Creation of the Roman Imperial Bureaucracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The creation of the imperial bureaucracy established civil service reform within the political machinery of the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

The imperial bureaucracy was the creation of the early Roman emperors, especially of the first, Augustus, and the fourth, Claudius I. Augustus’s reorganization of Roman government provided the framework for the development of such a bureaucracy; Claudius’s deliberate elaboration of the bureaucracy that had developed during preceding reigns brought this branch of government service to the peak of its power. Augustus Tiberius Caligula Claudius I

The imperial bureaucracy was comparable to, and at first existed alongside, an older and less elaborate bureaucracy of the Republican period. The Republican magistrates had drawn their supporting staffs from two sources. One was the pool of permanent employees attached to the central government treasury. The other was each magistrate’s personal staff. The Roman magistrate was invariably a man of property, and it was customary for such a person to use his personal staff, composed in large part of his own slaves and freedmen, to conduct public as well as private business.

Under the political settlement effected by Augustus, the government of Italy and of about half the provinces continued to be conducted according to Republican custom, by annually elected magistrates whose supporting staff was drawn from personal employees and from employees of the treasury, which remained under the control of the senate. In the remaining provinces, government was the personal responsibility of the emperor, who governed through representatives whom he appointed. The emperor’s representatives, once again men of property and political standing, may have been assisted by their personal staffs but they were not provided with personnel from the central treasury. Instead, the supporting staff for administration of the emperor’s provinces was drawn from the emperor’s own household and was composed, for the most part, of the emperor’s slaves and freedmen.


(Library of Congress)

Information about the development of the imperial bureaucracy under Augustus and under his successors Tiberius and Caligula is limited. One may assume that as an emperor gathered ever greater powers into his own hands, the bureaus that assisted him grew in number, complexity, and power. With Tiberius’s retirement from Rome in his later years and with Caligula’s erratic preoccupations, much of the business of the Roman Empire must have been left to the chiefs of bureaus. It is a tribute to the capabilities of the bureaucracy and of the bureaucrats that civilian government did not collapse, even under the burden of unrest and resentment that led to Caligula’s assassination.

The importance of a capable imperial bureaucracy did not escape the notice of Claudius, and it is during his rule that scholars have found much evidence of the consolidation and expansion of this organization. Claudius’s personal agents collected certain taxes even in provinces governed, in theory, by elected magistrates. These financial agents were granted political powers, particularly the right to preside over certain kinds of litigation, that had formerly been reserved for elected officials. The emperor’s staff in Rome was organized into distinct bureaus whose chiefs, the emperor’s freedmen, were granted extraordinary dignity and authority. Five chief bureaus are known: a rationibus dealing with finance, ab epistulis with state correspondence, a libellis with petitions, a cognitionibus with justice, and a studiis with culture.

In his elaboration of the imperial bureaucracy, Claudius was no doubt motivated by the desire to achieve efficient central administration, and there is evidence that the Roman Empire in general, and particularly the outlying regions, benefited from his reforms. Yet the population of Rome, jealous of its ancient privileges, resented the assumption of power by foreign-born former slaves. Claudius may have actually granted his ministers enough power to govern even him. Narcissus, chief of the bureau ab epistulis, is said to have disposed of Claudius’s wife Messalina (22-48 c.e.) more or less without his consent. Pallas, chief of a rationibus, was believed to have cooperated with Claudius’s next wife, Agrippina the Younger (15-59 c.e.), in bringing about the emperor’s death by poisoning, and in establishing as next emperor not Claudius’s son and heir-elect, Britannicus (c. 41-55 c.e.), but Agrippina’s son, the infamous Nero (37-68 c.e.), who reigned from 41 to 68 c.e. As Nero devoted himself increasingly to his own amusement, the imperial bureaucracy continued to wield nearly unsupervised power, and there is little doubt that the abuses of the emperor’s freedmen contributed to the alienation that led to open revolt and warfare in 68-69 c.e.


Succeeding emperors attempted to restrain their agents without enacting any major reform of the bureaucracy, which continued to function in the form given it by Claudius until the reign of Hadrian. By that time, the principle of one-man rule was well accepted, and the service of the emperor was recognized as the service of the state. Hadrian reorganized the imperial bureaucracy accordingly, relying less on the services of his personal dependents and opening the more important positions to free-born Roman citizens. The rift between bureaucracy and citizenry was repaired without diminishing the usefulness of the bureaucracy itself, the importance of which only increased as the Empire grew.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braund, David C., ed. The Administration of the Roman Empire, 241 b.c.-a.d. 193. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1993. A concise series of essays exploring the development of the Roman imperial bureaucracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dise, Robert L. Cultural Change and Imperial Administration. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Using the middle Danube provinces as an example, explores the operation of the Roman bureaucracy in outlying regions of the empire. Covers the period from the beginning of the empire to the third century c.e. and provides excellent insight into the day-to-day administration of the Roman government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lendon, J. E. Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Analyzes the operation of Roman government in the first four centuries c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lintott, Andrew. Imperium Romanum: Politics and Administration. New York: Routledge, 1993. This study of how the Romans acquired, kept, and administered their empire shows the Roman imperial bureaucracy in operation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lydus, Ioannes. On Powers: Or, The Magistracies of the Roman State. Translated by Anastasius C. Bandy. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983. Contains both the Greek text and a good translation (in parallel columns) of an informative sixth century work on the operation of the Roman imperial bureaucracy. Also includes an introduction, critical text, and commentary.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Agrippina the Younger; Augustus; Caligula; Catullus; Claudius I; Gracchi; Hadrian; Messalina, Valeria; Nero. Roman Empire;creation of the imperial bureaucracy

Categories: History