Hostages in Republican Rome

  Use the following persistent identifier:

Preface {i-vi}

With the eighteenth century died the last societies of Western Europe which practiced the institution of hostageship. After A.D. 1748, when France received two English peers as pledges for the return of Cape Breton, the nations of Europe no longer exacted hostages as living sureties for the fulfillment of international agreements. Consequently the modern European and American historian must make a conscious effort to comprehend the concept of this unfamiliar practice and to understand its place in the ancient societies which employed it. Nor is the task of the contemporary historian lightened by the events of the last decade, a period in which hostageship has become a weapon wielded only by terrorists and criminals. The hostages whose dilemmas are so patently exploited by contemporary mass media, who have been seized and detained forcibly, bear little resemblance to the overwhelming majority of Greeks, Romans, and others of the first millennium B.C. who served as ὅμηροι or obsides.
Perhaps because the terms ὅμηρος and obses can be readily translated into modern languages (e.g. English hostage, French otage, German Geisel, and Italian ostaggio), the ancient terms are sometimes assumed to carry the same connotations as their modern equivalents and to have produced in antiquity a fastidious shudder of revulsion similar to that provoked by the translations today. Such a simplistic assumption is mathematically elegant but unsound philologically and historically. {i|ii} We should instead analyze the ancient terms without attempting to compare them to our own modern responses to the concept of hostageship.
Is a study of hostageship in the Roman Republic worth the considerable effort? The answer must be an unequivocal yes; the institution is an important part of Rome’s political history. The exaction of hostages occurs in all periods and in all geographical regions of the empire; it is synonymous with Roman victory and Roman expansion. Indeed, the very importance of the practice is responsible for the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence, because our sources assumed its significance to be so obvious as to need no explanation. The fact of the exaction made details superfluous in many cases, but the difficulty of the reconstruction of the practice is outweighed by its value for our conception of Roman international affairs. We cannot fully appreciate the foreign policies of Rome or the diplomatic and administrative skill which the Romans displayed in manipulating governments without a clear comprehension of the nature and the potential of hostageship.
The absence of any detailed general study of hostageship in classical Greece or Rome is, in view of the scattered and uneven evidence, perhaps none too surprising. Articles on specific treaties in which hostages were a part of the conditions of peace are fairly common, as are books which discuss individual hostages in passing, but only articles by Aymard and Moscovich appear to have focused on hostages as a particular topic worthy of study. [ 1 ] Although these articles are of great importance for the institution of hostageship in particular cases and make significant contributions toward our general understanding, {ii|iii} they do not pretend to wider application. Moreover, such articles lack a firm background against which the standard features may be discerned from the extraordinary and the Greek customs distinguished from the peculiarly Roman. It is this absence of an extended general study which has prompted this dissertation: the gathering of a large number of references from ancient Greek and Roman sources for the purpose of discovering the meaning of ὁμηρεία and obsidatus for the Greco-Roman world. Gleaned from a variety of authors on matters historical, biographical, autobiographical, geographical, rhetorical, anecdotal, poetic, and critical, the citations have been matched to a specific time and event and arranged in chronological order as Appendix I; [ 2 ] the issues discussed in the text all derive from the data assembled there.
Because of the enormous number of primary sources which have survived in these historical or semi-historical genres, I have restricted my investigation to the Republican period, broadly defined here as from the founding of the Republic until the death of Augustus in A.D. 14; although the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. or the senatorial grant of the cognomen Augustus in 27 B.C. may be more traditional dates for the end of the Republic, the death of Augustus signals the end of the last generation to remember the Republic. Legendary material from the regal period, while it is of no historical value for that era, still provides insight into the practices of the times in which our sources were written. The inclusion of incidents from the Hellenistic world and from other contemporary societies permits us to compare the Roman episodes to these others and to determine thereby the traits held in common and those peculiarly Roman. In the case of Hellenistic examples, {iii|iv} such comparison is especially significant because of the great influence which the Hellenistic monarchies had upon Roman political and cultural affairs. Although I have made no special effort to seek out incidents in which Rome was not directly involved, the ancient texts which describe hostageship in Roman history often relate such incidents (e.g., the world histories of Polybius and Diodorus, the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, and Caesar’s Gallic War, of the political alliances among the Gauls), and it seems useful to have complete sets of hostage references found in each author.
Limitations of space have also prevented full utilization of the evidence from classical Greece; the immense mass of material to be gleaned from wholly Greek sources of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. merits its own separate study. Just as the Hellenistic practices are important to our understanding of Republican customs, it is also important to comprehend the relationship of classical and Hellenistic usages. The vocabulary (ὅμηρος) is identical, and all the incidents mentioned in Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon appear to fit easily into the four basic categories into which the Hellenistic evidence falls. [ 3 ] For this reason, I have assumed a continuity of concept, as reflected by the continuity of terminology, from the fifth century through the Hellenistic period, despite the alteration in certain specific aspects of practice. [ 4 ]
The sources from which these references come are almost entirely literary; the numismatic and epigraphical material of the Republic, with the exception of a few inscriptions, simply does not pertain to the practice of hostageship or to hostages. I have focused attention upon those authors whose work alluded to the history of Republican {iv|v} Rome, and I have also included in this study non-historical citations of legend and rhetoric, for even these citations afford us a glimpse of the possibilities envisioned by our sources. [ 5 ]
The text of this work has concerned itself with the classification of these diverse and occasionally contradictory references, organized around the hostage experience, progressing from cultural background to selection to service to release. In Chapter 1, there is an assessment of the circumstances under which hostages were exacted and of the explicit purposes for such exactions, and a consideration of the socio-cultural attitudes prevalent in antiquity toward both giving and receiving hostages and of the religious and legal status of hostages within the recipient state. The object of this assessment is, first, the establishment of the meaning of ὁμηρεία and obsidatus and, second, of a background for the emotional and social responses to hostageship within the context of classical societies. Chapter 2 presents the evidence concerning the criteria by which hostages were chosen according to formal agreements: sex, age, number, affiliation, delivery time, selection, surrender of third-party hostages, and conditions of release should further negotiations fail or the period of service for an individual hostage expire. The place and circumstances of the detention, the actual treatment accorded hostages, are the subject of Chapter 3. In Chapter 4, the situations in which hostages were released from their obligations or lost their status as hostages are described: restoration by the recipient government, rescue or revolt by the donor government, or escape. {v|vi}
In the conclusion I have attempted to bring together all of these aspects to indicate the efficacy of the institution of hostageship and to relate hostageship to other Roman policies in foreign affairs, including the value of hostageship to Romanization, its use in diplomacy, and its place in the entire Roman political structure. Finally, in Appendix II, two problems tangentially related to hostageship at Rome, the legend of Cloelia and the exaction of second sons, undergo a brief analysis.
I have searched all the ancient sources on Republican history that have come to my notice, but of course I may have missed some, and I have not been able to consider every possible question concerning hostages in Republican Rome. Many issues can only be posed; and for many, resolution is impossible. I have attempted to pose and, insofar as possible, to answer the questions of particular interest or of especial importance, but for the most part my intention is to present the evidence. Nevertheless, I hope that the evidence presented will help to illuminate such general questions as the relationship of hostage exaction to Roman diplomacy, the development of Greek and Roman practice and the adoption of non-Roman features into Roman custom, and the factors which influenced the behavior of both Rome and her neighbors with regard to this most interesting institution.
Finally, I would like to thank Dr. George W. Houston, who has been a patient and careful adviser and a pillar of strength during it all; all my friends who have encouraged and inspired me, but especially Anastatia Sims, John and Clare Michaud, and Chris Craig; Louise Vrande, who typed the early drafts and generally tolerated me; and my mother.


[ back ] 1. Aymard, A. 1961. “Les otages barbares au debut de l’empire.” JRS 51:136–142; 1967. “Les otages carthaginois à 1a fin de la deuxième guerre punique.” Etudes d’Histoire Ancienne 436–50; 1954. “Rome et les barbares,” Bibliothèque de L’Ecole des Chartes 112:257; Moscovich, M. J. 1974. “Hostage Regulations in the Treaty of Zama.” Historia 23:417–27; 1979-1980. “Obsidibus Traditis: Hostages in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico.” CJ 75:122–128; 1974. “A Note on the Aetolian Treaty of 189 B.C.,” Polis and Imperium: Studies in Honor of Edward Togo Salmon (ed. J.A.S. Evans) 139–143. Toronto.
[ back ] 2. For the page numbers of this and the following sections, see the contents sidebar, where the black numbers in square brackets indicate ranges of pages and individual pages.
[ back ] 3. Powell, J. E. 1960. A Lexicon to Herodotus. Hildesheim, s.v. ‘ὅμηρος’, 264; Bétant, E. A. 1961. Lexicon Thucydideum. Hildesheim, s.v. ‘ὅμηρος’, 2:232; Sturz, F. G. 1964. Lexicon Xenophonteum. Hildesheim, s.v. ‘ὅμηρος’, 3:273–274. For the four categories, see pp. 1–11 below.
[ back ] 4. For the alterations, see 27–93 below.
[ back ] 5. For a complete list of primary sources, see the bibliography, 283–287.