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During the Principate (roughly 27 BCE to 235 CE), when the empire reached its maximum extent, Roman society and culture were radically transformed. But how was the vast territory of the empire controlled? Did the demands of central government stimulate economic growth or endanger survival? What forces of cohesion operated to balance the social and economic inequalities and high mortality rates? How did the official religion react in the face of the diffusion of alien cults and the emergence of Christianity?
These are some of the many questions posed here, in the new, expanded edition of Garnsey and Saller's pathbreaking account of the economy, society, and culture of the Roman Empire. This second edition includes a new introduction that explores the consequences for government and the governing classes of the replacement of the Republic by the rule of emperors. Addenda to the original chapters offer up-to-date discussions of issues and point to new evidence and approaches that have enlivened the study of Roman history in recent decades. A completely new chapter assesses how far Rome’s subjects resisted her hegemony. The bibliography has also been thoroughly updated, and a new color plate section has been added.
Introducing the Principate
Emperors and dynasties
In the prevailing tradition, Kings were expelled from Rome and the Republic was inaugurated in 509 BC. Libertas was the watchword of those rebelling against the monarchy (led by a Brutus) and of the assassins of the 'perpetual' dictator Julius Caesar in 44 BC (also led by a Brutus). From 30 BC, the date of the battle of Alexandria (following the battle of Actium in 31 BC), the Romans again fell under the control of one man, Octavian, renamed Augustus in 27 BC, and this time monarchy endured. The Kings had presided over a small city with a modest rural hinterland. Augustus was master of a mighty empire, with a huge metropolis at its centre. The empire had been won by sustained military and diplomatic effort over centuries. But the Republican government, presided over by the senate, failed to integrate within the institutions of the city-state the two key institutions of empire, the provinces and the army. The senate proved incapable of controlling the army commanders who conquered foreign lands, in theory on its behalf, or their soldiers, who in the last century of the Republic acted more like clients of their commanders than citizens of Rome. In the end, the generals and their soldiers brought down the Republic in prolonged civil war.
Augustus was in a stronger position than any of the powerful and ambitious individuals who had preceded him, including Caesar, his adoptive father. He was militarily more secure than Caesar and showed greater political skills. While never releasing his hold on power, he refashioned his public position to make it appear less monarchic. The basis of his power was and remained the army, but he negotiated a modus vivendi with the senate (while ruthlessly suppressing opposition, real or imagined), and won broad support across the population, in Rome, Italy and the provinces, by clever propaganda and popular policies. His rule marks a dramatic break with the normal practice of office-holding under the Republic, which was limited to a single year, though in the last decades of the Republic the extraordinary commands awarded to or wrested by Sulla, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar shot holes in the traditional system. Although subject to recurrent illness (he nearly died in 23 BC), Augustus served as Princeps for almost 41 years from 27 BC to AD 14, having already held power, with others or alone, for 16 years. No other emperor until Theodosius II (408–450) ruled for so long. This, and the fact that he founded a dynasty, gave the new regime a strong start.
Augustus' interest in, or obsession with, the succession emerges as early as 24 BC, no doubt stimulated by his own ill-health, though he never intended his headship of the state to begin and end with him. In subscribing to the dynastic principle, he was following the example of the Republican nobility, but there was now much more at stake: the continued hold of a family on power, the consolidation of a new system of government and the stability of the commonwealth. There was, however, a fatal flaw in rule by dynasty, at least in the manner in which it developed in ancient Rome. Where the main qualification for selecting a successor was kinship or marriage connection with the reigning family, sooner or later a weak, unpopular or tyrannical ruler would arrive and in due course be removed with violence. The cycle of anarchy, civil war, usurpation, and the foundation of a new dynasty would begin again.
Nevertheless, the dynastic principle was seen from the start as a necessary feature of the Principate, and not only by the emperor himself. Loyalty to the imperial house was fostered and manifested early on among the military, both the frontier legions and the praetorian guard (the emperor's bodyguard), and among the provincial elite and the people of Rome. The senate, over whose membership Augustus now exercised a controlling influence, fell into line, cooperating in the conferral of powers and offices on individuals within the domus Augusta who were involved in the emperor's plans for the succession – just as the senate gave the emperor himself titles, powers and honours. It became standard practice for a designated successor to be voted powers held by the emperor himself, of which the most crucial were proconsular imperium and tribunician power. Imperium was the power invested in the higher magistrates, encompassing above all the authority to command an army. Tribunes historically had the special function of protecting citizens from arbitrary action by a magistrate, and were held to be sacrosanct. They could both introduce laws (plebiscites) to the plebeian assembly and veto the laws or resolutions emanating from magistrates or the senate.
Every emperor aspired to have a natural son as heir, but under the Principate few had sons who outlived their fathers, or sons at all, and fewer still had sons who were successful emperors. The fall-back solution was adoption, preferably a family member, best of all a blood relative of the emperor, if one was available.
Augustus, lacking a son, looked to his daughter Julia to give him grandsons. Her sequence of husbands, Marcellus (nephew of Augustus), Agrippa (general and friend), and finally Tiberius (stepson of Augustus), were intended to hold the fort until a grandson became of age to rule. This strategy collapsed through the early deaths of Gaius and Lucius, Julia's sons, both adopted by Augustus, and the uncooperative attitude of Tiberius. Augustus was not finished yet. AD 4 saw another round of adoptions, following the same general principles: the emperor adopted the now rehabilitated Tiberius and Agrippa Postumus (Julia's third and sole surviving son), and required Tiberius, before his own adoption, to adopt Germanicus (nephew of Tiberius and son of the elder Drusus), who now counted as brother to Tiberius' own son (the younger Drusus). Germanicus was now betrothed to Agrippina, daughter of Julia, so his children had Julian blood. In the event, of those whose names were 'in the ring' in the last years of Augustus, only Tiberius was destined to rule. Postumus was exiled (in 7) and assassinated (in 14, on the death of Augustus), and Germanicus died five years into Tiberius' reign (in 19). It is deeply ironic that Augustus' reign-long obsession with the succession of a Julian bore fruit in the enthronement of, first, the mentally unstable (or totally irresponsible) son of Germanicus, Gaius Caligula, and Nero, son of Agrippina and adoptive son of her husband Claudius, whom he followed as emperor in 54. Nero's reign degenerated after a promising start. He was panicked into suicide, following military rebellion, and the curtains fell on the Julio-Claudian dynasty (in 68). On the positive side, one could claim that Augustus' prolonged dynastic scheming was a success, consolidating rather than undermining the new regime. It gave Rome Tiberius as emperor, who for much of his reign of 33 years proved capable and loyal to the founding princeps, and Claudius, brother of Germanicus (and no blood relative of Augustus), who was regarded by all, including Augustus, as quite unsuited for the job, but turned out to be a competent ruler. It helped too that the transition from Augustus to Tiberius was a relatively easy one, and that it took place in the senate-house rather than on the battlefield. It had clearly been Augustus' intention that the senate and the Roman people should play a central role in sanctioning his choice of a successor.
This convenient arrangement could be upset from two main quarters: the legions and the praetorian guard. There was mutiny in the German armies in 14, put down with some difficulty by Germanicus: many in the army and in Rome would have preferred this charismatic prince to Tiberius as emperor. Drusus dealt more effectively with mutiny in the Danube legions. The senatorial decree of 20 condemning Piso shows the senate looking timorously over its shoulder at the army, urging it to continue to back the domus Augusta, in the knowledge that 'the safety of our empire is placed in the custody of that house'. It was only with the crumbling of the dynasty in the last years of Nero that the armies stepped into the vacuum.
The other potentially disruptive factor, alongside the frontier armies, was the praetorian guard. Its status and power rose significantly under Tiberius, culminating in the dangerous ascendancy permitted its prefect Sejanus. In his will Tiberius left each guardsman 500 sesterces. Gaius' accession was unproblematic – he was quickly acclaimed by the senate – but he still found it advisable to bribe the guardsmen, doubling Tiberius' benefaction in anticipation of their support (rather than, as in the case of Tiberius, as a reward for services rendered). In the event, disenchanted guard officers saw to Gaius' murder. The guard's loyalty was to the domus Caesaris rather than to any individual member, even if he was the emperor. This was dramatically confirmed when Claudius was found hiding in the palace, taken to the praetorian camp, and hailed as emperor. Claudius gave them a massive donation. Senators who were at the time advancing their own candidacies or debating a return to the Republic were left high and dry. Nero's succession, as Claudius' adopted son, was also an easy one, his acceptance by the senate never in doubt. But his first port of call was the praetorian camp, to which he was escorted by the praetorian prefect Burrus. 6 It was the declaration of the praetorians for Galba that precipitated Nero's suicide and inaugurated the year of the four emperors (68–69). The praetorians soon betrayed Galba for Otho. Vitellius knew what he was doing when he followed up Otho's defeat and suicide by purging the praetorian guard and filling it with soldiers from the Rhine legions who had acclaimed him and escorted him to Rome. Vespasian, the last of the four emperors, followed suit after the defeat of Vitellius, promoting his own followers into the guard. He took the remarkable further step of appointing as prefect of the guard Titus, his son, a senator. Commanders of the praetorian guard from the first had been very deliberately selected from the equestrian order (the 'second aristocracy') rather than from the senate. The next usurper to found a dynasty, Septimius Severus, filled the praetorian guard with the Danubian troops who had carried him to power (in 193). He also stationed two loyal legions just outside Rome.
Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty (69–96), was thought to be a better prospect as emperor than his various civil-war rivals because he had two sons. In fact continuity and uncontested successions did ensue, as Vespasian was followed by first Titus and then Domitian. The reign of Domitian eventually collapsed as relations with the senate, which were never easy, turned sour and he was murdered in a palace plot. In the vacuum, the senator Nerva, elderly and childless, emerged as emperor. To save his flagging regime he had recourse to adoption, and outside the family. His choice was a wise one, if forced: he turned, in 98, to the commander of the nearest large army, the three legions of Upper Germany, Trajan.
Thereafter, for the best part of a century, adoption was the regular way of arranging the succession, paving the way for the reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, who made his adoptive brother Lucius Verus co-ruler (in 161) in accordance with Hadrian's wishes. However the hereditary principle had not lost its magnetic attraction for Roman emperors. Marcus Aurelius produced a son who would survive him, Commodus, and automatically prepared him for the succession, making him co-emperor (in 177). In so doing he brought to an abrupt end a sequence of worthy emperors. In the telling words of Cassius Dio, contemporary historian and senator, the kingdom of gold gave way to one of iron and rust (Dio 71.36.4). Commodus as sole ruler (from 180), in his multiple excesses and self-glorification, recalled or outdid the last of the Julio-Claudians, Nero. The outcome was predictable: the violent death of an emperor, civil war, and the emergence of a new strong man, Septimius Severus (193). Severus made his two sons Caracalla and Geta co-emperors, but the Severan dynasty never recovered from its bloody beginning, and failed to establish a stable relationship with the aristocracy, or indeed the military, on which it depended. In this period the initiative in the appointment of emperors passed from the senate to the army and the praetorian guard. A praetorian prefect (and equestrian), Macrinus, engineered the murder of Caracalla (in 217) and himself reigned as emperor for fourteen months, in breach of all precedent.
In 235 the Rhine army declared Maximinus to be emperor and killed the reigning emperor, Severus Alexander, last of the Severans and a distant cousin of the founder of the dynasty, together with his mother and entourage. There followed a chaotic period of around half a century up to the accession of Diocletian (284), in which the army created and removed emperors. Few emperors lasted long. Constant warfare against foes both external and internal drew them into the front line, exposing them to the risk of premature death. More than twenty emperors or pretenders are known from this period, though some are mere names, such as Gaius Domitianus, proclaimed Augustus (as two coins confirm) and quickly eliminated by Aurelian in 271. It was logical that most emperors of the period were soldiers and that they hailed from the Balkans, a major recruiting ground for the army. Capable generals had to be in charge if the empire was to survive. Diocletian staunched the flow of usurpers to a degree by co-opting potential rivals as colleagues in the Tetrarchy, but after his retirement (in 305) there was no one with sufficient authority or foresight to prevent the empire sliding into six years of contested ascendancy and civil war. Constantine, the ultimate victor, had no interest in sharing power, and his plans for the succession revolved around the hereditary principle.
If the empire survived the travails of the third century, the Principate did not. Late Roman Emperors (for the late empire had certainly arrived by the end of the third century) were absolute monarchs. The carefully contrived formula that Augustus had worked out in order to justify and legitimate his domination of the state had served its term.
The powers of the emperor
Julius Caesar broke with Republican tradition and paid the penalty. Augustus did not follow his example. He presented himself as a magistrate among magistrates, superior to the rest only in as much as his personal authority (auctoritas) was greater, within a restored Republic. As he wrote in the Res Gestae, with reference to the main business of the momentous meeting of the senate on the Ides of January, 27 BC: 'I transferred the republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and the people of Rome'(Res Gestae 34.1).
Under the Republic, the leading figures in the state were the consuls, whose imperium carried with it command of the army in the field and very considerable discretionary powers at home. The people, that is, the popular assemblies (primarily the comitia centuriata, comitia curiata and concilium plebis), between them had supreme authority in legislation, elections and criminal trials. It was, however, the senate (a body of around 300 members, and later, from the 80s BC, 600, whose members served for life and consisted largely of former magistrates) that dominated the political scene, controlling, among other things, finance and foreign relations, including affairs in Italy. Its role was, strictly speaking, advisory and its power was exercised informally, not by means of authority vested in it by a constitution. The constitution, as it developed over time, was a combination of written, statutory law, and unwritten customary law (that is, traditional practice, or ancestral custom, mores maiorum), and it was within the latter category that the power of the senate fell. This was the chink in its armour. The time would come when traditional practice was questioned, breached and set aside, and with it the authority of the senate.
Excerpted from The Roman Empire by Peter Garnsey, Richard Saller, Jas Elsner, Martin Goodman, Richard Gordon, Greg Woolf. Copyright © 2015 Peter Garnsey, Richard Saller, and Martin Goodman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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1. A Mediterranean Empire
2. Government without Bureaucracy
3. An Underdeveloped Economy
4. The Land
5. Supplying the Roman Empire
6. The Social Hierarchy
7. Family and Household
8. Social Relations
List of Emperors