Pliny had been sent by Trajan to the province of Bithynia and Pontus as legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate, a charge he fulfilled from the 17th September 110 CE to 112 CE. This appointment was exceptional because this province was a public one, and it was traditionally governed by a proconsul of praetorian standing. Slightly before Pliny’s nomination, the province of Bithynia and Pontus was temporarily made one of the emperor’s own provinces, meaning that Trajan was free to decide whom he wanted to send to this province to replace the usual proconsular governor (Hurlet, Le proconsul, p. 304). The choice of Pliny can be explained by the fact that the administration of Bithynia and Pontus had been largely neglected for many years, meaning that the cities of the province were affected by many irregularities. Trajan needed a man of confidence to regain control over the province.
Book X of Pliny’s letters is unique because a large number of its letters – except for the first fourteen – are part of the correspondence between Pliny, when he ruled the province of Bithynia and Pontus, and the emperor Trajan. It is actually the only collection of this kind which has been preserved. It thus gives important insight into the subjects which may have been frequently discussed between any proconsular governor (or similar) and the emperor (on this kind of correspondence see Hurlet, Le proconsul, p. 197-301). The letters of book 10 were published after Pliny’s death, and were probably not so harshly selected as in the case of the letters of books 1 to 9 of his correspondence (on this issue see Pliny the Younger, Letters X.6-7).
The two letters presented here must have been written in November or December 110 CE, that is at the beginning of Pliny’s mission (Sherwin White, The Letters, p. 606; Wynn, Pliny the Younger, p. 97). They show that the control of associations (collegia) was part of his duty as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (collegia generally referred to voluntary associations gathering privati, namely private individuals considered for activities aside from their public functions; for a definition of collegium, see Tran, Les membres, p. 3-15). During Pliny’s time as governor a terrible fire ravaged the city of Nicomedia – which was the most important city of the province of Bithynia, being the meeting place of the Bithynian council which annually celebrated the festival of the imperial cult. Subsequently, Pliny asked Trajan to authorize the creation of a private association of fire-fighters (here called collegium fabrorum). Pliny assured that he would control this collegium. Trajan rejected this proposal by arguing that a lot of factions (factiones) already disturbed the province, and that such a collegium would soon become a hetaeria – namely a political faction.
First, it is important to recall that the fabri here mentioned were men who performed various craft professions and who could also gather themselves into an association so as to serve as voluntary firemen. At the beginning of the second century CE, associations which acted as bodies of fire-fighters are essentially attested in Western regions, and more particularly in Italy (see Kneissl, “Die fabri”). Introducing such an association in a Greek city would thus have been something new (Sherwin White, The Letters of Pliny, p. 606-607; Wynn, Pliny the Younger, p. 98). It seems that in most Greek cities of Asia Minor, fire prevention was provided by a night-strategos having under his orders some guards (Brélaz, La sécurité publique, p. 79-84, esp. 81-82). During a fire, it seems that it was the inhabitants of the city themselves who participated in the fight against it – as is proven by the end of Trajan’s response. Pliny was aware that introducing such an association in Nicomedia was risky. We understand the nature of these risks through the limitations he established in order to strictly supervise the collegium (Letter X.33.3). The first risk is related to the fact that the number of members of this association could increase so much that it could become out of control. The second risk is that the initial aim of the association could be distorted, especially by the introduction of exogenous members, so than it would eventually become a faction responsible for political unrest.
Trajan’s response gives further details regarding why he refuses Pliny’s proposal: “… But we must remember that this province and especially its cities have been disturbed by factions of this kind (eius modi factionibus). Whatever the name we may give, for whatever reason, to the people who gather together for a common purpose, they will soon turn into hetaeriae”. First, Trajan presents these Easterners as being indiscriminately tempted by riotous behaviours; a general statement which can be revealing of the contempt that the emperor had for them (see also Letter X.40.2 where Trajan presents Easterners as “Greeklings”; Wynn, Pliny the Younger, p. 98). Second, in the passage previously quoted, we can notice the shift of terminology, as the collegium is assimilated by Trajan with a factio, a pejorative word which, according to Timothy Wiseman’s definition, refers to “men who use their co-operation for unjust ends incompatible with the laws and the common good” (Wiseman, Roman Political Life, p. 13-14). The existence of factions causing troubles in the municipal life of major cities in Bithynia is confirmed by speeches of another author, and a contemporary of Pliny the Younger, Dio Chrysostom. We can quote, for instance, his Speech 39, in which he exhorts the inhabitants of Nicaea to stop civil strife, and his Speech 45 in which he implies that the elections to the council of Prusa had been perturbed by factions, ἑταιρείαι (hetaireiai) (Dio Chrysostom, Speech 45.8; about troubles in cities of Bithynia at Pliny or Dio’s time see Jones, The Roman World, p. 100-103; Salmeri, “Dio, Rome,” p. 70, 74-76, 80; Bekker-Nielsen, Urban Life, p. 125-133). Dio, as Trajan, uses the word hetaeria to refer to political cliques. The name itself is a transliterated form of a Greek name which, in the context of democratic Athens, referred to groups of young aristocrats having political aims and who were suspected of plotting (Wynn, Pliny the Younger, p. 98). In addition, in an excerpt from the fourth book of Caius’s Commentaries on the Twelve Tables as it is quoted in Digest 47.22.4, collegium (a professional association) and sodales (social associations) are presented as being synonyms of “what the Greeks called hetaireian” (quoted in Sherwin White, The Letters of Pliny, p. 610). Thus, Trajan’s suspicion surrounding the establishment of an association of firemen in Nicomedia may have been motivated by some precedents of civic strife which occurred in this very place and in some cities of the province because of local factions.
It is interesting to note that the suspicion of the Roman authorities towards collegia or gatherings of people which could become factions is not a new phenomenon limited to Eastern regions of the Empire, nor is it specific to professional associations or associations serving the public good.
First, at the end of the Republican period, professional collegia were present in many cities of the Empire, in Italy as in the Greek East. From the end of the first century BCE, Roman authorities seem to have increasingly adopted restrictive measures against collegia. Actually, Caesar would have declared that all collegia, with the exception of those which were ancient, had to be dissolved (see Suetonius, Caesar XLII.3; see also the debate about the association, probably erroneous, in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities XIV.215 – which mentions a διάταγμα (diatagma), an edict, thanks to which Caesar would have allowed the Jews of Parium to meet and share communal meal – and the Caesarian law on the collegia; see Cappelletti, The Jewish Community, p. 5-11). Augustus continued in the same direction by dissolving all the collegia, except those which were ancient (antiqua) or formed for legitimate purposes (legitima) – namely religious associations or associations having a public utility and which did not represent a threat to public order (Suetonius, Augustus XXXII.1). According to Philo, Augustus also granted the right to assemble to Jews, because when they gathered they did not disturb civic order or promote conspiracy (see Philo, The Embassy to Gaius 312). From Suetonius’s account, the existence of a lex Iulia (de collegiis) probably promulgated by Caesar and confirmed by Augustus (lex only mentioned in CIL, VI, 4416), and a passage from Marcian’s Institutes mentioned in Digest 47.22.3, it has been concluded that from Augustus’s time onwards, new associations had to be declared legitimate and useful by the Senate or the emperor before being instituted. For instance, in 59 CE, after the burst of violent riots which occurred in Pompeii during gladiatorial games, the Senate ordered the dissolution of all the illicit collegia (Tacitus, Annals XIV.17). Offering a different perspective, a passage from the Digest mentions that during the imperial period, collegia tenuiorum – the association of the “rather humble” (see Hawkins, Roman Artisans, p. 69) –and religious associations were allowed if they were not suspected of being diverted from their primary role (Digest 47.22.1). However, the territorial scope of the implementation of the lex Iulia and the extent of the imperial hostility towards all the collegia has been much debated, especially for the Roman East. The tradition defending the idea that a general ban on all the associations in the Eastern provinces and cities would have been generally and constantly respected has been rightly challenged. It has been proven that in the Roman East, many associations continued to function and that the Roman authorities only intervened sporadically to suppress some of them when there were problems – as was the case in Bithynia in 110 CE (see the bibliographic survey in Hawkins, Roman Artisans, p. 69, n. 11; Arnaoutoglou, “Roman Law”).
Moreover, the suspicion of the Roman authorities surrounding collegia or any gatherings of people is not specific to professional associations or associations serving the public good. Two other letters of book X of Pliny’s correspondence show that religious assemblies, such as those of the Christians, could also be accused of sedition (see Pliny the Younger, Letters X.96-97). Actually, in Letter X.96.7, we understand that the wrongdoings attributed to Christians were precisely their secretive meetings during which they shared Eucharistic meals, which frequently drew accusations of cannibalism. Even if Pliny rejects these anthropophagic accusations, he adds that: “They [i.e. the Christians] also had ceased from this practice after the edict I issued — by which, in accord with your orders (quo secundum mandata tua), I forbade all secret societies (hetaerias)”. It seems clear here that Christian communities are assimilatedwith hetaeriae. As any illicit collegium, they were suspected of criminal activities or of causing trouble. The imperial orders (mandata) here mentioned by Pliny may have already existed at the time of the affair with the firemen of Nicomedia dealt with in our two letters. The fact that Pliny is proactive in reassuring Trajan by saying that he will be particularly attentive to control this college of fabri proves that he was aware of Trajan’s orders about the necessity to prevent hetaeriae (see Wynn, Pliny the Younger, p. 98).
The last question raised by this interdiction of the establishment of the guild of firemen in Nicomedia and by these imperial mandata forbidding all hetaeriae, mentioned in Letter X.96, is that of the scope of the imperial banning of collegia in the Roman East. Many other sources show that collegia of various purposes – even professional ones – were far from absent in the cities of the province. Ilias Arnaoutoglou has perfectly shown the permanence of associations in Asia Minor, and also in Bithynia, during the first and second centuries CE (Arnaoutoglou, “Roman Law,” p. 32-44; for Trajan’s reign p. 35-36). All this seems to suggest that imperial bans of associations were temporary, and that they applied to specific locations or situations. Actually, in Letter X.92-93, Pliny deals with the case of the free and federate city of Amisos, located in Pontus. The inhabitants of this city had recently established an eranoi – some kind of charitable association quite similar to a collegium tenuiorum – and asked for Pliny’s support. Pliny refers the case to Trajan, who answers that this eranoi must be tolerated because “they [i.e. Pliny and him] cannot prevent them from having one”. Actually, the fact that Amisos was a free city and that this association had charitable purposes meant that the imperial power could not intervene to dissolve it (Arnaoutoglou, “Roman Law,” p. 38-39). The fact that at the end of this this letter Trajan mentions that “In the other cities which are bound by our law, anything of this kind is forbidden,” shows that at that time, the emperor took care of supervising any new association created in that province. However, such a sentence does not mean that all cultic, professional or charitable associations had been dissolved.
To conclude, Letters X.33 and 34 of Pliny’s correspondence show that at the beginning of the second century, the imperial power gave special attention to supervising new or already existing associations in the province of Bithynia and Pontus. These imperial interventions can be explained by the troubles and riots which disturbed the province of Bithynia for many years, and which had motivated the sending of Pliny. The interdiction to create a new association of firemen in Nicomedia shows that it was not only cultic or religious associations which could be the origin of civic troubles – as had been the case with the Christians. However, it would be wrong to interpret this interdiction as being part of a general ban. Trajan’s orders to regulate the associations in that province have to be interpreted as ad hoc interventions whose role was to put an end to the troubles which affected this region of the Empire.
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