The oppression of the lower orders of the people by the more powerful, which was prevalent
throughout the Roman Empire in the fourth century, owing to the general weakness and
corruption of local government, led to the institution of a new municipal officer, called defensor civitatis, plebis, loci
(in Greek ἔκδικος
), whose function it was to defend the rights of the inhabitants of a civitas
, much as the citizens of the Scotch towns were protected in the
Middle Ages by the Provost, of which relation Scott has given an interesting picture in his
Fair Maid of Perth
, i. 8, and ii. 3.
An edict of the emperor Valentinian I., issued in A.D. 364, established this office, but
only for the province of Illyricum. By this edict the governor of the province was directed to
choose a trustworthy person for each city of the dioceses subject to him, in order that the
of all Illyricum might be protected by means of public guardians
) from injuries at the hands of the powerful (Cod.
i. 29, 1).
In the next year, A.D. 365, Valentinian extended the office of defensor to all parts of his
Empire, including Italy, but with some changes in its constitution. Each civitas
acquired the right of choosing a defensor from its most eminent and
independent citizens, who were bound to serve the office in a prescribed order.
The election of a defensor was made by the whole civitas;
the choice of
the township had to be confirmed by the emperor or his deputy. At first a defensor held office
for five years, but the term was reduced by Justinian to two years. The protection of the
inhabitants of his district from oppression of all kinds, and especially from that of the
imperial governor and local authorities, was always considered to be the main object of a
defensor civitatis. Moreover it was his business to prevent the taxes being made too
burdensome. For the purpose of prosecuting oppressors, he had free access to the court of the
governor, and, if necessary, he could bring his complaints against the governor or other
officials before the emperor or ministers of the imperial government. The defensor acted as
judge in civil cases of minor importance; his jurisdiction was first limited by Justinian to
, and afterwards extended by that emperor to three hundred
He had the right of appointing guardians and of registering many
formal proceedings. In rank he had precedence of magistrates.