Today’s question comes from Conor in Belfast, who is too shy to be on Twitter but likes to ask a lot of questions about the Romans anyway. Just follows me about asking questions. I’ve had to let him move in so he stops sitting outside my door. He asked this question because he knows that I have a willfully annoying, pedantic personal answer to it and because it lets me talk about two of my absolute favourite Romans. And Julius Caesar.
So let’s crack on. Who WAS the first Roman emperor? And why is this even a difficult question. I suspect that half of you have immediately scoffed at the premise and said Augustus, some have said Julius Caesar, some have got no idea at all and a few have seen that I’ve got someone else on this page already and are baffled. Which is good. That means you’ll read on. But the first issue that needs to be addressed is why is this even a question. It’s because the concept of the principate is considerably more complicated that perhaps you think. For a long time, there is not really such a thing as the throne as a singular thing that is inherited, because the principate isn’t one thing like a royal throne, it’s an enormous and complex collection of honours, topped by two invented specifically for Augustus, that set the holder of them all above everyone else. The honours themselves are not special, it is the simultaneous holding of them all that makes the emperor the emperor. This is where the term principate originates from, from the idea that the emperor is not REALLY a despotic tyrant with total autocratic power, but is in fact just agreed by everyone to be the Best and Most Trusted Senator. Principate derives from princeps senatus first used by Augustus, which broadly translates to first senator. Which is clearly hilarious, because there was no point in Imperial history that an emperor didn’t have a massive army at his back. But ho hum. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s consider our options.
Good old JC. Arrogant and pompous, incapable of writing about himself in the first person (like a berk), wearer of loose belts and red boots. JC is occasionally called the first emperor, partly out of misunderstanding and partly because Suetonius has him at the start of the Twelve Caesars. And in fairness, Caesar becomes a synonym for emperor so no one can be blamed for thinking that the one guy we still regularly call Caesar was an emperor. It’s yet another way that the Romans are unnecessarily complicated. But JC was never anything that could be considered an emperor in the Roman fashion. He was many thing, including perpetual dictator, and he was absolutely integral to the construction of the principate, but he was not himself an emperor.
The principate could not have existed without JC’s astonishing gall and arrogance, and his mistakes. JC constructed around himself massive amounts of military power, political power and (often overlooked) religious power. He set himself up as the descendent of a god (Venus), as an exceptional military genius and as a political powerhouse. It was his combination of these things that allowed him to eventually crush all his rivals for power, including poor old Pompey who was rather lacking in the terrifying, single-minded ruthlessness department. JC crossed the Rubicon and declared war on Rome which is a really quite astonishing thing to do. There’s no real modern day equivalent to this. Unless Prince Harry decided to attack Buckingham Palace with a load of his army mates. But this underlines both what was special and important about JC, but also what his massive problem was: a total lack of subtlety and tact. Marching into Rome with your army because the senate won’t do what you tell them (or because they’re threatening to prosecute you for all the illegal things you did) is a very unsubtle move. It screams that JC thought he was above the senate and above the law and a lot of people HATED that. Fairly reasonably.
JC exacerbated this anger and hostility after the whole “marching into Rome” thing had died down in two ways: firstly by giving himself a preposterous and dubiously legal title of Perpetual Dictator, a title that even Sulla (whose purge Caesar himself had fled from) hadn’t been daft enough to try.(1) Perpetual Dictator meant that JC had the power to do basically whatever he liked, and everyone openly knew it because it was his job title. It was, as I said, unsubtle. His second act of headdesk levels of tactlessness came with the infamous moment where Mark Anthony, in front of everyone at a religious festival, offered JC a crown. Again, this is an appalling and horrifying moment. the fact that the Romans revolted against kings and set up a republic was absolutely fundamental to their self image. The IDEA that JC could even be OFFERED a crown absolutely revolted the Roman people. And that’s what got him totally stabbed.
So Julius can’t be our first emperor, because any time he tried to exert a little imperial power, he did it awkwardly and got himself killed. He also wasn’t technically able to install a successor. Augustus had to take that for himself.
Augustus is a much better answer and it is definitely much easier to argue that Augustus was the first emperor. Augustus saw what his adoptive (posthumously)father did wrong and learnt from it. And he made sure that every drop of power he gained for himself was legal, had long precedent and was normal. Until Augustus took the name Augustus, every other office and power he held was technically granted by the senate (albeit sometimes with menaces) and he turned down a lot of powers that were allegedly offered to him, including perpetual dictator. That’s why he could say, with an apparently straight face, despite it being laughably and blatantly untrue that he “refused to accept any power offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors.” Notably, Augustus would deny vehemently and to his death that he was an emperor or that he was an autocrat of any kind. As far as Augustus was concerned, he had just HAPPENED to be the best Roman and everyone just kept INSISTING that he have all the power and doing whatever he said just because they RESPECTED him so much, and no don’t look at the army back there behind him, everything is fine and normal and the republic has been restored. And gosh does he put a lot of effort into reminding everyone that he’s not in charge unless they want him to be.
Augustus’s public autobiography is the centre of his reimagination of himself (which I’ve talked about with awe before) and he carved it on stone and bronze in two languages and put it on temples. Because you know, he was just an ordinary bloke. Doing things ordinary blokes do. It’s called the Res Gestae (broadly, Things Done) and is a cracking read if you enjoy spin.(2)
Now, a lot of the things that make Augustus the first emperor are the things he doesn’t quite say, in the Res Gestae, but the things he sort of implies. He collects a huge amount of honours, official positions and powers over a long period of time. He is consul, imperator, tribune, censor, pontifex maximus, oversees the morals of the Roman people, oversees the corn supply, holds a long list of priesthoods and religious offices. All this he admits. But more importantly, he starts handing out these powers to members of his family, like his wife. And anyone he thinks he could make his successor, so his right hand man, his grandsons, literally any male that is in the same room as him, and then right at the very bottom of that list, written in pencil and deeply grudgingly, Tiberius. It’s this process of picking a successor to his position as Princeps Senatus that sets him apart from any of his autocratic predecessors and marks his power out as different and as the beginning of an imperial family.
So Augustus was the first emperor in a lot of ways: he created role of the principate as something that – in name – was entirely constitutional and legal with the Republic, but at the same time was entirely new and concentrated power in his hands. Equally, he constructed his powers in such a way that they were something that could be – gradually – handed over to a successor. Augustus starts planning Tiberius’s (again, his absolute last choice as an heir) succession a full decade before he died so that Tiberius will have many of the necessary powers before Augustus dies. But, all this happens because Augustus has to constantly pretend that he was not an emperor or monarch of any kind. He pretends, as hard as it is possible for a man to pretend, that he is an equal citizen. And for that reason, I have a deliberately contentious argument for the REAL first emperor…
Now I can immediately feel at least five people wrinkle their foreheads and scoff, maybe because I’ve skipped Tiberius and maybe because they know of my near obsessive love for Caligula and think I’m grasping at straws to include him in literally everything I write regardless of appropriateness. Well I fi on your doubts, because I have good(ish) reasons for this.
My first reason is that Caligula is the first emperor who is given all his powers in one lump at the start of his reign. While Augustus and Tiberius had to work for years to gradually build up their stock of offices and powers so as not to tip anyone off that they were in charge, Caligula overnight goes from living on an island with no power, no access to the senate and nothing but a name to holding all the powers that Augustus held. For the first time, the Princeps stops being a name for someone who holds a lot of positions, but a position in its own right, that has its own powers. Caligula earns nothing, and does not get to be princeps by doing anything (even Tiberius was an exceptional general). He is just an heir, who inherits his throne because of his great-uncle.
My second reason is that Caligula is the first emperor who has absolutely no experience of the Republic or of working with the senate, and so he is the first emperor who ACTS like an emperor. Caligula was born in 12AD, two years before Augustus died, and grew up in a world that was already getting used to the idea of a monarchy in practice if not in name. Caligula only experienced a world where his family ruled the world and everyone bowed to them. By the time Caligula becomes princeps in AD37, the monarchical system had been going for over 60 years, the throne could be properly inherited without too many lies, and he saw no reason for pretense anymore.
In addition, Caligula had no experience of the pretense that Augustus lived for 40 years and that Tiberius got so bored of that he ran away to an island. Caligula was kept as a legal minor until he was 19 and was given his toga virialis after he was called to Capri (more on that and Caligula in general here).He then spent years pottering about a tiny rocky island doing essentially nothing and definitely not being involved in the politics of Rome or the running of an empire. And he’s with Tibby, whose opinion of the senators is roughly the same as my opinion of the slug that hangs out in my living room when I’m asleep. So Caligula doesn’t even know how to do the pretense that he’s not an emperor. He’s never seen anyone do it. Which is why Caligula goes a bit overboard with the tyranny thing. Caligula has no time or patience for senatorial bullshit or letting them pretend that they still have any real power or really listening to them whinge on at all (with which I empathise. Just stuck in a room with 500 very rich dude banging on for hours. I’d have them all killed too).
So, Caligula is the first person to inherit all the imperial powers in one go, he’s the first person to have never experienced the world before the principate, and he’s the first to act like a proper emperor without any of the performance of a republic. This is what makes him, in a way, the first real emperor. It’s also what gets him killed, but hey. There’s always risks.
- Sulla was a precursor to JC and Augustus. He was a military man, fought in the East and then marched on Rome twice, terrorised everyone into letting him rule as a dictator, made a lot of constitutional changes and then – crucially – retired to a comfortable private life in the countryside, allegedly living a happy wee three-way with his wife and his boyfriend until his natural death in his own bed. Two further good facts about Sulla: his epitaph read “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full”. Which is #goals tbh. And he was kinda banging hot:
2. The Res Gestae is a very boring read if you think it’s honest and absolutely hilarious when you know what he’s referring to. Like when he says he restored liberty to the Republic. Or the bit where he claims that he was happily given the consulship at the age of 19 as if he hadn’t terrorised the senate into doing that. Also he had it carved on bronze and nailed to temples across the empire which is really quite BREATHTAKING as a move. You can read it in Latin, Greek or English here.