Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire

Alexander Meddings - October 4, 2017

Born out of the expulsion of Rome’s monarchy in the late sixth century BC, the Roman Republic lasted for over 500 years, and presided over Rome’s growth from a small, unimportant township to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world. But what exactly was the Roman Republic, how did it differ from the Roman Empire, and how did it ultimately collapse?

Our word republic comes from the Latin res publica, which means “public thing” or “public matter”. Politically, it combined elements of everything: it’s two annually elected consuls at the head made up the monarchical element; the Senate, composed of former office-holders and responsible for allocating funds and strategizing foreign policy, made up the oligarchic element; and the people’s assemblies, responsible for elections and passing legislation, made up—at least superficially—the democratic element.

Given how their Republic was founded, it’s easy to understand why the Romans would harbor an innate hatred of kingship. In fact, they structured their Republic in such a way that, theoretically, no one person could ever become that powerful. The great irony is that, after spending the Republic’s last few decades trying to hold back the tide of one-man rule by fighting a series of bloody civil wars, that was precisely what they ended up with. This article looks at the series of events that led to the Roman Republic ultimately unraveling, only to be replaced with one-man autocratic rule under what’s commonly known as the Roman Empire.

The destruction of Carthage in 146 BC

There are two things worth knowing about Cato the Elder. First, he was your model conservative Roman: a spokesman for back-to-basics values and a sharp critic of flashy, perfumed Greek culture. Second, he really hated Carthage. Much to the ire of his fellow senators, he would end every speech he gave in the Senate Carthago delenda est, “Carthage must be destroyed!” Once he even began one by letting some delicious ripe figs fall from his toga, informing his bemused colleagues that their place of origin (Carthage, in fact) was just three days away.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Cato again reminding his fellow senators that “Carthage must be destroyed”. Pass the Garum

Cato’s fear of Carthage was well-founded. Already, the Roman Republic had been at war with the naval and mercantile superpower twice in what’s known as the Punic Wars. The First Punic War (264 – 241 BC) was fought over control of the strategically important islands of Corsica and Sicily, which the Romans ultimately managed to wrestle from the Carthaginians. The Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) didn’t go quite so well for them; they spent most of it decisively and crushingly losing to Hannibal who’d marched his army—compete with elephants, only one of which survived—up from Africa, through Spain, over the Alps and into Italy.

For reasons lost to history, in 216 BC when Hannibal was “at the gates” and had his opportunity to take Rome he chose not to. Perhaps realizing the extent of Rome’s manpower reserves, he instead marched south and waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to win Rome’s Italian allies over before being recalled to Carthage and later defeated at the Battle of Zama. Cato’s incessant pleas for Carthage’s destruction come from the eve of the Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC): a short encounter, most of which was spent besieging the city of Carthage itself. Under the leadership of Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman Republic soon starved it into submission before brutally sacking it.

The destruction of Carthage and of the Greek city of Corinth the same year announced Rome as the new dominant power in the Mediterranean. This had its problems. The first was the massive influx of wealth (luxuria the Romans called it) that came with defeating these powers and the corrupting influence this had on (supposedly) simple Roman values. The second was with its annually changing leaders, the republican form of government was barely capable of administrating Italy, never mind the whole Mediterranean basin. Thirdly, the Romans needed a powerful enemy to soak up their excessive military energy. With no serious threat to the Roman Republic’s survival, its daggers drawn for war began to point inwards.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Death of Tiberius Gracchus. Sites at Penn State

The murder of Tiberius Gracchus

Reflecting on the downfall of his beloved Republic, the great orator, philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero picked out one event, some 80 years previous, which signaled the beginning of the end. “The death of Tiberius Gracchus,” he wrote, “and even before that the whole rationale behind his tribunate, divided a united people into two distinct groups” and thus paved the way for civil war. No doubt he was right about the significance of Tiberius’s death and his problematically populist political programme (the troubling rationale behind his tribunate). But to call the Romans united before the arrival of Tiberius Gracchus is a little too generous.

At its foundation, the Roman Republic was split socially between patricians and plebeians. The patricians, hereditary aristocrats, essentially took all political and religious offices for themselves, monopolizing control of government and leaving the plebeian masses with nothing but a load of debt and no way out of it. Then in 494 BC came the Conflict of the Orders in which Rome’s plebeians did what today’s Italians still do best and went on strike. Their mass walkout temporarily brought Rome to a halt and eventually won them a series of political liberties.

One was the creation of their own assembly with an elected plebeian official to preside over it called the “Tribune of the Plebs“. The tribune was sacrosanct, meaning nobody could lay a hand on him for fear of being either outlawed or hunted down by a plebeian mob. It was to this position that Tiberius Gracchus, a celebrated war hero and brother-in-law of Carthage’s hammer, Scipio Aemilianus, was elected in 133 BC. The main agenda Tiberius wanted to push was the requisitioning of land from Italy’s rich and its division among the disgruntled, landless poor.

This obviously didn’t go down well with the patricians, who got their man Marcus Octavius (Tiberius’s fellow tribune) to repeatedly veto his legislation. Tiberius’s response was simple but effective: he got the people to vote Octavius out of office. His reform then passed and a generous sum of money from the recently incorporated kingdom of Attalus III of Pergamum provided the funds to implement it. But retirement after his year in office wouldn’t do for Tiberius, and wanting to see the job through until the end he stood for the tribunate a second time. For his senatorial enemies, this was too much.

In 133 BC Tiberius was murdered along with 300 of his supporters, bludgeoned to death by a chair leg as votes were being counted in the Plebeian Assembly. As Cicero realised, his death set a dangerous precedent. Legally speaking, as Tribune of the Plebs Tiberius should have been physically untouchable. But this completely was disregarded. Instead, his murder set an example as the first case of extreme violence being used where politics had failed to settle matters. Unsurprisingly, it wouldn’t be the last time violence infused the politics of the Roman Republic. Surprisingly, however, history would be repeated just over 10 years later with Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Illustration of the charismatic (and demagogic) Gaius Gracchus. Wikipedia

The death of Gaius Gracchus

Tiberius’s brutal murder could have driven his younger brother to one of two choices. It could have either persuaded him to shy away from politics and public life entirely (or if he had any involvement at least to tow the senatorial line). Or it could have fired him up to see his brother’s land reform legislation through to the end, and maybe implement some radical legislation of his own. Gaius Gracchus being who he was, it ended up being the latter.

Gaius managed what his brother could not, holding the position of tribune two years in a row in 123 and 122 BC. He also surpassed his brother in the scale and radicalism of his reforms. He outlawed bribery and enabled people to appeal the death penalty. He made Rome the only state in the Mediterranean to provide a state-subsidized grain ration to each of its citizens, an innovation that lasted for centuries. And in his land reforms, he established colonies abroad where citizens could emigrate en masse (one of them being the recently razed site of Carthage which—contrary to popular belief—was never sown with salt).

His popularity with the masses and brazen disregard for the wishes of the patricians made him unsurprisingly even more unpopular than his brother. It could have been behind-the-scenes senatorial scheming that explains why, when he went for the tribunate again in 121 BC, he failed to secure it. Things then went from bad to worse as he barely managed to stop one of the consuls for that year Lucius Opimius from repealing his legislation. And then, during a street brawl, a posse of Gracchan supporters stabbed Opimius’s attendant to death with styluses (the pen on this occasion proving mightier than the sword), forcing Gaius to flee as the Senate announced a state of emergency.

With the backing of the Senate, Opimius managed to talk some Cretan Archers (who just happened to be hanging around) into joining his improvised lynch mob. He then set about massacring thousands of Gracchan supporters, some 3,000 if we believe the ancient numbers, either butchered on the spot or executed after a series of sham trials over the coming days. Gaius at this point was taking refuge on the Aventine Hill. But with the Cretan Archers approaching, and seeing no way out of his mortal predicament, he ordered his slave to stab him to death; an order he obligingly carried out.

While Tiberius’s death had set a precedent, his younger brother’s death entrenched it. Senatorially approved factional violence was now seeping into the mainstream as a legitimate way of removing one’s enemies. Ostensibly, these enemies were threats to the state, but in reality, they threatened no more than the status quo. To keep up appearances, Opimius was made to stand trial for his slaughter of thousands. But as it was just for effect he was soon acquitted. As things were beginning to calm down in Rome, however, tensions were reaching breaking point among Rome’s allies across Italy.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Coins minted by the allies during the social war showed a bull (their symbol) goring a wolf (Rome’s symbol). The Saleroom

The “Social War”

Calling any war social is as much a misnomer as calling any war civil. But in this case, we can make an exception: socius in Latin means, “ally”, and it was precisely Rome’s allies that revolted in 91 BC, sparking off the first of the series of civil wars that came to characterize the late Roman Republic. Why Rome’s allies revolted is another question. Roman propaganda stressed that it was for full Roman citizenship, which was ultimately granted to them anyway. But we should always remember that history is written by the victors. Surviving traces of allied propaganda suggest the opposite; that the allies had fought to cut loose from the snowballing city-state of Rome.

The big question in the early 90s BC was citizenship, namely whether it should be extended to Rome’s Italian allies. It was a tricky issue. Some allies towns were doing very well out of their relationship with Rome, providing manpower for the legions and taxation in exchange for a generous share of the booty. But they were still very much second-class citizens, Practically excluded from having a say in Roman policymaking through voting and often subject to some brutally harsh treatment at the hands of rogue Roman officials.

The idea of enfranchising the allies led to an outbreak of xenophobia back in Rome. Gracchus’s old enemies addressed crowds, warning them how Rome would imminently be swamped by immigrants intent on stealing their jobs and taking up their spaces at the games and festivals (rhetoric that’s all too familiar today). Then in 92 BC, a populist Tribune of the Plebs called Marcus Livius Drusus tried to pass legislation extending citizenship to the Italian allies, earning him a dagger in the heart from an unknown assassin.

Drusus’s death roughly coincided with an act of mass genocide against Roman citizens in the Apulian town of Asculum in 91 BC, leading directly to war across Italy. Among the cities, Rome fought against was Pompeii, which was besieged in 89 BC. The city is, of course, famous for the disaster it suffered 168 years later. But almost as famous as the southern Italian city was the man who was besieging it, Lucius Cornelius Sulla “Felix”, a patrician of illustrious heritage and one of the chief architects of the Roman Republic’s ruin. And this is the real contribution of the Social War in the Republic’s downfall: it provided a stage for some of the big generals of the time, like Sulla and Marius, and with the faith invested in them by the Roman people led them to overreach with their power.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Pinterest

Sulla: the first Roman to march on Rome

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was a remarkable soldier. As a general in the Social War, he was awarded the rare corona graminea (a grass crown, similar to Medal of Honour) for his personal ability and bravery. As a politician he was equally successful, becoming consul for the first time in 88 BC, aged around 50 years old, and for the second in 80 BC. However, he also holds the debatable honor of being the first Roman to invade Rome, not once, but twice.

Invading Rome wasn’t his only innovation. In 87 BC, after first marching on Rome and either butchering or expelling his enemies with his troops, Sulla became the first recorded Roman to apply the term hostis or “enemy of the state” internally; to political enemies rather than just foreign enemies. This set a problematic example. When he left Rome in 87 BC to wage war against the Asian King Mithridates VI his enemies, especially his main rival Gaius Marius, repaid the favor.

Having himself been declared hostis, when he had successful completed the Mithridatic War in 83 BC, Sulla once again marched on Rome. His legions met those of the Marians at the Colline Gates, on the northern outskirts of the city in 82 BC and a decisive battle was fought. The Battle of the Colline Gates saw the loss of an estimated 50,000 Romans and resulted in the establishment of Sulla as the sole ruler (or rather dictator) of Rome. Having secured power, Sulla made another violent contribution to politics by introducing the proscriptions. This essentially involved Sulla writing up the names of thousands of his political enemies and posting them as lists in the forum. People were then at liberty to hunt these people down and bring Sulla their heads for a bounty.

Sulla passed two significant senatorial reforms before retiring from public life: doubling the Senate’s membership from around 300 members to 600 and bringing in minimum age requirements for each position of office. With the latter he was effectively pulling up the ladder behind him because it ensured nobody could replicate what he had done. In doubling the size of the Senate, however, he also doubled the number of disgruntled senators who would never get reach the highest political point by becoming one of only two consuls elected every year; intensifying the already murderously intense competition that characterized republican politics of this period.

So loathed was Sulla that when he died in retirement in 78 BC, aged 60, rumors started circling that his skin had turned to worms. His body would have been denied the proper burial rites, had it not been for the intervention of the young, upcoming general Gnaeus Pompeius (“Pompey Magnus” as he came to be known). Sulla’s tomb bore chilling testament to the man it held, reading, “No better friend; no worse enemy“.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Bust of Gaius Marius. Pinterest

Gaius Marius: the hero Rome deserved, but not the one it needed

A novus homo or “new man” in Roman politics, Gaius Marius was the first example of meritocracy outstripping aristocracy in the history of the Roman Republic. He first proved his incredible abilities commanding the legions as consul against the North African King Jugurtha in 107 BC. One of the late Republic’s big foreign bogeymen, Jugurtha was instrumental in showing how the republican system—with its annually changing shared leadership—was woefully ill-equipped to deal with external threats, particularly if they couldn’t be neutralized within the year.

Hence why after returning from the Jugurthine War in 105 BC Marius was soon reappointed consul and given command of the Roman forces against the dangerous marauding Germanic tribes of the Teutones and the Cimbri. He was elected consul a staggering five years in a row from 104 – 100 BC, completely contravening the tradition that nobody could hold it twice within 10 years. But the confidence Rome placed in him turned out to be well-founded: he commanded with distinction and by 101 BC had destroyed them completely.

There are two main reasons why Marius contributed so heavily to the Roman Republic’s eventual collapse. The first was that he reformed the Roman Army. Before, only those who came from families with land were allowed to enlist, perhaps explaining why the Gracchi had been so eager to divide up the elite’s share of the land among the masses. With Marius’s reforms, anybody could now join the legions, creating a semi-professional type of army.

The second reason is that he flaunted the republican tradition of temporary, shared rule by getting himself repeatedly re-elected as consul. He was partly able to do this by appealing to the masses through populist politics and rhetoric, taking up the mantle of the Gracchi. But more importantly, Marius was a phenomenally skilled general, offering Rome the continuity and stability it much needed in its time of crisis.

His last years were spent battling, and losing to, his younger rival Sulla. When Marius died in 88 BC it was with a whimper rather than a bang. A tribune had tried to get Marius voted to the command against Mithridates. But Sulla had marched to Rome to stop this from happening. Delirious on his deathbed, the near 70-year-old Marius nevertheless believed he had been appointed general. However misplaced, it was perhaps fitting testament to the faith people had shown in him throughout his career.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s 18th century painting shows Pompey celebrating his third triumph over Mithridates on his 45th birthday in 61 BC. Rome Across Europe

Gnaus Pompey “Magnus”: Rome’s “first emperor”

From Sulla’s supporter to the darling of the Senate, the life of Gnaeus Pompey “Magnus” was nothing if not remarkable. As a young man, his military successes were many. Having cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, he then defeated the menacing King Mithridates in the East, making his former kingdom a Roman province, before going on to annex Armenia, Syria and Judaea. But with great responsibility came great power. And for Pompey could see his expansionist vision through, the Senate had to grant him powers in terms of duration and the number of soldiers under his command that surpassed even Marius.

Pompey was the first Roman to be treated like a god. In the East, cults spread up around him, including a group of pompeiastae (“Pompey-worshippers”) on the island of Delos. A number of cities were named in his honor, including Pompeiopolis and Magnopolis. In Rome, Pompey’s powers almost amounted to autocratic. He used the immense personal wealth he’d accrued on campaign to fund extensive building programmes, including the construction of Rome’s first permanent, stone theatre. The Senate even made him sole consul in 52 BC, the first time this had ever happened in the history of the Republic.

The problem Pompey had back in Rome was the same Sulla and Marius had had before him and Julius Caesar would have after him: the republican system had no way of recognizing (and rewarding) incredible individual achievement. A triumphant general, worshipped as a god abroad and responsible for expanding Rome’s Empire, was expected to settle back into the Senate when he returned as one amongst equals. Understandably this didn’t sit well with some of the Republic’s more egotistical figures. Traditionally, consuls were meant to renounce their power at the end of each year, ensuring nobody could build up a monopoly. But there were ways around it.

Short of following in Sulla’s footsteps and marching on Rome, one was to make sure that if you couldn’t keep hold of power yourself, you could at least skew things in your favor by getting ‘your man’ elected. This is precisely what Pompey did when he teamed up with two other aspiring politicians, Gaius Julius Caesar and the richest man in Rome Marcus Licinius Crassus, and formed the First Triumvirate.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Adolphe Yvon’s highly dramatised rendering of Caesar Crossing the Rubicon. Fine Art America

Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon

The First Triumvirate worked well initially. Pompey got his legislation through the Senate, Caesar got his consulship in 59 BC and command in Gaul soon after, and Crassus got… well more money. But things rapidly started going downhill when Crassus got himself killed by the Parthians in 53 BC. While Caesar was away campaigning in the North, the kind of one-on-one rivalries the third man was meant to keep in check (“three’s a crowd”) broke out between Caesar, the hard done by general, and Pompey, the Senate’s champion.

The Senate’s problem with Caesar was by now a familiar one. He’d exponentially expanded Roman territory, conquering Gaul and even making it across the famed channel to the mystical land of Britain. Senators worried the extent of his exploits would all go to his head so, deciding to cut him down to size, they decided to prosecute him once his consulship was up over the illegality of his war (in particular the genocide he had committed). Quite understandably Caesar didn’t want to be prosecuted upon his return. Problematically for the Senate, he had several legions at his disposal to protect him from being so.

Backed into a corner, Caesar took a leaf out of Sulla’s book and decided to march on Rome. In 49 BC he crossed the Rubicon, the demarcation where he should have disbanded his army. We now have next to no idea where the River Rubicon would have been. Caesar is often credited with saying “the die is cast” (alea iecta est) as he crossed, suggesting that he realised he’d crossed the point of no return in marching to civil war. This is actually a mistranslation. What he was really saying was, “well I’ve thrown the dice now, let’s hope I’m lucky.”

As chance would have it, he was. Days before Caesar’s arrival Pompey fled Rome with various senatorial colleagues to set up base in Greece. Caesar consolidated power in Rome before pursuing his rival. The two fought all over the Empire, but the decisive battle came at Pharsalus, Greece, in 48 BC. Pompey’s army were routed, and Pompey fled to Egypt where he met a particularly nasty end.

Upon his arrival, Pompey was decapitated on the beach by an old comrade, Lucius Septimius. He was working under the orders of the Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII who was trying to ingratiate themselves with Caesar. It failed. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria later that year and received Pompey’s head as a gift he had Septimius executed and installed a new ruler in Egypt, Cleopatra. Caesar would then spend the next three years until 45 BC campaigning on and off, mopping up the remnants of the senatorial resistance.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Vincenzo Camuccini’s “La Morte di Cesare” (1804/1805). Daily Express

The Ides of March and its aftermath

Two great misconceptions surround Julius Caesar. The first is that he wanted to be king; several sources tell us that his right-hand man Mark Antony once tried to place a crown upon his head during the Lupercalia but Caesar refused, to the rapturous applause of the crowd. The second is that Caesar was an emperor. Part of the confusion relates to the word “emperor”. Coming from the Latin imperator, it actually meant military general or conqueror, just as imperium (from which we get our word “empire”) referred to conquered territories.

Like Sulla before him, Julius Caesar actually declared himself dictator: still not a savoury title but one that was legal nonetheless. Dictatorship didn’t have the cultural baggage it has today, where it evokes despotic images the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong-un. Instead it meant temporarily abandoning the rule of two consuls for one-man rule, in order to guide Rome through a period of serious trouble. Problematically, Caesar added the addendum perpetuo meaning that he was setting himself up as a dictator for life.

This proved too much for staunch republicans who saw in Caesar a potential tyrant or, worse, king. On the Ides of March (15, 44 BC) he was surrounded by a group of senators in newly constructed Senate House incorporated within the Theatre of Pompey complex. There, beneath a statue of his old rival, he was stabbed to death in a messy, mismanaged assassination. According to the biographer Suetonius, who had access to Caesar’s autopsy report, only one Caesar’s 32 wounds was lethal; that inflicted by his old friend, Brutus.

The conspirators might have killed the tyrant, but his laws, legacy and example survived him. They hadn’t accounted for how popular he’d been, and with an enraged Roman populace vying for their blood they fled east. Caesar’s vast wealth passed to his nephew and adopted heir, Octavian. Along with his finances, Octavian also inherited Caesar’s political ambitions. The first step was to avenge his uncle and bring the conspirators to justice, which he did by forming an uncomfortable alliance with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus (the Second Triumvirate).

In November 42 BC the Triumvirate came up against Caesar’s assassins and the leaders of the republican faction, Brutus and Cassius, at Philippi in Greece. Brutus and Cassius were defeated, committing suicide shortly after, and with the East liberated and the external threat neutralized (at least for the moment), the triumvirs went about partitioning up the Roman Empire: Octavian taking Spain and Italy, Antony taking the East, and Lepidus taking Africa.

Frustrated Ambitions: The 10 Stages of How the Roman Republic Became an Empire
Laureys a Castro Battle of Actium 1672. Wikipedia

Mark Antony’s defeat at Actium

You’d be forgiven for thinking civil war was genetically hardwired into the Romans by this stage. After all, their foundation myth story, Romulus and Remus, was built around an inexplicable act of fratricide, and in the hundred or so years that spanned the days of the Gracchi to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, very little time went by in which senators, allies, or legionaries weren’t violently battling amongst themselves.

While the defeat of Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC gave the Roman world some space to breathe after almost 20 years of continuous civil war, it also set in motion the final contest between the two men left standing: Octavian and Mark (the third triumvir, Lepidus, was something of a non-entity by this stage). The prize was clear; with the Senate now largely impotent, the winner would become the Roman Empire’s first sole ruler in over 500 years.

In Egypt, Antony took up with Egypt’s last pharaoh Cleopatra, renouncing his wife Octavia, Octavian’s sister. This gave Octavian all the ammunition he needed to attack his rival. He waged a war of propaganda against the drunk, orientalized, anti-Roman Antony, turning public opinion firmly against Caesar’s old wingman. Antony didn’t help himself either; Rome relied on Egypt for its grain supply, precisely what Antony threatened to withhold.

Things finally came to a head at the Battle of Actium, just off the Greek coast, on September 31 BC. Octavian’s forces came up against Antony and Cleopatra in one of the ancient world’s most significant (yet most underwhelming) naval battles. Despite everything being evenly matched, Cleopatra inexplicably withdrew her ships towards the end of the day. Antony followed, leaving his troops leaderless. Those who couldn’t escape surrendered. Victory for Octavian followed shortly after; realizing they’d lost the war and had no future other than (at best) as Octavian’s prisoners, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in Alexandria the next year.

Sick of the civil wars and bloodshed that had consumed the empire for nearly a century, Rome was ready for peace, whatever the cost. If that had to mean sacrificing republican government for one-man rule under Octavian (or Augustus, as he would later rename himself), that was a price worth paying. Presiding over a sham Senate, Octavian gradually took up all offices and amassed all powers to make himself sole ruler of the Roman world.

To his credit, Rome’s first emperor played his role well. While in reality holding all the power, he never made a display of doing so. Refusing to be treated as any senator’s superior, he referred to himself as princeps inter pares, “first amongst equals”. It was a legacy of modesty that some of his more notorious successors—Caligula, Nero, Commodus—would have done well to learn from.