The Roman Principate: Introduction
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X
In nearly all history books, the Principate is referred to as the period between the battle of Actium, where Gaius Iulius Cæsar Octavianus defeated the coalition of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra (who both committed suicide); and the beginning of the Dominate, when the emperors ruled in Eastern - that is to say, despotic - fashion, as divus et dominus. Although sources disagree on when this period started, a safe assessment could be the time margin between and around the rulership of Aurelianus and Diocletianus.
Some of the Imperial dynasties have gained immortal fame, either because of their remarkable achievements, or because of their exorbitant decadence and madness. They've served as inspiration for the making of many movies, plays, novels and history books. Disregarding the question of whether the Imperial or the Republican era was the better for Rome, it cannot be denied that the Imperial period appeals to the imagination of the public more than the Republic, especially the dramatic century that predated the coming of the first emperor.
In that century, the first BC, Rome had been troubled by a multitude of factors. External factors were the control gained over enormous territories, such as Greece and Carthage and, later, large parts of Gallia, Illyricum and Panonnia. This rapid expansion was partially due to defensive or preventive wars, which would settle the conflict for domination in the Mediterranean region for a very long time. The legions were constantly fighting, and more than one general became frustrated with his lack of recognition, real or perceived, that drove him to conquer the seat of power by violence rather than elections.
Internally, there were a lot of troubles in Italia itself: the War of the Socii, which ended in 89 BC, when Rome was forced to grant Her "allies" civil rights; the Gladiator Revolt, led by Spartacus in the 70's, put down by Licinius Crassus; and the successive dictatorships of Marius and Sulla, intermixed with the constant struggles between the populares and the optimates. The evolution of social progress that was initiated by Marius in his land and army reforms could, despite heavy resistance from the optimates, not be stopped. The First Triumvirate of Gaius Iulius Cæsar, Gnæus Pompeius Magnus and Lucius Licinius Crassus finally settled the political struggle in favour of the populares, but with the coming of this dominant faction, other problems arose when Crassus was slain in battle against the Parthians in 53 BC. The paranoia between Cæsar and Pompeius, who claimed to fight for the restoration of the Republic, resulted in a new civil war that ended in favour of Cæsar, after which he assumed the sole leadership of the Roman "Republic", which only nominally existed at that time.
Partially out of fear of Cæsar's ambitions as a future monarch, and a resurgence of Republican feeling, he was killed by Cassius and Brutus, who were in turn defeated by the Second Triumvirate, which consisted of the veteran politician Marcus Antonius, the aforementioned young Octavianus - adopted by Cæsar - and Marcus Lepidus. Octavianus controlled the west, Marcus Antonius the east, and Lepidus was in Africa. The rest is history: Lepidus was politically neutralised, and Octavianus eliminated Marcus Antonius after an efficient propaganda and military campaign. He then turned the Roman world into what he called a "diarchy", a co-rulership between the Senatus and the Princeps Senatus. In reality, Octavianus, who assumed the title of Augustus in 27 BC, ruled alone. This was the start of the Principate.