Chapter 4. Approaching Constantine: The Orcistus Dossier
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Chapter 4  Approaching Constantine The Orcistus Dossier Knowing What to Expect It has long been agreed that Roman government tended to implement policy in response to problems and petitions rather than working in preplanned and proactive ways. With his foundational work on the Roman emperor, F. Millar demonstrated this brilliantly, and his ongoing study of documents from Late Antiquity proves that this approach to rule continued to prevail down through the fifth century.1 Emperors governed above all through a system of petition and response in which their subjects brought problems to their attention, and the ruler—or his charges—then devised solutions in answer to these pleas. Well over a thousand private petitions to the emperor survive in the law codes, and the papyri reveal that imperial governors as well were deluged with hundreds of petitions in a single day to which they did their best to respond.2 Petitions were used not just by individuals but also cities, villages, and other communities, for these regularly approached the emperor and his officials for privileges or the redress of grievances . We know this above all from the couple dozen extant petitions lodged with the emperor and his officials by polities throughout the empire that are still preserved in inscriptions.3 Indeed, epigraphic registration was surely the most desirable method for recording an imperial response, for it locked pronouncements in stone or bronze at the site of their implementation in a way that fixed permanently in space the privileges granted by the emperor and guaranteed across time their symbolic efficacy.4 Further work on the voluminous legal evidence from Late Antiquity has shown that, despite the fundamental soundness of the petition and response model, the later empire offers good evidence for a noticeable, if also limited, degree of central planning and proactive governance.5 Petitions remained the standard format for communication between subject and emperor, but late Roman government underwent a massive expansion in its bureaucratic apparatus 88 The Power of Petitions that increased the possibilities for super-regional initiatives and facilitated the imposition of uniform rules. The tetrarchs and in turn Constantine promoted the rise of new super-regional administrative districts like dioceses and regional prefectures across which enactments could be propagated with heightened efficiency .6 Moreover, the central bureaucracy was also expanded, permitting an increase in the government’s ability to handle a greater number of petitions.7 And the extension of citizenship to most of the empire’s subjects from 212 ce onward occasioned an increase in communication between subject and emperor as normative questions formerly solved at the local level were now subject to a system of Roman civil law whose ultimate arbiter was the emperor.8 The late fourthcentury Notitia Dignitatum reports no less than three high-level bureaucrats charged with answering petitions—the magister memoriae, the magister epistolarum , and the magister libellorum—each with slightly different remits, and each with bureaus of assistants numbering around thirty.9 S. Connolly’s study of the petitioning process administered by these has demonstrated that one of their offices, the scrinium a libellis, whose activities are particularly well recorded in the texts preserved through the Codex Hermogenianus, issued more than 350 official responses (rescripta) in a single year and as many as 90 in a busy month.10 The system was not, however, a simple matter of “ask and you shall receive.” The respondent, whether a bureaucrat or the emperor himself, always dealt with requests according to predictable norms and expectations. Above all, every effort was made to ensure that responses were constructed in accordance with the principles of established law: Roman civil and administrative law, or, when this did not apply, the received laws and customs of local communities.11 In addition, responses usually reflected prevailing moral codes and shared ideals—such as the promotion of freedom or the protection of the family—and could thus fall back on a series of symbolic systems shared among the citizens of the empire and communicated through the vehicles of rhetoric, art, literature, spectacle, public display , and above all the collective inertia of social practice. High among the priorities in this shared value system was the advancement of cities. Urban centers represented the nodes of civil life around which the empire constructed its networks of power. It is thus unsurprising that we have a number of petitions from cities that survive in both the epigraphic and papyrological record, and that both the petitions and the responses to them follow predictable principles...


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