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Kings on Strings - Roman Client-Kings of the 1st Century CE.

Posted June 20th, 2011 at 05:09 PM by Clodius
Updated June 30th, 2011 at 03:50 AM by Clodius

Kings on Strings

The client kingdoms of the Roman Empire under the early Principate


Like many other empires throughout history, Imperial Rome flourished by co-opting the local elites of the territories it conquered. The tribal chieftains of the Celtic provinces, the priestly authorities of temple states like Emesa, the five high-priestly families of Jerusalem, the council members of the Greek cities: all stood to gain from co-operating with the colonial power. Citizenship, a guarantee of their privileges, even the possibility of membership of the Roman Senate, all stood within the grasp of ambitious local dignitaries who were willing to collaborate with the occupiers. But it isn’t only within the territories that Rome ruled directly that we can find such high-status friends of Rome.

In the early Empire, the provinces controlled by Rome often bordered (or even enclosed) dependant territories which retained some form of autonomy from Imperial rule. Overseen by pro-Roman ruling dynasties, such territories have come to be known as “client kingdoms”, though the Latin and Greek vocabulary of the Empire had no precise synonym for this modern phrase (the official formula used to describe a client king was rex sociusque et amicus – “king, partner and friend”). By the reign of Augustus, client monarchy had become a tried-and-tested tool of Empire, allowing Rome to exert influence over regions where direct rule was impossible or undesirable, and in the east enabling a buffer zone to be maintained between Rome and her rival Parthia. Augustus and his successors further developed and expanded this system. It is the intention of this essay to shed some light on how this widespread and important institution operated under the early Emperors. In order to best understand it, it is important to realise that client monarchy was essentially a reciprocal arrangement of convenience. Here I shall be asking what benefits accrued, both to the client monarchs themselves and to their Roman overlords.

By far the best-documented client dynasty of the first century is Judaea’s notorious Herod family. The Herods will occupy a correspondingly large portion of this essay, but the institution of client monarchy was not a local phenomenon. What we learn from the Herods will be compared with, and supplemented by, information from elsewhere in the Near and Middle East, and from Britain. We must always remember that Roman government was more informal and ad-hoc than is often acknowledged, and that the details of the client monarchy system are likely to have varied from region to region, subject to the cultural differences between the peoples concerned. Nevertheless, this overview shall stress those aspects of first-century client monarchy which are widely attested and likely to have been fairly constant from place to place.

1. The Mess of Pottage: What did client monarchs get?

In 54 BCE, Julius Caesar successfully restored Mandubracius, king of the British Trinovantes tribe, to his throne, and established the first client kingdom on the far side of the English Channel. In the century between the invasions of Caesar and Claudius, a number of other tribal rulers sought to become “friends” of the Emperor. One such monarch was Verica, or Bericus, king of the Atrebates tribe on the south coast. Some time after the year 40 CE, Verica lost his kingdom to the relentlessly aggressive and persistently anti-Roman Catuvellauni tribe, and fled into Gaul. After petitioning the Emperor Claudius for restitution, his cause was taken up. In 43, Claudius sent four legions and an equivalent number of auxiliaries into Britain. We don’t know for certain that the legions reinstalled Verica, but it is likely: it is certainly true that Atrebates territory reverted to local control soon after the invasion, and continued as a semi-independent client kingdom after Verica’s death. Dio Cassius explicitly cites the restoration of Verica as the official justification for the invasion of Britain, and Suetonius strongly implies that this was the government line. (Dio Cassius LX.19.1; Suetonius, Vita Claudii 17.1.)

There are some important caveats to the Verica story. Clearly his restoration was a pretext for, rather than a cause of, the Claudian invasion. Rome would not have committed four legions to the cause of a dispossessed “barbarian” if the invasion of Britain had been inconvenient, or if Rome had nothing else to gain from such a venture. Nevertheless, it sent out a powerful message, and it illustrates an important aspect of the client monarchy system. Crossing a friendly king was the equivalent of crossing the Emperor (in theory at least). One of the benefits of client monarchy, from the king’s point of view, was no doubt that the king’s throne was backed by Roman force. This is a clear manifestation of Rome’s famous “divide and rule” policy. If the king of the Atrebates can be convinced that he has more to fear from the Catuvellauni than from Rome, he will not hesitate to submit. Rome understood what Philip of Macedon had learned in the fourth century BCE: that the ruling authorities of small states will often prefer the hegemony of a distant overlord to the caprices of the neighbourhood bully.

The Herods likewise benefitted from Roman protection. When Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great, first provoked and then lost a disastrous war against King Aretas VI of Nabataean Arabia, the Emperor Tiberius ordered a large-scale military operation to recover for the tetrarch the territories he had lost. In the event, the military action never happened because of Tiberius’ death and the close relationship between Aretas and Tiberius’ successor Caligula, but once again we see Rome willing to mobilize military forces in support of a dependent king. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.109 - 118.) But Rome didn’t only shield dependent kings from external threats. As we shall see in section 3 of this essay, there is ample evidence that the Herods were widely detested by their subjects. It is unlikely that this illegitimate family could have retained power if the people of Judaea had not clearly perceived that they had Roman backing.

However, a guarantee of power is not a persuasive selling-point if that power turns out to be shallow or illusory. Although (as we shall see) the client kings’ sovereignty was limited in numerous respects, they still enjoyed a degree of autonomy that is perhaps surprising. Client kings continued to control their own economies, though the coins they minted usually bore the Emperor’s image as well as their own. They retained the right to raise and maintain an army, and to pursue an independent foreign policy that did not directly conflict with Roman interests, as we have already seen in the case of Antipas’ war against Aretas. Rome rarely interfered with the internal operations of the state or the conduct of the monarch himself, unless (as happened with Antipas) the king came under suspicion of plotting against the Empire. Moreover, it became increasingly common to offer citizenship, membership of the senatorial class and even honorary consulships to dependent monarchs, allowing them to cherish the illusion that, when dealing with the Emperor, they did so on a basis of near-equality. Rome’s empire-builders understood the importance of diplomatic niceties.

But there were, of course, undercurrents of hard realpolitik underscoring the whole system. Protection from aggression and rebellion, and limited but substantial autonomy, were attractive propositions in the first century CE. The brutal fact was that neither Judaea nor the Atrebates nor any of the other client monarchies could realistically have resisted the Roman military for long. Becoming a client of the Emperor allowed small-scale local monarchs a few extra decades on the throne, a little longer to live in their big palaces and lord it over their subject populations, and perhaps (see below) the opportunity to pass their territory on to their heirs. Already by the first century CE, history clearly showed that client kingdoms could not persist indefinitely. For any territory that held this precarious position, full incorporation into the Roman Empire was only a matter of time. But, if the alternative was open warfare against the legions, time was often enough. Rome’s rapid and seemingly unstoppable expansion meant that the age of small viable kingdoms on its periphery was over. Menaced by the proximity of the legions, the petty rulers on Rome’s borderlands faced a stark choice between violent conquest or submissive semi-autonomy. Small wonder that so many opted for the latter.

2. Render unto Caesar: What was In It for Rome?

Historians are divided (and bitterly so) on the question of “tribute”. Were client monarchs expected to pay taxes to Rome? Was it the case that some were and some weren’t? Rather than getting drawn into the quicksand-like intricacies of this problem, it is perhaps wisest to say that currently we have insufficient evidence to settle the question convincingly either way. Nevertheless, even if it was the case that client monarchies contributed nothing to Rome’s coffers, the imperial power still gained plenty from the arrangement.

The armies of client kings could be drawn on apparently at will by Rome. For example in 67 CE, Herod Agrippa II and the kings of Emesa, Commagene and Nabataea were ordered to contribute troops to Vespasian’s operations against the Jewish rebels, and they willingly obliged. (Josephus, Jewish War 3.64 - 69). Moreover, it wasn’t only with military force that client kings supported Roman strategic aims in times of strife. Although Agrippa II had no formal authority in Jerusalem, he had informal influence over the city’s population, and when the Revolt broke out in 66 he hastened to the city and delivered an initially successful appeal for calm. Client kings, then, were expected to aid Rome’s regional interests through the deployment of both hard military force and soft diplomatic influence.

Client kings also often served as local representatives of Rome in their native kingdoms thanks to the citizenship and senatorial status that many of them enjoyed. This could serve a useful purpose in exposing the locals to Graeco-Roman culture (particularly in the Western provinces, where such culture was new), and thereby preparing a region for the transition from semi-autonomous client-kingdom to directly administered province of Rome. We can perhaps best perceive the Romanising and Hellenising tendencies of the client kings by surveying the remains of their building projects, such as the Greek-style theatre in Petra, originally built by the client kings of Nabataea, or the breathtakingly ambitious Graceo-Roman construction works of Herod the Great in Jerusalem and Caesarea (modern Tel Aviv). In some areas, even very modest Graeco-Roman building projects would have had a major impact. Herod Antipas’ fairly unambitious urban developments in Sepphoris and Tiberias, both in Galilee, are likely to have caused a big stir in a recently-populated region previously untouched by Hellenism.

In their private lives too, client kings could advertise Romanitas – consider the long-lived King Togidumnus of the Regnenses in southern England, a successor of Verica. He gloried in the name “Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus” and (probably) inhabited the spectacular Roman palace at Fishbourne, which in its day was perhaps the most sumptuous residence north of the Alps. An inscription found in Chichester shows us that Togidumnus endowed a Roman-style temple to Neptune and Minerva in that city, making him a patron of Roman religious practices. (Collingwood and Wright, Roman Inscriptions of Britain 91). Many client kings served as priests of the Emperor, thereby encouraging the local population to participate in the Imperial Cult. New cities were named, and existing cities renamed, after Emperors, to make sure everybody knew who should be thanked for the client king’s generosity. Client kings were apparently eager to “Romanise” or “Hellenise”, and in so doing they set an example to their people and facilitated the spread of classical cultural models. The local upper classes, at least, are likely to have been impressed by such extravagant demonstrations of the material benefits of embracing the Roman way.

The tendency in client kings to embrace and espouse Roman culture was encouraged by the practice of having the children of client monarchs educated at Rome, often in the household of the Imperial Family itself. This custom is widely attested. Thanks to Josephus, we are particularly well-informed about the upbringing of King Herod Agrippa I, who spent most of his early years in Italy studying with the young Imperials and running up colossal private debts. Moreover Agrippa, like other client kings, maintained his links to the Caesars by periodic return visits to Italy as an adult, even after acceding to the throne. When Tiberius went into prolonged semi-retirement on the island of Capri the adult Agrippa was there, and both Josephus and Dio Cassius tell us that the king, happening to be in Rome when Caligula was assassinated, played a significant role in overcoming senatorial objections to the accession of Claudius. (Agrippa on Capri: Josephus, Jewish War 2.178. Agrippa in Rome after Caligula's assassination: Josephus, Jewish War 2.206 - 214; Dio Cassius LX.8.) At times it can seem like Agrippa spent more of his life in Italy than in his own kingdom! The education of client kings’ sons at Rome not only created personal bonds with the ruling family, but also imbued the future client-king with enthusiasm for Roman culture and helped to ensure the good behaviour of their fathers back home.

Cultural ambassadors, pro-Roman role models, military allies and guarantors of the security of Rome’s borders: client kings played a wide variety of roles in the Roman imperial scheme. However, despite the diplomatic proclamations that client-kings were “partners”, there was never true equality here. Romans were always willing and able to neglect the interests of their client kings, or to interfere in their affairs, if they deemed it necessary. The best indication of this is in the way that the Roman authorities treated their client kings’ wills. In the absence of viable heirs, it was customary for a client king to bequeath his kingdom to Rome. However, on several occasions the Romans, too impatient to wait for the natural extinction of a dynasty, showed themselves willing to overrule the wishes of a deceased “ally” and simply move in to take control, thus dispossessing the king’s legitimate heirs (see the discussion of the Boudican revolt in Section 3). It may have been standard practice for a client king’s will to be submitted to the Emperor for approval. This is certainly what happened to the will of Herod the Great, and it gives the lie to the supposed “independence” of the client monarch. Moreover, the fate of Herod’s successors (his kingdom was divided up among three of his sons) illustrates the willingness with which Rome intervened in the affairs of a client kingdom under certain circumstances. Two of Herod’s sons, Antipas and Archelaus, were deposed and sent into exile by the regional Roman authorities (these Jewish princelings must have cut exotic figures in the rainy north of Gaul). Antipas was suspected, probably wrongly, of conspiring against Caligula. The reasons for Archelaus’ deposition are not clear: it may have been because of his inability to maintain the peace in his kingdom, or it may have been because of the extreme and pointless brutality that characterised his reign (his ugly reputation is commemorated in the New Testament, at Matthew 2:22). Either way, these incidents highlight how Rome was not afraid to trample on its obligations to its “allies” and turn its back on its “friends” if it felt it was necessary.

3. When Client Kingdoms Go Wrong

As a governmental institution, client kingship was on balance very successful from Rome’s point of view. As far as we are aware, the final incorporation of client kingdoms normally went relatively smoothly and met no political resistance, even at times when such incorporation is likely to have caused a certain amount of upheaval (as, for example when the Flavian Emperors rapidly incorporated all the client kingdoms of the Eastern frontier). Incidences of military resistance to a transition from native to Roman rule (such as the last stand of the Nabataeans against Trajan in 106 CE) are extremely rare. While client kingdoms lasted, the kings almost always remained scrupulously loyal to their Italian backers. However, client kingship was a system not without its dangers to the imperial power, and it did occasionally cause Rome problems. To illustrate this, I will briefly consider two client monarchies which, in different ways, failed: the British Iceni tribe under Prasutagus and Boudica, and Herodian Judaea.

The story of Boudica’s revolt in 60 - 61 – the appalling atrocities she visited on Romans and Britons alike at Colchester, London and St Albans, and the indiscriminate butchery of Suetonius Paullinus’ response – are well known and need no detailed rehearsal here. When people look for a villain in this story, they often follow Tacitus and single out the rapacious Catus Decianus, procurator of the province, who was probably responsible for the shocking and unnecessary brutality visited on the queen when she objected to Rome’s seizure of her lands. (On Decianus' greed, see Tacitus, Annals 14.31; cf. Dio Cassius, LXII.2). However, we would do well to remember that Decianus was acting under orders: the command for Rome to take over Icenian territory, in contravention of the deceased king Prasutagus’ will, must have come from Nero himself. Prasutagus, anticipating Nero’s greed, had offered the Emperor half of his kingdom, with the remainder going to his own family, but the great Imperial spendthrift decided he wanted it all. Nero’s disregard for the autonomy of his “ally” unleashed a monster. The actions of Nero and Decianus transformed Boudica from a willing Roman collaborator to a rebel queen – and in the process gave the Iceni and their neighbours a figurehead around whom resistance could coalesce. Just as cultivating a pro-Roman monarch could be beneficial to Rome, forcing an established ruler to adopt an anti-Roman stance could be damaging in the extreme. Boudica’s revolt illustrates the dangers that could emerge when Rome completely disregarded the elaborate diplomatic niceties of the client king system and displayed its dominant position too blatantly. In such circumstances, alienated client kings could become foci for popular opposition to Roman hegemony. In 6 CE, when Herod Archelaus was deposed and his territories brought under direct Roman control, a minor rebellion ensued. If Archelaus had been at all respected or loved by his people, that minor rebellion could well have reached Boudica-like proportions.

Like the Icenian royals Rome’s handling of the Herods should ultimately be considered a failure of Imperial policy, though for very different reasons. Most of the Herods remained unfailingly and conspicuously loyal to the Empire right down to the end of the line in 93 CE (the only Herod whose behaviour in office could reasonably be interpreted as anti-Roman was that well-connected roustabout Agrippa I). The reason why the dynasty deserves to be considered a failure is very simply this: the Herod family did not in any way reconcile their people to Roman rule, and if anything they seem to have inflamed Jewish anger against the Empire. The Herodian line was utterly illegitimate. Many Jews regarded Herod as a “half-Jew”, since he was an Idumaean (an Old Testament Edomite) whose parents had been pagans and who did not belong to either of the two tribes of Israel that had survived into the first century. His constant pandering to the Gentiles (including, shockingly, constructing temples to the Emperor in Israel), his disgraceful private behaviour, his penchant for repressive rule, his persistent persecutions of the influential and well-respected Pharisaic sect and the cavalier and flippant way he “hired and fired” Jerusalem Temple high priests all conspired to make him a hate figure among many of his own subjects. He probably didn’t massacre the innocents of Bethlehem, as alleged in Matthew’s Gospel, but the very fact that such a terrible story could be told about him and believed tells us all we need to know about his popular reputation. In 2007, the archaeologist Ehud Netser, who was working at Herod’s palace at Herodium in the occupied West Bank, found the king’s tomb. It had been vandalised in the mid first century, an eloquent testimonial to the contempt in which the king was held by some of his subjects.

Anti-Herodian feeling seems to have persisted after the death of the founder of the line. The relish with which the New Testament book of Acts describes the painful and degrading death of Agrippa I suggests he was widely disliked too. (Acts 12:20; cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.343 - 361). The massive upsurge in messianic speculation witnessed in first century Judaea is a clear sign of dissatisfaction with Herodian rule. After all, people would not long for the appearance of God’s anointed king if they were happy with the rulers they presently enjoyed (Messianism is invariably a protest movement). The success of John the Baptist’s movement in Galilee can perhaps be partially explained by his willingness to publically criticize Antipas, the offence for which he was probably executed. There can be little doubt that the Herodian dynasty, these illegitimate tyrants propped up on their thrones by Rome, contributed to the popular discontent with Roman hegemony, discontent which exploded so volcanically in 66 CE.

In truth, the House of Herod was always an inappropriate choice as a ruling family. The original Herod’s rise to power had been masterminded by Mark Antony as an emergency response to a Parthian-backed coup d’etat in Judaea. It’s easy to see why, under such circumstances, Antony might have felt it was important to get any pro-Roman figure on the Judaean throne. However, what’s harder to understand or excuse is Rome’s continuing support for this profoundly inappropriate, often offensive, ruling clan. This must no doubt have been a black mark against the Empire in the eyes of many of the beleaguered Jewish subjects of the Herods. When considering the high priestly families of Jerusalem, the historian Martin Goodman observed that they never enjoyed the loyalty of the masses because Rome had chosen to support them despite the fact that they did not fulfil traditional Jewish status-criteria. (Goodman, M, The Ruling Class of Judaea ch. 5). I would contend that this exact same observation could be made of the Herods, and that the House of Herod illustrates the dangers that even a loyal dynasty of client-kings could pose to Rome if the dynasty had been poorly or insensitively selected.


While an illegitimate dynasty of client kings, or a client monarch who had been alienated by Rome’s disregard for the niceties, could pose dangers for the Roman system of imperial government, in general client kingship was a highly successful governmental strategy from a Roman perspective. It brought Rome increased border security, and it fostered pro-Roman feeling in areas not yet ready to be incorporated into the Empire. The kings themselves benefitted from Rome’s protection and enjoyed limited, but significant, independence. Despite the carefully-cultivated illusion of “partnership”, client kingship was a hierarchical relationship, and the imbalance of power was clearly in Rome’s favour.

If I had to pick a modern-day parallel for the client kings of the Roman Empire I’d plump for the beleaguered dictators of the Middle East and North Africa, local tyrants backed by a global superpower in return for maintaining the peace and generally looking out for the superpower’s interests in the region. Provided its interests are safeguarded, the superpower will turn a blind eye to the brutality and folly of the petty dynasts, until the time comes when it is convenient or expedient to turn on its “ally”. Viewed from this perspective, the Boudican Revolt is no more potent or exhilarating an illustration of the hazards of client kingship than Tahrir Square in 2011.
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  1. Old Comment
    ib-issi's Avatar
    Goood stuff Clodius , very enjoyable
    Posted July 15th, 2011 at 06:23 AM by ib-issi ib-issi is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Clodius's Avatar
    Thanks ib-issi, glad you liked it.
    Posted July 15th, 2011 at 02:38 PM by Clodius Clodius is offline

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