Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Who was the first Roman Emperor? Cesar, Augustus, Claudius?

Thanks to a question to about the description of the Cesar bust - I had to reflect about the question who the first Roman Emperor was.
As always in history, answers are the more complicated the simpler a question is. Wikipedia is right with its statement, at least to some extent, on the title 'Cesar' that Augustus is called 'the first Roman Emperor Cesar Augustus' because Octavian/Augustus (63BCE - 14AD) called himself 'Imperator Caesar'). - while my own statement is not wrong either which derives from the imprecision of the English language (other European languages like German are even worth in this respect). We translate lat. 'imperator' as a technical term in the military sense with a commander-in-chief, general, = στρατηγός (cf.: dux, ductor) (Lewis&Short), in the Roman political and cultural sphere with 'a commander, leader, chief, director, ruler, master', and we know it as an epithet of Jupiter (Cic. Verr. 2, 4, 58, § 129: “signum Jovis Imperatoris”). At the same time, we translate 'Cesar' as 'Emperor' (so, for example, the Wikipedia entry see above).
Now, as an acclamation of victorious generals, the title 'Imperator' is already known since the 3rd century BCE and since Sulla (c. 138 BC – 78 BC), one began to count the number of times one received this title, a usage which was carried on beyond Cesar. Octavian/Augustus, for example, was acclamed 21 times 'Imperator', for the first time probably because of his victory in Brundisium he adopted the 'praenomen Imperatoris' (Inscr. Ital. XIII 1, see D. McFayden, The History of the Titel Imperator under the Roman Empire, Diss., [Chicago, 1920]), but only since Claudius (Emperor 41 to 54 AD), but already Julius Cesar was called imperator and for him this title was no longer simply a commemoration of a victory, but a title and expression of his absolute, dictatorial military power, was even used as part of his name: C. CAESARE IMP. (CIL 1².788). And when Cesar was murdered, Octavian not only was regarded as adopted by Cesar, but also chose as his name that of his 'father', became Gaius Julius Caesar, and later adopted his father's title Imperator Julius Caesar, as if imperator was a first name.This was made official by law in 29 BCE and could even be combined with the number of imperatorial acclamations, like CIL 5.526: IMP. CAESARI DIVI F. IMP. V). Two years later, Octavian settled for Imperator Caesar Augustus - three words that all became synonym of 'emperor' (see http://www.livius.org/).
Subsequently, Imperator became the second acclamation after the acclamation as Cesar - hence only from him onwards can we historically speak of a Roman 'Emperor'.
And yet, what do we mean by Roman Emperor? The main distinction is, of course, that he is no longer a representative of a Roman Republic, but the sole dictator in the Roman Empire. And in this respect, only Christian nomenclator stylised Augustus to being the 'romantic' Emperor known from the New Testament, not Cesar, although Cesar was not only the first dictator, but also passed on his name as a cognomen, a title and a political programme to his family and with Flavians beyond his family to all subsequent dictators of the Roman Empire and beyond.

1 comment:

  1. Good Morning Markus, and salutations
    Thanks for your learned response. I could discuss Republican Roma and Imperial Roma with you indefinitely, as it is a subject of which I have had an avid interest since childhood. I found your response fascinating. There are manifold misconceptions in relation to Ancient Rome, some I afford scant regard, others I find eternally tedious...Shakespeare has a great deal to answer for. You are absolutely correct in that Emperor is the latter day translation of the title "Imperator." As you stated, the honour was bestowed upon a victorious General by his legions. This acclamation was invariably followed by the award of a Triumph. This was generally a political manoeuvre on the slippery road to a senior Consulship. JC had 4 Triumphs back to back a short time before his assassination (during the Senators' muster outside the Curia Pompeius in Pompey's theatre).
    JC was proclaimed Imperator before his crossing of the Rubicon, without which he would never have taken such an unprecedented step. Although he was later proclaimed Dictator for life, he was never given the title King, as he wished to maintain the ethos of the Republic (if only in name).
    His Great Nephew and adopted son Octavianus (Octavian, Octavius, Augustus, take your pick) on Caesar's death, legally assumed his full name of Caius Julius Caesar. This can be where confusion sets in, as there were then in fact two Romans bearing that name (three if you also include Caesar's father). But only one living. When Augustus was given that name, he was also bestowed with the Imperial title "Imperator" and later Augustus. "Emperor" which then bore a different meaning and understanding, akin to a monarch, differing from the hitherto military title. Augustus tried his best to cling onto the ethos of the Republic, but he had the power of a King, and used it.
    The Republic all but died on the accession of his step son, Tiberius, (who never wanted to become Emperor, it was his mother, Liva's, intervention). Again myth would teach us that Livia murdered Augustus with poisoned figs to achieve those ends. In fact, they were in love until the day he died, which was during his absence from Livia. The Senate became the mouth piece of the Emperor.
    I find all this disappointing, even to an extent sad. Due to men's greed and their lust for power, there evolved many Civil Wars, destroying the greatest civilization in history. If the true Republic proliferated, and the powerful positions of consuls done away with, there would never have been a Sulla, a Marius, a Pompey or a Caesar...they would simply have been successful politicians. Again, if Caesar hadn't shown such impossible clemency to the likes of Brutus, there would never have been the fated conspiracy on the Ides of Martivs, and no civil war. If only...
    I'm confident there is not an iota in this missive that is in any way new to you. But in conclusion, I am "as constant as the North Star" Caesar was not the first Emperor, it was Augustus.
    Great exchanging views, and best wishes, Ivor Llewellyn-Jones