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Empire of Expats: Associations of Roman Citizens in Provincial Cities

Sailakshmi Ramgopal

Trinity College

This paper examines how associations of Roman citizens acquired influence in the political systems of non-Roman cities in the Late Republic. The product of waves of migration from Italy and the spread of Roman citizenship in the periphery, these groups of Roman and/or Italian businessmen formed minority populations in non-Roman cities and went by names like Rhomaioi hoi katoikountes and conventus civium Romanorum. Attested from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE, epigraphic and literary sources indicate that they convened to practice religion, socialize, and facilitate business, and that members ranged from individuals of servile origin to those of equestrian rank. Their influence in the political spheres of their local communities was not just one of the many epiphenomena of the Roman empire, but an illustration of how Roman power spread in the absence of state actors (Ramgopal 2017).

The earliest example of the influence these associations wielded or tried to wield comes from Sallust, who reports that a group of Italians at Cirta advised Adherbal in to surrender to his brother in exchange for his life. Though brief, Sallust’s anecdote foreshadows a pattern apparent in the evidence for these associations. Regardless of time and place, such groups consistently strove to acquire influence in their host cities (Ramgopal 2017). They were, fundamentally, driven by the need to accommodate imperial realities that were in constant flux, particularly in the century leading up to and following Actium. Further, the strategies they employed in these efforts were contingent on the particularities of local political systems, economic conditions, and cultural practices.

The chronological focus of this paper requires a reliance on piecemeal Caesarian evidence for associations of Roman citizens (by contrast, evidence for associations of Roman citizens in later periods is primarily epigraphic). Yet such a study can form a basis for developing a long term historical view of their activities and impacts on local communities. In the Late Republic, associations of Roman citizens seem powerful enough to have compelled locals to support a general they preferred to oppose. They may have also played pivotal roles in the outcomes of certain theaters of war. This has led some to observe that the associations acquired “parallel status” with the governments of their host cities (Purcell 2005) and perhaps motivated either Caesar or Octavian to elevate their host cities to colonies or municipalities (Wilson 1997; Purcell 2005). Indeed, Caesar’s accounts of their activity reflects these exertions in multiple contexts with vivid portraits of their ability to drive local governments toward supporting one or another of the generals vying for primacy in the Roman world in the decades leading up to Actium.

Relying on these literary portraits, I examine evidence from Late Republican Corduba, Utica, Lissus, Salona, and Utica to examine the possible means by which these associations acquired local political influence. I suggest that their ability to intervene in the political world of non-Roman cities partly depended on their organization as tightly knit trust networks. By integrating into governmental systems, such networks can become political actors with often high levels of influence (Tilly, 2005). association at Salona, for example, proved influential during the Late Republican civil wars through its support of Julius Caesar, and by 27 B.C.E., the city had received colonial status (Caes. B Civ. 3.9.2; Wilson 1997; Purcell 2005). The paper also suggests that the link between the presence of associations of Roman citizens and the statuses of their host cities is more tenuous than previously believed.

Session/Panel Title

Power and Politics: Approaching Roman Imperialism in the Republic

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