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The Constitution of the Roman Empire was an unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent. After the fall of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the Roman Senate to the Roman Emperor. Beginning with the first emperor, Augustus, the emperor and the senate were technically two co-equal branches of government. In practice, however the actual authority of the imperial senate was negligible, as the emperor held the true power of the state. During the reign of the second Roman Emperor, Tiberius, the powers that had been held by the Roman assemblies were transferred to the senate.
The powers of an emperor existed by virtue of his legal standing. The two most significant components to an emperor's power were the "tribunician powers" and the "proconsular powers". The tribunician powers gave the emperor authority over Rome's civil government, while the proconsular powers gave him authority over the Roman army. While these distinctions were clearly defined during the early empire, eventually they were lost, and the emperor's powers became less constitutional and more monarchical. The traditional magistracies that survived the fall of the republic were the Consulship, Praetorship, Plebeian Tribunate, Aedileship, Quaestorship, and Military Tribunate. Any individual of the senatorial class could run for one of these offices. If an individual was not of the senatorial class, he could run for one of these offices if he was allowed to run by the emperor, or otherwise, he could be appointed to one of these offices by the emperor. Mark Antony abolished the offices of Roman Dictator and Master of the Horse during his Consulship in 44 BC, and shortly thereafter the offices of Interrex and Roman Censor were also abolished.
In the year 88 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla was elected Consul of the Roman Republic, and began a civil war. While it ended within a decade, it was the first in a series civil wars that wouldn't end until the year 30 BC. The general who won the last civil war of the Roman Republic, Gaius Octavian, became the master of the state. Octavian was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar. In the years after 30 BC, Octavian set out to reform the Roman constitution. The ultimate consequence of these reforms was the abolition of the republic, and the founding of the Roman Empire. When Octavian returned to Rome two years after defeating Mark Antony, no one remained to oppose him. Decades of war had taken a terrible toll on the People of Rome. The political situation was unstable, and there was a constant threat of renewed warfare. Octavian's arrival alone caused a wave of optimism to ripple throughout Italy. As soon as he arrived, he began addressing the problems that were plaguing Rome. Octavian's popularity soon reached new heights, which ultimately gave him the support he needed to implement his reforms.
When Octavian deposed Mark Antony in 32 BC, he resigned his position as triumvir, but was probably vested with powers similar to those that he had given up. Octavian wanted to solidify his status as master of the state, but avoid the fate of his adopted father. On January 13 of 27 BC, Octavian transferred control of the state back to the Senate and the People of Rome, but neither the Senate nor the People of Rome were willing to accept what was, in effect, Octavian's resignation. Octavian was allowed to remain Roman Consul (the chief-executive under the old Republic), and was also allowed to retain his tribunician powers (similar to those of the Plebeian Tribunes, or chief representatives of the people). This arrangement, in effect, functioned as a popular ratification of his position within the state. The Senate then granted Octavian a unique grade of Proconsular command authority (imperium) for a period of ten years. With this particular grade of power, he was given power and authority over all of Rome's military governors, and thus, over the entire Roman army. Octavian was also granted the title of "Augustus" ("venerable") and of Princeps ("first citizen"). In 23 BC, Augustus (as Octavian now called himself) gave up his Consulship, and expanded both his Proconsular imperium and his tribunician powers. After these final reforms had been instituted, Augustus never again altered his constitution. Augustus' final goal was to figure out a method to ensure an orderly succession. Augustus could not transfer his powers to a successor upon his death, and so any successor needed to have powers that were independent of Augustus' own powers. In 6 BC Augustus granted tribunician powers to his stepson Tiberius, and quickly recognized Tiberius as his heir. In 13 AD a law was passed which made Tiberius' legal powers equivalent to, and independent from, those of Augustus. Within a year, Augustus was dead.
When Augustus died in 14 AD, the Principate legally ended. Tiberius knew that if he secured the support of the army, the rest of the government would soon follow. Therefore, Tiberius assumed command of the Praetorian Guard, and used his Proconsular imperium to force the armies to swear allegiance to him. As soon as this occurred, the Senate and the magistrates acquiesced. Under Tiberius, the power to elect magistrates was transferred from the assemblies to the Senate. When Tiberius died, Caligula was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate. In 41 Caligula was assassinated, and for two days following his assassination, the Senate debated the merits of restoring the Republic. Due to the demands of the army, however, Claudius was ultimately declared Emperor. Claudius' antiquarian interests resulted in his attempts to revive the old Censorship, but he was ultimately killed, and Nero was declared Emperor.
In the decades after the death of Augustus, the Roman Empire was, in a sense, a union of inchoate principalities, which could have disintegrated at any time. In 68 AD, Ser. Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. In Rome, the emperor Nero quickly lost his supporters and committed suicide, although Galba did not prove to be a wise leader. The governor of Lower Germany, A. Vitellius, was soon proclaimed Emperor by his troops, and in Rome, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed M. Salvius Otho Emperor. In January 69, Galba was assassinated, and the Senate proclaimed Otho Emperor. Otho took an army to Germany to defeat Vitellius, but was himself defeated by Vitellius. He committed suicide, and Vitellius was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate. Another general, Vespasian, soon defeated Vitellius. Vitellius was executed, and Vespasian was named Augustus, elected Consul, and given tribunician powers.
Under the emperor Vespasian, the Roman constitution began a slide toward outright monarchy, in part because the senate returned to its original role as an advisory council. Vespasian died in 79, and was succeeded by his son, Titus. Titus' reign did not last long enough for him to enact many constitutional changes. His reign, however, did see a further weakening in the powers of the Senate. He was succeeded by his brother, Domitian, in 81. Domitian's reign marked a significant turning point on the road to monarchy. After making himself Consul for ten years, Domitian made himself Censor for life, and unlike his father, he used these powers to further subjugate the senate by controlling its membership. Domitian, ultimately, was a tyrant with the character which always makes tyranny repulsive, and this derived in part from his own paranoia, which itself was a consequence of the fact that he had no son. Since he had no son, and thus no obvious heir, he was constantly in danger of being overthrown. Thus, the unresolved issue of succession again proved to be deadly, and in September 96, Domitian was murdered.
The Senate of the Roman Empire was a political institution in the ancient Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the Roman Senate to the Roman Emperor. Beginning with the first emperor, Augustus, the emperor and the senate were technically two co-equal branches of government. In practice, however the actual authority of the imperial senate was negligible, as the emperor held the true power of the state. As such, membership in the senate became sought after by individuals seeking prestige and social standing, rather than actual authority. During the reigns of the first emperors, legislative, judicial, and electoral powers were all transferred from the Roman assemblies to the senate. However, since the control that the emperor held over the senate was absolute, the senate acted as a vehicle through which the emperor exercised his autocratic powers.
The first emperor, Augustus, inherited a senate whose membership had been increased to 900 senators by his predecessor, the Roman Dictator Julius Caesar. Augustus reduced the size of the senate to 600 members, and after this point, the size of the senate was never again drastically altered. One could become a senator by being elected Quaestor (a magistrate with financial duties). However, one could only stand for election to the Quaestorship if one was of senatorial rank, and to be of senatorial rank, one had to be the son of a senator. If an individual was not of senatorial rank, there were two ways for that individual to become a senator. Under the first method, the emperor granted that individual the authority to stand for election to the Quaestorship, while under the second method, the emperor appointed that individual to the senate.
The power that the emperor held over the senate was absolute, which was due, in part, to the fact that the emperor held office for life. During senate meetings, the emperor sat between the two Consuls, and usually acted as the presiding officer. Higher ranking senators spoke before lower ranking senators, although the emperor could speak at any time. Most of the bills that came before the senate were presented by the emperor, who had usually appointed a committee to draft each bill before presenting it. While the Roman assemblies continued to meet after the founding of the empire, their powers were all transferred to the senate, and so senatorial decrees (senatus consulta) acquired the full force of law. The legislative powers of the imperial senate were principally of a financial and an administrative nature, although the senate did retain a range of powers over the provinces. During the early empire, all judicial powers that had been held by the Roman assemblies were also transferred to the senate. For example, the senate now held jurisdiction over criminal trials. In these cases, a Consul presided, the senators constituted the jury, and the verdict was handed down in the form of a decree (senatus consultum), and, while a verdict could not be appealed, the emperor could pardon a convicted individual through a veto. In theory, the senate elected new emperors, while in conjunction with the popular assemblies, it would then confer upon the new emperor his command powers (imperium). After an emperor had died or abdicated his office, the senate would often deify him, although sometimes it would pass a decree (damnatio memoriae or "damnation from memory") which would attempt to cancel every trace of that emperor from the life of Rome, as if he had never existed. The emperor Tiberius transferred all electoral powers from the assemblies to the senate, and, while theoretically the senate elected new magistrates, the approval of the emperor was always needed before an election could be finalized.
The Legislative Assemblies of the Roman Empire were political institutions in the ancient Roman Empire. During the reign of the second Roman Emperor, Tiberius, the powers that had been held by the Roman assemblies (the comitia) were transferred to the senate. The neutering of the assemblies had become inevitable because the electors were, in general, ignorant as to the merits of the important questions that were laid before them, and often willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder. After the founding of the Roman Empire, the People of Rome continued to organize by Centuries and by Tribes, but by this point, these divisions had lost most of their relevance.
While the machinery of the Century Assembly continued to exist well into the life of the empire, the assembly lost all of its practical relevance. Under the empire, all gatherings of the Century Assembly were in the form of an unsorted convention. Legislation was never submitted to the imperial Century Assembly, and the one major legislative power that this assembly had held under the republic, the right to declare war, was now held exclusively by the emperor. All judicial powers that had been held by the republican Century Assembly were transferred to independent jury courts, and under the emperor Tiberius, all of its former electoral powers were transferred to the senate. After it had lost all of these powers, it had no remaining authority. Its only remaining function was, after the senate had 'elected' the magistrates, to hear the renuntiatio, The renuntiatio had no legal purpose, but instead was a ceremony in which the results of the election were read to the electors. This allowed the emperor to claim that the magistrates had been "elected" by a sovereign people.
After the founding of the empire, the tribal divisions of citizens and freedmen continued, but the only political purpose of the tribal divisions was such that they better enabled the senate to maintain a list of citizens. Tribal divisions also simplified the process by which grain was distributed. Eventually, most freedmen belonged to one of the four urban tribes, while most freemen belonged to one of the thirty-one rural tribes. Under the emperor Tiberius, the electoral powers of the Tribal Assembly were transferred to the senate. Each year, after the senate had elected the annual magistrates, the Tribal Assembly also heard the renuntiatio. Any legislation that the emperor submitted to the assemblies for ratification were submitted to the Tribal Assembly. The assembly ratified imperial decrees, starting with the emperor Augustus, and continuing until the emperor Domitian. The ratification of legislation by the assembly, however, had no legal importance as the emperor could make any decree into law, even without the acquiescence of the assemblies. Thus, under the empire, the chief executive again became the chief lawgiver, which was a power he had not held since the days of the early republic. The Plebeian Council also survived the fall of the republic, and it also lost its legislative, judicial and electoral powers to the senate. By virtue of his tribunician powers, the emperor always had absolute control over the council.
The Executive Magistrates of the Roman Empire were elected individuals of the ancient Roman Empire. The powers of an emperor, (his imperium) existed, in theory at least, by virtue of his legal standing. The two most significant components to an emperor's imperium were the "tribunician powers" (potestas tribunicia) and the "proconsular powers" (imperium proconsulare). In theory at least, the tribunician powers (which were similar to those of the Plebeian Tribunes under the old republic) gave the emperor authority over Rome's civil government, while the proconsular powers (similar to those of military governors, or Proconsuls, under the old republic) gave him authority over the Roman army. While these distinctions were clearly defined during the early empire, eventually they were lost, and the emperor's powers became less constitutional and more monarchical.
By virtue of his proconsular powers, the emperor held the same grade of military command authority as did the chief magistrates (the Roman Consuls and Proconsuls) under the republic. However, the emperor was not subject to the constitutional restrictions that the old Consuls and Proconsuls had been subject to. Eventually, he was given powers that, under the republic, had been reserved for the Roman Senate and the Roman assemblies, including the right to declare war, to ratify treaties, and to negotiate with foreign leaders. The emperor's degree of Proconsular power gave him authority over all of Rome's military governors, and thus, over most of the Roman army. The emperor's tribunician powers gave him power over Rome's civil apparatus, as well as the power to preside over, and thus to dominate, the assemblies and the senate. When an emperor was vested with the tribunician powers, his office and his person became sacrosanct, and thus it became a capital offense to harm or to obstruct the emperor. The emperor also had the authority to carry out a range of duties that, under the republic, had been performed by the Roman Censors. Such duties included the authority to regulate public morality (censorship) and to conduct a census. As part of the census, the emperor had the power to assign individuals to a new social class, including the senatorial class, which gave the emperor unchallenged control over senate membership. The emperor also had the power to interpret laws and to set precedents. In addition, the emperor controlled the religious institutions, since, as emperor, he was always Pontifex Maximus and a member of each of the four major priesthoods.
Under the empire, the citizens were divided into three classes, and for members of each class, a distinct career path was available (known as the cursus honorum). The traditional magistracies were only available to citizens of the senatorial class. The magistracies that survived the fall of the republic were (by their order of rank per the cursus honorum) the Consulship, Praetorship, Plebeian Tribunate, Aedileship, Quaestorship, and Military Tribunate. If an individual was not of the senatorial class, he could run for one of these offices if he was allowed to run by the emperor, or otherwise, he could be appointed to one of these offices by the emperor. During the transition from republic to empire, no office lost more power or prestige than the Consulship, which was due, in part, to the fact that the substantive powers of republican Consuls were all transferred to the emperor. Imperial Consuls could preside over the senate, could act as judges in certain criminal trials, and had control over public games and shows. The Praetors also lost a great deal of power, and ultimately had little authority outside of the city. The chief Praetor in Rome, the Urban Praetor, outranked all other Praetors, and for a brief time, they were given power over the treasury. Under the empire, the Plebeian Tribunes remained sacrosanct, and, in theory at least, retained the power to summon, or to veto, the senate and the assemblies. Augustus divided the college of Quaestors into two divisions, and assigned one division the task of serving in the senatorial provinces, and the other the task of managing civil administration in Rome. Under Augustus, the Aediles lost control over the grain supply to a board of commissioners. It wasn't until after they lost the power to maintain order in the city, however, that they truly became powerless, and the office disappeared entirely during the 3rd century.
The end of the Principate
During the period that began with the accession of the emperor Nerva and ended with the death of the emperor Commodus, the empire continued to weaken. It was becoming difficult to recruit enough soldiers for the army, inflation was becoming an issue, and on at least one occasion, the empire almost went bankrupt. The most significant constitutional development during this era was the steady drift towards monarchy. It is not known exactly how M. Cocceius Nerva became emperor, although he was probably supported by the conspirators who overthrew Domitian. His reign, while too short for any major constitutional reforms, did reverse some of the abuses that his predecessor was responsible for. When Nerva died in January 98, Trajan succeeded him without opposition. Trajan went further than even Nerva had in restoring the image of a free republic. He refused to preside over capital trials against senators, and was away from Rome for such extended periods that the senate even regained some independent legislative abilities.
Hadrian succeeded Trajan as emperor. By far, his most important constitutional alteration was his creation of a bureaucratic apparatus, which included a fixed gradation of clearly defined offices, and a corresponding order of promotion. Many of the functions that had been outsourced in the past were now to be performed by the state, and this system would be rived by the emperor Diocletian when he established the Tetrarchy. Hadrian was succeed by Antonius Pius, who made no real changes to the constitution. He was succeeded by Marcus Aurelius in 161. The most significant constitutional development that occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was the revival of the republican principle of collegiality, as he made his brother, L. Aelius, his co-emperor. Marcus Aurelius ruled the western half of the empire, while his brother ruled the eastern half of the empire. In 169, Aelius died, and in 176, Marcus Aurelius made his son, L. Aurelius Commodus, his new co-emperor. This arrangement was also revived when the emperor Diocletian established the Tetrarchy. In 180, Marcus Aurelius died, and Commodus became emperor. Commodus' tyranny revived the worst memories of the later Julian emperors, as he was more explicit than any of his predecessors in taking powers that he did not legally have, and in disregarding the constitution. He was killed in 192.
No further constitutional reforms were enacted during the Principate. The only development of any significance was the continuing slide towards monarchy, as the constitutional distinctions that had been set up by Augustus lost whatever meaning that they still had. Starting in 235, with the reign of the barbarian emperor Maximinus Thrax, the empire was put through a period of severe military, civil, and economic stress. The crisis arguably reached it height during the reign of Gallienus, from 260 to 268. The crisis ended with the accession of Diocletian in 284, and the abolishment of the Principate.
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Secondary source material
- Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, by Montesquieu
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- What a Terrorist Incident in Ancient Rome Can Teach Us
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