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Regionalism in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor

Hugh Elton
Gary Reger

What did Annexation Do for the Province of Asia (in its first 50 years)?

Philip Freeman

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  • 1 Space restrictions mean that I am unable to do no more than hint at a number of issues. I hope to (...)

1In any history of the Roman provinces and the evolution of the process known as Roman imperialism, Asia is a series of contradictions1. Rome was reluctant to deal with the issues that followed from the unexpected bequest of Asia, the former Attalid realm: she was slow in dispatching a commission to appraise the situation, delayed engaging with Aristonikos, and relied on allies to wage the war and attend to the considerable territorial gifts made to them once victory had been obtained. Rome annexed what remained. But Asia is supposed to represent a pivotal moment in Roman attitudes to the government of an empire. For the state’s reluctance to annex contrasted the willingness of its citizens to exploit the opportunity. And the official mood soon appreciated the advantages, as the governed were to pay for the privilege of Roman administration. This shift was confirmed by deed with the innovation of publicani tax collection and proven by the subsequent impoverishment of the provinces’ communities some thirty years later. The scholarly task, in this context, has been to identify and to date as early as possible what might be called the “artefacts of annexation”, that is, those elements of government which were “Roman” and were meant to facilitate the exploitation of the region, and to attribute blame for the problems that emerged post-133.

  • 2 Sherwin-White 1984, 80; Kallet-Marx 1995, 98.

2Most assessments of Roman Asia are negative. They center not just on the nefarious acts of Rome’s agents, but also on the heavy hand of Rome which failed to do anything positive. What follows is more a series of questions than answers, prompted in part by the claim that annexation was “... one of the more surprising turns in Roman history”2. If so, then what caused it? Why was the rump of the Attalid kingdom retained? And what, if anything, were the consequences for the “Asians” of this decision?

  • 3 Freeman 1996, 1994, 1986.

3I have suggested elsewhere that Roman annexation and provincial organization are too frequently reduced to a sequence of logical step-by-step developments. The same can be said of the annexation of Asia3. The situation is not helped by the pivotal position it has been given in Roman imperial politics coupled to the disjointed snippets of evidence that survive for the period 133-80 BC. There is also the fact that virtually all the epigraphic evidence which relates to the period seems to have been redated (and so reinterpreted) at one time or another.

  • 4 Freeman 1998, 30-47.
  • 5 French 1980, 707; Magie 1950, 1.157.

4Even basic problems abound in contradiction. For example, when did the annexation and organization of Asia occur? The year 133 is now largely discredited; 132 and 131 have been offered on no better grounds. The situation changed sometime between 131-126, when we first hear of the “governors”. All were dispatched whilst consuls, but only Aquillius enjoyed an extended occupancy (129-126). The decision was apparently made then to create the province, although it is questionable who actually articulated it. We can discount one established “fact” about the annexation. Contrary to long repeated belief, there was no lex provinciae for the province, and so no mechanism by which the province was formally initiated. The term is in fact a modern invention owing more to our perceptions of how empires grow4. Supposedly the years 129-126 saw the creation of an infrastructure for the province, completed by a road-building program meant to provide a framework for government. Be that as it may, it seems to me inconceivable that the region’s major communities had not previously been connected to their neighbors. The Roman network would then be merely the consolidation of something that already existed5.

  • 6 Brunt 1971, 429; Mitchell 1993, 1.29.
  • 7 Magie 1950, 1.154.
  • 8 Confirmation of Attalus’ will is to be found in the Senatus consultum Popillianum (OGI, 435; Sherk (...)

5Whenever Asia was annexed, it does not appear to have had a provincial garrison until at least 87 BC. Indeed, it is a little emphasized fact that there is no sequence of governors until Sulla. With two exceptions the list is barren; and those exceptions – the Scaevola in the 120s and later, perhaps in 97 or 94/93 – can be attributed to specific issues, notably financial problems. The void can be read in one of two ways. Either fasti are corrupted to the point of meaninglessness, or, as I would prefer, they are evidence that Asia was not yet a regular provincial allocation. The absence of “consular” governors was noted by no less an authority than P. A. Brunt, who reasonably concluded that the region could not have had a regular garrison until 87 at the earliest6. So how are we to explain why those parts of Asia that were “annexed” came to be annexed? The “best” answer, for what it is worth, was offered by Magie7. After the post-Aristonikos settlement, the new “province” was limited to the financially attractive districts which happened to lie along the seaboard, generally speaking the (Greek) western parts of the region. But there is another contradiction here. The Senate’s acceptance of Attalus’ bequest8 involved confirming the liberation of those cities previously “freed” by him which had remained loyal to Rome in the war. These communities could anticipate little or no future Roman intervention. What then happened to the remaining “subject” communities? Presumably, as long as they paid their dues on time, under their own mechanisms, they would be left alone. With surely the lion’s share of the region “annexed” declared free and immune, what need remained to dispatch governors?

6To summarize, we have a province which to all intents and purposes was not wanted, for which there are no good signs of regular governors nor a garrison and for which there were apparently no “enemies” to watch. The evidence adduced so far indicates that there was never a real plan for the annexation of Asia. These facts must have implications for what occurred in the province in the subsequent years. Indeed one can make a reasonable case for arguing that the formal annexation was not just unplanned but in fact, took place neither in the 120s nor thereafter. This view has implications for the way we see the consequences of the transition from Attalid control to Roman rule unfolding, for if it holds, then any ideas about the systematic or coherent development of the province must go.

The Artefacts of Annexation. I. Administration and Justice

  • 9 Compare Magie 1950, 1.154, to Macro 1980, 663.
  • 10 Jones 1971, 55. That the Attalid system appears to have continued is suggested by the SC Popillian (...)

7There has been some debate about the origins of the administrative system that was introduced into the new province and again contradictions abound9. A. H. M. Jones thought that the degree of Roman innovation was astonishingly minimal and that the arrangements employed by the governors went back to Attalid precedents in which government was left to the constituent communities, although in at least the bigger communities the principal officers, the strategoi, were royal appointments. What happened to this arrangement after 133 is not discussed. What does seem evident is that many if not all of the workings of the Attalid fiscal system continued to function until at least 126 and even as late as 123, if not later10.

  • 11 Cic., Q. Fr., 1.1.20; Ager 1996, 26-28, 501.

8A second aspect of government is the working of justice. In his assessment of the role of the “governor” of Asia, Cicero believed that the incumbents’ one real responsibility was the administration of justice. The best attested features of the system in Asia concern the settling of disputes between Greeks and the later introduction of the assize system where Roman proconsuls toured their charge dispensing their decisions. The hearing of cases involving Greek communities has been seen as one exceptional example of enlightened Roman intervention in the government of Asia. But in reality it represents a form of third party arbitration: an institution well established in the Greek world. Its introduction is normally attributed to the later Scaevola and his “legal” expert Rutilius Rufus. Ager has demonstrated that while as a consequence of growing dominance in the eastern Mediterranean Rome was increasingly brought in to arbitrate inter-community disputes, there was no formalized policy to deal with cases other than dumping the disputes on others11. The implications are that Scaevola was not so much responsible for a major innovation as confirming something that already functioned. By continuing to use third parties, the governor could detach himself from accusations of partisanship or at least cut down the amount of business, presumably thought to be trivial, that he had to sit through. The experience of Licinius Crassus, who became embroiled in disputes as soon as he arrived in 132 and had to adjudicate in four languages (Quint. 11.2.50), illustrates the problem.

  • 12 Habicht 1975, 68.

9The introduction of the conventus system is perhaps a much more significant and original innovation, but on present evidence why it was necessary remains unexplained. It owed little to Roman precedents or to what might have developed in other provinces12. The date for its introduction is also problematic. It must be after Scaevola, but could possibly be as late as Caesar or even Antonius.

Financial Affairs

  • 13 The traditional prop for dating the publicani in Asia is the Senatus consultum de agro Pergameno ((...)
  • 14 Badian 1983b, 87, on Diod. 33.3.1. Cf. Eilers and Milner 1995.
  • 15 Magie 1950 2.1238. Jones 1974.

10In every discussion of the province the excesses of the publicani figure large. Indeed it was the potential for exploitation which some have argued occasioned the annexation. While this seems unlikely, it is clear that some publicani were up to no good almost as soon as the bequest of Attalos was ratified. The complaints can be explained as teething problems while the legitimate parameters of their spheres of activity were sorted out. But the serious, repeated protests against the publicani only really start to come in the 90s13. Through the early decades of the first century BC we learn more and more of the excesses of the publicani and Roman administrators and of the efforts to control them. Moreover, the tendency to see the activities of the publicani as restricted to Roman contracts and so Roman territory is mistaken. From elsewhere in Asia Minor at about this time we know of their interference in non-provincial territory, an issue only very briefly referred to in the standard account of the publicani14. It is too simplistic to attribute the very real financial problems of the region to the predation of publicani and Roman governors against vulnerable provincials. Magie made the point that in the aftermath of the first Mithridatic War it would have been difficult for provincials to obtain loans from outsiders. If the communities of Asia were to raise funds then they were going to have to look further afield or else to internal sources15. Whether these funds were offered free of charge or otherwise, the result was a shift in the distribution or balance of the region’s wealth. Cries against the publicani, the agents of collection, came not so much from the communities as those who were being engaged in the name of the community.

11Real changes came in 123 with the lex Sempronia and the introduction of contracts for tax collection. In turn it appears that the objects and methods of taxation were amended, implying that the Attalid convention had persisted up until that time. Now payments were calculated as a tithe on arable land and as dues on pasture land. However, irrespective of the change to tax farming and innovative ways of raising the revenues, the actual collection still seems to have been left to the communities themselves. So why the change? Most explanations fix on the role of the publicani/equestrians and the wish of some in Rome to break the proconsuls’ ability to raise money. But this does not explain why the particular alteration was introduced. One suggestion might be the desire on the part of the government in Rome to get their hands on the cash raised as soon as possible rather than have to wait for it.

The Provincial Council

  • 16 Rigsby 1979; Larsen 1955, 116.

12Understanding of the workings of the provincial council comes principally from sources dating to the Principate. Aside from its religious and social function, it became the vehicle for dialogue among emperors, governors and communities. Its origins remain obscure but go back to the first century BC. The earliest certain reference to the activities of a council dates to the proconsulship of Scaevola, although Rigsby made a case for regarding as the Muceia the festival which was initiated as a vote of thanks for the “reforms” of Aquillius16. The initiative may have come from Pergamum in 129 before the festival metamorphosed into the Euergesia by the mid-70s BC. By this time the management of this and other festivals had become the responsibility of the koinon. But these were only two of a number of festivals established at about this time, designed to thank Roman “visitors” (Perperna, Lucullus etc.). It needs no emphasizing that the initiative for these festivals was internal. By the middle of the first century the koinon was making representations to the Senate against the exactions of the publicani. In this instance the appeal emanated from Ephesus. The council was more formally organized by the time of Antony and was given a further impetus when it was permitted to co-ordinate the cult of Rome and Augustus from 29 BC.

  • 17 Magie 1950, 1.174; see Billows, this volume.

13Closely entwined with the council is the issue of an Asian (provincial) identity. Asia has always been regarded as a province with a strong sense of its own identity. But one should be careful not to put the cart before the horse. The best evidence for the identity comes from the strength of the provincial council, but it is debatable whether the council which referred to itself as the “Council of the Hellenes” was a (Roman) introduction designed to create an identity or a reflection of a shared cultural heritage. This sense of identity could have resulted from a desire to emphasize (Asian) Greekness against Rome or from Roman indifference to the region. Perhaps it is more likely that the tradition, if not the body, pre-dated Rome and was linked to Attalid administrative tradition17.

  • 18 Mitchell 1993, 1.202, 206

14The council was only as strong as its member units. Some Greek cities which were not reticent in parading their independence opposed Aristonikos on the ground that they were likely to lose their newly acquired “freedom”. Likewise in the first Mithridatic War, the same cities rallied to the call to oppose Rome. The strength of civic identity may also have been fueled by the evident political strength of professional guilds and associations, many of which were involved in religious and social issues. Last, but not least, there are also the problems of the rivalries between particular Asian cities18.

Depression and Despondency?

  • 19 Jos., BJ, 2.16.4 (366); Cic., Att., 5.21.8; Mitchell 1993, 1.145.

15The subject of the cities leads to another measure of the condition of Asia under early Roman rule: their vitality, as represented in building activity and the patronage of civic institutions in general. Asia was famed for the number and appearance of its cities. Exaggerating certainly, but indicative of the scale, Josephus was to claim that it comprised 500 cities. The impression of first century AD prosperity is confirmed by other writers. The basis of this wealth has traditionally been attributed to commercial and trading power coupled to the exploitation of natural resources. Nowadays the pendulum has shifted and there is due recognition of the land’s agricultural fecundity19.

  • 20 Magie 1950, 1.238.

16However again the picture of the prosperity of the cities under Roman control is contradictory. One of the more obvious consequences of the arrival of Rome in the region is financial ruination. This is thought to have commenced soon after the creation of the province. The excesses of the publicani, if not oppressive beforehand, accelerated after 123 and the lex Sempronia. However, the epigraphic evidence now suggests that these demands did not really become a problem until the 90s; the situation culminated in the parlous conditions after Sulla as related by Plutarch in the Lucullus. The problems caused by the wars of the first fifty years of the Roman period and the consequent degradations were compounded by the activities and excesses of the publicani and the retribution inflicted by Sulla after the first Mithridatic War. The appeals made by the cities to the Senate and the reforms introduced by certain more enlightened governors reinforced the general impression of depredation and oppression, marked by the curtailment of civic activities (the cessation of civic minting, the lack of candidates for civic offices and the suspension of festivals20). But in their complaints to Rome across the first century BC, the Greek cities cite not publicani, but rapacious Roman officials as the cause of their problems.

  • 21 Jones 1974; Plut., Luc., 20; Cic., Q. Fr., 1.1.1, etc. Att,. 1.17.9, 18.3.7, 2.1.8; Planc., 34.

17Magie enumerated what he believed under the circumstances to be examples of flagrant financial mis-management by some communities. The successful intervention of the likes of Diodorus Pasparos on behalf of Pergamum (if Jones’ redating of his deeds to the 60s BC is still valid) makes the point about “depression”, but also indicates that some cities were doing all right at this time. Other patrons could be cited as well. And despite the size of the region’s indebtedness in the 80s and 70s, Plutarch reports that the debt of 120 talents was cleared in no more than four years following Lucullus’ intervention. By any stretch of the imagination, the region was and remained rich. Cicero advised his brother not to be seduced by the riches the region could offer, and by at least 61 the region was attractive to the publicani, as their (over-) bidding for the tax contract proves21.

  • 22 Alcock 1994.

18Unfortunately physical evidence for the condition of the territories of the cities, one of the barometers of the condition of the polis, is currently missing. Despite excavations carried out in the cities and regional field surveys undertaken, the picture is irritatingly incomplete22. For what it is worth, the broad picture of the results of archaeological survey in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor suggests that this period was marked by increases in population and settlement densities and so presumably produced the increased prosperity and expansion of the “cities”. The identity of persons suffering in the early decades of the first century BC seems elusive.


19I do not deny that changes occurred in post-133 Asia. This is not the issue. The crucial question is in what ways do we imagine that things changed? The traditional explanation accommodates change within the framework of Roman imperial government. The preceding discussion has tried to emphasize the inadequacies of this sort of analysis. Instead what is required is a mode of explanation which pays more attention to the components of the region and its administration to see why change did or did not occur.

  • 23 Burton 1975, 106.

20I started by pointing out that the annexation of Asia contains a number of incongruities, the greatest of which is the way that modern historians have written about the subject. Most argue that an original desire not to annex was overwhelmed after 129 and the rapid exploitation and subsequent ruination of the region followed. This view does not sit well with the course of Roman imperialism in the later second and first centuries BC. It seems to me that this particular contradiction is unnecessary. All the events and developments which have been noted here can be explained comfortably without reference to the annexation or narrative histories of the province. Part of the problem is the way that the emphasis on writing ‘provincial’ histories structures study of the Roman Empire. This approach, typified by Magie’s Roman Rule in Asia Minor, tends to lose sight of the communities that constituted the provinces. It is only at this level that any assessment of the benefits of Roman intervention can be formulated, especially when we remember that activities for which Romans were notorious within the provinces were just as likely to occur outside them. In Asia the evidence, molded into a continuous, if not even, narrative, is actually a series of tiers of vaguely related themes: finance, religion and patronage, all of which were played out in the first instance at the community level. With the Asian example very much to the fore, Graham Burton once wrote: “The governor’s tour and the assize system should provide the proper historical starting point for any modern attempt to construct a convincing model of the development, operation and limitations of the civil administration of the provinces of the empire”23. This recommendation, it seems, still has yet to be followed up, although some (notably Millar’s Emperor in the Roman World and Mitchell’s Anatolia) have come close.

21The province of Asia makes an excellent example of seeing the principle of annexation as a gradual process, a sequence of events and their consequences. Decisions which were taken with more regard to the short-term can be shown to have had longer term implications. The first of these was to confiscate the Attalid royal possessions and to send the commission of 132. It was followed by the decision to engage in the war with Aristonikos, a decision which was made only after that commission arrived. In turn we can gauge the progressive but by no means inevitable militarization of the region which in turn necessitated the despatch of consular and proconsular governors from the early first century BC. We have also seen that the juridical and fiscal and even social arrangements made in Asia were the consequences of decisions made over a period of at least 30 years. Unsurprisingly, elements of both of these can be traced back to the Hellenistic and Attalid precedents which persisted into the Roman era, although other aspects are clearly more innovative. But their introduction has to be seen within the context of the time and not as part of the blue print for the future government of the region.

22It is perhaps because of these circumstances that Asia as a province appears to have such a strong sense of its own identity, although this was something of a chimera, the product itself of the strong sense of independence of its constituent (Greek) cities which can be seen in the province’s inter-city relations where identity was in part expressed through the vehicle of the provincial koinon. The introduction of this body goes back to a different set of circumstances: an informal group of cities which coordinated religious life came to evolve into something more significant, in which some communities endeavored to acknowledge their debt for their “independence”, or better still freedom of action, to the representatives of Rome. This serves to make the most eloquent of points on the question of about how people perpetuate their identity: it is people that matter, not geographic regions or administrative units.


1 Space restrictions mean that I am unable to do no more than hint at a number of issues. I hope to develop some of the ideas articulated here elsewhere. The standard account can be found in Badian 1983 and 1958; Gruen 1982; Kallet-Marx 1995; Macro 1980, 658-697; Magie 1950; Mitchell 1993, and Sherwin-White 1984. I am grateful to Graham Oliver and Fiona Aiken for their comments. My ability to attend the Hartford conference was due to grants from the Research Committee of the HRB of the British Academy and the Conference Support Fund of SACOS at the University of Liverpool.

2 Sherwin-White 1984, 80; Kallet-Marx 1995, 98.

3 Freeman 1996, 1994, 1986.

4 Freeman 1998, 30-47.

5 French 1980, 707; Magie 1950, 1.157.

6 Brunt 1971, 429; Mitchell 1993, 1.29.

7 Magie 1950, 1.154.

8 Confirmation of Attalus’ will is to be found in the Senatus consultum Popillianum (OGI, 435; Sherk 1969, no 11), now redated from 133 to 126; Kallet-Marx 1995, 106, 353.

9 Compare Magie 1950, 1.154, to Macro 1980, 663.

10 Jones 1971, 55. That the Attalid system appears to have continued is suggested by the SC Popillianum (OGI, 435; Sherk 1969, no 11; Kallet-Marx 1995, 116.

11 Cic., Q. Fr., 1.1.20; Ager 1996, 26-28, 501.

12 Habicht 1975, 68.

13 The traditional prop for dating the publicani in Asia is the Senatus consultum de agro Pergameno (IK, Smyrna 589; Sherk 1969, no 12) once thought to date to 129; Kallet-Marx 1995, 118 shows it to be c. 101.

14 Badian 1983b, 87, on Diod. 33.3.1. Cf. Eilers and Milner 1995.

15 Magie 1950 2.1238. Jones 1974.

16 Rigsby 1979; Larsen 1955, 116.

17 Magie 1950, 1.174; see Billows, this volume.

18 Mitchell 1993, 1.202, 206

19 Jos., BJ, 2.16.4 (366); Cic., Att., 5.21.8; Mitchell 1993, 1.145.

20 Magie 1950, 1.238.

21 Jones 1974; Plut., Luc., 20; Cic., Q. Fr., 1.1.1, etc. Att,. 1.17.9, 18.3.7, 2.1.8; Planc., 34.

22 Alcock 1994.

23 Burton 1975, 106.


School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool

© Ausonius Éditions, 2007

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