Bandits in the Achaemenid and Roman Empires
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Bandits in the Achaemenid and Roman Empires

Map of the Euxine Sea (our Black Sea) showing elevation, rivers, and Greek cities courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the Euxine Sea (our Black Sea) showing elevation, rivers, and Greek cities courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Achaemenid historians with a background in classics are often impressed by the references to revolts and ungoverned areas in the Greek sources. Pierre Briant published a number of works in French on the subject of unruly mountaineers in the Zagros. Are these a sign that the Achaemenid empire was particularly flimsy, and achieved its great size by not worrying too much about the deserts between the great cities and fertile valleys? Did those wonderful, vigorous Greeks and Romans establish a new kind of state which was much more powerful and ambitious?

I have always thought that evidence from the Hellenistic and Roman periods might be helpful. When I read specialists in Roman history, it seems to me that they often quietly mention that large areas in the backwoods were effectively outside of Caesar’s power and in the habit of robbing, extorting, or murdering travellers and neighbours. Now and then this sort of unrest even appeared in Italy, and the army would have to go and haul a ruffian out of a swamp, proclaim him the ringleader, and put him to death creatively. However, it seems to have been especially common in Anatolia. Searching through some old notes, I finally found one reference:

In an article on Flavius Arrianus, A.B. Bosworth discusses his circumnavigation of the Back Sea. In chapters 9 and 11 of this work, he mentions peoples like the Samni along the north-eastern shores of Anatolia who are in the habit of robbing travellers and sailors and sometimes fail to pay tribute to Rome. He threatens to wipe the Samni out unless they return to obedience. Bosworth remarks on the literary purposes of this passage, then recalls that a hundred and fifty years before Strabo had written similar things about people living further north where the Caucasus Mountains meet the Black Sea:

After the Sindic territory and Gorgipia, on the sea, one comes to the coast of the Achaei and the Zygi and the Heniochi, which for the most part is harbourless and mountainous, being a part of the Caucasus. These peoples live by robberies at sea. Their boats are slender, narrow, and light, holding only about twenty-five people, though in rare cases they can hold thirty in all; the Greeks call them “camarae” [enclosed boats?] … At any rate, by equipping fleets of “camarae” and sailing sometimes against merchant-vessels and sometimes against a country or even a city, they hold the mastery of the sea. And they are sometimes assisted even by those who hold the Bosporus, the latter supplying them with mooring-places, with market-place, and with means of disposing of their booty. And since, when they return to their own land, they have no anchorage, they put the “camarae” on their shoulders and carry them to the forests where they live and where they till a poor soil. And they bring the “camarae” down to the shore again when the time for navigation comes. And they do the same thing in the countries of others, for they are well acquainted with wooded places; and in these they first hide their “camarae” and then themselves wander on foot night and day for the sake of kidnapping people. But they readily offer to release their captives for ransom, informing their relatives after they have put out to sea. Now in those places which are ruled by local chieftains the rulers go to the aid of those who are wronged, often attacking and bringing back the “camarae,” men and all. But the territory that is subject to the Romans affords but little aid, because of the negligence of the governors who are sent there.

– Strabo, Geography, 11.2.12 c/o Lacus Curtius

I have heard similar claims about Corsica or Sardinia, if anyone has the references. In The Limits of Empire, Benjamin Isaacs talks about banditry in the Levant and the signs that the Roman authorities were not very keen to stop it unless the bandits went too far and killed someone with money and connections. They had learned that bandits were no threat to the system, even if they made life difficult, and that keeping control of every little village or band of nomads was thankless and unrewarding. Simply put, it was easier for the rich to travel with an armed escort and pay the occasional ransom than to make the roads safe for every travelling merchant or penniless shepherd.

For all the stories about Pompey suppressing the Cilician pirates or Alexander making the Cossaeans give up banditry and settle in cities, when we get to look at the same area a few generations later we often hear the same complaints as before. The recent volume on Imperien und Reiche in der Weltgeschichte makes the point that this sort of resistance is part of what makes an empire an empire. Defying the authorities shows that they have power to be defied, as when parent-child squabbles quiet down after the children move out. While the Achaemenid empire looks pretty flimsy by the standards of a modern state, I don’t know if it looked the same way by the standards of an ancient kingdom.

Further Reading: A.B. Bosworth, “Arrian and Rome: the Minor Works,” Aufsteig und Niedergang der römischen Welt Teil II Bd. 34.1 (1993) pp. 244, 245. I quote some modern opinions in my post A Weakening Grip, or More of the Same?

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