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Republic And Empire

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Historians habitually divide Roman history into Republican and Imperial periods. Such is the pervasiveness of that categorisation that many simply see the Empire as replacing the Republic when Augustus became Rome's first official emperor. Is that image correct? Not really.

Most people have the popular image of a Roman Emperor as some sort of absolute ruler, limitless authority and power, as well as a propensity towward decadence and mental illness. Is that image correct? Not really.

The only identifiable absolute ruler after the reign of the kings was Julius Caesar. He was made Dictator, then Dictator for ten years, then Dictator for life, by popular consent. The post of Dictator in Republican times gave a nominated person full ruling powers for six months or until the need had passed. Note the temporary aspect. After getting rid of their monarchy, the Romans decided they would never risk such tyranny again by allowing sole authority. Julius Caesar was unusual in that, whilst publicly refusing to be crowned, accepted the powers of an absolute monarch nonetheless. Popular or not, it got him killed, because while he ruled, no-one else could, even though he did not dismiss the Senate.

In fact, Caesar's relations with the Senate do not suggest that he contemplated scrapping the machinery of the Republic. He consulted it constantly on the minutest details of public business. Naturally he was in a position to exercise a great deal of patronage.
Introduction (Jane F Gardner) - The Conquest of Gaul (Julius Caesar)

From Augustus onward, those getting the top job in Rome were not given such sole authority, and quite often in the earlier part of the imperial period there is a tug of war between Caesar and Senate for power and influence. Those Caesars that let the Senate make decisions generally got treated respectfully. Those that pushed the Senate aside often came to a sticky end. Augustus got a rough ride early on as senators jeered him for not letting them make decisions, but he won their admiration over time. Augustus means "The Revered One".

Also, rather than than using the word 'birth', we should perhaps speak of emergence, since the features of the Augustan monarchy that were adopted by its successors took shape gradually, bit by bit, within the Republican institutional edifice. For the Principate was not created ex nihilo, but put slowly into position using existing forms, and following no preconceived plan but, rather, added to and modified according to circumstance...
A History of Rome (Le Glay, Voisin, & Le Bohec)

There was no clear cut job description for the role of Caesar.. Powers, honours, and status were accorded by the state, not the job, although obviously it was likely that a Caesar was considered a very important person. For instance a ruler might be given the power of Imperium "Military command" (The word Imperator is where we derive the title of Emperor from)., but not all Caesars got that honour. Gordian III was the last to receive it. Didius Julianus stood no chance of getting such an honour from the Senate. Likewise Caesars might receive Consulships or Tribunician powers, or other rights and responsibilities, normally agreed among the Senate.

In his Acts and on his coins he (Augustus) stressed that he was the Liberator who had saved the lives of citizens, that he had held no post 'contrary to ancestral tradition', that he had 'transferred the state from his own control to the free will of the Senate and the Romanie', and to those traditional components of the Roman state, the S.P.Q.R., there are many honorific references on his coins. It may seem suprising that in spite of their vigilant Republicanism many members of the Italian governing class were satisfied by what seems to us a fiction. Yet the Romans, although their intense anxiety to preserve everything good in the past made them instinctively averse to open changes, had a fairly impressive recordĀ  for modifying their institutions when this was necessary.
The World Of Rome (Michael Grant)

That said, as time wore on the influence of the Senate waned, although such bodies weres still being convened after the last Roman Emperor in the west.. Gradually then the role of Caesar migrated from "Chief Executive Advisor", as Augustus played it, to something more resembling a monarch of old with all the trappings of court and ceremony.

(Adapted from content I posted on www.historum.com)

Edited by caldrail
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