Rome and the Black Sea Region: Domination, Romanisation, Resistance

By Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen | Go to book overview

Local Politics in an Imperial Context

Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen


1. Formal and informal politics

The Roman Empire was an empire of cities. There were few truly large cities, but hundreds and thousands of smaller poleis and civitates, each of them a replica, on a small scale, of the great urbs itself. We are fortunate to have a vast array of sources for local government in the Empire generally and for Asia Minor in particular. Nearly all, however, derive from the sphere of formal politics: magistracies, public contracts, honorific decrees, legislation. These activities involve only a minority of the city population, the political class. This banal observation should be kept in mind because the focus of our research is so easily constrained by the focus of our sources. The latest work on the subject, for instance, the admirable volume by Henri-Louis Fernoux on local politics in Hellenistic and Roman Bithynia, is sub-titled Essai d’histoire sociale, yet explicitly limits itself to dealing with the elite, as Fernoux calls them, the notables.

Now a moment’s reflection will make it clear that formal or “visible” politics, the aspects of local politics revealed by our sources, can only represent the tip of a much larger iceberg. For proof, one can study the parallel of the urbs itself, where the Annals of Tacitus provide a chronicle of informal wheeling and dealing, rumours and alliances, backbiting, envy, revenge and denunciation within the political class. We have no comparable political chronicle for any other city of the Empire, but there are a few places where political life at the informal or sub-formal level shows through and becomes visible. One is Pompeii in Campania, thanks to the large number of electoral graffiti that have been preserved;1 another is Prusa ad Olympum in Bithynia, where we possess a collection of municipal speeches by a local politician, the orator Dion of Prusa. Despite its many ambiguities and textual problems, this body of texts, when combined with the epigraphic evidence, provides some fascinating glimpses of municipal politics at the lower levels. They can be grouped under four main headings:

the power of money;
the power of minor municipal officials;
the power of Rome;
the power of rumour and innuendo.

-109-

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