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Defensor Civitātis

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 plebs of all Illyricum might be protected by means of public guardians (patroni) from injuries at the hands of the powerful (Cod. Theod. 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 fifty solidi, and afterwards extended by that emperor to three hundred solidi. He had the right of appointing guardians and of registering many formal proceedings. In rank he had precedence of magistrates.

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