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The Dominate or late Roman Empire was the "despotic" later phase of government in the ancient Roman Empire from the conclusion of the Third Century Crisis of 235–284 until the formal date of the collapse of the Western Empire in AD 476. It followed the period known as the Principate. In the Eastern half of the Empire, and especially from the time of Justinian I, the system of the Dominate evolved into autocratic absolutism.
The term is derived from the Latin dominus, which translates in English to lord or master. This form of address – already used by slaves to address their masters – was used for emperors from the Julio-Claudian (first) dynasty on, but inconsistently – Tiberius in particular is said to have reviled it as sycophancy. It became common under Diocletian, who is therefore a logical choice as the first ruler of the "early" dominate. Historian David Potter describes the transformation of government under Diocletian when describing the shifts in imagery the Emperor used to display his power (in this case the building of a huge new palace at Sirmium):
The style of Government so memorably described by Marcus, whereby the emperor sought to show himself as a model of correct aristocratic deportment, had given way to a style in which the emperor was seen to be distinct from all other mortals. His house could no longer be a grander version of houses that other people might live in: it, like him, had to be different.
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During the Principate, the constitution of the Roman Republic was never formally abolished. It was amended in such a way as to maintain a façade of Republican government. Generally speaking, emperors of the Principate emulated Augustus in his fiction of a republican government, concentrating various civil and military offices upon one individual while nevertheless hiding autocratic connotations behind institutions of the old Republic, such as the preservation of the Senate and the annual paired consulship. This ended following the Crisis of the Third Century (235–284), during the reign of emperor Diocletian.
Diocletian abandoned the appearances of Republic for the sake of control. He introduced a novel system of joint rule by four monarchs known as the Tetrarchy. It consisted of two co-emperors (augusti) and two respectively subordinate junior emperors (caesars).
Diocletian and his augusti colleagues and successors openly displayed the naked face of Imperial power. They ceased using the more modest title of princeps; they adopted the veneration of the potentates of ancient Egypt and Persia; and, they started wearing jeweled robes and shoes in contrast to the simple toga praetexta used by Emperors of the Principate.
Emperors inhabited luxurious palaces (the ruins of Diocletian's enormous palace in Dalmatia survive to this day; see Diocletian's Palace) and were surrounded by a court of individuals who, only due to the favor and proximity of the Emperor, attained the highest honorific titles and bureaucratic functions. In fact, many offices associated with the palatine life and that suggested intimate relationship with royalty eventually developed connotations of power, such as the offices of Chamberlain and Constable. The titles of Senator and Consul, after the loss of every residue of political power they had had in the Principate, became mere honorifics in the later Empire.
The adoption of Dominus as a formal title reflected the divine status (divus) that has come to be a prerogative of the Imperial position. Originally an exceptional honour awarded by the Senate to an Emperor posthumously, the elevation had devolved to an expected convention for still-living Caesars. To dissuade the rebellions and usurpations of the Crisis of the Third Century, the Emperors sought the kind of divine legitimacy invoked by Eastern monarchies.
Emperors imported rituals such as kneeling before the Emperor, and kissing of the hem of the Imperial robe (proskynesis). After the personal adoption of Christianity by Constantine I (312), and its installation as the official state religion by Theodosius in 380, Imperial divinity became directly associated with the Christian Church. In the Eastern Roman Empire after 476 AD, the symbiotic relation between the Imperial Crown in Constantinople and the Orthodox Church led to the distinctive character of the medieval Roman state.