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The Patricians of the City - Praetorian Praefects of Rome & Constantinople - proconsuls & Governors of the Provinces.

      The proudest and most perfect separation which can be found in any age or country, between the nobles and the people, is perhaps that of the Patricians and the Plebeians, as it was established in the first age of the Roman republic. Wealth and honors, the offices of the state, and the ceremonies of religion, were almost exclusively possessed by the former who, preserving the purity of their blood with the most insulting jealousy, 93 held their clients in a condition of specious vassalage. But these distinctions, so incompatible with the spirit of a free people, were removed, after a long struggle, by the persevering efforts of the Tribunes. The most active and successful of the Plebeians accumulated wealth, aspired to honors, deserved triumphs, contracted alliances, and, after some generations, assumed the pride of ancient nobility. 94 The Patrician families, on the other hand, whose original number was never recruited till the end of the commonwealth, either failed in the ordinary course of nature, or were extinguished in so many foreign and domestic wars, or, through a want of merit or fortune, insensibly mingled with the mass of the people. 95 Very few remained who could derive their pure and genuine origin from the infancy of the city, or even from that of the republic, when Caesar and Augustus, Claudius and Vespasian, created from the body of the senate a competent number of new Patrician families, in the hope of perpetuating an order, which was still considered as honorable and sacred. 96 But these artificial supplies (in which the reigning house was always included) were rapidly swept away by the rage of tyrants, by frequent revolutions, by the change of manners, and by the intermixture of nations. 97 Little more was left when Constantine ascended the throne, than a vague and imperfect tradition, that the Patricians had once been the first of the Romans. To form a body of nobles, whose influence may restrain, while it secures the authority of the monarch, would have been very inconsistent with the character and policy of Constantine; but had he seriously entertained such a design, it might have exceeded the measure of his power to ratify, by an arbitrary edict, an institution which must expect the sanction of time and of opinion. He revived, indeed, the title of Patricians, but he revived it as a personal, not as an hereditary distinction. They yielded only to the transient superiority of the annual consuls; but they enjoyed the pre-eminence over all the great officers of state, with the most familiar access to the person of the prince. This honorable rank was bestowed on them for life; and as they were usually favorites, and ministers who had grown old in the Imperial court, the true etymology of the word was perverted by ignorance and flattery; and the Patricians of Constantine were reverenced as the adopted Fathers of the emperor and the republic. 98
Footnote 93: Intermarriages between the Patricians and Plebeians were prohibited by the laws of the XII Tables; and the uniform operations of human nature may attest that the custom survived the law. See in Livy (iv. 1-6) the pride of family urged by the consul, and the rights of mankind asserted by the tribune Canuleius.
Footnote 94: See the animated picture drawn by Sallust, in the Jugurthine war, of the pride of the nobles, and even of the virtuous Metellus, who was unable to brook the idea that the honor of the consulship should be bestowed on the obscure merit of his lieutenant Marius. (c. 64.) Two hundred years before, the race of the Metelli themselves were confounded among the Plebeians of Rome; and from the etymology of their name of Coecilius, there is reason to believe that those haughty nobles derived their origin from a sutler.
Footnote 95: In the year of Rome 800, very few remained, not only of the old Patrician families, but even of those which had been created by Caesar and Augustus. (Tacit. Annal. xi. 25.) The family of Scaurus (a branch of the Patrician Aemilii) was degraded so low that his father, who exercised the trade of a charcoal merchant, left him only ten slaves, and somewhat less than three hundred pounds sterling. (Valerius Maximus, l. iv. c. 4, n. 11. Aurel. Victor in Scauro.) The family was saved from oblivion by the merit of the son.
Footnote 96: Tacit. Annal. xi. 25. Dion Cassius, l. iii. p. 698. The virtues of Agricola, who was created a Patrician by the emperor Vespasian, reflected honor on that ancient order; but his ancestors had not any claim beyond an equestrian nobility.
Footnote 97: This failure would have been almost impossible if it were true, as Casaubon compels Aurelius Victor to affirm (ad Sueton, in Caesar v. 24. See Hist. August p. 203 and Casaubon Comment., p. 220) that Vespasian created at once a thousand Patrician families. But this extravagant number is too much even for the whole Senatorial order. unless we should include all the Roman knights who were distinguished by the permission of wearing the laticlave.
Footnote 98: Zosimus, l. ii. p. 118; and Godefroy ad Cod. Theodos. l. vi. tit. vi.

      II. The fortunes of the Praetorian prefects were essentially different from those of the consuls and Patricians. The latter saw their ancient greatness evaporate in a vain title. The former, rising by degrees from the most humble condition, were invested with the civil and military administration of the Roman world. From the reign of Severus to that of Diocletian, the guards and the palace, the laws and the finances, the armies and the provinces, were intrusted to their superintending care; and, like the Viziers of the East, they held with one hand the seal, and with the other the standard, of the empire. The ambition of the praefects, always formidable, and sometimes fatal to the masters whom they served, was supported by the strength of the Praetorian bands; but after those haughty troops had been weakened by Diocletian, and finally suppressed by Constantine, the praefects, who survived their fall, were reduced without difficulty to the station of useful and obedient ministers. When they were no longer responsible for the safety of the emperor's person, they resigned the jurisdiction which they had hitherto claimed and exercised over all the departments of the palace. They were deprived by Constantine of all military command, as soon as they had ceased to lead into the field, under their immediate orders, the flower of the Roman troops; and at length, by a singular revolution, the captains of the guards were transformed into the civil magistrates of the provinces. According to the plan of government instituted by Diocletian, the four princes had each their Praetorian praefect; and after the monarchy was once more united in the person of Constantine, he still continued to create the same number of Four Praefects, and intrusted to their care the same provinces which they already administered.
1. The praefect of the East stretched his ample jurisdiction into the three parts of the globe which were subject to the Romans, from the cataracts of the Nile to the banks of the Phasis, and from the mountains of Thrace to the frontiers of Persia.
2. The important provinces of Pannonia, Dacia, Macedonia, and Greece, once acknowledged the authority of the praefect of Illyricum.
3. The power of the praefect of Italy was not confined to the country from whence he derived his title; it extended over the additional territory of Rhaetia as far as the banks of the Danube, over the dependent islands of the Mediterranean, and over that part of the continent of Africa which lies between the confines of Cyrene and those of Tingitania.
4. The praefect of the s comprehended under that plural denomination the kindred provinces of Britain and Spain, and his authority was obeyed from the wall of Antoninus to the foot of Mount Atlas. 99
Footnote 99: Zosimus, l. ii. p. 109, 110. If we had not fortunately possessed this satisfactory account of the division of the power and provinces of the Praetorian praefects, we should frequently have been perplexed amidst the copious details of the Code, and the circumstantial minuteness of the Notitia.

      After the Praetorian praefects had been dismissed from all military command, the civil functions which they were ordained to exercise over so many subject nations, were adequate to the ambition and abilities of the most consummate ministers. To their wisdom was committed the supreme administration of justice and of the finances, the two objects which, in a state of peace, comprehend almost all the respective duties of the sovereign and of the people; of the former, to protect the citizens who are obedient to the laws; of the latter, to contribute the share of their property which is required for the expenses of the state. The coin, the highways, the posts, the granaries, the manufactures, whatever could interest the public prosperity, was moderated by the authority of the Praetorian prefects. As the immediate representatives of the Imperial majesty, they were empowered to explain, to enforce, and on some occasions to modify, the general edicts by their discretionary proclamations. They watched over the conduct of the provincial governors, removed the negligent, and inflicted punishments on the guilty. From all the inferior jurisdictions, an appeal in every matter of importance, either civil or criminal, might be brought before the tribunal of the praefect; but his sentence was final and absolute; and the emperors themselves refused to admit any complaints against the judgment or the integrity of a magistrate whom they honored with such unbounded confidence. 100 His appointments were suitable to his dignity; 101 and if avarice was his ruling passion, he enjoyed frequent opportunities of collecting a rich harvest of fees, of presents, and of perquisites. Though the emperors no longer dreaded the ambition of their praefects, they were attentive to counterbalance the power of this great office by the uncertainty and shortness of its duration. 102
Footnote 100: See a law of Constantine himself. A praefectis autem praetorio provocare, non sinimus. Cod. Justinian. l. vii. tit. lxii. leg. 19. Charisius, a lawyer of the time of Constantine, (Heinec. Hist. Romani, p. 349,) who admits this law as a fundamental principle of jurisprudence, compares the Praetorian praefects to the masters of the horse of the ancient dictators. Pandect. l. i. tit. xi.
Footnote 101: When Justinian, in the exhausted condition of the empire, instituted a Praetorian praefect for Africa, he allowed him a salary of one hundred pounds of gold. Cod. Justinian. l. i. tit. xxvii. leg. i.
Footnote 102: For this, and the other dignities of the empire, it may be sufficient to refer to the ample commentaries of Pancirolus and Godefroy, who have diligently collected and accurately digested in their proper order all the legal and historical materials. From those authors, Dr. Howell (History of the World, vol. ii. p. 24-77) has deduced a very distinct abridgment of the state of the Roman empire.

      From their superior importance and dignity, Rome and Constantinople were alone excepted from the jurisdiction of the Praetorian praefects. The immense size of the city, and the experience of the tardy, ineffectual operation of the laws, had furnished the policy of Augustus with a specious pretence for introducing a new magistrate, who alone could restrain a servile and turbulent populace by the strong arm of arbitrary power. 103 Valerius Messalla was appointed the first praefect of Rome, that his reputation might countenance so invidious a measure; but, at the end of a few days, that accomplished citizen 104 resigned his office, declaring, with a spirit worthy of the friend of Brutus, that he found himself incapable of exercising a power incompatible with public freedom. 105 As the sense of liberty became less exquisite, the advantages of order were more clearly understood; and the praefect, who seemed to have been designed as a terror only to slaves and vagrants, was permitted to extend his civil and criminal jurisdiction over the equestrian and noble families of Rome. The praetors, annually created as the judges of law and equity, could not long dispute the possession of the Forum with a vigorous and permanent magistrate, who was usually admitted into the confidence of the prince. Their courts were deserted, their number, which had once fluctuated between twelve and eighteen, 106 was gradually reduced to two or three, and their important functions were confined to the expensive obligation 107 of exhibiting games for the amusement of the people. After the office of the Roman consuls had been changed into a vain pageant, which was rarely displayed in the capital, the praefects assumed their vacant place in the senate, and were soon acknowledged as the ordinary presidents of that venerable assembly. They received appeals from the distance of one hundred miles; and it was allowed as a principle of jurisprudence, that all municipal authority was derived from them alone. 108 In the discharge of his laborious employment, the governor of Rome was assisted by fifteen officers, some of whom had been originally his equals, or even his superiors. The principal departments were relative to the command of a numerous watch, established as a safeguard against fires, robberies, and nocturnal disorders; the custody and distribution of the public allowance of corn and provisions; the care of the port, of the aqueducts, of the common sewers, and of the navigation and bed of the Tyber; the inspection of the markets, the theatres, and of the private as well as the public works. Their vigilance insured the three principal objects of a regular police, safety, plenty, and cleanliness; and as a proof of the attention of government to preserve the splendor and ornaments of the capital, a particular inspector was appointed for the statues; the guardian, as it were, of that inanimate people, which, according to the extravagant computation of an old writer, was scarcely inferior in number to the living inhabitants of Rome. About thirty years after the foundation of Constantinople, a similar magistrate was created in that rising metropolis, for the same uses and with the same powers. A perfect equality was established between the dignity of the two municipal, and that of the four Praetorian praefects. 109
Footnote 103: Tacit. Annal. vi. 11. Euseb. in Chron. p. 155. Dion Cassius, in the oration of Maecenas, (l. lvii. p. 675,) describes the prerogatives of the praefect of the city as they were established in his own time.
Footnote 104: The fame of Messalla has been scarcely equal to his merit. In the earliest youth he was recommended by Cicero to the friendship of Brutus. He followed the standard of the republic till it was broken in the fields of Philippi; he then accepted and deserved the favor of the most moderate of the conquerors; and uniformly asserted his freedom and dignity in the court of Augustus. The triumph of Messalla was justified by the conquest of Aquitain. As an orator, he disputed the palm of eloquence with Cicero himself. Messalla cultivated every muse, and was the patron of every man of genius. He spent his evenings in philosophic conversation with Horace; assumed his place at table between Delia and Tibullus; and amused his leisure by encouraging the poetical talents of young Ovid.
Footnote 105: Incivilem esse potestatem contestans, says the translator of Eusebius. Tacitus expresses the same idea in other words; quasi nescius exercendi.
Footnote 106: See Lipsius, Excursus D. ad 1 lib. Tacit. Annal.
Footnote 107: Heineccii. Element. Juris Civilis secund ordinem Pandect i. p. 70. See, likewise, Spanheim de Usu. Numismatum, tom. ii. dissertat. x. p. 119. In the year 450, Marcian published a law, that three citizens should be annually created Praetors of Constantinople by the choice of the senate, but with their own consent. Cod. Justinian. li. i. tit. xxxix. leg. 2.
Footnote 108: Quidquid igitur intra urbem admittitur, ad P. U. videtur pertinere; sed et siquid intra contesimum milliarium. Ulpian in Pandect l. i. tit. xiii. n. 1. He proceeds to enumerate the various offices of the praefect, who, in the code of Justinian, (l. i. tit. xxxix. leg. 3,) is declared to precede and command all city magistrates sine injuria ac detrimento honoris alieni.
Footnote 109: Besides our usual guides, we may observe that Felix Cantelorius has written a separate treatise, De Praefecto Urbis; and that many curious details concerning the police of Rome and Constantinople are contained in the fourteenth book of the Theodosic Code.

      Those who, in the imperial hierarchy, were distinguished by the title of Respectable, formed an intermediate class between the illustrious praefects, and the honorable magistrates of the provinces. In this class the proconsuls of Asia, Achaia, and Africa, claimed a preeminence, which was yielded to the remembrance of their ancient dignity; and the appeal from their tribunal to that of the praefects was almost the only mark of their dependence. 110 But the civil government of the empire was distributed into thirteen great Dioceses, each of which equalled the just measure of a powerful kingdom. The first of these Dioceses was subject to the jurisdiction of the count of the east; and we may convey some idea of the importance and variety of his functions, by observing, that six hundred apparitors, who would be styled at present either secretaries, or clerks, or ushers, or messengers, were employed in his immediate office. 111 The place of Augustal proefect of Egypt was no longer filled by a Roman knight; but the name was retained; and the extraordinary powers which the situation of the country, and the temper of the inhabitants, had once made indispensable, were still continued to the governor. The eleven remaining Dioceses, of Asiana, Pontica, and Thrace; of Macedonia, Dacia, and Pannonia, or Western Illyricum; of Italy and Africa; of Gaul, Spain, and Britain; were governed by twelve vicars or vice-proefects, 112 whose name sufficiently explains the nature and dependence of their office. It may be added, that the lieutenant-generals of the Roman armies, the military counts and dukes, who will be hereafter mentioned, were allowed the rank and title of Respectable.
Footnote 110: Eunapius affirms, that the proconsul of Asia was independent of the praefect; which must, however, be understood with some allowance. the jurisdiction of the vice-praefect he most assuredly disclaimed. Pancirolus, p. 161.
Footnote 111: The proconsul of Africa had four hundred apparitors; and they all received large salaries, either from the treasury or the province See Pancirol. p. 26, and Cod. Justinian. l. xii. tit. lvi. lvii.
Footnote 112: In Italy there was likewise the Vicar of Rome. It has been much disputed whether his jurisdiction measured one hundred miles from the city, or whether it stretched over the ten thousand provinces of Italy.

      As the spirit of jealousy and ostentation prevailed in the councils of the emperors, they proceeded with anxious diligence to divide the substance and to multiply the titles of power. The vast countries which the Roman conquerors had united under the same simple form of administration, were imperceptibly crumbled into minute fragments; till at length the whole empire was distributed into one hundred and sixteen provinces, each of which supported an expensive and splendid establishment. Of these, three were governed by proconsuls, thirty-seven by consulars, five by correctors, and seventy-one by presidents. The appellations of these magistrates were different; they ranked in successive order, the ensigns of and their situation, from accidental circumstances, might be more or less agreeable or advantageous. But they were all (excepting only the pro-consuls) alike included in the class of honorable persons; and they were alike intrusted, during the pleasure of the prince, and under the authority of the praefects or their deputies, with the administration of justice and the finances in their respective districts. The ponderous volumes of the Codes and Pandects 113 would furnish ample materials for a minute inquiry into the system of provincial government, as in the space of six centuries it was approved by the wisdom of the Roman statesmen and lawyers. It may be sufficient for the historian to select two singular and salutary provisions, intended to restrain the abuse of authority. 1. For the preservation of peace and order, the governors of the provinces were armed with the sword of justice. They inflicted corporal punishments, and they exercised, in capital offences, the power of life and death. But they were not authorized to indulge the condemned criminal with the choice of his own execution, or to pronounce a sentence of the mildest and most honorable kind of exile. These prerogatives were reserved to the praefects, who alone could impose the heavy fine of fifty pounds of gold: their vicegerents were confined to the trifling weight of a few ounces. 114 This distinction, which seems to grant the larger, while it denies the smaller degree of authority, was founded on a very rational motive. The smaller degree was infinitely more liable to abuse. The passions of a provincial magistrate might frequently provoke him into acts of oppression, which affected only the freedom or the fortunes of the subject; though, from a principle of prudence, perhaps of humanity, he might still be terrified by the guilt of innocent blood. It may likewise be considered, that exile, considerable fines, or the choice of an easy death, relate more particularly to the rich and the noble; and the persons the most exposed to the avarice or resentment of a provincial magistrate, were thus removed from his obscure persecution to the more august and impartial tribunal of the Praetorian praefect. 2. As it was reasonably apprehended that the integrity of the judge might be biased, if his interest was concerned, or his affections were engaged, the strictest regulations were established, to exclude any person, without the special dispensation of the emperor, from the government of the province where he was born; 115 and to prohibit the governor or his son from contracting marriage with a native, or an inhabitant; 116 or from purchasing slaves, lands, or houses, within the extent of his jurisdiction. 117 Notwithstanding these rigorous precautions, the emperor Constantine, after a reign of twenty-five years, still deplores the venal and oppressive administration of justice, and expresses the warmest indignation that the audience of the judge, his despatch of business, his seasonable delays, and his final sentence, were publicly sold, either by himself or by the officers of his court. The continuance, and perhaps the impunity, of these crimes, is attested by the repetition of impotent laws and ineffectual menaces. 118
Footnote 113: Among the works of the celebrated Ulpian, there was one in ten books, concerning the office of a proconsul, whose duties in the most essential articles were the same as those of an ordinary governor of a province.
Footnote 114: The presidents, or consulars, could impose only two ounces; the vice-praefects, three; the proconsuls, count of the east, and praefect of Egypt, six. See Heineccii Jur. Civil. tom. i. p. 75. Pandect. l. xlviii. tit. xix. n. 8. Cod. Justinian. l. i. tit. liv. leg. 4, 6.
Footnote 115: Ut nulli patriae suae administratio sine speciali principis permissu permittatur. Cod. Justinian. l. i. tit. xli. This law was first enacted by the emperor Marcus, after the rebellion of Cassius. (Dion. l. lxxi.) The same regulation is observed in China, with equal strictness, and with equal effect.
Footnote 116: Pandect. l. xxiii. tit. ii. n. 38, 57, 63.
Footnote 117: In jure continetur, ne quis in administratione constitutus aliquid compararet. Cod. Theod. l. viii. tit. xv. leg. l. This maxim of common law was enforced by a series of edicts (see the remainder of the title) from Constantine to Justin. From this prohibition, which is extended to the meanest officers of the governor, they except only clothes and provisions. The purchase within five years may be recovered; after which on information, it devolves to the treasury.
Footnote 118: Cessent rapaces jam nunc officialium manus; cessent, inquam nam si moniti non cessaverint, gladiis praecidentur, &c. Cod. Theod. l. i. tit. vii. leg. l. Zeno enacted that all governors should remain in the province, to answer any accusations, fifty days after the expiration of their power. Cod Justinian. l. ii. tit. xlix. leg. l.

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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. 108 - 117 .

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