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Respectful Distance? Diocletian, Rome, and the Senatorial Elite

Monica Hellström

Durham University

This paper examines the relation between Rome’s senatorial elite and Diocletian’s government. More specifically, it reconsiders the reasons for and the nature of the so-called abandonment of Rome as primary residence of emperors.

The conventional notion that Rome and its elites were in decline and therefore neglected by Diocletian’s government has been challenged in recent scholarship. A volume of Antiquité Tardive (2017) was dedicated to Rome’s continued centrality. As increasingly realised (e.g. Mennen 2011), many third-century senatorial families were in ascendancy, growing in wealth and power through decades of destabilized central authority. ‘Abandonment’ itself has come under question: Diocletian’s government invested heavily in Rome’s physical frame (e.g., Machado 2006: 161-7), and the absence of emperors was tempered by the residency of the emperors’ wives and children (Hillner 2017).

This study aims to re-interpret interactions between Diocletian’s government and Rome’s elites. Two arenas of interaction will be discussed: administrative measures and monumental display. Both indicate a dual approach of concession and limitation on the part of central government. In both, imperial ‘absence’ should not be read as lack of imperial interest or as deliberate humiliation, but as a pragmatic and conciliatory gesture.

The notion that senators wished emperors to be present can be challenged: presence spelled dangers, subordination, expenses, and militarization. Much of their strength came from imperial proxy positions which afforded them control over Rome. Also the lack of a military presence enhanced their control. One may argue that the less emperors meddled, the better. This came to a head under Diocletian, whose joint policies of provincialisation and tax harmonization touched directly on elite concerns. It met with violent opposition in Egypt, and fear lest it did so in Africa arguably motivated the drawn-out and closely monitored provincialization process there (di Vita-Evrard 1985). Not to spark a reaction in Italy would have been crucial: though disarmed, Rome’s elites controlled vast resources across the empire, and were far from toothless.

Strategies to avoid this included appointing members of the highest Roman nobility to the most powerful imperial positions, extending the urban territory of Rome, and exempting it from taxation (in contrast to the rest of the peninsula). A measure of autonomy was granted within this zone, through a more abstract (and to some extent feigned) mode of imperial absence. While resident imperial families could maintain senatorial networks informally, emperorhood itself became removed from the interpersonal sphere, which allowed for a more pronounced authority on the part of those who represented it.

This involved deliberately muting the monumental impact of imperial presence: extensive imperial construction works included many ideologically significant structures, but no palace or other top-down monumentality tied to the emperors’ persons. Moreover, a space was provided for elite self-representation by showcasing imperial middlemen drawn from the senatorial nobility, who were allowed to associate themselves with prestigious public works in ways long-denied them. Among examples is an inscription celebrating the restoration of Rome’s aqueducts, ostensibly by the emperors but underscoring the involvement of the senator undertaking the works (CIL 6.773). Furthermore (as observed by Weisweiler 2012: 336), local elites were allowed to raise statues of emperors in Rome’s political spaces, exclusively in their capacity as imperial bureaucrats. This increased the visibility of both, serving to demonstrate the effectiveness and presence of the imperial government, and the boons awaiting those who embodied it.

To conclude, Rome was left without articulated imperial presence, in part because it could be, in part because it needed to be: a system was already in place which integrated local and imperial interests. Extending and formalising this situation preserved harmonious relations with Rome’s elites at a potentially volatile moment. The emperors’ ‘absence’ was exploited by both parties, allowing local elites to draw on imperial authority to bolster their own – within a drastically limited sphere –  while directing their ambition to imperial platforms.

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