Ancient History & Civilisation

Ruling the Empire

The structure of the central administration essentially comprised a supreme authority, the emperor, and his chief ministers, who operated within strict procedures and protocols. This pattern was replicated locally by the governors of provinces, and the vicars in charge of the dioceses of the empire (Diagram 5.2). The former were for the most part simply designated by the term iudex, judge, which indicated the most important aspect of their duties. Both at the capital and in the provincial centers magistrates were supported by a substantial staff of lawyers and other advisors. To a very large degree political decisions were made in passive mode, as responses to petitions and letters which were addressed by individuals or communities, sometimes via provincial governors or other officials, to the central authorities. At the highest level the power of decision resided with the emperor in person, who was supported by the ever expanding entourage of the imperial court, a centralized and largely civilian administration, which during the fourth century accompanied the rulers on their travels or was based in the regional capitals of the empire. In the East, during the fifth and sixth centuries, these officials were concentrated in the imperial city of Constantinople, which was home to a very large population of highly educated civil servants, responsible for articulating the emperor's decisions (Diagram 5.3).


Diagram 5.2    Praetorian prefectures, dioceses, and provinces under Justinian (after R. Talbert [ed.], The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World [Princeton, 2000], 102, and A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire II, 1456–61)


Diagram 5.3    The organization of civilian government at Constantinople (after D. Feissel, in C. Morrisson [ed.], Le monde byzantin I [2004], 79–110)

One of the innovations of the later Roman Empire was the development of the office of praetorian prefect into the senior administrative position below the emperor himself. Praetorian prefects had traditionally, since the time of Augustus, been the commanders of the praetorian guard, stationed at Rome. In the late empire they were transformed into the senior political deputies of the emperors with responsibilities above all for civil administration in the provinces. The evolution of the office during the fourth century was complex. The tetrarchic system devised under Diocletian assigned a praetorian prefect to each of the four rulers. The office was thus associated with a particular emperor, rather than being assigned to a particular region of the empire. The same principle can be seen under Constantine, resulting in a situation at the end of his reign between 335 and 337 when there were five praetorian prefects, attached respectively to Constantine himself, and the four co-rulers, who he hoped were to have been his successors: Constantius, Constans, Constantinus II and Fl. Dalmatius.40 When, in practice, the first three of these emerged as emperors in 337, the number of praetorian prefects was also reduced to three, and they assumed regional responsibilities according to the geographical division of the empire between the East, Oriens, under Constantius, the western provinces, Galliae, under Constantinus II, and Italiae, Africae et Illyrici, the central belt of the empire under Constans. Henceforth the prefectures were set up on a regional basis, although a trace of the old Constantinian practice may have been revived by Julian. After the division of the empire between Valentinian I and Valens, matters were complicated by the shifting and ambiguous status of Illyricum. This was resolved by the end of the fourth century, when the Notitia Dignitatum Orientis indicates that the dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia formed the praetorian prefecture of Illyricum, now assigned to Constantinople, while the west Danubian diocese of Pannonia was part of the western empire, belonging to the prefecture of Italiae et Africae.41

A remarkable inscription from the site of Didyma, renamed Justinianopolis, in western Asia Minor illustrates the mechanics of the imperial bureaucracy, and the elaborate procedural dance that was played out by subjects and officials (Plate 5.9). The matter in question concerned the community's land tax. In 533 the people of Didyma, which had recently been promoted to civic status and received the name Justinianopolis, requested that their annual land tax of sixty-one gold pieces should be made the responsibility of their large neighbor Miletus, and levied out of the income produced by land that had been newly reclaimed from the sea, as a result of the progressive silting in the lower Maeander valley. Six main steps can be identified in securing this imperial favor, four of which were directly recorded on the inscription. The people of Justinianopolis submitted a petition to the main financial official of the eastern empire, the praefectus praetorio Orientis, who at this time was Justinian's famous minister, John the Cappadocian. The prefect, who evidently approved the request, then presented the petition in the form of a report to the emperor. Justinian responded on April 1, 533, by granting the favor with a legal enactment called a “divine pragmatic sanction.” On the following day (extraordinary testimony to the vigilant efficiency of Justinian's government in his early years), the imperial decision was officially adopted at a formal meeting of the office of the prefect, and endorsed not only by the prefect of the East but also by his fellow prefects, who were responsible for Illyricum and for Italy (which was still, at this date under Ostrogothic rule), and by an Augustalis, another official responsible for financial administration in Asia. The ruling was then sent to the governor of the province of Caria, to which Justinianopolis belonged, who added his own instructions for the enforcement of the imperial decision. The inscribed dossier, which was erected by the beneficiaries themselves, combines Greek and Latin language and script in a way that is typical of late Roman bureaucracy. Even more striking to the reader than the complex interplay of official languages is the use of a particular form of Latin lettering for the heading of the record of the formal meeting in the prefect's office. This is visible in the middle of the photograph. This style of script can be identified as the so-called “heavenly letters” (litterae caelestes), used on papyrus documents for the headings of similar official documents which have been recovered both from fifth-century Egypt and from late sixth-century Ravenna.


Plate 5.9    Didyma. Inscribed rescript of Justinian of 533 (DAI Berlin)

The Didyma inscription presents the maturation and distillation of Roman government in action, more than half a millennium after the basic practices of imperial rule had been forged in the early principate.42 It is extremely significant that by the time of Justinian the center of power had been fixed in one location, Constantinople, for nearly 150 years, a period which had seen the growth of a highly unified and centralized style of government, explicitly based on universal law, which responded, in theory at least, to the needs and demands of the subjects.43 The central archives of the empire were now literally housed in the vault beneath the seats of the hippodrome, adjacent to the imperial palace, an enormous repository of bureaucratic power.44 The term ”Byzantine” in the popular imagination has come to mean a tortuous, abstruse, and devious style of government. The facts of the matter were quite the reverse. Roman government in the sixth century AD was more rationally organized than it had ever been. The imperial decisions themselves formed part of a growing corpus of Roman law. The lawyers and rulers of the later empire were increasingly aware of the need to codify these decisions, which in turn served to guide the judgments of their successors. Roman civil law was first systematically organized under the tetrarchy. The tetrarchic codes in turn were complemented by later legislation which was incorporated into the Codex Theodosianus, completed for Theodosius II in 437/8, and the code of Justinian, published in a revised edition in 533. This body of written laws became increasingly important as the explicit basis of judicial decisions (see pp. 36–8 and 136–7).45

One of the most remarkable features of Roman government at the highest level was that all laws were formulated in their original form in Latin, and thus advanced mastery of Latin was a prerequisite for all senior civilian office-holders and for their legal advisers. The use of Latin as the language of Roman law persisted until the later years of Justinian. During the tetrarchic period, Latin was also used for inscriptions which displayed and disseminated imperial decisions, famously including the Diocletianic prices edict, but subsequently, as far as the eastern empire was concerned, the promulgation of almost all laws and official imperial pronouncements was through the medium of translation into Greek.46

High standards were expected of public officials, and many chapters of the Codex Justinianus set out regulations and an overall code of conduct. In 479 the emperor Zeno addressed a law to the praetorian prefect of the East, which required that all officials with judicial powers, that is the top ranks of the administration, should remain accessible in the place where they had exercised their office for a minimum of fifty days, “so that every one may have ample opportunity to file complaints against them, for theft or for other crimes; and that everyone may be defended from injury by his successor.” Under these circumstances civil litigation concerning officials had to be concluded within the fifty days, but officials facing criminal charges had to remain in their province indefinitely, until the case was concluded (CJust. 1.39.1, 3). It is particularly striking that legislation of this type was being introduced during one of the most lawless and anarchic periods of the eastern empire, as Zeno strove to retain his authority in the face of rival claimants to power. It is easy to be skeptical about the claims to probity which are embodied in the evidence of the laws, but the ideology of good governance and justice was internalized by the officials themselves. This is clearly demonstrated by the language of inscriptions and the iconography of the statues which were set up in their honor, but also at their own expense, in provincial cities.47

The growing importance of Roman law as a central institution of the empire was related directly to the spread and growth of Roman citizenship. Citizenship had been the most important institution of the early Roman Empire for creating a sense of communal identity and ideological unity among its inhabitants.48 Rome from an early date had offered citizenship to deserving wealthy individuals, or even to whole communities which had given outstanding service. This created a restricted category of provincial subjects who had access to the protection of Roman law, as well as other social advantages. As the number of Roman citizens grew during the first century AD, holding Roman citizenship ceased to be such a clear mark of privilege, and a new distinction was introduced in the early second century between more and less wealthy citizens, defined as “more honorable” and “more humble,” honestiores and humiliores, who were liable to differential penalties in the penal code.49

In 212 the emperor Caracalla (M. Aurelius Antoninus) issued a decree which gave Roman citizenship to virtually all the free inhabitants of the empire. This had various consequences. Some observers saw it as a cynical measure to increase state revenues, since certain taxes, including the inheritance tax, were only levied from Roman citizens. However, it would be mistaken to interpret the measure only in a restricted or negative way. Inscriptions and papyri show that over the next two generations the majority of the inhabitants of the empire advertised their new citizen status by taking the imperial first name Aurelius. The measure certainly helped to create a broad ideological unity for the empire during the third century, when it was faced with severe external pressures and internal political disorders. Diocletian and his colleagues in the tetrarchy, who themselves came from inconspicuous provincial backgrounds, could never have refashioned the public face of the Roman state, based on an ideal of Romanitas, if the way had not been prepared by other social developments during the third century.

The use of the new citizen name “Aurelius” ceased to be widespread after 260, and was rare after the end of the third century. Most Romans in late antiquity were known simply by a single given name, which contained no clues to whether they were Roman citizens or not. There are some exceptions to this pattern. Flavius, the family name of the Constantinian dynasty, was given to ever larger numbers of prominent persons between the fourth and sixth centuries. In almost every case, however, they appear to be in one sense or another imperial officials in the service of the state, and “Flavius” functioned as a title of office rather than a personal name.50 The numbers of Flavii rose inexorably between the fourth and sixth centuries, corresponding to the increasing number of state officials during this period. A small group of very prominent Romans continued the early imperial practice of using several names (most typically the tria nomina combination of praenomen, family name, and cognomen), but accentuated this by the practice of polyonymy, that is accumulating a long sequence of Roman names that mirrored the widespread connections of their family. However, this was an affectation of a small part of the ruling senatorial aristocracy, both at Rome and Constantinople, which self-consciously advertised its continuity with the elite of the early empire, and used multiple names as a way of showing off their illustrious pedigrees. It is clear that citizenship in itself was no longer a mark of distinction; multiple names were now used only as a marker of high status.51

It is hard to know the means by which the inhabitants of the empire were formally identified as citizens after this ceased to be made clear from their nomenclature, but this should not obscure the most significant consequence of Caracalla's citizenship measure. This was that the majority of the empire's inhabitants now considered themselves to be Romans, subject to Roman civil and criminal law, and the representatives of the state regarded them in this light also. This assumption underlies Augustine's discussion throughout his City of God, which contrasts virtual universal citizenship in the secular Roman Empire with membership of the heavenly kingdom of God.52 The Christian faith, or more precisely orthodox Catholic belief, which was adopted as the state religion, naturally emerged as another unifying factor alongside Roman citizenship during the fourth century. Emperors who gave the highest importance to Christianity as a bulwark of the late Roman state, including Constantine, Theodosius I, Theodosius II, and Justinian, also placed great emphasis on the doctrinal unity of their subjects. It is no coincidence, therefore, that with one exception, at Chalcedon in 451 soon after the death of Theodosius II, the great ecumenical councils of the eastern Church, designed to impose a universal creed, occurred in those emperors' reigns, at Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and 449, Chalcedon in 451, and Constantinople in 536 and 553 (see below, chapter 8). The culmination of this process was achieved under Justinian. As Geoffrey Greatrex has argued in an important paper, it was the normal practice of contingents in Roman armies of the sixth century to advertise their separate ethnic origins, for instance as Heruls, Moors, Huns, Armenians, or Isaurians. Many of them also continued to use personal names of ethnic origin. This did not prevent them also from being Romans, a label that was used very flexibly. The critical quality shared by all the warriors in the armies of Justinian was that they were Chalcedonian Christians.53

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