The Supreme 'Courts' of the Roman Empire: Constantine’s Judicial Role for the Bishops
24 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2017 Last revised: 21 Jun 2022
Date Written: January 17, 2018
Constantine, the Roman Emperor from 312-337, was a law-giver who first put the Christian Church in the place of primacy in the organization of the state that it only lost as recently as the seventeenth century; as such, he is very important to legal and social history in the Western experience. This thesis explores the degree to which the Emperor Constantine’s adoption and adaptation of the Christian religion’s bureaucratic structure affected the social and legal order of the Roman state bureaucracy in the fourth century: I do this by examining both the question of his legislation pertaining to making bishops judges and the legal nature of his relationship with the bishops which developed as they appealed their own decisions to his imperial court, specifically in both the Donatist and Arian crises. Constantine’s two pieces of legislation that most directly bear on this question come from 318 and 333: Codex Theodosianus (CTh) 1.27.1 and Sirmondian Constitution (Sirm.) 1, respectively. In the first, an edict, Constantine allows that any litigant may have their case transferred to a bishop’s court if they so choose, but he is careful to emphasize the right of the presiding judge to make this transfer official. In the second, a rescript, Constantine significantly expands the powers of the bishop’s as judges, and indicates that, among other things, just as with decision of the praetorian prefects, any decision of a bishop is not subject to appeal. In this way, the bishop’s court seemed to be positioned by Constantine as an appeal court of kinds, but in practice and according to the small amount of evidence we have on the subject, these courts, the episcopalis audentia, heard most legal matters as a working court of first instance, like that of any other local magistrate. The uniqueness of the court is evident not so much in their powers as judges, but in the fact that they began to hear matters between litigants applying Roman law to enforce their rights. The focus of my research is the seeming expansion of powers that Constantine gives to the bishops from the first to the second piece of legislation. The 333 rescript was actually a reply to the Prefect of Rome, Ablavius, who was questioning the use of the Edict of 318, and because of this, perhaps, we learn a great deal more about what Constantine wanted that earlier law to mean in 333, but whether he initially had this in mind is unknown since the first piece of legislation was very brief. I argue that he did not have this in mind, and that only after his relationship with the bishops grew in the intervening years, highlighted jointly by his blatant adoption of the Christian religion and subsequently assuming state responsibility for their protection and dispute settlement mechanism at the Council of Nicaea in 325, would such expansion of judicial authority make any reasonable sense. The emperor was in some ways compelled into a relationship with the Church because of the internecine conflicts within it which threatened the stability of his Empire, the two most important being the Donatist and Arian crises.
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