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How Roman emperors dealt with government officials abusing travel budgets

Catherine Rampell on

Consider a petition from the villagers of Skaptopara in Thrace (today Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria), sent to Emperor Gordian III in A.D. 238.

The village, renowned for its hot springs, was located between two army camps and a famous market. Villagers complained that soldiers "leave their proper routes" to stay in their town, where the soldiers demanded hospitality and provisions "free of charge." Governors and other officials also frequented the town, further burdening locals.

Villagers warned the emperor that the abuses might force them to pick up and leave -- and take their tax dollars with them:

"If we are weighed down, we will flee our homes and the treasury will suffer the greatest loss."

In other ancient correspondence, officials tried to expand their already-generous travel perks.

In one letter, Pliny the Younger (governor of Bithynia and Pontus in A.D. 110) used flattery to justify a travel pass he had recently issued to his wife, even though she was traveling on a private matter.

It was for familial piety, Pliny explained; surely the beneficent Emperor Trajan would understand. Trajan replied that he did.

When emperors or governors did get mad about such abuses, sometimes they issued financial or other penalties. Often enough, though, the result was another edict reminding officials to please, please follow the rules -- and stop making the government look bad!

Here's one, from Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, provincial governor of Egypt, dated A.D. 133-137:

"I have learned that many soldiers, traveling through the countryside without a diploma, unjustly demand boats, baggage animals, and men, sometimes taking things by force, sometimes receiving them from the local governors as a favor or service. As a result, private citizens suffer insults and abuse, and the army is accused of greed and injustice. Therefore I command once and for all that the local governors and their lieutenants furnish none of the things given for escort to anyone without a diploma, neither to those going by boat nor those traveling on foot. I shall forcibly punish anyone who, after this proclamation, is caught either taking or giving any of the things specified."

You can find many similar edicts issued across centuries. Which shows that travel-related corruption and abuse were a recurring problem.

Why wouldn't this problem go away? Because, as scholar Russell S. Gentry has argued, rulers preferred to cast bad behavior as isolated incidents rather than systemic flaws in an empire that treated provincials as unimportant and afforded government elites relatively little oversight.

Just as, say, Trump might prefer to cast a jet-setting former health secretary as a bad apple not "representative of the spirit of his administration," Claytor observes.

It took centuries for Roman emperors to realize they needed to make real, system-wide changes if they hoped to curb the wanton abuse of taxpayer resources. How long will it take Trump?

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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