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Document Type

Article

Abstract

Category: World History

As the Roman Empire pushed its frontiers beyond the Mediterranean world, imperial authorities from Augustus onward faced a serious challenge: information transfer. The government of the early Roman Empire was famously lean in its bureaucracy and relied on small teams of imperial specialists (hated as spies) and military officers selected by governors to carry official documents great distances. These individuals traveled using an ad hoc system designed to take advantage of whatever hospitality existed along the Roman roadways. Messengers commandeered food, buildings, animals, and even guides for most legs of their journey. Official travel passes issued with imperial and gubernatorial authority granted the messengers the power to conduct these impromptu seizures of valuable resources, but this led to a problem: forged travel documents and abuses of the system.

Such abuses placed onerous burdens on the citizens living under Roman rule, whose only recourse was to appeal to the emperors and governors for recompense. Literary sources from the Roman Empire lay out basic information about the imperial transport system, known as the vehiculatio, and other primary documents, including regulatory inscriptions and papyri, provide glimpses into how this system functioned (or failed) on the ground. The pleas of Roman provincials seeking restitution for excessive and unlawful vehiculatio requisitions continued throughout the early Roman Empire, as attested by fifteen documents selected for this analysis.

A look at these primary documents reveals two serious flaws in the imperial government of the ancient vehiculatio: 1) Roman emperors found fault with morally corrupt individuals and sought to punish these persons rather than investigate problems with the ad hoc transportation itself; 2) Roman emperors issued orders and proscribed punishments without properly considering the provincial governors’ practical ability to deal with problems on the ground. The mistake of the emperors was to adopt particular solutions to what was a systematic problem—a failure of leadership with broader implications about systematic problems in government throughout world history.