Augustus' Relationship with the Senate

Augustus und sein Verhältnis zum Senat

Term Paper 2007 19 Pages

History - World History - Early and Ancient History



1. Introduction

2. Augustus’ Onset with the Senate

3. The Background after Actium

4. The Senate under Augustus

5. The Emperor’s Own Position in the New Government

6. Collaboration and the Consilium Augusti

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

After a century of civil wars and wide-spread fear and chaos, a new and promising leader arose, who, despite his comparably humble origins was soon to be called Augustus, the revered one, by the Senators. This once so powerful corporate body saw so much hope in this single man and bestowed numerable honors upon him, through which he eventually outranked all the other Senators in the state. By general consent of the Roman Senators, he arose as the one who would restore the Roman Republic. The events of his reign must strike us as particularly interesting, because it is unclear as to how the Republic can be restored, if an unprecedented shift of power and acceptance of this power within the Senate takes place. Is this not what one would be prone to interpret as the downfall of a Republic?

Research agrees that, despite Augustus' claim to have restored the Republic, the Roman State, during the larger part of his rule, qualifies as a new form of government, namely the Principate, which was to remain the dominant form of government for the centuries to come. However, the Senate was still there, it continued to meet and discuss important matters of the State. There has been much controversy in research as to how one should best describe the distribution of power between the Emperor and the Senate. Opinions ranged from a Diarchy with Augustus being the mere executive and loyal servant of the Senate[1], to the view that it was a clear Monarchy of Augustus with a Senate whose only task was to approve the Emperor's will.[2] It is therefore an essential question, how and to what extent the Senate changed. What role did it fulfill in Augustus' government and by which right was it in the Emperor's hands to initiate all of these changes and how was his own role to be defined?

By taking both ancient and modern sources into account when it comes to appraising Augustus' actions, this paper shall clarify the legal status of the Emperor and trace the nature of his relationship with the Senate as well as the latter's purpose within the new government.

2. Augustus’ Onset with the Senate

[3]Augustus had comparably humble origins and one can easily find that the relationship between himself and the Senate was an unequal one. Needless to say, the young boy had not reached the minimum age for joining the Senate and so, many Senators would have been at minimum very hesitant to consider him as an unconditional equal.[4] As the adopted son and heir of the assassinated Julius Caesar, however, Augustus considered it his duty to avenge his father's death and take care of the State. The Senate granted him the status of a Senator, placed him in charge of the military actions against Mark Antony and bestowed the title of pro-praetor upon him.[5] Awarding private citizens with special authority was not an uncommon occurence in times of emergencies. In this case, however, it was an unprecedented practice by the Senate, which "had granted before now imperium and the charge of a war to a man who had held no public office. There were, however, limits to the extent of power that the Senate could bestow upon a private citizen. The Senate did not choose its own members, or determine their relative standing. On no known practice or theory could the auctoritas of the Senate be invoked to confer senatorial rank upon a private citizen."[6]

Suetonius gives us a very vivid description of these events. If we are to believe him, Augustus usurped the consulship through the threat of violence. Suetonius reports that Augustus marched his army against the city and sent messengers who demanded the office for Augustus in the name of his army and threatened the Senators when they hesitated.[7]

It can, however, be conjectured that the Senate was ultimately not unwilling to do so, and chose to stretch its competences because the Senators deemed Augustus a useful tool against Mark Antony, whom they feared because of his violent rule during Julius Caesar's absences.

The Senators were certainly longing for a state of safety and an end to all the chaos and reduction of power that they had been enduring.

Tacitus, on the other hand, mentions another view and by doing so, willingly or not, he keeps that view alive and backs it up. In his annals, he reports the opinion that Augustus' whole filial duty and the assistance for the state in a case of emergency was nothing but a mask that concealed his desire for power and sovereignty, which was his primary reason for exciting the veterans by bribery and pursuing the consulship.[8] At this early stage, Tacitus might infer too much from the course that the events were about to take. The Senate certainly saw some benefit for itself in working with Augustus too. At this point the Senate was still acting selfishly to some extent, and they most likely had their own goals in mind. On the other hand, it is quite unlikely that, at this point, Augustus could foresee and plan most of the consequences that his actions should soon bring along.

3 The Background after Actium

It has been shown by the previous chapter that special powers were bestowed upon Augustus under unusual circumstances mainly because it seemed the best option for the Senate at the time, and both Augustus and the Senate seemed to benefit mutually. Augustus' impressive achievements up to the point when he emerged as sole victor in 31 BCE are numerous and go beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is not his individual actions that bore significant importance for his relationship with the Senate but the entirety of his achievements. He accomplished what the Senate had wished for, he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, whom the Senate, mainly because of Augustus' clever propaganda, despised so much. After the proscriptions and power struggles of the last years that claimed so many lives, the Senators must have been weary, and the prospect of a new age without Romans fighting their own brothers seemed all too near.

Tacitus says, of the Senators, that they preferred the safety of the present to the dangers of the past.[9] This seems true, the time of emergency measures was over and there was no one left to challenge Augustus. Yet, the Emperor distrusted the nobiles during the first decade of his reign and debarred them from the high commands.[10] Augustus managed to be continually re-elected as consul from 31 BCE to 23 BCE and thus set the foundations of his powerful status. Although he "had resigned the title of Triumvir, [...] it might have been contended that he continued unobtrusively to exercise the dictatorial powers of that office, had the question been of concern to men at the time.”[11] The very point being that the extent of his powers was of no concern to most of the Senators. Of course such continuous consulships were by no means in accordance with the law but who would openly question the authority of the man who could claim to have ended a century of civil wars? Augustus himself was aware that his immense authority provided him with a more elevated status than his mere legal position.[12]

As Tacitus points out, opposition was non-existent and the Emperor was able to concentrate the functions of the Senate, the magistrates and the laws in himself, because so many of the bold spirits had died during the past battles and proscriptions. As for the remaining nobles, he comments, the readier they were to be slaves, the more they were rewarded and promoted.[13] This implies a very direct influence of Augustus on the Senate. Now that Augustus had dealt with the most eminent dangers for the Roman State, the time had come to establish and consolidate a new form of government and his own position within it. Therefore it was one of Augustus' main concerns to make the Senate a "useful and important instrument of government within the new order.”[14] Of course, it was supposed to be an instrument that would aid his own purposes and be able to function with him at its head, as we will see.

4 The Senate under Augustus

Soon after his victory at Actium, the Emperor set out to change the composition of the Senate whereby "in all the policies Augustus adopted regarding the Senate, one of his concerns was presumably always how to put the position and power he had achieved for himself and his family on a permanent footing. [...] He needed to ensure that the real decision-making power remained in his hands, either through changing the law or reorganizing the practical machinery of government.”[15] During the following years, Augustus would continuously, and on various occasions employ both measures to consolidate his own powers.

The Senate had swollen to 1,000 or more members during the civil wars because of Caesar's large-scale adlections and also, because during the past turmoil unworthy people had strived to attain a seat in the Senate either by influence or bribery.[16] Accordingly, one of the imperative objectives was to cut down the corporate body to its former size, which Augustus achieved by holding a lectio senatus in 28 and 18 BCE. He did this with censorial power[17] but, nevertheless, it is remarkable that he accumulated so much influence and power that he could perform significant revisions of the Senate without facing any major opposition. Even Augustus must have felt that he was stretching his competences to a high extent. He chose to carry a sword and wore armor under his tunic while being protected by the most robust of his friends among the Senators, who stood by his side.[18]


[1] J.C. Stobart: "The Senate under Augustus" in Classical Quarterly 2.4 (1908), 296.

[2] Henry Thompson Rowell: Rome in the Augustan Age, Norman 1962, 82.

[3] To be more precise one should call him Octavian at this stage but for matters of simplicity, he shall be called Augustus throughout this paper.

[4] Werner Eck: The Age of Augustus, Oxford 2003, 67.

[5] Augustus: Res Gestae 1.

[6] Ronald Syme: The Roman Revolution, Oxford 1939, 167. Henceforth referred to as RR.

[7] Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum, II,26.

[8] Tacitus: Annales 1.10

[9] Tacitus: Annales, 1.1

[10] Ronald Syme: The Augustan Aristocracy, Oxford 1986, 275.

[11] RR 307.

[12] Cf. Res Gestae 34.

[13] Tacitus: Annales 1.1

[14] Rowell, 69.

[15] Eck, 74.

[16] Richard J. A. Talbert: „Augustus and the Senate" in Greece & Rome 31.1 (1984), 57.

[17] Rowell, 69.

[18] Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum 2.35


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Augustus Relationship Senate



Title: Augustus' Relationship with the Senate