BMCR 2020.10.29

Provincial allocations in Rome 123-52 BCE

, Provincial allocations in Rome 123-52 BCE. Alte Geschichte, Band 254. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 243 p. ISBN 9783515121194 €54,00.

In the midst of extensive scholarly research and debates on provincial administration in the Roman Republic, David Rafferty makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the procedures and politics surrounding it. The subject of this monograph, based on Rafferty’s doctoral thesis, is Rome’s system of allocating provinces to magistrates and pro-magistrates, with a focus on the years 123 to 52 BCE: from the estimated date of the adoption of the lex Sempronia de provinciis consularibus to the reforms introduced by the lex Pompeia de provinciis. This book, encompassing a detailed introduction, eight chapters, a short conclusion, and five appendices, is the first extended treatment of the provincial allocation process since the late 19th century. It not only fills this gap in the scholarship but provides many interesting insights into difficult problems in Roman history.

Rafferty’s goals are well explained in the introduction to the book (p. 11-25). It opens with the infamous story of the electoral pactio made in 54 BCE between two consular candidates and the two consuls for the year: a deal exchanging mass bribery in the upcoming elections for future favours. Although this episode is usually considered from the perspective of the candidates’ ambitus, Rafferty focuses on what the consuls were to receive. They were promised a fraudulent augural oath attesting to the adoption of a non-existent lex curiata for them and the fabrication of a senatorial decree voting them troops and money for their consular provinces. He correctly draws attention to the fact that the consuls were willing to spend ten million sesterces on the candidates’ behalf to overcome seemingly procedural hurdles. The book therefore seeks to answer questions about what it meant for a province to be decreed to and held by an official, along with how politics intersected with this process. Rafferty’s project engages with many recent works on Roman Republican provincial administration, politics, and law, from Drogula’s monograph on “command” and commanders to Brennan’s volumes on the praetorship to Morrell’s treatment of provincial reform in the last twenty years of the Republic.[1]

The major argument of the book is that Sulla’s dictatorship was not a watershed moment for reforms to provincial allocation. Rafferty is not only pushing back against the view of Mommsen that Sulla legally restricted the ability for elected magistrates to exercise their imperium abroad, but also recent work by scholars such as Flower, Steel, and Rosenblitt that views the post-Sullan Republic as radically different than what came before in most respects.[2] Instead, Rafferty stresses continuity in the framework of provincial allocations in the aftermath of the lex Sempronia while still accounting for changes in politics caused by events such as the Social War and the civil wars of the 80s BCE.

Chapters 1 and 2 establish the processes of becoming an imperator. Rafferty first considers how the Roman Republic’s imperatores became validated in the eyes of the senate, people, and armies of Rome. He points to a series of moments – elections, religious rituals such as the Feriae Latinae, and laws like the lex curiata – which granted a magistrate legitimacy. The goal of the chapter is not to discover the “real meaning” of many of these rituals and laws, but rather to expand on Hölkeskamp’s concept of the “power of tradition” by exploring how these occasions could be used to legitimize or delegitimize a commander.[3]

The second chapter examines the adoption of the lex Sempronia c. 123 BCE, as part of Gaius Gracchus’ reforms, along with what its intended and unintended effects were. This chapter is essential for the book’s overall argument. According to Rafferty, in the early to mid second century one meeting of the senate at the beginning of the consular year sufficed to decide many issues related to provincial allocation (e.g. Liv. 38.35.7), whereas from Gracchus’ law moving forward consular provinces would be decided before elections took place. Tribunes, meanwhile, could not veto any decree passed before elections, meaning that elected consuls and tribunes would be less able to influence the process.

The law, however, did not apply to praetorian allocations, leading to a distinction between how consular and praetorian provinces were treated. Because of the growth of permanent courts at the same time, praetors were increasingly tasked with holding two praetorian provinciae: an urban task, such as overseeing a court, and then a “secondary praetorian province,” usually the governorship of a territorial province to be held as a propraetor. In this chapter, Rafferty is especially arguing against Brennan’s interpretation that such territorial commands were essentially post-praetorian; for Rafferty, governorship stemmed from the elected magistracy itself. For this conclusion to work, Rafferty must argue that many quaestiones perpetuae had already been established by the time of Gaius Gracchus beyond the extortion court, drawing on a contentious passage of Cicero’s Brutus (Cic. Brut. 106).[4] Although not all will be convinced that this system was so firmly established as early as the 120s, Rafferty does successfully show that many aspects of “the Sullan provincial system” pre-dated Sulla’s dictatorship.

Chapters 3 through 6 then analyze different stages of the provincial allocation process: the senate’s decision-making, the drawing of lots (sortitio), the furnishing of armies and supplies for departing commanders (ornatio), and the act of departure from the city of Rome itself.  One method employed in these chapters is to compare Livy’s account of provincial procedures in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE with case studies from Rome after the lex Sempronia and Sulla’s dictatorship. Although the post-Sullan evidence is much more extensive, causing some difficulties for some claims of continuity, Rafferty is attentive to difficulties in the sources and his arguments are generally convincing.

The main conclusions are these: the Gracchan system allowed the senate much flexibility in terms of allocations, especially of praetorian provinces. There was little coherent long-term policy, revealing that internal politics and competition often interfered and dragged out seemingly simple decisions. Internal politics often superseded any concerns of consistency in administration. Whereas sortitio was not always necessary for consuls, and although they could have leeway to make their own arrangements after the drawing of lots, it was much more complicated for praetors, given that there might not be a match between their numbers and the number of available territorial provinces. Meanwhile, votes on decrees for furnishing provinces often took place much later in the year after the provinces themselves were allocated and were subject to heavy political interference, especially by tribunes for consular provinces. The lex Sempronia’s intent to depoliticize decisions on the allocation of consular provinces had failed, instead politicizing and elongating other parts of the process (p. 100). So long as the provinces were staffed, whether through eventual allocation or prorogation, the senate as a whole did not view this disorganization as being a serious problem until the final decade of the Republic, even though the process increasingly destabilized Roman politics.

The final two chapters examine the consequences of this unwieldy distribution of provinces, particularly in the post-Sullan Republic. Chapter 7 considers whether the trend of magistrates turning down provinces after Sulla was a symptom of the senatorial class’ inertia and irresponsibility. Through a careful analysis of cases of this sort of refusal, such as Cicero’s, Rafferty demonstrates that there were instead reasonable public and private justifications for avoiding provincial rule. Since there were often too many outgoing praetors for the number of praetorian provinces available, the act of refusal was in fact necessary in the structural system of provincial allocation and could be a useful method for saving face if the lots turned against a praetor.

Chapter 8, meanwhile, is a study of the lex Pompeia of 52. The contents and purpose of this law have been much debated in recent years. Rafferty’s contribution is to examine what the law can tell us about the perceived problems of the allocations process, rather than provincial administration or ambitus. He views it as a serious attempt at reform that aimed at turning a governorship into an actual magistracy of its own, rather than as an appendage to elected office.  A short conclusion (p.152-153) recapitulates the key findings of the monograph. Here it would have been useful for Rafferty to contextualize his arguments within broader debates about Roman politics, imperialism, and provincial administration, particularly given the surprising statement that “the problem was not that Rome was running the empire badly” (p. 153).

The Appendices form a significant part of the book, especially Appendix A (p. 155-209). This Appendix gathers evidence for the provinces decreed to commanders and governors – whether or not they ended up holding the command. This collection, and the data that Rafferty gathers from it, will be a very useful resource for scholars of the provinces of the Roman Republic. Although some of Rafferty’s conclusions about individual allocations will be disputed, he usefully lays out for the reader the primary evidence, various interpretations, and explains his own preferred solution – and sensibly is willing to admit when a problem cannot be resolved (e.g., p. 186-187 on the much debated consular provinces for 59 BCE). Appendices B through E examine ancillary issues, such as the status of Crete and Cyrene as provinciae, certain features of the inscribed lex de provinciis praetoriis of c. 100 BCE, and Caesar’s accusations against his enemies for not following provincial procedures at Bellum Civile 1.6.

Rafferty’s analysis is intentionally empirical rather than theoretical (p. 11), a sensible method and approach that generally serves his purposes well. However, some chapters could use a more theoretical or argumentative basis. Chapter 6, for example, is devoted to determining whether there were set dates for consuls, praetors, and promagistrates to depart to their provinces. The section on consuls is to the point, agreeing with most scholars since Giovannini that Sulla never adopted legislation restricting consuls to Italy. The section on praetors, however, runs through a series of case studies, all of them difficult and inconclusive, to show a lack of pattern in praetorian departure dates, but the overall argument can be difficult to follow. Similarly, although Rafferty is attentive to both religion and politics in his analysis, the book would have benefited from a clearer articulation of the effect of religious concerns on the allocations process, such as the significance of the potentially auspicial nature of the sortitio ceremony (p. 74).

Provincial Allocations in Rome is a well-researched and structured book that ably engages with difficult questions in scholarship and our sources and makes a compelling overall argument. Scholars of Roman Republican politics, institutions, law, and provinces will find much of value here, whether or not they agree with all of Rafferty’s conclusions. I have found many of the ideas in this book stimulating for my own research into the politics of Roman provincial administration. I have gained a deeper appreciation for why someone like Cicero would have wanted to avoid not just the trouble of governing a province, but the process of becoming a governor in the first place.


[1] Drogula, Fred K. (2015). Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; Brennan, Corey T. (2000). The Praetorship in the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford UP; Morrell, Kit. (2017). Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford UP.

[2] E.g. page 122 of Flower, Harriet I. (2010). Roman Republics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

[3]  Hölkeskamp, Karl-Joachim. (2011). “The Roman Republic as Theatre of Power: the Consuls as Leading Actors.” In Consuls and Res Publica. Eds. Beck, Duplá, Jehne, and Pina Polo. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 161-181.

[4] Describing the life of Gaius Papirius Carbo, who died in 119 BCE: nam et quaestiones perpetuae hoc adulescente constitutae sunt, quae antea nullae fuerunt. However, the only quaestio Cicero explicitly mentions in this passage is de pecuniis repetundis, and there is no clear evidence for the establishment of other permanent courts by the time of Gaius Gracchus.