Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.04.11

Maria H. Dettenhofer, Herrschaft und Widerstand im augusteischen Prinzipat. Die Konkurrenz zwischen res publica und domus Augusta. Historia Einzelschriften Heft 140.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000.  Pp. 234.  ISBN 3-515-07639-5..  DM 88.  

Reviewed by Andrea Scheithauer, Seminar für Klassische Philologie der Universität Heidelberg
Word count: 2091 words

Maria H. Dettenhofer (= M.D.) devotes herself in her inaugural dissertation to a period of Roman history which has often been the object of historical research. Despite the existence of many studies on constitutional and political history the relations between the princeps and the nobiles, the equites and other social classes have not been treated at great length. The few studies on internal resistance during the reign of Augustus have extraordinary deficiencies: 1) The views of their authors are strongly influenced by the period in which they lived and are not free of misunderstandings. In addition to this, the notion of opposition is modern and includes other terminology. 2) Scholars have not proceeded in a diachronical fashion as the res publica and the domus Augusta have up until now been treated separately.

M.D.'s study is arranged chronologically. She elaborates on the structure of Augustus' principate, the actions and techniques by means of which he enforced his aims; furthermore she reveals his propaganda; finally, she directs her attention to the relation between the princeps and the upper classes, i.e. the domus Caesaris and the res publica respectively. In order to comprehend the forms and the fields of conflict and resistance M.D. considers the following topics: 1) the specific structures of rule of Augustan monocracy and 2) their permanent rivalry with the institutions of the res publica (p. 24).

Starting from the rivalry between the claims of the ruler on the one hand and those of the res publica on the other M.D. treats Caesar's will (chapter 1). An important aspect of this document is the fact that it was a matter of civil law and that Octavian was not destined to be the political successor to Caesar. Octavian's seizure of power rested on a private basis: in order to obtain a position based on legal legitimation he relied on factors of power which were fixed by his heritage, disregarding the institutions of the res publica. In 43 BC, when Octavian was elected consul suffectus as a result of military pressure, the political power of the clientela competed with the institutions of the res publica.

From 36 BC onwards the domus Caesaris was becoming more and more politicized. Antonius' affair with Cleopatra offered Octavian a good starting-point to launch an attack. He presented to the public his wife, who was his equal in rank, as well as his sister as a counterbalance to the Egyptian queen. This increasingly made private life an affair of public interest (chapter 2). When Antonius divorced Octavia, this was the definitive breach between him and Octavian: Antonius lost his domus and his base in Rome. In the war against Antonius and Cleopatra the oath he took to fight against his rival was Octavian's legitimation and the basis of his appointment as commander-in-chief. Thus he disregarded the institutions of the res publica, procured political legitimation from them and contributed to weakening them.

After the battle of Actium Octavian's concern was how to keep his position of power, since the nobiles wanted to regain their former influence (chapter 3). In order to control the senators and to obtain their confidence he had to make arrangements with the aristocracy about their claim to power while maintaining his influence. On 13 January 27 BC Octavian attained a new position in the res publica which was not a cura and was not limited in time. His authority was based on the perpetuated consulate, which he did not obtain by means of a legal senatus consultum but by acclamation. In 27 BC Augustus extended his hegemony by restricting the travel of senators, by a lectio senatus, by supplementing the comitia by means of a census, by continuing with the consulate and by distinguishing between senatorial and imperial provinces. The control of the ordo senatorius was conceived as a permanent arrangement.

In the following years the claims of the domus Augusta and those of the res publica were competing against each other (chapter 4). Augustus tried to increase his power by means of his personnel policy. In order to strengthen the position of his domus Augustus privileged its members by conferring on them the honours which had been awarded to him. The affair of Primus shows the fusion of the domus Augusta and the res publica in 23 BC. The claim of the domus Augusta had priority over the competence of the senate, and a single individual exercised power assisted by his amici. As a replacement for the loss of the repeated and continual consulates in 23 BC the princeps obtained the tribunicia potestas for life per legem. This perpetual special power was a breach of tradition. On his resignation from the consulate the princeps created a new position alongside the existing institutions.

In order to strengthen his internal influence and to develop the structures of his monocracy, he made use of popular methods (chapter 5). Augustus undermined the institutions of the res publica by vesting Agrippa with the custodia urbis although he lacked the legitimation of a magistrate. He transferred the power from the magistracies to his clients and his domus and controlled the duties of the senate and the magistrates. The clientela and the rights of a patron were important in this unofficial system; henceforth, these rights were reserved for the princeps. In order to combine his unofficial position with the official representatives of the res publica the princeps delegated the special duties which the common people had vested in him to former magistrates.

In order to strengthen his monocracy at a societal level and to enfeeble the leading classes Augustus transformed them in 18 BC (chapter 6). 1) He redefined the membership of the senate. 2) He enacted laws by which the private life of the senators was controlled. By means of the laws on marriage Augustus intruded upon the power of the pater familias; in this way private life became public and adultery took on a political dimension. By these means the princeps wanted to change the consciousness of the limits of the private and the public sphere.

After Augustus had taken absolute power by transforming the senate, he intended to establish a hereditary monarchy (chapter 7). In 17 BC he started to found a dynasty by appointing Gaius and Lucius as his successors. In order to consolidate the monocracy it was important that the princeps control the senate. From 18 BC onwards there was a certain crisis in the ordo senatorius. Therefore Augustus smoothed the path for wealthy knights to the position of tribunus plebis and to the senate. Furthermore he introduced measures to control the senators. During the "strike" of the senators the princeps instituted the consilium principis which weakened the senate. In 8 BC additional measures were introduced in order to strengthen Augustus' power further.

In 17 BC a new phase of dynastic politics began: the emphasis of the efforts towards consolidating Augustus' power was now directed towards the emperor's dynastic aims (chapter 8). After Agrippa's death Tiberius followed in his steps but he did not share his moderation. His new position meant rivalry with the Caesares Gaius and Lucius. In spite of their advantages for the res publica Augustus preferred his grandsons to his stepsons. When he adopted the title of pater patriae in 2 BC Augustus transferred the monocratic structure of his family to the res publica by attaching the Roman people to his patria potestas. Consequently, his rule took on patriarchal aspects, the informal monocracy was legitimated, the Romans were placed under its control and became subjects. As the power had moved to the domus principis the old institutions lost their influence more and more; the intertwining of the res publica and the domus Augusta was continued. In the same year the competition for the res publica within the familia Caesaris became evident.

On 26 June 4 AD the balance of power changed in the domus Augusta by means of an arrogatio of the comitia curiata. By attaching important members to his patria potestas Augustus established a hierarchy within the dynasty. After the adoption of Tiberius the process of intertwining of the domus Augusta and the res publica continued. In 4 AD followers of Tiberius were elected to the senate because the successor needed a clientela there, i.e. the dynastic conditions influenced the structure of this body (chapter 9). In the crisis from 5 to 7 AD the weakness of the Augustan principate became evident. As some Romans exploited the problems with the food supply for independent electoral campaigning, it became clear that Augustus' claim on the monopoly of the patronate of the res publica was not undisputed. As a result of Tiberius' suspicion that Agrippa Postumus would be preferred to him the stability of the domus Augusta was shaken. The insignificance of the senate entered a new phase in 13 AD when Augustus increased the number of members of the consilium principis. Through the fact that every measure of this body was invested with general validity the senate was divested of the function of acclamation, and power was transferred to other spheres. Other restrictions by which the private life of the senators was controlled followed. Finally the power of the senate was reduced when Augustus replaced senatorial curatores annonae with prefects of equestrian rank. The totality of the senators no longer opposed these measures because the intertwining of the res publica and the domus Augusta had been accomplished.

Octavian's power was not based on institutions and was not subject to the regulation and control of the republican order (chapter 10; summary). Thus he was not legitimized by the institutions of the res publica. The special powers were not granted to him voluntarily. He made use of the plebiscitary element, i.e. of the tribunicia potestas and of the imperium aequum, in order to bring about his special powers. The plebs being a compliant instrument helped Augustus to power. By means of the clientelae which were tied to the gens hereditarily he combined the private sphere with the res publica and amalgamated the dynasty with the community. In 18 BC the totalitarian phase of the Augustan principate began. The reforms of this year were directed against the self-determination of the aristocrats, their ideal of service and their solidarity. In 9 BC Augustus had achieved complete control of the senate. All Romans were subordinate to the potestas of the pater patriae. Between 5 and 8 AD the structure of his power was institutionalized, from 8 AD Augustus was the absolute ruler, the senate no longer had any real influence and the positions had become honorary ones. The princeps did not abolish the res publica but established a new system of political power and legitimacy which undermined the public institutions. He assumed the duties of the senate and the magistrates, moved them to a sphere of responsibility of his domus and equated the res publica with his domus.

M.D. has published an interesting monograph on a period of Roman history, which has often been studied. She achieves new results in several sections. First of all she advances the level of previous research in aspects of detail. For instance she demonstrates that the cura annonae was not vested in Augustus for life in 22 BC but that he dispensed with it a few days after fulfilling his task. She also elaborates on aspects of the strategy of the princeps, which had not previously been detected, such as the use of popular methods by means of which he came to power and achieved his goals. Her procedure is most innovative when she explains the progressive intertwining of the domus Augusta and the res publica. She convincingly describes how the princeps established a new system which was based on clientelae and amici in addition to the institutions of the res publica and how he undermined these institutions more and more. The benefit of the diachronic view is that one studies the reactions of the persons under consideration to the measures which aimed at reducing the political power of the former leading classes. Thus the measures of the princeps are relativized because their importance becomes more manifest than in previous research. As is known the senators were in opposition to the new regime till the beginning of the 1st century. In that manner the relations between the princeps and the upper classes are elucidated from a new point of view and partly modified. In this way M.D. demonstrates that Augustus' image in modern research is partly influenced by Augustan propaganda too. Thus her monograph contributes to a more realistic view of the princeps.

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