Myth 5) Julius Caesar was the first Roman Emperor
This commonly held misconception ultimately boils down to semantics. Etymologically, we derive our word “emperor” from the Latin imperator. But rather than having anything to do with wielding sole, autocratic political power, imperator was instead the title bestowed on a successful general who had managed to extend the territory of the Roman Empire. Its historical use, therefore, stretches back long to the early years of the Republic, long before the arrival of the Roman emperors.
Our monarchical idea of an emperor is better encapsulated in the Latin word princeps: a term meaning “first citizen” which has given us our word “prince”. There was also the word rexâmeaning kingâbut since the expulsion of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Republic, the Romans had an innate hatred of kingship and one-man rule. The only way a Roman could rule alone was as dictator. But this was only permitted in extreme circumstances and lasted only a year.
Julius Caesar was an imperator in that he added the entirety of Gaul and, briefly, Britain to the empire. But he never called himself princeps or rex. In fact, when Caesar was offered a crown he refused it, making it publically known that he had no aspirations of kingship. The closest Caesar came to autocratic power before his assassination was declaring himself dictator perpetuoâdictator in perpetuity.
The first emperor in the true sense was instead Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus. After Caesar’s assassination, he began styling himself caesaris divi filius, the Son of the God Julius Caesar. And after defeating Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC and establishing himself as sole ruler of the Roman world, he declared himself princeps inter pares, first amongst equals. The “amongst equals” part, however, was just a sham.
In reality, Augustus monopolized all political power for himself. He created many institutions we associate with the emperors (such as the Praetorian Guard), took over sole control of the armyâreserving the title of imperator for either the emperor or a chosen few in the imperial familyâand set in motion the process that moved political decision making away from the Senate and behind the closed doors of the imperial palace.
While we’re here, there are a few myths about Caesar worth debunking. He never actually said, “the die is cast” as he crossed the Rubicon. The Latin (alea iacta est) translates more accurately as, “the dice have been rolled (let’s hope I’m lucky)”. Nor was he born from Caesarian section. His name probably comes from the Latin caedere (“to cut”), referring to a particularly slash-happy ancestor. And disappointing though this may be, I regret to inform you that he had nothing to do with the invention of the Caesar Salad.