Much attention is given to emperors, obviously, but after the changes made by Diocletian, the emperor became a distant figure and Rome ceased to be the imperial seat. If in Italy, the emperor lived mainly in Milan and Paris, Trier and Vienne were more likely to be imperial seats than ever Rome was, even if it remained the biggest city in Europe. It has been noted that Constantius II, emperor since AD337, did not enter Rome until AD356, following his defeat of Magnentius. Ammianus has a detailed description of the parades that greeted him there (Ammianus XVI, 10).
Once the emperor had left the city, the day to day administration was left to the Urban Prefect (praefectus urbis), an official who might claim the position more on his honour than on proven ability. Someone clearly thought that having writers like Quintus Symmachus (384-5), Sextus Aurelius Victor (389), Rutilius Namantianus (414) and Sidonius Apollinaris (468-9) do the job was a good idea, although Symmachus was involved in the controversial decision to remove the altar of victory; as a pagan, he was against it.
The Urban Prefect seems to have been subject to the Praetorian Prefect of Italy, who was in effect Prime Minister of the core of the Roman Empire. All Urban Prefects seem to have taken the honorific praenomen ‘Flavius’. There was no fixed term of office as there was for many such posts, such as Consul, which always ran from 1 January. We have many instances of new Urban Prefects taking on the role part way through a year, with others even returning to office for a short time as a sort of suffect prefect. Two Urban Prefects also held the Praetorian Prefecture of Italy at the same time; as these two (Ulpius Limenius [AD347-9) and Hermogenes [AD349-51] followed one another, this may reflect the complex politics of the reigns of Constantius II and Magnentius, to ensure that Italy and Rome spoke with the same voice.
To take an example: Afranius Syagrius, a gallo-roman noble from Lyon. He was a notarius in AD369, but was sacked by Valentinian for incompetence; however he was brought back into favour under Gratian due to his friendship with Ausonius and made magister memoriae, then proconsul of Africa. In AD380 he became Pretorian Prefect of Italy, and simultaneously Urban Prefect and finally Consul for AD382. He was certainly collecting the full set of honours. We can’t trace him after that, and is is feasible that he was caught up in the rebellion of Magnus Maximus and killed. He may have been an ancestor of the Roman commander of the enclave of Soissons after the collapse of Gaul in the late fifth century. There is nothing to suggest that Afranius Syagrius was a Christian.
A certain Tanaucius Isfalangius held the role soon after and for two or three years (373-5). He certainly doesn’t sound very much like a standard Roman. Our only record of his is in re-erecting a status, of what we don’t know. He might even have been an Arab or other near-easterner, or maybe he was an Isaurian, like Tarasicodissa, later the Emperor Zeno.
The role of Urban Prefect was held by Christians in the fourth century, notably by Junius Bassus, who held the Prefecture for a few months in AD359. He clearly was Christian as his sarcophagus (see below), carved elaborately with Christian iconography (including a beardless Christ) can be seen to this day in the Vatican Museum. It’s extremely likely that Christians dominated the role after a while; Boethius held the position in AD486 just before he was made consul, something which is attested earlier, suggesting successfully holding the urban prefecture was a step towards the consulate.
We do know something about Memmius Vetrasius Orfitius, who served two terms (December 353 to July 355 and January 357 to March 359, replaced by Bassus). Ammianus Marcellinus says of him:
Meanwhile Orfitus was governing the eternal city with the rank of Prefect, and with an arrogance beyond the limit of the power that had been conferred upon him. He was a man of wisdom, it is true, and highly skilled in legal practice, but less equipped with the adornment of the liberal arts than became a man of noble rank. During his term of office serious riots broke out because of the scarcity of wine; for the people, eager for an unrestrained use of this commodity, are roused to frequent and violent disturbances. (Ammianus XIV, 6.1). The Urban Prefect was in charge of Rome’s wine tax, according to the Notitia Dignitatum (see below), so there may have been a black market going on.
No urban prefect ever became emperor, but Priscus Attalus, the puppet who Alaric ‘made’ emperor at odd times when he felt like it, had been Urban Prefect in AD409.
The most powerful holder of the Urban Prefect role was however Gordianus Gregorius (born AD540), who became Urban Prefect in 573, then entered the Church and rose rapidly through being part of the papal delegation to the emperor in Constantinople to become Pope Gregory ‘the Great’ in AD590, dying in 604.
|Tomb of Gregory the Great|
We do know quite a bit about the tenure of Sidonius as Urban Prefect (AD468-9), because he refers to it in letters and poems. He came to the new emperor Procopius Anthemius and composed a panegyric to him on his consulate (he had previously praised Avitus and Majorian); the emperor made him a patrician, a senator, caput senati and praefectus urbis. Quite a haul for one smarmy poem (I’ve read it). Sidonius was able to use his close contacts with the emperor to get him to commute the death penalty for treason of Arvandus, pretorian prefect of Gaul, a position held by Sidonius’ grandfather and father, as well as his father-in-law Avitus. Arvandus had allied himself with Euric, the Visigothic leader, against Rome. That caused Sidonius to resign the prefecture rather than be sucked into its complex politics.
The Urban Prefect seems to have had the Roman police force (cohortes urbis) under his command, and as there were only three cities in the empire with police forces – Rome, Carthage and Lyon – this must have been a considerable responsibility; given the short tenure of the prefects, and their erratic terms of office, the police would have had to have been professionally led. So would the vigiles, who were a mix of nightwatchmen and fire brigade.
The Notitia Dignitatum lists the following as being under the Urban Prefect:
The prefect of the grain supply,
The prefect of the watch,
The count of the aqueducts,
The count of the banks and bed of the Tiber, and of the sewers,
The count of the port,
The master of the census,
The collector of the wine-tax,
The tribune of the swine-market,
The consular of the water-supply,
The curator of the chief works,
The curator of public works,
The curator of statues,
The curator of the Galban granaries,
The centenarian of the port,
The tribune of art works
The staff of the illustrious prefect of the city:
A chief of staff,
A chief deputy,
A chief assistant,
A keeper of the records,
Receivers of taxes,
A chief clerk (or receiver),
A curator of correspondence,
Clerks of the census,
Obviously it’s hard to work out exactly what the gradations of rank and thus authority are, or what the boundaries of given domains may be. Some titles may have been traditional or set in a law otherwise half-forgotten. What the difference is between the Prefect of the Grain Supply and the curator of the Galban Granaries, I have no idea, since the horrea Galbana were brought into public ownership by Nero as revenge against Galba’s uprising (Rickman, G.E. (1971) Roman Granaries and Store Buildings, Cambridge: CUP). Possibly the grain in them was different (barley, not wheat, for instance), or had different owners; some grain was paid in tax, and some belonged to the Emperor and could be stored separately and accounted for in a different way, being used for imperial largesse, the grain dole (annona) being an obvious candidate.
Grain was not the only resource based there. An inscription refers to Aurelia Nais, pisciatrix (fishmonger) at the Galban Warehouse (CIL 6.9801), while another refers to C. Tullius Crescens, marble merchant at the same place (CIL 6.33886). Aurelia may have been an African, since that was a frequent name there while Crescens may have been descended from a freedman of Cicero (M. Tullius Cicero). These do not seem to be high-ranking operatives.
However, the Notitia clearly indicates that the Urban Prefect was (technically) responsible for all matters to do with foodstuffs, the river and port, and the beautification of the city. This brings us to the fourteen districts of Rome and the minor officials who ran them.
Each of the fourteen districts (vici) of Rome had a council of sorts, comprising 48 ‘district masters’ (vicomagistri) in each. It’s not clear exactly what a vicomagister did or how he was selected. It’s easy to see each district as a bit like a Parisian arrondisment with a council and a mayor, elected from notable citizens of the district and with a clear level of local authority within its bounds, perhaps with a sense of civic pride and responsibility. It would be easy, of course, but we have no idea if it resembles the truth.
The fact that each of the fourteen districts had the same number of vicomagistri irrespective of size, population and what lay within its vicus tended to make me think the role was set out with no actual authority. If we make a comparison with the decuriones found in provincial cities across the empire, these were not positions which people sought, but to which they were assigned by virtue of their wealth and local status.
The provincial decurion was the sort of man who would have been a chieftain in earlier times, largely from inherited status. He was obliged to be on the local curia and if he did not, he could be compelled to attend. Exemption could be made for great age, current military service away from the area and such things, but the tax assessment made by the staff of the provincial governor had to be met by the decurions collectively, and they in turn were loaned the money by the publicanus in order to meet their obligation, and he in turn was given his head to extort the sum plus his staff wages and profit margin from the citizens. Decurions had the idea of joining the Church in the late empire, so they are particularly forbidden to take holy orders as a means to avoid their decurial obligations.
So were the vicomagistri in that situation? Nicholas Purcell in the Oxford Classical Dictionary gives their responsibilities as largely reactive, meeting at a crossroads (compitum), running local rites to lares and presumingly praising the emperor and running games (ludi compitalicii) in honour of the lares at set times. There is a frieze showing people carrying a lar in their hand found of a base of altar and now in the Lateran Museum. Here's view of that.
|Vicomagistri carrying lares in procession|
Purcell considers them to have constituted a local council, able to own property, run the vigiles in their district (mentioned in Cassius Dio) and so on; as there were seven cohorts of fire fighters with 500 men assigned to each, each cohort covered two districts, at least in theory (somehow the district with the imperial palace and great houses probably had at least one cohort of its own, while poorer neighbourhoods had to share one) . They seems to have some authority over staff through supervisors (hepimeloton in Dio).
We have some indication as to when they took office (1 August) but none as to how they were picked, under what obligation they operated or how long they lasted. In their processions they were appointed two lictors. The Description of Rome in the Chronicle of AD354 refers to them at full strength, but the Christian terror implemented by Valentianian and Valens will have removed the pagan vestiges; indeed Theodosius in AD394 banned everyone but Christians from holding any public office.
Between the upper level of the praefectus urbis and the lower level vicomagistri seems to have been a selection of aediles, tribunes and praetors, their names drawn from the republican cursus honorum, but their functions quite mundane; Vespasian had been a district aedile and was accused by Gaius of failing to keep the streets clean (Suetonius Vespasian 5.3). Some firefighters were slaves of the local aedile, supervised on his behalf by the vicomagistri.
The Urban Prefect’s role predated the empire and outlived it, continuing under the kings and last mentioned in AD879 under later Carolingian rule; the pope may have taken on the civic responsibilities at some point. We know Alfred the Great visited Rome twice as a child with his father; the Urban Prefect was still going strong then.
There does not seem to have been much work done with regard to the Praetorian Prefects or vicarii in the Prefecture of Italy. Then there are ‘castellans’ an innovation of the later fourth century; a ‘castellan of the sacred palaces’ for the eastern and western provinces. That will be for a later posting, I suspect.