as our exemplar du jour).

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) — seat of the Atrebates tribe in the Roman province of Britannia (some 10 miles [17 km] southwest of Reading in modern England) — is a perhaps typical Roman provincial civitas (city-state) capital.  As the (Google Maps) aerial image incorporated within the foregoing map of the ancient site reveals (f1: click on it for a larger version), Calleva Atrebatum was abandoned in the post-Roman era and, for basically the last millennium and a half, has subsisted as simply a walled farm (lately including an archaeological dig — visible in insula [city block] IX on that same map).

Thus, unlike other cities in the Roman Empire and Roman Britain such as London and York (not to speak of Rome itself) which have remained vigorously alive and active ever since ancient times (all that activity brilliantly succeeding in obliterating most of the remains of eras prior to the modern), Silchester, rather like Pompeii (though the latter was annihilated and thus placed into a sort of archaeological time stasis far more abruptly), has preserved much of the evidence of times (Roman) when it was a living city.

Indeed, the Kingdom of the Atrebates, centered on Silchester, has an illustrious history.  Since Cæsar’s ephemeral invasion of Britain during the first century (55-54) b.c., the Atrebates had been longtime traditional allies of Rome, whilst around the turn of the next century they were locked in dynastic strife with the neighboring Kingdom of the Catuvellauni (resident north of the Thames; capital Verulamium, now St. Albans, today a distant suburb [northwest] of Greater London) — the twists and turns of which conflict had much to do politically with providing the ultimate stimulus for Claudius’ invasion of Britain (commencing in a.d. 43) in the first place.  After the Roman conquest, following an interval as a federated client kingdom, the Atrebatean realm subsequently became a self-governing civitas within the Roman province of Britannia. f2

For those who’d like to learn more about the Roman age in Britain and Silchester in particular, the University of Reading hosts a worthwhile web site providing information not only about Silchester Insula IX, otherwise known as the Town Life Project, encompassing the archaeological excavation of insula (city block) IX within the city (visible on the Silchester map at top f1), but the site also provides a nice set of web pages known as A Guide to Silchester, conveying much information about its early, middle, and later history along with a description of the local environs.

I also highly recommend checking out books like Prof. Sheppard Frere’s (of Oxford University) history of Roman Britain Britannia, as well as Prof. Peter Salway’s (at the Open University) history Roman Britain — both of which works are extremely interesting — for a completer picture. 2, 3

Moving from the specific to the general, we’re not concerned at present with the structure of the antique Roman Empire at its uppermost level(s) (particularly since, following the demise of the Republic and advent of the Empire, the government on the national stage was a kind of monarchy), but we’ll focus instead on the continuing republican constitutions extant during the so-called “Principate” period (that is, the first couple centuries) of the Empire, as constituting the fundamental unit of Roman civilization (in a sense similar to way that the fundamental unit of American civilization is the state) — to wit, the Roman city-state, known as the civitas, plural civitates.

Even following the transformation the Roman state from a Republic into an Empire governed by a (distant) Emperor, even then for centuries thereafter the individual localities of the empire remained self-governing republics, fundamentally republican in character, responsible for their own affairs and devices.  While the, theoretically all-powerful Emperor (as the Roman constitution — Republic or Empire — included hardly any modern-style guarantees of human rights and the like) governed, chiefly aloofly and disinterestedly, from afar, the Imperial Greco-Roman world continued for centuries (during the Principate) to ensure a practical right of republican self-government, at the local level, to the spectrum of diverse cities spangling the empire, in whose internal affairs the central government with the emperor at its head for long sought to interfere as little as possible.  The constitutions of these local statelets or counties were generally quite similar to those of old Republican Rome.  Thus, in that sense, the Roman Republic never ended (or was a very long time in passing).

It was the thriving urban life of a great constellation of these autonomous cities that was the glory of Rome during the first couple centuries (the Principate) of the Empire — as Edward Togo Salmon (Professor of History at McMaster University) strikingly observes, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica’s article “Rome, Ancient.” 4  (The following text was largely included in Impearls’ earlier piece about the autonomous Roman civitates, but in this case the quoted material has been somewhat expanded to fit the differing occasion, so it’s not all repetition!  It’s worth repeating anyhow….)

In the empire at large, Flavians and Antonines, like the better Julio-Claudians, aimed at stability in order that its inhabitants might live in security and self-respect.  In this they largely succeeded.  Gibbon’s famous description of the 2nd century as the period when men were happiest and most prosperous is not entirely false.  Certainly, by then men had come to take for granted the unique greatness and invincible eternity of the empire; even the ominous events of Aurelius’ reign failed to shatter their conviction that the empire was impregnable.

The empire was a vast congeries of peoples and races with differing religions, customs, and languages, and the emperors were content to let them live their own lives.  Imperial policy favoured a veneer of common culture transcending ethnic differences, but there was no deliberate denationalization.  Ambitious men striving for a career naturally found it helpful, if not necessary, to become Roman in bearing and conduct and perhaps even in language as well (although speakers of Greek often rose to exalted positions).  But local self-government was the general rule, and neither Latin nor Roman ways were imposed on the communities composing the empire.  […]

Where possible, the emperors kept direct administration from Rome to a minimum (except perhaps in Egypt), and the 2nd century was the most flourishing period of urban civilization that the empire ever knew.  Administration everywhere was in the hands of the local well-to-do, who alone could afford the costs attaching to it.  […]  It was from these local worthies that the emperor often found his candidates for the Senate at Rome, an honour that was eagerly sought by individuals but that was a mixed blessing for their local communities, which stood thereby to lose prospective benefactors.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the spectacle of the Roman Empire in its 2nd-century heyday, with its panorama of splendid and autonomous communities.

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.

Types of provincial city   by G. H. Stevenson

As was pointed out in the first chapter, the policy which Rome pursued in dealing with provincial cities was very different under the Republic from what it became when Cæsar had set the example of founding colonies overseas.  In Italy the possession by a city of full Roman rights brought with it such obvious advantages that the allied communities were bound in time to demand inclusion in the Roman state, even if this inclusion involved a certain loss of autonomy.

In the provinces of the Republic the situation was quite different.  The provincials were definitely subjects of Rome, and paid tribute in token of their submission.  Even in provinces where city-life existed and where the level of civilization was high citizenship was conferred only on a few selected individuals and not on communities as a whole.  At this period the highest privilege which a provincial city could possess was to be regarded as an ally of Rome, and to be included in the small class of treaty-states (civitates foederatae), of which three existed in Sicily and a few in other provinces.

Civitates Foederatae

There was a certain unreality about this status even under the Republic, when Rome was much more than an ordinary city-state.  The terms of an alliance which happens to be preserved between Rome and the tiny Greek island of Astypalæa are almost ridiculous.  The people of Rome and the people of Astypalæa swear to assist each other in war, and not to permit the enemies of the other to make use of their respective territories.

In spite of this, however, the status of a civitas foederata was considered to be a desirable one, and it survived even into the Principate.  Towns possessing it were exempt from the ordinary taxes and the jurisdiction of the governor, and were subject to their own laws.

Under the Republic what provincial cities wanted most was to be free from Roman rule, while in the Principate the greatest privilege which they could receive was to be fully incorporated in the Roman state.  Citizenship came to be regarded by provincials, as it had been regarded by Italians, as preferable to the “freedom conferred by a treaty” [Cicero], and many treaty-states, e.g., Tauromenium, Messana, Gades, and Saguntum, became at a later date Roman colonies or municipia.  The treaties made with them seem to have varied in their terms; thus Tauromenium in Sicily was not required to provide ships, while this obligation was imposed on Messana.  The number of these cities would probably have been greater had republican Rome been willing to make full use of provincials in her army and navy, but she could not trust their loyalty and was forced to raise armies in Italy which to a large extent were paid for out of provincial taxation.

Some of these treaty-states survived into the Principate, though their status was then even more of an anachronism than it had been.  Trajan treated with great respect the privileges enjoyed by the federate city Amisus in Bithynia and exempted it from the rule forbidding the formation of clubs which was rigorously enforced in other cities of the province.  Certain important Gallic tribes described themselves as civitates foederatae, but in this case the title must have been purely complimentary and can scarcely have involved financial or other privileges.

Liberae Civitates

Somewhat similar was the status of the free towns, the so-called civitates sine foedere liberae et immunes, which were much more numerous.  Their status was more precarious in that it was not based on a sworn treaty but on the free gift of Rome.  In other respects, however, they enjoyed the same advantages as the treaty-states.  An extant inscription referring to Termessus in Pisidia in the last century of the Republic shows that it could make its own laws and levy customs-dues.  They were exempt from the jurisdiction of the governor, and Cicero can bring no more serious charge against Piso than that he infringed the privileges of the free cities of Macedonia.

Though at first liberae civitates were normally immunes (exempt from taxation), it is certain that at a later date freedom and immunity were distinct privileges which might or might not be combined.  There is no reason to think that the numerous free cities of the eastern provinces were exempt from taxation any more than the free or federate tribes of Gaul.  In the decree by which Nero conferred freedom on the cities of Greece immunity is mentioned as an additional favour.

Civitates Peregrinae

Before the change of Roman policy which led to the foundation in the provinces of colonies and municipia these two classes of federate and free cities occupied the highest place among the provincial communities.  Below them stood the ordinary “stipendiary” towns whose inhabitants had no claim to exemption from taxation.  Little is known of the details of their constitutions, but it is clear that they enjoyed a good deal of autonomy, the amount of which was determined by the Lex Provinciae and the edicts of the governors.  The names of their magistrates and the general character of their constitutional arrangements seem to have varied considerably.

In Asia Minor, at least, some of the cities were at the end of the Republic extremely democratic, and even under the Principate the Roman tendency to encourage oligarchy was less successful there than elsewhere.  This tendency is illustrated by Pliny’s statement that it was better that new members of the local senates in Bithynia should be the sons of honesti rather than members of the plebs.  At a period when it was the great ambition of a provincial town to be come a colonia or a municipium it was necessary to have a constitution which conformed fairly closely to the Roman model.

Latin Rights

An intermediate position between these non-Roman towns and the coloniae and municipia of Roman citizens was occupied by the cities possessing the so-called Latin rights.  This status, which, as we have seen, had existed in Italy under the Republic, is found in the western provinces from the age of Cæsar.  It provided a stepping-stone to full citizenship, and its conferment on whole provinces is a sign that they were ripe for romanization.  Cæsar proposed, at any rate, to grant it to all the cities of Sicily; Nero gave it to the Maritime Alps, and Vespasian to the whole of Spain.

Two surviving charters of towns which benefited from this last grant are our chief sources of information on the details of provincial municipal organization.  The ordinary citizens of such towns remained peregrini, though they received certain privileges, e.g., the ius commercii, denied to other provincials, but the governing class were given means of acquiring the franchise.  All men who held a magistracy became Roman citizens together with their parents, wives and families, and in the second century a.d. this privilege was extended to all members of the municipal senate, whether they had held a magistracy or not.

Thus a well-defined aristocracy was created in these towns and a stimulus given to the competition for municipal honours, which, as will be seen, were sometimes regarded as a burden.  The title of municipium, which in Italy had been confined to purely Roman towns, was in the provinces freely employed by these Latin cities.

Municipia et Coloniae   by G. H. Stevenson

We now come to the communities which occupied the highest place in the hierarchy of provincial towns, the Roman colonies and municipia.  The distinction between them was based rather on their origin than on any great difference of constitution.  In Italy a municipium was an existing city on which the citizenship had been conferred, and which was probably allowed to retain some traces of its original constitution {Footnote:  The chief magistrates of Arpinum were three aediles in the age of Cicero.  […]}, while a colony was a new foundation or a community to which Roman settlers had been added.  In the earlier days of Roman rule the Italian municipia had received the citizenship in a modified form (civitas sine suffragio) but by the end of the Republic the restrictions had been removed.

In the provinces the status of a colonia was undoubtedly regarded as higher than that of a municipium.  The former title suggested a close connection with the imperial city, while the name municipium recalled an alien origin.  Hadrian, we are told, professed to be surprised that the people of his native town of Italica in Spain wished to become a colony.  “He wondered that, when they could employ their own customs and laws, they wished to change their status for that of a colonia.”  This remark implies that municipia still in theory possessed a fuller measure of self-government, but, as Aulus Gellius says, cities preferred to be colonies “because of the dignity and prestige of the Roman people.”  Things had changed since the days when the greatest advantage which a provincial city could possess was to be independent of Rome.

The earliest Roman colonies had been purely military settlements, armed garrisons in districts whose loyalty was doubtful, and traces of this conception survived into the Principate.  Though colonies were most numerous in peaceful provinces, many were planted in districts like Mauretania and Pisidia which were only half civilized.  Good examples of this type of colony are Colonia Agrippinensis (Cologne) on the Lower Rhine and Camalodunum (Colchester) in Britain.  Cologne, the old capital of the Ubii, was given colonial status in a.d. 51, and Tacitus’ account of the German rising against Rome twenty years later shows that it had almost entirely lost its national character and had become a centre of Roman influence.  Many of its citizens were veterans of the Rhine armies who had settled in the region where they had served and had married German women.  Similarly in a.d. 61 Colchester suffered in the rising under Boudicca because it was a “citadel of Roman domination” and contained a temple dedicated to the deified Claudius.

It was, however, in the more civilized parts of the empire that most colonies were to be found.  The disbandment of the armies of Cæsar and Augustus led to the foundation of many provincial cities, some of which retained in their title the name of the legion to which the original settlers had belonged.  This was particularly so in Narbonese Gaul, where Narbo recalled its association with the Tenth Legion, Fréjus with the Eighth and Arles with the Fourth.  When the new military system of the Principate was fully established this mass emigration came to an end, though soldiers continued to be sent to colonies.  Tacitus contrasts the days when “whole legions were settled with their tribunes and centurions and soldiers of every rank to form a society based on unity and affection” with the state of things under Nero, when soldiers of various units and strangers to each other were sent to colonies where they found life dull and from which they drifted away.

The word colonia soon lost its association with the army, and came to designate a status which might be conferred as an honour on communities which had hitherto occupied a lower place in the municipal hierarchy.  In Gaul the name was applied to some towns which lacked the usual municipal organization and were merely the capitals of tribes, e.g., Trèves [Trier] and Langres.  In the whole of the Three Gauls the only colony of the normal type was Lugdunum [Lyon].  Another example of the careless use of technical terms in this region is the strange title of colonia Helvetiorum foederata, which is found in an inscription.

As early as the time of C. Gracchus overseas colonization had been suggested as a means of dealing with the problem of unemployment in Rome and perhaps other Italian cities.  The efforts of Gracchus were thwarted by the objection which was still felt to the foundation of Roman cities outside Italy, but Cæsar, who shared his liberal views, is said to have settled 80,000 citizens in overseas colonies.  Many of these were sent to Corinth and Carthage, which he refounded, and we possess part of the charter of the colony of Urso in the south of Spain, which was certainly not a military settlement, and in which municipal office could be held even by freedmen [ex-slaves].  It is doubtful, however, whether this policy was followed by Cæsar’s successors, under whom emigration from Italy to the provinces was encouraged in other ways.

Much of what has been said about these Roman towns applies primarily to the western provinces.  East of the Aegean, while many cities were granted Libertas, colonies were much rarer than in the west, and the status of municipium was unknown till very late in the Principate.  The leading cities of the province of Asia, for example [located in the east], retained their Greek constitutions, while in such provinces as Hispania Baetica and Gallia Narbonensis [in the west] they received the rank of colonia quite early in the Principate.  Even there, however, the privileged status belonged to a small minority of the cities.  Baetica [in southern Spain] contained only nine colonies among its 175 towns in the reign of Augustus, and it is doubtful whether the number was increased till Hadrian added the city of Italica [his home town].

Constitution of the Civitas   by G. H. Stevenson

The most detailed information which we possess about the organization of provincial cities is derived from the charters of three Spanish communities, two of them Latin towns and the third a Roman colony of an unusual type.  Enough, however, is known of the municipal system as it existed elsewhere to make it certain that the institutions which we find at Salpensa, Malaca, and Urso were fairly typical.  Even in cities devoid of full Roman rights the municipal constitution was modelled on that of republican Rome, and possessed popular assemblies, senates, and magistrates.

The popular assemblies during the first century a.d. in the west, and for considerably longer in the east, exercised the power of electing magistrates and of accepting or rejecting proposals brought before them.  Their members were organized in curiae or less often in tribes.  But the same tendencies which in Rome had strengthened the Senate at the expense of the people operated in the provinces.  Many of the voters must have lived in outlying parts of the extensive territories belonging to their city and have found it inconvenient to attend meetings of the Assembly.  From the time of Trajan [at the beginning of the 2nd century] the people seem to have ceased to exercise the right of electing magistrates, who were now nominated by their predecessors [just as Roman emperors nominated their successors –Impearls] subject to the approval of the decuriones, and to have met only for the formal purpose of passing complimentary decrees in honour of magistrates or benefactors.

Apart from the attributi or contributi mentioned above, who had no voting rights, we find frequent mentions of incolae, who were domiciled in a city of which they were not full members.  They seem to have shared the privileges and the burdens of the citizens, but to have had only a limited right of voting.  At Malaca a single curia was selected in which they might give their vote.  We know, however, of a few cases in which they even entered the municipal senates.  Pliny found in the Bithynian senates some whose right to be there was extremely doubtful.

Far the most important body of men in a municipal town were the decuriones or ordo, who corresponded to the Senate at Rome, though they rarely used this title.  Their number was usually fixed at a hundred, and they were sometimes called centumviri, though honorary members, e.g. patroni of senatorial or equestrian rank, might be added.  In the west at least membership of the ordo was for life, and its members, as in Rome, consisted mainly of ex-magistrates.  Every five years vacancies were filled by officers corresponding to the Roman censors, who regarded magistrates not already members as having the first claim.

As the magistrates held office only for a single year it was inevitable that they should pay great respect to the wishes of the decurions, but it is surprising to find on how many trivial matters it was necessary, at Urso at least, for the ordo to be consulted.  A magistrate was liable to a fine of 10,000 sesterces if he acted in contravention of any decree of the decurions.  Only in judicial ma[tt]ers did he possess any discretion, and even here his power was limited.

As in Rome, the municipal magistrates were elected in pairs, and most cities possessed two duoviri iure dicundo, two aediles, and two quaestors.  {Footnote:  Praefecti might be appointed to take the place of duumviri in their absence, or to represent the emperor if he were elected honorary duumvir.  […]}  In Italian municipia, as opposed to colonies, the first four of these were commonly grouped together as quattuorviri, but this title was rarer in the provinces, where its occurrence cannot be used to distinguish a municipium from a colonia.  Each member of a pair could veto his colleague’s decisions, and the lower magistrates were subject to the authority of the higher.

As the name implies, the chief duty of the duumviri iuri dicundo was the administration of justice in such cases as were too unimportant for the intervention of the [provincial] governor.  But, as has been said, even in this department their power was limited.  “If the person on whom a fine is imposed, or another person in his name shall demand that the matter be referred to the decurions or conscripti, the judgment shall lie with the decurions or conscripti.”

Apart from their judicial work the duumviri presided over meetings of the decurions or the assembly, and were responsible for public games, religious observances, etc.  Every fifth year they bore the title of quinquennales, and exercised certain censorial powers such as holding a lectio of the ordo and letting out public contracts.

The aediles, like their Roman namesakes, were concerned with the upkeep of the streets and public buildings, and perhaps with the food-supply of the city.  They had the right of inflicting fines subject to the approval of the duumviri.  The quaestors, where they existed, had duties connected with municipal finance.

Municipal revenues and expenditure   by G. H. Stevenson

It is clear that no poor man could aspire to a magistracy or to membership of a local senate.  Even at Urso, where at first at least the standard of wealth cannot have been high, magistrates had to contribute 2,000 sesterces to the cost of public shows, and more was probably expected of them elsewhere.  Though Pompey, when he drafted the Lex Provinciae of Bithynia, had enacted that no entrance fees were to be paid by decurions, by the time of Trajan the custom had grown up of expecting them to pay considerable sums on their election.  At Comum a decurio had to possess 100,000 sesterces, a quarter of the equestrian census, but the sum required was probably lower in the provinces.  Municipal magistrates do not seem to have received any salaries, and it is unlikely that a man could be a decurion unless he belonged to the leisured class.

In a letter addressed by Hadrian to the magistrates and council of Ephesus asking that a friend should be admitted to the municipal senate he mentions not only the payment in money which was required of new members, but the docimasia to which a candidate had to submit.  Not only were certain age limits fixed, but certain qualifications other than wealth were required.  Probably in the provinces, as certainly in Italy, men who had practised degrading occupations were excluded from office.  Free birth was normally essential, though freedmen found some compensation in membership of a corporation called the ordo of Augustales, which spread from Italy to the western provinces.  It was vaguely associated with the worship of the emperors, and consisted mainly of freedmen, who were granted certain insignia and privileges, in return for which they were expected to put some of their wealth at the disposal of the community.

The prejudice against direct taxation characteristic of antiquity existed in provincial cities, and there is no evidence that regular “rates” were paid by their inhabitants, though more was done for them by the municipal authorities than was the case in England till fairly recent times.  It is clear that the cities possessed considerable sources of revenue.  In Bithynia under Trajan they had so much spare money at their disposal that Pliny was led to suggest that the decurions might be forced to take it on loan, whether they wished to do so or not, a proposal for which he received a snub from the emperor.  The main source of municipal revenue was land, the occupiers of which paid rent to the community.  Some of this land was not in the immediate neighbourhood, and Italian cities might even own land in the provinces.  Less important were fines, monopolies, and the fees paid by magistrates and decurions, the last of which were quite an important item in the budget.  Pliny mentions a Bithynian city which devoted the money derived from newly-appointed decurions to the erection of a public bath on an unsuitable site.  There is some evidence for a water-rate paid by those at least who made an unusually large use of the supply.  To what extent money was raised by octroi dues is doubtful, and the elaborate tariff imposed by Palmyra on goods entering its territory was probably abnormal.  The portoria were imperial taxes levied at the frontiers of provinces.

On the side of expenditure the cost of administration must have been a small item, as the officials were unpaid and menial work was performed by public slaves.  Even the cost of the public games was defrayed to a large extent by the magistrates and by public benefactors.  Pliny’s letters to Trajan show that enormous sums were spent on buildings, often very wastefully.  At Nicomedia three million sesterces had been expended on an aqueduct which had to be abandoned, and Nicæa had spent ten millions on an unsatisfactory theatre.  We need not assume, however, that such waste of money was typical.  Enough remains of Roman provincial towns to-day to show that public buildings were often of admirable construction.  The city authorities considered themselves bound to provide an adequate water-supply and facilities for bathing which can only be paralleled in quite modern times.  {Footnote:  Plin., Ep. IV, 13, suggests that schoolmasters were sometimes paid by the city authorities, but there is no evidence that this was often done.}

The generosity of private individuals did much to assist the finances of Roman cities, and hundreds of inscriptions record gifts for such purposes as the erection and repair of halls, theatres, baths, and aqueducts.  In the early days of the Principate these gifts seem to have been mainly voluntary, though the donors may have been influenced by thoughts of the statues and votes of thanks which they frequently received from grateful communities.  The generosity of Pliny the Younger to his native city of Comum, parallels to which may be found in the provinces, were inspired primarily by loyalty and affection.  But there is good reason to think that from the second century a.d. at least these gifts were not so spontaneous as the inscriptions suggest.  Men who held certain official positions or who were obviously wealthy were expected to perform definite munera, which could scarcely be distinguished from honores.

In the east ever since the great days of Athens the “liturgies” imposed on wealthy individuals as a kind of surtax had formed a regular part of the municipal revenue.  Though these “liturgies” or munera were not such a heavy burden as they became later, it is probable that even before the age of the Antonines there was some unwillingness to enter the governing class in municipal towns because of the financial demands which such membership involved.  Even the charter of Malaca, which belongs to the reign of Domitian, makes provision for a shortage of candidates for municipal magistracies, and Pliny’s letters from Bithynia show that in that province some entered the city-councils against their will.  How far this tendency had gone in the first two centuries a.d. it is difficult to say.  It was not till later that exemption from the burdens of the decurionate was regarded as the highest favour which a man could receive, and so long as the municipal system was allowed to function freely there was probably no great difficulty in finding men able and willing to undertake the duties and expenses which it involved.

Interference of the central government   by G. H. Stevenson

A word must be said in conclusion on the relations which existed between provincial cities and the imperial government.  Rome was, as we have seen, familiar with the principle of “indirect rule,” and, indeed, could not have governed her provinces unless they had contained communities capable of managing their own affairs and of assisting the government in the collection of taxes.  Roman policy was to interfere as little as possible with the autonomy of these communities, and, indeed, to foster the development of self-governing cities in areas where they had not previously existed.  The absence of an imperial civil service under the Republic and its slow development under the Principate would have made any other system quite unworkable.  It was, however, inevitable that provincial governors should interest themselves at least in the financial side of municipal administration.  Cicero was much exercised about the misgovernment of the cities of Cilicia during his governorship of the province (51-50 b.c.), and sought to check excessive expenditure on such purposes as embassies to Rome.

By the end of the first century a.d. there had been considerable development of the bureaucratic machinery which made its first appearance under Augustus, with the result that the central government came to expect a fairly high standard of administrative efficiency throughout the empire.  This tendency led to an interference with the affairs of the cities both of Italy and the provinces which had hitherto been unknown.  The control exercised by the emperors and their agents over municipal government was almost certainly beneficial in this period, though in the following centuries it robbed self-government of most of its reality.

The wastefulness and inefficiency which Pliny found in Bithynia, examples of which have been quoted, cannot have been confined to that province, and may well have diminished the yield of imperial taxation.  It was therefore with the best of motives that Trajan dispatched Maximus to Greece “ad ordinandum statum liberarum civitatium,” and that Hadrian followed his example in the same province and in Syria.  In his mission to Bithynia Pliny had a wider scope, and we find him investigating the finances not only of free cities but of Apamea, a Roman colony of the highest class.  His correspondence makes it clear that previous governors had interested themselves to some extent in the financial affairs of the cities, but that no such thorough investigation had been undertaken before.  Certain regulations had been made by the government, e.g., that grants should not be made to individuals from municipal funds, and it is probable that from this time the consent of the governor was required for any extraordinary expenditure.  An inscription of a rather later date records the permission given by the governor of Asia for the distribution of money to the citizens of Ephesus who attended the celebration of the emperor’s birthday.

A further stage in the control of the municipalities by the central government is marked by the appearance of curatores reipublicae (called logistae in the eastern provinces) in the reigns of Nerva and Trajan.  These men, who were nominees of the Emperor and often of senatorial or equestrian rank, differed from Maximus and Pliny in exercising their authority over a single city or a small group of cities.  They did not supersede the ordinary magistrates till the third century [by which time Rome was entering the so-called “Dominate” period, a time as the term suggests of military dictatorship –Impearls], when the curator became a kind of mayor.  In the earlier [Principate] period they were merely advisors whom the magistrates were expected to consult on financial matters.  As early as a.d. 113 we find the decurions of Caere asking for the consent of the curator to the grant of a piece of land for the erection of a hall for the meetings of the Augustales.  The institution originated in Italy, but traces of it are found in the senatorial provinces before the end of the second century.  Curatores were also appointed by the emperors of this period for some special purpose, e.g., the supervision of the municipal calendar or of public works.

Verdict   by G. H. Stevenson

The brief account which has been given of the Roman municipal system seems to justify us in passing a favourable verdict upon it.  It was based on the generous assumption that the subjects of Rome were capable of managing their own affairs, and that the main function of the central government was simply to provide the peaceful conditions under which such self-government was possible.  Rome hoped to find among her subjects public-spirited men prepared to devote themselves to local activities without hope of gain, men of the type which she had herself produced under the Republic and continued to produce in the Principate.  On the whole she was not disappointed.  There is every reason to think that in the period with which we are concerned the provincial cities did not lack men who were ready to employ their time and their wealth on public service.  If the system shows signs of decay before the end of the period the reason must be sought partly in a desire for efficiency which is often fatal to free institutions, and partly in the external dangers which threatened the Roman state and disorganized the system of government created in the preceding period of peace.

Afterword   by Michael McNeil

As G. H. Stevenson observes above, well meaning but ever increasing imperial interference with local government and civic autonomy over the years led to the gradual decay of this once-vibrant urban scene.  Edward Togo Salmon well summarizes this aspect of Roman history, as we return to his narrative, from where we left off before: 5

[B]efore the [2nd] century was over, there was growing difficulty in maintaining flourishing municipal life in a world where the ordinary man was encouraged to regard the emperor as a sort of terrestrial Providence and where the emperor himself with responsible earnestness accepted the role of universal dispenser of justice.  The letters of the younger Pliny and of Marcus Cornelius Fronto reveal how seriously the 2nd-century emperors took their duty and strove for orderly government everywhere.  But the emperors’ very conscientiousness led inevitably to interference with local autonomy.

Perhaps the civil service that Augustus founded would have burgeoned in any event and encroached on the self-governing communities that made up the provinces; but the well-meaning efforts of the Antonines hastened such a development.  The ultimate effect was to dampen civic ardour and to foster listlessness.  Faced with the prospect of increasing direction from above, municipal notables began avoiding local office.  Inability to pay the cost involved may also in part explain the growing reluctance of men to undertake municipal responsibilities; although the provincial bourgeoisie remained generally prosperous, economic recession had set in before the 2nd century ended.  For whatever reason, local officeholders became less easy to find; and, well before 200, men were being compelled to accept local office.  This boded ill for the future.

There’s a lesson (and caution) there, I’d say, for us moderns.

P.S.  I’m no fan of American paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan, but I almost fell out of my chair a while back when I heard him (on PBS’s McLaughlin Group) refer to Bush/Cheney as “duumvirs.”  Somehow it had hitherto escaped my notice, but “duumvir” and “duumvirate” are actually English words (as well as Latin), and — along with triumvirate, etc. — are present in English dictionaries.

In the American Presidential system, the U.S. President/Vice-President clearly more closely resemble the Roman Emperor/Vice-Emperor (known titularly as the Augustus/Cæsar), wherein one member of the official dyad is institutionally superior to the other (though the U.S. President can’t fire the Vice President) — as opposed to the Roman municipal (along with Roman Republican) system detailed heretofore, in which the duumvir (consul) magistrate pairs are institutionally equal in status and powers, each magistrate also possessing the power of vetoing his colleague’s actions and decisions.  Either approach can presumably be properly termed a kind of duumvirate and its official magistrates duumvirs.

References and Figures


1 G. H. (George Hope) Stevenson (1880-1952; Fellow and Praelector in Ancient History, University College, Oxford), Roman Provincial Administration, Chapter VI: “The Municipal System in the Provinces,” 1939, G. E. Stechert & Co., New York; pp. 156-179.  (Occasional paragraph and section breaks have been added to the original text by the Impearls editor.)

2 Sheppard Frere (Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire, University of Oxford), Britannia: a history of Roman Britain, Third Edition, 1987, Pimlico, London, 1991 (ISBN 0-7126-5027-X).

3 Peter Salway (Professor of Archaeology and the History of Roman Britain, Open University), Roman Britain, 1981, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford University Press, 1991 (ISBN 0-19-285143-8).

4, 5 Edward Togo Salmon (1905-1988; Messecar Professor of History, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1954-73; author of A History of the Roman World from 30 b.c. to a.d. 138), “Rome, Ancient,” Section IV: The early Roman Empire (31 b.c.-a.d. 193), Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1974, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago; Macropædia Vol. 15, pp. 1116-1117.


f1 Sheppard Frere (Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire, University of Oxford), Britannia: a history of Roman Britain, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967, Figure 13: Map of Roman Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), facing p. 432.  (“By courtesy of the Director of Reading Museum.”)

f2 Sheppard Frere (Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire, University of Oxford), Britannia: a history of Roman Britain, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967, Figure 1: Map of Roman Britain, facing p. 1.



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