From the papers - A libellis

A copy of the petition ( libellus ) of the imperial freedman Arrius Alphius from the year 155 [1]

The Imperial Libell Chancellery ( a libellis ) had been an institution in the Roman Empire since the 1st century , whose primary task was to receive not only general concerns and petitions ( libelli ) but also the legal inquiries, applications and complaints from private individuals in order to evaluate them and Decision to feed. The petitioner did not have to be in possession of Roman citizenship , so that it was also possible for a foreigner ( peregrinus ) to submit his request.

The agency's staff consisted of the head of the office, other lawyers, clerks and messengers. The official inquiries from state officials and other public bodies were processed in a separate office ( from epistulis ) and answered with a separate letter ( epistula ).

The emperor as addressees of private petitions were on the one mostly strives to counteract the appearance of arbitrarily taken provisions and committed to another, unintended legal consequences in later similar cases avoided at all costs. The judge was in a court case to the documented legal opinions of the emperor, they later flowed into the Digestone, basically bound. Here, the rulers were dependent on the advice of legal assistants. The processing of cases following a petition and the expert legal reports supported the regents in their decisions and relieved them in their day-to-day government work. The professional work of the mostly highly qualified lawyers in the imperial Libell Chancellery ensured that the population felt legal security. The emperors also benefited from this effect due to their authority.

From around the middle of the 4th century, the institution increasingly lost its importance and reputation. Because of the increasing and rampant corruption among the clerks, who were no longer in direct contact with the emperor after an organizational reform, the now often purchased orders, which were still issued in the name of the rulers, were no longer trusted.


The applicant submitted the complaint, legal inquiry or petition ( libellus ) in his own name or on behalf of an interest group personally to the emperor, who is regularly in Rome for this purposeand held audiences while traveling, or with one of his authorized representatives. If the subject of the submission was complicated and not legally reliable on site, a legal assessment of the matter was carried out either by the emperor with his first dragonfly secretary or by him independently. The case to be dealt with was discussed and decided, if necessary, with the involvement of other competent lawyers. The emperor, who always held the decision-making authority regardless of the legal opinion of his legal scholars, was open to the arguments of his lawyers depending on their education and attitude and often followed their legal opinions. Ultimately, however, the advisors were always obliged, because they were absolutely committed to the imperial will,

These proceedings resulted in the legally binding decisions of the emperor or his lawyers. The latter, however, were all dependent on the regent's final approval. The imperial notification , which was signed by the emperor in a margin note with rescripsi and provided with any additions, was given to the addressee as a so-called subscripto on his incoming lettermade known. The document containing the applicant's personal data, such as full name and social status, was posted in a public building at the location of the audience in order to make the decreed matter accessible to everyone. In Rome in the 2nd century it was the vestibule of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill . In the 3rd century, the answers to the questions answered were hung and archived in the porticus thermarum Traianarum , a hall adjacent to the municipal prefect's office building, near the Trajan baths . [2] Likewise, the decisions made spontaneously on site at the audience were recorded by the dragonfly secretary or a clerk and published with the signature and any additional comments by the emperor.

Imperial dragonfly secretary

In the early days of the Principate , there was no recognizable organized institution that would have been entrusted with the receipt and processing of civil submissions. The case of a petition has been handed down under Augustus . This commissioned the city prefect ( praefectus urbi ), in whose local area of ​​responsibility the request was settled, to deal with it. A freedman can be identified at Tiberius who, as acceptor a subscriptionibus, had to accept the petitions addressed to the emperor. [3]

From the papers

Statue of Papinianus, one of the outstanding lawyers who headed the Libellamt

The establishment of a proper Libell Chancellery was undertaken under Claudius . The office was now headed by an imperial freedman as the official a libellis . The trunk line was then generally occupied by people from this position. Quite a few of these legal experts, such as Polybius or Callistus , became very wealthy and influential, the latter particularly through abuse of office. [4] An exception to the rule has been passed down under Vitellius . Here a military person from the knightly class was entrusted with the post, although this was additionally entrusted with the handling of other administrative tasks.[5]

After an organizational reform under Hadrian , the management of the authorities was generally appointed with people from the knighthood. [6] Their annual salary was 200,000 sesterces . Until the emperor Septimius Severus , the office management was entrusted with the management of another department, with the exception of the government of Marcus Aurelius , such as the management of the Imperial Court ( a cognitionibus ) under Commodus or that of the appraisal of assets ( a censibus ) under Antoninus Pius . [7]

Septimius Severus relieved the management of the Libell Chancellery from the additional tasks and employed highly qualified lawyers in the agency's staff. The salary of the head of the chancellery was raised to 300,000 sesterces. Up to Diocletian , the imperial Libell Chancellery was characterized by a professional administration and management, which was for the most part occupied by the most well-known lawyers in Roman legal history, such as Papinian and Ulpian . Following this activity, these were often used as prefects . The rise of former dragonfly secretaries to the rank of consular is also documented. [8th]

Master (box) publishing

From around the middle of the 3rd century, probably since Gordian III. the head of the office held the rank of magister libellorum and from the 5th century the official title of magister scrinii libellorum . The title a libellis now designated the subordinate employees of the authority.

Repeatedly and then finally remaining with the Libell Secretary , the magister libellorum took over the additional management of the Imperial Court before the beginning of the 4th century, possibly since Constantine . This task now appears to have been primarily carried out, since it is mentioned in the first place in the Notitia dignitatum .

At the beginning of the 5th century, the writings of the Libell secretaries were received and checked by the non-official magister a memoria , only to be handed over to the imperial quaestor ( quaestor sacri palatii ) in their final written version . Since then, only this person and the overall head of the imperial chancellery ( magister officiorum ) have had direct access to the emperor.

Legal development

The absolute dominance of the emperors also had an impact on legal developments and case law. The final legal opinion and the legal will of the rulers restricted the progress of the Roman legal system , especially after the 3rd century due to the lack of independent, self-employed jurists, who since then have mainly been among the executive state servants of the imperial civil servants.

The bureaucratization in late antiquity led, in addition to a necessary rationalization in the administration and a desired control of offices, to an alienation between the people and the government. The emperor had lost direct contact with the simple applicant, who was seeking legal protection, with his daily needs and worries. This anonymous, impersonal administrative apparatus resulted in an ever increasing corruption of office. In return for appropriate payment, the officials fraudulently obtained customer-ordered notices from the emperors. The rise in corruption did not go unnoticed by the population, so that the imperial decrees were hardly trusted and they were therefore generally no longer regarded as legal.



  1. CIL 06, 2120
  2. CIL 03, 12336
  3. CIL 06, 5181
  4. Tacitus , Annales , 11, 29 (English translation)
  5. CIL 11, 5028
  6. CIL 11, 5213
  7. CIL 03, 259
  8. CIL 06, 510 , CIL 12, 1524