Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Isaurians: Ammianus Marcellinus on their incursions and banditry (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12684.
Ancient authors: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman Antiquities / Res Gestae 14.2 and 27.9 (link).
Comments: In the context of troubles in the East of the Roman empire in the mid-fourth century reigns of Constantius and Gallus, Ammianus Marcellinus (who had accompanied emperor Julian in the early 360s CE) characterizes the Isaurians, a people living in Pisidia and neighbourying Pamphylia. Ammianus himself was originally from Antioch in Syria (more on this at this link), so his attitudes towards Isaurians further west may reflect that context as well as a Roman one.
Ammianus’ discussion of both the Isaurian actions and the Saracen incursions (on borders with Arabia – link) in this same section of his work have many similarities to them, with both peoples (located far from one another) being characterized as overly violent, bandit-peoples who cause problems for Roman rule. So widely applied stereotypes seem to be at work.
Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, volume 1, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.
[Incursions of the Isaurians]
(14.2) In fact, this was not the only calamity to afflict the East with various disasters. For the Isaurians [a people in Pisidia in southwestern Turkey] too, whose approach is to keep the peace at one moment and put everything in turmoil by sudden bandit-activities (latrocinii) at the next moment, abandoned their occasional secret plundering expeditions.
[Violent and bandit-like people]
As impunity stimulated for the worse their growing boldness, they broke out in a serious war. For a long time they had been inflaming their war-like spirits by reckless outbreaks, but they were now especially exasperated. In relation to the shameful treatment of some of their associates – who had been taken prisoner and thrown to beasts of prey in the shows of the amphitheatre at Iconium, a town of Pisidia – they publicly engaged in an outrage without precedent. In the words of Cicero [For Cluentius 25.67], like wild animals generally return to the place where they were once fed when they are hungry, so all the Isaurians, swooping like a whirlwind down from their steep and rugged mountains, made for the districts near the sea. Hiding themselves there in pathless lurking-places and defiles as the dark nights were coming on — the moon being still crescent and so not shining with full brilliance — they watched the sailors. And when they saw that they were sound asleep, creeping on all fours along the anchor-ropes and quietly making their way into the boats, they came upon the crew all unawares. Since their natural ferocity was fired by greed, they spared no one, even of those who surrendered. Instead, they massacred them all and, without resistance, carried off the cargoes, either because of their value or their usefulness.
However, this did not continue long because, when the fate of those whom they had butchered and plundered became known, no one afterwards landed at those ports. Instead, avoiding them as they would the deadly cliffs of Skiron, they coasted along the shores of Cyprus, which lie opposite to the crags of Isauria. As time went on and nothing came their way from abroad, they left the sea-coast and withdrew to that part of Lykaonia that borders on Isauria. Blocking the roads with close barricades, they lived there by stealing the property of the provincials and of travellers. Anger at this aroused the soldiers quartered in the numerous towns and fortresses which lie near those regions. Each division strove to the best of its ability to check the marauders as they ranged more widely, now in solid bodies, sometimes even in isolated bands.
[Clashes with Roman soldiers]
But the soldiers were defeated by their strength and numbers. This was because the Isaurians were born and brought up amid the steep and winding defiles of the mountains. They bounded over them as if they were a smooth and level plain, attacking the enemy with savage howls. Sometimes our foot soldiers in pursuing them were forced to scale lofty slopes, and when they lost their footing, even if they reached the very summits by catching hold of underbrush or briars, the narrow and pathless tracts allowed them neither to take order of battle nor with mighty effort to keep a firm footing. Meanwhile, the enemy, running here and there, tore off and hurled down masses of rock from above, they made their perilous way down over steep slopes. Or if our foot soldiers were forced by dire necessity to make a brave fight, they were overwhelmed by falling boulders of enormous weight. Therefore, extreme caution was shown after that, and when the marauders began to make for the mountain heights, the soldiers yielded to the unfavourable position. When, however, the Isaurians could be found on level ground, as constantly happened, they were allowed neither to stretch out their right arms nor poise their weapons, of which each carried two or three, but they were slaughtered like defenceless sheep.
[Isaurians move into Pamphylia]
Accordingly these same bandits (latrones), distrusting Lykaonia, which is for the most part level, and having learned by repeated experience that they would be no match for our soldiers in a stand-up fight, the Isaurians made their way by retired by-paths into Pamphylia. Pamphylia was long unmolested, it is true, but through fear of raids and massacres, it was protected everywhere by strong garrisons, while troops were spread all over the neighbouring country. Therefore they hurried in order by extreme swiftness to anticipate the reports of their movements, trusting in their bodily strength and activity. But they made their way somewhat slowly to the summits of the hills over winding trails. When, after overcoming extreme difficulties, they came to the steep banks of the Melas [Manavgat River, Turkey, near Ptolemais], a deep and eddying stream, which surrounds the inhabitants like a wall and protects them, the lateness of the night increased their alarm, and they stopped for a while and waited for daylight. They thought, indeed, to cross without opposition and by their unexpected raid to destroy everything before them. But they endured the greatest hardships for no reason because, when the sun rose, they were prevented from crossing by the size of the stream, which was narrow but deep. . . . [remainder of account of the clash between the Isaurians and the Roman army omitted].
[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Arabians / Saracens, go to this link.]
[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Maurians / Moors, go to this link.]
[Further incidents involving Isaurians as bandits]
(27.9) Now in Isauria bandits (praedones) were over-running the neighbouring places, harassing towns and rich villas with unrestrained plunder, and inflicting great losses on Pamphylia and the Cilicians. Musonius, the deputy-governor of Asia at that time [368 CE], who had formerly been a teacher of rhetoric in Attic Athens, perceived that, since no one resisted the bandits, they were devastating everything with complete destruction. Finally, finding the situation deplorable and finding that the luxury of the soldiers made their assistance week, he gathered together a few half-armed troops, whom they call Diogmitians and attempted to attack one group of the bandits, if there was opportunity.
But in passing down through a narrow and winding pass Musonius came into an ambush from which he could not escape, and he was killed there with those whom he was leading. When the bandits, very excited by this success, with greater confidence extended their raids in various directions, at last our troops were called out and after killing some of them drove the rest to the rocky retreats in the mountains where they live. Then, since no opportunity was revealed there for taking rest or finding anything good to eat, they called a truce and asked that peace be granted them, following the advice of the citizens of Germanicopolis, whose opinions were always decisive with them, as if they were those of the standard-bearers in battle. Then they gave the hostages that were demanded, and remained quiet for a long time, without venturing on any hostile act.
[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Libyans, Maurians and Ausourianians in Africa, go to this link.]