49

The Romans, during the time of the Republic, were a famously anti-monarchical society. There are plenty of stories of Roman politicians gaining favor by refusing crowns, or condemning kings, etc. As I understand it, even the first emperor Octavian took the title "princeps" or "first citizen" so as to seem more palatable to the people, who might not have taken kindly to him openly declaring himself "king."

But at a certain point, you just have to face facts.

Succession struggles, inheritance, single rulers who stayed in power until they died, there is only so long you can go before you start to think, "you know, the princeps sure looks like a king..."

When did the Roman people finally acknowledge that their Emperor was, in fact, an Emperor? The Senate continued to be a going operation for centuries, but how long did it take for the public to admit that they effectively had a king now?

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    Have you done any research? – Mark C. Wallace Oct 2 '14 at 17:18
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    I've done a lot of research, but I haven't found anything that comments on this issue, specifically. Every source I can find is either modern, and therefore recognizes the immediate start of the Empire with Augustus, or contemporary and doesn't discuss the actual shift from Republic to Empire, just momentary events like Caesar becoming Dictator for Life. The recognition of permanence seems to have been gradual, but I can't imagine it happened without any commentary. I just can't seem to find any discussions along the lines of "so I guess we have kings now, and that seems to be permanent." – Nerrolken Oct 2 '14 at 17:24
  • You might want to document that research in the question. I suspect you've provided the correct answer, "The shift was gradual", and folks who had a comment tended not to record those comments because it reduced their life expectancy. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 2 '14 at 17:36
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    The shift was almost certainly gradual, what I'm looking for is when it occurred, how rapidly and over what range of time. Did the public catch on fairly quickly, or did the Emperors maintain the facade for a while? I suppose a good example would be, are there any speeches from during or after the reign of Augustus, bragging about how Romans would never tolerate a king? Any political treatises espousing the evils of tyranny or hereditary rule, which might indicate that they didn't think such behavior was happening in Rome? – Nerrolken Oct 2 '14 at 17:41
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    ". . . a certain point, you just have to face facts." I haven't seen any evidence to support this hypothesis. Empirical evidence suggests that humans have a limitless ability to avoid or ignore facts. BBC history magazine had an interview this week with a historian who argued that the human ability to ignore facts is responsible for all human progress and history. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 6 '14 at 13:31
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I take your question as meaning: when did Romans realize that they were living in a monarchy ? (As opposed to the aristocratic regime previously known as "republic".)

We must first realize that there cannot be a single point in time, because the Roman people did not operate under a uniform and shared mind. Throughout the whole antiquity, three quarters of the population lived outside of towns, and worked hard in the fields to feed the remaining quarter. Generically speaking, these three quarters never took part to politics and, as far as we know, never even thought that they could be part of it. The question of "realizing that the Empire is, indeed, a monarchy" thus makes sense only for the urbanized Romans, excluding slaves and people too poor to have time for such things. Your question might be reduced to: "when did senators and aristocrats began to notice that the old republic had disappeared and survived only by name ?"

Consider all the events related to the succession of Augustus. Octavius himself was well aware that he did not rise to the power through the will of the Senate. Back in 23 BC, he already considered it his duty to make provisions for his succession, and knew it was a touchy subject. Thus, at that date, at least Octavius and a few of his entourage were already operating under the sure knowledge that Rome had become a dynastic monarchy. They also knew that not everybody else would agree -- that's our first data point. Though the most astute Senators must have understood, back in the civil war times, that there was no republic anymore, we can say from the behaviours and declarations of Octavius that at that date, most of the Senate were still clinging to the notion that Rome was a Republic.

In 14 AD, the situation had changed quite a lot. Augustus dies, and Tiberius obtains supreme power. Formally, this was granted by the Senate, but anybody with two brain cells would have noticed that the succession was orchestrated by Augustus from beginning to end.

As a later data point, in 41 AD, Caligula is assassinated. His uncle Claudius was saved by the Praetorians (according to Suetonius, he had been hiding behind a curtain in the palace) and then made Emperor, even though he was quite unlikely in the role. Claudius was uninspiring as a leader (his speech impediment made him very unglamourous), had been kept out of office and politics for most of his life, and was apparently yearning for a scholarly life. Yet, in times of trouble, Praetorians turned to him. We can say that in 41 AD, the notion that the position of Emperor was dynastic had become firmly entrenched in the minds of soldiers, and probably of most other people as well -- being the closest in line of succession trumped any notion of competence at the job. (It must be said, though, that once in power, Claudius turned out, to the general surprise, to be quite good at being an efficient Emperor -- of course, comparatively to his predecessor Caligula and his successor Nero, that's not a difficult feat.)

From these elements, we can conclude that Romans realized that they were living in a monarchy, the Emperor being a king in all but name, as part of a gradual process which had only begun in 23 BC, was going well in 14 AD, and was mostly finished in 41 AD. Of course, Emperors kept on feeding Senators with flattery, and formally sworn their fidelity to the Republic for a lot longer, but this was only ritual decorum, and everybody knew it.

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    Perfect answer. I was about to write a poorer version of it... – Felix Goldberg Oct 2 '14 at 19:49
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    Also, the senate and other bureaucratic bodies were still around, much like they are today in countries that are effectively monarchies (and that includes 'president for life' style systems, dynastic presidents, etc. etc.). For a long time the Roman system of government probably operated much like the US federal government, with the senate more or less rubberstamping decisions made by the chief executive (whether you call him emperor, president, or whatever). – jwenting Oct 3 '14 at 9:59
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    Is hereditary holding of an office really a good indicator of monarchy to the Romans? – user5001 Oct 3 '14 at 12:24
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    There is of course a definition issue here. But one strong distinction point between the Roman kings and the Republic which went after was that the high offices in the Republic were all temporary and non-hereditary. Even when supreme power was given to a single man (a dictator), it was given by the Senate and only for a short, well-defined duration (which is why Caesar's "life dictatorship" was really understood as a kind of kingship). – Thomas Pornin Oct 3 '14 at 13:01
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Disclaimer: As has been repeatedly pointed out, this is a gradual shift that cannot really be pinpointed. Moreover, in my opinion, it hugely depends on how one interpret any of the several parts in this question.


Duringthe Principate period (27 B.C. – A.D. 284), emperors carefully maintained the façades of Republican government.

The senate continued its legislative, religious, diplomatic and judicial functions in the Principate ... The senate had a role in the legitimization of the emperor; both Trajan and Hadrian wrote to ask the senate to ratify their position. Galba also refused Imperial titles until conferred by an embassy from the senate. This is the paradox; the princeps held supreme power, yet some still insisted on acting as if the senate was of legal importance.

- Wilkinson, Sam. Republicanism during the early Roman Empire. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012.

Of course, it is obvious to us now that the republic had fallen and a monarchy had taken its place. Yet we should not project modern perspectives onto the ancient Romans.

To be sure, the State was organized under a principate - no dictatroship or monarchy. Names did not matter much ... The Roman, with his native theory of unrestricted imperium, was familiar with the notion of absolute power. The Principate, though absolute, was not arbitrary. It derived from consent and delegation; it was founded upon the laws. This was something different from the monarchies of the East. The Romans had not sunk as low as that. Complete freedom might be unworkable, but complete enslavement was intolerable.

- Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1963.

Part of the fiction of republicanism was the theoretical authority of the senate to elect emperors. Again, we recognise this to be rubberstamping a late emperor's choices and/or the army's decision. However, again, appearances were nonetheless kept up.

Originally the Emperor was elected either by the Senate or by the people, i.e. the army. Later this practice was modified, but not discernibly changed. In the early period, in the event of election by the army, the Senate at least recognized the army's choice. Under Gaius the day on which he had been proclaimed Emperor by the Senate was celebrated, and even Vespasian was recognized by the Senate ... by the third century, however, we observe recognition by the Senate being dispensed with.

- Mommsen, Theodor. "A History of Rome under the Emperors, ed. Thomas Wiedemann, trans. Clare Krojzl." (1996).

Although the Empire had superseded the Republic, the state continued to maintain an illusion of constitutional continuity. It maintained republican daily activities and its rulers (for the most part) avoided monarchical pretences. That the republic had became a monarchy did not mean the Romans were obliged to realised what had happened to their ancient freedoms. While we know it had essentially became a monarchy, I would argue that the situation was familiar enough for a contemporary Roman to hold onto the fiction of a republic.

Nonetheless, realistically, public perceptions must have begun waking up to reality. This certainly happened by the time of the transition into Dominate, from the Crisis of the Third Century onwards. Unlike the previous era, Emperors abandoned the pretensions of republicanism. Diocletian's formal adoption of monarchical styles definitely could not have gone unnoticed.


Another point: I would argue there was a certain degree of doublethink going on during the late empire. Even while acknowledging the monarch and empire, Romans continued cling to the fantasy of a republic. When the Western Roman Empire finally fell in 476 A.D., the Senate sent the imperial regalia to Constantinople along with a delegation. The deputies carried with them an "unanimous" message addressed to the Eastern Emperor Zeno, in which the Senate:

[S]olemnly "disclaim the necessity, or even the wish, of continuing any longer the imperial succession in Italy; since, in their opinion, the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and to protect, at the same time, both the East and the West. In their own name, and in the name of the people, they consent that the seat of the universal empire shall be transferred from Rome to Constantinople; and they basely renounce the right of choosing their master, the only vestige that yet remained of the authority which had given laws to the world. The republic (they repeat that name without a blush) might safely confide in the civil and military virtues of Odoacer; and they humbly request, that the emperor would invest him with the title of patrician, and the administration of the diocese of Italy."

- Gibbon, Edward. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 6. J. & J. Harper, 1829.

  • Senate "choosing" emperor is an interesting argument for the republic. But could the Romans have thought it's an elective monarchy? Did the concept exist in ancient Rome? – user5001 Oct 3 '14 at 12:30
  • This is a really nice analysis so +1 (especially bringing in Syme). Ultimately, though, I do not buy the conclusion. First, note that Syme argued essentially for a mollified or elightened monarchy, but a monarchy nevertheless: "The Principate, though absolute, was not arbitrary". He does not dispute that the Princeps had absolute power, he just points out that his use of it was not entirely arbitrary. As for the word "republic" of which you and Gibbon seem to make so much, one has to recall to to Romans it meant something else - not a form of government but something like "matters of state". – Felix Goldberg Oct 4 '14 at 20:48
  • @FelixGoldberg Thanks, but I don't think that contradicts my answer though. To be clear, I'm not denying it was a monarchy, at least not by our modern understanding. The question is when did the Romans realise the Imperator was a king in all but name. My point was that the realisation didn't happen straight away, as early emperors maintained a fairly good illusion. – Semaphore Oct 4 '14 at 21:24
  • Would you agree that by Nero's time the illusions were gone? – Felix Goldberg Oct 4 '14 at 22:19
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    @FelixGoldberg Not as gone as under Domitian. But the illusion ebbs and flows. Domitian was followed by the elected Nerva and the much more correctly-appearing Trajan, for instance. – Semaphore Oct 5 '14 at 6:56
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The shift was indeed gradual and it was in the interests of the regime, when it was still taking root, to dissimulate that the Republic was intact and the emperor was just the first among equals. Augustus was a past master at this sort of game; Tiberius tried to play it too but with ill results. Later emperors felt less need to do so.

In fact, I am in favour of an early dating, i.e. I think that the Romans have wisened up to the change in the rules of the game quite early, by Nero's succession the very latest. Probably, already by Gaius's succession, as @TylerDurden has argued.

In any case, we have a very safe terminus ante quem in the form of Pliny's Panegirycus and his letters. Here is his first letter to Trajan:

The pious affection you bore, most sacred Emperor, to your august father induced you to wish it might be late ere you succeeded him. But the immortal gods thought proper to hasten the advancement of those virtues to the helm of the commonwealth which had already shared in the steerage. May you then, and the world through your means, enjoy every prosperity worthy of your reign: to which let me add my wishes, most excellent Emperor, upon a private as well as public account, that your health and spirits may be preserved firm and unbroken. source

This is not a noble writing to the first among his equals. This is a noble writing to his royal master. And what is crucial - Pliny does not feel any awkwardness over the fact. He is writing with the easy grace of a born courtier, and so we must conclude that the final acquiescence to monarchy must have occured at least a generation before Pliny himself.

While we do not have such candid and clear evidence for earlier reigns (perhaps then the veil of republican or quasi-republican fiction has not yet worn so thin), there are other bits of circumstantial evidence that can be adduced. For example, Svetonius tells us that Augustus took pains to maintain a fiction of elections for various magistracies:

Whenever he took part in the election of magistrates, he went the round of the tribes with his candidates and appealed for them in the traditional manner. He also cast his own vote in his tribe, as one of the people. (56.1)

As far as I know, later emperors are not known to have engaged in any such activity.

But Svetonius' next sentence is even more striking:

When he gave testimony in court, he was most patient in submitting to questions and even to contradiction. (56.1).

So Augustus actually appeared in court if summoned! For later emperors, this would have been unthinkable. (However, there were rare cases of the Senate trying the emperor's friends in a way that was rather discomfitting to the monarch, under Tiberius and even under Domitian, of all people!).

To sum up, I think that the shift to monarchy was actually likely to have taken place already in the reign of Tiberius (who actually stamped out the very last vestiges of Republican opposition).

There is one more point to bring up: what we are discussing here is the attitude of the elite. The common people were probably not very much concerned with constitutional niceties anyway. In fact, the ever-helpful Svetonius tells us that the common folk were not averse to the idea of a king already in Caesar's time:

But from that time on he could not rid himself of the odium of having aspired to the title of monarch, although he replied to the commons, when they hailed him as king, "I am Caesar and no king," (79.2).

3

The first emperor to take the monarchical title was Heraclius.

After defeating the Persian Empire in 627 he took the title "King of Kings" which prevuously belonged to Persian king Khosrau II.

As such, starting from 629 he ordered to style him Basileos Basileion "King of kings" or simply "Basileos" "king". This continued with all consecutive emperors.

Besides taking the royal title he also changed the state language to Greek from Latin. Note that in Latin documents the title was borrowed from Greek rather than translated as "rex".

Emperor certainly was not monarch before Heraclius, in modern terms it was "dictatorship". Also note that the predecessor of Heraclius, Phocas was desposed by the senate, which indicates that at least senators did not consider the state to be monarchy.

Romans called their state "republic" even at the time of the Roman rexes. And the term "republica orbis" continued to be used for the whole Christian world in the Middle Ages.

  • This doesn't answer the question of when the Romans realized the emperor was a monarch and the republic was gone – user5001 Oct 3 '14 at 12:22
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    @user5001 Emperor certainly was not monarch before Heraclius, in modern terms it was "dictatorship". Also note that the predecessor of Heraclius, Phocas was desposed by the senate, which indicates that at least senators did not consider the state to be monarchy. – Anixx Oct 3 '14 at 12:31
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    @user5001 they definitely thought they were in republic after Heraclius as well. There was no contradiction between republic, empire and regnum at the time. Romans called their state "republic" even at the time of the Roman rexes. And the term "republica orbis" continued to be used for the whole Christian world in the Middle Ages. – Anixx Oct 3 '14 at 12:36
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    If you could edit your post to add this, and hopefully more elaboration or references, I would upvote it :) – user5001 Oct 3 '14 at 12:40
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    @user5001 I added this to the answer. Also look at this question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/1373/… – Anixx Oct 3 '14 at 12:42
0

It was in the reign of Caligula (37–41), the successor to Tiberius.

Whereas previous emperors had been honored as gods after they died, Caligula insisted everyone worship him as a living god. Other emperors were not as nuts as Caligula, but it definitely set the tone that the Caesar was the emperor. For example, Nero's coinage showing him wearing the radiant crown of a god:

Nero coinage

Some emperors were philosophical about it. For example, Vespasian, who was actually a pretty cool guy, when he was near death joked, "I think I am becoming a god."

The term "emperor" comes from the Latin Imperator, which means sole commander or dictator. A dictator is someone who can make law with his voice. All of the Roman princeps since Caesar were considered imperators.

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    Actually, "imperator" is an old military title, already used in the Republic days, roughly equivalent to "commander" (it does not imply ruling over Rome, but it unlocks the possibility of a triumph). A "dictator" is an individual entitled to supreme power for a limited time, in times of crisis (Caesar succeeded in being officially named "dictator for life", but that's an edge case). The meaning of "imperator" shifted under Augustus, who needed something to evoke permanent, supreme power, without relating to either "king" or "dictator", both words being negatively connoted at that time. – Thomas Pornin Oct 2 '14 at 19:14
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    @ThomasPornin Curiously enough, the German version of Star Wars calls the Emperor Imperator. Not that that bears any ancient historical significance... – Tobias Kienzler Oct 3 '14 at 9:04
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    It's really tiresome that you insist on trying to put down people every time a shade of disagreement appears. – Felix Goldberg Oct 4 '14 at 22:21
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    But you can't just make up your own definitions for standard terms and then state them with apodictic aplomb. In this instance, since wikipedia is so odious to you, I looked up Pauly-Wissowa (is that a good enough authority?) and it says: "Dictator. (from dictare, ‘to dictate’, ‘to have recorded in writing’, ‘to arrange’; other etymologies in Cic. Rep. 1,63: quia dicitur). The holder of an exceptional, emergency, comprehensive ─ yet temporary ─ appointment under the Roman Republic." Nothing about making laws with one's voice. Can you cite one case of a dictator (before Sulla) making laws? – Felix Goldberg Oct 4 '14 at 23:06
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    I really respectfully submit to you that your definition of dictator is wrong and @ThomasPornin's is correct. In my book, that'd call for an acknowledgment and correction. – Felix Goldberg Oct 4 '14 at 23:07
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I think this issue really is a historical linguistic problem here. The Latin term dictator is a nominalization of the verb dico, dicere. That is it would mean, literally, one who "dico"s, that is, one who speaks. Of course, this only provides the roots of the meaning, not the meaning it had acquired by the time under discussion, or even how it was used earlier. Assuming that a word's meaning is its literal meaning is an etymological fallacy.

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    As it stands, this is more of a comment than an answer to the question. – Steve Bird Dec 1 '16 at 6:06
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    This does not appear to answer the question. – Mark C. Wallace Dec 1 '16 at 9:46

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