Sarah Bond: Who Is a Bandit?: Revisiting Legitimated Violence in the Roman Empire and America

☩ σωματοθή-
κη Δομετίου
υἱοῦ Θεοδώ-
ρου διογμίτου {διωγμείτου}². ☩

☩ Coffin of Domitius, son of Theodorus, a διωγμείτης 

(MAMA III, 305)

Tombstone of Publius Aelius
Ariortus, who was killed by 
bandits (CIL III, 1559). 
        From Corcyrus in Cilicia comes an inscription commemorating Domitius, member of one of the armed bands of diogmitai who helped to root out bandits and to make arrests within some Roman cities. The inscription is from the later empire, and thus we should not be surprised to see Domitius noting his Christianity with pride--though it might suggest that he did not view his work out of concord with his faith. What does require further explanation is just who exactly these diogmitai were and their connection to the state. 

        The vivid arrest scenes often depicted in martyr stories are one place to look. The martyrdom of Polycarp transmits  a vivid arrest scene (VII) that allegedly took place  in Smyrna in the mid second century CE:" The police and the diogmitai came with the young man at suppertime on the Friday with their usual weapons, as if coming out against a robber." The passage reveals the use of diogmitai in cities to combat the purportedly endemic problem of bandits within many Roman cities and along Roman roads, but also reveal they were used to deal with other persons deemed social deviants. The diogmitai were not formally soldiers; their authority can be most closely approximated to today's mall cops at the most and a neighborhood watch at the least. Yet their often-excessive use of force was legitimated not only by law and local authorities, but by a populace that ostensibly stood in fear of "bandits" in an empire with--it must be said--very little policing. Exactly who was a bandit is considerably less clear.  

Two violent examples of excessive force and racial profiling have recently come to national attention. The first is the death of Trayvon Martin by a member of a neighborhood watch in Florida, and the 
Arrest of Peter by Roman soldiers
(Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, c. 335
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)
second is the beating and murder of Oscar Grant by a transit cop in Oakland, California. The latter has recently been depicted in the movie Fruitvale Station, a moving and evocative film I saw a couple of nights ago. Both men were unarmed, yet died at the hands of overzealous authority figures who, at least in my opinion, racially profiled each of these black men. This got me thinking once again about legitimated authority, profiling, and the construct of the "bandit", a topic that has fascinated Roman historians since about the 1980s. 

       As Kate Cooper most recently pointed out, Brent Shaw has a knack for exploring highly relevant topics. I too have had his work on my mind as of late. Particularly, I sat thinking last night about his 1984 article on bandits in the Roman empire. In the article, Shaw questioned "the relationship between individual men who wielded violent force and the Roman state" (3). 

Depiction of the crucifixion with bandits on either side of
Christ. From the doors of Santa Sabina, Rome. (5th c. CE (?)) 
The word for bandits was generally latro (pl. latrones), though Roman legal codes often left who was or was not a bandit purposefully ambiguous--much as we do today with the term "terrorist". Themes of banditry and ideas of bandits seeped into the Roman law codes and show up at many unexpected turns, and indicate a particular anxiety about these persons. For instance, it was often assumed that shepherds were equal to bandits (CTh. 9.31.1 [409 CE]). Ultimately, Romans often used the construct of the bandit in order to better define themselves. Thus the just usurper-emperor could be juxtaposed next to the archetypal, unjust bandit in order to legitimize himself. Similarly, we see the term "heretic" thrown about in late antiquity, as a way for Christians to better define and empower themselves. I do not have the time or space to here to investigate each of these topics, but I would encourage people to reflect on the ways in which we construct the "other" and the "bandit" in America today. By casting young black men as the marginal bandits to be feared in our society,  we legitimize the violence against them and push them further to the outliers of society. 

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