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Roman Senatorial Reactions to the Extortion and Abuse of Provincials and Foreigners before 149 B.C.E.

Lekha Shupeck

The object of this paper is to discover and analyze cases of the abuse and extortion of provincials and other foreigners which occurred between the end of the Second Punic War in 201 and the passage of the Calpurnian law in order to shed new light on the origins of the quaestio de repetundis, or extortion court, in the Roman Republic. Specifically, it aims to show that moral considerations played a significant role in the way the Senate dealt with these early cases and that this in turn led to its particular interest in retaining control of the legal process. Throughout these cases the Senate makes evident its willingness to rebuke its own magistrates when they are accused of contravening the principles of just warfare, and does not hesitate to take on the responsibility of compensating those who petition it. Thus, the evidence from these cases demonstrates one aspect of the way in which Senatorial domination of Roman foreign relations was meant to create and protect a vision of the Romans as a particularly moral and lawful people, and reveals an overlooked perspective on the crime of repetundae at Rome in the first half of the Second century.

A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to the crime of extortion or repetundae in the Roman Republic. However, the majority of the focus has been confined both chronologically and thematically. Most studies of the subject begin their accounts at or soon after the passage of the Lex Calpurnia de repetundis in 149 B.C.E. Thus they largely ignore the events which precipitated the formation of this court, or if they do explore them they reach no further back than 171 at the earliest. The second way in which these works are often restricted is in the particular aspects of the crime and court which they choose to address. Most focus solely on the court’s use in domestic politics. They make much of how the court was made into a forum for the prosecution of factional disputes. Both of these aspects of repetundae are important, and neither can be neglected when creating a holistic account of extortion in Rome. Nevertheless, they have left a gap which this paper aims to fill by analyzing earlier events from the perspective of the relationship between the Senate and the outside world.

One consistent thread runs through the many decisions of the Senate in this sphere: concern that Rome be seen as fair and just in its dealings with foreigners and provincials. A singularly notable case from 183 involves a group of Gauls which crossed the Alps and settled in unoccupied land in Liguria. In response, the local proconsul, L. Porcius, seized their arms and all their other property even though they had voluntarily surrendered. The Gauls resented this violation and sent envoys to the Senate to complain of their treatment.(Livy 39.54.3-4) The Senate replied that the Gauls had been wrong to cross the Alps without the permission of Rome. However, as they had surrendered, it was not right that they had been deprived of their property. Commissioners were ordered to accompany the envoys back to their town and ensure that the seized items were returned. This episode demonstrates that even in cases where the supplicant peoples are not allies of Rome, and might even be seen as enemies, the Senate is willing to hear their cases and offer a just remedy. This is particularly remarkable because there is very little conceivable benefit to Rome from such actions. What could these Gallic tribes possibly have offered Rome in return for her generosity? What negative consequences would have occurred if Rome had not been so charitable? Clearly Senatorial policy, at least in these instances, may be driven by principle rather than mere self-interest.

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Empire and Ideology in the Roman World

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