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The Form of Government in the Eastern Empire (300 - 500 A.D.) - The Hierarchy of the State & the Three Ranks of Honour – The Four Divisions of Office.
As Constantine urged the progress of the work with the
impatience of a lover, the walls, the porticos, and the principal
edifices were completed in a few years, or, according to another
account, in a few months; 64 but this extraordinary diligence
should excite the less admiration, since many of the buildings
were finished in so hasty and imperfect a manner, that under the
succeeding reign, they were preserved with difficulty from
impending ruin. 65 But while they displayed the vigor and
freshness of youth, the founder prepared to celebrate the
dedication of his city. 66 The games and largesses which crowned
the pomp of this memorable festival may easily be supposed; but
there is one circumstance of a more singular and permanent
nature, which ought not entirely to be overlooked. As often as
the birthday of the city returned, the statute of Constantine,
framed by his order, of gilt wood, and bearing in his right hand
a small image of the genius of the place, was erected on a
triumphal car. The guards, carrying white tapers, and clothed in
their richest apparel, accompanied the solemn procession as it
moved through the Hippodrome. When it was opposite to the throne
of the reigning emperor, he rose from his seat, and with grateful
reverence adored the memory of his predecessor. 67 At the
festival of the dedication, an edict, engraved on a column of
marble, bestowed the title of Second or New Rome on the city of
Constantine. 68 But the name of Constantinople 69 has prevailed
over that honorable epithet; and after the revolution of fourteen
centuries, still perpetuates the fame of its author. 70
Footnote 64: Codinus (Antiquitat. p. 8) affirms, that the
foundations of Constantinople were laid in the year of the world
5837, (A. D. 329,) on the 26th of September, and that the city
was dedicated the 11th of May, 5838, (A. D. 330.) He connects
those dates with several characteristic epochs, but they
contradict each other; the authority of Codinus is of little
weight, and the space which he assigns must appear insufficient.
The term of ten years is given us by Julian, (Orat. i. p. 8;) and
Spanheim labors to establish the truth of it, (p. 69-75,) by the
help of two passages from Themistius, (Orat. iv. p. 58,) and of
Philostorgius, (l. ii. c. 9,) which form a period from the year
324 to the year 334. Modern critics are divided concerning this
point of chronology and their different sentiments are very
accurately described by Tillemont, Hist. des Empereurs, tom. iv.
Footnote 65: Themistius. Orat. iii. p. 47. Zosim. l. ii. p.
108. Constantine himself, in one of his laws, (Cod. Theod. l. xv.
tit. i.,) betrays his impatience.
Footnote 66: Cedrenus and Zonaras, faithful to the mode of
superstition which prevailed in their own times, assure us that
Constantinople was consecrated to the virgin Mother of God.
Footnote 67: The earliest and most complete account of this
extraordinary ceremony may be found in the Alexandrian Chronicle,
p. 285. Tillemont, and the other friends of Constantine, who are
offended with the air of Paganism which seems unworthy of a
Christian prince, had a right to consider it as doubtful, but
they were not authorized to omit the mention of it.
Footnote 68: Sozomen, l. ii. c. 2. Ducange C. P. l. i. c. 6.
Velut ipsius Romae filiam, is the expression of Augustin. de
Civitat. Dei, l. v. c. 25.
Footnote 69: Eutropius, l. x. c. 8. Julian. Orat. i. p. 8.
Ducange C. P. l. i. c. 5. The name of Constantinople is extant
on the medals of Constantine.
Footnote 70: The lively Fontenelle (Dialogues des Morts, xii.)
affects to deride the vanity of human ambition, and seems to
triumph in the disappointment of Constantine, whose immortal name
is now lost in the vulgar appellation of Istambul, a Turkish
corruption of. Yet the original name is still preserved, 1. By
the nations of Europe. 2. By the modern Greeks. 3. By the
Arabs, whose writings are diffused over the wide extent of their
conquests in Asia and Africa. See D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque
Orientale, p. 275. 4. By the more learned Turks, and by the
emperor himself in his public mandates Cantemir's History of the
Othman Empire, p. 51.
The foundation of a new capital is naturally connected with
the establishment of a new form of civil and military
administration. The distinct view of the complicated system of
policy, introduced by Diocletian, improved by Constantine, and
completed by his immediate successors, may not only amuse the
fancy by the singular picture of a great empire, but will tend to
illustrate the secret and internal causes of its rapid decay.
the pursuit of any remarkable institution, we may be frequently
led into the more early or the more recent times of the Roman
history; but the proper limits of this inquiry will be included
within a period of about one hundred and thirty years, from the
accession of Constantine
to the publication of the Theodosian
from which, as well as from the Notitia *
of the East
and West, 72
we derive the most copious and authentic
information of the state of the empire. This variety of objects
will suspend, for some time, the course of the narrative; but the
interruption will be censured only by those readers who are
insensible to the importance of laws and manners
, while they
peruse, with eager curiosity, the transient intrigues of a court,
or the accidental event of a battle.
Footnote 71: The Theodosian code was promulgated A. D. 438. See
the Prolegomena of Godefroy, c. i. p. 185.
Footnote *: The Notitia Dignitatum Imperii is a description of
all the offices in the court and the state, of the legions, &c.
It resembles our court almanacs, (Red Books,) with this single
difference, that our almanacs name the persons in office, the
Notitia only the offices. It is of the time of the emperor
Theodosius II., that is to say, of the fifth century, when the
empire was divided into the Eastern and Western. It is probable
that it was not made for the first time, and that descriptions of
the same kind existed before. - G.
Footnote 72: Pancirolus, in his elaborate Commentary, assigns to
the Notitia a date almost similar to that of the Theodosian Code;
but his proofs, or rather conjectures, are extremely feeble. I
should be rather inclined to place this useful work between the
final division of the empire (A. D. 395) and the successful
invasion of Gaul by the barbarians, (A. D. 407.) See Histoire des
Anciens Peuples de l'Europe, tom. vii. p. 40.
The manly pride of the Romans, content with substantial
power, had left to the vanity of the East the forms and
ceremonies of ostentatious greatness. 73
But when they lost even
the semblance of those virtues which were derived from their
ancient freedom, the simplicity of Roman manners
corrupted by the stately affectation of the courts of Asia. The
distinctions of personal merit and influence, so conspicuous in a
republic, so feeble and obscure under a monarchy, were abolished
by the despotism of the emperors
; who substituted in their room a
severe subordination of rank and office from the titled slaves
who were seated on the steps of the throne, to the meanest
instruments of arbitrary power. This multitude of abject
dependants was interested in the support of the actual government
from the dread of a revolution
, which might at once confound
their hopes and intercept the reward of their services. In this
divine hierarchy every rank
was marked with the most scrupulous exactness, and its dignity
was displayed in a variety of trifling and solemn ceremonies,
which it was a study to learn, and a sacrilege to neglect. 74
The purity of the Latin
language was debased, by adopting, in the
intercourse of pride and flattery, a profusion of epithets, which
Tully would scarcely have understood, and which Augustus
have rejected with indignation. The principal officers of the
empire were saluted, even by the sovereign
himself, with the
deceitful titles of your Sincerity
, your Gravity
, your Eminence
, your sublime and wonderful Magnitude
your illustrious and magnificent Highness
The codicils or
patents of their office were curiously emblazoned with such
emblems as were best adapted to explain its nature and high
dignity; the image or portrait of the reigning emperors; a
triumphal car; the book of mandates placed on a table, covered
with a rich carpet, and illuminated by four tapers; the
allegorical figures of the provinces which they governed; or the
appellations and standards of the troops whom they commanded Some
of these official ensigns were really exhibited in their hall of
audience; others preceded their pompous march whenever they
appeared in public; and every circumstance of their demeanor,
their dress, their ornaments, and their train, was calculated to
inspire a deep reverence
for the representatives of supreme
majesty. By a philosophic observer, the system of the Roman
government might have been mistaken for a splendid theatre,
filled with players of every character and degree, who repeated
the language, and imitated the passions, of their original model.
Footnote 73: Scilicet externae superbiae sueto, non inerat
notitia nostri, (perhaps nostroe;) apud quos vis Imperii valet,
inania transmittuntur. Tacit. Annal. xv. 31. The gradation from
the style of freedom and simplicity, to that of form and
servitude, may be traced in the Epistles of Cicero, of Pliny, and
Footnote 74: The emperor Gratian, after confirming a law of
precedency published by Valentinian, the father of his Divinity,
thus continues: Siquis igitur indebitum sibi locum usurpaverit,
nulla se ignoratione defendat; sitque plane sacrilegii reus, qui
divina praecepta neglexerit. Cod. Theod. l. vi. tit. v. leg. 2.
Footnote 75: Consult the Notitia Dignitatum at the end of the
Theodosian code, tom. vi. p. 316.
Footnote 76: Pancirolus ad Notitiam utriusque Imperii, p. 39.
But his explanations are obscure, and he does not sufficiently
distinguish the painted emblems from the effective ensigns of
All the magistrates of sufficient importance to find a place
in the general state of the empire, were accurately divided into
1. The Illustrious.
2. The Spectabiles, or
3. the Clarissimi; whom we may translate by
the word Honorable.
In the times of Roman simplicity, the
last-mentioned epithet was used only as a vague expression of
deference, till it became at length the peculiar and appropriated
title of all who were members of the senate, 77
of all who, from that venerable body, were selected to govern the
provinces. The vanity of those who, from their rank and office,
might claim a superior distinction above the rest of the
senatorial order, was long afterwards indulged with the new
appellation of Respectable; but the title of Illustrious was
always reserved to some eminent personages who were obeyed or
d by the two subordinate classes. It was communicated
I. To the consul
s and patricians;
II. To the Praetorian
praefects, with the prefect
s of Rome and Constantinople;
the masters-general of the cavalry
and the infantry
the seven minister
s of the palace, who exercised their sacred
functions about the person of the emperor. 78
illustrious magistrates who were esteemed coordinate with each
other, the seniority of appointment gave place to the union of
By the expedient of honorary codicils, the
emperors, who were fond of multiplying their favors, might
sometimes gratify the vanity, though not the ambition, of
impatient courtiers. 80
Footnote 77: In the Pandects, which may be referred to the
reigns of the Antonines, Clarissimus is the ordinary and legal
title of a senator.
Footnote 78: Pancirol. p. 12-17. I have not taken any notice of
the two inferior ranks, Prefectissimus and Egregius, which were
given to many persons who were not raised to the senatorial
Footnote 79: Cod. Theodos. l. vi. tit. vi. The rules of
precedency are ascertained with the most minute accuracy by the
emperors, and illustrated with equal prolixity by their learned
Footnote 80: Cod. Theodos. l. vi. tit. xxii.
I. As long as the Roman consuls were the first magistrate
of a free state, they derived their right to power from the
choice of the people. As long as the emperors condescended to
disguise the servitude which they imposed, the consuls were still
elected by the real or apparent suffrage of the senate. From the
reign of Diocletian, even these vestiges of liberty were
, and the successful candidates who were invested with
the annual honors of the consulship, affected to deplore the
humiliating condition of their predecessors. The Scipios and the
Catos had been reduced to solicit the votes of plebeians, to pass
through the tedious and expensive forms of a popular election,
and to expose their dignity to the shame of a public refusal;
while their own happier fate had reserved them for an age and
government in which the rewards of virtue were assigned by the
unerring wisdom of a gracious sovereign
In the epistles
which the emperor addressed to the two consuls elect, it was
declared, that they were created by his sole authority. 82
names and portraits, engraved on gilt tables of ivory, were
dispersed over the empire as presents to the provinces, the
cities, the magistrates, the senate, and the people. 83
solemn inauguration was performed at the place of the Imperial
residence; and during a period of one hundred and twenty years,
Rome was constantly deprived of the presence of her ancient
Footnote 81: Ausonius (in Gratiarum Actione) basely expatiates
on this unworthy topic, which is managed by Mamertinus (Panegyr.
Vet. xi. x. 16, 19) with somewhat more freedom and ingenuity.
Footnote 82: Cum de Consulibus in annum creandis, solus mecum
volutarem .... te Consulem et designavi, et declaravi, et priorem
nuncupavi; are some of the expressions employed by the emperor
Gratian to his preceptor, the poet Ausonius.
Footnote 83: Immanesque. . . dentes
Qui secti ferro in tabulas auroque micantes,
Inscripti rutilum coelato Consule nomen
Per proceres et vulgus eant.
Claud. in ii. Cons. Stilichon. 456.
Montfaucon has represented some of these tablets or dypticks see
Supplement a l'Antiquite expliquee, tom. iii. p. 220.
Footnote 84: Consule laetatur post plurima seculo viso
Pallanteus apex: agnoscunt rostra curules
Auditas quondam proavis: desuetaque cingit
Regius auratis Fora fascibus Ulpia lictor.
Claud. in vi. Cons. Honorii, 643.
From the reign of Carus to the sixth consulship of Honorius,
there was an interval of one hundred and twenty years, during
which the emperors were always absent from Rome on the first day
of January. See the Chronologie de Tillemonte, tom. iii. iv. and
On the morning of the first of January, the consuls assumed
the ensigns of their dignity. Their dress was a robe of purple,
embroidered in silk and gold, and sometimes ornamented with
costly gems. 85
On this solemn occasion they were attended by
the most eminent officers of the state and army, in the habit of
senators; and the useless fasces, armed with the once formidable
axes, were borne before them by the lictors. 86
moved from the palace 87
to the Forum
or principal square of the
city; where the consuls ascended their tribunal, and seated
themselves in the curule chairs, which were framed after the
fashion of ancient times. They immediately exercised an act of
, by the manumission
of a slave, who was brought
before them for that purpose; and the ceremony was intended to
represent the celebrated action of the elder Brutus, the author
of liberty and of the consulship, when he admitted among his
fellow-citizens the faithful Vindex
, who had revealed the
of the Tarquins. 88
The public festival was continued
during several days in all the principal cities in Rome, from
custom; in Constantinople, from imitation in Carthage
, from the love of pleasure, and the superfluity of
In the two capitals of the empire the annual games of
the theatre, the circus, and the amphitheatre
thousand pounds of gold, (about) one hundred and sixty thousand
pounds sterling: and if so heavy an expense surpassed the
faculties or the inclinations of the magistrates themselves, the
sum was supplied from the Imperial treasury. 91
As soon as the
consuls had discharged these customary duties, they were at
liberty to retire into the shade of private life, and to enjoy,
during the remainder of the year, the undisturbed contemplation
of their own greatness. They no longer presided in the national
councils; they no longer executed the resolutions of peace or
war. Their abilities (unless they were employed in more effective
offices) were of little moment; and their names served only as
the legal date of the year in which they had filled the chair of
Marius and of Cicero
. Yet it was still felt and acknowledged, in
the last period of Roman servitude, that this empty name might be
compared, and even preferred, to the possession of substantial
power. The title of consul was still the most splendid object of
ambition, the noblest reward of virtue and loyalty. The emperors
themselves, who disdained the faint shadow of the republic, were
conscious that they acquired an additional splendor and majesty
as often as they assumed the annual honors of the consular
Footnote 85: See Claudian in Cons. Prob. et Olybrii, 178, &c.;
and in iv. Cons. Honorii, 585, &c.; though in the latter it is
not easy to separate the ornaments of the emperor from those of
the consul. Ausonius received from the liberality of Gratian a
vestis palmata, or robe of state, in which the figure of the
emperor Constantius was embroidered.
Cernis et armorum proceres legumque potentes:
Patricios sumunt habitus; et more Gabino
Discolor incedit legio, positisque parumper
Bellorum signis, sequitur vexilla Quirini.
Lictori cedunt aquilae, ridetque togatus
Miles, et in mediis effulget curia castris.
Claud. in iv. Cons. Honorii, 5.
- strictaque procul radiare secures.
In Cons. Prob. 229
Footnote 87: See Valesius ad Ammian. Marcellin. l. xxii. c. 7.
Footnote 88: Auspice mox laeto sonuit clamore tribunal;
Te fastos ineunte quater; solemnia ludit
Omina libertas; deductum Vindice morem
Lex servat, famulusque jugo laxatus herili
Ducitur, et grato remeat securior ictu.
Claud. in iv Cons. Honorii, 611
Footnote 89: Celebrant quidem solemnes istos dies omnes ubique
urbes quae sub legibus agunt; et Roma de more, et
Constantinopolis de imitatione, et Antiochia pro luxu, et
discincta Carthago, et domus fluminis Alexandria, sed Treviri
Principis beneficio. Ausonius in Grat. Actione.
Footnote 90: Claudian (in Cons. Mall. Theodori, 279-331)
describes, in a lively and fanciful manner, the various games of
the circus, the theatre, and the amphitheatre, exhibited by the
new consul. The sanguinary combats of gladiators had already
Footnote 91: Procopius in Hist. Arcana, c. 26.
Footnote 92: In Consulatu honos sine labore suscipitur.
(Mamertin. in Panegyr. Vet. xi. x. 2.) This exalted idea of
the consulship is borrowed from an oration (iii. p. 107)
pronounced by Julian in the servile court of Constantius. See
the Abbe de la Bleterie, (Memoires de l'Academie, tom. xxiv. p.
289,) who delights to pursue the vestiges of the old
constitution, and who sometimes finds them in his copious fancy
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
(NY : Knopf, 1993), v. 2, pp. 100 - 107.