Constitution of the Late Roman Empire

Constitution of the Late Roman Empire
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The Constitution of the Late Roman Empire was an unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent.[1] The constitution of the Roman Principate (the early Roman Empire), which was established by the emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC, had governed the "Roman Empire" for three centuries. Diocletian became emperor in 284, and his reign marked the end of the Principate and the beginning of the "Dominate" (from Latin dominus: "Lord" or "Master"). The constitution of the Dominate ultimately recognized monarchy as the true source of power, and thus ended the fiction of shared power between the "Roman Emperor" and the "Roman Senate".

After Diocletian had reorganized the superstructure of the constitution, he then reorganized the administrative apparatus of the government. When Diocletian abdicated the throne in 305, the Empire quickly descended back into chaos. After the chaos had subsided, however, much of Diocletian's constitution remained in effect. His division of the Empire into west and east, with each half under the command of a separate emperor, remained with brief interruptions of political unity. The capital of the Western Empire was never returned to Rome, the Senate and executive magistrates continued to function as Diocletian's constitution had originally specified, and Diocletian's civil and military divisions of the empire remained in effect. Later emperors, especially Constantine the Great, modified Diocletian's constitution, but it ultimately survived until the reforms of Justinian after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.


Augusti and Caesares

Roman Emperor Diocletian, who framed the constitution of the Dominate

Under Diocletian's new constitution, power was shared between two emperors called Augusti. The establishment of two co-equal Augusti marked a rebirth of the old republican principle of collegiality, as all laws, decrees, and appointments that came from one of the Augusti, were to be recognized as coming from both conjointly. One Augustus was to rule the western half of the Empire, and the other Augustus was to rule the eastern half of the Empire. Diocletian made Maximian his co-Augustus, and gave him the Western Empire, while Diocletian took the Eastern Empire. Diocletian made Nicomedia his capital, and Maximian made Milan his capital. To make the two halves symbolically appear to be one, Diocletian called his territory patres Orientis, while Maximian called his territory patres Occidentis.

The Augusti were legally distinct from the old Princeps (Roman Emperors under the Principate), because under the Principate, the Princeps took the place of the old republican magistrates. When a Princeps issued a decree, that decree was only valid so long as that Princeps was Emperor, whereas in contrast, under the Republic, any decree issued by a magistrate was only good so long as that magistrate was in office. Under the Republic and the Principate, only the Senate and legislative assemblies were continuous institutions, and thus only they could pass laws that remained in effect indefinitely. Under Diocletian's new Dominate, the Augusti took the place of the Senate and the assemblies, and thus any decree of an Augustus remained in force even after that particular emperor left office. Such an act could only be invalidated by a future Emperor. The logical extension of this concept meant that neither a magistrate, the assemblies, nor the senate, could legally restrain the Emperor.

The old republican magistrates, as well as the Princeps, both had legal status. Under the Republic, the state gave the magistrates the authorization to hold their office, while under the Principate, the state gave the Princeps the legal authorization to be emperor. Any Augusti, in contrast, did not need authorization from the state to be emperor, because the Augusti became the state. The higher authority of the Augusti was illustrated by their robes (which were trimmed with precious stones) and the imperial diadem, as well as the elaborate ceremony required of anyone who approached them. Unlike the old Princeps, the Augusti were viewed as being more than mortal, which was illustrated by the honors that they received. These honors had, in the past, been reserved only for the Gods. While emperors had received such honors in the past, they only received these honors after their death, and yet, the Augusti could receive such honors while they were still alive.

The first tetrarchs of the constitution of the Dominate

In 293, Diocletian and Maximian appointed two Caesares, which resulted in an arrangement known as the "Tetrarchy" ("rule by four"). The Caesares were subordinate to their Augusti, and the only authority that they had was that which had been given to them by their Augusti. Their status was so inferior to the Augusti that they received a fixed salary. The powers that were delegated to them usually included the right to hear appeals, and a set of provinces were often assigned to them so that they could supervise the governors of those provinces. The reason why Diocletian created the office of Caesar was to create a method by which orderly successions could occur, so that when one Augustus died, one of the two Caesares replaced that Augustus. When a new Caesar was appointed, his Augustus adopted him. Diocletian had hoped that the Augusti would jointly resign at a given point in time, and allow their Caesares to replace them.

Administrative divisions of the empire

Diocletian separated the civil administrative apparatus and the military administrative apparatus in order to mitigate the risk that future generals might attempt to seize the throne through force, and then he reorganized both of them. The new civil administration was led by four "Praetorian Prefects" (praefecti praetorio), while the military divisions were led by five to ten generals called "Masters of the Soldiers" (magistri militum). To make governing easier, the empire was divided into many small jurisdictions. The Empire was divided into four civil jurisdictions called "Prefectures", each under the command of a Prefect. The prefectures were then divided into dioceses, and the dioceses were then divided into provinces. It is known, for example, that by the 5th century, there were twelve dioceses, and that some dioceses included as many as seventeen provinces. The result was that the units of government were much smaller, and thus more manageable, than they had been before Diocletian's reforms. The governor of each diocese was appointed by his Augusti, and was called a Vicarius, while each province was jointly supervised by both its Prefect and its Vicarius. Neither a Prefect nor a Vicarius held any military powers.

Roman Emperor Constantine, who reformed the constitution of the Dominate

The four prefectures were called Orientis, Illyrici, Italiae, and Galliarum, with Constantinople, Sirmium, Milan, and Treves constituting the capitals of the respective prefectures. Rome and (what became) Constantinople both were assigned civil governors, although these governors answered to their Augusti, rather than to their Prefect. The powers of the Prefects were vast, as they could nominate individuals to fill a gubernatorial vacancy, supervise the conduct of the governors, or even dismiss a governor. Prefects could also interpret the law, hear appeals, control finances, and some were even assigned military responsibilities. The powers of the Prefects were so extensive that Diocletian only allowed each Prefect to remain in office for a short period of time. The "Masters of the Soldiers", in contrast, supervised territorial commanders called Duces, and each Duce had military authority over an administrative unit called a Ducatus. Each Ducatus was similar, although not identical, to a province.

Senate and Magistrates

The removal of the seat of government from Rome reduced the Roman Senate to a municipal body, an image that was reinforced when the emperor Constantine later created a similar body in Constantinople. Diocletian also discontinued the practice of having the Senate ratify the Imperial powers of a new emperor[citation needed]. Going back to the founding of the city, control of the state was considered to return to the Senate whenever the chief magistracy became vacant, and so this particular reform robbed the Senate of its status as the depository of supreme power. Diocletian's reforms also ended whatever fiction had remained that the Senate had substantive legislative powers, and since the magistracies had become meaningless, the electoral powers of the Senate had no real meaning. The Senate did retain its legislative powers over public games and the senatorial order, as well as the power to try cases, especially treason, if the Emperor gave permission.

The executive magistrates had been little more than municipal officials since long before Diocletian became Emperor, and so Diocletian's reforms simply declared this openly. The Consul now could only preside over the senate, and the Praetor and Quaestor could only manage public games, although the Praetor did retain some limited judicial authority. All other magisterial offices disappeared. The first two "Roman Consuls" in a given year, the consules ordinarii, were appointed by the Emperor, and their term now ended on April 21, while all other Consuls in a given year (the less-prestigious consules suffecti) were elected by the Senate. The Senate also elected "Praetors" and "Quaestors"', although the approval of the Emperor was required before any election could be certified.

See also


  • Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics (ISBN 0-543-92749-0).
  • Byrd, Robert (1995). The Senate of the Roman Republic. U.S. Government Printing Office, Senate Document 103-23.
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1841). The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. London: Edmund Spettigue. Vol. 1.
  • Lintott, Andrew (1999). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-926108-3).
  • Polybius (1823). The General History of Polybius: Translated from the Greek. By Mr. Hampton. Oxford: Printed by W. Baxter. Fifth Edition, Vol 2.
  • Taylor, Lily Ross (1966). Roman Voting Assemblies: From the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar. The University of Michigan Press (ISBN 0-472-08125-X).


  1. ^ Byrd, 161

Further reading

  • Ihne, Wilhelm. Researches Into the History of the Roman Constitution. William Pickering. 1853.
  • Johnston, Harold Whetstone. Orations and Letters of Cicero: With Historical Introduction, An Outline of the Roman Constitution, Notes, Vocabulary and Index. Scott, Foresman and Company. 1891.
  • Mommsen, Theodor. Roman Constitutional Law. 1871-1888
  • Tighe, Ambrose. The Development of the Roman Constitution. D. Apple & Co. 1886.
  • Von Fritz, Kurt. The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. Columbia University Press, New York. 1975.
  • The Histories by Polybius
  • Cambridge Ancient History, Volumes 9–13.
  • A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, (Fontana Press, 1993).
  • M. Crawford, The Roman Republic, (Fontana Press, 1978).
  • E. S. Gruen, "The Last Generation of the Roman Republic" (U California Press, 1974)
  • F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, (Duckworth, 1977, 1992).
  • A. Lintott, "The Constitution of the Roman Republic" (Oxford University Press, 1999)

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