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Moral Intervention and the Roman Economy: The Case of the Edict of Maximum Prices

Jane Sancinito

Graduate Student

When the Edict of Maximum Prices was promulgated late in 301 CE, Lactantius tells us that, rather than cap prices and regulate the marketplace, the law resulted in bloodshed and a thriving black market: in short, the law was a dramatic failure. The scholarship discussing the Edict largely agrees with Lactantius that the law could not have succeeded as an economic policy (cf. Duncan-Jones, 1982; Williams, 1985; MacMullen, 1976). However, this position is based on assumptions about the intentions of Diocletian and the Tetrarchs that need to be reexamined. Previous scholarship has only recently begun to look at the rhetoric of the Edict and its own statements of purpose (Corcoran, 2000; Ando, 2000) and has not yet drawn out a satisfactory reason why the law was passed, given the evidence of Ammianus Marcellinus and the author of the Historia Augusta, who demonstrate that ancient audiences knew that price fixing was unlikely to succeed.  

In this paper, I propose that the regulation of prices was a vehicle for the emperors to address broader concerns, especially the moral well-being of the populace. Using the preface of the Edict and several other imperial laws from the third and fourth centuries, I place the Edict in a category of legislation known as “hortatory law” which MacMullen (1976) described as legislation that sought to impress moral standards upon the populace and thereby reestablish the authority of the emperor as guardian of the unified state. I show that the contemporary discussion surrounding the Edict, and other examples of hortatory laws, was deeply invested in the sincerity of the emperors, a feature that is absent from other types of law and the commentary on them. This, I argue, is a core feature of this kind of law.

By re-classifying the Edict of Maximum prices as a hortatory law, it becomes possible to disentangle the Edict from the baggage of its economic failure and, instead, place it in dialogue with laws that had common moral themes, though different legislative purposes. The Edict’s failure, I argue, is only a matter of perspective and the law succeeded on other important fronts, most especially the aim of uniting the empire behind a common moral standard. I draw upon the theme of avaritia, which appears no less than seven times in the Edict’s preface, along with the writings of Lactantius on the subject, to argue that contemporaries of the Edict understood its moral purpose, and that, while the Edict may not have been able to regulate prices, it participated in and directed a discussion about morality and its role in the economy. Furthermore, this discussion implicated soldiers and merchants, the main protagonists and antagonists of the Edict, who were used to exemplify moral extremes, and fixated on the role of the emperor, the guardian of the state and all its components.

I argue that we can reassess legislation such as the Edict and to come to a more satisfying reading of Tetrarchic policy. We need not assume economic ignorance or carelessness in the promulgation of such a law. I conclude that Diocletian and the Tetrarchs were participating in a dialogue that defined what it meant to be a morally upright citizen and, furthermore, that they were actively presenting themselves as the benefactors and guardians of the state through a law that demonstrated their concerns and their ambitious goal for the unity of the Empire under a single moral vision. This paper and reading of the Edict contribute to discussions about the social impacts of law and more generally to the social and economic history of the later Roman world and can offer fruitful material for future work in these fields.

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Money, Markets, Land, and Contracts

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