The Roman Senate, or council of elders (senes), seems to have been, originally, an assembly of the chiefs of the different clans or houses (gentes), such as we find among nearly all Aryan peoples. Before the independent powers of these clans had been seriously diminished by the development of the royal prerogative, this assembly was probably the highest authority in the community. In the earliest Roman tradition, however, its normal function is to advise the king, and, in certain cases, to approve or disapprove his propositions. Its members, the “fathers,” were chosen (lecti) by the reigning king; but the latter was bound by custom to choose them from the gentes, one representative of ripe age (maior natu) from each gens. The number of Senators therefore corresponded with the number of gentes, and it was only by the creation of new gentes that new elements could be introduced into the Senate (patres minorum gentium). Tarquin the Elder is said to have brought the Senate in this way to the strength which was subsequently regarded as normal—viz. three hundred. Upon the death of the king, and until his successor was chosen, the Senate assumed (or resumed) the government of the city, which it conducted through a series of senatorial interreges. See [ERROR: no link cross:]Interreges.
With the establishment of the Republic the Senate became the council of the chief magistrates. Its members were selected at first by the consuls, later by the censors. For a century and a half it remained, essentially at least, a patrician body, and served as the chief bulwark of the patrician power. The tradition that plebeians were summoned to the Senate by the later kings is scarcely credible; the statement that the earlier consuls admitted them is almost equally questionable. It seems certain, at all events, that they were not regularly admitted, or admitted in any considerable number, until the middle or latter part of the fourth century B.C., when it was provided by a lex Ovinia that the censors should select ex omni ordine optimum quemque. The “best men” were interpreted, by usage, to be those who had been elected by the people to the higher magistracies; and ultimately the fact of election seems to have given the magistrate-elect seat and voice in the Senate. It was only when the list of ex-magistrates had been exhausted that others were appointed, preference being then given to citizens who had distinguished themselves in war. It was customary, at each census, to reappoint all surviving members of the Senate. The censors might indeed pass over (praeterire) the name of a senator, and thus exclude him, but only for cause stated. The Senate of the later Republic was accordingly a body of ex-magistrates, with what amounted to a life tenure.
Organization and Procedure.—As an advisory body, the Senate met only when its advice was required—i. e. upon the call of a magistrate. Meetings were usually (but not necessarily) held in the Curia Hostilia, and on the Kalends or the Ides. A lex Pupia forbade meetings of the Senate at times when the Comitia were assembled, and a lex Gabinia ordered daily meetings through the [Note]
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month of February for the transaction of foreign and diplomatic business. The quorum required seems to have varied with the nature of the business before the house; for dispensation from a law it was fixed at 200. Penalties were imposed for unexcused failure to attend.
The magistrate who seeks the advice of the Senate (senatum consulit) acts as its chairman. He may lay before its members a distinctly formulated proposition which they are to approve or disapprove, or may submit (referre) a question on which their several opinions (singulae sententiae) are desired. In the latter case he calls upon the senators nominatim, in the order of their official rank—the princeps or dean of the Senate first, then the excensors, then the consulares, and so on down to the quaestorii, observing within each rank the order of seniority. Each senator sets forth his opinion at such length as he sees fit. The speeches may be interrupted by questions or corrections, and these may give rise to a running debate (altercatio). If the opinion of the Senate is clear, no vote need be taken; if not, the magistrate formulates the question (verba facit) and takes the sense of the Senate by a division (discessio). Senators who had held no elective office had the right of voting only, not the right of speech; hence they were termed “foot-senators” (pedarii). A number of questions might, of course, be submitted to the Senate at a single session. The order of business depended upon the pleasure of the magistrate, with one exception—res divinae took precedence of res publicae.
The Senate had neither secretaries nor, until the time of Iulius Caesar, records. The decision reached was written out by the presiding magistrate with the aid of a committee of senators. Except during the struggle between the orders, when the senatus consulta were kept in the temple of Ceres, the place of deposit was the aerarium.
Powers.—The advice of the Senate had to be obtained on certain matters of especial gravity, and might be obtained whenever it was desired. In theory, the advice that it gave was not binding, either upon the king or the republican magistrates. In fact, however, a resolution of the Senate, if less than a command, was much more than a counsel. Under the kings the Senate represented organizations older than the monarchy or the State itself. In its later republican form it included all the political experience and nearly all the political influence of the commonwealth. In the royal and early republican periods it was the guardian of the sacred traditions of the people. In the later Republic it represented, as against the magistrates with their brief terms and division of functions, as against the people with their varying impulses, the permanency and the unity of the policy of the State. In those matters in which custom accorded to its opinion the highest authority—in matters of religion, for example, and in questions of war and peace—it was practically a revolutionary act for the king or the magistrates to proceed in a course which the Senate discountenanced. Both in the royal period, therefore, and under the Republic, the Senate exercised an important restraining influence. In the later republican period its influence became more positive. It had, indeed, no organs for the enforcement of its will except the magistrates in office; but these seldom dared to refuse their aid. Most of them were members of senatorial families and had obtained office through family influence. To cross the will of the Senate was to imperil their own careers and those of their sons. During the conflict between the orders, the Senate had lost much of its authority; but when, at the close of this conflict, it was so reorganized as to include the leading representatives of all the great families, plebeian as well as patrician, it became more powerful than ever before. In the last two centuries of the Republic, in consequence of the increasing importance of Rome's foreign relations, which it had always directed, and the multiplication of subject-provinces which were under its special supervision, the Senate became the supreme power in the State. The selfish use of this power provoked the democratic reaction which established the Empire.
Among the rights attributed to the Senate, at one time or another, were the preliminary discussion of bills (rogationes) before their submission to the people; the examination and approval of the list of candidates for election; the quashing of popular resolves and of elections because the proper forms (particularly those required by religion) had not been observed; dispensation from laws in special cases, and the granting of privileges (especially corporate privileges); and, finally, the suspension of the ordinary laws in periods of stress and peril. In the early Republican period, the Senate claimed the right of ultimate approval or disapproval of laws and elections, but these claims were negatived by the lex Publia (B.C. 339) and the lex Maenia (B.C. 287). As regarded the provincial subjects of Rome, senatus consulta had the force of laws.
For a time the Senate exercised a sort of criminal jurisdiction, especially in the case of religious and political offences, through investigating committees (quaestiones); but these “questions” were ultimately transformed into permanent courts and made independent of the Senate.
In the field of administration the Senate exercised full control over the public finances. It fixed the taxes to be collected and the manner of their collection, voted appropriations, examined and verified the accounts of the treasury officials. It controlled the entire provincial administration. In the field of foreign relations nothing was done without its authorization. It sent and received ambassadors (legati), and conducted or controlled all diplomatic negotiations. It heard and acted upon the complaints of the allied cities and adjusted their differences. In the later Republican period wars were declared and treaties of peace and of alliance were ratified by the Comitia; but it was regarded as unconstitutional to bring these matters before the people without the previous authorization of the Senate.
In the republican, as in the royal, period the Senate carried on the government in case of interregnum. An interregnum existed, according to the republican theory, when both consuls died or resigned.
Finally, the Senate claimed an indefinite right of watching over and providing for the weal of the State (salus rei publicae), and it exercised an undisputed supremacy in strictly religious matters, except where these fell within the competence of the special priestly colleges.
The Senate of the Empire.—With the establishment of the Empire the powers of war and of
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peace and the control of Rome's foreign relations passed from the Senate to the emperor. Half of the provinces were ruled by the emperor's legates, and over the government of the rest he exercised an effective control. An imperial fiscus and an imperial war-treasury (aerarium militare) were established, and under Nero imperial praefects took the place of the senatorial quaestors in the old aerarium. On the other hand, the Senate gained new powers at the cost of the popular assembly: it passed laws and elected the magistrates. It also obtained a criminal jurisdiction concurrent with that of the ordinary courts. Some of these powers were afterwards withdrawn; but the bestowal and the withdrawal were alike matters of form. The substance of power was with the emperor: the magistrates from whom the Senate was still recruited were his nominees, and their election by the Senate was simply a ratification of the imperial choice. By virtue of his censorial powers, moreover, he could purge and reconstruct the Senate as he pleased. Senators were appointed more and more frequently without the form of election to any magistracy, and the number of provincials in the Senate steadily increased. The title princeps senatus, which the emperor assumed, obtained a new meaning: it indicated that he was the permanent president of the Senate.
The transfer of legislative power to the Senate carried with it one prerogative of great apparent importance—that of appointing the new emperor when the office became vacant, or at least of clothing him with imperial power. This right also proved unsubstantial: the succession was regularly determined either by the will of the deceased emperor or by the will of the army. The passing of the lex de imperio became as purely formal as the other acts of the Senate.
Sulla had raised the number of senators to 400; Iulius Caesar to 900. Augustus fixed it at 600. Regular meetings were held on the Kalends and Ides of each month. At first an attendance of 400 was required. It soon became necessary to increase the penalty of unexcused absence and also to reduce the legal quorum.
Ordo Senatorius.—The fact that the Senate was regularly recruited from a limited number of families had given to these families, even in the republican period, something of the character of a class. The formal distinctions accorded to the senators themselves (latus clavus, reserved seats at spectacles, etc.); their exclusion, not only from revenue-farming and other contracts with the government, but also from trade, and the extension of these prohibitions to the sons of senators, were steps towards the legal recognition of a senatorial order. In the imperial period this movement was completed. The senatorial census or property qualification was fixed at one million sesterces. The formal and ceremonial distinctions of the senators were multiplied, and were extended to their families. Class privileges were accorded them. Marriages between children of senators and persons of servile origin (libertini), previously regarded as unsuitable, were made illegal.
Municipal Senates.—In the self-governing cities of Italy and of the provinces, the whole municipal government was modelled on that of Rome, and the constitutions and functions of their city senates, or municipal councils in particular (decuriones, curiae), were closely analogous to those of the Roman Senate.
See P. Willems, Le Sénat de la République Romaine (1883); Hoffmann, Der römische Senat; Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht (3d ed. 1887); Karlowa, Römische Rechtsgeschichte. 4, 50-52, 68.