In 440 CE, the emperors Valentinian III and Theodosius II issued an edictum to the people of Rome (Nov. Val. 5). Among other things concerning the care of the city, the edict expressly permitted Greek merchants (pantapolae), who had been previously expelled from the city, to return because of the benefit their work provided to the city of Rome. The reason for their initial expulsion was said to be the general dissent and great envy of the tabernarii. The cause of the dissent of Rome's tabernarii may also be gleaned from the law: the pantapolae were perhaps undercutting their business and not adhering to established prices (statua pretia). This edict gives rise to a number of questions, not least of which pertains to the role and influence of the tabernarii in late-antique Rome.
I address this question by evaluating the epigraphic record alongside the juridical evidence. An inscription from the early fifth century, dedicated to Honorius, Arcadius, and Theodosius II, records a prefectural edict regarding the corpus tabernariorum (Feissel 2009; CIL VI 33817). While the content of the prefectural edict is not preserved on the extant stone, the inscription represents the only reference in our sources to a corpus of tabernarii. This terminology, I argue, suggests that the tabernarii of Rome had, by the early fifth century, formed a professional association. About thirty years prior, in 374, the urban prefect Tarracius Bassus issued another edict pertaining to the tabernarii (CIL VI 41328-330). The edict orders the names of certain tabernarii to be inscribed on a bronze tablet and displayed because they continued to claim certain benefits, which were customary, even though they were derelict in their duty.
Taken together the two inscriptions point to a process that was prevalent among Rome's professional associations in the later empire. Over the course of the third and into the fourth century, associations' essential services were made compulsory and members of certain collegia and corpora were bound to them in perpetuity. In exchange, however, they were granted certain benefits, such as immunity from taxes and other liturgies. This has been thought to be especially true for corpora associated with the annona (Sirks 1991; Carrié 2002). I argue that this same process is visible among the city's tabernarii, and, further, that the dossier of evidence considered here permits an argument against the prevailing opinion that associations in the later Roman empire did not work for the common economic interests of their members (Waltzing repr.1970; Sirks 1991; Finley repr.1999; Carrié 2002).
Thus, this paper demonstrates that during the fourth century tabernarii in Rome formed, for the first time, a professional association. Their service to the city was considered essential (Symm Rel. 14.3) and, as such, this led to greater socio-economic advantages and some degree of economic determinism for tabernarii. By extension, it is suggested that corpora in late-antique Rome capitalized on certain benefits that were granted to them to collectively advance their economic horizons.
The view espoused in this paper aligns with the conclusions of recent work on collegia in the west during the Principate (Broekaert 2011) and in Roman Egypt (Gibbs 2011; Venticinque 2016), but which have not yet been accepted for late-antique Rome. In addition, the case of Rome's tabernarii offers another corrective against the notion, prevalent since Waltzing, that the late-antique state became a coercive and authoritarian body, whose dirigisme led to the debility and later dissolution of the corporate system.
Power and Politics in Late Antiquity