The great literary works of antiquity are famous for their influence on the modern world – even our everyday speech is littered with idiomatic fragments of Homer, Virgil, the Bible – but there is a little-known work that has had a far greater influence on our society and institutions: the Theodosian Code. This was a substantial, wide-ranging legal code assembled on the orders of the emperor Theodosius II and published in A.D. 438. It compiled laws issued by all the emperors since Constantine, and (along with the Corpus Iuris Civilis) would serve as the basis of modern law in western Europe and beyond. It covers everything from graverobbers to gladiators, heretics to harlots, fiscal policy to the price of fish. But the longest section of all in this lengthy tome comes under the unassuming heading of ‘Decurions.’
The decurions are not a well-known force in the history of the Roman Empire. There are no books or films about them, and, realistically, nor will there be. If the decurions sound about as interesting as a modern-day town councillor, it is because that is exactly what they were. In a vast empire, where communications were limited to the speed of a dispatch rider, and the government was a reactive rather than proactive force, devolution was a matter of necessity. The municipal councils took care of local governance, and were staffed by their local elites: as a class they were known as the curiales.
At first, membership of this class was an honour. Local government was a prized relic of the days before the Roman conquest, and being permitted to sit in one’s curia was a mark of distinction. Quite brilliantly, this redirected the innate competitiveness of the elites towards improvements to the local community. Wealthy elites competed with each other to see who could the spend the most money on their town, in the most ostentatious manner, whether through the mass-distribution of staple foods or the erection of monumental public works. The marble-clad ruins of cities like Ephesus and Miletus stand as testaments to how the ancient oligarchs flaunted their wealth. But as the Roman state, with diminishing resources and wars to finance, sucked up more and more wealth from the empire, the life of plenty for local elites could not last forever.
The Theodosian Code contains no less than one hundred and ninety-two laws in ‘Decurions,’ its most lengthy chapter, ranging in date from AD 315 to 436. ‘If they should apprehend any persons either evading the duties that devolve upon their birth status or in insinuating themselves into the imperial service and holding in contempt the nomination to a municipal office, they shall drag such persons back to the municipal councils,’ says Constantine I, in one of the earlier laws (CTh 12.1.13). ‘If any person should evade the compulsory duties of a municipal senate and should attempt to obtain titles of a factitious dignity, even though he should be deceived of his hope of this false honour, he shall be forced to pay thirty pounds of silver,’ writes his son and successor, Constans (CTh 12.124). Later, a law of Valens declares that ‘persons who are of the birth status of decurions shall be led forth from their hideouts and shall be dragged forth to undergo the performance of their compulsory public services. The harbourers of such persons shall be threatened with loss of their property as well as loss of their status, if they should proceed farther and should esteem the public welfare less than their personal desires and their protection’ (CTh 12.1.76). These are random examples, but the laws of this chapter all sing much the same tune.
Common issues reveal themselves, as they are revisited repeatedly by the laws. (As a rule of thumb, the more legislation there is in the Theodosian Code banning something, the more often it is likely to have occurred). One continual refrain is against those who ‘desert the municipal councils and flee for refuge under the protection of imperial service’ (CTh 12.1.11). Decurions, it seems, repeatedly took up posts in the imperial administration, using their new status as officials to excuse themselves from their municipal duties. Similarly, other decurions fled to the legions, preferring to risk death rather than serve on a council. With Roman troops in short supply, and the Empire increasingly dependent on Germanic and Sarmatian troops, decurions who joined the army are not pursued nearly as much in the laws as those who took up lucrative posts in the civil administration.
But this kind of evasion came at a cost. Imperial service meant travel, and a life far away from home. The army meant hard living and near-constant warfare. So others, with more cash on hand, chose a different tack, and ‘solicited corrupt honours.’ Those who held honorary ranks were exempted from decurial burdens. It was a way of buying their way out of the system, which worked so long as someone higher up in the administration did not look too closely at the provenance of the honour. Hence, ‘if a decurion should obtain the rank of perfectissimus, of decunarius, or centenarius, or of egregius by use of venal patronage, because he desires to evade the duties of his own municipal council, he shall surrender the imperial letters and be returned to his own status’ (CTh 12.1.5). (Note: while egregious, literally meaning standing out from the flock, now has entirely negative meaning, up until the late sixteenth century it was used in the sense of distinguished or exceptional; in the time of Constantine it was a high equestrian rank).
The most ambitious way to elevate oneself beyond the reach of the councils was to be adlected into one of the senates of Rome or Constantinople. One particular instance of this is quite well-attested, as it centres around the prolific Libanius, whose writings survive in great abundance (we have twice as many of his letters as those of Cicero). Libanius, as a professor of rhetoric, was himself legally exempt from municipal service. But because of his somewhat divisive personality, certain members of Antiochene high-society decided to try to attack members of his circle by co-opting them to serve on the council. Libanius successfully protected his assistant, Eusebius, and his son, Cimon, but the latest attempt was aimed at his secretary, Thalassius. Libanius, faced with being deprived of a secretary, and Thalassius, faced with having to become a decurion, decided he should attempt to join the Senate of Constantinople. But it was an uphill struggle. Three Constantinopolitan senators, Proclus, Optatus, and Ellebichus, opposed his candidature. As a private secretary and owner of a sword factory (a sordid trade, as A. F. Norman puts it), he was deemed too common to join their ranks. Libanius’ response was a tetchy invective that impugned the ancestry of half the Senate of Constantinople (Oratio 42). Whatever sympathy he might have had evaporated, and Thalassius faced financial ruin.
The number of laws on this subject reveals the scale of the problem. It was an issue that was thorn in the emperors’ sides for the whole period covered by the Theodosian Code – a period of over a hundred years. Despite one hundred and ninety-two laws on the subject, people kept evading their curial duties. They must have done, or why would they still be issuing laws on the subject? It is, in fact, quite a unique and bizarre situation, to have the imperial administration so dedicated to forcing these duties on people while an entire class was committed to evading them.
But what was so terrible about serving on the councils? Much like today, working for a town council required no qualifications or experience, and very little commitment in terms of attendance and working hours. However, all this changed under the Emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century. Diocletian was a reformer, and a reformer whose economic policies were not always an unqualified success. Decurions were made responsible for the unpopular and demanding job of local tax collection, which demeaned their former status as magistrates, who felt themselves above such things. Moreover, taxes were now assessed at the curial level, and the decurions had to supply the amount demanded by the imperial administration. If there was a shortfall in tax revenue, the difference came out of the decurions’ own pockets. If there was a bad harvest, or an economic decline, or an optimistic tax assessment, the decurions could expect to be well and truly rinsed.
This affected some decurions more than others. Those who retained their old wealth, and had substantial incomes, could afford to absorb the high cost of their birth-right. But much of the curial class was a decaying aristocracy, increasingly unable to sustain the levels of expenditure associated with their status. This was made still worse by the fact that much of the income of the elites came from leasing land. When farmers could not pay their taxes, they likely could not pay their rent either, and the decurions were doubly shafted. The situation became still worse under Constantine. The curial rank became hereditary and inescapable. Those who were too impoverished to continue as decurions were forced by imperial decree to stay among the curiales. What was once a prestigious honour became a millstone around the necks of local elites.
It is little wonder, then, that many decurions – like Thalassius – would do anything to escape. And it does not seem to have been a cultural taboo. The Romans were an enterprising people, and they liked to game the system. Just as Thalassius’ attempt to join the Senate of Constantinople was a transparent attempt at evading his curial duties, so many decurions tried to slither out of service with the support of their friends and colleagues. But then, just as with modern tax evasion, there was a knock-on effect. The greater the number who evaded municipal service, the greater the burden on those who could not or would not. Libanius admits that the curia of Antioch once had six-hundred members, but now only sixty (Oratio 2.33). We might expect that those remaining members suffered a tenfold increase in their duties and financial responsibilities to compensate for missing members.
The result was something known to historians as the ‘flight of the curiales.’ The abandonment of the councils by the former elites led to a decline in civic building programmes, public services, maintenance of infrastructure, and supply of staples. Urban life lost its impetus. As the curiales fled their duties, so the population of the Empire left the cities. Deurbanisation and a return to rural life fundamentally changed the character and economy of the Empire. In turn, the state could no longer afford to maintain its borders. It shrank, dramatically, and collapsed entirely in the West. Such, in any case, is the theory. Scholars have debated whether there really was a ‘flight,’ how extensive it was, and the significance of its overall affect. But it is nonetheless one of the most resonant factors in the timeless question of how a great Empire came to fall.
Contributor: Will Lewis
Will is a postgraduate student who studies ‘Networks and Relationships on Imperial Politics dating to 377-361 A.D. at Cardiff University.
Reviewed by: Tiffany Treadway