CHAPTER IV. THE IMPERIAL SYSTEM: EMPEROR, SENATE, KNIGHTS, AND PEOPLE
We have seen, and succinctly traversed, the extent of the Roman world. The next step is to consider, as tersely as possible, its system of government and administration about the year 64. This task is not only entirely necessary to our immediate purpose; it is also one of great interest and profit in itself. If we are either to see in their proper light the experiences of such a man as St. Paul, or to understand the long continuance of so wide an empire, we must observe carefully the principles and methods adopted by the Romans as rulers.
We speak fluently of the "Roman Emperor" and of the "reign of Nero." What was an emperor? What were his powers, and how did he exercise them?
In the first place, it must be noted that, strictly speaking, Rome acknowledged no such thing as an autocrat. It had no monarch; the title "king" was disowned by the Caesars and entirely denied by the people; the emperor was technically not a superior sovereign, but, on the contrary, something inferior to a sovereign. He was the first citizen, the "first man of the state." The state was nominally a commonwealth, and the emperor its most important officer.
He was, to begin with, the representative of Rome as civil and military governor of all provinces containing an army, or apparently calling for an army. "Emperor" means military commander, and he was the commander-in-chief of all the forces of the empire, military or naval, but in a sense far more liberal than would now be intended by such an expression. Of all the fighting forces he had absolute control, determining their numbers, their service, all appointments, their pay, and their discharge. He moved them where he chose, and, beyond this, he possessed the power of declaring war and concluding peace. Wherever there existed an armed force, whether in the far-off field or in garrison, its obedience was due to him. In sign of this every soldier, on the first of January and on the anniversary of the emperor's accession, took a solemn oath - and an oath in those days was felt as no mere matter of form, but as a solemn act of religion - that he would loyally obey the commander-in-chief. The emperor's effigy was conspicuous in the middle of every camp, and, in small, it figured on the standard of every regiment. The sacred obligation of the soldier to an Augustus or a Nero was kept perpetually in evidence, and he was never allowed to forget it. Wherever the emperor appeared or intervened in the provinces, all other powers became subordinate to his.
Theoretically such a commander might always be deposed by the Roman people, acting through its Senate. In reality he was master of the situation. If he was ever deposed, or if a new commander was ever appointed, it was by the army. If he proved a tyrant, there was no other means of getting rid of him than by the army, unless it were by assassination. At such times the Senate might make a show of naming the successor, and the army might make a show of agreeing with the Senate, but such expressions, as Tacitus repeats, were "empty and meaningless words." The madman Caligula had been assassinated. When, four years after our date, Nero was compelled to flee from his palace and was persuaded into committing suicide, it was because the soldiers had declared against him and had elected another.
The vast powers of the emperor had come into the hands of one man simply because the republic had been found incompetent to handle its empire, whether from a military or a financial point of view. It managed neither so consistently nor so honestly as did the individual.
The emperor, then, by a constitutional fiction, was an officer of the commonwealth, commanding its forces, not only with the freedom of action which Rome had always allowed to its experts in dealing with the enemy, but with that freedom greatly enlarged, and with a tenure of the office perpetually renewed.
But to him that hath shall be given - especially if he is in a position to insist on the gift. The emperor's military authority, his position as governor of provinces, could not alone rightfully qualify him to control Rome itself, with its laws, its magistrates, its domestic and provincial policy. Theoretically the Roman emperor never did control these matters.