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Equestrian Civil Service Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes

This is an extract of our Equestrian Civil Service document, which we sell as part of our Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes collection written by the top tier of University Of Oxford students.

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Is it correct to speak of the creation of an 'equestrian civil service'?
It is almost certainly not right to speak of the creation of an equestrian civil service under the early principate in any modern sense of the term. A true civil service is a highly organised body of bureaucratic experts who remain in office for a long period while those above them, who guide them in their administration of the affairs of the country, frequently, change. This is true of modern democratically elected governments but should also have been true under the early principate; since it was not it is an anachronism to call the Roman system a civil service. This was because there was no specialisation or expertise, no rigid hierarchy for advancement, no distinction between military and civilian duties, and their role as private agents of the emperors rather than officers of state. Under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius equestrian administration was used wherever and whenever it was needed and with as much imperium as it took to complete the task. This meant that equites could be sent to very different parts of the empire to tackle very different problems each time they were commissioned; as a result of this no specialisation or expertise arose among the equestrian class with one man always doing a particular job. This is integral to any definition of a civil service because it is common that each civil servant performs the same tasks throughout his entire career and so becomes expert in them; such a thing was alien to the Roman way of doing things and so explains why their system of equestrian administrators cannot be termed a civil service. This is shown by the low length of tenure these administrators held their posts for, which was commonly only two to three years; far too short a period of time to gain any intimate knowledge of their role. For example in Egypt it has shown that over a period of 276 years there were ninety different prefects, making the average tenure about three years. Also Frontinus reports that equestrian administrators put in charge of the aqueduct system in Rome had to rely on the advice of skilled freedmen or slaves since many did not bother to learn the technical details of their appointment. Such a reliance on expert subordinates must have been a very common feature for equestrians as they changed between regions and tasks on a relatively frequent basis; the only men who could begin to resemble a modern civil service in this sense would be these freedmen and slaves who served a succession of equites appointed to the posts. By the definition of a civil service given above the equites begin are those frequently changing novices who can only guide their expertly trained (by experience rather than anything else) subordinates. Brunt has shown that this problem was particularly acute in Egypt, which was the province with the most complex and, in many ways, important bureaucracy. Here he found that there was no evidence for specialisation in task or region and furthermore most equites, who generally served a military apprenticeship as a tribune, were unqualified for the civilian duties which were placed in their charge. This shows that in many ways the professionalism one associates with a civil service is almost wholly lacking; dedication of time with a long career and expertise in the minutiae of their task are surely the hallmarks of a good civil servant. Closely connected with idea of specialisation is the

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