Cretans and Cilicians: Athenians, Rhodians, and Romans pair “banditry” with imperial control (fifth-second centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Cretans and Cilicians: Athenians, Rhodians, and Romans pair “banditry” with imperial control (fifth-second centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 4, 2023,

Ancient authors: Citizens of Athens and Halieis, IG I³ 75 (424 BCE; link); Citizens of Rhodes and Hierapytna, SIG³ 581 = ICret III iii 3A (ca. 200 BCE; link); People of Rome, IKnidos 31 (100 BCE; link).

Comments: One of the dynamics of a current ruling power’s relations with subjugated or enemy peoples in ancient Greek and Roman contexts is the categorization of resistance against, or lack of alliance with, the ascendant power as the equivalent of “banditry” or “piracy,” in other words criminal activity – rather than legitimate war – deserving of violent suppression. This can be witnessed in a number of treaties or legal actions between a succession of imperial powers and particular allies or potential allies, aiming at control, expansion, and the exclusion of particular peoples or alliances. The inscriptional evidence presented below provides the examples of the Athenians (ca. 424 BCE), the Rhodians (ca. 200 BCE), and the Romans (100 BCE).

Each of the treaties or legal documents below illustrates the intimate relation between imperial control and notions of “banditry,” implying the labelling of particular groups or peoples as bandits (at sea in these cases). As Thucydides’ discussion of the progress from banditry to civilization shows (link), the Athenians were prone to categorize peoples such as the Aitolians as bandits. Lurking in the background of the Rhodian case is the notion that Cretans were bandits and lurking in the background of the Roman one is the notion that Cilicians were such.

The marginalization of Cretans (among Greeks) as “always bandits and pirates, and never just” (αἰεὶ ληισταὶ καὶ ὁλιφθόροι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι; Leonidas of Tarentum, Anthology 7.654) reaches back beyond the third century BCE. Polybios clearly reflects the ongoing tradition in the second century (e.g. Histories 4.8; 13.8). It is in the late third century during the so-called Rhodian-Cretan wars that we clearly see the labelling being employed by Rhodians for the purpose of imperial expansion. Like the nearby Cretans, Cilicians on the sourtheastern coast of Turkey were cast as a bandit people. These documents show how such treaties aim at defining two clearly demarcated categories: allies of the hegemonic power who will not harbour “bandits” and illegitimate bandits or pirates or harbourers of bandits deserving of violent suppression.

This imperialistic notion continued to function in subsequent Roman imperial contexts, as this passage in the Digest illustrates:

“The ‘enemies’ (hostes) are those on whom the Roman people has publicly declared war (bellum), or who themselves declare war on the Roman people. Others are termed ‘bandits’ (latrunculi) or ‘brigands’ (praedones)” (Ulpian, Institutes, book 1, in Digest 49.15.24, ca. 200 CE; cf. Pomponius in Digest 50.16.118, mid-second century CE; Cicero, de Officiis 3.107).

Works consulted: Philip de Souza, “Rome’s Contribution to the Development of Piracy,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes 6 (2008): 71–96 (link).

Source of translations: IG I³ 75 adapted from Stephen Lambert (link; license: CC BY-SA 3.0); SIG³ 581 adapted from M.M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: CUP, 1981), no. 113; IKnidos 31 adapted from M.H. Crawford, J.M. Reynolds, J.-L. Ferarry, and P. Moreau in Michael H. Crawford, ed., Roman Statutes, 2 volumes (London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 1996), 231-270, no. 12.


IG I³ 75: Treaty between Athens and Halieis with reference to not harbouring “bandits” or engaging in “banditry” (424/3 BCE (?))

Gods. Neokleides . . . was secretary. It was resolved by the Council and People. . . . Aigeis (?) . . . was civic president (prytanis), Neokleides was secretary, . . . Name presided. Laches (5) made the proposal: there shall be an agreement between the Athenians and the Halieians [located on the southern coast of the Argive peninsula of the Peloponnesos] and a truce . . . for x years (?) . . . without deceit on the following terms:

The Halieians shall permit the Athenians . . . to establish a garrison (?). They shall also treat well (?) . . . the Athenians and . . . shall not receive bandits (or: raiders) (?) . . . or themselves engage in banditry or . . . campaign with (?) . . . the Athenians’ enemies against the (10) Athenians or the allies of the Athenians, or supply money . . . to the enemies (?) . . . or receive . . . any enemy garrison (?) . . . within their walls.

Now if any enemy attacks Halieis, the Athenians shall immediately help the Halieians . . . and do whatever they can to oblige (?). . . the Halieians; and whatever (15) the Halieians hold . . . they shall be allowed to hold for the future (?). No-one shall harm the Halieians . . . or overlook it if any of their enemies (?) harms them. Now the Athenians . . . shall establish a garrison in Halieis (?) . . . for as long as the war . . . lasts, but when peace is restored, the Halieians shall guard (?) . . . their own land. If the Halieians need anything else which is justifiable (20) from the Athenian People, they shall obtain it.

The Halieians swore as follows: “we shall be . . . allies to the Athenians and permit the Athenians to establish a garrison; we shall do well to the Athenians as far as we can at every opportunity and shall abide by the (25) agreement which we have made with the Athenians”

Their envoys (?) . . . shall swear and shall invoke destruction on any Halieians who do not abide by the oaths which they have sworn. On behalf of the Athenians, the Council and the generals swore to abide by the agreement which they made with the Halieians (30) responsible for making terms. Now the secretary of the Council shall inscribe the agreement on a stone slab (stele) and put it on the acropolis. The payment officers shall give the money. The Halieians shall place [their copy of] the slab in the sanctuary of Apollo. The following envoys swore to the alliance: Neon . . . (list of names largely missing on the damaged stone).


SIG³ 581 = ICret III iii 3A: Treaty between the Rhodians and the Hierapytnians with reference to excluded “bandits” (ca. 200 BCE)

God. With good fortune. It was resolved by the people, with good fortune. The priests and the sacrificers shall pray to the Sun and to Rhodos and to all the other gods and goddesses and to the founding deities and to the heroes who possess the city and territory of the Rhodians, that what has been resolved concerning the alliance may be of advantage to the Rhodians and the Hierapytnians. When the prayer has (5) been completed, a sacrifice and a procession shall be offered as resolved by the people.

When the alliance has been ratified and the oaths have been sworn according to the written treaty, there shall be an alliance <between the Hierapytnians> and the people of the Rhodians. The Hierapytnians shall assist (10) the people of Rhodes, and make available their city, harbours and naval bases, and shall be well disposed, friendly and allied for ever. . . [sections omitted].

The Hierapytnians shall give every assistance to the troops sent by the (50) Rhodians, to the best of their ability, and shall take every care for them as though they were their own citizens.

Now if sea-bandits (lastai / lēstai) establish bases in Crete (or: Crete) and the Rhodians wage war at sea against the bandits or those who provide shelter or assistance to them, (55) the Hierapytnians shall take part in the operations by land and by sea with all possible strength at their own expense. The bandits who are captured shall be handed over to the Rhodians together with their ships, while each of the allies shall take half of the rest of the booty. On these terms the Rhodians shall be well disposed, friendly and (60) in alliance with the Hierapytnians for ever . . . [sections omitted].

Now if during a campaign which the Hierapytnians are waging (80) with the Rhodians to destroy bandits, any of those who provide shelter or assistance to the bandits wage war on the Hierapytnians because of this campaign, the Rhodians shall come to the help of the Hierapytnians with all possible strength, and anyone who acts in this way shall be an enemy of the Rhodians. . . [remainder omitted].


IKnidos 31: Roman law with respect to the provinces of Macedonia and Asia with reference to the suppression of sea-bandits (100 BCE)

[Context of ostensible safety and protection provided by Rome to allies]

(Knidos copy, column 2, lines 1-11) . . . to the Roman People (dēmos) according to this statute, so that none of the peoples (ethnē) may be injured or . . . insulted (?). For whoever has received actions to take, insofar as it is possible, is to act without wrongful deceit, so that the citizens of Rome, the allies and the Latins, likewise those of the peoples who are friends of the Roman People may sail in safety and obtain their rights. . . [material dealing with imperial roles, military movements and other issues in relation to the provinces of Macedonia and Asia omitted].

[Provisions for consul to send letters to civic bodies and kings regarding no harbouring of sea-bandits]

(column 3, lines 28-41) The senior consul is to send letters to whichever Peoples (dēmoi) and civic organizations it seems appropriate to say that the Roman People will take care to ensure that the citizens of Rome, the allies, the Latins, and those of the foreign peoples who are in a relationship of friendship with the Roman People may sail in safety. On account of this matter and according to this statute they have made Cilicia a praetorian province. Likewise, the king holding sway in Kypros, the king ruling at Alexandria and in Egypt, the king ruling at Kyrene, and the kings . . . [missing text, but evidently continuing in the overlapping Delphi copy]. (Delphi copy, Block B, column 3, lines 8-14) . . . to the king ruling in the island of Kypros, to the king . . . ruling at (?) Alexandria and in Egypt, . . . to the king (?) ruling at Kyrene, and to the kings ruling in Syria . . . who have (?) . . . a relationship of friendship and alliance . . . with the Roman People, he is to send letters (?) . . . to the effect that it is right for them both [i.e. the civic bodies and the kings] to see that no pirates (peiratai) . . . use as a base of operations (?) . . . their kingdom, land, or territories; . . . . to see that no officials or garrison commanders whom (?) . . . they appoint harbour the pirates; and, to see that, insofar as . . . it is possible, (?) . . . the Roman People . . . [omitted instructions on the sending of letters for public display in the provinces, on the collection of taxes, and on other specific matters regarding Macedonia].

(Delphi copy, Block C, column 2, lines 15-24) No one is to do anything contrary to this statute knowingly with wrongful deceit, and whatever it is appropriate for anyone to do according to this statute is to be done. . . . [omitted further warnings about potential violations, including a fine of 200,000 sesterces].

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