Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.16

Agnès Bérenger, Frédérique Lachaud (ed.), Hiérarchie des pouvoirs, délégation de pouvoir et responsabilité des administrateurs dans l'Antiquité et au Moyen Âge. Actes du colloque de Metz, 16-18 juin 2011. Centre de Recherche Universitaire Lorrain d'Histoire, site de Metz, 46.   Metz:  Centre de Recherche Universitaire Lorrain d'Histoire, 2012.  Pp. 427.  ISBN 9782857300533.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner, University of Basel (


Recent years have seen growing interest in comparative approaches to the administrative history of the Roman Empire; medieval and early modern Europe as well as pre-modern India and China have emerged as main points of comparison.1 The book under review, a collection of 18 papers given in June 2011 at a conference in Metz, France, continues this trend by comparing the Roman Empire with European states and the church administration of the High and Late Middle Ages. The essays explore the problems posed by the delegation of power in these political entities where, in the absence of a professional state apparatus with clear-cut hierarchies, competences, responsibilities and administrative processes, government was characterized by the personal rule of a monarch and based on his personal relations with aristocratic peers and subordinates. In a concise introduction, the editors of the volume outline its subject: how did the delegation of power work under such circumstances? What was the nature and scope of delegated powers and how were they defined? To what extent did delegation entail clear definitions of administrative hierarchies, responsibilities and processes? How did monarchs control their delegates, and how did delegates balance their personal interests with those of the sovereign? The volume as a whole does not aim to give a systematic treatment of these problems, nor do the individual contributions engage in systematic comparison across the centuries. There are also some significant omissions; one of them is the lack of a systematic treatment of the changes in the delegation of power that came about when the Roman Empire, from the third century onwards, for the first time in its history developed a proto-bureaucratic machinery. By presenting a number of relevant case studies, the volume does, however, succeed in giving an impression of the issues und problems involved, and it will therefore, as the editors hope, stimulate further inquiry.

In the following, I restrict myself to a short summary of the nine chapters dealing with the ancient world.

In chronological order, the contribution of Michel Humm (pp. 105-134) comes first; the chapter gives an historical overview of the emergence of the hierarchy, the cursus honorum and areas of responsibility of Roman magistracies during the first centuries of the Republic. The chapter nicely brings out some characteristic features of the dynamics of power delegation which recur in later contributions: these include the absence of clearly-defined areas of administrative responsibility and the fact that the whole system must be understood as the product of a gradual development determined in the course of complex and long-lasting social and political struggles. Moving forward into the empire, Frédéric Hurlet (pp. 161-177), in a careful and balanced analysis, explores a key example for the practical workings of the delegation of power in the Roman Empire, the relationship between emperors and governors during the Principate. Hurlet convincingly shows the ambivalence of the imperial system of power delegation. On the one hand, all governors (including those of senatorial provinces, de facto appointed by the emperor) were perceived by the provincials as the emperor’s subordinates, and rituals like the personal handing-over of the mandatum underlined a governor’s personal delegation by the emperor. On the other hand, in a world where communication was slow and governmental penetration of the periphery weak, governors in practice enjoyed a large degree of freedom and served as powerful intermediaries between provincial elites and imperial centre. Yet this ambivalence, Hurlet concludes, was not dysfunctional. On the contrary, it guaranteed the stability of the imperial system: the practical freedom enjoyed by the governor allowed Roman elite members to assume a role consistent with their traditional identity as a governing class. In this way, it ensured their cooperation. This fits nicely with the observations of Stéphane Benoist (pp. 135-159) who presents an analysis of 1500 inscriptions dating from Augustus to the later 4th century (60 of which are given in an appendix) that mention imperial legati. A shared characteristic of these texts is that they advertise through a variety of means the personal bond between a legatus and the emperor. Such a message was advantageous for both sides: by underlining the personal character of the delegation it confirmed the authority of the emperor but, at the same time, allowed elite members to display their Kaisernähe.

On a lower level of the imperial administration, Agnès Bérenger (pp. 179-189) examines the delegation of power from provincial governors to their own legati. This detailed and richly documented chapter gives a useful overview of their responsibilites, functions and the personnel used for these tasks. It also discusses the strategies of governors to keep their delegates under control. Loosely related is a contribution of Michel Sève (pp.19-30) which offers a philological analysis of two epigraphic dossiers from Nysa ad Maeandrum and Aphrodisias in Caria, both dated to the aftermath the First Mithradatic War. Sève shows that at this time Roman officials had only a limited knowledge of Greek and had no native speakers at their disposal as interpreters; the relevance of this observation for the topic of the volume, however, remain unclear.

Three chapters follow the theme of the volume down to the Late Empire. Ignazio Tantillo’s contribution (pp. 79-101) discusses an important caesura in the imperial delegation of power, the separation of civic and military responsibilities in the earlier fourth century. Tantillo argues that this was not a linear and uniform process that happened simultaneously all over the empire; an overview of governors who, as late as in the mid-fourth century, combined both civic and military commands proves that the Roman authorities took a pragmatic approach to the separation of powers, which allowed for exceptions if the situation demanded them. Interestingly, Tantillo shows that in these years civilians rather than military officers were entrusted with such combined commands. The delegation of power to Roman emissaries at the court of barbarian kings in Late Antiquity is the subject Audrey Becker’s contribution (pp. 31-49); her essay collects evidence for the selection and nomination of emissaries and discusses the freedom from the imperial center enjoyed by them in their negotiations. In a long and richly documented study (pp. 51-78), Pierfrancesco Porena analyses Theoderic the Great’s system of dividing power in Ostrogothic Italy between two ethnically defined, distinct groups. Since the Goths and the Roman-senatorial elite never merged into a unified ruling class, Porena argues, this way of delegating power created a latent antagonism which contributed to the inherent weakness of Ostrogothic rule. After the death of Theoderic, this weakness eventually led to its downfall. On this reading, the senatorial aristocracy enjoyed a much higher degree of independence and power than it is normally supposed: because they fulfilled functions the Gothic kings were unable to exercise, high-ranking senatorial magistrates like the praetorian prefect or the quaestor sacri palatii saw themselves not as delegates and subordinates of their rulers but rather as their equals or even superiors (pp. 59-63). Furthermore, praetorian prefects and other Roman office-holders controlled the allocation of land to the newly-arrived Goths. The senatorial elite thus gained a much higher standing vis-à-vis the Goths than is normally presupposed (pp. 63-4). This draws an unusual picture of the realities of power in the Ostrogothic kingdom which deserves further scholarly debate.

Last but not least, in a section of four papers on the delegation of power within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, François-Xavier Romanacce (pp. 341-71) discusses the evidence for the delegation of power from bishops to their subordinates through the 6th century, focusing on the role played by deacons in ecclesiastical administration. Romanacce shows that, although their rank in the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy was inferior, many deacons were able to retain an influential position as personal confidants and delegates of bishops. When competing for an episcopal see, they successfully built on these patronal connections. Romanacce’s material offers an interesting parallel for the delegation of political power in the Roman world. It thus highlights the relevance of the topic of power delegation as a valuable heuristic tool to understanding power relations in the Roman empire.


1.   See, e.g., Peter F. Bang; Christopher A. Bayly (edd.): Tributary Empires in History: Comparative Perspectives from Antiquity to the Late Medieval, The Medieval History Journal, Special Issue, Vol. 6.2, 2003; Hans Beck/Peter Scholz/Uwe Walter (edd.): Die Macht der Wenigen. Aristokratische Herrschaftspraxis, Kommunikation und „edler“ Lebensstil in Antike und Früher Neuzeit, Munich: Beck 2008; Peter Eich/Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner/Christian Wieland (edd.) Der wiederkehrende Leviathan. Staatlichkeit und Staatswerdung in Spätantike und Früher Neuzeit, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter 2011; Jean-Philipp Genet (ed.): Rome et l'Etat moderne européen. Actes du colloque international tenu à Rome, les 31 janvier, 1er et 2 février 2002, Rome: École Française 2007; Frédéric Hurlet (ed.): Les Empires. Antiquité et Moyen Âge. Analyse comparée, Rennes: Presses Univ. 2008; Walter Scheidel (ed.): Rome and China: comparative perspectives on ancient world empires, Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

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