Princeps Senatus – it’s lonely at the top?

Princeps senatus is a good example of the inventiveness and evolution of Roman political system. The office was outside cursus honorum, didn’t have any imperium and was only open to patricians. The appointment was for 5 years and so each new pair of censores appointed their choice to be princeps.

The real power of the position and source for its immense prestige was that the princeps senatus held the right to speak first in given subject in the Senate. According to the Roman system and how the Senate session worked, the first speaker managed usually control the ensuing debate by his speech – all the more if he was an accomplished orator. Gradually also other privileges were added for the position e.g. summoning and adjourning the senate meeting. Something of the prestige and meaning of the title for the Romans is that princeps is the title Augustus and his successors choose for themselves.

Here is the list of known principes senatus from 150 – 50, or actually until 89, because after that we do not have reliable records. As it is, even while the office was the peak of career and only accessible for a patrician, we have very incomplete information of the principes.

153/152 – 147 nemo
147 – ? P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum
? – ? ?
136 – 130Ap. Claudius Pulcher
130 – ? L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus
125? – ?P. Cornelius Lentulus
115 – 89 M. Aemilius Scaurus

After 179 – 153/152 M. Aemilius Lepidus (cos 187) the office was vacant until 147, when Scipio Nasica Corculum, a son of cousin of Scipio Africanus (Scipio the Elder) and also a husband of his daughter, was appointed into it. Scipio Africanus had held the position at 199 – 184/183. Scipio Nasica Corculum began his term at 147, so his term should have ended at 142/141. We know he died 141, so probably there was someone appointed after him and before Ap. Claudius Pulcher (cos 143).

The appointment of Ap. Claudius Pulcher is in many ways a prime example of the position and eligability for it. Pulcher was not the most senior statesman when he was appointed. At first this seems to contradict the very idea of the position. Consul of 156 L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus was the most senior patrician ex-censor living and as such a natural choice for the position. Also Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (Scipio the Younger) was alive and active, and as the destroyer of Carthage and otherwise highly accomplished citizen, he would have made a very natural choice for the most prestigious position of the republic. Ap. Claudius Pulcher on the other hand was not a military genious (you can read more about his triumph here) and certainly not senior in years compared to Lupus and Scipio. What then he did possess to justify the appointment?

Ap. Claudius Pulcher was a very ambitious politician. He evidently worked hard to form political alliances in old Roman way and to gather support in appearing at the Forum. There is even an anecdote of his verbal jousting during his first campaign for censor against Scipio Aemilianus, no other. Pulcher said to Scipio, that Scipio hardly knew anyone at the Forum (stinging against Scipio’s way of not frequenting at Forum), to which Scipio replied that Pulcher had got it right, because Scipio didn’t live his life to know many people, but to be unknown to no-one (which of course was sting against Pulcher, who could not match anywhere near the military glory and fame of Scipio). Scipio carried the election and was elected as censor in 142 and Pulcher had to wait until next time to be elected at 136.

Pulcher built his support base for a long time in many methods and his appointment as princeps can be seen as a culmination of his efforts. Pulcher’s daughter was married to Ti. Gracchus. C. Grcchus, Tiberius’ brother, was married to daughter of P. Licinius Crassus Mucianus, who with his biological brother P. Mucius Scaevola, supported Gracchus and Claudius at 133. The other daughter of Mucianus was married to the Ser. Sulpicius Galba, the most famous orator of his time. It was Galba who in 149 had defended Q. Fulvius Nobilior, who was the censor to appoint his colleague Pulcher as princeps senatus. All these persons were in opposition to Scipio.

So what Pulcher had, was the traditional extended and many layered network of contacts, friends, allies and services and counter services that made the Roman political life so complicated and dynamic environment. Scipio lacked this broad political support throughout the Senate. In this sense the system worked perfectly: only a candidate with wide support at each corner of the Senate could be appointed as princeps senatus – to reflect the broad consensus of the senate as the first speaker. No outsider or upstart could convince the system otherwise – not even the celebrated second Africanus.

It’s interesting to note that Cornelius Lentulus Lupus got his turn as princeps senatus after Ap. Claudius Pulcher, but Scipio never did. This underlines the fact that no loner could reach the peak position of the republic, there was everything else than lonely at the top: to get into office of princeps senatus and to get to set the tone in each senate discussion, you had to be a master networker. This I think tells the essence of what being princeps senatus was about.


I want my triumph, no matter what the Senate says

Other consul for 143 was Ap. Claudius Pulcher. Other describes it well, because the consul who really mattered was Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus: he got the Hispanic provinces and the chance to finish the war against Viriatus for himself – a pretty sure spectacular victory after Macedonicus’ predecessor in Hispania Q. Fabius Maximus Aemilianus had taken care of changing the tide of war there. Noteworthy is that Fabius Aemilianus was biological brother of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (Scipio the Younger) and Metellus Macedonicus was at this moment Scipio’s political ally. So Scipionic clicque had the political scene set very well.

Ap. Claudius Pulcher on the other hand was a very opposite side of politics. He was the main rival of Scipio for the spotlight of Roman politics of the era. He was born into high nobility: his grand-grandfather was consul of 249, grandfather consul of 212, father consul of 177 and his uncles were consuls of 185 and 184. He was also a traditional Roman politician with actively forming ties and making alliances. He was known to be very ambitious and unscrupulous in ways to fulfill his high ambitions. A very different character from Scipio, who built himself an extraordinary career upon virtues of military skills and bravery and chivalrious deference for material things.

For such an ambitious politican with such burden of glorious ancestors, being the other consul did not suit at all. The opportunity came in the form of minor Alpine tribe of Salassi, who had some unsettled dispute with their neighbours. Pulcher went to the Gaul and instead of negotiations attacked against the Salassi. Unfortunately for Pulcher, the first invasion ended in Roman defeat with heavy losses. Pulcher had to device a scheme to change the direction of events.

Pulcher orchestrated a Decemviri investigation of Sibylline books, and from there was found out two things. First was an obscure rule that if Rome declares war against Gauls, the sacrifice for it has to be done in Gallic territory. As this wasn’t done, it was an obvious reason that the God’s did not favour the war. And as no-one knew of such rule, Pulcher obviously had made an innocent error, which would be corrected easily and Rome would ensure the favour of the Gods in Pulcher’s second attempt on Salassi tribe. The other thing found was that on-going big public work in third aquaeduct for the city of Rome should have been done differently and that public debate further steered the interest away from Pulcher’s embarrassing defeat.

So Pulcher got his war and for the second time was victorious. He let his troops plunder the tribal area thoroughly and also gathered a good loot for himself too. In fact his actions were considered even by Roman standard brutal and did not bring too much popularity for him. However, the popularity was not his major goal. Pulcher was after a triumph, which would have placed himself somewhat on par with his illustrious ancestors. His opponents in the Senate paid attention to this and consequently the Senate declined to give funds for arranging a triumph. While there was no formal law that Senate permission was needed, it was customary to follow its rulings on triumphs.

Pulcher was not satisfied with this. He wanted to have his triumph and was not wait for it. So he started preparations. We know one occasion before him that triumph was celebrated without Senate approval, so while not exactly new idea, his was at least highly uncustomary one. Pulcher’s enemies had still one card left: the plebeian tribunes. And it turned out that the tribunes were also against Pulcher.

In triumph, the triumphator (general celebrating it) was to move in chariot in parade procession on the streets of Rome. A tribune could prevent this by dragging the general out from the chariot, and general could not answer this with violence because the tribunes were untouchable by law of Gods. This presented a dilemma for Pulcher. However he found a truly ingenious and original way to handle the situation. One of his daughters was a Vestal virgin. Vestal virgins also enjoyed sacred protection and even a tribune of plebs could not violate a Vestal. Pulcher had his daughter then to accompany him in the triumphal chariot placed in a way to protect Pulcher from the tribunes! This is an unique event in Roman history, no other time a Vestal was needed to secure a triumph.

Perhaps the Pulcher’s triumph was a sign of times to come, where ambition and rivalry of the nobles of Rome would produce horrible civil wars and rule of law lost its meaning. Be it so or not, the Pulcher’s determination to celebrate a triumph was something of unique and exceptional. It also certainly tells a lot about the politics in Rome at the time of third Punic war.

Antonii – it’s complicated

The Antonii were, at least for what has survived to us, a rather small family. The family name is dominated by the memory of the triumvir M. Antonius, but for Romans before his time the most notable representative of the family was his grandfather, who was one of the most skilled speakers of his era. Grandfather Antonius (M. Antonius orator to differentiate him from M. Antonius triumvir) was also respected for his wisdom. Generations of Antonii before him we know very little. We have just few names, but no information about individuals or their relations. In the family tree below I have placed M. Antonius ( 167) as his father, but he could also his grandfather. In any case we know that M. Antonius orator was M.f. M.n., and that tribunus plebis of 167 was his relative. Until the generation of M. Antonius orator the situation therefore is clear: we know little about Antonii.

The children of orator however are the generation where something peculiar happen to Antonii. The marriage arrangements of orator’s children and their children can be described only as being complicated. The centre-figure is the triumvir and his numerous marriages.


First M. Antonius triumvir was married to Fadia, a daughter of freedman, of which we don’t know more than that Antonius’ and Fadias children were all dead before year 44. The second wife of triumvir Antonius was his cousin Antonia, whom he divorced in order to marry Fulvia Flacca. This Fulvia was a daughter of Fulvius Flaccus, who was brother of another Fulvia who was married to L. Julius Caesar (cos 90) and their daughter Julia was triumvir’s mother! In other words triumvir Antonius married the cousin of his mother, Fulvia.

Triumvir Antonius had a daughter and two sons with Fulvia, and other of those sons, Jullus Antonius, married Claudia Marcella. This Claudia was a daughter of C. Claudius Marcellus and Octavia. This same Octavia also become triumvir Antonius’ fourth wife, so Octavia´s stepson Jullus married her daughter Claudia as the result of triumvir Antonius’ maritial arrangements!

To these quite remarkable achievements of M. Antonius in the sphere of marriage arrangements we can also add his contribution with no less than queen Kleopatra of Egypt herself: three children Alexander Helios, Ptolemaios Philadelphos and Kleopatra Selene II. We also might notice that triumvir’s blood ran through veins of some of the first Roman emperors as well as his and Octavia’s daughters married L. Domitius Ahenobarbus and Nero Claudius Drusus.

The Porcii Catones, case for marriage

The posterity remembers very well two of the Porcii Catones: the elder Cato and the younger Cato. However these were just two of the whole family of Porcii Catones. To understand their life one also has to understand their family and its connections to the other families.

The Porcii Catones, from which both of the great men grew, came from Sabine area of Tusculum. Indeed the city of Tusculum itself is a special one. It was the home of many very successfull republican era Roman noble families. It was near Rome and victory over it meant domination of the most of the Sabine area for Rome. From early on citizens of Tusculum were enrolled into Roman citizens as well, but still Tusculum rebelled often against Rome, even with arms. Ancient Romans themselves thought Sabinians though and difficult people, which might have reputation earned very well.

Porcii Catones lived up to this reputation. Especially Cato the elder (Censorius) was known for his harshness and anti-luxury stance. Many other Porcii Catones subscribed into these values and in many ways it was the hallmark of the whole family from generation to generation. This trait so much advertised already during the antiquity has also carried on to our times and very often one sees the name of Cato being used in the sense of traditional values and pureness.

However this image however well earned was just an image and if one really wants to understand and evaluate the Porcii Catones in their historical setting such romantised images should be set aside. The fact was that the Porcii Catones were a moderately successfull Roman noble family, not exactly small in numbers, but not large either. The three consulships they achieved during the last century of the republic places them not very high and not very low on the ranking of the families. And as typical for smallish families, the consulships were all within a couple of generations by close relatives, meaning that the source of their success was one successful individual, i.e. Cato the elder.

Catones were quite successful in forming marriage alliances. Most skillful of all was, perhaps as a surprise Cato the younger, whose own marriage arrangements came second only to the marriage arrangements for his children.


When examining the maritial connections of the Catones, one notes especially connections to the Junii Bruti and the Servilii Caepiones, which also had complicated relationships between themselves. Especially famous marriage is the marriage of younger Cato’s daughter Porcia to Brutus, which also probably was a love marriage at least from the part of Porcia. However the marriage had strong political implications as well, Brutus for example divorced his first wife Claudia Pulchra, daughter of his long time political ally, and this angered Brutus’ mother Servilia. Servilii had also numerous other indirect links to Porcii Catones.

The extraordinary personality of Cato the elder also brought him influence beyond to that of his family. For example famous speaker Q. Hortensius Hortalus admired Cato so much that wanted to marry Cato’s daughter. However at that time Porcia was married to M. Calpurnius Bibulus, who did not want to give up his wife and Cato himself too was not very enthusiastic about the idea. However Hortensius was very rich and politically very well connected with the aristocratic party and Pompeius. Thus Cato arranged his own wife Marcia, daughter of L. Marcius Philippus cos 56, to marry Hortensius making Hortensius happy. Hortensius and Marcia were married for 5 years until Hortensius died and left all his fortunes to Marcia. Marcia immediately re-married Cato, bringing the wealth of Hortensius to Cato and causing a major scandal in Rome. An arrangement perhaps quite far removed from the image of virtuous philosopher-statesman.

The skills of younger Cato were not a lone spark in the Porcii Catones family. The father of his had married with Livia Drusa, a former wife of Q. Servilius Caepio (a brother of Brutus’ mother, Servilia). Livia was daughter of cos 112 M. Livius Drusus and a Cornelia Scipiones. These connections ensured good fortunes for younger Cato in birth.

Also skillful was the elder Cato. He married twice and second time with Licinia Crassa, a member of the most influental plebeian family of Licinii Crassi. Also his son, Cato Licinianus, married well: his wife was Aemilia Paulla major, the elder daughter of L. Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus (cos 182 and 168). With Aemilia Paulla, Cato Licinianus ensured for his two sons the support of Aemilii Paulli and Cornelii Scipiones. This proved to be successful: both his sons reached consulship.

Survival of the Porcii Catones thus did not rely on philosophical skills or old Roman thoughness, but to the skills of political marriages, that raised the family from Sabine countryside into the center of Roman nobility. In this the Porcii Catones were much alike other aspiring new families, which wanted to have their place in the sunshine of Roman politics and society. It doesn’t take away anything from genuine uniqueness of both elder and younger Cato, but it puts their lives into a perspective.

My family has more censorships than yours

The republican Rome was a society of many layers, many networks, many degrees and many signs of the importance and influence of the family, as well as of the individual. At the political field there was a system of cursus honorum, a chain of ever more prestigious public offices, which one was supposed to climb in certain order. Typically one couldn’t skip offices and there was always one more step to take to satisfy the ambition of individual and the craving of the family to rise to the top of the society, even for a short moment.

The obvious high point of the career was consulship, the top executive of Roman Republic. The importance of the consulship for the Romans is difficult to fully grasp in our modern minds: one year of being one of the two top magistrates of the republic was undoutably important office, but the importance attached into consulship was felt in other areas too. Being consul meant that forever on, the year of your consulship was named according to you: in the year of consulship of Domitius Ahenobarbus and Fannius. That was one way to reach immortality in the Roman sense: as long as you were remembered, you were dead, but not gone. Also the number of consecutive consulships in generations (father-son) was basis for recognising the nobilitas, the cream of the cream of the Roman society. So the consulship was very important for both the individual and for the family.

I have previously written about the number of consulships (here and here), so I will not deal with that subject now in any length. However, I want to move one step higher. After consulship one was expected to serve as military commander, provincial magistrate or in the senate assignments in the field of foreign policy. After an interval of few years one could try the final elected step in the public career, the censorship.

The office of censor was not part of the official cursus honorum and it was a special kind of office in other ways too. The term in office for a Roman magistrate was one year, but the censores served five year term. The highest offices of praetor and consul carried imperium, the military command power within it, which effectively meant that consules and praetores could enforce their decisions with violence, if necessary. Censor didn’t have an imperium. Instead censores were responsible for census, which also meant they were in charge of arranging the dignities of the Roman society into proper order: everyone into their place. They also maintained the list of senators. Their power was very real, even without imperium. The office of censor thus carried great amount of prestige, the currency of influence in the Roman republic.

The number of censors between the years of my focus, 150-50 was naturally much smaller than that of annually elected consuls. The number of censores was also low during these years also because during the 70’s only one pair was elected at year 70 because of the civil war and Sulla’s dictatorship. This means that any family with more than one censor during this period is really of very high prestige.

Here is a list of censorial families and their number of censorships between 154 and 50:

number of censorships – family – years of censorships

5 Caecilius Metellus (131, 120, 115, 102, 102)
3 Licinius Crassus (92, 89, 65)
2 Calpurnius Piso (120, 50)
2 Cassius Longinus (154, 125)
2 Claudius Pulcher (136, 50)
2 Cornelius Lentulus (147, 70)
2 Domitius Ahenobarbus (115, 92)
2 Valerius Messalla (154, 55)
1 Fulvius Nobilior (136)
1 Valerius Flaccus (97)
1 Scribonius Curio (61)
1 Servilius Caepio (125)
1 Servilius Vatia (55)
1 Marcius Censorinus (147)
1 Marcius Philippus (86)
1 Mummius (142)
1 Perperna (86)
1 Pompeius (131)
1 Licinius Geta (108)
1 Livius Drusus (109)
1 Lutatius Catulus (65)
1 Fabius Maximus (108)
1 Gellius Publicola (70)
1 Julius Caesar (89)
1 Cornelius Scipio (142)
1 Antonius (97)
1 Aurelius Cotta (64)
1 Aemilius Scaurus (109)

So 27 families reached the censorial status during the final century of the republic. 8 families reached more than one censorship. This means that those leading 8 families took 20 censorships from altogether 42 available offices, almost half. This is close to the percentage of the consulships grasped by the most influental families. The similarity is perhaps not great surprise, but offers a convincing evidence on the tendency of Roman society to form concentrations of power.

One also finds familiar names at the top listing when comparing the number of consulships:

1. Caecilius Metellus, 15 consulships
2. – 3. Cornelius Lentulus, Marius, 8 consulships
4. Calpurnius Piso, 7 consulships
5. Aemilius Lepidus, 6 consulships
6. – 11. Aurelius Cotta, Cassius Longinus, Claudius Pulcher, Cornelius Scipio, Licinius Crassus, Papirius Carbo, 5 consulships

At the censorship listing the dominance of the Caecili Metelli in the Roman politics during the 130’s, 120’s and 110’s is very evident, there is only period of 125-119 without a Caecilius Metellus as censor. Also one notices a very exceptional thing: both of the censores of 102 were of same family! This is unique occurance in the Roman history. They were cousins with common grandfater, consul of 206 Q. Caecilius Metellus Calvus. His sons were consuls in consequtive years 143 and 142 and they themselves were consuls at 113 and 109, at the golden period of the Caecilii Metelli.


The censorships of the family of the Caecilii Metelli between 154-50 BCE.

The concentration of both consulships and censorships to these couple of generations of the Caecilii Metelli family is extraoridinary to say the least. Macedonicus has four of his sons as consul and three of them reached censorship with his nephew Numidicus rounding the number into record 5 censorships into one family. And all this within 131-102, i.e. only 30 years time. As with the number of consulships, in the number of censorships the plebeian family of Caecilii Metelli stands alone.

The chart of the Roman noble families of late republican period, version 1.0

Big news! I have reached version 1.0 of the main family chart.

There has been multitude of updates and changes since the last big version was published here in May 2015:

-I have converted nearly all families present in the May 2015 version into new format which is both more pleasing to the eye as well as easier to read with much more information about each individual.

-There has been really many updates, edits and correction of errors in many families that were on the earlier versions of the chart.

-I have added information from MRR into all individuals of the chart, so now everything except those individuals which are still in old chart visuals are based on data of both RE and MRR, making it easy to identify individuals.

-I have also added some last families into the chart.

The road ahead from now on will concentrate into three areas:

1) Bringing last old visual format families into new format. This will include some additional research.

2) Researching some additional families. During the course of producing the version 1.0 I have become convinced that I need to add still some families into the chart to make it a coherent view into the late republican Roman nobility. Not all additional families will have many, or even one consul during the 150-50 period, but they still are important enough for the big picture.

3) Developing visual upgrade for version 2.0. The version 2.0 will include clearer visuals for inter-family relations. It will be a major piece of work and I’d except to start it at earliest next Summer, but it might take even longer than that just to reach into version that will serve as basis for version 2.0.

After the chart reaches version 2.0 I except it to remain as such only with some upgrades into data (filiation etc.) as my research continues deeper into each family. That is why this version 1.0 is so significant: in many ways it marks the half-way mile post in my project.

You can access the full-resolution version of the chart by clicking the here.


The main family chart version 1.0: Late republican era Roman noble families with filiation and inter-family relationships illustrated as well as information about individuals themselves. Click here for full resolution image.

Valerii Messallae and a paradigm change of Roman social survival game rules

The family tree of the Valerii Messallae

As with the Valerii Flacci, we dont’t know too much about the Valerii Messallae during the republican period. Their rise to consular status was at 263, but of those early consuls of the family we know relatively little. And again we see ”only one consular son” phenomenon with them.

Valerii Messallae

The family suffered eclipse after consul of 161 and reached consular level after interval of 100 years again at 61. Interesting to note is that Valerii Flacci flourished exactly at this period having consulships at 152, 131, 100, 93 and 86. And vice versa, the Flacci didn’t have any consuls after 86, in fact they were extinct within a couple of generations.

Valerii Messallae on their part had their prime years of influence and status only in coming. During the Augustan period the family was one of the most inflental ones and in fact one of the few strong republican era families that managed to hold on their influence under empire. Of the family also rose notorious Messalina, wife of emperor Claudius.

Paradigm change of the Roman social survival game rules

One can speculate if the reason behind the success of the Messalla branch and also the fall of Flaccus branch was changing of the sources of social prestige. As noted with Flacci, the family didn’t care for marital arrangements (at least to our knowledge) whereas Messallae seem to have shifted their focus already at the generation preceding consuls of 61 and 53.

The mother of consul of 53 (M. Valerius Messalla Rufus) was Hortensia, sister of the famous court speaker. Sister of Rufus, Valeria, also became the fifth (and last) wife of Sulla. The generation after this also had several marriage arrangements and flourished in the inner circle of Roman nobility during the Augustan period.

While we must avoid making too far reaching interpretations beased on the Valerii Flacci and Valerii Messallae, it certainly is intriguing to think that there might have been a change in the rules of the Roman social survival game and that this change has been so drastic as to act as watershed for very survival of the family lines. The popular phrases of paradigm change and disruptive change come to ones mind.