Police Work in Roman Times

R.W. Davies describes how the legions and their auxiliaries were employed by Roman Governors to maintain law and order in their provinces.

Throughout the greatest days of the Roman Empire, the famous Pax Romana was preserved with the help of an efficient police force. In the cities, small forces of gendarmes, often recruited from slaves, acted under the direction of civilian magistrates. But elsewhere it was the army itself that kept the peace; and military units were stationed at such strategic points as river-crossings and road-centres. This is well illustrated by Strabo’s account of how the Egyptian army was distributed:

‘There are also three legions of soldiers, one of which is stationed in the city and the other two in the countryside. Apart from these, there are nine Roman infantry battalions, three of which are in the city, three on the borders of Ethiopia in Syene as a guard for those regions, and three throughout the rest of the countryside. In the same way three cavalry regiments are stationed at key points.’

Thus 18,000 heavy infantry, 4,500 light infantry, and 1,500 cavalry were available for police duties. The city mentioned, of course, is Alexandria, the second largest city in the Empire, which had a very turbulent record and thus needed a particularly large force. In A.D. 144, the Greek orator, Aelius Aristides, again refers to Alexandria, during a speech that he delivered, praising Rome and the efficiency of Roman methods:

‘In this way cities are free from garrisons, and battalions and regiments are sufficient to protect whole countries even these are not stationed in large numbers throughout the cities in each of the countries, but are dispersed in the countryside with defined spheres of control. The result is that many countries do not know the whereabouts of their garrisons. But if a city anywhere had grown excessively large and had exceeded its ability to maintain internal order, you did not begrudge them the soldiers to guard and watch over them.’

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