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Client kings: puppets of the Roman Empire?

In my first post about Zenobia of Palmyra, I mentioned that her husband, Septimius Odaenathus, was Rome’s client ruler of Palmyra. But Zenobia, upon the death of her husband, refused to maintain post as client ruler. It’s actually not too difficult to see why. Being a client ruler was akin to being a ruler of a satellite state, in modern terms. 

(To avoid confusion, I use client ruler and client king interchangeably as there were no ‘client queens’, seeing as the one person who almost became one refused to.)

What are client kings?

According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, client kings were a group of monarchs and those who had some form of monarchical status that had a relationship with Rome which was amicable yet unequal. The Romans referred to such kings as rex sociusque et amicus- meaning “the king and ally and friend”. This was to formalize recognition by the senate.

Why did the Romans need client kingdoms?

Client kingdoms were considered important to the Roman Empire because they were rich in resources, manpower and local proficiency. The Empire did expect the client kingdoms to meet the demands where necessary, however client kingdoms were not expected to pay taxes. In exchange for their loyalty, the client rulers expected Rome to help secure their local positions. One expectation of this was, occasionally, the bestowal of the kingdoms to Rome when a suitable heir to the kingdom could not be found, such as the case of Attalus III.  Political marriages were also not uncommon within these client kingdoms and Roman territories. Augustus himself is said to have encouraged such marriages (Suet. Aug. 48). 

Here, I introduce three key client rulers who very much owed their position to the Roman Empire: Herod of Judaea, Archelaus of Cappadocia and Juba of Mauretania.

Herod of Judaea, Philokaisar 

Herod (c. 73-4 BCE) was king of Judaea shortly before the beginning of the common era. Herod had a career in the military as a general, however, Mark Antony acknowledged him as the nation’s leader.

Herod did not win Mark Antony over immediately. In order to gain his rank, he first convinced Mark Antony that his father had been forced to support Caesar's assassins. Mark Antony was convinced, and granted Herod the status of tetrarch of Galilee, a title applied to the leaders of various vassal kingdoms. This meant that as a vassal leader, Herod was granted land, i.e. Galilee, in return for doing homage to a feudal tenant, who in this case was Mark Antony representing the Roman Empire.

But Herod could not begin his reign yet. He still had opponents to deal with. These included Antigonus. Following the defeat of Antigonus, Herod could now become the sole leader of Judaea, as he had fled to the Romans, gaining the confidence of Octavius. He assumed the highest title possible, called basileus.

Though he did try to assert his own way such as through foreign policy, Herod ultimately remained loyal to the Roman Empire. He did not appear to distinguish his domain; rather he even showed off his loyalty to Mark Antony, and promised the same to the new overseer of the Roman Empire, Octavius. Octavius was impressed by Herod’s valour and even granted him additional territories in the coast of Judaea and Samaria.

Because of Herod’s loyalty to the Empire as well as his disregard for Jewish Law, such as the placing of a golden eagle, symbol of the Empire on the Temple,in the middle of the Holy City, he was very much disliked by the Jewish people, as well as religious leaders such as the Pharisees. It also did not help that he was the son of an Idumean and an Arabian, making him lose regard from the Jewish as not being purely Jewish. It was circumstances like these where Herod appeared more like a Roman ruler than a Jewish ruler. He had gained his position due to Roman aid, moreover, he declared himself philokaisar, the “friend of the emperor”.

Archelaus of Cappadocia

Archelaus (d. 17 CE), full name Archelaus Sisines Philopatris, was king during the time of the late republic and earlier part of the Empire. Like Herod, Archelaus was granted his position by Mark Antony. To stay in his position, Archelaus had to maintain peaceful relations with Octavius who later became Emperor Augustus, following the defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

In 21 BCE, Archelaus’ domain was expanded when Augustus added eastern Lycaonia and parts of Cilicia. Archelaus’ marriage to Mark Antony’s granddaughter, the widow of King Polemo, gave him indirect control of Pontus. (Strabo's Cultural Geography: The Making of a Kolossourgia, p. 205)

Unfortunately, history has shown that it is not wise for rulers to make powerful enemies. Archelaus was not as fortunate as Herod. As Archelaus had offended Emperor Tiberius, Archelaus was summoned to Rome, put before the senate on the charge of "rebellious conduct" and eventually lost his throne. This showed how the client ruler was very much at the mercy of the whims of the Roman Empire and specifically the Emperor himself.

Juba of Mauretania

Also known as Juba II, he was son of Juba I. He was king of the North African states of Numibia (29-25 BCE) and Mauretania (25 BCE- 24 CE). Octavius befriended Juba when he was a young man and in 29 BCE granted him kingship.  Following the death of his father, Juba lived in Rome under the protection of both Caesar and Octavius (Augustus). He was educated in Roman tradition.

Juba through marriage (p. 169,  footnote 27) became linked to possibly the most powerful family in the Empire. In 30 BCE, with Octavian’s takeover of Egypt, Juba married Cleopatra, daughter of Mark Antony and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (Plutarch, Antony 87.1). Again, this was very much a political marriage as Octavian sought the stabilization of Africa.

In 25 CE, Octavius, now the Emperor Augustus, exchanged with Juba Numibia for Mauretania. Juba’s reign was ultimately mainly known for Juba’s dependence on Rome to maintain his throne especially in politically unstable times, which demonstrated Juba's dependence as a client ruler on the Romans.


In conclusion, these three client rulers have demonstrated that they were very much at the whims of the Roman Empire and the respective emperors. The Roman Empire ultimately made use of these client rulers to primarily maintain stability in their client regions. However, these could also come at a price for the kings: such as risking the loyalty with the local people because of maintaining the relationship with the Empire; as well as the risk of losing their throne.