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This article is about the meaning of the Latin term Imperium in ancient Rome: for other uses, see Imperium (disambiguation)

Imperium can, in a broad sense, be translated as power. In Antiquity this concept could apply to people, and mean something like "power status" or "authority", or could be used with a geographical connotation and mean something like "territory".

Imperium as a personal characteristic

In ancient Rome "imperium" could be used as a term indicating a characteristic of people, the measure of power they had. This qualification could be used in a rather loose context (like for example poets used it, not necessarily writing about state officials), but in the Roman society it was also a more formal concept of legal authority. A man owning imperium had absolute authority within the scope of his magistracy or promagistracy (see below), but could be vetoed or overruled by a magistrate or promagistrate owning a higher degree of imperium.

Imperium was indicated in two prominent ways. A "curule" magistrate or promagistrate carried an ivory baton surmounted by an eagle as his personal symbol of office (cf. field marshal's baton). Any such magistrate was also escorted by lictors bearing the fasces (traditional symbols of imperium and authority); when outside the pomerium, axes were added to the fasces to indicate an "imperial" magistrate's power to enact capital punishment outside of Rome (the axes were removed within the pomerium). The number of lictors in attendance upon a magistrate was an overt indication of the degree of imperium. When in the field, a curule magistrate posessing an imperium greater or equal to praetorian imperium wore a sash ritually knotted on the front of his cuirass. Further any man executing imperium within his sphere of influence was entitled to the curule chair.

  • Dictator - originally 12 lictors, 24 lictors after the dictatorate of Lucius Cornelius Sulla
    • Because the dictator could enact capital punishment within Rome as well as without, his lictors did not remove the axes from their fasces within the pomerium
  • Consul - 12 lictors
  • Praetor - 6 lictors, 2 lictors within Rome
  • Master of the Horse (magister equitum) - 6 lictors
  • Curule Aedile (aedilis curulis) - 2 lictors
    • Because a plebeian aedile (aedilis plebis) did not own imperium, he was not escorted by lictors

As can be seen, dictatorial imperium was superior to consular, consular to praetorian, and praetorian to aedilician; there is some historical dispute as to whether or not praetorian imperium was superior to "equine-magisterial" imperium. A promagistrate, or a man executing a curule office without actually holding that office, also owned imperium in the same degree as the actual incumbents (i.e., proconsular imperium being more or less equal to consular imperium, propraetorian imperium to praetorian) and was attended by an equal number of lictors.

Certain extraordinary commissions, such as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus's famous command against Quintus Sertorius, were invested with imperium maius, meaning they outranked all other owners of imperium (in Pompey's case, even the consuls) within their sphere of command (his being "ultimate on the seas, and within 50 miles inland" Imperium maius and Tribunican Potestas later became a hallmark of the Roman "Princeps".


"Imperium Romanum" is probably the best known Latin expression where the word "imperium" is used in the meaning of a territory, the "Roman Empire", as that part of the world where Rome ruled.

See also

Last updated: 05-07-2005 03:41:20
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04