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Aske Damtoft Poulsen

Peace and Power in the Roman Principate

After twenty years of civil war in Rome at the end of the first century BC, “power was gathered in the hands of one man for the sake of peace” (Hist. 1.1.1: omnem potentiam ad unum conferri pacis interfuit). The ‘one man’ was the future emperor Augustus, the system of government which he initiated came to be known as the Principate, and the writer to whom we owe the statement above is the Roman historiographer Tacitus. While the position of individual emperors depended on military power (the loyalty of the armies), the longevity of the Principate as a system of government depended on the establishment of a new ‘regime of truth’. Since truth is a product of power, each society thus has its one ‘regime of truth’ within which judgements of truth and false can be made. Consequently, the possibility for permanent change of the power structure of a society hinges on a concomitant change within its ‘regime of truth’. While it has long been noted that peace and security are among the most frequently recurring motifs in early imperial propaganda (coinage, monuments, edicts), I wish to examine the link between peace (pax) and one-man rule (princeps) through the lens of the imperial ‘regime of truth’. The emergence of the Principate was accompanied by sweeping transformations of traditional knowledge: time came to be measured against imperial rather than republican anniversaries, urban space was brought under imperial supervision, and civil law was professionalised and thus separated from the domain of the aristocracy. Indeed, it seems that entire concepts were redefined to fit with the new power structures of the Principate. For instance, models of behaviour seem to shift as acts of ‘exemplary’ emperors (rather than republican heroes) become the framework against which civic behaviour and public policy are measured. What happens, then, with conceptualisations of the past when the imperial regime demarcates its temporal boundaries? When and why did the civil war start, when and how did it end, and what happened before it broke out? These were some of the questions which needed to be answered within the new ‘regime of truth’.

At first sight, the claim that one-man rule was necessary for peace seems to be supported by early imperial writers: Seneca portrays the state as a garment which the emperor has draped so tightly around himself that the two can no longer be separated without the destruction of both (Cl. 4.3: olim enim ita se induit rei publicae Caesar ut seduci alterum non posset sine utriusque pernicie) and Lucan writes in his civil war epic that “peace came with a master” (Luc. 1.670: cum domino pax ista venit). Even Tacitus, whom we quoted above and whose criticisms of individual emperors are scathing, is often considered a reluctant supporter of the Principate, in the sense that he considered it the best – because the only possible – system of government for Rome. The emperor Galba is often taken as his spokesperson (Hist. 1.16.1): “If the mighty body of the Empire could keep its balance without a ruler, it would be appropriate that a republic began with me: now, a state of necessity has long been reached in which neither can my old age offer more to the Roman people than a good successor, nor your youth more than a good emperor” (si immensum imperii corpus stare ac librari sine rectore posset, dignus eram a qua res publica inciperet: nunc eo necessitatis iam pridem ventum est ut nec mea senectus conferre plus populo Romano possit quam bonum successorem, nec tua plus iuventa quam bonum principem). However, we should be wary when we interpret statements about a claim which was so obviously advantageous for the ruling regime.

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