Economic fragmentation in the legal system of the Late Roman Empire
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date21/03/2023
The dynastic crisis of the so-called “Crisis of the Third Century” is often associated with a period of economic fragmentation in the Roman Mediterranean. However there have been few attempts to define precisely what is meant by “fragmentation”, or to chart its chronology and its relationship to legal developments taking place in the transition from Principate to Dominate. This thesis traces economic fragmentation to the late second century, during which a “perfect storm” of climate change, disease and de-urbanisation led to the collapse of much long-distance trade. In the longer run, many of the institutions which had supported the integrated trading network also began to disintegrate. Economic “fragmentation” is therefore defined as the disengagement of the agrarian economy from the institutions which made long-distance trade possible, in favour of localised forms of production. This approach to economic fragmentation can improve our understanding of legal transitions during the second and third centuries CE. The transition away from urban economic and political structures affected the practical significance of the legal privileges enjoyed by citizens. This is a useful context in which to understand the Antonine Constitution, which extended Roman citizenship to most residents of the Empire. This enfranchisement would be a less radical departure from previous constitutional norms than it initially appears if the legal privileges of citizenship had already been significantly eroded. Access to justice therefore came to depend not on the privileges of citizenship but rather on an individual’s access to Imperial courts, which varied depending on local power relationships in the agrarian countryside. This is reflected in the changing structures of civil procedure, which increasingly seek to accommodate the presence of non-elite litigants who do not routinely engage the courts. The presence of these non-elite litigants is also visible in attempts by the Imperial chancelry to address differences in bargaining power between contractual parties, particularly where land was sold under straightened economic circumstances or provincial tenants found themselves unable to meet their obligations to the landholder.