Roman Banditry: Scorning Senatorial Skullduggery in Sallust

Roman Banditry: Scorning Senatorial Skullduggery in Sallust

By Brady B. Lonergran

Penn History Review, Vol.18:1 (2010)

Introduction: It is generally accepted that during both the Republican and Imperial eras (including the Pax Romana), banditry was commonplace throughout the known world. Due to its prevalence outside of urban centers, contemporary writers regarded brigandage as an unremarkable natural phenomenon only warranting a cursory glance. For this very reason, in his book Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality (1999), Grünewald argues that an empirical study on banditry is simply impossible. However, as MacMullen notes in his appendix on ‘Brigandage,’ the Latin term latro (or the Greek: lestes) was applied to men apart from the traditional bandit. For example, it included individual usurpers or challengers of legitimate Imperial power rather than bands of marauders from the ‘barbaric’ border-states. Grünewald takes this observation further in his work on bandits and emphasizes latrones and lestai as historical categories, which can be used to classify social realities. For him, the latro is a literary topos, an “artifact of the literary imagination.”

‘Banditry,’ as viewed in Rome, was synonymous with the illegitimate exercise of personal power. As Shaw points out, in the stateless societies of Homeric Greece, banditry was an acceptable and even honorable occupation. However, the formation of ‘the state’ as an “institutionalized form of power” left little room for extralegal displays of authority as they acted as decentralizing forces that threatened the supremacy of the state. With this development, all forms of latrocinium or lesteia acquired their contemporary connotations, and we come to the discussion of the sanction or the legitimization of power.

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