On Rome Disarming Her Subjects

In the wake of the evil deeds in Aurora, Colorado last week, I was trying to remember whether the Romans had an ancient equivalent of ‘gun control’ and I seem to recall some prof or another in my distant past suggesting that Rome did, in fact, disarm their subjects. I also recall reading from time to time on the web that the Romans did this sort of thing and I have also wondered if those folks have considered the logistics of it. Whatever the case, the source for this view is likelyRamsey MacMullen’s Roman Social Relations, where it is mentioned sort of in passing (p. 35, with a list of exempla in n. 26). Without coming down on one side or the other of the ‘gun control debate’, I do want to point out that MacMullen’s views need to be tempered with the extensive study by P. A . Brunt in Phoenix 29.3, 260-270, “Did Rome Disarm Her Subjects”, wherein Brunt examines MacMullen’s exempla and counters with several others.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

In his Roman Social Relations 50 B.C.-A.D. 284 New Haven and London 1974) Professor Ramsay Macmullen presents a sombre picture of the condition of the lower orders in the Roman empire, which in general appears to me to represent the truth only too well. But among the many suggestions he throws out which provoke reflection, at least one may challenge dissent. In his sketch of Roman taxation he urges that the resistance movements it caused “reveal in rough outline a common pattern of desperation: first, initial conquest by the Romans; next, the rapid confiscation of all hidden weapons;” and then assessments and “recurrent spasms of protest against the weight of tribute harshly calculated and still more harshly exacted.” His belief that even in the early empire taxation was heavier than is commonly assumed seems to me justifiable, but that is not my subject here. Is it right that disarmament, indeed rapid disarmament, was normally the first act of the conquerors as a prelude to taxation? Macmullen founds this claim on (a) a few texts relating to the disarmament of particular peoples and (b) an interpretation of the law or laws de vi, which in his judgement show that disarmament was universal.’ By implication, it was also permanent. There is perhaps some risk that this view will gain credit, unless rebutted. A fuller survey of the evidence suggests to me that disarmament was far from normal and, where attempted, without lasting effect.

… and the conclusion:

When Roman conquest deprived a people of “liberty,” the loss affected not so much the masses as the old ruling class; we must, however, remember that most of Rome’s subjects had been previously under the control of some other king or hegemon, and that relatively few of the provincial civitates had any real sovereignty to lose. Whatever political loss they did sustain was compensated from the first by the blessings of peace and by Rome’s readiness to uphold their local dominance, and in course of time by an increasing share in the imperial government. The notables were in the best position to discern the difficulty or impossibility of successful revolt, and to enjoy the benefits of order, civilization, and actual participation in Roman power. Without the leadership they alone could give, resistance to Rome could not be effectively organized and had even less chance of success. The rise of provincials in the imperial service and the endless panegyrics they pronounced on Rome’s beneficence alike attest the growth of active consent to Roman rule among the subjects who mattered most, if that rule was to endure. It was by winning over the magnates and not by disarming the masses that the Roman government secured submission and internal peace. Disarmament was neither practicable nor necessary as a systematic rule of policy; it was a mere expedient of no more than temporary utility, to be employed against some peoples at the moment of surrender or when there was some particular reason for apprehending disturbances. The “common pattern” is quite different; the local ruling class is left to control the masses and share in their exploitation, and Rome adapts the warlike proclivities of her subjects by giving them arms to protect and maintain her own empire.

… definitely worth a read if you’re asked “What would the Romans do in this situation? Didn’t they …”

2 thoughts on “On Rome Disarming Her Subjects

  1. Of course, the weapons systems at the time of Rome, were far different from our own.
    I myself DO support the US Constitution, The Bill of Rights, and the 2nd Amendment. (Yes, I know I am writing from Canada, long story, there!)
    But at the same time, this guy had body armour, smoke grenades, 100 round magazines, 3 or 4 Glock Pistols, and an assault rifle. Back home, he left behind booby trapped explosives, and chemical agents. I am familiar with the “slippery slope argument” about banning any weapons. And the argument does terrify me. There is truth to it. Sadly, History is replete with it.
    I do not know how to cut this Gordian Knot, I wish I did. I hope someone comes up with a way to do it.
    But for now, we must all extend pity, sympathy, empathy, and whatever little hopes, prayers, and help we might be able to offer to those poor victims and survivors. Let us hope the wounded recover well, and find peace. Let us hope that those who lost loved ones get the help they need too, and eventually, peace.
    And to the First Responders, Doctors, Nurses, and so on: Thank you!
    And thank you for this fascinating article.

  2. The problem of Holmes, the shooter of Aurora, was his nihilism and his increasingly move into unreality. Guns aren’t the problem, but the way the kid was raised, his high intellectualism, and the general secular and irreligious society that he grew up amongst. Movies, now, are made around nihilistic attitudes and that is infecting the masses. Holmes is at the same pay grade as Kleibold and Harris the killers of Columbine.

    The problem is not guns, but the society that produces them. It is not a coincidence that Aurora and Columbine happened close to each other, all three killers were nihilistic, all of them were heavily armed, created and used explosives, did extensive planning.


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