In late antiquity Roman emperors constantly tinkered with the structure of the imperial administration. They divided and reconfigured provinces, added new magistrates, and modified their titles and ranks. They also issued new legislation on all sorts of issues, for all sorts of reasons. Much of their legislation consisted of replies to official inquiries and personal petitions. Early in his reign Justinian conceded that he composed “new laws for our subjects” in response to “questions from magistrates” and “complaints from the needy” ( Novellae 2, praefatio).
The chapters in La pétition à Byzance are meticulous studies of both the process of petitioning and the petitions themselves, primarily during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. Most of the chapters use evidence from the Theodosian Code, the Justinianic Code, or papyri from Egypt. One chapter discusses petitions in the early empire, and two during the later Byzantine period. These chapters tend to focus on technical aspects of the documents, such as the formal structure of a petition, the use of rhetorical techniques, characteristics of the petitioners, the nature of imperial replies, and the roles of emperors, magistrates, and court officials. Because most of the chapters are detailed studies of specific issues, they are not easy reading for the fainthearted.
These chapters represent pure scholarship at its best: deeply learned, comprehensively thorough, and quite intent on just straightening out the technicalities or providing complete catalogues. But for understanding the significance of the process of petitioning and responding those strengths can become liabilities, since the discrete chapters never coalesce into an overview of the working of imperial administration. In the ancient world imposing an effective imperial administration was always difficult. Imperial officials, as well as the emperors themselves, tended to be passive, often waiting to react to problematic situations or individual petitions. Local notables used their connections and prestige to assist or obstruct petitions. The chapters in La pétition should hence be read in combination with other excellent recent books that highlight the role of this dialogue between emperors and petitioners, such as J. Harries, Law and Empire in Late Antiquity (1999) and C. Kelly, Ruling the Later Roman Empire (2004). These books emphasize in particular the importance of patronage and the personal connections that, depending on the point of view, helped or hindered the working of magistrates and institutions. Another outstanding synthetic account is J. Ma, Antiochos III and the Cities of Western Asia Minor (1999), which provides a sophisticated account of how the language of both the petitions to and the responses of Hellenistic kings could create a polity simply through the process of interaction. For the construction of a sense of responsibility among rulers and a sense of belonging among their subjects, the dialogue, the exchange, and the give-and-take were more important than the actual content of the petitions and the responses.
Summaries of Chapters
Tor Hauken (“Structure and themes in petitions to Roman emperors”) discusses the formal structure of petitions to emperors from provincial communities during the late second and early third centuries. This format included a salutation to the emperor(s), an introduction that reminded the emperor(s) of previous policies, a narrative that explained the community’s grievances and problems, and a request for a favorable response from the emperor(s). Hauken’s primary example is the petition from the village of Scaptopara in Thrace to the emperor Gordian III in 238.
In the early empire emperors had replied to petitions from individuals with personal rescripts. Ralph W. Mathisen (” Adnotatio and petitio : the emperor’s favor and special exceptions in the early Byzantine Empire”) argues that in the later empire an adnotatio, a memo, opinion, or instruction, was a similar direct reply by emperors that granted exceptions to customary legal procedures and conferred special privileges. Since so few actual adnotationes survive, Mathisen analyzes instead the laws about their use collected in the Theodosian Code. He concludes that an adnotatio“became the primary means whereby citizens could personally benefit from the emperor’s favor” (p. 32).
Denis Feissel (“Pétitions aux empereurs et formes du rescrit dans les sources documentaires du IVe au VIe siècle”) discusses the dialogue of petition and rescript. From the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries he has collected 44 extant petitions to emperors, almost half of which were preserved in the Acts of the ecumenical councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople. But only seven or eight of these petitions are accompanied by an extant reply. From Justinian’s Novellae Feissel has also collected the rescripts that referred to or presupposed petitions. In some cases he is able, quite ingeniously, to reconstruct the contents of a petition from its rescript. “Many of Justinian’s rescripts reflect the layout of a complex petition” (p. 43).
The papyri from Egypt have preserved many petitions. In the final chapter Jean-Luc Gournet and Jean Gascou (“Liste des pétitions sur papyrus des Ve-VIIe siècles”) provide a catalogue of petitions on papyrus from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.
Roger S. Bagnall (“Women’s petitions in late antique Egypt”) notes that women submitted few of these later petitions. In contrast, during the period from Diocletian through the fourth century women submitted over one-quarter of the known petitions; more precisely, during the Tetrarchic period and Constantinian decades they submitted almost one-third of the known petitions. The rescripts from the Tetrarchic period reinforce this appearance of the prominence of women, since in them women likewise represented almost one-third of the petitioners. Bagnall concludes that after the early fourth century, and most notably by the end of the fourth century, women not only made much less use of petitions, but also increasingly withdrew from litigation in general. But he leaves open any explanation of the circumstances “that subtracted them from visible involvement in the machinery of justice” (p. 60).
Jean-Luc Fournet (“Entre document et littérature: la pétition dans l’Antiquité tardive”) argues that during late antiquity petitions increasingly adopted the rhetorical techniques and themes of public panegyrics. Because petitions included preambles that stressed the generosity and justice of emperors, each one was “un discours d’éloge” (p. 67). Some petitions embraced the language of poetry through citations, allusions, and vocabulary. The “koine stylistique poétisante” (p. 71) that appeared in some petitions from provincials in turn influenced the style of imperial laws. Fournet concludes that the distinction between “document and literature” had become fuzzy.
Constantin Zuckerman (“Les deux Dioscore d’Aphroditè ou les limites de la pétition”) clarifies details about a dossier of papyri from Aphrodito in Egypt. In the later 540s the heirs of Apollos complained to Justinian’s court at Constantinople about the confiscation of their town’s tax payments by the city’s patron. Those heirs included both Apollos’ son, the poet Dioscurus, and his nephew, also named Dioscurus. Justinian had a reputation for his accessibility to petitioners, and this family had appealed to the imperial court before. But the imperial rescripts consistently referred the final decisions back to imperial magistrates at a local tribunal. “An affair that began in 548 as the struggle of a village united behind its envoys [to the court] was transformed by 551 into civil litigation that pitted two families of the village against each other” (p. 90).
Jean Gascou (“Les pétitions privées”) first draws some general conclusions about his and Gournet’s catalogue of petitions on papyrus from the fifth and later centuries: more petitions to churchmen, fewer petitions to the provincial governors, fewer petitions overall. He then modifies his earlier arguments about the role of large estates in early Byzantine Egypt. According to his interpretation, municipal magistrates were now replaced by these large “houses,” which formed “a partnership of large landowners responsible for the taxes of a community” (p. 97).
Marie Nystazopoulou-Pélékidou (“Les déiseis et les lyseis, une forme de pétition à Byzance du Xe siècle au début du XIVe”) discusses petitions about legal disputes and imperial replies in the later Byzantine period. Her very clear analysis considers differences in terminology, the differences between responses that modified current law and those that simply applied the law, and the formal structure of both petitions and replies. She also discusses the actual procedures of the process. A petitioner submitted a written petition to the imperial court or patriarch’s bureau; someone in the chancery, imperial or patriarchal, wrote the reply on the back of the original petition; and before the original petition with the reply was returned to the petitioner, the chancery recorded the decision. Nystazopoulou-Pélékidou concludes with a list of petitions and imperial replies from between the mid-tenth century and the early fourteenth century.
Rosemary Morris’ excellent discussion of the role of the master of petitions during the tenth through twelfth centuries (“What did the epi tôn deêseôn actually do?”) complements Nystazopoulou-Pélékidou’s analysis of petitions. Morris notes the restrictions on submitting petitions: “The Byzantine court was not noted for its informality or its accessibility” (p. 129). She then analyzes the holders of the office, who were almost all members of great Byzantine families with clear ties of blood or loyalty to the emperors. Many masters of petitions also held other distinguished offices, and they often functioned as liaisons with other imperial bureaucrats. The masters of petitions were hence important and powerful middlemen between emperors and Byzantine aristocrats.