The Emperor - an Analysis of the Roman State's Highest Post

  By Sam Edwards, 16 August 2007; Revised
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"I swear that with the sword and fire, and whatever else can lend strength to my arm, I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius the proud, his wicked wife, and all of his children, and never again will I let them or any other man be king of Rome. "
-- Junius Brutus’s expulsion of the Tarquin dynasty and declaration of Roman anti-monarchism, Livy 1.6

The emperor – one of the defining features known to most of the Roman state and consequentially, hallmarks in its rise and fall. This unique post represented many titles and ideologies in the fallen republic and kept them alive in the body of the man in question. The emperors, contrary to popular opinion, were not just simple monarchs, but men who represented the entire ideology of the Roman republic.


Before moving into speaking of the Roman republic and the various posts and ideologies associated with it, one must first erase all references to modern democracy in this context. The classical democracy that our democratic principles are based upon in no way advocated civil rights for all “citizens” of their republics. The republics of the ancients were heavily plutocratic, and although we would not consider this to be democratic, the basic rudiments of democracy were instated. So what exactly did the Romans consider democracy? Obviously, since the earliest period of “democracy” – the development of the Greek polis (from around 600 BC -300 BC), democracy was limited to a select majority, but still a majority – the rich of the city in question. The democracy that Rome endorsed from 509 BC onwards was prompted by the need for another system in preference to the tyranny of the Tarquin kings. As such, Rome did not have a cultural attachment to democracy like the Greeks did – there was no one set of values and morals that bound together the Romans as republican in that sense, and even the developments of political culture in the republican period were primarily based on the already existing Etruscan model during Rome’s interaction with those peoples in her early conquests as a republic. In this case, how can an emperor be considered undemocratic in a society that never even had democracy in this case? The emperor – fundamentally a representative of the republic and plutocrat – was merely practicing plutocratic autocracy that had existed in the senate for centuries, on a larger scale. To determine an emperor as undemocratic based on our current definition of the word would be sheer folly. How can the emperor be accused of not adhering to a political system (modern democracy) that in his time never existed? Thus, for the duration of this essay, the word “democratic” is used in the ancient sense and represents what we would describe as a plutocratic, semi-democratic autocracy.


It is because of these associations with the classical and modern versions of ideologies and philosophies that this delusion of what the emperor stood for has come about. Although the classical civilizations created many of the founding principles behind the ideologies that we today hold dear, in practice, the classical version was always different. Society had not advanced to the level where universal democracy could be accepted and comprehended by all. The nearest the ancients came to this was in ancient Greece where the development of the polis – a form of semi-democratic government which was completely comprehensible to its citizens – was developed. This main failure of this system was that, for it to be completely comprehensible, states had to remain relatively small. This is where the ancient Greek disgust of large, complex empires such as that of the Archenemid Persians comes from, but ultimately, the polis had to develop into empires like this because of a state’s natural trend to grow larger and its economy and society more and more complex, calling for a de-centralization and de-humanization of power that was obviously not comprehensible. As the classical Greek and Roman worlds were closely linked, the Roman also did not have the practical knowledge or developments in society that could make full democracy work. Moreover, Rome, unlike Greece, had in her possession great tracts of fertile land and lucrative commercial opportunities that would create a far more complex and plutocratic society than the Greeks ever had. Although the Greek state had its’ fair share of Plutocrats, who served as hoplites and artisans, Greek cities were so small that by Plutocrat, a Greek would mean at most a landlord or most probably, an artisan. After the destruction of its monarchy in 509 BC, Rome, with much determination, tried to mimic something like the Greek polis, even instating the hoplite system for its military, but as Rome could because of her Geography grow much faster than a Greek city state, the efficient Greek systems (which worked for a small city state) of government had to be abandoned, and in their place, a large, cumbersome class-ridden democracy was developed, with literally no fluidity and many hundreds of sometimes pointless governmental positions. Therefore, it is of no surprise that, when this inefficiency reached its climax around the beginnings of the Common Era, when the republic was at breaking point, a sufficient dose of Autocracy was needed to secure the system. This dosage, however, became larger with the boarders of the empire until the system broke down and resorted to the once hated monarchy.


The post of emperor is probably one of the largest political developments in the Roman “republic” or for that matter, Classical civilization. The Romans, as can be seen from the above paragraph, were generally not great contributors of political developments to the world (at first relying instead on Greek systems which were not suited to its situation), but it was the development of emperor which would combine centuries of both Greek and Roman political development together, which represents the political genius of the ancient classical civilizations.


The Need for the Emperor


"It was due to our own moral failure and not to any accident of chance that, while retaining the name, we have lost the reality of a republic.   "
-- Cicero, embedded within R.H Barrow, the Romans, chapter 2c


Historically, the main concept of “emperor” came with the many dictators who attempted to overthrow Rome’s republic in the 1st Century BC. Men such as Sulla, Caesar, Mark Antony and Brutus dominated the senate in such a way that would have been repulsive to the original Roman democrats of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. After the assassination of Caesar, more and more dictatorships and senatorial coups occurred. This came to a head with the “Trumvari Reipublicae Constituendae” or the “Trimumvirs for the establishment of the commonwealth” being instituted. This was a collaboration of three dictators – Octavian, Antony and Lepidus. During their reign, they put to death upwards of 200 senators and other Roman political figures. These severe challenges to democracy showed that the internal fabric of the Republic was crumbling. Two civil wars had broken out against the Senate in 49 BC with Julius Caesar and 41 BC with Octavian. The rot was slowly setting in as Rome keeled under the vast empire, which she had created, initially from needs of self-defense, but later under no pretext but blatant imperialism. This now vast empire could no longer be sustained by a system that was originally developed for a small city-state and some surrounding territories. In fact, the history of decline and opulence in the Roman republic is almost parallel with the extension of her boarders, showing that this system could not support such a vast territorial venture. With an empire so huge, a government founded on debate and faction in-fighting, long distances and ancient communications, it was no surprise that in order to sustain the empire, and some kind of reduction in factional conflict was needed.


This reduction could only be achieved by having one mind, one voice to rise above all others. Like the Athenians in the Peloponnesian war, Rome’s fortunes were held in the hands of a select few politicians who, due to human nature, could not all act as one voice because of their conflicting ideas in the senate and citizen’s assembly. For one empire to exist with one law and one peace, one voice was needed – not one in unison that arrived after much hasty debating. The “Augustii” or “Emperors” were capable of delivering this voice to the frontiers of the newly rejuvenated Roman republic.


The Roman republic, however, was founded in the idea that no man should be king (as illustrated by the above quote) and that no individual should hold power. Every political office should be subject to regular re-election, legislation scrutinized and popular demand listened to. It was for this reason that two consuls were elected every year as heads of state and every governmental department always had more than one head per annum. Never, in any period should there theoretically have been one consul or politician who was not subject to the scrutiny of the dual powers of the senate and the citizen’s assembly.


However, from an idealistic point of view, there were several notable figures in Roman history who, as revered individuals, did not create an image which was stereotypical and accepted to the ideal Roman republican. These figures – notable Consuls, Praetors and generals - aroused so much public esteem that they almost “represented” the republic in flesh, giving them an amount of individual attention that shouldn’t have been tolerated. Men such as Titus Quinctius Flaminius (a famous Roman general of the second Macedonian war who was elected to consul without serving in many of the previous ranks – strange behavior for a republican Roman), Tiberius Gracchus (Tribune of the plebs late in the republic who proposed new laws aiding the poor and needy people of Rome, later assassinated by the rich majority of the Senate because of this) and Scipio Africanus (The general responsible for the defeat of Hannibal in the 2nd Punic war at the battle of Zama) all represented the “ideal” Roman republican. This, according to human nature, made them venerated in a way which the Roman republican ideology would have perceived as unfitting. One of the best examples of this is Cato the Censor, who fought the Punic enemy and then returned to his plough – the perfect Roman republican citizen – obedient to the laws and united against the common enemy of the republic. Like the huge communist movements in the 20th Century, the Roman republican ideology did not take into account that human nature would always raise one man to prominence in image above the rest. This image described above is precisely the one which the early Roman Emperors exploited to assume legitimacy over the “Republic” of their times, and the image, which on more than one occasion had managed to save the Roman republic through inspiring leadership, managed, for a time, to inject new life and vitality back into the Roman state.


The later dictators and Triumvirs such as Mark Antony, Caesar, Octavian and Sulla knew that the republic needed reforming and needed strong leadership in an age where class division had risen to new and unseen heights, but they also knew that this had to be done in a way that seemed legitimate to not offend republican cultural sensitivities against monarchies. It is also likely that they (despite their fundamentally autocratic behavior) didn’t see their actions as being anything like those of monarchs because once in power, they still used the republic’s institutions and ideologies to bring control and exercise it. The “Senatus Consutum Ultimatum” was one of the early decrees passed by the Caesars which illustrate this. It declared a national emergency within the Roman state and gave men such as Julius Caesar and Augustus legitimacy to use their powers in extraordinary ways. This complete confidence in these men over the squabbling and bureaucratic institutions of the republic can be seen clearly by the declaration of Augustus as dictator:


"Caesar Augustus, I am instructed to wish you and your family good fortune and divine blessings; which amounts to wishing that our entire city will be fortunate and our country prosperous. The senate agrees with the people of Rome in saluting you as father of your country.   "
-- The speech of Valerius Messala at the accession of Augustus – the first Roman emperor. Suetonius, the twelve Caesars, (Augustus) 1.58


The main obstacle in the way of any aspiring Autocrat was the political culture of Rome. The Roman people had been conditioned since 509 BC to believe that individual rule was inherently evil. It was a piece of gradual political engineering that even managed to infiltrate Roman culture and art. Naturally, however, the masses could be stirred in any way - even the opposite - and many could not be that concerned about high republican ideology. But this repulsion of individual leadership and autocracy lingered in almost every Roman’s heart, and it was for this reason that the early Roman emperors had to be very careful in engineering their image to assume a republican role.


The Divinity and Anti-Monarchism of an Emperor


"The divine Augustus did not refuse a temple at Pergamum to himself and the city of Rome. So I, who regard his every action and word as law, followed the precedent thus established – the more readily since the senate was to be worshiped together with myself.   "
-- A speech of the Emperor Tiberius, Cornelius Tacitus, Annals 4.34


Like Junius Brutus and other champions of the republican order, the early Roman emperors set themselves up under the image that they were champions of the republic. The Roman people were under the belief that the emperors were saviours of the republic and had to take a strong hand to prevent social control and cohesion from breaking down. Like Marcus Furius Camillus (a famous early Roman republican Consul - instrumental in Rome’s victory over the Etruscan league), the emperors were merely dictators with extraordinary powers; citizens who had for the good of all reserved the right to use extraordinary legislative and political powers.


Constitutionally, much of what the early emperors did wasn’t contradictory to republican practice. They could veto the senate, had the same powers of a consul or dictator, but held a considerable degree of authority over all matters. Because of the recent civil war and related incidents around the Roman Empire, the early emperors could use the excuse that they were merely extraordinary magistrates who reserved power for the duration of “The crisis” (declared by the “Senatus Consutum Ultimatum”) and would step down and legitimately return power to the senate once this “Crisis” was over. It is relevant that the first true Roman emperor, Augustus/Octavian, declared on the 10th year of his rule that he would step down, but never did and many future emperors mimicked this action to keep up the image of them being a truly legitimate servant of the republic. These excuses can also be illustrated by Julius Caesar’s suppression of the Tribunes (democratically elected representatives of the Roman plebeians to the senate), which was itself a double-edged sword. One could say, from an autocratic point of view, that Caesar suppressed the Tribunes because he felt that they could prove an opposition to his autocratic power. However, from a democratic point of view, one could say that Caesar considered himself to be such a good representative of the Roman people that other representatives were not needed. The latter is the excuse that he probably would have given to the senate, but for both reasons, this action gave him a considerable advantage. This tactic of posing as a “hero of the people” can be illustrated best by the 1st and 5th inscriptions on the “deeds of the divine Augustus” which, written in 14 AD and displayed on two bronze pillars in Rome, described the achievements of Rome’s first emperor in a manner which shows the image that the early emperors attempted to cultivate:


"[Sic] In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction. For that reason, the senate enrolled me in its order by laudatory resolutions, when Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius were consuls, assigning me the place of a consul in the giving of opinions, and gave me the imperium. With me as propraetor, it ordered me, together with the consuls, to take care lest any detriment befall the state. But the people made me consul in the same year, when the consuls each perished in battle, and they made me a triumvir for the settling of the state.   "
-- Augustus, the deeds of the divine Augustus inscription 1


"[Sic] When the dictatorship was offered to me, both in my presence and my absence, by the people and senate, when Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Arruntius were consuls, I did not accept it. I did not evade the curatorship of grain in the height of the food shortage, which I so arranged that within a few days I freed the entire city from the present fear and danger by my own expense and administration. When the annual and perpetual consulate was then again offered to me, I did not accept it.   "
-- Augustus, the deeds of the divine Augustus inscription 5


Although the actions mentioned in the “deeds of the divine Augustus” were actions performed by him – one of the more intelligent and ingenious emperors – it is relevant to all the early emperors without exception. Even if the emperor in question never performed deeds such as are mentioned in the above sources, common imperial ritual and culture which was associated with the emperor would make it appear that he was of the same character, or at least sympathies.


The autocracy in the early period of the Roman Empire worked – order was more or less restored and it has been stated that under Augustus, the Flavians (excluding the emperor Domitian) and later, the Antonine or “Adoptive” Emperors, the empire (or perhaps even a single human state) was – in the context of the time - the most prosperous, peaceful and economically sound state ever. This early success can be illustrated by the Greek geographer Strabo:


"Italy – though it has often been torn by faction, at least since it has been under the Romans – and Rome itself have been prevented by the excellence of their form of government and of their rulers from proceeding too far in the ways of error and corruption. But it would be a difficult thing to administer so great a dominion other wise than by turning it over to one man, as to a father. At all events, never have the Romans and their allies thrived in such peace and plenty as that which was afforded to them by Augustus Caesar from the time he assumed the absolute authority and is now being afforded them by his son and successor, Tiberius, who is making Augustus the model of his administration and decrees.   "
-- Strabo, Geography, book 6.4.2 from the Loeb classical library translation. Embedded within Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: the empire, chapter 2.24, Naphtali Lewis and Mayer Reinhold, 1966 edition


The success of the principle of emperor in these early years had profound effects upon later emperors – in this early period, more emperors than in any other period were deified after death and considered to be completely “Divine”. Augustus, for example, subdued (after much fighting) the German front, brought the first basic police force (the city watch) to Rome and secured many provinces throughout the empire. He also organized Rome into “Regionaries” or “Districts” so that the first official census could be carried out and so that the municipal bureaucracy could operate with greater efficiency. When seeing the strides that Augustus and other early emperors like him made, the people of Rome felt that their legitimacy was completely valid. Early emperors were viewed as the “first citizen” of the Roman Republic. Seeing the struggles that the men like Augustus, Vespasian and Trajan had to contend with – and had triumphed – made them heroes in the eyes of the Roman people, and their pretensions to being republicans were largely listened to because of their success.


"What I now hear for the first time, now learn for the first time is not “the princeps is above the laws,” but “the laws are above the princeps”, and the same restrictions apply to Caesar when consul as to others” He swears fidelity to the laws in the presence of attentive gods – for to whom should they be more attentive than to Caesar?...   "
-- Pliny the Younger, Panegyric addressed to the emperor Trajan, sections 65-80 (abridged). Embedded within Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: the empire, chapter 2.22, Naphtali Lewis and Mayer Reinhold, 1966 edition


Generally, the emperor combined the office of dictator for life with Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) and censor (senatorial inspector). These were also the offices that gave him the most power – dictator for life is self-explanatory, the Pontifex Maximus held a great amount of political power and also granted him religious legitimacy (like many later middle ages European monarchies would attempt to do). Finally, the office of Censor made it legitimate for him to expel any enemies of his from the senate – lowering the opposition in democratic process, which was still instated. As time went by, however, many of the offices that the emperor held became various and confusing. It was not uncommon for emperors to take multiple governmental posts and it was for this reason that Senator Piso began his failed conspiracy against the odious Nero. But the core principles of emperor, the very source of their power, came from the three posts mentioned above. Without these three republican posts, it is very likely that they could not have achieved as much as they did. Even the most odious, despicable and revolting of the emperors conformed to general republican democratic belief, and for the security of their office, had to masquerade as a champion of the republic first, and a noble second. This can be illustrated at its extreme when examining that even Nero – a man highlighted for his vices and despotism – in many cases simply had to conform. In the second source, Nero is using a manipulation of the judicial process to guarantee that it passes the verdict that he wants – this may seem thoroughly undemocratic, and in essence, it is. But the important fact is that Nero felt the need to masquerade it as a majority decision in the first place, showing that this was important to his legitimacy as emperor in this matter.


"The first of Nero’s four Consulships lasted for two months, the third for four, the second for six. He let a year elapse between the first and second, and between the third and fourth; but not between the second and third.   "
-- Suetonius, the Twelve Caesars, (Nero) 6.14


"When he judged a case he preferred to defer his judgement until the following day, and then give it in writing; and ruled that, instead of a case being presented as a whole, by one side and then by the other, every relevant charge should be debated separately. On withdrawing to a study a problem of law, he never consulted openly with his judicial advisors, but made each of them write out an opinion; then mulled over these documents in private, came to his own conclusion, and passed it off as a majority opinion.   "
-- Suetonius, the Twelve Caesars, (Nero) 6.15


These points which I have just described remove the premature assumption that an emperor was a monarch – a monarch’s court is built entirely around his word, he has no democratic process and does not have any democratic institutions or political machinery through which he instigates his authority. The emperor, being fundamentally a republican dictator, kept the democratic institutions that had been used in the republic proper and did not have anything similar to a monarchical court – the senate (a fundamentally democratic body) was still the main area of debate and political decisions were still, to a lesser extent, based exactly on that – debate, in which the emperor could be theoretically (and in many cases, realistically) be defeated. When drawing a relation with early modern English history, a good comparison is the parliament of the later Stuarts (Charles II, James II and, in a way, William of Orange), which, although did have the monarch at its’ head, wielding executive power, significantly weakened his authority by developing strict democratic procedure and, just like the emperor, the Stuart “monarch” was more or less bound to the whims of his commons and upper house.


The senate made it their business to praise the emperor and agree with him in the general business of running the empire, but there were still significant injections of democratic procedure into the emperors’ rule. Had they not used these democratic instruments of control, their legitimacy as true republicans would have gone and they would have been viewed as no better than a common monarch. The sometimes excessive flattery bestowed upon Roman democratic principle can be best illustrated by the sometimes questionable Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus who, despite his leanings to report only hearsay and scandalous behaviour of the emperors in private and family matters, does report their political lives in Rome in a fairly concise and reliable manner. The two sources from his “the twelve Caesars” concern the early emperors Tiberius and Claudius, and it can easily be seen from these sources that the democratic institutions and method in Rome were far from redundant with the rise of the emperors:


"If decrees were passed in defiance of his wishes, he abstained from complaint: for example, when he had insisted that city magistrates should stay at home and transact their official business, but the senate allowed a praetor-elect to travel overseas, with use of the diplomatic bag. And on expressing the opinion that a road could rightfully be made at Trebia with a legacy bequeathed the city towards the building of a new theatre, he was overruled and the testator’s opinions were respected. Once it happened that the Senate put a motion to the vote; Tiberius went to the minority lobby and not a soul followed him. He left a great deal of public business to the magistrates and the ordinary process of law; and the Consuls grew so important again than an African embassy came before them, complaining that they could make no headway with Caesar, to whom they had been sent. Nor was this at all remarkable; everyone knew that he stood up when the Consuls appeared, and made way on meeting them in the streets.   "
-- Suetonius, the Twelve Caesars, (Tiberius) 3.31


"Claudius did not presume to accept excessive honourifics, even refusing that of “the emperor Claudius”; and let the betrothal of his daughter, and the birthday of his grandson, be privately celebrated. He recalled no exile from banishment without senatorial permission, and when wishing to bring the Guards’ commander and some colonels into the house, or to have the judicial decisions of his provincial agents ratified, he would ask the senate for these privileges as a favour; and actually approached the Consuls for leave to hold fairs on his private estates. Often he sat on the Advisory council during trials in the magistrates’ courts; and at public games would rise with the audience to show his delight by clapping and shouting. When the Tribunes of the people appeared before his judge’s chair, he apologized for not offering them seats – only lack of room on the platform, he said, condemned them to stand.   "
-- Suetonius, the Twelve Caesars, (Claudius) 5.12


Until the reign of Septimus Servus, no emperor can be considered a monarch. The emperors of this period were on the whole not ethnically Roman. Some, like Maximus Thrax, Diocletian and Philip the Arab were of this ilk, and as a result, felt no desire to reside in Rome and at the same time, live further away from the senate and democratic principle. These men, who had lived in far-flung corners of the empire, had not been immersed in Roman republican culture in the way that the early emperors – most of whom were ethnic Romans from illustrious Latin houses – had been. Thus, the intricacies of Roman rule and republican masquerading were non-existent and when in power, they knew no better than to behave as a monarch. As Gibbon put it:


"…He ventured to assume the diadem, an ornament detested by the Romans as the odious ensign of royalty, and the use of which had been considered as the most desperate act of the madness of Caligula. It was no more than a broad white fillet set with pearls, which encircled the emperors’ head. The sumptuous robes of Diocletian and his successors were of silk and gold; and it is remarked with indignation that even their shoes were studded with the most precious gems. The access to their sacred person was every day rendered more difficult by the institution of new forms and ceremonies. The avenues of the palace were strictly guarded by the various schools, as they began to be called, of domestic officers. The interior apartments were intrusted to the jealous vigilance of the eunuchs; the increase of whose numbers and influence was the most infallible symptom of the progress of despotism.   "
-- Gibbon, Decline and fall of the Roman Empire Chap. 13


These emperors lived in their native lands in large villas in the countryside. They even transferred their center of control to these areas and took with them a troupe of advisors not associated with common republican practice. This is the beginning of a monarch’s “Court” which was theoretically loyal to him and him only rather than the senate, which was loyal only to an ideology and no individual in question. From these isolated areas, these later emperors gave out their decrees without the senate scrutinizing them, without the natives of Rome indirectly ensuring that their actions were not those of a monarch and without common republican law to restrict their actions. The above source is reminiscent of a Parthian or Persian king’s palace than a traditional Roman emperor’s household – it seems more like the lifestyle of Darius rather than Domitian.


In short, the early emperor was the true concept of “Emperor”. He was himself the republic – he represented it, he was the eagle and the fasces. Like a mythical hero of a Homeric work, he always triumphed and always fought for the greater good. To the average Roman, he wasn’t just the leader of the republic; he was the republic – an image that he achieved by using the same example of generations of heroic republicans to appear as a true hero. The emperor was basically an attempt to bring about a spirit of republican unity in the form of one man.  On an ending note for this chapter, R.H. Barrow described the early relation between emperor and republic in a very fluid manner which manages to refrain from using modern terms and “isms”, which are not applicable:


"Thus, he rebuilt the state, using the materials of the republic, and claimed, with ample justice in theory, that he had “restored the republic”, while he excelled others only in “authority” (auctoritas), a word with a long and honoured republican tradition. From the division of function between Princeps and Senate (for it was this rather than a division of power) the new government has since been defined as a “diarchy” rather than a monarchy; whether it remained so depended, as was to be seen, on the character of the Princeps. But, whatever that character may be, in theory the constitution remained established throughout the period of the empire on the general lines laid down by Augustus. The Princeps was sincere in his wish that all the elements which he enlisted in the service of the state should function well, and, if well, independently of interference by the Princeps”   "
-- R.H Barrow, the Romans, chapter 4a


The Decline of the Imperial “Image”


"[Sic] The “partnership in government” with the senate which was inherent in the Augustan conception of the Principate quickly proved to be unworkable. The senate receded into impotence, and the emperor’s domination became more and more complete. From all quarters of the Empire we hear a chorus of praise for the ruler of the Roman world, swelling in volume and adulation as we pass from the Julio-Claudians and Flavians of the first century to the “Good emperors” of the second. We find it in poetry, history, philosophy and other writings, as wells as the language of officialdom”. The dominant theme in this constant paeaning is the enjoyment of peace and prosperity under the protection of an all-wise, all-powerful, all virtuous, divinely ordained ruler.   "
-- Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: the empire, chapter 2.24, Naphtali Lewis and Mayer Reinhold, 1966 edition


When reading about imperial Rome, one comes across two general “Phases” of imperial rule. Firstly, there is the nepotistic “Republican” phase and the monarchical “Meritocracy” phase. These two phases of Roman imperial history are hallmarked by how the emperor came to the throne and thus, how he was perceived. Every emperor contributed a little more and a little more to the image of the emperor, which was, as the reader will now have realised, a complex concept.


The first dynasty (the Julio-Claudians) of emperors from Augustus to Nero was Nepotistic. They followed a strict bloodline, which was inbred and probably is the reason for why there was so much lunacy in that period of imperial history. It was doubtless thought by the Roman people and senate that an emperor’s son would gain the genius and intelligence of his father through the bloodline. It was a common enough belief in the ancient world, and writers such as Thucydides, Plutarch and Livy often move when speaking about famous men to their fathers and grandfathers, evidently trying to draw a parallel. Unfortunately, this image was gained from ordinary family relations and in late republican and imperial Roman history; politics were so complex and dangerous that many family relations were incestuous to a high degree for reasons of political security. This caused a huge degree of madness and lunacy in the Julio-Claudian family and it was soon realised by the senate that Nepotism was not the finest way of choosing an emperor. The final throw of the dice at Nepotism (in a rough way) was choosing someone who at least the last of the major Julio-Claudian emperors (Nero) had something to do with – Otho, governor of Lusitania, who was one of Nero’s closest companions was instated emperor after Galba seized the Throne in 69 AD – the infamous year of the four emperors. Otho was just as despotic and cruel as the two emperors before him (Galba and Nero), and Nepotism was effectively abandoned as the deciding factor in choosing an emperor. Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian of the Flavian dynasty were a nepotistic Roman dynasty, but Vespasian ultimately came to the throne by cunning (staying out of the fray of 69 AD by remaining in Judea as “Legatus” or supreme commander of the legions there) and meritocracy rather than Nepotism.


The image of the emperor was significantly weakened during this period – the madness and tyranny of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellus (the four emperors in the year 69 AD) showed that the entire concept of “Emperor” was neither “Divine” nor family based. Anyone could declare himself emperor now that two governors had. An excerpt from Juvenal’s Satire VIII illustrates this newly found distain for family Nepotism that was never seen much in classical history before this period:


"[Sic] What good are family trees? What point is there in being valued for the length of your pedigree, Ponticus? Where does it get you, having the painted masks of your ancestors on display, or all those statues – an Aemilius in his chariot, half of a Curius, a Corvinus lacking one shoulder, A noseless Galba? What is the object of boasting about your high ancestry? Why trace back the ramifications of your kingship with dusty pontiffs or masters of the horse, if your own life is a public disgrace? Why have so many portraits of generals around, if you spend the whole night gambling under their noses, if you’re ready for bed at daybreak – a time when they would be up and striking camp and moving their forces off? Why on earth should a Fabius, though descended from Hercules, be entitled to any respect for inherited honours – his rights at the great altar…   "
-- Juvenal, Satire 8

It is of much interest that the rest of this satire contains the name of almost every major famous Roman family, indicating that the antipathy towards Nepotism and family pride that Juvenal was assaulting was not only towards imperial dynasties – it penetrated deep into Roman society as a whole. It even mentions the name of the emperor Galba. One of the most relevant facts, however, is that Juvenal’s satires were mainly written in the age of the emperors Hadrian and Trajan. Despite the fact that these two emperors were two of the most stable and successful that the empire had ever seen, the year of four emperors – 69 AD – broke the little faith that the Roman people had in a Nepotistic form of government. In this satire, Juvenal isn’t insulting the current emperors of his age by this mocking and vicious attack on Nepotism; in fact, he is praising the “Adoptive” Emperors of this period who gained the throne by Merit rather than birth. These emperors renounced Nepotism as a means of imperial accession and turned to Adoption based on Meritocracy. No Roman in the republican or high imperial period would dared have display this level of ridicule in a work concerning family heritage. Family, like in many eastern countries today, was all important in politics and many Roman republican “parties” were mainly divided by family rather than by ideology.


This period in which Juvenal was writing is what I call the “Transitional” period – this period was marked by the adoption of emperors as the next successors. The “adoptive” emperor would often be a close associate recommended by the Senate who was of sound mind, intelligence and morality. This, the Senate hoped, would ensure that the next emperor has a man of temperament, intelligence and restraint. The adopted son would often take part in many of the ruling activities of the current emperor, and thus learn many of the ways of ruling an empire from his adoptive father. This trend began in 96 AD after the death of the odious Emperor Domitian, when the Senate declared the elderly and brilliant Senator Nerva emperor. Nerva adopted Trajan, and Trajan in turn adopted Hadrian. This trend continued until Marcus Aurelius broke the chain by raising his spoilt and unbalanced son Commodus to the throne. The reason why I call this period the “transitional” period can be seen because of the combination of Meritocracy and Nepotism is the hallmark of this artificial dynasty. This period of the “Adoptive” Emperors was possibly the longest period of internal stability that the Roman state had ever had. This can be illustrated by a quote from Gibbon – my main source on this subject because of the brilliant scale of his book and his excellent descriptions and handling of his sources:


"In the second century of the Christian Æra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth. "
-- Gibbon, Decline and fall of the Roman Empire Chap. 1


It would be seen at first fair to call this period of imperial Roman history – from Augustus to roughly Septimus Servus a “Democratic Autocracy” or a corrupt democracy rather than a monarchy. But when reconsidering the use of such political terms, however, the conclusion is that they are hard to place in an ancient historical context and often lead to much confusion. All of these ideological phrases discourses and political method naturally did not apply to the average Roman man. He did not have many opinions on the rise of Autocracy or the subtle changes taking place. He was not concerned with how the state was run as long as he could scratch a living from the soil. As in most areas of ancient history, it was the small things that remained the same – the simple life of the Latin peasant, aside from if armies were near or an intolerable despot reigned, could not be that concerned with political process. The average Roman citizen was ill-educated, and even if they were, the backwards methods of the “Grammaticus” and the “Rhetor” would not seriously enhance nor spark their interest or ability in politics. It did not matter to a Shepard of Greece, or a Miner of Britain what happened in Rome – the amount of senatorial assassinations, imperial intrigues and discourses in the senate (or later, court) were of no interest to them as long as they remained able to make a living. This can be illustrated by Plutarch in his essays. Plutarch, a Greek historian, biographer and much else besides in the below quote does not have any ideological or ethnical concerns (except, naturally, the traditional Greek antipathy against “barbarian” autocracies) against the Roman state, and as a whole, the source generalises the entire early Roman imperial period:


"The greatest blessings that cities can enjoy are peace, prosperity, populousness, and concord. As far as peace is concern the people have no need of political activity, for all war, both Greek and foreign, has been banished and has disappeared from among us. Of liberty people enjoy as much as our rulers allot them, and perhaps more would not be better. A bounteous productiveness of soil; a mild, temperate climate; wives bearing “children like to their sires” and security for the offspring – these are the things that the wise man will ask for his fellow citizens in his prayers to the gods.   "
-- Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft, book 32. Embedded within Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: the empire, chapter 2.24, Naphtali Lewis and Mayer Reinhold, 1966 edition


The second point described in the paragraph above – the pointlessness of “isms” in connection with the distinction between the republic and empire, can be described very well by a quote from M.Rostovtzeff. In society of ideological conflict and mass clashes of opinions, it is easily seen how one could place this logic onto ancient Rome. We, however, have a greater attachment and intervention in our government that Roman ever did in his. There was no distinction between left and right, there had not been the political philosophy of the renaissance and puritan movements of 16th and 17th century Europe (even Aristotle and Plato – two of the earliest political philosophers do not really have the wide-scale impact to count in this context) and most importantly, there was no wide-scale education. It is therefore of no surprise that the Roman was not concerned so much with governmental policy and ideals – it was not his place and governmental policies were divided more on personal gain and ambition than any kind of abstract political philosophy. It is therefore important to realise, in the context of this section, that this decline and change of imperial image was not something that massively affected the lives of the inhabitant of the Roman Empire to a great extent. The only opposition would have been to the personal character of the ruler in question, not so much a realisation of a general trend in a change in the meaning of “emperor”. The only reason that all of the deductions in post-Roman sources could be obtained is because the entire civilization could be studied at the historian’s leisure. Even Roman historians don’t make a comparison or much of a note of the change in the meaning of emperor, just the personalities of the various emperors. In any case, this much needed detachment of modern “isms” can be shown in the below source, in the context of Rome’s first emperor – Caesar Augustus/Octavian:


"It would be useless to search for a single constitutional formula by which to define the results of what Augustus actually did. What was it he created? Was it a monarchy, or a diarchy shared by himself and the Senate, or a restoration of the old republic? For fifty years scholars this question of terminology has been debated by scholars, but the debate has been entirely fruitless. The main task of Augustus was just this – by minute and patient labour to efface the distinction between these conceptions, and to smooth away the sharp angles. Hence the constitution he made, though it can be described, cannot be completely defined by a single word or in a brief formula.   "
-- M. Rostovtzeff, Rome, Chap. 14 – the Principate of Augustus


The Ruin of the Emperors


It was seen in this period that any man of sufficient influence and cunning could make an emperor – the later period is known as one of crisis and chaos. In the later years of the Western Roman Empire, the issue reached its head while in one year; there were 17 major pretenders to the throne in the age of Constantine. There was no divinity anymore, no pretensions to republican loyalties. The last barriers between republican Emperor and Monarch broke down and more or less all the succeeding emperors after this period were firstly, monarchs and secondly, not native Romans. For this reason, other conflicting areas in the Roman state began to use the entire concept of the emperor for their own political machinations and advancement. The emperor was not holy anymore – he was no longer the supreme guardian angel of the Roman republic. That principle died with the Julio-Claudians. Although many Roman emperors in the Julio-Claudian period (Emperors Tiberius, Nero, Augustus, and Claudius) were assassinated, this was of little or no consequence to the supremacy of the image of the emperor. The image, the core principles behind being emperor still existed, despite what end the wearer of the purple met. It was the method by which the purple was assumed that meant the most to the ultimate fate of the concept of emperor.


The military, in particular, the Praetorian guards (the elite force for the protection of the emperor) had no reason anymore for loyalty to the current emperor. The pretensions of republican loyalty that they had voiced had been shown to be a farce, and any influential man could become emperor with enough support, merit and willpower. Numerous usurpers appeared in the 3rd century AD, and the gaps of dysfunction in the empire between the death of an emperor and the accession of a new one become longer and longer. Notable examples are Elagabalus in 222 AD, and Pupenus and Balbinus in 238 AD. There were also many tens of pretenders almost every time an emperor ascended the throne, and it was now almost impossible to become emperor without conducting a long military campaign first. Perhaps the greatest example of the weakening of imperial power was the assassination of the Emperor Pertinax by the Praetorians in the March of 193 AD. Following the assassination, the Praetorians “Sold” the imperial Purple to the highest bidder – the elderly noble Didius Julianus. The fear of this new emperor of the danger of assuming the purple can be seen in this except from Gibbon’s “Decline and fall of the Roman empire”:


"Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money. He had reason to tremble. On the throne of the world he found himself without a friend, and even without an adherent. The guards themselves were ashamed of the prince whom their avarice had persuaded them to accept; nor was there a citizen who did not consider his elevation with horror, as the last insult on the Roman name.   "


In this period of imperial Roman history, it was the military that made and broke the emperors in power. Like in most crumbling empires, the men trained in warfare and have their own hierarchy and separate organisation will always be the deciding factor in any internal conflict. The Janissaries of the mid Ottoman Empire can be compared with the Praetorian Guard in their influence in determining the next Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It is surely no coincidence that the major increases in pay to the military of Imperial Rome is almost completely parallel with the weakening of the imperial image and imperial authority. For example, the emperors Augustus (27 BC- 37 AD) raised legionary pay to 225 Denarii per annum, Domitian (81 – 96 AD) to 300 and Caracalla (211 – 217 AD) to 750 (figures from the Everyman’s’ smaller classical dictionary under “Legio”). Although these figures can be attributed to other factors – namely, economic disintegration, the increase in barbarian raids and use of mercenaries, development of the legions etc, it is more than likely that they are due to the increasing disloyalty among the legions. Naturally, inflation in the currency could be considered, but when we consider that there were no economic devices for measuring such a concept, and that for the majority of the Western empire, the same general economic pattern was used and the same resources were extracted, inflation cannot be taken seriously in this context. The military now no longer had any ideological, only a financial, motive to support whoever was in power. It is also certainly not coincidental that when examining a list of imperial dates, the earlier “Nepotistic” emperors survive for around a few decades, but the later “Meritocractic” emperors survive on average for around only one decade if Nike is on their side. This can be illustrated by two quotes from, yet again, one of the best authorities on the subject, Gibbon:


"We cannot forbear transcribing the ingenious, though somewhat fanciful description, which a celebrated writer of our own times has traced of the military government of the Roman Empire.”What in that age was called the Roman Empire was only an irregular republic, not unlike the aristocracy of Algiers, where the militia, possessed of the sovereignty, creates and deposes a magistrate, who is styled a Bey. Perhaps, indeed, it may be laid down as a general rule, that a military government is, in some respects, more republican than monarchical. Nor can it be said that the soldiers only partook of the government by their disobedience and rebellions. The speeches made to them by the emperors, were they not at length of the same nature as those formerly pronounced to the people by the consuls and the tribunes? And although the armies had no regular place or forms of assembly; though their debates were short, their action sudden, and their resolves seldom the result of cool reflection, did they not dispose, with absolute sway, of the public fortune? What was the emperor, except the minister of a violent government, elected for the private benefit of the soldiers?   "


By around AD 300, all traces of the original republican emperors were lost – the emperor was now a mere monarch compared to the complex position of the early Caesars. Ammianus Marcellinus, a late Roman historian of much reliability, who Gibbon praised immensely, can show in this cutting quote from the declaration of the succession and co-rule of Valentinian and Gratian:


"The imperial robe which I am wearing is a happy token of the good-will which led you to prefer me to many distinguished rivals. You then should share my plans and promote my wishes, now that the time has come for mew to take in my hand my duty as a father, relying for a happy outcome on the promises of God, by whose eternal aid the Roman state will stand unshaken. I beg you, my gallant men, to give a favourable reception to my desire, bearing in mind that I wish an act sanctioned by natural affection not merely to be brought to your knowledge but to receive your approval as befitting to us and likely to be beneficial to the state. You see before you my son Gratian, who has long lived among your own children and whom you love as a pledge of the bonds which unite us. He is now grown, and I intend for the preservation of public peace to take him as my colleague in the empire, provided that the will of heaven and your sovereign power support the promptings of a father’s love.   "
-- Ammianus Marcellinus, the later Roman Empire, book 27.3


By the time of the Byzantine Empire – when Western Rome was finally destroyed in 476 BC under the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, the concept of “emperor” was no more. The old institutions still existed, but these were simply retained for the purposes of historic awareness and ritual.


"The name of the senate was mentioned with honour till the last period of the empire; the vanity of its members was still flattered with honourary distinctions; but the assembly which had so long been the source, and so long the instrument of power, was respectfully suffered to sink into oblivion. The senate of Rome, losing all connexion with the Imperial court and the actual constitution, was left a venerable but useless monument of antiquity on the slopes of the Capitoline hill.   "


Zeno, who was essentially the first emperor of the Byzantine Empire, would not have consulted the senate building on Seraglio point in Constantinople in any serious capacity. The machinery of the republic was now dead, court ceremony and viziers had taken its palace. In the above source, Gibbon mentions the “imperial court” – the fact that he recognises that such an entity was in existence at this time shows the transition has begun. Early emperors did not have a court – unless the word “court” can be re-defined in that context to “republic”. Right from the period of Septimus Servus, there is a traceable decline in deputations being sent to the senate, the senate being informed of imperial business and so forth. Neither Justinian’s construction of the Saint Sofia basilica (Now known as the Aya Sofia) in Constantinople, nor the final separation of the Eastern and Western Churches i