BMCR 2022.01.14

Bridging center and periphery: administrative communication from Constantine to Justinian

, Bridging center and periphery: administrative communication from Constantine to Justinian. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. Pp. xii, 342. ISBN 9783161589447 €80,00.


This richly detailed and provocative study of official communication networks in the later Roman empire is a revised version of Lemcke’s Ph.D. thesis (University of Cologne, 2018). Regular BMCR readers may already be aware of Lemcke’s previous book-length examination of the cursus publicus and its role in formal information exchange during the third and fourth centuries.[1] Whereas the earlier effort looked at the role of transportation in such communications, the present work looks in seven chapters at actual communication processes within the Roman government itself from Constantine’s assuming sole rule in the west (A.D. 312) until the death of Justinian in 565.

In this book, Lemcke is concerned primarily with the nature and development of regularised communication channels in the regional administration during this period. Such patterns existed to support the circulating of desired information between emperors and their officials who helped them govern a far-flung empire facing external and internal challenges. This flow of communication is examined in three aspects. Two of these—designated in the work as centrifugal and centripetal communication—pertain to the movement of information between the imperial court at the centre and officials at the prefecture, gubernatorial, and vicariate levels. The third deals with communication within the regional administration itself, with particular emphasis on the taxation process.

The first two chapters serve as an extended introduction to the project. Chapter 1 offers an introduction to the study’s overall approach and aims, with most of the space given to placing it within continued scholarly discussions related to official communication and organizational structure. Brief discussions of key terminology, source materials, and methodology are considered in Chapter 2.

Chapters 3-5 constitute the main analysis of documentary evidence. In Chapter 3, the focus is on communications directed toward the emperor from the provinces, including both the policies governing its centripetal flow and the administrative bureaus charged with assisting its movement in that direction. This discussion is followed in the chapter’s final section by quantitative analysis of collected evidence from legal sources over the period 312-565 concerning governors, prefects, and vicars. Chapter 4 examines the flow of communication in the opposite direction—from the emperor and his court to the provinces. The creation and distribution of official documents is discussed, followed by additional quantitative analysis of relevant evidence (as in the previous chapter) for outgoing communication to both large and small numbers of intended recipients. Then, in Chapter 5, exchanges of formal communication in a fiscal context are analysed: detailed descriptions of the administrative framework and communication channels for collecting and circulating tax-related information are followed by an examination of correspondence patterns related to extraordinary tax levies. Each of these chapters make for rather dense and potentially dry reading, yet well-placed and helpful summaries throughout are there to assist readers in following the development of the arguments.

Whereas Chapters 3-5 present and examine available data concerning the nature and development of centripetal and centrifugal communication patterns, Chapter 6 begins to sum up the implications of such analysis, while Chapter 7 serves as a conclusion to the whole study. In Chapter 6, the results of the analysis undertaken in previous chapters are interpreted within their historical context in order to produce a revised narrative of formal communications to and from the centre of the later Roman empire. Discussion here is divided into two periods within the study’s chronological range—from the reign of Constantine up to about 450, when the most significant changes in communication patterns occurred, and between 450 and the death of Justinian in 565, with a discernible decrease in the intricacy of administrative structures. In addition to providing directions for further research, Chapter 7 summarises this study’s findings in three key areas: the existence of established communication patterns to and from the imperial court, the nature of official information exchange almost entirely a two-tiered system (in contrast with the commonly accepted three-tiered pattern), and a new assessment of the vicariate’s role and development.

Four appendices take up the final hundred pages or so of the book. Appendix I offers a brief discussion of the authenticity and dating of the primary-source evidence, particularly related to the first five books of the Theodosian Code. There follows a number of suggested revisions of date, addressee, and/or place of origin for a group of problematic texts selected from throughout this legal code. Appendix II provides a table of all constitutions forming the basis of analysis and argument in Chapter 3 dealing with centripetal communication, and assists readers and subsequent researchers as a handy reference guide. Appendices III and IV supply contextual information for the instances of centrifugal communication intended for a limited (III) or wider range of recipients (IV).

The book makes three main contributions to scholarly debate and research in Roman governance. To begin with, Lemcke sides with scholars such as Clifford Ando who argue for a more ‘active’ model of government in contrast to the late Fergus Millar’s well-known (essentially ‘passive’) model of petition and response—though it may be overstating the case to put these scholars on opposite ends of a spectrum. The evidence and analysis as presented points to the significance of any given emperor’s role in determining both the kinds of information and the accepted channels for its flow to and from his court, even if he did not necessarily (or even often) initiate such correspondence. Secondly, Lemcke brings new emphasis to the role of vicars as intermediaries facilitating tax-related communication between emperors and provincial governors, in addition to their more commonly acknowledged judicial and supervisory functions. He discerns a shift in the direction of such information handled by vicars from being primarily oriented outward from the imperial court to incoming from the provinces. Third, and perhaps most provocatively, Lemcke argues for a two-tiered hierarchy of communication patterns. This comes to the fore particularly in the third chapter, where imperial decrees governing the flow of information inward to the court are discussed along with supplementary results of quantitative analysis of these same laws. The fourth chapter discusses a similar structural pattern for the handling of communications directed outward from the emperor to the provinces. What this shows is that during the fourth-sixth centuries there was never more than a single administrative agent between senders and addressees of official correspondence.

Along with legal evidence from the codes and constitutions (which receives the most attention), Lemcke also considered source material from works by ecclesiastical writers, compilations of official documents such as the Collectio Avellana, and epigraphic material. Lemcke argues persuasively in favour of their strengths in terms of authenticity, reliability, and geographical distribution while acknowledging their limitations. Chapters dealing with quantitative analysis concentrate mostly on data summary and interpretation while providing helpful tables, rather than bogging the reader down with statistical minutiae. However, it would be desirable if each chapter’s argument were more clearly stated. For example, the first chapter does well to situate the whole study within current debates as well as describe the project’s approach and aims; yet, a distinctive and overall hypothesis does not clearly appear. Arguments in the main chapters generally tend to appear at the end, and yet it would be helpful in following the development of thought to have something more clearly stated or summarised up front.

But far outweighing any such concerns, the work effectively complements other studies of imperial administrative communication. The book’s focused analysis on the imperial centre and regional administration offers a view of Roman government at higher levels that should stimulate plenty of further discussion, especially regarding the two-tier schema and role of the vicariate. Those engaged in the study of imperial correspondence, government and bureaucracy, and legal traditions in the later Roman empire will find this book a useful and significant contribution.


[1] Lukas Lemcke, Imperial Transportation and Communication from the Third to the Late Fourth Century: The Golden Age of the ‘cursus publicus’ (Brussels: Éditions Latomus, 2016). For the BMCR review of this work, see BMCR 2017.05.31.