Roman Senate

lawEarly Days: The word senate was derived from Latin word ‘Senex’ which means old man. Senate means a gathering of old men. Roman senate was an executive assembly or a governing body of prominent members of Roman society. It was founded by the first Roman emperor, Romulus. During the days, Rome was a kingdom; senate served as King’s advisory council and did not have much power. Romulus appointed as many as 100 senators to the senate. The last king of Rome, Lucius Superbus executed many senators. However, with the establishment of Roman republic, senate gradually grew powerful and started to exert influence.

Senate During Roman Republic: During the early period of Roman republic, senate continued to work in an advisory capacity with almost 300 senators. In those days executive magistrates wielded much of the power and senate only passed decrees called ‘Senatus Consulta’ which were more like advises to the magistrates. Magistrates could choose to act on these advises or ignore them completely. However, with the passage of time senate became politically more active with an important role in decision making. By third century BC senate had become so powerful that it could call for the appointment of a dictator in the times of emergency and war.

Senate During Roman Empire: With the fall of Roman Republic, senate once again lost power. Legally and constitutionally, senate was still relevant but practically all powers rested with emperor, who used senate as a medium through which he exercised his powers over Roman Empire. Senate sessions were mostly presided over by the emperor and senators were discouraged to show dissent over any bill approved by emperor. Whenever a bill was presented for senatorial approval, all dissenting senators abstained from that session instead of voting against it.

Later Years: Senate continued to exist in some form till the seventh century AD. It is widely believed that by 630 AD, senate ceased to exist as a governing body in Western Roman Empire. The title of senator was only used as a symbolic title of nobility and had nothing to do with membership of an actual and existing governing body. However, in Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) senate existed till early thirteenth century.

Senators: Senators were mostly from prominent and affluent backgrounds. They wore white tunics with a broad purple border. They also wore maroon shoes and gold rings. The first 100 senators appointed by King Romulus were called ‘Patres’ or fathers and their descendants were called patricians. This class was well represented in the senate for times to come and wielded much of the executive power.

Membership to senate was controlled through ‘Censor’ who was an officer responsible for maintaining census, overseeing financial matters and supervising public morality. Senators were also required to be financially strong to be considered for membership of senate. Senators could not engage in banking or commercial activity during their stint in senate and always required permission of senate to leave Rome. They were not paid any salary for their services as senators.

Proceedings of Senate: Senate could meet anywhere, provided its place of meeting was not more than one mile away from the boundary of the city. Before the proceedings of a meeting began a sacrifice to Gods had to be made and a search for divine omens was also made to make sure that the time and place was auspicious for the meeting of senate. Senate meetings usually began at dawn and continued till nightfall. The meetings were mostly public and were directed by a magistrate who was usually a ‘Consul’.