BMCR 2004.04.37

Politikôs archein. Zum Regierungsstil der senatorischen Statthalter in den kaiserzeitlichen griechischen Provinzen. Historia Einzelschriften, 165

, Politikōs archein : zum Regierungsstil der senatorischen Statthalter in den kaiserzeitlichen griechischen Provinzen. Historia. Einzelschriften, Heft 165. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2002. 369 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515076484. €88.00.

This book, a second dissertation ( Habilitationsschrift) accepted in the Hagen Fernuniversität (“Open University”), appears, appropriately enough, in a prestigious monograph series. The author’s objective is to study the governing style of Roman provincial governors in the Greek East from the perspective of the provincials. The Greek tag of the title is from Strabo’s Geography 17.3.24 characterizing Roman rule over the Empire at the beginning of Tiberius’ reign. For Strabo, a Greek provincial from Amaseia in Pontus, the expression meant a moderate regime of the proconsuls and other governors, based on laws, over civilized and well-ordered communities of the polis type, favoring the local notables and employing peaceful methods rather than war. The book’s thesis is that this style was “the foundation of the Roman art of governance” (p. 9). Fundamental to it, and evident throughout the book, was a “homogeneous habitus,” characterized by Greek literary culture or paideia, that Roman and provincial elites shared (p. 330). M.-Z. conceives the relationship between governors and governed as a highly symbolized and ritualized one made concrete in public ceremonial and especially in verbal form in honorific inscriptions. This was emphatically, in the first through third centuries, a regime of governors over cities, not provinces, and the provincial elite with whom the governors mainly interacted were actually the leading councilmen ( bouleutai) of individual poleis, here labeled throughout as “(civic) notables.”

The geographical reach of this study is all of the eastern provinces where the language of public discourse was Greek, but the coverage is highly uneven. Occasionally M.-Z. draws on such illuminating documents as the Babatha archive from the Judaean Desert (pp. 72n, 316n), or a papyrus petition of farmers on the middle Euphrates directed to the prefect of Mesopotamia (pp. 248-50), or on the copious evidence from Egypt, but these were all imperial or frontier provinces. The red meat of the sources used is the Greek inscriptions of the Balkan provinces and Asia Minor. Also prominent are speeches and treatises of Greek authors from the eastern provinces, including, besides Strabo, Plutarch of Chaeroneia, Dio of Prusa, and Aelius Aristeides. Generally speaking, M.-Z. finds that it is the formalities of communication and governance which emerge clearly in these sources more than the objective events and circumstances.

M.-Z.’s book displays the usual hallmarks of German philological and historical scholarship ( Wissenschaft), specifically the vision of a well-organized academic discipline that has grown in a linear fashion from from nineteenth-century giants like Theodor Mommsen and Joachim Marquardt, and in which this book addresses a well-defined, previously unresolved problem. There is a sense that a carefully defined body of ancient sources will permit one to resolve the problem if interpreted according to the rules. Further, in the usual manner M.-Z. cites all relevant scholarly discussion of the issues in extensive footnotes, along with abundant quotation of the original texts, usually without errors in transcription. The book fits the received paradigm admirably. On the other hand, it also leaves the unmistakeable impression that in the last twenty or thirty years, more than earlier, any surviving barriers between the national schools in Classical Philology and Ancient Mediterranean History have all but disappeared. The main influences at work in this book appear to be less the French anthropologists and sociologists now popular in the U.S., though buzz-words like Diskurs, Semantik, and habitus do appear, than the pragmatic British and North American (here “Anglo-Saxon”) scholars like Fergus Millar, Richard Saller, and Simon Price. M.-Z. makes it clear throughout that study of governors has come a long way since Mommsen’s Staatsrecht (1887/88) treated them as Roman magistrates in an objectively-defined constitutional order. A main turning point was clearly Millar’s Emperor in the Roman World (1977), with its dictum that “an emperor is what an emperor does.” Indeed, M.-Z. proposes to do for provincial governors what Millar did for emperors, explaining (p. 47) that he will explore the “mostly ritualized written and spoken intercourse” between the governors and the governed as well as governmental activities ( Regierungsformen) such as travel, jurisdiction, and the dispensing of honors and privileges. This is indeed a far cry from Mommsen. In the end M.-Z. finds that the Roman proconsuls, much like Millar’s emperors, adopted a thoroughly reactive type of governance, responding to petitions and emergencies instead of pursuing thought-out, coherent policies.

The book is arranged in six chapters. Chapter 1, the introduction, first defines Πολιτικῶς ἄρχειν, associating the concept not just with Strabo but equally with Aelius Aristeides in the second century. Then comes the traditional survey of scholarship. M.-Z. explores Roman provincial rule in modern authors from Mommsen and Marquardt, through the Englishmen W. T. Arnold and G. H. Stevenson, to more recent systematic studies of G. P. Burton in England, of the French scholar François Jacques, the German Rudolf Haensch, and Alan K. Bowman in the new Cambridge Ancient History. The procedure is to schematize each approach for easy comparison. It turns out that Mommsen was not so much “ahistorical” — the charge commonly leveled against him — as one-dimensional, fixated on the governor as a constitutional magistrate and insensitive to the sociological aspects of the position. By contrast Marquardt operated inductively, essentially from inscriptions, and adopted less the Roman than the provincial perspective. This is the approved direction. Stevenson, like Arnold, brought to bear the British colonial experience, stressing the Romans’ pragmatic, undogmatic, and unsystematic approach. This emphasis continues in contemporary scholarship, which also features prosopographical study of senatorial and equestrian governors, as in the many works of the epigraphists like Geza Alföldi, Werner Eck, and Michel Christol. The new systematic treatments emphasize the limited personnel and lack of bureaucracy in Roman provincial administration that curtailed the governor’s effective intervention in local affairs. This lack, of course, threw governors back on links with the city elites and the concept of Πολιτικῶς ἄρχειν. Despite much work in recent decades, there remains no well-documented, comprehensive study. M.-Z. conceives his book as a contribution to this topic without pretensions of being a comprehensive work.

Chapter 2, on governors from the perspective of Rome, explores the two primary sources on the governor’s position in the state, both fragmentary, namely Cassius Dio 53.12-15 on Octavian’s reordering of the provinces in 27 B.C. and Ulpian’s De officio proconsulis libri X, known in 106 fragments, mostly excerpts from the sixth-century compiliations. In different ways, M.-Z. believes, the two authors were normative, or represented normative doctrine, and both were, of course, eastern Greeks who wrote two centuries after Strabo. From Nicaea in Bithynia Dio reached the consulship and served as proconsul and provincial legate under the Severans. In his account of the division of the provinces between senate, or “people,” and emperor, Dio expressed clearly that there was no dyarchy, as Mommsen had insisted, but that Augustus had instituted a monarchy from the outset, of which Dio clearly approved. Further, Anglo-Saxon scholarship has established that, despite long scholarly debate about constitutional issues, no substantive difference existed between proconsular provinces and propraetorian ones. The celebrated lawyer Domitianus Ulpianus, from Tyre in Phoenicia, reached the praetorian prefecture under Severus Alexander, only to be murdered in 223. His treatise on governors resembled a handbook for new appointees. On the basis of the fragments, where the text usually corresponds with actual governors’ behavior, M.-Z. shows that Ulpian’s book was a compendium of experience, not a deductive working out of abstract principles. Here too, the cities were clearly the expected arena of most of the governor’s dealings, and what Ulpian had in mind as the governor’s field of action was mainly criminal law, not private law (handled by the cities), taxation, or military affairs. Ulpian made it clear that mandates, rescripts, senatus consulta, and the like would circumscribe the governor’s actions, but beyond them the treatise reinforced ethical principles, implied in language like curare and providere that would promote the well-being of the provincials.

Chapter 3 discusses the governor “on the spot” (“vor Ort”), presenting six exemplary cases that display provincial governors in action. First, an epigraphical dossier from the village Tacina in Phrygia, dated 212/13, shows the proconsul Gavius Tranquillus intervening to alleviate depredations by his soldiers, ne oneret provinicam, as Ulpian put it, lest the regime unnecessarily harrass the provincials. In commentary and the notes, M.-Z. brings to bear much comparable evidence, making it clear that such proceedings were typical. Second, governors had the responsibility of visiting each city in the province, civitatem adire. So, for example, the proconsul of Asia might appear in Alexandreia Troas for the local festival of the Smintheia Pythia, as the rhetorician Menander of Laodicaea (third century) envisioned in his book of rules for speeches on such occasions. Menander makes it clear that the governor’s adventus was an occasion filled with ambivalence and danger for both sides and that the arrival ritual and accompanying speeches were a means of negotiating the difficulty. A third frequent encounter derived from the governor’s obligation to investigate territorial disputes between cities “on the spot” ( in re praesenti esse) and organize a solution, as when the legate C. Avidius Cassius settled such a quarrel between Delphi and its neighbors about 114. The fourth case, of Aelius Aristeides, runs like a Leitmotif through the rest of the book. Known from his Sacred Tales, the celebrated rhetor’s protracted efforts ca. 150 to escape the burdensome honors (“liturgies”) of a provincial priesthood and tax collector brought him before the proconsul of Asia, whose duties included pro honore provinciales tractare, negotiating the suitability of such honors for a member of the provincial elite. As M.-Z. makes clear, this was really a negotiation about keeping the peace among contentious local aristocracts. Fifth, provincials regularly approached the governor in person, praesidem adire, or by petition, petere, in order to secure privileges, as when villagers of Aurillenoi, in the territory of Sardis, sought market privileges ca. 135, according to a recently-published inscription.

As M.-Z. sees it, the final characteristic activity of the provincial governor was pro tribunali cognoscere, the governor’s formal judicial proceeding ( cognitio), displayed most vividly in the acts of Christian martyrs. M.-Z. recognizes, of course, that in contrast to normal criminal procedure the governor’s objective in cognitiones involving Christians was not to discover whether a crime had been committed but whether the accused persisted in his Christianity. He agrees with G. E. M. de Ste Croix that the aim was “to make apostates, not martyrs.” Yet for M.-Z., as in current scholarship generally, these texts are exceptionally illuminating, and perception of them as intensely-colored passion narratives detracts little from their vivid representation of the criminal process, based as they often are on eyewitness and incorporating written protocols of the actual trials. In this book focus is on Polycarp and Pionius, both martyred by fire, Polycarp in 156, Pionius during the Decian persecution in 250. Strikingly, such executions had mass appeal. They are among few cases in this book when it was popular demands, the voces populi chanting “search out Polycarp!”, to which the governor responded, rather than to the requirements of Πολιτικῶς ἄρχειν. Surprisingly, M.-Z. appears to accept as authentic the canard of the texts (once again familiar, especially in the cinema!) that among the populus, at least in the case of Polycarp, it was the Jews who demanded Christian blood with special vehemence. If popular hostility set the charges in motion, the role of the notables was to cooperate in the criminal proceedings. They arrested the Christians, kept them in prison, and interrogated them, urging them to sacrifice and thus win aquittal. Most apparently did sacrifice, but the question remains why even a small number of such horrible deaths occurred in a civilized state. As M.-Z. conceives it, the ground for the condemnation most frequently alleged was the “disloyalty” implied in the “impiety” that Christian confessors displayed toward the people, the notables, and the governors, in contrast to the demanded “piety.” Of course, in our post-Enlightenment age “piety” does not translate at all well the Greek term eusebeia, with its strong political dimension. Moreover, the notables and the governors found it an affront to their honor and rank that Christians refused even to answer or to respond to their attempts to persuade. There is a hint of Pontius Pilate here. As the younger Pliny wrote, it was the Christians’ silence in the face of interrogation and persuasion, their pertinacia and obstinatio, that merited punishment. M.-Z. also perceives another factor as well. Significantly, the martyrdoms occurred during or shortly after the Asian festival games held in Smyrna, where the governor appeared during the provincial conventus to preside over trials and attend the competitions. M.-Z. thinks (170-71) that the populus demanded condemned Christians because they were impressive and therefore extraordinarily engaging “athletes,” powerful in the face of death. The governors gave the people what they wanted, expecting by this means, along with their euergetism and energetic forays against banditry in the countryside, to attract the positive attention of the voces populi.

Chapter 4 examines the ethics of governing a province. In a relationship between the governor as patron and the provincials, the ethics of the position worked itself out, naturally, in a discourse about patronage. A better source for this discourse than Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan, in which the guideline is never the utility of the provincials but always the emperor’s approval, are epigraphical and papyrological decrees, in which the emperor presents himself as a paradigm of patronage and providence, prostasia and pronoia, and makes the utilitas provinciae the aim of the governor’s labors, especially in promoting the well-being of cities. In return governors expected honorific decrees from city councils and statues with honorific inscriptions, of which more than 400 for about 250 governors survive, though one provincial governor in the reign of Vespasian saw 3000 statues just in Rhodes (including, to be sure, also those of gods and kings)! M.-Z. explores the semantics of such inscriptions, which he finds (not unexpectedly) to be lapidary and formulaic. The “canonical” honorific titles for governors he studies are euergetes, “benefactor,” soter, “savior,” ktistes, “founder,” and patron. The ethic is summed up, though, in the conceptual pair of euergesiai, “benefactions,” and eucharistiai, expressions of thanksgiving, that the governor expected in the form of honorific decrees, inscriptions, and statues. M.-Z. finds that the virtues for which a governor won praise corresponded with the traditional virtues of a civic dignitary, highlighting again a shared political culture. In the third century honorary decrees ceased, but in exchange the practice set in of inscribing verbatim the acclamations of city councils in praise of governors. After about 240, honorary tituli on statue bases likewise began to give way to verse epigrams. Both developments, in M.-Z.’s perception, reflected the emergence of an Empire-wide aristocracy that based its legitimacy on paideia. As Paul Veyne put it succinctly, “Les honneurs font voir à tous quel est l’ordre établi.”

Chapter 5 is a grab-bag of topics that all further reveal the “governing style” of provincial governors. M.-Z. measures the presence and accessibility of the governor to provincials of different social levels by examining the organization of space in a province, the location of residences, and patterns of travel to cities of conventus and elsewhere. In Apuleius, for example, we can perceive how distant a figure the governor was for the average villager. He inquires into the quality of the engagement with provincials by studying the rituals of encounter with persons of different social levels. Of course, an embassy of high ranking men from a city could expect quite a different reception than a delegation of ordinary farmers petitioning for redress of grievances.1 At the upper end of the social scale, friendship, based on shared paideia, created a presumption of easy access, as in the case of Aristeides. Indeed, a governor found himself implicated in a web of friendship relationships with the provincial notables, though it remains unclear whether Greek philiai carried the same burden of mutuality as Roman amicitiae. Shifting gears, M.-Z. then explores how authoritative texts and local traditions shaped a governor’s decisions, including documents preserved on the spot epigraphically or in city archives, the decrees of his predecessors, and the “divine writings” of the emperor ( mandata, epistulae, subscriptiones), and how such instruments of government were published and archived. Governors always had room for “common sense,” and there was an impetus toward continuity and stability. Then, drawing on Plutarch’s celebrated Political Precepts, M.-Z. focuses on conflict and competition among the city notables that consumed so much of the governor’s effort, threatening, as they did, to draw in the demos and disturb the general peace, and on rivalries for precedence among the cities themselves. Finally, M.-Z. evaluates the governor’s lawful means of rule that flowed from his (or the emperor’s) imperium : the summary hearing ( cognitio) and the issuing of sentences and decrees that were entered into acta, and especially of edicts, of which most examples have been preserved from Egypt. Three forms of interaction with provincials, in M.-Z.’s view, characterized all of these: the governor could command, he could permit, and he could praise. It was the third of these, however, the governor’s power to issue written edicts of praise ( martyriai), that in the Roman provincial system proved to be the most effective instrument of government.

The book concludes with a brief resume (Chapter 6) and five useful appendices listing governors honored as saviors, founders, and patrons, and collecting preserved imperial mandates addresssed to governors as well as the few governors’ edicts found outside of Egypt. The exhaustive bibliography includes modern works cited in the notes. Lamentably, the book lacks an index of any kind, making it unnecessarily difficult to use.

Despite his book’s broad reach, one might complain that M.-Z.’s focus on Πολιτικῶς ἄρχειν, on the governors’ interaction with the city aristocracies, is so sharp that he omits or underrates critical aspects of their governing style. There is little here, for example, about the use of force, other than in martyrdoms, although the governor did dispose of organized bodies of soldiers ( stationarii, stratores, milites, p. 89) even in the peaceful provinces, and violence characterized a governor’s interaction with provincials as well as paideia. Nor does M.-Z. treat sufficiently the governor’s staff ( officiales) with whom provincials at all levels regularly dealt. As he points out in his conclusions (p. 328), the officiales formed a rudimentary court already in the second century, and hence “ist ihr Einfluss auf das gouvernementale Regiment kaum zu überschätzen.” The governor’s itineraries figure prominently, as do his assizes in cities of provincial conventus, but encounters also occurred in the organized physical space of the praetorium, or governor’s palace, a number of which have come to light around the Empire (though the identification of some is disputed).2 Surely the use of such buildings was part of a governor’s Regierungsstil, and the organization and monumentalization of space in them for purposes of formal dining and audience deserve treatment in this framework. Indeed, M.-Z. ignores entirely the visual side of the governor’s Regierungsstil. Even as barriers between national schools of historical scholarship crumble, those that separate the philologists, epigraphists, and textual historians from the archaeologists and historians of art and architecture remain proudly erect. In this book the governor’s encounter with the notables of a city in written media is emphasized to the virtual exclusion of his encounters with the demos in the physical space of the theater or stadium.

Nevertheless, the book does exactly what it sets out to do, and it marks an important advance in understanding how Rome ruled the provinces. As M.-Z. himself proposes (p. 331n.), the next step is a prosopographical investigation of interrelationships between Roman governors and other magistrates and the notables in provincial cities. Such a study would illuminate the increasing “penetrability of boundaries between rulers and ruled” (p. 330) that characterized the process that everywhere historians of the ancient Mediterranean world now call “becoming Roman.”


1. M.-Z. relegates to a footnote (p. 250) the striking notice in a papyrus that in 209 a prefect of Egypt received 1809 petitions during a three-day conventus in Arsinoe. Obviously the sheer workload explains in part the inaccessibility of the governor to the humble.

2. See, for example, Rudolf Egger, Das Praetorium also Amtssitz und Quartier römischer Spitzenfunktionäre, Österreichische Adademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte, 250:4 (Vienna 1966).