The word senate derives from the Latin word senex, which means "old man". Therefore, senate literally means "board of old men." The content of this article provides interesting history, facts and information about life in Ancient Rome including Roman Senate.
Roman Senate - Selection of Senators
The Romans who would act as Senators were first chosen into the Roman Senate by the kings, and after their expulsion, by the consuls and by the military tribunes and from 310BC by the censors. At first Roman Senators were chosen only from the Patricians, but eventually from the Plebeians, chiefly from the Equites.
Roman Senate - Qualification of Senators
To qualify for the role of Senator the person had to meet certain criteria:
- They had to be rich - with an an estate worth 400, or after Augustus, 1200 sestertia
- No person was admitted to the Roman Senate unless they had already served in some form of some magistracy in the Commonwealth
- No person was admitted to the Roman Senate unless they over 30 years old
Assembling the Roman Senate - Where the Senate originally met
The dictator, consuls, praetors, tribunes of the commons and interrex, had the power of assembling the Roman Senate. The places where the met were only those that had formerly been consecrated by the augurs, called a senate house known as the curia, most commonly within the city of Rome. They also made use of the Temple of Bellona, which was outside the city walls walls, for the giving audience to foreign ambassadors, and to such provincial magistrates as were to be heard in open Senates, before they entered the city, as when they petitioned for a triumph, and in similar cases.
The forum was the center of Roman political life and the curia (senate house) was part of it. More specifically, in the forum was the comitium, an area where the assembly met. It was originally a rectangular space aligned with the cardinal points (North, South, East and West).
How was the Roman Senate originally summoned?
The Roman Senate was originally summoned by a public officer named a viator, who called the Roman Senators from the country, or by a public crier, when anything had happened about which the Senators were to be consulted hastily and without delay: but in latter times by an edict, appointing the time and place, and published several days before. The cause of assembling was also added.
Regular Meetings of the Roman Senate
The regular meetings (senatus legitimus) were on the Kalends, Nones, and Ides in every month, until the time of Augustus, who confined them to the Kalends and Ides.
- The Kalends was the first day of the month, from which the word "calendar" is derived
- The Nones - thought to have been the day of the half moon
- The Ides - thought to have originally been the day of the full moon. The word ides comes from Latin, meaning "half division" (of a month), the Ides was either the 13th or the 15th of the month
If any one refused or neglected to attend, he was punished by a fine, and by seizing his goods, unless he had a just excuse. The fine was imposed by him who held the Senate, and pledges were taken till it was paid, but after 60 years of age, Senators might attend or not, as they pleased.
Roman Senate - Quorum
No decree could be made by the Roman Senate unless there was a quorum. A quorum is the minimum participation required to constitute a valid vote. However the actual number is uncertain. It is therefore not known how many senators constituted a quorum. The Roman Senate was divided into decuries (groups of ten), each led by a patrician (therefore requiring that there would be at least 30 patrician senators at any given time). If any one wanted to hinder the passing of a decree, and suspected there was not a quorum, he said to the magistrate presiding, “Numera Senatum,” count the Senate.
Roman Senate - Religious Ceremonies
The magistrate who was to preside over the Roman Senate offered a sacrifice, and took the auspices before he entered the Senate house. If they were not favorable, or not rightly taken, the business was deferred to another day. Augustus ordered that each Senator, before he took his seat, should pay his devotions with an offering of frankincense and wine, at the altar of that god in whose temple the Senate were assembled, that they might discharge their duty the more religiously.
Roman Senate - The Consuls
When the consuls entered, the Senators commonly rose up to do them honor. The consuls were the first to be asked their opinion followed by the praetors, tribunes who appeared to have had the same preference before the rest of their order. He who held the Roman Senate, might consult first any one of the same order he thought proper. Nothing could be laid before the Roman Senate against the will of the consuls, unless by the tribunes of the people, who might also give their negative against any decree by the solemn word “Veto”.
Roman Senate - The Senators
The Roman Senators delivered their opinions standing; but when they only accepted the opinion of another they continued sitting. It was not lawful for the consuls to interrupt those who spoke.The Roman Senators usually addressed the house by the title of “patres conscripti:” sometimes to the consul, or person who presided, sometimes to both.
A Decree of the Roman Senate
A decree of the Roman Senate was made, by a separation of the Senators, to different parts of the house. He who presided, said, “Let those who are of such an opinion pass over to that side, those who think differently, to this.” Those Roman Senators who only voted, but did not speak, or as some say, had the right of voting, but not of speaking, were called pedarii, because they signified their opinion by their feet, and not by their tongues. When a decree was made without any opinion being asked or given, it was called “senatus consultum per discessionem.” But if the contrary, it was simply called “Senatus consultum.” In decreeing a supplication to any general, the opinion of the Senators was always asked. Before the vote was put, and while the debate was going on, the members used to take their seats near that person whose opinion they approved, and the opinion of him who was joined by the greatest number was called “Sententia maxime frequens.”
A Decree of the Roman Senate
When affairs requiring secrecy were discussed, the clerks and other attendants were not admitted to the meeting of the Roman Senate. In these circumstances what was passed, was written out by some of the Senators. This type of decree was called tacitum. In writing a decree, the time and place were put first; then, the names of those who were present and then the motion with the name of the magistrate who proposed it and ended with what the Roman Senate decreed. Decrees of the Roman Senate were rarely reversed. While a question was under debate, every one was at freedom to express his dissent; but when once determined, it was looked upon as the common concern of each member to support the opinion of the majority.
Records of Decrees passed by the Roman Senate
Public registers were kept of what was done in the Roman Senate, in the assemblies of the people, and courts of justice; also of births and funerals, of marriages and divorces. The decrees were kept in the public treasury situated in the Roman Forum with the laws and other writings relating to the republic. Originally they were kept in the temple of Ceres and then in the temple of Saturn. The state treasury was called the Aerarium and housed the public laws engraved on brass, the decrees of the Senate and other papers and registers of importance. The place where the public records were kept was called “Tabularium.” The decrees of the Roman Senate concerning the honors conferred on Caesar were inscribed in golden letters, on columns of silver.
Authority and Power of the Roman Senate
The authority and powers of the Roman Senate encompassed many areas of Roman Life. Although the decrees of the Roman Senate had not properly the force of the law and took place chiefly in those matters which were not provided for by the law, they were always understood to be binding and were therefore obeyed by all orders. The consuls themselves were obliged to submit to them. Decrees could be annulled or cancelled only by the Roman Senate itself.
Religion and the Roman Senate
The Senate assumed to themselves exclusively, the guardianship of the public religion; so that no new god could be introduced, nor altar erected, nor the Sybiline books consulted without their order.
Finances and the Roman Senate
They had the direction of the treasury, and distributed the public money at pleasure. They appointed the salary or allowance to their generals and officers, and provisions and clothing to the armies.
New Appointments made by the Roman Senate
They settled the provinces which were annually assigned to the consuls and praetors, and when it seemed fit, they prolonged their command. They nominated, out of their own body, all ambassadors sent from Rome, and gave to foreign ambassadors what answers they thought proper.
Honors and Enemies
They decreed all public thanksgivings for victories obtained, and conferred the honor of an ovation or triumph with the title of imperator on their victorious generals. They could decree the title of king to any prince whom they pleased, and declare any one an enemy by a vote.
Crime and Punishment decreed by the Roman Senate
The Roman Senate inquired into all public crimes or treasons, either in Rome or other parts of Italy; and adjusted all disputes among the allied and dependent cities. They exercised a power not only of interpreting the laws, but of absolving men from the obligation of them. They could postpone the assemblies of the people, and give orders in cases of any imminent danger or calamity. In instances of civil dissension or dangerous tumults within the city absolute power was granted to them to punish and put to death whom they pleased without a trial; to raise forces and carry on war, without the order of the people.