Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate - Cicero attacking Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco
Rep­res­ent­a­tion of pro­ceed­ings in the Roman Sen­ate - Cicero attack­ing Cat­ilina, from a 19th-cen­tury fresco

The exer­cise of author­ity in Rome – at least dur­ing much of the Repub­lic – things changed under the Prin­cip­ate and the Empire – was based, as were mor­als and reli­gion upon the mos maior­um, the laws of the eld­er, and Roman soci­ety was very much a mir­ror image of its core, the fam­ily.

The fam­ily – which rather should be trans­lated as “house­hold” than refer­ring to the blood rel­at­ives only – was almost dic­tat­or­ily headed by the pater famili­as, while the rela­tions out­side of the fam­ily were guided by the prin­ciples of pat­ron (pat­ro­nus) and cli­ent (cli­ens). 

It sur­prises little that these two ele­ments were largely mirrored with­in the leg­al con­cepts of civil and mil­it­ary author­ity.

The concept of pot­est­as was applied, as we would say, in mat­ters of the private law, with­in the fam­ily as the Pat­ria pot­est­as, and in civil law the power, or per­haps bet­ter the jur­is­dic­tion and respons­ib­il­ity, of a magis­trate to pro­mul­gate the laws and arrange the work­ings of the state, i.e. rather an expres­sion of socially recog­nized power than an exec­ut­ive func­tion.


Auct­or­itas, how­ever, was dif­fer­ent in nature, not a mat­ter of the law but a meas­ure of the prestige a man (or, in Imper­i­al times, a woman) enjoyed with­in the Roman soci­ety. Polit­ic­ally, it expressed itself pre­dom­in­antly in the Sen­ate, in the auct­or­itas of the Prin­ceps Senatus, the cen­sors, and oth­er out­stand­ing per­son­al­it­ies. (1) It was, nat­ur­ally, a mat­ter of cha­risma.

Imper­i­um was a more ser­i­ous mat­ter. It was the leg­ally pre­scribed form­al power of com­mand a cit­izen held over a civil or mil­it­ary entity – a mil­it­ary unit, a province, ter­rit­ory, cam­paign or spe­cial com­mand (e.g. Pom­pey against the Cili­cian pir­ates in 67 – 66 BC). Imper­i­um was held by the cur­ule aedile, the praetor, the con­sul, the magister equitum, and the dic­tat­or, and such pro­ma­gis­trates (pro­praet­ors and pro­con­suls) which were appoin­ted annu­ally for the gov­ern­ment of provinces.

Imper­i­um was bestowed by a leg­al act of the Sen­ate and ori­gin­ally lim­ited to one year with the excep­tion of the dictator’s term of six months and the rare imper­i­um maius which could last as long as the under­ly­ing man­date. In the last cen­tury of the Repub­lic, these rules were com­monly broken – Mari­us’ sev­en con­sul­ships, Caesar’s five-year term in Gal­lia and his and Sulla’s dic­tat­or­ships. The emper­ors’ Imper­i­um, nat­ur­ally, ran for a life­time.

Imper­i­um included – at least in prin­ciple – the power to com­mand everything up to the death pen­alty for offend­ers (although vari­ous laws lim­ited the death pen­alty for Romans cit­izens, which, how­ever, ten­ded to work bet­ter for the rich and fam­ous than for the poor sods of Subura and the bot­tom of Esquilina, the two tribes reserved for the major­ity of the plebs).

Since many magis­trates held Imper­i­um, the ques­tion of over­rul­ing was a con­stant prac­tic­al mat­ter. Com­monly it worked by seni­or­ity – an aedile could be over­ruled by a praetor, the praetor by the con­sul and so forth. Col­leagues could over­rule each oth­er, i.e. veto – and fre­quently did, except for the dic­tat­or, whose orders were above the law and not sub­ject to sub­sequent judi­cial pro­ceed­ings.

In spe­cial cases – see Pom­pey above – the Sen­ate could give out imper­i­um maius (“great­er”) to an offi­cial, usu­ally for a closely defined task (dic­tat­ors held it by defin­i­tion). This proved such a desir­able and effect­ive meth­od of office that it was quickly appro­pri­ated by the emper­ors and became their hall­mark.

Tiberi­us and Gaius Grac­chus, the two fam­ous tribunes, by Eugene Guil­laume

The last and rather dif­fer­ent form of a com­mand – being entirely a neg­at­ive power – was the fam­ous “Inter­cessio!” – ‘I step in!’, by which any Tribune of the Plebs (of which they were usu­ally ten) could veto dis­cus­sions, com­mands, tri­als and even laws. This being a most prac­tic­al way of inter­fer­ence, every big­wig of the late repub­lic – Mari­us, Sulla, Pom­pey, Caesar and the like – made sure they always had one or two tame tribunes on their payroll which they could use for polit­ic­al sab­ot­age.

This abil­ity proved so use­ful and desir­able that, from Augus­tus on, every emper­or made sure to receive the tribunal char­ac­ter on the occa­sion of his ascen­sion to the throne. Imper­i­um maius and the tribunal power became the major instru­ments of Imper­i­al reign.

Clem­ency could be obtained by appeal­ing to a Vestal Vir­gin

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2019)

(1) See Wiki: The 19th-cen­tury clas­si­cist Theodor Mommsen describes the “force” of auct­or­itas as “more than advice and less than com­mand, a piece of advice which one may not safely ignore.” Cicero says of power and author­ity, “Cum pot­est­as in pop­ulo auct­or­itas in senatu sit.” (“While power resides in the people, author­ity rests with the Sen­ate.”)

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