hesitantly subtitled, lexical musings, Res Cognoscenda Imperii Romani, No such thing as an Emperor, The inadequacy of the English language in the study of the Roman empire...subtitle pending, First Among Equals.

The Latin princeps (which literally means simply "the first", perhaps also "chief" or "prince"), commonly in previous years translated simply as "emperor", but more recently left untranslated due to the historical difficulties of the term. This was the official title granted the Roman emperors, most importantly during the Julio-Claudian period from 31 BC to AD 68. Already in use during the days of the Republic, it carried no actual constitutional authority, but rather a certain level of respect and moral authority, or auctoritas, in the state and before the senate. An understanding of the term is vital to an understanding of the heated political transition and decline from the Republic of Rome to the imperial age.

There is a Roman gold Aureus, printed during the consulship of C. Lentulus in 12 B.C., which depicts on the obverse a standing, proudly posed Augustus reaching his hand to help a fallen Republic. Ever since he had defeated Marc Antony at Actium in 31, thereby effectively ending the civil wars, this image of the Res Publica Restituta, the Republic Restored by the dutiful hand of Augustus, had become a recurring theme. When he returned to Rome in 30 to parade the effigy of Cleopatra through the streets, he laid down his imperium, the executive privilege granted to military commanders, and nominally became just another senator; soon afterwards, however, the senate voluntarily voted to Augustus the title of princeps and princeps senatus, leader of the senate.

The title was a hold-over from the last hundred years of the Republic, which we hear in the writings of Cicero. In his great work De Re Publica, on The State, he speaks of principes, great men who had brought the Republic to glory in the past (it is no coincidence that he describes in them the qualities he saw in himself). Horace, in his later letters to Augustus, addresses him not as a princeps, but as the greatest among the principes. Just so, the princeps senatus was granted moral authority in the debates of the senate, primacy in presenting his legislation and speeches. The position depended entirely on the individual's auctoritas, his personal virtue judged by the standards of the mores maiorum, the ancestral traditions, and his relationship of unofficial authority as patron and sponsor over his clients and friends.

This was the authority by which Augustus shepherded the Roman state from 31 BC to AD 14; his political support and personal recommendation were enough to push laws such as the Lex Iulia de Maritandis Ordinibus through the senate, or to effect the exile of the poet Ovid in 8 BC; with the auctoritas which accompanied his role as princeps, he could pass legislation, convict political rivals, and assign military commanders to pursue expeditions. Only on rare occasions did he force the senate to grant him greater, constitutional authority, under the role of consul or censor, and surrendered the same power as soon as the particular crisis had been dealt with.

This is the same title which was granted to Tiberius, who already in 6 BC had begun to share Augustus' powers, in AD 14, and to Gaius Caligula in 37. With both of these men, the authority of the princeps became progressively dictatorial and tyrannical. Tiberius, ever more comfortable on the battlefield than in the political arena, began the process of linking the non-constitutional authority of the princeps with the constitutional, military authority of the imperator, a commander of the legions with imperium. Tiberius, under the influence of Aelius Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, had turned that force into a political arm, and Caligula happily continued its use to control the senate under the threat of violence. When his reign ended in a bloody assassination, it was the praetorian guard who found and pushed for the nomination of Claudius, who ascended the throne by their will over senatorial protest. By the time of Nero, though was still nominally the princeps, the title had become a political farce, wielded to cover the assumed authority of military commander, censor, and tribune. When Nero died in AD 68, and after the "year of the three emperors" Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, each commanders of the legions, and the Spanish soldier Vespasian ascended the throne, princeps was finally abandoned in favour of the more military, more realistic, imperator, the general of the army or "emperor".

The history of the title princeps is a reflection of the transition from the Republic through the Civil Wars, the gradual decline of the empire from the propagandistic "Res Publica Restituta" to a truly authoritarian state. When we call Augustus an "emperor", we have to understand a great political freedom granted to the senate and the people of Rome. We must punctuate the title implies not a consitutional or legal domination such as that of a Charlemagne or Napoleon, but a uniquely Roman social institution.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

  • Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture. (Princeton 1996). A well-written and well-researched work on the cultural and political transition from the Republic to the Empire, as reflected in the art, literature, and artifacts of the period.
  • Wells, Colin. The Roman Empire. (Cambridge 1984). A general and rather accessible overview of the political and social history of the Roman Empire. Most of it's not even discredited yet!