Augustus to Justinian: General Themes in the Corruption of the Roman Principate

The Roman Forum / Photo by Bert Kaufmann, Wikimedia Commons

The best intentions often end in the most spectacular falls.

By Zachary Scott Rupley / 05.2009
Adjunct Professor of History
East Tennessee State University

Conception and Temperament of Emperors; State of the World


[LEFT]: Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century / Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: Detail of a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna / Wikimedia Commons

One primary reason the image of the Emperor changed so greatly from Augustus to Justinian lay in the mentality and temperament of the Emperors, how they saw themselves in the greater scheme of things, and the world in which each lived. Over the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, the Emperors comprised of a cast of individuals largely familiar with the traditions of Italy and the Roman Republic, who were willing to style their increasingly absolute power in that Republican mold. The Emperor served as a general, an executive administrator, the head of the Senate, and the highest judge in the land. By partnership with the Senate, the Emperor directly administrated the frontier provinces, and Egypt was his sole possession. Temperate men like Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, and the Successor Emperors overcame the Caligulas and Neros of the world. Also, these early Emperors ruled at a time of relative quite in European history, with no major migrations to speak of, and therefore administered lightly. The Germans were too scattered to pose a real threat, and Trajan overcame the only other European threat, the Dacians. The often beleaguered Parthians only on rare occasions left their own domain, and were more often viewed as an imperial treasure chest then a serious frontier threat.

The cult of the Emperor continued to develop, but the artistic representation of the Emperors remained modest in Italy and the West, neglecting the Emperor’s true power; a practice more readily displayed in the eastern provinces. Modesty and tradition forbade such a practice in Italy. Even Augustus noted that modesty and tradition were the means to employ new administrative programs; all one need do is dress some thing new in the clothing of something old. Those who broke with tradition too rapidly found themselves dead, i.e. Caligula and his attempted Hellenistic Monarchy, as well as the premature dominate of Domitian. Trajan served as the first non-Italian Emperor, but he sprang from Italian stock in a Spanish Roman colony of Italica. He grew up the hard Roman way and understood the political dance of the city and its traditions. Commodus, on the other hand, like Nero before him, took to luxury in a way that would have shocked his father. Palace living ruined him as surely as it would many Ottoman princes centuries later. His repeat impersonation of Hercules stunned the Senate and laid the groundwork for future, direct God association. His masscaure of the Senate also established a new precedent. Septimius Severus, of Phoenician origin, began the gradual break from Italian tradition, persecuting the Senate like never before, making the army more loyal to the Emperor, and adopting certain Eastern practices. The quality and temperament of the Severans different greatly from those who had come before them. Septimius was an efficient ruler, but he never shed his military dominance, even as chief executor of the state. If Augustus initiated the principate, then Severus established the era of the imperator, where the military nakedly ruled the Empire. The rapid imperial turnover of the third century, cast in the Severan model of imperator, allowed for cleavage within the Empire, dividing it in thirds. Too often these generals possessed more ambition than ability. Aurelian reunited the Empire, but at the final death blow of the princeps. An Illyrian, not an Italian, he fancied himself a divine avatar destined to reunite the Empire. Surely his power came from the greatest source, not necessarily the gods of old, but the One God, Sol Invictus.[1] From Aurelian until C.E. 1453 the Emperors believed themselves not merely favored by the Gods but walked with them as well. With Aurelian we enter the era of the Helleno-Roman god-king, cast considerably in the image of the Hellenistic princes of old, who were also divinities that walked with their patron God. The Imperial cult reflected this change. The Imperial presentation changed from an executive with his chief administrators, to a general assisted by his staff, to a god-king surrounded by his sprawling court. Carey and Scullard postulate that the principate was destined to follow this progression, but the “Third Century Crisis” sharply accelerated the process.[2] To overcome the difficulties of invasion, disease, civil war, and economic collapse, the Emperor must appear as more than a man. He must stand out distinctly from others in society, his presence shrouded in mystery. No longer a public figure of the Old Italian model, the Augustan maxims of primus inter pares vanished before Diocletian’s deus et dominus. The artistic representation of the Emperors, which had grown steadily towards Hellenistic era abstraction during the middle third century, gave way before Diocletian’s Tetrarchy and the Emperor as type, interchangeable and idealized. As another Illyrian Emperor, Diocletian and his staff of co-emperor cared little for the Republican concept of shared responsibility within the state. As in internal administrator in the military, Diocles possessed a highly ordered and organized mind, which ended up being his greatest gift to the Empire. Was the Emperor to be stepped in Italian tradition and Republican fiction, or was his job to organize and deliver the state? The Tetrarchs obviously chose the latter, and as the centuries progressed, the chasm widened between the old Italio-centric Empire and the new imperial bureaucratic state administered by a distant God-Emperor. The old bureaucratic organization had failed, and Diocletian replaced it with a more efficient a more effective and greatly expanded court bureaucracy. Further, Diocletian’s programs and formula for succession stressed the office of Emperor over the individual. The individual was divinely chosen to fulfill this role.

Colossal head of Constantine from a seated statue (4th century) / Photo by Katie Chao and Ben Muessig, Wikimedia Commons

The domination of Christianity did little to change the shape and image of the Emperor, nor the administration of the Empire. Constantine carried over all of Diocletian pomp, and by adding to it a certain kind of otherworldliness, transformed the primary object of imperial veneration from the statue to the religious icon. The court parade functioned as a kind of living panegyric.[3] As Constantine’s image beams his authority, he gazes to the heavens and another world and ultimately to the source of his power. With this final movement we can see how the position of the Emperor changed from the republican constitutional monarch to the divine autocrat. It is thanks to the times and temperaments of Augustus, Diocletian, and Constantine that the representation of the Emperor appeared as it did during the age of Justinian.

The earliest Emperors were mostly Italians, or of an Old Italian mindsets. Later Emperors were military men from the provinces, unfamiliar with the niceties of Roman politics. They wanted results in the quickest, most effective manner.

Hellenization and the Importance of the Eastern Fronts

Since the time of Augustus, the Danube frontier of Eastern Europe was one of the most difficult frontiers to garrison. Stretching from the Alps to the Black Sea, it proved nearly impossible to defend. Still, though, this frontier held for hundreds of years, collapsing from time to time, but always stabilizing. However, even by demanding an overwhelming amount of imperial soldiery, it couldn’t keep everyone out. Many of the Empire’s greatest problems stemmed from the weak Danubian front of the fourth and fifth centuries, the Goths repeatedly, as well as the Huns. The Balkan Peninsula was one of the major hot-spots of the third century invasions. Each occasion resulted in massive destruction within the Balkans and European Hellas, threatening the desert provinces as well. During the Tetrarchy, Diocletian openly favored the richer, more civilized Eastern provinces, and left the rugged Balkan to his fiery Caesar, Galerius. Centered at Sirmium, Galerius possessed the unenviable task of defending the Danube, holding his own against the Iranian Sarmatians and other Germanic peoples. Justinian built six hundred new fortifications in the upper and middle Balkans to hopefully solve the problem. Having been born and raised in Illyricum, he well understood the importance of the Danube front to the Eastern Roman Empire.[4] Thus, it is clear that as the centuries progressed, the Roman establishment understood that the Balkans were the land route of invasion to the Hellenistic East as well as a threat to the Eastern Roman Empire’s chief supply of soldiers in Europe. When Constantine moved the capital of the Empire to the Balkans, this decision displayed the strategical importance of the region. The richest most productive provinces must take first priority. A strong position on the Danube provided greater security to the capital’s rear, thus making the great tasking of fending off the Persians from the eastern front that much easier.

What does this have to do with the image of the Roman Emperor? The Balkans and Hellas are not Italy, and therefore never held the ruler to the ancient pretexts of the Roman Republic. Long before Rome entered the region, larger than life kings ruled over great swaths of the Balkans, ranging from Alexander the Great and Philip II to Pyrrhus and Lysimachus. As a functioning cog of the Hellenistic world, the Balkans were exposed to the same kind of god-like hero worship involved in making a Hellenistic autocracy, and even under the Roman Republic and early Empire that perception of the ruler did not diminish. Augustus was worshiped as Sebastos and
Basileus, never as princeps. From the East, the Emperors were worshiped as gods. The direct successors of Alexander may have fallen into history; the Roman Emperors remained divine to the eastern Hellenes. A ruler of such magnitude should not have to disguise his power. The Greek speaking peoples of the Balkans did not understand the principate and the need for modesty. Without the need of Rome as an imperial capital, Emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine, foreign as they were to the Italian senatorial class and their ancient customs and rites, ruled the Empire from the Hellenistic Eastern provinces without a shred of imperial modesty. What was the point of hiding ultimate power from a population that was used to its presence? The Hellenistic monarch was absolute head of state. Centered then at Constantinople, the Emperors soaked in the Hellenization of the position. The armies and people of the land flocked to his divine standard. The absolute authority and divinity of the ruler was well known and the cult of the autocrat well displayed since the days of Alexander.

The Hellenistic tradition of kingship, the importance of the Eastern Front, the location of the greatest cities, and trade of the Empire located in the East.

Non-Italian Influences: Persian, Christian, and German

Aside from individual temperament and overwhelming Hellenistic cultural practices, other outside forces wore down the image of the aristocratic Italian princeps. The most obvious would be Persian and Far Eastern influences. The ancient court practices and ceremonies of the Iranian ruling class might have appeared obnoxious to the Greek allies at Byzantium in 478 B.C.E., citing similar behavioral patterns in the Spartan regent Pausanias, but by the fourth century C.E. such practices were well established in the Roman administrative machine. Rung after rung of court officials interrupted access to the Emperor in the manner of the Persian court. Diocletian also imported Persian eunuchs to watch over his personal chambers.[5] Michael Grant mentions that during the period of Constantine, the only difference between the Roman and Persian courts was that the Roman Emperor did not wear “necklaces, ribbons or earrings”. Christian writers lauded Constantine’s autocratic splendor.[6] Constantine began the non-Roman practice of wearing a diadem on a permanent basis.[7] Previously the crown, be it of laurels or jewels, was reserved for victorious moments. Caesar chose to wear one on a permanent basis, but this sign of kingly pomp resulted in his death. Constantine faced no such threat. The permanence of his crown reflected the autocratic dignity of his position. This is a reoccurring theme in classical history; rulers and men of importance, once exposed to the
mores of the “East,” fall face first into its practices. What was the appeal? Clearly it is about power and recognition. The autocrat can achieve more without the restraints of government, and this is not always a bad thing. As stated above, the Emperors of the third century and beyond were more concerned with getting the job done than debating a point in the Senate. Some of the greatest follies of Roman history came after joint consulate commanders could not agree on what to do. So then, why the elaborate court ceremonial? It is not only to enhance ones sense of importance but to also radiate that importance to all outsiders. During the middle and late Byzantine periods, the ability to project more power than actually at hand was as true a defense as the walls of Constantinople. The coming of Christianity further enforced the ceremonial and court as a reflection of heaven, with the Emperor as God and his hierarchy of attendants mirroring the heavenly hierarchy of angels. The act of adoration officially made its way into the Roman ceremonial during the time of Diocletian, though it had been attempted before.[8] Adoration was known in the Europe, but only in the worship of the Gods, but was actively used in Iran as a sign of servility to superiors.

A certain few non-Roman, Germanic practices entered into the ceremonial of the later Empire, probably stemming from the increasing number of Germanic soldiers in the military. We hear of the two most important practices during the election of Julian as Augustus in Gaul by his soldiers.[8] With no diadem to crown him, Julian’s troops selected the torque, actually a gold chain, crowing Julian with it as a makeshift crown. Furthermore, they hoisted him upon a shield, elevating him upon it in the old Germanic fashion. These practices very quickly found their way into court ritual. The Emperors of the fifth and sixth centuries were first crowned with the torque and then again with the actual diadem. Once properly outfitted with the diadem and chlamys, the new Emperor was placed on top of a shield and carried about. This dual coronation allowed the military and the civilian population each a chance to crown the Emperors in their own ways.[9]

Raphael’s The Baptism of Constantine depicts Sylvester I instead of Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, Constantine’s actual baptizer. / Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons

The role of Christianity in the presentation of the Roman Emperor should not be diminished either. As frontality came to be the favored style of mural art for eastern Christian communities, so too did it come to represent the Emperor. The magnitude of frontal art overwhelmed the soul. The powerful gaze invoked awe for its viewer in a fashion reminiscent of Diocletian’s artistic style. The imperial Christian face overtook Constantine’s third century Hellenistic revival. Writing a century after Constantine, John Chrysostom likened the splendor of imperial presentation to the beauty of Christ. The holy nimbus, which the Christians stole from Sol Invictus and sun worship, represented the fourth and fifth century Emperor’s own holiness, and the blessing of Christ.[10]

The ancient and confused status of the Emperors divinity was finally resolved by the Christian Emperors. Since Augustus’ ascension as sole ruler, the divinity of the Emperors had been something of a problem; was he a God outright, was he divinely sponsored by the Gods, was he the agent of the Gods or one God in particular? Once Christian, the answer became quite clear. The God Yahweh was the master of the universe, and the Emperor was his chosen representative on Earth. This in itself was a practice partially known since Hellenistic times (i.e. Dionysus and the Ptolemies, Apollo and the Seleucids), but the division between man and God in the body of the Roman ruler was finally made clear. The Emperor should reflect the glory of his chosen God in his person and in his actions. Many Christian Emperors therefore took over the title of philanthropos from the Hellenistic kings as benefiter of mankind.[11]

After the Tetrarchy and its imperial mores, the presentation of the Emperor drifted into the truly bizarre. As we have seen the image of the Emperor served as a conduit to his person, so that he could theoretically be in many of place at once. In the shadow of Byzantium, the process of installing on imperial portrait took on the attributes of a religious procession. The icon of the Emperor would literally be paraded to its destination by a sacred retinue, as if the Emperor were actually with them. Once the installation of the image was completed, the town celebrated in festival style. All for an image![12] Once we begin hearing of these kinds of practices, medieval Byzantium can’t be far behind.


What could Augustus and Justinian possibly have in common other than the fact that they were both Roman Emperors? First of all, the polytheistic victory cult established under Augustus continued deep into the Byzantine period. We have seen that the goddess Victoria appears in Augustan imagery, as well as Justinian imagery over five hundred years and several major religions later. Even after the great theological battle in the Roman Senate over the statue of Victoria offending the Christian Emperors, pagan imagery abounds. In the statue atop the Column of Justinian we see that anatomically idealized imperial sculpture pushed deep into Roman history. We may also see that on Justinian’s statue and Augustus’ coins, the Emperor makes use of the adlocutio hand gesture to halt a potential enemy. By his genius, they would halt; there was no need for war. It would take more than five hundred years to deconstruct the imperial pagan cult, as well as imperial pagan imagery.

Whether the Christians wanted to acknowledge it or not, their religious movement grew out of,
and was surrounded by, non-Christian imagery. They fact that the Christian movement was influenced by this imagery can not be denied. The long pagan office of Imperator Romanorum
could not simply drop its pagan imagery. The cultural imprint was deep and could not be filled in overnight. It would be for future generations to completely remove the “pagans” from the Empire, and in time Victoria too would be absorbed into Christianity as so many Gods and Goddesses before. Every other outward manifestation of the Emperors may have changed, but the fact remains that the polytheistic imagery of the victorious Emperor and his cult is the continuity that binds Augustus to Justinian.


  1. Grant, The Roman Emperors, 185-187.
  2. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, 1981), 271.
  3. Evans, The Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine Empire, 55.
  4. Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome, 524-526.
  5. Grant, The Climax of Rome, 71.
  6. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, 189.
  7. Grant, The Climax of Rome,69-70.
  8. Norwhich, A Short History of Byzantium, 23-24.
  9. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, 242-244.
  10. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, 165.
  11. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, 217.
  12. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, 67-69.


Originally published by East Tennessee State University, Electronic Theses and Dissertations (Paper 1863), May 2009, under the terms of a free and open access Digital Commons license.