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Duncan-Jones, Richard, Power and Privilege in Roman Society

Cambridge, 2016, 229 p.
Karol Kłodziński
p. 323-329
Référence(s) :

Duncan-Jones, Richard, Power and Privilege in Roman Society, Cambridge, 2016, 229 p., ISBN : 9781316575475

Texte intégral

1R. Duncan-Jones (to whom I refer below as D-J) is a respected scholar of antiquity known primarily for his many excellent studies on Roman economy, specifically that of Italy and the provinces (mostly Roman North Africa). So far, he has been less involved with problems which fall under the history of certain social groups, officials’ careers or, more broadly, the functioning of Roman administration. However, in his most recent book, D-J attempts to capture “the dynamics of the Roman promotion system” and answer the question of what and who determined officials’ careers in the Roman Empire. He describes the factors which shaped the career paths of senators and equites, as well as slaves and freedmen, while focusing primarily on the two elite social classes.

2His monograph is an attempt at systematizing the knowledge regarding promotions under the principate. Literature on the careers of members of the several social classes, especially as regards prosopograhic studies, is vast, and the subject matter investigated by D-J has already been taken up in comprehensive monographs, such as those by F. Millar and W. Eck. Still, it bears pointing out right at the beginning that D-J’s analyses contain many extremely original and polemical points. That applies in particular to part one of the book, which deals with senatorial careers (part I, Social Status and Senatorial Success), based on a new database comprising 557 senators whose careers (beginning with the vigintivirate) are known, and on appendices, which demonstrate the variety of senators’ careers at a number of stages (e.g. vigintiviri, priestly or military functions). The remaining two parts deal with equites (part II, Equestrian Perspectives), and slaves (and freedmen; part III The Unprivileged), but in the case of those social groups D-J’s research is not based on new lists of official careers, which, significantly, it would be extremely difficult to make1.

3In part one, D-J briefly describes the Senate and senators during the principate, asking the following questions: to what extent did the administrative experience gained by senators affect their promotion? For instance, did they get to hold senatorial governorships and military commands randomly? Did senators of provincial origin have to be more active than their Italian counterparts in order to gain social standing? Needless to say, in most cases the decisions on nominations to senatorial offices were taken by the emperor. However, it remains unclear what the decisive factor was when it came to senators’ promotions—social background, expertise, or connections (that is, patronage). Historical literature has seen many attempts at answering the question of whether Roman careers should be seen through the eye of modern meritocracy, or was background the factor crucial for promotion after all, as in the case of patricians’ accelerated careers? As D-J demonstrates, the answer to that is not clear-cut at all. Based on the senator database he created, D-J observes certain regularities. He distinguishes four groups of vigintiviri, comprised of both plebeians and (especially among the monetales) patricians. These patricians were especially privileged (“the system can be seen as heavily aristocratic […]”. p. 21)”, while “merit” was hardly ever the driving force behind senators’ careers. Among the vigintiviri, the so-called viocuri (quattuorviri viarum curandarum) were most often granted military positions (e.g. 46% of them would later become legati legionis). D-J then moves on to the issues surrounding the sequence in which the senators held their posts, and exceptions to it, confirming the already existing opinion that the vigintivirate was a voluntary pre-senatorial rank (i.e. not every vigintivir would become a quaestor, and not every quaestor must have served as a vigintivir). Finally, he discusses in detail the senatorial cursus posts—quaestorship, tribuneship, aedileship, praetorship, consulship and consular curatorships—listing detailed statistics which demonstrate the differences in senatorial careers between the Rome-only senators and the external groups. Next, D-J analyzes the careers of senators (mostly governors) in public provinces (those governed by ex-praetors and two consulars) and imperial provinces (governed not only by equestrian procurators and prefects, but also by senatorial legates—ex-praetors and consulars).

  • 2 W. Eck, Spezialisierung in der Staatlichen Administration des Römischen Reiches in der hohen Kaiser (...)
  • 3 M. Żyromski, Specialization in the Roman Provinces of Moesia in the Time of the Principate, Athenae (...)

4D-J then looks into the careers of those senators who held key military functions, especially the extremely influential consular governors (legati Augusti). He tries to settle the question of whether the senatorial governors of consular provinces were amateurs holding this kind of position by accident or for the first time, or whether they were professionals with experience in the legions. His analyses indicate both social factors and expertise (or lack thereof) determined the promotion to the post of a consular legate. D-J observes that some provinces, constantly threatened by warfare (Syria, Britain and Dacia) were given to much more experienced governors compared to those in charge of Hispania Citerior, Germania Inferior or Dalmatia, with many first-time appointments, although he is himself careful to emphasize that “[…] in most other provinces there was no strong rule” (p. 49). Now D-J’s conclusions are all based on the database of senators he created, but one cannot help but wonder why then he omits W. Eck’s findings on “specialism” in imperial administration2, and particularly M. Żyromski’s, who researched the matter in reference to senatorial officials (mostly legati Augusti pro praetore provinciae and legati legionis) in Germania, Moesia and Pannonia3. In either case, D-J’s analyses prove that in the case of the provinces most threatened with war, governors were required to have military experience. Thus the opinion once current of senatorial amateur governors without proper skills cannot be accepted uncritically.

  • 4 See e.g. the cases of consules suffecti from the East: Q. Aurelius Polus Terentianus (PIR2 P 422; D (...)
  • 5 Okoń, Album senatorum. Vol. II. Senators of the Severan Period (193-235 AD). A Prospographic Study, (...)

5Finally, D-J analyzes the phenomenon of the Senate “provincializing”. At the onset of the principate, Roman emperors encountered the grave problem of the old senatorial aristocracy disappearing. Various attempts were made at solving the problem, but it was only under Trajan, the first emperor who came from outside Italy, that provincials began to enter the Senate in increasing numbers. Provincials were also important in civilian and military administration away from Rome. D-J summarizes the role of those senatorial provincials as follows: “Provincials as a whole can be seen as a more dynamic but less privileged segment of the Senate, with more governorships but fewer major priesthoods, and a lower average social rating” (p. 72). According to his calculations, between 193 and 285 AD, nearly half (46%) of senators were of provincial origin, whereas taking into account the 557 senators from the whole principate period, as many as 182 came from the provinces, amounting to roughly 33% (p. 63). D-J has verified the previously held opinion that until the 3rd century AD consuls originated primarily from Italy. In his opinion, provincial consuls became a majority under Trajan, and then again under Marcus Aurelius, when the Antonine plague in 165/166 decimated the ranks of Italian senators. D-J’s findings on senators’ non-Italian origins are both interesting and controversial. Before 98 AD, an overwhelming majority of the provincials came from Spain (38%), Gaul (14%) and the East (43%), while later, between 98 and 192 AD, senators from Africa (29%) and the East (35%) started to dominate, with those from Africa coming decisively into the lead (65%) in the period from 193 to 285 (p. 66). However, the calculations D-J brings up, based on there having been 182 provincials during the principate, suffer from a methodological error: while D-J does specify that his estimates are only based on those senators (with a complete cursus) found in the database (p. 63), the provincial origo of many senators he does not include, whose full careers we do not know, is often well documented4. Thus the full number of senators from the principate period whose provincial rigo we do know is much higher than that quoted by D-J. Only for the reign of the Severi, D. Okoń calculates 944 senators with a known origo, including 351 (around 37.1%) from Italy, 291 (around 31%) from the East, 206 (21.8%) from Africa, and 96 (10.1%) from the West5.

  • 6 F. Beltrán Lloris, The ‘Epigraphic Habit’ in the Roman World, in C. Bruun, J. Edmondson (eds.), The (...)
  • 7 W. Eck, Sozialstruktur der römischen Senatorenstandes der hohen Kaiserzeit und stastische Methode, (...)

6The most valuable aspects of D-J’s book include his analyses of the chronology of epigraphic material related to senators, as well as of the specificity of career inscriptions themselves (based on selected examples). It is no surprise a majority of the senators investigated by D-J came from the Antonine era, as it is from the so-called epigraphic boom that was the 2nd century AD that we have the most inscriptions in general6. D-J also notes that certain important senatorial offices (e.g. the proconsulships of Asia and Africa) are overrepresented in the extant material, while other, less important posts (such as those of aediles or proconsular legates) are many fewer; as he aptly observes, they “[…] were sometimes left out of career narratives” (p. 86). The functions featured in inscriptions the most often are three central ones: quaestor, tribunus plebis and praetor. Undoubtedly, the highest-ranking senators had more opportunities to commemorate their careers (p. 85-86 n. 27). Although the picture of reality painted by inscriptions is incomplete (omitting as it does certain less significant offices), as are the sources themselves, the group of 557 principate-era senators whose careers are known, researched by D-J, seems representative, particularly in the context of research into senators’ career patterns. Now, D-J does not try to calculate the degree of representativeness of his source material, but taking into account all confirmed senators from that period, it would oscillate around 50%7, even though the percentage of senators with known careers is considerably lower.

7D-J’s analyses are based on the assumption that during the principate (even as late as halfway through the 3rd century AD), a sui generis permanent model of senatorial career was in place, “stable and conservative” (p. 78). However, although the structure of senators’ careers under the principate was formalized and fairly schematic, it did evolve (as new provinces and legions were created, and with them, new senatorial posts). Objections could be levelled at the catalogue of senators compiled by D-J, which is only included in an abbreviated form, so that the reader does not get to see the several career steps of the senators listed. Not including full biograms is a flaw and may make reading the book difficult, even though the classification constructed by D-J (by “category / period” and “career score”) is clear.

  • 8 W. Liebenam, Beiträge zur Verwaltungsgeschichte des Römischen Kaiserreiches. I. Die Laufbahn der Pr (...)
  • 9 O. Hirschfeld, Die kaiserlichen Verwaltungsbeamten bis auf Diocletian, Berlin, 1905.
  • 10 H.-G. Pflaum, La carrière de l’affranchi imperial Saturninus. Sous-procurateurs provinciaux équestr (...)
  • 11 K. Kłodziński, The Careers of Equestrian a rationibus: the Issue of ‘Specialism’, Palamedes, 11, 20 (...)

8Part two of D-J’s book deals with various aspects of equestrian careers, from the mechanisms determining the promotion of equites, through an attempt at defining the so-called selecti, or equestrian jurors adlected by the Emperor, who belonged to the upper ducuriae, to describing the financial standing of equites (especially the epigraphically confirmed conductores and the pro magistri responsible for tax-farming) and finally to the equestrian rank and its devaluation (although I am not sure if cases of granting an anulus aureus to freedmen count as “Devaluation of Equestrian Rank”; p. 123-124). Perhaps the most interesting element here is D-J’s portrayal of the equestrian career path (its military stage, that is militiae, and procuratorial posts) and exceptions to it, including extraordinary promotions of equites to the Senate. Building on his findings until then, D-J finds that the typology of procuratorial offices schematically arranged by Pflaum is less formalized than Pflaum claimed, even though its general outline remains valid. In D-J’s view, the system of equestrian promotions in the 2nd century was classified by Pflaum and Domaszewski (p. 106). Of course, the latter’s achievements are beyond question; however, it would not do to omit Wilhelm Liebenam8, or, especially, Otto Hirschfeld9, whose work Pflaum himself drew on. While equites were already graded according to differences in remuneration (sexagenarius, centenarius, ducenarius etc.) halfway through the 1st century, such equestrian pay grades only appear in inscriptions (CIL X 662) during Commodus’ reign (p. 106). D-J comes forward with the daring hypothesis that imperial freedmen were able to hold equestrian procuratorial posts (p. 107). Before, it has only been claimed they could hold procuratorships of less importance, perform managerial duties under an eques’ supervision or hold procuratorships jointly with an eques in “unequal collegiality”10. In contrast, D-J convincingly argues that equestrian posts could also on occasion be held by liberti Augusti. We do not know of many such cases, although for instance the freedman Hiberus was the prefect of Egypt under Tiberius. D-J is also right to emphasize the importance of personal patronage as a determining factor in promotion, although he stipulates that as a bureaucratic criterion incongruent with the Roman context, patronage fails to explain many equestrian nominations. For that reason, he writes, “[…] further analysis of career patterns can help to show whether patronage destroyed all bureaucratic norms” (p. 108). Based on lists of equites compiled by Saller and Pflaum, D-J tries to demonstrate relationships between equestrian militiae and promotions to civilian posts (mostly procuratorial). His conclusions are very interesting, although they are based on only 89 equestrian careers (p. 110-112). He also shows that equites’ military experience, gained over their 10 and more years of service as part of the standard tres militiae, did not impact their later civilian career, that is, make it either faster or easier. Interestingly, two elite groups, namely equites with no military experience and equites who had made it to the fourth militia, and so had additional military experience, rose to prestigious and well-paid procuratorial posts (ducenarii) much faster and more often than men who had held one to three militiae. D-J correctly notes that social standing was the decisive factor in the careers of many procurators without militiae (p. 113). It is worth adding that in the case of purely civilian equestrian careers, lack of military experience could be made up for by their merits—specialized administrative, financial or juridical skills11.

  • 12 W. Scheidel, Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Roman Empire, JRS, 87, 1997, p. 156-169; id., (...)
  • 13 J. Eaton, Voluntarii, in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, ed. R. S. Bagnall et alii, 12, Malden (...)

9The last and most substantial part of D-J’s book covers material to do with slaves, eunuchs and freedmen (particularly the influential imperial freedmen), although it should be stressed that it only deals with a few aspects of their work and careers. To begin with (Sources of Slaves), D-J presents the matter of the sources from which slaves were obtained during the early Empire. Currently, the dominant opinion12 is that under the principate slaves were mostly obtained through natural reproduction, but D-J lists in detail confirmed cases of enslavement due to wars (from Tiberius to Severus Alexander; p. 133), and highlights their importance. In his opinion, the overall number of home-born slaves (vernae) in the slave population of the principate was not that high at all, and “[…] servile self-replacement is difficult to accept as a dominant trend” (p. 135). He also suggests that the phenomenon of selling children into slavery was probably more widespread in the Roman Empire than is indicated by sources (mostly late ancient ones). However, in this case his reasoning, being based on arguments from silence, is not convincing. For the principate, D-J only draws on SEG 4.516 (Ephesus) from Claudius’ times (p. 134 n. 25). Moreover, the slave population was not unaffected by the phenomenon of infant abandonment and, as D-J speculates, of self-enslavement, which is confirmed by both historical and juridical sources. He also describes certain roles (as military support in crisis situations or as eunuchs at court) of slaves and freedmen in the Roman society. It is not clear whether during the principate freedmen were continuously recruited into the several dozen auxiliary cohorts (cohortes voluntariorum civium Romanorum; p. 137), although the origin of those units is no doubt related to that extraordinary, emergency recruitment13. All we know is that towards the end of the 1st century many non-citizen recruits in those units, who would later receive Roman citizenship, were peregrini (CIL XVI, 38; see also CIL XIII, 7382). The final chapter of this part (The Unprivileged) deals with slavery as a career or a way of life of sorts. D-J devotes much of his writing here to the phenomenon, marginalized in literature, of voluntary servitude, which may have been, as legal texts indicate, quite common in the Roman Empire. He analyzes in detail the legal issues surrounding the institution of “self-sale” of free people, their motivations (primarily extreme poverty), implications of enslavement and ways in which they could have become free again. Finally, he shows the possibilities opened by the status of a slave, seemingly low and undignified. Those benefits included not only the upkeep and satisfaction of needs in return for the work or services rendered by domestic servants, but also the specific “professional prestige” of the so-called “white-collar” slaves and ex-slaves, who carried out many managerial and financial functions, not only in the Imperial household. At the very end of this part, D-J writes about the elite freedmen, that is, those frequently powerful liberti Augusti who (especially under the Julio-Claudian dynasty) held well-paid palace posts. Among the influential freedmen active in the 2nd century, he counts Cosmus (PIR2 C 1535) (p. 149 n. 57), an a rationibus official attested to by two inscriptions (CIL VI 455; CIL IX 2438). Now if Cosmus was the head of that office (and some scholars believe he was merely an auxiliary procurator under “unequal collegiality”), then we can only state the fact of that freedman having attained to an important equestrian office. Still, we have no grounds to suppose he had considerable political influence, unlike M. Antonius Pallas or Claudius Etruscus’ father before him.

10For the most part, Power and Privilege in Roman Society is fresh and polemical, which is the best thing about this book. Some of the author’s reflections are derivative and have been undertaken before (like an analysis of manumission, p. 147-148), but it bears emphasizing that they complement his narrative. His greatest achievement in the book lies in his findings on senators’ careers under the principate, based on analyzing the new database. While sometimes controversial, they provide an impulse for further research and discussion.

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1 Cf. P. Weaver, Repertorium Familiae Caesarum et Libertorum Augustorum, 2004 in

2 W. Eck, Spezialisierung in der Staatlichen Administration des Römischen Reiches in der hohen Kaiserzeit, in Administration, Prosopography and Appointment Policies in the Roman Empire, ed. L. de Blois, Amsterdam, 2001, p. 1-23.

3 M. Żyromski, Specialization in the Roman Provinces of Moesia in the Time of the Principate, Athenaeum, 79, 1991, p. 59-102; M. Żyromski, Specialization – The hidden feature of the Roman provincial administration, Pomoerium, 1, 1994, p. 63-68.

4 See e.g. the cases of consules suffecti from the East: Q. Aurelius Polus Terentianus (PIR2 P 422; D. Okoń, Album senatorum. Vol. I. Senatores ab Septimii Severi aetate usque ad Alexandrum Severum (193-235 AD), Szczecin 2017, p. 53 no. 162), Attius Rufinus (AE 2003, 1674; Okoń, 2017, p. 48 no. 137), Caecilius Aristo (PIR2 C 22, Okoń, 2017, p. 60 no. 198) and M. Cn. Licinius Rufinus (PIR2 L 236, Okoń, 2017, p. 162 no. 642).

5 Okoń, Album senatorum. Vol. II. Senators of the Severan Period (193-235 AD). A Prospographic Study, Szczecin, 2018, p. 25.

6 F. Beltrán Lloris, The ‘Epigraphic Habit’ in the Roman World, in C. Bruun, J. Edmondson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy, Oxford, 2015, p. 139-141.

7 W. Eck, Sozialstruktur der römischen Senatorenstandes der hohen Kaiserzeit und stastische Methode, Chiron 3, 1973, p. 381-385; Okoń, 2018, p. 11.

8 W. Liebenam, Beiträge zur Verwaltungsgeschichte des Römischen Kaiserreiches. I. Die Laufbahn der Procuratoren bis auf die Zeit Diocletians, Jena, 1886.

9 O. Hirschfeld, Die kaiserlichen Verwaltungsbeamten bis auf Diocletian, Berlin, 1905.

10 H.-G. Pflaum, La carrière de l’affranchi imperial Saturninus. Sous-procurateurs provinciaux équestres et procurateurs provinciaux d’extraction affranchie, Revue des études latines 47bis, 1969, p. 302; Eck, Die Verwaltung des Römischen Reiches in der Hohen Kaiserzeit, 2, Basel-Berlin, 1997, p. 92.

11 K. Kłodziński, The Careers of Equestrian a rationibus: the Issue of ‘Specialism’, Palamedes, 11, 2016, p. 129-130, p. 132-133.

12 W. Scheidel, Quantifying the Sources of Slaves in the Roman Empire, JRS, 87, 1997, p. 156-169; id., Real Slave Prices and the Relative Cost of Slave Labour in the Roman Empire, AncSoc, 35, 2015, p. 1-17.

13 J. Eaton, Voluntarii, in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, ed. R. S. Bagnall et alii, 12, Malden, p. 7030. Cf. I. Haynes, Blood of the Provinces. The Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans, Oxford, 2013, p. 120.

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Karol Kłodziński

University of Gdánsk (Pologne)

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