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An investigation of the transformation of the Roman state from Republic to dynastic monarchy
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Princes and Political Cultures: the New Tiberian Senatorial Decrees
By Greg Rowe
University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2002 Greg Rowe
All right reserved.
1 - The Senate
Asked, in writing, by the emperor Tiberius to extend the tribunicia potestas to his son, the younger Drusus, the Roman Senate responded eagerly, decreeing statues of Tiberius and Drusus, altars of the gods, temples, an arch, and "other customary honors" (Tacitus Ann. 3.56-57, 3.59.2; A .D . 22). One senator, M. Silanus, proposed dating all public and private monuments by the names of holders of the tribunicia potestas instead of the names of consuls. Another, Q. Haterius, proposed inscribing the decrees in the Senate house in gold letters. In the end, the Senate's honors were modified by Tiberius, who singled out gold lettering as abhorrent.
This vivid example of Tiberius effectively designating his heir and the Senate's response to the imperial succession raises some questions about the imperial Senate as a working assembly. The first concerns the imperial family's position and the significance of the tribunicia potestas, which has generally been seen as a popular power. Tacitus writes that Augustus had assumed the tribunicia potestas "to protect the plebs" (Ann. 1.2.1). The 23 B .C . settlement, it is said, inaugurated a popular turn in the Principate: Augustus resigned theconsulate and a "republican" replaced him; the emperor took over grain distribution; in 18 B .C ., he used the tribunicia potestas to pass moral legislation placing new obligations and restrictions on the Roman upper classes. But if the tribunicia potestas was a popular power, why did Tiberius propose extending it before the Senate, not before the plebs?
The second question concerns the Senate's role and activities during the Principate. A noticeable part of the transition from Republic to Principate was that the Senate began regularly decreeing honors to individuals. As P. A. Brunt and A. Wallace-Hadrill have pointed out, honorific senatorial decrees only became normal during the Principate. During the Republic, the Senate did on occasion honor individuals, but only exceptionally. Republican generals had to erect their own honorary arches; the imperial Senate, seconded by the populus Romanus, erected arches for imperial generals. Honorific decrees embody overt loyalism--and what else? Why did they do this? What did the Senate achieve by honoring the imperial house?
Recently, scholars have begun studying the Roman Senate as a working assembly and looking at the Senate's role in the Roman state, and they have come up with some important results. This chapter is designed as a contribution to the emerging new view of the Senate that sees that the imperial Senate was more active, was more visible, and had broader competence than the republican Senate. The notion that the republican Senate was a governing parliament is untenable; the notion that its role was merely advisory is equally unhelpful. The republican Senate was the senior public council of Rome, an Areopagus of ranking magistrates and former magistrates and a debating society that discussed whatever it wished, whatever concerned the welfare of Rome. The republican Senate conducted foreign relations up to the point of making a treaty and declaring war (the people's prerogatives); discharged administrative and judicial tasks, such as arbitrating collective conflicts and conducting inquiries; and controlled the aerarium, the state's revenues and expenditures. The populus Romanus was sovereign, but the Senate did exercise executive powers. Under the Principate, though ultimate power passed to the princeps, he and his male progeny, themselves senators, commonly worked through the Senate. The imperial Senate gained where the populus Romanus and the Roman plebs lost. It judged its own members where the popular courts had formerly done so; in the post-Augustan era, it selected magistrates whom the comitia of the people merely ratified; it legislated--that is, its decrees were cited as law--while leges stopped being cited; and it was freed from harassment by tribunes of the plebs. Power rested with the princeps: the Senate rendered verdicts directed by him, chose magistrates approved or commended by him, and saw its decrees become normative only because they reflected his will. The Senate served as an imperial mouthpiece. Still, paradoxically, the Senate achieved many of the judicial, electoral, and legislative powers that its republican champions, men like Cicero, had aspired to, at the price of libertas.
The issues are ideological as well as constitutional. All modern conceptions of the Senate, especially the imperial Senate, owe something to R. Syme, who showed its intrinsic interest as the group whose members individually and collectively produced the postmortem for the Republic and the apologia for the Principate. The Tiberian dossier of funeral honors for Germanicus and the younger Drusus and proceedings against Piso spectacularly confirm and extend Syme's vision.
This chapter advances two theses. The first is that the imperial tribunicia potestas had little or nothing to do with the plebs and popular policies and everything to do with the Senate. The tribunicia potestas was an improvised power eventually adapted to allow the emperor to champion and control the Senate. The second thesis is that in producing and publishing honorific decrees in particular, the Senate moved toward usurping a legislative function, taking a bite out of the people's power. These two theses do more than clarify the conferral of the tribunicia potestas on the younger Drusus. The first says something about how the emperor and the princes came to dominate the Senate generally. The second shows how overt loyalism allowed the imperial Senate greater prominence. Together, by examining how the Senate actually functioned under monarchy, the theses go some way toward explaining how the Senate survived. But this chapter should not be taken as arguing either that the imperial position can be meaningfully defined in constitutional terms alone or that the imperial Senate exercised any important independent power. Constitutionalism was one of the characteristic registers of Roman political discourse: it helps to explain how power was exercised.
In addition, this chapter tries to do something Syme conspicuously declined to do: to see the Augustan and Tiberian Senate through the eyes of one of its members, Velleius Paterculus. It is a shame not to have a critical contemporary perspective, such as would have been provided by the senator Cremutius Cordus, who told how he and his peers were only admitted to Augustus's presence individually after their togas had been searched (Suetonius Aug. 35). But Velleius, as the son of an eques, tribunus militum in the Balkans under P. Vinicius and L. Silius (2B .C .) and in the East under Gaius Caesar (1B .C .), praefectus equitum in Germany under Tiberius (A .D . 4), quaestor and thus senator in A .D . 7, and praetor in A .D . 15 by the commendations of both Augustus and Tiberius, was the very incarnation of Syme's Roman revolution. Better, what Syme correctly condemned as Velleius's weakness as a historian is also his strength as a historical source: precisely because Velleius did not scruple to pass on lies and half-truths, he is a uniquely reliable gauge of official opinion. The similarities between Velleius's Historia Romana and the Tiberian dossier are striking. The literary history and the epigraphic dossier share an effusive, superlative-filled, highly rhetorical prose style. They share an emphasis on individual achievements of the imperial family, and a general great-men view of history--as opposed to a view emphasizing the achievements of the nation (populus Romanus) or the state (res publica). Velleius went out of his way to apportion praise and blame: "If anyone says that I have gone out of my way to mention these men, his criticism will meet no denial. In the sight of honest men, fair-minded candor without misrepresentation is no crime." Velleius's Historia and the Tiberian dossier employ the same vague and ideological language of loyalism, to describe the Principate and the succession: "the tranquillity of the present situation of the state, than which no better can be hoped for" (s.c. de Pisone); "at that time shone the assured hope . . . of health for all men, of calm, of peace, of tranquillity, such that no more could be hoped for nor hope more propitious fulfill" (Velleius). So this chapter follows Velleius as he observes and participates in the development of the imperial Senate.
Before turning to the tribunicia potestas and honorific decrees, it will be useful to review the formal senatorial positions held by the young men of the imperial house from 29 B .C .to A .D . 41. The magistracies, commands, and priesthoods the young men held and the honors they received distinguished them from other senators. An ordinary cursus honorum began with two subsenatorial posts.
vigintivir: only Nero, son of Germanicus
tribunus militum: only Tiberius and probably Marcellus, who also had special aedilician powers to produce spectacles in the legionary camp; Caligula insulted Tiberius Gemellus by naming him tribunus militum
At this stage, the Senate granted all except Agrippa Postumus, Claudius, Caligula, and Tiberius Gemellus permission to seek office early, specifically allowing Gaius and Lucius to omit both the quaestorship and the praetorship and to advance directly to the consulate. Germanicus and the younger Drusus omitted the quaestorship.
quaestor in a public province or in Rome: Tiberius, the elder Drusus,
Germanicus, the younger Drusus, Caligula aedile, tribune of the plebs: only Marcellus was aedile praetor: Tiberius, first in Rome, then with Augustus in Gaul; the elder Drusus, first replacing Tiberius, then as praetor urbanus
praefectus frumenti dandi, curator viae: none
proconsul of a public province other than Africa or Asia: none
legatus of a legion or an imperial province with one legion: none
consul: Tiberius (I, 13B.C.; II, 7B.C.); the elder Drusus (9B.C.); Gaius (A.D. 1); Lucius, consul designate (A.D. 4); Germanicus (I, A.D. 12; II, A.D. 18); the younger Drusus (I, A.D. 15; II, A.D. 21); Claudius, suffectus (A.D. 37)
legatus Augusti pro praetore: Tiberius, the elder Drusus, Germanicus, the younger Drusus (all before their consulships)
curator aquarum: none
proconsul of Africa or Asia: none
praefectus urbi: Drusus, son of Germanicus, mooted for Claudius
Two points stand out. First, the young men's cursus followed a pattern. Established with Tiberius and the elder Drusus, the pattern was accelerated for Gaius and Lucius, slowed down again with Germanicus and the younger Drusus, and dissolved after A.D. 23: the careers of Nero and Drusus, sons of Germanicus, were cut short, and those of Caligula and Tiberius Gemellus had not really got started before the one became emperor and murdered the other. The pattern marks Agrippa Postumus and Claudius as outcasts, though of different sorts. Second, this was not a typical senatorial career, as is especially evident in the matter of provincial commands. The young men held no regular governorships. Their commands were generally multiyear and always multilegion, they were legati over several legions before being consuls, they were never submitted to the lot, and they had no superiors except the emperor and no peers except each other. The young men also held offices and powers no other senator then aspired to: multiple consulships, censoria potestas (Tiberius), tribunicia potestas (Tiberius, the younger Drusus).
The same holds for priesthoods. All except Agrippa Postumus and Tiberius Gemellus were either pontifices or augurs, while Tiberius, the younger Drusus, and maybe Caligula were both. Only the younger Drusus is attested as quindecemvir or septemvir, and he was both. Traditions fell away to admit the young men. The augural college broke its rule against members from the same gens to admit Lucius alongside Augustus (see chap. 3). In elective and co-optive colleges, imperial places evolved, the funeral honors for Germanicus formally stipulating that his flaminate of Divus Augustus and augurship be reserved for members of the gens Iulia (Tacitus Ann. 2.83.1). Unfortunately, what the young men actually did as priests is now mostly irretrievable.
The young men stood apart in the Curia, too. The Senate began bestowing curial privileges the moment the princes entered public life, allowing them to speak out of normal order, after consuls and before praetors (vetoed by Tiberius for Claudius). The Curia was the setting for debate about various issues concerning the princes: military honors (triumphs and lesser honors), charges against all those in different ways removed from the imperial house (Agrippa Postumus, A.D. 8; Drusus, son of Germanicus, A.D. 25; Nero, son of Germanicus, A.D. 29; Tiberius Gemellus, A.D. 37; and also the elder Julia, 2B.C.; the younger Julia, A.D. 8; and Seianus, A.D. 31), and funeral honors (until the younger Drusus). Similarly, in A.D. 3, Augustus announced to the Senate the decision of the mortally wounded Gaius to retire from public life. The Curia was one of the principal settings where the public image of the young men took shape.
The origins of the imperial tribunicia potestas are murky. The sources are mostly late and uniformly imperfect. They are mutually and internally contradictory--as to legal instruments (lex or senatus consultum), as to whether Imp. Caesar was made tribune or invested with the tribunicia potestas, and as to what powers the tribunicia potestas entailed.
36 B .C .: "by acclamation the people elected Caesar tribune forever" (Appian B Civ. 5.132/548); "the people voted that Caesar should not be assaulted in deed or word; those who did such a thing would pay the same fine as was established for a tribune, for indeed Caesar received the right to sit together with the tribunes on the same benches" (Dio 49.15.5-6); "the Senate decreed that Caesar should have the tribunicia potestas forever" (Orosius 6.18.34).
35 B .C .: "Caesar deferred the triumph that had been voted to him [by the Senate?], but he granted to Octavia and Livia statues, the right to administer their own affairs without a guardian, and the same security and inviolability as the tribunes enjoyed" (Dio 49.38.1).
30 B .C .: "it was voted [as law or decree?] that Caesar should have the power of the tribunes for life and that he should aid those who called on him for help both within the Pomerium and outside up to the eighth half-stade (one Roman mile), a right none of the tribunes possessed" (Dio 51.19).
23 B .C .: Caesar resigned consulship; "the Senate decreed that Augustus should be tribune for life and granted him the right to bring a matter before the Senate whenever he wished at each meeting, even if he was not consul; it was in consequence of this that he and the emperors who followed him exercised the tribunician power as by legal right along with the other powers; neither Augustus nor any other emperor assumed the actual title of tribune" (Dio 53.32.5-6).
no date: "that I be sacrosanct forever, and so long as I live have the tribunicia potestas, was sanctioned by law."
By scholarly convention--and no more--these items are interpreted to say that the tribunicia potestas was conferred piecemeal, with sacrosanctity conferred first (36 B .C .), then ius auxilii (30 B .C .), then full tribunician power (23 B .C .). H. M. Last gave this convention the currency it enjoys today. There is no evidence to say that conferral was accompanied by fanfare or that this wholly imperial innovation was conceived or presented as republican.
Excerpted from Princes and Political Cultures: the New Tiberian Senatorial Decrees by Greg Rowe Copyright © 2002 by Greg Rowe. Excerpted by permission.
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