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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. p. 619-625.
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. In 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 code; 71 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 was insensibly 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 would 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 Excellency, your Eminence, your sublime and wonderful Magnitude, your illustrious and magnificent Highness. 75 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. 76
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 of Symmachus.
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 office.

      All the magistrates of sufficient importance to find a place in the general state of the empire, were accurately divided into three classes.
1. The Illustrious.
2. The Spectabiles, or Respectable. And,
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 and consequently 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 reverenced by the two subordinate classes. It was communicated only,

      I. To the consuls and patricians;
      II. To the Praetorian praefects, with the prefects of Rome and Constantinople;
      III. To the masters-general of the cavalry and the infantry; and
      IV. To the seven ministers of the palace, who exercised their sacred functions about the person of the emperor. 78

      Among those illustrious magistrates who were esteemed coordinate with each other, the seniority of appointment gave place to the union of dignities. 79 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 dignity.
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 interpreter.
Footnote 80: Cod. Theodos. l. vi. tit. xxii.

      I. As long as the Roman consuls were the first magistrates 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 abolished, 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. 81 In the epistles which the emperor addressed to the two consuls elect, it was declared, that they were created by his sole authority. 82 Their 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 Their 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 magistrates. 84
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 v.

      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 The procession 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 jurisdiction, 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 conspiracy 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, Antioch, and Alexandria, from the love of pleasure, and the superfluity of wealth. 89 In the two capitals of the empire the annual games of the theatre, the circus, and the amphitheatre, 90 cost four 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 dignity. 92
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 been prohibited.
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.