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Terrorism in the Ancient Roman World

By Gregory G. Bolich 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In the summer of a.d. 82, three Roman warships were hijacked. The pilots of two were murdered; the third pilot decided to obey his captors. The hijackers sailed along the coast without interference, their crime undetected. They struck port cities unexpectedly and took what they wanted by force. However, local resistance and their own lack of skill eventually brought the hijackers to ruin.

They became so desperately hungry that they turned to cannibalism. They were hunted down, ending the terror they had inspired. Some, sold as slaves, gained notoriety for their incredible tale, recorded a generation later by the famed Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus.

In the late summer of 2001, another incredibly horrific tale of hijacking and terrorism caught the world's attention. Unfortunately, history is replete with unsettling precedents. Terrorism is probably as old as human society. In the ancient Roman world there were no words for 'terrorism or terrorists. However, the acts of terrorism inflicted in those days were not unlike those of modern times. Then, as now, there were people willing to employ a calculated use of force and terror to accomplish their ends. Though the ancients may have called them rebels or brigands or tyrants, the motives, the methods, and the outcomes are familiar to people of our era under the collective name of terrorism.

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Studying ancient terrorism, though, is hampered by a dilemma that is still with us today: determining exactly what terrorism is. Who decides what constitutes terrorism and who the terrorists are? Is it merely a matter of perspective? Can one group's terrorist be another group's freedom fighter? Acts of war also terrify. What differentiates a legitimate act of war from a terrorist attack?

Broadly speaking, those who are terrified decide what qualifies as terrorism. If this is a matter of perspective, it is not just narrow opinion, because most people have a shared sense of what makes for a legitimate use of threats or force. Thus ancient and modern people alike realize that war brings horrific acts, even against civilian populations. Yet people of all eras have a keen sense that as barbaric as war can be, it remains different from mere barbarism.

It may well be that in the Roman world the acceptable limits of warfare were more liberally drawn than today, but even so people sometimes recoiled in shock and horror at acts clearly beyond the pale. War is terror within bounds; terrorism is terror beyond those bounds. Today the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as the unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives.

The Roman world certainly knew the kind of horror the FBI described as terrorism. On the one hand, Rome could terrify its own people, as well as foreigners. The use of terror by the state already had an ancient lineage by the time Rome rose to dominance. Aristotle reflected on the matter in his Politics, for example. On the other hand, others frequently targeted Romans, both at home and abroad, in terrible and terrifying acts. State terrorism and revolutionary terrorism often followed one another in a vicious reciprocal cycle: Terror begets terror. In other words, little has changed in the pattern of atrocities.

Ancient Rome, like the United States today, was the sole superpower of its world. Rome exercised immense influence even where it lacked outright control. Roman rulers possessed certain advantages over those who opposed them. In their use of power, they could claim to be the legitimate arm of the body politic. Thus Augustus could proudly note in the official record of his acts, I pacified the sea of pirates. He did not note his feat was accomplished against Sextus Pompeius Magnus, son of the renowned Pompey the Great and heir to the leadership of his father's followers in a great civic struggle. By the time Augustus was finished with him, Pompeius was officially nothing more than a pirate — a terrorist of the seas.

The populace had to choose how to respond to such power. One route was accommodation and sanction: The state is right. Another was avoidance: Right or wrong, it is best to stay out of the state's way. A third path was resistance: The state is wrong, justifying coercion and overthrow. All three courses had their advocates.

The notion that the state is inherently legitimate in its use of force found expression in the mid-first-century writing of Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Christian apostle Paul. In a letter addressed to Rome's Christians, Paul wrote, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.

That strategy may have worked well for many people (though not for Paul himself, who was martyred by Rome). But when the ruler's notion of what was good for him proved bad for his subjects, what then? In such circumstances, the ruled learned to move to the cadences of the ruler, or suffered the consequences. Many sought to do this by remaining sycophants to the state, no matter what. Tacitus criticizes some earlier histories of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, saying their authors wrote falsified accounts to avoid frightful consequences.

Others could not sacrifice conscience so entirely. Yet while they could not sanction evil, neither could they actively resist, so they stepped away. One who advocated this delicate dance was Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. After years of practicing politics as adviser to the Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar, he concluded in Letters to Lucilius that there were three valid reasons for fear: material want, illness, and the troubles which result from the violence of the stronger. He warned his friend Gaius Lucilius that the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship. Unfortunately, Nero proved to be a hurricane the aged philosopher could not escape; Seneca was forced to take his own life in a.d. 65.

As the deaths of both Paul and Seneca illustrate, neither accommodating the state nor avoiding conflict with it is entirely free of danger. But the third course, resistance, has proven to be the most perilous.

Resistance to a ruling authority in the Roman world took various forms. Most prominent in the minds of Romans themselves were the civil wars whereby all too often one bold group replaced another. A second kind of resistance came in provinces and foreign lands where rapacious Roman governors drove their subjects to desperation. Both sides might resort to acts of terrorism to impose their will.

The Romans themselves were always more distressed by terror at home than by horrors in distant lands. The accounts of the Late Republic and the Early Empire are depressingly full of atrocities committed through naked power but cloaked in the guise of state authority. Rulers used terrifying acts for various objectives, including maintaining their own power, generally at the expense of political opponents. For the masses, civil conflict was a matter of being caught horribly in the middle while powerful men and their allies attacked one another. Picking a side was often tantamount to choosing life or death. Unfortunately, not picking a side could prove just as fatal.

If Rome was no safe haven from terror, neither was any other place. In 88 b.c., Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysus, King of Pontus, took advantage of Roman problems at home by sweeping through the Roman province of Asia Minor. So swift and successful was his conquest that many thousands of Roman citizens and their Italian allies were unable to escape. Mithridates solved the problem expeditiously. He ordered that every one of them should die at an appointed hour on a single day, throughout the province.

That Mithridates was successful in having his order carried out is testimony to the hatred that the Roman conquerors had earned during their administration of what is now Turkey. As the slaughter proceeded, it did not matter whether the victims had sought refuge in temples or tried to escape by swimming into the sea; all were ruthlessly murdered. An estimated eighty thousand Romans perished that day.

Roman leaders often suffered for what they had inflicted on others. State terrorism was a controversial tool but hardly an unknown one, used with varying degrees of success in lands Rome either controlled or sought to control. The rapacious nature of many provincial governors was a steady source of scandal, as many were brought to trial after their terms in office expired. Frequently, officials resorted to making threats and setting examples to keep the provincials in line — and quiet.

The Greek biographer Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus — Plutarch — makes a telling comment in his study of Marcus Junius Brutus. Plutarch contrasted the good fortune of those who had been under Brutus' provincial government with that of people in other provinces [who] were in distress with the violence and avarice of their governors, and suffered as much oppression as if they had been slaves and captives of war.

The situation for ordinary people could be even worse in lands not yet fully under the Roman thumb. Notable examples are afforded from both the eastern and western sectors of the Roman world. In the east, the land of Judea was a source of near unending irritation for the Roman authorities. Of course, from the Jewish perspective the situation was far more than irritating. One Roman procurator after another oppressed the people.

The Jewish historian Joseph ben Matthias, more commonly known by his Roman designation, Flavius Josephus, recorded the dismal state of affairs that slowly spiraled downward into a disastrous war in a.d. 66-73. It culminated in ancient history's most notorious terrorists. Though they were Jews, their conception was from Roman seed, and their birth was nursed along by Roman politics. As Josephus tells it, the situation in the Jewish homeland grew worse and worse continually; for the country was again filled with robbers and imposters, who deluded the multitude. The Roman procurator Claudius Felix, appointed to Judea in a.d. 52, continually labored to quell these troublemakers, putting many of them to death.

Felix also harbored a grudge against the high priest, Jonathan, who freely offered Felix his advice on governing the Jews. Felix resolved to remove Jonathan, but needed to do so discreetly. He bribed one of Jonathan's friends to arrange for an assassination, but did not reckon on the terror that would be unleashed by brigands brought into the plan.

Certain of those robbers, Josephus writes in Wars of the Jews, went up to the city, as if they were going to worship God, while they had daggers under their garments; and, by thus mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew Jonathan; and as this murder was never avenged, the robbers went up with the greatest security at the festivals after this time; and having weapons concealed in like manner as before, and mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew certain of their own enemies, and were subservient to other men for money; and slew others not only in remote parts of the city, but in the temple itself also; for they had the boldness to murder men there, without thinking of the impiety of which they were guilty.

The Sicarii — named after the daggers they concealed — had arrived. In his history of the Jewish War, Josephus further details their method and its effect: [They] slew men in the day time, and in the midst of the city; this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered. The first man who was slain by them was Jonathan the High Priest, after whose death many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served was more afflicting than the calamity itself; and while everybody expected death every hour, as men do in war, so men were obliged to look before them, and to take notice of their enemies at a great distance; nor, if their friends were coming to them, durst they trust them any longer; but, in the midst of their suspicions and guarding of themselves, they were slain.

The Sicarii were such a plague that Josephus attributed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to their foul deeds. He also claimed that as they fled the carnage of the war, they spread trouble abroad. In Alexandria, Egypt, the Sicarii promoted rebellion and assassinated the Jewish leaders who opposed their counsel. Similarly, under the leadership of a man named Jonathan, the Sicarii fomented rebellion in Cyrene. Neither Roman nor Jew could feel completely safe walking a crowded street as long as the Sicarii survived.

At the western end of the Roman world, Britain was a trouble spot as well. Though nominally conquered in the mid-first century, many tribes remained restless. However, the king of the Iceni, Prasutagus, pursued a policy of appeasement toward the Romans, going so far as making the emperor co-heir with his daughters. By this policy, he hoped to retain some measure of independence. It was a vain hope. Tacitus reveals that the Romans reduced his kingdom to provincial status. Romans flogged his wife, Boudicca, and raped his two daughters. Rome then annexed the lands of the Icenian chiefs and treated members of the royal household like slaves.

Encouraged by his success, in a.d. 60 the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, mounted a campaign against the island of Mona, a rebel stronghold. In his absence, many Britons were emboldened to murmur among themselves concerning their situation. As Tacitus frames it, they had plenty to complain about. Whereas once they had had a king to please, now they had to please two masters — the Roman legate and the procurator — and those officials might as easily quarrel as get along, leaving the people caught in the middle. In either instance, the Romans were trouble: Their centurions and slaves alike inflicted insults and violence. The people's homes were robbed, their children were kidnapped, and their young men were taken and sent far away to serve Rome's interests. How could war be any worse? As a result, they revolted. Led by Queen Boudicca, the Iceni, Trinobantes, and other tribes roamed the country and destroyed three towns: Camulodunum, Verulamium, and Londinium. Tacitus reports that they targeted the retired Roman military veterans whose settlement at Camulodunum had displaced the Trinobantes. To add insult to injury, the Roman settlers — urged on by the Roman troops — had further outraged the Britons by deriding them as prisoners and slaves. Taxes were imposed on the local economy to support a temple to Emperor Claudius. Humiliated and angry, the Britons not only swept down on the scattered outposts and attacked the forts but also ravaged the colony that had come to represent their oppression. Tacitus writes that in their fury, they were unrestrained in their cruelty, permitting themselves every form of barbarity imaginable.

Suetonius Paulinus returned to restore order. Assessing the situation, he sacrificed Londinium after evacuating those who could keep up with him; the rest, including the elderly and women, he left to be slaughtered. While the Roman governor awaited his opportunity, the victorious Britons continued their campaign, which became ever more wanton. It increasingly took on the character of terrorism rather than traditional war. They avoided Roman strongholds and concentrated on destroying the weak. They took no prisoners. They slaughtered every Roman or Roman sympathizer they encountered, slitting the throats of some, hanging some, burning others, and even resorting to crucifixion in some instances.

The later historian Cassius Dio Coeccianus supplements the historical record with his own account of the horrors. He recounts the Britons' most bestial atrocity: the practice of hanging up noble women naked, cutting off their breasts and sewing the flesh to their mouths to make it appear as though they were eating their own breasts, and then skewering them on stakes. Tacitus reckons some seventy thousand Romans and provincials were executed in the rampage.

Suetonius Paulinus engaged the enemy at the time and place of his own choosing. The Britons were so confident of victory that they brought their wives to witness their triumph, arranging them about the battlefield in wagons. Though the Romans were outnumbered, Roman discipline prevailed. Thousands of Queen Boudicca's warriors were slain, and she committed suicide. The rout of the Britons and their consequent slaughter worsened as the Britons had difficulty fleeing a field hemmed in by their own wagons. The triumphant Romans spared neither women nor animals.

The next few years were marked by unrest but not by military action. It was only after the civil wars ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty that Romans could again devote serious attention to their problems in Britain. The new emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, fresh from his successful war against the Jews, sent capable military men to Britain to quiet the province. In a.d. 71, Vespasian designated Quintus Petillius Cerialis Caesius Rufus as the new governor. Petillius Cerialis may have felt he had something to prove; though he had enjoyed some military success in Lower Germany (today's Rhine Valley, including Belgium and the Netherlands), a decade earlier he had been humbled when Queen Boudicca's forces had routed his Ninth Legion. He mounted a campaign against the Brigantes, Britain's largest tribe. This calculated move succeeded, says Tacitus, in striking terror throughout the land.

Sextus Julius Frontinus succeeded Petillius Cerialis in the governorship, and pursued war against the Silures in southern Wales. Despite Roman success in war, there was too little corresponding Roman justice. Unrest remained, Tacitus reports, because of numerous abuses of power. Taxation was unequal, people had to pay inflated prices for corn, and other Roman practices also made life difficult. In sum, wrote Tacitus, the inhabitants of Britain could rightly fear peace as much as war because of either the arrogance or arbitrariness of the Roman administration.

Fortunately for those living in Britain, not all Romans were rapacious tyrants. Tacitus praises his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who learned from earlier examples that force of arms cannot quash rebellion if conquest is followed by unjust rule. His leniency did not, however, spare Agricola from troubles. His governance of Britain grew so vexing, in fact, that even Agricola resorted to terror. Grieving over the death of his infant son in the summer of 83 a.d., Agricola began his summer war campaign by sending his fleet ahead of the ground troops for the express purpose of plundering and inspiring terror and uncertainty among the Britons.

Britain's circle of terror was renewed. Responding to Agricola's provocation, a tribal leader named Calgacus exhorted his fellow Britons to resist Roman oppression. The speech, as Tacitus relates it, presents a perspective many people in the ancient world must have held on their Roman masters. Calling the Romans deadlier than the coastal waves and rocks, Calgacus said they possess an arrogance which no reasonable submission can elude. Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. The wealth of an enemy excites their cupidity, his poverty their lust of power. East and West have failed to glut their maw. They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy. Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.

Late in the days of the Republic, Rome faced a daunting dilemma. Two of her greatest leaders, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, stood pitted against each other. In unprecedented fashion, they brought their political quarrel to Rome's streets in armed conflict. Sulla marched on Rome and prevailed at first. Marius later succeeded in seizing a seventh term as consul, where he introduced a reign of terror. He put political opponents to death, placed their heads on public display, and plundered their belongings. The historian Appian of Alexandria believed he did these deeds to inspire fear or horror. The breathtaking acts of terror inflicted on the city's residents appalled later writers. Plutarch observed how the people considered the evils of wartime a golden age in comparison. Velleius Paterculus depicted Marius' return as being as destructive as a pestilence and commented that no victory would have exceeded his in its inhumanity had it not been followed by Sulla's.

For Sulla marched again on Rome. His second triumph was punctuated by his seizure of power as dictator. He issued proscriptions against his opponents, posting rewards both for informers and those who murdered his enemies. After publicly killing Quintus Lucretius Ofella, an accomplished and ambitious man, in the open Forum, Sulla justified himself simply on the grounds that Ofella would not obey him. Sulla then told the assembled people this story: Lice troubled a farmer plowing his field. Twice he stopped work to shake them out of his tunic. However, when the biting continued, he burned his tunic to not lose any further time. With this anecdote, Sulla warned a people he had already defeated twice not to try his patience further. Few dared.

Then things got worse. Armed with the lessons of the recent past, Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and won for himself the position of dictator for life. It proved a short life, as people who feared living under a despot assassinated Caesar. Heedless of the warnings of his own day, Caesar would have done well to attend the warning of Aristotle: Those to be watched and feared most among potential assassins are they who are heedless of their own life in their desire to take life.

These exemplars of terrorism during the Late Republic were often faithfully followed in the Empire. Perhaps the one thing these various figures shared in common was the belief that their objectives justified the use of terror. Where a ruler was simply brutal or capricious by nature, the idea of divine right became a pretext to do whatever he could get away with. Roman historians tended to find a common thread in their studies: Power illuminates character but can also corrupt it. The most ferocious emperors invariably started out far less evil than they became after years of absolute rule. They learned what they could get away with, and then their own characters determined the limits and uses to which they put their power.

The speech Tacitus attributes to Calgacus climaxes in an insight any entity, whether sovereign state or disaffected terrorist cell, ignores at its peril: Apprehension and terror are weak bonds of affection; once break them, and, where fear ends, hatred will begin. The choice to embrace terrorist acts as an instrument of rule has always been costly. Terror inevitably engenders more terror — and hatred. Not even the might of Rome could protect the republic or the empire from paying that price. Whenever Romans indulged in state-sponsored terrorism, subjugated people responded in kind.

 


This article was written by Gregory G. Bolich and originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of MHQ.

 

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4 Responses to “Terrorism in the Ancient Roman World”


  1. 1
    Ron at avidreader5555 says:

    Dear Gregory,
    An absolutely facinating piece. Well researched and extremely well presented. Thank You.

  2. 2
  3. 3

    [...] thought it might add a historical perspective to your discussion : Terrorism in the Ancient Roman World [...]

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