Northern peoples: Inscriptions on barbarians as bandits (second-third centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Northern peoples: Inscriptions on barbarians as bandits (second-third centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 5, 2024,

CIL III 5234: Grave of Mattius Adiectus, who was “killed by a Mattzarian,” with portrait with his wife. © Celje, Pokrajnski Muzej, Photo by Ortolf Harl 2013. Used with permission.

Comments: Among the recurring stereotypes concerning unconquered or ostensibly rebellious foreign peoples in Greek and Roman ethnographic writing is the image of “barbarians” as “bandits,” so much so that there is a sense in which these two terms are, often, virtually synonymous. (On this also see the discussion of the Egyptian cowherds at this link, Strabo’s and Josephos’ characterizations of all Itureans and Arabians as “criminals” or “bandits” at this link, and Curtius Rufus’ inversion of the normal labelling tendency at this link). These are signs of criminalization of non-dominant peoples in the ancient context.

So we find imperial-friendly elites such as Livy and Strabo (link coming soon) repeatedly characterizing as “bandits” peoples beyond the frontiers or in rougher areas within the bounds of empire. Roman legal perspectives found in the Digest, for instance, presume a similar way of thinking as they define any unofficial opponents of Roman control as “bandits”:

“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).

There is a sense in which such characterizations are a reflection of Roman imperial propaganda aimed at justifying the violent suppression or control of certain peoples and the expansion of the empire overall.

This situation can also be detected in archeological evidence, such as the inscriptions presented below, most of which relate to northern frontiers near the Danube and Rhine rivers. There are three types of evidence here. First, Roman imperial theory was expressed in practice on a series of almost identical building inscriptions (one of which is translated below) that accompanied newly built “watch-towers” (burgi, from the Greek πύργοι) and “garrisons” (praesidia) at various points on the banks of the Danube river (especially between Aquincum and Intercisa in Pannonia Inferior, a Roman province that was formed in 10 CE). These inscriptions (ca. 183-185 CE) refer to attempts to hinder the “clandestine crossings of bandits,” most likely referring to “barbarian” peoples on the other side of the river (Andreas Alföldi cited below was the first to argue this convincingly and Péter Kovács has made important recent contributions on related matters). The peoples in question likely include the Marcomannians, Quadians, Sarmatians, Iazygians and other so called “Germanic” peoples that made incursions under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (during the so called “northern wars” or “Marcomannic wars”). (On the concept of “Germanic” peoples, see especially Tacitus’ discussion from a Roman senatorial perspective at this link).

A second type of roughly contemporary epigraphic evidence concerns both imperial and municipal officials in frontier settings tasked with taking action against “bandits,” with “barbarians” once again likely being in mind. The inscription in honour of Maximianus, an important Roman general, shows how this justification for the suppression of “barbarians” (in this case described as “Brisean bandits”) might happen at the highest echelons of the military. The local impact of ongoing tensions with peoples around frontier Roman colonies is demonstrated well in the municipal functionary of the “prefect for the suppression of bandits” found in several inscriptions.

In light of this suggestive material, a third type of epigraphic evidence seems to point clearly towards identification of barbarians as “bandits” beyond the purview of imperial or municipal leadership structures. Building on Peter Kovács’ (2018) contribution, funerary inscriptions of those killed near frontiers or other liminal areas which identify the deceased as simply having been “killed by bandits” take on a new significance when we juxtapose that evidence with two other things: (1) the other materials presented in my forthcoming article regarding the equation of bandits with barbarians in various settings, including the frontier situations dealt with here; and, (2) other funerary inscriptions in which the deceased is described as “killed by barbarians” or by a specific barbarian people: e.g. “killed by a Kostobokian.” In other words, in light of this other evidence, it seems likely that at least some of those identified on family graves as “killed by bandits” near frontiers or liminal areas were in fact killed by specific barbarian peoples. If local people or those who inscribed grave-stones are engaging in such labelling of barbarians as bandits on graves (the Aquileia evidence is particularly important), then we can see that these discourses disseminated beyond the imperial elites.

Note: The comments and material configured here reflect a larger forthcoming article (and ultimately a book) by Philip A. Harland, “‘You are the bandit!’: Criminalizing Conquered Peoples, and Some Retorts.”

Works consulted: A. Alföldi, “Epigraphica IV,” Archaeologiai Értesítő 3.2 (1941): 30–59 (link); P. Kovács, Marcus Aurelius’ Rain Miracle and the Marcomannic Wars (Leiden: Brill, 2009); P. Kovács, “Interfectus a latronibus intrusis: Beiträge zum Tod eines Freigelassenen aus Scarbantia,” in Violence in Prehistory and Antiquity, ed. E. Nemeth (Kaiserslautern: Parthenon Verlag, 2018), 301–317 (link).


[Fortifications against incursions by Sarmatian or Germanic peoples as “bandits”]

CIL III 3385 = RIU VI 1426 (link): Fort dedication inscription from Matrica in the province of Pannonia Inferior, modern Százhalombatta, Hungary, on the banks of the Danube (180-185 CE)

Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus Pius Sarmaticus Britannicus [i.e. the one who has conquered Sarmatians and Britons], high priest, with tribunician power for the sixth time, proclaimed emperor (imperator) for the fourth time, consul for the third time, father of the fatherland, fortified the whole river bank with fortifications constructed from the ground [i.e. new], and also with garrisons stationed at advantageous places against the clandestine crossings by bandits (latrunculi; diminutive of latrones). This was done when Lucius Cornelius Felix Plotianus was legate with the authority of a praetor.

Imp(erator) Caes(ar) M(arcus) [Aur(elius) Commodus An]┃toninus Aug(ustus) Pius Sar[m(aticus) Ger(manicus)] ┃ Brit(annicus) pont(ifex) max(imus) trib(unicia) pot(estate) V[I imp(erator) IIII] ┃ co(n)s(ul) IIII p(ater) p(atriae) ripam omnem b[urgis] ┃ a solo extructis item praes[i]┃dis per loca opportuna ad ┃ clandestino latrunculo┃rum transitus oppositis ┃ munivit per L(ucium) C[ornelium] ┃ F[elicem Pl]ot[an]u[m leg(atum) pr(o) pr(aetore).

Sketch of CIL III 3385 = RIU VI 1426 from Ernest Desjardins, Monuments épigraphiques du Musée National Hongrois (Budapest: l’Université Royale Hongroise, 1873), plate 22.

[Imperial officials: Marcus Valerius Maximianus and the Brisean “bandits”]

AE (1956) 124 = Pflaum, Carrières 181 bis (link to full Latin text): Honorary inscription set up by the colony of Diana Veteranorum in Numidia, northern Africa (183-185 CE)

The most distinguished council of Diana Veteranorum used contributed funds to set this up for Marcus Valerius Maximianus, son of Marcus Valerius Maximianus, local censor and priest, priest of the colony of Poetovio, with the public horse. He was prefect of the first cohort of Thracians, tribune of the first cohort of Hamians that are Roman citizens, and placed in charge of the coastline of the peoples of Pontos Polemonianus [formerly the Pontic kingdom on the north coast of the Black Sea]. He was decorated in the Parthian war, chosen by emperor Marcus Antoninus Augustus and sent on active service in the German expedition with the task of bringing food by boat down the river Danube to supply the armies in both provinces of Pannonia. He was placed in charge of the detachments of the praetorian fleets of Misenum, of Ravenna and of the Britannican fleet, and also of the African and Maurish cavalry chosen for scouting duties in Pannonia [ca. 170 CE]. He was also prefect of the first wing (ala) of Aravacans. While on active service in Germany he was praised in public by emperor Antoninus Augustus because he had killed with his own hand Valao, chief of the Naristians, and was granted his horse, decorations, and weapons [172 CE]. In the same wing he achieved the honour of his fourth military post, prefect of the wing of lance-bearers, and he was decorated in the war against the Germans and Sarmatians. He was placed in charge with the honour of centenarian rank of the cavalry of the peoples of the Marcomannians, Naristians, and Quadians journeying to punish the insurrection in the east [175 CE], with an increased salary appointed to the procuratorship of Lower Moesia and at the same time placed in charge of detachments [176 CE]. He was sent by the emperor to drive out a group of Brisean bandits (Briseorum latronum manum) on the borders of Macedonia and Thrace. He was procurator of Upper Moesia, procurator of the province of Dacia Porolissensis [177 CE], chosen by our most revered emperors for admission to the senatorial order among men of praetorian rank, and soon after legate of the first Adiutrix legion, as well as legate of second Adiutrix legion [179 CE]. He was placed in charge of the detachments in winter quarters at Laugaricio, as well as legate of the fifth Macedonian legion, legate of the first Italian legion, legate of thirteenth Gemina legion, and legate of the emperor with propraetorian power of . . . third Augustan legion (?). He was also decorated by the most noble emperor Marcus Aurelius Commodus Augustus on the second German expedition

(Translation modified from Brian Campbell, The Roman Army, 31 BC-AD 337: A Sourcebook [New York: Routledge, 2006], 64-65.)

Photo of AE (1956) 124 = Pflaum, Carrières 181 bis, from Numidia. Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften / Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg: © M. Spannagel (license: CC BY-SA 4.0). Information at HeidICON.

[Minor military officials: Votive dedication by a soldier in charge of a line in connection with seizing “bandits”]

IGBulg III.1 1126 = IGBulg V 5486 (link): Votive from a sanctuary at Batkun near Philippopolis in Thrace

Having seized bandits, Aurelius Dionysodoros, soldier in charge of a line (ordinatus), has dedicated this in fulfillment of a vow to the most manifest god Asklepios Zymyzdrenos.

ἐπιφανε┃στάτῳ θε┃ῷ Ἀσκληπι┃ῷ Ζυμυ┃ζδρηνῳ ┃ Αὐρ(ήλιος) Διονυ┃σόδωρος ┃ ὠρδ(ινᾶτος) ∙ λῃ┃στολογή┃σας εὐξά┃μενος ἀ┃νέθηκα.

[Civic officials: Prefect for the suppression of bandit attacks in frontier Roman colonies]

AE (1978) 567 (link): Honorary inscription from Noviodunum / Colonia Julia Equestris, Germania Superior, modern Nyon near the territory of Helvetians (ca. 150-210 CE):

This was set up for Quintus Severius Marcianus, son of Quintus Severus Marcellus, of the Cornelia tribe, council-member (decurion) of the colony Julia Equestris, superintendent of buildings (aedile), prefect for the two magistrates (duumvirs), prefect for the suppression of bandits [Helvetians (?)], one of the two magistrates (duumvir) . . . priest of the Augusti.

Q(uinto) Severio Q(uinti) Severi ┃ Marcelli filio ┃ Cornel(ia) M[a]rciano ┃ dec(urioni) Col(oniae) I[u]l(iae) Eques[t(ris)] ┃ aedil(i) pr[ae]fect(o) pro ┃ IIviris [pra]efect(o) ┃ arce[ndis l]atroc(iniis) ┃ IIvi[r(o) – – – fla]m(ini) Au[g(usti)].

CIL XIII 5010 = AE (1994) 1288 = AE (2002) 1052 (link): Grave inscription from Noviodunum, near the territory of Helvetians (ca. 150-210 CE)

Grave of Caius Lucconius Tetricus of the Cornelia tribe, prefect for the suppression of bandits [Helvetians (?)], prefect for one of the two magistrates (duumvir), twice in the role of one of the two magistrates (duumvir), and priest of the Augusti.

C(ai) Lucconi Co[rn(elia)] ┃ Tetrici praefec[ti] ┃ arcend(orum) latroc[in(iorum)] ┃ praefect(i) pro II vir[o] ┃ IIvir(i) bis flaminis ┃ August(i).

AE (1978) 501 = AE (1982) 716 (link): Votive inscription from Seine-Maritime, Belgica, modern Bois l’Abbé in northern France near Eu (198-211 CE)

Lucius Cerialius Rectus, priest of Roma and the Augusti, one of the four five-year magistrates, and prefect for the suppression of bandits, dedicated this . . . theater (?) . . . together with the front stage . . . and its equipment (?) . . . to the divine powers of the Augusti, to the district (pagus) of the Catuslogiensians (?), and to the god . . . Mars (?). He constructed it using his own funds.

L(ucius) Cerialius Rectus sacerdos R[omae et Aug(ustorum)] IIIIvir q(uinquennalis) pra[efectus latro]cinio [arcendo(?)] ┃ numinibus Aug(ustorum) pago Catuslou(giniensi ?) deo [Marti(?) theatru]m cum proscaenio [et suis ornamentis] d(e) s(ua) [p(ecunia) f(ecit)]

CIL XIII 6211 (link): Grave from Bingium in Germania Superior on the Rhine (171-300 CE)

Marcus Pannonius Solutus, . . . prefect for the suppression of bandits, (?; reconstruction only) . . . prefect of the Bingians . . . and the banks of the Rhine (?), . . .  prefect of the posts (or: stations) . . . prepared this grave for himself, for Marcus Pannonius Solutus, . . . his son, and (?) . . . for his daughter.

M(arcus) Pannonius Solu[tus praef(ectus)] ┃ latr(ociniorum) ar[c(endorum)] praef(ectus) Bin[gi(i) et ripae Rheni?] ┃ praef(ectus) stationib(us) pra[esidiisque] (or: pra[ef(ectus)…]) ┃ sibi et M(arco) Pannonio Solu[to filio et …ae] ┃ filiae.

[Graves of people killed by bandits / barbarians]

Inscriptiones Aquileiae 861 = Kovacs 2018, 301(link): Grave of Atilius Tertius from Scarbantia who was killed by “bandits” in Aquileia (151-170 CE, likely 170 CE based on Kovács 2018)

For Lucius Atilius Saturninus, freedman of Lucius, forty year old native of Flavia Scarbantia, killed by intruding bandits [Marcomannians, Quadians, or Iazygians (?)]. Atilius Tertius his brother and Statius Onesimus his friend set this up. Clodia Tertia has freely provided him a place.

L(ucio) Atilio L(uci) l(iberto) ┃ Saturnino ┃ annor(um) XL domo ┃ Fl(avia) Scarbantia interfect(o) ┃ a latronibus inrtusis <intrusis> ┃ Atilius Tertius frater ┃ et Statius Onesimus ┃ amico ┃ loc(us) gratuit(o) dat(us) ab ┃Clodia Tertia.

Inscriptiones Aquileiae 2785 = ILS 2646: Grave of a centurion from Aquileia who was killed by “bandits” in the Julian Alps, found at Praetentura fortress (150-250 CE, likely 170 CE based on Kovács 2018)

Antonius Valentinus, centurion of the first cohort of the thirteenth Geminae legion, killed by bandits [Marcomannians, Quadians, or Iazygians (?)] in the Julian Alps in a place that is called Scelerata (“Trecherous”). Antonius Valentinus, his son, set this up for his father.

Antonio Va[len]tino princi[pi] ┃ leg(ionis) XIII Gem(inae) int[er]┃fecto a latro[ni]┃bus in Alpes Iul[ias] ┃ loco quot <quod> appella┃tur Scelerata ┃ Antonius Valen┃tinus filius pat(ri).

CIL III 3800 (link): Grave of a man killed by the enemy from Ig near Emona, Pannonia Superior (166-180 CE, perhaps 170 CE)

Maximus son of Vibius had this set up for his brother Rusticus who was killed by the enemy [Marcomannians, Quadians, or Iazygians (?)] when he was forty years old.

Maximus ┃ Vibi(i) (filius) fecit ┃ fratri Rustico ┃ quem ostes <hostes> ho┃cidit <occidit> an(norum) XXXX.

CIL III 13405 (link): Grave of a man killed by barbarians from Neviodunum, now Krško, Yugoslavia (170-300 CE, likely ca. 170 CE)

To the shades of the dead. Cornutia (?) Materna, living, set this up for herself and her most precious spouse, Gessius (?) Geminus, . . . who had been killed (?). . . by barbarians [Marcomannians, Quadians, or Iazagians (?)]. Gessius (?) Sabinus and Gessius (?) Valentinus have taken care to have this made.

[D(is)] M(anibus) ┃ [. . .]nutia Materna ┃ [viva f]ec(it) sibi et Ges(sio?) Ge┃[mino(?)] con(iugi) carissimo ┃ [occiso(?)] a barbaris Ges┃[si(?)] Sabinus et Valentin┃[us(?) fa]c(iendum) cour(averunt) <cur(averunt)>.

AE (1901), no. 49: Grave of a Thracian killed by a Kostobokian, from Tropaeum Traiani (modern Adamklissi), Moesia Inferior (170 CE)

To the shades of the dead. For Daizos Komozous, who has lived fifty years, killed by a Kostobokian [a people north of Dacia]. Justus and Valens (?) have set this up for their very deserving father.

D(is) M(anibus) ┃ Daizi Co┃mozoi vi┃xit an(nos) L inter┃fectus a Cas┃tabocis Iu┃stus et Val(ens?) pa┃tri b(ene) m(erenti) posu┃erunt.

AE (2005), no. 1315 (link): Grave of a man killed by a Kostobokian, from Skopje / Scupi, Moesia Superior (169-176 CE)

To the shades of the dead. Grave of Timonius Dassus, leader (decurion) of the second Aurelia Dardanorum cohort, killed by a Kostobokian [a people north of Dacia], who has lived fifty years and has performed military service for twenty-three years. Postumia Spes has set this up for her very deserving spouse.

D(is) M(anibus) Timoni Das┃si dec(urionis) coh(ortis) II Aur(eliae) ┃ Dard(anorum) interfec┃ti a Costobocis <Costobocos> ┃ vix(it) annis L m(i)li(tavit) annis ┃ XXIII Postumia Spes ┃ coniugi bene merenti ┃ posuit.

IMoesiaSup III.2 93 = CIL III 14587: Grave of a son killed by bandits, from the mining settlement Timacum Minus (?), Moesia Superior / modern Ravna (150-200 CE)

To the shades of the dead. Valerius Marcus who has lived nineteen years, killed by bandits [Dardanians (?), sometimes a subset of Illyrians]. Valerius Eutychus and Sextilia Frontina have set this up for their very deserving son.

D(is) M(anibus) ┃ Val(erius) Marcus ┃ vixit annis ┃ XVIIII a la┃tronibus ┃ interfectus ┃ Val(erius) Eutych┃us et Sextilia ┃ Frontina ┃ filio ┃ b(ene) m(erenti) p(osuerunt).

CIL III 5234 (link): Grave of a man killed by a Mattzarian, from Celeia in Noricum, with a portrait of the husband and wife (230-300 CE)

To the shades . . . of the dead (?). . . Grave of Mattius Adiectus, killed by a Mattzarian [otherwise unknown Celtic (?) people] at the age of forty. Antonia Quincta, his surviving spouse, set this up.

[D(is)] M(anibus) ┃ Matt(io?) Adiecto ┃ [i]nterfectus ┃ [a] Mattzaris an(norum) XL ┃ Ant(onia) Quincta con(iugi) ┃ v(iva) f(ecit).

CIL III 11045 = RIU 587 (link): Grave of a merchant killed by a barbarian, from Brigetio, Pannonia (200-250 CE)

(column 1) Memorial for TItius sometimes known as Domninus as well as Passer, distinguished merchant who has lived twenty-six years, killed by a barbarian [Quadian or Sarmatian (?)].

(column 2) TItius Domninus, unhappy father of two sons whose bodies he has placed in this grave. In memory of TItius Ursinianus who has lived eighteen years.

(column 3) Titius, member of the Augustales [i.e. he is likely a freedman] of the town of the Brigetio [modern locale of Komárom, Hungary, on the banks of the Danube] took care to do this for his most pious son.

Memoria[e T]iti q(uondam) ┃ Domnini sive P┃asseris nego┃tianti splend┃ido qui vixi┃t annis XXVI ┃ interfect┃o a barbari┃s. T[i]tius ┃

Domninu[s] ┃ pater infelix ┃ filiorum [i]n ┃ hoc sarco┃fago duo ┃ corpora ┃ posuit ┃

In m[emo]riam T[i]t[i] Ursinia┃ni qui [vixit] ann(os) XVIII Tit┃ius Domninus August(alis) ┃ municipi(i) Br[i]g(etionis) filio pien┃tissimo fac[i]endum ┃ curav[i]t.

CIL III 4850 (link): Grave (frag.) of two people killed by barbarians, from Virunum, Noricum, now in southern Austria (171-250 CE)

(two missing lines, including the name of the first deceased) . . . in his hut of the legion, killed by barbarians. Marcia (?) Salbia, still living, has set this up for her most precious spouse and for herself. And Aurelia Ursa has set this up for her most precious spouse, Aelius Leonas, having died at the age of seventy, killed by barbarians. Still living, she set this up for him and herself. . . .

[ – – -] ┃ [ – – -] ┃ in canapa <canaba> leg(ionis) ┃ interfecto a bar┃baris Mar(cia?) Salbia v(iva) f(ecit) ┃ con(iugi) kar(issimo) et sibi et Aur(elia) ┃ Ursa (A)el(io) Leonati con(iugi) ┃ kar(issimo) o(bito) a(nnorum) LXX interfecto ┃ a barbaris v(iva) f(ecit) et sipi <sibi>.

IOSPE I² 562 (link): Grave of a man killed by Taurians, from Chersonessos in the Bosporan region (modern Sevastopol; first century CE). (Thanks to Joanna Porucznik for pointing me to this inscription).

To the shades of the dead. For Titus Cincius, freedman of Titus Basilus, who has lived twenty-two years, and for Publius Vedius Threptos, freedman of Publius and physician, killed by Taurians. Cincius Epictetos took care to do this for his fellow-freedman and friend.

D(is) M(anibus). ┃ [T(ito) C]incio T(iti) lib(erto) ┃ [Ba]sili, vix(it) ┃ [an]ṇ(is) XXII, et ┃ [P(ublio)] Vedio P(ublii) lib(erto) ┃ [Th]repto medi┃[c]o interf(ecto) a Taur(is) ┃ [Ci]ncius Epictet[us] ┃ [col]liberto et amico ┃ f(aciundum) c(uravit).

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