The Romans possessed a clear understanding of the most likely breeding grounds for discontent. Individuals were unlikely to be able to foment political strife in isolation, and even if they managed to start some form of rebellion a lack of support would limit their actions to those of ordinary criminals or brigands – highly unlikely to achieve any political ends. However, if rebellion could be started within a collective, it possessed a far greater chance of developing into a political movement. The banning of perceived opposition groups with the potential for collective political activity was common Roman policy and identifies the Roman understanding of the use of repression and coercion in the suppression of politically motivated collective violence. The prohibition of these groups is clearly illustrated by the Roman treatment of, and legislative control over political clubs and associations:
it happens from time to time that the people are thrown into disorder and rioting by the reckless rhetoric of the bakers’ factions in the marketplace … Consequently I order the bakers not to meet as an association and not to become the ringleaders in reckless behaviour.
In effect this legislation acted as a restriction on the freedom of association within the empire. The Romans saw these clubs as threats to the stability of the empire and thus outlawed them unless the club had applied for and been granted a license issued by the emperor. The fact that these clubs did actually engage in political activity is proven by archaeological finds of placards espousing political slogans.
The letters between Pliny the Younger and the emperor Trajan regarding the possible establishment of a new association (Hetaeria) in Nicomedia to act as a fire brigade is an interesting example of this legislation in action, as it demonstrates the importance that emperors placed on the suppression of these clubs. In this instance Trajan would not allow Pliny to establish the new club as the region had previously suffered from civil disobedience due to the involvement of local associations. Tertullian perhaps best identifies the reasons for the outlawing of clubs, stating:
the reason for prohibiting associations clearly lay in the forethought for public order – to save the state from being torn into parties, a thing very likely to disturb election assemblies, public gatherings, local senates, meetings, even the public games, with the clashing and rivalry of partisans.
Tertullian, Apology, 4. xxxviii – xxxix.
It can therefore be assumed that in newly annexed regions, where the potential of resistance would naturally be quite high for a number of years, this concern would have been greater still. To further highlight the importance the Roman administration placed on the suppression of these associations it is interesting to note that the punishment for maintaining an illegal club or association was identical to the punishment for the ‘occupying of public places or temples with armed men’ at the time of Justinian’s writings.