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The Roman Senate was a political institution in ancient Rome. It was one of the most enduring institutions in Roman history, being founded in the first days of the city (traditionally founded in 753 BC). It survived the fall of the kings in 509 BC, the fall of the Roman Republic in the first century BC, the split of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.

During the days of the kingdom, it was little more than an advisory council to the king. The last king of Rome, the tyrant Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was overthrown following a coup d'état led by Lucius Junius Brutus that had been orchestrated in the senate.[1]

During the early Republic, the senate was politically weak, while the executive magistrates were quite powerful. Since the transition from monarchy to constitutional rule was probably gradual, it took several generations before the senate was able to assert itself over the executive magistrates. By the middle Republic, the senate 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, and never regained the power that it had once held. When the seat of government was transferred out of Rome, the senate was reduced to a municipal body. This image was reinforced when the emperor Constantius II created an additional senate in Constantinople. After the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the senate in the west functioned for a time under barbarian rule before being restored after reconquest of much of the Western Roman Empire's territories during the reign of Justinian I, until it ultimately disappeared. However, the Eastern senate survived in Constantinople, before the ancient institution finally vanished there too.


Senate of the Roman Kingdom

The Senate of the Roman Kingdom 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[2] were structured into tribal communities,[3] and these communities often included an aristocratic board of tribal elders.[4] The early Roman family was called a gens or "clan",[3] and each clan was an aggregation of families under a common living male patriarch, called a pater (the Latin word for "father").[5] When the early Roman gentes were aggregating to form a common community, the patres from the leading clans were selected[6] for the confederated board of elders (what would become the Roman Senate).[5] Over time, the patres came to recognize the need for a single leader, and so they elected a king (rex),[5] and vested in him their sovereign power.[7] When the king died, that sovereign power naturally reverted back to the patres.[5]

According to Livy the Senate, initially consisting of 100 men, was created by Rome's first king, Romulus. The descendants of those 100 men subsequently became the patrician class [8]

The senate of the Roman Kingdom held three principal responsibilities: It functioned as the ultimate repository for the executive power,[9] it served as the council to the king, and it functioned as a legislative body in concert with the People of Rome.[10] During the years of the monarchy, the senate's most important function was to elect new kings. While the king was technically 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,[9] during which time the Interrex nominated a candidate to replace the king.[11] After the senate gave its initial approval to the nominee, he was then formally elected by the people,[12] and then received the senate's final approval.[11] The senate's most significant task, outside of regal elections, was in its capacity as the king's council, and while the king could ignore any advice offered to him by the senate, the senate's growing prestige helped make the advice that it offered increasingly difficult to ignore. Technically the senate could also make new laws,[citation needed] although it would be incorrect to view the senate's decrees as "legislation" in the modern sense. Only the king could decree new laws, although he often involved both the senate and the Curiate Assembly (the popular assembly) in the process.[10]

Senate of the Roman Republic

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate

The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic. The senate passed decrees called senatus consultum, which in form constituted "advice" from the senate to a magistrate. While these advices did not hold legal force, they usually were obeyed in practice.[13] 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.[14]

Through theses advices, 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 regards to its management of state finances, as only it could authorize the disbursal of public fund from the treasury. As the Roman Empire 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 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 the office of Dictator fell out 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.[15]

While senate meetings could take place either inside or outside of the formal boundary of the city (the pomerium), no meeting could take place more than a mile outside of the pomerium.[16] 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.[17]

Meetings usually began at dawn, and a magistrate who wished to summon the senate had to issue a compulsory order.[18] The senate meetings were public,[16] and were directed by a presiding magistrate, usually a Consul.[7] 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,[19] and then referred an issue to the senators, who would discuss the issue by order of seniority.[16] Senators had several other ways in which they could influence (or frustrate) a presiding magistrate. For example, all senators had to speak before a vote could be held, and since all meetings had to end by nightfall,[13] a senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster or diem consumere) if he could keep the debate going until nightfall.[19] 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.[20] At any point before a motion passed, the proposed motion could be vetoed, usually by a tribune. If there was no veto, and the matter was of minor importance, it could be voted on by a voice vote or by a show of hands. If there was no veto, and the matter was of a significant nature, there was usually a physical division of the house,[16] with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber.

The ethical requirements of senators were significant. 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,[16] and they could not leave Italy without permission from the senate. And since they were not paid,[21] individuals usually sought to become senators only if they were independently wealthy. Election to magisterial office resulted in automatic senate membership. They also had reps from every villoiage or city state.

Senate of the Roman Empire

After the fall of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the Roman Senate to the Roman Emperor. Though retaining its legal position as under the Republic, in practice, however the actual authority of the imperial senate was negligible, as the emperor held the true power in the state. As such, membership in the senate became sought after by individuals seeking prestige and social standing, rather than actual authority. During the reigns of the first emperors, legislative, judicial, and electoral powers were all transferred from the Roman assemblies to the senate. However, since the emperor held control over the senate, the senate acted as a vehicle through which the emperor exercised his autocratic powers.

The Curia Julia in the Roman Forum, the seat of the imperial Senate.

The first emperor, Augustus, reduced the size of the senate from 900 members to 600 members, even though there were 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 was of senatorial rank. If an individual was not of senatorial rank, there were two ways for that individual to become a senator. Under the first method, the emperor granted that individual the authority to stand for election to the Quaestorship,[22] while under the second method, the emperor appointed that individual to the senate by issuing a decree.[23] Under the empire, the power that the emperor held over the senate was absolute.[24] During senate meetings, the emperor sat between the two Consuls,[25] 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 lower ranking senators, although the emperor could speak at any time.[25] 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 was to be voted on.[26]

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.[24] 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.[24] During the early 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),[24][27] 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,[27] 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, Diocletian 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 empire, the senate would sometimes try to appoint their own emperor, such as in 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. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the senate continued to function under the barbarian chieftain Odoacer, and then under Ostrogothic rule. The authority of the senate rose considerably under barbarian leaders who sought to protect the senate. 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 senate succeeded to install pope Symmachus in 498 despite the fact that both barbarian leader Theodoric and emperor Anastasius supported the other pretender, Laurentius. The peaceful co-existence of senatorial and barbarian rule continued until the Ostrogothic leader Theodahad began an uprising against emperor Justinian and took the senators as hostages. After Rome was recaptured by the imperial (Byzantine) army, the senate was restored. It is not clearly known when the Roman senate disappeared in the West, but it is known from Gregorian register that the senate acclaimed new statues of emperor Phocas and empress Leontia in 603.[28]

It is worth noting, as is evident from the structure of the Curia presently in existence in the Forum, that idealistic mediaeval and subsequent artistic depictions of the forum in session are almost uniformly inaccurate. Illustrations commonly show the senators arranged in a semicircle around an open space where orators were deemed to stand; in reality the structure of the existing building, which dates in its current form from the emperor Diocletian, shows that the senators sat in straight and parallel lines on either side of the interior of the building. In current media depictions in film this is shown correctly in The Fall of the Roman Empire, and incorrectly in, for example, Spartacus.

The senate continued to exist in Constantinople, however. In the second half of the 10th century century a new office proeder was created as a head of the senate by Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. Up to mid-11th century only eunuchs could become proeder, but later this restriction was lifted and several proeders could be appointed, of which senior ('protoptoeder') served as the head of senate. There were two types of meetings practised: silentium, in which participated only magistrates currently in office and conventus, where all synclitics (senators) could participate. The senate in Constantinople existed at least until the beginning of 13th century, its last known act being the election of Nicolas Canabus as Emperor in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Abbott, 25
  2. ^ Abbott, 3
  3. ^ a b Abbott, 1
  4. ^ Abbott, 12
  5. ^ a b c d Abbott, 6
  6. ^ Abbott, 16
  7. ^ a b Byrd, 42
  8. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:8
  9. ^ a b Abbott, 10
  10. ^ a b Abbott, 17
  11. ^ a b Abbott, 14
  12. ^ Byrd, 20
  13. ^ a b Byrd, 44
  14. ^ Abbott, 233
  15. ^ Abbott, 240
  16. ^ a b c d e Byrd, 34
  17. ^ Lintott, 72
  18. ^ Lintott, 75
  19. ^ a b Lintott, 78
  20. ^ Lintott, 83
  21. ^ Byrd, 36
  22. ^ Abbott, 381
  23. ^ Abbott, 382
  24. ^ a b c d Abbott, 385
  25. ^ a b Abbott, 383
  26. ^ Abbott, 384
  27. ^ a b Abbott, 386
  28. ^ Jeffrey Richards. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, 476-752, p. 246
  29. ^ Phillips, Jonathan. The Fourth Crusade and the Siege of Constantinople. 2004. pp. 222-226.

Further reading

  • Ihne, Wilhelm. Researches Into the History of the Roman Constitution. William Pickering. 1853.
  • Johnston, Harold Whetstone. Orations and Letters of Cicero: With Historical Introduction, An Outline of the Roman Constitution, Notes, Vocabulary and Index. Scott, Foresman and Company. 1891.
  • Mommsen, Theodor. Roman Constitutional Law. 1871-1888
  • Tighe, Ambrose. The Development of the Roman Constitution. D. Apple & Co. 1886.
  • Von Fritz, Kurt. The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity. Columbia University Press, New York. 1975.
  • The Histories by Polybius
  • Cambridge Ancient History, Volumes 9–13.
  • A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, (Fontana Press, 1993).
  • M. Crawford, The Roman Republic, (Fontana Press, 1978).
  • E. S. Gruen, "The Last Generation of the Roman Republic" (U California Press, 1974)
  • F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, (Duckworth, 1977, 1992).
  • A. Lintott, "The Constitution of the Roman Republic" (Oxford University Press, 1999)

Primary sources

  • Cicero's De Re Publica, Book Two
  • Rome at the End of the Punic Wars: An Analysis of the Roman Government; by Polybius
  • Livy, Ab Urbe Condita
  • Lintott, Andrew (1999). The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-926108-3).
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1841). The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. London: Edmund Spettigue. Vol. 1.
  • Polybius (1823). The General History of Polybius: Translated from the Greek. By Mr. Hampton. Oxford: Printed by W. Baxter. Fifth Edition, Vol 2.
  • Taylor, Lily Ross (1966). Roman Voting Assemblies: From the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar. The University of Michigan Press (ISBN 0-472-08125-X).

Secondary source material

  • Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
  • Brewer, E. Cobham; Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898).
  • McCullough, Colleen; The Grass Crown HarperCollins (1992), ISBN 038071082X
  • Wood, Reverend James, The Nuttall Encyclopædia (1907) - a work now in public domain.
  • Byrd, Robert (1995). The Senate of the Roman Republic. U.S. Government Printing Office, Senate Document 103-23.
  • Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics, ISBN 0-543-92749-0.
  • Hooke, Nathaniel; The Roman History, from the Building of Rome to the Ruin of the Commonwealth, F. Rivington (Rome). Original in New York Public Library

Simple English

The Roman Senate was the longest-lasting institution in Ancient Rome. It began in the first years of the city, which was supposedly founded in 753 BC. It survived the kings, the Roman Republic (509 BC–27 BC), the Roman Empire (27 BC–395 AD and the fall of the Western Roman Empire (395–476 AD).

The Republic started as an advisory council, and reached its peak in the middle Republic, when it was the most powerful body in Rome. The Senate lost much of its power in the first period of the Empire, known as the Principate.

After Diocletian, when the centre of government was moved out of Rome, the Senate became just a municipal body. The influence of the old idea lived on, and Constantine II set up a Senate in Constantinople.


The Senate passed decrees called senatus consultum, which were advice from the Senate to a magistrate (senior official). They usually were obeyed in practice.

Through such advice, the Senate directed the magistrates, especially the Roman Consuls (the chief magistrates) in their handling of military conflicts.

The Senate also had an enormous degree of power over the civil government in Rome. Only the Senate could authorize the disbursal of public funds from the treasury. As the Roman Empire grew, the Senate also supervised the administration of the provinces, which were governed by former consuls and praetors. It decided which magistrate should govern which province.

The senators were patricians, and so members by birth, or men of lesser birth who had notable achievements. Under the early kings, the Senate numbered 100, but grew to 900, then Augustus reduced it to 600. Even so only about 100 to 200 members were active at any given time. From time to time there were other sources of power in Rome, such as assemblies, magistrates, dictators and emperors, but the Senate always played a part.

Other reading

  • Lintott, Andrew 1999. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926108-3.


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