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Why did Palpatine declare the Republic to be an Empire, especially if he was planning to maintain the Senate?

Why was the renaming of the Republic (and the declaration of himself as Emperor) a necessary part of his Declaration of a New Order?

These seem like unnecessarily risky cosmetic changes.

  • Flimsy justification, but he needed the power to dissolve the senate. He got as far as he did with political machinations, but making the Senate vote itself out of existence is a pretty tall order – Jason Baker Jul 4 '15 at 6:47
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    You should really be asking this question in history.stackexchange.com about Augustus Caesar, who did the exact same thing (including maintaining the Senate) in 27 BC. Star Wars just copied the historical precedent. – Mike Scott Jul 4 '15 at 7:18
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    @MikeScott : At that time, the word empire ("imperium") carried few of the negative connotations it does today. In Palpatine's speech, he refers to the formation of the "first Galactic Empire", and so the term "empire" may have been as fresh in the Galactic Basic language in Revenge of the Sith was it was in Augustus' time. This could in fact be an answer. Maybe I'll post that. Thanks for inspiring me! – Praxis Jul 4 '15 at 7:25
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    @MikeScott There are a lot of historical parallels with Rome, but Augustus was careful not to recast the Roman Republic as an Empire -- so in this case the historical parallel doesn't answer this question too well. – Null Jul 4 '15 at 14:42
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    @Praxis Imperium does not mean "empire". It simply means "power to command", and was used in the Roman Republican era (elected magistrates in the Republican era were said to hold imperium). Our word "empire" is derived from it, but they are not equivalent words. – Null Jul 4 '15 at 17:14
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The transition from Republic to Empire was not merely cosmetic

The Emperor did plan to eventually disband the Senate, but it was politically expedient for him to keep it for the time being. Moreover, the Senate was so servile that it did not hinder Palpatine in any meaningful way:

“The Senate is supportive?”

“Now that it serves rather than advises.” The Emperor swiveled slightly in Tarkin’s direction. “Better to surround oneself with fresh loyal allies than treacherous old ones.”

...

“But do you even need them, my lord?” Tarkin asked in a careful, controlled voice.

The Senate?” The Emperor could not restrain a faint smile. “Yes, for the time being.

canon novel Tarkin, p. 76

Also, Palpatine did restructure the government when he announced the Empire: he established sector governors (Moffs) in the Sector Governance Decree.1 We currently don't have a good canon source for the powers of the Imperial Senate, but presumably the Imperial Senate lost some of its power since it now had to compete with the Moffs for control of local systems. This is supported by the following statement from Tarkin:

The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I've just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away...The regional governors now have direct control over territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.

Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope

Palpatine waited to disband the Imperial Senate until

  • The Death Star was completed, so that it could be used to instill fear in local systems.
  • An Imperial Senator (Princess Leia) was caught aiding the Rebel Alliance.

Since Palpatine planned to eventually disband the Senate, he also needed to restructure the Republic as an Empire -- a republic without a legislative body like a senate is a contradiction in terms, but it is possible for an empire to include a senate.

So why didn't Palpatine also wait to announce the Galactic Empire?

Palpatine could have waited until he was ready to dissolve the Imperial Senate before announcing the Empire. After all, he had acquired a number of emergency powers as Supreme Chancellor which effectively made him a dictator. The reason he announced the Galactic Empire when he did is that he was striking while the iron was hot, so to speak. The Clone Wars were like a Reichstag fire on steroids2: they were used by Palpatine to prove that the Republic was ineffective and that stronger, centralized leadership was required (that's how the Republic won the war, at least in public appearance). This is how Palpatine justified the creation of the Empire:

In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for ten thousand years.

Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith

This justification was the culmination of Palpatine's entire political life up to this point, in which he continually undermined the Republic's form of government. He started with the invasion of Naboo by the Trade Federation:

...the Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates who are only looking out for themselves and their home systems. There is no interest in the common good...no civility, only politics...its disgusting. I must be frank, Your Majesty, there is little chance the Senate will act on the invasion...the Chancellor has little real power...The bureaucrats are in charge now...Our best choice would be to push for the election of a stronger Supreme Chancellor. One who will take control of the bureaucrats, enforce the laws, and give us justice.

Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, Palpatine advising Queen Amidala

Later, he showed that the Senate proved inept by initially opposing the Military Creation Act while the Separatists were poised to attack with a massive droid army. If the clone army hadn't already existed, the Republic would have had no defense against the Separatists.

Thus Palpatine announced the creation of the Empire at the perfect time: the Clone Wars had just ended and the Jedi had just been discredited, so a war-weary Senate and populace -- with the failures of the Republic system of governance fresh in their minds -- approved of the change with "thunderous applause". Conversely, if Palpatine had waited until he was ready to disband the Senate decades later, it would have made no sense to the populace to suddenly change the entire system of government from Republic to Empire.


1 Wookieepedia cites the Revenge of the Sith novelization for this decree.

2 The analogy is especially apt here, as Palpatine's comment that the Galatic Empire would last for "ten thousand years" echoes the Nazis' claim that the Third Reich would last a thousand years. Wookieepedia suggests that this historical parallel was deliberate on the part of George Lucas.

  • This is fabulous! I wasn't sure you were going to formally throw your hat into the ring on this one --- and I'm glad you did, Null. You have my +1! I have unaccepted my answer now that you have put one in, and I will return to this once people have had a chance to read and comment. :-) – Praxis Jul 6 '15 at 16:17
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    @Praxis Thank you. Your question is highly intriguing (and I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it myself) so I was happy to spend time researching the answer. I'm late because I needed time to research and write up the answer. – Null Jul 6 '15 at 16:22
  • @Praxis Thank you! – Null Jul 8 '15 at 13:44
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In Palpatine's speech in Revenge of the Sith, he refers to the formation of the "first Galactic Empire":

In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire for a safe and secure society.

As far as the films are concerned, there are no direct references to previous "empires" in the galaxy. Conjecturally, this could very well be the first "empire" that the galaxy has heard of, and so the words "empire" and "emperor" could be:

(a) new words coined into Galactic Basic for the Declaration by Palpatine or by other members of the Senate, in order to describe the new arrangement of the Repubic; or

(b) words that previously existed in Basic, but with only positive or neutral connotations.

In either of these cases, the recasting of the Republic as an Empire would not be a particularly risky move by Palpatine.

As @Null pointed out, Palpatine also asserts in Revenge of the Sith that

Once more the Sith will rule the galaxy!

suggesting that there may have been previous empires in the galaxy (and there is such a Sith-ruled empire in Legends, in fact). However, Palpatine's "first Galactic Empire" statement suggests that this history is unavailable to the Senate.

There is a possibility (c): the words "empire" and "emperor" do already exist in Galactic Basic and have a negative history, such that the Empire / Emperor rebranding is a risky move. If this is the case, then either the Senate is too weary from war that they will accept anything to bring stability, or Palpatine himself does not care about negative interpretations at this point, given that his power has been consolidated. Or both.

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    @SJuan76 I concur; the example of Augustus is a poor fit for this question. "Emperor" comes from the "imperator", but the Romans would have interpreted the word more like "commander". Augustus held the title princeps senatus, which roughly means "first among senatorial equals". Augustus' reign began what we call the Principate, which Wikipedia describes as "a concerted effort on the part of the emperors to preserve the illusion of the formal continuance of the Roman Republic." – Null Jul 4 '15 at 14:50
  • Moreover, within the Star Wars universe (especially if you include Legends) there are historical precedents for empires, including a Sith empire. Palpatine says in Episode III "once more the Sith will rule the galaxy", giving canon support for the existence of a previous Sith empire. That would mean that "empire" and "emperor" could have negative connotations in Palpatine's time. – Null Jul 4 '15 at 14:52
  • @Null : That's a fair point about Legends. I guess it depends on whether previous Sith rulers used the word "empire", whether Galactic Basic existed at those times, and how much of the history of that time period would have been available to the current senate and general public. – Praxis Jul 4 '15 at 15:51
  • @Null : I'm not sure that it's a poor fit. The Romans would have interpreted "imperator" as "commander", as you say. The point is that the Senate in Palpatine's time may have interpreted "emperor" in a similar way, and perhaps they took him to be a "first amongst equals". The point is that, when Palpatine declared himself emperor, they may have been only neutral or positive connotations, as when Augustus did it. – Praxis Jul 4 '15 at 15:56
  • Ultimately you are conflating words like imperator and imperium in our universe which have changed definitions over time, and you are attempting to apply them to a different, fictional universe. You have no evidence that "empire" and "emperor" carry any connotation -- good, bad, or neutral -- in Star Wars. Saying that the Romans considered "imperator" unsullied in Augustus' time is historically misleading. I gave you +1 for your good question, but unfortunately I think this answer deserves a -1. – Null Jul 5 '15 at 2:01
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It should be noted that the English words republic and empire have many different meanings and connotations. They are also based on the Latin Res Publica and imperium which also had many different meanings and connotations, not always the same as in English.

With the multiple meanings of empire and republic, it would be an over-simplification to assume that republic and empire are clearly and obviously contradictory in meaning.

And so some historical leaders had hoped that their people would not assume that republic and empire are clearly and obviously contradictory in meaning:

His Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, By the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine.

His Imperial Majesty Don Agustín I, By Divine Providence and the National Congress, First Constitutional Emperor of Mexico.

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    These are good thoughts, and I like the Napoleon reference! :-) However, as it stands, this is more like a comment than answer. – Praxis Jul 4 '15 at 20:41

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