chapter  1
20 Pages

Writing revolt in the early Roman empire

ByMyles Lavan

If the later Middle Ages are emerging ever more clearly as an age of revolt, the Roman empire of the first and second centuries ce has long seemed an age of order.1 There were a few largescale provincial rebellions, but they were mostly limited to peripheral areas and to the immediate aftermath of conquest. The thousands of cities in the empire offer only scattered evidence for urban revolts; slave revolts appear few and minor; peasant revolt is virtually invisible. It has even been suggested that banditry all but disappeared for much of the period.2 For many scholars, the remarkable thing about revolt in the early Roman empire is its rarity. On one reading, this picture is explained by the Roman state’s success in securing the consent of the governed, its provision of mechanisms of dispute resolution that were relatively predictable, rational, and autonomous from local interests and thus worked to reduce the frequency with which aggrieved groups turned to violence, and perhaps also its ability to constrain predatory behaviour by local magnates through the ever present threat of Roman intervention in the case of unrest.3 On a more cynical interpretation, the Roman empire appears peaceful not because rational Roman government worked to limit the causes of conflict, but because the threat of retaliation by Rome deterred the disadvantaged from attempting to use violence to address their grievances. Stability was a product of an unusually neat alignment of interests between the imperial state and local elites, with Roman power underwriting highly unequal distributions of wealth, privilege, and political power in the provinces.4