Criminals and Gangs

38 Bandits

Siobhán McElduff

BANDITS IN THE ROMAN WORLD

Bandits were everywhere in the Roman world; to travel anywhere – even a short distance from a major city, including Rome – was dangerous and involved serious risk of encountering bandits and other less organized groups or individuals keen on taking your money and possibly your life. There was basically no police force in the Roman Empire beyond the army, although there were local organizations dedicated (to varying degrees) to keeping the peace. Hence people tended to travel in groups because of the risk:

This is the way also with the more cautious among travellers. A man has heard that the road which he is taking is infested with bandits; he does not venture to set forth alone, but he waits for a company, either that of an ambassador, or of a quaestorno post, or of a , and when he has attached himself to them he travels along the road in safety.

, Discourses 4.1.91, c. 100 CE

Bandits could attack anywhere and anyone, even within 70 km of Rome, as here. In the following letter from the first century CE Pliny the Younger speaks of an equestrian who had vanished along the road, despite presumably having good security and travelling with a group:

To Hispanus.

You say that Robustus, a Roman equestrian of distinction, travelled as far as Ocriculum[1] in the company of my friend Atilius Scaurus, and from that point nothing has been heard of him, and you ask for Scaurus to come, and, if possible, put us on the track of the missing man and help in the search. He certainly shall, but I am afraid that he will do little good, for I suspect that Robustus has met something like the same fate which befell Metilius Crispus, a fellow-townsman of mine several years ago. I had obtained a military position for him, and on his departure had presented him with 40,000 sesterces towards the purchase of his arms and gear, but I never afterwards heard from him, nor did I ever get news of his death. Whether he was waylaid by his slaves, or whether they died with him, no one knows, for certainly neither he nor any of his slaves have ever been seen since. I pray to the gods that we may not find that Robustus has met a similar fate ! However, let us hasten Scaurus’s arrival. That is the least I can do in answer to your entreaties, and the very proper entreaties of the excellent young man who is showing such remarkable filial love and wisdom in trying to find his father. I hope he may be as successful in finding him as he was in discovering in whose company he was travelling. Farewell.

, Letters 6.25

In periods and places of unrest bandits sprang up to take advantage of the situation, as during the collapse of the Republic in the first century BCE:

32 1 This seemed to be the end of the civil wars. [Augustus] was now twenty-eight. Cities joined in placing him among their protecting gods.[2] At this time Italy and Rome itself were openly infested with bands of bandits, whose doings were more like open plunder than secret theft. Sabinus was chosen by Octavian to correct this disorder. He executed many of the captured bandits, and within one year brought about a condition of absolute security. At that time, they say, originated the custom and system of cohorts of night watchmen still in force. Octavian excited astonishment by putting an end to this evil with such unexampled rapidity.

, Civil War 5.132

ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL BANDITS

The of Roman Law dedicates considerable space to bandits, even defining them as a type of enemy of the state, in a sign of how seriously the Romans took this:

Enemies (hostes) are those who have declared war on us or on whom we have declared war; all the rest are bandits (latrones) or plunderers (praedones).

50.16.11, De verborum significatione/on the meaning of [legal] terms

It also lists the responsibilities of the governor in dealing with them:

It is proper for every good and worthy Governor to take care that the province over which he presides is peaceable and quiet. This he will accomplish without difficulty if he exerts himself to expel bad men, and diligently seek for them, as he must apprehend all sacrilegious persons, robbers, kidnappers, and thieves, and punish each one in proportion to his crime; he should also restrain those who harbour them, as without their assistance a robber cannot long remain hidden.

, On the Office of Proconsul, Book VII.

The Digest shows that bandits were tried extra ordinem by governors:

Moreover, it is provided by the imperial mandates relating to sacrilege that the Governors of provinces shall search for all sacrilegious persons, robbers, and kidnappers, and punish them according to the gravity of their offences; and it is provided by the Imperial Constitutions that sacrilege shall be punished arbitrarily, by a penalty proportioned to the crime.

Digest 48.13.4.2

When he moved against bandits, Augustus moved against other groups that might form power challenges to his authority:

32 1 Many evil practices that caused public insecurity had survived as a result of the lawless habits of the civil wars, or had even arisen in time of peace. Gangs of bandits openly went about with swords by their sides, ostensibly to protect themselves, and travellers in the country, freemen and slaves alike, were seized and kept in confinement in the slave prisons of the land owners; numerous organizations, too, were formed for the commission of crimes of every kind, assuming the title of some new guild. Therefore to put a stop to banditry, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the slave prisons, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes.

, Augustus 32

Some rebels might be classified as bandits so as to be more easily dismissed. Tacfarinas was a deserter from the Roman auxiliaries, who belonged to a nomadic Berber tribe from what is now modern Algeria. This tribe had rebelled in 5/6 CE, and then rebelled a second time in 17 CE under Tacfarinas, who managed to almost wipe out part of a Roman legion in 18 CE.

52 In the course of the same year, war broke out in Africa, where the enemy was commanded by Tacfarinas. By nationality a Numidian, who had served as an auxiliary in the Roman camp and then deserted, he began by recruiting gangs of vagrants, accustomed to robbery, for the purposes of plunder and of theft: then he organized them into a body in the military style by companies and troops; finally, he was recognized as the head, not of a chaotic horde, but of the Musulamian tribe…

73 1 For Tacfarinas, in spite of many defeats, having first recruited his forces in the heart of Africa, had become so insolent he sent an embassy to [the Emperor] Tiberius, demanding nothing less than a territorial settlement for himself and his army, and threatening in the alternative a war from which there was no extrication. By all accounts, no insult to himself and the nation ever stung the emperor more than this spectacle of a deserter and bandit aping the procedure of an unfriendly power. “Even , after the annihilation of so many consular armies, when his fires were blazing through an Italy unavenged while the state reeled in the gigantic conflicts with Sertorius and Mithridates, — even Spartacus was not allowed to surrender upon terms. And now, at the glorious zenith of the Roman nation, was this bandit Tacfarinas to be bought off by a peace and a gift of lands?” He handed over the affair to Blaesus; who, while inducing the other rebels to believe they might sheathe the sword with impunity, was to capture the leader by any means whatsoever. Large numbers came in under the amnesty. Then, the arts of Tacfarinas were met by a mode of warfare akin to his own.

, Annals Book 3.73

LOOT

Bandits were often hated because they were violent and preyed on settled communities and rural dwellers, both those who had considerable wealth and those had basically nothing:

Another time we saw the skeleton of a bandit lying on rising ground by the roadside who had been killed by some traveller who fought off his attack. None of the locals would bury him, but in their hatred of him were glad enough to see his body consumed by the birds which, in a couple of days, ate his flesh, leaving the skeleton as if for medical demonstration.

, On Anatomical Procedures 1.2

However bandits also could rely on the support of locals, from whom they might be recruited. They ensured this support by means of gifts of part of their proceeds. In this extract from a novel, the hero Lucius, who has been turned into a donkey and also captured by bandits while in donkey form is being used to carry bandit loot, sees just how that works:

Around midday, under a scorching sun, we stopped in a village at a house owned by some elderly friends and acquaintances of the robbers. Even a donkey could realize they were friends as soon as they greeted each other, talked and embraced. They took some of the things from my back as presents for the old men, and in hushed whispers seemed to be telling them they were proceeds of robbery.  Then they took off the rest of the baggage, and left us to graze and wander freely in a field beside the house.

, The Golden Ass 4.1

Because bandits usually needed some local support to operate the state was keen on also going after those who supported and helped them:

1. Marcianus, Public Prosecutions, Book II.

The harbourers of criminals constitute one of the worst classes of offenders, for without them no criminal could long remain concealed. The law directs that they shall be punished as robbers. They should be placed in the same class, because when they can seize robbers they permit them to go, after having received money or a part of the stolen goods.

2. Paulus, On the Punishment of Civilians.

Persons by whom a thief, who is either their connection by affinity or their blood relative, is concealed, should neither be discharged, nor severely punished, for their crime is not as serious as that of those who conceal robbers who are in no way connected with them.

Digest 47.16.1

WHO WOULD BECOME A BANDIT?

Bandits came from many backgrounds, but many were runaway slaves, who had little alternative but to join or form new communities with other marginalized individuals, or end up being dragged back to slavery individually.

And so the Romans noticing that the country was deserted, occupied the mountains and most of the plains and then gave them over to horse herders, cowherds, and shepherds, and by these herdsmen Sicily was many times put in great danger, because, although at first they only turned to banditry in a sporadic way, later they both assembled in great numbers and plundered the settlements, as, for example, when Eunus and his men took possession of Enna. Recently, in my own time, a certain Selurus, called the “son of Aetna,” was sent up to Rome because he had put himself at the head of an army and for a long time had overrun the regions round about Aetna with frequent raids. I saw him torn to pieces by wild beasts at an appointed combat of gladiators in the Forum[3]; for he was placed on a high scaffold, as though on Aetna, and the scaffold was made suddenly to break up and collapse, and he himself was carried down with it into cages of wild-beasts — fragile cages that had been prepared beneath the scaffold for that purpose.

, Geography 6.2.6

This is how Livy described how one person became a bandit in the 140s and 130s BCE:

In Hispania, Viriathus (who first changed from a shepherd into a hunter, then into a bandit, and soon into the leader of an army) occupied all of Lusitania[4], routed the army of the praetor Marcus Vetilius and captured him, after which praetor Gaius Plautius fought without any luck. This enemy inspired so much fear that a consul and his army were needed.

, Periochae 52

PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF BANDITS

In the following story (much of which seems very unlikely) set in 187 CE a bandit plots against the Emperor . It might be of dubious historical value, but it does reflect the belief that bandits could strike even at the heart of the Roman state if they only became well-organized enough:

1 But before long another plot was organized against Commodus. It involved a former soldier named Maternus, who had committed many terrible crimes. He deserted from the army, persuading others to flee with him, and soon collected a huge mob of desperadoes. At first they attacked and plundered villages and farms, but when Maternus had amassed a sizable sum of money, he gathered an even larger band of cutthroats by offering the prospect of generous booty and a fair share of the loot. As a result, his men no longer appeared to be bandits but rather enemy troops.

2 They now attacked the largest cities and released all the prisoners, no matter what the reasons for their imprisonment. By promising these men their freedom, he persuaded them to join his band in gratitude for favours received. The bandits roamed over all Gaul and Spain, attacking the largest cities; a few of these they burned, but the rest they abandoned after sacking them. 3 When he was informed of these developments, Commodus, in a towering rage, sent threatening letters to the governors of the provinces involved, charging them with negligence and ordering them to raise an army to oppose the bandits. When the brigands learned that an army was being raised against them, they left the regions which they had been ravaging and slipped unnoticed, a few at a time, into Italy, by a quick but difficult route. And now Maternus was plotting for the empire, for larger stakes indeed. Since everything he had attempted had succeeded beyond his fondest hopes, he concluded that if he were to undertake something really important it was bound to succeed; having committed himself to a hazard from which it was impossible to withdraw, he would, at least, not die obscure and unknown.

4 But when he reflected that he did not have an army sufficiently powerful to resist Commodus on equal terms and in open opposition (for it was thought that the majority of the Roman people were still well disposed toward Commodus, and he also had the support of the ), Maternus hoped to balance this inequality of forces by guile and cunning. This is the way he undertook to accomplish it. 5 Every year, on a set day at the beginning of spring, the Romans celebrate a festival in honor of the . All the valuable trappings of each deity, the imperial treasures, and marvellous objects of all kinds, both natural and man-made, are carried in procession before this goddess. Free license for every kind of revelry is granted, and each man puts on whatever disguise he wishes. No office is so important or so untouchable that anyone is refused permission to put on its distinctive uniform, and concealing his true identity join in the fun; consequently, it is not easy to distinguish the true from the false.

6 This seemed to Maternus an ideal time to launch his plot undetected. By putting on the uniform of a praetorian soldier and dressing his allies in the same way, he hoped to mingle with the true praetorians and, after watching part of the parade, to attack Commodus and kill him while no one was on guard. 7 But the plan was betrayed when some of those who had accompanied him into the city revealed the plot, as they were pushed by jealousy to disclose it, since they preferred to be ruled by the emperor rather than by a bandit chief. Before he arrived at the scene of the festivities, Maternus was seized and beheaded, and his companions suffered the punishment they deserved. After sacrificing to the goddess and making thank offerings, Commodus completed the festivities and did honour to the goddess, rejoicing at his escape. The people continued to celebrate their emperor’s safety after the festival came to an end.

, History of the Empire 1.10.1-7

There were many stories that told of bandit’s daring deeds in a way that suggests the widespread appeal of their lives and freedom, even if most people were afraid of them.  One Claudius gave some issues, even after he had declared himself an enemy to bandits and worked hard to be seen as putting them down.

4 While Severus was priding himself on this achievement, as if he surpassed all mankind in both understanding and bravery, a most incredible thing happened. A certain robber named Claudius, who was overrunning Judaea and Syria and was being very vigorously pursued in consequence, came to him one day with some horsemen, like some military tribune, and saluted and kissed him; and he was neither discovered at the time nor caught later.

, Epitome of Roman History 75.2.4

It wasn’t just Claudius that Septimius Severus had issues with, though. Bulla, another even more famous bandit leader, also gave him considerable trouble:

At this period one Bulla, an Italian, got together a bandit force of about six hundred men, and for two years continued to plunder Italy under the very  noses of the emperors and of a multitude of soldiers. 2 For though he was pursued by many men, and though Severus eagerly followed his trail, he was never really seen when seen, never found when found, never caught when caught, thanks to his great bribes and cleverness. For he learned of everybody that was setting out from Rome and everybody that was putting into port at , and knew both who and how many there were, and what and how much they had with them. 3 In the case of most persons he would take a part of what they had and let them go at once, but he detained artisans for a time and made use of their skill, then dismissed them with a present. Once, when two of his men had been captured and were about to be given to wild beasts, he paid a visit to the keeper of the prison, pretending that he was the governor of his native district and needed some men of such and such a description, and in this way he secured and saved the men. 4 And he approached the centurion who was trying to exterminate the band and accused himself, pretending to be someone else, and promised, if the centurion would accompany him, to deliver the robber to him. So on the pretext that he was leading him to Felix (this was another name by which he was called), he led him into a deep valley dense with thickets, and easily seized him. 5 Later, he assumed the dress of a magistrate, ascended the tribunal, and having summoned the centurion, caused part of his head to be shaved, and then said: “Carry this message to your masters: ‘Feed your slaves, so that they may not turn to robbery.’ Bulla had with him, in fact, a very large number of imperial freedmen, some of whom had been poorly paid, while others had received absolutely no pay at all. 6 Severus, informed of these various occurrences, was angry at the thought that though he was winning the wars in Britain through others, yet he himself had proved no match for a robber in Italy; and finally he sent a tribune from his body-guard with many horsemen, after threatening him with terrible punishment if he should fail to bring back the robber alive. So this tribune, having learned that the brigand was intimate with another man’s wife, persuaded her through her husband to assist them on promise of immunity. 7 As a result, the bandit was arrested while asleep in a cave. Papinian, the prefect, asked him, “Why did you become a robber?” And he replied: “Why are you a prefect?” Later, after due proclamation, he was given to wild beasts, and his band was broken up — to such an extent did the strength of the whole six hundred lie in him.

Cassius Dio, Epitome of Roman History 57.10

This passage is about two bandits that, according to the Gospels, crucified alongside Jesus, just a way to show how common they are in the background of much ancient literature:

And one of the bandits that were hanging cursed him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us. But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “”Do you not even fear God, seeing you also were condemned to this? And we indeed deserved it, for we receive the due reward of our actions: but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said unto him, “Truly I say unto you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Gospel of Luke 29.33-44

Here is a likely untrue excerpt about the origins of the Emperor , who was supposedly a bandit. The story is mean to disparage him as a bandit and but also praise him for his sense of justice:

In his early youth he was a shepherd, a young man with an impressive and noble appearance; later he went on raids with bandits and protected locals from attacks. He then entered the Roman army and served his stipendia in the cavalry. He was conspicuous for his large body size, outshone all other soldiers in bravery, was handsome in his manliness, wild in manners, harsh, arrogant, contemptuous, but nevertheless a man of justice.

, Life of Maximinus 2.1

 

Sources and Further Reading:

Shaw, Brent D. “Bandits in the Roman Empire.” Past & Present, no. 105 (1984): 3-52.


  1. A town 70 km north of Rome.
  2. Cities had protecting gods and goddesses who were called upon in times of need; many after Augustus’ victory at Actium added him to that number in what was probably a wise decision.
  3. Although we associate gladiatorial games and executions with the Colosseum, before that was built these events were held in a variety of locations, including the Forum.
  4. A Roman province, roughly covering modern Portugal.

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