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15. The Role of the Senate

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About this Lecture


In this lecture we think about the role of the senate in Augustan Rome, focusing in particular on: (i) Tacitus’ appraisal of the Augustan regime as offering something for every section of society – the senatorial aristocracy, the people, the army and the provinces (Ann. 1.2.1-2); (ii) his view of the senate’s compliance with the new regime as a kind of slavery [Latin: servitium]; (iii) the basic ‘shape’ of imperial Roman society, from top to bottom: emperor, senate, equestrians, citizens, non-citizens, slaves; (iv) the role of the senate in the republican period (509-31 BC); (v) the means by which Augustus shores up the dignity and prestige of the senate; (vi) the powers that the senate retains under Augustus, including its ability to issue decrees [Latin: senatus consulta] and to act as a court for major political crimes; (vii) the property requirements to qualify for election to the senate; (viii) Augustus’ reduction of the size of the senate; (ix) the expansion of opportunities for senators to hold the consulship under Augustus, especially after Augustus’ decision to step down from the consulship himself in 23 BC, and with the introduction (in 5 BC) of suffect consulships; (x) Augustus’ introduction into the senate of new families, including some of his supporters from the civil war; (xi) Augustus’ powers in deciding who would be elected to the senate and the magistracies, including his ability to veto an individuals’ candidature and his willingness to ‘commend’ people to certain positions (who would inevitably get elected); and (xii) the extent to which the senate maintained real political independence of power in this period.


In this course, Professor Matthew Nicholls (University of Oxford) explores the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Across twenty-one lectures, we consider a range of issues including: (i) the historical sources for reign of Augustus and their reliability; (ii) the events that led to the creation of the principate, particularly the Battle of Actium; (iii) the various constitutional settlements that formalised Augustus’ powers; (iv) his military achievements; (v) the importance of contemporary poetry (Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid) and coinage for understanding his reign; (vi) the significance of key figures around Augustus, such as Livia, Marcus Agrippa, Tiberius and Germanicus; (vii) the extent to which Augustus really ‘restored the republic’ as he claimed he did; (viii) Augustus’ involvement in religious life at Rome and in the provinces; (ix) his administrative changes in Rome and in the provinces; (x) his management of various different sections of Roman society – the senatorial elite, the equestrian order, the army, the people of Rome and the provincial elites; (xi) challenges to his rule; (xii) his management of the succession; and (xiii) the importance of his own record of his achievements, the Res Gestae.


Matthew Nicholls is a visiting professor of classics at the University of Reading and Senior Tutor at St John's College, Oxford, specialising in the political and social history of the Romans, and the way the built environments of Rome and cities around the empire expressed their values and priorities. In 2014, Matthew was presented with a Guardian Teaching Award for his 'Virtual Rome' project, a digital model of the city of Rome, showing the city as it appeared in c. AD 315.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Nicholls, M. (2023, May 23). Augustus - The Role of the Senate [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Nicholls, M. "Augustus – The Role of the Senate." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 23 May 2023,