Roman Administration

II. Roman Administration

The system by which the Roman Empire was governed at the beginning of the Christian era was largely the outcome of the great conquests of the preceding century, which exercised a revolutionary effect upon the Roman constitution. At the time of these conquests Rome was a republic of an aristocratic type. Political power resided in a hierarchy of annual magistrates and in a Senate, or Council of State, of ex-magistrates holding their seats for life. For some time this constitution worked well; but eventually the Senate fell into the hands of an exclusive coterie of indifferent ability, and its authority was finally overthrown by a new unconstitutional power. By 100 B.C., experience had shown that the Roman conquests, though acquired in the first instance by conscripts, could only be maintained by standing forces, and the army was accordingly converted into a professional body. This new model army, as we have seen in Chapter I., proved itself an efficient bulwark of empire, but in domestic politics it at once became, and ever tended to remain, a subversive force. Its loyalty was given, not to the Senate and people, but to the generals who recruited and paid it, and presently employed it as an instrument of their personal ambitions. In the last century B.C., it was repeatedly used to coerce the civilian authorities, or to support military adventurers in civil wars against their rivals. Thus the republican constitution was smothered under recurrent military dictatorships.

But in 30 B.C., the era of military disorder was terminated by the future Emperor Augustus, who now provided the Roman Empire with an enduring new constitution. In theory, this constitution was nothing more than a return to the republican system as it existed before the military usurpations, with a few adjustments of detail. Once more the government was to be directed by the Senate, under whose authority Augustus offered to act as a mere republican magistrate. It is uncertain whether Augustus was sincere in his attempt to revive the Republic; in any case the attempt was made too late. In Britain a restoration was 1660, because the soldiers were willing to resume obedience to the legitimate government; at Rome Augustus “held a wolf by the ears” and could not let go. Accordingly he retained the army in his own hands and defined his prerogative in such a fashion that he continued “emperor” (2imperator” – i.e., commander-in-chief) of the Roman soldiers. With the power of the sword, too, went the power of the purse. Not even Augustus could answer for the discipline of the troops unless he could guarantee their pay and pensions. Realising this clearly, he earmarked the greater part of the public revenue for his own use, and so added the power of patronage to that of coercion. Under these conditions the Senate could at bast be but a subordinate partner. In actual fact it did not secure even this modest position. In the civil wars it had lost a high proportion of its old members, who, with all their faults, had at least possessed experience and the faculty of decision. It was now replenished with men who lacked the tradition of office and suffered a failure of nerve in the council chamber. Thus the Senate definitely lost its directive ability and got into the habit of referring all questions of moment to the emperor, who be default became responsible for the whole of Roman policy, both foreign and domestic; upon him, too, devolved the framing of new laws, and, as the habit of “appealing unto Caesar” spread, of interpreting old ones.

In recognition of this, Augustus and his successors eventually brushed aside the Senate and the old republican magistracy, and turned for advice and assistance to a privy council and a nominated executive of their own. The privy council is not much heard of, but as a court of appeal it had great influence on the development of Roman law. The new executive was an essentially professional body, whose members might spend a life-time at their work. Being freely recruited from the well-to-do classes of all Italy and eventually of the whole empire, and in receipt of generous salaries, the service attracted men of adequate ability. Hence its numbers and importance grew continually, and by degrees it took over all the routine of imperial administration. In effect the Roman emperors were autocrats. But their despotism was tempered with republican forms, and being based on general consent it became a stable form of government.

The results of the new system in the military sphere have been surveyed in Chapter I. Its record in civil administration may best be tested by considering in turn the city of Rome, Italy, and the other lands of the empire in the first two centuries A.D.

The city of Rome in the days of Augustus contained a population of hardly less, and perhaps considerably more, than one million inhabitants. Under ancient conditions merely to maintain the physical existence of such a conglomeration of people was a difficult task. Moreover in Rome the problem was aggravated by the embarrassing rate at which the city had grown in the period of the great conquests, and the turbulent character of its population, which comprised numerous slaves or descendants of slaves dumped down as prisoners of war, and many broken men inquest of relief. Yet under the Republic the administration was left over to a small handful of short-term magistrates. The result was chaos. To mention but two of the worst failures, destitution was merely aggravated by indiscriminate grants of free corn (with free theatre and circus tickets thrown in), which created new paupers as fast as old ones were relieved; and, worse still, in the absence of any regular police organised bands of roughs terrorised the city and at times emulated the soldiery in coercing the legal authorities. Augustus remedied most of these defects by the establishment of a number of special offices, with adequate permanent staffs, under the control of experienced members of the new imperial executive. The departments included a Board of Works, a Water Board, a Tiber Conservancy Board, a Corn Supply Office, a Fire Brigade, and a Police Force. In one instance Augustus deliberately refrained from a salutary reform. Fearing the temporary discontent which would have attended a drastic curtailment of doles and free amusements, he perpetuated the city’s parasitic proletariate. Yet in the first two centuries A.D. Rome was transformed almost beyond recognition. In its outward aspect, as its ruins still prove, it could now compare with the show-towns of the Greek world. Its water supply, already plentiful under the Republic, became more lavish than in most great towns of the present day. Best of all, the town crowd, if unduly pampered, was at least kept firmly under control, and ceased to be a disturbing factor in Roman politics.

Italy, which at the beginning of the Christian era had a population of perhaps seven to ten millions, was less in need of reform. Here the government of the Republic had shown wisdom beyond its usual wont and had solved most of the outstanding political problems. At the time of the conquest of Italy the Roman government had usually imposed satisfactory settlements. It had displayed characteristic Roman liberality in allowing its dependents to maintain their own local dialects, religions, and systems of government; and it had shown a forbearance equally rare at Rome and elsewhere in leaving the conquered peoples untaxed. The Italians, who were more or less closely related in race to the Romans and stood under the government of similar municipal aristocracies, acquiesced readily in Roman rule. They bore the burden of conscription cheerfully and contributed an ever-increasing quota to the Roman armies which went forth to conquer the rest of the Mediterranean. Nay more, they paid the Romans the sincere compliment of imitation. Towards the end of the pre-Christian era they had everywhere adopted Latin as their language and assimilated their mode of life to that of Rome. Thus the diverse mass of peoples who inhabited Italy before the Roman conquest eventually coalesced into a homogeneous nation. There remained one political reform for the emperors to accomplish. Although the Roman Senate, after much agitation and a dangerous rebellion, had conceded the demand for Roman citizenship which had meanwhile arisen among the Italians, it had succeeded in keeping them out of high office at Rome. Augustus freely admitted Italians into the Senate, and, what mattered more, into his new executive, and thus brought the latent political ability of the entire country into the service of the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, much required to be done towards putting the rest of the empire on a satisfactory basis. Taken as a whole, the empire under Augustus had perhaps 70,000,000 to 80,000,000 inhabitants, the western half, exclusive of Italy, about 25,000,000 to 30,000,000. In dealing with its acquisitions outside of Italy the Senate had recourse to the same alternatives as the British government had adopted in India. It allowed some of the new territories to retain their native rulers, others it brought directly under Roman control under the title of “provinces.” In the West the Senate almost invariably followed the latter system, and it is this method alone which requires description here.

In the administration of the provinces the Senate adhered to the principle of entrusting local government to the individual towns, or where urban centres had not yet been formed, to the separate cantons. On the other hand, it would not commit the safety of the provinces to local levies, but garrisoned them with drafts from Italy. By way of compensation, it imposed special taxes, of which the most important was a levy on the produce of the land. A resident Roman governor, besides maintaining order and ensuring the payment of tribute, also exercised jurisdiction in concurrence with the local tribunals, for which purpose each province was divided into assize circuits.

This system, albeit imposed with honest intentions, did not produce satisfactory results under the republic. Like in the early days of British India, the temptation to take advantage of a disarmed population proved too strong for many a governor and his staff. In some provinces the burden of taxation was aggravated by the chicanery of the “publicani” or private tax-farmers to whom the Roman government left over the collection of the revenues. At best, such a regime called for a careful selection of officials, constant supervision by the home authorities, and prompt punishment of offenders against the provincial charter. But the Senate made no systematic attempt to apply adequate safeguards, and the provincials were left without assurance of fair treatment.

Under Augustus a division of the provinces was made into two classes – imperial and senatorial. Since Augustus would not let the control of the army pass out of his hands, he was obliged to retain under his immediate supervision all those provinces which required a considerable military establishment. Accordingly he had himself appointed titular governor of all the frontier provinces and of such other territories as were still unsettled, leaving the pacified districts at the Senate’s disposal. In Western Europe the imperial provinces were: Lusitania (W Spain and Portugal), Hispania Tarraconensis (N. and E. Spain), Aquitania (S-W. France), Gallia Lugdunensis (Central France), Belgica (N. France, Belgium, W. Switzerland, and the Rhineland), and Rhaetia (E. Switzerland, and S-W. Germany). Britain was added to this list by Claudius, and under Domitian the Rhineland was made into two separate provinces, Germania Superior and German Inferior. The Senate retained control of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Gallia Narbonensis (S-E. France), and Baetica (S. Spain). This distinction, though primarily intended for military purposes, also affected the civilian administration. The provinces of which Augustus was titular governor received the benefit of numerous reforms. The actual residing governors whom the emperor sent out to administer sent out to administer on his behalf were picked members of his new executive; they were paid on a scale which left little excuse for extortion; they were kept in touch with headquarters by means of a new postal service which rendered possible a brisk interchange of despatches; and if found guilty of malpractices they were promptly cashiered. The senatorial provinces did not share in these reforms, but they were protected by a new institution which Augustus introduced into every part of the empire, the provincial “concilium” or parliament. Once in every year deputies from all the cities or cantons of a province were summoned to meet at the provincial capital, and while not empowered to share in the general administration were encouraged to examine grievances and prefer complaints to Rome. It would be absurd to pretend that under the emperors the provincials had nothing to fear; the story of Boadicea is sufficient proof to the contrary. Yet the new safeguards against oppression were generally adequate, and gross misgovernment henceforth became a rarity.

Another far-reaching change which took place under the emperors was the enlistment of the provincials in the Roman army. By the time of Vespasian (A.D. 70) the tables had been turned; it was now the provinces and no longer Italy that bore the chief share in the defence of the empire. It now but remained to confer Roman franchise on the provincials and to admit them into the Senate and the imperial executive. In view of the differences of race, language, and culture which still existed between the provinces and Italy, Augustus made no wholesale change in their status. Yet he could not refuse Roman citizenship to the many individual provincials who earned it by service in the Roman army, and thus a considerable trickle of provincials into the ranks of the citizen body set in. Moreover, as we shall see in Chapter IV., in the first two centuries A.D. the provinces, and especially those of the West, became assimilated to Rome and Italy, and the number of provincials who were hardly to be distinguished from native Romans grew apace. A more rapid extension of franchise began under Claudius and Vespasian, and was continued in the second century under a series of rulers (Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius), all of whom had Spanish or Gallic blood in their veins. The last step in this process was taken in A.D. 210 by the Emperor Caracalla, who ruled that all free men in the empire (with a few unimporant exceptions) should be Roman citizens. Concurrently with the enfranchisement of the provincials went their admission to high office. The Emperor Claudius set the example by drafting a batch of Gallic nobles into the Senate; Vespasian systematically enrolled provincials; by the second century A.D. the Senate was becoming a fair representative of the empire as a whole, and the imperial executive was recruited with equal impartially from all sides. The Roman Empire, from being a national state with foreign dependencies, had passed into a cosmopolitan commonwealth.

From this survey it appears that in the first two centuries A. D. the administration of the Roman Empire was a notable improvement on that of the republican period. Of course it did not stand above criticism. One serious defect was the lack of a fool-proof rule of succession. In theory the emperors were chosen by the Senate. In actual fact their selection depended on the family prejudice of the previous ruler, or, worse still, on the capricious interference of the soldiery. Hence the line of the early emperors produced an unusual number of abnormal personalities. Caligula and Nero have become bywords for extravagance. Both this couple and other more sober rulers, Tiberius, Claudius, and Domitan, caused havoc among their court and in the senatorial class by taking life on trivial pretexts. In the second century, it is true, the succession was ordained on a system which could hardly be improved upon: each emperor selected the next ruler among his officials on grounds of merit alone, and without regard to family considerations. In regard to personalities it would be difficult to find any line of rulers to surpass Trajan. Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. One sin of omission may perhaps be recorded against these men. In the second century A.D. the empire enjoyed such stability that it could safely have been made the subject of fresh political experiments. in particular, we might ask whether the time had not come to increase the power of the provincial parliaments. Given the need to decentralise the administration of the empire and to convert it, say, into a federation of self-governing units – and without some such development it could hardly hope to escape that enfeeblement to which all absolutisms seem predestined -the second century offered the best opportunities for initiating this process. If we take this view of the case, we shall regret that the emperors of that period contented themselves with the ideal of benevolent despotism. Finally, as we shall see later on (Chapter VI.), the early emperors did not definitely solve the problem of military interference in politics.

Yet it was under the constitution of Augustus that the Roman Empire reached its highest point of general prosperity. The cascades of the worst emperors had little effect outside of Rome itself and the restricted circles of high society; the new imperial executive soon got into its stride and reached a good average level of efficiency; last but not least, the “pax Romana” (Roman peace), never more undisturbed than under the early Roman emperors, covered a multitude of sins.

Moreover, whatever criticisms modern historians may offer, the inhabitants of the Roman Empire greeted the new autocracy in no uncertain voice. In addition to the usual expressions of gratitude they introduced the rite of emperor-worship. Such adoration of rulers was, indeed, nothing new in the ancient world. It had been practised in the early Oriental monarchies and in the later Greco-Macedonian kingdoms. In the Roman Empire it was presently organised as a compulsory official cult. But although, like all such institutions, it ended in being no more than an empty form, in the reign of Augustus it was a sincere and spontaneous mainfesto on the part of his subjects. Under such conditions it is not surprising  that a poet of the Augustan period should have coined the phrase “Roma aeterna” (“Rome the Eternal”). to an ordinary human eye the Roman Empire as constituted in the first two centuries A.D. might seem destined to last for ever.