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Exercise of Power in Asia Minor during the Roman Period

Author(s) : Yannakopoulos Nikolaos (6/21/2001)
Translation : Koutras Nikolaos

For citation: Yannakopoulos Nikolaos, "Exercise of Power in Asia Minor during the Roman Period",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=12389>

Τρόποι άσκησης εξουσίας στη Μικρά Ασία κατά τη Ρωμαϊκή Περίοδο (6/18/2010 v.1) Exercise of Power in Asia Minor during the Roman Period (5/27/2011 v.1) 

1. Overall framework and carriers of power

In Roman political thought and practice, the concept of power (imperium) consists of the ruler’s ability to issue decrees and demand that these will be observed.1 This power is uniform, indivisible and universal. There is no separation of powers.2 Thus, a Roman potentate invested with power over a specific geographic area has the ability to yield authority on many levels: administration, taxation, policing, defence and the dispensation of justice. For example, the governor of a Roman province is the head of the province’s administrative mechanism and military forces, while he is also responsible for overseeing the collection of taxes and constitutes the supreme judicial authority. Roman power, however, is not, and has no aspirations of being, absolute. It does not aim at regulating and controlling the totality of relationships and practices that develop in the societies it rules, nor does it aspire to comprehensively restructure or reform these. Therefore, it differs radically from the power of modern states, in so far as its aims are more modest. Sectors like production and productivity, labour relationships, education, healthcare and social welfare stand outside its purview, especially in the provinces. On the other hand, the maintenance of law and order and the regular collection of taxes are of paramount importance. The exercise of power in Roman Asia Minor from the foundation of the Province of Asia in 129 BC to Diocletian’s reign is organized around this twofold aim.3

The main carrier of power in the Roman world is the emperor, whether he is in Rome or touring the provinces. Being the head of the entire state apparatus, he controls all of the state officials of central and provincial administration, as well as the authorities of the self-governed communities, i.e. the provincial cities. On a second level, carriers of power are the officials staffing the administration of the provinces. However, precisely because -as compared to modern officialdoms- there is no provision for extensive interventions in all aspects of the subjects’ lives, the number of persons involved in provincial administration remains limited, and, consequently, its capabilities are restricted. For this reason the cities of the provinces develop a network that supports Roman administration, that is, a substructure on which the exercise of power in the Roman world relies.4 This is particularly true in the case of heavily urbanized Roman Asia Minor.

2. The Emperor

Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem” (=What pleases the prince has the force of law). This phrase, coined by the Roman jurist Ulpian, faithfully and openly describes the reality of the emperor’s role as a carrier of power without resorting to adorned dissimulations. The emperor’s absolute power is mainly yielded in four ways, and is not subject to any checks whatsoever. Firstly, the emperor issues edicts (edicta) of general and universal validity, on a variety of subjects; these express the policy he wishes to follow. Secondly, he gives out commands of a general character -administrative instructions- to state officials (mandata). Thirdly, he issues judicial decrees (decreta) on court cases over which he presides. Fourthly, he provides written responses (rescripta) to questions or requests submitted by state officials, the civic authorities, or simple private individuals.5 Naturally, as the emperor is not present in the provinces of Asia Minor, he has no immediate knowledge of local realities. For this reason, his authority becomes felt through various forms of communication with provincial governors and civic authorities. This is how imperial power and sovereignty is expressed.

Typical is the case of Pliny the Younger, governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus, who in two years managed to address 61 epistles to emperor Trajan, and received 48 responses. The matters brought to Trajan’s attention belong mostly to the areas of legislation and fiscal policy. There is no doubt that the emperor’s opinions on these matters functioned as directives, yet we should again stress that imperial interventions were by no means systematic or continuous. It was limited to the cases brought to the emperor’s attention. Thus, the emperor’s power, although absolute in terms of authority, was in fact limited with respect to its reach. Many aspects of life in the provinces remained out of the emperor’s purview.6

The emperors’ communications with the Greek cities of Asia Minor are amply documented. A wealth of inscriptions confirm this was the chief medium for the expression of imperial will and the exercise of the emperor’s power in provincial cities.7 Again, imperial epistles or responses to requests (rescripta), notwithstanding their courteous phrasing out of respect for the notion of civic independence, in fact amount to explicit commands, to which the cities were expected to comply. Thus, imperial power intervenes to regulate fiscal matters, make judicial decisions, bestow or confirm privileges and rights, set responsibilities, and accept or reject requests pertaining to various aspects of public life in the cities (competency of the courts, exemption from the obligation of holding local offices, the holding of festivals, athletic games etc). In most of the cases, the emperor appears to respond to pleas submitted by individuals from the provinces. These pleas, in order to be effective, were promoted through costly embassies that cities despatched to the current holder of the imperial throne. As one would expect, the cities were interested in publicizing -in the form of public inscriptions- only those arrangements that were favourable towards them. As a result, the epigraphical record presents imperial power as acquiescing to requests, granting privileges and bestowing benefactions.

Things, however, were not always so. The punishment of subjects -in the form of retracting privileges and imposing penalties and fines- constituted another, often invisible, side of imperial power. Yet imperial power, whether acting as a benefactor or an avenger, always focuses on specific cases that are brought to its attention, usually following an initiative of its subjects.8

A special case of exercising imperial power is the appointment of curatores in the cities of Asia Minor, as well as in other cities in the empire’s provinces. These were officials (logistai in Greek) that at irregular time intervals were employed by the emperor in order to audit the problematic finances of a city, with the goal of rationalizing them. Their powers exceeded those of local authorities. They oversaw the rental of public land, the management of funds and the variform assets of the city. They supervised the maintenance of edifices and the execution of new building projects, even the manner in which civic officials administered public funds. The duration of their office, however, was limited; a city received a curator only when it was deemed necessary.9

3. The power of the provincial governor

For the inhabitants of the provinces, the centre of political power was the provincial governor. The emperor, although the holder of supreme power, was usually based very far away. On the contrary, the actions and arrangements decided by the provincial governor constitute for the empire’s subjects the most immediate and tangible expression of Roman power.

The provinces of the Roman state fell into two categories: ‘senatorial’ (their governors were appointed by the Senate); and ‘imperial’ (their governors were chosen by the emperor).10 In Asia Minor, at the time of Trajan’s death, the provinces of Asia (Western Asia Minor) and of Pontus-Bithynia were senatorial, while the provinces of Lycia-Pamphylia, Cilicia, Galatia and Cappadocia were imperial. This formal distinction, however, did not alter the reality of imperial supervision over all provinces, or the fact that the power of the provincial governors was identical in both cases. To aid them in the exercise of their power, governors maintained a small staff.11 The governors of the senatorial provinces, the proconsules were aided by a quaestor (treasurer) and one to three -in the case of Asia- legati (ambassadors). The procuratores (commissioners) oversaw imperial property -estates, mines, quarries-, while there was also a small number of lower-ranking officials, scribes, couriers, heralds a.o. The imperial provinces featured a similar -although not identical- administrative structure and their governors bore the title of legatusAugusti.

4. Provincial legislation

In the provinces, Rome’s power is exercised mainly through provincial legislation (lexprovinciae). This is a set of regulations that define the political and legal framework informing the organization of a province. In this manner, an area that was previously a field of military operations is incorporated into the Roman state as a pacified administrative district.12 Thus, the provincial law of Bithynia specifies a lower age limit of 30 years for becoming a member of the Boule and taking on local offices. It also stipulates that the bouleutai are to be selected by special officials (timetes), while former archons are automatically accepted into the Boule. It is obvious that in this case Roman power determined the political framework in which the cities of Bithynia operated and altered it in a more conservative direction, as suggested by the absence of bouleutai selected by vote or lot.13 The provincial law, however, could be supplemented by imperial decisions -we have already discussed these above- and edicts (edicta) issued by each provincial governor upon receiving his office. Proconsular edicts were another mode of exercising power, insofar as these complemented provincial legislation and contained fundamental principles for the organization of the province. We know that Cicero, as a governor of Cilicia, issued in 51 BC an edict after the model of Scaevola’s edict (he was governor of Asia in 95-94 BC). It dealt with matters of private law (inheritances, debts) and set the lending rate to 1% per month. In the domain of justice, it specified that cases involving Greeks could be tried in accordance to their own laws.14

5. Dispensation of justice

Beyond the above, the provincial governor enjoyed considerable latitude in the exercise of his powers, which at any rate were not clearly and rigorously defined. The main field where his power is applied, however, is the administration of justice. Making sure the laws are observed represented a fundamental obligation of the provincial governor, who held supreme judicial authority. In practice, the exercise of this power rested on the system of the dioceses, which is attested in the province of Asia and Cilicia, but was apparently expanded throughout the empire.15 The province is subdivided into smaller districts, the dioceses, the number and size of which fluctuate with time. The provincial governor tours the cities designated as diocese capitals and convenes the agores dikon which take place once a year. This is the opportunity for the inhabitants of the diocese to appeal to the governor’s judicial authority. Access to the court is allowed following an application by the plaintif, i.e. the person seeking the governor’s legal protection. It is not certain, however, that the case will actually be tried. This depends, to a large degree, by the ability of the litigant parties to influence, legitimately or illegitimately (bribery) the governor’s subordinates to have their case presented before him.

The case is tried in accordance with the procedures of Roman law.16 In criminal proceedings, the governor investigates the case, listens to the assessements of his councelors, but -as opposed to what was the case in Rome- he is not formally bound to adopt their views. He is absolute free to reach a verdict and decide on any penalties. In civil cases, after listening to the appeals of the litigants, he decides whether a suit is to be filled and composes the formula, i.e. a text outlining the criteria by which this case was tried and stipulates a penalty or compensation. The formula could, depending on the case, incorporate elements drawn from local or Roman law. Finally a judge is appointed, who tries the case based on the formula. Over time, the procedure for penal cases came to be applied to civil cases too, known as cognitio extra ordinem.

It would be wrong, though, to consider that all of the cases were tried in the provincial courts. There were also local law courts in the cities of Asia Minor. A great number of litigations stoped at this level.17 The judicial power of the provincial governor, however, expanded continuously. This was the result of two factors. First, the governors usually showed special interest in certain cases, for they had to safeguard social stability and protect the interests of Rome. Thus, a governor might call upon the local magistrates to defer cases involving outlaws (latrones) to him, while often he would order local authorities to mobilize and apprehend certain individuals. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the provinces might resort to the governor on their free will, in order to avoid the often biased local law courts. Prominent citizens, of course, had greater access to local law courts and could expect to receive a more favourable treatment by local magistrates.18

6. Overseeing the provinces

It is therefore clear that the provincial governor’s judicial authority is directly linked to the maintenance of public order, which the era’s legal texts identify as one of his main duties.19 As we have already mentioned he was also required to apprehend and indict outlaws. In this context Fronto’s testimony, a personal friend of emperor Antoninus Pius, is particularly interesting. When in c. 155 AD he was about to be made proconsul of the province of Asia, he arranged for Julius Seneca from Mauritania to join him, a person specialized in dealing with brigands.20

The power of the provincial governor, however, extends over other areas as well, like controlling political and social life in the cities. Naturally, in these cases the governor’s interventions are sporadic and aim at safeguarding the integrity of the state’s administrative structure, so as to allow for the unproblematic fulfilment of the the cities’ -fiscal mainly- obligations towards it. We are familiar with the details of Pliny’s intervention in this area when he served as governor of Bithynia and Pontus.21 He had been appointed by emperor Trajan in order to rationalize the province’s civic finances. The danger of widespread instability was so great that Rome’s interests were at stake. So Pliny dealt with issues such as curtailing extravagant civic expenditure on building projects and feuds between rival cities. In many other instances, however, the governor could assert his power, when it was necessary to do so in order to maintain and consolidate stability.

7. Taxing the subjects

A basic feature of Roman power in Asia Minor was the imposition of taxes on its subjects. Under Roman rule, the basic tax was applied on agricultural production, and was set to one tenth. Tax-collecting powers could be transferred by the Roman state to private companies, the societares publicanorum, which rented the right to gather revenues. When these collected taxes, however, they usually demanded extortionate sums by the farmers, with deleterious effects on the economy of Asia Minor.22

Radical changes occur in this field starting with the reign of Augustus. The task of collecting taxes now falls on each city’s authorities. The form of taxation changes. The basic taxes are two: there is one tax on landed property (tributum soli) and the poll tax (tributum capitis). The publicans continued to collect customs levies and tolls, and other indirect taxes.23

Extraordinary levies, though, imposed to cater for the immediate needs of the state (requisitions and other forms) become increasingly more important.24

8. Exercise of power by the cities

For Greeks and Romans alike, cities were always considered as the only locus in which civilized social life could develop. The Roman period ushers in an era of bloom for the Greeks cities of Asia Minor, at least in terms of their numbers, architectural and cultural development. Yet these cities have now lost all political freedoms and are unable to pursue independent policies.25Therefore, the power they yield is limited, above all because they are under the rule and dominance of Rome’s imperial apparatus. For example, it would be unthinkable for a city to adopt its own external policy, let alone to become embroiled in armed conflicts and wars. Official documents, like decrees, often convey a deceptive semblance of independence. No one would deny, though, that any action deemed harmful to Rome’s interests could lead to intervention by the authorities and be cancelled. Thus, any remaining freedoms for the cities are conditional, and their officials can yield power only within the confines set by Roman rule.

The Greek cities of Asia Minor preserve their traditional tripartite political structure. The governing bodies, like in earlier times, are the Ecclesia of the Demos, the Boule and the archons. During the Roman period, however, the process whereby the centre of political life is transferred from the Ecclesia of the Demos to the Boule and the archons is complete.26 This is where any real power resides. The Ecclesia of the Demos is confined to a rather passive role. On the other hand, the Boule together with the various archons take on enhanced powers and become responsible for matters pertaining to local needs as well as to the demands of central administration. In this context, civic officials attend to matters related to preserving the stability of local institutions. At the same time, however, they are also responsible for maintaining law and order and collecting and paying imperial taxes to Roman authorities. By the early 2nd cent. AD we have the emergence of the dekaprotoi who are precisely charged with this duty.27 Thus, the city becomes an executive arm of Roman power, providing it with an administrative mechanism essential for the achievement of its goals.28

9. Relations between Roman authorities and the cities

The recognition of this reality on the part of Rome leads to the multiplication of interventions aimed at creating and enhancing a large network of cities. The 1st cent. BC is a particularly turbulent period of almost incessant military conflicts. The measures taken by the Senate and the Roman generals aim at punishing any signs of insubordination, rewarding loyalism and succouring cities in times of need. The peace that prevails since the reign of Augustus creates conditions that favour the financial growth and and cultural development of the cities of Asia Minor, for which the figure of the emperor is seen as a protector and patron. Imperial interest is expressed through the provision of funds for constructing or repairing public edifices, creating roadways and by supplying aid when natural disasters strike.29

The army represented a fundamental aspect of Roman power in the provinces of Asia Minor. During the Imperial period, sizeable military forces were naturally stationed only in the borderland provinces of Galatia, and, subsequently, Cappadocia. Their main mission was to deal with enemy invasions and to conduct offensive operations against Rome’s chief enemy, the Parthians. Smaller military units, however, were dispersed throughout the region, and their mission was to maintain law and order. Their main task was suppressing the activity of organized bands of brigands and protecting the roadways and travellers. Their presence, however, helped assure the unchallenged submission of the cities of Asia Minor to the behests of Rome. Similar considerations were served by the establishment of colonies, destined for settling discharged soldiers (veterani), mainly in the persistently mutinous areas of Taurus.30

1. Cf. Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), p. 22.

2. See the comments in Eck, W., «H διοικητική οργάνωση της Αυτοκρατορίας», Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους ΣΤ' (Αθήνα 1976), p. 44.

3. On the limited scope of Roman power see Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), p. 54; Garnsey Ρ. - Saller, R., Η Ρωμαϊκή Αυτοκρατορία. Οικονομία, κοινωνία και πολιτισμός (Ηράκλειο 1995), p. 26.

4. Cf. Garnsey Ρ. - Saller, R., Η Ρωμαϊκή Αυτοκρατορία. Οικονομία, κοινωνία και πολιτισμός (Ηράκλειο 1995), p. 26, p. 42.

5. There are many studies on the emperor’s role. Millar, F.G.B., The emperor in the Roman world (31BC-AD 337) (London 1977), stands out for its meticulous documentation. On the modes of excercising the emperor’s absolute power within the confines of Roman law see Βarry, N., An introduction to Roman law (Oxford 1962), pp. 17-18.

6. Apart from F.G.B. Millar’s study, Bowman, A.K., Garnsey, P., Rathbone, D. (eds), The High Empire, AD 70-192, Cambridge Ancient History XI:2 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 267-268, contains a helpful and all-embracing analysis on the subject.

7. The relevant testimonies are collected in Oliver, J.H., Greek Constitutions of Early Roman Emperors (Philadelphia 1989).

8. See the analysis in Bowman, A.K., Garnsey, P., Rathbone, D. (eds), The High Empire, AD 70-192, Cambridge Ancient History XI:2 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 268-269.

9. On the institution of the curator (logistes in Greek) see Burton, G.P., "The curator rei publicae: towards a reappraisal", Chiron 9 (1979), pp. 464-487.

10. On the division of the empire into provinces see Eck, W., «H διοικητική οργάνωση της Αυτοκρατορίας», Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους ΣΤ (Αθήνα 1976), pp. 49-50 and Σαρικάκης, Θ., «Μικρά Ασία. Η οργάνωση της ρωμαϊκής διακυβερνήσεως», Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους ΣΤ (Αθήνα 1976), p. 218 (with more details on the division of Asia Minor into provinces).

11. On the structure of provincial administration see Garnsey Ρ.-Saller, R., Η Ρωμαϊκή Αυτοκρατορία. Οικονομία, κοινωνία και πολιτισμός (Ηράκλειο 1995), pp. 27- 28 and Eck, W., «H διοικητική οργάνωση της Αυτοκρατορίας», Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους ΣΤ (Αθήνα 1976), pp. 49-50. See also Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), pp. 50-52.

12. Cf. Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), σελ. 28.

13. On Bithynian provincial legislation see de Ste Croix, GEM., Ο Ταξικός Αγώνας στον Αρχαίο Ελληνικό κόσμο (Αθήνα 1997), pp. 650-651.

14. Cf. Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), pp. 29-32.

15. On the system of the dioceses see Habicht, C., "New evidence on the providence of Asia", JRS 65 (1975), pp. 64-91, and Burton, G.P., "Proconsuls, Assizes and the Administration of Justice under the Empire", JRS 65 (1975), pp. 92-106.

16. For what follows see Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), pp. 57-58.

17. Cf. the relevant comments in de Ste Croix, GEM., Ο Ταξικός Αγώνας στον Αρχαίο Ελληνικό κόσμο (Αθήνα 1997), pp. 397-399, as well as in Bowman, A.K., Garnsey, P., Rathbone, D. (eds), The High Empire, AD 70-192, Cambridge Ancient History XI:2 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 273-275.

18. On these developments see Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), p. 56. On the initiatives of the provincial governor for the apprehension and indictment of outlaws see Pandectae XLVIII.III. 6.

19. See Pandectae 1.18.13 Pref.

20. Fronto, Εp. 8.1.

21. On Pliny’s work see n. 6.

22. On the system of tax-contracting see the analysis in Lintott, A., Imperium romanum. Politics and administration (London 1993), pp. 74-91.

23. On the tax system during the Imperial period see the instructive analysis in Μπουραζέλης Κ., «Η ρωμαϊκή δημόσια οικονομία», Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους ΣΤ (Αθήνα 1976), pp. 72-74. On indirect taxes see the works mentioned in the two previous notes.

24. On the services of this type see Mitchell, S., "Requisitioned transport in the Roman Empire, a new inscription from Pisidia", JRS 66 (1976), pp. 106-131.

25. Cf. Sartre, Μ., L'Orient Romain. Provinces et sociétés provinciales en Méditerranée orientale d' Auguste aux Sévères (31 avant J.-C-235 après J.-C.) (Paris 1991), pp. 121-122.

26. The secondary literature on this subject is extensive, although there are no specialized studies; cf. the comments in Magie, D., Roman Rule in Asia Minor to the end of the 3rd century AD (Princeton 1950), pp. 640-641, in de Ste Croix, GEM., Ο Ταξικός Αγώνας στον Αρχαίο Ελληνικό κόσμο (Αθήνα 1997), pp. 651-653 and in Sartre, Μ., L' Orient Romain. Provinces et sociétés provinciales en Méditerranée orientale d' Auguste aux Sévères (31 avant J.-C-235 après J.-C.) (Paris 1991), pp. 129-130.

27. On the powers of the archons see the instructive analyses by Jones, Α.Η.Μ., The Greek city from Alexander to Justinian (Οxford 1940), pp. 170-191 and Magie, D., Roman Rule in Asia Minor to the end of the 3rd century AD (Princeton 1950), pp. 645-648.

28. Cf. Garnsey Ρ. - Saller, R., Η Pωμαϊκή Αυτοκρατορία. Οικονομία, κοινωνία και πολιτισμός (Ηράκλειο 1995), p. 42.

29. On the decisions of the Senate and the Roman generals concerning the Greek cities see Sherk, R.IC, Roman documents from the Greek East; Senatus consulta and Epistulae to the age of Augustus (Baltimore 1969). On the expressions of imperial concern cf. Σαρικάκης, Θ., «Μικρά Ασία. Η οργάνωση της ρωμαϊκής διακυβερνήσεως», Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους ΣΤ (Αθήνα 1976), pp. 224-225.

30. The secondary literature on the presence of Roman troops in Asia Minor is quite extensive, see the remarks in Sartre, Μ., L 'Orient Romain. Provinces et sociétés provinciales en Méditerranée orientale d' Auguste aux Sévères (31 avant J.-C-235 après J.-C.) (Paris 1991), pp. 69-70 and pp. 78-80 with further references. On the Roman colonies in Taurus in specific see Levick, Β., Roman colonies in Southern Asia Minor (Oxford 1967).


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