BMCR 2000.02.12

Räuber, Rebellen, Rivalen, Rächer: Studien zu Latrones im römischen Reich. Forschungen zur Antiken Sklaverei, Bd. 31

, Räuber, Rebellen, Rivalen, Rächer : Studien zu Latrones im Römischen Reich. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei ; Bd. 31. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1999. x, 269 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515074899.

Robbers, rebels, rivals, and revindicators are the four rubrics under which Thomas Grünewald presents an analysis of individual men of violence and of banditry in general in the Roman empire. A decade ago, Grünewald published a critique of the legitimizing propaganda of Constantine, a military man and usurper who was branded a bandit by his enemies. It was a case that might well have piqued his interest in the more general phenomenon of marginal risen men.1 The present study emerges from Grünewald’s Habilitation. In it he sets himself on an almost Rankean quest: ‘Die leitende Frage lautet schlicht, wer nach römischen Verständniss ein latro und was latrocinium gewesen ist.’ The alternatives are suitably pol arized: was the latro‘eine historische Person’ or ‘eine literarische Kunstfigur’ (4). The search begins with a conceptual and semantic analysis of latro, the principal term that was used to identify these dangerous miscreants of the Roman social order. Following this investigation, Grünewald’s first type of brigand is introduced to the reader. He is the ‘real’ robber ( der echte Räuber), a hard character grounded in a positivist reality, and therefore a baseline against whic h Grünewald can measure his other types of bandits. This robber is the ordinary criminal documented in the criminal proceedings preserved in papyri from Roman Egypt and is the common fur in the definitions of Roman jurists (21-4 5). His second species of bandit is the political rebel ( der Rebell). The main examples of this ‘type two’ brigand are violent ethnic chieftains like Viriathus and Tacfarinas (50-77), and the leaders of the slave wars, principally the two great Sicilian slave re bellions and the Spartacus war (82-103). Thirdly, under the rubric of rivals ( Rivalen), Grünewald subsumes the phenomenon of political pretenders to state power, especially the much-studied episodes of banditry in Judaea in the decades of Roman provincial rule preceding the great war of 66-72 (130-56). Finally, under the heading of avengers ( Rächer), are gathered a grab-bag of indigenous successor figures, messianic upstarts, false-Neros, and such (196-230). Based on detailed case studies appropriate to each type, Grünewald then develops his general conclusions.

The author is no simple compiler of the views of others. He systematically dismantles superficial interpretations of the nature of bandits and banditry. A good example is his treatment of popular scholarly assertions about brigandage in Judaea in the decades before the war of 66-72, as well as during the war itself.2 Grünewald not only demonstrates the self-interestedly labile nature of the category ‘bandi t’ under the pen of Josephus (as one might expect), but also how the use of the term by modern historians is not a very helpful category of analysis when applied to whole movements of the period, such as the so-called sicarii, or to individuals like John of Gischala or Shimon ben Giora (143-49). On closer and detailed investigation, these men turn out not to be ‘social bandits’ of any description, but rather normal local men of power and rank who were well-treated by the Romans as important persons deserving respect and honor (as was Josephus himself). Josephus calls these men bandits to label them as illegitimate and disreputable persons. In fact, a man like John of Gischala was his peer, a man who was competing with Josephus for power in the Galilee; he was very far from being the type of man who found his origins ‘like Pancho Villa’ in a life of common robbery.

But the process of labeling — who gets to call a person a bandit, and with what degree of convergence between actual behavior and the imputed label — is one that Grünewald does not always seem willing to confront. Many of the figures that he accepts as genuine brigands, like the chieftain Tarkondimotos in the Amanus Mountains of the Syrian-Anatolian frontier, are not that much different from a John of Gischala or a Shimon ben Giora. More to the point are many men who were like them and who, in the shifting conditions of central-state power (say in conditions of civil war or the erosion of state power along the frontiers of the empire), were variously seen as criminals, brigands, local enforcers, or legitimate power holders in their own right. Eugippius’ sixth-century life of Saint Severinus, to give only one source, provides clear examples of men who were as signed these statuses by turns in the rapidly changing circumstances of the northern Italian and Alpine frontiers of the time. Grünewald’s typology seems (and is) more viable because the long-term stability of Roman power in the Mediterranean makes it so — but this is only a luxurious happenstance that allows one to avoid confronting the problem of what power arrangements underwrote the classifications, and of how and why these circumstances might change.

The end result of Grünewald’s detailed research project (p. 231-36) is another typology which is, in effect, a recapitulation of the analytical categories already used in the main text. First, there are ordinary robbers ( Räuber) who are defined as robbers ‘in the sense of the criminal law’: common criminals marked by their propensity to take other people’s property, illegally if not violently. Next come rebels who are defined by Grünewald as ‘guerrilla chieftains at the head of indigenous revolts or the leaders of slave rebellions’ — proto-ethnic revindicators who fought for their peoples and followers. Within the penumbra of a yet wider sense of latro come the ‘rivals’ who are defined as ‘illegal usurpers of positions of current power holders.’ Finally, there is the ‘specialized form’ of the avenger, a self-appointed righter of a wrongfully deposed or murdered ruler who seeks to place himself on the throne as the legitimate ruler of the land. At the same time, the avenger-bandit often punishes the evil men who illegally deposed the just king. In addition to this first collection of types, however, Grünewald offers a second typology. He argues that latrones in general can be divided into two ‘ideal types’ based on their aims and modes of operation. First there are ‘common robbers’ ( gewöhnliche Räuber) who are ordinary law-breakers, thieves who have no higher purpose in mind than acquiring stolen goods and power for themselves. Opposed to this type of bandit are ‘noble robbers’ ( edle Räuber), brigands who are moved by higher motives and who fight the good fight for elevated purposes and a good cause. These latter two types of bandits cross-cut Grünewald’s first four types and are often found within each of them: for example, within the ‘type two’ bandits, Tacfarinas is categorized as gewöhnlich, whereas Viriathus is edel.

For the most part, these types and subtypes are the same as those offered by Eric Hobsbawm in his classic work Bandits, first published in 1969 and then in several later editions and reprints. Apart from a brief reference to the Dutch scholar Anton Blok, however, those who have seriously questioned Hobsbawm’s hypothesis are not taken fully into consideration by Grünewald. Other than bibliographic notation of some interesting analyses of premodern brigandage in German lands (2, note 4) and of a few studies done by modern criminologists in Germany (3, note 7), there is no thorough use of the vast modern historical research on this subject, much o f it critical, if not very critical, of Hobsbawm’s typologies.3 While Grünewald himself seems to accept the criticisms, at the same time he circumvents them by bracketing the type of brigand that underwrites Hobsbawm’s ‘social bandit’ into a real m of an idealized wish-figure: ‘daß der latro kein sozialer Typus, sondern ein literarischer Topos ist’ (p. 102-03, of his ‘type two’ bandits). Replacing one typology with another, however, might well not resolve the problem.

Grünewald’s study therefore shares the strengths and weaknesses of all descriptive typologies: the various types exist in a still- frame relationship to each other. Clarity of definition is achieved, but at the expense of a dynamic understanding of the movements that created and destroyed such persons. Even a modest history of Roman ‘hit men’ for example, would reveal the consistent links between power at the top and at the bottom. When Jugurtha wishes to have a personal enemy of his in Rome named Massiva killed, he orders his right-hand man Bomilcar to find the men ‘who do this sort of thing’ for hire (BJ 35.4-5: homines talis negoti … imperat pretio, sicuti multa confecerat, insidiatores Massivae paret). Sallust’s fiction is a truth. Cicero’s Pro Cluentio highlights such hired-killers. Oppianicus Sr. of Larinum is averred to have hired a man to murder a relative in prison and to have employed one of the notorious Fabricius brothers of Amiternum to arrange the murder of his son. On one level they are only part of the orator’s lawyerly lying, but at another they are part of a shared reality that he knows the judges themselves know, perhaps all too well. The state itself could find the necessary men, as it did with Sertorius. They were just as central to the order of the Roman state as were the senators and local aristocrats who systematically used their services. 4

These are not trivial matters when it comes to violence, or labeling. Gaius Titinius Gadaeus, a man of service to many in the course of the second slave war in Sicily, and one of Grünewald’s bandits, is a good example (p. 91-2). Labeling him a latro clemens does not get us out of the fix. Titinius was a Roman citizen, probably a former slave, now a freedman, apparently a m an of some prestige and power, but convicted of a capital crime. What was he? A ‘common criminal,’ ‘a noble bandit,’ a ‘good citizen,’ or all three by turns? The question then becomes: who, and under what conditions, becomes a latro ? The novels and the law codes are replete with reference to such violent individuals and gangs who are there to be used by landlords and their agents as enforcers. The novelists make the point that the bandits or pirates can be exterminated like beasts on one day, or rise to the position of respectable men and officials on another. Such was the work of fate. Though fiction, they narrate a certain reality, namely that such men and women were not just ‘objective types’ but were part of a continuous process of power and creation that deserves closer and more critical examination.

Grünewald has worked carefully and assiduously to correct and to update existing studies (for example, those of the reviewer at p. 138); and he is a fair and accurate reporter of the views of other scholars on the subject. His analysis of the primary and secondary materials for the history of brigandage in the Roman empire is both diverse and comprehensive.5 The study of some cases from Late Antiquity, say from Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum, might have been included, since it is precisely instances of brigandage in the fundamentally transformed circumstances of the post-Roman West that bring into higher relief some of the dynamic patterns of the phenomenon. A good number o f the legitimate power holders of Gregory’s hyperviolent world would have been classified as bandits if they had lived in the Roman empire. But within the chronological constraints accepted by Grünewald, he offers both range and depth of coverage. Since both the typologies of brigands and the general hypotheses about bandits as social symbols have been already been well developed, however, one wishes that the author would have set himself a more daring agenda — to get beyond the current state of bandit studies to develop a more incisive and dynamic analysis of brigandage.

A more ambitious program of this sort, however, might well face the insuperable difficulties posed by the literary sources themselves. As Grünewald rightly emphasizes (p. 9), for moral and ideological reasons the writers of these works were loath to discuss bandits, much less to include them as integral parts of their accounts — although Arrian, we are told, deigned to write the biography of the brigand Tilliboros. What is usually left for modern historians are vignettes, like the little story about Selouros, the Son of Aetna, that is embedded in Strabo’s geography (p. 100). By definition such histories of bandits are sporadic and isolated, forming archipelagic traces of deeper and more pervasive realities that the historians and the other writers of the time were loath to face openly. And it raises the problem of how such historical vignettes relate to the fictional representation of bandits and pirates in prose narratives. Grünewald does make the interesting point that the Augustan peace was so profound (relatively speaking) that bandits became quite acceptable as a form of leisured entertainment (p. 26). Although he also refers to recent studies of the Greek and Ro man novel (10-11), it does not get us far in the light of them to say that both the fictional and the ‘real’ models of the bandit are ‘projections.’ How, in fact, do they relate to the complexities of life and power across the social statuses and groups o f the time? Are the elements of bandit or pirate tales embedded in the Graeco-Roman novels, for example, pure fictions, élite inventions, traditional literary motifs inherited from other cultures, the ‘seeping upwards’ of folk tales, popular report age, or a constantly changing mélange of such different sources? To what extent is any of the description, even in our best historical sources fictive or ideological constructions?6

As for typologies, however, at what point does a definitional type fail to be such? Why precisely, for example, is Vespasian never a bandit to an observer like Josephus, who sees brigands everywhere else around him in his own society? Is Vespasian not stigmatized as a usurper and therefore a ‘type three’ bandit? Or is he just a potential bandit who then is somehow never seen as one because he succeeded where others failed? The question rises again in the context of Grünewald’s forthright claim that ‘Spartacus wäre kein rechter latro gewesen’ (p. 9 9). Despite reading and rereading the section on the leaders of the slave wars as ‘type two’ bandits, it remains unclear to me why Eunus and Athenaios count and Spartacus does not. Are ‘type three’ bandits nothing other than the failures, the violent residual detritus left behind by the winners in the political process? Is there some relationship or none at all between such men and the category of ‘common robbers’? And if so, what is it? That is to say, what forces were creating or informing the types of the typology itself.

Whatever such queries this work provokes in readers’ minds, Grünewald’s essay is a diligent and incisive summa of research done to date, and a reasoned critique of some superficial interpretations that have worked their way into the scholarship on the subject. It will be the necessary point of departure for anyone who wishes to acquire an accurate assessment of the state o f research, the condition and range of the primary sources, and the specifics of the standard cases that have been involved in modern historical debates on the subject. Since this is the only book-length overview available on banditry in the Roman empire, we must be grateful for the fact — if only on the prophasis that the leaders of the servile wars were ‘type two’ brigands — that it has found an appropriate home in the Mainz Academy’s prestigious series of monographs on ancient slavery.


1. Thomas Grünewald, Constantinus Maximus Augustus. Herrschaftspropaganda in der zeitgenössischen Überlieferung (Stuttgart, 1990); see p. 188, n82 for its use in the present work.

2. Especially, but not limited to, the work of Richard Horsley — an almost mechanical application of the Hobsbawm model to Judaea. The improbable comparison of John of Gischala with Pancho Villa, for example (see below) is Horsley’s.

3. For example at p. 16, n. 43, a few older items of scholarship on Robin Hood are noted, but not any of the more critical studies including those by John Bellamy, Maurice Keen, James Holt, Stephen Knight, and Jeffrey Singman that have appeared in recent decades — all of them very relevant to the problem of ‘myth’ and ‘reality.’

4. Wilfried Nippel’s study Aufruhr und ‘Polizei’ in der römischen Republic, Stuttgart, 1988, is ignored in discussions of order, despite some of its general conclusions that apply to the conditions of rural disorder as much as to the nature of ‘policing’ the cities of the empire.

5. But this is not to say that there are not some matters of fact and interpretation that the reviewer would dispute. For example, Grünewald’s claim that the technitai harbored by the Italian bandit Bulla Felix were the cultural hangers-on of an Hellenistic-style court (p. 163 f.) seems like scholarly grasping at straws and is difficult to credit. Eunus and Spartacus, well before Bulla, made sure that they protected and gave privileged status to the craftsmen and skilled workers that they required for their operations.

6. For example, Linda Lewin, “Oral Tradition and Elite Myth: the Legend of Antonio Silvino in Brazilian Popular Culture,” Journal of Latin American Lore 5 (1979) 157-204, offers one case where the modern historian has much more of the relevant data at his or her disposal than does any historian of antiquity — and it is a salutary warning about the range of possibilities.