Iulius Saturninus and the abuses of Roman soldiers in Syria under Commodus

The Roman governor responds to a complaint raised by a village in southern Syria that suffered illegal exactions despite having a guest house for soldiers.

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Letter of a Roman governor
Original Location/Place: 
On the pillars of the gate of a public building in Al Mismiyah (Syria)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
185 CE to 186 CE
Physical Characteristics: 

It was very well preserved when Waddington reported it.


Not provided by the editors.

Not provided by the editors.
Roman, Greek
IGRR III.1119 [OGIS 609; CIG 4551; Waddington, Inscriptions, no. 2524].

This inscription was directly carved on the pillars of a public building that was referred to as praetorium by early epigraphic explorers. The well-preserved structure was destroyed at the end of the 19th century and the stones remain lost (see Hill, “The Praetorium”), but such a support explains that lines are shorter than expected for an important document which, as emphasised in the text itself (l. 29-37), was to be displayed on a conspicuous location (πρόδηλον χωρίον/prodêlon chôrion).

The content of this letter from a Roman governor to a local community is more standard. Iulius Saturninus (PIR2 I 547), legate of Syria in the reign of Commodus, greets the Phaenesians who inhabited a mother-village (or μητροκωμία/mêtrokômia) of the Trâchon. This region, commonly known as Trachonitis in Greek geography, already appears in the Hebrew Bible as Argob (Deuteronomy 3:4; 1 Kings 4:13), and is currently named Lajat in Arabic. Volcanic soils at a high altitude are characteristic of these lands as well as the lack of large urban hubs in both ancient and modern times (see MacAdam 1986, Studies, p. 46-90). During the Roman period, the economic and civic life of southern Syria was instead managed through a series of rural centres such as Phaenae (see Maurice, “Les Metrokomiai”). The fact that Iulius Saturninus was contacting the village directly confirms the importance of these institutions in the area despite the absence of Greek poleis (Millar, The Roman Near East, p. 109). In his letter, the governor was addressing one of the main concerns of provincials under the rule of Rome: the abuses of the army.  

Roman soldiers on duty were entitled to requisition accommodation and transport as set in the lex Iulia de repetundis (Crawford, Roman Statutes, p. 769-772, no. 55; see Kolb, Transport), and the consequences of their excesses are frequently attested in the epigraphic evidence of the eastern Mediterranean during the imperial period (see Mitchell, “Transport”, p. 111-112). Already under Tiberius, the governor of Galatia unsuccessfully tried to set limits through an edict and Hadrian himself needed to alert the settlements in Asia prior to the passage of his troops towards the Levant. A precedent for our inscription survives in an imperial estate of Syria dating to the reign of Domitian (IGLS V.1998; Millar, The Roman Near East, p. 85-86). In the case of Phaenae, the Roman legate was also aware that the village could be subject to forceful (βιαίως/biaiôs) occupations by individuals either of military (στρατιώτης/stratiôtês) or private (ἰδιώτης/idiôtês) status. In other words, Iulius Saturninus acknowledged this pressing reality but only offered his legal assistance and authority as a response (l. 13-16). While it is interesting to observe the reliance on such procedures of the Roman administration even in non-urban areas such as the Trachonitis, the recurrence of this problem in our sources shows that such solutions did not prove very effective. For this reason, the reference made to the existence of a guest house (ξενών/xenôn) in Phaenae becomes very relevant. According to the governor of Syria, such a facility exempted the population from the aforementioned necessity of hosting strangers at their homes (l. 23-29). Likewise, no payment συνεισφορά/syneisphora could be extracted from them under any circumstances. And yet, even if the letter (γραμματα/grammata) was clearly posted as recommended (l. 30-39), and the emperor Julian in the 4th century CE recommended the construction of similar guest-houses (Letters 84.23-24), the fact that the jurist Ulpian (3rd century AD) still regarded such illegal exactions as a cause of concern for Roman governors shows that the issue could not be settled so easily (Digest

Such a chronic consequence of Roman rule was even more acute in this area of the Middle East. Despite the rough landscape and sparse occupation of the Trachonitis, the region played a key role in the control of the imperial frontiers. After the establishment of the province of Arabia, a new road called Via Traiana Nova was built to connect the new territories and improve security (see Bowersock, Roman, p. 74-89 and Isaac, The limits, p. 120-135). Phaenae lay directly on the route from the capital Bostra to the permanent Syrian legionary headquarters near Emesa (see Dunand, La voie romaine). Indeed, the Tabula Peutingeriana signals this station point 26 miles south of Damascus and a milestone of the road survives (AE 1930.141),indicating that repairs were carried precisely when Iulius Saturninus was legate of the province in 185/6 CE. The contemporary military presence in this area of southern Syria is even better illuminated by the other inscriptions preserved on the same building of Phaenae where our text was discovered. A centurion of the Legion III Gallica called C. Helvius Marianus dedicated here a vow to the salvation and victory of Commodus while setting up a statue (IGRR III.1116). Another centurion of the Legion XVI Flavia Firma donated a representation of Peace (Eἰρήνη, IGRR III.1117), and other officials belonging to these units are attested already under Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus promoting imperial triumphs (IGRR III.1113-1114). Besides the preparation of such vows common to this area of the eastern Mediterranean (see Moralee, For Salvation Sake), it is even more interesting to observe that the honorific inscriptions set up by the local population for these soldiers were not negative. For example, Petusius Eudemus was exalted as a friend and benefactor (IGRR III.1122), and C. Egnatius Fuscus even praised for his self-restraint (IGRR III.1120). The record of both beneficial and detrimental effects was therefore compatible in this corner of the Empire. On the one hand, a local community could complain to the Roman governor about abuses that frequently became unbearable due to the location of the settlement. The same problem had to be faced by Iuliopolis in Bithynia and they also reported their situation to Pliny the Younger when he was governor of the province under Trajan (Letters X.77-78). In both cases, the local population still tried to solve such issues by resorting to the resources and conduits of Roman administration at their disposal. Military excess could generate legal petitions and official responses, but not automatic rebellions and violent repressions. At the same time, the testimonies from Phaenae show that troops – even with the high rank of centurion – were not always despised and could be publicly praised for their actions (see Pollard, Soldiers, Cities). This second positive discourse is present in the epigraphic testimonies but cannot be extracted from rabbinic sources which constantly demonise the Roman military.

In using inscriptions from other regions, one could always argue that the reality of the rabbis was different from that described by more prosperous communities in the eastern Mediterranean. This argument, nevertheless, is not tenable in the case of our inscription from southern Syria. Not only is Phaenae very close to Palestine, but also the Jewish presence in the area can be epigraphically proven. A man coming from this village has been found in the necropolis of Beth She’arim (SEG 16.838=IJO Syr39), and a Phaenesian god-fearer is also attested in Rome (IG XIV 1325=CIJ 500). Furthermore, Herod is said to have sent a colony of Babylonian Jews to Batanea, which borders the Trachonitis (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XVII.23-29) and provides evidence for a synagogue and even a rabbi between the 4th and 5th centuries (IJO Syr34-36). As a result, our text is not just interesting for confirming the abuses inflicted by soldiers on the local population, but particularly important for presenting a more nuanced approach to the Roman military presence in a context very related to the rabbinic invectives.

Bibliographical references: 

Roman Statutes I

Crawford, Michael H.Roman Statutes I LondonInstitute of Classical Studies1996

Roman Arabia

Bowersock, Glen W.bookRoman ArabiaCambridge, Mass.Harvard University Press1983
Realized by: