The English word emperor comes from the Latin word “Imperator” which had military connotations, meaning a rank close to that of captain or “commander”. The word itself came from the word “imperium” and “imperare” which in itself had a variety of meanings, and rather like the word “command” it could be used in many different contexts beyond the military, such as having command of a given skill for example. It could also be used to denote a level of “power” or wealth which an individual might have, particularly official power, as opposed to personal “pull” which would have been termed “auctoritas”.
The first person to actually use the word in the sense that we think of nowadays, was emperor Augustus. Interestingly, he did so as a tool of propaganda and social manipulation, aware of the Romans’ fear and hate for anyone who might attempt to name himself “king” which had brought about his adoptive father Caesar’s death by assassination. Augustus’ approach was therefore one of stealth – that of a prince who publicly shunned the role which was thrust upon him by public consent and who would only go as far as calling himself by an unassuming military rank. Clearly the close connotation with the more publicly significant “imperium” was not to be disdained either.
He therefore took on Caesar’s inheritance as perpetual dictator through an apparent public consent after a bitter civil war against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra which ended in Alexandria. He also did his utmost to embed his position in ancient Roman tradition, reviving old mythology, morality and austerity as much as he could and associating his name, as Caesar had done with the mythical ancestors of Rome: Venus and Aeneas.
From that point on subsequent rulers used the precedent set by Augustus slowly evolving it to their own ends, their own “style”, eliminating any semblance of submission to public sovereignty and eventually converting the figure into something more similar to the Oriental ruler-divinity. Very few actually managed to successfully pass their position onto their (natural) sons and form a durable dynasty. The title “Emperor”, like the title “Caesar” and even “Augustus” lasted, as did the ancient trappings associated with the position of ultimate legitimate state power “imperium” such as the “lictors” (personal body guard) carrying the “fasces” (bundles of rods and an axe symbolising power over life and death), purple robes, the right to sit on the curule chair, the orb symbolising power over the world. Most if not all of these had been carried through the ages, initially borrowed from their archaic Etruscan neighbours through the earliest Roman kings (some of whom were Etruscans).
The association of the emperor with divine beings was also set in place by Augustus, borrowing from the myth of Romulus’ ascension, he “deified” Caesar. He likewise had the Pantheon built – a temple to all the gods from which the emperor could also meet the people and proclaim laws: a landmark in Roman architecture. The temple was built by Augustus’ right hand man, Agrippa who reputedly intended to place a statue of Augustus at the entrance, near that of the deities within, but the same Augustus seems to have refused the generosity in fear of being misunderstood by the Roman people.
It wasn’t too long before the divine association become something which the emperor would claim whilst still alive, expecting reverence for his divine spirit – his “genius”- which would on death ascend to divine status. This was one of the root causes of the persecution several emperors perpetrated on the Christians who flatly refused to recognise such a divine essence or indeed that of Jupiter and the Capitoline triad and traditional Roman deities in general, hence branding themselves as traitors.
In retrospect, considering the events and highly disruptive effects that Christian doctrine had on Roman society during the fall of the roman empire, it is not hard to understand the threat the emperors and authorities saw to the established national unity and social stability.
A full list of Roman emperors is given on a separate page, including a number of portraits. It is interesting to note that Roman art “consumers”, unlike their Greek counterparts particularly appreciated realistic representation of personalities, warts and all. This brings a degree of realism to the portrait busts we have of the emperors and indeed of the trappings with which they are represented for propaganda reasons (such as beards to appear as philosopher-thinkers for example), although some fixing, rather like plastic surgery today, was not unknown. Only towards the 4th century and later were the emperors’ portraits substantially altered for shameless propagandistic rendering – in order to give them a more powerful, military look, with thick necks and fixed determined looks. Roman coins are a particularly good example of this change. Emperor Constantine is a good case though there are also good examples of Emperor Nero shown with his neck and features thickened to convey strength, rather than fat.
End of the Roman Emperors
The long line of emperors of the western part of the Roman empire (see list of Roman emperors) came to an end with Odoacer’s deposition of Romulus Augustulus. It is interesting to notice that Odoacer was himself a general who with his 30,000 men had served the interests of Rome but had been refused access to settlement land in Italy which he had been promised in return for his support. He also issued “Roman” coinage in his name but the point worthy of note is his act of break with the long history of the city: he returned the legendary military insignia to Constantinople and abolished the title of “Augustus” which was equated with the status of the emperor.
The Roman emperor myth lives on:
As a close to this brief look at the status of Roman emperor it is worth taking a glance at the tradition and legacy which was left behind:
The empire of the west continued to be ruled by an emperor who defined himself as “Roman emperor” even though the city of Rome had itself long lost it’s central position.
The “Holy Roman Empire” was established during the middle ages, it was essentially Germanic in nature yet inspired with what Rome had been: it rebuilt the strong link with classicism as well as Christianity/the Pope at Rome. It had an emperor at its head and lasted through to the 19th century.
The title “Caesar” remained closely associated with military leadership akin to that of the emperor figure. The german word “Kaiser” has obvious links.