BMCR 2012.09.13

Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order

, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xxiii, 330. ISBN 9780199737840. $74.00.


Christopher Fuhrmann’s book is the first attempt to assess the involvement of the Roman state in law enforcement throughout all the provinces of the empire (27BC – 260AD) since Hirschfeld’s pioneering article in 1891.1 As the subtitle makes clear, Fuhrmann focuses on the military tools that the Roman empire was provided with to fulfill this task. Only partial or regional studies, especially for Egypt, have so far dealt with the use of soldiers by the Roman state to maintain public order in the provinces, and the main concern of these studies has been the city of Rome.2

In his introduction, Fuhrmann discusses the concepts he will be using in his study and refers to the previous scholarship on law and order in the Roman Empire. Fuhrmann rightly points out that policing was not theorized in classical antiquity. However, it is worth noting that policing institutions were not first created in nineteenth-century London. There had already been at that time in Europe a long tradition, dating back to the seventeenth century, of experiment with respect to the duties of the state in the administration of community life and in the maintenance of order, called politia.3 Fuhrmann deliberately understands the word “policing” in a narrow sense and does not look at all the ways that social control could be exercised. His concern is the use of public force to prevent violence and crime. No specific section is devoted to the various threats on public security, such as banditry.

Surprisingly, Fuhrmann dedicates his first chapter (which is actually chapter 2, the introduction being #1) to a case study: the hunting of fugitive-slaves. The chapter is well documented and expands upon Rivière’s paper on the same topic.4 Fuhrmann examines the various institutions and individuals involved in the catching of fugitive slaves: imperial laws, provincial authorities, soldiers, local officers, the masters themselves and even any private person who was willing to participate. This is one of the rare occasions where all these structures can be seen working together for the same purpose. Other evidence can be drawn from the Christian persecutions, from imperial and provincial regulations on eirenarchs’ prerogatives, and from the petitions preserved on papyri. Since these structures will be discussed in detail only later in the book, one might wonder if the first chapter was the appropriate place to raise thequestions.

Chapter 3 deals with self-help and “civilian” policing, that is, local institutions in charge of law enforcement. Fuhrmann starts with some reminders on the regulations allowing self-help against thieves and murderers dating back to the early Republic. This overview lacks, however, a diachronic analysis. The Twelve Tables, for instance, cannot be alleged to prove the continuation of such practices during the imperial period. On the other hand, the appearance of delatores under the Principate must be assigned to the fundamental change in the judicial procedure which became inquisitorial at that time. Fuhrmann moves then to the local institutions devoted to the maintaining of public order in the provinces. This is in general a good presentation, but more emphasis should have been put on the autonomy the municipalities enjoyed in the Roman empire in dealing with public order on a local scale. Similarly, some statements of the author can be challenged, for instance when linking chapter 103 of the Lex Ursonensis on paramilitary levy with the Battle of Munda in 45BC or when attributing the development of local police offices in Egypt to the Jewish revolts and the inefficiency of the Roman military control. Finally, one can add to this chapter a recently published inscription from Akmoneia confirming that eirenarchs were chosen by the governor, at least in the province of Asia during the second century AD. This was probably done in order to control them, because of their frequent abuses when arresting people.5

Chapters 4 and 5 address the personal role of Augustus and his successors in the development of police institutions in the city of Rome and in Italy due to the autocratic and authoritarian features of the new regime. Fuhrmann starts with an overview of the measures taken by the Roman Republic to fight against violence. One can question the relevance of treating the police prerogatives of the aediles, the repression of the Bacchic associations, Spartacus’ revolt, Pompey’s expedition against piracy, Catiline’s conspiracy and the proscriptions all together as examples of state reaction against violence. All these contexts differ very much from one another. Fuhrmann argues then that the reorganization of the state by Augustus was fundamental for the increasing concern for policing. He shows that law enforcement in the city of Rome had to do with political loyalty and reminds us that imperial power relied on what he calls the “military police” (for instance, the praetorian guard). The various solutions used to create the new political order in Italy (jurisdictional prerogatives of the urban prefect, bandit-catching through soldiers, prohibition of associations, maiestas procedure) were then extended to provincial administration.

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the policing duties of the Roman army and of the governors in the provinces. As far as Egypt is concerned, Fuhrmann’s position seems very sensible. While considering that the huge volume of papyri that documentpolicing activities can highlight similar phenomena elsewhere in the empire, he argues that the peculiarities of that province (such as centralization and administrative hierarchy) best explain why police officers were so numerous in Egypt. On the other hand, he may not be so persuasive in claiming that “looking at selected texts (mainly extracts from the Digest) will suffice to show that the governor was the single most important figure in provincial public order” (p. 171). Despite the claims of the mandata, the governor’s involvement in public order and criminal law instead relied heavily on the cooperation of local officers in order to be effective. Except when specific persons were sought by the imperial and provincial power, such as Christians during the persecutions, the initiative to arrest criminals was most of the time taken by the municipal police officers.6

Chapter 8 is devoted to the various types of detached-service soldiers who dealt with policing in the provinces. These included beneficiarii, stationarii, regionarii and frumentarii. Since all these soldiers were already referred to in the previous chapters on provincial public order, there is some repetition. The first two types are also discussed in a specific appendix where the author states that beneficiarii must not be confused with stationarii (pp. 249-252). The main difference seems to have been that the first term is a rank, while the second one refers to a watch function that an ordinary soldier could be assigned to.7 Despite the author’s claim (p. 219), kollêtiôn should not be understood just as “a nick-name”. Fuhrmann shows that provincials usually preferred soldiers over local magistrates for submitting petitions about crimes, at least in Egypt. 8 This is an important point that demonstrates that provincials were aware of the contribution of soldiers to law enforcement. However, the mention of a soldier as the recipient of a fine in an epitaph cannot be seen as evidence for “anticrime activity” of the army against grave desecrators (p. 215). Moreover, a sharper distinction should be made between the regions where large military units were stationed and the so-called inermes provinces. Finally, Fuhrmann makes some fascinating comments on sexual offences among the abuses by soldiers against local people, and on the settlement by the Roman army of civilians as watchmen in fortresses ( burgarii).

In his conclusion, Fuhrmann reiterates the two most valuable points of his book. First, he has shown that, beyond the sterile debate on the modernism or primitivism of the Roman state, the Roman Empire was deeply engaged in maintaining public order and that it was provided with institutions resembling police forces. These forces were essentially military in nature. Second, he has shown that these forces were proactive only when fighting “enemies of the state” (p. 240). As Fuhrmann claims, “policing in the Roman Empire was often focused on preserving the interests of the state and cooperative elites” (p. 234). Fuhrmann rightly wonders about the efficiency of the police state apparatus in cases when poor people complained to Roman soldiers about minor offences that had no implication for the imperial power. His use of the word tyranny to describe the imperial political order is nevertheless controversial.

Fuhrmann also points out what he considers “a fundamental dichotomy between civilian police and soldier-police”, arguing that “these policing levels were not particularly well coordinated” (p. 239). This is a problematic aspect of Fuhrmann’s terminology. The term “civilian” is used throughout the book to describe any non-military institution involved in peace-keeping in the provinces. No clear distinction is made between the self-help of private individuals and the local officers dealing with public order in their cities. These, however, are very different things. Furthermore, the use of the dichotomy military vs. civilian implies that policing was a basic prerogative of the army. But Fuhrmann rightly observes that soldiers were used for policing and administrative tasks because the Roman state lacked a professional and specialized bureaucracy. One also has to pay attention to the fact that soldiers and local officers did not depend on the same authorities (they should not be labeled together as “state institutions”, as Fuhrmann does on p. 7) and that their aims were quite different. Soldiers were usually sent to the provinces by the emperor or the governors to defend the strategic interests of the Empire (watching over roads or imperial estates and mines, collecting taxes, fighting against rebels, controlling warring regions), while local police officers dealt with public order and minor offences on a day-to-day basis within their own cities.

Fuhrmann’s book is a very well documented and convenient synthesis on the contribution of the Roman army to law enforcement in peacetime during the imperial period. In reassessing the role of the Roman army in the preservation of the political and social order of the Empire, it will be an important landmark for further studies of the peacetime duties of soldiers.9 As Appian made clear in his Preface, the coherence of the Roman Empire did not just rely on the loyalty of the provincials and on the imperial cult, but also on the military control of the provinces. After all, the pax Augusta was only made possible thanks to the initial enslavement of all the enemies of the imperial power and the dismissal of local armies.


1. O. Hirschfeld, “Die Sicherheitspolizei im römischen Kaiserreich”, Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Akademie 1891, pp. 845-877.

2. W. Nippel, Public Order in Ancient Rome, Cambridge, 1995 ; H. Ménard, Maintenir l’ordre à Rome (II e -IV e siècles ap. J.-C.), Seyssel, 2004.

3. P. Napoli, Naissance de la police moderne. Pouvoirs, normes, société, Paris, 2003.

4. Y. Rivière, “Recherche et identification des esclaves fugitifs dans l’Empire romain.” In J. Andreau, C. Virlouvet, eds, L’information et la mer dans le monde antique, Rome, 2002, pp. 115-196.

5. C. Brélaz, “Aelius Aristide ( Or. 50.72-93) et le choix des irénarques par le gouverneur : à propos d’une inscription d’Acmonia.” In N. Badoud, ed., Philologos Dionysios. Mélanges offerts au professeur Denis Knoepfler, Geneva, 2011, pp. 603-637.

6. J. Fournier, Entre tutelle romaine et autonomie civique. L’administration judiciaire dans les provinces hellénophones de l’empire romain (129 av. J.-C. – 235 apr. J.-C.), Athènes, 2010.

7. See already J. Nelis-Clément, Les beneficiarii: militaires et administrateurs au service de l’Empire (I er s. a.C. – VI e s. p.C.), Bordeaux, 2000, p. 75.

8. B. Kelly, Petitions, litigation, and social control in Roman Egypt, Oxford, 2011.

9. See the paper, unknown to Fuhrmann, by P. Le Roux, “Armées et ordre public dans le monde romain à l’époque impériale.” In Armée et maintien de l’ordre, Paris, 2002, pp. 17-51 [reedited in P. Le Roux, La toge et les armes, Rennes, 2011, pp. 217-237].