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

By Christopher J. Fuhrmann | Go to book overview

3
“Like a thief in the night”: Self-help,
Magisterial Authority, and Civilian
Policing

PLINY, WRITING as the governor of Bithynia to Trajan, clearly wanted to use Roman soldiers to police one of his province’s cities. Realizing that precedents were important to the emperor, he began his request with one: “You acted most wisely, my lord, when you instructed the distinguished senator Calpurnius Macer to send a legionary detachment to Byzantium.” Then, most politely, “Would you consider whether you might deem advisable a similar arrangement for the Juliopolitans?” he asked, citing the small size of the town, its supposedly precarious position, and its heavy traffic load. Pliny must have been disappointed when Trajan denied his request. While recognizing that Juliopolis might be in need, the optimus princeps feared setting a precedent whereby all other needy communities would come begging for Roman soldiers. The Juliopolitans were on their own.1

Despite this particular rejection of using soldiers for policing, it was around this very time that soldiers were increasingly drawn from their legions to serve as police among civilians in the provinces. Subsequent chapters will detail this expansion of military policing and Roman officials’ related oversight of public order. This chapter briefly describes everything else—the security practices of communities without military police or imperial favor, such as Juliopolis.2 From individual self-help to magistrates and specialized civilian police squads, these nonmilitary arrangements that did not directly depend on the Roman state are extremely significant, since soldiers and their commanders were never meant to provide permanent, ubiquitous law enforcement. Even at its height, military policing was just half of the picture.

1. Pliny Ep. 10.77f., treated further in chapter 8 below. See also Brélaz, “Pline le Jeune.”

2. Because I intend to expand on these points in the future, the themes in this chapter are not treated exhaustively.

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