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Best Suited for the Job? Imperial Legitimacy from Augustus to Commodus


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Was the person who ruled the Roman Empire the one best suited for the job? Officially, the Roman emperorship was not hereditary. Yet, many emperors were indeed related to each other, and if not, they often retrospectively linked themselves with former emperors through fictitious kinship ties. With the accession of Augustus, it can be argued that a dynastic imperial house was formed. As such, Roman emperorship seems to be autocratically based, following strong dynastic principles. Yet, on the other hand, Roman emperorship was also imbedded into larger cultural and political traditions, claiming to continue Roman Republican policy, with the ideals of meritocracy. Although often perceived to have modelled the position of “the Roman emperor”, Augustus did not make a political or juridical blueprint for Roman emperorship – it remained dynamic. Through its peculiar power basis, emperors needed to continually (re)negotiate their legitimacy with different groups, such as the senate, the people of Rome, the provincial elites, but above all the military, in order to keep, strengthen and formulise their imperial powers. When unsuccessful, the consequences were sever: murder ended their emperorship.

This research seminar will focus on the concept of Roman emperorship and how it developed during the first two centuries (27 BC – AD 192). Students will explore the different debates about Roman emperorship, and check them against different sets of primary sources (literary, epigraphical, numismatic and archaeological).

The course will start with an entry test. See Literature. The assignment will be published on Brightspace 10 days before the start of the course and should be handed in 48 hours in advance.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Ancient History: unification processes in the Graeco-Roman World, 400 BC – 400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history.

  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    -in the specialisation Ancient History: the comparative method; application of socio-scientific methods; specialized source knowledge, in particular of documentary sources, and more specifically epigraphy.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Will acquire knowledge of the political history of Roman Empire;

  2. Will gain insights in the complexibilty of the development of Roman emperorship and how it is related to historical processes, events and target groups;

  3. Will acquire thorough knowledge about selecting and interpreting a corpus of ancient sources.

ResMA students will:

  1. Learn to focus on the higher complexity of the corpus of sources that is analysed in comparison to regular MA students

  2. Learn to reflect about the methodological issues surrounding the borrowing of modern theory;

  3. Have the ability to set up and carry research from new approaches which raises new questions.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. Students who are unable to attend are required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6,500-7,500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-15 (ResMA also: 16-18)

  • Entry test
    measured learning objectives: 13-14 (ResMA also: 17)

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 11-12 (ResMA also: 10)

  • Assignment 1 (Organising a plenary debate)
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 8; 11-12; 13-15 (ResMA also: 17-18)

  • Assignment 2 (Peer review of a draft)
    measured learning objectives: 8-9, 11-12


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Entry test: 10%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Assignment 1: 15%

  • Assignment 2: 5%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

  • The literature for the entrée test is Flaig, E., ‘The transition from Republic to Principate: loss of legitimacy, revolution, and acceptance’ in: J.P. Arnason and K.A. Raaflaub (ed.) The Roman empire in context. Historical and comparative perspectives (Wiley-Blackwell 2011) 67-84.

  • The handbook J. Kamp e.a., Writing history! a companion for Historians (Amsterdam 2017) can be useful for writing the requested essay.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.


Not applicable.