Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order

By Christopher J. Fuhrmann | Go to book overview

7
“Keep your province pacified and
quiet”: Provincial Governors, Public
Order, and Policing

The Governor’s Power and Position

As middlemen between the emperor and provincial masses, governors could face trouble from above and below. Publius Petronius was lucky to survive his governorship of Syria when Caligula ordered him to install a statue of himself in the Jewish temple. Stuck between a mad emperor and an angry populace, Josephus has Petronius say to the latter, “I, too, am bound to obey the law of my master.…I myself, just like you, submit to orders.” According to Josephus, both the governor and the locals showed restraint, and Petronius delayed carrying out his orders. As a result, Caligula ordered Petronius’s death, but the ship bearing that message supposedly ran into bad weather and finally reached Petronius twenty-seven days after he learned of Caligula’s own death.1

The position of a Roman governor was paradoxical. On the one hand, the governor was the most powerful person in the province, as the jurist Ulpian noted in the early third century AD: “He has greater authority in the province than all others, except the emperor.” This authority ranged from the power to address boundary disputes to the right to inflict the death penalty. The Romans called the latter power the ius gladii (“right of the sword”), and he was normally the only one in his province who could wield it. He had the authority to command troops inside the province, and every governor had at least a few hundred of them for policing and other tasks. As judge, a governor could hear any case he wished; however, he was not compelled to hear a case, even if the emperor himself had referred disputants to him. In legal terms, within his

1. Jos. BJ 2.184–203 (2.195 quoted), AJ 18.261–309; Philo Leg. 188–348. Smallwood, “Philo and Josephus,” trusts Philo over Josephus when the two conflict (including Petronius’s “fairy-tale” escape, 120); cf. Mason, “Contradiction or Counterpoint?”

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