You are here

Modicum imperium: New Visions of Empire in the 70s BCE

Josiah Osgood

Professor of Classics, Georgetown University

This paper argues that new ways of thinking about Roman imperium developed in the 70s BCE, in response to the Mediterranean-wide crisis of violence ushered in by the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies in 91 BCE.  I focus especially on Gnaeus Pompeius’ vision of a more careful imperium marked by well-organized provinces, sensitivity to local circumstances, and just treatment of Rome’s allies, as well as techniques of governance developed in Quintus Sertorius’ independent Spanish state.  Pompeius has been recognized in previous scholarship as an imperial innovator primarily for his later Eastern arrangements (e.g., Richardson 2008, 110-14).  Sertorius’ relationship to Roman politics is now better understood (e.g., Spann 1987), but his Spanish state has been less integrated into studies of how ideas of governance were changing.

Historians typically have seen Pompeius in the 70s as laying the foundations for an unprecedented position in Roman politics, even considering his return to Rome in 71 a veiled coup d’état (e.g., Vervaet 2009).  It is only in his Eastern settlement of the later 60s and his accompanying triumph that scholars normally find evidence that Pompeius was redefining imperium – by a willingness to carry out “sweeping administrative restructuring” that included the creation of new, carefully planned provinces and the foundation of new cities (Kallet-Marx 1995, 323-34).   

I argue that not only was this vision a response to two decades of instability starting in 91 BCE, but also Pompeius was grasping his way to it in the 70s.  Key evidence for my argument is the trophies Pompeius established in the Pyrenees, described in literary sources and partially preserved.  These trophies, while sitting on a natural boundary, also marked an administrative boundary between Nearer Spain and Transalpine Gaul.  They embodied a new way of thinking about the ‘space’ of imperium.  The language of the trophies’ inscriptions reflected a new insistence that territory needed to be thoroughly inventoried, then organized – which is what Pompeius had done in Transalpine Gaul and Spain.

Pompeius’ ideas of imperium had an Alexander-like grandiosity, but critical to his vision was the belief that Rome’s allies in the provinces should be treated with justice and moderation.  On his return to Rome in 71 BCE, he appeared at a public meeting and, according to Cicero (Verr. 1.45), observed that “the provinces have been plundered and devastated.”  As consul in 70, he then made efforts to improve provincial governance (Morrell 2017, 22-56).  I explore how Pompeius’ actions in Rome developed ideas he had already to some degree implemented in his settlement in Spain.

These new ideas of imperium were not motivated by altruism but rather responded to the Mediterranean-wide crisis of previous decades that was increasingly perceived as a ‘world war’ caused in part by Roman misgovernment (e.g., Cic. Leg. Man. 9, 65).  In establishing an ‘alternative state’ in Spain in defiance of the Senate, Sertorius was continuing and exploiting the Mediterranean crisis (see Crawford 2008 for ‘alternative states’).  But Sertorius also was responding to crisis.  Understanding the profound alienation of native Spaniards, he won support through original diplomatic initiatives as well as reforms in provincial administration.  I illuminate his reforms by examining similar practices in the slightly later lex Antonia de Termessibus, considering too how Sertorius tried to take his reforms to Asia in the mid-70s.

It is a natural inference that Sertorius’ practice of governance had some influence on Pompeius.  No source directly attests this, but Cicero’s Verrines certainly make it clear that Pompeius was thinking about problems of provincial government and the ending of protracted war, including civil war.  Moreover, while many in Rome would dismiss Sertorius as a rebel, he was also remembered for his novel style of governing, modico…imperio (Sall. Hist. 1.91 Ramsey).  Sertorius’ concern with the quartering of troops was shared by others later, including Pompeius, and this is just one example of how Sertorius’ thinking on empire was consequential.

Session/Panel Title

New Directions in the Late Republican Roman Empire

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy