Whether good or bad rulers, the Roman Emperors all followed the path prepared for them by the brilliance of the first emperor Augustus. By 27 BC Augustus had established the essential elements of the power structure and political system that was to guide Rome for the next few centuries – it was a system that unquestionably vested all effective power in the hands of a single supreme leader, but initially paid lip service to Republican institutions.
The Rule of the Emperors
The system that Augustus instituted was called the Principate, whereby the ‘First Citizen‘ (Princeps) retained power and dominated all the political and administrative processes, yet still manifested his rule through the forms and offices of the defunct Republic. The subsequent political history of the Empire is merely a catalogue of the gradual, but inexorable drift away from the facade of Republican freedoms under the Principate towards the undisguisedly absolute Monarchy of later times.
The drifting towards monarchy was a tangled tale of violence and greed, interspersed with short lived periods of prosperity and efficient administration whenever a strong and sensible leader could seize the reins halt the anarchic tide for a while, by reviving systems good governance and efficient administration. However the rule of the emperors was often needlessly harsh and bloody and at other times lax and disinterested with central leadership, on occasion, coming close to complete collapse, as brother fought brother in unedifying struggles, aimed at grasping the supreme power. Nevertheless, for centuries the empire itself remained strong, and for the common man – the farmer, the builder and the merchant, life went on regardless of happenings at the top, for in the great majority of the provinces and urban centres the ‘Pax Romana’ still held good.
Admittedly, on occasion there were sporadic outbursts of civil unrest and rioting, especially in the outlying provinces and there were also a few dangerous incursions of barbarian tribes. However, in most parts of the empire, peace and prosperity generally prevailed within tthe borders for several long centuries. This was generally due less to the directing hand of the ruling emperor and more to the diligence and professionalism of his standing armies.
Superior strategic and tactical military organisation was the reason for Rome’s survival and prosperity. The highly professional armies of the Roman Emperors were a formidable institution and, with few exceptions, played their part very well. They were generally able to smash or at least contain the threat of invasion from successive waves of powerful migrating barbarian tribes and more or less maintained the status quo on stable borders or ‘Limes’ for several centuries. But nothing lasts forever and eventually the rot set in and even Rome itself was lost to the barbarians and the last Western Roman Emperor, the child emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by Germanic invaders in AD 476. However, in the East, the Greek speaking Byzantine Emperors were more fortunate and managed to hold onto the remnants of the Roman empire, until the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453.
See also > > > List of Roman Emperors
Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC)
Caesar himself was never Emperor, but following his success in the Civil war against Pompey, he justified his defacto grasp of power, by calling himself “dictator”, a legitimate constitutional position that was supposed to be used only in time of state crisis – but he abused the tradition, by then making himself “dictator for life“, wielding virtually absolute power, with many of the trappings of royalty. This led to his assassination at a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March in 44 BC, as Romans were pathologically opposed to the whole concept of kingship.
Octavian defeated his rival Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. He then set out to consolidate his power base. Learning from his uncle’s fate, Octavian or Augustus as he later became known, although retaining absolute power, was careful to never use any title that could be taken as offending the traditions of Rome. Accordingly, when he took steps to formalise his constitutional base in 27 BC, he just called himself “Princeps”, an inoffensive title, previously used by the leader of the Senate, that simply ment “first citizen”. The actual term Emperor (Imperator in Latin), applied to the Supreme Leader, only came into being many centuries later. However the rule of the Roman emperors is universally recognised as commencing with the establishment of the Principate by Augustus in 27 BC .
Augustus was an political and administrative genius and during his long rule, created stable institutions for effective and enduring governance for the vast empire that he left to his successors. Following the golden age of his rule, a long chain of Roman Emperors benefited from his foresight and Augustan institutions were the cement that held the empire together for so many centuries after his death. It was just as well that the institutions were strong, for Augustus was followed by a very mixed batch of successors. Amongst those who inherited or seized imperial power, there were a few exceptional rulers, but most were mediocre at best, and some were downright disastrous, notably the third and fifth emperors, Caligula and Nero, who were members of Augustus’s own family – the Julio-Claudians.
Using his position as Julius Caesar’s nephew and adoptive son, Octavian had become defacto ruler of Rome after winning the civil war against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. After he had consolidated his power base by eliminating or neutralising any other potential opponents, he realised the need to ensure future stability by restoring apparent authority to the Senate. He did this by enacting all his legislation through that body and by always showing the Senate the greatest respect. However by clever manipulation of the authorities vested in certain traditional offices, he took steps to assign absolute power (Imperium) to himself, together with the power of veto in any dispute (Potestas)