Caesar crossing the Rubicon

After Julius Caesar (100-144 B.C.) finished subduing Gaul in 51 B.C., he defied the Republican tradition of victorious Roman generals not being allowed to return to Rome with their armies out of fear they would try to overthrow the government, which is exactly what Caesar did. By crossing the Rubicon Caesar declared war on the political establishment of his day. For many historians it marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. To this day “crossing the Rubicon” describes a decision from which there is no return.

While Caesar was away in Gaul, one rival Crassus was killed and another rival Pompey became leader. Pompey wielded great power and declared Caesar a public enemy and ordered him to disband his army. Caesar refused. When he moved his army from Gaul into Rome's formal territory, it was interpreted as a declaration of war against Rome. Caesar reached the border of greater Rome at the Rubicon River. He then he plunged his horse in the water, shouting , “The die is caste."

By crossing the Rubicon Caesar gambled that he could not only beat his military rival Pompey but also could also outmaneuver conservative politicians like Cicero and Cato. Some historians say Caesar's move marked the end of period in which foreign adventures created larger armies and more powerful generals and it was only a matter of time until they threatened the political status quo.

Caesar marched into Rome with his army in and seized control of the government and the treasury and declared himself dictator while Pompey, in command of the Roman navy, fled to Greece. Five years of civil war followed. Caesar defeated Pompey in a series of land battles that took place throughout the Roman empire over a four years period. After Caesar led a successful campaign in Iberia (Spain), he defeated Pompey in Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt. The Ptolemies refused to provide quarter for a loser and had him executed and cut off his head. This made Caesar the unchallenged leader. Caesar said, “It is more important for the state that I should survive...I have long had my fill of power and glory; but should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace."

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Caesar as the Dictator of Rome

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: In 45 B.C. Caesar “again chose to be named dictator, this time with the complete title of dictator rei publicae constituendae "dictator for the purpose of rebuilding the Republic", which Sulla too had been called, and with a fixed term of ten years. The Republicans were unimpressed by the ten-year limitation, nor willing to deceive themselves about the nature of Caesar's autocratic powers at this stage. And a variety of symbols confirmed Caesar's extraordinary status. For example, in public he was attended after 46 B.C. by 72 lictors (24 for each dictatorship), whereas the standard number for a consul was 12. Although Caesar had refrained from imitating Sulla's violent proscriptions, he was reputed to have opined that Sulla was a fool for having voluntarily stepped down from his dictatorship and retired from public life (Suet. Jul. 77, citing a collection of Caesar's public pronouncements by T. Ampius). [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

In 44 B.C. the dictatorship, for reasons which are not altogether clear, was redefined as perpetual rather than for ten years. Among the evidence which ensures that the perpetual dictatorship is not an invention by hostile sources are the coins (e.g. Crawford RRC # 480 7b, a denarius bearing the legend CAESAR DICT(ator) PERPETUO). Of course his enemies spread the unlikely rumour that Caesar lusted after the title of king (rex). One is reminded of the stories about how Ti. Gracchus was supposed to have motioned with his hand indicating that he wanted to receive a crown. Crowns were powerful symbols for the Romans. Suetonius says Caesar was annoyed when the tribunes removed a royal crown someone had placed upon his statue, not because he wished to have it there, but because he wished to refuse it himself. The story seems confirmed in as much as it hangs on a matter of public record, that the two tribunes responsible were later deposed; but that may not have been. as Suetonius believes, at Caesar's insistence. M. Antonius tried to crown Caesar himself at the festival of the Lupercalia in 44, as Suetonius also says (Jul. 80); but this was undoubtedly a publicity stunt, designed to make the most of Caesar's public refusal of the dubious honor.

Caesar’s Reforms

Caesar held his great power only for a short time. But the reforms which he made are enough to show us his policy, and to enable us to judge of him as a statesman. Fernando Lillo Redonet wrote in National Geographic History magazine: “Having returned to Rome, he continued implementing significant reforms in the year of life left to him. These included improving land and grain distribution, as well as the reorganization of local government across Italy. No doubt Caesar hoped for many years of life to enact his reforms.” [Source: Fernando Lillo Redonet, National Geographic History magazine, March-April 2017]

Suetonius wrote: “Then turning his attention to the reorganisation of the state, he reformed the calendar, which the negligence of the pontiffs had long since so disordered, through their privilege of adding months or days at pleasure, that the harvest festivals did not come in summer nor those of the vintage in the autumn; and he adjusted the year to the sun's course by making it consist of three hundred and sixty-five days, abolishing the intercalary month, and adding one day every fourth year [the year had previously consisted of 355 days, and the deficiency of about eleven days was made up by inserting an intercalary month of twenty-two or twenty-three days after February]. Furthermore, that the correct reckoning of seasons might begin with the next Kalends of January, he inserted two other months between those of November and December; hence the year in which these arrangements were made was one of fifteen months, including the intercalary month, which belonged to that year according to the former custom. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum, Divus Iulius” (“The Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius”), written A.D. c. 110, Suetonius, 2 vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 3-119]

“Moreover, to keep up the population of the city, depleted as it was by the assignment of eighty thousand citizens to colonies across the sea, he made a law that no citizen older than twenty or younger than forty, who was not detained by service in the army, should be absent from Italia for more than three successive years; that no senator's son should go abroad except as the companion of a magistrate or on his staff; and that those who made a business of grazing should have among their herdsmen at least one-third who were men of free birth. He conferred citizenship on all who practiced medicine at Rome, and on all teachers of the liberal arts, to make them more desirous of living in the city and to induce others to resort to it. As to debts, he disappointed those who looked for their cancellation, which was often agitated, but finally decreed that the debtors should satisfy their creditors according to a valuation of their possessions at the price which they had paid for them before the civil war, deducting from the principal whatever interest had been paid in cash or pledged through bankers; an arrangement which wiped out about a fourth part of their indebtedness. He dissolved all colleg [associations], except those of ancient foundation. He increased the penalties for crimes; and inasmuch as the rich involved themselves in guilt with less hesitation because they merely suffered exile, without any loss of property, he punished murderers of freemen by the confiscation of all their goods, as Cicero writes, and others by the loss of one-half.

“He administered justice with the utmost conscientiousness and strictness. Those convicted of extortion he even dismissed from the senatorial order. He annulled the marriage of an ex-praetor, who had married a woman the very day after her divorce, although there was no suspicion of adultery. He imposed duties on foreign wares. He denied the use of litters and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except to those of a designated position and age, and on set days. In particular, he enforced the law against extravagance, setting watchmen in various parts of the market, to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law; and sometimes he sent his lictors and soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even after they had been served.

“In particular, for the adornment and convenience of the city, also for the protection and extension of the Empire, he formed more projects and more extensive ones every day; first of all, to rear a temple to Mars, greater than any in existence, filling up and levelling the pool in which he had exhibited the sea-fight, and to build a theater of vast size, sloping down from the Tarpeian Rock; to reduce the civil code to fixed limites, and of the vast and prolix mass of statutes to include only the best and most essential in a limited number of volumes; to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books, assigning to Marcus Varro the charge of procuring and classifying them; to drain the Pomptine marshes; to let out the water from Lake Fucinus; to make a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines as far as the Tiber; to cut a canal through the Isthmus; to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace; then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia, but not to risk a battle with them until he had first tested their mettle. All these enterprises and plans were cut short by his death. But before I speak of that, it will not be amiss to describe briefly his personal appearance, his dress, his mode of life, and his character, as well as his conduct in civil and military life.

Caesar’s Political Reforms

The first need of Rome was a stable government based on the interest of the whole people. The senate had failed to secure such a government; and so had the popular assemblies led by the tribunes. Caesar believed that the only government suited to Rome was a democratic monarchy—a government in which the supreme power should be held permanently by a single man, and exercised, not for the benefit of himself or any single class, but for the benefit of the whole state. Let us see how his changes accomplished this end. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

In the first place, the senate was changed to meet this view. It had hitherto been a comparatively small body, drawn from a single class and ruling for its own interests. Caesar increased the number to nine hundred members, and filled it up with representative men of all classes, not simply nobles, but also ignobiles—Spaniards, Gauls, military officers, sons of freedmen, and others. It was to be not a legislative body but an advisory body, to inform the monarch of the condition and wants of Italy and the provinces. In the next place, he extended the Roman franchise to the inhabitants beyond the Po, and to many cities in the provinces, especially in Transalpine Gaul and Spain. All his political changes tended to break down the distinction between nobles and commons, between Italians and the provincials, and to make of all the people of the empire one nation. \~\

Suetonius wrote: ““He filled the vacancies in the senate, enrolled additional patricians, and increased the number of praetors, aediles, and quaestors, as well as of the minor officials; he reinstated those who had been degraded by official action of the censors or found guilty of bribery by verdict of the jurors. He shared the elections with the people on this basis: that except in the case of the consulship, half of the magistrates should be appointed by the people's choice, while the rest should be those whom he had personally nominated. And these he announced in brief notes like the following, circulated in each tribe: 'Caesar the Dictator to this or that tribe. I commend to you so and so, to hold their positions by your votes." He admitted to office even the sons of those who had been proscribed. He limited the right of serving as jurors to two classes, the equestrian and senatorial orders, disqualifying the third class, the tribunes of the treasury. He made the enumeration of the people neither in the usual manner nor place, but from street to street aided by the owners of blocks of houses, and reduced the number of those who received grain at public expense from three hundred and twenty thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand. And to prevent the calling of additional meetings at any future time for purposes of enrolment, he provided that the places of such as died should be filled each year by the praetors from those who were not on the list. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum, Divus Iulius” (“The Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius”), written A.D. c. 110, Suetonius, 2 vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 3-119]

Augustus Usurps the Consulship


The first major move by Augustus (27 B.C.–14 A.D.) in creating the Imperial government of Rome was usurpation of Consulship. Suetonius wrote: “He received offices and honours before the usual age, and some of a new kind and for life. He usurped the consulship in the twentieth year of his age [43 B.C.], leading his legions against the city as if it were that of an enemy, and sending messengers to demand the office for him in the name of his army; and when the Senate hesitated, his centurion, Cornelius, leader of the deputation, throwing back his cloak and showing the hilt of his sword, did not hesitate to say in the House, "This will make him consul, if you do not." He held his second consulship nine years later [33 B.C.], and a third after a year's interval [31 B.C.]; the rest up to the eleventh were in successive years [30-23 B.C.], then after declining a number of terms that were offered him, he asked of his own accord for a twelfth after a long interval, no less than seventeen years [5 B.C.], and two years later for a thirteenth [2 B.C.], wishing to hold the highest magistracy at the time when he introduced each of his sons Gaius and Lucius to public life upon their coming of age. The five consulships from the sixth to the tenth he held for the full year, the rest for nine, six, four, or three months, except the second, which lasted only a few hours; for after sitting for a short time on the curule chair in front of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in the early morning, he resigned the honour on the Kalends of January and appointed another in his place. He did not begin all his consulships in Rome, but the fourth in Asia, the fifth on the Isle of Samos, the eighth and ninth at Tarraco. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“He was for ten years a member of the triumvirate for restoring the State to order, and though he opposed his colleagues for some time and tried to prevent a proscription, yet when it was begun, he carried it through with greater severity than either of them. For while they could oftentimes be moved by personal influence and entreaties, he alone was most insistent that no one should be spared, even adding to the list his guardian Gaius Toranius, who had also been the colleague of his father Octavian in the aedileship. Julius Saturninus adds that after the proscription was over Marcus Lepidus addressed the Senate in justification of the past and held out hope of leniency thereafter, since enough punishment had been inflicted; but that Augustus on the contrary declared that he had consented to end the proscription only on condition that he was allowed a free hand for the future. However, to show his regret for this inflexibility, he later honoured Titus Vinius Philopoemen witll equestrian rank, because it was said that he had hidden his patron, who was on the list. While he was triumvir, Augustus incurred general detestation by many of his acts. For example, when he was addressing the soldiers and a throng of civilians had been admitted to the assembly, noticing that Pinalius, a Roman knight, was taking notes, he ordered that he be stabbed on the spot, thinking him an eavesdropper and a spy. Because Tedius Afer, consul elect, railed at some act of his in spiteful terms, he uttered such terrible threats that Afer committed suicide. Again, when Quintus Gallius, a praetor, held some folded tablets under his robe as he was paying his respects, Augustus, suspecting that he had a sword concealed there, did not dare to make a search on the spot for fear it should turn out to be something else; but a little later he had Gallius hustled from the tribunal by some centurions and soldiers, tortured him as if he were a slave, and though he made no confession, ordered his execution, first tearing out the man's eyes with his own hand. He himself writes, however, that Gallius made a treacherous attack on him after asking for an audience, and was haled to prison; and that after he was dismissed under sentence of banishment, he either lost his life by shipwreck or was waylaid by brigands. He received the tribunician power for life, and once or twice chose a colleague in the office for periods of five years each. He was also given the supervision of morals and of the laws for all time, and by the virtue of this position, although without the title of censor, he nevertheless took the census thrice, the first and last time with a colleague, the second time alone.

Augustus Restores the Republic

In 27 B.C., Octavian made a bold and clever political move by declaring the Republican Government restored. He immediately offered to resign from the position of consul, but the Senate, instead of accepting his offer, decided to give him the position of princeps. The Senate also gave him the name Augustus, meaning "revered one". The Senate decided to give Octavian control of the provinces of Gaul, Syria, Spain and Egypt. These areas had large numbers of troops stationed within their borders giving Octavian almost total military authority. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com +]

Suetonius wrote: “He twice thought of restoring the republic; first immediately after the overthrow of Antonius, remembering that his rival had often made the charge that it was his fault that it was not restored; and again in the weariness of a lingering illness, when he went so far as to summon the magistrates and the Senate to his house, and submit an account of the general condition of the empire. Reflecting, however, that as he himself would not be free from danger if he should retire, so too it would be hazardous to trust the State to the control of more than one, he continued to keep it in his hands; and it is not easy to say whether his intentions or their results were the better. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“His good intentions he not only expressed from time to time, but put them on record as well in an edict in the following words: "May it be my privilege to establish the State in a firm and secure position, and reap from that act the fruit that I desire; but only if I may be called the author of the best possible government, and bear with me the hope when I die that the foundations which I have laid for the State will remain unshaken." And he realized his hope by making every effort to prevent any dissatisfaction with the new regime. Since the city was not adorned as the dignity of the empire demanded, and was exposed to flood and fire, he so beautified it that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble. He made it safe too for the future, so far as human foresight could provide for this.”

Settlement of 27 B.C.

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “In January of 27 B.C. Octavian rose in the senate and announced that he was giving up the consulship and transferring control of the state, including the armies and the provinces, back to the Senate and People of Rome. The senators responded by refusing this noble gesture, and a bargain was struck, which amounted to a confirmation of his supremacy. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Octavian, now renamed with the honorific title Augustus (he had considered and rejected the name of Romulus as having unpleasantly regal associations) was made governor en absentia of Spain, Gaul, Cilicia, Cyprus and Syria for ten years with proconsular authority, the provinces to be governed in actuality by his appointees, who had the title of legatus Augusti. He continued to administer Egypt in his own name through the equestrian Cornelius Gallus, as a special case. This arrangement ensured that most of the troops were directly or indirectly under the command of Augustus. As Dio says:

“The purpose of this decision, as he explained it, was that the senate should enjoy without anxiety the fairest territories in the empire, while he should confront the hardships and dangers. But the real object of this arrangement was that the senators should be unarmed and unprepared for war, while he possessed arms and controlled the troops. (53.12) ^*^

“Given that this was the reality, it is instructive to consider how the settlement of 27 was portrayed by other sources. The standard line holds that it was presented as a full restoration of the Republican system. Velleius Paterculus, a Roman who reached the praetorship in A.D. 15, wrote: “In the twentieth year civil wars were brought to an end, foreign wars buried, peace recalled; the frenzy of arms was everywhere lulled to sleep, the laws recovered their vigor, the courts their authority, the senate its majesty, the imperium of the magistrates was restored to its ancient extent .... the pristine form of the republic was recalled as of old. “ ^*^

“Augustus himself describes this event in the Res Gestae, 34.1, as follows: “In my sixth and seventh consulships, after I had extinguished civil wars, and at a time when with universal consent I was in complete control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome.” ^*^

“Thus it is tempting to think in terms of a propaganda campaign which falsely claimed that the old Republican system had returned. However, Fergus Millar ("Triumvirate and Principate") has offered a powerful corrective to the standard line. He points out that although proconsuls were now appointed by lot, as of old, rather than by Augustus, and a few of them continued to be allowed to celebrate triumphs, the legates of Augustus could not; Augustus' power to appoint them and govern through them was thus openly un-Republican, and everybody knew it. Moreover, although elections by the tribal assembly resumed, they were now constrained by the practice of commendatio (the official stamp of approval by the princeps), and in some cases we hear of Augustus flat out granting consulships and other offices. Again, un-Republican. ^*^

“Millar argues that although in Tacitus the term "res publica" refers unambiguously to the Republican system of government as opposed to the principate, there is little if any evidence to support that in the 20's BC it meant anything other than "the commonwealth". The phrase "res publica restituta" is actually surprisingly rare in the period, and when they it does appear it can plausibly be argued that it means "the state was restored to health" rather than "the system of republican government was restored" (as e.g. in the legend of the coin). In a number of passages (including Suet. Aug 28) we hear that Augustus was thinking about reinstituting the Republican system; but the wording in these cases is always "res publica reddita" or "rem publicam reddere". Millar also notes that Tacitus, in referring to the event, simply says (3.28) that Augustus "when consul for the sixth time felt sure enough of his position to cancel all that he had decreed as triumvir in favor of a new order: peace and the Principate." Would Tacitus have missed the chance to debunk such a specious claim as that the old system of government had been restored in 28/27, had such a claim really been made? Likewise, Millar points to a number of published texts of the 20's which openly acknowledge the extent of Augustus' power, and argues that they would be very undiplomatic if indeed Augustus had been trying to convince everyone that he had restored the Republic. ^*^

First Constitutional Settlement of the Principate, 27-24 B.C.

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “In 27 Octavian declared that he had restored the republic, a claim echoed but also dismissed even among the ancients. Octavian gave amnesty to his former opponents in the civil wars. While the senate and assemblies resumed their regular functions, Octavian maintained his hold on the consulship, but elections for his colleague took place. The swollen ranks of praetors and quaestors were reduced by half to the Sullan numbers of eight and twenty, respectively, and all these offices retained their traditional functions, including the consulship and praetorship as springboards for provincial commands. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors]

“The real, monarchical hold, however, that Octavian had on the state was military. When Octavian announced his plans to lay down supreme power, there had been protest in the senate, partly from his partisans and partly perhaps from concern that the state would erupt again into civil war. In the so-called 'first settlement' of 27 B.C., Octavian agreed to accept for ten years a provincial command which contained the largest standing Roman armies, then stationed in Spain, Gaul, and Syria, the so-called 'imperial provinces.' By the removal of senatorial proconsuls from Octavian's three major provinces, and with the placement there of subordinate legates, Octavian was no longer threatened by men of consular rank with significant armies. The three major senatorial provinces of Illyricum, Macedonia and Africa appeared to balance Octavian's grant, but in reality these provinces held only a few legions. Thus without appearing to force the senate, Octavian obtained sole proconsular power over the major provincial armies; though this power normally lapsed at Rome, he maintained both civil and military authority there through his consulship. Technically Octavian used powers given to him for a fixed period by the senate and people of Rome, and there were Republican precedents, albeit abnormal ones, for such powers and continuous rule.

“Octavian later claimed that in 27 he had no more power than any of his colleagues in any magistracy (Res Gestae 34.3), and he referred to himself simply as princeps, the first man among equals at Rome. This strictly unofficial and broad title, not to be confused with the narrow parameters of the 'princeps senatus', had already been applied to individuals in the late Republic, and for centuries the leading men of Rome had been known as 'principes viri'. Thus the 'principate', as the era is now designated, suggests a mere pre-eminence in civil affairs which belies absolute power based ultimately on the army.

“The official title decreed to Octavian by the senate in 27 B.C. was Augustus, the name by which he is most widely known, making his full title Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. He considered adopting the name 'Romulus' and the association it would have for him as the refounder of Rome. Because Romulus, however, also had the contemporary discredit of both overt monarchy and fratricide, Augustus preferred the association of his new title with religious awe: holy things, for instance, were called augusta. The title was traditionally linked by etymology with augere, 'to increase'; the adjective was juxtaposed with the religious practice of augury in Ennius's well-known description of Romulus's founding of Rome augusto augurio. The title Augustus was subsequently held by all Roman emperors except Vitellius, and Augusta was used to address the wife of the reigning emperor, or his mother.

“After 27 B.C. Augustus maintained that he excelled all his equals only in his auctoritas. This term, also etymologically connected with augustus, had no constitutional meaning and implied no legal powers; it signified Augustus's moral authority and increased prestige which guaranteed the good of the order in Rome. Auctoritas was personal power which rested on the loyalty of people who, as clients of Augustus, recognized his military conquest and his achievement of political stability for the commonwealth. This type of power was seen previously in the personal oath of allegiance of 32, and it did not depend on the immediate constitutional settlement.

“In 27 B.C. Augustus ultimately and perhaps wisely freed Rome from his presence to visit the western provinces of Gaul and Spain. When he returned to Rome in 24, he became consul for the tenth time with one Norbanus Flaccus, who had supported both Sextus Pompey and Antony in the civil wars. Despite an indecisive outcome in the Spanish war, honors were voted by the senate to Augustus's relatives who participated. Augustus himself was ill and facing a conspiracy against his life.

Second Settlement and the Evolution of the Principate, 23 -- 16 B.C.

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “In Augustus's absence from Rome, dissatisfaction with the new regime had apparently resulted in a conspiracy by his colleague in the consulship, Varro Murena, and a Republican, Fannius Caepio, both of whom were brought to trial and executed. Though Augustus veiled monarchic power more than Julius Caesar did, Augustus's unending series of consulships was a thorn in the side of the senatorial class, which was prevented yearly from competing for one of the two seats of the supreme magistracy. In 23 B.C. Augustus abdicated the consulship, and in so doing, he made room for more nobles, relieved himself of consular duties, and increased the number of former consuls available for administrative work. He held the consulship again on only two occasions, 5 and 2 B.C., to introduce his grandsons to public life; he held this office a total of thirteen times, nine of them consecutively from 31-23. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors ]

“Without the consulship Augustus lacked legitimate civil and military authority at Rome. Accordingly in 23 B.C., he was awarded the tribunicia potestas for life. With this grant, Augustus regained the initiative to bring legislation and motions before the senate; he got the right of putting the first motion in any meeting of the senate, despite the fact that the seniority of the actual tribunate was very low; he technically had the right to the tribunician veto, but he probably never had to use it, because he would already have approved of motions before they reached the senate; he got magisterial power to compel citizens to obey his orders; he got the power to help citizens oppressed by other magistrates (and he had already been granted tribunician sacrosanctity for his personal protection in 36 B.C.). Augustus did not need any of these new powers themselves, but rather the legitimacy they provided. It was also convenient that tribunician power was traditionally invoked in protection of the common people. To advertise this association with the people, Augustus set the official beginning of his reign at the assumption of tribunician power in 23; traditionally years had been numbered by the annual consulship, but now they were counted by the successive tenure of tribunician power, a practice which continued throughout the Imperial period.

“Without the consulship, Augustus technically did not any longer have military power in Rome, but only in his own provinces. The senate therefore enlarged his proconsular imperium so that it did not lapse when he entered the boundaries of the city; more importantly, since the consuls at Rome had more power than any one abroad and could command any army, Augustus's military power was officially declared greater than any proconsul's, reducing them all to his legates, with what was called 'maius imperium proconsulare'. Greater military power and tribunician power were thus for Augustus the legitimate bases of rule, and they remained so throughout the duration of the Empire.

“Perhaps Augustus's illness in 23 B.C. forced him to provide for the control of the armies abroad by having the senate grant Agrippa proconsular imperium for five years; Agrippa then got an eastern command. In 22 B.C. riots broke out at Rome, when flood, disease and famine were attributed to the fact that Augustus had withdrawn from the consulship and apparently was not in charge. Augustus refused to take the office of dictator, which was too politically charged with envy and hatred, and he also refused to accept the censorship for life and its traditionally despised power to expel members of the senate arbitrarily. He did, however, assume the care of the grain supply, which he quickly repaired, and then he left for Sicily, Greece, and Asia.

“After Augustus left Rome, there was disorder at the consular elections of 22 B.C., with only one consul elected when Augustus refused to stand for the office; the next year there was a similar crisis. Augustus refused to return to Rome during all the trouble. To help elect the consuls and to restore order he sent Agrippa, who in 21 B.C. married Augustus's daughter, Julia, then widowed by the death of Marcellus two years earlier. In 19 Augustus was again begged to take the consulship, which he refused, and was summoned to Rome because of more unrest; the day he finally arrived was declared a holiday by the senate, and an altar was dedicated to Fortune the Homebringer. In 19 B.C. he accepted consular power for life, the right to sit between the two elected consuls, to bear the fasces as symbols of power, and to be attended by twelve lictors. Though Augustus did not need consular power, the visibility of it appeared to quell the agitation of the people. He also accepted a five-year appointment as supervisor of morals with censorial powers. By 19 he held not the invidious offices but the actual powers of the consulship, tribunate, censorship; effectively, he also held the military dictatorship.

“In 18 B.C. the powers of the principate were renewed for five more years through the extension of the proconsular power which was initially granted to Augustus for ten years at the first consitutional settlement of 27 B.C. . Now Augustus made Agrippa virtually co-regent through the renewal award of proconsular power, and the award of tribunician power. In 18 B.C. Augustus used his censorial power to reduce the ranks of the senate again from eight-hundred to six- hundred members (the three such senatorial reforms took place in 29, 18, and 11 B.C.). By the authority of his tribunician power, he passed the Julian Laws of 18 B.C. for moral reform and the criminal code. The new laws were intended to mitigate the social and civil disorder caused by the cynicism of late Republican anarchy, and to encourage long-term stability for the state. There were laws against adultery and promoting marriage and childbirth by the grant of special privileges or penalties, laws against luxury and electoral corruption, and appellate laws superceding public jury-verdicts ultimately to the jurisdiction of Augustus himself.

Principate 17 B.C.-14 A.D.

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “To mark the new age of Augustus in 17 B.C., he and Agrippa celebrated the solemn sacrifices at the time-honored Secular Games. In succession plans that year, Augustus adopted his grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, sons of Agrippa and Julia. From 16 to 13 B.C. Augustus was abroad organizing Gaul, and Agrippa was in Asia. In 15 B.C. Augustus established the Imperial mint at Lugdunum; the senate, which traditionally controlled coinage, continued to produce money in bronze, while Augustus obtained direct control over gold and silver coinage with the mint at Lugdunum in the west and at Antioch in the east. In 13 B.C. Augustus and Agrippa returned to Rome, and their provinces were renewed for five more years, as was Agrippa's tribunician power; later in that year Agrippa died, leaving Augustus without his long-trusted friend, who was buried with lavish honors in Augustus's mausoleum on the bank of the Tiber river.

After Agrippa's death, Julia bore their third son, Agrippa Postumus. Tiberius had to divorce his wife, Vipsania, to marry the widowed Julia. In 13 the former triumvir, Lepidus, also died, leaving open the life-long office of the high priest of Roman state-religion; in 12 B.C. Augustus became pontifex maximus. Augustus's power as supervisor of morals was renewed for five more years. He reformed the senate for the third time, and he set up a permanent commission for the care of the water supply, which had been Agrippa's domain. Tiberius and Drusus campaigned in Germany and Dalmatia, and in 9 B.C. Drusus died. In 8 B.C. Augustus's proconsular power was renewed for a third time for ten years; a census was held, the month Sextilis was renamed August, and Rome was divided into fourteen regions. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors ]

“In 5 and 2 B.C. Augustus again assumed the consulship only to introduce his grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, to public life, with their ceremonial assumption of the toga virilis. In 2 B. C. Augustus received the purely honorific title pater patriae, with the associations of the power and prestigious influence of a father over the state family. His titles included Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus, Pater Patriae. All of his titles were republican, including Imperator. His military proconsular power was never given prominence in his official appellation; Trajan was the first emperor to use the title proconsul, and only when he was not in Italy. In 6 A.D. Augustus established the aerarium militare as a public treasury to pay soldiers; though he made the initial grant from his own money, thereafter the treasury was maintained by new sales and inheritance taxes, with the result that donations to retired soldiers did not appear to depend on the emperor. A new fire brigade and nocturnal police force was also established, in seven cohorts of one-thousand freedmen each, with two cohorts for each of the fourteen regions of the city.

Vespasian’s Governing Style


Emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69–79) took several major steps that changed Roman government. Suetonius wrote: In some matters “he was unassuming and lenient from the very beginning of his reign until its end, never trying to conceal his former lowly condition, but often even parading it. Indeed, when certain men tried to trace the origin of the Flavian family to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules whose tomb still stands on the Via Salaria, he laughed at them for their pains. So far was he from a desire for pomp and show, that on the day of his triumph, exhausted by the slow and tiresome procession, he did not hesitate to say: "It serves me right for being such a fool as to want a triumph in my old age, as if it were due to my ancestors or had ever been among my own ambitions." He did not even assume the tribunician power at once nor the title of Father of his Country until late. As for the custom of searching those who came to pay their morning calls, he gave that up before the civil war was over. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

“He bore the frank language of his friends, the quips of pleaders, and the impudence of the philosophers with the greatest patience. Though Licinius Mucianus, a man of notorious unchastity, presumed upon his services to treat Vespasian with scant respect, he never had the heart to criticize him except privately and then only to the extent of adding to a complaint made to a common friend, the significant words: "I at least am a man." When Salvius Liberalis ventured to say, while defending a rich client, "What is it to Caesar if Hipparchus has a hundred millions," he personally commended him. When the Cynic Demetrius met him abroad after being condemned to banishment, and without deigning to rise in his presence or to salute him, even snarled out some insult, he merely called him "cur."

“He was not inclined to remember or to avenge affronts or enmities, but made a brilliant match for the daughter of his enemy Vitellius, and even provided her with a dowry and a house-keeping outfit. When he was in terror at being forbidden Nero's court, and asked what on earth he was to do or where he was to go, one of the ushers put him out and told him to "go to Morbovia" [A made-up name from "morbus", or "illness"; the expression is equivalent to "go to the devil."]; but when the man later begged for forgiveness, Vespasian confined his resentment to words, and those of about the same number and purport. Indeed, so far was he from being led by any suspicion or fear to cause anyone's death, that when his friends warned him that he must keep an eye on Mettius Pompusianus, since it was commonly believed that he had an imperial horoscope, he even made him consul, guaranteeing that he would one day be mindful of the favor.

Law Concerning the Power of Vespasian

The Roman Legal Inscription — “Lex De Imperio Vespasiani" (“The Law Concerning the Power of Vespasian" — an inscription in bronze dated to A.D. 69 or 70. Only the following portion, which is the end of the document survives. It reads: 1) . . . that he shall have the right, just as the deified Augustus(1) and Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus(2) and Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus(3) had, to conclude treaties with whomever he wishes; 2) And that he shall have the right, just as the deified Augustus and Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus had, to convene the senate, to put and refer proposals to it, and to cause decrees of the senate to be enacted by proposal and division of the house; [Source: document designation: ILS 244. (A.D. 69/70), Internet Archive, from Iowa State]

“3) And that when the senate is convened [in special session] pursuant to his wish, authorization, order, or command, or in his presence, all matters transacted shall be considered and observed as fully binding as if the meeting of the senate had been regularly convoked and held; 4) And that at all elections especial consideration shall be given to those candidates for a magistracy, authority, imperium, or any post whom he has recommended to the Roman senate and people or to whom he has given and promised his vote; 5) And that he shall have the right, just as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus had, to extend and advance the boundaries of the pomerium(4) whenever he deems it to be in the interest of the state;

Vespasian coins

“6) And that he shall have the right and power, just as the deified Augustus and Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus had, to transact and do whatever things divine, human, public and private he deems to serve the advantage and the overriding interest of the state; 7) And that the Emperor Caesar Vespasian shall not be bound by those laws and plebiscites which were declared not binding upon the deified Augustus Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus or Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, and the Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus shall have the right to do whatsoever it was proper for the deified Augustus or Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus or Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to do by virtue of any law or enactment; 8) And that whatever was done, executed, decreed, or ordered before the enactment of this law by the Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus, or by anyone at his order or command, shall be as fully binding and valid as if they had been done by order of the people or plebs.

“9 Sanction: If anyone in consequence of this law has or shall have acted contrary to laws, enactments, plebiscites, or decrees of the senate, or if he shall have failed to do in consequence of this law anything that it is incumbent on him to do in accordance with a law, enactment, plebiscite, or decree of the senate, it shall be with impunity, nor shall he on that account have to pay any penalty to the people, nor shall anyone have the right to institute suit or judicial inquiry concerning such matter, nor shall any [authority] permit proceedings before him on such matter.

Vespasian, Money and Control of the Roman Treasury

Suetonius wrote: “The only thing for which he can fairly be censured was his love of money. For not content with reviving the imposts which had been repealed under Galba, he added new and heavy burdens, increasing the amount of tribute paid by the provinces, in some cases actually doubling it, and quite openly carrying on traffic which would be shameful even for a man in private life; for he would buy up certain commodities merely in order to distribute them at a profit. He made no bones of selling offices to candidates and acquittals to men under prosecution, whether innocent or guilty. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

He is even believed to have had the habit of designedly advancing the most rapacious of his procurators to higher posts, that they might he the richer when he later condemned them; in fact, it was common talk that he used these men as sponges, because he, so to speak, soaked them when they were dry and squeezed them when they were wet. Some say that he was naturally covetous and was taunted with it by an old herdsman of his, who on being forced to pay for the freedom for which he earnestly begged Vespasian when he became emperor cried: "The fox changes his fur, but not his nature." Others, on the contrary, believe that he was driven by necessity to raise money by spoliation and robbery because of the desperate state of the treasury and the privy purse; to which he bore witness at the very beginning of his reign by declaring that forty thousand millions were needed to set the State upright. This latter view seems the more probable, since he made the best use of his gains, ill gotten though they were.

“He was most generous to all classes, making up the requisite estate for senators [This had been increased to 1,200,000 sesterces by Augustus], giving needy ex-consuls an annual stipend of five hundred thousand sesterces, restoring to a better condition many cities throughout the empire which had suffered from earthquakes or fires, and in particular encouraging men of talent and the arts.

“He was the first to establish a regular salary of a hundred thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid from the privy purse. He also presented eminent poets with princely largess and great rewards, and artists, too, such as the restorer of the Venus of Cos [Doubtless referring to the statue of Venus consecrated by Vespasian in his Temple of Peace, the sculptor of which, according to Pliny, was unknown. The Venus of Cos was the work of Praxiteles], and of the Colossus [The colossal statue of Nero; see Nero, xxxi.1]. To a mechanical engineer, who promised to transport some heavy columns to the capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention, but refused to make use of it, saying: "You must let me feed my poor commons."

“When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public toilets, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odor was offensive to him. When Titus said "No," he replied, "Yet it comes from urine." On the report of a deputation that a colossal statue of great cost had been voted him at public expense, he demanded to have it set up at once, and holding out his open hand, said that the base was ready. He did not cease his jokes even then in apprehension of death and in extreme danger; for when among other portents the Mausoleum [Of Augustus] opened on a sudden and a comet appeared in the heavens, he declared that the former applied to Junia Calvina of the family of Augustus, and the latter to the king of the Parthians, who wore his hair long; and as death drew near, he said: "Woe's me. Methinks I'm turning into a god."”

Hadrian Abandons Rome’s Policy of Conquest and Expansion


Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117–138) ended the wave of conquest and expansion that occurred under his predecessor Trajan and enclosed the empire within clearly-defined frontiers. Hadrian did not believe that the mission of Rome was to conquer the world, but to civilize her own subjects. He therefore voluntarily gave up the extensive conquests of Trajan in the East, the provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia, an Assyria. He declared that the Eastern policy of Trajan was a great mistake. He openly professed to cling to the policy of Augustus, which was to improve the empire rather than to enlarge it. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Aelius Spartianus wrote: “There were no campaigns of importance during his reign, and the wars that he did wage were brought to a close almost without arousing comment. The soldiers loved him much on account of his very great interest in the army and for his great liberality to them besides. The Parthians always regarded him as a friend because he took away the king whom Trajan had set over them. The Armenians were permitted to have their own king, whereas under Trajan they had had a governor, and the Mesopotamians were relieved of the tribute which Trajan had imposed. The Albanians and Hiberians he made his friends by lavishing gifts upon their kings, even though they had scorned to come to him. The kings of the Bactrians sent envoys to him to beg humbly for his friendship. [Source: Aelius Spartianus: Life of Hadrian,” (r. 117-138 CE.),William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“And yet, at the same time, Hadrian abandoned many provinces won by Trajan, and also destroyed, contrary to the entreaties of all, the theatre which Trajan had built in the Campus Martius. These measures, unpopular enough in themselves, were still more displeasing to the public because of his pretence that all acts which he thought would be offensive had been secretly enjoined upon him by Trajan. Unable to endure the power of Attianus, his prefect and formerly his guardian, he was eager to murder him. He was restrained, however, by the knowledge that he already laboured under the odium of murdering four men of consular rank, although, as a matter of fact, he always attributed their execution to the designs of Attianus. And as he could not appoint a successor for Attianus except at the latter's request, he contrived to make him request it, and at once transferred the power to Turbo; at the same time Similis also, the other prefect, received a successor, namely Septicius Clarus.

“After Hadrian had removed from the prefecture the very men to whom he owed the imperial power, he departed for Campania, where he aided all the towns of the region by gifts and benefactions and attached all the foremost men to his train of friends. But when at Rome, he frequently attended the official functions of the praetors and consuls, appeared at the banquets of his friends, visited them twice or thrice a day when they were sick, even those who were merely knights and freedmen, cheered them by words of comfort, encouraged them by words of advice, and very often invited them to his own banquets. In short, everything that he did was in the manner of a private citizen. On his mother-in-law he bestowed especial honour by means of gladiatorial games and other ceremonies.”

Hadrian in the Provinces

Hadrian spent more than half (maybe as much a two thirds) of his 21-year reign on the road outside Italy, primarily overseeing the construction of new cities and fortifications along the frontier. He originally set out from Rome with the purpose of studying the many tribes and cultures in his vast empire. "He marched on foot and bareheaded over the snows of Cledonia and the sultry plains of Egypt," wrote 18th century historian Edward Gibbons. During his rule Hadrian’s Wall was erected in northwest England, Hadrian's Gate was built in southern Turkey and Hadrian's Theater was constructed in Carthage. Hadrian united Greece into a confederation with a headquarters in Athens. He codified Athenian Law, finished the Temple of Zeus in Olympia (one of the seven wonders) and rebuilt the shrines in Delphi. Hadrian also outlawed circumcision which lead to a Jewish revolt.

Hadrian visiting a Romano-British Pottery

Hadrian showed a stronger sympathy with the provinces than any of his predecessors, and under his reign the provincials attained a high degree of prosperity and happiness. He conducted himself as a true sovereign and friend of his people. To become acquainted with their condition and to remedy their evils, he spent a large part of his time in visiting the provinces. Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Trajan’s reign had been one of warfare and territorial expansion, when the empire reached its greatest extent. By contrast, Hadrian’s reign was one of peace and consolidation, except for a serious revolt in Judaea in 132 AD. In Africa he built walls to control the transhumance routes, and in Germany he built a palisade with watch towers and small forts to delineate Roman-controlled territory. In Britain, he built the stone wall which bears his name, perhaps the most enduring of his frontier lines. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Hadrian made his temporary residence in the chief cities of the empire,—in York, in Athens, in Antioch, and in Alexandria—where he was continually looking after the interests of his subjects. In the provinces, as at Rome, he constructed many magnificent public works; and won for himself a renown equal, if not superior, to that of Trajan as a great builder. Rome was decorated with the temple of Venus and Roma, and the splendid mausoleum which to-day bears the name of the Castle of St. Angelo. Hadrian also built strong fortifications to protect the frontiers, one of these connecting the head waters of the Rhine and the Danube, and another built on the northern boundary of Britain. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

The general organization of the provinces remained with few changes. There were still the two classes, the senatorial, governed by the proconsuls and propraetors, and the imperial, governed by the legati, or the emperor’s lieutenants. The improvement which took place under the empire in the condition of the provinces was due to the longer term of office given the governors, the more economic management of the finances, and the abolition of the system of farming the revenues. \~\

The good influence of such emperors as Hadrian is seen in the new spirit which inspired the life of the provincials. The people were no longer the prey of the taxgatherer, as in the times of the later republic. They could therefore use their wealth to improve and beautify their own cities. The growing public spirit is seen in the new buildings and works, everywhere erected, not only by the city governments, but by the generous contributions of private citizens. The relations between the people of different provinces were also becoming closer by the improvement of the means of communication. The roads were now extended throughout the empire, and were used not merely for the transportation of armies, but for travel and correspondence. The people thus became better acquainted with one another. Many of the highways were used as post-roads, over which letters might be sent by means of private runners or government couriers. \~\ The different provinces of the empire were also brought into closer communication by means of the increasing commerce, which furnished one of the most honored pursuits of the Roman citizen. The provinces encircled the Mediterranean Sea, which was now the greatest highway of the empire. The sea was traversed by merchant ships exchanging the products of various lands. The provinces of the empire were thus joined together in one great commercial community.” \~\

Legal and Administrative Improvements Under Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138–161) had a stong influence upon Roman law and legislation: His high sense of justice brought him into close relation with the great jurists of the age, who were now beginning to make their influence felt. With them he believed that the spirit of the law was more important than the letter. One of his maxims was this: “While the forms of the law must not be lightly altered, they must be interpreted so as to meet the demands of justice.” He laid down the important principle that everyone should be regarded as innocent until proved guilty. He mitigated the evils of slavery, and declared that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another. It was about the close of his reign that the great elementary treatise on the Roman law, called the “Institutes” of Gaius, appeared. \~\

Roman Jurisprudence: Some one has said that the greatest bequests of antiquity to the modern world were Christianity, Greek philosophy, and the Roman law. We should study the history of Rome to little purpose if we failed to take account of this, the highest product of her civilization. It is not to her amphitheaters, her circuses, her triumphal arches, or to her sacred temples that we must look in order to see the most distinctive and enduring features of Roman life. We must look rather to her basilicas—that is, her courthouses where the principles of justice were administered to her citizens and her subjects in the forms of law. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]

The Government and Administration: It was during the period of the Antonines that the imperial government reached its highest development. This government was, in fact, the most remarkable example that the world has ever seen of what we may call a “paternal autocracy”—that is government in the hands of a single ruler, but exercised solely for the benefit of the people. In this respect the ideals of Julius and Augustus seem to have been completely realized. The emperor was looked upon as the embodiment of the state, the personification of law, and the promoter of justice, equality, and domestic peace. Every department of the administration was under his control. He had the selection of the officials to carry into execution his will. The character of such a government the Romans well expressed in their maxim, “What is pleasing to the prince has the force of law.”

State Socialism in A.D. 3rd Century Rome

Antoninus Pius

Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “Most emperors continued the policies of debasement and increasingly heavy taxes, levied mainly on the wealthy. The war against wealth was not simply due to purely fiscal requirements, but was also part of a conscious policy of exterminating the Senatorial class, which had ruled Rome since ancient times, in order to eliminate any potential rivals to the emperor. Increasingly, emperors came to believe that the army was the sole source of power and they concentrated their efforts on sustaining the army at all cost. [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=]

“As the private wealth of the Empire was gradually confiscated or taxed away, driven away or hidden, economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill. Moreover, once the wealthy were no longer able to pay the state’s bills, the burden inexorably fell onto the lower classes, so that average people suffered as well from the deteriorating economic conditions. In RostovtzefFs words, “The heavier the pressure of the state on the upper classes, the more intolerable became the condition of the lower”. /=\

“At this point, in the third century A.D., the money economy completely broke down. Yet the military demands of the state remained high. Rome’s borders were under continual pressure from Germanic tribes in the North and from the Persians in the East. Moreover, it was now explicitly understood by everyone that the emperor’s power and position depended entirely on the support of the army. Thus, the army’s needs required satisfaction above all else, regardless of the consequences to the private economy. /=\

With the collapse of the money economy, the normal system of taxation also broke down. This forced the state to directly appropriate whatever resources it needed wherever they could be found. Food and cattle, for example, were requisitioned directly from farmers. Other producers were similarly liable for whatever the army might need. The result, of course, was chaos, dubbed “permanent terrorism” by Rostovtzeff. Eventually, the state was forced to compel individuals to continue working and producing. /=\

“The result was a system in which individuals were forced to work at their given place of employment and remain in the same occupation, with little freedom to move or change jobs. Farmers were tied to the land, as were their children, and similar demands were made on all other workers, producers, and artisans as well. Even soldiers were required to remain soldiers for life, and their sons compelled to follow them. The remaining members of the upper classes were pressed into providing municipal services, such as tax collection, without pay. And should tax collections fall short of the state’s demands, they were required to make up the difference themselves. This led to further efforts to hide whatever wealth remained in the Empire, especially among those who still found ways of becoming rich. Ordinarily, they would have celebrated their new-found wealth; now they made every effort to appear as poor as everyone else, lest they become responsible for providing municipal services out of their own pocket. /=\

“The steady encroachment of the state into the intimate workings of the economy also eroded growth. The result was increasing feudalization of the economy and a total breakdown of the division of labor. People fled to the countryside and took up subsistence farming or attached themselves to the estates of the wealthy, which operated as much as possible as closed systems, providing for all their own needs and not engaging in trade at all. Meanwhile, much land was abandoned and remained fallow or fell into the hands of the state, whose mismanagement generally led to a decline in production.” /=\

Soldier-Emperors and Military Anarchy (A.D. 235-284)

Soldier Emperor Gallienus

A 50 year period of violence and chaos began in A.D. 235 when military leaders in the provinces killed Emperor Severis Alexander and replaced him with the military strongman Maximus. Most of the leaders during this time — known variously as the period of the Military Anarchy, the Imperial Crisis, or the Soldier-Emperors — tried to keep the Roman Empire together by force and spent more time in military camps than meeting rooms and had more extensive training in violence than statesmanship. The Roman Empire at this time was coming under pressure from competing empires and hostile tribes that occupied the land just outside the empire's borders. Rome's 30 or more legions fought almost constantly to defend the empire's borders. The Germans on the Rhine and the Goths on the Danube were particularly fierce and aggressive.

In the midst of these external perils, the Roman Empire was threatened on the inside by the appearance of usurpers in every part of the empire—in Asia, in Egypt, in Greece, in Illyricum, and in Gaul. This is called the time of the “thirty tyrants”; although Gibbon counts only nineteen of these so-called tyrants during the reign of Gallienus. If we should imagine another calamity in addition to those already mentioned, it would be famine and pestilence—and from these, too, Rome now suffered. From the reign of Decius to the reign of Gallienus, a period of about fifteen years, the empire was the victim of a furious plague, which is said to have raged in every province, in every city, and almost in every family. With invasions from without and revolts and pestilence within, Rome never before seemed so near to destruction. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In the age of the soldier-emperors, between the assassination of Alexander Severus, the last of the Severans, in 235 A.D. and the beginning of Diocletian's reign in 284, at least sixteen men bore the title of emperor. Most were fierce military men and none could hold the reins of power without the support of the army. Almost all, having taken power upon the murder of the preceding emperor, came to a premature and violent end. Social life declined in Roman towns and instead flourished among the country aristocracy, whose secure lifestyle in large fortified estates foreshadowed medieval feudalism.\^/ [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Severan Dynasty (193–235)", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org]

Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: “Third century emperors relied on the army for their position more than on any other element of Roman society. This made them especially vulnerable to usurpation by successful regional generals. The rise of new external enemies, such as the Goths and the Sassanid Persians, exacerbated the problem by creating multiple crises on different frontiers. For significant periods, usurpers based at Trier in Germany and Palmyra in Syria hived off groups of provinces as independent 'empires'. [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Under pressure on two frontiers, the Romans started to squabble among themselves. Civilians distrusted their own armies and the soldiers distrusted some of their commanders - even the emperor to whom they had sworn allegiance. So they proclaimed new emperors. The army had always been able to make or break emperors, but never in such quick succession as they did now. After the assassination of Severus Alexander in 235 AD, the soldiers in various parts of the empire proclaimed fifty emperors in about the same number of years. “Some of these emperors survived for only a few months, despatched by rival armies or even by the troops who had recently proclaimed them. To be declared emperor once marked the apogee of a man's career. In the third century it was a death sentence. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Barbarians Become Citizens in the 3rd Century

With the Constitutio Antoniniana, or Edict of Caracalla (A.D. 212), the Roman franchise, which had been gradually extended by the previous emperors, was now conferred to all the free inhabitants of the Roman world. The edict was issued primarily to increase tax revenue. Even so, the edict was in the line of earlier reforms and effaced the last distinction between Romans and provincials. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

In the A.D. 3rd century a conciliatory policy toward the tribal people (“barbarians”) was adopted, by granting to them peaceful settlements in the frontier provinces. Not only the Roman territory, but the army and the offices of the state, military and civil, were gradually opened to Germans and other tribe members who were willing to become Roman subjects.

It became a serious question what to do with all the newcomers who were now admitted into the provinces. The most able of the barbarian chiefs were sometimes made Roman generals. Many persons were admitted to the ranks of the army. Sometimes whole tribes were allowed to settle upon lands assigned to them. But a great many persons, especially those who had been captured in war, were treated in a somewhat novel manner. Instead of being sold as slaves they were given over to the large landed proprietors, and attached to the estates as permanent tenants. They could not be sold off from these estates like slaves; but if the land was sold they were sold with it. This class of persons came to be called coloni. They were really serfs bound to the soil. The colonus had a little plot of ground which he could cultivate for himself, and for which he paid a rent to his landlord. But the class of coloni came to be made up not only of barbarian captives, but of manumitted slaves, and even of Roman freemen, who were not able to support themselves and who gave themselves up to become the serfs of some landlord. The coloni thus came to form a large part of the population in the provinces. \~\ This new class of persons, which held such a peculiar position in the Roman empire, has a special interest to the general historical student; because from them were descended, in great part, the class of serfs which formed a large element of European society after the fall of Rome, during the middle ages. \~\

Changes in the Roman Empire in A.D. the 3rd Century

young barbarian

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: ““Roman society was increasingly divided in the third century. Class distinction was accentuated, impoverishment of the middle classes created a reluctance or inability to play any part in local government, which was expensive to the point of annihilation. Internal law and order broke down. Soldiers bullied and exploited civilians. Foreign peoples invaded Roman provinces, killing and destroying, carrying off people and plunder. Fear escalated. Provincials passed on their grievances to the emperors, but faced with multiple problems, vast distances and slow communications the emperors could do very little to help. Endemic insecurity bred its own problems. Any population that feels threatened, but cannot rely on the normal authorities to protect itself, usually ends by taking the law into its own hands. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The proclamation by the army of so many emperors is one aspect of this insecurity. There may have been power-crazed individuals who simply wanted to be emperor. In many cases the prime motive was not the desire to topple the whole Empire but to organise regional self-help. Faith in the emperors declined in direct proportion to their inability to protect the provinces, so the soldiers and the provincials turned to other leaders who could provide protection and security.

“The tragedy of the third century is that the chosen leader had to usurp imperial powers to assume the necessary authority instead of acting on behalf of a legitimate emperor who had lost all his credibility. That the empire recovered is a tribute to the various emperors who put an end to the chaos. The result was constant disunity, forcing the Romans to spend valuable time and resources fighting each other, instead of working together to devote all their energies to solving the social, religious, financial and military issues that beset the empire in this time of crisis. |::|

“The fact that the empire came so close to disintegration, and yet recovered, is a tribute to the various emperors who put an end to the chaos. But in doing so, they created a different world. The Roman empire entered the third century in a form that would have been recognisable to Augustus and his successors, but it emerged into the fourth century with all its administrative and military institutions changed, bureaucratic, rigid, and constantly geared for war, with its capital no longer at Rome but in Constantinople. |::|

Reforms of Diocletian

Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: “The denigration of the imperial office through a vicious cycle of usurpations and assassinations was halted long enough by Diocletian (ruled 284 - 305 AD) and his co-emperors for stable rule to be re-established. He established a 'college' of four emperors - two senior men with the title 'Augustus' who appointed two junior 'Caesars' - called the Tetrarchy. This ensured stability of succession and meant that four men could handle simultaneous crises on widely-spread frontiers. [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Military and civil (judicial and financial) administrations were entirely separated for enhanced security against rivals. Currency reforms, regularisation of army supply, enlargement of the army, and successful operations against usurpers and foreign enemies contributed to internal stability. New legions were raised and new, imposing designs in fortifications were applied across the empire. A programme of regime propaganda and harnessed traditional cults enhanced loyalty to the state.” |::|


The general result of the new policy of Diocletian was to give to the empire a strong and efficient government. The dangers which threatened the state were met with firmness and vigor. A revolt in Egypt was quelled, and the frontiers were successfully defended against the Persians and the barbarians. Public works were constructed, among which were the great Baths of Diocletian at Rome. At the close of his reign he celebrated a triumph in the old capital. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

“Diocletian attempted to use the state religion as a unifying element. Encouraged by the Caesar Galerius, Diocletian in 303 issued a series of four increasingly harsh decrees designed to compel Christians to take part in the imperial cult, the traditional means by which allegiance was pledged to the empire. This began the so-called "Great Persecution." ^|^

Diocletian’s Oriental-Style Monarchy

Abandoning the tradition of a citizen king, Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284–305) elevated himself above the masses by initiating imperial ceremonies and requiring his subjects to prostrate themselves in his presence.

Diocletian made himself an Oriental, or at least Persian-style, monarch. He assumed the diadem of the East. He wore the gorgeous robes of silk and gold such a were worn by eastern rulers. He compelled his subjects to salute him with low prostrations, and to treat him not as a citizen, but as a superior being. In this way he hoped to make the imperial office respected by the people and the army. The emperor was to be the sole source of power, and as such was to be venerated and obeyed. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Ralph W. Mathisen of the University of South Carolina wrote: ““Following the precedent of Aurelian (A.D.270-275), Diocletian transformed the emperorship into an out-and-out oriental monarchy. Access to him became restricted; he now was addressed not as First Citizen (Princeps) or the soldierly general (Imperator), but as Lord and Master (Dominus Noster) . Those in audience were required to prostrate themselves on the ground before him. [Source: Ralph W. Mathisen, University of South Carolina ^|^]

Some of their ideas of reform no doubt came from the new Persian monarchy, which was now the greatest rival of Rome. In this powerful monarchy the Romans saw certain elements of strength which they could use in giving new vigor to their own government. \~\

Diocletian's Price Controls

Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “By the end of the third century, Rome had clearly reached a crisis. The state could no longer obtain sufficient resources even through compulsion and was forced to rely ever more heavily on debasement of the currency to raise revenue. By the reign of Claudius II Gothicus (268—270 A.D.) the silver content of the denarius was down to just .02 percent. As a consequence, prices skyrocketed. A measure of Egyptian wheat, for example, which sold for seven to eight drachmaes in the second century now cost 120,000 drachmaes. This suggests an inflation of 15,000 percent during the third century. [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=]

Diocletian coin

“Finally, the very survival of the state was at stake. At this point, the Emperor Diocletian (284—305 A.D.) took action. He attempted to stop the inflation with a far-reaching system of price controls on all services and commodities.’° These controls were justified by Diodetian’s belief that the inflation was due mainly to speculation and hoarding, rather than debasement of the currency. As he stated in the preamble to his edict of 301 A.D.: ‘For who is so hard and so devoid of human feeling that he cannot, or rather has not perceived, that in the commerce carried on in the markets or involved in the daily life of cities immoderate prices are so widespread that the unbridled passion for gain is lessened neither by abundant supplies nor by fruitful years; so that without a doubt men who are busied in these affairs constantly plan to control the very winds and weather from the movements of the stars, and, evil that they are, they cannot endure the watering of the fertile fields by the rains from above which bring the hope of future harvests, since they reckon it their own loss if abundance comes through the moderation of the weather.’ /=\

“Despite the fact that the death penalty applied to violations of the price controls, they were a total failure. Lactantius (1984: 11), a contemporary of Diocletian’s, tells us that much blood was shed over “small and cheap items” and that goods disappeared from sale. Yet, “the rise in price got much worse.” Finally, “after many had met their deaths, sheer necessity led to the repeal of the law.” /=\ Diocletian: Prices Edict, 301, Preamble: “For who is so hard and so devoid of human feeling that he cannot, or rather has not perceived, that in the commerce carried on in the markets or involved in the daily life of cities immoderate prices are so widespread that the unbridled passion for gain is lessened neither by abundant supplies nor by fruitful years; so that without a doubt men who are busied in these affairs constantly plan to control the very winds and weather from the movements of the stars, and, evil that they are, they cannot endure the watering of the fertile fields by the rains from above which bring the hope of future harvests, since they reckon it their own loss if abundance comes through the moderation of the weather.”

Roman Empire Splits Under Diocletian

After unifying the Roman Empire once again Diocletian split the empire into eastern and western empires to make administration of the vast territory easier, and then divides it again into four parts — Gaul (France, Spain and England), Italy (including North Africa and present-day former Yugoslavia), Illyricum (Greece, Romania and Bulgaria) and the Orient (Asia Minor, Syria, Israel and Egypt).

The Roman leadership during the Dioclotian period was known as the Tetrarchy (four rulers). Dioclotian ruled the Orient provinces from the eastern capital of Nicomedia (Izmit, Turkey, near Istanbul). His co-emperor Maximus ruled the Italian provinces from Milan. Later, two deputy Caesars — Constantius and Galerius — were appointed as rulers of Gaul and Illyricum. Constantius ruled Gaul from Treveri and Galerius ruled Illyricum from Thessalonica (in present-day Greece). The tetrarchy collapsed into civil wars soon after Diocletian retired in A.D. 305.

The “Augusti” and “Caesars.”—Diocletian saw that it was difficult for one man alone to manage all the affairs of a great empire. It was sufficient for one man to rule over the East, and to repel the Persians. It needed another to take care of the West and to drive back the German invaders. He therefore associated with him his trusted friend and companion in arms, Maximian. But he was soon convinced that even this division of power was not sufficient. To each of the chief rulers, who received the title of Augustus, he assigned an assistant, who received the title of Caesar. The two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius; and they were to be regarded as the sons and successors of the chief rulers, the Augusti. Each Caesar was to recognize the authority of his chief; and all were to be subject to the supreme authority of Diocletian himself. The Roman world was divided among the four rulers as follows: [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Constantine's Government


Constantine I (A.D. 307–37) famously Christianized the Roman Empire and introduced other important reforms and changes to Roman government. Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “The prevailing character of Constantine's government was one of conservatism. His adoption of Christianity did not lead to a radical reordering of society or to a systematic revision of the legal system. Generally refraining fom sweeping innovations, he retained and completed most of the arrangements made by Diocletian, especially in provincial administration and army organization. One notable change pertained to the praetorian prefects; these now became civilian ministers assisting the Augustus or the Caesars. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors]

“In the course of a successful reform of the currency Constantine instituted a new type of coin, the gold solidus , which won wide acceptance and remained the standard for centuries to come. Some of Constantine's measures show a genuine concern for the welfare and the morality of his subjects, even for the condition of slaves. By entrusting some government functions to the Christian clergy he actually made the church an agency of the imperial government. Constantine did not neglect the security of the frontiers. He campaigned successfully in 306-308 and 314-15 on the German frontier, in 332 against the Goths, in 334 against the Sarmatians, and in 336 again on the Danube frontier.

“The arrangements which Constantine made for his own succession were quite unsatisfactory. During the last two years of his reign there were four Caesars: his sons Constantine (II), Constantius (II), and Constans, having been appointed in 317, 324, and 333 respectively, and his nephew Flavius Dalmatius (whose father, of like name, was a son of Constantius I and Theodora), appointed in 335. It is not clear which of these Constantine intended to take precedence upon his death.

Constantine’s Reforms

Constantine reorganized the Roman Empire’s territory in a systematic manner. This was based upon Diocletian’s division, but was much more complete and thorough. The whole empire was first divided into four great parts, called “praefectures,” each under a praetorian prefect subject to the emperor. These great territorial divisions were (1) the Praefecture of the East; (2) the Praefecture of Illyricum; (3) the Praefecture of Italy; (4) the Praefecture of Gaul. Each praefecture was then subdivided into dioceses, each under a diocesan governor, called a vicar, subject to the praetorian prefect. Each diocese was further subdivided into provinces, each under a provincial governor called a consular, president, duke, or count. Each province was made up of cities and towns, under their own municipal governments. Each city was generally governed by a city council (curia) presided over by two or four magistrates (duumviri, quattuorviri). It had also in the later empire a defender of the people (defensor populi), who, like the old republican tribune, protected the people in their rights. The new divisions of the empire may be indicated as follows: [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Constantine’s “Edict on Employment” read: “Any person in whose possession a tenant that belongs to another is found not only shall restore the aforesaid tenant to his place of origin but also shall assume the capitation tax for this man for the time that he was with him. Tenants also who meditate flight may be bound with chains and reduced to a servile condition, so that by virtue of a servile condemnation they shall be compelled to fulfill the duties that befit free men.” [Source: Jones 1970: 312, Bruce Bartlett "How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome", Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994

On the surface it may have seemed that Constantine’s government was a great improvement upon that of Augustus. It gave new strength to the empire, and enabled it to resist foreign invasions. The empire was preserved for several generations longer in the West, and for more than a thousand years longer in the East. But the expenses necessary to maintain such a system, with its elaborate court and its vast number of officials, were great. The taxes were oppressive. The members of every city council (curiales) were held responsible for the raising of the revenues. The people were burdened, and lost their interest in the state. \~\

Constantine Christianizes the Roman Empire

Constantine and his mother Helena with the True Cross

Constantine was accepted as a Christian after the Battle of Milvian Bridge and is regarded as the first Christian emperor. He wasn't baptized, however, until he was on his deathbed and called for a priest, shouting “Let there be no ambiguity." In March 313, Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan which gave every person the right to practice any religion they wanted. With the edict Constantine formally recognized Christianity and put an end to the persecution of Christians.

In 324, Constantine made Christianity the state religion: stating there was "No distinction between realm of Caesar and the realm of God." Under Constantine, pagan temples were expropriated, their treasuries were used to build churches and support clergy, and laws were adjusted for Christian ethics.

Before Constantine's time Christians practiced their faith in private. Under Constantine, suddenly they could practice their faith openly. Constantine went on a church building spree, constructing churches from Jerusalem to Rome. His grandest church was the original St. Peters which was destroyed by fire.

Before Constantine, the attitude of the Roman government toward Christianity varied at different times. At first indifferent to the new religion, it became hostile and often bitter during the “period of persecutions” from Nero to Diocletian. But finally under Constantine Christianity was accepted as the religion of the people and of the state. A large part of the empire was already Christian, and the recognition of the new religion gave stability to the new government. Constantine, however, in accepting Christianity as the state religion, did not go to the extreme of trying to uproot paganism. The pagan worship was still tolerated, and it was not until many years after this time that it was proscribed by the Christian emperors. For the purpose of settling the disputes between the different Christian sects, Constantine called (A.D. 325) a large council of the clergy at Nice (Nicaea), which decided what should thereafter be regarded as the orthodox belief. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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