Ancient History & Civilisation


31 BC

Octavian emerges from the Actium campaign as victor of civil wars

27 BC

Octavian given the title Augustus by the Senate

AD 14

Death of Augustus. The succession of Tiberius

AD 41

Assassination of Caius (Caligula). Praetorian Guard impose Claudius as new princeps

AD 68

Suicide of Nero leaves no Julio-Claudian heirs

AD 69

Year of the Four Emperors, ends with Vespasian establishing the Flavian dynasty

AD 96

Assassination of Domitian, succeeded by Nerva

AD 98–117

The reign of Trajan. Major wars against the Dacians and then the Parthians, spectacular building in Rome

AD 117–38

Reign of Hadrian, withdrawal from Mesopotamia

AD 138–61

Reign of Antoninus Pius

AD 161–80

Reign of Marcus Aurelius (jointly with Lucius Verus until 169). Beginnings of increased pressure on northern frontier

AD 165–80

Antonine plague sweeps westwards across empire

AD 180–92

Reign of Commodus

AD 192

Assassination of Commodus provokes short civil war, ending in victory of Severus

AD 235

Death of Alexander Severus marks the end of Severan dynasty and the beginning of the military crisis of the third century



In the beginning the City of Rome was ruled by kings. Lucius Brutus established freedom and the consulship. Dictatorships were taken up from time to time, the power of the decemviri endured for only a couple of years, the consular power of the military tribunes did not last much longer. The tyrannies of Cinna and Sulla were shortlived, the power of Pompey and Crassus quickly passed to Caesar, and the armies of Lepidus and Antony surrendered to Augustus who took control of the whole state, worn out as it was by civil war, with the title First Citizen (Princeps).

(Tacitus, Annales 1.1)

The Return of Monarchy

Rome had an empire before it had emperors. The first half of this book has told the story of how that came about. One city in competition with others, fighting to control first Italy, then the west, and finally the entire Mediterranean basin and more besides. Or as the Romans themselves most often saw it, one people winning leadership (imperium, arche, hegemonia) over the other peoples of the inhabited world. Romans imagined this as a collective effort: Senate and people, Rome and her allies, the men and the gods of the city working together. Only in the final stages did individual leaders emerge from the pack of Scipiones, Fabii, Metelli, Aemilii Paulli, and the other great families. Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar seem—with hindsight—like intimations of monarchy.1 Great generals provided a coordination of resources and policy that empire badly needed. The emperors did all this even better, and they also imposed peace. The senatorial historian Tacitus, writing in the early second century AD (around a century and a half after the battle of Actium), satirically represented Republican government as a brief deviation within a grand narrative of a Roman monarchy. But there is no sign that he or any other senator of his age actually opposed the rule of the Caesars. Emperors had turned out to be a vital component of the Roman Empire.

This chapter tells the story of how the Romans stopped worrying and came to love their new kings, even if they could never bring themselves to call them by that name. That tact mattered most for the Romans of Rome. Greeks were happy to use the wordbasileus (king), Egyptians treated them as pharaohs, provincials everywhere made the family name Caesar and the special title of Augustus, awarded Octavian by the Senate in 27 BC, into synonyms for monarch. The first emperor knew better than to stage an overt revolution, yet over the first three centuries of the empire monarchy comes out of the shadows. We still call the early empire the Principate, since the emperors also used the term princeps, first citizen. All the same, there is now a consensus that all the essentials of monarchy had been there right from the start: these included an inner circle of favourites, advisers, secretaries, and viziers; palace intrigues, because the palace was where decisions were made; central pooling of information and control of resources; a nexus of patronage centred on the court; and a hereditary principle of succession, even if it was a while before it could be acknowledged.

Like all monarchies, its history is one of struggles for influence at court, of intergenerational conflict, of tangled sexual and political rivalries, of actual and suspected plots. But it is also a history of remarkable stability. If it was largely true that (as one historian has put it) ‘Emperors don’t die in bed’, it was also true that the murders of many individual emperors seem to have done little to shake the system itself. That is why much of this chapter is concerned with the emerging institution rather than the admittedly colourful characters who occupied the throne. The narrative overlaps with that in Chapter 13 which will consider the outward face of empire, especially war and diplomacy. That story will be one of two centuries of cautious consolidation and modest advance followed in the third century with a crisis that caught the emperors completely by surprise and from which it took the empire more than a generation to recover. The empire almost collapsed under the combined pressure of invasions from northern Europe and war with a rejuvenated and very aggressive Persian Empire. What survived was, in fact, a new empire. Its story will be told in Chapters 15 and 17. But through all these transformations, the person of the emperor remains at the focus of our gaze, and it is appropriate to begin with the first and greatest.


In August 30 BC, Octavian stood almost exactly where his adoptive father Julius Caesar had stood nearly eighteen years before: in Alexandria, contemplating victory amidst the corpses of his enemies. But the Roman world had changed in the decades since Pharsalus. Back in 48, Caesar had lamented the murder of Pompey, swearing he would have spared him. Perhaps he would have done, just as he spared Brutus and Cassius after his victory over Pompey. Nearly two decades later the new victor was a very different animal. Antony and Cleopatra were both dead, each at their own hands. But it was on Octavian’s orders that Caesarion, the boy Cleopatra claimed she had borne to Caesar, was executed. After wrestling with Antony for leadership of the Caesarian party, Octavian would tolerate no other heirs for Caesar. Egypt he took control of too, absorbing the last of the great Greek kingdoms into his empire. He would need the treasury of the Ptolemies to settle his and Antony’s soldiers. Octavian learned from others’ mistakes. He would not rely on terror and legislation to fix the state as Sulla had done. He would not imitate Pompey’s actions in 62 BC by dismissing his legions. He would not forgive as Caesar had. He would not take the title dictator and sit around in Rome waiting for the assassins’ daggers. He meant to rule.

Oceans of ink have been spilled debating the question of how Octavian escaped Caesar’s fate. Was he cunning or lucky? He had enemies after Actium, to be sure, and perhaps there were plots too. Did he really face the same challenges? How different was the Rome he returned to rule and the ruling class he converted into his allies? Was Rome now so weary of civil war it would accept any alternative? Had the Senate been cowed by the proscriptions and the civil wars? Had the people really come to accept him as a god who had saved the state? These questions are not difficult to answer for lack of evidence: the long reign of Octavian/Augustus (forty-five years from Actium to his death) is one of the best documented in Roman history. The problem is the success of Octavian and his allies in presenting their version of history as the dominant narrative. The themes of renewal, moral rearmament, and recovery sponsored by the gods resonate in the poetry created by Propertius, Virgil, and Horace, in the monumental rebuilding of Rome and some major provincial cities, in the elaborate iconographic programmes of the Altar of Peace, of the Fora of Augustus and of Julius Caesar, and of the temples to Mars, Apollo, and other gods the first emperor set about constructing. It was also performed. It is difficult for us to imagine the experience of watching the great triple triumph of 29 BC, celebrating his victories in the Balkans, in the campaign of Actium, and in Egypt. But the spectators knew this meant the end of civil war. The same applies to the magnificent Saecular Games of 17 BC, ostensibly an ancient festival revived, but used by Augustus as another means to signal the end of one era and the start of the next. Some performances were more subtle. During the 20s BC Octavian gradually rebuilt his image in a series of carefully stage-managed renunciations of his power, each followed by new grants from the Senate. The focal point occurred at two meetings in January 27 BC from which he emerged with the title Augustus, a vast province (essentially that half of the empire that contained armies) granted for ten years, and the right to govern through legates. During 23 BC he finally resigned the last of a series of consulships and received a grant of imperium maius, the same kind of command that had allowed Pompey and others to outrank governors in their provinces. In fact in almost all his titles and powers he was much more the heir of Pompey than of Caesar. The only popularis elements were the powers and inviolable status of a tribune. The people had festivals—bread and circuses in the famous phrase—but the power of the assemblies to actually choose magistracies or pass legislation withered away. Augustus passed his legislation via the Senate, appointed senators to all the major military and political commands, with equestrians taking on the lesser ones, chose some magistrates and reserved the right to veto appointments to others, determine the election of the most important priests. Without ever creating a formal constitutional position of emperor, he accumulated, through influence, persuasion, vast wealth, and the threat of overwhelming military force, a determining position in the state. On his death, the whole bundle of powers and almost all the titles were passed on to his successor. Back in the 20s his death was, of course, a long way off, although his frequent illnesses meant no one could count on it. But this gave him a long time to develop the role of emperor. The 20s were about survival, demobilizing armies, touring and securing the provinces, and establishing a delicate cohabitation with the Senate. Keeping physically away from Rome for much of the decade probably helped. A plot in 22 BC caused a momentary crisis, but by 17 BC and the Saecular Games he was as secure as he ever would be. During the middle part of his reign he initiated great campaigns of conquest. Peace was made with the Parthians in 20 BC, the standards of Crassus were returned, and with the east secure he was able to devote resources to the conquest of Europe. His stepsons Tiberius and Drusus led great armies across the Rhine and up and down the Danube. World conquest was almost certainly devised as a solution to the domestic problem of What did an emperor do? Up until a disastrous defeat in Germany in AD 9 the answer could be, the emperor leads Rome in the fulfilment of her historical destiny. Augustan art and poetry is full of images of world conquest, and the submission of India, Britain, and northern Scythia was confidently predicted. Victory abroad distracted from scandal at home, driven partly by struggles over who would be Augustus’ successor. In the end it was to be Tiberius. No one else was left, alive or untarnished.

Tiberius already shared most of Augustus’ formal powers by the time of the latter’s death, but he still had to endure his predecessor’s final arrangements. A great dynastic mausoleum had been built in the Field of Mars not far from the Tiber. Over the years since its completion (in 28 BC) it had accumulated the remains of a number of those who Augustus had once hoped would succeed him, notably his sons-in-law Marcellus and Agrippa, and his grandsons Gaius and Lucius. Only the favoured were admitted: his daughter Julia was forbidden to lie alongside her husbands and sons, his granddaughter was also banned from burial within it, and a final grandson was murdered, allegedly on his orders, as soon as Augustus’ death was announced to make sure Tiberius faced no possible rival from within the family. The ruthless Octavian had clearly survived beneath the benevolent figure of Augustus. In this Mausoleum the ashes of Augustus would lie. But first came the send-off.

On the news of Augustus’ death the priestesses of Vesta produced his will, which had been left with them for safekeeping.2 Tiberius and his mother, Augustus’ wife Livia, were named as principal heirs of his vast personal property in a ratio of two parts to one. The will also detailed the customary legacies that Roman nobles made to their relatives, friends, and clients. But the scale was now rather different. Augustus included legacies to every single Roman citizen, and to every soldier in the Roman army. The will was supplemented by three other documents, codicils. One offered a balance sheet of the entire empire. It detailed where the soldiers were stationed and how many they were in each unit, how much money was in the treasuries, how much tax was owing, and to these lists were added the names of those of Augustus’ slaves and ex-slaves who could furnish further details. This is a tacit statement of how far the coordination of the empire had progressed in the ninety years since Gabinius had first proposed that first exceptional command for Pompey against the pirates. It also reveals how Augustus managed the empire, through his private household, that is, relying on his own dependants rather than public slaves, senators, or equestrians. No other accounts had ever been offered. But the document was a display of openness, not an invitation to the Senate to take the reins. Augustus’ slaves and clients were part of Tiberius’ inheritance; he already had imperium maius and all the other powers that mattered.

A second codicil included instructions for Augustus’ funeral. There would be a grand pageant through the city of Rome, one in which all the orders would participate alongside the members of his family. The funeral procession would make its way to a specially constructed pyre on the Field of Mars. On it was a tower from the top of which an eagle would be released at the moment it was ignited. The eagle would soar to heaven, carrying Augustus’ soul with it. He himself would become a god, like Julius Caesar before him.

The third codicil was Augustus’ account of his life, not his memoirs or autobiography, but the text for an epigraphic monument. It was to be inscribed on two pillars of bronze outside the Mausoleum. They are long gone, but many copies were made and set up all over the empire. The best surviving example is from a temple of the imperial cult at Ankara in central Turkey. The Greek heading reads as follows:

Translated and inscribed below are the deeds and gifts of the god Augustus, the account of which he left in the City of Rome engraved on two bronze tablets.

This precisely describes its contents in thirty-five succinct chapters, which list in exhausting detail the peoples conquered, the monuments built in the city of Rome, and the gifts given to all and sundry. It also offers a highly tendentious account of his role in the civil wars. The Latin original of the title had more nuance. Augustus is described by the term divus —deified— rather than the blunt term for god, his achievements are glossed as those by which he made the entire world subject to the will of the Roman people, and his gifts are explained as the sums he expended on behalf of the state and of the people. Saviour, conqueror, benefactor, patron, and a Roman who had outdone all his peers and all his predecessors. It is a longer epitaph than the one Sulla chose for himself, but maybe not so different.


Tiberius’ accession in AD 14—long planned for and formidably resourced— went smoothly. This was the first in a number of crucial stages through which the charisma and standing enjoyed by Augustus personally become institutionalized into the role of emperor. Tiberius ruled until AD 37, efficient and cautious, but remote and unpopular. Much of the latter part of his reign he spent away from Rome, ruling the city via his praetorian prefect. There were crises but he survived them. AD 41 showed the dynasty could survive an assassination, that of Tiberius’ successor Caligula. After Caligula’s death the Senate had reportedly discussed a return to Republican government: the debate was still running when the imperial guard installed Claudius on the throne. As far as we know the issue was never seriously raised again. Nero’s suicide in AD 68 left no obvious heirs, and a short civil war followed. It was the first in a century and it lasted less than two years. Governors in Gaul and Spain had been the first to rebel against Nero, and on his death installed Galba as his successor. But he failed to win over either Rome or the other armies and was murdered on 15 January AD 69, the year remembered as that of four emperors. Otho was backed by the Praetorian Guard, Vitellius by the German legions, and Vespasian by the armies of the Danube and Syria and the prefect of Egypt. But after victory for Vespasian’s party, the institutions of empire snapped quickly back into place and all seemed to continue much as before. It was as if Senate, equites, people, army, and provinces all felt a need for one man to hold the centre. A bronze tablet records a senatorial decree passed in December AD 69, and probably formally approved by the assembly shortly thereafter, which grants Vespasian a series of privileges, citing powers and rights granted to Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius as precedents. By the time it was issued Vespasian had no real rivals and the Senate and people no real choice, but it expresses the will of all sides for a restoration of the status quo before the civil war.

The events of AD 69 show the importance of the person of the emperor as a symbolic centre, as a focus of ritual and cosmological power. For Vespasian’s candidacy was supported by heaven. Josephus, a rebel Jewish leader in captivity, predicted it; Vespasian waiting at Alexandria performed healing miracles; the goddess Isis supported his cause. Without an emperor the Capitol burned and there were rumours of Druidic curses. The world did seem to be coming apart. German auxiliaries and Gallic rebels dreamt of founding a new empire on the Rhine. The installation of the new Flavian dynasty (Vespasian’s full name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus) immediately restored order to the world.

Descent mattered above all else. The title king continued to be avoided in Rome. But there can have been no doubt from the start that the Roman Empire was now a family affair. Not only did Augustus advertise himself son of the god (of the deified Julius Caesar, that is) but he covered the city in monuments named after family members and their spouses. The porticoes of Livia, Octavia, and Julia, the theatre of Marcellus, the baths of Agrippa joined the Julian and Augustan fora. That monumental idiom was maintained by his successors. Heirs were designated from his family, and the coming of age of his grandchildren was celebrated on the grandest scale. Poets and provincial cities soon got the idea: extravagant honours were paid to one imperial prince after another. The calendar of a military unit stationed on the Persian frontier shows many of these festivals were still being celebrated 200 years later. Consent to the hereditary principle is evident in the support given to otherwise very lacklustre emperors. Claudius, when raised to the throne by the Praetorians, had only his name and ancestry to recommend him. Many refused to believe Nero dead, and there were at least three pretenders claiming to be him. When Vespasian won the support of the eastern and Danubian armies for his bid for the throne it is very clear that one major recommendation was that he had two adult sons, Titus and Domitian, as potential successors. Despite the lack of any family connection, Vespasian’s formal imperial name was Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus. And in an innovation the title Caesar was employed to designate Domitian as his heir.

Imperial women had their part to play too in the presentation of a dynasty. The wives of emperors were public figures, appearing in ceremonial, honoured by the Senate, people, and army, and often given religious roles.3 Augustus married his daughter to a series of potential heirs. Empresses were also the mothers of potential future emperors. Before her fall from grace, images of Claudius’ beautiful young wife Messalina, carrying the child Britannicus, advertised the posterity of the dynasty. Caligula’s sisters feature on his coinage and in portrait sculpture, associated with cardinal virtues.4 Agrippina the Younger was celebrated as Mother of the Camps. Livia was given honours by the Senate, before and after her death. Imperial women might be given extravagant funerals and consecrated after their deaths as divae, the female counterparts of the deified emperors. Provincial cities often had priestesses of the living empress.


Fig 13. The Empress Messalina and her son Britannicus, AD 45, Roman sculpture, marble, Louvre

The power of descent should not surprise. Aristocratic families had run Rome since the beginning of the Republic, and the family remained at the centre of the Roman social order. Any other kind of monarchy would have been harder to explain. The Flavian dynasty lasted until AD 96 when Domitian was assassinated. Again the imperial order snapped back into place, without even a civil war this time, and Nerva became emperor. He was not a very successful one, but his adoption of the dynamic general Trajan avoided a less smooth transition. None of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, or Antoninus Pius had sons, and a virtue was made of the necessity of selecting successors from more distant relatives and connections. Yet nomination was always accompanied by adoption, and if one reads the official names and titles of the emperors, these awkward transitions are obscured. So Trajan ruled as Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus, Hadrian as Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, and so on. Adoption was in any case a very traditional means by which aristocratic families renewed themselves. Polybius’ friend Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who sacked Carthage in 146 and was the victor of Numantia in 133 BC, was in fact the natural son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the victor of Pydna, but had been adopted in childhood by Scipio Cornelius Africanus to ensure he had an heir. And testamentary adoption was the means by which Octavian (born Gaius Octavius) had become the son of Julius Caesar, in fact his uncle. Augustus had formally adopted his stepson Tiberius, and Tiberius adopted his nephew Germanicus. Imperial portraiture was fairly standardized and shows a concern to make Julio-Claudian princes show an exaggerated family resemblance.5 Adoption expressed continued belief in the importance of families and dynastic succession. So it was no surprise that given Marcus Aurelius did have a son, Commodus, he duly succeeded. His assassination in AD 192 did not result in an orderly replacement. After a couple of false starts, another brief civil war followed between the generals of the major armies. The war was almost a replay of the events of AD 69, with different armies backing their own candidates after the failure of the Senate of Rome and the Praetorians to create a local successor. The victor was Septimius Severus, who founded a dynasty that remained in power until AD 235. Severus’ son now known by his nickname Caracalla was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus but eventually ruled as Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Pius Augustus. These extravagant displays of continuity not only masked breaks between dynasties, but also asserted the stability of the order despite the frequency of assassinations. Caracalla himself was killed in 217, six years after he had murdered his co-emperor and brother Geta with his own hands. In fact, assassinations only rarely caused civil wars, and these were typically short affairs. From the point of view of provincial populations the replacement of emperors, whether by adoption or murder, probably mattered very little. However precarious the position of emperor might seem, the institution was very stable, and stabilized the empire as a whole.

That stability came to an end in the early years of the third century. The story of how first of all renewed wars on the northern frontier, and then the rise of an aggressive new dynasty in Persia, created a military crisis that nearly destroyed the empire will be told in Chapter 13. The restored empire that re-emerged in the 280s had new military, fiscal, and administrative institutions, a new coinage, and soon a new public religion. But it still had emperors. More than twenty emperors ruled—or tried to do so—between AD235 and 284: to aristocratic historians some of them seemed almost as brutal and uncouth as the barbarians they spent most of their time fighting. But the emperors of the fourth century busily set about founding their dynasties just as the Severi had done, with fictive adoptions, the use of ancient dynastic names and titles. The dynastic principle actually grew stronger in the centuries that followed. When Theodosius I died in AD 395 his 11-year-old son Honorius, who had already been formally co-emperor for two years, took over the western Roman Empire. Rome had never had a child emperor before. The eastern empire was ruled by his elder brother Arcadius who was still in his teens. Both emperors struggled to assert themselves against their chief ministers and female relatives. This situation would have been unthinkable in the early empire, but is in fact an indication of how deeply entrenched the hereditary principle had become at Rome.

Emperors and Empires

Over the millennium and a half between Augustus’ victory and the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453 almost every Roman institution disappeared or was utterly transformed. Popular assemblies petered out during the early first century AD. Elections were moved into the Senate by Tiberius, and although we hear of occasional formal acclamations by the people, their political role was over. When the masses gathered to cheer or jeer at emperors it was in the circus, the theatre, or the amphitheatre.6 The Senate survived much longer, but it progressively lost its functions: embassies were rarely received in the Senate after the first century AD, and during the second century laws began to take their authority from decisions of the emperor not from senatorial decrees.7During the third century senators lost many of their roles in government. Most of this was accidental rather than planned, consequences of the diminishing time emperors spent in the city of Rome. The restored empire of the fourth century had a separate imperial bureaucracy and multiple imperial courts, one for each member of a college of emperors. Senates existed in Rome and Constantinople, but they had little role in government. The equestrian order, Rome’s junior aristocracy, enjoyed a period of prominence in the early empire, supplying many military commanders, financial officials, and even governors: it was the basis of new military and civil administrations in the late empire. But by the end of the fourth century it no longer existed as a separate entity.8 The public priesthoods were swept away by Christianity in the early fifth century. Roman citizenship was extended to provincial aristocrats, to former soldiers, to ex-slaves, and eventually to almost everyone in the early third century. As a result its value and significance declined. The city of Rome itself became marginalized as the emperors spent less time there. Constantine’s new capital on the Bosporus became a rival and then replaced Rome completely when Italy was divided up among barbarian kingdoms.

Yet the emperors survived. Emperors remained central through successive crises and fragmentations, through periods when there were multiple courts, beyond the fall of the west, and also the great losses of territory in the seventh century to Persia and then to the Arabs, and on, beyond the scope of this book, into the Middle Ages. Byzantine emperors preserved many of the court ceremonials of their predecessors, and so did the Frankish emperors who briefly supplanted them in the thirteenth century, the final Greek dynasties, and the first Turkish sultans.9 Great spectacles took place in the hippodrome of Constantinople before the new Muslim rulers of the city, just as they had before Justinian and Constantine, and in Rome before the Severi, Commodus, Vespasian, and all the other emperors back to Augustus. What made monarchy such a successful component of empire?

It helps to recognize that Rome was not unusual. If we consider other ancient empires, very few lasted for long without monarchy at their centre. The Chinese first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) did not replace a republic, but a series of rival kingdoms that occupied the basins of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers during the Warring States Period. One of the many things that united their populations was a notion of ritual kingship. The kings of the preceding Zhou period played a vital part in managing the ceremonial through which the favour of the gods was maintained. Ancestor cult and lineages were drawn into state worship of heaven. Chinese historiography starts with the annals of Sima Qian, written in the last century BC, more or less at the same time as Varro, Atticus, and Nepos were trying to construct a definitive chronology for Roman history. For Sima Qian, Chinese history began with the legendary yellow emperor, and various other dynasties were identified before the Zhou who ruled for much of the last millennium BC. The Zhou kings, and then the emperors from the Qin dynasty onward, set monarchy at the cosmological centre of the Chinese universe. Empire without the sons of heaven was unthinkable.10

The Achaemenid Persian emperor too ruled over an empire created from an amalgam of kingdoms, among them those of the Medes and the Persians, the Babylonians and Egyptians and Lydians. The title shahanshah, used in one variant or another by various imperial Persian dynasties until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, means king of kings. Persian monarchs increasingly elaborated a sense of their cosmic role, drawing on a wide variety of religious traditions.11 The earliest empire in south Asia was that of the Mauryan dynasty (322–185 BC), which in some senses resembled Achaemenid Persia. It was created in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquest of Persia, and in north-west India competed with the Seleucids for control of former Persian satrapies. This empire too was created by the conquest of a series of earlier kingdoms. Much less is known of the early empires of the Americas, but most of these seem to have had monarchies at their centre. The Inkas claimed a cosmological centrality similar to that of the Chinese sons of heaven.

A few general observations occur. First, monarchy was very common not only in early empires, but also in the earlier states out of which many were composed. When kingdoms are united to form an empire it would be bizarre to expect anything other than a grander kind of monarchy to emerge. The idea that an emperor is to a king, what a king is to a subject— the Persian notion of king of kings—is perhaps a fairly obvious one. Hierarchical societies grow by multiplying levels. Second, the emperors very often became the focus of rituals that set them at the cosmological centre of the universe. The details varied. Many ancient emperors were considered gods, or the children of gods, or (like the Roman emperors) gods in waiting. Others enjoyed special favour, or like Chinese emperors were privileged mediators between heaven and earth. Depending on how the local religion was organized, emperors might be priests or might be anointed by them. This personalized aspect of imperial universalism was often presented as traditional, the product of ancient ritual systems being modified to accommodate emperors, but some accommodations were extreme. Cyrus the Persian, Alexander the Great, Asoka the Buddhist monarch of the Mauryan dynasty, the Qin first emperor, and Augustus each has some claim to be a religious innovator. Rome was only unusual in not having been a monarchy from an earlier period, and in dispersing religious authority among a broader elite.

But it is not enough to show that most empires ended up with monarchs. The key question is What advantages did monarchy have for an ancient empire relative to other forms of government? One common answer— common since antiquity in fact12 —is that monarchy is phenomenally powerful as an organizing force. Accounts of the origins of civilization, from that of Lucretius to the theory of hydraulic despotism pioneered by Karl Wittfogel to explain why the earliest cities and states were so often based on irrigation agriculture, have stressed the importance of monarchs as the chief animators of society.13 Only monarchy, this theory goes, had the capacity to plan, coordinate, manage, and discipline societies into the collective projects on which they depended. Anthropologists have often seen chiefdoms as necessary precursors to states for similar reasons. State formation is associated with the emergence of legally based authorities, including magistracies; but they often owed their creation to charismatic individuals who had supplanted the traditional authority of elders and lineages. Students of ancient Greece are familiar with the idea that tyranny was in some sense a necessary midwife of political institutions. Cicero argued in favour of Pompey’s great commands on the grounds that only under the leadership of such a man could the Roman people solve the formidable problems of empire. This sort of thinking was not confined to the elite. The price of grain collapsed when Pompey took responsibility for it in 57 BC, and in a similar crisis in 22 BC the Roman people tried to get Augustus to take on the role of dictator or consul for life. Romans of all ranks believed in the power of individuals much more than they did in the power of institutions.

A second strand of argument paradoxically finds the utility of ancient monarchy in its weakness. What monarchies do best, it is argued, is act as ‘capstones’ in complex political structures.14 Kings balance all the other elements, just as a capstone prevents an arch from collapsing, but they had little active power or freedom of action. Kings might arbitrate conflicts, and take decisions about matters over which it was difficult to achieve consensus. But their capacity to change things or take initiatives was weak. Economically and technologically ancient states were too feeble to give their chief executives much room for manoeuvre. Emperors were even worse off, since the size of their dominions meant it was very difficult to get reliable information on events happening far away, let alone to respond quickly. Emperors were forced to trust the generals, governors, and viceroys on the ground. Even at the centre of power the rituals of court and the intrigues of courtiers limited the emperors’ initiative. The idea of the impotent king at the centre of a vast palace, utterly dependent on his slaves, eunuchs, ministers, and courtiers, is a romantic one, but it is not completely misleading.

More recently a third way of looking at the role of emperors has become popular. Emperors and kings, in this idea, are important as symbolic centres, as embodied focuses of ideological power.15 The person of the emperor, sometimes even his body, represented the empire in a way that abstractions and institutions cannot. The religious dimensions are again obvious, but there are other elements too. As embodied symbols, emperors were more portable than ruling cities or monumental temples. Emperors could travel around their vast domains. Chinese emperors travelled constantly to participate in rituals at particular shrines.16 Macedonian monarchs often began their reign by visiting their armies and taking personal command of them.17 Even when the emperor was not physically present, his image and his name might be set up everywhere. Each pharaoh had his own cartouche, a hieroglyphic name enclosed in a lozenge-like shape, and it appeared on monuments all over the kingdom. Embodied authority offered other potentials for veneration. Imperial birthdays might be celebrated, and the rites of passage of other members of the imperial family. The notion of imperial families could easily be extended into imperial lineages and belief in the distinctiveness of royal blood. Ceremonial easily drifted into taboos on touching, addressing, looking at, or turning one’s back on the imperial presence. Some emperors were believed to have the capacity to heal certain illnesses. It was believed medieval Byzantine emperors had to be physically whole, with the result that deposing an emperor was often followed by blinding and castration. Underlying all this was the idea that the emperor’s body was something concrete and visible, unlike the empire as a whole.

All these ideas—the emperor as decision-maker, the capstone monarch, and the embodied presence—are helpful when it comes to thinking about the Roman emperor. Roman emperors did indeed resolve conflicts between Senate and people, if only by giving the latter bread and circuses and taking away their power to vote. More significantly, promotion into the various orders, appointment to magistracies and military commands, governorships, and priesthoods were all decided, or at least heavily influenced, by the emperors. Emperors managed the economy of honours, and were the ultimate patrons. Emperors were judges, made decisions over diplomatic matters and over the finances of the empire as whole. Even in the first century AD, the Senate was involved in almost none of these decisions.18

Equally, there was a sense in which the emperor was often more reactive than proactive, rather as the notion of capstone monarch implies.19 How far this is true in the case of Rome is a matter of fierce debate. Some historians see emperors as forever on the back foot, responding to requests more than issuing orders, limited by the enormous time it took to communicate with distant provinces, and by an imperial budget in which army pay swallowed around three-quarters of the total tax revenue. Other historians point to figures like Trajan, who did initiate major new campaigns in central Europe and a great war with Persia, or Vespasian and his sons who remodelled the city of Rome after the dreadful fire of Nero’s reign. Romans themselves certainly thought it mattered who was on the throne, and a good deal of effort was expended in trying to remove tyrants. Why bother if they were too weak to matter? Some of this is a matter of perspective, of course. Tyranny was most acute at home: maybe from the provinces tyrants and good emperors looked much the same. No one doubts that early empires were slow-moving enterprises, oil tankers rather than speedboats. Perhaps the best answer is that the Roman Empire was never easy to steer, and it was all too easy for weak rulers to allow ritual and routine and their closest courtiers to run the empire. That has certainly been true in other monarchies.20 But some Roman emperors certainly ruled as well as reigned.

As for the emperor as an embodiment of empire, we find him everywhere. The names and images of the emperors were inserted into public ceremonies all over the Roman world.21 Annual festivals of the imperial cult, conducted by priests wearing images of the emperor on their crowns, were just the most prominent version of this. Gods shared their temples with the emperor, allowed his statues to join theirs on processions, and his name was incorporated into prayers and hymns.22 Emperors’ faces were present in many other buildings. The city of Sardis in western Turkey built a vast gymnasium and bathhouse in the centre of the city, a monument to civic culture and civilized values. One room was devoted to portrait busts of the emperors. Coins from all over the empire, both the gold and silver issued by imperial mints, and the bronze change occasionally produced in Greek cities, bore images of emperors. Some even referred to key events, like a visit (an adventus) paid to the city in question. Armies too paid cult on the birthday of the emperor, kept his image with their standards, and celebrated the anniversaries of imperial princes. Over time more and more ceremonial surrounded the imperial presence. By the fourth century it was a special privilege to be allowed to kiss the hem of his purple robe.


Fig 14. The Roman ceremony of the Adventus depicted on a coin

Much of this evolved over time. There was no moment when the role of emperor was actually designed, indeed it lacked a label for a surprising time. Octavian drew on ideological support and titulature from all possible sources. Augustus had a helpfully vague sense of the divine, tribunicia potestas evoked a popular mandate, princeps senatus (senior member of the Senate) asserted respect for hierarchies of dignity as well as for the Senate’s place in the state, a cluster of priesthoods and other titles alluding to magisterial power and personal heroism completed the package. Most of this was focused on the city of Rome. Out in the provinces he was king in the Greek world, pharaoh in Egypt, and goodness knows what to Gallic and Spanish tribesmen. The army hailed him asImperator, the title awarded to victorious generals: in return he called them ‘Fellow soldiers’.23

Court and Empire

Historians of the imperial era complained that under the emperors you never knew for sure what was going on. Tacitus and Dio were senators, and they shared the prejudices of their order, but they were not completely wrong. Empire brought the end of public elections, the end of those meetings of the assembly at which orators competed to persuade the people to war or peace or to accept or reject controversial legislation, the end of contiones, those open meetings addressed by magistrates at moments of crisis, the end of political cases in the law courts, and the end of free speech in the Senate. Politics had once taken place largely in the public domain: that space was still there, but it was now for ceremonial. Decision-making took place elsewhere.

Politics had been palatialized. Emperors received information in private and discussed matters of state with their friends and family. Friends might include senators and equestrians. Many emperors had close friendships with individual senators, and many of their relatives were members of one or other of Rome’s aristocratic orders. The equestrian commanders of the Praetorian Guard were often very close to the centre of power. Sejanus and Macro were powerbrokers in the Julio-Claudian period, their second-century successors accompanied the emperor on campaigns, acting as effective viziers, and by the fourth century praetorian prefects were the senior figures in the imperial bureaucracy. But this was not the same as formally consulting the Senate or involving them in decision-making.

Besides, there were more sinister influences than the emperor’s friends and the praetorian prefects. Aristocrats suspected—with good reason—that some emperors paid more attention to their slaves and ex-slaves than they did to senators. Claudius’ attempts to give public honours to imperial freed-men were very unpopular. Later emperors kept their former slaves out of sight, appointing equestrians to be the public head of departments in which we may suspect freedmen still did most of the work. Imperial women were especially mistrusted. Not only were they believed to exert undue influence over the emperor. Their rivalries were said to divide the imperial house, especially when they were fighting over the succession prospects of their sons and husbands. Rumour abounded, along with all sorts of accusations. Even emperors could feel out of the loop. During one crisis the Emperor Claudius appealed to his most trusted freedmen. ‘Am I still emperor?’ It was a good question: his empress had divorced him and her new lover was planning to adopt their son.

The location of all this activity is a familiar one. It was the imperial court.24 All monarchies have courts, and they fill vital functions, especially in traditional societies. Courts regulate access to the monarch, ensuring his role as decision-maker is deployed where it matters. Courts offer protection and services to monarchs. Where there are other powerful institutions— whether a senate, a church, or a parliament—courts defend the prerogatives of the monarchy within the state. Courts vary enormously in their nature. Early medieval kings made do with a warrior band, their family, and household servants. Rituals of entertainment and hospitality were elaborated over time and domestic servants, like the chamberlain, came to acquire new roles in government. The most elaborate courts were those of absolutist monarchs: at Versailles and similar palaces, ceremonial acted to integrate the kingdom, employing elaborate etiquette and ritual to create finely nuanced hierarchies of honour.25

The Roman imperial court was a rather shadowy entity in the first century AD. Like the courts of medieval Europe it evolved out of the household, but in this case out of the slave households of Roman aristocrats. Pompey and Caesar had depended on trusted ex-slaves and on their clients and close friends. It is no surprise that the emperors did the same. But to begin with there were no elaborate ceremonials and indeed no real palace to stage them in. The Palatine Hill, between the Roman forum and the circus Maximus, had been an area of aristocratic housing in the late Republic. Cicero, Crassus, and Antony were among those who had mansions there. Augustus acquired one of these houses and gradually extended his control of the hill, joining together houses, temples, and open areas to create what was in effect an imperial compound. More and more buildings were added by his immediate successors. From the Flavian period on a more coordinated complex emerged, with great reception areas and decorations in coloured marble.26One probable reason for the initial monumental reticence, in a city now full of spectacular marble temples and places of entertainment, was the lack of a formal description of the position of emperor in the first century. Augustus was a king everywhere but in Rome, and in many parts of the empire he was a god as well. Only in the capital did he have to exercise tact. The palaces of Macedonian kings had been rather grand structures, with great libraries and also hunting enclosures modelled on those of Persian emperors. Augustus did have a library on the Palatine but it was lodged in the temple of Apollo. The wilder entertainments took place on the Bay of Naples.

Institutionally too, the Roman court was not like that of the Seleucids, the Antigonids, and the Ptolemies. Roman emperors advertised their civilitas —their sense of civic virtue—yet the gap they really had to watch was not between ruler and subject, so much as emperor and aristocrat.27 The problem was that not much separated the Caesars from other noble families. Macedonian kings had surrounded themselves with companions, young men of noble birth, but their empires contained no real aristocracies apart from the elites of the greater cities. Their courts were places apart. Medieval European kings tried only to marry the daughters of other monarchs, again to separate themselves from their nobility. Yet Roman emperors were members of the Roman nobility, no royal blood ran through their veins, and they were not an anointed lineage. The Senate included their close relatives and—since they never steeled themselves to marry the daughters of Persian emperors—the Senate included their relations by marriage as well. Most emperors had been through a senatorial career of some kind or other, and they knew the prejudices of the senators from inside. Claudius, interestingly, was an exception: perhaps this contributed to his giving freedmen public honours, including the right to wear badges of office associated with Republican magistrates. Clearly there were advantages too in the close relation between emperors and the nobility. Emperors had a wider choice of marriage partners than if they had been restricted to royal princesses. More importantly ancient institutions like patronage, grand dinners (cenae) attended by friends of different status, and the notions of formal friendships and enmities could be adapted to new ends. When an emperor publicly renounced his friendship with a senator it was the equivalent of a death sentence. Emperors did well too out of the obligation on Romans to leave legacies to their friends. Yet despite this, Rome constrained the court and limited the freedom of the emperors.

And so they left. There was no single moment at which the emperors abandoned the city. Like other aristocrats they had always maintained residences outside Rome. From the first decades of Augustus’ reign there had been times when their attention was required elsewhere. Tiberius spent the last decade of his reign outside Rome, mostly on Capri, partly on the Bay of Naples. Caligula and Claudius spent long periods in the north-west provinces, Nero spent a year and a half in Greece, and Domitian campaigned in Germany. When emperors left Rome, the court went with them. What this meant was that they were accompanied by a vast train of guards and slaves, who included personal attendants of every kind and concubines as well as secretaries, and the heads of the palatine offices.28 Embassies, if they wanted a decision, had to track down the emperor wherever he was. From the second century AD there are more and more anecdotes concerning formal receptions on the frontier or in great provincial cities. Hadrian notoriously spent a huge proportion of his reign travelling, to Egypt and Africa, to Britain and the northern provinces, to Athens again and again. Marcus felt compelled to spend much of his reign in the Danube provinces, facing the barbarians.

Itinerant monarchy has often been a solution to the problems of communication in large states and early empires. Medieval kings sometimes moved their hungry retainers to wherever the food was rather than try to get provisions to a single capital. Some Chinese emperors toured shrines in annual cycle. Roman emperors moved to see the world and to get close to the problems that concerned them most at the time. Severus fought campaigns in Persia and Britain even after he was secure on the throne. Since they could govern from anywhere, it mattered little where they were based. True, they could no longer receive foreign visitors in the Senate, or go through the motions of discussing legislation there. But perhaps these were not disadvantages. The city of Rome remained a powerful symbol of empire, even though it played no really essential role in governing the empire.29 Trajan and Hadrian and Severus and Caracalla all engaged in great building programmes there. Most third- and fourth-century emperors had less time to spare and maybe less money, although that did not prevent them building themselves grand palaces in York and Trier, Sirmium and Split and Constantinople. Most later emperors visited Rome, but it was to look at past glories. Senators worked hard to keep lines of communication open, sent frequent embassies, and even had some of their children enter the imperial bureaucracy. But even as they elaborated the slogan Roma Aeterna, they must have known in their hearts that the centre of the empire was no longer the city, but rather wherever the emperor and his court happened to be.

Further Reading

Perhaps no period of Roman history has been subjected to the same scrutiny as the transition from Republic to Empire. The range of approaches and ideas can be sampled in three collections of papers, Caesar Augustus (Oxford, 1984), edited by Fergus Millar and Erich Segal; Between Republic and Empire (Berkeley, 1990), edited by Kurt Raaflaub and Mark Toher, and Karl Galinsky’s Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (Cambridge, 2005). There have been many biographies and assessments of Augustus. The most interesting is his own, the Res gestae divi Augusti, which has now been translated and equipped with a marvellous commentary by Alison Cooley (Cambridge, 2009).

Fergus Millar’s Emperor in the Roman World (London, 1977) set the emperor at the centre of the empire, not as an animating force but as the point at which all other institutions met. It changed fundamentally how the history of the early empire was written. Brian Campbell’s Emperor and the Roman Army (Oxford, 1984) is an essential supplement. How contemporaries understood and described their rulers is the subject of Matthew Roller’s brilliant Constructing Autocracy (Princeton, 2001) and also, in a way, of Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s subtle Suetonius (London, 1983). Studies of the reigns of individual emperors are too numerous to mention: my favourites include Barbara Levick’s Tiberius the Politician (London, 1976) and Anthony Birley’s Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (London, 1997). Miriam Griffin’s Nero: The End of a Dynasty (London, 1996) is at once the history of a key turning point, the portrait of an exceptional reign, and a study of the culture and politics of the court. It is also a great read.

The different circles around the emperor are surveyed in John Crook’s Consilium principis (Cambridge, 1955), Paul Weaver’s Familia Caesaris (Cambridge, 1972), and most recently in Tony Spawforth’s The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies(Cambridge, 2007), which set Roman palace politics alongside those of Egypt, Persia, Macedon, and Han China. Another collection that deals with some of the same issues is David Cannadine and Simon Price’s Rituals of Royalty (Cambridge, 1987). Imperial women are not the only subjects of Diana Kleiner and Susan Matheson’s two collections entitled I, Claudia I and II (Austin, Tex., 1996 and 2000), but they gather together a fascinating collection of art historical, historical, and literary studies.

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