Disarming the People? Ancient Perspectives on Weapons Bans

I’m just getting back to work after maternity leave.  A piece of mine that was partly worked out here on the blog has finally been published.  You can read it here.  Far warning, my next speaking engagement is on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, so I’m on a bit of historiographical kick at the moment.


When he had said this and thereby filled all the common people with wonderful hopes, he established two institutions which are the worst of all human institutions and the prologues to every tyranny — a redistribution of the land and an abolition of debts. He promised that he would take upon himself the care of both these matters if he were appointed general with absolute power till the public tranquillity should be secured and they had established a democratic constitution. When the common people and the unprincipled rabble gladly accepted the proposal to pillage the goods of other men, Aristodemus conferred upon himself the supreme command, and proposed another measure by which he deceived them and deprived them all of their liberty. For pretending to suspect that the rich would raise disturbances and insurrections against the common people on account of the redistribution of the land and the abolition of debts, he said the only means he could think of to prevent a civil war and the slaughter of citizens and to guard against these miseries before they happened, was for all of them to bring the arms out of their houses and to consecrate them to the gods, in order that they might make use of them against foreign enemies who should attack them, whenever the necessity should arise, and not against one another, and that in the mean time they would be suitably placed in the keeping of the gods. When they agreed to this also, he disarmed all the Cumaeans that very day, and during the following days he searched their houses, where he put to death many worthy citizens, alleging that they had not produced all their arms for the gods. After this he strengthened his tyranny by three sorts of guards. The first consisted of the filthiest and the most unprincipled of the citizens, by whose aid he had overthrown the aristocracy; the second, of the most impious knaves, whom he himself had freed for having killed their masters; and the third, a mercenary force, consisting of the most average barbarians, who amounted to no fewer than two thousand and were far better soldiers than any of the rest. (DH 7.8.1-3)

This passage comes from Dionysius’ extended digression on the tyranny of Aristodemus at Cumae.  A common argument in favor of a broad interpretation of the US second amendment and the right to bear arms is to allow the people to defend themselves against tyrannical government.  You can read about this and how it have entered the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign here.  I found it interesting to find tyranny in antiquity characterized by a weapons confiscation followed by the imposition of a police force.  It made me wonder whether such weapons confiscations were in anyway a historiographical theme.  The only other one that pops immediately to mind is the order by the Roman consul to the Carthaginians to surrender all arms as the second condition of their surrender into the faith of the Romans (Polybius 36.6.5ff.).

Sambuca, Siege Engine and Musical Instrument


One of my favorite activities when teaching Hellenistic warfare is to have students try to draw the siege engine that Polybius describes for the siege of Syracuse.  The passage is below.  I think its a useful way to build students ability to visual and engage with the text they are reading.  Anyway.  I’ve been wanting a Republican period image of a sambuca for many years to add to the lesson plan.  And Lo! The musical instrument appears as control mark on the Papius series.  I could get really obsessed with the Papius symbols.  Must resist today.

4 1 Meanwhile Marcellus was attacking Achradina from the sea with sixty quinqueremes, each of which was full of men armed with bows, slings, and javelins, meant to repulse those fighting from the battlements. 2 He had also eight quinqueremes from which the oars had been removed, the starboard oars from some and the larboard ones from others. These were lashed together two and two, on their dismantled sides, and pulling with the oars on their outer sides they brought up to the wall the so‑called  “sambucae.” 3 These engines are constructed as follows. 4 A ladder was made four feet broad and of a height equal to that of the wall when planted at the proper distance. Each side was furnished with a breastwork, and it was covered in by a screen at a considerable height. It was then laid flat upon those sides of the ships which were in contact and protruding a considerable distance beyond the prow. 5 At the top of the masts there are pulleys with ropes, and when they are about to use it, they attach the ropes to the top of the ladder, and men standing at the stern pull them by means of the pulleys, while others stand on the prow, and supporting the engine with props, assure its being safely raised. After this the towers on both the outer sides of the ships bring them close to shore, and they now endeavour to set the engine I have described up against the wall. 8 At the summit of the ladder there is a platform protected on three sides by wicker screens, on which four men mount and face the enemy resisting the efforts of those who from the battlements try to prevent the Sambuca from being set up against the wall. 9 As soon as they have set it up and are on a higher level than the wall, these men pull down the wicker screens on each side of the platform and mount the battlements or towers,10 while the rest follow them through theSambuca which is held firm by the ropes attached to both ships. 11 The construction was appropriately called a Sambuca, for when it is raised the shape of the ship and ladder together is just like the musical instrument.

BM 2002,0102.3986, RRC 408/1

The Crowning Moment

Ex Slg. Sir Arthur Evans (= Katalog Burlington Exhibition 1903) Tf. 101, 82, Slg. Jameson 449 und Slg. Walter Niggeler (=Auktion Leu + M&M Basel 1965) 82. Cf. SNG ANS 531. 7.15 g.

So I read this bit of Polybius (below) and landed right back at this coin (above):

For Hiero and Gelo not only gave seventy-five silver talents, partly at once and the rest very shortly afterwards, to supply oil in the gymnasium, but dedicated silver cauldrons with their bases and a certain number of water-pitchers, and in addition to this granted ten talents for sacrifices and ten more to qualify new men for citizenship, so as to bring the whole gift up to a hundred talents. They also relieved Rhodian ships trading to their ports from the payment of customs, and presented the city with fifty catapults three cubits long. And finally, after bestowing so many gifts, they erected, just as if they were still under an obligation, in the Deigma or Mart at Rhodes a group representing the People of Rhodes being crowned by the People of Syracuse. (5.88.5-8)

The context is c.226BC and Rhodes’ use of its recent earthquake to solicit diplomatically expedient gifts.  [Link to some relevant scholarship]

A) It’s good context for the above coin on the personification of political bodies in honorific art forms in 3rd Century BC.

B) It might suggest that the coin type imitates a statue group or potential statue group or the known style of a type of statue group.  This isn’t crazy lots of coin types derive from statues of one sort or another.

C) It made me think about who crowns whom in Hellenistic art in what context.  Under the Empire cities shake hands rather than crown one another.   Nike crowns everybody.  She’s kind of a whore that way.  It’s kind of her M.O.  Ditto Eros (Cupid). Then this came to mind:

Nice Picture, but don’t believe the Flickr caption.

The crowning obviously honors and emphasizes the status of the crowned, but what about the crowner?  Does it diminish the status of Syracuse to bestow the crown?  Or in fact is it a statement of inherent superiority if one can crown another?  We need only think of Napolean’s anxiety about being crowned by the Pope and thus his decision to crown himself and his queen.

On a more serious note, Walbank as always is full of goodness:


IG xi.2 199 b 1.23 (Delos, 273 BC) is available at PHI Greek Inscriptions:


As is [Demosthenes] 18.91 “On The Crown”:

it be resolved by the People of Byzantium and Perinthus to grant to the Athenians rights of intermarriage, citizenship, tenure of land and houses, the seat of honor at the games, access to the Council and the people immediately after the sacrifices, and immunity from all public services for those who wish to settle in our city; also to erect three statues, sixteen cubits in height, in the Bosporeum, representing the People of Athens being crowned by the Peoples of Byzantium and Perinthus; also to send deputations to the Panhellenic gatherings, the Isthmian, Nemean, Olympian, and Pythian games, and there to proclaim the crown wherewith the Athenian People has been crowned by us, that the Greeks may know the merits of the Athenians and the gratitude of the Byzantines and the Perinthians.

Update 1/5/2016: My thoughts on this are maturing.  I think there must have been a very typical statue group that was developed for such a representation and the Nero/Agrippina is a late example of the general type.  This informs how I am thinking about types like RRC 419/2 and other crowning scenes on coins. Cf. Also the Corinth Crowning Ptolemy group attested by Athenaeus drawing on Kallixeinos and discussed by Pollitt (here and here).

Update 5/1/14:  This isn’t precisely related to the rest of this post, but I wanted to be able to find this passage again when thinking about the Locrian coin (Pliny, NH 34.32):



This demonstrates Romans receiving honors from S. Italian Cities for their role as protector a decade before Locri’s coin.   I also like the sentence about this being a means of establishing foreign clients.  I doubt the Thurians saw it that way!

1/20/16:  Constantine and the Tyche of Constantinople

File:Glittica romana, costantino e la tyche di costantinopoli, sardonice IV sec.JPG

301 out of 410 days: Pistis again

οἱ δ᾽ εἰσελθόντες χρόνον μέν τινα διετήρουν τὴν πόλιν καὶ τὴν ἑαυτῶν πστιν

… διορθοῦσθαι παρὰ τοῖς συμμάχοις τὴν αὑτῶν πστιν.  (Polybius 1.7.6 and 10)

The very first episode actually narrated in Polybius’ Histories doesn’t really let the Romans come off that well.  The garrison they sent to Rhegium seizes the city for themselves rather than protecting it.  This episode is set by Polybius in the back drop of the Pyrrhic War and he says after the war, as soon as they could, the Romans laid siege to the town and punished mercilessly their own garrison.    The episode begins and ends with references to pistis (= fides = [good] faith).   Now, Polybius is probably hazy on the details.  See Walbank’s commentary (follow link above) for the nitty gritty details, but key points therefrom include:

” Dion. Hal. xx. 4 records that the garrison was against Bruttians, Lucanians, and Tarentines, and was sent in the consulship of C. Fabricius (282).”

“The Roman reduction of Rhegium (cf. 6. 8) is in 270; Dionysius (xx. 16) and Orosius (iv. 3. 3–6) attribute it to the consul C. Genucius, but his colleague Cn. Cornelius Blasio triumphed de Regineis (act. tr.).”

So 12 years is an awful long time to leave this rogue garrison hanging out in S. Italy…  I also find the triumphal fasti entry interesting.  We usually talk about funny business with the triumph in the civil wars and allied rebellions of the Late Republic but this appears to be a really early case of a Roman claiming to have defeated a foreign enemy when fighting other Roman, or former Roman, soldiers. And of course it made me think about this coin and its broadly Pyrrhic context and Locri’s status as a neighbor of Rhegium.  The whole episode was quite an object lesson for the Locrians…:

Reverse of Silver stater, Locri Epizephyrii. 1944.100.7030
Reverse of Silver stater, Locri Epizephyrii. Pistis (= fides = fidelity) crowns Roma. ANS 1944.100.7030

Related earlier posts on Locri, on Pistis.

295 out 410 days: Third Century Quaestors and The Fleet

[If you click on the title of a post it will take you to a full page view of that post making it easier to read the images of text clippings.]


This is again from the Tusa and Royal article I keep coming back to (p. 44).  Prag is Jonathan Prag of Merton College, Oxford.  I came back to this passage after reading this portion of Walbank’s Commentary:


The Livy Epitome (15.8)  is really so short as to be down right useless:

Quaestorum numerus ampliatus est, ut essent octo.

The number of quaestors was doubled so that there were eight.

But Lydus, On Magistrates (1.27) is more interesting:



Modern critical edition, translation, and commentary available here (p. 41-45).

Relevant bibliography:

Le Bohec, Yann. – La marine romaine et la première guerre punique. Klio 2003 85 (1) : 57-69 carte.

Harris W. V. – The development of the quaestorship, 267-81 B.C. Classical Quarterly 1976 XXVI : 92-106. Abstract: There were two new quaestorships in 267, not four, as usually supposed, and they probably shared some of the duties of the quaestores urbani. Two more quaestorships were added for Sicily and Sardinia, and in 197 the total was probably raised to ten, a figure maintained until Sulla. The quaestores classici of 267 probably represented a tightening of Roman control in Italy.