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One of the Few Surviving Sources for the Administrative Structure of the Late Roman Empire (Circa 420 CE)


The Notitia Dignitatum is one of the few surviving manuscripts documenting the administrative organization of the eastern and western Roman empires, listing several thousand offices from the imperial court down to the provincial level. It is considered relatively up to date, with the expected problems and omissions, for the Western empire circa 420 CE, and for the Eastern empire circa 400 CE.

"Notitiae were lists or catalogues, also referred to as latercula. Such lists were typical of the systemization of that characterized the late Roman bureaucracy. The variety of extant notitiae. . . can be broken down into four categories: provincial lists, urban catalogues, episcopal lists, and the Notitia Dignitatum" (Bowersock et al [eds.] Late Antiquity. A Guide to the Postclassical World [1999] 612).

One of the most significant surviving early copies of this text was made for the bibliophile Pietro Donato, bishop of Padua, in January 1436, while Donato was presiding over the Council of Basel. In addition to the exchange of ideas, long meetings such as this Council were also places to which manuscripts and scribes could be brought for copying and exchange, and new works could be disseminated to readers who would take their copy back to their home region possibly for further distribution by copying at their local scriptorium.

Donato's manuscript, which also includes several other texts, including the geographical compilation, Liber de mensura orbis terrae, by the Irish monk Dicuil composed in 821, and the De rebus bellicis, was given the general title Cosmographia Scoti. According to a note in Donato's hand in the manuscript, the exemplar from which the manuscript was copied was a "vetustissimus codex" from the library of Speyer Cathedral. This late 9th or early 10th century manuscript, most of which no longer survives, is generally known as the Codex Spirensis. The manuscript is known to have existed in 1542, but was lost before 1672; only a single leaf of the Codex Spirensis survives today at Maihingen (HS. I,2,2°.37). It was used in the binding of a record book which dates from 1602-3. (Thompson 11).

Later in the fifteenth century Donato's copy of the Codex Spirensis came into the possession of A. Maffei at Rome, and passed into the collection of manuscripts assembled by the Venetian Jesuit Matheo Luigi Canonici. After Canonici's death his collection was purchased in 1817 by the Bodleian Library.

The miniature paintings in the Donato's copy of the Notitia Dignitatum were by Peronet Lamy, an illuminator who worked for Amadeus VIII of Savoy, later elected Pope by the Council, as Felix V. The manuscript is preserved at the Bodleian Library, and according to their exhibition catalogue from 1975, the same scribe and illuminator prepared another copy of the collection that is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

"The Notitia Dignitatum is a unique document of the Roman imperial chanceries. One of the very few surviving documents of Roman government, it details the administrative organisation of the eastern and western empires, listing several thousand offices from the imperial court down to the provincial level. It is usually considered to be up to date for the Western empire in the 420s, and for the Eastern empire in 400s. However, no absolute date can be given, and there are omissions and problems" (Wikipedia article on Notitia Dignitatum, accessed 11-29-2008).

Hunt, R.W., The Survival of Ancient Literature, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, no. 146.

Thompson, A Roman Reformer and Inventor. Being, a New Text of the Treatise De Rebus Bellicis with a Translation and Introduction (1952) discusses the history of the various early copies of the Codex Spirensis, which preserved the text of the Notitia Dignitatum as well as De rebus bellicis, and other works.