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Imperial Administration



Legal Texts. Another common type of public inscription is the legal text, whose author might be the Roman senate or, during the Principate, the emperor himself. For particularly thorny matters of public law, a provincial community might appeal to the emperor for a decision. Whether or not they accompanied their petition to Rome, the request was read out loud in a hearing. The emperor would not, from such a distance, be able to verify the facts of the case, but he would nonetheless make a decision based on stipulations concerning the true circumstances, which would be referred to the local courts. Having made his ruling, the emperor might specifically order that it be carved in stone and set up in a public place in the community in question. Such rescripts, as the replies were called, thereafter had the force of law in analogous cases, until the decision was overruled or modified by a later rescript, or imperial edict. The practice was in use as early as Augustus but became more prevalent under Hadrian; many rescripts were collected by jurists as codes of law.

Edicts and Decrees. Similar in form and content were the laws that the emperor or senate issued on their own initiative without having first heard an appeal from below. Laws such as these could pertain to the empire at large or to specific communities, in which case their publication would be more limited. Dates of publication on some of the edicts show the speed, or lack thereof, with which they traveled. An edict of the emperor Caracalla, posted in Italy in July of 212, was copied in Egypt in January of the next year and not finally installed until February. In 303 the emperor Diocletian issued an edict concerning the illegality of Christianity in February, which was set up in Palestine in March of that year and in Africa in June. Edicts took time to travel; the process might seem slow, but in the ancient world, with limited information technology, the delivery time was a result of careful organization and extreme relative efficiency. The emperor was in close contact with the administration of every corner of his realm, and a resident even of the remotest province would be expected to keep his eyes open for new decrees.

Diplomata. Certificates and permits, issued by the imperial authority and inscribed on thin bronze sheets, were used for a variety of purposes. The word, diploma (plural, diplomat a), meaning folded in two, refers to how they were closed and bound to maintain a measure of security and privacy for the owner. They might allow individuals to use the official imperial postal service and requisition horses and other supplies, or grant other types of privileges. Soldiers who had been legitimately discharged from the army were entitled to certain rights as veterans. In order to certify a former soldier’s status, diplomata would be issued to them upon their release from duty, listing the promotions and positions of the man’s career. They would become a passport of sorts, which a veteran would carry on his person and guard closely.

The News. Not all public communication was written on stone or bronze. Public announcements that had only a temporary value, such as the time and location of a certain public meeting, or the news of certain events from abroad, would be made on removable posters or circulated in brief pamphlets. The Acta diurna (Daily Happenings), for example, were placards that were set up in the forum of Rome, serving the same function as newspapers do today. While scholars know these documents existed (the historian Tacitus’s sources had used them in their histories), none survived from antiquity, owing to their transcription on perishable materials. One exception, however, are the commentaries of Julius Caesar on his campaign in Gaul, which were copied down by and circulated among enough people that the texts have survived to the modern day. The texts, written by Caesar himself, or else closely monitored by him, were reports that the general sent back to the people of Rome from his campaign. They described what he had done, how he had done it, and how the deed enhanced the greater glory of Rome. They told the Romans what the unknown people of the north were like, whom they worshiped, what they ate, and what they wore. They are perfect illustrations of the kinds of messages that the people of Rome might receive from their leaders and the state of information about the unknown.

Imperial Post. The physical need to transport important documents quickly and efficiently, in order to maintain the empire, led to the creation of an official postal service at the order of Augustus. Called the cursus publicus, it carried not just news of appeals and decisions, but of troop movements or other crises that needed attending to. It was made up of roads, with marking posts describing destination and distance, and inns or stations where the traveler could change horses. Later in its development, officials began to use the network for uses other than sending messages. Supply trains traveled along the roads, and individual governors, with special permits, might use them for personal reasons. Pliny the Younger, for example, issued an emergency permit for his wife to visit a grieving aunt in the early second century c.e.


Even today, with modern information technology, rumor has an inestimable power. Vergil noted its features and horrors during the reign of Augustus, when he described how the story (Rumor = Fama in Latin) of Dido and Aeneas’s secret love affair become known among the citizens of Carthage:

Rumor instantly moved through large Libyan cities. No other evil we know is faster than Rumor, thriving on speed and becoming stronger by running. Small and timid at first, then borne on a light air, she flits over ground while hiding her head in a cloud-top. Mother Earth, they say, deeply provoked by the Sky-Gods, bore this daughter last: Enceladus’ sister and Coeus’, light on her feet and agile at flying, but broad and fearful: a monster whose bodily plumage matches her numerous leering eyes (amazing to hear of), her many mouths, upraised ears and jabbering accents. At night she flaps between earth and sky in the shadows, buzzing—her eyes won’t yield to the pleasure of sleeping. By day she squats on a house roof like a watchman high in his tower, scaring eminent townsmen, telling some truth but clinging to lies and distortion. Now she filled people with various gossip, gladly singing both her fact and her fiction: Aeneas had sprung from a Trojan bloodline and come here, lovely Dido accepting the man as her husband, now they passed a long winter together in pleasure, thralls of a shameless desire, forgetting their king-ship. The Goddess spread her dirt on the lips of the people.

Source: Virgil, The Aeneid/Virgil, translated by Edward McCrorie (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

Rumor and Hearsay. Arguably, most information that passed among individual Romans was conveyed by the much less reliable, less organized, and less sensible medium of rumor. In a world without the instantaneous broadcast of words, let alone pictorial images such as is common with modern technologies, stories had a way of changing as they

spread over great distances. Two modern metaphors apply: they might grow in some aspects, like snowballs, or they might shrink in others, like the moss that falls from rolling stones. The falsity of rumors might have major political ramifications. In the 70s and 80s c.e., it was spread about that Nero had not really died, but had gone into hiding and was now gathering troops to make a run at the throne. One man, claiming to be Nero, went a long way before he was ultimately exposed as an impostor and removed; provincials who had never seen the emperor but for his idealized portraits on coins or public monuments could not possibly have known better. The Romans themselves understood the vagaries of the phenomenon of rumor, and one author developed his own metaphor: rumor was a great, ugly bird, who had eyes hidden under every feather and who grew as it flew; much more eloquent, elaborate, and appropriately terrifying than snowballs and rolling stones.


Fergus Millar, The Emperor and the Roman World: 31 EC-AD 337 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977).

O. F. Robinson, The Sources of Roman Law: Problems and Methods For Ancient Historians (London 6c New York: Routledge, 1997).

Imperial Administration

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