Security is a topic constantly on the minds of many people these days, for many and good reasons. Considering the current climate, one might expect more works devoted to it, though that is not to say it has been ignored by scholars.1
Cecilia Ricci offers an investigation into how Roman emperors, starting with Augustus, set up arrangements for their own security and that of Rome and Italy until the Severan era, when a rethink occurred. She also traces the development of the concept of securitas from a philosophical term to a political slogan.
The work is divided into 10 chapters, which are grouped into four Parts. Ricci begins with a brief Preamble (viii-xiii) that sets out to summarize the basic content and argument of the work. Chapter 1, “Studies on military forces and public order in Rome and Italy from Republic to Principate: Points of view,” offers a long, critical review of works over the last century related to security in Rome and the various forces that were used to provide it. Ricci indicates what she considers to be the various strengths and shortcomings of each work, justifying her own new work presented here.
In her second chapter, “Between Pax, Disciplina, and Securitas: Moving the focus,” Ricci expresses her view that previous works have not really attempted to discern if there was any design to the introduction of all of these armed units in Rome by Augustus.
She devotes most of Chapter 3, “The security of Rome and the security of the Emperor: the slow development of a discourse and its transformation into a communicative instrument,” to a long discussion of the concept of securitas in Latin. Primarily a philosophical term that meant more a freedom from worldly troubles or cares than the safety of persons, Ricci provides an extended philological examination of the development of the terms securus and securitas from those earlier meanings to that of “being free from concerns about one’s personal safety and free from fear of harm.” This is central to her attempt to discern if there was a “security policy” put in place by Augustus and his successors that encompassed not only practical means (the various armed and organized units of men) but also an ideological framework.
Part II begins with its own Introduction, which surveys Augustan criminal legislation and military reforms and the role they played in Augustus’s security arrangements. The first chapter of part II, Chapter 4, “The security of the Princeps in Rome: Military escorts and bodyguards,” examines who guarded the emperor. It starts with an extensive look at the Praetorians and their functions, with some discussion of the varying views of their role in affairs. After the Praetorians, Ricci considers the other organized units that provided personal security for the emperors, such as the speculatores and the corporis custodes.
Chapter 5, “The security of the urban area and its inhabitants: Civilian, paramilitary and military personnel,” brings in administrative arrangements beyond armed soldiery instituted by Augustus, which contributed to the framework for public security. Ricci begins with the Augustan vicus system and the officials placed in charge of them, the vicomagistri and their slave (ministri) assistants. She notes how before the creation of the vigiles (in AD 6), the prevention and fighting of fires was put in the care of the vicomagistri. Their role changes slightly with the formation of the vigiles, as now there was close coordination between them.
Part III also has its own separate Introduction (“The security of the Princeps and of the urban spaces in Rome from Tiberius to the Severans”) that runs through changes in the organization and remit of the various military and paramilitary forces deployed in Rome after Augustus up to the Severan era, which saw major departures.
Chapter 6, “A topography of security and dangerous places: With an episode,” focuses on the measures for the security of public spaces, including the placement of military barracks (especially the Praetorian Camp) and outposts inside and outside of Rome. Again, the great point of divergence is the coming of the Severans, where the largely Italian forces deployed in and near Rome are replaced by legionary forces, whose membership is drawn from the provinces. Ricci also treats the ways in which various places we might call “danger zones” are handled, including places used for public entertainment such as the theater and the public baths.
Chapter 7, “The urban soldiers and the city,” provides an extensive look at the Urban Cohorts, not only those in Rome but the detachments, some temporary and others permanent, that are documented in Ostia, Puteoli, Lyon, and Carthage. Discussing their various duties, Ricci notes, “[a]lthough the term ‘police’ in the modern sense may seem incorrect, the urban cohorts surely performed tasks related to maintaining public order in the city and its environs.” Their use as battlefield soldiers is also examined.
The introduction to the final part, Part IV, “Security in Italy and the role of the central government between Augustus and the Severans,” examines security arrangements in Italy. Since Augustus, with additions by Tiberius, we see that detachments from the urban soldiers were often stationed in Italy at regular posts (stationes). It is not always possible to determine where the soldiers posted here, the stationarii, came from. But Italy was not an armed camp and most local disturbances were handled by the local elites with their own resources until the mid-3rd century, when municipalities started asking the emperor for more help, being incapable of maintaining public order on their own anymore.
Chapter 8, “Praesidia Urbis et Italiae: Grumentum and its territory – a case study,” (of note: the final section’s chapters were all previously published elsewhere, which is stated in the first note to each chapter), focuses on a single case study of one of these stationes. Chapter 9, “Praetoria and praetorians: The emperor’s travels and security (Latium vetus),” looks at the security for emperors as they traveled in Italy. As there is not much in the surviving literary sources, most of the evidence is drawn from epigraphic remains (especially burial inscriptions) that Ricci ties to imperial residences outside of Rome.
The final chapter, Chapter 10, “Emperors on the move: Security in the Campanian cities and in the Albanum Domitiani (first century AD),” continues the focus on the security of the emperor while traveling in Italy. Ricci states that more attention has been paid to the emperor’s travels to the provinces than to that around Italy outside Rome. She also notes that most accounts do not give much attention to the security concerns of travel. Ricci targets identifiable imperial residences and the evidence, both literary and epigraphic, to see who was providing security. One of her key examples is Domitian’s Alban residence, which does not yield a great deal of epigraphic evidence but does fortunately have a good amount of literary evidence as well as the archaeological remains of the buildings at the estate, which give us signs of the presence of soldiers.
The book ends with an “Epilogue: Securitati Caesaris totiusque Urbis,” which provides a grand summary of the whole book. Here Ricci tries to piece together the various sections of the book, which are at times somewhat disconnected and disjointed, to make that case that Augustus did have a conscious plan for providing security to Rome, even if it was not an organic one. The project itself developed gradually and was carried out in stages, which helps to explain both the lack of an organic account from any contemporary or near contemporary historian, as well as the arguments of some modern scholars, who think that Augustus’s security arrangements were driven by “emergencies,” that is, as reactions by Augustus, and not as proactive measures devised in advance (Ricci cites Werner Eck prominently here).
The foundation of this plan, claims Ricci, is the administrative reorganization Augustus carried out in Rome to provide for public security, including the security of his own person. By developing a means of public surveillance (the vicomagistri, the military and paramilitary units—Praetorians, Urban Cohorts, vigiles—and the prefects who controlled them) to create a constant pressure against disorder and unrest, on the one hand, and a legal framework (his legislation on re-establishing old norms and creating one new major feature—refashioning the law so that maiestas encompasses attacks against the emperor as well as attacks against the state) to severely punish those disturbing Augustus’s “peace,” on the other, he had a definite purpose in his piecemeal rollout of security measures.
All of this material concerning Augustus, his plans and his intentions, put together here, has a certain measure of cohesion and the argument has some merit. The parts of the book that examine the evolution of Augustus’s system until a wholesale replacement comes in with the Severan period, are more descriptive than innovative but they have a definite place in the overall presentation. The problem for the book—if it was intended to work as a united whole and not as a collection of related, but separate, papers—is the final section, Part IV, devoted to the security of the emperor when outside of Rome. While connected by the general subject of security and the forces deployed to create and ensure it, the last group of chapters, which were originally published independently, feels tangential and disconnected from the rest. The separate pieces are interesting and informative, but they do not feel as closely tied to the points put forward in the previous sections. If they were meant to be illustrative case studies, then more framing was needed to set them in that role.
Some elements feel entirely disconnected from the earlier sections. For example, if the soldiers of the imperial fleets stationed at Misenum and Ravenna play important roles in the overall security policy of Augustus, as they appear to do in these final chapters, even if they are never deployed in Rome and their rise to prominence occurs after the start of the Flavians, why not mention them at least in passing earlier, when discussing the various units involved in the security measures devised by Augustus? Why do they not get a focused section of their own as the Praetorians, Urban Cohorts, and vigiles each do?
It is unsurprising that this final section, largely consisting of revised versions of previous publications, also happens to be the part that has had the best editorial effort devoted to it, as the earlier chapters have notable typographical errors, proofreading slips and some infelicities of language. From a reader’s perspective, it is also somewhat cumbersome that the endnotes for each chapter are placed at the end of the parts to which they belong and not at the end of the volume.
Overall, Ricci has provided an interesting look at the topic of security in Roman times. The book is at its best when looking at the evidence for the various military and paramilitary units created by Augustus and his successors. The discussion of securitas in the Roman mind is very useful. The book could have used more revision, however, to greater tie its slightly disparate parts closer together.
1. The past decade has seen Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford, 2012), and not one but two books devoted solely to the Praetorian Guard: Sandra Bingham, The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome's Elite Special Forces (Waco, TX, 2013); Guy de la Bédoyère, Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (New Haven; London, 2017). This last work seems to have appeared too late for Ricci to have been aware of it.