This is the second and (in theory) last addendum to our series on Roman civic governance (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc, IV, V, A1). Having discussed how Rome handles those parts of Italy it controls but which were not part of the Roman Republic itself, we now look at how the Romans govern their overseas provinces. When Rome first expands overseas in 264, they opt not to continue replicating the socii-system as they go, but rather through a gradual and ad hoc process, develop a separate system of governance-by-magistrate for these provinciae or ‘provinces,’ though as we’ll see the exact meaning of this word changes over time as well.
While the Romans mostly improvise this system for just a handful of provinces – most of the basic patterns of Roman provincial governance develop in just the first four provinces1 – that system becomes the customary way Roman magistrates and promagistrates handled the overseas provinces they were assigned to. Consequently, it was replicated over and over again through Rome’s steadily expanding empire. By the time the Republic collapses into the Empire, Rome will have not four provinces but fourteen; by the end of the reign of Augustus, as the Roman Empire largely took the borders it would mostly hold for the next for centuries, there were just under thirty provinces. Yet the way Rome will govern these provinces largely continued to hold to model established in the Republic, at least through to the Severan Dyansty (193-225 AD), if not further.
As a result, the improvised system the Romans developed for those first four provinces would end up being how the vast majority of people in the Roman empire would experience Roman governance.
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Much like what we generally suppose about the socii-alliance system, the Roman system of provincial governance emerged as a set of ad hoc practices which eventually hardened into a coherent system of administration. Unlike the development of the socii-alliance system, the development of provincial administration happens firmly in the historical period where our sources allow us to observe it fairly clearly, so we can document the stages of its development. I should note here in this argument I am quite reliant on F.K. Drogula’s Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire (2015) which works over these points in great detail.2
The first Roman province acquired was Sicily, which to the Romans (and indeed, to many Italians today) was not part of Italy proper, but its own distinct geographic and cultural space. The war over Sicily, the First Punic War (with Carthage) started in 264 and ended in 241, leaving Rome in control of the whole island. Extending the socii-system over the island would have posed immense difficulties and the Romans do not attempt it. For one, whereas the socii of Italy could walk to their musters, Sicilians would have to sail. But perhaps even more pressing was that while Italy had undergone a long process of cultural and institutional convergence which left the various Italic peoples as good fits for the Roman military system, Sicily was a quite different place. Roman intervention in Sicily started in 264; before that the Romans had only minimal involvement in the island, whose affairs were instead defined by conflicts between the Carthage and the Greek colonies, Syracuse in particular.
The ingredients for the socii system were thus missing, if the Romans ever even thought of employing the system (we have no evidence they did): the large population of decently affluent freeholding farmers who could fight as heavy infantry in the Roman style and thus make up the contributions wasn’t there. At the same time, even during the First Punic War, the Romans clearly recognized that Sicily had other things to offer, namely grain. Indeed, when Syracuse surrenders in the opening days of the First Punic War (Heiro II, its tyrant, having found himself suddenly wildly in over his head), the main Roman concern is that Syracuse provide provisions for the army in their operations against the Carthaginian holdings in the West of the island (Polyb. 1.18). So the deal was struck: the Romans would leave Heiro in place and in exchange, he paid an indemnity and supplied their armies with grain.
And it is worth stopping at this point to note a few key features of Rome’s first provinces (which will in turn set the mold for later ones. These provinces do not begin as administration divisions, but as military theaters. Indeed, the Latin word for ‘province,’ provincia has a root meaning which is ‘assignment, office, duty’ – not a region or a place. The idea started as a task or sphere of activity within which a magistrate’s imperium (or other powers, for magistrates without imperium) functioned, so a provincia could be a specific war or domestic problem, assigned by the Senate to a particular magistrate. You might have a provincia of fighting the Samnites, or administering the courts in Rome, or generally dealing with all of the problems ‘over there’ (wherever ‘there’ might be) and so on. Consequently what will be Roman administrative norms emerge initially out of military necessity in what were active combat zones.
But holding the island would require some kind of permanent military force there, so each year after active hostilities ended, Rome dispatched a magistrate – typically a praetor – with the job of commanding a small residual Roman force on Sicily, as a direct continuation of the larger-scale military operations on the island during the First Punic War (264-241). That praetor naturally had the job both of keeping an eye on Syracuse (which remained, for the moment, a Roman treaty ally, though not one of the socii) and collecting the tribute. We’ll talk in a moment about how ad hoc military contributions ended up formalized as the Roman provincial tax system, but we ought to assume that’s happening here as well.
In 238, Rome took advantage of Carthaginian distraction (they were at war with their own mercenaries and subjects in North Africa) to seize Corsica and Sardinia. These required fewer troops and so generally got a single commander and thus end up as a single provincia (still understood as an assignment, later to be a province), Corsica et Sardinia. In 218, Rome and Carthage go to war anew and Rome sends armies into Spain to capture Carthage’s territory there. The area is large enough that command is eventually split between the north-eastern coastal area and the southern area, which become Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior (Nearer and Further Spain). The Romans have moved out the Carthaginians there by 205 and by 197 the ad hoc military command has transitioned into an effectively permanent provincial one, again usually assigned to praetors.
And the rest of the provinces follow, bit by bit, though after a long pause. Macedonia in 147, absorbed after the Fourth Macedonian War (150-148), and the province of Africa in 146 after the Third Punic War. That fifty-year pause from 197 to 147 sees the Roman ‘standard operating procedures’ in the provinces become codified into strong norms that influence how later provinces are governed. Asia is incorporated as a province in 133 after being bequeathed to Rome by its last king, Attalus III, who doubtless expected the Romans to pick a successor, but politics in Rome made its annexation convenient, so annexed it was. Then Gallia Narbonesis in 120, followed by a slew of eastern provinces in the 60s, most a result of Pompey’s campaigns: Creta et Cyrenae (Crete and Cyrenaica), Bithynia et Pontus, Syria and Cilicia. Exactly when Cisalpine Gaul became a regular province is unclear, but the Romans had control of it from the 220s onward, with a brief interruption after 216.
In each case, those neat ‘years of incorporation’ can be deceptive, because they typically come at the end of years – and in some cases decades – of regular military activity in the region. While Macedonia is regarded as ‘becoming a province’ in 147, Roman generals had been being assigned the provincia of Macedonia on-and-off since 200 and the start of the Second Macedonian War.3 Moreover, even after this point the province remained an active combat zone with its outward-facing borders ill-defined and offering Roman magistrates assigned there considerable latitude for offensive action, as Cicero can quip as late as 55 that the borders of Macedonia “were those of swords and javelins” (Cic. In Pisonem 38), which is to say, they projected as far as the Roman army could take them.
That isn’t to say these geographic distinctions are entirely informal, though. Boundaries between one provincia and the next were important to establish, since they delineated the bounds of a magistrate’s authority. The first such intentional delineation comes in 197, when the Senate dispatches to the praetors with orders to establish a geographic division between their provinces (Livy 32.28.11). In subsequent provinces, when they made the transition from being areas of active conquest to permanent geographic assignments, we see commissions of Senators dispatched to define the borders of the permanent province. We may note that it is only the borders between the two Roman provinciae that are being established here: when thinking about the boundaries of a province, it is useful to image hard boundaries between provinces and on coasts, but far looser boundaries inland as a Roman magistrate might well press their authority as far as, to borrow Cicero, “swords and javelins” might reach.
So to pull all of this together, the third and second century see a steadily evolution in the Roman conception of what a provincia was. At first, a provincia was a temporary assignment, which came into existence when assigned and ceased to exist when completed. As the Romans decide to permanently garrison their overseas possessions, that creates permanent provinciae (still assignments), which then by necessity as we move into the second century come to be geographically defined to establish a boundary for the magistrate’s imperium. At the same time, what the magistrate is doing is changing as these provinciae increasingly transition from being active war zones (though they often have militarily active frontiers) to primarily administrative jobs governing territory that has been conquered and subdued for some time.
Roman Taxes in the Provinces
Whereas the Romans drew soldiers from the socii, on whom they imposed no taxes or tribute, in the provinces, the Roman Republic did impose taxes or what we may more correctly call tribute. This tribute was generally collected as money, though it could also be collected ‘in kind’ as bulk staples, generally grain for the armies.
This tribute itself seems to have evolved from the logistics needs of the army – remember that Roman ‘governors’ are in fact just magistrates with imperium sent to a provincia with an army: these all begin as military commands. We can see this evolution rather clearly in Nearer Spain, but it probably proceeded similarly elsewhere. Now as you will recall, Roman military operations in that province begin early in 218 and continued through the war. Roman armies will have needed to gain supplies locally, through a mix of foraging and demanding contributions of grain from the communities in the areas they controlled. That ad hoc system of contributions continued to the establishment of permanent provinciae in 197. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the elder, cos. 177, 163; father of the famous Tiberius Gracchus) serves as the commander in Nearer Spain in 179 and 178 pro consule and during that time seems to have codified these ad hoc contributions into a regular system of tribute (App. Hisp. 43). This seems to be similar to the way that Sicilian contributions of grain to Roman armies in the two Punic Wars develop into a taxation system.
In other cases, the Romans effectively inherited an existing taxation system (for instance, in the province of Asia and arguably conquered parts of Carthaginian Sicily). In that case, generally speaking, the Romans simply redirected those royal or imperial taxes to the Roman treasury (the aerarium Saturni) without making major underlying changes. Roman taxes thus differed substantially from one province to the next or indeed between communities within provinces. However there were a fairly standard set of taxes that appear frequently. The largest tax was a tax on agricultural production, which the Romans called tributum; a tithe (10%) seems to have been fairly normal. Then there were customs duties on the import or export of goods to other provinces or outside of Roman controlled territory, which the Romans called portoria; rates varied, but were generally low (5% in Sicily, for instance). Finally, the Roman state might come directly to control certain economic ventures, especially mines, but also previously royal lands which might be rented out, that sort of thing. The Romans called revenue from these sources vectigalia and these revenues tended to be ‘farmed out’ (see below) rather than administered directly.
The administration of taxes is a bit more complex. Each province is being assigned two officials: a magistrate with imperium (praetor, consul, propraetor or proconsul) and a quaestor (or proquaestor). The quaestor’s job is to handle the finances of the army and its supplies, which must have included local contributions, used first to pay the armies own expenses and then the remainder sent back to Rome. But because the quaestor operated under the imperium of the magistrate, the imperium-holding magistrate also has a responsibility to make sure the taxes are collected, which will matter in a moment.
In practice, neither of these officials have the administrative support necessary to directly collect taxes from individual farmers or individual ports (for tariffs on imported and exported goods, a common form of tax in the Roman world called portoria). Here instead of developing such a bureaucracy, the Romans relied on two expedients: devolution and tax farming. In the former, sometimes taxes might be assessed not on individuals, but on whole communities. Thus, Tiberius Gracchus above, when codifying the tribute in Spain, isn’t setting of a bureaucracy, but negotiating a series of treaties with the subject tribes of his provincia, specifying what each tribute is liable to contribute each year. So long as the proper amount was delivered – perhaps with a few extra ‘gifts’ (read: bribes) for the magistrates – no one very much cared how it was collected. In this case, local communities were left to make their own arrangements.
For taxes that needed to be directly administered – like those aforementioned port dues – the Romans used a system of ‘tax farming,’ essentially privatizing tax collection. Every five years when the censors were elected, one of their jobs would be to let out public contracts; of old, those were for things like road maintenance and so on. But they would also, as Rome’s empire expanded, let out contracts on taxes. The form of these contracts was that the public contractor (publicanus, almost always in its plural, publicani) would put a bid of the estimated five-year tax revenue of the province in question. The winning bid – whichever was highest – would then put up property as surety equal in value to the bid and then have to deliver annually one fifth of the bid each year until the whole amount was discharged. Of course then any amount collected above the value of the bid was profit which the publicani – the tax farmers – could keep. In turn, they were expected to run the entire complex apparatus of tax collection.
Now as you might imagine, five years of tax income for an entire province might be an enormous amount of money, requiring a tremendous amount of property be put up as surety. In order to manage that, aspiring publicani would band together into companies called societates (sing. societas) to pool enough wealth together to bid on the contracts. These weren’t quite joint-stock corporations, in part because Roman law doesn’t recognize corporate persons, but to some degree liability was limited because the societas only risked the property put up as surety. That said, having such a societas go bankrupt could be absolutely ruinous to the investors and indeed the prospect of one such societas going bankrupt (it is the societas of tax farmers for the vectigalia of the province of Asia, which would have been a massive venture) is a major motivator of the political tensions leading up to Julius Caesar’s election as consul in 59.
The apparatus of tax collection managed by these tax farmers could be vast. We actually have most of the law governing the collection of portoria in the province of Asia and it details dozens of required tax collection points in both ports (49 total are listed in the inscription) and overland crossings from one province to the next.4 From our evidence in Egypt, we know that the staff of these posts would have included a slew of employees of the societas, including overseers (vilicus), deputies (vicarii), collectors (portitores), gate-keepers, inspectors (scrutatores) and a bewildering array of clerks and accountants (tablurarii, arkarii, librarii, commentarienses, dispensatores) – because this process generates both written records for the company and receipts for the merchants paying their taxes – and armed ‘private security’ of various types. Some of these would have probably been free workers being paid, but many were slaves. We also know that by Cicero’s day, one might also use the companies of tax farmers to send letters back to Rome, as the Romans had no public postal system but the companies had to be regularly moving money and records between Rome and the provinces.
As a result, these could be absolutely massive companies with a large number of extremely wealthy Romans financing the whole thing at the top (senators generally only as silent and secret investors, since a man of senatorial dignity wasn’t supposed to sully himself with this kind of activity), a substantial number of Roman and Italian businessmen working as their agents in the province in questions, who in turn employed large numbers of local agents to actually manage the day-to-day taxation. In turn, the revenues that flowed through these provinces could be absolutely massive. According to Plutarch, prior to Pompey’s conquest, Roman revenues were ’50 million drachma,’ which we should probably understand as ~50 million denarii (=200,000,000HS). For comparison, the annual pay of a Roman soldier in the Middle Republic was probably three asses a day or just short of 450HS a year (minus food).5 So these are absolutely massive flows of money.
Of course that created some odd incentives. Naturally managing those huge flows of money, successful publicani could become extremely rich. On the other hand, they are incentivized to extract as much tax revenue as possible. There is a reason that ‘tax collector’ in the New Testament implies ‘the worst sort of sinner,’ because these fellows tended to squeeze every last drop they could get out of the provincials and as a result were profoundly disliked by them. Publicani, because they had the financial resources, might also essentially run banking on the side too; can’t pay your taxes? Well they can make you a loan on your taxes, at an exorbitant rate of interest.
Now the publcani weren’t supposed to have just free rein to exploit the provinces however they liked; they were supposed to collect taxes according to the laws and customary arrangements. In practice, the person who was in theory supposed to make sure the publicani didn’t exceed their remit was, again, the magistrate or promagistrate with imperium in the province. In the end it was the magistrate’s job to ensure that taxes were collected smoothly and lawfully, by whatever means. And that in turn meant it was his job too to ensure that the province was orderly enough to allow for the collection of those taxes and all of this creates the pressure for administration that leads to Roman generals becoming de facto governors and administrators. Which leads us neatly to:
The Job of a Roman Governor
As you may have grasped, essentially all legal Roman authority in a provincia compresses down to a single point and that point is the Roman governor, the magistrate or promagistrate with imperium who is in charge of the province. Ostensibly, because the provinces are militae, not domi and the governor has imperium, his power is effectively absolute and indeed being a governor in a province was about as close as a Roman aristocrat could get to the experience of being king. Nevertheless, the actual activities of Roman governors were limited by the lack of a bureaucracy, Roman customs regarding what was expected of governors and the threat of prosecution back in Rome for misconduct when a governor’s term ended.
Roman governance is extremely thin on the ground in the provinces. That’s not to say governors had no administrative support. Like any Roman magistrate or promagistrate, they were assigned apparatores, including lictors, messengers, heralds and scribes, to handle a lot of the booking and administrivia their job entailed, although we should understand that this isn’t some huge group, but perhaps a dozen or so officials. Added to this, Roman governors were, almost definitionally, Roman aristocrats and so brought their own entourages with them, including household slaves, freedmen acting as agents and so on; that probably supplemented the administrative capabilities around the governor. Finally, governors might also bring friends, business associates and so on with them. Still, all told, you should be thinking about a governor’s encourage as more like 50 people than 500.
Apart from this, the governor really only had access to the Roman army in his province. For provinces without an active military campaign, this might often consist of only one or perhaps two legions, often under-strength and frequently dispersed to some degree through the province guarding various key locations and in some cases engaged in minimal policing duties (though many of those jobs would instead be handled by local communities).
Consequently, the day-to-day implementation of law and order, the running of local courts, the administration of markets, the collection of taxes and so on – this was all handled by local communities, with the exception of those taxes that were handled by the publicani. So the governor’s administrative role was not managing lots of individual bureaucracies, but troubleshooting problems between these communities (often cities with their territory) and the publicani.
And you can see how naturally a Roman governor would become a sort of court of last resort if two communities had a dispute with each other, or there was an issue with the taxes. He has imperium and so has the legal power to deliver judgement and in any case his career through the offices he’s held and his own experience being a patronus resolving disputes between his clientes have all conditioned him to be comfortable delivering judgments and resolving disputes. To this, one additional layer was added: the Romans largely didn’t bother with the administration of local justice, but they became concerned if crimes carried exile or death – that is, any sort of capital punishment. The concern here seems to be the potential for the courts to be used to destroy pro-Roman political factions within communities, but in any case, provincial governors were required to ‘sign off’ on any capital charges. Sometimes this was a rubber-stamp, but in some cases the governor would themselves hold a hearing or trial.
Rather than doing all of this in one place Roman governors generally moved through their provinces. We see this practice very clearly in Cicero’s day in his letters, but it seems to have been standard from the beginning and remain standard well into the empire. By Cicero’s day, the ‘route’ the governor would take through the province was customary and essentially formalized, but it must have been ad hoc in the early days. In any case, what a governor aimed to do – again, assuming there was no major campaign to manage – was to enter their province at the start of their year in office and begin moving through the major settlements of the province in turn. If you did it right, you returned back around to where you started right as the year was ending and, assuming your command wasn’t prorogued another year, hopped on the boat back to Rome.
In each settlement, the local community would be required to host the Roman governor. Julius Caesar passed legislation in 59 BC placing limits on exactly how much transiting governors could demand of their hosts, but it seems to have been fairly normal in practice for Roman governors to expect extravagant ‘gifts’ and expensive lodging. Moreover, some governors or their aids seem to have gotten into the habit of collecting the ‘allowance’ at every town they passed through, even if they didn’t stop. Nevertheless at major towns, the governor would stop for a few days, perhaps a week or two at most. During that stop, they would meet with community leaders, make sure the taxes were being delivered to the quaestor or publicani as required and resolve any legal disputes brought to them, including the aformentioned capital cases. Because the route was fairly standard and smaller settlements might not warrant a visit, you could, if you had a dispute for the governor, anticipate their route and meet them at one of these stops and present your case there.
It seems that very often these disputes involved taxes and the publicani who had farmed the right to collect them, with the local communities naturally complaining that the publicani were collecting more than they were owed, while the publicani wanted the governor to use his legal and military power to compel collection. A Roman governor might have a fine line to walk here: on the one hand the publicani were, almost definitionally, wealthy, politically connected Roman voters. On the other hand, letting the publicani run wild (often in exchange for them leaving some of the profits in the governor’s pockets) created a legal risk in Rome, especially after the establishment of the quaestio de repetundis – a permanent court over official corruption – established in 149 BC by the Lex Calpurnia.
Still it is clear that even following the rules a Roman governor could become fantastically wealthy exploiting their provinces. By all accounts, Cicero – who governed Cilicia in 51 BC – was a model Roman governor who kept to his legal obligations, refusing all illegal bribes and never took more than the law allowed (according to his letter, he took quite a bit less). Yet Cicero reports (ad Att. 11.1.2) to taking 2.2 million sesterces (550,000 denarii) out of Cilicia. If that is what a good and clean governor could profit from a year in a relatively small and poor province, one can only imagine what a corrupt governor in charge of a wealthy province could do.
Of course on top of all of this, the Roman governor was also the Roman military commander in the province, and so their route through the province might be dictated by the needs of military activity. Cicero, for instance, while in Cilicia engages in some relatively small desultory actions against the Pindenissitae, who had evidently been engaged in brigandage in the province (Ad. Att. 5.20) and as winter comes he has to consider military positioning against the possibility of a Parthian invasion (which never comes, to his great relief). But of course in more militarily active provinces – or just provinces with larger armies and greater options for military glory (to the political benefit of the governor) – matters of governance might take a back seat to military necessity, because the governor and the general were the same man. And as far as the Romans were concerned, that was as it should be.
Conclusion: Character of Roman Provincial Governance
With all that said, it is worth stepping back and discussing briefly the character of the sort of governance this ad hoc system creates. And the first thing to note is how minimal it all is. There is no legion of Roman bureaucrats swarming over the countryside. For the most part, so long as the taxes are collected, Roman governors were content to let local communities be. Indeed, the attitude we get from the sources we have is that Roman governors greeted local disputes and problems not as opportunities to make their mark but as annoyances that kept them from doing the things – like military activity, or personal enrichment – they might actually want to be doing.
For many provincials, the ‘face’ of Roman governance was instead the publicanus, the private-enterprise tax collection, and it is no surprise that in risings against the Romans – the ‘Asian Vespers‘ come to mind – Italian businessmen seem to have been prime targets. But even these tax collectors would have been relatively thin on the ground and focused on around economic activity. The Romans by and large did not interfere with the functioning of local courts or local laws or local customs or local religion.
Meanwhile, the administrative overhead costs of running all of this were relatively minimal beyond the military force necessary to retain control and even that was often fairly small in provinces that didn’t have active military theaters: often just a single, under-strength Roman legion. This leads to a trend where majority security problems, like the Sicilian Slave Revolts (135-132 and 104-100) or renewed major fighting in Spain (143-133) tend to start with some poor praetor and his small, under-strength army getting badly mauled by the sudden problem (with the result that a larger, consular army is then sent the next year). But it also means that Rome continues to run a relatively ‘lean’ government, with most of its revenues flowing back into military activity, well into the empire.
At the same time, this minimal approach doesn’t mean that Roman governance was kind. Roman governors, operating in the provinces – which were, again, militae, not domi – with imperium had very broad powers, including the ability to order summary executions and engage in military campaigns against local communities. And it is clear that quite a lot of Roman senators once in the provinces behaved quite badly. This was evidently compounded by the requests of the publicani; Cicero at one point notes a detachment of cavalry assigned by his predecessor (who, admittedly, is a political opponent) pillaging a community in order to force them to pay up on an overdue loan.
Roman efforts to curtail this sort of thing with the quaestio de repetundis are remarkable in that many empires might not have bothered very much to police how much governors could steal from provincials (so long as they didn’t steal from state revenues), but they were also not necessarily very effective. The juries of the repetundae courts, composed variably over the years of equites or senators, were famously reluctant to convict and usually only had limited penalties to impose. And as we’ve seen with Cicero, even a ‘ivory soap’ sort of politician, obeying all the laws, could pull huge sums out of their province, entirely legally. So there is a paradox that one the one hand the Romans seem to have wanted ‘good governance’ in their provinces more than most tributary empires, but we ought not overstretch this to assume they always got it.
Nevertheless, the system clearly worked. The relatively low burdens it places on local communities and the relatively minimal interference in local affairs meant that revolts against the Romans were comparatively rare, while the tax money flowed into Italy, both powering the first century Roman war machine and making the Roman elite fantastically wealthy. As time marches into the imperial period, the Romans increasingly begin thinking of the provinces as Roman, rather than merely areas of conquest and exploitation and the number of Roman citizens there expands, which leads to new governance challenges, but that’s a topic for another day.
- Sicily, Corsica et Sardinia, Nearer Spain and Further Spain, gained in the period from 241 to 197 and Rome’s only provinces until the addition of Macedonia in 147.
- It is a readable but quite dry volume; very good at what it does but clearly pitched at a specialist audience.
- The provincial assignments for the First Macedonian War in Livy, at least, usually specify Greece or Illyria as the area of activity, rather than Macedonia proper, though I admit I haven’t done a detailed check to see if any of them specifies Macedonia.
- On this, see Cottier, Crawford, Crowther, Ferrary, Levick, Salomies and Worrle, eds., The Customs Law of Asia (2008).
- In the late Republic, this is raised for a far more reasonable 225 denarii (=900HS).