Roman leadership grew wary of the Senate following the assassination of Julius Caesar. In order to preserve governmental unity and to avoid splintering the growing empire, subsequent Roman emperors downplayed the role of the Senate, assuming power only slightly less dictatorial than the first Caesar.
Upon assuming leadership, Octavian was faced with placating the Senate while simultaneously consolidating unchallenged power. The solution was simple, and “thus in January 27 BC Octavian went through the pantomime of giving up power to the senate and receiving most of it back again” (Scarre 1997. p. 18). What appeared to be concessions in power was actually a series of maneuvers in which Octavian engaged in order to write the Senate’s power out of the new constitution.
Such strategies were later found to be obsolete, as the Senate almost played into Octavian’s hands, ceding power in order to quell growing concerns regarding the cohesion of the state. Whether to circumvent the Roman bureaucracy or to simply create a scapegoat if events took a turn for the worst, the Senate played a significant part in its own dilution in the Octavian constitution. The Senate would often pass laws that would consolidate Octavian’s power as if to test his resolve to establish a republic; Octavian would in turn veto them immediately, earning him the trust of the plebeian commoners and furthering his image as a “man of the people” (Suetonius 1979, p. 85).
With instability threatening the unity of the empire, such drastic yet voluntary moves were often made on part of the Senate to further empower Octavian, for example, the Senate voted him the task of supervising public morals and scrutinizing the lifetime – “[a] lifetime appointment” (Suetonius 1979, p. 69).
The new constitution did not prohibit the senate from the lawmaking process, but laws’ existences were at the whim of the emperor. There were two instances in which Octavian “[seriously] thought of restoring the Republican system,” once “immediately after the fall of Antony,” who “had often accused him of being the one obstacle to such a change” and “again when he could not shake off an exhausting illness” that threatened to resurrect the post-Caesar power vacuum (Suetonius 1979, p. 69).
Rather than empower the Senate in judiciary matters, however, the primarily legislative Senate in the Augustan constitution was truncated; Octavian further limited the Senate by amending its membership numbers to a maximum of 600. The Senate was restricted for two reasons;
1) Octavian’s perceived desire to consolidate unmitigated power, and 2) the corruption that had plagued the Senate’s membership since the death of Julius Caesar.
By his ascension to power, the Senate “numbered more than 1,000 persons,” many of whom “secured admission after Caesar’s death or through bribery” (Suetonius 1979, p. 74). Additional criterion for senator Selection was instated, with land ownership a requisite for promotion. The Senate’s lack of executive and judiciary powers was a limitation levied by Octavian due to his concern “for his own lite” as well as “national security”, claims which were justified by an expansionist war in Western Europe and a series of skirmishes in the Pyrenees (Suetonius 1979, p. 69).
Following Octavian’s assumption of power, the Senate had no power to organize itself, relegated in the Augustan constitution to a dependence on the emperor in order to determine its fate. Octavian orchestrated the constitution to allow the formation of “a Council of the Senate” at his behest, which would in turn choose Senatorial] members “by lot every six months,” limiting their duty to “study the drafts of bills which would later be laid before the House as a whole” (Suetonius 1979, p. 74).
Octavian’s changes were sweeping, and the legislative state in which he left the Senate was remarkable. “The powers he held were exceptional [but] none of them was entirely without republican precedent”: unlike other Caesars, Octavian’s usurpation of power came under the guise of civility and the welfare of the state (Scarre 1997, p. 19). Though the Senate could not keep Octavian’s power in check, it was given free-reign to mold the modes of the daily lives of Rome’s citizens as it saw fit. Octavian’s greatest achievement “lay in persuading the senators to accept his position as head of state and to find adequate scope for their ambitions without directly threatening his own political aims” (Scarre 1997, p. 19).
In short, Octavian limited the Senate in such a way that he could-pursue his expansionist claims in Europe and Eurasia while preserving the fallacy of Senatorial domestic legislation, while Octavian conquered Gaul and modern-day Spain, the Augustan Senate assisted domestically in the restructuring of Rome’s social classes.
With Octavian, the Senate re-invented Roman social order, “[cross-examining] every knight on his personal affairs” with “the assistance of ten senators,” a measure the Senate deemed necessary for the continuance of Roman racial and class-based superiority (Suetonius 1979, p. 76). In addition, Octavian sculpted the Senate to monitor the preservation of “Roman stock”; Octavian charged the Senate with the responsibility of limiting the number of “new Roman citizens, or to permit the manumission of more than a limited number of slaves” (Suetonius 1979, p. 77). The State had “been revolutionized. and there was not a vestige left of the old ‘sound’ morality,” and the Augustan constitution had effectively transformed the Senate from a political to a largely social body (Tacitus 1952, p. 2).
Despite the fact that Octavian’s changes “promoted justice”, they largely “ruined freedom” (Tacitus 1952, p. 22). The only changes made from the remnants of Julius Caesar’s Rome were nominal: the collective fear of civil war and the impending dissipation of Roman international hegemony allowed Octavian the liberty of paring Senatorial influence. Reduced to a social monitor, the Senate would not be restored to its former power for several centuries.
Scarre, Chris. (1997) Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome. London, Thames and Hudson.
Suetonius, Gaius and Robert Graves (trans) (1979) The Twelve Caesars. New York, Penguin Classics.
Tacitus, P. Cornelius. (1952) The Annals and The Histories. Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica.