When Augustus selected ‘princeps’ as the word which best indicated his own constitutional position, he chose a word which had good republican associations. It was not an abbreviation of princeps senatus, though that, also, was a republican title and one which Augustus held. The princeps senatus, or First Senator, was before the time of Sulla the man who had been placed by censors at the head of the list of members of the senate, and ranked as the senior member of that body. Augustus in the census of 28 bc enrolled himself as princeps senatus, and succeeding emperors held the same position.
Principēs in the plural, meaning the ‘chief men of the state’, was a phrase commonly employed by late republican writers, as Cicero, and it continued to be used in the empire. It was the singular princeps, however, applied to one prominent statesman, esp. Pompey, in republican times, which supplied Augustus with something of a precedent. Early in 49 bc Cornelius Balbus 1 wrote to Cicero: ‘Caesar wants nothing more than to live without fear while Pompey is princeps.’ Cicero used this designation of other statesmen besides Pompey. In 46 bc he used it of Caesar. He used it also of himself in connection with the renown that he won by his action against the Catilinarian conspirators (see sergius catilina) and by his rallying of the senate against Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius ) at the end of 44. Augustus' choice of princeps to designate his position was astute; it contrasted strongly with the dictatorship and the suspected monarchical intentions of Caesar and, in indicating an unquestioned but not a narrowly defined or clearly determined primacy, the word suited perfectly Augustus' definition of his own authority (Res Gestae 34.3): ‘I excelled all in influence, although I possessed no more official power than others who were my colleagues in the various magistracies.’ Principātus was in sharp opposition to dominātiō, princeps to dominus, and both Augustus and Tiberius took pains to suppress the use of the title dominus, though it remained a conventional form of polite address within Roman society. The importance of this choice of title was appreciated by Roman historians; cp. Tacitus Annals 1. 1: ‘He took control of a state exhausted by civil discord under the title of princeps’; 1. 9: ‘He had put the state in order, not to make himself king or dictator, but under the title of princeps.’
Princeps was not an official title: it was assumed by Roman emperors at their accession and not conferred upon them by definite grant of the senate; nor does it appear in the list of official titles in documents and inscriptions. The nuance of the word, chosen by Augustus for its inoffensive character, was soon lost (though the use of the word itself persisted) as the government of the Roman emperors became more autocratic.
Subjects: Classical Studies.