The emperor’s new senators

 

by Christian Schaller

A consideration of the “other powerful people” in the early Roman Empire

The reign of Augustus, the Saeculum Augustum, glorified by both ancient and later historians, is often considered the epitome of a time of peace and prosperity for the Roman Empire. The establishment of the Principate under the first emperor allowed trade, building activity, and culture to flourish and brought the protracted Roman civil wars and internal turmoil to a close.  But while the obvious internal military disputes ended, the social and societal problems did not by a long shot. Not least, the upheaval initiated by the first princeps inter pares, the “first among equals,” occurred at the expense of Rome’s aristocratic elites, who had long determined the fate of the Roman Republic. The principate established by Augustus and consolidated by his successor Tiberius and the other members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty undoubtedly fundamentally curtailed the political options of the old upper class. It is therefore all the more interesting that the social and societal functions of the aristocrats as well as their public staging increased in almost contrasting fashion – was this now done actively, through self-initiative, or passively, for example granted by the emperor. For this purpose, a distinction must first be made between the senatus as an institution and body and the ordo senatorius as a social class, which will be mainly considered in the following. While it is difficult to separate the reigns of the first two emperors, Augustus and Tiberius, from the rest of Roman history and define them as a coherent epoch, there are nevertheless reasons for considering the first two principes together. If a system of rule was established under Augustus, it was expanded and consolidated under his successors. Developments brought into being in Augustan times were subjected to an initial test under Tiberius and thus detached the political system from Augustus as an individual. Thus, the definition of the senatorial rank under Augustus did not take place overnight, nor did the self-image and thus the public representation of the renewed ordo senatorius.

The End of a Form of Government – the Relationship between Emperor Augustus and the Senators

While there may have been fluid transitions between the diverse forms of senatorial representation, they all had one thing in common: direct or indirect dependence on the emperor. The social position of the senatorial class remained broadly intact throughout the transition from the Republic to the Principate. The upper class was still indispensable to the social and economic structure of Rome. Securing the new form of rule required effective provincial administration, which resulted in a division into senatorial and imperial provinces in 27 BC. The centrally directed governmental apparatus established by Augustus thus presupposed an agreement between noble functionaries and the emperor – who was ultimately also a member of the senatorial class.  This close interaction during the early Principate, however, by no means precluded a comprehensive regimentation of the imperial nobility by the princeps. The emperor was to become an almost unrivaled center of resource allocation.  Augustus limited the ordo senatorius to 600 persons and made it exclusive by conferring or affirming social, legal, political and ideological factors, which were completed by a relatively coherent education and way of thinking as well as by friendly or even kinship ties. The senatorial rank in the early principate can be considered equally heterogeneous, fluctuating and yet cohesive.  The legal requirements, duties and restrictions for official membership of the upper class were also newly regulated. For the ordo senatorius, a minimum fortune of 1,000,000 sesterces became a condition, as well as a residence in Rome and regular attendance at the Senate.

An opportunity for a career ideally resulted from membership in the old nobilitas and a friendship or even kinship with the imperial house coupled with outstanding achievements in the military or legal system. Despite the Augustan promotion of some homines novi, “new men,” as upstarts and nouveaux riches were called, these became increasingly rare in the last two decades before the turn of the era. From then on, top positions were possible almost exclusively with an origin from the senatorial aristocracy, which had already provided leadership positions in the Republic.

Kaiser Augustus, © gilmanshin

The career ladder was also prescribed and regulated in its course: The vigintivirat, the lowest level of Roman offices, which included public duties such as the execution of punishment or the minting of coins, became under Augustus a component and customary starting point of the renewed, imperial-era cursus honorum, the Roman career of office. This was followed by formal membership in the Senate through the office of quaestor, a kind of financial official, and then a praetorship (law) and consulship (governance) could follow.

Augustus completed the marriage and morality laws of the late Republic. These were not loose guidelines of behavior for the upper classes, but were also intended to serve their control. These laws included aspects such as the promotion of marriage and child wealth, for example by discouraging divorce or making remarriage compulsory. In general, Augustus’ moral policies, based on republican tradition but enforced more radically, pursued several purposes. Despite opposition, criticism, and the exploitation of legal loopholes, the arrangement between the emperor and the elites contained in the moral legislation should not be left out. The strict laws and regulations may have been constricting, but they also consolidated the noble reputation and dignity of the upper class. Senators, for example, were forbidden to take up dishonest professions such as actor or gladiator. The prostitution of women from knightly families is also later expressly forbidden by law – an indication that it certainly seems to have been a real problem in Augustan-Tiberian times. The preservation of the senatorial honor of rank was finally no longer an option, but was enforced outright.

Pomp and pageantry instead of real power – the relationship between Emperor Tiberius and the senators

Tiberius had gained a great reputation among the upper class through the work of Augustus and his own ability. At the session of the Senate in 14 A.D., when he handed over his office, he displayed a restraint that was probably meant seriously and thus flattered the Senate. The funeral of Augustus, co-arranged by the Senate, is considered the first appearance of the new Caesar. As one of his first official acts, Tiberius proposed the transfer of elections from the people to the Senate, which in the meantime was hardly connected with political power, but with social prestige.

Tiberius generally attached great importance to the harmonious integration of the nobility into the new form of government. Even under the second emperor, the senatorial class was still state-bearing and required appropriate forms of representation. This was necessary to maintain the balance between the republican traditional senatorial staging and the political safeguarding of Augustus’ and Tiberius’ sole rule. Or in simple words: The old splendor of the long-dead republic was left to the senators as a beautiful appearance, but nothing more.

Kaiser Tiberius, © gilmanshin

Tiberius had gained a great reputation among the upper class through the work of Augustus and his own ability. At the session of the Senate in 14 A.D., when he handed over his office, he displayed a restraint that was probably meant seriously and thus flattered the Senate. The funeral of Augustus, co-arranged by the Senate, is considered the first appearance of the new Caesar. As one of his first official acts, Tiberius proposed the transfer of elections from the people to the Senate, which in the meantime was hardly associated with political power, but with social prestige.

Tiberius generally attached great importance to the harmonious integration of the nobility into the new form of rule. Even under the second emperor, the senatorial class was still state-bearing and required appropriate forms of representation. This was necessary to maintain the balance between the republican traditional senatorial staging and the political safeguarding of Augustus’ and Tiberius’ sole rule. Or in simple words: the old splendor of the long-dead republic was left to the senators as a beautiful semblance, but nothing more.

Already in the late republic existing and still by Augustus tightened laws, which raised now no longer only threats against the people of Rome, but also invective against the emperor to an offence, were not used in Tiberius first reign years yet. However, in Tiberius’ later years, the situation escalated and rampant trials of real or imputed majesty rocked Rome, bringing death to powerful men and destroying numerous senatorial families. Tiberius’ derailment spread a sense of arbitrariness and lack of freedom throughout Rome and the Empire. While Roman historians and older research always accused the emperor of a tyrannical aristocracy in this regard, this picture has since been revised. The principate was not yet fully established and consolidated. The cruel and deadly law punishing insults to the majesty was thus an almost necessary evil to protect the young emperorship by all means from conspiracies and assassinations, which logically could be perpetrated mainly by rich and powerful senatorial families close to the imperial house. Nevertheless, the trials reveal a certain senatorial desire for denunciation and competition among themselves.

Under Augustus, it was possible to preserve one’s dignity despite actual or imputed high treason even beyond death. A suicide before the trial decision could save members of the upper class from a dishonorable burial and a confiscation of property, which would have meant the ruin of the family. Under Tiberius, however, the beginnings of a new development were slowly emerging. Morals and the preservation of the senators’ representative position clearly took a back seat to financial interests. More and more frequently, so-called delators appeared, almost professional denunciators, who accused disagreeable persons of high treason and insulting the majesty. In the event of a successful trial, the delator received a quarter of the sentence imposed on the convicted person – not infrequently a quarter of his or her entire fortune, should the accused be executed. Only a good 50 years later, under the emperors Titus, Nerva and Trajan, this “profession” was to be frowned upon again and slowly suppressed.

Kaiser, Senatoren und Ritter

The redistribution of political power ensured a government without crises for a long time by involving the aristocrats from the Italic country towns and the knights. The command and patronage of senatorial commanders and governors were curbed and, especially in the early imperial period, attempts were made to bind the senatorial class to Italy and Rome.  The Senate remained a highly respected and central body in the new form of government decades after the end of its heyday, the Roman Republic. Augustus and Tiberius, however, both in their own ways did all that was necessary to ensure that the senators no longer held this rank through republican or political power, but solely through the gracious maintenance of the time-honored, anemic forms of representation. Under the two rulers, an increasingly progressive ebbing away of republican constitutional life can be observed. As already indicated, the proximity to the imperial house increasingly served the ordo senatorius as a crystallization point for prestige and representation.

Not only was power reduced over the years, so were the people. Many of the old Roman families slowly died out in the first century – and not all by mere, natural chance. Augustus and Tiberius sought to legitimize their rule and stabilize society. They achieved this by preserving the honor of the estates through laws and even morally elevating the old upper class, while at the same time limiting and bleeding out possible senatorial competitors.

Lucius Licinius Crassus, © Crisfotolux

In summary, the representation of the senatorial rank during the early Principate can be characterized as an elementary component in the assertion of rank and position. The relationship to the emperor was a decisive factor. The upper class received office and dignities from the princeps, who in return could not maintain an efficient imperial administration without the aristocratic functionaries. The superficial preservation of dignity and authority was thus also possible for the senatorial rank of the early Principate, which had a fundamentally different composition than in the Republic. Under Augustus and even under Tiberius, the senate was a political force. While Augustus tried to define and stabilize the renewed ordo senatorius by securing and even increasing its social position, he carried out, as it were, a redistribution of the actual political balance of power to the person of the emperor. Under Tiberius, this policy was continued, even if the second emperor was initially inclined to give the Senate more say. A clear failure of this course may have resulted, on the one hand, from the misunderstood character of the emperor and, on the other hand, from the unwillingness of the upper classes to participate in politics, which had arisen in the meantime.  Nevertheless, the stability and efficiency of the Roman administrative apparatus in the Julio-Claudian period could only be guaranteed by the most harmonious possible interaction between the emperor and the only slowly weakening upper class.

Literature
  • Bringmann, Klaus: Römische Geschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Spätantike. München 2019.
  • Chaniotis, Angelos: Die Öffnung der Welt. Eine Globalgeschichte des Hellenismus. Darmstadt 2019.
  • Dahlheim, Werner: Die Römische Kaiserzeit. München 2013.
  • Gehrke, Hans-Joachim / Schneider, Helmuth (Hg.): Geschichte der Antike. Ein Studienbuch. Stuttgart 2013.
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