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The foundations of the Roman model

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The Roman Empire is not the first empire chronologically speaking, but it is perhaps the empire that has most marked and influenced Western political and legal thought. Rome has haunted all Western thought about empire, justifying starting with Rome rather than Egypt, China or the Persian Empire.

The Roman imperial regime did not create the empire as such. Although the Roman imperial regime officially came into being in 27 BC, the Roman imperial model already existed territorially and geographically before the creation of the Roman Empire. Rome becomes an empire constitutionally speaking in 27 BC, but Rome already behaves as an empire with a vast territory long before the formal creation of the Roman Empire. Generally speaking, historians agree that the Roman imperial model begins in 300 BC when Rome tries to establish a protective glacis from the barbarians. The Roman Republic expanded territorially to the point that it needed to create safe areas to protect itself. The establishment of these safe outposts is dated to this period.

In the 2nd century B.C., the Roman Republic is no longer in a security logic, but in an expansionist logic: Rome decides to conquer the world. The Roman conquest was accompanied by the Hellenisation of the Romans because Greece was THE civilisation of antiquity. It is interesting to see that when the Romans conquered Greece, this great civilisation of antiquity, they very quickly developed a complex of political and military superiority over the Greeks, but cultural inferiority. This shows the syncretistic dimension of the Roman Empire, the dimension imprinted on Greek culture. The Greeks have always been despised by the Romans while secretly admiring them.

The legal foundations of the Roman imperial model[edit | edit source]

The eagle, symbol of many Western empires, but also Eastern (here that of the Byzantine Empire).

What are the legal foundations of the Roman imperial model?

The Roman Empire, from 27 B.C. onwards, is a set of immense territories around the Mediterranean reunited under the supreme power of the Emperor. This empire was extremely extensive in terms of territory. Outposts of legionary camps guard the borders of the empire. The power of the empire is embodied by the Emperor who is basically the first magistrate of Rome called Caesar or Augustus. Otherwise he is called "Imperator", "Dominus" or "Pater".

The Roman Empire has never had a constitution in the formal sense, the absolutism of emperors has been increasing, there is no constitution that defines the prerogatives or the limits of power. A number of official texts make it possible to understand what the emperor's ideology and legal foundations were. The powers of the emperor are basically based on a number of criteria and the emperor holds four attributes.

Potestas[edit | edit source]

Generally speaking, in Roman times, "potestas" meant the authority recognised by the law of one person over another. It is the power held by the first magistrate of the Republic, i.e. the Emperor. Originally the potestas were held by the magistrates of the Republic. The birth of the imperial regime allowed the Emperor to regain power for himself. The influence of private law on public law can be seen in the emperor's recovery of this right.

The emperor has the means to exercise a power of constraint and to ensure the observance of laws :

  • the "edictum" [1] which is the equivalent of a directive,
  • the "decretum" [2] which is the competence to give judgment,
  • the "imperial letter" [3] giving the emperor the possibility to give written instructions that make the emperor the centre of power.

Imperium[edit | edit source]

Imperium refers to the possibility of governing conquered territories. The power of the imperium contains at least four competencies. The holder of the imperium is :

  • the commander-in-chief of the troops [1].
  • who signs or revokes treaties [2],
  • he convenes the Senate or the legislative power [3],
  • he is the only one with the competence to extend Roman jurisdiction [4], i.e. to decide where Roman law applies and does not apply.

The Roman Empire was able to combine the rules of Rome with local customs, succeeding in "managing the diversity" of cultures and peoples under its control.

Tribunician power - potestas tribunicia[edit | edit source]

Portrait of the Emperor Augustus.

The emperor is the holder of the tribudian power. It was created by Augustus who was the first emperor to recover the power of the tribune. It is an interesting power because it gave the tribunals the competence of "proibicio", that is to say, to block laws of the Senate that were against either the interest of the army or the interest of Rome.

Augustus will recover this power by abolishing this competence to the tribunals and recover it, it is henceforth the emperor who has the competence and the right of "proibicio".

Auctoritas[edit | edit source]

Auctoritas is a notion linked to a notion of personal prestige. The person who benefits from it during the Roman Empire is a person with moral authority. The person who must first and foremost be the depositary is the emperor. It is not known how the Senate decides whether the emperor has the auctoritas or not, however, it is an essential attribute. It is thought today that the moral authority of emperors was symbolically voted by the Senate. There is a procedure which the emperor must follow, which is the act of denial of power. The emperor is obliged to put his power back into play every year, and it is thought that the auctoritas was voted on at that time.

The attributes of the emperor constituting the Roman imperial model[edit | edit source]

These four fundamental attributes are the attributes of the emperor and are constitutive of the Roman imperial model. It is possible to imagine that the emperor had exceptionally extensive powers. If it is true that the emperor is the first magistrate of the Empire and it is true that the emperor has important power, he has obligations :

  • the emperor has the obligation to seek consensus, i.e. "concordia" which is unity or adhesion. Of course, he has the right to "proibicio", but he cannot ignore it and impose a measure. This is an imperial obligation respected by all emperors.
  • the emperor must comply with the act of refusing power: every year the Senate votes for the re-election of the emperor.
  • the emperor has the obligation to guarantee, protect and respect the "libertas" which is a central value of the philosophy of Roman law. Roman citizens can enjoy their property in safety and their rights in freedom. Being citizens of Rome is the passport to freedom in the Empire.
  • the emperor has the obligation to consult the "concilium principis" which consists exclusively of jurists, the emperor's legal council. From the 3rd century BC onwards, the emperor has the supreme power to request legal advice from the concilium principis.

An imperial model is emerging which gives the emperor significant powers, but these powers are counterbalanced by significant obligations.

Vercingetorix lays down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar at the end of the siege of Alesia. Painting by Lionel Royer, 1899.

Beyond the legal, political or moral attributions, the emperor in the Roman model enjoys an authentic imperial mystique. The emperor's power is increased by mythology. When Augustus became emperor, he understood the symbolic dimension of power. The Roman Empire model is built on the idea that symbolism is just as important as power. Power has an objective dimension with the law, but also a subjective dimension which is the imperial symbolic. There are two ways:

  • the use of military victory in imperial ideology: it is very important for the Roman emperor to be perceived by the people as the victorious military. Rome loves neither the weak nor the losers, victory is crucial, but it must be exploited. The first means constituting imperial mythology is the use of military victory over conquered peoples. The reasoning of all emperors is to say that it is because the gods wanted it to give a sacred dimension to power. It is implied that the supreme magistrate holds his power from the gods. The emperor bases his power on a theology of victory.
  • The sacralization of his own person by imperial worship: the Senate votes to establish a cult of "consecratio" in the name of an emperor who has just died. Any emperor who has just died is submitted to a debate in the Senate, which decrees by law whether, on what day, what week should be dedicated to the worship of the emperor. All emperors have had at heart to have a name that generates a cult.

The territory of the Roman Empire is immense, organised into provinces and it is limited by the so-called "limes" which is the border of the territory. The Roman border of the Roman Empire is called the "file" and the function of the border is extremely important in order to understand the Roman imperial model. The Roman Empire was built in an inclusive and exclusive way. Either one was inside or outside the empire, a member of an empire or on the other side of the border where the barbarians were. This almost binary Roman ideology - barbarian, inclusive - exclusive - was to have a strong influence on the imperial conceptions that were to emerge later. This "we" will distinguish between "civilised men" and "uncivilised men".

The idea of the Roman Empire was based on an emperor, but above all on the idea of a strong central power embodied in the person of the emperor. The emperor had a number of competences and prerogatives surrounded by an imperial cult with a form of sacralization of his person. The notion of frontier was extremely important in the Roman Empire both geographically, politically, militarily, but also ideologically, as it defined those who were within the empire and those who were outside the empire. The binary notion of free man - slave man is an ancient idea that we owe to the Romans irrigating the idea of the Western Empire.

The features of the Roman Empire[edit | edit source]

The Roman Empire is based on four characteristics :

  1. The Roman idea of empire is conservative because it is a question of preserving the past and from this point of view, the Roman Empire never proclaimed its break with the Roman Republic. There is an obsession to stay in touch and in symbiosis with the past. In a way, there is an almost sacred cult for the Romans. It is a polytheistic society where the gods have an important social function. It is about preserving the rites, the customs of the past and the idea of a united territory around a city that is Rome.
  2. It is an authoritarian empire: the emperor has extremely important legal, political and moral powers. Moreover, he rules by the will of the gods.
  3. It is a progressive empire: there are two tendencies, progressive because legally speaking, the Roman Empire enshrines Roman law as the law of the Roman Empire, it is a progressive and successful law. Roman law is the law of the Empire and the language of the Empire is also Latin, which is the official language of the Empire. Unification through language and law makes it also a progressive empire looking to the future. The great strength of the Roman Empire is to have Romanised all the Roman elites. All the peripheral peoples were Romanised in their habits and customs. At the present time, there is talk of the Americanisation of certain societies, at the time we can speak of the Romanisation of the Roman Empire.
  4. It is a liberal empire: the Roman Empire has always sought to respect the freedom and beliefs of the conquered peoples. There is not at all among the Romans any willingness and/or any form of proselytism. The Roman Empire has never sought to convert the conquered peoples, it is not a logic of proselytism of the two great monotheistic relics. Fundamentally, the Roman Empire did not seek to convert and change beliefs. From this point of view, the Romans showed immense tolerance accepting the religious rites of all conquered peoples. In other words, the Roman Empire was tolerant and enshrined the principle of diversity in imperial ideology. The empire at its height was a "multi-ethnic" empire, encompassing diverse populations, languages and customs. The Romans, extremely violent in war, never sought to convert or to annihilate and destroy the cultures of the peoples they had under their military rule.
Bust of Vespasien.

In the "Vespasian Imperium Law" the terms "imperium" and "potestas" are used. In particular, the holder of the imperium has the possibility of concluding treaties.

« Let him be allowed to conclude treaties with whomever he wishes, as was permitted to the divine Augustus, Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, and Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

That he may be allowed to assemble the Senate, to make or cause to be made proposals, to have sénatus-consultes rendered by individual votes, or by ordering the division, as was permitted to the divine Augustus, to Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Whenever the Senate is assembled by virtue of its will, authorisation, order, mandate, or in its presence, all its acts shall have their force, and shall be observed, as well as if it were summoned or required by law;

Whenever the aspirants to any magistracy, power, command, or office whatsoever, shall be the Roman, and he shall have given or promised his support to them, that in all comices their candidacy shall be counted extraordinarily; »

The emperor has the power to elect magistrates. These four lines are fundamental because they describe the emperor's prerogatives, which are extensive.

« May he be allowed, whenever he finds it useful to the Republic, to extend and push back the limits of the Pomoerium, as was allowed to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus ;

That he has the right and the full power to do whatever he thinks fit in the interest of the Republic, in the majesty of divine" and human things, in the public and private good, as was allowed to the divine Augustus, Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, and Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; »

A fragment of the "Res Gestae".

In "'Res Gestae Divi Augusti", the emperor has potestas and autoritas but he is the equal of the magistrates. Augustus who was the first emperor considered himself an equal Roman citizen of the others.

« 31.1.-3 – In my sixth and seventh consulates, after I had extinguished the flames of the civil wars, with the assent of all the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the res publica of my potestat to the will of the senate and of the Roman people ... after that time I prevailed over all by the "autoritas", but of potestas I was no more than the others who were, to me too, my colleagues in the magistracy. »

The imperial power will concentrate and drift authoritatively after Augustus.

« 8.5 – Through new laws passed on my initiative, I have restored many of the traditions of our ancestors that had fallen into disuse in our time, and in many respects I have provided examples for posterity to emulate. »

We see two things here, the conservative dimension and the fact that he wanted to imitate for posterity. There is the idea of restoring the past in order to ensure it and preserve it for posterity. The conservative conception of empire is defended here by Augustus.

This Roman empire, of course, will not die out with its fall. In other words, the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. in no way signifies the end of the idea of the Roman Empire and especially the end of the Empire in general. On the contrary, the idea of empire would survive in Rome and throughout medieval Europe, as evidenced by two great empires, the Carolingian Empire and, above all, the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire in 962, which is said to have inherited the notion of Empire. The institutional fall of Rome does not mean the end of the idea of empire based on a number of characteristics. Throughout the Middle Ages, this idea of empire basically survived, being taken up in two institutions. Firstly among the Germanic peoples and finally in the Roman Church. After the fall of Rome, the Roman idea of empire took two directions. Somewhere, it was taken up by the Holy Roman Empire and then by the Roman Catholic Church.

How did the Germanic peoples transform the idea of empire into the Holy Roman Empire?

Annexes[edit | edit source]

  • Lesuisse Léon. La clause transitoire de la “Lex de imperio Vespasiani”. In: Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire. Tome 40 fasc. 1, 1962. pp. 51-75.
  • Merlin A.. À propos de l’extension du Pomerium par Vespasien. In: Mélanges d’archéologie et d’histoire T. 21, 1901. pp. 97-115.
  •  » Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Trad. Française). <http://droitromain.upmf-grenoble.fr/Francogallica/resgest_fran.htm>.

References[edit | edit source]