Roman diocese

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Original dioceses of the Roman Empire, created by emperor Diocletian (284-305)
Dioceses of the Roman Empire around 400 AD

A Roman or civil diocese (Latin: dioecēsis, from the Ancient Greek: διοίκησις, "administration", "management") was a regional administrative district in the later Roman Empire created during the First Tetrarchy, 293-305, or possibly later as some recent studies suggest, but no later than 313/14.[1] The diocese formed the intermediate level of government of several provinces grouped regionally, and post-325 were made parts of one of three or four multiple regional praetorian prefectures. The vicars qua vicars were always subordinate to prefects even before there were territorially-defined prefectures, though degree of their subordination to the prefects at least in some judicial matters is uncertain.[2]

Civil dioceses[edit]


The earliest use of "diocese" (Greek for "management district") as an administrative unit was in the Greek-speaking East. The word, "diocese," which at that time denoted a tax collection district, came to be applied to the territory per se. In the third century the word referred to the subdivision of large provinces subject to administrative reform.[3] Neither is the antecedent of the vicariate dioceses whose creation is traditionally attributed to the emperor Diocletian in 297 (although recent studies have shifted the date as far back as 314). This emperor initiated a reorganization of the Roman Empire's administrative and tax assessment systems, inclusive of empire-wide censuses, one result of which gave the Empire a regular budget in the modern sense for the first time: most measures were begun between 293-298 during the First Tetrarchy, 293-305.[4] During this period each of the 2 senior Emperors, the Augusti, governed half the empire. Each was served by a junior emperor, titled Caesar. Each emperor was served by a prefect. The 47 Provinces in 284 were divided into smaller, more compact, and easily governable units. By the end of the reign they numbered 104. The provinces were in turn grouped into 12 dioceses (in the Verona List of June 314; post-314 14 as recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum circa 395; Moesia was divided in 327 and Egypt detached from Oriens either in 370 or 380); the diocese of Italy was divided into two with a vicar in Rome and the prefect usually in Milan). Each was governed by a vicarius of a dioecesis, i. e. a deputy to the Praefectus praetorio ("Praetorian Prefect"). Diocletian had already in 286 instituted regional fiscal districts for the Treasury and Res Privata (the 'Crown Estates'): these are the models for the dioceses headed by the vicars.[5] The model for the vicars is the substitute, 'agens vices praefectorum praetorio, appointed to command units of the Praetorian Guard in the absence of the prefects, practice which started during the Severan Dynasty, 193-235. The largest diocese by number of provinces, not area, was the Diocese of the East, which included 16 provinces, while the smallest, the Diocese of Britain, comprised only 4 provinces. Diocletian greatly increased the size of the bureaucracy and continued the process of separating military command from governors making all but a few civilian officials. Each diocesan staff numbered 300 (600 in Oriens).[6]

Constantinian reforms[edit]

Dioceses until 325 were the largest governance districts in the Empire. The situation changed when Emperor Constantine I created praetorian prefectures as part of a major reorganization of the top administrative competencies during the years 325-329. Each prefecture was headed by a powerful Praefectus praetorio.

The prefects by the late 3rd century had become the emperors' vice-regents, a kind of 'grand vizier whose responsibilities had become excessive.[7] Constantine had already removed their active military command in 312 after the defeat of Maxentius. Henceforth they were purely civilian officials: as 'chief justices' they alone with the emperors they alone could give a final verdict. They remained as the heads of finance, heads of government, the most senior officials, quartermaster-generals of the army (as a way of putting army supply and logistics under civilian control).[8] However they were no longer heads of administration. Diocletian had already invented and placed the army supply tax, the Annona Militaris, solely with the prefects as a separate budget line item.[9] As a result of the 325-330 reforms the praetorian prefects were no longer in undisputed control of the imperial government.[10] From 318 there were three prefects. Four are attested to in 331(in Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and with Constantine in Constantinople; a fifth in Africa 335-337). Thereafter the number varied between three (Gaul, Italy and Africa, the East) or four (Illyricum) until the number was fixed at four in 395. Prefects governed the dioceses they were resident in: vicars in dioceses they governed substituted for the prefects, shared their burden of responsibilities and authority.[11] After the reforms the dioceses functioned more clearly as the intermediate echelon between the provinces and the prefectures, although the hierarchy did not function rigidly in a vertical manner: provincial governors could directly contact the Praefectus praetorio or Emperor and vice versa as could other higher officials and military officers. Despite the creation of the territorial prefectures the administrative policy of the Constantinian Dynasty, 312-363, was regionally-based centralism, i.e. focused on dioceses; this policy was only gradually changed from the 370s[12]

Organisational structure and responsibilities[edit]

Vicars were expected to exercise oversight control over the diocesan administrative apparatus on behalf of prefects and emperors: coordinate provincial administration and control governors, regulate the courts, secure the revenue, and guarantee the assignment of liturgies. The vicarii were the principal judicial and financial officials of the regions, but with restricted authority(their verdicts could be appealed to the emperor or prefect; they had no discretion to change fiscal matters such as regular and supplemental tax demands, rates and assessments, allocations, remissions or make policy; they guaranteed the proper assignment of liturgies/munera.[13] The vicars also functioned as regional heads of army supply and logistics.[14]

From the late 320s, vicars (and prefects and proconsuls) were given additional control over the two fiscal offices, the Sacrae Largitiones (the Imperial treasury which collected monetary taxes) and the Res Privata (the private property of the Emperors, i.e. Crown Estates, whose income was reserved for them, not their personal or family property): specifically fiscal debt cases on appeal went to the vicars' and prefects' courts, a necessity since the prefects, as heads of finance, composed the annual, universal budgets which were based on dioceses as the fiscal assessment districts for all departments.[15] The vicars already had control over their own and SL and RP staffs in civil and criminal cases; and any action taken by the fiscal offices that could affect the provincial populations had to have the prior approval of the emperor or a prefect who would have informed the vicars and the governors.[16] From circa 330, with greater powers, the vicars entered their heyday which was to last until the early 5th century: the 'word' diocese from this time was restricted to their administration district.[17] In 385 appeal debt cases of the SL and RP were again allowed after 55+ years from their provincial and regional administrative courts to the palatine level indicative of centralization at the expense of the vicars.[18]

In a move to assert more central control over vicars from the early 340s, the office head ('princeps officii') in each prefecture, diocese and two of three proconsulates (Achaia and Africa, not Asia) was a senior agent of the master of the offices who was a kind of head of state security and administrative oversight. He was the emperor's chief administrative aide, head of the imperial secretariats and commander of the imperial guard. All business coming in or out of the office had to be vetted and countersigned by the office head.[19] These appointees gave the 'magister officiorum' a measure of control over prefects,[20] vicars and two of three proconsuls and is another example of an overlap. The presence of an experienced bureaucrat security officer as diocesan head of office may have actually strengthened the authority of a vicar.[21] Interdepartmental overlaps which was ubiquitous in the system right down to the municipal level - check-sand-balances, crosschecks - were intended to promote accountability and better performance, widen the spectrum of culpability and enforce cross-department policing (intra departmental self-policy was not trusted as sufficient), and restrict the autonomy of officials, and assert central control given the distances, slow communications and absence of sophisticated methods of data storage and retrieval.[22]

Decline of the dioceses[edit]

In the West, all the dioceses disappeared by 476 A.D., except for the vicar in Rome, as Roman power and jurisdiction receded. A "rump" prefecture with vicar was in existence in Provence as part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. However, in the East the dioceses survived but the vicars' courts were little used and most of their fiscal responsibilities were lessened and simplified (the cumbersome mostly in kind tax collection the vicars were responsible for was increasingly commuted to gold): these changes post-440 marked a progressive return to the pre-diocesan two-tier prefect-province governance which made dioceses increasingly redundant. Seeing their role as somewhat ineffectual, Emperor Justinian I abolished most of the dioceses in 535 and 538 as part of his great reforms of the 530s, preferring to strengthen the authority and salaries of provincial governors.[23] This practice was extended to the recovered territories of Italy and Africa (retaken in 533), where Justinian preferred to install Praetorian Prefects to directly govern the respective regions, though in a sop to members of the senatorial aristocracy seeking high honorary offices he, in the Pragamatic Sanction of 554, retained the vicar in Rome and the vicar of Italy was revived.[24] It was all swept away within twenty years after the Lombard invasion of Italy in 568.

In the eastern parts of Roman Empire, dominated by Greek language and common use of Greek terminology, vicarius was called exarch.[25]

Ecclesiastical dioceses[edit]

After Licinius and Constantine legalized the Christian religion in 313 in the so-called Edict of Milan, the Churches quickly organized themselves into provinces patterned on the roman civil administration, but they adopted the word 'diocese' to describe the unit of episcopal jurisdiction equivalent to a provincial, not regional, unit as it was in the civil administration. Church dioceses were smaller than civil as there were so many more bishops than provinces. The regional equivalent in ecclesiastical terms is archdiocese. From the 5th to the 7th centuries, as the older secular administrative structure began to falter, the role of the bishops in the western lands of the Empire enabled those lands and their peoples to maintain a semblance of civilization within the successor States of Germanic rulers. The senatorial aristocracy continued in many places to serve as sources of local authority to complement that assumed by the Church until they too disappeared in the course of 6th century. The transfer of some authority from secular officials to ecclesiastical leaders was a natural consequence of the close integration of the Church and State, a doctrine known as Caesaropapism, by which emperors, kings, dukes were heads of both to varying degrees. Ecclesiastical administration and jurisdiction often coincided with the Roman civil administration until the latter disappeared.

A millennium later this process would be somewhat repeated after the Ottoman Empire conquered the Eastern Roman Empire (see Christianity and Judaism in the Ottoman Empire) and the eastern bishops assumed political roles as the last remnant of the Roman civil structure was stripped away. In modern times, many an ancient dioceses, though later subdivided, have preserved the boundaries of a long-vanished Roman administrative divisions.

Judicial dioceses[edit]

In ancient Rome, a 'diocese' could also be the area of a judicial magistrate's jurisdiction.[26] In effect it was an assize-district. The term originated with administrative arrangements made in the then large province of Asia. This kind of diocese was a subdivision of a province and bore the name of the chief city of the area, which the governor would visit during his year of office in order to judge cases arising in the district.[27] This subdivision already existed in the time of Cicero who mentions three dioceses (Cibyra, Apamea, and Synnada) being added to the Province of Cilicia in a letter.[28][29] Later on, the word 'diocese' was also used in western provinces of the empire, such as Africa, where the 'diocese; was a district under the control of a legate of the Proconsul of Africa.[30] Proconsuls of the large provinces during the Principate 27 BC-284 AD frequently appointed legates to take the Assizes on their behalf since they could not frequent the entire province during their time in office. This diocese is not to be confused with the later diocese governed by a vicar.

The word 'diocese' also designated the territory of a city, as the district in which municipal judges had jurisdiction. In this context, the Greek dioikesis corresponded to the Latin term regio.[31]


  1. ^ Constantin Zuckerman,'Sur la liste de verone et la province de grande armenie, la division de l'empire et la date de creation des dioceses, 2002 Travaux et Memoires 12 Melanges Gilbert Dagron, pp. 618-637; since 1980 several scholars have suggested later dates 303, 305, 306, 313/14 than the traditional date of 297 set by Mommsen in the late 19th century
  2. ^ The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, Ed. Noel Lenski, 'Bureaucracy and Government,' Christopher Kelly, pp. 185 ISBN 978-0-521-52157-4
  3. ^ Cambridge Ancient History XII, 2001 p. 161 ISBN 978-0-521-30199-2
  4. ^ Jones, The Later Roman Empire. Vol. I, pp. 42-50, 101-102, 449ISBN 0-8018-3353-1; The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, Ed. Noel Lenski, 'Bureaucracy and Government,' Christopher Kelly, pp. 183-92 ISBN 978-0-521-52157-4; David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay 180-395, 2004, pp. 367-377 ISBN 0-415-10058-5; Pat Southern, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, 2001 pp. 153-167 ISBN 0-415-23944-3; M.F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, 1985 300-1450, pp. 373-377 ISBN 978-0521088527
  5. ^ Roland Delmaire, Les largesse sacres et res private, Latomus, 989, p. 171-172, 181 ISBN 978-272-83016-38
  6. ^ Codex Theodosianus 1, 15, 13 and 1, 12, 1); the size of the imperial bureaucracy excluding the numerous local managers of the Res Privata is estimated at 30-40000 mainly in provincial and diocesan 'capitals' for 50-60 million inhabitants
  7. ^ Kelly, pp. 186; David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay 180-395, 2004, pp. 367-377 ISBN 0-415-10058-5; Pat Southern, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, 2001 pp. 153-167 ISBN 0-415-23944-3
  8. ^ Southern and Dixon, The Late Roman Army, 1996, pp. 62-63, ISBN 0-300-06843-3; R. Mitthof, Annona Militaris: Die Heeresversorgung im spatantiken Aeygpten, (Papyrologica Fiorentiana 32) 2001, pp. 273-286 who states civilian control was done obviously for security purposes but was inefficient as it relied on the efforts of local officials to collect and distribute massive quantities of supplies which could have been more efficiently bought on the open market as needed by the military which Justinian returned to. The lack of gold in circulation until the end of the 4th century hindered the transition, Delmaire, pp. 709-712; Jones 207-208, 235, 460-461
  9. ^ CAH, pp. 285-286, 319
  10. ^ Kelly, p. 189
  11. ^ Codex Theodosianus 1, 15, 7 (377) shared authority, not derived from prefects
  12. ^ R. Malcolm Errington, 2006, p. 261-262, ISBN 978-0-8078-3038-3
  13. ^ Franks, pp. 990-991
  14. ^ Southern and Dixon, The Late Roman Army, 1996, pp. 62-63, ISBN 0-300-06843-3; R. Mitthof, Annona Militaris: Die Heeresversorgung im spatantiken Aeygpten, (Papyrologica Fiorentiana 32) 2001, pp. 273-286
  15. ^ CAH XII, pp. 181-182; Roland Delmaire, Les largitiones sacrees et res privates, Latomus, 1989, pp. 173, 181, 202-205, 245 ISBN 978-272-83016-38; L. E. A. Franks review of The Judiciary of Diocesan vicars in the Later Roman Empire, Jacek Wiewiorowski, 2016, ISBN 978-83-232-2925-4 in Byzantinische Zeitscrift 206 Band 109 Heft 2, pp. 988-994; Jones, Later Roman Empire, pp. 101-102, 414, 434, 448-451, 485-486; M.F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, 1985 300-1450, pp. 373-377 ISBN 978-0521088527
  16. ^ “The comes largitionum issued dispositiones (administrative regulations, timetables, schedules), mandata (instructions, orders; standard set instructions issued to an official), and commonitoria (orders, memoranda) to his subordinates in respect to their work in the provinces, but these had to be confirmed by the emperor or prefect, when these have to be enforced by provincial authorities over whom the CSL has no direct authority.” Delmaire, p. 68; Jones, pp. 485-486
  17. ^ Delmaire, op. cit. pp. 171-205; Migl, Joachim, Die Ordnung der Amter Pratorainerprafektur und Vikariat in der Regionsverwaltun des Romischen Reiches von Konstantin bis zur Valentinianischen Dynastie, 1994, pp. 54-58; pp. 992-993, Franks, pp. 992-993
  18. ^ Delmaire, pp. 709-711
  19. ^ Codex Theodosianus 6, 28 4 (387 = Codex Justinianus 12, 21, 1)
  20. ^ Jones, p. 128
  21. ^ Kelly pp. 188-191; Jones, p. 128; Sinnigen, William G.,‘Three Administrative Changes attributed to Constantius II,’ American Journal of Philology, 83, 1962, pp. 369-383
  22. ^ Kelly, Ruling the Later Empire, 2004, pp. 190, 204-212 ISBN 0-674-01564-9
  23. ^ Jones, LRE pp. 280-283; Delmaire, Introduction IX-XI, pp. 710-712; Wiewiorowski, pp. 293, 297; Franks p. 993
  24. ^ Jones, p. 292
  25. ^ Meyendorff 1989.
  26. ^ Ch. Daremberg & Edm. Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités grecques et romaine, t. 2, éd. Hachette, Paris, 1877-1919, p. 226, [1].
  27. ^ Daremberg, p. 226
  28. ^ Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cicero § 1. Marcus Tullius Cicero". Encyclopædia Britannica. 6 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 354.
  29. ^ Cicero, Ad familiares, 13.67.1.
  30. ^ Daremberg et al. (t. 2), p. 226
  31. ^ Daremberg