For sales information, please contact our distributors:
Bloomsbury Academic
For North American and all e-book sales:
ISD Distribution

Review of Organized Crime in Antiquity, edited by Keith Hopwood

Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 9
Review by Denis Saddington, University of Witwatersrand

This work consists of an introduction, nine papers read at a conference held in Lampeter in Wales in 1996 and an index. In the Introduction (pp. vii-xv) Hopwood traces some differences between the ancient and the modern (Western!) concept of crime. The conference was based on the assumption that important insights can be gained into the structure and development of a society by examining the forms of crime in it. A major conclusion emerges that organized crime flourishes best in a society where there is a large gap between the rich and the poor.

The most prominent form of organized crime in the classical world was that perpetrated by groups of bandits, who might well have regarded themselves as freedom-fighters. Mitchell (p. 157) provides a useful definition and discussion of the terminology used for the various types of this sort of anti-state activity that fall short of formal warfare.

H. van Wees (pp. 1-51) discusses the curbing of violence that took place in Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries BC as the early city states came into being. He shows how the transition occurred from the dominance of the type of heroic figure lording it over his personal followers prominent in Homer to communities succeeding in gaining more control over powerful individuals. The power of the early aristocrats was often asserted by marked aggression and open violence. Their 'honour' was of supreme importance to them as they claimed to maintain a type of order in the community in exchange for which they received 'gifts'. He makes an extended and very illuminating comparison with early mafiosi figures in Sicily and shows how their sense of values was adapted to their role in society. The early Greek states succeeded in containing the depredations of these epic 'princes' only gradually; attention is given to the role played by Solon in Athens in replacing individual violence by acceptance of laws.

In Chapter 2 (pp. 53-96), N. Fisher asks whether there was much organized crime in fifth- and fourth-century Athens. Even when fully developed Athens had no police-force. Citizens had to rely on communal support to enforce accepted values: however, the consensus was very effective. Accordingly, much depended on self-help, usually with the assistance of relatives and neighbours. Fisher finds little evidence of large, well-organized criminal gangs in Athens: even commercial fraud seems to have been on a fairly small scale. He concludes that Athens was a non-violent society (p. 75).

Chapter 3 (pp. 97-127) by L. Rawlings is a companion piece to van Wees'. It discusses early Italian condottieri and clansmen, that is, the relationship between powerful individuals and their communities in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In effect, as the evidence dictates, attention is devoted almost entirely to Rome. There the nobles built up power networks based on kinship and clientship; in Rome one was a client of an individual, not of a (political) grouping. Eventually the growing sophistication of the army and the increasing control exercised by such figures as the fetial priests restrained warmongering by powerful individuals.

In Chapter 4 (pp. 129-53), R. Alston discusses a late 2nd- century AD revolt in Egypt, that of the Boukoloi. The evidence for it is tenuous, but he distinguishes 'mythical' accretions in the ancient accounts from the possible historical events. (Tacitus' emotionally charged descriptions of the Egyptians and the Jews could have been compared, as well as Josephus' account of the Jewish revolt in Cyrene.) Historicity seems confirmed by the mention of a centurion: as Alston shows, centurions played an important role in 'policing' Egypt.[[1]] The centurions in Judaea (e.g., Luke 7.2, 23.47) might also have been adduced. He then tries to recover the background of the revolt by a discussion of the geography of the Delta, where it was probably localized, suggesting that conflict may have arisen between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists (but that these were not always at variance with each other has been shown by Rushworth[[2]]). This does indeed provide a likely context but he does not make it clear whether he regards the revolt as an example of 'organized crime' or an attempt to gain independence from Rome.

S. Mitchell heads his contribution (Chapter 5, pp. 155-75) 'Native Rebellion in the Pisidian Taurus'. This is a perceptive analysis of events there at the end of the third century under Probus. The literary record is now fleshed out by information deduced from the archaeological discoveries around Cremna and the nearby fort of Ovarlik. Some very informative inscriptions have turned up. Mitchell shows that this was not a contest between montagnards and plainsmen (a never-ending struggle which he illuminates by connecting it with mythological accounts of snakes and dragons attacking the weak). It was a contest between different communities with connections to urban centres in the district, one pro-Roman and, though using largely local forces, supported at least ideologically by Rome, and the other seeking independence. Accordingly it was a revolt. There are useful incidental remarks on eirenarchs and pirates.

K. Hopwood discusses a not dissimilar uprising in nearby Rough Cilicia (pp. 177-206). This was by an Isaurian group driven back up into the mountains behind the Cilician plain in the second half of the fourth century AD. They requested the citizens of Germanicopolis 'whom they had always respected' (cf. Amm. Marc. 27.9.7, quoted on p. 177) to negotiate a peace-deal with the Roman forces operating in the area. Again, Hopwood shows that this was not a simple mountain-versus-plain struggle, but that tensions in the agricultural hinterland of the city had led to peasant and shepherd groups withdrawing into the hills and then engaging in raiding to support themselves. In fact, there was not a dichotomy between city and bandit; many of the city councillors had actually enlisted wild shepherds and bandits into 'protection units' on their estates. As power was increasingly shifting from the cities to the central government in late antiquity, the nature of banditry was affected. There are useful parallels with both earlier and modern times.

S.R. Holman (pp. 207-28) considers 'usury as civic injustice' on the basis of a sermon of Basil of Caesarea delivered in the last third of the fourth century. It is unfortunate that she does not give its reference number in a standard edition (e.g., Migne PG 29 coll. 263ff.). She introduces her discussion by a brief account of lending at interest in antiquity, with its 'normal' rate of 12% per annum, but often inflicting a much more ruinous one escalating exponentially. She seems to think there are huge differences between ancient and modern economies. However, she shows how the bishop viewed debt within the theoretical context of loans made within a patron-client 'friendship'. The courtesies this implies had of course long evaporated. Basil pleads for a restoration of a sense of humanity in the lender-debtor relationship but his basic advice is for the poor to make every effort to avoid borrowing and for the rich to lend without interest or to make outright gifts as a form of charity, thereby acquiring 'credit' with God. This may not have been as quixotic as Holman implies. In the economy of antiquity we hear of reduction of taxation and the cancellation of debts and (in the parables in the New Testament) of some rich landowners who were considerate.

In Chapter 8, M. Whitby discusses 'The Violence of the Circus Factions' (pp. 229-53) in the early Byzantine period. He shows that there was more to it than just 'soccer hooliganism' (as stated in a recent explanation); he draws attention especially to the chanting that occurred before the emperor. He finds a political role in the factions, especially visible in the open choice by Theodosius of the Greens as his club. The factions could be used as channels to official and imperial support. Their unruliness was tolerated because they helped to shore up the official's or even the emperor's power. Once again official tolerance is shown to be a factor in the operation of large-scale organized crime.

In the final contribution, 'Crime and Control in Aztec Society' (pp. 255-69), F.F. Berdan gives a very interesting introduction to the fourteenth-century Aztec empire in Mexico. But, as he openly admits, the evidence only allows the assumption that there was 'considerable potential for collective activity of a legally-marginal nature' (p. 268).

What appears is the absence of evidence for organized crime in antiquity, except in times of state-formation or political transformation. This is reflected in the spread of the papers. Only one discusses a successful society (Classical Athens). Two show the position in pre- or proto-states (Athens and Rome), while five analyse aspects of the late Roman empire (three on 'revolts', two on urban problems). But surely a more even spread could have been attempted. A most unfortunate omission is late Republican Rome, especially the extent to which the collegia used by Clodius and others had become 'criminalized' and the reason why a Cicero felt it necessary to wear a breastplate under his toga while consul and why an Antony needed a guard of Ituraean archers when attending the Senate. What was the debt problem that Caesar solved?

Equally surprising is the neglect of Josephus, our most detailed source for the problem in a province of the early Roman Empire. He accuses both Roman governors and Jewish rebels of criminality (and even shows them co- operating), even if his accounts are presented with exaggeration and bias, and he constantly applies such terms as robber, brigand and bandit to those whom others might label freedom fighters.

What we have is a valuable collection of essays which, besides discussing crime, throw an interesting light on aspects of 'the state' in early Athens and Rome and various rural and urban situations at the end of the Roman Empire. Disappointment arises from the title, which leads one to expect a well-rounded historical, if not sociological, analysis of organized crime in antiquity. The book is beautifully produced, but the nine separate contributions could have appeared more cheaply as articles in journals. There is no summing up.


[[1]] Cf. the valuable discussion in his book Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt (London 1995) 86ff.

[[2]] A. Rushforth, 'North African Deserts and Mountains', in David L. Kennedy (ed.) The Roman Army in the East (Ann Arbor 1996) 297ff. Return to full title details