Why didn't the Romans have a succession law?

Jun 2015
5,618
UK
#1
The Empire wasn't a monarchy, and this was understandable given the Roman hatred of kings following the actions of the latter kings in the Kingdom period.

But then much of the strife the Empire had was due to Imperial succession, and surely if there was some kind of Senate practice, it would have lessened this.

Some great Emperors, like Marcus Aurelius, chose badly since Commodus was never as able as his father. Augustus too chose badly with Tiberius.

COuldn't the Senate or even an Emperor decreed how the succession should be? What if the Emperor was to be elected, from the best military or administrative candidates? Or there was some kind of succession track for successful generals, which would provide incentives for them to do well in battle.
 
Likes: Futurist
Mar 2016
727
Australia
#2
The Empire wasn't a monarchy
Not nominally, but it de facto was. Monarchy literally means "rule of one", and that's how the Roman Empire was ruled for the vast majority of its existence, no matter how much they pretended to be serving the people or when they let the Senate be a rubber stamp for them.

Some great Emperors, like Marcus Aurelius, chose badly since Commodus was never as able as his father. Augustus too chose badly with Tiberius.
Aurelius didn't necessarily choose badly - he had pretty much no way of knowing how Commodus would turn out. He'd done his upmost to raise him to be a good, dutiful ruler. But there's only so far a parent can go in influencing what their children's behaviour will be in the future, when they're gone.

As to Augustus, he only chose Tiberius because literally all of his other choices died. Augustus lived for so long (relative to the ancient world) that he saw many of his preferred successors die before him. Tiberius was his last choice, but he had to make it for stability's sake.

What if the Emperor was to be elected, from the best military or administrative candidates?
This sort of happened quite a lot during the Crisis of the Third Century, with the so-called 'Barracks Emperors' where generals would be proclaimed Emperor by their troops in far-flung regions of the empire. Needless to say, it didn't go down well. It led to mass instability and chaos.
 
Jun 2015
5,618
UK
#3
Emperors specifically weren't kings though, which was the point. The Roman state needed strong rule at the top - and the best analogy imho is that of Chairman Mao, Stalin, or even Hitler. All were not kings in any strict sense, but were the personified and even deified rulers of their states. Even though the Dominate from Diolectian was more centralised than the Principate, Emperors were first amongst equals, and this was something that Augustus devised to ensure the Republic remained but the Kingdom didn't return.

But considering that the Imperial succession caused a LOT of strife, it would have made sense if there was some defined process.
 
Apr 2018
690
Upland, Sweden
#4
The problem with elected monarchs is that there must be someone powerful enough to effectively choose the monarch... if there is someone with that power, are we talking about a monarchy - or something else? Ergo: such systems tend to degenerate overtime and become hereditary or semi-hereditary monarchies.

I think the reason for why they didn't fix a "better" line of succession was because of their republican heritage, and because of the general nature of Roman society. The Romans were quite individualistic and had a long tradition of encouraging ambition among the elite (they also had weird ideas about the law and what constitutes a legitimate ruler that we've partially inherited). Augustus spent a lot of time and energy creating a republican facade to maintain legitimacy. That doesn't rhyme too well with hereditary monarchy, and elective monarchy was in practice difficult if not impossible for the reasons I outlined above.
 
#5
The imperial system in Rome was effectively a dynasty based on biological, marital and adoptive relations. It wasn't officially such, because Rome technically wasn't meant to be a hereditary monarchy, but it de facto was, as already noted in this thread.

As for the concept of a military meritocracy, Diocletian arguably attempted this. His Tetrarchic arrangement consisted of himself, a general who had seized power, and three other generals-turned-emperors chosen by himself. This imperial college ensured that there was an emperor watching over every major theatre of war, attending to the army's needs and preventing other generals from getting too powerful and seizing the purple. Moreover, in 293, 305, 308 and 311 Diocletian and his protege Galerius overlooked biological hereditary claims in favour of the adoption of other generals as colleagues and heirs. Caesars were adopted as sons, and some had already been made sons-in-law beforehand. As for the two Augusti, they were presented as being brothers, and fraternal relationships were particularly appealing to the soldiery. For example, a soldier could make his comrade his heir by referring to him as his brother. Furthermore, Diocletian and his fellow Augustus Maximian abdicated in 305 to allow the promotion of the Caesars as Augusti, and in turn allow the co-option of new Caesars. Galerius was to do the same in 312, but died beforehand. So the Tetrarchy effectively entailed, if not a military meritocracy, a military dynasty. However, such a system requires the four emperors to cooperate and to abdicate when expected. This happened as long as the influential Diocletian was at the helm guiding his comrades, but it did not outlast his abdication. It was his personal influence over the others that held things together. Furthermore, to ignore the imperial norm that biological sons succeed, one should probably kill the sons, as cold as that sounds, since Constantine and Maxentius forcibly seized imperial power regardless of the Tetrarchic arrangements. But how many rulers would be willing to kill their sons? And how would such an impious act be viewed?
 
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#7
From Augustus to the third century, the Romans had the "Lex de Imperio" approved by the Senate and the People of Rome. A facade? Ok. But if you read the one we have found (that of Vespasian) you see how it worked. All the individual republican powers were essentially given to one person. So formally, the Republic was still intact: it's just that one guy hold all the republican offices or had all the indivudual powers (consul, tribune, questor, pontifex etc). An adoption gave the Emperor's name to the person adopted, so a new Lex De Imperio was expected to be approved for the new Caesar Augustus. In fact, the "Lex de Imperio" of Vespasian begins that way "we give to Vespasian all the powers given to Caesar Augustus, to Caesar Augustus Tiberius, to Caesar Augustus Claudius etc".

This was the system set up by Augustus. In theory, you had elements of monarchy already in the Republic since the powers of a Dictator (when appointed) were unlimited. The Senate represented the Aristocracy and the People represented the democracy. It was a mixed system. But generally, with no crises, it was an Aristocratic-Democratic Republic.

The best way to see the transformation of the Republic is by looking at the clash between the Aristocratic party of the Senate and the Democratic party of the People. Both parties essentially lost that conflict. And naturally, the third element of the state (that of monarchy) advanced. Julius Caesar tried to establish his republican monarchy by becoming a "permanent Dictator" but failed. Augustus understood that the way to the Republican Monarchy was permanent peace and not permanent crisis. So he refused the extra-ordinary title of Dictator and took instead all the ordinary offices.
 
#9
The problem of this Anglo-Saxon school of thought is that it's very weak when applied to Roman history and gets almost everything wrong. In eglish-speaking historiography, the concept of Republic is opposed to that of Monarchy, while the concept of Democracy can be applied to a monarchy (like "Britain is a democratic monarchy"). That would be absurd for a Roman. The Roman Empire for the first centuries is best described as a "republican monarchy" or a Principate: so a Republic (institutions from monarchy, democracy and aristocracy) where the democratic and aristocratic remained, but depended on one person (Caesar Augustus). On the other hand, the classical Roman Republic was Aristocratic-Democratic because you only had "monarchs" in times of crises.
 
Jan 2016
1,064
Victoria, Canada
#10
The problem of this Anglo-Saxon school of thought is that it's very weak when applied to Roman history and gets almost everything wrong. In eglish-speaking historiography, the concept of Republic is opposed to that of Monarchy, while the concept of Democracy can be applied to a monarchy (like "Britain is a democratic monarchy"). That would be absurd for a Roman. The Roman Empire for the first centuries is best described as a "republican monarchy" or a Principate: so a Republic (institutions from monarchy, democracy and aristocracy) where the democratic and aristocratic remained, but depended on one person (Caesar Augustus). On the other hand, the classical Roman Republic was Aristocratic-Democratic because you only had "monarchs" in times of crises.
Indeed -- the distinction between "Republic" and "Empire" is very much a modern one, and greatly obstructs our ability to understand actual Roman politics and political thought. There was certainly a transition of power from the aristocracy to monarch, which the Romans recognized (and aristocrats complained about incessantly in the first few decades after the shakeup), but the Res Publica, the common thing, remained quite intact, only with the main responsibility for its entrusted stewardship shifted from one governmental body to another. The Republic was not a form of government but a political condition of society -- and at certain levels part of a coherent Republican ideology -- reliant on that government, and to an extent itself part of it, but with which is was not synonymous. The Res Publica was a constant political, cultural, societal driver throughout Roman history, expressing itself in varying forms through institution, ritual, preserved opinion, protest, and exceptional political action, and it so happened to be one with constituents fundamentally opposed to a codified framework of hereditary succession. This isn't to say that dynasties didn't end up being the standard format of power transfer in the imperial period, as they evidently did, but the Romans were not fond of the idea that blood could be the sole legitimating quality of a ruler, to say the least.
 
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