Bureaucratic corruption was ubiquitous in the Later Roman Empire, but there is no consensus on its impact. Historians since MacMullen have argued that corruption led to moral decadence and the fall of the Empire (MacMullen 1988). Cecconi, however, argues that emperors’ tolerance of corruption was essential to maintaining the loyalty of their followers (Cecconi 2005). This paper argues that the allowance of corruption could not substitute for an official reward system. By comparing Rome under Constantius II and China after the chaotic period of "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms,” I suggest Rome did not have a sufficient official reward system to separate the accumulation of political and financial power, which resulted in the constant usurpations of the Later Roman Empire.
In a global context, the needs of bureaucratization and restoring imperial legitimacy are not uniquely Roman problems. Similar episodes of other pre-industrial empires offer us insights into these Roman problems. Lessons from the chaotic third century made emperors from Diocletian onward to perform a series of bureaucratic reforms to eliminate the danger of usurpation and restore the ideological discourse of legitimacy (Eich 2005, 2011). Constantius II further advanced his predecessors’ efforts with a separation and balance between military and civil offices. On the other end of Eurasia, the anarchic period of "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms" (907-960 CE) resembled the “Third Century Crisis” with the rise of more than fifty emperors and local lords (Wang 2014). Similar to the Roman dominates, Kuangying Zhao, the new emperor who reunified the empire, relied on bureaucratization to restrain military power and restore imperial legitimacy. However, Constantius II’s reign was still plagued with insurrections from Magnentius to Julian, while the newly established Song Dynasty became one of China's most internally stable periods despite constant foreign invasions and loss of territories. The divergent consequences invite a detailed comparison between the bureaucratizing efforts of the east and west.
My paper compares Chinese and Roman bureaucratizations according to two systems: functional and reward (Hall 1963). The former articulates the responsibilities and power of each position by ranks and differentiates the duties between military and civil offices. In both Rome and China, the separation of civil and military offices avoided the concentration of both sides of power in one hand (Ji 1994; Zhao 2010). Moreover, with prosopographic and social network data, I argue that Roman civil officials, like their Chinese counterparts, developed a closer unified network against their dissident military colleagues, which effectually checked the overgrowth of generals’ power. Nevertheless, the balance between civil and military officials was unstable since the former’s reliance on imperial favor undermined the continuity of power between imperial successions. New emperors, as in the case of Julian and Kuangyi Zhao, tended to reshuffle the civil officials while still unable to entirely change the military personnel. The mechanism to tame military officials was not permanent.
The reward system officially measured the contribution of individuals and awarded them with honorific and material gains. Due to the debasement of elite ranks, material promises became the major incentive for bureaucrats (Kelly 1993, 2006, 2008; Dillon 2015). The differentiation between the functional and reward systems allowed Chinese emperors to promote diligent servants to nominal positions with higher income but no additional power (Yan 2002; Chen 2004). In Rome, however, there was no official standard for the tolerance of bribery and corruption. The functional and informal reward systems were tied closely together, which made every promotion a simultaneous increase of political and financial power. The stakes also grew for officials since the resignation of political power, loss of public income (and means of corruption), and even life were tightly connected, which either ignited the ambition of the generals or cornered them to revolt during the reign of Constantius II.
In sum, Rome’s lack of an official awarding system prohibited the emperors from separating and balancing political power, which bred usurpations and political instability.
Power and Politics in Late Antiquity