The reforms of Augustus

Octavian became sole master of the empire after his victory at Actium and the conquest of Egypt. As the Roman world remained in a state of confusion, he had to restore order and establish some form of government to guarantee permanent security. During the turbulent years after Caesar’s assassination, Octavian developed from an adroit politician into a political leader of the highest order. He saw that a return to the old republican system was out of the question as that system could no longer meet the organizational needs of the empire, nor guarantee the political stability required for the efficient administration and defence of the state. At the same time, he realized that an attempt to establish an absolute monarchy would offend republican sensitivities and might lead to further unrest. The Roman conception of the state was so entwined with the republican regime and its ruling class that political stability was virtually impossible without upholding the republican traditions. Based on this realistic appraisal of the situation, Octavian engaged in masterful manipulations to transform the Roman system of government into a system that was republican in form and semblance, but monarchical so far as actual executive power was concerned. He succeeded where Caesar had failed by concealing his essentially monarchic position, and appealing to respected precedents and traditional constitutional norms to make it appear that he was ‘restoring’ the Republic. Few of his informed contemporaries were fooled, and few cared. After so many years of anarchy and civil war, the Roman world was ready to accept stability under an enlightened ruler who professed to respect the political, social and economic sensibilities of the classes that mattered.1

Octavian-Augustus gradually established and maintained his autocracy in a lengthy process; the legitimization of his position on a long-term basis in 27 BC was merely one stage. In seeking to eliminate the danger of factional strife, the main cause of the Republic’s ills, he gradually neutralized the bewildering medley of family alliances and pressure groups that made up the senatorial oligarchy; became the chief political patron of the state; and made all Romans his clients in one way or another. He achieved this without destroying the traditional institutions of the republican state. The assemblies and the senate still met to carry out their traditional functions, and the prerogatives of the senators and equestrians were maintained. Augustus ostentatiously contented himself with a few decisive elements of authority such as the proconsular power (imperium proconsulare) over the frontier provinces, which gave him the supreme command over the greatest part of the army,2 the consular power (imperium consulare) for the city precincts of Rome (from 19 BC onward) and the expanded powers of the tribunate (tribunicia potestas) whereby he could effectively control legislation. On various occasions, he was given the powers of a censor, which secured for him a voice in the composition of the senate. Moreover, as holder of the position of pontifex maximus (after 12 BC), he exercised general supervision over the religious affairs of the state. But, more important than all these powers and titles bestowed on Augustus was the personal authority (auctoritas) he enjoyed, which warranted his superiority over all other organs of the state.3 Augustus, unlike Caesar, refrained from assuming dictatorial powers and professed to be no more than princeps, a term simply meaning ‘the first citizen of the state’. He boasted that he had not taken a single magistracy in conflict with ancestral custom and that the official powers he possessed were not greater than those of his colleagues in the office concerned. The truth, however, is that as the powers of the princeps were not subject to the limitations traditionally imposed on magisterial authority, initiative passed from the senatorial oligarchy to one man and the whole system functioned under the potentially autocratic though benevolent control of an emperor.4

Perhaps Augustus’ most revolutionary reform was extending the base of the socio-political elite to include the equestrian classes of Italy, which began to play a prominent role in social and political life. Augustus secured the support of the equestrians by allowing them a greater degree of participation in the government of the state. He used equestrian civil servants to counteract senatorial disloyalty, especially in the financial administration and sensitive military posts, and patronized their advancement to the senate. The equestrian class was then open to rejuvenation from below, as successful elements of the lower classes could now achieve equestrian rank. Thus, society was more mobile and dynamic than during the Republic, as talented or ambitious men advanced in imperial service. Moreover, Augustus reorganized the Roman army as a professional standing force and, at the same time, reduced the number of legions. He realized that an excessively large army drained the state’s human and natural resources, and was unnecessary and potentially dangerous once the civil wars ended. He used this new army, a remarkably efficient fighting machine, as the instrument of a distinctly imperialistic foreign policy for much of his reign. At the end, however, he set himself the task of creating permanent defensive frontiers behind which Roman civilization could develop peacefully. Augustus attempted to change the moral tone of Roman society that had strayed far from traditional Roman values. Thus, he promoted old religious cults and sought to transform upper-class morals by legislation. Large families were encouraged, childlessness became a disability for aspiring office-holders and adultery was made a criminal offence. Ultimately, however, changing the moral fabric of society from above proved to be an impossible task.

The new system instituted by Augustus, however successful it proved to be over the next two centuries, was marred by a basic weakness. This derived from the contradiction between Augustus’ constitutional position as a Roman magistrate, whose tenure derived from the senate and the people, and his de facto status as emperor whose maintenance of power ultimately depended on army support. The stability of the empire depended normally on continuity of imperial person and policy, and yet the very skill Augustus used to disguise his power under republican forms increased the difficulty of transmitting that power to a successor. Aware that he could not legally nominate a successor, Augustus sought to resolve the problem by elevating to positions of power certain persons from within his own family whom he regarded as suitable candidates for the imperial office. When he died in AD 14, the sole survivor of this group of contemplated successors was his adopted stepson, Tiberius; the senate and the people had no hesitation in proclaiming Tiberius as emperor. Although the ‘adoptive emperorship’ provided an answer to the new crisis of the system, succession remained a perennial concern and no solution was ever devised to the problem of deposing an emperor without recourse to violence. It is no wonder that the empire was ruled by a succession of short dynasties, whose reign was punctuated, at least in the first century AD, by frequent plots, intrigues and assassinations.

Organs of the imperial administration

As noted earlier, in the system founded by Augustus the powers of the emperor were those held by the higher magistrates of the Republic, but these powers were now combined and concentrated in one person. In the course of time these powers were gradually extended, although their legal basis remained largely unchanged.5 The princeps, in the end, became the governing statesman and ruler with such enormous resources at his disposal that he could personally take on the tasks of the state. But the new political system was not identical with the rule of a single person, but with that of the imperial household (domus principis) – the family and dynasty of the princeps, his relatives, advisers and stewards.

In order to manage the wide-ranging responsibilities of his office, the emperor required assistants answerable directly to him. The early emperors relied heavily on members of their own household, especially freedmen, to fill government posts, although certain important positions were reserved for senators and members of the equestrian class.6 The new imperial officials differed from the magistrates of the Republic in some important respects: they were chosen by the emperor himself, without the involvement of the senate or popular assemblies, and reported directly to him; they were appointed for an indefinite period of time, although the emperor could dismiss them at any time at his pleasure, and were paid for their work according to their rank; they were not granted imperium or potestas (their only powers were those delegated by the emperor, who could approve, reverse or modify their decisions as he thought fit), and the principle of collegiality did not apply to them.

The most important imperial officials were the praetorian prefect (praefectus praetorio) and the city prefect (praefectus urbi). From the time of Augustus, the praetorian prefect was commander of the special military units, which served as the emperor’s personal bodyguard (praetoriani, cohors praetoria). The office evolved into one of the most powerful in the state and its holders, who were drawn from the equestrian class, became the chief advisers of the emperors in military and civil matters.7 Their military command extended over all the troops stationed in Italy and, from the third century onwards, they assumed important administrative and judicial functions. Their jurisdiction extended all over Italy (with the exception of an area including Rome and a hundred mile zone around the city) and the provinces.8 Among the holders of the office of the praefectus praetorio were some leading jurists of the imperial period, such as Papinianus, Paulus and Ulpianus. The city prefect was originally the representative of the emperor in Rome when the emperor was absent. During the early Principate, the office was transformed into a permanent one and the city prefect was made responsible for maintaining public order in Rome with the Roman police (the urban cohorts) at his disposal. Moreover, after the abolition of the old standing courts under Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193–211), he was granted broad jurisdictional powers in Rome and the surrounding area up to a distance of a hundred miles from the city.9 Other important officials of this period were the prefect of the grain supply (praefectus annonae), appointed for an indefinite period to oversee the supply of grain and other provisions to the market in Rome and to regulate prices,10 and the prefect of the watch (praefectus vigilum), the head of Rome’s fire brigades (cohortes vigilum), whose duties included policing the city by night and dealing with fires and any other natural emergencies that might arise.11 Another category of officials with a varying extent of power was that of the procurators (procuratores).12 Procurators acted as agents of the emperor in fulfilling a number of tasks within the civil administration, especially in the provinces, such as the collection of taxes, the management of state revenues and the supervision of public buildings and factories. The most common duty for a procurator was to serve as governor of a minor province or territory.13

When dealing with important administrative and legal matters the emperors, beginning with Augustus, often consulted a body of advisers (consilium principis) composed of trusted friends (amici Caesaris), state officials and experts. Under Hadrian (AD 117–38), the consilium principis became a permanent organ comprising the highest officers of the state, and its members (consiliarii) received regular remuneration for their services. Eminent jurists who held senior positions in the imperial administration (such as Julianus, Papinianus and Ulpianus) often participated in the consilium, and played a major role in the development of imperial legislation and the dispensation of justice. By the middle of the third century AD, the consilium was the most important element of the imperial administration as it assumed most of the functions and responsibilities of the senate.14

In the early years of the Principate, the imperial civil service lacked structure, and Augustus and his immediate successors conducted the administration as part of their private business, relying on private secretaries from their own households, especially freedmen. An important change introduced during the reign of Claudius (AD 41–54) was the transformation of those secretaryships into powerful ministries with names indicating the different tasks assigned to them. The department a rationibus dealt with matters relating to public finance, the a libellis responded to petitions from private citizens, the ab epistulis handled the emperor’s official correspondence, the a cognitionibus investigated judicial disputes referred to the emperor and the a memoria performed the secretarial work on all decisions, letters, appointments and orders issued by the emperor. These departments were manned at a lower level by slaves (servi Caesaris) and at a higher level by freedmen. However, the role of freedmen in the imperial service was restricted in later years. Domitian (AD 81–96) and Trajan (AD 98–117) appointed equestrian secretaries and, from the time of Hadrian (AD 117–38), the heads of the various departments were selected exclusively from the equestrian class. Equestrians also played an increasingly important part in the management of the imperial treasury (fiscus), which was the repository for the flow of taxes levied in the imperial provinces and from which the emperor paid the salaries of state officials and soldiers.15

The senate, the magistrates and the assemblies

As noted before, in the new system of government inaugurated by Augustus there was no break with the past. The powers he was invested with were conferred upon him in forms compatible with republican precedents, and the Republic itself still functioned. The assemblies and senate still met, the regular magistrates were elected each year, and the senate continued, as in the past, to be recruited from ex-magistrates. Augustus was successful because he was able to establish a stable regime, a disguised kind of monarchy cleverly hidden behind a constitutional, republican façade. But the new political system was heavily encumbered by its contradictions between façade and reality. However successful Augustus’ programme proved to be, neither he nor his successors resolved the contradictions inherent in the elective theory supporting the new regime and its dynastic practice. In the course of time, the absolutism inherent in the imperial system became progressively more pronounced and, inevitably, the relics of the republican state (senatorial independence of action and the sovereignty of a people legislating and electing magistrates in popular assembly) withered away.

The senate

After the establishment of the Principate, politically and socially the most important group of the governing class within the state was still the Roman senate. Aware of its influence and usefulness as an instrument through which he could legitimize his regime, Augustus exalted the senate and augmented its powers.16 The senate retained control over the public treasury (aerarium), governed the senatorial provinces through proconsuls and, for a time at least, retained the privilege of minting coinage. In later years, the prestige of the senate was enhanced further by its employment as a court of justice, dealing with cases involving offences committed by senators and state officials. Its resolutions (senatus consulta) also gained added importance, finally acquiring the full force of law, as the senate gradually became a legislative body replacing the popular assemblies. Officially, the senate had become a full partner in the government. Theoretically, it was even more: the ultimate source of the emperors’ power, as their imperium and legitimacy on accession was derived from the senate’s approval of their nominations.17 Hence, a dichotomy emerged as a great distinguishing feature of the Principate: the growth of two closely interrelated, yet theoretically independent, authorities. Yet, in reality, although the senate retained a great deal of its prestige and rights as a political forum, it was substantially under the control of the emperor who regulated its composition, dominated its proceedings and prescribed its tasks. Elections of magistrates always corresponded with the wishes of the emperor; legislative proposals brought before the senate by the emperor or his representatives were accepted without much debate; the conduct of foreign policy was in the hands of the emperor, who also controlled all the politically important provinces; and the management of public finances was gradually assumed by the emperor following the establishment of the imperial treasury (fiscus). Thus, in the end, the division of government between the emperor and the senate was more apparent than real; although the emperors owed all their powers to the senate, once these powers were given the senate became virtually impotent and unable to retract them, even if it had desired to do so. During the later part of the Principate, the senate endured further debilitation with the increased centralization of the imperial administration, the broadening of the role of the consilium principis and the transfer of jurisdiction in many areas to the praetorian and city prefects. Although by the third century AD the senate had lost most of its competence, it remained influential because of tradition and the social standing of the senatorial class (membership of that body was still regarded by many as the high point of a political career).