The Growth of Absolutism

VII. The Growth of Absolutism

In the third, fourth and fifth centuries A.d. the Roman Empire not only underwent great changes in the extent of its territory, but witnessed far-reaching alterations in its methods of administration. During the previous two centuries there had been gradual encroachments by the emperors on the remaining functions of the Senate and the old republican executive, but the outlines of Augustus’ quasi-republican constitution remained unchanged. After A.D. 200 the Roman Empire made more rapid strides towards complete absolution. The old republican magistracies were by degree abolished or converted into merely honorary charges. A more important change was rendered necessary by the great invasions of mid-third century, when the more central provinces passed from the control of the Senate to that of the emperors, who alone could give them military protection. By this transfer the Senate was deprived of its one remaining hold on the administration. One important electoral right, the formal appointment of each new emperor, was left in its hands; but this conge’ d’elire conferred no right of actual choice. So long as the Roman Empire in the West lasted, the Senate continued to hold sessions, but by the end of the third century it had been shorn of all practical importance and was mainly concerned to cultivate its own dignity.

Another important change took place in the position of the self-governing municipalities. As the famous “election posters” at Pompeii show, interest in municipal politics still ran high in the first century A.D. In the second century the emperors occasionally found it necessary to send special auditors to disallow extravagant expenditure, but in general municipal administration appears to have remained efficient, and to have suffered little interference. In the third and subsequent centuries, without any deliberate change in imperial policy, local self-government in the Roman Empire dwindled to a mere shadow. The main cause of this change is to be found in the progressive impoverishment of the Empire (on which see Chapter VIII.). So long as times remained good, there was little difficulty in finding competent persons willing to “pay their footing” as municipal grandees, and to shoulder the slight risks of a surcharge in case the taxes which they had to collect on behalf of the imperial exchequer should fall short of the requisite amount. But amidst the growing poverty of the later centuries the burden of the imperial surcharge and of the customary local largesse grew intolerable, and enrolment in the municipal senates, from being a prize, almost became a punishment. To remedy the consequent dearth of candidates the emperors imposed membership of the local senates as a hereditary duty upon certain families. By this device a skeleton organization was kept up, but the unwilling conscripts in the municipal service of course scamped their work as much as possible. By the fifth century the self-governing activities of the towns had been reduced to a minimum, and the reservoir of administration ability in the municipalities was drained away.

Thus in the third , fourth and fifth centuries political power became completely concentrated in the hands of the emperors and their officials. In theory the emperors still wielded the same quasi-republican prerogatives as in the first century, and formally they still received these prerogatives from the Senate. In fact they were left without any concurrent authority in any branch of the government. The making and interpreting of law now rested entirely with them, and the extensive remodelling and amplification of the Roman codes which they took place at this period was wholly machinery of administration, both military and also civil, was now controlled by imperial officials. Moreover the emperors no longer were content with the mere substance of power. Towards the end of the third century Aurelian and Dioceletian did away with the lingering outward forms of republicanism by adopting an elaborate Oriental etiquette at their court.

One further breach with republican tradition remained to be made. In A.D. 330 the Emperor Constantine transferred the seat of government to Constantinople, as being the best centre for watching the then most critical frontiers, the Danube and the Euphrates. It is true that from 365 a collateral emperor was appointed to supervise the western countries. But the western emperor was usually subordinate to the ruler at Constantinople, and he set up his court, not at Rome, but at Milan or (since A.D. 402) at Ravenna. Rome retained its Senate, but ceased to be a seat of administration.

But if the autocracy of the later emperors was subject to no constitutional checks, it was hampered and even paralysed by the self-willed attitude of its own executive. The very existence of the rulers was threatened by the chronic insubordination of the Roman armies; their authority was flouted by the equally persistent disobedience of their administrative staff. This staff, whose numerical increase had more than kept pace with the progressive extension of the imperial functions, eventually grew too large for effective supervision. It also became more and more highly organised. Contrary to the usual practice of ancient states, which allowed a free interchange between the civilian and military duties, its members were confined to a purely civilian career. By this process the executive departments achieved great solidarity, and in their collective strength outmatched the emperors, who in any case could not spare much time from the now incessant calls of frontier defence. Thus the emperors’ subordinates ended by becoming their own masters. Of all the changes in the later Roman government, this was the greatest and worst. From being strictly responsible, the bureaucracy became free to misgovern to its hearts’ content, and it made full use of its licence. All the usual complaints about a corrupt administration were made against it, sale of offices and of justice, blackmail and illegal exaction of taxes, punishments with or without semblance of trial. It is only fair to add that the emperors again and again strove to recall! their staff to better behaviour. They showered edict after edict upon them, imploring and threatening in turn; they established special corps of inspectors to single out the offenders. But their honest endeavours were defeated by the well-organised collusion of the staff. The edicts were quietly disregarded, the inspectors were hoodwinked or bribed. Thus there was nothing left for the subjects but to await the coming of the German kings, whom they accepted with equanimity or even with alacrity.

But the bureaucracy found its power limited by two other classes with co-ordinate privileges. The landlord of the ever-growing latifundia were converting their estates into self-contained units, both in an economic and in a political sense. By degrees they acquired the right to levy the taxes and to supervise the levies of recruits incident upon their estates, and it is probable that they also usurped jurisdiction. Eventually the big domains came to form states within the state, and were practically out of bounds for the imperial officials. In this respect  they foreshadow the medieval manor.

Another practical check upon the bureaucracy was provided by the Christian clergy. In the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity had become the state religion, the clergy were officially authorised to exercise the disciplinary powers of the arbitral jurisdiction which their congregations had unofficially confided to them. In addition, the bishops of the Roman cities were enlisted by the emperors to protect their communities against the depredations of the executive. In effect, the Christian prelates sometimes brought their moral authority to bear with success upon both sets of plunderers, Roman officials and German invaders. In the establishment of the Christian clergy as a privileged order and the activity of the bishops as chief representatives and champions of their towns, we find another link between the later Roman Empire and the medieval states of Europe.