chapter  15
14 Pages

The Military Image of the Princeps

By the time Augustus died he had clearly marked out Tiberi us as the man he wished to succeed him as Princeps: he had adopted him and seen to it that he possessed the major powers he himself enjoyed. A further claim was Tiberius' own record of service to the state, which was impressive by the traditional criteria of magistracies held and victories won. Even so, Augustus, as he asked for the crucial tribunician power to be renewed for his adoptive son, felt obliged to excuse the defects ofTiberius in justification of his choice.l

Even when imperial panegyric spoke of divine sanction for a Princeps' rule, it was always in terms of choice based on desert. Seneca suggests in De Clementia that the ruler must later render an account to the gods, showing that he has justified their choice, and that the consent of men must be won by virtuous performance, a young and inexperienced prince being an unknown quantity. 3

Though virtue in the more general Greek sense was extolled as the justification of supreme power, traditional Roman virtus retained the highest claim to honour. Augustus did not attempt to change the old Roman view that military achievement was the highest form of service to the state. He lined his new forum with statues of the commanders of the Republic who had brought about the expansion of the Empire. There they stood in their triumphal robes in order to make the citizens demand ofhim and of future principes that they take the lives of such men as a model for themselves. So Augustus himself explained; and victory and annexation accordingly claim a large part ofhis Res Gestae. Certain innovations would assist his successors in attaining the required standard, for he had established that the Princeps acquired credit for all victories and controlled almost all the provinces in which they could be won. 4

The public image of the Emperor, as projected in his designation and dress, was a constant reminder to himself and his subjects of the military role he was expected to fulfil. The poet Martial celebrates the replacement of the tyrant Domitian by his virtuous successor thus: 'He is not dominus but imperator'. 5 In the Republic the title Imperator was conferred on a commander by his troops after a dazzling victory. This salutation was the prerequisite for being granted a triumph by the Senate, a procession into Rome in which all the captives and booty were displayed. The title Imperator was also used more vaguely to denote a magistrate or promagistrate holding command outside Rome. During the triumviral period the first Princeps had adopted the title as a prefix to his name to advertise 'the peculiar claim of Octavianus to be the military leader par excellence'. His successors did not persist in this style of nomenclature, but 'Imperator' became a common term for referring to the Princeps, its military overtones remaining intact. 6

The most tangible indication of the way the Emperor and his subjects regarded his role was his dress. In a hierarchical society like Rome dress had always been an important index of status, and Augustus was at pains to reinforce this, urging Roman citizens to wear the toga and forbidding the usurpation of magisterial dress by those not in office. 7 Change of dress marked the particular role filled at any one moment by men in public life, such as presiding over games or over a sacrifice. For anyone in the public eye how one dressed in private could attract notice: 'going Greek', for example, when in southern Italy or the East. The Emperor had less privacy than anyone. Indeed Augustus publicised the fact that the garments he wore at home were made by the women of his household, and Suetonius asserts

Augustan emphasis on Republican tradition, but demonstrated, at the same time, how far the accumulation of Republican offices and powers he held elevated the Princeps above the ordinary magistrates. Over the tunic with the broad purple stripe (latus clavus) characteristic of senators he wore the purple-bordered toga praetexta of curule magistrates, and he was accompanied by twelve lictors carryingfasces, like the consuls. When he assumed his curule chair between the two consuls he must have looked like a third holder of the chief magistracy. But unlike the consuls, whose togas carried the purple border only when they were in office or afterwards when they attended festivals, the Princeps wore magisterial dress permanently, for, in a sense, he was always in office. Moreover, his fasces were wreathed with laurel, an honour which had belonged in the Republic to the general acclaimed as Imperator by his soldiers. He also wore a laurel wreath, which had been a privilege of the acclaimed commander at his triumph and afterwards at festivals. 9

As no triumphs were now granted to those outside the imperial house, the costume of the vir triumphalis soon became the characteristic imperial dress for high occasions. The fact that magistrates presiding over official games continued to wear triumphal garb, as in the Republic, did not impede its identification with the imperial position. Thus Tacitus calls it decus imperatorium ('the trappings of rule') when the young Nero assumed the outfit at the circus games given in honour of his entry into public life. Claudius preferred to preside over the celebrations to mark the draining of the Fucine Lake in the military cloak (paludamentum), but this too was distinctively imperial in that the Emperor's cloak was purple in colour.11