Roman Senate

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The Roman Senate (Latin: Senatus) was main governing council of both the Roman Republic, which started in 509 BC, and the Roman Empire, which ended in the 6th century. The word Senatus is derived from the Latin word senex, meaning old man or elder. So literally Senate Council of Elders.

Tradition held that the Senate was first established by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, as an advisory council consisting of the 100 heads of families, called Patres ("Fathers"). Later, when at the start of the Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus increased the number of Senators to three hundred (according to legend), they were also called Conscripti ("Conscripted Men"), because Brutus had conscripted them. From then on, the members of the Senate were addressed as "Patres et Conscripti", which was gradually run together as "Patres Conscripti" ("Conscript Fathers").


[edit] Authority

The Roman population was divided into two classes: the Senate and the People (as seen in the famous abbreviation for "Senatus Populusque Romanus" SPQR). The People consisted of all Roman citizens who were not members of the Senate, such as the plebeians. Domestic power was vested in the Roman People, through the Centuriate Assembly (Comitia Centuriata), the Tribal Assembly (Comitia Tributa) and the Plebeian Council (Concilium Plebis). The two Assemblies passed new laws, as did the Council, which also elected Rome's magistrates. The Senate did not have lawmaking powers, it only made recommendations to the Plebeian Council.

Nevertheless, the Senate held considerable clout (auctoritas) in Roman politics. It was the official body that sent and received ambassadors, and it appointed officials to manage public lands, including the provincial governors. It conducted wars and it also appropriated public funds. It was the Senate that authorised the city's chief magistrates, the consuls, to nominate a dictator in a state of emergency. In the late Republic, the Senate chose to avoid setting up dictatorships by resorting to the so-called senatus consultum ultimum, which declared martial law and empowered the consuls to "take care that the Republic should come to no harm".

Like the Comitia Centuriata and the Comitia Tributa, but unlike the Concilium Plebis, the Senate operated under certain religious restrictions. It could only meet in a consecrated temple, which was usually the Curia Hostilia, although the ceremonies of New Year's Day were in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and war meetings were held in the temple of Bellona. And its sessions could only proceed after an invocation prayer, a sacrificial offering and the auspices were made. The Senate could only meet between sunrise and sunset, and could not meet while any of the assemblies were in session.

[edit] Membership

Image:Senato Romano.jpg
Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th century fresco

The Senate had around 300 members in the middle and late Republic. Customarily, all magistrates -- quaestors, aediles (both curulis and plebis), praetors, and consuls -- were admitted to the Senate for life. But membership could be stripped by the censors if a Senator was thought to have committed an act "against the public morals". The senators who had not been magistrates were called senatores pedarii and were not permitted to speak. As a result, the Senate was dominated by established families of patricians and plebeians, as it was much easier for these groups to climb the cursus honorum and acquire speaking rights.

[edit] Late Republican Senate

In the Late Republic, an archconservative faction emerged, led in turn by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus and Cato the Younger, who called themselves the boni ("The Good Men") or Optimates. The Late Republic was characterised by the social tensions between the broad factions of the Optimates and the newly wealthy Populares. This became increasingly expressed by domestic fury, violence and fierce civil strife. Examples of Optimates include Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Pompey the Great, while Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Julius Caesar were Populares. The labels Populares and Optimates are not, however, as concrete as sometimes assumed, and politicians could often change factions.

[edit] Hierarchy

The consuls alternated monthly as president of the Senate, while the princeps senatus functioned as leader of the house. If both consuls were absent (usually because of a war), the senior magistrate, most often the Praetor Urbanus, would act as the president. Originally, it was the president's duty to lay business before the Senate, either his own proposition or a topic by which he would solicit the senators for their propositions, but this soon became the domain of the princeps. Among the senators with speaking rights a rigid order defined who could speak when, with a patrician always preceding a plebeian of equal rank, and the princeps speaking first.

The consulares were among the most influential members of the Senate. The consulares were those senators who had held the position of consul. Since only two consuls were elected yearly with the minimum age of 40 for patricians and 42 for plebeians, there were unlikely to be more than 40 consulares in the Senate at any given time.

[edit] Notable practices

There was no limit on debate, and the practice of talking out debate (which is now sometimes called a filibuster) was a favoured trick (a practice which continues to be accepted in Canada and the United States today). Votes could be taken by voice vote or show of hands in unimportant matters, but important or formal motions were decided by division of the house. A quorum to do business was necessary, but it is not known how many senators constituted a quorum. The Senate was divided into decuries (groups of ten), each led by a patrician (thus requiring that there would be at least 30 patrician senators at any given time).

[edit] Style of dress

All senators were entitled to wear a senatorial ring (originally made of iron, but later gold; old patrician families like the Julii Caesares continued to wear iron rings to the end of the Republic) and a tunica clava, a white tunic with a broad purple stripe 13 cm (5.12 in) wide (latus clavus) on the right shoulder. A senator pedarius wore a white toga virilis (also called a toga pura) without decoration excluding those explained above, whereas a senator who had held a curule magistracy was entitled to wear the toga praetexta, a white toga with a broad purple border. Similarly, all senators wore closed maroon leather shoes, but senators who had held curule magistracies added a crescent-shaped buckle. Senators were forbidden to engage in any business unrelated to the ownership of land, but this rule was frequently disregarded. Suicide was often practiced when a senator was in trouble.

[edit] The Equestrian class

Until 123 BC, all senators were also equestrians, frequently called "knights" in English works. That year, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus legislated the separation of the two classes, and established the latter as the Ordo Equester ("Equestrian Order"). These equestrians were not restricted in their business ventures and came from a wealthy and powerful force in Roman politics. Sons of senators and other non-senatorial members of senatorial families continued to be classified as equestrians and were entitled to wear tunics with narrow purple stripes 7.5 cm wide as a reminder of their senatorial origins.

[edit] Decline of the Senate (1st century BC - 6th century AD)

Julius Caesar introduced a different kind of membership into the Senate during his dictatorship. He increased the membership to 600 by appointing many Roman citizens of Latin and Italian background, as well as loyal adherents who had proven their competence and valour during the civil wars. Although intended to break the power of reactionary factions like the Good Men, this reform ended up reducing the Senate's power. It continued to figure in Roman politics, but never regained its previous dominance. The Senate survived the end of the Empire in the West, and its last recorded acts were the dispatch of two embassies to the Imperial court of Tiberius II Constantine at Constantinople in 578 and 580.

[edit] Eastern Roman Senate

Meanwhile a separate Senate had been established by Constantine I in Constantinople, which survived, in name if not importance, for centuries afterwards. See Byzantine Senate.

[edit] Revival in the Middle Ages

In the 12th century a commune was briefly established in Rome in an effort to reestablish democracy and the old Roman Republic. In 1145 the revolutionaries set up a Senate on the lines of the ancient one. See Commune of Rome

Although the republican movement was defeated in 1155 by Pope Hadrian IV, the Roman city council has been called "Senate" since that time, and this old tradition survived until today. The seat of the Senate of the comune di Roma is the Palazzo Senatorio on the Campidoglio.

[edit] References

  • The Histories by Polybius
  • Cambridge Ancient History, Volumes 9-13.
  • F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, (Duckworth, 1977, 1992).
  • M. Crawford, The Roman Republic, (Fontana Press, 1978).
  • A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, (Fontana Press, 1993).

[edit] See also

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Roman Senate

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