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Roman Europe

The Notitia Dignitatum

Translations and Reprints from Original Sources of European History
Vol 6 No 4, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1894
Introduction by Paul Halsall, Internet Medieval Source Book, 30 June 2007

 

 

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Part 1: Introduction

The Notitia Dignitatum is an official listing of all Late Roman civil and military posts. It survives as a 1551 copy of the now-missing original and is the major source of information on the administrative organisation of the late Roman Empire.

This edition is a translation by William Fairley: the Notitia Dignitatum, or Register of Dignitaries, in Translations and Reprints from Original Sources of European History, Vol 6 No 4, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. Pagination from the translation has been preserved here.

Extracts from William Fairley's introduction to the translation

The Notitia Dignitatum is an official register of all the offices, other than municipal, which existed in the Roman Empire.

It suggests a year-book and other such publications. But this register was official, prepared, as will be seen, by the "chief of the notaries" in the East and West respectively.

It differs from its modern representatives in that it gives only the offices, and not in any case the name of the incumbent. Gibbon gave to this document a date between 395 and 407 when the Vandals disturbed the Roman regime in Gaul. Bury, following Hodgkin (Italy and her Invaders, Vol 1, p717), thinks that 402 is the probable date from the fact that the twentieth legion, which was in that year transferred from Britain to Italy, is not mentioned as being in either of these divisions of the empire.

But Dr Otto Seeck (in Hermes, Vol XI, pp71-78) finds some conditions, principally in the disposition of the troops which could be true only of a time before the battle of Adrianople (378) and others which are as late as 427. He infers that the Notitia was drawn up as early as the time of Valens, and corrected from year to year here and there, while left in many parts unchanged; and that, therefore, does not give the exact military status at any one time.

The text comes to us through four manuscripts, now at Oxford, Paris, Vienna, and Munich respectively. The last named is of the sixteenth century, the other three of the fifteenth. The four are exact copies, even in form, of a manuscript once preserved at Spires, but lost in the latter part of the sixteenth century.

This Spires manuscript contained several other documents besides the Notitia Dignitatum, one of them known to be of the year 825. Thus the earliest possible date for the Spires MS. is fixed, and its palaeographic form, reproduced in the four copies mentioned, shows that it was written not later than the eleventh century.

The Notitia Dignitatum has preserved for us, as no other document has done, a complete outline view of the Roman administrative system in the early fifth century. The hierarchic arrangement is displayed perfectly. The division of prefectures, dioceses and provinces, and the rank of their respective governors is set forth at length. The military origin of the whole system appears in the titles of the staff officers, even in those departments whose heads had, since the time of Constantine, been deprived of all military command.

Constantinople from the Notitia Dignitatum

Constantinople from the Notitia Dignitatum

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Prefixed to the accounts of some eighty-seven of the chief offices are insignia. These were probably emblazoned on the codicils, or commissions of these officers, and they are illustrative of the dignities and duties of those to whom they were assigned.

Those of the praetorian prefects display a book of mandates reposing on a richly covered table, and flanked by four tapers; also the four-horse chariot and a pillar with the portrait of the emperor or emperors. The insignia of military commanders show the distinctive shields of the several bodies of troops under them.

This translation gives practically everything of prime importance in the text. The spheres of work and the staffs of the chief officials have been given in full. Omissions are always indicated in the translation, as where lists of troops, after a few illustrative examples, are summarised, without giving the names and locations of the various organizations. From the list of minor officials, of whom there are a considerable number of the same rank, one has been selected as typical of the rest, as, eg, one duke, one count, one consular, in each half of the empire.

The matter of translation was somewhat difficult, owing to the lack of precedents, especially in the case of the staff officers. The lexicons for the most part say of any one of these designations that it was "the title of a high official of the later empire." This is true, but not sufficient for the purposes of this work.

A careful study of the functions of these officials, as disclosed in the Theodosian Code, and as commented on by Boecking, has made possible a more exact, if somewhat arbitrary, rendering. An English word which fully expresses the Roman function is, in many cases. hard to find. Sometimes the translation is only approximate, and requires a note. In general, the effort is made to retain the Roman flavour of the original, and not to translate the official terms of the empire by modern ones which might convey a false implication.

For instance, it has been thought better to say "-count of the sacred bounties" rather than "chancellor of the exchequer," or "grand treasurer," and "provost of the sacred bedchamber" rather than "grand chamberlain."

Roman legionary shields from the Notitia Dignitatum

Roman legionary shield designs from the Notitia Dignitatum

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Modern text Paul Halsall, part of the Internet Medieval Source Book, a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use only.