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The (or the) Prinzipat (from Latin principatus ) is a modern name for the structure of rule of the Roman Empire in the early and high imperial period (27 BC to 284 AD).

In 27 BC The Senate gave the honorary name Augustus to Octavian, who was adopted by Caesar and who was ultimately victorious in the battle for Caesar's inheritance . This laid the foundation for a new system of rule that would allow republican traditions to be merged with individual supremacy. This character of the new monarchical order explains both the originally linked notion of an alleged restoration of the republic (res publica restituta) after the end of the civil wars and the evolutionary expansion of the imperial legitimation of power during the long reign of Augustus and his successor Tiberius , who over the temporary empires of Augustus received a proconsular empire for life. Nevertheless, the dignity of the emperor was never hereditary de iure , but its roots as an exceptional office were always recognizable.

As a rule, the rule of Diocletian (since 284), the reforms of which mark the beginning of Roman late antiquity , which in the older research contrasted with , is regarded as the temporal end point of the principate, which already underwent a process of transformation during the time of the imperial crisis of the 3rd century Prinzipat often (although not applicable) as Dominat was called.

As a term, the principate is derived from the Latin princeps ("the first") - and this again in a double sense: the princeps stood for both the first citizen (princeps civitatis) and the most respected among the senators (princeps senatus) , who was the first among equals ( primus inter pares ) to be granted the right to make the first speech on all important decision-making issues.

Creation and design

The principle was created in a multi-stage process of experimentation ( Jochen Bleicken ), in which Octavian / Augustus sought the balance between the maintenance and care of the republican facade and the implementation and legitimation of his sole rule and flexibly adapted to the changing situations of political developments. Octavian's basic concern had to be to transform his tyranny established during the civil war into a legitimate and especially acceptable form for the elites, in order to give it durability. The course of the seminal Senate meeting on January 13, 27 BC BC should have been prepared by mutual agreement on both sides. Octavian initially placed all power in the hands of the Senate and the people, so that the republic was formally restored. Whether Octavian had specific powers of attorney in addition to the consulate at the beginning of 27, and what those powers might be, has been the subject of controversial research since Theodor Mommsen . One thing is certain: a few days later the Senate asked him to continue to assume the leadership role for the provinces, in which the vast majority of the army was located, and provided him with the appropriate legal basis, the imperium proconsulare (authority of a proconsul). Octavian, who was also elected annually as consul , immediately regained his most important instrument of power and was promoted to Augustus (the Sublime) by the Senate for his (pseudo) return to the republican foundations in the subsequent session on January 16 .

All other future powers, which Augustus gradually acquired, corresponded to the official powers of republican magistrates and were assigned to him by the Senate. After he had resigned the consulate, which he had held every year until then, for political and tactical reasons, he was given 23/22 BC. As a substitute not only was awarded an imperium proconsulare maius , which extended to the entire territory of the empire and probably made it possible for him to be superior to the respective governor in Senate provinces , but also the unrestricted and temporally unlimited tribunicia potestas , which gave him all powers and Provided privileges of the tribunes of the people without having to fill the office that was reserved for plebeians with his duties. The rights included, above all, the right to petition the People's Assembly regarding legislative initiatives and criminal charges; the right to convene Senate meetings; a general right to help everyone, which above all included a protective function for affected citizens against arbitrary acts by individual magistrates, as well as the veto right against all actions of all magistrates up to the consuls. This enabled Augustus and his successors to determine domestic politics. Since the class struggles, the tribunes were considered to be the guardians of the interests of the common people, and in this function they were sacredly inviolable. This sacrosanctitas of the tribunes Augustus was able to do since 36 BC. BC claim an early source of sacred consecration of the empire (Jochen Bleicken), which Gaius Iulius Caesar had already used. The key role of the princeps in politics was also evident in the fact that he was temporarily entrusted with the censoria potestas belonging to the office of censor , with which he could influence the composition of the Senate.

In the three centuries after Augustus, the imperium proconsulare maius and the tribunicia potestas in particular formed the two core powers that characterized a princeps . It was therefore exclusively official powers of republican origin that formed the formal basis of the principate; Actually, the separation of powers of attorney and office was absurd, but this path had already been taken repeatedly in the last decades of the republic. It was only the extreme bundling and in fact unlimited temporal expansion of such special competencies that Augustus turned the republican "checks and balances" of collegiality and annuity for himself - the longer the clearer - and his own position through intensive maintenance of the republican facade but was able to legitimize. In his report of deeds, the res gestae , he let it be spread that only his reputation ( auctoritas ) had surpassed that of the other magistrates, but not his formal legal power ( potestas ).

This claim is misleading in view of the imperial special powers and the enormous other means of power of the princeps (above all the loyalty of the soldiers and a huge private fortune), and at least the Senate aristocracy must have been aware of this. In any case, it is correct that the republican administrative apparatus under the leadership of the members of the senatorial class in the pacified provinces of the Roman Empire and in the Italian heartland continued to exist under the principle and that the senators continued to hold important positions - with all the privileges that have long ensued from them had. Augustus therefore offered the senatorial leadership class ( nobility ) to retain their prominent socio-economic position and to be able to save face despite his sole rule; in return he expected cooperation and the legitimation of his rule. For the time being, even a system tending towards monarchy could not do without the constructive cooperation of this upper class, often trained in political and administrative issues through many generations, quite apart from the potential for resistance that the assassination of Caesar had shown in the Senate (but never again since then played a major role - despite many alleged and actual conspiracies, not a single emperor was murdered by senators). This tacit compromise between the princeps and the upper class formed the basis of the new order; In this way, a tyranny won during the civil war was transformed into a monarchy - one speaks of the “legalization of power”. Gradually, however, in the course of the development of the principle, the balance between the senatorial and imperial administration shifted more and more in favor of the latter, especially since the latter was increasingly able to draw on its own resources through targeted support for members of the knightly class. Opposition to the emperor's abundance of power manifested itself early on in the form of senatorial historiography , although this did not change the balance of power, but rather demonstrated the helplessness of the elite. This factual helplessness is also the reason why many researchers today no longer adhere to Theodor Mommsen's influential concept of the principle of dual power ( dyarchy ) between the princeps and the senate, since it at best does justice to the formal legal framework, but not the socio-political reality of that time .

It speaks for the statesmanlike genius of Augustus and for the sustainability of the political order he created, that even the series of successors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty - including the particularly problematic figures Caligula and Nero - who were not gifted with his format - the system of the principle as a veiled monarchy have not ruined. In this respect, the much-vaunted heyday of the Roman Empire under the adoptive emperors from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius was based on the reorganization that began by Octavian / Augustus, and the Severans and at least the early soldier emperors also remained true to this basic principle despite some modifications. In the opinion of some researchers, however, this ideology was also responsible for the fact that every ruler had to demonstrate anew that he was the optimus , which led to the fact that the respective successor could not seamlessly follow on from the previous principle, but rather set himself apart from his predecessor had to - even after a peaceful change of power.

Problems of state-theoretical and historical delimitation

While the beginnings of the principate with the Senate meeting on January 13, 27 BC BC can be clearly grasped, different perspectives come into play with regard to its outcome. If one sees it as the beginning of the Roman imperial era, the end of the principle could be set with the beginning of late antiquity (in older research often misleadingly referred to as dominance and the values ​​implied by it) around 284 AD. On the other hand, it is known that the new state order was subject to changes from the beginning, the tendency of which in the long term led to a strengthening of the monarchical element. Egon Flaig's definition of the principate as a pure system of acceptance based on the three pillars of the army, senate and population of Rome is also interesting and influential . Flaig and other researchers take the position that the principle could hardly be grasped under constitutional law: Since the empire remained an exceptional office, while de iure did not live in a monarchy but continued to live in a republic, the position of the individual principes always remained precarious. Whether their rule was accepted as legitimate or instead challenged by usurpers was ultimately decided, according to Flaig, in principle much more strongly than in other systems only by acceptance by the decisive groups. Autonomous rule as such was soon seen as inevitable. But since the position of the ruler was not precisely defined and actually not provided for in the "constitution", it was always particularly threatened. On the other hand, the inadequate constitutional definition of his position also meant that the emperor's power was almost unlimited from the start: What the princeps ordered was done regardless of the law, even if his actions were of course not without consequences and, if necessary, allowed Could lead to a loss of acceptance. Since legal opposition or even dismissal were impossible in view of the exceptional powers of the princeps , such a loss of acceptance necessarily led to conspiracies or violent resistance.

The transition from this principled Augustan style to a “more normal” monarchy took place slowly and not in a straight line. A clear answer to the point at which the term principate should no longer be used for the system of rule in the Roman Empire can hardly be given, but there are indications for a discretionary decision:

The principate under Augustus , political structures and institutions, in English.

The Senate was the political heart of the Roman Republic and its symbol of integration. If the republican tradition was to be preserved or at least the republican facade was to be maintained, the influence and interests of the senators had to be able to come into their own, which was still possible in a lengthy process of dismantling the actual political participation of the Senate through appropriate gestures and measures on the part of the imperial authorities. A good princeps was also expected, like Augustus and Tiberius, to initially reject the position of power offered to him because he was unworthy of the great task and did not want to rise above his fellow citizens; this staging of an alleged “rejection of the empire” ( recusatio imperii ) can still often be observed in late antiquity .

In his work on the Roman Empire, Karl Christ names the adoptions of the designated successors in principle carried out since Nerva (96-98) as the decisive step in the ruler's constitutional aversion to the (formal) approval of the Senate, as the final decision on the successor was now quite openly in the hands of the princeps. According to the Republican way of thinking, the selection and adoption of the supposedly best candidate should actually have been confirmed by the Senate or the People's Assembly. The fact that this was not the case is shown by the already established monarchical way of thinking of the Roman upper class and is a symbol of the almost always purely acclamatory function that the Senate held in succession planning at the latest from the time of the adoptive emperors. However, not all historians agree with Christ on this point: on the one hand, Augustus had already accepted his designated successor in his place as a son; on the other, it was still customary among the adoptive emperors to have the adopted private heirs of the ruler given the appropriate political powers by the Senate . In any case, the adoptive emperorship was ultimately a propagandistic fiction that covered up the fact that the rulers in question had no male relatives - the first of them to have a biological son again, Marc Aurel, naturally followed dynastic thinking and made his son his successor (see below). After the middle of the 3rd century, the emperors completely refrained from letting the Senate grant them formal powers (even if at least the silent consent of the senators - the silentium - was still considered necessary). Around this time, the famous legal scholar Herennius Modestinus stated that the emperor now also formally legislates.

The last in the series of Roman emperors who apparently practiced the program of the principate Augustan type with lasting success and credibility was the later strongly idealized Marc Aurel . According to the tradition of the Historia Augusta (admittedly often not very credible), no emperor ever came to terms with the Senate. He always attended Senate meetings when he was in Rome, regardless of whether he had to make motions himself. And he never left it before the consul officially closed it. He also promoted the reputation of the senatorial class by negotiating every capital lawsuit against a member of the senatorial class to the exclusion of the public and the knightly class below; To what extent this later idealization applies is, however, controversial in recent research.

Marcus Aurel's son Commodus , who succeeded him , evidently operated in the greatest possible contrast to the renaming of Rome to "Commodus City" and the renaming of the Roman Senate to "Commodus Senate". And although one or the other subsequent emperor, beginning with Septimius Severus , deliberately referred to Marcus Aurelius, the Senate refrained from this and the shortly thereafter further degradation (the imperial dignity was auctioned off in 193 by the Praetorian Guard to the highest bidder Senator Didius Julianus and this was then confirmed by the Senate) no longer recovered, especially since the decision-making center for the imperial succession moved more and more away from Rome and - at least in the case of dynastically unexplained succession - a decision was made in the camps of the large armies and between them. The events of the second four- imperial year 193 and the six-imperial year 238 are often regarded as evidence that the ruling system that dates back to Augustus had fallen into a crisis. Nevertheless, the Severians managed to stabilize again, with the emperors Alexander Severus and Gordian III in particular . According to the (problematic) sources, attempted a return to the principled ideology. This also applied to Gordian's successors Philip Arab and Decius . But by the 250s at the latest, the difficulties of the empire worsened so much that changes became inevitable.

Many of the following soldier emperors endeavored - mostly as a spontaneous reaction to pressing problems - to re-stabilize the empire and empire, choosing very different approaches (see also Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century ). Emperor Gallienus made important decisions when he, who himself came from the nobility , finally withdrew the command of the legions from the senators around 260 and instead increasingly relied on chivalrous climbers. Since the nobiles thus once again lost their importance, the emperors had to show them less consideration than before; Significantly, according to Gallienus, they refrained from having their position formally recognized by the Senate: the acclamation by the army was now sufficient. A little later, Aurelian and Probus also carried out significant reforms .

Insofar as the point of view of a thorough systematic reorganization of the system of rule is taken as a point of reference for the end of the principate, in fact only the era of Diocletian (284 to 305) comes into consideration, who not only established a tetrarchic head of government made up of four emperors (henceforth that Multi-empire be the rule), but has initiated a comprehensive reform of administration, economy and society. The common epoch limit of 284 can therefore be well represented and therefore still has many followers.

The long-term decisive change in the ideology of rule was, however, only initiated by Constantine the Great with his turn to Christianity, which permanently changed the ideological foundation of rule. Those who first associated the end of the principate with this emperor will probably see themselves confirmed in the symbolically symbolic founding of Constantinople by Constantine in 330 , although other ancient historians emphasize that Constantine never questioned the honorary primacy of the city of Rome and that the new metropolis on Bosporus only since Theodosius I became permanent imperial residence. In the long term, it was significant that Christianity proved to be well compatible with the fully developed, outrageous monarchy, which no longer needed camouflage through the principled ideology: the late ancient emperors claimed divine grace; they presented themselves as earthly representatives of the one God. Nevertheless, a distinction between late antiquity and the early and high imperial periods is made even more difficult by the fact that the principle ideology never completely lost its meaning during the entire period of late antiquity: In the 6th century, despite the growing importance of dynastic thought, there was no hereditary empire, but a new ruler (who was often still referred to as princeps ) had to be proclaimed by representatives of the army, senate and people: the monarchical principle never really became a matter of course in Rome.

See also


  • Jochen Bleicken : Augustus. A biography. Fest, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3-8286-0027-1 (special edition, ibid. 2000, ISBN 3-8286-0136-7 ).
  • Jochen Bleicken: Constitutional and social history of the Roman Empire (= UTB 838–839). 2 volumes. Schöningh, Paderborn u. a. 1978, ISBN 3-506-99256-2 (Vol. 1), ISBN 3-506-99257-0 (Vol. 2) (several new editions).
  • Jochen Bleicken: Principal and Dominant. Thoughts on the periodization of the Roman Empire (= Frankfurt historical lectures. Vol. 6). Steiner, Wiesbaden 1978, ISBN 3-515-02876-5 .
  • Klaus Bringmann , Thomas Schäfer : Augustus and the establishment of the Roman Empire. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-05-003054-2 (with translated extracts from sources).
  • Karl Christ : History of the Roman Empire. From Augustus to Constantine. 6th edition with updated bibliography. Beck, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-59613-1 .
  • Egon Flaig : Stable monarchy - emperor in danger of falling. Reflections on the Augustan monarchy. In: Ernst Baltrusch (ed.): The first. Augustus and the beginning of a new era. von Zabern, Mainz 2016, p. 8 ff.
  • Egon Flaig: Challenge the emperor. The usurpation in the Roman Empire (= historical studies. Vol. 7). Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main u. a. 1992, ISBN 3-593-34639-7 .
  • Dietmar Kienast : Augustus. Princeeps and Monarch. 4th edition, bibliographically updated and supplemented by a foreword (special edition). Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2009, ISBN 978-3-534-23023-5 .
  • Jon E. Lendon: The Legitimacy of the Roman Emperor: Against Weberian Legitimacy and Imperial "Strategies of Legitimation". In: Anne Kolb (Ed.): Dominance structures and rule practice . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2006, p. 53 ff. (Fundamental criticism of the widespread practice of applying Max Weber's sociology of domination to the principle)
  • Kurt A. Raaflaub , Mark Toher (Eds.): Between Republic and Empire. Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate. University of California Press, Berkeley CA et al. a. 1990, ISBN 0-520-06676-6 .
  • Walter Schmitthenner (Ed.): Augustus (= ways of research. Vol. 128). Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1969 (collection of articles).
  • Michael Sommer: The Roman Empire . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2018, ISBN 978-3-17-023419-2 .
  • Ronald Syme : The Roman Revolution. Power struggles in ancient Rome. Fundamentally revised and for the first time complete new edition, 2nd edition, edited by Christoph Selzer and Uwe Walter . Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-608-94029-4 (English original edition: The Roman Revolution. Oxford University Press et al., Oxford 1939).
  • Aloys Winterling : The Roman Empire of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD In: Stefan Rebenich (Ed.): Monarchical rule in antiquity . De Gruyter, Berlin 2017, p. 413 ff. (Current overview)


  1. ↑ On this most recently Henning Börm , Wolfgang Havener: Octavian's legal position in January 27 BC. And the problem of the "transmission" of the res publica. In: Historia . Vol. 61, No. 2, 2012, pp. 202-220 ( digitized version ).
  2. “In my sixth and seventh consulate, after I had extinguished the flames of the civil wars and with the unanimous consent of all in possession of omnipotence, I returned the community out of my authority to the discretion of the Senate and the Roman people. For this merit of mine I was given the name Augustus by resolution of the Senate . The doorposts of my house were adorned with laurel by government decree, and a civic wreath was placed over my gate. A golden shield was erected in the Iulia Curia , which the Senate and the Roman people consecrated to me because of my bravery and gentleness, my justice and devotion, as the inscription on this shield testifies. Since that time I have surpassed all the rest of auctoritas , but I had no more potestas than the others whom I also had as colleagues in my office ”(Res d. Div. Aug. 34).
  3. Cf. Ulrich Gotter : Monarch without a monarchy. Augustus and the birth of the 'principate'. In: Matthias Puhle , Gabriele Köster (Hrsg.): Otto the Great and the Roman Empire. Empire from antiquity to the Middle Ages. Schnell + Steiner, Regensburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-7954-2491-6 , pp. 57-62.
  4. For the discussion, cf. Aloys Winterling : Dyarchie in der Roman Kaiserzeit. Proposal to restart the discussion. In: Wilfried Nippel , Bernd Seidensticker (Ed.): Theodor Mommsen's long shadow. Roman constitutional law as a permanent challenge for research (=  Spudasmata. Vol. 107). Olms, Hildesheim u. a. 2005, ISBN 3-487-13086-6 , pp. 177-198.
  5. The Prinzipatsideologie the antoninisch-Severan time can be especially good in the (fictional) Speech access to Cassius Dio the Maecenas put in the mouth; see. Cass. Dio 52: 19-40.
  6. ^ So Ulrich Gotter: Penelope's Web, or: How to become a bad emperor post mortem. In: Henning Börm (Ed.): Antimonarchic Discourse in Antiquity. Steiner, Stuttgart 2015, ISBN 978-3-515-11095-2 , pp. 215-233.
  7. Egon Flaig: Challenge the Emperor. Usurpation in the Roman Empire. Frankfurt am Main / New York 1992.
  8. Digital reproduction of a diagram from Werner Hilgemann, Hermann Kinder, Ernest A. Menze (Translator), Harald Bukor (Cartographer), Ruth Bukor (Cartographer): The Anchor Atlas of World History. Vol. 1 (From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution) 1974 by
  9. Digest 48,14,1.
  10. See the articles in Marcel van Ackeren (Ed.): A Companion to Marcus Aurelius. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden MA et al. a. 2012, ISBN 978-1-4051-9285-9 .
  11. Olivier Joram Hekster : Commodus. An emperor at the crossroads (= Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archeology. Vol. 23). Gieben, Amsterdam 2002, ISBN 90-5063-238-6 (also: Nijmegen, Catholic University, dissertation, 2002).
  12. Cf. Christian Körner: Philippus Arabs. A soldier emperor in the tradition of the Antonine-Severan principate (=  studies of ancient literature and history. Vol. 61). de Gruyter, Berlin a. a. 2002, ISBN 3-11-017205-4 (also: Bern, Universität, Dissertation, 2000).
  13. A current overview of the ideology of the late Roman Empire and its origins is offered by Stefan Rebenich : Monarchie. In: Real Lexicon for Antiquity and Christianity . Volume 24: Manethon - Montanism. Hiersemann, Stuttgart 2012, ISBN 978-3-7772-1222-7 , pp. 1112-1196.
  14. See Henning Börm: Born to be Emperor. The principle of succession and the Roman monarchy. In: Johannes Wienand (Ed.): Contested Monarchy. Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-976899-8 , pp. 239-264.
  15. Reference is made to the inscription on the Phocas column from the year 608 (ILS 837).