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Aediles and Agoranomoi in Late Antiquity: Imperial Policy and the Decline of Marketplace Oversight

Kevin Woram

University of Virginia

In the high Roman empire marketplace overseers (aediles and agoranomoi) were persons of significant commercial importance and social prestige. In late antiquity, however, I argue that as a consequence of a number of broader changes in imperial policies they lost much of their standing and power. Their importance in the high empire is clear from direct evidence such as literary attestations and honorific inscriptions. Such evidence, however, is scant in the later empire. Accordingly, I base my argument on indirect evidence, that is, the fact that changes in imperial policy disrupted the means by which marketplace overseers could fulfill their duties effectively. First, the differing legal opinions on contracts of sale in the Digest and later Theodosian Code reflect less legal authority for the overseers. Second, the promulgation of Diocletian’s Price Edict interfered directly with the overseers’ ability to set prices in the marketplace. Third, the archaeology of late antique marketplaces suggests that the centers became much more congested and disorderly, thereby hindering the overseers’ ability to walk through and patrol commercial activity. While the overseers lost institutional power, they also had less incentive to fulfill their duties since the cost of performing non-curial magistracies outweighed the benefits. Without the dedicated oversight of the magistrates the power balances of the marketplace were tipped in favor of the strongest parties. Those who cheated won out, and the result was power concentrated in the hands of a few. In turn, the commercial dynamics of the marketplaces must have either adapted or suffered. Local marketplaces were the nodes of exchange that facilitated the movement of goods and services throughout the empire. Changes to their fundamental institutions, therefore, had wide-reaching effects on the imperial economy.

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Merchants and Markets in Late Antiquity

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