The Roman Senate at the time of the Republic

The Roman Senate at the time of the Republic

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The Roman Senate is one of the most permanent political institutions in ancient rome, if not one of the most stable. It was probably founded before the first king of Rome acceded to the throne (-753) and survived all the regime changes (fall of the Roman Monarchy in -509 then of the Roman Republic in -27 and finally that of the'Roman Empire in 476). The Senate played only a marginal role in the early days of the Republic, while the executive magistrates cumulated all the powers. The transition from an absolute monarchy to the institutional rules of the Republic is a slow process and it takes several generations before the Senate is able to assert its power over the magistrates.

Origin of the Roman Senate

According to legend, the Roman Senate was established by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. The first certain information indicates that, from the period of the monarchy, it was a consultative body of three hundred patricians and that at that time it enjoyed great power. When the monarchical system ended in 510 BC. AD, the Senate became the advisory council of the two consuls. Under the authority of the latter, he wielded considerable influence and his opinions commanded great respect. The Senate met in the curia located on the Forum, in the very heart of the city.

Symbol of the senate's political weight in Roman society, the legions display on their insignia the famous SPQR motto, Senatus Populus Que Romanus. The 4th and 3rd centuries BC. J. - C. saw the preponderance of the senators thwarted by the emergence of new powers resulting from the plebs, the patres, more and more constituted in a closed caste, identified by the fortune and by a certain number of honorary privileges like the wearing the Laticlavian toga with a broad purple stripe.

An assembly of magistrates

Roman Senators are referred to as conscript fathers (patres conscripti). They were in fact originally formed of patres (the heads of patrician families) and conscripti, "those who have been registered", that is to say magistrates and former magistrates.

When the institution was created, it was only after completing one's quaestorship that one entered the Senate, although at the end of the Republic the quaestors themselves entered the Senate. The Roman Senate, which initially had 300 members (the numbers nevertheless rising fairly quickly to 600 members from Caesar), thus brought together mainly magistrates and former magistrates.

The Senators are also on a list known as the Senate Album, which is compiled by censors every five years. Those who have behaved unworthy of returning to the Senate are excluded. This list is written in hierarchical order, the most important Senators being the former Consuls. The hierarchy in the Senate intends to reproduce the hierarchy of magistracies. Speaking out depends precisely on this hierarchy.

A charismatic authority

Under the Republic, the Senate is in principle competent in all areas. More specifically, he is responsible for watching over the affairs of the Roman state by exercising a certain control over the actions of the magistrates. The continuity of the Senate (one is a senator for life) compensates for the annual nature of the magistracies. The Senate can oversee the conduct of military operations as well as the city’s finances, or even ensure respect for laws and traditions.

The Senate, however, has no real legislative power. Senators vote senatus consult who do not have the rank of law but are mere opinions. But in fact, given the prestige of the Senators, it is rare that a senatus consult is not followed by magistrates or even by all citizens. The Roman senatorial institution is thus not characterized by the imperium of magistrates but rather not the autorita, that anachronistic form of Weberian charismatic authority that the Senate derives from its composition.

As said above, the oldest Senators with the highest rank are those who speak first. To determine their position, the most recent Senators are content to move inside the curia (where the Senate meets) to follow the Senator whose opinion they share, thus never speaking. This is where the adage "In the Senate, you vote with your feet" is derived. At the end of the Republic, Julius Caesar and Octavian removed part of its political powers from the Senate while maintaining polite deference for this venerable and prestigious institution.


- Montesquieu, Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and their decadence. Flammarion, 1998.

- The Origins of the Roman Senate ... by Gustave Bloch. Select, 2018.

- The Roman Republic and its empire - From 509 BC. to 31 av. J.-C., by Michel Humm. Armand Colin, 2018.

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