Policing the Late Roman Empire

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In the Late Roman world, all members of society were somehow involved in policing activities aimed at enforcing the law throughout the empire. The resulting picture is thus rich and complex, as the establishment of a specialized law-enforcement apparatus only took place in the contemporary era. This does not mean that the Roman empire was not policed at all, being, on the contrary, one of the most policed states of its time by Late Antique standards. The objective of this post is to reconstruct how Late Roman policing forces were organized and how policing activities were carried throughout the res publica.

Late Roman policing can be divided into two main categories: military and civilian.

Military policing was carried out by professional soldiers (Milites) and marines (Classiarii, Dromonarii, Muscularii) stationed at roads, postal stations and cities throughout the empire. Milites Stationarii were soldiers stationed in Stationes along the roads, Beneficiarii were part of the gubernatorial staff (Comitati), Burgarii were Limitanei soldiers stationed in forts along the Limes who patrolled the frontiers. All these soldiers could also be tasked to inspect houses, conduct investigations and support tax collectors.

Urban cohorts of soldiers were still stationed in great imperial cities like Antioch in Syria or Mediolanum and Rome in Italy while the Vigiles of the Early Empire, now called Collegiati, were billeted in civilian houses of mayor urban centers.

Imperial horse guards (Scholae Palatinae) followed the emperor wherever he went and rotated their regiments in and out of guard duties (Procursatores) and policing roles. These soldiers generally served on a temporary basis, but were still regular soldiers as they were selected from the professional army.

The basic equipment of Late Roman watchmen/guards was made of a lantern, a whistle and a stick/club, which is significant because it has passed down to our contemporary days. Professional soldiers involved in policing activities probably did not wear full panoplies during their duties, choosing instead lighter equipment and weapons.

On the other hand, civilian and community policing activities involved citizens, magistrates as well as public or private slaves (Servi). Para-military formations made up of young citizens (Iuvenes) were still present all throughout the empire, especially during searches for missing people or anti-banditry operations but were much less active than during the Early Empire. Citizen militias like the Taxiotai, created by emperor Justinian I in Constantinople, were employed to police cities and road systems as well as defend minor and mayor urban centers. The concept of city militias, led by bishops, will return during the Middle Ages.

Professional paramilitary policemen (Diogmitai) headed by magistrates (Paraphylakes) were widely present all throughout the Eastern Pars of the empire and remained active well into the Medieval period in the Roman/Byzantine East. The Paraphylakes were selected by governors (Praesides/Correctores) among the local elites (Curiales) and, together with the Diogmitai selected from the lower classes, were especially active in volatile regions like Anatolian Isauria, conducting searches, arrests and anti-banditry operations. It is likely that both used the fire hardened club, a common non-lethal weapon found in several of their tombs. The club can be considered as the ancestor of the modern-day police baton and represents the symbol of early and late roman policing, also being used by the temple guards who arrested Jesus in Jerusalem and against food or political riots in cities. In addition to patrolling markets and monitoring weights and prices in ports, local magistrates and military officers like Centenarii/Optiones could also be posted as port authorities throughout the empire (Limenarchs) to police the traffic of goods and shipments there.

Road and port inspections were also carried out by the Curiosi, senior members of the paramilitary Agentes in Rebus (in charge of the imperial postal system). The Curiosi were tasked to help soldiers and magistrates during inspections and inquiries, especially whenever these involved crimes related to the Cursus Publicus.

Public slaves often served as city watchmen (Phylakes/Nyktophylakes), guardians of public monuments and temples/churches, porters of public buildings, wardens of public baths, neighborhoods (Vicomagistri), aqueducts and firemen. Slaves were mainly employed as executioners (Carnefices) prison guards (Custodes), jailors (custodians or captains of the guards) and torturers (Cruciatores). Wealthy landowners used private slaves as escorts, estate guards (Circatores/Forestarii) and Stewards (Villici).

To sum up, the challenging work of policing the empire involved a variety of controlling bodies and agents. As a matter of fact, differences between military and civilian forces were nor clearly defined or clear-cut as in our era. Even basic equipment was not standardized, bearing only some similarities. Although these forces were generally successful in their duties, corruption among them was rampant as during the Early Empire, meaning that policing often served and furthered the interests of the wealthy elites. Given the complexity and lack of findings in this field, further research should be conducted on this topic.

By |2019-11-23T13:06:36+00:00November 23rd, 2019|Armies, Intelligence, Towns and Cities|0 Comments

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