Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.15

John Nicols, Civic Patronage in the Roman Empire. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 365.   Leiden:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. xvii, 344.  ISBN 9789004214668.  $162.00.  

Reviewed by Hendrik Dey, Hunter College, CUNY (


John Nicols has spent some four decades studying Roman civic patronage, producing a long series of articles and book chapters on the subject that now culminates in this monograph. Since the publication in 1957 of Harmand’s still relevant work on civic patronage, book-length studies have typically focused on narrowly-circumscribed regions of the empire, albeit with exceptions such as Krause’s work on late antiquity, and a pair of relatively recent treatments of Roman patronage of cities in the Greek East.1 Nicols’ wide-ranging – though primarily western-focused – survey is thus a welcome addition to the scholarly corpus. It gives a good sense of how difficult the topic is, almost in spite of itself at times (the written sources are notoriously vague on the specifics of what patroni did for “their” cities, deliberately so for Nicols), and offers grounds for reflection about the practical implications of patronage for our understanding of, for example, urbanization and “Romanization” in the West.

A succinct introductory chapter outlines the various types and mechanisms of civic patronage operative in the late Republic and Principate (ca. 100 BC – 235 AD), the sources, and the principal themes addressed in the succeeding chapters, among them: “How did civic patronage function in the Late Republic? How was it altered by Augustus? How did it evolve in the Principate? How pervasive was civic patronage in these periods? What was the role of civic patronage in the process of urbanization and Romanization especially in the western provinces? How were relations between the two parties established and maintained? What were the expectations of each? What is the relative importance or value of benefactions anticipated or conferred? On what basis did cities select patrons; on what basis did patrons admit communities to their clientele?” (p. 18). By “civic” patronage, the author intends patrocinium publicum, “in which the patron was an individual and the client a civic community” (p. 1), as opposed to the more familiar and better-studied mechanisms of interpersonal patronage between individual patroni and their clientes. He defines patronage as “a mutual, continuous and generally extralegal or morally based relationship between two parties of unequal status and resources” (p. 2), an arrangement sometimes (but by no means always) formalized by tabulae patronatus, non-legally-binding contracts between individual patrons and client communities, or better the leading citizens thereof.

Chapters 2-4 survey patronage in the late Republic, Augustan period, and Principate, respectively. In Ch. 2, the focus is on the relationships established between late-Republican strongmen, chiefly Caesar and Pompey and their agents, and the towns of Spain, Gaul and Italy. The fraught and rapidly-evolving military and political situation left these communities in a perilous position, both in need of powerful friends at the highest levels of Roman government and at constant risk of finding themselves on the wrong side. Towns that declared themselves the clients of Pompey or Caesar could hope for financial and legal protection, and preferment for their leading citizens; their allegiance in turn bolstered the prestige of their patrons, and in theory afforded those patrons the promise of political and military support. In practice, however, while Pompey was able to raise troops from his family stronghold in Picenum, for example, as his sons did from loyal communities in Spain, such support was often more illusory than real. Town councils understandably dealt in Realpolitik, and very few held out for the Pompeian side when the political winds shifted in Caesar’s favor. Perhaps in part because of the danger of declaring themselves too openly for one side or the other, the textual record is vague about the precise nature of these relationships – we almost never hear about what, exactly, towns received from or provided for their formal patrons, nor about the responsibilities or obligations perceived to devolve on both sides. Nicols has less to say about euergetism, mostly because the sources say relatively little about material benefactions. An early exception is the case of C. Quinctius Valgus, a man of decurial rank from Campania whom an inscription from Aeclanum names as “municipal patron” responsible for rebuilding the gates and walls of the town in the 80s BC. For Nicols, he thus becomes “the first epigraphically attested patron who is known to have made significant contributions to the physical appearance of his client-community” (p. 58), a forerunner of the town-patrons of the Principate.

Beginning with Augustus, the nature of civic patronage unsurprisingly changed in significant ways, as Nicols stresses in Chapters 3 and 4. Rome ceased to be a stage where senatorial patrons could build or be ostentatiously commemorated for their achievements, and individuals outside the imperial family could no longer cultivate patronal relationships with urban communities in the provinces as a means of competing for real power and rallying armed support. While senators still appear as patrons of towns, often in their home provinces or areas where they had extensive landholdings, patrons of equestrian/decurial rank proliferated. Such local magnates could rarely be expected to serve as powerful intercessors for their communities at the highest levels of government; what they could do was provide material benefactions such as games and buildings, currying favor at home and enhancing their prestige in the process. Nicols suggests that this development was directly inspired by Augustus’ desire to promote “Romanization,” especially in regions largely innocent of Mediterranean-style traditions of urban living. By encouraging local displays of competitive giving and investment in monumental architecture and infrastructure, Augustus favored the growth of the municipal institutions necessary to transform formerly peripheral or rural communities into stable, tax-paying nodes in the network of urban centers upon which the administration of the empire depended (p. 118-19). The trend continued through the first and second centuries AD, when patrocinium publicum of the sort formalized in tabulae patronatus became – or better, remained – largely indistinguishable from civic benefactions.

In the second half of the book, Nicols presents a series of case-studies, beginning with a return to the late Republic and Cicero’s in Verrem in Ch. 5. While the events surrounding the governorship and prosecution of Verres make it abundantly clear that the leading residents of Sicily’s towns assiduously cultivated relationships with influential Romans to ensure a modicum of representation in the capital, it is usually impossible to determine the precise terms of these relationships in any given instance; where it is, formal patronage is more the exception than the rule. There are, however, explicit mentions of patrocinium publicum in our handful of surviving municipal charters (all from Spain) and in the epigraphic record more generally, around which the bulk of the discussion in Chapters 6 and 7 gravitates. Nicols argues, contra Claude Eilers,2 that the decline in epigraphic attestations of senatorial patronage of peregrine communities in the early Principate results from Augustus’ effort to regulate the practice, rather than a decline in the perceived importance and desirability of patronage per se. With regard to “Romanization,” Nicols envisions a sort of two-stage process: peregrine towns first sought senatorial support in Rome to aid in their acquisition of municipal or colonial status, upon the granting of which they could formally recognize their intercessors as patrons; thereafter, such communities increasingly chose patrons among local decurions inclined to provide material benefactions (which themselves receive only scant attention, at pp. 268-69). There is much food for thought here, though we are ultimately left with what Nicols candidly acknowledges: “The reality is then that the evidence simply does not allow us to define in any systematic way what circumstances were specifically associated with the establishment or exercise of formal civic patronage” (p. 240).

The volume concludes with a chapter on the album canusinum of 223, the unique bronze tablet from Canosa in Apulia that preserves the names of all members of the local curia, including all 39 of the town’s formal patrons, who seem to have enjoyed the status of municipal decurions by virtue of their patronage. There is also a companion website, hosted by the University of Oregon, which includes the author’s corpus of some 900 inscriptions related to patronage, low-resolution images of many of the texts, and additional supplementary materials ( UO Libraries: Nicols, John ).

This is not a book for the faint-hearted or the novice, and it makes few concessions to the uninitiated. The numerous Latin citations in the text are usually left untranslated, and Latin toponyms are typically preferred to their modern equivalents (though strangely, a number of key passages included in a prefatory section are given only in translation, whence both the philologically-inclined and those without ancient languages will find grounds for complaint). At heart, it is a technical treatment of a narrowly circumscribed topic – patrocinium publicum as it was understood and employed by the Romans themselves – that seems primarily destined for specialists. A wider scholarly public may find it useful but ultimately rather disappointing to learn that formal patronage is generally indistinguishable from other strains of civic benefaction. The surviving texts usually give no indication of exactly what patrons did for their client communities; where they do, the gifts and services resemble those provided by other benefactors; and most Romans themselves – patrons aside – may not have put too fine a point on the differences.3

Our notional wider scholarly public may thus find Nicols’ decision to focus exclusively on likely or certain instances of formal patronage, in both his synthetic discussion and his epigraphic corpus, rather limiting. Had he confined himself to analyzing patrocinium publicum in the technical sense of the term, the choice would be unexceptionable, but – perhaps with an eye to engaging a larger public – he also seeks to relate patronage to issues of broader historical interest, notably “Romanization,” a concept presented as a rather straightforward matter of provincial communities aping “Roman” political, administrative, and cultural institutions. (Little surprise, then, that none of the most important work on the topic produced since the late 1990s appears in the bibliography).4 The difficulty is that formal patronage was but one of many ways for towns to establish relationships with wealthy, powerful people who might be induced to “lobby” on a town’s behalf, provide legal representation, or finance public amenities (and thus, for Nicols, make such towns look and function more like “Roman” communities). As most builders and advocates appear not to have been formal patrons, however, such formal patrons must be understood as a relatively small subset of the many actors who, in various capacities and for different reasons, provided legal, administrative or material support for urban communities across the empire. If, in the imperial period, “the expectations associated with civic patronage were not perceived to be substantially different from those of the decurion” (p. 308), one might wonder how helpful is it to attempt to gauge the cumulative effect of formal patronage on processes of acculturation and urban development in isolation from the larger numbers of “unofficial” patrons who contributed to the same processes in effectively identical ways, especially since we rarely know what formal patrons provided for specific communities.

All the same, this is an erudite study that will need to be taken into consideration by anyone interested in patrocinium publicum in the narrow sense of the term. Few individuals, however, will spend $162 for a book that, as usual, Brill has published without copyediting, a cost-saving (!) omission whose unfortunate consequences are apparent on nearly every page.


1.   L. Harmand, Un aspect social et politique du monde romain: le patronat sur les collectivités publiques des origins au Bas-Empire (Paris, 1957); J. U. Krause, Spätantike Patronsformen in Westen des römischen Reiches (Munich, 1987); C. Eilers, Roman Patrons of Greek Cities (Oxford, 2001); F. Canali de Rossi, Il ruolo dei ‘patroni’ nelle relazioni politiche fra il mondo Greco e Roma in età repubblicana ed augustea (Munich, 2001).
2.   Eilers, op. cit. in the preceding note.
3.   See, e.g., p. 128: “Roman ideology may have made a distinction between benefaction and formal patronage, and members of the elite may have been careful to respect such distinctions in their relations with their equals; in practice, however, the two were readily conflated.”
4.   Notably G. Woolf, Becoming Roman. The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (Cambridge, 1998); C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley; Los Angeles, 2000); E. Fentress (ed.), Romanization and the City. Creation, Transformations, and Failures (Portsmouth, RI, 2000); C. Noreña, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West. Representation, Circulation, Power (Cambridge, 2011). ​

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