Ancient History & Civilisation



AN OUTLAW IS SOMEONE WHO LIVES IN CONTACT with a society but who does not abide by the laws of that society. It is the very nature of stratified societies to create the possibility of outlaws. Stratified societies institutionalize and culturally enforce differential worth, power, and wealth; this provides the context for outlaws to appear. Simply put, there have to be laws before there can be outlaws, and hierarchically stratified societies regularly use laws to secure their structure. Their basis in exploiting some to the benefit of others offers motivation to some to escape the enforcing laws. One way to do this is to turn to outlawry.

The acceptance of a simple definition of outlaws – one who lives in contact with but outside society’s laws – automatically eliminates from consideration two very prominent types of outlaw in the Romano-Grecian world: the tribal outlaws, routinely labeled by contemporaries as ‘bandits’ or ‘pirates,’ on the one hand, and the common petty criminal, on the other. The tribal type of outlaw is not operating within the sphere of Roman society; rather, these people might more accurately be labeled ‘otherlaws,’ because they are their own community, have their own laws, are organized in a stratified, hierarchical way, but simply do not abide by Roman laws. In this category belong such outlaws as the bandits of the Calycadnus Valley in Cilicia, the Maratocupreni of Syria, and, much later, the maurading Saxons in late antiquity. These are tribally based raider societies, which, like similar raider societies of other ancient times, such as the Cilician pirates and the Homeric chieftains themselves, and in later times, the Vikings, prey on anyone who has possessions to take. The geographer Strabo gives us an excellent description of such a raider society:

After the Sindic territory and Gorgipia, on the sea, one comes to the coast of the Achaei and the Zygi and the Heniochi, which for the most part is harborless and mountainous, being a part of the Caucasus. These peoples live by robberies at sea. Their boats are slender, narrow, and light, holding only about twenty-five people, though in rare cases they can hold thirty in all; the Greeks call them ‘camarae’ … by equipping fleets of ‘camarae’ and sailing sometimes against merchant-vessels and sometimes against a country or even a city, they hold the mastery of the sea. And they are sometimes assisted even by those who hold the Bosporus, the latter supplying them with mooring-places, with market-places, and with means of disposing of their booty … they are well acquainted with wooded places; and in these they first hide their ‘camarae’ and then themselves wander on foot night and day for the sake of kidnapping people … the territory that is subject to the Romans affords but little aid, because of the negligence of the governors who are sent there. (Geography 11.2.12/Jones)

Romans themselves, ‘raiders’ par excellence managing to conquer and loot the entire Mediterranean world, understood and dealt with this sort of bandit tribe as an opposing community.

The normal means of coping with these external ‘otherlaws’ is by an organized military action; in the example above, Strabo notes both the appropriateness and failure of Roman action against the raiders. Because both groups are playing by the same overall rules, the danger is clear: Either side victorious will try to attack and plunder, if not destroy, the other. Although the Romans themselves often do not rhetorically distinguish between ‘otherlaws’ and ‘outlaws,’ here I propose to make that distinction very clear. In the case of ‘otherlaws,’ the external dynamic creates a highly visible interaction that elites participate in and military and diplomatic leaders and so on document extensively. In the case of ‘outlaws,’ the elite are both less directly involved – of all members of society, they have the most capacity to protect themselves from outlaws – and more uncomfortable ideologically because of the critique of the hierarchical society that the outlaws represent. Uninterested and insulated, the elite at best pays attention to ‘outlaws’ when they approach the threat level that ‘otherlaws’ present; usually, outlaws are simply assumed as part of the landscape, measures are taken to avoid their depredations, and they are left to their lives in the usual silence of the sources reserved for groups considered unworthy of notice by the elite.

Another group I do not consider is the common criminal. These people – murderers, thieves, small-time racketeers – are predators on lawful society but emerge from it and go back into it without ever forming an alternative to it. Lucian gives a glimpse of their work:

When I was going away from home to Athens by reason of my desire for Greek culture, I put in at Amastris, on the Black Sea; the city is a port of call for those sailing this way from Scythia, not far distant from Carambis. I was accompanied by Sisinnes, who had been my companion from childhood. After looking out a lodging near the port and transferring our effects to it from the vessel, we went shopping, without suspecting any mischief. In the meantime thieves pried the door open and carried off everything, so as not to leave even enough to suffice for that day. (Toxaris 57/Harmon)

The Gospels have a number of references to thieves and theft, as do novels and other sources. These petty criminals do not reject the norms of society but strike at it in the interstices, often with crimes of opportunity. Robbers had the capacity for making life difficult and dangerous for everyone, and they did so as they were able. But however obnoxious and worrisome, they posed no real threat, nor had any cohesive group identity.

Finally, I can safely ignore the metaphorical bandit – the use of the term ‘bandit’ and its cousins by Roman elites against each other in political competition. Broadly speaking, they mean by this epithet anyone who was not playing by the rules, and directed it at someone in order to win an argument or competition; it is a metaphorical use designed to smear an enemy, to criminalize them, and therefore to justify any action against them. These ‘bandits’ are not ‘outlaws’ at all; they are still operating within the elite political and social framework and have nothing to do with the reality of outlaws as people living outside the laws of society.

Discovering outlaws

Although I have discussed quite fully elsewhere the use of various sources, it is worthwhile to note here, in particular, the value of fictional narratives in retrieving the life of the outlaw of the Romano-Graecian world. As will become very clear, I rely heavily on these sources, although historians, inscriptions, and papyri provide material as well. The works of fiction, in particular Apuleius’ Golden Ass and the Greek romances, limned a world that scholars have come to recognize as real. That is to say, the way the ‘real’ was arranged in the novels is fictional, but behind the fiction lie actual facts of social history, facts that can be retrieved and used by historians. I quote from the novels as though they are historical documents, but this is merely a narrative device; I fully understand that they are not history. My use derives from a confidence that what the characters are doing and saying in the episodes I describe is actually reflective of reality, although the words and situations themselves are constructed by the author.

Moving toward outlawry

The outlaws I restrict myself too – those living in contact with, but outside, lawful society – enact the ideology of that hierarchically stratified society. They form a community organized for the acquisition of power and possessions for some at the expense of others, but from outside that society’s law framework, rather than, as the elite-run community, from within it. The Romans were very aware of the shared ideology of ‘inlaw’ rulers and ‘outlaw’ bandits. In one of the most extensive historical treatments of a bandit in classical literature, a historian has the bandit chief Bulla Felix make just this obvious point of comparison. When he is captured by the emperor Septimius Severus’ men and set before the praetorian prefect Papinian, Papinian is said to have asked him, ‘Why did you become a robber?’ To which Bulla replied, ‘Why are you a prefect?’ (Cassius Dio, Roman History 77.10.7). Although the event itself may be fictional, the valid point is that both are robbers of a sort – the prefect within the law, Bulla outside it. Another metaphor comparing robbers and lawful citizens (this time doctors) is given by Galen:

Robbers in our own country band together to harm others and spare themselves: similarly those [doctors] here combine against us, the only difference from bandits being that these men operate in the city, not in the mountains. (‘Prognosis,’ in Corpus Medicorum Graecorum V 8.1/Nutton)

The sharing of values, attitudes, and actions within the law and outside it was evident enough.

The condition of soldiers-as-bandits also illustrates the fuzzy line between ‘lawful’ bandits and ‘outlaw’ bandits. The depredations of soldiers are well documented, as is the (quite natural) segue of soldiers into banditry. In the first situation the long association of soldiers with violent solutions to problems, their possession of arms in a generally disarmed or at best poorly armed population, and the authority inherent in their position as Roman soldiers easily led to abuses which were simply robbery. The story in Apuleius of the centurion who requisitions Lucius in his asinine form, the anger this arouses, the violent attack on the centurion by Lucius’ owner, and the final revenge of the centurion on that owner is a fine encapsulation both of the abuses possible and the anger of the civilian population at such abuses (The Golden Ass 9.39–42). The story in the Gospels of the ‘extra mile’ fits the same mould (Matthew 5:41), as does John the Baptizer’s admonition to soldiers not to extort money and or accuse people falsely – and to be content with their pay (Luke 3:13–15). In the case of soldiers, it was perhaps logical to move into a life of outlaw banditry, given the possibilities for official banditry before. Skill in arms, a disposition to violence, and the poverty-stricken condition of some soldiers contributed to the transition of a certain number into full-time bandits, for despite the general advantages of being a soldier, some did not fare so well in their careers and deserted the standards in favor of brigandage. Here is a specific example in the historian Herodian:

There was a man called Maternus, an ex-soldier of notorious daring, who had deserted from the ranks and influenced others to escape service with him. Within a short time he had collected a large band of criminals and began to make plundering raids on villages and farms. (Recent History of the Roman Empire 1.10/Whittaker)

Maternus’ enterprise succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings; he plundered whole provinces and plotted to kill Commodus and become emperor. His end came from betrayal by some of his men.

In similar fashion, pirates could evolve from wartime naval activities:

Having acquired a taste for rich plunder [as privateers in the service of King Mithridates VI], they still did not cease their activities when Mithridates was defeated, made peace and retreated. For, having been robbed of their living and their homeland on account of the war, and having fallen into hardship and poverty, they harvested the sea instead of the land, first in small ships, then in large ones, cruising around in squadrons, under the command of pirate captains just like generals in a war. (Appian, War against Mithridates 92/White)

Thus Mithridates had used what later would be called privateers to give him additional naval power; these captains turned to piracy after Mithridates was defeated, much as many pirates had their origins in the privateers of the early modern European wars.

In yet another crossover between lawful and outlaw worlds, bandits and pirates are entrepreneurs of a sort, trying to be successful in the resource acquisition approved of by society. Eric Hobsbawm writes,

As individuals, they are not so much political or social rebels, let alone revolutionaries, as peasants who refuse to submit, and in doing so stand out from their fellows, or even more simply men who find themselves excluded from the usual career of their kind, and therefore forced into outlawry and ‘crime’ … Banditry itself is therefore … a form of self-help to escape particular circumstances … [A bandit] is an outsider and a rebel, a poor man who refuses to accept the normal roles of poverty, and establishes his freedom by means of the only resources within reach of the poor, strength, bravery, cunning and determination … It sets him in opposition to the hierarchy of power, wealth, and influence: he is not one of them … At the same time the bandit is, inevitably, drawn into the web of wealth and power, because, unlike other peasants, he acquires wealth and exerts power. (The Bandit, pp. 19–20, 76)

In crossing back and forth, there are many instances of outlaws being on good terms with some group in lawful society. Although Bulla Felix is said to have eluded the authorities through bribes and cleverness (‘he was never really seen when seen, never found when found, never caught when caught’(Cassius Dio 77.10.2/Cary), he surely enjoyed some protection from the wider population. He clearly had spies in lawful society, whether outlaws themselves or only fellow travelers is not clear; these spies gave him exceptionally good intelligence which aided in his raiding: ‘He learned of everybody that was setting out from Rome and everybody that was putting into port at Brundisium, and knew both who and how many there were, and what and how much they had with them.’ Likewise the outlaws in Apuleius blended into lawful society and returned intelligence to the group; this is noted once when a bandit stayed behind to see what actions the authorities took after the raid on Milo’s house, again when a bandit was sent to scout out possible raids, and yet again when they mingled to find out where Chryseros kept his money (The Golden Ass 7.1 and 4.9). In the romance Chaereas and Callirhoe, Theron the pirate had ‘thugs handily stationed with boats in harbors under cover of being ferrymen.’ Outlaws often seem to be conceived of as wearing two hats, one a lawful occupation, the other banditry or piracy; in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon (5.7), Clitophon ran into mollusk fishermen who were actually pirates. When Bulla Felix captured people, he ‘would take a part of what they had and let them go at once, but he detained artisans for a time and made use of their skill, then dismissed them with a present’ (Cassius Dio 77.10.3). Such action softens any hostility of the population toward outlaws. When Maternus began his marauding, he freed prisoners and enlisted them in his band (Herodian 1.10.2); while this is not necessarily a socially positive step, it does hint at that. In Apuleius there is a close, symbiotic relationship between the outlaws and elements of the civil population. This is specifically noticed in at least two places. In this one, the gang is heading off for their lair after looting Milo’s house:

About midday, when the sun beating down was already making things very hot, we turned aside into a village where the outlaws had good friends among the elders. From the moment they met their voluble exchanges and kisses of friendship showed how close they were – even an ass could see it. And they also took some things from my back and gave them to the villagers as gifts, while in low whispers they seemed to be telling them that these were the fruit of their depredations. (The Golden Ass 4.1)

Such interaction was easy to maintain – it was mutually advantageous – and, of course, outlaws looked like everyone else and so could blend into the general population at will. Within this context, it is likely that the outlaws saw themselves as in some sense fitting in to society as a whole. Nevertheless, this ‘fitting’ was not to play the game according to the elite’s rules, but rather to live a life against the normal grain.

Who becomes an outlaw?

Crossing over into outlawry was one way – perhaps the only and surely the quickest way – to break the heavy hand of the law and its enforcers which kept the poor poor, the oppressed oppressed, and resources safely in the hands of the already wealthy. With this perspective, it is easy to see that outlaw bands live out a genuinely alternative life within the heavily stratified society of the ancient Roman world. Their lifestyle does not seek change, nor is it a form of resistance. Rather, it is focused on a few very specific goals, and its social organization derives from the needs of fulfilling them. It is possible to recover what sort of person became an outlaw, as well as their goals and social organization, in the process revealing the perspective of outlaws on themselves and their world.

The ancient sources are clear about one group that yields outlaws: the desperados, i.e. those without hope. In Apuleius, for example, Haemus, the new bandit leader, notes that he can recruit many new men for the band because there are so many poor, desperate men out there (The Golden Ass 7.4). In Xenophon’s An Ephesian Tale, Hippothous hopes to recruit ‘able-bodied young men’ in Mazacus, a town in Cappadocia (2.11–14). In Chaereas and Callirhoe, Theron goes around to the port brothels and taverns and there collects men for his crew. Strabo attests that the general poverty and ruggedness of the land gave people a reason to turn to piracy. And when Bulla the outlaw captured a centurion, ‘he assumed the dress of a magistrate, ascended the tribunal, and having summoned the centurion, caused part of his head to be shaved, and then said, “Tell your masters that they should take care of their slaves, and then they wouldn’t become bandits”’ (Cassius Dio 77.10.5). Dio goes on to state, ‘Bulla had with him, in fact, a very large number of imperial freedmen, some of whom had been poorly paid, while others had received absolutely no pay at all.’ I have noted above the condition of ex-soldiers, which often provided motivation for outlawry. On the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, Xenophon notes in An Ephesian Tale a noble who, meeting with reverses in life, took up the life of a bandit: Hippothous started as a wealthy young man in Perintus, Thrace; after adventures revolving around a homosexual affair with one Hyperanthes (who dies in a shipwreck), Hippothous makes his way to Pamphylia.

There, since I had no means of supporting myself and was distressed at the tragedy, I took to brigandage. At first I was only one of the rank and file, but in the end I got together a band of my own in Cilicia; it was famed far and wide, until it was captured not long before I saw you. (An Ephesian Tale 3.2/Anderson)

Heliodorus also has a bandit of this sort. The outlaw captain ‘came from a distinguished family and had taken up his present way of life only out of necessity’; he had been the son of a high priest of Memphis in Egypt, but had been illegally pushed aside by a younger brother and forced to flee to bandits ‘in the hope of gaining revenge and regaining [his] position’ (An Ethiopian Story 1.19/Morgan). And it is safe to assume, although there is no mention of such a person by name, that there was a share of social misfits and ne’er-do-wells who could not or would not fit into the stratified society, and escaped into outlawry.

However, some must have become outlaws purely out of greed, not because of desperate circumstances. Apollonius claimed to have thwarted a recruitment effort, but the tale is illustrative nonetheless of the temptation that outlawry could put in the way of good citizens:

But Apollonius replied: ‘Since you tempt me to talk about pilotage, I would have you hear what I consider to have been any soundest exploit at that time. Pirates at one time infested the Phoenician Sea, and were hanging about the cities to pick information about the cargoes which different people had. The agents of the pirates spied out accordingly a rich cargo which I had on board my ship, and having taken me aside in conversation, asked me what was my share in the freight; and I told them that it was a thousand drachmas, for there were four people in command of the ship. “And,” said they, “have you a house?” “A wretched hut,” I replied, “on the Island of Pharos, where once upon a time Proteus used to live.” “Would you like then,” they went on, “to acquire a landed estate instead of the sea, and a decent house instead of your hut, and ten times as much for the cargo as you are going to get now? And to get rid of a thousand misfortunes which beset pilots owing to the roughness of the sea?” I replied that I would gladly do so, but that I did not aspire to become a pirate just at a time when I had made myself more expert than I ever had been, had won crowns for my skill in my profession. However, they persevered and promised to give me a purse of ten thousand drachmas, if I would be their man and do what they wanted. Accordingly I egged them on to talk by promising not to fail them, but to assist them in every way. Then they admitted that they were agents of the pirates, and besought me not to deprive them of a chance of capturing the ship, and instead of sailing away to the city whenever I weighed anchor thence, they arranged that I should cast anchor under the promontory, under the lee of which the pirate ships were riding; and they were willing to swear that they would not only not kill myself, but would spare the life of any for whom I interceded. I for my part did not consider it safe to reprehend them, for I was afraid that if they were driven to despair, they would attack my ship on the high seas and then we should all be lost somewhere at sea; accordingly I promised to assist their enterprise, but I insisted upon their taking an oath to keep their promise truly. They accordingly made oath, for our interview took place in a temple, and then said: “You betake yourselves to the ships of the pirates at once, for we will sail away by night.” And they found me all the more plausible from the way I bargained about the money, for I stipulated that it must all be paid me in current cash, though not before they had captured the ship. They therefore went off, but I put straight out to sea after doubling the promontory.’ (Life of Apollonius 3.24/Conybeare)

How does the state respond to outlaws?

One of the most interesting aspects of outlaws and the authorities is that there is never even an attempt to end outlawry tout court. Measures are taken against outlaws, of course. The emperor Augustus, so his biographer Suetonius states, set up garrisons around the empire to help control brigandage; two centuries later Tertullian notes their existence still. In Egypt, Baebius Juncinus ordered that supporters of bandits be attacked in order to deny the bandits their bases in the villages. And also there, an official named M. Sempronius Liberalis at one time issued a three-month amnesty for bandits, stating that thereafter they would receive no mercy. Marcus Valerius Maximianus, a successful career military officer, boasted on his epitaph that among other accomplishments he had headed a detail that annihilated a band of outlaws in the lower Danubian basin. These measures were an ongoing response to an ongoing problem that never went away, but rather remained to fester and irritate the authorities, wherever they were. And it was only in case of personal concern or extreme disruption that the central authority invested extensive resources to actually annihilate an outlaw threat. Inscriptions give two illustrations of such action. From Syria comes:

By order of our Lords Constantine, the Triumphant Augustus and Most Noble Julian Caesar did Bassidius Lauricius, Most Outstanding Man, Companion, and Commander, seize by force a fort long controlled by a band of outlaws and threatening to the provinces; he then secured it with a garrison of soldiers so that Antioch could enjoy long-lasting and solid peace. (CIL 3.6733 = ILS 740)

And from Rome:

This is dedicated to the Strength of the Army which with faithful loyalty fulfilled the high hopes and prayers of Romans by wiping out the most savage outlaws. (CIL 6.234 = ILS 2011)

Apuleius gives a similar account, much elaborated, of course. Bandits made the mistake of attacking the entourage of a disgraced imperial official; the wife wrote to the emperor and the emperor ordered the troops to suppress the bandits – quite effectively, as it happens (The Golden Ass 7.7). Elsewhere in novels, the forces of the central government prove decisive in defeating large and dangerous outlaw bands. In the historian Dio, Bulla Felix became so threatening (he had perhaps a band of 600) that first a centurion with a force was dispatched to hunt him down and then, later, when that failed, a praetorian tribune: ‘Severus … sent a tribune from his bodyguard with many horsemen, after threatening him with dire punishment if he should fail to bring back the robber alive’ (Cassius Dio 77.10.6). In later antiquity (AD 354), Ammianus Marcellinus gave a lengthy description of a serious outlaw uprising in southern Asia Minor that was finally put down after extensive imperial resources had been deployed (Histories 14.2.1–20). These instances should not lead to the belief, however, that in reality the central authorities invested many resources in outlaw suppression. In most of the outlawry described in Apuleius, for example, the imperial power is nowhere to be seen. This is true for outlawry in the other novels as well, and nothing in other ancient sources contradicts it.

On the contrary, if any authorities are mentioned in regard to thwarting bandits and pirates, it is usually local authorities. It is the magistrates who are mentioned in Apuleius, for example, as organizing the search for Lucius after the bandits break into Milo’s house (The Golden Ass 7.1–2). Strabo frequently mentions actions of local governments in trying to react to the piracy of the Cilician coast. These local authorities were limited in their effectiveness by the lack of a local police force, although Xenophon has an eirenarch of Cilicia, Perilaus, commanding a significant enough force to attack and annihilate an outlaw gang (An Ephesian Tale 2.11–14).

Vigilantism, either in the service of authorities or not, is rampant, however. Individuals took things into their own hands. In Dacia, for example, Bassus is avenged:

Dedicated to the Spirits of the Dead of Lucius Julius Bassus, son of Lucius, of the Sergian voting district, town councilor of the Dobreta and treasurer. He was killed by outlaws in his fortieth year. Julius Julianus and Julius Bassus set this up to their father, in cooperation with Julius Valerianus, his brother, who took revenge for his death. (CIL3.1579)

And also in Dacia:

… [name is lost] was murdered by outlaws. Ulcudius Baedari and Sutta Epicadi, loving parents, set this grave marker up for their son. He was avenged. (CIL 3.1585)

Indeed, magistrates usually acted only when the citizenry had taken some vigilante action already. Typically, such action was of two sorts. First, a mob set upon someone whom they deemed had broken some law, whether it be through robbery, violence, sacrilege, or some other crime; the mob dragged the reprobate(s) to a place of assembly – usually the forum but sometimes the theater – and there the magistrates held a sort of court, which usually ended up in the punishment of the people seized. This happened to Lucius after he killed three men seeking to break into Milo’s house and citizens set upon him for the deed (The Golden Ass 3.5–6). In the second sort of vigilante action, a gang is ‘deputized’ and heads into the countryside to deal with outlaws. Again, Apuleius provides us with a good example, as Tlepolemus returned to the bandit’s cave after he had freed his love, Charite, and sought help from the villagers. Lucius narrates:

I went along willingly with a great crowd of citizens and other beasts of burden, for besides my usual, inveterate curiosity I strongly desired to see the outlaws taken captive. And indeed it was easy to seize them, held fast more by their drunkenness than by their bonds. The townsmen dug up all the treasure and carried it out of the cave, where they loaded the gold and silver onto our backs. Then they unceremoniously pitched some of the outlaws, still bound, headlong over a nearby cliff. As for the others, they beheaded them with their own swords, and left them sprawled there. Overjoyed at such vengeance, we returned happily to town. (The Golden Ass 7.13)

Here is pure vigilante action, right down to the summary execution of the criminals without even the pretense of a trial. A similar approach to banditry appears in the life of the emperor Maximinus: As ‘a young man he was a shepherd and a leader among his peers; he would ambush bandits and so free his fellows from their attacks’ (Historia Augusta, ‘The Two Maximini’ 2.1–2).

Another example also comes from rural life, for in those areas self-help against bandits was a given; there was no presence of a central authority. In this instance, Lucius was taken along when slaves fled their master; as they traveled at night, they were set upon by fierce dogs and attacked by the inhabitants of a farmstead, who assumed they were outlaws; they ceased their attack only after being convinced of the peaceable intent of the group.

By chance we happened to be passing by a rural estate. Suddenly the tenants, thinking that our group was a band of outlaws, determined to bravely protect their possessions. They let loose howling mastiffs, huge beasts more savage than wolves and bears, that they had carefully raised to protect their property. The dogs were further enraged by the shouts of their masters and driven even beyond their normal savagery by the uproar all around. So they rushed at us from every side, attacking, tearing at men and beasts alike until, thoroughly overwhelmed, most of us lay prostrate on the ground … It seemed like things could get no worse – but they did. The peasants suddenly began to hurl stones onto us from the rooftops and from a nearby hill. [The travelers eventually managed to show their attackers that they were not bandits. One of the attackers addressed them:] ‘But we are not outlaws with robbing you on our minds! We were only trying to avoid just that fate at your hands!’ (The Golden Ass 8.17)

Clearly, the inhabitants were quite prepared to protect their property from bandits with violence. This episode also illustrates another basic way to deal with outlaws, namely, to not go out at night. When Lucius is set to leave a town during the night, he is warned that he is crazy – that no one travels at night for fear of outlaws (The Golden Ass 1.15). In this case towns, especially walled towns, provided some protection in combination with solid gates and doors of houses within the town. Of course, as the attack by three ruffians on Milo’s house shows, even being in a town and behind barred doors was no sure protection from outlaws (The Golden Ass 2.32).

By far the most effective means of dealing with outlaws has always been betrayal. In fact, this is the only means mentioned consistently in the sources. Perhaps Tlepolemus in Apuleius should not count, because he was a ‘mole’ in the outlaw gang in the first place – but it was his actions that laid the groundwork for the annihilation of the bandit gang (The Golden Ass 7.10–13). Bulla Felix was brought to earth through treachery: the authorities found out that he was having sex with another man’s wife, and got both the wife and the man to help entrap Bulla through promises of immunity from prosecution. Bulla was taken captive while asleep in a cave (Cassius Dio 77.10.7). Maternus noted above was captured through betrayal as well, as was Jesus of Nazareth. Failing betrayal, it is safe to deduce that the success of authorities against outlaws was minimal.

Once an outlaw was caught, condign punishment followed. This was often preceded by the display of the criminals: Servilius Isauricus in the first century BC made a habit of parading captured pirates through the towns before execution.

Publius Servilius (Isauricus) all by himself captured more pirate captains alive than all who had gone before him. And was anyone deprived of the pleasure of seeing a pirate in chains? On the contrary, wherever he went, he offered this most pleasing spectacle of conquered and captive to everyone. As a result, not only from the towns where the processions went but also from outlying places a throng came just to see the sight. (Cicero, 2 Verrine 5.26.66)

Pirates obviously held great interest for the lawful population; note the crowd of townsmen who turned out to see the pirate Heracleo ‘celebrate a triumph’ as he tweaked the Romans’ ears by sailing with impunity around the inner harbor of Syracuse (Cicero, 2 Verrine 5.38.100).

The death penalty was normal for outlaws. This meant one of the two most humiliating executions in the Roman world: death by crucifixion or death in the arena, in the jaws of wild beasts. Strabo tells of Selouros, leader of a bandit band headquartered on Mount Etna in Sicily. He was captured and executed at Rome in the gladiatorial arena. Bulla Felix rescued two of his men from prison, where they awaited death by the beasts; when Felix himself was caught, he was thrown to the beasts as well. Presumably Apuleius is having fun with this punishment when he has the bandit Thrasyleon die as a beast (a bear, in this case), not by a beast – the irony is heightened by the fact that the bearskin which turns Thrasyleon into a bear comes from a bear kept to mangle criminals in the arena (The Golden Ass 4.13–24). Often after crucifixion the bodies were left on display, much as the bodies of hanged pirates and other criminals were in early modern times. The jurist Callistratus states that bodies of executed bandits should be left hanging in the place of their depredations to give solace to those they harmed and fear to those contemplating such a life.

The social life of bandits

Although there is no literature or other documentation written directly by outlaws, it is possible to reconstruct their social organization and general outlook. The ancient sources for such a reconstruction are the accounts of outlaw actions and attitudes found in documents written by nonoutlaw authors. As I have noted above, the fictional depictions of outlaws seem to have quite clear notions of the range of experiences and realities of the lives of real live bandits. The same can be said of other notices of outlaws in historians such as Cassius Dio and Herodian, and in New Testament references. As far back as Homer, an author was able to capture at least a verisimilar outlook of a pirate. But how far can these sources be pushed to reflect the actual life and attitudes of outlaws? There are two complementary approaches. First, it is necessary to determine a coherent picture of the outlaw’s life and attitudes from the disparate ancient sources. Second, this picture can be compared with well-documented outlaw life from another time and place.

It is Apuleius who in Books 4 to 7 of The Golden Ass gives us the most detailed information about outlaws that appears in any ancient source; thus the following description is based upon his information, with other sources brought in as they prove illuminating.

In Apuleius, the outlaw community is composed entirely of males. The nakedness of the men at their banquet emphasizes the maleness of the group, especially as the nakedness of the gymnasium comes immediately to mind; the general horseplay, uproarious songs, and smutty jokes also emphasize an all-male camaraderie. Indeed, women are excluded from the community; the old crone in the cave does not count as female, and the woman Charite is a prisoner and a source of profit, not a sexual object. The social origins of Apuleius’ outlaws go unstated, but they most likely began as the type of person the bandit leader Haemus notes as potential recruits: the poor and desperate. Outlaws live in a place apart from lawful society, in this case a cave rather than a pirate ship or island base. It is in the mountains, a favorite haunt of outlaws in any age because of their ruggedness and low population. Hippothous’ gang lives in a cave in Cilicia (Xenophon, An Ephesian Tale 3.3), and any similarly isolated spot will do; the boukoloi of the Delta in Egypt used islands in the marshes: ‘… it is almost impossible to run them to ground, as they retreat into their dens and lairs in the marsh’ (An Ethiopian Story 2.24). Pirates, of course, used the sea as well as coves and islands as this sort of base – which made them harder to track down:

While the bandits’ plunderings on the land, being under the very eyes of the locals, who could discover the injury nearby and apprehend them without much difficulty, were easily stopped, the plundering by sea had increased dramatically. (Cassius Dio 36.20.3–4)

At their base, outlaws live in an egalitarian community. In Heliodorus, an incidental event emphasizes this egalitarianism: The first band of pirates takes the loot from the ship and divides it into equal-weighted piles so that all ten will have an equal burden (AnEthiopian Story 1.3). They bind themselves by an oath, specifically to save a comrade in trouble; in external comradeship they do not fight against each other’s bands. There is a secret, ritual greeting that identifies a person as a member of the outlaws. While there is no explicit mention of a set of rules governing the band, Cicero (noted above) refers to such a contract in his On Duties: ‘There even exist, it is said, bandit laws (leges latronum) that must be paid attention to and obeyed’ (2.11.40). A reference to a similar contract among outlaws appears in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon (Leucippe is speaking):

‘It was [Chaireas] who urged them to kill the woman and throw her overboard in my [Leucippe’s] stead. The rest of the bandit band then refused to hand me over to him alone; he had now used up another body that might have been sold and brought them an initial profit. In place of the dead woman I was to be sold to benefit the common purse and not just Chaireas alone. When he objected, bringing up legal points and referring to their contractual obligations, how they were commissioned to kidnap me for his passion, not their profit, and even ventured to use some strong language …’ [one of the bandits cut off his head]. (Leucippe and Clitophon 8.16/Winkler)

The bandit ‘laws’ were also to some extent merely traditional. A narrative given by Heliodorus is illustrative of these traditional ‘rules’ (An Ethiopian Story 4.3.1–32/Morgan): Peloros the pirate, now in love with Charikleia, demands her as his reward for being the first into the Phoenician vessel; when he asks for it, Trichinos the chief refuses. Peloros says, ‘Then you are overturning the pirate law that allows whoever is the first aboard an enemy vessel and the first to brave the danger of combat on behalf of all his comrades to choose whatever he pleases from the spoils.’ Trichinos responds, ‘I am not overturning that law, but I base my claim on another rule which says that subordinates must give way to their superiors.’ Peloros turns to the band and says, ‘Do you see how hard work is rewarded? One day each one of you will have his prize taken from him like this; one day you all will be the victims of this arbitrary and autocratic law.’ A brawl then ensues. This passage illustrates well both the role of rules outlaws lived by and of the outlaw assembly in levelling the band.

Duties are chosen by lot among Apuleius’ outlaws as, for example, sentinel duty and serving at table. They elect their leader: Haemus is so elected when their previous captain is killed in action. In Heliodorus’ An Ethiopian Story the outlaw chief Thyamis makes a speech that sets out all the best traits of a leader: fairness in distribution of booty, not taking more than the rank and file, careful keeping of the common money fund, good recruitment, and proper treatment of women:

Comrades, you know how I have always felt towards you. As you know, I was born the son of the high priest at Memphis, but I did not succeed to the priesthood after my father’s disappearance, since my younger brother illegally usurped the office. I took refuge with you in the hope of gaining revenge and regaining my position. You chose me to be your leader, and to this day I have made a practice of not giving myself a larger share than the rest of you. If it has been a case of sharing money, then I have been content with an equal portion, and if it has been a matter of selling prisoners, I have contributed the proceeds to the common fund in the belief that a leader as good as I hope I am should undertake the largest share of the work but receive only an equal share of the profits. As for prisoners, I have enrolled into our number those men whose physical strength was likely to be of use to use, and sold the weaker ones; I have never misused a woman, but I have set free the wellborn, either for ransom or from simple pity at their misfortune, while those of humble extraction, for whom slavery was a normal way of life rather than a condition imposed on them by their capture, I have distributed among you all as servants. (An Ethiopian Story 1.19/Morgan)

In The Golden Ass the bandits come to agreements by mutual consent, with all the outlaws in a council: They decide to kill Lucius by vote of the council; and they agree to Haemus’ plan to sell the girl Charite after some deliberation and differing points of view. In Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe the pirates discuss what to do with Callirhoe; it is not exactly a council, but different ideas are expressed before the chief has his way. But in Heliodorus’ An Ethiopian Story Thyamis, the chief of the outlaws, calls an assembly. ‘By this time, they had reached the meeting place, and the rest of the [bandit] company had assembled. Thyamis took his seat on the mound and declared the island to be a parliament’ (1.19/Morgan). When they accumulate booty, one of their number acts as a ‘protector of the treasury’ and advises regarding the best disposition of that booty; while Apuleius uses this term lightheartedly, the function is real. Equal distribution is essential to the maintenance of the band, as Cicero notes with reference to the gang leadership: ‘Unless the pirate captain divides booty equitably, he is either murdered by his fellows, or deserted by them’ (On Duties 2.11.40).

The egalitarian mode of life must have appealed to some; it is noted in lawful sources and even esteemed, as giving a true venue for merit. A story in Lucian illustrates this attitude as Samippus reveals his wish of what he would be/have, if he could be/have anything:

The gods can do anything, even what seems to be quite stupendous, and the rule which Timolaus laid down was not to hesitate to ask for anything, on the assumption that they will not say no. Well, I ask to be made a king, but not a king like Alexander, Philip’s son, or Ptolemy or Mithridates or any of those who inherited their kingdom from a father. No, let me begin as a brigand with about thirty sworn companions, men absolutely trustworthy and full of spirit. Then let them grow by degrees to three hundred, a thousand, and soon ten thousand, until the total is some fifty thousand heavy infantry and about five thousand horse. I shall be elected chief by all, because they think me the most able leader and administrator. This very fact is sweet – to be greater than other kings, because I’ve been elected commander by the army on merit, and not inherited the kingdom after someone else has done the work – that would be like Adimantus’s treasure and not so gratifying as when you see that you have won power by your own effort. (The Ship 28–9/Harmon)

On the other hand, the very hardness of the outlaw life put strains on ‘normal’ bonds between men. Heliodorus in An Ethiopian Story stresses how wealth acquisition is the preeminent characteristic of outlaws, surpassing both friendship and kinship in importance:

Although they had lost so many of their friends, they [the winners] felt more joy in forming a respectful escort for the man who had slain them and yet lived than pity at the death of their comrades. So much more precious, evidently, do brigands consider money than life itself: friendship and kinship are defined solely in terms of financial gain. This was certainly the case here. (Ethiopian Story 1.32/Morgan)

Cicero also alludes to at least one source of friction among outlaws, and how it was resolved: ‘For if anyone of the outlaw gang steals or sequesters anything, he loses his standing in the band’ (On Duties 2.11.40). In fact, in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon an outlaw leader who does not distribute the booty evenly is killed by his crew. In An Ethiopian Story the promise of equal distribution of booty is a prime motivator for an outlaw band. Since there is no internal division among outlaws in Apuleius, there is no picture of how conflict resolution was conducted. But in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, cited just above, the contention between the leader and his men over the distribution of booty ends in the leader’s beheading.

I now put next to this ancient picture of outlawry one particularly vivid comparison, the life of sea outlaws of the ‘golden age of piracy,’ the first half of the eighteenth century, in the Atlantic Ocean. Marcus Rediker presents an excellent account of these men in the book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It needs to be stressed that whereas there were even in the eighteenth century and before accounts of pirates and pirate life, including a justly famous pseudonymous one by Daniel Defoe, the exceptional value of Rediker’s approach lies in his use of evidence from the actual statements of pirates. These statements sometimes came after a pirate had ‘reformed’ and taken up writing memoirs (with not a little fiction thrown in, one might suppose), sometimes through investigations of authors, but the most valuable material comes from court records of trials of pirates. These trials were very public affairs and drew a good deal of attention as spectacle. In the course of them, pirates gave testimony of their deeds; their witness was recorded and preserved. Thus the very statements of pirates exist, which while not necessarily to be taken at face value in all cases, nevertheless give something totally lacking from ancient times.

Rediker’s pirates live in a place removed from lawful society – the pirate ship and/or island base – and have a clearly articulated social order. This order seemed disorder to contemporaries, but upon examination it is revealed to be coherent, purposeful, and effective, given the origins, possibilities, and goals of the outlaw gang. What is more, ‘this social order, articulated in the organization of the pirate ship, was conceived and deliberately constructed by the pirates themselves. Its hallmark was a rough, improvised, but effective egalitarianism that placed authority in the collective hands of the crew … egalitarianism was institutionalized aboard the pirate ship.’ The origins of pirates were almost universally among the lower class poor; as is expectable, most had some seafaring experience, but this aspect would apply only to pirates, not to outlaws in general, of course. Almost all were male; of 521 pirates documented by Rediker (out of perhaps 5000 operating at the height of piracy), only two are female. In general, they came to outlawry free from close ties to lawful society: no wives or family were allowed; the politics of lawful society became irrelevant; established religion was actively rejected. They, in fact, rejected the entire structure of lawful society, and most especially the ideology of the stratified, hierarchical civil society captured and defined by its laws. In its place they substituted the egalitarianism just mentioned, and a new set of laws based upon that ideology. Internally, this egalitarianism meant that every outlaw had an equal voice, and that decisions were made communally. Externally, it meant that pirates did not prey on other pirates – there was a certain communitarianism that united the pirates in sentiment, even if there were few, if any, documented ‘pirate alliances.’ The feeling of being a member of a special community was perhaps enhanced by the use of a ‘secret language’ – a pidgin English mostly based upon extensive profanity and a limited vocabulary.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this new society was the existence of – even a requirement for – a written contract, called ‘Articles,’ which set out the constitution of the group. In a time before it was usual to think of government being based upon a concocted document rather than upon divine right and/or everlasting tradition (for example, the ‘rights of Englishmen’), the pirates took their cue from contracts of business partnerships and laid out mutual obligations, governmental structures, laws of behavior, and economic rules. These documents had many elements in common, and so a ‘normal’ picture can be drawn.

Authority was in the band. An oath was sworn to work as a group. Each man had one vote and the majority ruled. Everyone was subject to the community’s authority and had to obey its rules as laid down in the ‘Articles,’ even the captain. Indeed, ‘the captain was the creature of his crew.’ The governmental structure included mechanisms for legislating rules, executive action, and judicial decisions. The rules, as I have noted, were made in an assembly of the whole, called the council. The executive function was performed by this council (i.e. major decisions as to actions were voted upon), as was the judicial, when it sat as a court to deal with social or disciplinary problems. The chief executive, the captain, was elected by the council; in battle or other crisis he had full authority, but otherwise he had to lead by consensus, cajoling, and persuasion, as he could be deposed at any time by the council. The other elected official was the quartermaster. This man had the role of protector of the interests of the crew. In particular, he kept track of the booty and saw to its fair distribution. He was a sort of ‘civil’ magistrate alongside the ‘military’ captain.

Indeed, these two offices summarize well the basic leadership needs of the band: to get booty and to distribute it. The plunder was divided up into shares (the analogy with joint-stock companies is evident) and the shares distributed among the crew. The captain and quartermaster got more shares than others because of their responsibilities; each got 1.5 to 2 shares. Skilled men such as gunners also got more than a single share – 1.25 to 1.5 shares each. The rest of the men got a single share. Thus the egalitarian spirit was expressed in booty distribution; all were engaged in a ‘risk-sharing venture’; no one was a laborer, no one a master.

Quite naturally the outlaw groups had their problems with discipline and maintenance of order. The men were most often deserters from the highly structured and disciplined life at sea found most strongly in the traditions of the British navy, but also in life on a merchantman. They had no inclination to recreate the life they had hated and fled. Thus, discipline was very loose. The basic goal was to discourage violence within the community; the basic methodology was to highlight a problem and bring a quick resolution by ejection from the community or death. Lashing was universally prohibited; the lash as the most painful symbol of the brutality of the navy and merchant marine was not allowed within the pirate community. If a dispute arose between two crew members, dueling was the accepted method of conflict resolution. In the case of conflict between the group and an individual, marooning was the normal punishment. Actual execution of a crew member was rare, and used only in the case of treason or introducing weakening elements into the group, such as women and young boys.

The similarities between Rediker’s early modern pirates and ancient novelists’ outlaw bands are striking. The same egalitarianism exists, and many of the same institutions and habits as well, such as a council for decision-making and agreed-upon rules of behavior. Of course, there is no complete correspondence. For example, whereas Rediker’s pirates will have nothing to do with any religion, Apuleius’ outlaws are committed to their protecting deity, Mars, as are Xenophon’s in An Ephesian Tale (2.11–14). However, Plutarch notes irreligious or nontraditional religious 'text-indent:.1pt;line-height:normal'>This statue of Venus is dedicated to Valerius Romanus, Most Outstanding, Guardian Overseer of the Most Splendid Colony Sicca Veneria, a man of wondrous goodness and integrity, because he restored the statue of the goddess damaged a long time ago by outlaws who had broken into the temple. May the memory of our steadfast patron last through the ages! (CIL 13.3689 = ILS 5505)

In another literary example, the cannibalism and bloody rituals found in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius represent a total rejection of the ‘decent’ in normal religion, and so fall into line with the rejection of normal religion on the part of Rediker’s pirates, but those pirates do not indulge in such unholy acts. On the other hand, in the ancient world the absence of monolithic religious establishments supporting the status quo removed the impulse to revolt against them felt by Rediker’s pirates, but nonetheless, if one turned away from other aspects of lawful society, inverting them could still be a powerful statement of independence. It is not necessary to believe the lurid details of the novelists to accept their basic background, that outlaws were hostile not only to the legal norms of society, but also to its standard religious practices.

The shared traits and habits of Rediker’s pirates and ancient outlaws as seen in history and fiction are a strong indication that the picture drawn here of Romano-Grecian outlaws reflects reality – a reality the sources do not privilege us to see very directly, but which can be retrieved by a careful use of ancient and modern sources.


Outlawry was one way – perhaps the only and surely the quickest way – to break the heavy hand of the law and its enforcers. With this perspective, outlaws are seen to live out a genuinely alternative life within the heavily stratified lawful society of the ancient Romano-Grecian world. Like Rediker’s real pirates, Apuleius’ fictional outlaws and the outlaws of the Greek romances live in a rough, cruel world, but also offer a kind of egalitarianism and democracy that stands in stark contrast to the hierarchical structure of the mainstream social system. Their community provides a – perhaps the only – alternative social structure in their respective worlds, and so it is a powerful, radical critique of those worlds. While the self-justifying and protective negative interpretation put on this critique by the elites might deceive one into thinking it is a cultural illusion, the ancient evidence and Rediker’s pirates give strong indication that it was real in the eyes of the poor, the oppressed, and the outlaws themselves.

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