The Empire: The Augustan Settlement

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The Empire: The Augustan Settlement


Formal Conservatism. When the first emperor, Augustus (then called Octavian), came to power in 31 b.c.e., it was mainly on the strength of superior military force. During the next fifteen years or so, however, steps were taken to put his reign on a legal or at least legalistic footing. On the one hand, nearly the entire apparatus of the Republican government was preserved. There were still courts and a Senate and consuls and praetors and the rest. Many provinces continued to be governed by proconsuls, and municipal governments continued to flourish. Only the assemblies were really eliminated, and even those continued to meet sporadically and symbolically for a time. There were, of course, certain changes to the traditional institutions. The emperor “recommended” candidates for half of the offices, and these men took office unopposed. The effective number of annual consulships actually increased. Under the Republic a “suffect” consul could be chosen if there were a vacancy in mid-year. Under the Empire it became customary for several pairs of consuls to

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resign and be replaced in the course of a year. The emperor might also take multiple offices (including state priesthoods) for himself simultaneously.

Concentration of Power. On the other hand, many other institutions were created or radically transformed. The emperor assumed the powers of several different magistracies without technically holding the offices themselves. He had tribunician power and proconsular authority (imperium) that was officially described as “bigger” than anyone else’s. Among other things this power gave him ultimate command of Rome’s armies. From time to time the emperor also took up the censor’s powers. In addition to the elected magistracies, several appointed posts were created, directly responsible to the emperor. So, for instance, most important provinces came under the control of legati (deputies) of the emperor. Legati were not a new creation, but previously they had stayed in the same province as the officials they served. The process of cognitio also fell under the purview of imperial appointees and so tended to bring the administration of justice into the emperor’s hands. The offense of maiestas was reshaped to cover treason against the emperor personally, not the state in general. On paper, the powers of the Senate were increased. It could elect and try its own members. Its decrees, rather than acts of the assemblies, became a central source of statute law. Of course, much of this power could be given to the Senate because its activities could be monitored closely.

Terminology and Ideology. The first Roman “emperors” were not usually called by that word (from the Latin imperator, successful general), but were described instead as princeps. This term had long been used for the “leading man” of the Senate. Augustus’s general strategy, followed in varying degrees by his successors, was to assume as much power as he needed without advertising the fact. Even if he was really more than first among equals, he did not claim to be above normal aristocratic standards of behavior and judgment (in contrast to European absolutist monarchs, Egyptian pharaohs, and Chinese and Japanese emperors of various periods, who claimed to be the representative or even embodiment of some god on earth.) A major factor in Julius Caesar’s assassination seems to have been his open disregard for his fellow aristocrats. Augustus learned from this example. While his superiority was unquestioned, other nobles were allowed some share of position and honor as well.


Karl Galinsky, Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).

K. A. Raaflaub and M. Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939).

Colin M. Wells, The Roman Empire (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1984).

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The Empire: The Augustan Settlement

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