Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, November 20, 2023

Debasing of the Quaestorship

Corruptus in Extremis

  • Looting the treasury was, and is, a favorite hobby of kings, presidents and government officials.
  • In his Secret History Procopius unloads of the massive corruption of Emperor Justinian and his dictatorial rule.
  • The endless wars and building programs of Justinian drained the Imperial Treasury forcing the Emperor to financially rape his subjects and confiscate estates.

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD
The Secret History

He also had contrived other ways of plundering his subjects (which I will now describe as well as I can) by which he robbed them, not all at once, but little by little of their entire fortunes. First he appointed a new municipal magistrate, with the power to license shopkeepers to sell their wares at whatever prices they desired: for which privilege they paid an annual tax. 

Accordingly, people buying their provisions in these shops had to pay three times what the stuff was worth, and complainants had no redress, though great harm was thus done; for the magistrates saw to it that the imperial tax was fattened accordingly, which was to their advantage. Thus the government officials shared in this disgraceful business, while the shopkeepers, empowered to act illegally, cheated unbearably those who had to buy from them, not only by raising their prices many times over, as I have said, but by defrauding customers in other unheard-of ways.

Again he licensed many monopolies, as they -are called; selling the freedom of his subjects to those who were willing to undertake this reprehensible traffic, after he had exacted his price for the privilege. To those who made this arrangement with him, he gave the power to manage the business however they pleased; and he sold this privilege openly, even to all the other magistrates. And since the Emperor always got his little share of the plundering, these officials and their subordinates in charge of the work, did their robbing with small anxiety.

As if the formerly appointed magistrates were not enough for this purpose, he created two new ones; though the municipal Prefect had formerly been able to look after all criminal charges. His real reason for the change was, of course, so that he could have additional informers, and thus misuse the innocent with more celerity. Of the two new officials, one, nominally appointed to punish thieves, was called Praetor of the People; the other was charged with the punishment of cases of pederasty, illegal intercourse with women, blasphemy, and heresy; and his official name was Quaestor.

Emperor Justinian I
Reign 527 to 565 AD

Now the Praetor, whenever he found anything very valuable among the stolen goods that came to his notice, was supposed to give it to the Emperor and say that no owner had appeared to claim it. In this way the Emperor continually got possession of priceless goods. And the Quaestor, when he condemned persons coming before him, confiscated as much as he pleased of their properties, and the Emperor shared with him each time in the lawlessly gained riches of other people. For the subordinates of these magistrates neither produced accusers nor offered witnesses when these cases came to trial, but during all this time the accused were put to death, and their properties seized without due trial and examination.

Later, this murdering devil ordered these officials and the municipal Prefect to deal with all criminal charges on equal terms: telling them to vie with each other to see which of them could destroy the most people in the shortest time. And one of them asked him at once, they say, "If somebody is sometime denounced before all three of us, which of us shall have jurisdiction over the case?" Whereupon he replied, "Whichever of you acts faster than the rest."

Thus shamelessly he debased the Quaestor's office, which former emperors almost without exception had held in high regard, taking care that the men they appointed to it were experienced and wise, law-abiding, and uncorruptible by bribes; since otherwise it would be a calamity to the state, if men holding this high office were ignorant or avaricious.

But the first man that this Emperor appointed to the office was Tribonian, whose actions I have fully related elsewhere. And when Tribonian departed from this world, Justinian seized a portion of his estate, though a son and many other children were left destitute when the fellow ended the final day of his life. Junilus, a Libyan, was next appointed to this office: a man who had never even heard the law, for he was not a rhetorician; he knew the Latin letters, but as far as Greek went, he had never even gone to school, and was unable to speak the language. Frequently when he tried to say a Greek word, he was laughed at by his servants. And he was so damned greedy for base gain, that he thought nothing of publicly selling the Emperor's decrees. For one gold coin he would hold out his palm to anybody without hesitation. And for not less than seven years' time the State shared the ridicule earned by this petty grafter.

When Junilus completed the measure of his life, Constantine was appointed Quaestor: a man not unacquainted with law, but exceeding young, and without actual experience in court; and the most thievish bully among men. Of this person Justinian was very fond, and became his bosom friend, since through him the Emperor saw he could steal and run the office as he wished. Consequently, Constantine had great wealth in a short time, and assumed an air of prodigious pomp, with his nose in the clouds despising all men; and even those who wanted to offer him large bribes had to entrust them to those who were in his special confidence, to offer him together with their requests; for it was never possible to meet or talk with him, except when he was running to the Emperor or had just left him, and even then he trotted by in a great hurry, lest his time be wasted by somebody who had no money to give him. This is what the Emperor did to the quaestorship.

Procopius of Caesarea

quaestor ("investigator") was a public official in ancient Rome. There were various types of quaestors, with the title used to describe greatly different offices at different times.

From 440 onward, the office of the quaestor worked in conjunction with the praetorian prefect of the East to oversee the supreme tribunal, or supreme court, at Constantinople. There, they heard appeals from the various subordinate courts and governors.

Emperor Justinian I also created the offices quaesitor, a judicial and police official for Constantinople, and quaestor exercitus (quaestor of the army), a short-lived joint military-administrative post covering the border of the lower Danube. The quaestor sacri palatii survived long into the Byzantine Empire, although its duties were altered to match the quaesitor by the 9th century AD, who was a judicial officer in charge of resolving various disputes.

The office survived into the 14th century as a purely honorific title.


Archduke Piccolo said...

I have long felt uneasy about the 'Secret History' of Procopius, in much the same way I have of the historiography of Suetonius. The latter seems to me to have been a shameless gossipmonger, slandering anyone and everyone who came under the notice of his pen. Procopius seems to have been following the same style. I could be completely wrong, of course: it is just an impression the writings leave upon me.

What Procopius describes sounds rather like the forms of governance and state administration that became standard throughout Europe until at least the seventeenth century - what we would today regard as institutionalised corruption. During the reign of Charles II of Great Britain, Prince Rupert would complain about the pernicious corruption that pervaded naval construction and supply, all through 'bought' offices. Clearly, the sale of offices, e.g. tax farming, was likely to lead to abuses of the kind Procopius - and Rupert 1100 years later - described.

It is possible that Byzantine practice was copied/ adopted by other states; and/or was itself adopted from other states.

Having said that, Procopius tells a riveting narrative!

Gary said...

I suspect Procopius was simply an eyewitness to history.

All we have to do is look around today and see the same corruption everywhere. Sadly it is human nature to lie, cheat and steal.