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In January of the year b.c. 27 (a.u.c. 727) Gaius Caesar Octavianus established the Roman Empire, or, as the new form of government at this stage of its existence may be more correctly termed, the principate. On the thirteenth day of that month he voluntarily laid aside the extra-constitutional powers granted him under the stress of civil disorder and on the sixteenth initiated a new system whose constitutional theory and plan were based upon the old republican form of government.

According to Augustus's own words, as given in Mon. Anc. vi. 83, consulatu sexto (B.C. 28) et septimo (B.C. 27) rem publicam ex mea potestate in senatus populique Romani arbitrium transtuli, in his sixth consulship he performed the initial act in the abolition of the provisional government by surrendering powers which he had received as triumvir, and which he had held alone after the deposing of Lentulus and after the hostility of Antonius. In January of the following year he completed the restoration of authority to the Senate and people, by what final act it is impossible to say, although at that time he may have surrendered the proconsulare imperium which was involved in the triumviral powers granted by the plebescite of P. Titius (Mon. Anc. Lat. vi. 13; Tac. Ann. iii. 28; Dio Cass. liii. 2). This voluntary return of intrusted powers was immediately followed by the renewal of the proconsulare imperium for a period of ten years and by the conferring, by the Senate and people, of the cognomen Augustus, which thus dignified and consecrated the new position assumed by Caesar in his relation to the State, and which became the distinctive title of the principate (Mon. Anc. Lat. vi. 16). The constitution of the principate thus dates from the renunciatory and reëstablishing enactments of January, B.C. 27.

Augustus still held, however, some form of the tribunicia potestas which had been given to him for life in b.c. 36 (a.u.c. 718) (Dio Cass. xlix. 15). He was also consul, for he succeeded himself each year from b.c. 31-23 (a.u.c. 723-731) in a series of nine consulships (Tac. Ann. i. 2). The proconsulare imperium, which was similar in character to that given to Pompey by the Gabinian and Manilian laws, implied the exclusive command of the armies and fleet, as well as the control of the most important border provinces. Inasmuch as Rome and Italy were not included under this imperium, Augustus relied upon the consulship which not only brought the city and Italy under his control, but rendered his imperium superior to that of other proconsuls. This is substantially the view of Mommsen as given in his Staatsrecht, vol. ii. Another theory stated by H. F. Pelham, Jour. of Philol. xvii., bases the new principate entirely on the consulship on the ground that in January, B.C. 27, Augustus, while consul, received from the people the consulare imperium involved in the conferring of the usual “province,” which was in this case of very broad area, carrying with it control of armies, the direction of foreign relations, as well as the government of important provinces.

On the 27th of June, B.C. 23, Augustus, finding the consulship unsuited to his purpose, laid it aside (Dio Cass. liii. 32) and brought into prominence the tribunicia potestas, which, being perpetual, he made nominally annual by renewal from year to year. Thenceforward the title TR(ibunicia) POT(estate) appears in the inscriptions in the titular list followed by a numeral indicating the number of renewals (Corpus Inscr. Latin. indices, particularly vol. iii.). This tribunician power was the civil magistracy supplementing the authority given by the imperium, ranking higher moreover than the latter prerogative (Dio Cass. liii. 32; Momm. Staatsr. ii. 1050). Through its privileges the princeps had the right of intercessio or veto, also that of coercitio or power of compelling obedience, also sacrosancta potestas, so that his person was inviolable. This substitution of tribunicia potestas for the consulship involved the loss of consulare imperium, which gave authority in Rome and Italy although naturally it did not interfere with the proconsulare imperium. (According to Mr. Pelham's view stated above, the consulare imperium given Augustus in B.C. 27, which conferred such extensive powers, he now no longer holds as consul, but as proconsul, so that it really becomes proconsulare imperium.

The renunciation of the consulship meant, however, the loss of an imperium, superior to that of other proconsuls, as well as most important prerogatives possessed by the consuls alone. This difficulty was met by special legislative action, whereby Augustus received from the Senate and people rights which belonged originally and legitimately to the consulship. These were, the enlargement of his imperium as proconsul, so that it became maius as compared with that of other proconsuls (B.C. 23), the privilege of introducing the first motion in the Senate (ius primae relationis) (B.C. 23), the right of convening the Senate (B.C. 22), the insignia of consular dignity—the twelve fasces and the curule chair between those of the consuls (B.C. 19). An inscription, Lex de Imperio Vespasiani Corp. Inscr. Lat. vi. 930), engraved on a bronze tablet, which is extant in fragmentary form, confers upon Vespasian certain rights which were not included in the scope of his imperium or of his tribunicia potestas. In this lex we probably possess in documentary form the special legislative measures which were passed in favour of Augustus. For opposing views on this subject, see Mommsen (Staatsr. vol. ii.), who believes that the lex de imperio conferred the tribunicia potestas extended in its scope, and Herzog (op. cit. ii. 617-619), who holds the view expressed above.

The constitutional theory of the principate that the princeps was a citizen provided with exceptional powers by the Senate and people did not look to the transmission of this delegated power, but left the matter in the hands of the Senate and people in so far as the conferring of these remarkable powers was concerned. Thus at the death of the princeps the principate ended and was not renewed until similar powers had been delegated to his successor, the government being carried on by the consuls during the interregnum. Although there seems to have been no constitutional provision for the selection of a princeps, yet, theoretically at least, he was the creature of the people, and his appointment consisted in the conferring of the imperium and subsequently of the tribunicia potestas by the Senate and the people, the latter ratifying the action of the Senate in their Comitia. The final act was the bestowal of special privileges by the lex de imperio. In these acts the choice of the one thus honoured is implied and involved. Although the princeps was in theory elected, the choice, however, virtually depended upon certain influences which indicated and determined the selection, as, for example, in times of peace the designating of a son or near relative on the part of the reigning princeps and the investing such a one with powers of an imperial nature so as to confirm the choice. In time of civil strife other influences naturally prevailed, such as popularity with the Senate or army, or marked military ability. For opposing theories as to the election of the princeps, see Herzog, Geschichte und Syst. der röm. Staatsv. ii. 610 foll.; Momm. Staatsr. ii. 1038, and Pelham in the Jour. of Philol. xvii. 47.

This in outline is the constitution of the principate which recognized the existence of a republican form of government, and also the establishment of a new authority which, standing alongside of the consuls, theoretically the chief magistrates (Tac. Ann. iv. 19), held under the designation of tribunicia potestate powers equal to those of the consul at home and superior to them abroad. The government is practically in the hands of the princeps and the Senate, so that it has been aptly termed a dyarchy. The history of the first three centuries of the Christian era records the dissolution of this dyarchy by the absorption of all power by the princeps, and the disclosure of the imperial government in its true character as an absolute monarchy. The fictitious nature of the principate and the inevitable tendency under such a system to the centralization of power in the hands of Caesar may be more readily appreciated by considering the princeps, first in his relation to this second governing power, the Senate, and their mutual partition of governmental functions, and again in his personal position as ostensible magistrate but actual monarch, with all the attributes of kingly station.

The constitution of the Senate was controlled in various ways by the princeps. He was able to influence the election of magistrates in the assembly by certain privileges known as nominatio and commendatio. The former arose from the right, belonging to the magistrates (regularly the consuls) presiding at the elections, to canvass the names of the candidates and publish a list of those qualified to stand (Tac. Ann. i. 81). By accepting only a sufficient number to fill vacancies the princeps could easily control the election. Through the right of commendatio the princeps recommended his own candidates, candidati Caesaris, and naturally these persons were sure of election (Vell. ii. 124, 4; Tac. Ann. i. 15). See also the Lex de Imperio, 4, 12; Mommsen, Staatsr. ii. 865.

Again, while only those of senatorial rank could hold the office of quaestor, the initial office of the senatorial career, yet the emperor would admit to the preliminary service, the vigintivirate and the tribunate of the soldiers, those outside of the senatorial order who were thus placed in the line of promotion as prospective senators (Marquardt, Staatsv. ii. 354). By a process known as adlectio the princeps could place a non-senator in the senatorial order, assigning him to the performance of certain functions as those of quaestor or praetor. Hence we find in inscriptions adlecti inter praetorios, inter tribunicios, and rarely inter quaestorios, but after the third century inter consulares. In the meetings of the Senate the princeps had the privilege of voting first, also the right of introducing bills (relatio), and of receiving information as to the transactions.

The Senate under the principate discharged administrative functions in regard to religion, the affairs of Italy, and at first of the city itself; but its important control was over the senatorial provinces. In these provinces, however, the princeps had certain powers which resulted from his control of the troops, and again, because of the collection by imperial officers of the revenues which came to the fiscus of the emperor. Since his imperium was maius, all proconsuls were his subordinates and under his direction (Momm. Staatsr. ii. 227). The final result was the entire subordination of authority in the senatorial provinces to that of Caesar. This change is seen in the gradual modification in the relations existing between the princeps and the proconsuls of senatorial provinces. The former at first refused to control such officials of the Senate and people (Tac. Ann. ii. 47; iii. 60; Momm. Staatsr. iii. 1211), but in the latter part of the second century, Caesar, by virtue of his maius imperium, controlled proconsuls, and looked to them to follow his edicts as carefully as any of his own legati Lex de Imperio, 6; Momm. Staatsr. ii. 843). What was true of the provinces was true of the general departments of administration in Italy and in Rome. They were gradually brought under the control of the princeps, so that officers of his own appointment, praefecti and procuratores, were in charge of public works, of the corn supply, and of the viae.

As regards judicial functions, Augustus made the Senate a high court of justice, in which he himself sat, and thus could influence decisions by his vote and by his right of intercessio (Tac. Ann. iii. 12; iv. 34; iii. 70). Although all criminal cases could be brought before this court, only those of the highest importance really fell to its jurisdiction. The emperor also had a private court of his own, before which only cases of political importance seem to have been brought (Suet. Aug. 32). The court of the praetors still existed in Rome and Italy, but the princeps often appointed the praetor and frequently sat at his side as assessor (Dio Cass. liii. 2, 3; Tac. Ann. i. 75). Appeals from senatorial provinces against the judicial decisions of governors were often heard by the princeps on the authority of his maius imperium (Mommsen, Staatsr. ii. 110).

The Senate, by the republican theory, had no direct legislative power, save through the acceptance of senatus consulta by the assembly of the people. Under the principate, however, the senatus consulta, enacted according to the wish of the emperor, became laws. The emperor, however, became the real source of law, for by special acts of the Senate (Verr. ii. 2, 49, 121) he was empowered to found colonies, grant charters, confer the Roman franchise (leges datae) (e. g. the Lex Malacitana, Bruns, Fontes Iuris Romani, vi. 147; C. I. L. ii. 876, 1964); and on his own authority he issued legislative documents (constitutiones), which were entirely of imperial origin. These were either edicta, decreta, rescripta, or epistulae. See Bruns, op. cit. 237 foll.

The financial affairs of the Empire were divided between the Senate and the princeps. There was a Senate treasury, known as the aerarium, and also the privy purse of the emperor, the fiscus. The latter was drawn upon not merely for the direct expenses of the emperor, but for provincial administration, the support of the army and fleet, and many public expenditures. The collection of taxes in all the provinces was at first farmed out on the old republican principle, but was ultimately conducted by the imperial officials. The coinage of gold and silver belonged at first to the Senate and emperor, but it was finally given exclusively to the emperor, and the coinage of copper was assigned to the Senate.

The falseness of the pretensions as to the magisterial character of the principate in the matter of limited tenure was disclosed at an early period in the acceptance by Tiberius and his successors of a life imperium, although the festival known as decennalia still recalled the periodical renewal. According to Dio Cassius (lix. 3, 2), Gaius received the powers of the principate by one grant, an act which showed still further the tendency to individualize the princeps in the possession of sole and permanent authority (Momm. Staatsr. ii. 744). Augustus refused the censorship consistently with his evident purpose; for a princeps possessed of the censor's power would be a monarch, inasmuch as he would absolutely control the constitution of the Senate. He indeed acted at times as censor, but only by virtue of his consular power. Domitian and his successors, however, performed the censorial functions simply by reason of their authority as principes (Mommsen, Staatsr. ii. 1018).

The name of the princeps was similar to that of an ordinary citizen, but differed in certain special features. The title imperator was substituted by Augustus for his praenomen, Gaius ; and although the custom was disregarded by Tiberius, Gaius , and Claudius, it was resumed by Nero and regularly followed by his successors. The inscriptions show that it regularly took the position of a praenomen. A distinction must be made between this use of the word and the acclamatio imperatoria followed by the numeral of iteration, which appears among the titles. From the names of the early emperors, with the exception of the Claudii and Vitellius, the nomen was omitted, but its use was resumed by Hadrian. Caesar, the inherited cognomen of the Julian family, became a distinguishing mark of the reigning house, but from the time of Hadrian it was restricted to the emperor and his successor.

Augustus, the last word, strictly speaking, in the name of the princeps, was associated with the principate, and was conferred with the official granting of power by the Senate and people. From the latter part of the second century the word Augustus was preceded by additional surnames—e. g. Pius, Pius Felix Invictus—and from the beginning of the fourth century it was strengthened by perpetuus and semper. Special cognomina ex virtute—e. g. Germanicus, Dacicus, Armeniacus—were assumed by Vitellius and Nerva and regularly by Trajan and his successors. The following titles indicating honores also belonged to the imperial name: Pontifex Maximus, Tribunicia Potestate, Imperator, Consul, Censor (held only by Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian), Pater Patriae (declined by Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Hadrian), Proconsul (in the names of Trajan, Hadrian, M. Aurelius, L. Verus, Septimius Severus, and his successors).

The emperors, because of the founding of the principate upon republican principles and precedents, had the right to use republican insignia, the curule chair, the laurel wreath and gold-embroidered toga of the triumphator, which were henceforth restricted to their use (Dio Cass. liii. 26), and the purple-bound toga of the magistrate (Vita Hadriani, 22). The right to wear the purple paludamentum was granted to Caesar as an indication of the supreme nature of his imperium, but it was rarely used in the first century, although it subsequently became the symbol of assumed authority (Momm. Staatsr. i. 349). As imperator the princeps had the privilege of carrying the sword of military power. For the personal safety of the princeps the cohors praetoria kept guard at the palace.

Consecration and deification of emperors testify to the unrepublican position they occupied. Iulius Caesar had permitted himself to be regarded as a god, but Augustus refused to allow worship of himself, at least in Rome and Italy. Like Iulius Caesar, however, he was placed among the gods of Rome after death, and with his deified successors received the title divus. Temples were built in Asia to Augustus and Tiberius during their lives, and the tendency to deify living emperors prevailed generally during the latter half of the second century.

Augustus and the early emperors endeavoured to follow republican principles in the natural dignifying and honouring of members of their families. Livia was an exception in the privileges she obtained (Dio Cass. xlix. 38), but at her death honours were restricted and deification was at first denied (Tac. Ann. v. 2). The title Augusta was conferred upon Livia by the will of Augustus, perhaps with some political significance; but though from the time of Domitian it was regularly given to the wife of the reigning prince, it became a general title of honour, being granted also to other relatives of the princeps. Later the wife of the reigning emperor was still more highly honoured by the granting of the appellation mater castrorum, e. g., to Faustina, wife of Marcus Aurelius, and mater castrorum et senatus et patriae to Iulia Domna, wife of Severus. The young men were made principes iuventutis, a title merely signifying entrance into the equestrian order, and whatever rank they obtained came through the holding of magistracies perhaps at an unusually early age, a favour granted, however, by a special decree alone. Notwithstanding this moderation on the part of the early emperors, there is a persistent endeavour to glorify the imperial family. In the votorum nuncupatio (Wilmanns, 2876) we find the tota domus associated with the names of the emperor Domitian, of Domitia and Iulia (Momm. Staatsr. ii. 776), and the phrase tota domus Augusta occurs in an inscription of the time of Hadrian (Wilm. 319), while numina Augusti totiusque domus divinae is seen in an inscription of the time of Commodus (Wilm. 120), and mention of the domus divina is very common thereafter (Momm. Staatsr. ii. 780-81).

As with his family, so with his associates and friends, Augustus endeavoured to prevent intimate relations with the princeps from implying undue influence and power (Suet. Aug. 56; Tac. Ann. ii. 34). It was inevitable, however, that the preëminence of the princeps should result in an exaggeration of the standing of those who had the honour of his friendship. The morning receptions, similar to those of other prominent citizens, became with the princeps the gatherings of magistrates and senators (Friedländer, Sittengeschichte I. ch. ii.). The amici Caesaris developed under Tiberius into a distinct and semi-official body (cohors) (Tac. Ann. vi. 9), arranged in classes with rank determined by degree of intimacy. The renuntiatio amicitiae on the part of the princeps was equivalent to sentence of banishment (Suet. Tib. 56; Tac. Ann. ii. 70; iii. 12, 24). The travelling companions (comites) of the princeps were chosen from this circle of amici (Suet. Tib. 46). After the first century amici became a general term, and included the regular attendants upon the emperor as well as any of high rank who were especially favoured. The term comes becomes more definite in its application, referring to those assigned to expeditions. These were supplied with special camp-quarters, and had precedence over provincial governors. A proof of the value assigned to appointment as comes is found in the appearance of the title in the inscriptions among the honores (Friedländer, Sittengeschichte, i. 118 foll.). At first the agents of the princeps belonged strictly to his own household, and were either slaves or freedmen. The necessity of having a body of imperial representatives led to the formation of the equestrian cursus honorum. From a select class of the equites the princeps selected administrative officers, who were his agents, while the magistrates of the senatorial order were the officers of the State. The equestrian cursus honorum was introduced by a military service, which led to procuratorships of various grades and finally to the important praefectures. These imperial officers formed an organized service, which, spreading throughout the Empire, supplanted in many instances the representatives of the State, and brought the control of the provinces directly into the hands of the princeps, centralizing the governmental control in Caesar, and making him in this respect also a monarch. See Hirschfeld, Verwaltungsgeschichte; and the article Honores.

Bibliography.—J. B. Mispoulet, Les Institutions Politiques des Romains, 2 vols. (Paris, 1883); Th. Mommsen, Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Berlin, 1883); Ernst Herzog, Geschichte und System der Römischen Staatsverfassung, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1884- 87); A. Bouché-Leclercq, Manuel des Institutions Romaines (Paris, 1886); P. Willems, Le Droit Public Romain (Paris, 1888); Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1887-88).

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  • Cross-references from this page (17):
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    • Tacitus, Annales, 5.2
    • Tacitus, Annales, 6.9
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 46
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 56
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