The growth and spread of official status designations are a distinctive feature of late antique documents. Every reader of sources from this period has been struck by the fact that the names of practically all elite men and women are accompanied by extravagant epithets characterizing them as “most glorious”, “extremely perfect,” “most magnificent,” and so on. These epithets are not applied randomly but tend to follow certain rules. They are an empire-wide system. They are clearly a fundamental element of the language developed by the later Roman State to classify and organize society. This paper will study how this labeling system works in late antique Egypt, where numerous papyri allow a detailed exploration of this issue.
The development of this system is clearly connected to the massive growth of the imperial court and central bureaucratic apparatus, which threaten to overshadow other sources of wealth and status. Yet it is not entirely clear how meaningful these epithets were to the provincial inhabitants of the empire. Were these epithets only used in ceremonial occasions or official documents? Were they empty words? What difference did it make to be officially styled as e.g. “most brilliant”? How often were these titles usurped? Most interesting is the process of “grade-inflation,” that is the process by which practically all epithets slowly lose value with time and are replaced with newer, finer distinctions. This leads to strange situations. By the late sixth century, for example, a mere village assistant in Egypt claimed to have the rank of clarissimus, a rank once reserved for senators. Why did the imperial government feel the need to keep coming up with new, higher grades thereby devaluing previous epithets?
I will argue that this system of classification deserves to be taken seriously. For it reveals not only a new relationship between state and society but also a new representation of social relations. The system’s emphasis on hierarchy and on the emperor – the source of all distinctions – reveals an understanding of social relations that are seen as fundamentally vertical. The social world is divided into superiors and inferiors. This parallels the contemporary emphasis in Christian discourse on a society divided exclusively between rich and poor. Whereas classical antiquity had always stressed horizontal solidarity – e.g. with the Graeco-Roman obsession with friendship –, late antiquity will value, above all, vertical solidarity. In the third and fourth centuries, we see a transition from a society with aristocratic values that naturalize social distinctions to a society that sees in the relationship to the emperor (or God) and his court the source of all social value. The spread of court epithets all the way from Constantinople to the villages of Egypt is part of this process.
Grammars of Government in Late Antiquity