Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.44

Danijel Dzino, Illyricum in Roman Politics, 229 BC-AD 68.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 223.  ISBN 9780521194198.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Michael P. Fronda, McGill University (


Dzino traces Rome's political relations with the various communities in the large region that became the Roman province of Illyricum, from Rome's earliest trans-Adriatic interventions in the third century BC through the administrative division of Illyricum into the provinces of Pannonia and Dalmatia in the first century AD. Illyricum serves as a regional case study for the exploration of a range of interrelated questions bound up with the larger subject of Roman imperialism. The book thus adds to the growing list of provincial studies that have contributed greatly to our understanding of Rome's Mediterranean empire, especially the diversity of imperial experiences across time and space.1

The book comprises nine chapters and a short conclusion. The first two chapters are largely introductory. Chapter One surveys modern scholarship on Illyricum and lays out the ancient sources and the difficulties in their interpretation. Dzino admits that scholarship on Illyricum is not lacking. The novelty of this book, according to its author, lies in its emphasis on the earlier stages of Roman trans-Adriatic imperialism, its goal of disclosing the motives of both the Romans and indigenous populations ("the different narratives of this process," p. 1) and its use of recent archaeological evidence, especially from excavations along the coast of Dalmatia. Illyricum remains, according to Dzino, a relatively neglected topic in the Anglophone academic community, while a "large corpus of Albanian and former Yugoslav scholarship remains mainly unavailable and is generally unknown to the wider community of scholars except through the works of Alföldy, Wilkes, Hammond, and more recently Cabanes and Šašal Kos" (p. 6). This book also aims to address this scholarly blind-spot, though Dzino is clearly indebted to earlier scholarship, especially that of Šašal Kos.

Chapter Two briskly summarizes Roman foreign affairs and Mediterranean geo-politics in the last two and one-half centuries BC, and provides a concise physical and human geography of the region. Map 1 (p. 30) is indispensable for making sense of the many ancient (and associated modern) place and people names. It is one of only three maps in the book, and the one to which I referred most frequently when trying to follow geographic arguments in subsequent chapters. Additional maps would have been helpful in aiding readers who lack the author’s intimate knowledge of ancient and modern Balkan topography.

In Chapters One and Two, Dzino identifies major themes that reemerge throughout subsequent chapters. First, Illyricum itself was a Roman construct, a political-geographic concept that developed slowly and was imposed by the Romans on the indigenous populations. Second, the development of the political-geographic concept of Illyricum mirrored a broader process of evolution of the Roman understanding of provinciae. Third, Roman imperialism in Illyricum was largely ad hoc and contingent, the process shaped by Roman domestic politics, multiple state- and individual-level motives, as well as indigenous interests. The Romans pursued no discernible grand strategy, though certain broad patterns and regional strategies can be identified.

The next two chapters examine in detail Roman/trans-Adriatic affairs in the middle and late republic (before Caesar). In this period, the Romans did not conceive of a single region called Illyricum, but rather became increasingly involved in two distinct though interrelated zones of activity within the larger trans-Adriatic area. Chapter Three covers from the First Illyrian War through the tripartite division of the Illyrian kingdom in 167 BC. The Romans' goal in the southern Adriatic was the political fragmentation of the area, to contain the growing influence of the Illyrian kingdom and prevent a hostile Illyrian-Macedonian alliance. In the north, the Romans were concerned with the general security of northern Italy and more specifically with colony and port of Aquileia, after it was founded in 181 BC. In this area, the Histrian kingdom posed the greatest threat, until its defeat in 177 BC. These basic patterns continued between 167 and 59 BC (Chapter Four), though Roman interests and influence widened, eventually encompassing the entire trans-Adriatic coast and the eastern Alpine hinterland. According to Dzino, the Romans’ different imperial approach in the West (“aggressive”) and the East (laissez-faire, indirect hegemony) is reflected in their dealings in northern and southern Illyricum, respectively.

Dzino rejects the idea that the Romans’ principle motivation in the second century BC was the pursuit of military glory--"triumph hunting" (e.g., p. 77)--and he downplays Illyrian piracy as a major consideration for Rome's initial intervention across the Adriatic in the third century BC. He argues persuasively that Roman imperialism cannot easily be characterized as simply defensive or aggressive, and that "Roman wars were often initiated by Roman anger arising after their public or personal honos and dignitas were threatened, and the anger caused by, what they perceived as, injustices" (p. 48). However, Dzino perhaps too easily trusts literary evidence in support of this case. For example, he accepts that the First Illyrian War resulted primarily from the Romans’ reaction to the murder of their envoys to the Illyrian kingdom, and also that they were provoked in the 150s BC to attack the Delmatae after the latter abused Roman envoys. Yet mistreatment of Roman envoys is something of a trope in the sources,2 casting doubt on the historicity of specific episodes.

The turbulent years from Caesar's ascendancy to his assassination (Chapter Five) and the rise of Octavian (Chapter Six) were critical in the transformation of the trans-Adriatic into Illyricum. The lex Vatinia (59 BC), which gave Caesar proconsular imperium over Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum, represented "the de iure construction of Illyricum in Roman political and administrative discourse," since it was "the first time we know of that a Roman magistrate was entrusted over the whole of the Adriatic coast" (p. 80). Neither Caesar nor subsequent commanders instituted significant administrative changes. Thus, “as a spatial-political concept, Illyricum in this period was nothing more than the area that the Romans traditionally regarded as their sphere of influence in the previous century--the coast and its immediate hinterland" (p. 95).

In 35-34 and 34-33 BC, Octavian mounted the largest and most comprehensive operations in the region during the Roman period, ostensibly because some groups in northern Illyricum refused to pay tribute and threatened Italy, but no doubt also for reasons of political opportunism. Significant territory well beyond the coastal strip was conquered, and Octavian established a permanent military presence in the region. Thus, "Octavian's campaigns should be seen as the beginning of a new phase in Roman relations with the region," (p. 125) which went a long way to establishing Illyricum as a separate province. Overall, I am in agreement with Dzino’s arguments in Chapters Three-Six, with minor quibbles.

Chapters Seven and Eight discuss the province of Illyricum under Augustus. Illyricum became a separate province sometime between 32 and 27 BC, and was placed under senatorial authority. While Illyricum itself was largely peaceful in the 20s and 10s BC, Roman campaigns against Alpine peoples continued. Ongoing fighting near the Italian frontier highlighted the vulnerability of northern Italy and encouraged a dramatic shift in Rome’s strategic approach in the northern trans-Adriatic. Augustus committed to a major war to conquer the Pannonians (12-9 BC), which "was a decisive stage in the development and final shaping of Roman Illyricum" (p. 129). Illyricum became an imperial province, under the authority of an imperial legate. The number of legions was increased, lands were annexed, and the frontier was greatly expanded, eventually to the middle Danube. However, the province proved difficult to govern: it was huge, unwieldy, and composed of diverse peoples. Simmering discontent erupted in a serious rebellion among the Delmatae and Pannonii, the Bellum Batonianum (AD 6-9), which was suppressed only with great difficulty.

The argumentation of these two chapters, especially the explanation for the underlying causes of the the Bellum Batonianum, are less satisfying. Dzino posits that Pannonian resentment grew out of frustration "with sudden social change," as they "were entering the Mediterranean world too fast" (p. 143). This promoted a "nativist atmosphere" in which shared identity and xenophobia outweighed local differences and served to catalyze discontent. The formulation is fraught with difficulties. It is not entirely clear what it means, precisely, to “enter the Mediterranean world too fast.” Semantics aside, Dzino presents little evidence for the assertion that the Pannonians were undergoing rapid social change or that their society was Romanizing (another difficult concept) at an accelerated rate. Indeed, Dzino’s argument relies heavily a passage from Dyson,3 itself merely an assertion of the Romanization of Illyricum and its supposed psychological impact. Lastly, the assumption of rapid Romanization seems to contradict Dzino's later generalization that, during the first century AD, "Illyricum became an essential part of the empire, its inhabitants slowly but certainly on the way to becoming Roman" ( p.156, my emphasis; see also pp. 175-6). Other assertions also verge on contradiction, such as the claims that Illyricum was "too large, spatially and culturally diverse and thus too complex to control" (p. 153-4), yet the "construction of Illyricum as an artificial space inhabited by heterogeneous communities enabled the Romans to exploit differences amongst indigenous groups" (p. 154).

The rebellion convinced the Romans to divide Illyricum into two smaller provinces, Dalmatia and Pannonia. The development of these separate but linked provinces in the Julio-Claudian period is the topic of Chapter Nine. Legionary camps were reinforced, and frontier defenses were reorganized to reflect new strategic realities. Roman roads connected coast and interior; veterans were planted throughout Illyricum, first in viritim settlements and then in veteran colonies. Illyricum became important for military recruitment and the exploitation of natural resources. Archaeological evidence suggests increased trade between Italy and Illyricum, namely the heavy importation of Italian goods by coastal communities. Illyricum was more fully integrated into the empire and the wider Mediterranean world.

The book’s brief conclusion reiterates larger themes, namely that Illyricum was a Roman geo-political construct, yet it "was not constructed ex nihilo; its construction was the result of a long and ongoing interaction between Roman power and the spaces across the Adriatic, as well as the gradual extension of direct and indirect Roman domination over the region" ( p. 178).

This is a work of serious research--learned, meticulous, thorough. Dzino’s attentiveness to Roman concepts of geographic and political space raises interesting questions, and the book makes a real contribution. It is recommended not only for scholars interested in Illyricum but also for those who study broader issues related to Roman imperialism, Romanization and provincialization. The book is not without flaws. As often the case with dissertations-turned-monographs, technical arguments occasionally disrupt the book’s flow and obscure larger themes. I found the prose at times difficult. Dzino ambitiously touches on several controversial subjects, though sometimes too briefly to do justice to the complexity of the debate.4 It is unlikely that every reader will agree with every assumption, assertion, and conclusion. I do not know if this book will supplant earlier works on Illyricum, but It certainly deserves to be on the shelf next to them.

The volume is well produced, as expected from Cambridge University Press, and I found only a couple of typographical errors.5


1.   To mention a few that cover the republican era: Ebel, Transalpine Gaul (1976); Morstein-Marx [Kallett-Marx], Hegemony to Empire (1985); Richardson, Hispaniae (1986); Alcock, Graecia Capta (1996); Smith/Serrati, Sicily from Augustus to Aeneas (2000); Bekker-Nielsen (ed), Rome and the Black Sea Region (2006).
2.   E.g., the famous episode of the people of Taras-Tarentum heaping abuse and, in some versions, urinating on the legate L. Postumius Megellus in 282 BC (D.H. 19.5; App. Samn. 7.2; Dio fr. 39.6-8; Zon. 8.2; Eutrop. 8.2).
3.   Quotation taken from Dyson, “Native revolts in the Roman Empire,” Historia 20 [1971] 253.
4.   E.g., the influence of trade considerations on Roman policy in the second century BC is asserted (p. 76), with little prior discussion of the level or nature of Roman overseas trade (touched upon on pp. 70-71).
5.   P. 3: Illyricum (59 BC-68 BC) should read Illyricum (59 BC-AD 68) p. 25 n. 35: Keay and Terrenati 2001 should read Keay and Terrenato 2001.

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