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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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There is common agreement that the idea of author-
ity, in the full range of meanings that have given it
an integral intellectual life to the present, had its ori-
gins during the Roman Republic with the coinage of
the distinctive term, auctoritas, to cover several kinds
of primarily, albeit not exclusively, legal relationships.
The problem with the ancient Roman origins of au-
thority, indeed, is an embarrassment of riches: it is the
problem of inferring a characteristic and coherent
Roman idea from the welter of literal usages developed
for the term. The wealth of scholarly inquiries into
the Roman term and concept has resolved part of this


problem, in that several ideas of authority have been
identified from classifications of the term's myriad
functions (Heinze, pp. 349-55; Fürst, passim; Lütcke,
pp. 13-29). But what the commentators agree on
stresses the importance of what remains problematic.
They agree that the frequency and variety of the
Romans' applications of these ideas to both their pri-
vate and their public life demonstrate the fundamental
importance of authority for the whole of Roman soci-
ety, and they agree too that this importance implies
a cultural coherence among the Roman ideas of au-
thority. But there is no consensus on what this coher-
ence was.

The reason for the disagreement at this level would
seem to be the insistence upon a rigorous coherence
in the form of a definite hierarchy among the ideas
of authority or in the form of one definite, integral
idea which logically or semantically comprehends the
rest. But the actual contexts of the partial ideas of
Roman authority are simply too variegated and irre-
ducible to bear such a stringent unity. What was com-
mon to them was not a synthetic idea to which they
contributed but a general attitude which underlay
them all. The coherent Roman idea of authority is a
formulation of this attitude. It can be ascertained
through an inquiry into the pattern formed by the
various partial ideas that went into it and into the
historical development of this pattern.

Three partial ideas of authority can be inferred from
the types of application which the Romans made of
the term since remote republican times.

First, among the earliest traceable meanings shared
by ideas clustered around the distinctive term, auc-
(or the root term, auctor, signifying the agent
whose identifying capacity was his auctoritas), was the
extra confirmation or guarantee of a transaction which
was added to its normal legal sanctions by a special
responsibility of one party in the transaction. In the
field of private law, for example, “the authority of the
trustee” meant the trustee's confirmation of a ward's
action which made the action legally binding and the
trustee legally accountable to the ward for all resulting
injuries. Again, “the authority of the lord” (auctoritas
) meant an imposition of the lord's will upon
the slave in addition to the lord's regular right of
coercive command (iussum), and where the related but
more inclusive “authority of the patron” spelled out
the legally incremental quality of authority by specify-
ing it as that which the paterfamilias exercises in addi-
tion to his governing power (imperium) over his family
(including slaves) and without governing power over
his clients.

These private-law applications of authority help to
identify an analogous meaning of political authority
in Roman public life. The most overt link between the
two fields for this meaning of authority was provided
by the idea of “patriarchal authority” (auctoritas
), which was permanently associated with “the
authority of the Senate” (auctoritas Senatus), synony-
mously during the early Republic and as one of its
formal capacities during the later. Denoting the Sen-
ate's function, as a council of elders, of approving the
resolutions of the popular assemblies before they could
become law, the patriarchal authority of the Senate
was obviously the public analogy of the private au-
thority inherent in the certificatory function of the
trustee. This aspect of senatorial authority was a formal
instance of a public authority expressly recognized in
all high governmental officials as a consequence but
not a derivative of their legal prerogative or power
(imperium or potestas). It was a prime example of what
we may call the incremental or tutelary idea of
authority—the idea, that is, of a kind of control over
men that is additional to regular legal sanctions and
is itself grounded in fiduciary legal status.

A second, even more pervasive, meaning of author-
ity, diffused as it was through the literature of Roman
private life as well as of law and politics, was the
imputation of the personal—especially moral—
qualities of agents, counsellors, or officials to their
decisions, judgments, and regulations for the purpose
of extending the trust in these model persons to their
official deeds. This partial idea of authority has been
characterized as “personality-power” or “prestige-
power” by subsequent commentators. Where the first,
or incremental, idea of authority was distinguished
from command and power in order to complement
them, the second, or personal, idea of authority was
distinguished from counsel and opinion in order to
complement them.

Scattered profusely through Roman literature in
references taking the general form of “doing something
by someone's authority” (ex auctoritate alicuius), dis-
tinctively personal grounds of authority were imputed
to propositions, testimony, and arguments. They ranged
from the advice of any trustworthy individual in his
private capacity to the private and public recom-
mendations of poets, philosophers, and scholars revered
as seers or experts—which were mere counsels and
opinions in themselves but whose source made them
accepted as law and truth, obligating their recipients
in fact far beyond their formal capacity to bind. Cicero,
whose habit of joining Stoic principles to Roman prac-
tice has made him a veritable source-book for the
personal and moral genesis of social and political au-
thority, explicitly substantiated this genesis by analyz-
ing it into the qualities of nature—i.e., virtue—and of
time—i.e., original talent, wealth, experience, knowl-


edge, and age—which made certain personalities espe-
cially imposing and their activities especially influen-
tial upon other people.

In political contexts the Romans also attributed au-
thority to such socially oriented personal qualities as
“honor” (dignitas), or “influence” (gratia: literally, the
disposition to make connections and dispense favors),
or meritorious acts, or old age (auctoritas maiorum).
The authority attributed to these personal qualities
often shaded insensibly into the incremental authority
of public office. In its application to such executive
officials as consuls and military leaders the preeminence
derivative from personal merits and the preeminence
derivative from the perquisites and responsibilities of
the offices themselves were obviously osmotic, and even
in the case of the Senate the moral prestige of ancestral
families and of noble lineage merged into the incre-
mental political role of the council of elders.

But the distinctive features of personal authority—its
continuity with example and advice and its contrast
to official power—nonetheless retained their identities
as persistent ingredients of the characteristic Roman
approach to political authority. Their most notable
political contributions were to the crucial, related, and
otherwise undefinable Roman ideas of the authority of
the Senate and the authority of the princeps.

“The authority of the Senate” grew, during the later
Republic, to be something more than the above-
mentioned incremental patriarchal authority with
which it had been wholly identified, and the homage
paid to the personal qualities associated with Senators
participated in this growth. The authority of the Senate
came now to mean the specially effective consultative
function which was in fact the elusive mode of gov-
ernment of the Republic's sovereign organ—a function
which, in the memorable phrase of Mommsen's
Römisches Staatsrecht, made auctoritas “more than a
counsel and less than a command; rather a counsel with
which one could not properly avoid compliance”
(Mommsen, III, 2, p. 1034). This idea of authority
covered all the characteristic operations of the Senate,
including both its enactment of final decrees (senatūs
), which had the formal force of law, and its
recommendation of imperfect resolutions, which did
not have the formal force of law. Both activities were
subsumed under counselling, and the Senate's “author-
ity” was attributed to the actual binding force of its
counsels, whatever their form.

Thus Cicero acknowledged “authority,” in this sense
of factually prescriptive consultation, to be the princi-
ple of the Senate's political preeminence, and he con-
trasted it explicitly with “the power” (potestas) of the
magistrates and “the liberty” (libertas) of the people
in one context or with the “power” and the “sover
eignty” (potestas and majestas) of the people in other
contexts. For Cicero as for other witnesses, moreover,
much of the prescriptive force that was imputed to
the “counsels” of the Senate stemmed from the per-
sonal attributes of lineage, propertied wealth, and
character associated with the Senators.

Related to senatorial authority but even more defi-
nitely personal in its origins and extralegal in its opera-
tion was the Roman idea of a “principal authority,”
or auctoritas principis (Magdelain, pp. 1-76). Obviously
of decisive importance for the transition from republic
to empire during the period of the “principate,” the
concept of the authority of the “princeps” (for lack
of a precise equivalent, the Latin term has been carried
over into English) developed its characteristic conno-
tations, which the emperors and their legists would
later use, during republican times. In its explicit Cice-
ronian version the princeps is the “ruler of the com-
monwealth” (rector rei publicae) in a purely ideal sense:
as princeps, he occupies no official position and pos-
sesses no legal power, but he actually guides the balanced
constitution of the Roman state from the outside as
it were, whatever his formal political function, by dint
of the magnetic moral virtues and merits which made
“the best citizen” (optimus civis) also “the first, or chief,
citizen” (princeps). Working preferably—albeit not
necessarily—upon the Senate, the first citizens's char-
acteristic mode of de facto government is, like the
Senate's, from personal preeminence and through
“counsel” (concilium), a mode of government which
is summed up in its entirety as auctoritas. But unlike
the Senate, which as a council of elders was a regular
constitutional organ however irregular its function, the
authority of the princeps not only characterized his
political activity but constituted his very existence.
Hence not only was authority something “of the first
citizen's” (auctoritas principis) but someone was a first
citizen through authority (princeps auctoritate), and
Cicero's synonymous use of “honor” in this context as
the constituent property of the first citizen (princeps
) clearly indicate the personal focus of the
princeps' authority during the republic. It was con-
firmed by the extraordinary function, also attributed
to the princeps by both Cicero and Augustus, of sup-
plying “private counsel” directly to the body politic
(res publica) for the purpose of “liberating” it from
the degeneration of its public organs.

The third and final partial idea of authority for the
Romans was the quality of creation or initiation which
we still primarily associate with the terms, “author”
and “authorize.” In its references to general human
relations, this kind of authority denoted the source of
a rumor or of a doctrine or of a decision, with the
definite implication that the very identification of this


sponsor, independently of his legal function or of his
moral qualities, carried with it grounds for others to
conform voluntarily to what he authorized. And this
in either of two ways. His designation as source (auctor)
implied either his own continuing responsibility for the
information, opinions, and actions in question or the
rightful origin of information, opinions, and action
whose original right had been transferred.

In the first alternative, authority referred to the
special respect that was due to the accountable origi-
nator (author) of a complete idea or activity by those
who simply comply with it; in the second, authority
refers to the originator's (authorizer's) rightful transfer
of his claim on this special respect to those who comply
with his original incomplete idea or activity by com-
pleting it. A prominent instance of original authority
in the first sense was the inclusion of the proposal of
law within the function of an official's “authority,” as
shown by the synonymous use, in this context, of auctor
and lator legis (Berger, pp. 368-69). The most
far-reaching applications of original authority in the
second sense were obviously to political power. This
kind of authority, for example, was central to the
princeps' function—over and above his personal or
private counselling functions—of public counselling on
critical issues. Not only was he himself “the leader”
(dux) of the state solely by virtue of his “authority”
as the initiator (auctor) of proposals—a respect for
initiative entirely comprehensible in the normal stasis
of a balanced republican constitution—but the regular
public organs which enacted his counsel into legislation
acted as much by the transferred authority which they
acquired along with his counsel as by the coercive
power of their own offices.

The Romans themselves never either reduced or
synthesized their three categorical ideas of authority—
the incremental, the personal, and the initiatory—in
a single coherent concept, although subsequent com-
mentators have not been wanting who have tried, on
etymological or logical grounds, to do it for them. It
is generally agreed that the etymological root of
Roman “authority” (auctoritas) is “augment” (augere),
and Cicero did occasionally identify auctoritas with
a function of “increasing” honor or the general welfare.
But however close to the incremental idea this verbal
root may be, the lack of a direct etymological connec-
tion between this root and other, very different mean-
ings of the word—such as authorship, from auctor
which are appropriate to the other partial ideas of
authority has led to a simple repetition of the intellec-
tual problem on the etymological level. Hence there
is general disagreement on the relevance of the ety-
mology to the concept of authority (Heinze, p. 352;
Lütcke, p. 23).

Conceptually, moreover, both in their relationships
with the idea of “power” and in their relationships with
the idea of “reason” the partial ideas of authority
showed themselves to be not merely heterogeneous but
mutually opposed. In their relationships to “power”
the respective ideas of authority were sometimes ex-
plicitly defined in contradistinction from it and some-
times explicitly asserted as the basis of it. In their
relationships to “reason” the ideas of authority were
sometimes implicitly tied to it (as in the authority
associated with counselling), sometimes made explicitly
compatible with it as a kind of shorthand for an alter-
nate path to the same truth (e.g., Cicero's acceptance
of the “authority” of the Greek philosophers when they
do not “deliver their reasons” [rationem redderent]),
sometimes explicitly opposed to it—and when opposed
to reason authority was deemed sometimes an option
to be preferred and sometimes an option to be rejected.
These variations in the external relations of the various
partial ideas of authority highlight the difficulty of
arriving at a generic Roman idea of authority by either
a semantical or logical analysis of its parts.

But it is possible to arrive at such a generic idea
by a historical analysis, which aligns variations along
a temporal axis and demonstrates them as coherent
stages of an idea in the process of change. Roman
public law—always, as we have seen, a crossroads for
the sundry partial ideas of authority—furnished the
context for the historical passage from republic to
empire which makes the integration of the various
forms of authority a matter not so much of histori-
ographical interpretation as of historical fact. The
crucial document in the reconstruction of this history
is undoubtedly the famous Chapter 34 of Augustus' Res
into whose formulation of authority republican
ideas flowed and from whose formulation the pattern
of the imperial idea emerged. Describing the position
which was his after 27 B.C., when the Senate conferred
upon him the title of “Augustus, for my reward,” in
gratitude for his formal reestablishment of the republic,
the consul Octavius delivered the most revealing pro-
nouncement in the whole history of the idea of author-
ity: “After this time,” he wrote, “I was superior to all
by my authority (auctoritate omnibus praestiti), but I
had no more power (potestatis... nihilo amplius) than
the others who were also colleagues in the magistracy”
(Magdelain, pp. vii, 53). The appeal to the typical
republican idea of a personal and unofficial authority,
categorically distinct from official power, seems obvi-
ous enough, but what is equally significant, albeit more
covert, was the new constitutional role which its asso-
ciation here with the title “Augustus” symbolized for
this authority.

The implicit link in this association was the function


of the princeps, which was identified both with
Octavian's republican reference to his personal moral
preeminence and with his definition of his official title
in the initiatory sense of the princeps' authority as “the
author of the best condition of state,” i.e., auctor optimi
(ibid., pp. 56-62). Through its connection with
the extralegal republican ideas of authority on the one
hand and with the legal title of “Augustus” on the
other, the Augustan principate initiated, under per-
sonal auspices, the process which would be completed,
under institutional auspices, in the later Empire: the
compression of loose-jointed authority, in response to
the needs of official political organs, into a compact
legal basis of constitutional power.

In Augustus' hands, indeed, the various strands of
the princeps' authority were unified while the discrete
powers of his sundry other offices—each was granted
in a different senatorial decree, at a different time, and
for a different period from the others—were deliber-
ately kept separate, with the result that authority be-
came recognized as the unitary basis of the several
formal powers in the Empire. Augustus achieved this
status for his authority by explicitly asserting both his
princeps' authority and his magisterial power as official
capacities and by implicitly blending the various
meanings of authority into a single principal idea of
it in the service of its political function. He combined
in himself and secured legal sanction for both kinds
of authority associated with the two traditions of the
princeps (the initiatory public counsellor of the Senate
and the personally revered private counsellor of the
people). He merged these, moreover, in a new third
type of princeps' authority—a guardian authority as
trustee of the commonwealth (custos, or pater patriae),
officially charged by the Senate with the safekeeping
of the whole community (cura et tutela rei publicae).
Although still without coercive power itself, this au-
thority both partook of and contributed to the legal
obligation of the statutes through the continuous per-
sonal identity and overall controlling function of
Augustus as both the official bearer of the authority
which attracted obedience and the official magistrate
with the power to compel it.

With the development of the Augustan empire from
a covert to an overt absolutism, the uneasy personal
balance between authority and power in Augustus was
resolved into a definite legal and logical connection
in his successors. The legal texts and commentaries
from the second century A.D. onward, abound in refer-
ences to “our authority” and to “the authority of the
laws” as the valid source of particular statutes. They
are applied, moreover, not only to “our” authority in
the traditional sense of “the authority of the princeps”
(principalis auctoritas) and to the “authority of the
resolutions” (constitutionum auctoritas) which were his
characteristic mode of recommendation, but also to
“our” authority in the novel sense of “imperial” and
“sovereign authority” (imperialis auctoritas and auc-
toritas nostrae majestatis
) and to the “authority” of the
regular coercive laws of the sovereign power (auc-
toritas juris
and auctoritas legum).

The official context and the juristic commentaries
make it clear that these references to both a principal
consultative and a governmental coercive agency of
authority were not, as in republican times, references
to two different kinds of authority, but rather to one
continuous function of authority. This function was
part of the legal and political process which merged
the offices of princeps and Imperator and gave to the
“resolutions” (constitutiones) of the princeps the formal
coercive “force of the law” (vigorem legis) which was
the Emperor's by virtue of the people's delegation of
their sovereignty to him.

With the juncture of deliberative authority and
magisterial power in the legislative sovereignty of the
princeps-Emperor, the varied ancestral, moral, and
initiatory grounds of traditional Roman authority con-
verged into a single epitomal quality of the laws them-
selves, conveying the sense of an obligation to obey
them beyond the application of either adequate reason
or adequate compulsion. Hence the Imperial jurist,
Ulpian (third century A.D.), revealed the political func-
tion as well as the legal destination of the Roman idea
of authority when he declared the decrees, edicts, and
judgments of the “emperor” (imperator) to be “stat-
utes” (leges) which were “popularly” (vulgo) called
“resolutions” (constitutiones) of the princeps.

The historical development of the Roman attitude
to authority demonstrates an essential attribute of the
general idea which reappears in every stage of its
history and runs through its history in the large: the
instability—stemming from the elusiveness of its origi-
nal fragmented meaning—which made its proponents
susceptible to the attraction of settled political power.
But the Roman development also reveals, within the
original fragmented idea of authority, the potential
coherence which was actualized by the magnetic re-
quirements of political power and can be traced
through its response to them.

Both the terminological persistence of “princeps” as
an Imperial title and of “consider,” “assess,” “resolve”
(arbitror, censeo, placet) to define the activity of the
princeps, and the formal logical priority which “au-
thority” as the source of law and over the “power”
which specified and executed it, were traces of the
idea's original meanings which lasted through the
Empire as compatible supports of the Emperor's sov-
ereignty, and furnish clues to their common meaning.


The idea of authority in general arose when men freely
chose final human depositories for their trust, and the
various principles on which the choice was made be-
came mutually reinforcing when they were aligned in
a series directed toward the crucial problem of estab-
lishing a basis for government beyond the specific
punishments its organs could impose, and the specific
benefits they could deliver. In this constitutional con-
text the personal basis of authority was conceived in
terms of a civic morality; the creative basis of authority
was conceived in terms of a political initiative; and
the commitment of both to validating the origins of
political power served to reinforce the trust reposed
in the legal guardian who added his responsibility for
its results. Thus both of the main discrepancies in the
various meanings of authority—the discrepancy be-
tween the personal grounds and public effects of moral
authority and the discrepancy between the initiatory
and confirmatory grounds of responsible authority (that
is, between the rights of authorship and the duties of
augmentation)—were resolved into sequential relations
when they were spread out along a legal axis to supply
the organs of government with a single principle of
origins and of guaranteed results that was more vener-
able and more unified than the combination of political
appointment, physical sanctions, and promised welfare
associated with official power.

This political integration of authority made manifest
the three common traits which had always underlain
the original variety of its overt principles. First, au-
thority was essentially fiduciary: where the correlative
of reason was conviction and the correlative of power
was obedience, the correlative of authority was trust.
Secondly, authority was essentially transitional: its
function was to bring principles from a higher realm
of being to bear upon the activities in a lower realm
of being: ideas of authority modulated the principles
so as to make them relevant without divesting them
of their superiority. Thirdly, authority was essentially
hierarchical: where power and liberty could both be
located anywhere and exercised in any direction, men
who used the idea of authority distinctively assumed
that the superiority of the realm of its origin over the
realm of its exercise required a parallel hierarchy
within the realm of its exercise; only higher principles
which were selective in their application were author-
itative principles; those who appropriated them were
the superiors, and those who recognized them were
the subordinates.

Thus two generic ideas of authority emerged from
the Roman experience: an actual idea which was a
quality of sovereign power and a potential idea, inde-
pendent of the idea of power, which persisted under
the cover of the legal actuality. With the actualization
of the coherent idea of autonomous authority under
new auspices at the start of the next era, the overt
relations of the two ideas came to constitute the intel-
lectual history of authority.