This paper takes a fresh look at the Asian mission of Q. Mucius Scaevola and P. Rutilius Rufus in light of new scholarship on efforts to improve provincial governance during the late Roman republic (Morrell 2017). I argue that Scaevola and Rutilius’ activity in Asia in the 90s BCE should be seen not simply as an exception to the norm of exploitative governance but as one in a series of efforts to improve the administration of Rome’s provinces and an important model for subsequent reformers.
Although well known, the Asian governorship of Scaevola ‘The Pontifex’ and his legate Rutilius has not been extensively studied. Mostly it is the date of Scaevola’s command that has attracted scholarly attention. Even more thoroughgoing studies by Badian (1956) and Brennan (2000) remain largely concerned with this question, while Bauman (1983) is primarily interested in legal features of Scaevola’s edict and Rutilius’ trial. More often Scaevola and Rutilius are simply noted briefly as the exception that proves the rule.
This paper leaves aside the question of the date to focus instead on the pair’s aims and methods. I argue that Scaevola and Rutilius went to Asia with the intention of reforming not only the administration of that province but provincial governance more generally at a time when complicity between tax-farmers and governors fearful of equestrian juries had intensified the exploitation of Rome’s provinces (Diod. 37.5.1). Scaevola’s solution entailed the preparation of a new provincial edict, including novel legal protections for provincials, and a programme of ethical governance, both of which were intended as models for future governors in Asia and beyond. One key innovation in Scaevola’s edict was that it extended the requirements of bona fides to provincial contracts, including those of the tax-farmers (Cic. Att. 6.1.15 SB 115; Bauman 1983, 383–4). Just as significant, and unusual, was Scaevola’s willingness to enforce the law, earning the enmity of the equestrian order in the process. At the same time, Scaevola consciously strove to set an example for others of moral excellence and restraint (Diod. 37.5.2).
Diodorus (37.6) comments that Scaevola’s efforts quelled the hatred that had arisen against Roman rule. In Asia he was celebrated with games and quasi-divine honours, while in Rome the senate commended Scaevola as a ‘model and pattern’ for future governors (Val. Max. 8.15.6) and his very name came to function as a shorthand for good governance (e.g. Cic. div. Caec. 57; Verr. 2.2.27). L. Sempronius Asellio, who governed Sicily c. 93, appears to be an early imitator (Brennan 2000, 480). But the reform effort was short-lived. Rutilius’ conviction by a resentful equestrian jury and the fear of the courts that followed deterred other governors from protecting provincials (cf. Gruen 1968, 204–5). Conditions in Asia deteriorated again, to the point that, in 88, Mithridates was able to seize the province and murder reportedly 80,000 Romans and Italians with enthusiastic participation from cities worn down by Roman rule.
The grievances Mithridates exploited in Asia were precisely those Scaevola and Rutilius had attempted to address. There is evidence the king was already appealing to Asia in those terms in the 90s (see e.g. McGing 1986), while Roman concerns about Mithridates’ ambitions were growing (Plut. Mar. 31.1; Sull. 5.3). This raises the possibility that Scaevola and Rutilius’ mission was designed to forestall the sort of situation that eventuated in 88. It does seem to have been portrayed in that way in the historiographical tradition derived ultimately from Rutilius himself. At any rate the lesson was not lost on subsequent reformers. Morrell (2017) suggests that attempts to reform provincial governance between 70 and 50 were guided partly by consciousness of what Mithridates had been able to achieve in 88. The same is true of Lucullus’ policy in the 70s. It was natural that Scaevola’s exemplum was also closely associated with these efforts, most visibly in the Verrines and Cicero’s proconsulship in Cilicia.
New Directions in the Late Republican Roman Empire