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In what ways did the presence of the Emperor transform the powers and responsibilities of the Roman senate

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The Roman senate of the republic had, in principle, an advisory role in Roman government, and was made up of elected individuals of the landowning class or those with substantial family wealth. The senate’s advice was given to the magistrates on all matters including foreign and military policy, religion, and finance by means of decrees known as senatus consultum. While in theory these decrees had no legal force and did not have to be obeyed, in practice they usually were.

In the late republic the position of the senate became particularly significant, claiming the right to wield absolute power in certain circumstances and asserting its right to pass the ‘ultimate decree’ of senatus consultum ultimum in a state of emergency. (Roberts, 2005, 639) However, it was also around this time that the senate as a governing body was becoming vulnerable under the growing presence of the populares, and later, of an Emperor.

In this essay I am going to determine just how the powers and responsibilities of the senate changed when the republic fell into collapse and Octavian (later Augustus) became the dominant figure in Roman politics. To understand how the senate changed in the presence of an Emperor, we must perhaps first understand the senate’s exact role in the late republic. Roman government at this time consisted of various factions.

The magistracies – that is, the executive branch of government – were made up of elected members within various ranks; it was the magistrates that were responsible for passing an assortment of laws. For example, those who held the title of Quaestor were primarily responsible for finance and administration, whereas those who became elected as Consul were chief military and civil magistrates and were responsible for convening the senate. It is important to note the enormous prestige associated with the higher ranks of magistracies.

Secondly, the legislative branch within Roman government consisted of the assemblies, which to an extent represented the ordinary people of Rome. Finally, the senate, which was ultimately the most powerful body in the republican government, having influence in virtually all matters of everyday life. We have already established that the senate’s power was, in theory, restricted to only an advisory role, directing the consuls and magistrates to make decisions and laws regarding various policies, perhaps especially towards their handling of finances and the treasury.

That said, the senate’s role in government was highly significant: not only because it became the only body which both advised and developed long-term policies, but because its presence and roles within government characterised a distinctly Republican Rome. Octavian inherited the extremely influential Caesar name, as well as a mass fortune, upon the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BC, having been named as sole heir some time before.

In principle, Octavian now found himself the head of an autocratic system which had resulted in the death of his great-uncle. The military dictatorship he formed with Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus a year later (also known as the Second Triumvirate) meant that supreme political authority now lay in the hands of the triumvirs. Straight away we can see how the authority of the senate – and indeed the Republican government – was immediately undermined so long as one man wielded all the power.

However, while the Triumvirate succeeded somewhat in expanding their influence across the provinces (Anthony in the East and Octavian in the West), internal factions and opposing ambitions ultimately lead to its demise after approximately ten years. What followed was a naval battle between Octavian’s forces in Rome, and the forces of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, known as the Battle of Actium. Mark Anthony was quickly defeated, and Octavian was now left to consolidate his powers in Rome and its domains. Roman historian Tacitus commented in his Annals: The violent deaths of Brutus and Cassius left no republican forces in the field… [Octavian] gave up the title of triumvir, emphasising instead his position as consul; and the powers of a tribune, he proclaimed, were good enough for him – powers for the protection of ordinary people. ‘ (1. 1) Perhaps more strikingly, Tacitus goes on to say that Octavian’s position enabled him to take on the responsibilities of an entire government: ‘[Octavian] gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and the law.

Opposition did not exist. ‘ (1. 1) As far as his political position in government was concerned, he was sure to have himself elected consul each year from 31BC onwards, a position which he knew could not be a permanent solution. In spite of this, Octavian was acutely aware even in his years as consul that the power he held was unconstitutional in a republic, and he knew that only by acting conservatively would he escape the same fate as his great-uncle.

This may explain why, in 27BC, he was keen to outwardly restore substantial power back into the hands of the senate; notably, they took back control over the army. This is a key example of how, with the presence of Octavian, power between himself and the senate became so easily interchangeable. It was during the initial collapse of the republic that social and economic problems of Italy fell to him. David Stockton notes how, ‘Octavian was saddled with the unenviable task of finding land in Italy on which to settle about 100,000 discharged triumvial soldiers. (1986,148)

He did this successfully, and despite the fact that the senate, rather than Octavian, now had direct control over the provinces and armies, the majority of the soldiers’ loyalty was directed towards him. Perhaps it is fair to say that a substantial amount of Octavian’s support came from the fact he came into power at a time of continual warfare, and a dominant political figure such as himself brought on a certain wave of optimism from both the people and the senate of Rome. As such, the senate ensured he retained both his tribunician powers and his position as consul.

Indeed, it was these very tribunician powers which meant not only could he convene the senate and propose legislation in the assemblies when he wished, it also meant he had the power to veto (a power previously reserved for magistrates) and, according to Olivia Robinson, personal inviolability. (1997, 10) More significantly, the senate granted Octavian imperium over all of Rome’s military affairs for ten years and the largely symbolic name of Augustus. Ironically, Augustus was granted back the power he had once relinquished in his outward attempt to restore the face of the republic.

And so began Augustus’ principate. Olivia Robinson again notes: ‘It is clear that the Republic had been failing for a century before Augustus’ settlement of the constitution, a settlement which marks the start of the principate. ‘ (1997, 9) However, she is also sure to mention that, at least outwardly: ‘the assemblies, the senate and the magistracies all continued in theory to function as they had done before, but Augustus was consul every year until 23BC, with proconsular imperium in the frontier provinces; he controlled the armies… e took over from the senate and centuriate assembly the power to make war and peace, according to the statement of imperial powers. ‘ (10) This makes clear that the responsibilities of maintaining and controlling the army, a position once held by the senate, now rested on the shoulders of one man. Nevertheless, the senate’s own enthusiasm to bestow upon Augustus titles which gave him more political power and protection, suggests confidence within the senate was low, or at least, optimism for Augustus was high, if only to deal with the aftermath of many wars in the turbulent late republic.

However, Augustus could not be seen to possess any particular powers which would go against the very principles of the republic. Augustus himself hints at his own position in 27BC in the Res Gestae. He writes: ‘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 excelled all in influence, although I possessed no more official power than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies. ‘ (34. 1-3) However, we must question how true this actually is.

To have influence was, essentially, to have power, and upon reading the Res Gestae we are constantly presented with Augustus’ superior position. (Edwin S. Ramage, 1987, 43) Indeed, even at the start of the principate Augustus was securing his position as Emperor. The term ‘principate’ in itself reflected the fact that his authority was merely hidden under a republican guise. (J. W. Rich, 1990, 13) Augustus knew that a thorough reform of the senate was in order under the principate. In fact, Augustus conducted two reforms in the space of nine years.

Those who gained membership into the senate, at least in the republic, had this position for life, however Augustus was first sure to remove from power any senator that he deemed to be unworthy or disloyal. In the years following the Battle of Actium membership in the senate had swelled to over a thousand members, a figure which he cut to approximately eight hundred, leaving in power those he believed to be loyal. (Eck, 2003, 69) The second review of the senate saw membership decrease again to six hundred in 18BC.

Whilst the People’s Assembly still had the power to vote in individuals into the senate, it can be argued that only those who were openly supported and ‘handpicked’ by Augustus were elected. Perhaps another significant change he made to the face of the senate was his emphasis on the importance of hereditary membership, and a membership which applied to those who had an income of at least a million sesterces – a dramatic increase from the previous minimum of 400,000 sesterces required of those in the equestrian order.

Indeed, it came to be that sons of senators claimed automatic right to stand for election in the senate. It is clear, then, that Augustus was keen to instil a new sense of dignity and distinction into the senate which had otherwise been lost. In doing this, the senate became somewhat of an elite and exclusive club, riddled with members who had personal support for Augustus, after all, senators were more than aware that obedience was the only way to succeed politically and financially.

Despite Augustus’ initial reluctance to take too much power away from the senate, his authority over them as a governing body was evident. Not only did he remove from power those who he did not believe to be loyal, he was also sure to fine existing senators for increased non-attendance. Pat Southern notes: ‘The mechanism for levying fines for non-attendance was not new, but Augustus made a point of enforcing fines, and increased them later. (1998, 241) Not only this, Augustus encouraged freedom of speech within the senate, asking senators of their opinion at random, to ensure they were paying attention and, more importantly, to ensure the senate continued to appear as a vital organ of government. This arrangement continued well into Augustus’ reign with little opposition. When he gave up his position as consul in 23BC, there were even fears within the Roman populace that Augustus was levying too much power back onto the senate.

Walter Eder furthers the claim that the people now relied on Augustus, rather than the senate, in times of crisis: ‘A famine in 22BC even led to the demand by the urban plebs that Augustus should become dictator… Augustus theatrically refused this request when he felt the senate’s opposition. ‘ (2005, 26) Clearly then, he would not be seen to undermine the senate’s existing authority. The senate, then, would continue to grant Augustus several symbolic titles right up to his death in AD 14. This allowed the senate to exercise their own powers whilst making clear their acceptance to Augustus as Emperor.

As we can see, the role of the senate in the republic was of undeniable importance; for the most part, this did not change when Augustus became Rome’s first Emperor. He was more than aware that he could not rule without the senate. In his early years in power especially, the senate became somewhat of a political tool – so long as they continued to function as they had previously done in the republic, his own position was secure and task to finding a successor within the family became of particular importance.

Despite the fact that a majority of matters including foreign and military policy now lay in the hands of the Emperor, the senate still played a vital role in both administration and law-making, indeed, from the beginnings of the Roman Empire an Emperor’s power had to be fully and constitutionally invested from the senate by means of a decree, thus the very acknowledgement of the senate’s importance was vital. (N. Lewis and M. Reinhold, 1955, 88) To put it simply, Augustus succeeded in persuading the senators that he was head of the Roman state, whilst at the same time allowing them to maintain their own roles and ambitions.

The senate’s importance under the Emperor did not much change after Augustus died. Augustus was fortunate enough to live past 70, and his long reign perhaps ensured any changes he made within government were permanent. He was succeeded by his adopted son Tiberius, who in turn, not only preserved the role of the senate but bestowed more power upon it. Imperial policy was still being debated in the senate at least until the third century, and, more importantly, the senate’s role in government became just as vital in imperial Rome as it had been in the republic. (Fergus Millar, 2001, 341-2)

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