The Functions and History of the Roman Senate
In today’s modern world representative government is the norm. Nearly all governments are ruled by their citizens via a republic or some other type of governing body. However, in the ancient world, this standard of democratic government had not yet taken hold; political control still belonged to the few elite, rich, and powerful persons and influential families. Thus, we have a contrast between governments of the ancient world and our modern day governments. In other words, the past generally denotes monarchy, empire, or absolute control. While modern government usually implies republic, voting, or democratic control.
However, an analysis of Roman government reveals that it does not exactly fit purely into either mold of government. It was a mixture of many elements, democratic, monarchial, and aristocratic. The purpose of this report will be to provide a general overview of the structure, power, and function of one component of the Roman government- that is, the Roman Senate. Also, this paper will serve to provide a historical context for the Senate, including both the origins and demise of this governmental body and will discuss the issues of class conflict as it related to the Senate’s power and jurisdiction.
There were three main components of the Roman Republic. The first of which represents the monarchial element surviving from when Rome had a king (this will be discussed in greater length and detail below). Two magistrates or consuls had ultimate civil and military authority. The two consuls held their office for one year (they were elected by Roman citizens) and then after their term had expired, entered the Senate for life. Each consul could veto the actions of the other, thus serving as a check for one individual gaining too much political power and therefore prevented (at least temporarily) the Republic from being undermined by a potential dictator. Their primary duties included leading the army, serving as judges, and having ceremonial religious duties.
The next governmental institution, which represented the democratic element of the Roman Republic, are the Assemblies. These Assemblies were theoretically made up of all adult male Romans (the only exception is that they had to be present at the meetings). Their primary functions were the annual elections of consuls, approving or rejecting laws, and deciding issues of war and peace. One great flaw of this body was that the wealthier citizens voted first and thereby had a great influence on how the rest of the Assembly voted.
Finally, we come to the focus of this report, that is, the Roman Senate. The Senate represented the aristocratic and elitist element of Roman government and was a collection of patrician citizens (the patrician/plebian conflict will be described in more depth later) who served as the legislative branch of the government as well as an advisory body. In the beginning of the Republic, the Senate contained 300 members, the members themselves were chosen from the patrician class, ex-consuls, and other officers who served for life. By the time that Julius Caesar gained power, the Senate’s membership had increased to nearly 800 people.
Despite having a mostly advisory role, by the 3rd Century BC the Senate had been able to increase its influence and power. Some of the powers that it gained were that it prepared legislation to be put before the Assembly, it administered finances, dealt for foreign affairs, and supervised the official state religions. However, despite its increase in power, the Senate did not have the power to make laws, by only issue decrees known as Decreta or Senatus Consulta, which basically served as official recommendations and while they carried some weight, they still had no actual binding and legal authority.
Another interesting aspect of the Roman Senate was that Senators received no pay for their services as government officials. During the republic, the most important activity for the small group of patrician families that controlled the Senate was the pursuit of political power for themselves, their family, and friends. A senator was expected to greet everyone warmly and by name, and was actually assisted by a slave called a nomenclator whose duty it was to memorize names and help identify people.
Meetings of the Senate were attended by the Senators themselves and magistrates (the consul for example) only. However, the public could gather by the open doors of the Senate. The meetings took place in the Curia Hostilia in the northwest corner of the Forum, but they could take place at any public place within the city limits of Rome. Senators sat on benches known as subselli, which ran down the long sides of the building, in no fixed order. The Senate met daily, and Senators were allowed to address the Senate on matters pertaining to state or foreign affairs. In fact, a main activity of the Senate was the debate of issues and many of the early senators were great orators and we have their words preserved for us today by contemporary historians. Cato the Censor, Cicero, and others sometimes swayed the opinion of the entire population of Rome with their fine rhetoric and persuasive arguments.
The history of the Roman Senate goes back to before there was an accurate written history for Rome. The Senate was composed of leading citizens who were members of the original aristocratic families in the old Monarchy. The original purpose of this group was to advise the King. This worked well during the first two centuries of Rome’s existence when Rome was little more than a city-state built on seven hills and ruled by a king. The Senate originally had one hundred members chosen from amongst the Patrician class but the early kings soon increased its size to three hundred members. After the expulsion of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, in 509 BC the Senate formed the main governing body of the Roman Republic. The two consuls, who took the place of the old monarchy, used the Senate as their official advisors and aristocratic (Plebian) supporters. This is the beginning of the Republic, and hence, Senatorial power and domination of the Roman Government
The next series of events that proved to be historically important regarding the Roman Senate occurred during 133 and 27 BC. During this time, the Republic was engaged in a constant series of civil wars, making up what many refer to as the Roman Revolution. Part of the reason for this was because during the Punic and Macedonian wars of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC Rome had annexed Spain, Macedonia, Greece, the East, and North Africa. Thus Rome had come to control a vast empire and the Republic with its two consuls, Senate, and small group of magistrates was not an adequate government for an empire of the size. In other words the Roman Republic was a form of government that worked well with a city-state or even a group of powerful city-states in control of a region, not a good government for maintaining a large empire (for this and because of this the empire would eventually rise)
By 133 BC Roman politics had become extremely divided around two different factions in the Senate. The first group was the supporters of the aristocracy, the patricians, who supported the wealthy senatorial class. The other group trying to get political power was interested in the interest of the plebeians and known as the Populares. The Populares demanded the redistribution of land to peasants as well as a reform of the voting procedure.
The struggle between these two factions resulted in civil war when the Senate ordered the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. Gracchus had been elected as a high ranking magistrate and had proposed a law that would divide the land and give it to the plebian citizens of Rome. The Senate, looking out for the interests of the patricians, stopped such a law from being passed and killed Gracchus and 300 of his followers. Following this incident, Gaius Gracchus, Tiberius’ brother took up the cause that his brother had fought for. He demanded that the Senate’s power should be lessened, the military pay rates should be increased, and give free grain to the citizens of Rome. The Senate would not even consider such action so they declared martial law. Because of this, riots broke out and 3000 Populares, along with Gaius, were killed. From this point on, the corruption of the Senate was obvious and the respect of the Senate by the citizens severely declined. This was the first blow to the Senate that would eventually bring about the end of the Republic.
The early years of the 1st BC the long period of civil war that began with the struggle mentioned above reached a climax with Octavian’s defeat of Marcus Antonius at the Battle of Actium in 31 B. C. During that period, the Senate steadily lost power to the imperators, or generals of large Roman armies who controlled the government. In 27 B. C., the Senate voluntarily gave much of its power to Octavian, whom they had given the title of Augustus Caesar. While most of the early emperors tried to involve the Senate in the governing process and actively sought its counsel, most of the Senate’s real power was gone by the reign of Tiberius. Thus, the Battle of Actium marketed the end of the Roman Republic and consequently, the end of the Roman Senate’s power.
Rome is said to have had at one point during its history a republic, this is true, but it was definitely a limited one. For example, in theory, all citizens of Rome could vote for the Senators and serve in the Assembly. However, all citizens does not imply all people. Far from this democratic-sounding system, the only people considered to be full citizens were everyone in Rome with the exception of women, slaves, foreigners, those living in the provinces, and the plebeians. Obviously, this was an incredible portion of the population that was not technically citizens, and thus, a huge segment of the population deprived of political rights or representation.
Despite the inherent un-democratic system present in Republican Rome, one cannot say that its contributions to our modern ideas of democracy were insignificant. Quite to the contrary, examples of the Roman Senate’s influence can be found right here in our own government. For example the upper house in our legislative branch is called the ‘senate’, our republic was also established by a constitution (as was the Roman’s), the president (our modern ‘consuls’) is also advised by and is subject to our own senate, and America’s founding fathers drew extensively on Roman theories and models of government when deciding how to establish our present system. The ancient Roman Senate’s connection to the modern world is obvious, and its modern day significance is as well. The influence of the Roman Senate is just one example of how the ancient Roman’s society has affected nearly all spheres of modern life.