Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.05

John Noël Dillon, The Justice of Constantine: Law, Communication, and Control. Law and society in the ancient world.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 295.  ISBN 9780472118298.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Charles N. Aull, Indiana University (


The Justice of Constantine is a revision of Dillon’s 2008 Yale doctoral dissertation. It focuses upon Roman government and law. To that end, its central arguments suggests that in as much as Constantine’s legislation carried out the administrative work of ensuring justice in the empire, laws also opened up communicative pathways through which the emperor could express favor for his subjects in the provinces and control the imperial bureaucrats who governed them. For example, Constantine’s famous edict ad universos provinciales in CTh 9.1.4 from September, 325 not only legislates on the process of how a provincial might report bureaucratic malfeasance but it also articulates to provincials the emperor’s personal role in the judiciary, his sincere concern for the well-being of his subjects, and his deep mistrust of members of the imperial administration (pp. 97-100).

For Dillon, the reign of Constantine represents a significant departure from Millar’s notion of passive emperorship characteristic of the High Empire. Dillon suggests that Constantine transformed the office of emperor “into a relatively proactive, popularizing autocracy that would persist long after his reign” (p. 6). Dillon proves his arguments brilliantly. His book presents a nuanced reading of Roman law and a provocative portrait of Constantine’s reign.

The book commences with a useful literature review and chapter previews in the introduction, followed by eight analytical chapters and a conclusion that provides a brief summary of the core arguments.

Chapter one sorts through several complexities related to the historical compilation of the Codex Theodosianus, the constitutions of which function as Dillon’s primary source material. He argues that the compilers of the code included all laws, even obsolete ones, provided that they fulfilled the requirements of leges generales, as Theodosius himself stipulated (CTh. 1.1.5-6). Leges generales came to include edicts, letters to the Senate, and letters to imperial officials. The generalitas of the latter was left to the discretion of the compilers (pp. 25-27). Dillon suggests that the Code took Constantine as its starting place because previous compilations already contained constitutions up through the reign of Diocletian. The Code begins in 312 and not in 306 because the compliers likely used Italian and North African archives, which remained under Maxentius’ control until 312.

Scholars concerned with epistolography and late antique rhetoric will find much of interest in Chapters two and three. An idiosyncrasy of Constantine’s legislation was the use of a type of edict called an “epistolary edict,” which incorporated characteristics of Latin letter writing such as the familiar salutatio. Dillon argues that this epistolary style corresponded succinctly with the emperor’s preference for using legislation as a method of direct communication with his subjects. We learn more about the rhetorical nature of Constantine’s legislation in chapter three, in which Dillon reassess the decline of classical jurisprudence in Late Antiquity. He shows that under the Tetrarchy the language of law shifted toward the rhetorical art of persuasion and away from the pragmatic, terse classicism of the High Empire. This transition is seen early on in Diocletian’s edicts and administrative letters. However, the usage of ornate and persuasive language in legal documents increased exponentially in the chancelleries of Constantine (see, for example, Fragmenta Vaticana 273). No opportunities were missed for the emperor to present himself and express his will: “every imperial utterance became an occasion of ceremony and carefully wrought self-presentation” (p. 252). For those interested in the centralization of Roman government in Late Antiquity, Dillon’s suggestion that the shift in legal language under the Tetrachy and Constantine anticipated the central government’s need to seek approval from its imperial subjects for recent administrative reforms and new tax burdens will be very intriguing (85).1

Chapter four enters into a discussion of both the ideological messages and legal contents of Constantine’s legislation. This conversation pervades the following five chapters. Here we are formally introduced to the rhetoric through which Constantine used law for communicative purposes, primarily by voicing his concerns for provincials and his deep distrust of imperial bureaucrats. CTh. 9.1.4 offers a concise example. In this law, Constantine is shown to have emphasized to provincials his personal role in taking vengeance against malicious administrators if a provincial should be willing to report bureaucratic corruption. Constantine made this latter aspect of later Roman justice – reporting malfeasance – more accessible by allowing provincials to express their complaints to praetorian prefects and other agents of the emperor, most notably, as Dillon suggests, the comites provinciarum.

Legal procedure and access to the judicial system are the topics of chapter five. In various constitutional fragments, Dillon cites evidence for Constantine’s encouragement of public acclamations through which provincials might report on the conduct of governors. We also learn that Constantine endeavored to ban all sportulae, fees collected by administrators in exchange for their roles in legal proceedings (CTh. 1.16.7). Constantine prohibited these outright and dictated a chain of command for reporting them that mimicked the process for public acclamation. These reports went from governor to comites provinciarum or praetorian prefect and from there to the emperor. Despite this initiative, sportulae continued to be collected and less than thirty years later the central government sought only regulation, not prohibition. Both of these reforms to legal procedure are indicative of Constantine’s efforts to improve the judicial experience for provincials. In a similar light, Constantine also provided his subjects with new avenues of access to the justice system in the petty court of the defensor civitatis and through his innovative decision to grant bishops judicial authority. Beginning under Constantine, a litigant reserved the right to have his case transferred to an episcopal court under the rule of unilateral appeal, meaning the opposing litigant would be required to honor this transfer and acknowledge that a bishop’s ruling held the same weight as a provincial governor’s. By the end of the fourth century, however, the agreement of both parties became required for a transfer to an episcopal court (CJ 1.4.7). As Dillon rightly notes, the creation of episcopal courts was not an attempt to undermine traditional Roman law, but rather another example of the emperor’s concern for ensuring legal access for provincials.

Dillon’s sixth chapter tackles the difficult problem of legislative efficacy. He considers this issue through the lens of official letters exchanged between Constantine and imperial officials. This approach proves fruitful. Dillon argues persuasively that Constantine’s written proscription of punishment in response to an imperial official presumes its subsequent execution (pp. 157-158). As the chapter’s title, “Constantine and the Imperial Bureacracy,” points out, the focus remains primarily on the offenses and punishment of civil bureaucrats. Nevertheless, in a discussion sure to be of significant interests to the social historian, Dillon explores offense and punishment in a wide variety of contexts including tax-collection, financial manipulation, the collection of rents, the treatment of prisoners, the purchase of high rank, and the housing rights of a materfamilias.

Chapters seven and eight conclude Dillon’s discussion of Constantine’s interaction with imperial officials. In Chapter seven, the requirement for officials to submit breves, or written reports of judicial hearings, is considered in the context of central control over the judiciary. In comparison, other mechanisms of imperial oversight are shown to have functioned primarily to provide assistance to administrative officials. For example, Dillon demonstrates how the practice of relatio – when an official submitted a request for judicial assistance from the emperor or a prefect – operated to protect judges from powerful (i.e. wealthy) provincials. Consultatio – when an official submitted all necessary documentation to the emperor for his personal verdict – worked in a similar manner to assist imperial officials. Constantine regulated heavily the proper procedure for relatio and consultatio, and often discouraged administrators from relying too heavily upon either. The prevalence of both worked to Constantine’s advantage on an ideological level. As Dillon argues, consultatio, in particular, emphasized “the direct dependency of provincial jurisdiction and the entire legal system on the authority of the emperor” (p. 212). The appellate system, itself derived from the procedure of consultatio and greatly reformed under Constantine, appears as one final and comprehensive example of Constantinian provincial justice, central control, and the communication of imperial authority. The practice of appellatio, which Constantine expanded by allowing provincials to conduct it through written correspondence, provided a pathway to imperial justice for provincials and afforded the emperor an opportunity to review the execution of judicial procedure. In this sense, the appellate system represented another method of central control. Constantine benefited substantially from it. Once again, the emperor is understood as the figurehead of Roman justice.

Dillon clarifies much about several intricate details of the later Roman legal system and the Codex Theodosianus. For this alone a great debt is owed to his work; but his larger conclusions on law, government, and Constantine will likely be the most significantly discussed aspects of this book.

Dillon’s reading of Constantine’s constitutions as both communicative and legislative documents offers a productive new approach to understanding Roman law in general. Dillon’s method should serve as a reminder that legal compilations such as the Codex Theodosianus contain laws in as much as they contain texts. In this regard they should be read with a keen eye for rhetoric. Recently, Sebastian Schmit-Hofner has applied a similar reading to the legislation of Valentinian I, showing that the employment of law as a tactic for empire-wide communication was, in fact, not unique to Constantine.2 This lesson is important, as one hopes it will pave the way for further consideration of how Constantine’s successors used legal texts for communicative purposes and for other types of law not discussed by Dillon such as Constantine’s military and religious legislation.

On a similar note, historians of later Roman government should pay special attention to the level of clarity that Dillon provides to the concept of government centralization in Late Antiquity. Ever since the time of Jones’ Later Roman Empire, centralization has been understood as an element of the evolution of Roman government in the aftermath of Diocletian’s reforms; but Dillon is unique in so lucidly articulating the actual impact of centralization on the later Roman judiciary. Throughout the book, the increasingly prevalent influence and oversight of the emperor on day to day judicial proceedings in all corners of the Empire appear in vivid detail. Centralization becomes most evident in Dillon’s final chapters. Constantine’s control over the judicial process in the form of breves, relationes, consultationes, and the appellate system brought an unparalleled imperial presence into the courtrooms of the provinces. Assuredly, this process continued to evolve under the divided empire that followed Constantine’s reign. With the physical proliferation of emperors in the West and East, centralization rapidly became a more tangible reality. The level of central control over the judiciary, as Dillon demonstrates, could serve as a reliable barometer for measuring its impact.

Finally, there is Constantine himself. Many will no doubt welcome a study of the first Christian emperor that openly distances itself from questions related to Constantine’s religious identity.3 Dillon, in fact, asserts “the present book is an essentially secular study” (5). An image of the emperor, nevertheless, emerges, albeit a predominantly political one. Constantine’s legislation, as both communicative and legislative texts, reveals an emperor sincerely concerned about his subject’s experiences with Roman justice. As Dillon shows, the emperor articulates this notion in both public edicts and in his responses to imperial magistrates. On the other hand, such favoritism for provincials necessitated the emperor taking an intimidating and openly distrustful tone with his magistrates. The political brilliance of Constantine’s ideological maneuvering was the fact that he rightly took for granted the loyalty of the imperial bureaucracy, which still relied upon him for social and political advancement. The provincials, however, required political courtship and this is precisely what he offered them in both law and in practice. Interestingly, Constantine, in a difficult law not discussed by Dillon, can be seen playing this same game with his veterans, whose benefits he increased dramatically and whose loyalties were of the utmost importance for the success of his regime.4

The Justice of Constantine is an excellent book and will be of great value to legal, social, and political historians alike.


1.   Following A. Eich and P. Eich. “Thesen zur Genese des Verlautbarungsstils der spätantiken kaiserlichen Zentrale.” Tyche 19 (2004), 75-104.
2.   See S. Schmidt-Hofner, “Ostentatious Legislation: Law and Dynastic Change, AD 364-365,” in: J. Wienand (ed.): Contested Monarchy: Integrating the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012 and Reagieren und Gestalten. Der Regierungsstil des spätrӧmischen Kaisers am Beispiel der Gesetzgbung Valentinians I. Munich, 2008.
3.   Similarly, R. Van Dam. The Roman Revolution of Constantine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
4.   CTh 7.20.2 and CJ 12.46.1. On this law, most recently: S. Connolly. “Constantine answer the veterans,” in S. McGill et al (eds.) From the Tetrarchs to the Theodosians. Later Roman History and Culture, 284-350 CE. Cambrdige: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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