The Principate






by Christian Schaller

The Principate




by Christian Schaller

Introduction to Roman History.
Part 2: Principate (27 BC – 284 AD)

When people speak of the Roman Empire, they usually mean the early and high imperial period. The empire was now at the height of its power and dominated the entire Mediterranean region. From England to Egypt and from Spain to Syria, the countries and peoples were provinces and subjects of the emperor in Rome. A technical term for the kind of rule Augustus and his successors exercised is the principate. After the fall of the Roman Republic and the rule of the dictator Caesar, a new era began with the reign of the first emperor Augustus. This is not only the case from today’s historiographical point of view, but was already perceived as such by contemporaries. The long civil wars had ended, peace had been restored to the Empire. The Pax Augusta began, i.e. the “Augustan peace”. Despite individual unrest, this stable period of peace was to last for over 200 years – something unprecedented by ancient standards. For almost 300 years, the Roman Empire was the undisputed ruler of the Old World. Nevertheless, even during this period of prosperity, war was waged almost continuously. The empire was expanded, provinces were fought over, lost and regained. In the north-west there were repeated disputes with the tribes of free Germania, in the east there were heavy wars against the Persians. Time and again there was unrest in the empire, usurpers and counter-emperors rose up and whole provinces seceded from the empire for several years. Finally, in the third century AD, the Roman Imperial Crisis took place. Internal and external crises came together and the era of the rapidly changing soldier emperors began. With the accession of Emperor Diocletian, however, this era of unrest came to an end. His reforms enabled the beleaguered empire to consolidate itself. Now began Late Antiquity and at the same time the late phase of the Roman Empire.

One can roughly divide the three centuries of the early and high imperial period into several blocks. The period of Augustus and the subsequent Julio-Claudian dynasty lasted from about 30 BC to 68 AD, the year of the death of the famous Emperor Nero. This was followed by the four-emperor year 69, from which the Flavians emerged victorious as the new ruling dynasty.

They ruled from 69 to 96, followed by the adoptive emperors and the Antonine dynasty. After a second four-emperor year in 193, the Severans came to power. After their extinction in 235, the period of imperial crisis and soldier-emperors began, which was to last until the end of the third century. With the reforms of Diocletian from 284 and even more so through the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great from 306, Late Antiquity (or Late Imperial Period) began.

Emperor Augustus, Augustus Fountain Augsburg; Pixabay Licence, © ulleo

The first Emperor Augustus and the Julio-Claudian dynasty (30 BC – 68 AD)

After decades of chaos and civil wars, Octavian (63 BC – 14 AD, r. 31 BC – 14 AD), the nephew and testamentary heir of the dictator Caesar (100-44 BC) finally emerged as the sole victor. Peace was restored and the old republic was over. Octavian, who would later remain known primarily by his honorary title Augustus (Latin for “the Exalted”), thus became the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Already at the beginning of his reign, he was the unrestricted, autocratic monarch of a world empire that dominated the entire Mediterranean region and stretched from Spain to Syria and from the North Sea to the Red Sea. From today’s point of view, this clearly corresponds to the facts. However, the ancient contemporaries and Augustus himself defined and communicated this new, Roman form of rule – the principate – quite differently. During his reign, Octavian always endeavoured to give the old upper class, the patricians, the senate and the knights, all the deference they had also received in the defunct republic. Thus there were still senate sessions and popular assemblies. Augustus created a new state order that straddled the old Roman republican values and the officially frowned-upon monarchy. In 27 BC, for example, he officially resigned his offices and returned his power to the Senate. However, the Senate rejected Augustus’ return of power and confirmed him much more as princeps – as “first among equals”. Of course, the Senate did not really have a choice at that time, the confirmation as sole ruler was done in a mixture of coercion and a lack of alternatives. In the civil wars, Rome’s old aristocracy had been thinned out. Many patrician families that had produced politicians and generals over centuries had died out. Moreover, a restoration of the old republic would have brought with it the familiar danger of another dictator. By maintaining the pretence of having restored the old order, while at the same time being endowed with all the powers of an autocrat, Augustus could finally ensure peace and at the same time be celebrated as a saviour. At the same time, he continued Caesar’s policy of conquest – Egypt, parts of Asia Minor and the entire foothills of the Alps, for example, were annexed to the empire under Augustus. During his lifetime, Augustus appointed his stepson and adopted son Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD, r. 14-37) as his successor, thus founding the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty. Tiberius was considered a very reserved and solitary ruler. Nevertheless, he can be considered a successful princeps within his family and dynasty – he strove for a long time to maintain good relations with the Senate and the upper classes, was frugal, but at the same time improved the infrastructure of the empire enormously. Especially in the provinces of the west, he expanded the road system. Nevertheless, he remained unpopular in the eyes of posterity, as numerous trials for lese majeste took place, especially in his last years of rule, and several hundred people fell victim to them every year. After Tiberius, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus became the new emperor – to posterity, however, he is best known as Caligula (12-41 AD, r. 37-41).

Forum Romanum; Pixabay Licence, © fl42

Even more than Tiberius, he was regarded by his posterity as a bad emperor, even as a sadistic tyrant who fell prey to Caesar mania and arbitrarily executed senators. Caligula’s possibly fragile psyche can be explained at least in part by the numerous intrigues, trials and strokes of fate in his youth. Moreover, ancient historiography was mostly written by senators, who consequently did not leave a good mark on an autocratic princeps.

Now Caligula’s uncle Claudius (10 BC – AD 54, r. 41-54) took over the purple. However, this was done rather reluctantly, rather he was proclaimed by the Praetorians, the imperial bodyguard, who hoped to bring a weak and tractable emperor to power. Claudius took back many of Caligula’s decisions and restored more rights to the Senate. In addition, numerous conquests were made under his reign, the most notable of which was the occupation of Britain – this had been attempted unsuccessfully since Caesar’s time. After Claudius’ death, the last member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to the imperial throne with his stepson Nero (37-69 AD, r. 54-68). After five relatively successful and peaceful years of rule, Nero’s character began to change. He saw himself as a misunderstood artist and was also the first emperor not to take part personally in a campaign. A high point was probably the Great Fire of Rome in 64, which Nero himself is said to have instigated in order to rebuild the city according to his ideas. As a scapegoat, the still young and unpopular sect of Christians was subsequently persecuted. Resistance arose throughout the empire and Nero was forced to flee Rome. He was betrayed by his Praetorian Guard and driven to suicide. He left no successors. The dynasty descended from Augustus was thus extinct and civil war threatened.

The Flavian Dynasty (69 – 96) and the Antonine Dynasty (96 – 193)

The year after Nero’s death was to see four emperors in quick succession, which is why the year 69 is known as the Four Emperors’ Year. First to come to power was Galba, who came from an old senatorial family. However, he quickly became unpopular with the people, the Senate and the soldiers on the Rhine. When the latter mutinied and Galba looked for a successor and found one in a certain Piso, Otho seized the opportunity and planned a coup. Galba and Piso died, but at the same time Vitellius was raised to emperor by the army in the Germanic provinces. Otho first offered Vitellius the co-regency, but the latter refused and moved with his soldiers to Italy, where he was able to quickly defeat Otho’s men. Now Otho took his own life and Vitellius had himself confirmed as sole ruler by the Roman Senate. But resistance to him was also growing. In the East, the Jewish War had broken out under Nero. The commander who was detached there was a certain Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who also enjoyed a high reputation among the soldiers of the empire. Without him giving the order, soldiers marched into Italy from the Germanic provinces. The Flavian troops finally killed Vitellius.

Now the Flavian dynasty came to power. They provided three emperors – Vespasian, Titus and Domitian – and ruled from 69 to 96 AD. The Flavians did not come from the senatorial class, but were a family of knights from the outskirts of Rome.

Although they were only in power for 27 years, they left a lasting mark on the Roman Empire. After Nero’s financial excesses, they stabilised it both politically and economically. Under Vespasian and Titus, the famous Colosseum in Rome was also completed – known at the time as the Flavian Amphitheatre. Emperor Domitian succeeded in securing the border with Germania, but he appeared increasingly autocratic and came into conflict with the Senate more often.

Castel Sant’Angelo Rome; Pixabay Licence, © neufal54

Domitian was eventually assassinated and Nerva was proclaimed emperor. Nerva was an aged senator who had already been a member of the leadership under the Flavians. Since the Praetorians did not want to accept Domitian’s assassination, Nerva adopted the renowned officer Ulpius Traianus in 97. With the extinction of the Flavians, the rapid death of Nerva and the accession of Trajan to power, the age of the adoptive emperors began. Roman adoption law had already adapted during the Republic: Since Rome was ruled by only a limited upper class and every senator was therefore obliged to have sons, adoptio became a common procedure. Here, any man could be adopted and chosen as successor to mostly childless patricians. The emperors after Nerva and Trajan all had no direct descendants, which is why this legal procedure, which was intended purely to maintain power, was transfigured into a kind of ideal: Only the best and most suitable was chosen as emperor. And indeed, this period of the imperial age is often referred to as the era of the “good emperors”, who brought the empire its highest heyday and expanded its territory to the maximum. After Trajan, these were Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and his co-ruler Lucius Verus. Under Trajan, Dacia was conquered, a large area north of the lower Danube that roughly corresponds to present-day Romania. Hadrian promoted mainly extra-Italian territories, travelled to all provinces and important cities of the empire and initiated monumental building programmes. However, the fact that the procedure of “best adoption” was ultimately a pure fiction was proven at the latest by the famous philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was the first princeps to have a biological son named Commodus, whom he also inherited. The era of the adopted emperors or the Antonine dynasty – named after Emperor Antoninus Pius – was thus over. Commodus was in fact the first emperor ever who had also been born the son of a reigning emperor. His reign lasted from 180 to 192 and was again marked by great tensions with the Senate. Commodus used his omnipotence, called himself the reincarnation of the demigod Heracles and also appeared as a gladiator, for example. He was assassinated on 31 December 192.

Die Dynastie der Severer (193 – 235), die Reichskrise und die Zeit der Soldatenkaiser (235 – 284)


The time of the “good emperors” was over and indeed, with the transition from the second to the third century, the peak of the Roman Empire’s prosperity was over. Numerous problems had been looming for a long time, both domestically and externally: Germanic and Persian tribes on the borders, creeping inflation and an emerging economic crisis, as well as intrigues at the imperial court.

In 193, after another civil war, the Severans took power in Rome. They came from North Africa and were to rule from 193 to 235. The era of this dynasty coincides with the beginning of the Roman Empire crisis of the third century. Through the first ruler of this line, Septimius Severus, the Roman Empire once again experienced an upswing in power politics. He was succeeded by his son Caracalla – but only after he had his brother Geta killed. Caracalla was also murdered by intrigue during a campaign against the Parthian Empire on the eastern borders. Now the Praetorian prefect Macrinus seized power. However, Caracalla’s aunt, Iulia Maesa, quickly secured the throne again for the Severans by presenting her grandson as an illegitimate child of Caracalla. This lie brought the Syrian boy Varius Avitus Bassianus to power. He is known to posterity primarily as Elagabal – named after the Syrian sun god, whom he particularly worshipped. He also wanted to establish this cult as the Roman state religion. At the same time, he had little interest in politics and much preferred to indulge in decadent debauchery. Of course, this ultimately meant his assassination. His relative Severus Alexander now became emperor – but the real power continued to lie with Iulia Maesa and her daughter Mamaea, Severus’ mother. But the unrest in the empire continued to spread. Severus Alexander also met his death, ending the Severan dynasty after 43 years. The simple soldier Maximinus Thrax was now proclaimed emperor and ruled through the support of the army. Now began the time of the soldier emperors and the imperial crisis. The empire was internally torn and externally threatened. Attacks by Germanic tribes threatened in the north, and by the Sassanids in the east. There were numerous intrigues, usurpers rose up and within 50 years Rome saw almost 60 different emperors, many of whom fell and rose through a violent change of power. The foreign policy problems and internal instability could only be finally brought under control towards the end of the century. It was above all the reign of Diocletian (236-312, r. 284-305) that consolidated the empire again. This emperor also marked the beginning of Late Antiquity – and thus the last episode in the history of the Roman Empire. Diocletian began comprehensive reforms – which were continued and completed by Constantine the Great, among others, twenty years later. For example, the tetrarchy was introduced, i.e. a fourfold division of this huge Roman Empire under four equal emperors. The provinces could be better controlled and the borders better protected through a reorganisation into smaller units and the division of power. The administration was streamlined, the tax system was improved, coinage reforms were introduced to counter inflation and the army was also enlarged. Under Diocletian there was also a last great persecution of Christians around 300. In 305, however, the emperor abdicated for health reasons, making him the first Roman ruler to do so voluntarily.



More on this every month on our video platform – Christian Schaller takes us through the history of antiquity!

Literature used
  • Bringmann, Klaus: Römische Geschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Spätantike. München 2019.
  • Dahlheim, Werner: Die Römische Kaiserzeit. München 2013.
  • Gehrke, Hans-Joachim / Schneider, Helmuth (Hg.): Geschichte der Antike. Ein Studienbuch. Stuttgart 2013.
  • Pohanka, Reinhard, Die Römer. Kultur und Geschichte. Wiesbaden 2012.
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