Senate (Latin: Senatus Romanus; Italian: Senato Romano) was
a political institution in ancient Rome. It was one of the most
enduring institutions in Roman history, being established in the first
days of the city (traditionally founded in 753 BC). It survived the
overthrow of the kings in 509 BC, the fall of the
Roman Republic in
the 1st century BC, the division of the
Roman Empire in 395 AD, the
fall of the Western
Roman Empire in 476 AD, and the barbarian rule of
Rome in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.
During the days of the kingdom, it was little more than an advisory
council to the king. The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius
Superbus, was overthrown following a coup d'état led by Lucius Junius
Brutus, who founded the Republic.
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 most likely gradual, it took
several generations before the
Senate was able to assert itself over
the executive magistrates. By the middle Republic, the
reached the apex of its republican power. The late Republic saw a
decline in the Senate's power, which began following the reforms of
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
Senate was reduced to a municipal body. This decline in
status was reinforced when the emperor
Constantine the Great
Constantine the Great 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
the reconquest of much of the Western Roman Empire's territories
during the reign of Justinian I. The
disappeared at some point after AD 603 (the year in which the last
known senator was mentioned), although the title "senator" was still
used well into the Middle Ages as a largely meaningless honorific.
However, the Eastern
Senate survived in Constantinople, until the
ancient institution finally vanished there c. 14th century.
Senate of the Roman Kingdom
Senate of the Roman Republic
Senate of the Roman Empire
Senate in Rome
Senate in the West
Senate in the East
2 See also
4.1 Primary sources
4.2 Secondary sources
5 Further reading
Senate of the Roman Kingdom
Senate of the
Roman Kingdom and Constitution of the
The senate 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
Rome in 753 BC were structured into tribal
communities, and these communities often included an aristocratic
board of tribal elders.
The early Roman family was called a gens or "clan", and each clan
was an aggregation of families under a common living male patriarch,
called a pater (the
Latin word for "father"). When the early Roman
gentes were aggregating to form a common community, the patres from
the leading clans were selected for the confederated board of
elders that would become the Roman senate. Over time, the patres
came to recognize the need for a single leader, and so they elected a
king (rex), and vested in him their sovereign power. When the
king died, that sovereign power naturally reverted to the patres.
The senate is said to have been created by Rome's first king, Romulus,
initially consisting of 100 men. The descendants of those 100 men
subsequently became the patrician class. Rome's fifth king, Lucius
Tarquinius Priscus, chose a further 100 senators. They were chosen
from the minor leading families, and were accordingly called the
patres minorum gentium.
Rome's seventh and final king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, executed
many of the leading men in the senate, and did not replace them,
thereby diminishing their number. However, in 509 BC Rome's first and
Lucius Junius Brutus
Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius Publicola
chose from amongst the leading equites new men for the senate, these
being called conscripti, and thus increased the size of the senate to
The senate of the Roman kingdom held three principal responsibilities:
It functioned as the ultimate repository for the executive power,
it served as the king's council, and it functioned as a legislative
body in concert with the people of Rome. 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, during which time the Interrex
nominated a candidate to replace the king. After the senate gave
its initial approval to the nominee, he was then formally elected by
the people, and then received the senate's final approval. At
least one king,
Servius Tullius, was elected by the senate alone, and
not by the people.
The senate's most significant task, outside regal elections, was to
function as the king's council, and while the king could ignore any
advice it offered, its growing prestige helped make the advice that it
offered increasingly difficult to ignore. Technically, the senate
could also make new laws, 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
Senate of the Roman Republic
Main articles: Constitution of the
Roman Republic and
Senate of the
Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate:
Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of
the Italian Senate. It is worth noting that idealistic medieval and
subsequent artistic depictions of the
Senate 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 so-called "Togatus Barberini", a statue depicting a Roman senator
holding the imagines (effigies) of deceased ancestors in his hands;
marble, late 1st century BC; head (not belonging): mid-1st century BC.
When the Republic began, the
Senate functioned as an advisory council.
It consisted of 300–500 Senators, who were initially patrician and
served for life. Before long, plebeians were also admitted, although
they were denied the senior magistracies for a longer period.
Senators were entitled to wear a toga with a broad purple stripe,
maroon shoes, and an iron (later gold) ring.
Senate of the
Roman Republic passed decrees called senatus
consulta, which in form constituted "advice" from the senate to a
magistrate. While these decrees did not hold legal force, they usually
were obeyed in practice.
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.
Through these decrees, 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
regard to its management of state finances, as only it could authorize
the disbursal of public funds from the treasury. As the Roman Republic
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 of 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.
While senate meetings could take place either inside or outside the
formal boundary of the city (the pomerium), no meeting could take
place more than a mile outside it. 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. The senate was only allowed to assemble
in places dedicated to the gods.
Meetings usually began at dawn, and a magistrate who wished to summon
the senate had to issue a compulsory order. The senate meetings
were public and directed by a presiding magistrate (usually a
consul). 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,
then referred an issue to the senators, who would discuss it in order
Senators had several other ways in which they could influence (or
frustrate) a presiding magistrate. For example, every senator was
permitted to speak before a vote could be held, and since all meetings
had to end by nightfall, a dedicated group or even a single
senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster or diem
consumere). 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.
With a dictator as well as a senate, the senate could veto any of the
dictator's decisions. 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 put to
either a voice vote or a show of hands. If there was no veto and no
obvious majority, and the matter was of a significant nature, there
was usually a physical division of the house, with senators voting
by taking a place on either side of the chamber.
Senate membership was controlled by the censors. By the time of Gaius
Marius, ownership of property worth at least one million sesterces was
required for membership. The ethical requirements of senators were
significant. In contrast to members of the Equestrian order, 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, they could not leave Italy without permission from the
senate and they were not paid a salary. Election to magisterial office
resulted in automatic senate membership.
Senate of the Roman Empire
Main articles: Constitution of the Roman Empire,
Senate of the Roman
Empire, and Constitution of the Late 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 he exercised his autocratic
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, even though there were only 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. In addition to quaestors, elected officials
holding a range of senior positions were routinely granted senatorial
rank by virtue of the offices that they held.
If an individual was not of senatorial rank, there were two ways for
him to become a senator. Under the first method, the emperor granted
that individual the authority to stand for election to the
quaestorship, while under the second method, the emperor appointed
that individual to the senate by issuing a decree. Under the
empire, the power that the emperor held over the senate was
The two consuls were a part of the senate, but had more power than the
senators. During senate meetings, the emperor sat between the two
consuls, 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 those of lower rank, although the emperor could speak at any
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
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. 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.
During the early Roman Empire, all judicial powers that had been held
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), and, while a verdict could not be appealed, the
emperor could pardon a convicted individual through a veto. The
Tiberius transferred all electoral powers from the assemblies
to the senate, 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, he 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
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 the 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
Altar of Victory (first removed by Constantius II) to
the senatorial curia.
Senate in Rome
Senate in the West
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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 institution. 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 the senate successfully installed Laurentius as pope in 498,
despite the fact that both
King Theodoric and Emperor Anastasius
supported the other candidate, Symmachus.
The peaceful coexistence of senatorial and barbarian rule continued
Theodahad found himself at war with
Justinian I and took the senators as hostages. Several
senators were executed in 552 as revenge for the death of the
Ostrogothic king, Totila. After
Rome was recaptured by the imperial
(Byzantine) army, the senate was restored, but the institution (like
Rome itself) had been mortally weakened by the long war.
Many senators had been killed and many of those who had fled to the
east chose to remain there, thanks to favorable legislation passed by
Emperor Justinian, who, however, abolished virtually all senatorial
offices in Italy. The importance of the Roman senate thus declined
In 578 and again in 580, the senate sent envoys to Constantinople.
They delivered 3000 pounds (believed to be around 960 kg) of gold
as a gift to the new emperor,
Tiberius II Constantinus, along with a
plea for help against the Lombards, who had invaded Italy ten years
Pope Gregory I, in a sermon from 593, lamented the almost
complete disappearance of the senatorial order and the decline of the
It is not clearly known when the Roman senate disappeared in the West,
but it is known from the Gregorian register that the senate acclaimed
new statues of Emperor
Phocas and Empress
Leontia in 603, and
that was also the last time the senate was mentioned. In 630, the
house of the Senate,
Curia Julia, was transformed into a church by
Pope Honorius I, probably with the permission of the Emperor
In later medieval times, the title "senator" was still in occasional
use, but it had become a meaningless adjunct title of nobility and no
longer implied membership in an organized governing body.[citation
In 1144, the Commune of
Rome attempted to establish a government
modeled on the old Roman republic in opposition to the temporal power
of the higher nobles and the pope. This included setting up a senate
along the lines of the ancient one. The revolutionaries divided Rome
into fourteen regions, each electing four senators for a total of 56
(although one source,[which?][according to whom?] often repeated,
gives a total of 50). These senators, the first real senators since
the 7th century, elected as their leader Giordano Pierleoni, son of
Roman consul Pier Leoni, with the title patrician, since consul
was also a deprecated noble styling.
This renovated form of government was constantly embattled. By the end
of the 12th century, it had undergone a radical transformation, with
the reduction of the number of senators to a single one - Summus
Senator - being thereafter the title of the head of the civil
government of Rome. In modern terms, for example, this is comparable
to the reduction of a board of commissioners to a single commissioner,
such as the political head of the police department of New York City.
Between 1191 and 1193, this was a certain Benedetto called Carus homo
or carissimo.
Senate in the East
Main article: Byzantine Senate
The senate continued to exist in
Constantinople however, although it
evolved into an institution that differed in some fundamental forms
from its predecessor. Designated in Greek as synkletos, or assembly,
Constantinople was made up of all current or former
holders of senior ranks and official positions, plus their
descendants. At its height during the 6th and 7th centuries, the
Senate represented the collective wealth and power of the Empire, on
occasion nominating and dominating individual emperors.
In the second half of the 10th century a new office, proëdrus (Greek:
πρόεδρος), was created as head of the senate by Emperor
Nicephorus Phocas. Up to the mid-11th century, only eunuchs could
become proëdrus, but later this restriction was lifted and several
proëdri could be appointed, of which the senior proëdrus, or
protoproëdrus (Greek: πρωτοπρόεδρος), served as the head
of the senate. There were two types of meetings practised: silentium,
in which only magistrates currently in office participated and
conventus, in which all syncletics (Greek: συγκλητικοί,
senators) could participate. The
until at least the beginning of the 13th century, its last known act
being the election of
Nicolas Canabus as emperor in 1204 during the
Master of the Horse
^ Abbott, 3
^ a b Abbott, 1
^ Abbott, 12
^ a b c d Abbott, 6
^ Abbott, 16
^ a b Byrd, 42
^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:8
^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:35
^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.1
^ a b c Abbott, 10
^ a b Abbott, 17
^ a b Abbott, 14
^ Byrd, 20
^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1.41
^ a b c McCullough, 1026
^ a b Byrd, 44
^ Abbott, 233
^ Abbott, 240
^ a b c d e Byrd, 34
^ Lintott, 72
^ Lintott, 75
^ a b Lintott, 78
^ Lintott, 83
^ Byrd, 36
^ a b Abbott, 381
^ Metz, 59, 60
^ Abbott, 382
^ a b c d Abbott, 385
^ a b Abbott, 383
^ Abbott, 384
^ a b Abbott, 386
^ Levillain, 907
^ Schnurer, 339
^ Bronwen, 3. "For since the
Senate has failed, the people have
perished, and the sufferings and groans of the few who remain are
multiplied each day. Rome, now empty, is burning!"
^ Cooper, 23
^ a b Levillain 1047
^ Richards, 246
^ Kaegi, 196
^ Runciman, 60.
^ Phillips, 222–226.
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Constitution (reforms of Sulla • reforms of Caesar • reforms of
Sulla's Constitutional Reforms
Caesar's Constitutional Reforms
Conflict of the Orders
Ancient Rome topics
historiography of the fall
Tribune of the Plebs
Frontiers and fortifications
Decorations and punishments
Conflict of the Orders
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Younger
Quintus Curtius Rufus
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Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Eusebius of Caesaria
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Lists and other
Cities and towns
Wars and battles