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 The Roman Principate : A Monarchy In All But Name?, By David Semple
The Red Factions
Posted: May 7, 2006, 11:43 AM

Comrade Under-Officer

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David Semple is also known as EuroSoviets, founder of the Allied States of EuroIslanders.

Was the Roman Principate a Monarchy in all but name?

When considering the question, it is important to consider both the superficial appearances of the Roman state apparatus and then to move to deeper considerations such as control of elections to magistracies, courts and legislative procedures within the state apparatus. Combined these should reveal the character of the Roman Principate – whether as a diarchy, as advanced by Mommsen, or as a Monarchy, where the Emperor alone had ultimate power as Scullard thinks.1

One of the most visible aspects of imperial prestige was the Roman coinage system. Coins were, in my opinion, expressive of the contradiction within the Roman state. They had the Republican titles of the Emperor – frequently including his Consulships, his Tribunicia Potestas and the title Pater Patriae, if he had deigned to accept it.2 The contradiction exists because these very titles surrounded a likeness of the Emperor’s head. This was a feature that the Roman Principate shared with Monarchies of the Hellenistic period and perhaps it belied the overall nature of the state; a monarchy dressed in the robes of the Senatus Populus Que Romanus; of the Republic.3

Crowns were another feature which presents an interesting dichotomy; different types of crowns were used in Republican celebrations such as Triumphs for successful generals of the Roman Army. We have evidence of crowns being awarded to commanders, such as Glabrio, in the East by Greek cities as early as 190BC. Under the Principate crowns flooded in to the Emperor from all parts of the Empire – and it is undeniable that this too harkened back to the days of the Hellenistic Monarchies.4

Though it cannot be argued that these aspects make the Principate a Monarchy in all but name, I feel they do and should affect our conception of the Principate. In such a disparate Empire, the use of symbols such as this might unite provincials and others around the person of the Emperor and if that Emperor was showing some sort of continuation of Republican elements in the State, it would be all the easier to accept the Emperor since he is resting on several centuries of the Mediterranean supremacy of the Roman Republic.

A third superficial concept bound up with the idea of monarchy was that of liberalitas. Plutarch comments in his Life of Sulla, 38.6, that it was ‘no less kingly and benevolent’ to accept gifts as to receive them. This was an affirmation of loyalty in both directions and in strictly Republican terms it could be applied to the relationship between Patron and Client. Millar however makes clear that ‘such gifts are significant for the tone of the exercise of monarchy.’5 This was an echo of Aristotle’s comments on the two main dangers to a Monarch – hatred and contempt.6 The benefactions tied to liberalitas, which Aristotle and the Hellenistic Monarchs would have called Euergesiai, would have served to create an aura of power and respect around the Emperor-Monarch and would have facilitated the exercise of absolute power – supporting the idea that the Principate was a Monarchy in all but name.

A furtherance of this aura was conducted through the existence of Silentarii and Admissionales. These posts were servile posts which involved the silencing of ‘disrespectful babble’ and a guardianship against intrusion respectively.7 Such duties would have created the correct atmosphere for the reception of ‘subjects’ of the Emperor – an atmosphere of power and respect. Wallace-Haddrill reinforces this idea by referring to Pliny, who comments on how Procurators approached the Emperor; “te quidem in excelsissimo generis humani fastigio positum…religiose adiri etiam a salutantibus scio.”8 This sort of behaviour might be expected for the subjects of a Monarch but in the Classical or Hellenistic Democracies and Crypto-Oligarchies and in the Roman Republic itself, it was not usual for any office holder to approach a higher office holder (e.g. a Quaestor approaching a Consul) in this fashion.

The personal aspect of the interrelation between Senate and Emperor is also important in determining how far we can call the Principate a Monarchy. The Senate was the body which conferred titles upon the Emperor and it was not infrequent that the Emperor would refuse such titles. This Moderatio was regarded as a traditional characteristic of Roman Magistrates.9 Tiberius and Claudius both deferred acceptance of the Praenomen Imperatoris. The Emperors Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Hadrian, Trajan and Antoninus Pius all deferred the title of Pater Patriae10. Augustus even records in the Res Gestae that in 22BC he turned down the Dictatorship and the Consulship-for-Life.11 This was actually in contrast to the Hellenistic Monarchs who took the title Basileus upon accession, to accentuate their grandeur. I concur completely with the conclusions that Wallace-Haddrill draws from this seemingly humble behaviour. The Emperors mentioned ‘used a ritual of condescension to represent themselves as simple citizens…enacted in all seriousness…because it mattered to the society over which the Emperors ruled; continuity with the Republican past.’12

Equally important was keeping the Senators relatively content. In a continuation of the ‘ritual condescension,’ some Emperors would rise to their feet when receiving Senators and would address their magisterial colleagues by name. Tiberius seems to have vacillated between respect and disdain but he did call the Senators ‘Masters’ when addressing the Senate.13

This type of condescension, while it has a Republican grounding, was utilised by the Emperor-Monarchs for exactly the purpose of assuring the former ruling class and the people of Rome that their glorious Republican past was being continued in the present, under the rule of the Caesars. This condescension was the sort of behaviour which created an Emperor-shaped niche in the political thoughts of the Senatorial class. A Monarchy with this dressing was acceptable to the same classes which had killed Caesar and this is very much in evidence when we see the plot against Domitian not proceeding until there was an agreement on a succeeding Princeps, in that case Nerva.14

Moving to the deeper aspects of the balance of power between the Senate and Princeps, Scullard sets the tone for the discussion. ‘This conception [Mommsen’s theory of Diarchy] is not now generally regarded as valid…it is clear that the power was not divided; [The Emperor] carefully kept in his own control the ultimate sanction of the army.’15 As I showed above, some Emperors chose to play this down, some didn’t. Tacitus quotes Tiberius as commenting on leaving the Senate, “What men, ready for slavery!”16

Naturally, as with states even today, power was divided across the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government, so it is important to investigate the mechanisms upon which these arms rested to determine how far power was in the hands of the Princeps and thus to determine how far we can call the Principate a Monarchy.

The Quaestiones of P. Cornelius Sulla continued to exist in the period of the Principate, for a time at least, but they lost power in all directions. The most important cases (those involving the Senatorial class or the highest members of the Equestrian order) and capital cases could be tried by the Emperor or the Senate. Provocatio ad Populum was replaced by Appellatio ad Caesarem (e.g. St. Paul’s appeal to Nero) – the Emperor became the highest appeal court, though Emperor and Senate could not or would not overrule one another.17

Of course it is important to note that when men who Caesar wanted dead appeared before the supposedly independent Senatorial (or other) court, they were convicted.18 It might utilise the methods of the Republican system but it still allowed Suetonius to report that Gaius Caesar had ‘put to death all the best men of the Senatorial and Equestrian orders.’19 Similarly with the attacks of Domitian on ‘Republicans’ such as Helvidius Priscus and Juneus Arulenus Rusticus. It is undeniable that the military powers of the Emperor underscored this civil process so that the Emperor did not have to resort to proscriptions of the type that Marius and Sulla had done in the early first century BC.

Imperial juridical powers could also be delegated to appointees when the Emperor was not present. The Praefectus Urbi, another imperial appointee, charged with keeping the city of Rome safe, was soon encroaching on the powers of the civil courts – power was derived from the person of the Emperor-Monarch, not from the people or the Senate, showing quite clearly that in this, the Principate was Monarchic in nature, Republican in name only.20

The second strand in examining the actual constitutional powers of the Princeps involves the magisterial posts, both on the Senatorial Cursus Honorum and prefectures, governorships and procuratorships, among other, lesser posts. In the Republic, the Cursus Honorum was the accepted route for aspiring members of the Senatorial class. Quaestorships, Aedileships, Praetorships and Consulships each lasted one year and after office, usually several years later, the Senator in question would be permitted to take the next step on the ladder. These were elected posts and the ex-Consuls, sometimes ex-Praetors, provided the governors for the extant Roman provinces.

In the Principate, with the auctoritas of the Emperor supposedly exceeding that of any other Senator, new uses were found for Republican practices. In the Republic, a patron Senator might require his client Senators to vote a certain way and they were obliged to do this. Levick introduces us, through the notions of commendatio, suffragatio and nominatio, to the manner in which the Princeps exploited this idea and so justified Imperial control, covert and later overt, over the elections.21

Suetonius recalls that the elective functions of the popular assemblies, the weapons of men such as the Gracchi and Clodius, were curtailed forever by Augustus.22 This meant that the elections were completely in the hands of the Senate – the same Senate that was held in thrall by the loyalty the Princeps commanded in the army and the Praetorian Guard.

Suffragatio involved the Princeps visiting Senators and securing their votes for his candidates. Commendatio was the public posting of a list of favoured candidates. Since the Emperor was the greatest patron of all, indeed he was Pater Patriae, these ideas were a simple extension of Republican concepts. This charade continued until Vespasian when the Emperor could fill any of the Magistracies at whim.23

Nominatio seems to be a lot less well understood. It is known that the Republican Consuls had the right to vet winners in Consular elections. The Consuls for 67BC denied Catiline the Consulship for 66BC even though he had been popularly elected. This was on the grounds that he was being prosecuted at the time. Levick maintains that Nominatio was not some formal right such as this, but something carried out under the auctoritas of the Emperor, though Levick claims that the Emperor would ‘normally [be] liberal in the scrutiny of would-be candidates.’24

This control of the higher elections seems on the surface, until Vespasian at least, to have been grounded in the Republican model of the state – in theory someone could have gained the necessary prestige and power in the Roman Republic, but we mustn’t kid ourselves. The explanation of this power in Republican terms doesn’t change the fact that the Caesar’s had complete control over elections. Tacitus records the incident of Tiberius recommending an under age Nero for a quaestorship and the Senate, whilst they were privately amused and irritated, nevertheless fell over themselves to grant this request.25 This was an autocratic power, closer to a Monarchy – all authority was vested in one person, regardless of facades.

The conclusion I draw above can only be strengthened when considering the lesser magistracies. The clearest example of the power of the Emperor is shown by Pliny. He was despatched in AD 111 as an Imperially-appointed legatus pro praetore to assume charge of Bithynia in the name of the Emperor, in order to sort out the finances of some cities there.26 We can thus conclude that the elective functions of the Senate and the People were totally precluded and that while certain Republican guises were adopted, this was undeniably a monarchic power.

In the Republic, the Senate and the People had the power of legislation. In the Principate, the Senate maintained this power, theoretically it was the chief body of legislation – but the initiative was with the Emperor and all legislation was of course subject to the veto of the Emperor using the powers of the Tribunicia Potestas, or a Consulship if he happened to be occupying one at the time. The Senate followed the whim of the Emperor.27

Scullard refers to a ‘Senatorial Standing Committee’ with the power to pass Senatus Consultum, also perhaps acting as a probouleutic body, though that is my inference. This consilium was filled at the pleasure of the Emperor. From Tiberius onwards it was filled with Principes Viri – the men of the Princeps, including even Imperial freedmen.28 This neatly sidestepped the Senate whilst still being a ‘legal’ body since the Senate had authorised it.

The consilium mentioned above seems somewhat excessive when considering the other powers of the Emperor with regard to legislating and controlling the laws of the Empire. From Ancient Athens to the Roman Republic, from Demosthenes to Cicero, there are examples in societies with any element of democracy of men who could speak well in front of others – in fact it was a required element in such societies. In the Principate it was no less a requirement, but as opposed to being for the purposes of impressing one’s peers, for the Emperors, oration and writing letters became tightly bound with the issuance of decreta, mandata, edicta and epistolae (judicial decisions, instructions to magistrates, edicts and rescripts of existing laws respectively). Still found in The Digest, the Codex Justinianus and the Codex Theodosius, these were how the Emperor-Monarch controlled the law, changing it to suit his purposes. This was naked monarchism without even the shadow of the Republic.29

In all of this I have not mentioned the ultimate constitutional underscoring of all the powers of the Emperor. There is a law, written in the form of a Senatus Consultum, that confers upon Vespasian many powers and cites as precedent previous Princeps.30 The Lex de Imperio Vespasiani gave Vespasian the power to conclude treaties, appoint magistrates, change the boundaries of the pomerium and so on, continuing in this vein, listing virtually all the former powers of the Senate (and some of the Pontifex Maximus, a position which, incidentally, the Emperors took for themselves automatically31). By the methods of the old Republic, this law neatly allows Vespasian to sidestep everything remotely Republican. The Principate was a Republic in name perhaps, but incontrovertibly a Monarchy in nature.

Scullard comments that, ‘The Senate remained the sole permanent legal source of authority, as becomes clear on the death of a Princeps.’32 I believe he was correct, however as I have made clear, power came from the person of the Emperor for all intents and purposes, in foreign policy, whether war or peace, in appointment of magistrates, in judicial decisions, in legislation. This power cast its shadow on Roman coins and art and coins and art gave their own distinction to the new Roman Monarchy, linking it simultaneously to older Monarchies and also to the institutions of the Roman Republic.

The Emperors were deified and successors were quite often chosen by the dying Princeps. Deified Emperors had Imperial Cults created, indirectly glorifying their living successors. Living Emperors built temples (such as Augustus building the temple of Mars Ultor at Rome) to emphasise their direct relation to the divine.33 It can be no more evident than through this focus on the person of the Emperor, combined with all the evidences for Imperial power that I have listed above, that the Principate was in fact a Monarchy in all but name.

Sources :

1. Scullard, H.H. p219.
2. Millar p136.
3. Wallace-Haddrill. p32.
4. Millar pp140-141
5. Ibid p140
6. Aristotle 1312b – 1313a.
7. Wallace-Haddrill. p36.
8. Ibid p36.
9. Ibid pp40-41.
10. Ibid p37.
11. Brunt, P.A and Moore, J.M p21.
12. Wallace-Haddrill p48.
13. Ibid p37.
14. Cambridge Ancient History Vol. XI, Chapter I.vi. p32.
15. Scullard p219.
16. Tac. ‘Annals’ III.65.
17. Scullard p220.
18. Cambridge Ancient History Vol. XI Chapter I.v. pp30-31
19. Suetonius ‘Life of Gaius’ 36.
20. Cambridge Ancient History Vol. X. p172.
21. Levick p208.
22. Suetonius ‘Life of Augustus’ 56.1.
23. Levick pp210-213.
24. Levick pp224-225.
25. Tac. ‘Annals’ III.28.
26. Cambridge Ancient History Vol. XI Chapter V.iv p219
27. cf Suetonius ‘Life of Domitian’ 8 or ‘Life of Vespasian’ 11.
28. Scullard p224.
29. Cambridge Ancient History Vol. XI Chapter V.iv pp202-206.
30. CIL Vol. VI no.930
31. Cambridge Ancient History Vol. X Chapter V.ii. pp139-141
32. Scullard p219
33. Price, Simon R.F. ‘Religion: Roman’ in Oxford Classical Dictionary, p1306.

Ancient Sources.

Aristotle (1992) Politics tr. T.A. Sinclair. Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics.

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (1862) in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.) Roman Civilisation Volume II: The Empire (pp11-12). New York, Columbia University Press.

Suetonius (1979) The Twelve Caesars tr. Michael Graves. Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics.

Tacitus (1996) The Annals of Imperial Rome tr. Michael Graves. Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics.


Adcock, F.E. and Cook, S.A. (1936) The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume 11, The Imperial Peace AD 70-192 First Edition. London, Cambridge University Press.

Bowman, Alan K., Champlin, E. and Lintott, A. (1996) The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume 10, The Augustan Empire, 43 BC-AD 69 Second Edition. London, Cambridge University Press.

Brunt, P.A. and Moore, J.M. (1967) Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Levick, B. (1967) ‘Imperial Control of the Elections under the Early Principate: Commendatio, Suffragatio and Nominatio’ in Historia 16 (pp207-230). Gottingen, Zeitschriften.

Millar, F. (1977) The Emperor in the Roman World. London, Duckworth.

Scullard, H.H. (1992) From the Gracchi to Nero Fifth Edition. London, Routledge.

Wallace-Haddrill, A. (1982) ‘Civilis Princeps: Between Citizen and King’ in Journal of Roman Studies, 72 (pp32-48), London, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

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