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Evolution of patronage in late Roman Empire

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic floor
Roman mosaic floor | Author: Sławomir Piątek

In Roman society, the existence of a patron-client relationship was common. Most often, a poor citizen or a liberator submitted to a higher-ranking Roman who, through his position and property, could act in favour of the client. In return, the client was the patron’s support and support, e.g. during elections. Moreover, having many clients aroused respect and strengthened the position of the patron in society. In the 4th century CE however, patronage (patrocinium) changed and the patron-client relationship began to hit the state directly.

Roman state in the 3rd century CE experienced enormous perturbations, and the increasing invasions of barbarians and unrest within the state, which were unable to be remedied by subsequent emperors, caused the transformation of Roman society. Patronage began to assume a more defensive role than interdependence, protection or prestige. Free citizens (e.g. peasants/coloni, craftsmen or even artists) sought refuge from high taxes, corruption and obligations to the state at the courts of local nobles, who gained new clients through the possibility of guaranteeing reliefs. The customers were fully under the control of the master and were given security in return.

Interestingly, recruits and deserters also fled to aristocrats. The phenomenon was common and resulted from the weakness of the administration and the central government, which did not care and did not provide sufficient security. Interestingly, it was on the basis of these new social dependencies that new private defensive structures – settlements and villas with castellum – and private aristocratic armies arose. It was the first step toward medieval feudal divisions.

However, the patronage also retained its previous role. This is evidenced by the preserved ancient papyri, on which requests are directed, for example, to senior officers in order to settle the matter. And so a certain Flavius Abinnaeus – commander of the cavalry unit in Egypt – received in the middle of the 4th century CE a letter:

I am writing to you about my wife Naomi’s brother. He is a soldier’s son, and he has been enrolled to go for a soldier. If you can release him again it is a fine thing you do, first of all on God’s account, secondly on mine, since his mother is a widow and has none but him. But if he must serve, please safeguard him from going abroad with the draft for the field army.

As you can see, the author of the letter asks a person with a more important function in the army to intercede that his wife’s brother avoids being drafted into the army or at least not enlisted in the field army (comitatenses). The request is motivated primarily by fear for his life. As we can see, Abineus is so highly esteemed among the local residents that they count on his effective actions.

  • Świętoń Adam, Dowódcy wojskowi jako patroni "humiliores" w późnym Cesarstwie Rzymskim (na przykładzie Mowy 47 Libaniusza i listów Abinneusza), [w:] Sajkowski Ryszard, Wolny Miron (red.), Grecja, Kartagina, Rzym, Olsztyn 2009

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