Monday, February 04, 2013

The First Emperor of Rome. Today we look at a common...

English: A statue of the first Roman Emperor A...
A statue of the first Roman
Emperor Augustus 
By Ancient Peoples

Today we look at a common misconception of Roman history, namely who was the first Emperor of Rome. Now, the error most make is to assume that Gaius Julius Caesar was the first Emperor. This is simply flat out untrue. Even at the peak of his power, after the ending of the war in Africa, Caesar only held the position of Dictator. Before we move further into this you will have to forget the social ideas that we hold around the terms Dictator and Emperor and begin to consider the Roman perspective. Just as the label Tyrant did not necessarily have negative connotations in the Ancient Greek world, the position of Dictator was one of duty and trust. A Dictator could be appointed by the senate to rescue the Republic from imminent danger, and importantly for this discussion was to be given up/ renewed after a single year. 

The concept of Dictator was useful to the Republic especially during its early forays into Italy. A Dictator could focus the power of the senate into decisive actions, with the ultimate goal of preserving the Republic of Rome. While the rule of a single man could get things done efficiently without the infighting and discussion of the senate; Romans were still conscious to prevent complete power coming down to one man and therefore imposed a limited time for the individual to complete the task. There are a plethora of examples, especially from the early history of Rome (consult Livy if you're interested).

Anyway, the reason that I understand how people confuse Caesar as an Emperor is that his Dictatorship was voted to him for life. I will point out that (if there are any lingering supporters of Pompey out there) the senate by this point was not only made up Caesar's supporters (owing to many of his detractors fleeing for their lives), but for any remaining doubters they were coerced by Caesars veteran legions who occupied Italy. Say what you want about having a bigger stick, if your opponent has several armies on your doorstep you still do what he says. The other event this misunderstanding looks at is the offering of the crown to Caesar by Mark Antony during the Saturnalia (yeah the one with naked men with wolf skin, whatever floats your boat). 

In any case rather than this being a serious attempt to place himself above all others as king, this action aimed to do the complete opposite. It was a political stunt to persuade the citizens of Rome that Caesar would never accept such a position, a point made very clear in during this event with his continual refusal of a mock crown. So Caesar had amassed a great deal of power and would hold it if not for life then for the foreseeable future. But still his political power was still understood through the prism of the Republic and its institutions and technically he had not broken any tenants of Roman law, as the position was voted to him by the senate.

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