In order to assess how the conception of the role of a Roman emperor changed over this period of time, and how his subjects reacted to him, we must first ascertain how the original role of the emperor was presented. For an emperor to have subjects to reign, and in order to gain himself the title of emperor, there must first be an empire to rule over. The Roman Empire formed after the fall of the Roman Republic and following the victory at the Battle of Actium, Augustus, nephew of Julius Caesar, became the first emperor of Rome. Contrary to popular belief, Julius Caesar was not officially an ‘emperor’ but a ‘dictator’, a title that granted him great power, but not that of an emperor. Those who did hold the status of the emperor could choose from a variety of titles such as princeps, imperator or consul. The first 200 years of the empire saw relative peace and stability, a time in which many emperors ruled and was often referred to as ‘Pax Romana’, translating to Roman Peace, a time of prosperity. Two prominent emperors from this period are Augustus, born Gaius Octavian Thurinus, and Trajan, born Caesar Nerva Trajan. In this essay it is Augustus and Trajan that I will discuss, focusing on how each emperor presented himself, how he defined, or in Trajan’s case redefined, the role of the emperor and how his subjects reacted to him. Firstly, I will discuss how Augustus presented himself as the saviour and restorer of Rome and traditional Roman values, how he incorporated his family into his role as emperor and how he was perceived by his subjects as a ‘pater.’ Secondly, I will discuss how Trajan came to be considered the best emperor and so-called ‘Optimus Princeps, and how he garnered respect from his subjects, army, curia and senate alike.
The first period of the empire is known as the ‘principate’ and is defined as a system of the monarchy led by an emperor maintaining power for life. However, Augustus refused to be recognised as King and created a distinct difference between the office of an emperor and that of a king. Therefore, Augustus founded the principate, instead of declaring himself monarch or as a dictator as his great-uncle Julius Caesar did. Augustus’ self- presentation was as a saviour and restorer of the state in the first decade of his rule after his victory at the battle of Actium. “I transferred the res publica from my power to the discretion of the senate and people of Rome.” To achieve this, he used his reputation and substantial wealth whilst also maintaining the appearance of the senate’s authority. Augustus put the needs and morals of his subjects at the centre of his ruling, and amongst Augustus’ first set of reforms was the restoration and refashioning of the legal and political system that was idealised during the Republic. Additionally, Augustus prided himself in being the leader responsible for the restoration of not only matters of public interest but matters of the private family home, gaining him the affectionate nickname of ‘pater Patria, Latin for ‘father of the fatherland.’ To understand how revered and respected the title of pater was we must delve into the meaning of the word in a literal sense. The role of a Roman ‘pater’ was both benevolent and beneficial, driven by affection and a sense of responsibility for his family when making religious, social and political decisions on their behalf. More than that, however, was the role of the father as a moral guide, entrusted with the purity and sanctity of the women in his charge. Augustus inserted himself in the role of pater as he made some critical changes to the powers held by the father in a family versus the powers held by the state. For example, in enforcing laws that made adultery a state crime, removing a father’s right to have the final say in the marriage of his children and the politicising of women’s roles, it complicated family and political identities. Furthermore, Augustus went as far as creating the perfect Roman family by introducing legislation that required marriage and child-rearing for participation in public life, as well as financially rewarding married patents. These new laws created a whole new level of involvement into the private family and put Augustus as the role of pater over all households and the final source of moral authority within each household.
Augustus strengthened the foundation of his leadership by transforming his family into something not dissimilar to a royal family. The members of his immediate family developed public roles as models of proper aristocratic behaviour, the females integrating themselves socially and the males taking responsibility for the military. This approach to ruling gained approval amongst his subjects as they felt more connected to their emperor. This is further exaggerated by Augustus’ consistent disassociation from anything that would overly institutionalise his role as emperor for fear of causing resentment and provoking conspiracy, especially amongst the senatorial class. This was an attempt to separate his role as an emperor from that of a dictator, as Dio Cassius reports, with regards to Augustus’ declining of dictatorship, “Augustus already had more power than the old dictators so why incite jealousy and hatred by assuming the position.” However, not all of his subjects were enamoured by Augustus’ decisions and resented his monarchical and dynastic aspirations whilst simultaneously refusing the role of an actual monarch. Just as he had those who opposed him, he had widespread support throughout the empire. After his moral reformations, an event was formulated to celebrate Augustus and the revival of morality in Rome after the Civil War. “Thus, choruses of Roman maidens, of matrons and of young boys sang hymns thanksgiving to the Roman state Gods and Augustus’ leadership. “
There are many debates as to which emperor was the better ruler, Trajan or Augustus? It can perhaps be considered an unfair question, as each ruled the empire in vastly different political climates. Trajan ruled for nineteen years between 98 AD to 117 AD and is considered to be one of the greatest emperors in the history of Rome. Known as ‘Optimus Princeps,’ which translates to ‘greatest of princes,’ Trajan’s rule is believed to be “the period in history during which the human race was most happy and prosperous.” So much so that subsequent emperors often attempted to elevate their own reign by association with Trajan. He conquered many lands and grew the Roman Empire to its largest expanse in history which resulted in his rule being a time of great prosperity for Rome. Similarly to Augustus, Trajan embraced his role as emperor by showing his support for adhering to traditional hierarchies and senatorial morals. He did this by openly shunning many of Domitian’s policies, such as his preference for equestrian officers. Many political writers of the Imperial Roman Age considered this to be one of the many reasons Trajan was such a well-received emperor, as he ruled less by fear such as Domitian and Titus, and more by acting as a role model and setting a good example, “men learn better from examples.” Aligning himself with Augustus’ autocratic way of ruling, Trajan “wielded autocratic power through moderatio instead of contumacia – moderation instead of insolence.” It was this approach to autocracy, his deferential behaviour towards his peers, that garnered him the respect and regard as a virtuous monarch.
Trajan is acknowledged to have created the best model of ruling an empire than any emperor before or after him. Domitian only strived to please the military and paid little attention to the Senate and Nerva concentrated his efforts on the Senate and disregarded the army whereas Trajan proved that actions could be taken to satisfy both the Senate’s and the army’s needs. However, in direct contrast with Augustus’ way of ruling, Trajan transformed the role of the emperor as he encroached on the senate’s authority, turning several senatorial provinces into imperial provinces in order to quell out-of-control spending on the local magnates part. Trajan essentially absolved the role of the senate as, according to Pliny, Trajan was a good emperor due to him approving and blaming the same things that the Senate would have approved or blamed.
Trajan garnered widespread support from his subjects as he presented himself very differently than previous emperors. Upon Trajan’s arrival in Rome he displayed a refreshing and grounding humble personality, as instead of arriving in a litter or chariot, he walked amongst the streets, greeting his subjects, senators and knights with equal warmth. Trajan did what no emperor had done before him, when referring to his subjects and in particular the army, Trajan uses the term ‘we’ instead of ‘them,’ showing solidarity and fellowship with those others considered to be below them. Trajan even went as far as becoming a ‘regular’ soldier himself; eating in the military mess, marching on foot, fording rivers, campaigning in person and honouring his fellow fallen soldiers with an annual ceremony. It is a measure of a great leader when one can inspire bravery and action in so many, and it is because of the way Trajan presented himself as ‘one of them’ that his troops were willing to risk all and display great prowess on his behalf, as he would do for them. This is further exaggerated when we look at documents written regarding Trajan’s death,
“After his death, it was said that no other emperor excelled or even equalled him in popularity with the people and his memory remained green for centuries. It was said that he displayed the utmost integrity and virtue in affairs of state and arms. The forum of Trajan, no matter how often we see it, is always wonderful.”
In conclusion, the conception of the role of the emperor across the years, particularly between the rule of Augustus and Trajan, experienced many changes. Augustus established the empire after his victory at the Battle of Actium and therefore began his rule as a strong and respected leader. He transformed the crumbling ruins of the Republic into a thriving and successful empire. Augustus’s role as emperor consisted of heavy intervention into both private and public affairs, undertaking the role as ‘pater’ for all Roman households and sculpting the ‘perfect’ Roman family. He delegated much of his power to the senate and the people of Rome, whilst simultaneously establishing himself as an autocratic ruler. Additionally, Augustus believed that one’s family also played a part in the role of an emperor. Augustus was well-received and liked by his subjects, especially after his revival of traditional Roman morals and many popular policies of the idealised Republic. Although Trajan and Augustus shared many similarities in the role they performed as emperors, the main difference in the conception of the role of the emperor was Trajan’s decision to effectively absolve the power of the Senate and rule on their behalf. Trajan is considered to be the most loved of all the Roman Emperors as he presented himself as a humble, well-meaning and hard-working man. From walking on foot with his fellow soldiers to walking the streets and greeting his subjects, Trajan appeared to align himself as a fellow subject and soldier. If one is to attempt to answer the question of who was the better emperor, one can consider the quote, “May he be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan,” which suggests that Augustus was a good emperor establishing the empire at a terrible time of turmoil and that Trajan was a good emperor because he began his rule at a time when Rome was already stable and flourishing. However, both emperors presented themselves as one who wanted to rule with the intent to improve the political, legal and social systems of Rome and did so without the use of fear or intimidation.