BMCR 2022.09.10

Provinces and provincial command in Republican Rome: genesis, development and governance

, Provinces and provincial command in Republican Rome: genesis, development and governance. Libera res publica, 4. Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2021. Pp. 226. ISBN 9788447230891 €15,99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The development of imperial practices of governance beyond the Italian peninsula is pivotal for understanding the formation of the Roman Empire. Its organisational backbone was constituted by the provinces (provinciae). Both English and German-speaking scholars have long sought to systematically analyse the legal and pragmatic dimensions of this phenomenon as an imperial system of governance and rule.[1] This research has been and continues to be supplemented by studies of single provinces that account for the distinctive features of the subject territories and the historical circumstances in which they were first established.[2] More recent collections of articles in the field tend to focus on individual aspects, which, in the opinion of their authors, have hitherto received scant attention and are largely thought to illustrate the fluid, flexible and, in many cases, provisional elements of provincial government.[3]

The same approach was adopted in Alejandro Díaz Fernández’s recently published conference papers entitled Provinces and Provincial Command in Republican Rome. The volume programmatically positions itself against the characterization of Roman provincial government as one coherent system. However, most earlier studies on the subject had not actually intended to argue that it was that: the reason this impression may arise in retrospect is that some central structures could only have been deduced from a synthetic treatment of heterogeneous sources, taking into account all historical-geographical spheres of action and thus occasionally abstracting from specific local or political conditions. Historical developments and variability were by no means ignored, but in the study of the legal foundations and the pragmatics of imperial rule after the establishment of the provinces, they could be assigned a less prominent role. They did not undermine the basic idea that Roman provincial government followed similar rules and principles everywhere, without forcing a legal framework on all of them.

The contributors to the present volume also search for structures of imperial government, but believe that they can be deduced from individual elements or areas that have so far received insufficient attention. Anything apparently irregular corroborates the assumption that comprehensive regulations either did not exist at all or else emerged at a much later stage and developed more or less situationally in response to specific historical situations and traditions. Drogula’s contribution, for example, explains the allotment of provinciae as temporally limited and not always clearly defined areas of responsibility—an unusual procedure compared to other imperial configurations—as a continuation of the (competing) private wars among early clan leaders and their gentes. Their gradual replacement by a state monopoly on warfare went along with the allocation of command areas by the senate, while at the same time preventing the formation of rigid hierarchies and providing the Republic with great flexibility and effectiveness in its conduct of war. As Diáz Fernández outlines in his paper, the gradual consolidation of certain command spheres in major geographical regions was by no means effected through a rigid procedural scheme nor on the basis of an obligatory and specific lex provinciae, but rather situationally according to the requirements and circumstances of the respective spheres of command, which, at least in the early phase, contained no fixed geographical boundaries (“territorial demarcations”); it was only the perpetuation of appointments that fostered the development of certain general guidelines, together with a fixed definition of territory. According to Nathalie Barrandon and Fréderic Hurlet the military composition of the command was similarly determined according to pragmatic criteria, not fixed rules, and implemented independently by the commanders in Rome (the tribuni militum). Rosillo-López again addresses the oft-discussed issue of prorogatio: whenever a commander sought an extension of his command, he had to make political preparations long in advance, communicate closely with decision-makers in Rome and ensure that the timing was right.

While the focus of this first part of the volume is primarily on procedural patterns in establishing and initiating provincial commands, the remainder of the contributions deal with specific developments and activities of the commanders on the ground (primarily in the west), which were prompted by the respective political or military challenges. As García Riaza discusses in his contribution, these included detailed diplomatic communications with local princes and tribal leaders. In the west, the course of these interactions varied according to the rank and political importance of the “barbarian” counterpart; they made use of hierarchical channels of communication and contact, but could always be shaped to suit the individual aims of commanders. For example, as Pina Polo points out, the establishment of new towns in Spain by Roman commanders also served to integrate the defeated natives into a new agrarian environment far from their homelands. Naco del Hoyo illustrates how the land connection between Spain and the transalpine province was strengthened in order to secure military transportation by sea against the Ligurian pirates. By contrast, Álvarez-Ossorio Rivas explores the crucial role played by pirate leaders in the east, who had advanced to the status of local dynasts in the late phase of the Republic by securing the province’s foothills in the interests of Rome; in the long term, they thus became agents of Romanization. In conclusion, Dalla Rosa discusses the controversy regarding the legal basis of the Augustan supreme command in the provinces—the so-called imperium maius —and points to its practical limitations. This final contribution lays the capstone on an argumentative edifice that presents us with a somewhat heterogeneous image of provincial rule: expanding gradually and with several adjustments, it flexibly responded to the various challenges faced by Rome, and precisely for this reason secured Roman dominion over the Mediterranean, despite its major civil wars.

On the whole, readers will be appreciative of the many instructive insights provided by the contributors. Much of what is discussed here was already known in general terms, but is given new (and often surprising) weight by the authors’ fresh interpretations and the combination of their individual contributions. However, while the contributors are well-informed throughout, they are not entirely immune to a danger they frequently identify in previous scholarship, namely the extrapolation of general characteristics from valid observations on specific cases and areas. Thus, they tend to unwittingly and, as it were, via the back door, deduce fixed structures that contradict their general idea of supposedly “unregulated” and fluctuating provincial organisation. The task of future research will be to strike a balance between these two positions and to embed them into a long-term historical perspective that can explain both the formation of progressively institutionalised routines and legally formalised regulations and their creative use. To this end, the book is indeed a source of inspiration.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Alejandro Díaz Fernández.
1. From the Beginning: The Origins of the Provincia and its Unique Advantages in Republican Rome, Fred K. Drogula.
2. When did a Provincia Become a Province? On the Institutional Development of a Roman Republican Concept, Alejandro Díaz Fernández.
3. When magistrates Left Rome for their Provinces: Temporal, Ritual, and Institutional Methods for Assigning provinciaeand Armies, Nathalie Barrandon and Fréderic Hurlet.
4. Strategies of Prorogation in the Late Roman Republic, Christina Rosillo-López.
5. Hispania and its Early Transalpine Connections, T. Naco del Hoyo.
6. In conloquium venire: Interviews between Roman Commanders and Western Leaders in the Age of Republican Expansion, Enrique García Riaza.
7. Foundations of Provincial Towns as Memorials of imperatores: the Case of Hispania, Francisco Pina Polo.
8. Fidelissmus Socius Amicissimusque Populi Romani: The Collaboration between Roman Commanders and Former Pirates at the End of the Republic, Alfonso Álvarez-Ossorio Rivas.
9. The provincia of Augustus, or How to Reconcile Cassius Dio’s Vision of the Principtate, Augustus`own Image and early Imperial Institutional Practices, Alberto Dalla Rosa.


[1] The legal foundations and developments of the Roman system of ruling following Max Weber: Werner Dahlheim, Gewalt und Herrschaft. Das provinziale Herrschaftssystem der Römischen Republik (Berlin/New York, 1977), and the pragmatics of imperial governance and the sociological foundations of the aristocratic elite: Raimund Schulz, Herrschaft und Regierung. Roms Regiment in den Provinzen in der Zeit der Republik (Paderborn, 1997). Following a similar line of argument for the Roman Empire from Augustus: Eckhard Meyer-Zwiffelhoffer, Politikōs árchein. Zum Regierungsstil der senatorischen Statthalter in den kaiserzeitlichen griechischen Provinzen (Stuttgart, 2002); Jon Edward Lendon, Empire of Honour.The Art of Government in the Roman World (Oxford, 1997); Andrew Lintott, Imperium Romanum. Politics and Adminstration (London, 1993).

[2] Z. B. G. Manganaro, La provincia Romana, in Emilio Gabba and Georges Vallet (edd.), La Sicilia antica, 2.2: La Sicilia Romana (Napoli, 1980), pp. 415-61; Eckhard Meyer-Zwiffelhoffer, Imperium Romanum. Die Geschichte der römischen Provinzen (München, 2009) = Storia delle province romane (Bologna, 2011).

[3] See the volumes edited by Nathalie Barrandon and François Kirbihler, Administrer les provinces de la République romaine (Rennes, 2010) and Les gouverneurs et les provinceaux sous la République romaine (Rennes, 2011). To this also belong works and studies on the careers and activities of individual governors.