The Principate is the first period of the Roman Empire, extending from the beginning of the reign of Caesar Augustus to the Crisis of the Third Century, after which it was replaced with the Dominate. The Principate is characterized by a concerted effort on the part of the Emperors to preserve the illusion of the formal continuance of the Roman Republic. It is etymologically derived from the Latin word "princeps", meaning "chief" or "first", the political regime dominated by such a political leader, whether or not he is formally head of state and/or head of government; this reflects the Principate Emperors' assertion that they were merely "first among equals" among the citizens of Rome. In practice, the Principate was a period of enlightened absolutism, with occasional forays into quasi-constitutional monarchy; Emperors tended not to flaunt their power and usually respected the rights of citizens (although they never let this fact bind them).


The title, in full, "princeps senatus" / "princeps civitatis" (first amongst the senators, "i.e." legislators, "viz." amongst the citizens), was first adopted by Octavian Caesar Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first Roman 'Emperor', who chose - like the assassinated dictator Julius Caesar - not to reintroduce a legal monarchy. The purpose was to establish the political stability desperately needed after the exhausting civil wars by a "de facto" dictatorial regime within the constitutional framework of the Roman Republic as an alternative to the hated early Roman Kingdom. The title itself derived from the position of the "princeps senatus", traditionally the oldest member of the Senate who had the right to be heard first on any debate. Although dynastic pretenses crept in from the start, formalizing this in a monarchic style remained constitutionally unthinkable.

Often, in a more limited and precise "chronological" sense, the term is applied either to the empire (in the sense of the post-Republican Roman state) or specifically the earlier of the two phases of 'imperial' government in the ancient Roman Empire, extending from when Augustus claimed "auctoritas" for himself as "princeps" until Rome's military collapse in the West (fall of Rome) in 476, leaving the Byzantine empire sole heir, or, depending on the source, up to the rule of Commodus, of Maximinus Thrax or of Diocletian. Afterwards, imperial rule in the Empire is designated as the "Dominate", which is subjectively more like an (absolute) monarchy while the earlier "Principate" is still more 'Republican'.

Under this 'Principate "stricto sensu"', the political reality of autocratic rule by the Emperor was still scrupulously masked by forms and conventions of oligarchic self-rule inherited from the political period of the 'uncrowned' Roman Republic (509 BC-27 BC) under the motto "Senatus Populusque Romanus" or SPQR. Initially, the theory implied the 'first citizen' had to earn his extraordinary position ("de facto" evolving to nearly absolute monarchy) by merit in the style that Augustus himself had gained the position of "auctoritas". Imperial propaganda developed a 'paternalistic' ideology, presenting the "Princeps" as the very incarnation of all virtues attributed to the ideal ruler (much like a Greek "tyrannos" earlier), such as clemency and justice, and in turn placing the impetus upon the "Princeps" to play this designated role within Roman society, as his political insurance as well as a moral duty. What specifically was expected of the "Princeps" seems to have varied according to the times; Tiberius, who amassed a huge surplus for the city of Rome, was criticized as a miser, while Caligula was criticized for his lavish spending on games and spectacles. Generally speaking it was the duty of the emperor to be seen as generous, not just as a good ruler but also from his personal fortune (as in the proverbial "bread and circuses" – "panem et circenses" – meaning various public games, not just gladiators and horse races, but also artistic, as well as distributions of food), charitable institutions, "de facto" public works, "et cetera", as popularity boosters, in the way of the Greek "leitourgia" (called "munera" in Latin) and the republican election campaigns.

With the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the "Principate" was redefined in formal terms under the Emperor Vespasian. The position of "Princeps" became a distinct entity within the broader -formally still republican- Roman constitution. While many of the cultural and political expectations remained, the "Princeps" was no longer a position extended on the basis of merit, or "auctoritas", but on a firmer basis, allowing Vespasian and future emperors to designate their own heir without those heirs having to earn the position through years of success and public favor. Under the Antonine dynasty, it was the norm for the emperor to appoint a successful and politically promising general as his successor. In modern historical analysis this is treated by many authors as an "ideal" situation; the individual who was most capable was promoted to the position of Princeps. Of the Antonine dynasty, Edward Gibbon famously wrote that this was the happiest and most productive period in human history, and credited the system of succession as the key factor. Other historians have pointed out that the generals appointed to the Principate during the Antonine dynasty were largely made heirs because they constituted the greatest threat to the emperor as well as his eventual heir, should he chose someone different. Additionally, the promotion of individuals to the position of "Princeps" based mainly on their military prowess is seen by many as contributing directly to the downfall of the "Principate", the chaos of the third century and the rise of the militaristic "Dominate".

This first phase was to be followed by, or rather evolved into, the so-called "Dominate". Starting with the Emperor Diocletian, oriental type of styles like "dominus" ('Lord, Master', suggesting the citizens became "servi", servants or slaves) became current, though not legal, but there could by definition never be a clear, constitutional turning point, so this appreciation remains subjective. The reality is gradual development. This process is also said to be established by the Emperor Septimus Severus; while the Severan dynasty initially began the terminology of the "Dominate" in reference to the emperor, the various emperors and their usurpers throughout the third century appealed to the people as both military "dominus" and political "princeps". After the Crisis of the Third Century almost resulted in the Roman Empire's political collapse, the Emperor Diocletian replaced the one-headed "Principate" with the tetrarchy ("circa" 300 AD, two "Augusti" ranking above two "Caesares"), in which the remaining pretence of the old Republican forms was largely abandoned. The title of "princeps" was abandoned -like the territorial unity of the Empire-, in favor of "dominus", and the position of the emperor(s), especially in the Western Roman Empire, was entirely dependent on his control of the armed forces. The "Dominate" developed more and more, especially in the Byzantine Empire, along the lines of an oriental absolute monarchy, where the subjects, and even diplomatic allies, could be termed "servus" or "doulos" 'servant/slave' to express the exalted position of the emperor as second only to God, and on earth to none (except when reality took over, "e.g." a victorious Persian ruler Chosroes was addressed with much more respect).

ources and references

*Pauly-Wissowa (in German)

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  • Principate — Prin ci*pate, n. [L. principatus: cf. F. principat.] Principality; supreme rule. [Obs.] Barrow. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • principate — /prin seuh payt /, n. supreme power or office. [1300 50; ME < L principatus, equiv. to princip (see PRINCE) + atus ATE3] * * * …   Universalium

  • principate — noun The period of the early Roman Empire during which some characteristics of republican government were retained …   Wiktionary

  • principate — [ prɪnsɪpət] noun the rule of the early Roman emperors, during which some republican features were retained. Origin ME (denoting a principality): from L. principatus first place , from princeps, princip (see prince) …   English new terms dictionary

  • principate — prin·ci·pate …   English syllables

  • principate — prin•ci•pate [[t]ˈprɪn səˌpeɪt[/t]] n. 1) supreme power or office 2) anh the form of government of the early Roman Empire, under which some of the outward forms of the Republic were maintained • Etymology: 1300–50; ME < L prīncipātus=prīncip… …   From formal English to slang

  • principate — /ˈprɪnsəpət/ (say prinsuhpuht) noun chief place or authority. {Middle English principat(e), from Latin} …   Australian English dictionary

  • principate — n. 1 a State ruled by a prince. 2 Rom.Hist. the rule of the early emperors during which some republican forms were retained. Etymology: ME f. OF principat or L principatus first place …   Useful english dictionary

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