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

By Christopher J. Fuhrmann | Go to book overview

8
“Military stations throughout all
provinces”: Detached-Service
Soldier-Police

HISTORIANS SOMETIMES VIEW the pax Romana as a time when soldiers were relegated to distant frontiers, leaving civilians to enjoy the blessings of peace, with only minimal contact with the thousands of milites (“soldiers”) who protected the empire from foreign threats. For instance, one historian has claimed that in contrast to republican times, soldiers during the principate “were a marginal group stationed in remote areas and involved in activities that were irrelevant to the daily lives of civilians.”1 This was not the case. Even during the early principate, numerous soldiers were scattered about Italy and the internal provinces, and Tacitus felt entitled to criticize lax milites who did most of their soldiering in luxurious eastern cities.2 By the fourth century and later, many troops could still be found in the empire’s major cities, where they could be called on to put down riots (in which they themselves occasionally participated).3

1. Cornell, “The End of Roman Imperial Expansion,” 168.

2. Tac.Ann. 13.55 and Hist. 2.80.3; cf. Fronto Ad Verum 2.1.19 and Principia historiae 10–13= Haines Loeb II, 148, 206–10. Pollard (Soldiers, Cities, and Civilians in Roman Syria, 3–5) and Cornell (“The End of Roman Imperial Expansion,” 166–68) both claim that Tacitus himself knew very little about soldiers and soldiering, often relying on literary topoi to fill out his descriptions thereof. See further Parker, “Roman Legionary Fortresses in the East,” and Wheeler, “The Laxity of Syrian Legions.”

3. E.g., Libanius Or. 19 (fourth century, Antioch) and John Malalas 490–91 (Constantinople in 560); see further MacMullen, Corruption, 209–17. For members of the imperial guard participating in the great Nika Revolt of 532 in Constantinople, see Chron. Pasch. 626 and Procopius De bello Persico 1.24. See further Alan Cameron, Circus Factions; Liebeschuetz, Antioch, 124; and Nippel, Public Order, 110. In their treatments of the broad theme, however, Gregory (“Urban Violence”) and Liebeschuetz (The Decline and Fall of the Roman City, chap. 8) both note the absence of soldiers or riot police in many cases of late-antique urban disorder. Riots were often allowed to run their course, and state response was often reactive and after the fact. Kelly (“Riot Control”) intelligently argues that while emperors and governors were expected to make some kind of response to a riot, heavy-handed use of soldiers against civilians was often not in their interests.

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