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Through the Lens of History 15 – Latrones – Bandits in the Roman Republic and Empire

15 October, 2010

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision XV: “Latrones
Bandits in the Roman Republic and Empire

Looking back to the Roman Empire we usually imagine it to be an orderly and efficient place, untroubled by minor lawlessness. This was not entirely the case, though in central and northern Italy it came close. Bandits and banditry were a continual problem throughout the expansion of Rome to the collapse of the Empire.

Part I – The History

Rome rapidly expanded, first as a Republic and later as an Empire, building a highly efficient set of roads to facilitate military movement. These roads further promoted trade and travel, colonization and commerce. Married to this expansion was the ever present threat of the latro (pl. latrones, bandits) to the traveler.

Deaths by bandits were common enough that there was a formulaic phrase (interfectus a latronibus, “killed by bandits”) used on Roman tombstones. Measures were undertaken to limit the predations of bandits, the building of watchtowers, guard posts and other manned fortifications for travelers to find safety within. Naturally, all of these sorts of buildings also served a military purpose by design protecting Rome from both internal and external threats.

For the Romans, latrones were the quintessential outlaws, by their very actions latrones placed themselves outside of the bounds of Roman society. Thus it was not only legal but encouraged and expected for private citizens to seek out and kill bandits. One of the reasons that private citizens were expected to do this was the Romans did not have a civil police force; there was the Roman army, which had many duties, and the Roman administrators who could call upon the army or on the resources of private citizens. This was less of a problem in the old Latin areas of Central and Northern Italy where the people were Roman and had an interest in keeping the roads safe for travelers.

In the areas that Rome had conquered, things were more problematic. The latrones often had ties to both the local population, who would hide them, and the local power structure, who would protect them. The Roman administration could therefore call upon the army to suppress the latrones, which was difficult if they could melt into the local population. Or call upon the local elites to raise forces to fight the latrones, which was not be very effective because these often were the same people who were protecting the bandits in the first place. So, dealing with the latrones became an interesting balancing act for the Roman officials.

When latrones were caught, they were subject to summary execution, localized interrogation (including torture) or brought back to be savagely killed. Those bandits brought back for public execution were crucified, torn apart by wild animals in the arena, or burned alive to set an example. Anyone who helped a bandit, such as a receptator (pl. receptatores, ‘reciever’ or, as we might put it, a fence) was to face the same penalties as a bandit. This became problematic when it was the elite of an area supporting the latrones, causing the Roman officials to have to tread carefully.

Bandits proved most difficult to control in newly conquered areas, especially those that shared a border with areas outside the Roman sphere of influence and in mountainous regions. The ease of escape across mountains and the multitude of hiding places made catching bandits difficult. Just as the broken terrain made travelers vulnerable by being easily cut off from the watchful eyes of the authorities that might otherwise have protected them.

An unusual sort of latro that emerged in Southern Italy and Sicily was the slave-shepherd, these enslaved shepherds where allowed by their owners, who did not want to have to worry about the trouble and expense of maintaining them, to raid and pillage as long as they did not harm their owner’s interests. Thus their predations fell mostly upon small farmers and travelers. The masters of the slave-shepherds, wealthy land owners all, protected their slaves from official reprisals for sometime before the practice was stopped.

Latrones sprung up, their numbers sometimes composed of ex-soldiers, whenever there was a collapse of authority, such as a civil war or power struggle for the Imperial throne. These groups of latrones would in turn have to be put down by agents of Empire to reestablish Imperial authority, which would usually last until the next civil war or breakdown of Imperial authority began the cycle anew.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

I could not find any mention in my sources of professional groups of latro hunters, but, if they did exist, it would be a good profession for adventurers. Either as mercenaries or as official agents, a team of professional bandit hunters could be quite interesting to play.

The characters could be agents of a government sent to govern an area who are forced into dealing with the bandit problem. Some of the bandits are just common folk trying to feed their families, while other bandit gangs are working for the elite of the country who are planning to revolt. The characters must deal with both groups, their jobs and their lives.

For a more morally gray campaign, the players could be bandits themselves. Perhaps they have noble reasons, to fight the invaders, or mercenary ones or some combination of the two. In any case, being outside the law will likely result in the characters being forced to deal with fairly gray areas of morality so this style of campaign will not be to everyone’s tastes.

In any case, bandits are likely to be a reoccurring problem in many types of campaigns and setting, hopefully the above details will allow them to have a bit more depth.

Supplemental d20 Material:

New Feats
Latro [General]

You are a professional bandit, secure in your knowledge of the local area and of both sides of the law.

Prerequisites: BAB +1, Knowledge (local) 1 ranks, Survival 1 rank.

Benefit: You gain a +2 bonus to Intimidate, Knowledge (local) and Survival checks. If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +4 for that skill.  Further, you have a +1 bonus to Appraise checks for determine the value of goods for your local market.

Note: You are a wanted criminal and are liable to be summarily executed (or worse) by the authorities if caught.

Design Note: Latro is obviously superior to that standard +2 to two skills feat (such as Acrobatic) as it provides three +2 skill bonuses plus another minor bonus.  However, it does come with that whole, likely to be put to death if caught by the authorities and if they leave the area where they fear for their life, they essentially lose access to parts of the feat scaling it down.  The latro feat could also be used to model members of any bandit or outlaw group with just a change of the name.

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