How Roman emperors dealt with government officials abusing travel budgets
WASHINGTON -- At least seven Cabinet-level officials, and a smattering of aides, appear to have abused their access to publicly funded travel. Collectively, these bureaucrats billed taxpayers for millions of dollars worth of private jets, military flights, spousal travel and other questionable expenses.
Yet so far just one of them, former health and human services secretary Tom Price, has been forced to step down.
The White House argues that while Price may have misbehaved, there is plenty of precedent for such extravagant government travel. And the administration is right. Government officials were abusing travel budgets long before President Trump came on the scene.
Like, a really long time before Trump -- we're talking ancient Rome here.
So maybe examining how Roman emperors dealt with the problem can offer insight into how to deal with it now.
During the Roman Empire, government representatives traveling on official business used a state-authorized transportation system, called "vehiculatio." They received special travel passes (called "diplomata," and issued by emperors or governors) that allowed them to requisition carts, horses, food, lodging and guides from provincial populations along their route.
Locals were usually compensated at set rates. But otherwise, "the rules varied from province to province, reinforced or modified over time as governors and emperors saw fit," according to Hunter College classics professor W. Graham Claytor, an expert in Greco-Roman documents.
In practice, this led to a lot of abuse.
Public officials took personal trips disguised as work trips. They spent, and extracted from locals, much more than they really needed. They seemed indifferent to the hardships created by their profligacy and oblivious to more productive uses for the scarce taxpayer resources they were gobbling up.
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?
Catherine Rampell's email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.
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