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p. 132. Running the empirelocked

  • Gillian Clark


Peace and order were the basic duties of Roman government. ‘Running the empire’ explains how these duties were achieved or unfulfilled. The reigns and styles of government of emperors such as Diocletian, Constantine and Theodosius I, are examined. What exactly were the powers of Roman emperors? Was he considered divine? Who else could acquire power, and what was the status of women within the empire? Why was it so important for the emperor to attend public games? The process of bureaucracy is surveyed — how do you run an empire on a daily basis, and how powerful were the most senior officials?

Peace and order were the basic duties of Roman government, so that people could get on with their lives untroubled by invasions and civil wars and crime. Late antiquity is often taken to start with the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305), who did impose peace and order, after a long period of disruption with an exceptionally fast turnover of emperors. Diocletian's enemies said that his parents had been slaves; the army was his route to power, first as a successful soldier, then as leader of a military coup and victor in civil war. This may help to explain why, as emperor, he was surrounded by the ceremonial reverence of a court. He spent very little time in Rome. His armies were commanded by professional soldiers, and his advisory council was staffed by senior civil servants, who were also in the militia (‘the service’), not by senators from great Roman families. The council was called a ‘consistory’, literally a ‘standing’ committee, because it was not proper to sit in the presence of the emperor. Diocletian greatly increased the number of soldiers, and recognized that he had to pay for them. Like all managers with limited options, he restructured and standardized and tried to balance income and expenditure. Like all managers, he found that some problems persisted: too little cash, too many barbarians, and no easy way to increase productivity.

p. 14The Roman empire was very big, and communication was slow. People travelling on official business could get permits to use the ‘public transport’ system, which required local officials to keep changes of horses at staging-posts along the major routes. This made travel faster, but was not much help in winter when storms made sailing dangerous and roads were blocked by snow or mud or flooding. Diocletian tried to improve efficiency by reorganizing administrative regions. Church tradition preserves their Greek name, ‘diocese’, and the Latin name ‘vicar’ (vicarius) for the local deputy of a senior official. Regions had a military commander (dux, ‘leader’, hence ‘duke’) and a civil governor (comes, ‘companion’ of the emperor, hence ‘count’). Separating troops from law and finance made both tasks manageable. It also reduced the risk of rebellion when a commander, his troops, or people in his region, decided that he could do a better job than the emperor. Diocletian, himself a successful rebel, tried to stabilize the situation with a tetrarchy (‘four-man rule’) of two senior generals, one based in the east and one in the west, with two junior generals in training to take over from them. This worked for a while, and Diocletian, exceptionally, was able to retire to his p. 15home town on the east coast of the Adriatic, instead of dying on the job. But military power remained decisive, succession crises and civil war persisted, and power was often divided among co-emperors.

2. The emperor, his officials, and his people: Arch of Constantine, Rome

Some emperors achieved sole power. Among them was Constantine, who in the second half of his 30-year reign (307–37) added Rome's eastern Mediterranean territories to his western base, and developed a new capital at Constantinople which diverted resources from Rome. His enemies said that his own son was among the rebels he killed, so he had to be Christian, because nobody else would forgive him. At the end of the 4th century, Theodosius I (379–95) dominated his co-emperors, but his sons had different spheres of influence, one in the Greek-speaking east, the other in the Latin-speaking west, which extended into the Balkans and along the North African coast. This was probably not a long-term plan, but the pattern continued. From 395, the western empire lost territory outside Italy, and after 476 Italy too was ruled by non-Romans, though the Senate and the Pope, both based in Rome, continued to have influence. But the eastern empire survived, and in the 530s Justinian was able to reconquer some western territory from Vandals in North Africa and from Ostrogoths in Italy. Throughout these changes, Latin was an imperial, but not a global, language. Greek-speakers thought it was an inferior dialect of Greek, and saw no need to learn it unless they wanted a career in the imperial civil service: Latin remained the official language of law until Justinian, in the 530s, began to issue laws in Greek. For Latin-speakers, fluent Greek was a sign of culture, but some emperors needed an interpreter. Even when they spoke the same language, it was not in practice easy for two emperors and their officials to have the same priorities or even to keep each other informed.

While an emperor retained power, he was at the top of the political system. Official rhetoric and visual imagery presented the earthly ruler as exceptionally close to the divine power which rules p. 16the universe. Diocletian, having no family claim to power, said he was emperor by the will of the gods, and took the additional name Jovius, ‘belonging to Jupiter’. Later historians said that those who approached him had to kiss the hem of his purple military cloak, as if he were a Persian king. Imperial purple was the most expensive form of a dye made from the murex shellfish; it was reserved for imperial use, and by the late 4th century actors were forbidden to wear purple on stage, even when playing the part of a king.

The special status of the emperor is shown on a heavy silver plate (it weighs over 15 kilograms) commemorating the tenth regnal year of Theodosius I, in 388. The emperor, depicted in high relief, presents letters of authorization to an official who is half his size. The hands of the official are respectfully veiled to receive the gift, and the heads of Theodosius and his two co-emperors are surrounded by a nimbus, a representation of radiance like a halo. Everything about the emperor was ‘sacred’: there were chamberlains in charge of his ‘sacred bedchamber’, grants from his treasury were ‘sacred largesses’, his administrators worked in ‘sacred departments’, and his ‘sacred letters’ were received with formal veneration. Then, of course, business proceeded as usual. One 3rd-century papyrus preserves a hurried message to an agent: the divine fortune of our masters has ordered devaluation of the sestertius, so, quick, sell out Italian currency and buy whatever is available.

Did anyone seriously believe that the emperor was especially close to the divine? In the 330s, the astrologer Firmicus Maternus claimed that the emperor was not bound by the decrees of fate, as ordinary human beings are, so it was not possible to cast his horoscope. Firmicus may have written this because investigating the emperor's horoscope was a capital offence: it could only mean that you wanted to know when he would die. In the late 4th century, the orator Themistius drew on a long tradition of argument, deriving from Plato, that the best rulers are those who p. 17understand the nature of the good. The emperor, he said, is ‘animate law’, the living representative of the divine law which governs the universe and which should be reflected in human law; so the emperor is above human law and can mitigate its harshness.

3. The emperor above his officials: ceremonial silver dish, late 4th century

The emperor could indeed intervene to show mercy, or could change the law, but some legal experts thought that he should submit to the present state of the law. Did anyone, including the orator, believe the claims made in speeches of praise? Augustine thought not. ‘How wretched I was on the day when I was preparing to declaim the praises of the emperor, in which I would tell many lies, and would win approval from people who knew I was lying!’ He was then professor of rhetoric at Milan, and the emperor, Valentinian II, was about ten years old, but any trained orator knew what could be said about the splendid ancestry and p. 18exceptional promise of someone who had yet to achieve anything. If there was no ancestry, the orator could refer to the favour of the gods. Rhetoric, in such ceremonial performances, was not expected to persuade: it was used to reaffirm consensus, as at party conferences.

Some emperors were more relaxed and accessible than others, but all were surrounded by servants and courtiers and ceremonial, and so were at risk of being isolated from information. People at court could acquire power, not because they held office, but because they had access to the emperor as family members or personal servants. Women did not hold any official post, or have any official role in decision making, but some had considerable influence through their family status, their property, and their contacts. It is surprising that unofficial power-holders included court eunuchs, as in Persia. Roman law penalized castration as assault, except when it was done for certified medical reasons; this is not surprising, because the person castrated not only lost the legal and social status of a male, he was likely to die from shock or from infection. Most procedures were carried out on non-Romans and outside Roman territory. Eunuchs were doubly suspect as unmanly and un-Roman, so why were they household servants of the Roman emperor? There are two obvious advantages: pregnancy would not result from affairs with women of the imperial family, and eunuchs were personally dependent on the emperor because they did not have Roman social and family ties. But they could have godchildren or favourites, and they could transfer their loyalty to a rival. Perhaps it was also an advantage that Roman distaste made it easy to blame the eunuchs for whatever went wrong between the emperor and his officials or his people.

The emperor at the games

Because the emperor was isolated, it was very important for him to attend the public games. This showed that he shared the pleasures of ordinary people, and it was their one opportunity to p. 19shout slogans he would personally hear. When Constantine made the town Byzantion into ‘New Rome Constantinople’, one feature he added was the Hippodrome for chariot races, modelled on the Circus Maximus at Rome, with an imperial box and direct access from the palace. Leading charioteers had fan clubs of emotional supporters, as footballers do now. This led to some dramatic clashes between ordinary people and the forces of the state.

4. The emperor at the games: late 4th-century carving on the base of an Egyptian obelisk brought to Constantinople

In 390, at Thessalonica, the military commander Botheric arrested a popular charioteer, and was killed in the resultant riot. The death of an imperial official was a very serious offence, and Theodosius I ordered his troops to take action. Many innocent people were killed, and to make matters worse, Botheric was a Goth. He was a Christian serving in the Roman army, but Christian Goths were usually Arian. This theology, named for the p. 20theologian Arius of Alexandria, held that Jesus Christ, as Son of God, is greater than all created beings, but derives his being from the Father. It was not acceptable to ‘Nicene’ Christians who followed the Council of Nicaea (325) in holding that the Son is ‘of the same being as’ the Father, and who claimed to be the Catholic, that is the universal (Greek katholikos), church. Few chariot fans could have explained the difference, but in Thessalonica and elsewhere, it meant Them and Us. So a Catholic emperor was responsible for the deaths of innocent Catholic Romans, in reprisal for the death of an Arian Goth.

What happened next can be interpreted in two ways: the most powerful man in the Roman world yields to the spiritual authority of a bishop, or a politically minded bishop offers the emperor a solution to his problem. At the time of the reprisals, the court was at Milan, whose bishop Ambrose was a Roman aristocrat and former governor of the region. Generations of historians accepted the version of events he wrote to his sister: Theodosius was responsible for the deaths of innocent people, and Ambrose refused him communion until he did penance. The National Gallery in London has Van Dyck's copy of a famous painting by Rubens, in which Ambrose, in full episcopal robes, bars from his cathedral a bare-headed Theodosius and his restive military escort. It seems a pity to spoil the story, but more sceptical historians see the ex-governor Ambrose as offering a ‘repentance opportunity’, which solved the problem of Thessalonica and allowed Theodosius to present himself as a pious emperor. Later emperors seem not to have accepted the principle that even an emperor was under the spiritual authority of the church.

Ambrose could not solve the wider problem of fan clubs, the ‘circus factions’ who chanted for their team and fought rival supporters. They were easily mobilized to support one political leader or religious group against another, and easily identified by the colours of their preferred team: red, white, blue, green. Blues and Greens were especially active in Constantinople in the late 5th and early p. 216th centuries, and their most spectacular conflict was the ‘Nika Riot’ of 532, ten days that ended in massacre. It began when the city prefect took action against rioters, arresting seven ringleaders and executing five. One Blue and one Green somehow escaped, and at the next races, the crowd appealed to the emperor to pardon them. Justinian, seated in his imperial box, did not respond, and they rioted again. Chanting ‘Nika’, ‘Win!’, as they did for their teams, they stormed and burned the prefect's headquarters.

Still Justinian did not respond, and the demands became political: dismiss the city prefect and two other powerful officials, John the Cappadocian, who was charged with reforming administration, and Tribonian, who headed the commission to codify Roman law. Justinian, apparently, conceded this, but riot and arson continued, and he sent in the troops. When that failed, he made a public appearance in the hippodrome on a Sunday, holding a copy of the Gospels in an appeal to religious feeling. This too failed. Rival candidates for emperor were put forward, and there were rumours that Justinian had fled. The historian Procopius developed a splendid scene in which Justinian's wife Theodora pointed out that they had money and ships available for escape, but ‘royalty makes a fine shroud’. The riot was suppressed with great violence, loss of life, and destruction of property; and Justinian began a rebuilding programme which included the great domed church of Hagia Sophia, dedicated five years later. Was it a riot waiting to happen, a riot which could have been defused by a more skilful emperor, a riot exploited by political rivals or opponents of Justinian's reform programme? Nobody knows. Centuries after Justinian, representatives of the Blues and Greens were integrated into Byzantine court ceremonials.

Civil servants

Between the exalted emperor and the people who could only shout slogans at him, or his officials, was an army of administrators. Running the Roman empire meant inspecting and reporting, p. 22keeping watch for disaffection, dealing with enquiries and petitions and embassies, drafting and publicizing regulations and laws, collecting taxes in money and kind, paying the army and the civil service. The most senior officials were very powerful. ‘Praetorian prefects’ of the east and west were commanders in chief, so called because they were in charge at the praetorium, that is, HQ. ‘Masters of the offices’ were in charge of the various officia, literally ‘responsibilities’, that is, departments of the civil service. These departments had subdivisions called scrinia, literally ‘book-boxes’, or bureaux. They used a distinctive ‘celestial script’ to discourage forgery of official documents. Regional governors also had staff. Some local administration was done by councils (curiae) of landowners, but they were always short of members because service was a major financial burden. Members of the imperial civil service were excused local service, and that made the career path even more attractive. Some people were exempted because they already made a contribution to the community, for example as publicly funded teachers and doctors. When Constantine added Christian clergy to the list of exemptions, there was, allegedly, a flood of new vocations, so that he had to backtrack and insist that churches should not choose people who had obligations to their councils unless the obligation was accepted by someone else.

Some people pleaded poverty, which did not mean that they were destitute, only that they were below the property level for compulsory service. Others claimed that they were students, but, then as now, students did not always devote all their time to study. In 370, the Urban Prefect of Rome was told to check up on entry requirements and behaviour:

The august Emperors Valentinian, Valens and Gratian to Olybrius, prefect of the city. All those who come to the city in the desire to learn shall first of all present to the Chief  Tax Officer letters from the provincial judges who gave them permission to come. These letters shall contain the student's town, birth certificate, p. 23and reports of achievement. Second, the students shall declare on arrival which branch of study they propose to follow. Third, the Tax Office shall investigate in detail their places of residence, to ensure that they are devoting their effort to the subject they said they would study. These officials shall also warn the students that they shall all behave in gatherings as befits those who think it right to avoid a bad reputation and bad company, which we consider to be close to crime; nor should they make frequent visits to shows or seek out unseasonable parties. Indeed, we confer on you the power that if anyone does not behave in the city as the dignity of a liberal education requires, he shall be publicly flogged and immediately placed on a boat, expelled from the city and sent home.

Augustine, teaching in Rome, found that students were better behaved than they had been in Carthage; the problem was that they did not pay their tuition fees. But in Athens, the ‘dignity of a liberal education’ was often at risk. There, town and gown were on such bad terms that teaching had to take place in private lecture rooms. Students of rival teachers fought in the streets, and new arrivals were forcibly recruited at the quayside, for teachers needed student fees even if they had publicly funded posts. Libanius, a leading teacher at Antioch, knew everyone who was anyone, and his immense correspondence includes references and recommendations for generations of students. He complained that his assistant teachers could barely afford a staff of three slaves, who despised the poverty of their owners.

Most students could afford the time and money for higher education, but Prohaeresius, who became a famous teacher of rhetoric, reached Athens with one cloak, one shabby tunic, and a few threadbare blankets, shared with a friend. They took it in turns to stay in bed under the blankets or wear the tunic and cloak to lectures. At the other end of the economic range was a student remembered by his contemporary Gregory, later bishop of Nazianzus, as odd and uncoordinated, eager but confused, with a straggly beard and a prominent Adam's apple. This was the future p. 24emperor Julian, who after years of isolation was finally permitted to go to Athens. The emperors acknowledged such hard-working students:

Those who do work industriously at their professions may stay in Rome until their twentieth year; but after that time, anyone who does not return of his own accord must be sent home in disgrace by the watchfulness of the Prefecture. So that these concerns are not perfunctorily treated, Your High Sincerity shall instruct the Tax Office to compile a monthly record of who has come from where and who, because their time is up, must return to Africa or another province; with the exception of those who are assigned to the obligations of guilds. Let such documents be sent every year to the departments of Our Mildness, so that we may judge from the achievements and training of each person whether and when we need them.

This section of their letter illustrates two important aspects of late antique society. One is a rather charming manifestation of concern for rank: formal modes of address, like ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Your Excellency’, but deploying a much wider range of abstract nouns to show the characteristics expected of the author and the addressee. The other is constraint, or attempted constraint. Most students were members of the social elite, and were needed for service on local councils; members of trade guilds were required to provide essential services. Romans still wanted bread and circuses, so people born into the guild of bakers could not marry out; shipowners could inherit an obligation to transport the grain for subsidized bread at Rome or Constantinople; and actors, born into public entertainment, could not escape the legal disadvantages of their degraded social status. In 371, Christian emperors conceded that performers could not be recalled to the stage if they made an unexpected recovery after deathbed baptism; but it had to be shown that they really were expected to die, and that the clergy approved of the baptism. Hierarchy and constraint seems an ominous combination, but in practice, there were many examples of social mobility; and there were not p. 25enough inspectors to check on all the students and bakers and stage performers in the empire, or to prevent tenant farmers from moving away from land which they had agreed to cultivate or where they were registered for tax. The laws which attempt to restrict movement are a response to complaints.

Late antique bureaucracy often gets a bad press. Much to the annoyance of present-day historians, ‘Byzantine’ connotes obscure political intrigue or complex bureaucratic process. This may be a consequence of late antique history-writing: for many ancient authors, history consisted of manoeuvres and shifting alliances within the imperial household, just as for many present-day authors of political memoirs, history consists of politicians and civil servants in the Whitehall village or the Beltway. But bureaucrats gathered the information which was needed to run the empire, and to achieve some fairness in the administration of resources and of justice.


Diocletian ordered a new census to find out how many people lived in the Roman empire, what land they owned, and what it could be expected to produce. These are the most obvious ways to tax people, and tax levels could be adjusted for a fixed period in accordance with the current need for troops. But the system had to be flexible, because marginal land left fallow, or unpredictable bad harvests, or bad weather, or epidemics, or war, greatly reduced the amount that could be collected in money or kind. In theory, local landowners on city councils were required to make up the shortfall, but they too were affected by these problems. They used their own rhetorical training, or asked their local teacher of rhetoric, to beg the emperor or the regional governor for tax remission.

Diocletian also tried to stabilize and revalue the currency which was used for the payment of money taxes, and for the salaries of soldiers and civil servants. In principle, Rome had gold, silver, and p. 26copper (or copper alloy) coins, in a consistent relationship. In practice, the metal content varied. This did not matter if the face value of the coin was accepted, but in troubled times, people were more likely to hoard coins with a higher gold or silver content. Some local trade could continue without currency, but prices went up when the coinage was debased. Diocletian tried to halt inflation, and to reduce the effect of supply and demand, with a price edict which fixed the maximum price for a very wide range of goods, from basic foodstuffs to half-silk underwear with purple stripes to lions for public entertainment. It also set charges for transport over specific routes, and determined the standard wage for jobs ranging from sewer cleaner to teacher of rhetoric. Death was the penalty for taking goods off the market or otherwise breaking the law. The edict was displayed throughout the empire, and fragments have been found in over forty places.

The price edict begins with a fine example of late antique legal rhetoric, designed to show the context for the decree and to convince people that it is right. Peace is achieved, thank the gods, and the barbarians are destroyed; now peace must be protected by justice, because, shocking though it is, some people are just out to make a profit.

If self-restraint could check the ravages of greed, which rages without an end in sight, without respect for the human race, pursuing its own gain and increase not only every year and month and day but every hour and minute; if the general welfare could endure without disturbance this licence for riotous behaviour which does it so much harm; there would perhaps appear to be scope for keeping quiet and pretending it was not happening, in the hope that general forbearance would modify this appalling and monstrous situation. But the one desire of this untamed madness is to have no love for common humanity, and among the dishonest and arrogant it is almost a religious principle of greed, which grows and swells with sudden surges, to desist only when forced, not by choice, from rending the fortune of all.

p. 27This, and much more, was engraved on stone, but it did not last for long. In several places, the stone was recycled, or even smashed to pieces.

Late antique bureaucrats are also accused of being out to make a profit. They had usually paid money to get a post, their salaries were not enough to live on, and there were no pensions; so extra payments were routine, and some official documents specify the expected level. At Timgad in North Africa, during the brief reign of the emperor Julian, the governor put up an inscription in the marketplace, giving the rates for different services in bushels of wheat or the money equivalent. Clearly, he did not regard this as encouragement of bribery. It could be argued that, like university tuition fees, this system charged only the people who wanted the service. At least they knew what it would cost, and access to service would otherwise have depended even more on contacts and exchange of favours.

Getting access to people in power is never easy:

It is often said of me, ‘Why is he going to that potestas [power]? What does a bishop want with that potestas?’ But you all know that your needs make me go where I do not want to go, and watch, and stand at the door, and wait while worthy and unworthy people go in, and be announced, and finally get in, and put up with snubs, and ask, and sometimes succeed and sometimes go sadly away.

Augustine's status as bishop did not get him privileged access. He used contacts when he had them, but there is no evidence that he used money. Cyril of Alexandria, a much more political bishop in a much richer diocese, provides one of the most spectacular examples of bribery. In 430, he sent ‘blessings’ to members of the imperial family, officials, and other influential persons in Constantinople, to ensure that they would support his theological position, rather than that of his opponent Nestorius. A letter to Cyril's agents reveals the importance of unofficial power-holders. The wife of the praetorian p. 28prefect of the east was offered 100 pounds of gold, the same amount that was given to two senior officials. Chryseros, a eunuch in charge of the sacred bedchamber, was opposed to Cyril, so he was offered double: 200 pounds of gold; six large and four medium tapestries; four large carpets and eight cushions; six each of table-cloths, large and small woven hangings, and stools; twelve throne covers, four large curtains, four thrones and four stools of ivory; six Persian drapes, six large ivory plaques, and six ostrich eggs. Charitable modern historians suggest that Cyril sincerely believed he was ensuring correct doctrine and peace in the church.

Connections and favours were always important, but some of the evidence comes from legislation which sought to prevent bribery and to encourage whistleblowers:

Emperor Constantine to the provincials: The rapacious hands of officials shall stop at once; they shall stop, I say; for if they do not stop when warned, they shall be cut off with swords. The judge's curtain [which screened access to his room] shall not be for sale. Entrance shall not be bought; his private office shall not be notorious for competing bids; the mere sight of the governor shall not come at a price; the ears of the judge shall be open equally to the poorest and to the rich. Introduction by the Head of Office shall be free from extortion; the assistants of the heads of office shall not exert pressure on litigants; the intolerable assaults of the centurions and other officials, who demand small or great sums, shall be crushed; the insatiable greed of those who supply court records to disputants shall be moderated. Let the industry of the governor keep constant watch so that nothing shall be taken from a litigant by these kinds of people.

If the governor did not see what was happening at every level of judicial process, victims of extortion could give him information, and if he did not take action, they could complain to higher authority. Legislation, administration, and official scrutiny might actually help people who were not in a position to work the p. 29system, or who wanted to abide by the rules. There is also some evidence for attempts to reduce and simplify bureaucracy. Julian ordered cutbacks at court and in the number of inspectors, but with little effect. Almost two centuries later, Justinian carried out a major reorganization, including the use of Greek for legislation in the eastern empire. John of Cappadocia, his new reforming appointment, was widely unpopular, especially with traditional civil servants who disliked the arrival of the accountants. But perhaps if he had succeeded, ‘Byzantine’ would now connote efficient and transparent administration.