Monday, September 28, 2015


Gil Gambash, Rome and Provincial Resistance. Routledge monographs in classical studies 21. New York; London: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xi, 206. ISBN 9781138824980. $140.00 (hb).

Reviewed by Danijel Dzino, Macquarie University, Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


Issues related to the functioning of the Roman Empire, especially the relationship between imperial core and provincial elites from the imperial periphery, have attracted significant attention in recent scholarship. While some scholars rightly point out that the inhabitants of the provinces often recognised benefits brought by active participation in the imperial physical and ideological networks,1 others are also justified in saying that imperialism was alive and kicking inside the Empire.2 The book of Gil Gambash engages this issue on several different levels, adding another voice to ongoing debate about the functioning of the Empire. Primarily it is concerned with the exploration of the different responses that the Roman power-holders used to counteract resistance in the provinces.3 Gambash in particular looks into the Roman reaction to resistance, especially the actions and agency of Roman opinion-makers and their use of collective memory stored in the Roman depositories of knowledge. Analysis of the relationship between Roman power-holders and the provincials enables Gambash to address a much wider and indeed very important question: did Roman rule amount to oppression or a consensus negotiated with the provincials and provincial elites?

The book is divided into five chapters, which examine different aspects of the problem. The first chapter 'Tension management' (pp. 20-61) looks into the Roman routine of government in the post-conquest societies, the way Roman government communicated with indigenous communities, prepared invasions and deployed the troops. Gambash points out that the Roman imperial system had the ability to be acceptable to indigenous populations, trying not to leave a power vacuum after the conquest. The examples used show that the Romans usually used a combination of 'soft' and 'hard' approaches, depending on the area and particular local circumstances. The evidence brought in this chapter suggests that the Romans generally preferred 'soft' approaches, putting trust in the provincials and enabling their use of various channels of communication to express grievances to higher authority, if the need arose.

The second chapter 'Handling revolt' (pp. 62-98) deals with practical matters Roman authorities faced in handling dissatisfaction and revolts of provincial populations. This in particular relates to the approaches of Roman commanders in the field, such as the manoeuvring of forces, the strategies of (re)subjugating rebellious populations and the aftermaths of revolts. Gambash argues here that the Roman authorities tried to do as little damage as possible and return to provincial routine as soon as possible. When punitive measures were considered necessary, they were conducted in reasonably limited areas, targeting real troublemakers and stubborn resistance, leaving the rest of the population more or less spared from extensive violence.

The third chapter 'Official appointments' (pp. 99-123) examines information available to decision-makers in provinces upon their nomination. Gambash presents several points here. First, that there is evidence that provincial governors, generally speaking, tried to communicate and interact with provincials in order to manage the administration of the province in the most painless way. Certainly, there were attempts to abuse power, or ignore local needs, but as argued in this chapter, the provincials had reasonably efficient opportunities to complain against the abuse of power. Finally, Gambash finds evidence that an appointment for provincial service was done with careful consideration, so that the appointees were chosen for their previous experiences.

The fourth chapter 'Commemoration' (pp. 124-143) discusses Roman commemoration of victories against provincial revolts. It is pointed out that the Romans did not celebrate the extinguishing of provincial revolts in the same way as they did with 'external wars': the authorities did not advertise news of victories in the provinces too loudly and did everything in their power to exclude those revolts from the collective memory of the inhabitants of the Empire. Gambash argues that subjugation of the revolts was generally not advertised on coinage, monuments or public inscriptions. The fifth chapter, 'Jewish revolts' (pp. 144-179) points out that the Roman conduct against the Jews was uncharacteristically aggressive when compared with general trends in the other provinces. The reasons for such a conduct could be found in the fact that Judaea gained independent status in AD 66, after the rebels had repulsed the Roman army and therefore began to be treated as foreign enemies of the Empire. This, in the view of Gambash, confirms the general conduct in the provinces and explains the extensive violence that the Roman army committed in Judea while extinguishing the revolt.

Conclusions (pp. 180-96) follow organically from the discussion in earlier chapters. In Gambash's view contradictory Roman attitudes such as brutality and compromise with indigenous populations are not exclusive, but rather complementary approaches to management of the Empire. According to him, Rome did not develop some overarching imperial policy or 'Grand Strategy,' but rather relied on imperfect and often belated information. So it is not surprising that the Roman authorities were in most cases surprised by the outbreaks of provincial violence. However, after initial surprises the Roman imperial power-networks usually quickly recovered and organised the successful pacification of rebellious populations. The approaches to the task of efficient pacification were characterised by pragmatism, which less frequently turned into excessive violence. Post-insurrection rule rarely resulted in heavy garrisoning of rebellious provinces, or long-lasting punitive measures. Gambash prefers the view that the Romans chose, as much as possible, to come to terms with indigenous populations. Judaea represents a good example of Roman respect for local traditions, and willingness to come to terms with the indigenous population before the uprising in 66. Corruption and abuse of power by provincial administration are evident in the sources, but there were also mechanism to curb it when necessary.

Overall, this is a fine piece of scholarship, well-researched, clearly written and presented. While agreeing with most of the conclusions, I still think that the book puts too much emphasis on Judaea, Britain and northern Africa as examples, while Roman handling of revolts in Germany (Arminius), Dalmatia and Pannonia (Bato of the Daesitiates and Bato of the Breuci), and the Batavian rebellion (Iulius Civilis) receive insufficient attention. Also, the evidence used by Gambash is mostly literary, numismatic and epigraphic, while archaeology takes mostly secondary position. Such a focus prevents Gambash from reaching more balanced conclusions, which would gather together the variety of Roman experiences with provincial revolts in a more comprehensive way.

For example, Gambash's conclusion that provinces were not garrisoned extensively is challenged with by placement of two legionary camps in the Adriatic hinterland – Burnum (Šuplja Crkva near Knin) and Tilurium (Gardun-Trilj near Sinj). Dalmatia was not a frontier province and maintenance of those camps well into the 1st century could be explained as garrisoning potentially troublesome parts of the province and acting as centres for provincial recruitment.4 Also there is epigraphic evidence that some indigenous peregrine civitates in Dalmatia and southern Pannonia had Roman military personal in charge for a few generations after the Bellum Batonianum.5 Finally, the tropaeum from the Tilurium legionary camp as well as smaller representations of a similar motives on unidentified Iulian-Claudian emperor torsos from Issa and Narona could be considered Roman public commemoration of the successful crushing of a provincial rebellion6.

These examples certainly do not undermine the main argument of the book. The Roman conduct in the provinces was adjusted to individual circumstances, so that 'soft' and 'hard' approaches complemented each other. Following Gambash's argument from the fifth chapter, it is quite possible to conclude that Dalmatia and Pannonia were treated similarly to Judaea in the 60s, so that the indigenous uprising led by the two Batos was re-modelled in Roman collective memory as an external war. That would explain why Suetonius called it one century later: "the most serious of all foreign wars since the wars with Carthage".7

Overall, despite an occasional lack of more comprehensive coverage, this is still a book that deserves reading and has the potential to be an influential piece of scholarship. Such an exploration opens new avenues in the debate on the functioning of the Roman Empire, and also presents a useful template which could be used in comparative research on pre-modern empires.


1.   E.g. C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2000).
2.   E.g. D. J. Mattingly, Imperialism, Power and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire (Princeton 2011).
3.   It is important to notice pioneering works of Dyson in the research of provincial revolts during the early principate: S. L. Dyson, 'Native Revolts in the Roman Empire', Historia 20(2-3) (1971), 239-74; 'Native Revolt Patterns in the Roman Empire', Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romiche Welt II.3 (Berlin, New York 1975), 138-75.
4.   J. J. Wilkes, Dalmatia (London 1969), 97-98; D. Dzino, Illyricum in Roman Politics 229BC-AD 68 (Cambridge 2010), 167-68. See recently on Tilurium: M. Sanader 'Das projekt Tilurium', in M. Sanader (ed.), Weapons and military equipment in a funerary context: proceedings of the XVIIth Roman Military Equipment Conference (Zagreb 2013), 411-34; on Burnum: Cambi et al. (eds.), Rimska vojska u Burnumu - L'esercito romano a Burnum (Drniš, Šibenik, Zadar 2007); and on Roman fortification system in Dalmatia: D. Periša, 'Je li delmatsko područje presjekao rimski limes?', Archaeologia Adriatica 11 (2008), 507-517.
5.   Marcellus from the legio XI Claudia administered peregrine civitates of the Mezaei, Daesitiates and less likely Melcumani (CIL 9.2564). There is also Roman military praefectus of the Colapiani in southern Pannonia – far away from the frontier (CIL 3.14387). Recently discovered inscription mentions the praefectus of the Scordisci, Breuci and Iasi from Aquae Iasorum (Varaždinske toplice) in southern Pannonia - D. Kušan Špalj et al., 'Katalog razstavljenih del - Cataloque of exhibited works', in N. Pirnat-Spahić (ed.), Aquae Iasae. Najnovejše rimske najdbe na področju Varaždinskih Toplic - Aquae Iasae. Recent discoveries of Roman remains in the region of Varaždinske Toplice (Ljubljana 2014), 152 no. 163.
6.   N. Cambi, 'Rimski vojni tropeji u Dalmaciji', Adrias 17 (2010), 131-39; Dzino, op. cit. , 169-70. Cambi is perhaps too confident that this monument marked Roman victory in the Bellum Batonianum, as theoretically it could also mark Tiberius' victory in the Bellum Pannonicum (12-9 BC), when northern Dalmatia and southern Pannonia were conquered. As there is only a single letter 'o' preserved from the inscription accompanying the tropaeum from Gardun, both possibilities remain open.
7.   Suetonius, Vita Tiberii, 16.1: Sed nuntiata Illyrici defectione transiit ad curam novi belli, quod gravissimum omnium externorum bellorum post Punica, …

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