Ancient History & Civilisation

Social and Cultural Transformations

Cities were essential to the ordered world of the Roman Empire at all periods. They focused the political and other organized activities of the empire's subjects. Although the biggest cities with very large populations often generated high levels of urban violence, cities in general were rarely centers of resistance or opposition. Civic life, however, changed substantially between 300 and 600. Even at the beginning of the period cities had ceased to be independent, self-governing communities, whose magistrates maintained local order and security, and administered civic finances with little or no interference from the imperial administration. The days had also mostly passed when members of the local landowning elites maintained city institutions and financed public buildings and services by their private generosity. By the early fourth century the cream of the provincial aristocracy were making their careers in state service.54 Rather than seeking local magistracies and high-priesthoods, they became members of the growing band of provincial and imperial administrators. Many palace officials were also lawyers, and legal training, based on command of Latin as well as Greek, became the most important component of higher education in late antiquity, overshadowing the traditional forms of paideia, Greek education, which derived from an advanced mastery of Greek grammar, rhetoric, and culture in the wider sense.55 The conflict between the two forms of education was already apparent in the third century to an educated Greek of eastern Asia Minor, the future bishop Gregory of Neocaesarea (known in Christian hagiography as Gregory the Wonder-worker), who summed up the challenge of mastering Roman law in a famous passage:

A quite different form of study takes a terrible grip on my mind and binds my mouth and my tongue, if ever I wish to say the least thing in the Greek language – our admirable laws, by which the affairs of all those that live under the rule of the Romans are regulated, which neither can be composed nor studied thoroughly without great labour, being as they are wise and accurate and varied and admirable, and in a word most Hellenic, but expressed and transmitted in the language of the Romans, which is impressive and pretentious and wholly suited to the imperial power – but none the less burdensome for me. (Gregory Thaumaturgus, Address to Origen 1, 6–7, trans. Fergus Millar)

Through the fourth century the council (ordo) of the curiales remained the defining institution of the cities. The councilors were generally the heads of the better-off families, and they took collective responsibility for city finances. In practice this often amounted to little more than fulfilling compulsory obligations for their communities (civic liturgies), ensuring that a city met its tax obligations to the empire, and organizing supplies and transport for Roman troops. Meanwhile most of the serious decisions regarding public buildings and services, as well as the running of local courts of justice, were carried out by provincial governors, aided by the members of their staff. Power thereby became more centralized. The picture of civic life in the fourth century is accordingly a bleak one, at least as seen through the eyes of the curiales. The reasons for this development were religious and cultural, and not merely the result of bureaucratic developments. City life in the early Roman Empire had been sustained by strong and diverse local religious traditions. Much of community life, financed by the generous public spending of city notables, was connected to civic religion and the holding of festivals, which emphasized the diversity and variety of Greek pagan culture. However, by the beginning of the fourth century this pagan community culture, based in the cities, had virtually expired. Christianity, although it took many different forms, was explicitly a universal religion, and it contributed strongly to a centralized uniform culture, as it was adopted and supported by the state.

This had inevitable consequences for city institutions. The members of the local ordo recede from view. Mentions of city councils and councilors in inscriptions and literary sources become sparse after 450, although the law codes indicate that the emperors were anxious for them to survive as effective bodies. However, the decline of city councils is not evidence for a social revolution. Provincial society continued to be dominated by the wealthier individuals, and these are identified by the later sources as ktetores or possessores, terms which emphasize their status as landowners. Meanwhile the term oiketor, householder, comes to replace the earlier Greek term politês or the Latin civis. The emphasis is switched from the community to the individuals, but the latter, simply by virtue of their social status and economic position, continued to exercise various forms of civic leadership. The gradual demise of earlier city institutions did not spell the end of the cities themselves.56 From the mid-fifth century eastern cities frequently seem to have relied on men with the title “father of the city” (patêr tês poleôs), who were generally wealthy local men but appointed by the central authorities.57 Bishops also played an increasingly important part in secular administration, often acting as spokesmen in petitions to the imperial authorities or as recipients of imperial letters (see pp. 294–9). The general evolution of the cities, therefore, turned away from formal constitutional structures, based on elected officials and councilors, to control by prominent and powerful individuals, who were not directly answerable to their communities, and to religious leaders.58

Traditional Roman society was strongly hierarchical, and social standing was determined by a combination of wealth, office, lineage, service to the state, and political or military success. In the later empire, merit was increasingly favored over inherited privilege; service and effectiveness were generally regarded as more important than lineage.59 This is exemplified most dramatically by the backgrounds of the emperors. The most extreme example is the emperor Justin, who had risen from being an illiterate peasant, through long years of service in the palace guard, to be hailed as successor to the aristocratic Anastasius in 519. Christianity probably encouraged this development. The moral authority of the clergy rested not on wealth, social status, and education, but on the demonstration of Christian virtues and holiness.

Although Roman society offered major opportunities for social and professional advancement, particularly through state or military service, it was certainly not democratic or egalitarian. The universal category of Roman citizens was marked by increasing social differentiation. The legal sources, supported by documentary sources such as inscriptions and papyri, enable us to reconstruct the theoretical social league table of the empire which had evolved by the beginning of the fifth century. This is shown in a very elegant schematic representation of the ranks of late Roman society, devised by Alexander Demandt for his splendid handbook on late antiquity (Diagram 5.4).


Diagram 5.4    The social hierarchy of the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries (from A. Demandt, Die Spätantike [Berlin, 1989], 505)

There was a steady inflation in honors and titles, which was driven by the opportunities within the system for upward social mobility. Members of the town councils, the decuriones or curiales, aimed at achieving equestrian rank in order to evade their local civic duties, while officials serving on a provincial governor's staff and certain military officers were also rapidly promoted to equestrian status. The result was a devaluation of equestrian rank. Members of the equestrian order who actually held public office, for instance as provincial governors, began to acquire the titles of lower-ranking senators (clarissimi).

The most prominent senatorial offices were the city prefectures at Rome and Constantinople; and the provincial governorships of Asia and Africa. Although the number of genuinely influential senatorial offices was relatively small, senatorial prestige remained high, and was further increased when Constantius II founded a second body in Constantinople, which was referred to as a ”senate of second rank” (Anon. Val. 30). While the Senate at Rome was drawn from “the better part of the human race” (Symmachus, ep. I. 52), that is the richest landowning families of the western empire, its counterpart in Constantinople was initially assembled from leading families in eastern cities or from able and ambitious lawyers and rhetoricians. Rome's senators had little regular contact with the emperors, but those in Constantinople, especially after 395, formed a social class that overlapped heavily with members of the resident imperial court.60

The creation of this new senatorial aristocracy provided Constantinople with an elite class around the emperor, which supplied the state with officials and senior military officers. The pool from which they were drawn ranged widely. The military men were often career soldiers, including many of barbarian origin. However, civilian officials either belonged to existing senatorial families, or came from the curial class of the cities of the provinces. The draining of talent away from the cities was a source of tension for two reasons. There was a clear danger that those left behind would simply be less well qualified to govern their cities effectively. More obviously, those who entered imperial service were exempted from fulfilling local liturgies and thus deprived the cities of an important financial resource. A good deal of legislation during the fourth and fifth centuries shows the emperors trying to limit these exemptions to the uppermost tier in the Senate, the illustres, but once a senator had obtained this immunity his family members retained it in perpetuity. In return, as senators attached to Constantinople, they acquired new obligations, to provide symbolic gifts of gold at the emperors' accession and on his quinquennial anniversaries, and in particular to sponsor games in connection with their otherwise largely honorific urban magistracies (quaestorship, praetorship, consulship).

The senatorii or synkletikoi were particularly prominent in the eastern provinces of the empire. They in their turn produced a more prestigious sub-group of consulares or hypatikoi, meaning those who had held the consulship or held senior governorships. These adjectives applied not only to officeholders but to members of their families. These terms were less about holding a particular office than about belonging to a social group. The senatorial class itself evolved into the three ranks of illustres, spectabiles, and clarissimi, and by 530 in the reign of Justinian only the illustres, made up from consuls, patricians, and an inner circle of senior magistrates and officers, formed the Senate itself. While sons inherited the lowest senatorial rank, the clarissimate, from their fathers, higher rank and office had to be earned by their own efforts.

The most vivid and tangible evidence for the prominence and high social status of the leading senators derives from the cities of the eastern empire, Asia Minor in particular, which erected statues and honorific inscriptions, usually in verse, to commemorate provincial governors or men of local origin who had made distinguished careers for themselves in imperial service.61 The milieu where this phenomenon has been most intensively studied is the city of Aphrodisias, the metropolis of the province of Caria. The relevant inscriptions have been presented in exemplary fashion by Charlotte Roueché. These brief verse texts, written in elevated and often obscure language, advertise generic virtues rather than specific accomplishments. Governors in particular might be praised for their knowledge of the law and their devotion to justice.62 The statuary that accompanied these inscriptions has been subjected to highly revealing analysis by Bert Smith.63 The individuals who were honored in the late fourth and fifth centuries at Aphrodisias were provincial governors, whose statues were erected in three of the most important public spaces of the city: in front of porticos outside the theater, in the street beside the council house, and close to the main bath building. The statues, placed on high composite bases made from re-used materials, depicted the men they honored in the full formality of ceremonial garb. Senators were entitled to wear a new style of Roman toga, which perhaps deliberately distinguished them from other citizens, who had been entitled, since Caracalla's edict, to wear the older-fashioned garment.64 Other leading figures were clad in a long heavy cloak, the chlamys, which first appears in the military entourage of the Theodosian court at Constantinople, although it was not restricted to military officers. Leading men of local origin tended to be dressed in the less formal himation, characteristic of the Greek civic aristocracy. There was considerable variety in beard and hair fashions, but the styles adopted clearly mirrored those found on monuments of Constantinople, to be seen, for instance, on the reliefs of the great base of Theodosius I in the hippodrome (Plate 3.4). The statues and their bases also carried symbols linked with their office, the baton of a consul, bundles of scrolls typical of provincial officials, alluding to the mass of petitions and other paperwork that their duties involved, or, more rarely, an ink-well (Plate 5.10). This repertoire of accessories precisely corresponded to those depicted on the miniature ivory diptychs, which were produced at Constantinople to commemorate individual consulships in the fourth and fifth centuries. Diptychs and statues together illuminate the grandeur of state office.


Plate 5.10    Aphrodisias. Statue of Oecumenius, a senator and provincial governor, erected at Aphrodisias, capital of the province of Caria, in the late fourth century (Aphrodisias excavation, from JRS 92 [2002], pl. XXII)

A comparable system of social ranking grew up within the organization of the church. There was considerable overlap between this and the secular state hierarchy, with the result that many influential individuals in society at large also acquired prominence in the church. This particularly applies to bishops. However, the church respected values which were of little account in secular society: poverty, renunciation, ascetic self-discipline, and holiness in general, and thus created an honorable role for humble church servants, local priests, hermits, and monks. It was a mark of distinction to hold even humble church office. During the third and fourth centuries priests mentioned in papyri or commemorated on gravestones tended to dispense with the praenomen Aurelius, the badge of their Roman citizen status, as the title presbyteros was, by implication, a superior mark of distinction.65 As the institutions and ideology of Christianity increasingly permeated the upper reaches of the state and were explicitly recognized in law giving, so humble persons began to acquire influence through their religious credentials.

Late Roman attitudes to status were certainly influenced by Christian ideas, including the view that all men were equal before god. Being human was a great leveler. There was no room in this ideology for the elaborately graded social hierarchy of traditional Roman thought. This approach finds expression in late Roman epitaphs, which ceased to distinguish individuals by rank or title or even patronymic, but simply call them by a single (Christian) name and refer to them as slaves of god.

The explicit and implicit contradictions between traditional Roman and Christian social ideas complicate the picture of late Roman society. However, in broad terms traditional Roman ideas gave way to Christian conceptions. This was a result both of a readiness to recognize individual merit, which made promotion to high rank possible for people from humble backgrounds, and of the gradual fusion of state and church institutions, as the institutions of the Roman Empire became more explicitly Christian. The distance between the classical model of the second century and the Christian one of the sixth century is exemplified by the fact that the key men in Justinian's regime could come from a great variety of educational, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds: Justinian and Belisarius, Latin speakers, were from Thracian soldier families; Tribonian from Pamphylia in southern Asia Minor, Procopius of Caesarea, and John from the Lydian city of Philadelphia came from old Greek civic backgrounds, although all three had followed a legal training in Constantinople; John the Cappadocian was from eastern Anatolia where the civic tradition had been much weaker. The generals Solomon and the eunuch Narses came from Mesopotamia and Armenia respectively, frontier areas with complicated and mixed cultural traditions. The common factor that held the ruling elite together was loyalty to the Roman state, based on their shared Christian beliefs.

As the structures of Roman society evolved between the third and sixth centuries, so social attitudes changed. The tone was set by the large numbers of officials and military personnel from the upper ranks, who formed the governing class of the empire. In cultural terms this extended elite, who may have numbered as many as 30,000 in the empire as a whole, drew on four main traditions.

Hellenic paideia, which derived from rigorous education based on classical models, had been the ideal of the Greek cities which had flourished in the early Roman Empire. The foundations of this in Greek civic life and classical religious and philosophical traditions were systematically undermined by religious and social developments of the later empire. Classical culture, which continued to shape the mentality of the educated class of the cities of the Greek East in the fourth and early fifth centuries, still found outstanding exponents in the sixth century, and the litterati made a great show of their knowledge of classical mythology,66 but it was the preserve of a small minority of the population. Greek paideia by now had little relevance to the empire's administrative needs, and contributed little to social advancement.67

Both in the Latin tradition of the western empire and in the Greek East, classical culture retained its cachet and proved attractive to the educated classes in the cities, but at the same time was detached from its pagan associations. Art, oratory, poetry, and other forms of high cultural production continued to draw inspiration from the deep reservoirs of pagan mythology, from epic and dramatic verse, and from secular philosophical ideals. The emperor Julian, by his famous edict designed to exclude Christians from teaching the classics, made a conspicuously unsuccessful attempt to segregate the Christian and pagan cultural spheres. Greek culture retained its value in late antiquity but had now largely lost its religious connotations. The educated elite both in the West and in the East could embrace Christianity without abandoning their classical heritage (see p. 245).68

Expertise in Roman law, on the contrary, was increasingly prized. Lawyers possessed a sophisticated practical skill which led directly to careers in the imperial administration. It was thus by far the most favored form of higher education for talented young men looking for careers, or with ambitions to influence society around them. The rhetoric of Roman law combined high-flown grandiloquence with cumbersome bureaucratic jargon. In its way it was as abstruse and hard to master as the elevated style of Greek pagan intellectuals, and the subject was thus reserved for those with the talent and training to master its intricacies.

The church provided a separate cultural tradition. The Bible, a comprehensive body of sacred literature in written form, was the basis for the education of a substantial literate minority, especially in the eastern part of the empire, who became deacons, priests, or bishops, and also comprised many who entered monasteries or nunneries, or lived ascetic lives as hermits. Christianity provided a different form of intellectual framework from secular forms of learning. At the highest level it was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which gave theologians the tools to debate the questions about the relationship of the Father to the Son, and about the divine nature of Christ, which dominated the agenda of church councils through the entire period. More broadly the Bible itself supplied churchmen, especially bishops, with an inexhaustible quarry of moral examples which were applied in their sermons or in the judgments of church courts. This formed the basis for a Christian code of conduct which shaped the lives of many of their congregations. It is clear that a majority of the clergy could read and write. One of the humbler ranks in the church hierarchy was precisely that of a reader (anagnostes). This skill may have been as important as their pious credentials in advancing them as spokesmen and leaders for their communities.

Finally, we have to reckon with the growing influence of popular culture, and the uneducated beliefs of largely illiterate people. As more people in positions of authority were drawn from a wider pool of the population, they introduced much less sophisticated ideas to the class of decision makers. Ramsay MacMullen has argued that the pervasive presence of popular superstitious beliefs had a large impact even among educated representatives of late Roman society. However, the nature of the source material from the late Roman period may be largely responsible for this impression. A much larger proportion of popular literature, ranging from saints' lives to local chronicles, survives from late antiquity than it does from the early empire, and provides insights into the outlook of the lower classes. Members of the elite continued to work at a high level of rational sophistication.69

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