Stufff from Way Back #32b: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?

The Flavian dynasty came to an end with Domitian’s death, but circumstances conspired to prevent a repeat of 68. The Senatorial conspirators had their own candidate ready, a respected sixty-year old Senator, M. Cocceius Nerva, who was far more careful than Galba.  He had the actual murderers of Domitian executed and adopted as his heir the popular general M. Ulpius Trajanus, whom he made co-ruler.  So well trained was the military by the Flavians that these measures were enough to secure their acquiescence to the assassination of Domitian.  Nerva, who died in 98, was in some ways the Gerald Ford of the Principate, keeping the imperial seat warm for a military leader acceptable to the legions.  His important achievement was preventing another civil war and inaugurating a period of excellent government, the apogee of the Empire, the age of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Nerva was the first.

Nerva

Nerva

Trajan was the great warrior Princeps, violating the dictum of Augustus and dramatically extending the Empire. The Dacian Wars made strategic sense, eliminating the centuries old Dacian kingdom, which under Decebalus had been engaged in constant raiding across the Danube.  The two Dacian provinces he created (the heart of present-day Romania) were rich in gold and fairly easily defended in normal times; they were abandoned during the Anarchy.

Suicide of Decebalus

Suicide of Decebalus

Trajan

Trajan

His attempt to find a final solution to the problem of the Parthian Empire, an irritant rather than a serious threat on Rome’s eastern frontier, is far less easy to defend. Their rich western territories, essentially Mesopotamia, were easily conquered, but the Parthians simply fled east to Iran.  By the time Trajan reached the head of the Persian Gulf, revolt was already erupting behind him.  The problem was not conquest; it was occupation.  The area already possessed a millennia old non-classical civilization that could not be easily assimilated, as were the Hellenized eastern provinces or the barbarian western.  This meant extensive internal occupation would be required, and the Roman military simply did not have the manpower to secure these new provinces.  Trajan died suddenly of a stroke in 117 and was subsequently remembered as the Optimus Princeps for his excellent administration and relations with the Senate and his stirring conquests.

It was reported that on his deathbed that the childless Trajan had adopted his nearest male relative, a second cousin, P. Aelius Hadrianus, and while this may be untrue, the army accepted it.  Trajan had cultivated good relations with the Senate, dispelling the ill will of the Flavian era, and Hadrian attempted to follow his example, actually requesting that the Senate approve his nomination as Princeps, which of course they had little choice but to do.  He returned to a defensive policy, wisely abandoning Trajan’s eastern conquests, a very bold and less than popular move for a Roman emperor.  He wanted to evacuate Dacia as well, but sensed that popular opinion would not tolerate this.  Otherwise, Hadrian was the great peripatetic Princeps, constantly touring the Empire to insure that the military, essentially a garrison force, maintained a high standard of efficiency.  And to see the sights – he was also the great tourist Princeps, especially taken by anything Greek, which may account for his wearing a beard, which became the fashion for subsequent emperors.

Hadrian

Hadrian

The one great tragedy of Hadrian’s reign was the Second Jewish Revolt, which could possibly have been prevented. Diaspora Jews were already causing serious trouble before Trajan’s death, and Hadrian, in a rare instance of inept policy, decided to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem as a purely gentile settlement with a temple of Jupiter where the Jewish temple had once stood.  The result was a revolt that took the Romans three years to crush and devastated Judea, killing several hundred thousand people, both Jews and non-Jews.

Hadrian died in 138, apparently from tuberculosis. His adopted heir was the Senator T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, who gained the cognomen Pius for convincing a Senate hostile to Hadrian to deify him.  To secure long term stability Hadrian also compelled Antoninus to adopt his own nephew, the seventeen year old M. Annius Verus, and curiously, also the seven year old L. Ceionius Commodus, whose father, also L. Ceionius Commodus, was his first choice, now dead.  Antoninus’ reign was essentially peaceful and his relations with the Senate excellent, and when he died in 161, he was succeeded by his well-trained nephew, known now as M. Aelius Aurelius Verus.

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Upon his succession Aelius took the name M. Aurelius Antoninus and made L. Ceionius his colleague under the name L. Verus Commodus. This was the first time the Empire had actual co-rulers, but fortunately for Rome the indolent Verus died in 169, leaving Aurelius sole Princeps.  In 177 his natural son, M. Commodus Antoninus, became co-emperor and obvious heir, a decision that would prove to be disastrous for the Empire.

It can be said that the decline of the Roman Empire began with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps ironically, given his character and dedication. He was the great Stoic emperor, in many ways the philosopher ruler that Plato had dreamed of.  Possessing a fine intellect, he was early on attracted to Stoic philosophy and almost certainly would have preferred to spend his life in conversation with his friends rather than shouldering the burden of rule.  But he was a citizen of the cosmopolis, the world polis, which Roman Stoics, with some justification, had identified with the Roman Empire.

Greek Stoicism had sought apathē, a state of emotional equilibrium in which the individual was disturbed by neither bad nor good developments.  This naturally inclined the Stoic to withdraw from the disturbances of the world, but the Roman character could not accept such rejection of duty, and Roman Stoics, prominent among the Senatorial elites, felt the need to serve.  And Aurelius was not just a citizen of the cosmopolis, but designated to become the First Citizen, a duty he could not refuse.

And that duty was onerous. In 161 the Parthians invaded Armenia and Syria, and after some setbacks – the eastern legions were never as tough as the northern – they were repulsed and Parthia was invaded.  By 166 the Parthians were defeated and their capital, Ctesiphon, destroyed, leaving them quiet for the next thirty years.  Unfortunately, the returning troops brought with them the “Antonine plague,” probably smallpox, which rapidly spread across the Empire, leaving entire districts depopulated, and it may have been the cause of Verus’ death in 169.

The removal of so many northern units for the Parthian War encouraged barbarian tribes north of the Danube, themselves under pressure from Germans in central Europe, to cross the river. The north central provinces were over run, and one group crossed the Alps and besieged Aquileia, the first time barbarians had entered Italy in almost three hundred years.  The barbarians cleared out, but the storm soon broke again, and one group, the Costoboci, penetrated as far as Athens.  Aurelius spent most of his remaining years on the Danube frontier fighting the Marcommani, Iazges and Quadi and was apparently on the verge of thoroughly pacifying the districts north of the river when he died in 180.

Marcus Aurelius is virtually unique among heads of state in western history in that we are able to peer into his very soul. He was accustomed to jot down his innermost thoughts, and these writings were preserved and published as the Meditations, apparently contrary to his intentions.  What we see is a man who was compelled to perform his duty to the Empire, but who did so with a kind of detachment, spending those long years fighting on the Danube frontier yet believing that in the end none of it really mattered.  Life was transient, fleeting, as he eloquently puts it: “Yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes.”  He was, in short, the noblest man to rule the Empire.

The imperial situation had been restored, but the Empire was still in dire straits, short of money and manpower from the plague and constant warfare. Had it not been for the attention paid to the military establishment by his predecessors and Aurelius’ diligence in dealing with the growing barbarian tide, the Empire might actually have begun collapsing.  Even a competent successor would have faced serious problems, and unfortunately Rome was left in the hands of a seriously incompetent ruler, Aurelius’ son, M. Commodus Antoninus, who had been made co-emperor in 177.

Why Aurelius allowed his unpromising son to succeed him is something of a mystery, and there is evidence that at his end he realized his mistake, too late. Commodus, who was with his father in the north, promptly made peace with tribes, undoing much of his father’s work, in order to return to the pleasures of Rome.  Commodus was corrupt, indolent and brutal and preferred to leave the government of the Empire at this critical time to a succession of favorites, who unlike Pallas and Narcissus under Claudius were far less interested in the state than their own power.  (One is perhaps reminded of the American Congress.)  Unsurprisingly, he did not get along with the Senate and executions abounded, while he indulged himself fighting as a gladiator in the arena, a slap in the face of Roman dignity.  By 191 he seems to have become completely deranged, playing the role of Hercules and renaming Rome Colonia Commodiana.  Meanwhile, the Senatorial class was decimated and the treasuries empty, despite the practice of selling state offices, and the Empire was surviving because of the diligence of his commanders.  His favorites saw the handwriting on the wall, and on the last day of 192 he was strangled, and his memory was damned.

Commodus

Commodus

Commodus’ assassination was followed by a replay of the Year of the Four Emperors, this time on a larger and more destructive scale. The conspirators selected a respected army commander, P. Helvius Pertinax, but although the Praetorians initially accepted him, they really did not trust him, especially when he paid only half the promised bribe.  He lasted three months before he was murdered, and the Guard, at a loss for a candidate, auctioned off the Empire to the highest bidder, a rich Senator named M. Didius Julianus.  This humiliating moment in the history of the Principate angered everyone, and Julianus’ days were numbered in any case.  Once news of the death of Pertinax had reached the headquarters of the Danubian army, the troops had proclaimed L. Septimius Severus emperor, and he was already marching on Rome.  Septimius promised the Praetorians their lives if they abandoned Julianus, and he was murdered on the first of June 193.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Pertinax

Pertinax

Didius Julianus

Didius Julianus

 

Thus began the last dynasty of the Principate. Septimius disbanded the Praetorian Guard and created it anew, this time with veterans from outside Italy, and soon after he stationed a legion in Italy.  Meanwhile, a challenger, C. Perscennius Niger Justus, former general and present governor of Syria, was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and Septimius marched east and defeated him in 194.  Septimius then invaded Parthia, and though successful, he was soon called back west to face another challenger, D. Clodius Albinus.  Septimius had made Albinus, the governor of Britain, his “Caesar,” a sign that he was to be the successor, but in 195 or 196 he was proclaimed emperor by his forces, probably because he feared betrayal by Septimius.  He was defeated in 197, and Septimius returned to the east, where by 199 he had chased the Parthian king east and created a province of Mesopotamia.  He died in 212, fighting Caledonians in Britain.

Clodius Albinus

Clodius Albinus

Perscennius Niger

Perscennius Niger

According to his wish, Septimius’ sons, M. Aurelius Antoninus Caracallus and P. Septimius Geta, became co-rulers, but they already hated one another, and Caracalla had his younger brother murdered in 212. Caracalla, though cruel and cowardly and lacking in any charm, understood the importance of keeping the army happy, and while he had no particular military talents, he did useful work on the northern frontiers.  Pursuing his dream of becoming a second Alexander the Great, in 216 he invaded Parthia and occupied northern Mesopotamia without encountering any resistance.  In the spring of the following year, however, he was assassinated on the orders of his Praetorian Prefect, M. Opellius Macrinus, who himself feared that Caracalla was about to arrest him. Two days later Macrinus was proclaimed emperor by the army.

Geta

Geta

Caracalla

Caracalla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreshadowing the Anarchy, Macrinus was the first emperor who was not of the Senatorial order. He was initially not unpopular after the vindictive tyranny of Caracalla, but though without vices, he was also lacking in any talent, and he alienated his troops by buying peace from the Parthians and keeping his northern legions in Syria.  Meanwhile, the Severan family was not idle.  Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa, had two grandsons, and she put it about that the elder, Bassianus, was the natural son of Caracalla, and this along with the now customary bribe caused the nearest legion to proclaim him emperor in 218.  Troops began deserting to Bassianus, and soon defeated, Macrinus and his son and co-emperor, Diadumenianus, were killed.  Thus began the reign of easily the most worthless man ever to rule the Emperor.

Macrinus

Macrinus

The fifteen year old Bassianus officially took the name M. Aurelius Antoninus, but as chief priest of an orgiastic Syrian deity, he had adopted the name of his god, Elagabalus. His obsession with this alien religion, shared by his mother Julia Soaemias, quickly led to disaster.  He made Elagabalus chief god of Rome, engaged in rites such as ritual prostitution and cross-dressing and even married one of the Vestal Virgins.  Depravity became the means of access to high office.  Everyone was disgusted, and fearing for her own position, his grandmother convinced Elagabalus in 221 to adopt her other grandson, the thirteen year old Alexanius, a youth of entirely different character.  In 222 Alexander’s mother Julia Mammaea bribed the already resentful Praetorians to murder Elagabalus and his mother, who were dragged through the streets and thrown in the Tiber.

Elagabalus

Elagabalus

Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa

M. Aurelius Severus Alexander became the last Princeps, if that term may still be applied. In effect the government was run by his grandmother and after her death his mother, and although their administration saw a return of respect for the Senate and some economic revival in the Empire, the soldiery grew impatient with the unwarlike Alexander. In 227 the Sassanid Persian dynasty put an end to the exhausted Parthian Empire and occupied the Roman province of Mesopotamia, and in 231 Alexander invaded the new Persian Empire, but failed to recover Mesopotamia. In 234 he responded to German incursions across the Rhine and Danube by concentrating an army near Mainz, but he first attempted to buy off the barbarians, perhaps influenced by his mother, who was present.  The disgusted northern legions murdered him and his mother in 235 and proclaimed C. Julius Verus Maximinus, a one-time Thracian peasant who had risen through the ranks, emperor.  The Anarchy had begun.

Maximinus

Maximinus

Alexander

Alexander

Politically, things had certainly changed. By 235 the Senate had become a virtually powerless institution, no longer proposing decrees and no longer having any control over the magistracies and governmental appointments.  Its only power was to grant or withhold deification of a dead emperor, and that was constrained by the whims of the new ruler.  Further, less and less did the Senate represent the old Roman noble families.  It was not simply new Italian families, such as the Flavians, but increasingly also provincial nobility, a process that went all the way back to Caesar.

This growing cosmopolitanism was also reflected in the Princeps and the Empire as a whole. Trajan and Hadrian were Spaniards and Septimius Severus from north Africa, as Roman as Caesar but without the pure bloodlines of the old families.  This “democratization” ultimately extended to even the lowest: in 212 Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire – the so-called Antonine Constitution.  Caracalla did this in order to increase revenues and the citizenship had become essentially politically meaningless, but it represents something virtually unique in the history of empire.  A man whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought the legions now had the same legal status as one who could trace his line back to the early Republic.  This enfranchisement of the Empire, together with Septimius’ stationing of a legion in Italy, paved the way for the ultimate evolution of Italy into just another set of provinces.

This “democratization” was also impacting the military. Traditionally, the officer class came from the Senatorial nobility, and the highest a ranker might rise to was chief centurion, the Roman equivalent of Sergeant-Major. This barrier was already crumbling as emperors made increasing use of the Equestrian class for commands and high posts (the lesser nobility, traditionally involved in business and lower administrative posts), further marginalizing the Senate.   Septimius dramatically increased the opportunities for rankers and especially their sons to gain Equestrian and even Senatorial status, thus opening the way for the highest offices, including Princeps, as Maximinus demonstrates.  The replacement of the traditional soldiers’ cult of the legionary standards with a sort of emperor worship is a sign of the increasingly intimate relationship between army and ruler.  In fact, veterans had become a favored class in the state, enjoying many special privileges; this is the “militarization” of the Empire.

Military pay had risen steadily and donatives by newly elevated emperors were now the common practice, but the army remained an efficient and disciplined force. Frontier fortifications were becoming more common – Hadrian built a wall from the Tyne to the Solway Firth and further north Antoninus constructed an earthen rampart and ditch from the Forth to the Clyde – but the legions remained a field army, ready to be moved to any critical spot, and a point defense remained the grand strategy of the Empire.  The provincial auxiliaries had become virtually identical to the legions, especially in the wake of the Antonine Constitution, and were very Romanized, but the practice of creating numeri, cheaper but thinly Romanized native and even barbarian units on the frontiers, was a growing threat to imperial stability.  Finally, Parthia and subsequently Persia was becoming an imperial obsession and drain on resources, as lower quality rulers sought to emulate Alexander the Great.

One might include the period after the assassination of Commodus in the Anarchy, but while the Severans are certainly a sort of Coming Attractions for the Anarchy, they are still substantially different from what will follow. They do present a relatively stable, if weak, dynasty lasting forty-two years (compared to the twenty-seven of the Flavians), and the military has not yet declined into an inefficient and completely undisciplined mass, supporting whomever will make their lives easier, Empire be damned.  The idea of a Princeps working in partnership with the Senate has of course atrophied into an all-powerful emperor, backed by the army, dealing with a virtually powerless institution.  But the idea is still there, if now completely at the whim of the autocrat.  It disappears completely during the Anarchy, and the emperor of the Late Empire is no longer a First Citizen but a Dominus or Lord, answering only to himself and soon enough, the Christian god.

 

96-180 The Five Good Emperors 

   96-98 Nerva 

   98-117 Trajan 

            101-102 First Dacian War

105-106 Second Dacian War

114-117 Parthian War

117-138 Hadrian 

            132-135 Second Jewish Revolt 

138-161 Antoninus Pius 

   161-180 Marcus Aurelius 

161-169 Lucius Verus 

            177-180 Commodus 

            161-166 Parthian War

167-175, 177-180 Danubian barbarian wars 

   180-192 Commodus 

193 Jan-March Pertinax 

193 March-June Didius Julianus 

193-235 Severans 

193-211 Septimius Severus 

            194 Defeat of Perscennius Niger

195, 197-199 Parthian war

197 Defeat of Clodius Albinus

211-217 Caracalla 

211-212 Geta 

            212 Antoninian Constitution

214 ParthianWar 

   (217-218 Macrinus [and Diadumenianus]) 

218-222 Elagabalus 

   222-235 Severus Alexander

             227 Sassanid Persians replace Parthians

230-233 Persian War

235 – 285 Anarchy

 285 – 5th Century   Dominate or Late Empire

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Stuff from Way Back #32a: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?

(I have recently discussed the civil war that finally brought an end to the Roman Republic [Stuff from Way Back #21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?] and the establishment of the Principate by Augustus [Stuff from Way Back #26: Image is Everything], and it seems appropriate to continue the story – on to the final collapse of the Empire.  And the story of the early Empire should shed a wee bit of light on the question of dictatorship versus chaos in the Middle East.  Incidentally, for the Julio-Claudians I highly recommend the old BBC series I, Claudius, but keep in mind that Livia did not kill any of the people she is accused of.)

 

The almost complete failure of the Arab Spring and the chaos of Syria and Iraq (and soon Afghanistan) have raised again the question of whether even a dictatorship is preferable to the disorder, destruction and death now widespread in the Arab world.  The answer of course depends on the nature of the dictatorship and the depth of the disorder.  The rule of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was for the average Athenian clearly preferable to the constant mismanagement of the state by the oligarchy of wealth he overthrew, and even life under the deadly thumb of Joseph Stalin was better than the utter disaster of the Russian Civil War.

Five thousand years of civilization have not been so much a struggle for freedom as one for security and comfort.  With a few exceptions, such as classical Greece, the Roman Republic and much of the world in the last century or two, the average human has been quite willing to surrender political freedom for a tolerable life.  In fact, there has rarely been anything to surrender, since political freedom has been a very scarce commodity until recently.  Further, even now people can be satisfied with the illusion of political participation and liberties so long as they can enjoy the good life.

A recent opinion in Der Spiegel has argued that there are no functional or stable dictatorships, since they all contain the seeds of their own collapse.  This may often be true insofar as the long haul is concerned, since the death or overthrow of an autocrat frequently leads to a contest for power and consequent disorder.  On the other hand, because of traditional dynastic succession absolute monarchy generally did a fair job of providing longer term stability, and even in the modern world a defined successor, as with Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, can preserve stability across a transition of power.

The same article, however, boldly stated that “There is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship,” which strikes me as an absurd assertion. Ask the Athenians about the difference between the Peisistratid dictatorship and that of the infamous Thirty Tyrants who briefly ruled Athens after her defeat by Sparta in 404 BC.  Autocracy can in fact provide excellent government.  The rub is in guaranteeing that you have a good autocrat.

This was one of the problems faced by Octavian after his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC.  The only alternative to yet more disorder and civil war was a stable dictatorship based on military support; there was simply no way to return to the wealth-dominated democracy of the Republic.  He certainly did not solve the problem of guaranteeing that the dictator would always be competent and benevolent, but he did create a structure that with two brief interruptions secured imperial stability and prosperity for almost a quarter of a millennium.  Despite the long Roman experience of popular legislative assemblies and elections, a rarity in the pre-modern world, democracy could not have achieved this.

This period, from 14 BC to AD 235, is called the Principate, because there was theoretically no office of dictator or emperor.  Octavian, who took the name Augustus, understood the importance of image in politics and created a sham Republic, in which he was voted by the Senate all the powers associated with the Republican offices, including control of the military, without having to hold any of them.  Thus, he was not Emperor or Dictator or Consul for Life but simply the Princeps or “First Citizen” in the restored Republic.  That this “Republic” was an autocracy was obvious to anyone with any intelligence, but it made the bitter pill of a dictatorship easier for the former ruling elites to accept.

Augustus

Augustus

A traditional problem with autocracies is their tendency to become dynastic, which of course does not guarantee competence on the part of the successor; even supposedly communist North Korea has followed a dynastic succession. Compounding the problem for Augustus was the need for the Princeps to have a Julian connection, since the army was unbelievably impacted by C. Julius Caesar and loyal to his memory.  The idea was to select a promising member of the family and groom him as successor, easing him into power until he was virtual co-ruler with the Princeps.  Because of deaths, Augustus was forced to choose his adopted stepson, Tiberius, a Claudian, as his heir, and consequently the initial dynasty of the Principate is called the Julio-Claudians.  (See the chronological table at the end of the article.)

Tiberius was virtually co-ruler when Augustus died, and the change of power was smooth.  That Tiberius was a well-known general among the Rhine legions compensated for his lack of a direct blood connection to Caesar.              The Roman people were delighted by the Principate, but the Senatorial elites were not, dreaming of the true Republic and forming conspiracies, making it even more difficult for the gruff Tiberius, who would have preferred to be with the troops than in Rome, to play the sophisticated game Augustus had set up.  Not that it mattered.  He was succeeded in AD 37 by the twenty-five year old C. Caligula, son of his immensely popular brother Germanicus.  “Bootsie” (Caligula is the diminutive of caliga, the legionary boot, a tiny pair of which Caligula had as a child on the Rhine.) was also popular, but six months into the office he had some sort of nervous breakdown and became completely irrational.  The sham Republic of the Principate now had a first citizen who proclaimed himself a god.

Tiberius

Tiberius

Bootsie

Bootsie

Thus, a little more than two decades after Augustus’ death Rome was confronted with the problem of how to get rid of a bad Princeps. The only answer of course is assassination, and he was killed in AD 41 by insulted members of the Praetorian Guard acting in concert with members of the Senate hoping to choose their own successor or restore the Republic.  Other members of the Guard, however, found Caligula’s uncle Claudius and proclaimed him emperor, whether with Claudius’ connivance or not is unclear.  Many thought Claudius, a fifty-year old scholar who had a number of infirmities, to be a fool, but fortunately for Rome, he turned out to be an excellent administrator.

Claudius himself died in AD 54, and the consensus is that he was poisoned by his last wife, Agrippina, whom he had married because of her Julian connections.  He was succeeded by her son, Nero, whom Claudius had elevated above his own son, Britannicus, presumably because Nero was older and was much more a Julian, important in retaining the loyalty of the military.  Agrippina probably feared he might change his mind or simply wanted her son emperor while he was still young enough to be dominated by her.  In any event, Nero killed both Britannicus and after several failed attempts his own mother.  Nero was a terrible Princeps, ignoring the administration of the Empire in favor of his aesthetic interests (he competed in music and poetry in the Olympics) and his building programs, which drained the treasury.

Nero

Nero

Claudius

Claudius

Growing opposition from the Senatorial class pushed Nero further into tyranny and executions, and he was losing the support of the urban mob as well. More important, he ignored the military, never showing himself at the camps and even appointing his freedmen (ex-slaves) as commanders.  He was creating the environment for a revolt, and matters came to a head in AD 68, when the military basis of the Principate became perfectly clear in the “Year of the Four Emperors,” AD 68-69.

AD 68 one of the governors in Gaul, C. Julius Vindex, raised the standard of revolt and freedom from the tyrant.  He was easily defeated, but fearing for his life because of his association with Vindex, Ser. Sulpicius Galba, one of the Spanish governors, prepared to march on Rome, supported by the governor of Lusitania, M. Salvius Otho.  Nero had troops available near Rome, but despaired when his Praetorian Prefect suddenly disappeared and he learned the Guard had accepted a massive bribe from an agent of Galba.  The other provincial armies began revolting, the Senate declared for Galba, and Nero committed suicide with the help of a slave, declaring what a real artist the world was losing.

That was it for the Julio-Claudians.  There were simply no more male Julians available, and while the armies may have been reluctant to recognize a non-Julian (even though there was now no one left alive who could remember Caesar), they and the Praetorians were not about to accept a return to the rule of the Senate.  Galba thus became the first non-Julio-Claudian Princeps.  He did not last long.  The military did not trust the seventy-three year old Senator, and no one liked his austerity program, especially the Guard, whose promised bribe was not paid.  One of the Rhine commanders, Aulus Vitellius began marching on Rome, while Otho, feeling cheated by Galba, appealed to the Praetorians and soldiers in Rome, who proclaimed him emperor and murdered Galba in January of AD 69.

Otho might well have been a good Princeps, but the German legions following Vitellius refused to declare for him, and while he had the support of some seventeen legions, they were scattered about the Empire.  In April he was defeated by Vitellius’ forces at Bedriacum in northern Italy, and though he still had considerable resources, he committed suicide to spare Rome a protracted civil war.  Vitellius was now Princeps, but already in trouble.  Off in the east T. Flavius Vespasianus, the commander finishing off the First Jewish Revolt, was persuaded by his troops and the eastern governors to take his shot at the imperial purple.  The Egyptian, Syrian and Danubian legions all joined him, and the Vitellian troops, beset by desertions to Vespasian, were defeated by Flavian forces at the second battle of Bedriacum and the battle of Cremona.  The indolent and gluttonous Vitellius negotiated an abdication, but his troops went on a rampage in Rome, killing Vespasian’s brother (and ominously burning down the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus), and Vitellius came out of retirement, only to be defeated and killed by Flavian forces, who themselves then sacked Rome.

Galba

Galba

Vitellius

Vitellius

Otho

Otho

Vespasian was Princeps.  The Julio-Claudians had governed Rome for ninety-five years, and after a relatively brief and limited struggle their dynasty had been replaced by the Flavians.  Tacitus, an historian of this period, declared that the secret of empire was now out: one did not need to be in Rome to become emperor.  Nor, it can be added, did one need to be a Julian – or by implication, of any particular noble family.  The Year of the Four Emperors had made it vividly clear to the troops and certainly their generals that they were the basis of political power in the state, but the legionaries of the first century were not the self-interested scum of the Anarchy.  They were still disciplined and loyal to the idea of the Roman state and Empire, and following the victory of Vespasian, they returned to their camps and did not leave in serious numbers again for another hundred and twenty-four years.

Vespasian is the Lyndon Baines Johnson of the Principate.  He was a no-nonsense and determined leader, well educated, but presenting the shrewdness of the farmer of central Italy, from which his family came, rather than urban cleverness.  His ever active wit was more rustic than sophisticated: when on his death bed, knowing that he would be posthumously deified, he quipped “I feel myself becoming a god!”  Given his character and how he came to power, he could hardly pretend simply to be the First Citizen, but he was willing to respect the Senate and involve them in the administration of the Empire, though he was constantly opposed by the Stoic philosophers.  And he surely looked like LBJ.

Emperor LBJ

Emperor LBJ

Vespasian

Vespasian

Vespasian restored confidence, peace and prosperity in the Empire, and the succession of his son T. Flavius Vespasianus in AD 79 was completely smooth.  Titus was remembered as one of the best Principes, though his poor health only allowed him two years of rule. The only memorable events of his administration were the dedication of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Coliseum), begun by his father, and the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Though he had not been designated heir, Titus was followed by his younger brother, T. Flavius Domitianus.

Domitian is remembered as a cruel tyrant, but this is a grand exaggeration of the Senate that conspired to kill him and hostile historians such as Tacitus.  He was far more openly autocratic than his father and did seemingly possess a cruel streak, which may explain why he was not politically prepared by either his father or brother.  Senatorial opposition and his fears created a cycle of conspiracy and execution, which resulted in his assassination in AD 96.  But he was a capable administrator and popular with the army, securing the imperial stability that preserved peace and prosperity, and in that regard he must be regarded as one of the better Principes.  But the Flavian dynasty had come to an end.  What now?

Domitian

Domitian

Titus

Titus

As expected the Principate had evolved, most obviously in becoming more openly autocratic.  A signpost along the way was the legal mechanism of Vespasian’s accession.  Whereas Augustus had all his powers voted to him by the Senate in bits and pieces, Vespasian became Princeps through a single law, the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, a step that further defined an actual office of emperor.  While Caligula and Nero might be considered aberrations, the autocratic Flavians were competent rulers and their administrations beneficial for the Empire, which certainly helped smooth the way for a growing acceptance of an outright Emperor.  The weaknesses of dynastic succession had become very apparent, both in the accession of completely unsuitable rulers and in the emergence of powerful advisors, generally freedmen, who essentially ran the government under a weak Princeps.  Even Claudius, an excellent ruler, relied heavily on his Greek freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, who could often sway the Princeps to a particular course of action.  History has shown again and again that personal access to the autocrat, especially if he is weak, is a tremendous source of power for individuals who are otherwise merely servants – consider the administration of Bush junior.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s position as a partner in the Principate was shrinking. The Senatorial class was still a source of administrators for the Empire, but the Senate itself had to satisfy itself with relatively trivial matters, and its role as a serious decision-making body was disappearing.  It would appear also that by the end of this period Senatorial dreams of the Republic had finally died: when Domitian was assassinated, there was no talk of restoring the Republic, but simply choosing their own candidate for Princeps.

Finally, the military and the Empire remained strong.  After the loss of three legions in the disaster in Germany in AD 9 Augustus had declared that the Empire had reached its largest sustainable extent, and with the exception of Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 43 for political reasons, this was adhered to.  The Flavians completed the occupation of Britain up to the Scottish highlands, and the addition of the island did not materially lengthen the frontiers to be defended, though the British provinces apparently never paid for their upkeep.  Domitian in fact cashiered his excellent general Gn. Julius Agricola for suggesting that he could easily conquer the Scottish highlands and Ireland.  The Flavians also occupied and fortified the triangle of land between the upper Rhine and Danube, thus shortening the northern frontier.  If anything, the army was stronger at the end of the first century because of the work done by the Flavians in organization and equipment.  It was primarily stationed in large permanent camps (many of which would become cities), especially on the Rhine-Danube frontier, but it clearly remained a field force, ready to move along the road system to any point of threat.

But in AD 96 the last Flavian was dead and the Senate had chosen its own candidate.  What would the army do now?

 

(753)–c. 509 BC Regal period

c. 509–27 BC Republic 

133–30 Revolution

30 Deaths of Antony and Cleopatra VII, supremacy of Octavian/Augustus

27 BC–AD 235 Principate or Early Empire

  27 BC- AD 68 Julio-Claudians

    27 BC–AD 14 Augustus

             26-6 BC pacification of Spain, Alps and lands south of Danube

AD 9 loss of Germany

14-37 Tiberius

    37-41 Gaius Caligula

41-54 Claudius

43 Invasion of Britain

54-68 Nero

             66–70 First Jewish Revolt

68–69 Year of the Four Emperors, civil war

June 68-Jan 69 Galba

             Jan-March 69 Otho

             April-Dec 69 Vitellius

69-96 Flavians

69-79 Vespanian

             70 Destruction of Jerusalem

79-81 Titus

    81-96 Domitian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Stuff from Way Back #29b: Roma Aeterna

The last and most critical reason depends upon how one understands life in the Roman Empire, and there is much we do not know about life in the rural areas of the provinces. I am, however, convinced that it was basically good, convinced especially by the belief that the Empire could not have been generally so stable and last so long were its inhabitants generally oppressed. This of course comes close to making a circular argument, but the evidence appears to support the contention that at least until the Anarchy life in the Empire for the average free person was relatively comfortable or at least acceptable. Imperial structures based entirely on fear are simply not stable over the longer run – consider the Assyrian Empire.

 
Strong evidence that the Roman Empire was not such a bad place to live lies in the fact that apart from the Jews the Romans essentially did not have to concern themselves with the revolt of subject peoples. This strikes me as an impossibility were the Empire held together only by fear. There were of course revolts, which were suppressed with great brutality, but they all occur in areas that were recently or incompletely pacified: Gaul in the 50s BC, Illyricum in AD 6, Germany in AD 9, Boudicca in AD 59, Civilis in AD 69, Mesopotamia in AD 116. Once an area had been controlled for perhaps a generation Roman rule was accepted.

 
The one exception was the Jews, who undertook two disastrous revolts against Rome, the results of which were to forever change (and improve) the nature of Judaism by ridding the religion of the temple and all the rituals and sacrifices characteristic of polytheism and allowing it to become more introspective and spiritual. The Jews were a special case inasmuch as their monotheism prevented them from being assimilated into the polytheist Greco-Roman culture of the Empire as were all the other subject peoples. Understanding this, the Romans granted the Jews special exemptions from such things as any obligation to the imperial cult and allowed them more local autonomy, but friction was impossible to avoid. It was not just the religion, which affected every aspect of their society, but also the fact that this religion was inextricably entwined with the idea of a national state, given them by god. This was one thing Rome could not grant, given the strategic importance of Syria-Palestine.

It didn't work out

It didn’t work out

Generally Roman rule appears to have been accepted, certainly once the generation of the conquest had passed. The provincials, a least in the towns and cities, were easily assimilated and ultimately Romanized. The highly urbanized and Hellenized east fit readily into the urban Greco-Roman culture of the Empire; though Latin was the official language, Greek was the real lingua franca of the eastern provinces. In the west Roman civilization was simply at a much higher level of development than that of the Celtic and German tribes and naturally dominated, once again at least in the municipalities.

 
I believe that up until the Anarchy Rome gave more than she took. She obviously robbed the provincials of their nominal independence, but for many, especially in the Greek east, this was meaningless since they had already been under the control of someone else. Self-determination for the Greek states had essentially disappeared with the conquests of Alexander, but Rome had no problem allowing the Greeks and everyone else to run their own cities and communities. In fact, she had little choice but to allow a great deal of local autonomy, since administering the Empire at the grassroots level was beyond the manpower and financial resources of the state. Rome followed a traditional imperial pattern by making alliances with the local elites and drawing upon their experience by allowing them to govern locally under the auspices of the Roman officials at the province level. Such had the additional benefit of shrinking the imperial presence in the lives of the Empire’s subjects.

 
Rome of course also collected taxes. There is a great deal of dispute over what the tax burden was like for the average inhabitant of the Empire, but my estimation is that from the end of the Republic to the Anarchy that burden was not particularly onerous – in general. The civil wars in the first century BC saw the financial rape of the wealthy eastern provinces, but the return to stability and the systemization of provincial administration and tax collection seems to have produced a tolerable level of taxation. In any case, the Empire certainly prospered in the next two and a half centuries, suggesting relatively comfortable or at least livable economic circumstances for most inhabitants. With the Anarchy this changes rapidly, as continual civil war and barbarian invasion drives the government to extremes of revenue collection, which in turn begins to strangle the productive classes of the Empire.
In return the imperial subject received a number of things, the most important of which was peace and security. We tend to underestimate the value of peace because no wars have rumbled through the United States for a century and a half and we are used to it. For most human beings decades, let alone centuries, of peace is a highly compelling commodity. It is clear in the modern world that most people, even in places like America, would gladly trade some of their freedom and civil rights for security and comfort. So, that Gaul who fought against Caesar probably hated Rome, but his grandson would likely think more about the eight legions on the Rhine that prevented the Germans from trashing his farm every summer.

Better than Germans

Better than Germans

The Empire meant more uniform laws and more efficient mechanisms of justice. This is not to say that the average person was guaranteed justice – as today, money and social standing played a large role – but he certainly had a better shot at it. There were material benefits of course. Those military roads that knitted the Empire together could be used by anyone, dramatically enhancing communications and consequently commerce. In fact, take an area the size of the Roman Empire and guarantee more or less continuous peace for a couple of centuries, and the economy can hardly fail to prosper, assuming reasonable levels of taxation.

 
But far more important, second only to peace, was that the Roman Empire was an open society and became more so as it aged. Rome exported Romanitas, that is, her culture and language, though not through any state directed policy. In the east Romanitas dovetailed perfectly with the Hellenism that had helped shape it, while in the west it naturally overwhelmed the less sophisticated native cultures, at least in the municipalities, which were focal points of Romanitas. Speak Latin and act like a Roman, and few will worry about your Celtic blood.

 
Even the once precious citizenship was available to non-Romans. By the time of the Principate citizenship was politically meaningless on the national level, but municipal politics remained vibrant, and in any case the citizenship brought enhanced social status and some economic advantages. During the Republic, Rome was loathe to extend citizenship to non-Romans – the Italian allies had to revolt to get it – but this hesitation broke down rapidly with the advent of the autocracy. In AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire. Now, he did it as a way to raise more revenues, and being a Roman citizen pretty much lost all its value when everyone was one, but the act is symbolic of the character of the Empire. Henceforth, a Roman who could trace his ancestry back to the early Republic had the same legal status as someone whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought Caesar. The conquerors had lost their special status in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. This points the way to the Late Empire, when Italy will simply be another set of provinces.

 
The city was one of the two primary mechanisms for the Romanizing of the Empire. They were the bastions of Romanitas, settled originally by Italians and bringing the trappings of Roman civilization to the provinces. And Rome had an unofficial policy of encouraging urbanization: the more urbanized a province was the more economically active it was and the easier it was to secure. Cities and towns of course also helped spread Romanitas, and they provided higher quality recruits for the provincial military units, who, incidentally, received the citizenship upon discharge.

A nice place to raise a family

A nice place to raise a family

The other major Romanizing element was the army, an irony considering that one rarely sees soldiers as a civilizing force. But half the Roman military establishment was composed of the provincial auxiliaries, for whom the army was a factory creating new Romans. One was not going to pick up the finer points of Roman culture in a legionary camp on the Danube, but the recruit learned basic Latin, the essentials of being Roman and came to think of himself as a Roman. It is estimated that during the first two centuries of the Principate the auxiliaries supplied a stream of about 15,000 Romanized provincials a year.

The Empire wants you!

The Empire wants you!

There was a two-way street connecting Rome to the provinces. As she exported Romanitas, she was also importing provincial talent, products of the Romanizing of the Empire. These were people whose bloodlines were not at all Italian but who did not for a minute consider themselves anything other than Roman. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian came originally from Spain, completely Roman but descended at least in part from Iberians. The emperor Septimius Severus hailed from North Africa, and during the Anarchy emperors came all over the Empire.

 
Despite Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the best and truest film ever made about Rome) most people think of the Roman Empire in negative terms – slaughtering Gauls, scattering Jews, oppressing Christians – but to my mind the Empire was perhaps the finest imperial structure ever, which accounts in part for its longevity. This was an incredibly cosmopolitan entity, a rare and seemingly successful multicultural state. The British Empire turned subjects into quasi-Englishmen, but Britain never relinquished its status as imperial master; one was not about to find an African or Indian in Parliament. Rome civilized western Europe and did it without the snottiness and hypocrisy of the British.

Welease Bwian!

Welease Bwian!

What have the Romans ever done for us?” Plenty.

Stuff from Way Back #29a: Roma Aeterna

(I am getting too carried away with these history pieces and must shorten them.  Consequently, this week’s post includes only the first half of the article, and you must wait to find out exactly why Rome was so cool.  I am traveling to Germany for two weeks, so you will have to wait even longer.)

 

 

The fall of the Roman Empire has long been the most popular question concerning antiquity, probably because Rome is the most widely known ancient state and because it is the premier empire.  At their peaks the Mongol, Spanish, Russian and British Empires all controlled far more territory than the Roman, but hands down Rome wins the prize for longevity.  (The Chinese “Empire” was essentially a series of relatively distinct Chinese states.)  Beginning as a tiny city-state on the Tiber, a miniscule platform for empire-building compared to the European powers, the Roman Republic methodically conquered and unified the Italian peninsula in two centuries and in another century eliminated every possible rival in the Mediterranean-European world.  The Roman Empire is thus established by the middle of the second century BC, though a great deal of real estate – most of the eastern Mediterranean, northwestern Europe and Britain – was yet to be occupied.

the big one

the big one

The Senate-dominated Republic collapsed in the first century BC, and though “restored” by Augustus in 27 BC (see Stuff from Way Back #26: Image is Everything), the reality was a military autocracy, the Principate.  In AD 235 the Principate gave way to the Anarchy, essentially a fifty year long civil war that vividly revealed the serious cracks in the imperial structure.  A measure of order was restored in AD 285, but in AD 378 the Empire permanently split into a western and eastern half, and the western empire disappeared in the next half century.  If the fall is marked by this final division, then the Empire had lasted some six hundred years; the city of Rome itself had remained unoccupied by a foreign army for eight hundred years.

 

The decline and fall of such a long-lived and high civilization is understandably a fascinating subject (it had nothing to do with immorality or Christianity), but equally fascinating is a far less frequently posed question: why did it last so long?  Incompetent and outright mad emperors, civil wars, barbarian invasions, military revolts, the Empire went on.  It even survived the Anarchy, a half century of more or less constant civil war, during which barbarians penetrated deep into the Empire, which actually fragmented into three parts at one point.

 

There are three broad reasons, two of them indisputable historical considerations, the third – and most important – in part a judgment call, though based on the historical evidence.

 

First, throughout the four centuries of the Late Republic and the Principate and to a lesser degree for another century after that, Rome had no seriously dangerous foreign enemies.  During this long period the Empire had two major foes.  The first was the Parthian Empire.  The Parthians were an Iranian people who established a kingdom in northeastern Iran in the third century BC and expanded south and west as the Greek Seleucid Empire declined.  The kingdom ultimately stretched from Iran to the frontiers of Roman power in eastern Anatolia and in Syria, where constant friction emerged during last century of the Republic.

 

Parthia was, however, more of a nuisance than a real threat, raiding and capturing Roman territory only when the Romans were distracted, as during the civil wars that brought down the Republic.  (See Stuff from Way Back #21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?)  Parthia was a very decentralized state, with local governors possessing a great deal of autonomy, and the central government often wrestled with dynastic problems as well.  Unlike the Romans of the Principate, Parthia had no professional standing army, though it could quickly mobilize levies and raise effective horse archers and armored lancers, as M. Licinius Crassus discovered in 53 BC with his defeat and death at Carrhae.  Further, the Parthian king had his own problems with barbarians on his northeastern frontier and commanded far less economic resources than Rome.

next door neighbors

next door neighbors

The relative weakness of Parthia was constantly demonstrated when the Romans were able to easily deal with Parthian incursions even before solving their own problems that had led to the aggression.  Most vividly, there is the emperor Trajan’s rapid conquest of the Parthian heartland in AD 114-117.  That the entire area was immediately evacuated by his successor Hadrian is not a reflection of Parthian strength but a recognition that Rome did not have the manpower necessary to garrison a large area that could not be easily assimilated into the Greco-Roman culture of the Empire.

 

In AD 224 the declining Parthian Empire was seized by a new Iranian group, the Sassanid Persians, whose new empire was essentially a reprise of the Parthian.  The Persians did, however, develop heavily armored cavalry (but still no stirrups) and siege equipment and tactics, vital in fighting the well-equipped Romans.  The emergence of a new dynasty also generated a new aggressiveness, and this was at a time when Rome was on the brink of the Anarchy.  Still, even during the Anarchy and the frequent civil wars of the late Empire Persia could not permanently occupy Roman territory.  Actually, Persia’s greatest threat to Rome was simply being there, a new Persian Empire that constantly lured foolish and incompetent Roman emperors to attempt to emulate Alexander and launch expensive and pointless invasions of the east.

 

Rome’s only other enemy was not a coherent state but a category: barbarians.  The barbarians in north Africa were hardly noticed, and those in and around Britain were simply annoying.  The Germanic tribes were a lot tougher and prowled a frontier that stretched from the mouth of the Rhine to the Black Sea.  Nevertheless, they were never any problem for competently led legions, and even during the Anarchy, when tribes were able to penetrate deep into the Empire, they were soon mopped up.  Only with the great folk migrations of the late fourth century and later did they become a serious problem, and one suspects that had the government and army of the fifth century been equal to that of the first, they could have been routinely dealt with.

Thus was the outside pressure on the Empire minimal and relatively easily countered, and Rome could consequently indulge in bad government, a declining military and even a half century of continuous and devastating civil war and not lose it all.

 

The second factor is the development of an imperial bureaucracy.  The institutional history of the Republic, which built the Empire, was one of constantly adapting the political mechanisms of the old city-state to the demands of a growing and vastly larger political sphere.  The administration of the Empire consequently had an ad hoc and jury-rigged character, and the governance of provinces was in the hands of successful office-holders, frequently in debt because of their political career, and their personal staffs, which almost guaranteed corruption.  And the fact that taxation was privatized and in the hands of groups whose profit margin depended upon how much they could collect over their bid for the contract certainly did not help create could provincial government.

 

It is astounding that the extent, frontiers, garrisoning and administration of the Empire were not considered rationally and apolitically until Augustus and the advent of the Principate.  Not only did he approach the Empire in terms of grand strategy and Roman resources and regularize and depoliticize provincial governance, but he also laid the foundations of an essentially apolitical civil service.   From this grew an imperial bureaucracy that handled the day-to-day administrative affairs of Rome and the Empire.  In short, the administration of the Empire became routine, allowing it to continue functioning regardless of whether or not the emperor was competent or even in the event of civil war.  Rome could indulge herself in bad government and not lose it all.

Stuff from Way Back #26: Image Is Everything

 

In 31 BC Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus), grand-nephew and posthumously adopted son of Julius Caesar, defeated Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra VII at the battle of Actium, ending the Roman Republic’s period of civil war.  Most of the people on the planet have likely heard of Antony and Cleopatra, but who has ever heard of Octavian?  The irony is that the romantic and celebrated couple are relatively unimportant figures when compared to the colorless Octavian.  They were simply another set of leading players during the last century of the Republic, while Octavian might be considered the most important individual in the entire sweep of Roman history.

 

By the middle of the second century BC the Roman Empire had been established, at least in the sense that there remained no power in the Mediterranean world that could seriously challenge Roman authority.  At the same time, however, the pressing need for reform in the state and military ran up against an all-powerful Senatorial class that had become corrupted and self-interested and resistant to even the smallest changes in the status quo.  The result was the Roman Revolution, which in the period from 133 to 30 BC saw the almost four hundred year old Republic gradually collapse into civil war and military dictatorship.  Ironically, the Republic was already dead when the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla restored and strengthened the traditional Senatorial government in 83-81 BC and then retired from politics.  Putting the pieces back together again was no longer possible, and Sulla himself provided a role model for future ambitious men.  The second fifty years of the Revolution was dominated not by the Senate but by powerful men and their armies, resulting in two full blown civil wars: Caesar against Pompeius Magnus (49-48 BC), and Octavian against Antony and Cleopatra (32-30 BC).

 Loser

Loser

Loser

Loser

 

When the 33 year old Octavian returned to Rome in 29 BC, he faced a task that might make the battle against the happy couple seem easy.  The Republic was dead, and as the immediately failure of the Sullan Restoration had demonstrated, it could not be revived.  With some small alterations the machinery of the Republican government was essentially that of the 5th century BC city-state fighting for its life in central Italy, and in the long run it was politically and administratively incapable of running an empire.  Enjoying the complete support of the military, Octavian could establish a blatant dictatorship, as his grand-uncle did, and allow Rome to face a return to civil strife when he died.  As one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, however, what he wanted was to manage the inevitable transition from oligarchic republic to autocracy in a way that would create a stable and lasting governmental structure.  In doing this he would become a second Romulus, virtually re-founding Rome.

Winner and Princeps

Winner and Princeps

 

While he almost certainly began with a basic idea of what he wanted to do, the realization of that conception would involve much trial and error, and the process would be accompanied by the first real national propaganda campaign in history.  He realized, unlike any before him, that in the public and political sphere image was everything, that the reality could be more easily ignored and accepted if it looked like something else.  The reality was to be a military autocracy; the image was to be the Republic restored.  And it actually worked.  His creation, the Principate, would maintain a stable and prosperous empire for the next two hundred and fifty years and allow a declining Rome to stagger on for another century or so.

 

The basic problem was to maintain control of the military (which was finally fully professionalized), without looking like a military dictator, and he needed to find Republican precedents for all his arrangements.  He also needed to give the hitherto ruling elites, the Senatorial class, a real role to play in the new government without surrendering the ultimate power in the state.  This was tricky business.

 

The campaign began in January of 27 BC when with great fanfare he gave up all his illegal powers, declaring the restoration of the Republic.  The Senate, in part cowed by the obvious loyalty of the army to the son of Caesar, in part grateful and supportive of establishing a stable government, then proceeded in the following years to vote all those powers back to him.  He realized early on that continually holding one of the two annual consulships – the supreme office that provided imperium, the power to command troops – would not work.  Not only was this contrary to old Republican tradition and reminiscent of the years of the Revolution, but it also limited the ultimate political prize and administrative training ground that the consulship provided to the Senate.  Instead, by votes of the citizen assembly and the Senate he accumulated and exercised all the powers associated with the consulship and other state offices without actually having to hold any of them, thus being freed from the limited tenure of the actual office.  He subsequently held the consulship only on special occasions.  There was no office of emperor.  He was ostensibly a private citizen, but one possessing a vast amount of power.

Augustan propaganda: the Altar of Peace

Augustan propaganda: the Altar of Peace

Augustan propaganda: the Deeds of the Divine Augustus

Augustan propaganda: the Deeds of the Divine Augustus

 

The major support of his authority was a special grant of proconsular imperium over certain provinces designated as “imperial”: initially the Gauls, the Spains and Syria.  These would be governed by legates chosen by him, while the remaining provinces, designated as “senatorial,” would be governed as they were in the Republic, by Senators who had just completed their terms as consuls or praetors (the imperium-granting office just below the consulship).  He also had the authority to interfere in the senatorial provinces if necessary and to move provinces from one category to the other.

 

This arrangement provided a way to control the army without actually being a supreme commander, which would be very un-Republican and redolent of the civil wars.  The imperial provinces were precisely those where the bulk of the military was stationed, thus providing Octavian with indirect command of the legions.  Grants of proconsular authority dated back to the early days of the Republic, but the only precedents for proconsular power on this scale were found in the Revolution and thus not very good.  But it could not be avoided: he absolutely required “legal” control of the military or Rome would slide back into civil strife.  Consequently, the confirmation of this power, first for ten years and then for life, was done quietly.  Incidentally, governance of the imperial provinces was generally of a higher quality than in the senatorial.

 

The other significant power granted him for life was the tribunician authority, which provided him all the powers wielded by the tribunes of the people.  These powers were really not that important to him, but the grant was very significant in terms of image.  The tribunate was an ancient office, created back in the fifth century BC, during the political struggles between the commoners, Plebians, and the aristocrats, Patricians.  The original mandate of the ten tribunes was to defend Plebians from hostile actions of the Patricians, and consequently Octavian could showcase this authority to demonstrate his position as a defender of the Roman people.

 

Supplementing his legal powers was his unmatchable auctoritas.  Auctoritas, “influence,” came with dignitas, “prestige,” the quality associated with an individual who had served Rome in some capacity.  In the grand days of the early and middle Republic it was dignitas that Senators competed for, rather than wealth and power, though dignitas did bring a form of power with its accompanying auctoritas.  (Yes, for almost four hundred years the majority of the Roman Senate actually thought first of Rome rather than themselves.)  The man (or men) recognized to be covered with the most dignitas would be styled princeps senatus, the First or Dean of the Senate.  Prestige of course brings political influence in any system, but for the Romans it was a much more real and compelling power.  And Octavian, who had literally saved the Roman state and restored order and prosperity, had a measure of dignitas unparalleled in Roman history.  He had become the princeps romani, the First Citizen of Rome.  Romans would listen to his advice.

 

Rome had become a military based autocracy, but there was no actual office of autocrat, no emperor, inasmuch as that would hardly look republican.  There was instead a Princeps and thus the early empire (27 BC – 235 AD) is known as the Principate.  Octavian took the more impressive name of Augustus and became in effect the second founder of Rome and its first emperor.  To the Roman people he was Princeps, to the army he was Imperator and to the provincials he was king and the center of the imperial cult of Roma et Augustus.  In the year 2 BC, acting on the proposal of Valerius Messalla, who had fought against him at Philippi, the Senate named Augustus pater patriae, the father of his country.

Pater Patriae

Pater Patriae

 

The Roman people were delighted with the Principate.  There was peace and growing prosperity, and in any case libertas, the Roman concept of freedom, had for them never meant any political participation beyond attending assemblies and voting according to Senatorial advice.  The Equestrians, the traditionally apolitical business interests, were of course more concerned with stability and prosperity than forms of government.

 

It was the Senatorial families, the former ruling elite, that were Augustus’ real concern as a potential source of trouble.  So he made them partners in the new order, both to give them something to do and to reconcile them to the Principate.  He actual had no choice: he could not govern the empire without the pool of administrative talent that was the Senate.  They were of course junior partners, but while the Princeps was the ultimate power, the Senate administered the state and through its ex-officials the empire.  They could still compete for offices and honors, for dignitas, but now in the shadow of the Princeps, who worked to keep that shadow as small as possible.  He showed the Senate respect and listened to its advice, and with imperial patronage he aided the political careers of members of the old families, especially those who had been against him.  And the whole thing looked like the Republic.  In fact, Rome was still in theory a constitutional state, inasmuch as it was the Senate, representing the Roman people, that voted the Princeps his power.  Image is everything.

 

Augustus succeeded in his establishment of a military dictatorship for a number of reasons.  The Roman world was tired of instability and war; they had just emerged from a century of struggle and two recent civil wars.  There was no one left alive who knew the Republic as anything but disorder and strife.  There were no rivals left.  The Senatorial oligarchy had been drained, and all the powerful men were now loyal to Augustus.  And there was the Principate.  Anyone with any intelligence knew the restoration of the Republic was a sham and that Augustus was the absolute ruler of Rome, but the Senate had no choice but to accept it.  The legions were completely devoted to the son of the now divine Julius Caesar, so that while there might be conspiracies, there could be no real threat to the Princeps.  Besides, he gave them a real role in the governance of the state and left them with all the trappings of power, while he maintained a low profile.  He made it as easy as he could for the former rulers of Rome to swallow the bitter pill of autocracy.

 

Finally, he lived long enough, dying on 19 August 14 AD at the age of 76.  Some forty years of power had allowed him not only to construct the Principate but also to wean it from dependency on his guiding hand.  Power passed more or less smoothly to his adopted son Tiberius.

 

There were of course weaknesses in the structure of the Principate.  It was after all an autocracy and thus faced the age old problem: what do you do when you get a bad autocrat?  Augustus hoped that each Princeps would select and train the best candidate and gradually associate him in power, but autocracies almost inevitably become dynastic, even in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  This was virtually guaranteed in the case of the Principate since for the foreseeable future the Princps must be a Julian in order to secure the loyalty of the army.

 

The other problem was that the autocracy was based on the military, thus presenting the danger that the army would sooner or later involve itself in the making and breaking of emperors.  The remarkable thing about the Principate is that it took so long for the legions to actually do this.  When Nero, the last Julio-Claudian, died in 68 AD, several army commanders converged on Rome, and after a brief and limited conflict Titus Flavius Vespasianus became Princeps in 69 AD, establishing a new dynasty, the Flavians.  The legions then retired to their camps and did not get directly involved in the political arena again until the death of Lucius Aurelius Commodus in 192 AD.  There was another brief but more widespread civil war to select the next ruler, Lucius Septimius Severus, in 193 AD.  The army was subsequently favored but not pampered by the Severans and remained loyal to the empire.  It is only with the outbreak of the Anarchy (235-285 AD) that the military loses that sense of duty and becomes corrupted and interested only in itself and thus a major force in the ultimate collapse of the empire.

 

Augustus probably foresaw these problems, but what else could he do?  In the last century before Christ the Roman Republic was irretrievably dead, and the only option was an autocracy.  And the only real base of power for that autocracy was the military.  Given the circumstances and the evolution of Rome in the last century of the Republic, a military dictatorship had become unavoidable.  But it is hard to see anyone else who could have come even close to facilitating that transition and preserving Rome’s future as well as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.  Few men have made history on that scale.