Friday, May 06, 2005

Augustus and the Senate

[Another first-year Classics essay. I'm all done now. Promise.]

‘Men fit to be slaves.’ Is this a fair description of the members of the senate under Augustus?

Augustus claimed to have ‘restored the Republic’, and the senate was a crucial aspect of this. In theory it should have been quite powerful, but the overbearing power and influence of the Princeps obstructed the senate’s full independence. This in itself is not enough to denounce the senators as mere ‘slaves’ however, as comparisons with Republican Rome can illustrate. Indeed, there were significant and demonstrable limits to Augustus’ power, and the senators themselves could in many ways influence both Emperor and Empire. Despite the abundance of flattery and sycophancy surrounding the Emperor, there remained the potential for disagreement with Augustus, and thus a degree of genuine freedom within the senate.

Although the senate lost some of its former powers[1], it not only retained its traditional role as an advisory body, but was also granted additional responsibilities under the principate. The senate gained judicial authority, trying “some of the most important political cases in the early principate”.[2] It could block or delay legislation, its decrees attained the force of law,[3] and it dealt with some foreign embassies.[4] Augustus even created new offices, to allow more men to participate in the administration of the empire.[5] Some of the proconsuls (provincial governors) retained the right to inflict the death penalty on their subjects.[6] All of this served to increase the dignity of the senate, and – at least in theory – its power.

In practice, however, the senate was no longer the independent body it once was. The senators would have been well aware that Augustus had the power to control their careers.[7] On several occasions he purged the bloated senate, removing the ‘unworthy’ elements and cutting it down to a more moderately size.[8] He had some control over the list of nominees for elections, and twice went so far as to restrict the number of candidates to the number of places to be filled.[9] Augustus could even control who got elected, through the sheer force of his auctoritas (influence), as Staveley observes: “His commendatio was not of course binding in law, but that it was treated as binding in practice…there can be little question”.[10] If his mere influence was not enough to get what he wanted, Augustus could always fall back on his direct powers: he controlled the military, his tribunician powers allowed him to veto any senatorial legislation he disagreed with, and his overriding imperium gave him “complete civil and military supremacy” within his provinces.[11]

It is thus evident that Augustus was in fact the ultimate authority in the principate, with the senate subordinate to him. However, this in itself does not necessarily imply that the senators were mere ‘slaves’. To put their position in perspective, comparisons to the old Roman Republic are informative. The first point to consider is Lindereski’s observation that “An essential feature of a republican magistracy was the strict delimitation of its sphere of influence”.[12] Augustus tightened some of those delimitations, but the mere imposition of limits to senatorial power does not make them ‘slaves’ – indeed, it was a key aspect of the Republic. Also noteworthy is Hammond’s description of Republican princepes as “men who, without holding any extraordinary office, were nevertheless admitted by the public to be outstanding”.[13] Thus the auctoritas wielded by Augustus, though undoubtedly greater than any before him, was not entirely unprecedented, and did not in itself demean the other senators. Indeed, Augustus’ influence over the senate is broadly similar to the Republican senate’s influence over the (theoretically sovereign) populus.[14] Few would accuse the Republican populus of being ‘slaves’ because of this. To truly judge whether the Augustan senators deserve such accusations, one must assess precisely how much control Augustus held over them, and how they reacted to this.

Despite his pre-eminent position, there were in fact limits to Augustus’ power. He had no authority over the senatorial provinces until granted overriding imperium in 23 BC, and his proconsular imperium could only be exercised in Rome with special senatorial permission, and even then only for specific tasks.[15] Talbert judged that “no ruler could seriously alienate the senatorial class and survive”.[16] Augustus’ actions suggest that he shared this assessment, for he took care to prevent any dissatisfaction with his regime, and wore a shirt of armour under his gown during contentious senate meetings.[17] His limited power over free citizens is demonstrated by the fact that Augustus’ demands to Vedius Pollio, to prevent the feeding of the latter’s slaves to lampreys, were totally ignored.[18] Augustus’ limited control of the senate is shown through his failure to reduce it to a mere three hundred men, due to immense senatorial opposition to the idea. The Princeps had to settle for double the size he desired.[19]

The senators were at times remarkably influential under the Augustan principate. Augustus actively sought out their advice regarding new laws he proposed, and made some genuine changes accordingly.[20] Senatorial resistance might have prevented an early attempt by Augustus at moral legislation in 28 BC, and certainly caused him to seriously reconsider imposing an inheritance tax in AD 6.[21] When presiding over the murder trial of Asprenas Nonius, Augustus was unsure what verdict to give, so asked the senate their opinion.[22] In another case, Augustus was about to sentence several people to death, but a rebuke from Maecenas changed his mind.[23] Furthermore, as Eder observes, the important role of individual senators in imperial administration made the senate’s overall loss of political influence less significant.[24]

There is no doubt that many in Rome – including senators – engaged in blatant flattery to try to win Augustus’ favour. Cassius Dio tells us that “Men vied with each other in flattering him”.[25] It was this “growing sycophancy”[26] which Tacitus particularly abhorred. Yet Lacey makes a telling argument, that “Tacitus was perhaps naïve in not recognising that toadying was inherent in the Roman system of patronage”.[27] Flattery was a part of Roman society and culture, and by no means unique to the imperial era – though it may then have been exhibited to a greater degree. It is also worth noting that Augustus himself detested those who were conspicuous for empty flattery, and took the opportunity to remove them from the senate during the purges.[28] The senate as a whole rarely disagreed with Augustus,[29] but individual senators are another matter entirely.

Hammond identifies the senate as the chief source of disaffection and plots against the Emperor, and several stories of failed assassination attempts are described in the primary sources.[30] Within the senate house itself, Augustus allowed a remarkable degree of free speech and flagrant displays of opposition. Licinius Regulus tore off his clothes to expose his battle scars, in order to convince Augustus to review his dismissal.[31] Antistius Labeo defended himself against Augustus for voting for the latter’s enemy Lepidus (the ex-triumvir), and another time ridiculed a proposal that a senatorial bodyguard should watch over Augustus’ bed-chamber.[32] When debating Augustus’ new moral legislation, several senators made mocking references to his many extra-marital affairs.[33] Lacey warns against over-estimating the prevalence of sycophants, mentioning several men of integrity in the senate, some of whom “rose to the top and had very successful careers”.[34] Even Syme admits the presence of outspoken “champions of libertas” in the senate,[35] such as the aforementioned Antistius. That there are so many examples of senators not afraid to speak out against Augustus, clearly exposes the fallacy of asserting that these were ‘men fit to be slaves’.

The senate wielded substantial powers, at least in theory, and though eclipsed by Augustus in practice, the implications of this were not so dire as one might expect. There were limits to Augustus’ powers and influence. His respect for, and co-operation with, the senate meant that senators had the opportunity to make a genuine difference in the politics and administration of the Roman Empire. Flattery may have been widespread, but it was far from universal, and dissenting voices in the senate were given relatively free reign by the Princeps. There were rebels within the senate: a very few who plotted assassination attempts, and others who were more moderate in their opposition – yet outspoken and sincere nonetheless. From this it is evident that although there may have been some ‘men fit to be slaves’ within the senate, to indiscriminately apply the insult to all the Augustan senators would be grossly unfair.


Arnheim, M., The Senatorial Aristocracy in the Later Roman Empire, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1972.

Cassius Dio, The Augustan Settlement (Roman History 53-55.9), trans. J.W. Rich, Warminster : Aris & Phillips, 1990.

Hammond, M., The Augustan Principate in Theory and Practice During the Julio-Claudian Period, New York : Russell & Russell, 1968.

Lacey, W., Augustus and the Principate: the evolution of the system, Leeds : Francis Cairns, 1996.

Raaflaub, K. & Toher, M. (eds.), Between Republic and Empire: interpretations of Augustus and his principate, Berkeley : University of California Press, c1990.

Shotter, D., Augustus Caesar, London : Routledge, 1991.

Staveley, E., Greek and Roman Voting and Elections, London : Thames & Hudson, 1972.

Suetonius Tranquillus, ‘Life of Augustus’, trans. Philemon Holland (anno 1606), in Freese, J. (ed.), History of Twelve Caesars, London : Routledge, 1930.

Syme, R., The Roman Revolution, Oxford : Clarendon, 1952.

Tacitus, Annals of Tacitus, trans. Alfred John Church, London : MacMillan, 1882.

Talbert, R., The Senate of Imperial Rome, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1984.

Vellius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, trans. Frederick W. Shipley, London : William Heinemann, 1924.

Wiseman, T., New Men in the Roman Senate, London : Oxford University Press, 1971.

Wiseman, T. (ed.) Roman Political Life 90 B.C.-A.D. 69, Exeter : University of Exeter, 1985.

[1] R. Talbert, The Senate of Imperial Rome, p.488, emphasises the senate’s loss of dominion over foreign policy, military and financial affairs.

[2] M. Arnheim, The Senatorial Aristocracy in the Later Roman Empire, p.21.

[3] B. Levick, ‘Politics of the Early Principate’ in Wiseman, T. (ed.) Roman Political Life 90 B.C.-A.D.69, p.48.

[4] Cassius Dio, ‘Roman History’ in The Augustan Settlement, trans. J.W.Rich, 53.21.6.

[5] Suetonius Tranquillus, ‘Life of Augustus’, trans. Philemon Holland, in Freese, J. (ed.) History of Twelve Caesars, 34.

[6] Dio, 53.14.5.

[7] Levick, p.49.

[8] T. Wiseman, New Men in the Roman Senate, p.11, and particularly R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, p.349, ascribe political motives to Augustus here (i.e. that he took this opportunity to remove any opposition), as seems intuitively sensible. However, K. Raaflaub & L. Samons, ‘Opposition to Augustus’ in Raaflaub, K. & Toher, M. (eds.), Between Republic and Empire: interpretations of Augustus and his principate, p.433, urge caution, pointing out the remarkable fact that there is not a single reference to such a political purpose in the primary sources. In fact Dio, 54.13.1, suggests just the opposite – that Augustus used the purges to get rid of mindless flatterers! Note also that M. Hammond, The Augustan Principate in Theory and Practice During the Julio-Claudian Period, p.118, argues that Augustus used his power over admission to the senate “impartially…and not to create a subservient body”, pointing out that even personal enemies such as Antistius Labeo were not excluded.

[9] E. Staveley, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections, pp.222-3.

[10] Staveley, p.221, though he goes on to observe that the princeps must have shown restraint to prevent the elections becoming farcical, and that “it is possible that Augustus himself rarely recommended anyone [for consulship]” (p.222).

[11] See Dio, 53.12.3, with regard to the military, and also Talbert, p.392, who observes that by the end of Augustus’ reign (in AD 14), only one legion remained under direct senatorial control. Dio, 53.32.5, mentions the tribunician powers granted to Augustus. Hammond, p.47, discusses the implications (as quoted) of Augustus’ proconsular imperium. One example of Augustus being forced to resort to bullying tactics was in the face of senatorial resistance to a special treasury for war veterans, in AD 6, see Levick, p.49, though cf. note 21 below.

[12] Lindereski, ‘Mommsen & Syme’ in Raaflaub, K. & Toher, M. (eds.), Between Republic and Empire: interpretations of Augustus and his principate, p.51.

[13] Hammond, p.111.

[14] D. Shotter, Augustus Caesar, p.32, makes a similar general comparison; W. Lacey, Augustus and the Principate: the evolution of the system, p.6, mentions that the People’s Assembly was often entirely bypassed by the senate, especially when choosing provincial governors.

[15] Shotter, pp.28, 30. See also Hammond, pp.30, 47, for further discussion of Augustus’ limited power in Rome itself.

[16] Talbert, p.164.

[17] Suetonius, 28, mentions Augustus’ efforts to prevent resentment, and 35, describes the security measures Augustus went to during the purges of the senate.

[18] Dio, 54.23.3. In the end Augustus had to emulate the slave’s mistake (breaking Pollio’s most valuable cups), so that Pollio could not justifiably punish the slave without doing the same to Augustus. So while the slave was saved in the end, the fact remains that Augustus’ demands alone were insufficient to do this.

[19] Dio, 54.14.1.

[20] Dio, 53.21.3.

[21] Raaflaub & Samons, p.435. The tax was to support a new military fund, and “prevailed only when [alternative proposals] proved even less attractive”. (But cf. note 11 above).

[22] Suetonius, 56.

[23] Dio, 55.7.2.

[24] W. Eder, ‘The Augustan Principate as Binding Link’ in Raaflaub, K. & Toher, M. (eds.), Between Republic and Empire: interpretations of Augustus and his principate, p.114.

[25] Dio, 53.20.2.

[26] Tacitus, Annals of Tacitus, trans. Alfred John Church, 1.1.

[27] Lacey, p.228.

[28] Dio, 54.13.1.

[29] Talbert, p.172, states that there are only two specific instances of this known.

[30] Hammond, pp.118-9. Regarding conspiracies, see, for example, Vellius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, trans. Frederick W. Shipley, 2.91, for the executions of Lucius Murena and Fannius Caepio for conspiracy (also described in Dio, 54.3.4), and Rufus Egnatius (probably on false grounds, cf. Dio, 53.24.4).

[31] Dio, 54.14.3.

[32] Dio, 54.15.7-8.

[33] Dio, 54.16.3. Cf Syme, p.481, who argues that Augustus’ allowance of such freedoms simply demonstrates how secure he was in his position of power.

[34] Lacey, p.232. The names he gives are endorsed by Tacitus, which is surely high praise indeed for an Augustan senator! For example, L. Calpurnius Piso (see Tacitus 6.10.3), and Lepidus (consul of AD 6, not the ex-triumvir. See Tacitus 4.20.2).

[35] Syme, p.482.

1 comment:

  1. I agree ver much with you on this one. Augustus was hugely powerful, but much of that was given voluntarily by the Senate and done constitutionally by making him Priceps, Censor and Tribune etc.

    The Senate did retain influence under Augustus. Arguably more than they had under Gaius Julius!


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