Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Roman Senate was a governing and advisory assembly in ancient Rome. It was one of the most enduring institutions in Roman history, being established in the first days of the city of Rome (traditionally founded in 753 BC). It survived the overthrow of the kings in 509 BC, the fall of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC, the division of the Roman Empire in AD 395, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, and the barbarian rule of Rome in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.
During the days of the kingdom, most of the time the Senate was little more than an advisory council to the king, but it also elected new Roman kings. The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown following a coup d’état led by Lucius Junius Brutus, who founded the Roman Republic. During the early Republic, the Senate was politically weak, while the various executive magistrates were quite powerful. Since the transition from monarchy to constitutional rule was most likely gradual, it took several generations before the Senate was able to assert itself over the executive magistrates. By the middle Republic, the Senate had reached the apex of its republican power. The late Republic saw a decline in the Senate’s power, which began following the reforms of the tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.
After the transition of the Republic into the Principate, the Senate lost much of its political power as well as its prestige. Following the constitutional reforms of the Emperor Diocletian, the Senate became politically irrelevant. When the seat of government was transferred out of Rome, the Senate was reduced to a purely municipal body. This decline in status was reinforced when the emperor Constantine the Great created an additional senate in Constantinople.
After Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476, the Senate in the West functioned under the rule of Odoacer (476–489) and during Ostrogothic rule (489–535). It was restored after the reconquest of Italy by Justinian I, but ultimately disappeared after AD 603, the date of its last recorded public act. The title “senator” continued into the Middle Ages as a largely meaningless honorific. The Eastern Senate survived in Constantinople through the 14th century.
Senate of the Roman Kingdom
The senate was a political institution in the ancient Roman Kingdom. The word senate derives from the Latin word senex, which means “old man”; the word thus means “assembly of elders”. The prehistoric Indo-Europeans who settled Italy in the centuries before the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC were structured into tribal communities, and these communities often included an aristocratic board of tribal elders.
The early Roman family was called a gens or “clan”, and each clan was an aggregation of families under a common living male patriarch, called a pater (the Latin word for “father”). When the early Roman gentes were aggregating to form a common community, the patres from the leading clans were selected for the confederated board of elders that would become the Roman senate. Over time, the patres came to recognize the need for a single leader, and so they elected a king (rex), and vested in him their sovereign power. When the king died, that sovereign power naturally reverted to the patres.
The senate is said to have been created by Rome’s first king, Romulus, initially consisting of 100 men. The descendants of those 100 men subsequently became the patrician class. Rome’s fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, chose a further 100 senators. They were chosen from the minor leading families, and were accordingly called the patres minorum gentium.
Rome’s seventh and final king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, executed many of the leading men in the senate, and did not replace them, thereby diminishing their number. However, in 509 BC Rome’s first and third consuls, Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius Publicola chose from amongst the leading equites new men for the senate, these being called conscripti, and thus increased the size of the senate to 300.
The senate of the Roman Kingdom held three principal responsibilities: It functioned as the ultimate repository for the executive power, it served as the king’s council, and it functioned as a legislative body in concert with the people of Rome. During the years of the monarchy, the senate’s most important function was to elect new kings. While the king was nominally elected by the people, it was actually the senate who chose each new king.
The period between the death of one king and the election of a new king was called the interregnum, during which time the Interrex nominated a candidate to replace the king. After the senate gave its initial approval to the nominee, he was then formally elected by the people, and then received the senate’s final approval. At least one king, Servius Tullius, was elected by the senate alone, and not by the people.
The senate’s most significant task, outside regal elections, was to function as the king’s council, and while the king could ignore any advice it offered, its growing prestige helped make the advice that it offered increasingly difficult to ignore. Only the king could make new laws, although he often involved both the senate and the curiate assembly (the popular assembly) in the process.
Senate of the Roman Republic
When the Republic began, the Senate functioned as an advisory council. It consisted of 300–500 senators who served for life. Only patricians were members in the early period, but plebeians were also admitted before long, although they were denied the senior magistracies for a longer period.
Senators were entitled to wear a toga with a broad purple stripe, maroon shoes, and an iron (later gold) ring.
The Senate of the Roman Republic passed decrees called senatus consulta, which in form constituted “advice” from the senate to a magistrate. While these decrees did not hold legal force, they usually were obeyed in practice.
If a senatus consultum conflicted with a law (lex) that was passed by an assembly, the law overrode the senatus consultum because the senatus consultum had its authority based in precedent and not in law. A senatus consultum, however, could serve to interpret a law.
Through these decrees, the senate directed the magistrates, especially the Roman Consuls (the chief magistrates) in their prosecution of military conflicts. The senate also had an enormous degree of power over the civil government in Rome. This was especially the case with regard to its management of state finances, as only it could authorize the disbursal of public funds from the treasury. As the Roman Republic grew, the senate also supervised the administration of the provinces, which were governed by former consuls and praetors, in that it decided which magistrate should govern which province.
Since the 3rd century BC the senate also played a pivotal role in cases of emergency. It could call for the appointment of a dictator (a right resting with each consul with or without the senate’s involvement). However, after 202 BC, the office of dictator fell out of use (and was revived only two more times) and was replaced with the senatus consultum ultimum (“ultimate decree of the senate”), a senatorial decree which authorised the consuls to employ any means necessary to solve the crisis.
While senate meetings could take place either inside or outside the formal boundary of the city (the pomerium), no meeting could take place more than a mile (1 km) outside it. The senate operated while under various religious restrictions. For example, before any meeting could begin, a sacrifice to the gods was made, and a search for divine omens (the auspices) was taken. The senate was only allowed to assemble in places dedicated to the gods.
Meetings usually began at dawn, and a magistrate who wished to summon the senate had to issue a compulsory order. The senate meetings were public and directed by a presiding magistrate (usually a consul). While in session, the senate had the power to act on its own, and even against the will of the presiding magistrate if it wished. The presiding magistrate began each meeting with a speech, then referred an issue to the senators, who would discuss it in order of seniority.
Senators had several other ways in which they could influence (or frustrate) a presiding magistrate. For example, every senator was permitted to speak before a vote could be held, and since all meetings had to end by nightfall, a dedicated group or even a single senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster or diem consumere). When it was time to call a vote, the presiding magistrate could bring up whatever proposals he wished, and every vote was between a proposal and its negative.
With a dictator as well as a senate, the senate could veto any of the dictator’s decisions. At any point before a motion passed, the proposed motion could be vetoed, usually by a tribune. If there were no veto, and the matter were of minor importance, it could be put to either a voice vote or a show of hands. If there were no veto and no obvious majority, and the matter were of a significant nature, there was usually a physical division of the house, with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber.
Senate membership was controlled by the censors. By the time of Augustus, ownership of property worth at least one million sesterces was required for membership. The ethical requirements of senators were significant. In contrast to members of the Equestrian order, senators could not engage in banking or any form of public contract. They could not own a ship that was large enough to participate in foreign commerce, they could not leave Italy without permission from the rest of the senate and they were not paid a salary. Election to magisterial office resulted in automatic senate membership.
Senate of the Roman Empire
The first emperor, Augustus, reduced the size of the senate from 900 members to 600, even though there were only about 100 to 200 active senators at one time. After this point, the size of the senate was never again drastically altered. Under the empire, as was the case during the late republic, one could become a senator by being elected quaestor (a magistrate with financial duties), but only if one were already of senatorial rank. In addition to quaestors, elected officials holding a range of senior positions were routinely granted senatorial rank by virtue of the offices that they held.
If an individual were not of senatorial rank, there were two ways for him to become a senator. Under the first method, the emperor manually granted that individual the authority to stand for election to the quaestorship, while under the second method, the emperor appointed that individual to the senate by issuing a decree. Under the empire, the power that the emperor held over the senate was absolute.
The two consuls were a part of the senate, but had more power than the senators. During senate meetings, the emperor sat between the two consuls, and usually acted as the presiding officer. Senators of the early empire could ask extraneous questions or request that a certain action be taken by the senate. Higher ranking senators spoke before those of lower rank, although the emperor could speak at any time.
Besides the emperor, consuls and praetors could also preside over the senate. Since no senator could stand for election to a magisterial office without the emperor’s approval, senators usually did not vote against bills that had been presented by the emperor. If a senator disapproved of a bill, he usually showed his disapproval by not attending the senate meeting on the day that the bill were to be voted on.
While the Roman assemblies continued to meet after the founding of the empire, their powers were all transferred to the senate, and so senatorial decrees (senatus consulta) acquired the full force of law. The legislative powers of the imperial senate were principally of a financial and an administrative nature, although the senate did retain a range of powers over the provinces.
During the early Roman Empire, all judicial powers that had been held by the Roman assemblies were also transferred to the senate. For example, the senate now held jurisdiction over criminal trials. In these cases, a consul presided, the senators constituted the jury, and the verdict was handed down in the form of a decree (senatus consultum), and, while a verdict could not be appealed, the emperor could pardon a convicted individual through a veto. The emperor Tiberius transferred all electoral powers from the assemblies to the senate, and, while theoretically the senate elected new magistrates, the approval of the emperor was always needed before an election could be finalized.
Around 300 AD, the emperor Diocletian enacted a series of constitutional reforms. In one such reform, he asserted the right of the emperor to take power without the theoretical consent of the senate, thus depriving the senate of its status as the ultimate depository of supreme power. Diocletian’s reforms also ended whatever illusion had remained that the senate had independent legislative, judicial, or electoral powers. The senate did, however, retain its legislative powers over public games in Rome, and over the senatorial order.
The senate also retained the power to try treason cases, and to elect some magistrates, but only with the permission of the emperor. In the final years of the western empire, the senate would sometimes try to appoint their own emperor, such as in the case of Eugenius, who was later defeated by forces loyal to Theodosius I. The senate remained the last stronghold of the traditional Roman religion in the face of the spreading Christianity, and several times attempted to facilitate the return of the Altar of Victory (first removed by Constantius II) to the senatorial curia.
According to the Historia Augusta (Elagabalus 4.2 and 12.3) emperor Elagabalus had his mother or grandmother take part in Senate proceedings. “And Elagabalus was the only one of all the emperors under whom a woman attended the senate like a man, just as though she belonged to the senatorial order” (David Magie’s translation). According to the same work, Elagabalus also established a women’s senate called the senaculum, which enacted rules to be applied to matrons, regarding clothing, chariot riding, the wearing of jewelry etc. (Elagabalus 4.3 and Aurelian 49.6). Before this, Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, had been listening to Senate proceedings, concealed behind a curtain, according to Tacitus (Annales, 13.5).
Post-Imperial Senate in Rome
Senate in the West
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the senate continued to function under the Germanic chieftain Odoacer, and then under Ostrogothic rule. The authority of the senate rose considerably under barbarian leaders, who sought to protect the institution. This period was characterized by the rise of prominent Roman senatorial families, such as the Anicii, while the senate’s leader, the princeps senatus, often served as the right hand of the barbarian leader. It is known that the senate successfully installed Laurentius as pope in 498, despite the fact that both King Theodoric and Emperor Anastasius supported the other candidate, Symmachus.
The peaceful coexistence of senatorial and barbarian rule continued until the Ostrogothic leader Theodahad found himself at war with Emperor Justinian I and took the senators as hostages. Several senators were executed in 552 as revenge for the death of the Ostrogothic king, Totila. After Rome was recaptured by the imperial (Byzantine) army, the senate was restored, but the institution (like classical Rome itself) had been mortally weakened by the long war. Many senators had been killed and many of those who had fled to the east chose to remain there, thanks to favorable legislation passed by Emperor Justinian, who, however, abolished virtually all senatorial offices in Italy. The importance of the Roman senate thus declined rapidly.
In 578 and again in 580, the senate sent envoys to Constantinople. They delivered 3000 pounds (=1,360 kilograms) of gold as a gift to the new emperor, Tiberius II Constantinus, along with a plea for help against the Lombards, who had invaded Italy ten years earlier. Pope Gregory I, in a sermon from 593, lamented the almost complete disappearance of the senatorial order and the decline of the prestigious institution.
It is not clearly known when the Roman senate disappeared in the West, but it is known from the Gregorian register that the senate acclaimed new statues of Emperor Phocas and Empress Leontia in 603, and that was also the last time the senate was mentioned. In 630, the house of the Senate, Curia Julia, was transformed into a church by Pope Honorius I, probably with the permission of the Emperor Heraclius.
In 1144, the Commune of Rome attempted to establish a government modeled on the old Roman Republic in opposition to the temporal power of the higher nobles and the pope. This included setting up a senate along the lines of the ancient one. The revolutionaries divided Rome into fourteen regions, each electing four senators for a total of 56 (although one source, often repeated, gives a total of 50).
This renovated form of government was constantly embattled. By the end of the 12th century, it had undergone a radical transformation, with the reduction of the number of senators to a single one – Summus Senator – being thereafter the title of the head of the civil government of Rome. In modern terms, for example, this is comparable to the reduction of a board of commissioners to a single commissioner, such as the political head of the police department of New York City.
Senate in the East
The senate continued to exist in Constantinople however, although it evolved into an institution that differed in some fundamental forms from its predecessor. Designated in Greek as synkletos, or assembly, the Senate of Constantinople was made up of all current or former holders of senior ranks and official positions, plus their descendants. At its height during the 6th and 7th centuries, the Senate represented the collective wealth and power of the Empire, on occasion nominating and dominating individual emperors.
In the second half of the 10th century a new office, proëdrus (Greek: πρόεδρος), was created as head of the senate by Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. Up to the mid-11th century, only eunuchs could become proëdrus, but later this restriction was lifted and several proëdri could be appointed, of which the senior proëdrus, or protoproëdrus (Greek: πρωτοπρόεδρος), served as the head of the senate. There were two types of meetings practised: silentium, in which only magistrates currently in office participated and conventus, in which all syncletics (Greek: συγκλητικοί, senators) could participate. The Senate in Constantinople existed until at least the beginning of the 13th century, its last known act being the election of Nicolas Canabus as emperor in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 03.31.2008, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.