SENATE, ROMAN

The Roman Senate was the only body of government to endure the long and varied history of ancient Rome. Over the span of a thousand years, it saw Rome through four very different phases of government—monarchy*, republic*, empire, and Christian era. And yet while the Senate endured as an institution, it underwent many changes during its long existence, both in the role it played and in its structural makeup. Thus, the Senate of the republic bore little resemblance to the Senate of the late empire.

THE SENATE'S CHANGING ROLE

The Roman Senate was established around 750 B.C. by the first king of Rome. It not only survived the collapse of the monarchy in 510 B.C. but eventually gained control of the republican government that followed. It was mainly due to the Senate’s leadership that the republic survived as long as it did. However, it was also due to the constant rivalries between powerful members of the Senate that true republican government declined and finally collapsed for good with Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony in 31 B.C. Although the Senate continued to function throughout the empire that followed, and the Christian era, it was a hollow version of its former self, and its powers and importance were greatly diminished.

Monarchy. Under the monarchy, the Senate had no constitutional powers. Its authority was largely based on the wealth and social status of its members. (The term senate literally means a group of old men, whose accumulated wisdom would provide good counsel to the government.) Nonetheless, the advice of the Senate carried much weight in Rome because it reflected the opinion of the most influential members of society. The Senate also played a role, at least early in the monarchy, in the selection process of kings. It could choose one of its own members, called the interrex, to name the next king for the god Jupiter’s approval.

Republic. At the beginning of the republic in 510 B.C., the Senate still served mainly as an advisory body, except now it advised the two consuls* instead of the king. But as the Roman state grew and the business of running it became more complex, the Senate took on more powers. It did this out of necessity, since it was the only government body with the experience needed to run the affairs of the state.

By the height of the republic around 200 B.C., the Senate had almost complete control of Rome. It controlled state finances, the size of the army, and the assignment of duties to government officials. It also managed Rome’s relations with foreign powers and enforced Roman law and order throughout Italy. The Senate had the power to declare war and ratify treaties, and it could veto proceedings in the people’s assembly- even the decisions of consuls. The Senate was also considered to be the final authority on religious matters, and it supervised the religious life of the state. It set the calendar of religious festivals each year, ordered the performance of special religious ceremonies, and decided on the acceptance or rejection of new religious cults*.

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen

* republic government in which citizens elect officials to represent them and govern according to law

* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year

THE ROMAN SENATE AT WORK

The Roman Senate did not meet on a regular basis. Instead, meetings were called only when issues were to be decided. The meetings themselves were governed by strict rules. Meetings had to be held between sunrise and sunset, either in Rome or within a mile of the city, and at a place that was both public and sacred. Most meetings were held at the curia, a stately building in the heart of Rome that was built during the monarchy specifically for Senate meetings. Meetings began with a statement of the issue at hand. Each senator was then given the opportunity to state his opinion, and a vote was taken after each senator had had his say.

The Senate was able to gain so much power because it had gained the respect of the people after steering Rome successfully through many difficult times. Supported by hundreds of years of tradition, its role was part of the unwritten constitution of the republic. In addition, consuls tended to support Senate decisions, including those granting the Senate more powers, because they depended on Senate support for re-election.

Fall of the Republic. As the Roman state grew and spread overseas, senators had numerous opportunities to make fortunes out of the new provinces*. Money-making not only took time away from their senatorial duties but also led them to make decisions that were based on their own private interests rather than the interests of the state. Senators found it harder to come to agreement on issues as they usually had in the past. They became too busy with their own affairs to watch closely over elections and the actions of government officials.

The Senate also grew out of touch with changes taking place in the military. The army was no longer made up of only property-owning citizens, as it had been in the past, and many soldiers had no income after they left the service. When the Senate refused to provide soldiers with pensions, the soldiers turned to their commanders for support. By 100 B.C., powerful armies were rallying around individual commanders, each striving to gain control of the government. A civil war broke out in Rome in 90 B.C.—the first of three to occur within just a few decades. Although the Senate claimed the right to absolute power during the emergency, it was soon overthrown by force.

In 88 B.C., the general Sulla emerged the victor of the first civil war. A few years later, he declared himself dictator. He drew up Rome’s first written constitution, which gave government control back to the Senate. However, Sulla retired after just two years, and his new government fell apart within a decade.

Following a second civil war, Julius Caesar came to power in 45 B.C. Naming himself dictator for life, he took over the Senate’s traditional decision-making powers and transferred some of its administrative functions to government employees. This formed the beginning of what would become a complex bureaucracy*. The changes Caesar introduced posed a threat to the republican form of government under which the state had successfully operated for so many centuries. Partly because of that threat, Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. Following his death, a third civil war broke out.

Empire and Christian Era. Following the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, Octavian—later to be called Emperor Augustus—emerged in 31 B.C. as the unchallenged ruler of Rome. Unlike Caesar, Augustus tried to avoid actions that broke with republican traditions. Instead, he tried to give the impression that he was restoring the republic. Although in actuality Augustus had almost total power, he allowed the Senate to appear to hold power. For example, he let the Senate govern Italy and other provinces, but only those without large armies.

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* bureaucracy large departmental organization that performs the activities of government

Later emperors paid the Senate even less respect, and its power and importance decreased even more. In the A.D. 70s the emperor Vespasian removed any senator who did not support him. A few years later Domitian took even more extreme measures and had many senators exiled or executed.

In A.D. 330 the emperor Constantine established a second Senate at his new capital in Constantinople. This new senate and the Roman one had equal status, which further weakened the Roman Senate and made it little more than a city council.

MEMBERSHIP CHANGES THROUGH TIME

According to tradition, the Roman Senate originally consisted of 100 men from wealthy, aristocratic families in Rome that had supported the first king’s claim to the throne. Throughout the remainder of the monarchy, senators were chosen from the wealthy Roman aristocracy by the kings they served. By the end of the monarchy, the Senate had grown to 300 members.

When the republic began in 510 B.C., members of the Senate were chosen by the first consuls, and they still came mainly from wealthy, aristocratic families. Consuls and ex-consuls automatically became members of the Senate. Later, other high-ranking officials were admitted as well. Still later, tribunes (representatives of the common people) were admitted to the Senate, as were low-ranking government officials. In addition, a few men without previous ties to the Senate became members through their support of people in power or in recognition of their own abilities. This was especially true in the late republic.

In 88 B.C., Sulla not only restored the Senate’s power, he also doubled its numbers from 300 to 600. In 45 B.C., Caesar rewarded his supporters by making them senators, and this increased the number of senators to 900. When Augustus came to power in 31 B.C., he reduced the number of senators to 600 again. He also made major reforms in the senatorial selection process. For example, Augustus set the first property qualifications for senators, gave himself the power both to nominate and expel senators, and allowed sons of senators automatically to stand for election to the Senate. These reforms made membership in the Senate practically hereditary*.

After Augustus, the ethnic composition of the Senate became more diverse. With the establishment of the empire, the Senate came to include people not just from Rome and the rest of Italy but from the entire Mediterranean region. At first, new senators came from provinces in Gaul and other parts of Europe. Later, they came from provinces in North Africa and Asia Minor as well. Soon, more than half the senators were from places other than Italy. In the A.D. 300s, Constantine gave Senate membership to key military and financial officials. This dramatically increased the number of senators to 2,000, both in Rome and in Constantinople. {See also Consuls; Government, Roman; Rome, History of.)

* hereditary passed by inheritance from one generation to the next

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