Agentes in rebus

Agentes in rebus

The agentes in rebus (Greek: ἀγγελιαφόροι or μαγιστριανοί),[1] were the late Roman imperial courier service and general agents of the central government from the 4th to the 7th centuries.



The exact date of their institution is unknown. They are first mentioned in 319, but may date to Diocletian's reforms in the late 3rd century. The agentes replaced the earlier and much-detested frumentarii, and fell under the jurisdiction of the magister officiorum (Master of the Offices), hence their alternate Greek name of magistrianoi.[1] As a result of the reforms of Diocletian, the frumentarii were disbanded. The central imperial administration still needed couriers, and the agentes in rebus filled this role. Originally they acted as the dispatch carriers, but eventually assumed a variety of duties - the title itself translates as "Those who are Active in Matters". They survived into the Byzantine Empire, being eventually abolished sometime in the early 8th century, as most of the magister's functions were taken over by the logothetēs tou dromou.[2] The last reference to an agens comes in the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, where the magistrianos Paul is recorded as having been sent on an embassy in 678.[3]

Organization and function

The agentes in rebus were formed into a schola of the palace, and in common with other public services of the Dominate, their service was militarized, and considered a militia. Indeed, the agentes were divided into five ranks, taken from the junior cavalry officers: equites, circitores, biarchi, centenarii and ducenarii.[4] Two were appointed to each province in 357, one in 395 and more again after 412. Each member of the agentes in rebus was normally promoted into other branches of the government. The Code of Justinian notes furthermore that the agentes enjoyed immunity from prosecution both civil and criminal, unless otherwise sanctioned by the Master of Offices.[5] Senior agentes were regularly appointed to the post of princeps officii of the praetorian prefectures the urban prefectures and the dioeceses, thus exercising control over these departments' bureaucracy and reducing its independence.[6]

As for their function, the 6th-century historian Procopius notes in his Secret History:

The earlier Emperors, in order to gain the most speedy information concerning the movements of the enemy in each territory, seditions or unforeseen accidents in individual towns, and the actions of the governors and other officials in all parts of the Empire, and also in order that those who conveyed the yearly tribute might do so without danger or delay, had established a rapid service of public couriers."[7]

As the service handling communications and communications systems within the Empire, their duties included the supervision of the roads and inns of the cursus publicus (public postal system), the carrying of letters, or verifying that a traveler was carrying the right warrant (evectio) while using the cursus. Other tasks included supervising the provincial bureaucracy and delivering Imperial commands, often staying in the area to ensure their implementation. Being outside the control of the provincial governors, some agentes, the curiosi (Greek: διατρέχοντες, diatrechontes) were appointed as inspectors and acted as a sort of secret police.[2] The 4th-century philosopher Libanius accused them of gross misconduct, terrorizing and extorting the provincials, "sheep-dogs who had joined the wolf pack". Nevertheless, the vast majority operated quite openly, and the accusations of the agentes being a security police were certainly exaggerated.[8] The numbers of the agentes did however tend towards inflation,[2] and the corps was viewed with a measure of mistrust by the emperors, who repeatedly tried to regulate its size:[8] 1,174 in the year 430 according to a law of Theodosius II, and 1,248 under Leo I (457-474).[9] Imperial edicts also regulated their promotion, which was to be strictly on seniority, with the annual exception of two officers, whom the emperor could advance at his pleasure.[10]

They were used to supervise the arrest of senior officials as required, to escort senior Romans into exile (such as John Chrysostom in 404), and even to assist in the enforcement of government regulation of the church.[11] Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius also noted their use as ambassadors on several occasions.[12] As their routine assignments brought them into contact with matters of great concern to the court, and as they also reported back to the court on everything they saw or heard on their varied missions, the agentes can be seen to have had an intelligence function, in the broadest modern sense of the term. Further duties assigned to the agentes included the role of customs officers, the supervision of public works and the billeting of soldiers.[2]


  1. ^ a b Kazhdan (1991), p. 36
  2. ^ a b c d Kazhdan (1991), p. 37
  3. ^ Theophanes, Annus Mundi 6178
  4. ^ Kelly (2004), pp. 20, 40
  5. ^ Codex Iustinianus, XII.20.4
  6. ^ Kelly (2004), pp. 96, 210
  7. ^ Procopius, Secret History, XXX
  8. ^ a b Kelly (2004), p. 207
  9. ^ Codex Theodosianus, VI De Agentibus in rebus 27.23; Codex Iustinianus, XII.20.3
  10. ^ Kelly (2004), p. 212
  11. ^ Sinnegen (1959), p. 248
  12. ^ Sinnegen (1959), p. 249


  • N. J. E. Austin and N. B. Rankov, Exploratio; Military and Political Intelligence in the Roman World from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople
  • Glen Warren Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World sv "Agens in rebus"
  • Bury, John B. (1911), The Imperial Administrative System of the Ninth Century - With a Revised Text of the Kletorologion of Philotheos, Oxford University Publishing 
  • Kazhdan, Alexander (Ed.) (1991), Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6 
  • Kelly, Christopher (2004), Ruling the later Roman Empire, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-01564-7, 
  • Jones, Arnold Hugh Martin (1986), The later Roman Empire, 284-602: a social economic and administrative survey, JHU Press, ISBN 978-0-8018-3354-0 
  • William J. Sinnegen, "Two Branches of the Roman Secret Service" in The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (1959), pp. 238-254.

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