Over time major rebellions against Roman rule ceased, even if this took a little longer in Judaea. Small-scale revolts did occur in a number of provinces, although even these were rare. In AD 171 or 172, a group called the Boukoloi (or Bucoli) – ‘cowboys’ or ‘herdsmen’ – rebelled in the Nile Delta. Our sources are poor, with the fullest little more than a paragraph from a much later epitome of Dio’s account, whose collator focused on the lurid and bizarre. He claims that some of the Boukoloi disguised themselves as women, so that they could get close to the centurion sent to collect money from them. The Roman officer was taken by surprise and hacked down, and a companion butchered as a sacrifice, his entrails being eaten to bind the rebels in a dreadful oath.

Joined by a group led by a priest named Isidorus – described as ‘the bravest of them all’ – the rising gathered momentum. The Romans responded in the usual way and attacked, but the force sent against the rebels was defeated. By this time Egypt was garrisoned by a single legion, supported by at most a dozen auxiliary units. Some of these troops were stationed on the province’s southern frontier, guarding the Upper Nile, and others patrolled the roads to the Red Sea ports or were dispersed in small detachments, guarding quarries or granaries, and acting as policemen and administrators. Such a deployment makes it unlikely that the column sent to deal with the rising was either large or consisted of the best-trained and motivated troops in Egypt, making the defeat less surprising.

Success encouraged the rebels to advance on the great city of Alexandria, although clearly this was some months later, for they were blocked by forces sent from Syria and led by the legate of that province, Caius Avidius Cassius. Senators were forbidden from visiting Egypt, and this intervention must have been ordered by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, requiring a report to reach him, an order to be sent to Syria, and time for a force to be mustered and then moved to Egypt. Cassius avoided a major battle and instead wore the rebels down, fighting many smaller actions and defeating each of the rebel groups separately. This suggests that they had either dispersed as raiding bands or each settled down to defend their own homes.

Many important details of the episode elude us. For instance, the attack on the centurion suggests that Roman levies were resented, but it is not clear whether this was the main cause of the revolt. A gruesome human sacrifice and the mention of the priest Isidorus both hint at religious fervour, whether simply as a unifying force and reminder that they were ruled by foreigners of a different culture, or as a promise of divine aid like that Mariccus offered to his followers among the Boii. Yet we should be cautious, given so brief an account. Greeks and Romans alike saw the people of Egypt as excessively superstitious and alleged that they practised strange and savage rituals, and so were inclined to depict their behaviour in this way. The Boukoloi also appear in ancient fiction, turned into a caricature of wild barbarians given to human sacrifice and cannibalism, and this fictional imagery may well have seeped into historical narratives.

For all our doubts about the rebellion, some aspects are revealing. As was often the case, it appears to have taken the Romans by surprise, in the long as well as the short term, for the gradual reduction in size of the garrison of Egypt in the later first and second centuries AD suggests that no major trouble was anticipated. Whoever the Boukoloi really were, and whether or not they were truly as savage as the sources claim, they were just one group within the wider population of rural Egypt. Others joined them, but the revolt was not by a unified people with a common sense of identity, and instead consisted of multiple communities loosely banded together. If the scale of the revolt is unclear, there is no hint that it involved anything more than a small minority of the provincial population, and while the rebels were clearly hostile to Rome, the move on Alexandria suggests little sympathy for other subjects of the empire. That city was always described as Alexandria ‘near Egypt’ rather than ‘in Egypt’ and was a metropolis with a population of several hundred thousand. Founded by Alexander the Great, its inhabitants were mixed, but the dominant group was legally and culturally – if not necessarily ethnically – Greek. Groups like the Boukoloi and the rural population in general had little affection for this ‘foreign’ city, any more than the Alexandrians had any liking for them.

The mix of populations within a province was one of the main reasons why even the major rebellions struggled to unite the entire population of a single province against the imperial power. Lesser rebellions tended to focus on small regions or groups, and found it difficult to spread, because other provincial communities were antipathetic or openly hostile to them. Few of the areas in the empire had experienced peace and stability before the Romans arrived, and memories of past feuds remained strong. The experience of conquest reinforced some divisions among the indigenous population, as did any subsequent real or perceived favouring of particular leaders and sections of the population. In the eastern Mediterranean, where the Romans were merely the latest in a succession of conquerors, their arrival did not remove every long-standing division created or exacerbated by earlier empires. Even if the Alexandrians and the Egyptians from the countryside both felt alienated by Roman rule at the same time and rebelled, there was no prospect of them joining together. In fact, throwing off Roman rule was likely to make them eager to revive far older quarrels.

During the civil war after the death of Nero, the hatred between Lugdunum and Viennensis (modern Vienne) in Gaul flared into new life, and led to skirmishes ‘too savage and frequent for anyone to believe that they fought on behalf of Nero or Galba’. Later, the leaders of Lugdunum tried to persuade an army on its way from the Rhine frontier and fighting for another claimant to the throne to sack Viennensis as a place ‘foreign and hostile’ and also rich in plunder. The people there managed to placate the soldiers by a dramatic display of submission and by handing over money and weapons to them. Later during the same power struggle, the cities of Oea and Lepcis Magna in North Africa went from disputes between peasants stealing each other’s cattle and crops to ‘proper weapons and pitched battles’. Oea enlisted the aid of some of the Garamantes to the south, ‘an ungovernable people well practised in raiding their neighbours’, and so gained the upper hand. Eventually a force of auxiliaries arrived and drove off the Garamantes, recapturing the plunder they had taken, apart from the goods already sold off to distant communities, and peace was restored.

Even Italy was not free of rivalries between its cities. During some fighting in this same civil war, the ‘most splendid’ amphitheatre outside the city walls of Placentia (modern Piacenza) was burned down. No one was quite sure whether the blaze was started by the besiegers or by the defenders hurling burning missiles at them, but afterwards the ‘common folk of the town’ alleged that the building had been packed with combustible material by unknown agents of other Italian cities who envied Placentia its magnificent monument. The games were a great opportunity to parade civic pride, both in the grandeur of the venue and the scale and style of the gladiatorial fights and other shows. In AD 59 this exploded into violence between Pompeii and its neighbour and rival Nuceria at a show staged in the amphitheatre at Pompeii. A few bits of graffiti from the city hint at long-standing hostility – ‘Good luck to the Nucerians and the hook for Pompeians and Pitheucusans’. At first there was simply chanting and mutual abuse of the type common enough between rival fans at many sporting events, but Tacitus then says that this was followed by ‘stones, and finally cold steel’. A famous wall painting from a house in Pompeii showing gladiators fighting in the arena while other figures battle it out on the streets outside surely depicts the disturbances that followed. The visiting Nucerians were heavily outnumbered and soon had the worst of it, with many being killed or wounded. Some of the injured were taken to Rome, and the matter was brought to the attention of Nero, who ordered the Senate to hold an enquiry into the whole incident. They found against the Pompeians and banned the city from holding games for ten years.

Fighting on this scale was unusual anywhere in the empire and especially in Italy, and we know too little of the background to identify what sparked the trouble. The Senate exiled several leading culprits, including the man who staged the games, who had been expelled in disgrace from their own ranks before this incident. Although competition between cities was common throughout the empire it was mainly peaceful, if only because there were few occasions when large crowds of hostile communities would meet. More common was bickering over the boundaries of their jurisdiction, where the risk was of small-scale violence and theft. An inscription from Sardinia records the formal end of hostility between two villages after 185 years, the peace deal being imposed by the Roman authorities in AD 69, centuries after the region became a province. This only occurred because the Romans threatened to use heavy force against one of the rivals. For many provincials Rome was a distant presence, resented rather less than the ongoing annoyance of living close to old enemies.


Around 160 years after Cicero landed at Ephesus on his way to govern Cilicia, another former consul arrived there on his way to his own provincial command of Bithynia and Pontus. Pliny the Younger (Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) had not dawdled like the reluctant Cicero, but even so arrived later than he hoped, his ship delayed by bad weather. More delays followed as he pressed on to his province. The heat was excessive, making overland travel by carriage arduous, and Pliny went down with fever and had to stay some days at Pergamum, but when they took passage on trading ships operating along the coast they were again held back by the weather. It was not until 17 September AD 109 that the new governor reached Bithynia, allowing him to celebrate the birthday of the Emperor Trajan on the next day.

Pliny was a ‘new man’ like Cicero, his family coming from one of the towns of Italy, in his case Comum (modern Como, on the picturesque lake of the same name). He was also a highly successful advocate in the courts and a prolific author who published nine books of edited letters in conscious emulation of his famous predecessor. Pliny’s correspondents included many of the distinguished senators of the era, notably the historian Tacitus, and dealt with domestic themes, literature, admirable behaviour by prominent men and women, and the conduct of some of the important trials in which he was involved. There were also a number of letters soliciting favours for himself or his associates. Wholly absent is Cicero’s concern for the outcome of elections, for building political friendships with others, for the changing balance of power and influence within the Senate and with the details of legislation. The reader of Pliny’s Letters can be left in no doubt that this was a state controlled by a princeps, whose influence – malign in the case of Domitian and benevolent in the case of Trajan – was everywhere. It is no coincidence that the only one of Pliny’s published speeches to survive is a panegyric of Trajan, for senators under the Principate were dependent on imperial favour to a degree that Cicero could scarcely have imagined, even during Caesar’s dictatorship.

It was as a representative of the emperor, as legatus Augusti on a special commission, that Pliny went out to Bithynia, his appointment made by Trajan and not subject to senatorial debate or lot. Even so his authority was greater than that of anyone else in the province, except in the highly unlikely event of the princeps coming in person. However, the greater power of Trajan could not be ignored. Pliny took with him a set of instructions (mandata) issued by the emperor, which were longer and more prescriptive than the suggestions the Senate made to someone like Cicero. It would be difficult for provincials to appeal over his head to Rome unless they had his permission, but it was certainly not impossible. There was also a procurator overseeing the imperial estates and some of the taxation of the province and this man corresponded directly with the princeps and his advisors. In this case the relations between the two men were good.

Bithynia and Pontus was not a major military province and was garrisoned by at most a handful of auxiliary units – one cohors equitata consisting of infantry and a small force of cavalry is definitely attested, a second is almost certain, and there may have been other regiments. In normal times the province was under senatorial control, its governor a proconsul selected by lot from a list drawn up by the Senate of sufficient men to fill the number of posts coming vacant in the public provinces. Sometimes the princeps’ advice on selection was sought, and even when it was not it is clear that they would not choose anyone who was obviously out of favour. In office, these governors had limited independence and their decisions could be overruled by the princeps if a matter was brought to his attention. They were also bound by rulings made by past emperors, and would need to seek approval to change these. Augustus may at first not have issued mandata to proconsuls, but probably began to do so later in his reign and this became normal under his successors.

In the early second century AD Bithynia and Pontus was a troubled region. Several of its former governors were prosecuted for corruption, while there were bitter rivalries for dominance within its major cities and widespread misuse of public money. Trajan decided to intervene, temporarily adding the region to his provinces and sending Pliny there as his legate. He was princeps and the Senate could not refuse, although in this case it is unlikely that it resented the move, since it still meant that one of their number was given the command.

On the whole, proconsuls and imperial legates did much the same job, and successful senators served in both capacities at different stages in their careers. The essentially civilian role of the proconsul was emphasised in the wearing of the toga on ceremonial occasions, while the overtly military legates wore a sword, military cloak and cuirass. The former were accompanied by six lictors bearing fasces, the latter probably by five, marking their lesser imperium as representatives rather than magistrates in their own right. Both types of governor held essentially identical authority over the garrisons of their provinces in every important respect, and it was simply that the proconsuls had far fewer troops at their disposal. Their tenure was also shorter, often no longer than the traditional twelve months. In contrast it was rare for a legate to hold command for less than three years, and many were in post for even longer, giving the province greater continuity of leadership and allowing the governor to address more serious problems, whether military or civil. Pliny died before the end of his third year in the post and we do not know how long he was due to be in the province, but he was sent expressly to restore order to its finances and administration so there may not have been a fixed term.

Throughout his time in the province Pliny wrote to Trajan, often seeking guidance on specific problems. A tenth book of correspondence was published posthumously, consisting of letters to the emperor, and it is dominated by his time as governor – his letters from Bithynia and Trajan’s replies make up 107 out of a total of 121. Although we do not know the circumstances of their preparation and release, this must surely have occurred with at least the approval and perhaps the active involvement of Trajan and his advisors. It was an era when many technical manuals were being written, and in some ways the letters from Bithynia have a similar, instructional feel to them, showing the way that a good governor should go about his job. Pliny’s approach to a problem involved looking for precedents and past rulings, trying to find the most beneficial solution for the provincial communities, and seeking the emperor’s decision on some issues where he was unsure. This was clearly how Trajan wished his principate to be seen, as efficient, benevolent, respectful to local traditions and obedient to the spirit as well as the letter of the law. The Trajan of these letters has the same tone of friendship and interest in the welfare of provincial communities that can be seen in many inscriptions recording replies from emperors to requests from cities and individuals.

All imperial legates sent reports and queries to the princeps, and we cannot say whether or not Pliny wrote more often than was normal – or indeed whether there were originally far more letters, some too brief or too mundane to be included in the published version. The tendency to address just one issue in each letter was more likely intended to make it easier for the imperial secretariat to check for precedents and to respond or advise the princeps rather than being a sign that letters were extensively rewritten before publication. It is possible that some of the questions were asked in order to permit Trajan to give the official response, although this would assume that it was always planned to publish the letters. One instance is the repeated requests for specialists such as architects and surveyors to be sent out from Italy or from a military province – the army produced very skilled technicians of all kinds. Only once does the princeps agree, saying that he will instruct the legate of Moesia to send a man to supervise a complex canal-building scheme. Otherwise, he invariably assures Pliny that not simply Bithynia but any province will have competent specialists among the population, an answer with a general application.

All in all, the letters in Pliny’s tenth book appear genuine and give us our best picture of a provincial governor under the Principate, worthy of comparison with Cicero’s letters from Cilicia. As always, the different circumstances of the early second century AD compared to the middle of the first century BC are obvious. No doubt Pliny wrote plenty of letters to friends, relations and other connections while in his province, but none of these were published. What mattered was the relationship between princeps and legate and the provincial communities. Throughout Pliny addressed Trajan as domine – master or lord – and was in turn called ‘my dear Secundus’. Augustus had not cared to be called dominus, but under his successors – even ones considered to be good rulers and respectful of the Senate – this became normal. Some of the replies have a formal style, reflecting their drafting by imperial secretaries, but now and again the tone of familiarity or of exasperation at the provincials is surely the authentic voice of the emperor.