Roman Senate

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The Roman Senate (Latin: Senatus) was the main deliberative body of the Roman Republic (founded in 509 B.C.), and its successor, the Roman Empire. Although the West Roman Empire fell in in 476, the Roman Senate lasted and met until the late 6th century. The word Senatus is derived from the Latin word senex, meaning old man or elder; Senate is, by etymology, the Council of Elders.


According to the tradition, Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, created the Roman Senate as an advisory council that consisted 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").

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 were all Roman citizens who were not members of the Senate. 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 authorized the city's chief magistrates, the consuls, to nominate a dictator for a set period of time 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. 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.


The Senate had around 300 members in the middle and late Republic. Customarily, all popularly-elected magistrates — quaestors, aediles (both curulis and plebis), praetors, and consuls — were admitted to the Senate for life, though the inclusion of tribunes in the senate varied historically. Senators who had not been elected as magistrates were called senatores pedarii and were not permitted to speak. Their number was increased dramatically by Sulla, and around half (49.5%) of the pedarii from 78-49 BC were novi homines ("new men"), that is, those whose families had never attained higher magistracy. Outside the pedarii, the number of novi homines was lower, with about 33% of tribunes, 29% of aediles, 22% of praetors, and only 1% of consuls being true novi homines (see E. S. Gruen, 1974, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, for a full breakdown on the family background of senators from 78-49 BC) .

Although membership to the Senate was largely determined by popular election after Sulla's enlargement, membership in the Senate could be stripped by the censors if a Senator had been found guilty of corruption, abuse of capital punishment, or disregard of public morals (e.g., prostitutes, gladiators, and bankrupts), auspices, or a colleague's veto.

Late Republican Senate

In the late period of the Republican era, an ultra-conservative faction emerged, led in turn by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus and Cato the Younger, whom Cicero called the boni ("The Good Men") or Optimates. The Late Republic was characterized by the social tensions between the broad factions of the Optimates and the newly wealthy Populares. This struggle became increasingly manifested by domestic turmoil and violent strife after the formation of the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. Examples of Optimates include Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Pompey the Great, whereas Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Julius Caesar were Populares. The labels Populares and Optimates were not, however, as fixed as sometimes assumed, and politicians often changed factions to support specific bills or personalities.


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.

Notable practices

There was no limit on debate, and the practice of what is now called "filibuster" was a favored maneuver (a practice which continues to be accepted in Canada and the United States of America 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 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).

Style of dress

All senators were entitled to wear a senatorial ring. The ring was originally made of iron, but later it changed to gold. Old patrician families like the Julii Caesares continued to wear iron rings to the end of the Republic. Senators also wear a tunica clava, which was a white tunic with a broad stripe of Tyrian purple 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 Tyrian purple border. Similarly, all senators wore closed maroon leather shoes, but senators who had held curule magistracies added a crescent-shaped buckle.

The Equestrian class

Until 123 BC, all senators were also equestrians, frequently referred as "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 limited 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 centimeters wide as a reminder of their senatorial origins.

Decline of the Senate (1st century BC – 6th century AD)

Julius Caesar introduced viri clarissimi (singular vir clarissimus, literally very distinguished man), with equestrians becoming viri egregii (vir egregius). After the takeover of Rome by Augustus and the establishment of the Roman Empire, the emperor's power often made the Senate to be a mere rubber stamp.

In 395 A.D. the empire was split into Eastern and Western Empire. The Senate survived the collapse of the Western Empire, even enjoying a modest revival as imperial power was reduced to a government of Italy only. Its last recorded acts were the dispatch of two ambassadors to the Imperial court of Tiberius II Constantine at Constantinople in 578 and 580.

Meanwhile in the Eastern part a separate Senate had been established by Constantine I in Constantinople. It survived for centuries afterwards as the Byzantine Senate, but its importance was largely diminished.

Revival in the Middle Ages

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

Though the republican movement was put down in 1155 by Pope Hadrian IV, the city council of Rome 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.

Original Roman Senate building

An original building in which the Roman Senate met, a stone structure with a double slanted tiled roof, still exists in Rome. This building is not the same one where Cicero, for example, delivered his famous orations against Catiline, but one that was constructed after the original was burned by a mob who supported the populist agitator Publius Clodius Pulcher in 52 BC.


  • 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)

See also