The Late Empire: Government Structure

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The Late Empire: Government Structure



Defining Moment. There is no single, sharp dividing line between periods of the empire as there was between Republic and Empire. Nonetheless, one may identify certain trends particularly characteristic of the later Empire. This period may be said to start in the third century c.e. or even after the period of near-collapse that took up much of that century. It runs until 476, when Rome was sacked and the last emperor there, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed.

Growth of Despotism. The position of the emperor changed (though early signs of this change can be traced back almost to the beginning of the Empire). He became more distinct from his subjects, even those of high rank. Dominus (lord) became a conventional title—this term was the word for a slave’s master or, later, the Christian God. Emperors also came to associate themselves with their patron divinities and take on divine attributes them-selves. For instance, things connected to the emperor (e.g., his bedchamber) came to be called “sacred.” Some emperors took on names derived from those of gods. In practice this trend was accelerated by the Christianization of the empire in the fourth century c.e. If the emperor was put on the throne by the creator of the universe, then he was not to be questioned or contradicted by mere mortals. Beginning around 300 c.e. those meeting the emperor were to prostrate themselves. This gesture had previously been associated with the open despotism of near-eastern kingdoms such as Persia. Minor deviations from imperial orders became treasonous and subject (at least in theory) to increasingly violent penalties. There was less deference to the Senate as a legislative and judicial body, however tightly controlled, and even in its advisory capacity. Ranks and honors remained important within the general population but were no longer commensurable with the ruler’s position.

The Imperial Court. Along with this increasing focus on the person of the emperor came the creation of an imperial court. Already under the Republic, magistrates and judges had sought the advice of a consilium, an informal body of advisors, in making decisions. The early emperors naturally adopted the practice. They could also command the attention of poets, actors, scholars, and other diverting hangers-on. What is striking about the later Empire is the vastly increased size and regularization of the court. There were the emperor’s chamberlain, secretary, chief-of-staff, and their respective staffs. Many of the financial and military officers of the government and the emperor’s multi-purpose couriers also attended him. Favorites might simply be appointed “companions” of the emperor. All of these positions were, technically, military ones and so carried official ranks and salaries, support, and tax-exemption. What most distinguishes this group as a “court” is their mobility. They were attached to the emperor personally, not to the capital of Rome. When the emperor traveled, even the mint and much of the treasury went with him.

Division of the Empire. Such travel became more important and more common as the empire and its government grew increasingly subdivided. A crucial figure here was the emperor Diocletian (ruled 284–305 c.e.). First, he set up the “tetrarchy,” in which there would be two senior emperors (Augusti) in the East and West, assisted by two junior emperors (Caesares). The full system did not survive his own time in office, but some features were long-lived: de facto division of east and west, multiple emperors co-ruling cooperatively. Diocletian also divided the empire into much smaller provinces. Then he created a middle level of administration by grouping these provinces into twelve “dioceses.” Finally, he made a nearly-complete break between the civil and military sectors of the government. (These changes, as well as the growth of the court, eventually produced a government perhaps fifty times as large as it had been in 100 c.e., though still small by modern standards.) The special status of Italy and even Rome itself continued to fade. Emperors and the court went where the action was (or where it was likely to be). This gave rise to a whole set of new imperial residences, sometimes called “capitals.” There were also divisions of the empire that had nothing to do with the emperor’s policies. There was a breakaway state in Gaul from 258 to 274 c.e. and another centered on Palmyra in Syria in the 270s. This situation was partly a symptom of the third century crisis (nothing directly comparable happened after Diocletian), but in the end the emperors may merely have defeated the separatists by joining them.

Military and Financial Crises. Since the end of the Second Punic War (202 b.c.e.) Rome had expanded for several centuries and Roman wars were almost entirely fought on foreign soil. The expansion, however, stopped in the second century c.e., and the pressure of war soon began to grow inward instead of outward. This pressure took two forms. There were the “barbarians.” These were a series of migratory tribes coming generally from the north and east of the empire: Goths, Huns, Vandals, and others. Then in the near east there was ongoing warfare with the kingdom of Persia, another organized state like Rome itself. In the long term these wars produced little territorial gain for either side but were a considerable drain of men and material. It was the tribes who actually made significant incursions into Roman territory. This process was long and involved. The various tribes were not responsible to each other and often not internally united. The Romans themselves had a variety of responses: going to war, bribery (in cash or land), diplomacy (to turn tribes against each other), or attempting to absorb some within the empire. Choosing strategies was one of the major political tasks of the later emperors. All of them cost, directly or indirectly, a lot of money, and led to the other primary task: collecting taxes sufficient to fund the government.

Rising Expenses. The problem was that expenses were rising without a corresponding increase in government. Peasant farmers, sharecroppers, and the like lived so close to subsistence levels that it was hard to extract any more from them. Worse, the Romans long felt that persons of high status (generally the wealthiest) should be exempt from taxation. This problem was exacerbated by the growth of the imperial government and by the extension, in 313 c.e., of certain tax exemptions to Christian clergy. Thus, a growing tax burden was born by a shrinking middle group. This group was not a “middle class” in the modern sense but was made up of local elites who had not managed to work or buy their way into the central government (or the church). There were various responses to this problem and its economic consequences. Coins were minted with ever-decreasing amounts of precious metal. Some inroads were made in tax privileges. People were forced to stay in ancestral homes and occupations to keep them paying. Diocletian even attempted universal wage and price controls briefly. Lack of economic knowledge and the power of outside forces doomed these moves. The empire continued to suffer from inflation and partial demonetization. That is, exchanges and taxes were more likely to use barter than cash. These factors, in turn, just made the empire’s financial position worse.


Septimia Zenobia (in Syriac called Bathzabbai) was the wife of Septimius Odaenatus, a Roman ally/vassal king of Palmyra (In Syria) and later of “the Orient.” From his death in 267 C.E, she effectively ruled the kingdom, In 270 she began to encroach on Roman territory in Egypt. Eventually, she titled herself Augusta, putting herself on a level with the Roman emperors, The emperor Aurelian retook the captured Roman territory and seized her and her capital in 272. She may at one point have been a student of the Greek philosopher Longinus.

Source: Paul de Rohden and Hermann Dessau, Prosopographia Imperil Romani 3.217–218 (Berlin: George Reimer, 1898).

Christianity. Except, perhaps, for its eventual fall, the most famous trend of the later Empire was its Christianization. Like the fall, this trend was not really a single event but an ongoing process. Official persecution of Christians was first practiced by Nero (64 c.e.) but carried on by only a few of his successors, and not always systematically at that. Nonetheless, the official toleration of Christianity, declared by Constantine and his co-emperor in 313, must have been a great boon to its followers. Constantine went on to help the church in other ways: tax exemptions for clergy, building and endowment of churches. Pagan worship was not yet attacked, and an official temple was even built to Constantine himself. On the other hand, there would be only one more pagan emperor (Julian, 361–363). For the rest of the century, state support for Christianity grew, and pagan worship was defunded or stopped in places. This trend accelerated toward the end of the fourth century, and pagan temples began to be closed and even destroyed. In 391 the emperor Theodosius ended the Olympic games after more than a thousand years since they were held in honor of the god Zeus. Most of the above has to do with public activity. Private, individual conversion to Christianity was also slow, especially in rural areas. On the winning side, however, there were immediate internal disagreements. There were divisions, both theological and administrative, among professed Christians as to just what Christianity meant. Constantine to some extent put the state’s power at the disposal of the faithful to resolve these disputes (though he clearly would have preferred a peaceful consensus). Christians thus began to persecute each other more quickly and more severely than they did the pagans. Moreover, Constantine’s own intervention in these controverwsies

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versies set another example. Church (especially in the persons of the bishops) and state (the emperor) became entangled without the establishment of a clear hierarchy. It became a matter of ongoing negotiation for the remainder of the empire.


Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, AD 284–430 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

Donald Kagan, ed., The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1978).

H. M. D. Parker, A History of the Roman World from A.D. 138 to 337 (London: Methuen, 1958).