Sunday, June 14, 2015


Agnès Bérenger, Le métier de gouverneur dans l'Empire romain: de César à Dioclétien. De l'archéologie à l'histoire, 62. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 2014. Pp. i, 535. ISBN 9782701803500. €59.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniëlle Slootjes, Radboud University Nijmegen (

Version at BMCR home site

The expansion and consolidation of the Roman Empire over the course of the Late Republic and Early Empire called for an administrative structure that could keep under control the various and vast territories that were often far away from Rome. The system of governors who were sent out from Rome to govern the provinces for relatively short terms of office led to the creation of a remarkably stable and successful provincial administration. Although the office of provincial governors was at the heart of the administrative structures of the empire, modern scholarship so far has not produced extensive monographs on the position and functioning of governors in Republican and Imperial times. In 1973 Graham Burton finished his PhD thesis, Powers and functions of Proconsuls in the Roman Empire, 70-260 AD (Oxford), but the book was never published and is thus not available for a large (scholarly) audience. Furthermore, Burton only focused on proconsuls, and thereby left aside governors of lower equestrian status, even though the latter group made up the bulk of provincial governors. Consequently, we lack a general and in-depth study on Roman governors. This is not to dismiss the numerous articles and shorter studies on subtopics related to provincial government and individual governors, such as the many contributions by Werner Eck, Geza Alföldy or Graham Burton (who continued to write first-rate articles dealing with the functioning of provincial government).

The book under review by Bérenger can be regarded as an attempt to fill the gap. The aim of the book is to present an analysis of Roman provincial governors in the period of the late Roman Republic and the High Empire. Bérenger has chosen an extended period of time, from Julius Caesar to the emperor Diocletian, as this offered the opportunity to analyze both continuity and change within the structures of provincial government. The provincial reforms instituted under Diocletian and continued under Constantine the Great presented a sensible caesura.

Bérenger has chosen to limit herself to governors of senatorial rank, thus on proconsuls and legati Augusti. As a consequence, she has for instance excluded the rich source material from Egypt, as a prefect of equestrian status governed this province. Of course, the Egyptian materials do surface in her book, as these often apply to more general issues concerning provincial government as well. The book is set up around the core duties of provincial governors: rendering justice, keeping order, guaranteeing the pax deorum and having responsibility for the proper functioning of the provincial infrastructure. The chapters follow the sequence of a governor's term of office, starting from the preparatory phase in Rome before departure to the province, to the actual travel and ceremonies upon arrival in the province, as well as the carrying out of the various types of duties during a governor's term of office.

Bérenger presents a thorough and detailed study of the many aspects of the governor's position and duties. The ancient sources on Roman governors are scattered and to be found in almost any type of source material or literary genre. With so many upper class Roman men having been appointed as governors throughout the centuries of the Republic and the High Empire (and of course continuing into the period of Late Antiquity), we have remarkably few eye witness accounts from governors describing their tour of duty. We possess the letters by Cicero for the Late Republic describing his term of office in Cilicia in 51-50 B.C. and the collection of letters by Pliny the Younger offering us insights into his governorship of Bithynia-Pontus in A.D. 112-113, but these are exceptional. For an in-depth study of governors throughout the period of the Roman Republic and the High Empire scholars thus have to have a broad overview and knowledge of a great variety of materials to gain insights into the specifics of the governor's office. Furthermore, one has to find a balance between materials that reflect the generalities of the governor's office and those that show exceptional situations. Bérenger shows an impressive command of the source materials. She is at the same time also appropriately eclectic in her choice of examples to be discussed, as one cannot possibly include all sources (as it stands, the book already has 535 pages).

The first seven chapters of the book give a broad and detailed overview of the functioning of governors during their term of office. As becomes clear, the administration of justice was considered one of the most important duties of governors. Most of the evidence, indeed, shows governors in their function as judge. Of course, we have to keep in mind that governors were by our standards amateur officials, and chose the members of their staff to accompany them during their term of office carefully, as they would rely on them in legal matters of situations of threats to public order in the provinces. Furthermore, as the book demonstrates, there was tension between the need of Roman government to develop a blueprint for the duties of governors and the necessity of taking into account the unique character of each individual province. Governors had to have a certain level of flexibility depending on the province they were sent to. To a large extent we are left in the dark about many of the details about regulations concerning provincial governorships. As an example, we know that governors were given mandata with instructions for their term of office. Were the mandata standardized and thus the same for every province? Or, should we expect that, for specific problems in certain provinces or regions, additional clauses were attached to the general mandata? The latter would make sense, even though we lack the evidence for firm conclusions. Bérenger rightfully poses such questions throughout the first seven chapters.

The final three chapters, 8, 9 and 10, are devoted to the relationship of governors with the provincials and with other local and imperial officials who supported or hindered governors in their duties. Apart from the emperor, a Roman governor was the most powerful representative of the Roman government in his province, (Dig. 1.16.8 et ideo maius imperium in ea provincia habet omnibus post principem). Nevertheless, he could not act arbitrarily or without taking into account local and supra-local power structures. In these final chapters Bérenger moves beyond the descriptive nature that characterizes the first seven chapters of the book and offers a more analytical discussion of the complexities of the position of governors. If one considers all the local and supra-local people a governor had to deal with or who could put pressure on him, one might wonder if the position of a governor was an honor or more a burden, even a punishment? In some respects, Cicero portrayed his governorship as a punishment, since it kept him from the limelight in Rome, although here one must be careful not to project an individual Ciceronian feeling onto the more general sentiments of governors in reflecting on their governorship. On a more practical level, Cicero certainly felt pressure from Rome when the aedile M. Caelius Rufus asked him to provide panthers for games Caelius wanted to organize in Rome, as if panthers were easily available in the mountainous regions of Cilicia. In the many requests Pliny sent to Trajan during his term of office in Bithynia-Pontus we also get a glimpse of local issues that asked for the governor's attention even though they might not always have been easy to fulfill. Even though governors were only infrequently prosecuted once their term of office was over , the possibility of being brought to trial in Rome for misbehavior in the provinces was a threat that might have loomed large on the horizon. With regard to the provincial population, Bérenger makes an interesting distinction between the provincial elite and the general provincial population or crowds. Each group exercised different sorts of pressure on governors. Overall, the governor must often have found himself in the midst of competing expectations. One might then wonder which powers a governor really had. In other words, their job was not necessarily an easy one, and many governors must have been relieved once their term was over and their successors arrived in the province.

Everyone interested in provincial government, the position and functioning of Roman governors should read Bérenger's book as it offers a thorough and detailed overview of Roman senatorial governors. There is always a next step to take in scholarship, and Bérenger's book can be seen as a springboard for similar analyses of equestrian governors (including the rich material from Egypt where the governor was a praefectus Augusti). In addition, Bérenger's book has paved the way for further and more in-depth examinations of Roman governorships within the larger structures of Roman government, in both Republican and Imperial times, as well as offering a missing link to studies on Roman governorship in Late Antiquity.

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