In the first three centuries AD, the governing élite of the Roman Empire was a small group of office-holders, living in one city. There were around six hundred senators, and all of them were legally required to establish their residence in Rome. But since the 320s, emperors conferred senatorial rank on ever-larger groups of imperial office-holders. Around the year 400, total membership in the senate had increased almost sevenfold, to more than four thousand. Most of the new senators did not come from Rome, nor did they relocate there after their acquisition of senatorial rank. The governing élite of the Roman Empire transformed from a face-to-face society, based in Rome, to a trans-regional aristocracy, whose members were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean World.
Several recent studies have greatly advanced our understanding of the set of administrative, fiscal and institutional reforms which made possible the formation of a new empire-wide ruling class (Heather 1994, Kelly 2004, Banaji 2007). By contrast, as yet, we have preciously little sense of the set of ideas which motivated and legitimized this transformation of the imperial élite. This paper maps the shape of the cultural language on which emperors and senators drew to make sense of, and justify, the formation of an empire-wide ruling class in the fourth century.
In order to understand the ideological foundations of this change, it is necessary to appreciate the culturally specific ways in which the Roman imperial élite conceived of its pre-eminence. Unlike the feudal aristocracies of later European history, senators saw themselves not as an aristocracy of birth, whose membership was reproduced by blood inheritance, but as an aristocracy of civic virtue, which included the ‘best’ citizens of the Roman state, whatever their social origin (Hölkeskamp 1987, Badel 2004).
The power of late-antique senators continued to be rooted in these long-standing conceptions of the senate as a meritocracy. In official correspondence, public inscriptions and literary texts, they insisted that they owed their elevated rank neither to their high birth nor to their wealth, but solely to their supreme moral capacity. New and old senators alike found that the republican conception of the senate an aristocracy of virtue, open to the ‘best’ of outsiders, still offered an exceptionally useful language to naturalize their dominance and to regulate social mobility.
But late-antique texts not simply replicate republican ideas of the senate as an aristocracy of virtue. They also testify to the development of new modes of legitimation. Senatorial writers of Republic and Early Empire had insisted on the nature of the senate as a specifically Roman élite, whose ethnicity distinguished them from the provincial subjects over which they ruled. By contrast, in Late Antiquity, the senate is frequently extolled as a trans-regional governing class, which united ‘the flower of all the provinces’ (Pan.Lat. 4.35.1-2) or even ‘best part of the human species’ (Symmachus, Epistula 1.64). Remarkably, this new idea of the senate as an empire-wide élite was adopted not only by new members of the imperial élite, but also by scions of the Roman nobilitas. Late Roman senators saw themselves as a global aristocracy of virtue, whose dominance was based not on descent or ethnic origin, but on superior moral capacity.