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