Rome and the Mediterranean in the Late Republic

Ver. 2.1.5386 can serve as an excellent point of departure for branching out into Roman history and culture, especially the imperial culture of the late republic and themes to do with the imperial expansion of Rome across the Mediterranean world, in particular the Greek East. In turn, a basic grasp of historical facts and figures will aid in understanding our passage.

Rome’s military conquest of Greece and Asia Minor30

While Rome stood in contact with the wider, Greek-dominated world of the Mediterranean from early on (witness the legend of Aeneas arriving in Italy after the destruction of Troy, as preliminary step towards the foundation of the city), it had no military presence in the Greek East until the end of the third century BC. Yet after the so-called ‘First Illyrian War’ (229 BC) matters proceeded quickly. In 167 BC, the Greek historian Polybius considered Rome’s conquest of Greece (and the known world more generally) an accomplished fact. That assessment, though, may have been somewhat premature as further military adventures and significant territorial gains continued to happen afterwards. The driving forces and motivations behind Rome’s imperial expansion have been the subject of much controversial debate.31 But whatever the intent, by the time of the Verrines, the rise of Rome from a town on the Tiber to the centre of an empire that spanned the entire Mediterranean world was by and large complete. Landmark events in Rome’s conquest of the Greek East include the following (those in bold Cicero mentions in § 55):

  • 229: First Illyrian War
  • 197: T. Quinctius Flamininus defeats Philip V, King of Macedonia, at Cynoscephalai
  • 190: L. Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus defeats Antiochus III, King of Syria
  • 168: L. Aemilius Paulus defeats Perseus, King of Macedonia
  • 146: L. Mummius destroys Corinth; establishment of the province of Macedonia
  • 133: Attalus III, King of Pergamum, bequeathes his kingdom to Rome upon his death
  • 129: Establishment of the province of Asia
  • c. 100: Establishment of the province of Cilicia
  • 88–84: First War between Rome and Mithradates VI, King of Pontus
  • 83–81: Second War between Rome and Mithradates VI, King of Pontus
  • 73–63: Third War between Rome and Mithradates VI, King of Pontus32

The Romans organized conquered territories into so-called provinciae (provinces). Sicily was the first, established in 241 BC, in the wake of the First Punic War. For each province, a lex provinciae defined the rights and obligations that the otherwise by and large self-governing civic communities (civitates) within a province had towards Rome. All provinces were required to submit tribute to Rome, which was collected by the so-called publicani (‘tax-farmers’).33 The nature of the Roman presence varied greatly across the provinces. And in each province, the Romans interacted with a complex patchwork of communities as well as – when the province was located at the border of Rome’s imperial sway – with neighbouring kings and peoples. Diplomatic activity within and across provinces was fairly intense. In fact, what brought Verres to Lampsacus was an embassy to two kingdoms bordering on the Roman province of Asia, a journey Verres undertook, so Cicero insinuates spitefully but not necessarily correctly, entirely for personal profit. Verres’ legateship in the Greek East fell into a period marked by much unrest across the entire region. The Second War between Rome and Mithradates VI, King of Pontus, had just come to an end, and the civic communities were groaning under the punitive sanctions imposed upon them by Sulla for the lack of support they had shown to Rome in the recent struggle.34

Roman provincial administration35

As fans of the 1980s British sitcom Yes Minister by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn will know, the personnel of modern democratic nation-states involved in government consists in part of publicly elected politicians, who are voted into (and out of) office from time to time, and the bureaucratic functionaries of the civil service, whose positions are permanent, i.e. unaffected by the mood-swings of the electorate, and who can therefore ensure a certain degree of institutional continuity from one legislative period to the next. In contrast to many modern institutions where the administrative staff is permanently employed and remains in post, regardless of which official is elected, governance and administration in republican Rome were non-bureaucratic, with a high level of personal involvement by the appointed magistrate in all affairs.

After their year as magistrates, consuls and praetors were customarily appointed as governors of provinces, assuming the title of pro-consul (‘acting consul’) or pro-praetor (‘acting praetor’) during their time in office (usually one year, but often prolonged). Assignments were usually done by lot, but could also be ‘arranged’ by those who were entitled to take up a provincial governorship in any given year. Roman magistrates and pro-magistrates relied on an extensive staff (called apparitores) in the execution of their office. Some of the more high ranking staff was elected, but the pro-magistrate had by and large a free hand in selecting whom he wanted to take along in what capacity. The staff included fairly high-ranking Romans with ambitions of entering the cursus honorum, that is, a political career involving magistracies and military commands. Staff of provincial governors also included such functionaries as lictors, messengers (viatores), heralds (praecones), and scribes (scribae).

In the course of the section considered here, Cicero mentions a wide range of Roman personnel involved in provincial administration. We encounter:

  • (i)Pro-magistrates responsible for the administration of a province: Nero (Asia), and Dolabella (Cilicia).
  • (ii)Their staff or subordinates, some of whom with official or semi-official designations: thus Verres was a legate of Dolabella; and Cicero’s two witnesses Tettius and Varro were part of Nero’s staff in Asia: the former as a so-called accensus, the latter as a military tribune.36
  • (iii)Lower functionaries and friends: during the diplomatic mission that brought him to Lampsacus, Verres was most likely accompanied by two lictors; one of them, Cornelius, died at Philodamus’ dinner party.37 In addition, he brought along personal friends from his social networks, thereby helping young acquaintances to become familiar with Rome’s imperial opportunities, in what was the ancient equivalent of modern ‘work experience’. Cicero makes much of the worthless villains that formed Verres’ cohors (entourage) and points out one Rubrius as being particularly gifted in aiding his master’s criminal desires. The conduct of both magistrates and members of their cohors in the provinces often left much to be desired. To be a Roman abroad in a position of power constituted a test of character that many failed to meet.38

In addition to provincial governors and their staff, Cicero also mentions Romans who had come to Asia independently to pursue business interests. In § 69, he reports that Roman citizens in Lampsacus on business successfully intervened when the local mob was trying to burn down the house in which Verres stayed. Conversely, he makes a damning reference to Roman money-lenders active in the region and their unscrupulous greed (§ 74).


30.For a highly readable and very stimulating account of how Rome became involved with the Greek world that includes all the important facts and figures with a hard look at scholarly orthodoxies, see Gruen, E. S. (2004), ‘Rome and the Greek World’, in H. I. Flower (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Cambridge, 242–67.
31.For a range of views on how and why Rome conquered the Greek East (from deliberate policy to mainly reactive to Greek concerns and invitations) see Harris, W. (1979), War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, Oxford; Gruen, E. S. (1984), The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, Berkeley; and Morstein Kallet-Marx, R. (1995), Hegemony to Empire. The Development of the Roman Imperium in the East from 148 to 62 B.C., Berkeley.
32.For a spectacular biography of a spectacular subject, see Mayor, A. (2009), The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, Princeton.
33.The classic treatment is Badian, E. (1972), Publicans and Sinners. Private Enterprise in the Service of the Roman Republic, Oxford.
34.For Rome’s imperial presence and diplomatic interaction with civic communities within the provinces and beyond see e.g. Badian, E. (1958), Foreign Clientelae: 264–70 BC, Oxford; Gruen, E. (1984), The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, Berkeley; Williams, C. (2008), ‘Friends of the Roman People. Some Remarks on the Language of amicitia’, in A. Coşkun (ed.), Freundschaft und Gefolgschaft in den auswärtigen Beziehungen der Römer (2. Jahrhundert v. Chr. – 1. Jahrhundert n. Chr.), Frankfurt a. M., 29–44; Edmondson, J. (1993), ‘Instrumenta Imperii: Law and Imperialism in Republican Rome’, in B. Halpern and D. W. Hobson (eds.), Law, Politics and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean World, Sheffield, 156–92; and Kaizer, T. and Facella, M. (2010), ‘Introduction’, in idem (eds.), Kingdoms and Principalities in the Roman Near East, Stuttgart, 15–42.
35.A vast subject. For excellent and accessible treatments see Richardson, J. (1984), Roman provincial administration, 227 BC to AD 117, Princeton; and Lintott, A. (1993), Imperium Romanum. Politics and Administration, London and New York, 70–96 and 206–12.
36.See below § 71.
37.Lictors carried the fasces, a bundle of wooden sticks that symbolized the power of the office both domi and militiae (in the latter sphere, the fasces contained an axe). Their number indicated the importance of the magistracy: consuls had twelve, praetors six. Towards the end of the republican period, legates who travelled in the company of pro-magistrates were also given lictors, especially when they represented their superior in military command or jurisdiction.
38.Braund, D. C. (1998), ‘Cohors. The Governor and his Entourage in the Self-Image of the Roman Republic’, in R. Laurence and J. Berry (eds.), Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire, London, 10–24.