Jonathan H. Warner
Scholars have noted the ways in which the peculium, a kind of personal fund for slaves and sons-in-power, offered a vector for depersonalized and disembedded economic relations within the conservative Roman familia. But the economic implications of the late-antique peculium quasi castrense has received less attention. This legal variant of the peculium allowed sons-in-power within the imperial service to use an independent personal fund to acquire and manage property independently of their fathers. In this paper, I argue that this had the unintended consequence of driving up the cost of government services and of reconfiguring relationships within the Roman household.
First, I outline the mechanics of the peculium quasi castrense. The original peculium castrense was intended for soldiers, but in late antiquity emperors came to extend the prerogative to imperial bureaucrats. Previous scholarship has made strides in tracing this development in the texts preserved in the Codes of Theodosius and Justinian. I contribute to this scholarship by using earlier juristic writings on the peculium castrense to theorize the extent of the new legal category in late antiquity. In the third century, the jurist Macer noted that the peculium castrense included anything a soldier acquired which he could not have acquired had he not served (Dig. 49.17.11), and other jurists applied similar principles. This logic implies that the later peculium quasi castrense would have included not only a bureaucrat’s salary, but also gifts, fees, and bribes received in the course of his duties.
Having established the broad scope of this peculium, I examine the hitherto overlooked economic implications of the bureaucrat’s financial independence. Christopher Kelly has argued that the oft-maligned corruption of the late empire can be viewed as a price system for apportioning limited administrative resources. Following this line of analysis and incorporating insights from behavioral and institutional economics, I explore how the peculium quasi castrense shaped the role of bureaucrats as critical information brokers. The freedom to use an independent fund would have incentivized administrators to charge higher fees for legal services, a phenomenon which partly explains complaints of predatory officials found in extant literary and legal sources.
Finally, I consider how the peculium quasi castrense transformed the familia. Kate Cooper has suggested that late-antique administrative structures destabilized the Roman household. The advent of the bureaucrat’s peculium could have accelerated this process. Independent streams of income reduced the bureaucrat’s economic reliance on his paterfamilias. At the same time, juristic sources show how the novel peculium may have increased the son’s social independence in the areas of writing wills and exchanging gifts. What seems at first blush to have been merely a change in accounting rules ends up being a significant factor in late Roman society, reorienting economic and social decisions around increasingly independent imperial officials.
Law and Society in Late Antiquity