1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Senate

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26381751911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24 — SenateAgnes Muriel Clay

SENATE (Lat. senatus, from root sen-, as in senex, old; the root is the Sanskrit sana, cf. Gr. ἕνος; the same element appears in señor, seigneur, seneschal) literally the assembly of old men,[1] originally the heads of the chief families, and hence, in general, the upper council in a governmental system. The Latin word corresponds with the Greek gerousia (q.v.), the name of the similar body at Sparta; it must not be used of the Cleisthenic council (see Boulē) at Athens, which was in all respects a different body. The Athenian Areopagus (q.v.) represents the Roman senate. The word is applied primarily to the aristocratic Roman assembly (see below). It is also used to designate the second chamber in the legislatures of France, Italy and the United States, as also in those of the separate states composing the Union; in the British legislature it is represented by the House of Lords. By analogy the title is used for the governing bodies of various educational institutions, e.g. in the universities of Cambridge and London, and also in certain American colleges and universities, where it denotes an advisory body composed of representatives of the students as well as members of the faculty. So in the Scottish colleges the governing body is the Senatus Academicus. In Scottish law, the lords of session (i.e. judges) are called senators of the College of Justice, which is itself spoken of as a senate.

The Ancient Roman Senate. (A) History.—The senate or council of elders formed the oldest and most permanent element in the Roman constitution. The authorities are unanimous in ascribing the origin of the senate to Romulus, who chose out 100 of the best of his subjectsUnder the monarchy. to form his advising body. They are, however, far from unanimous in their account of the subsequent history of the senate down to the foundation of the republic. The only facts on which they are all agreed are that in 509 B.C. it already contained 300 members, and that a distinction already existed within it between patres maiorum gentium and minorum gentium (Livy i. 35; Cic. De rep. ii. 20. 35; Dionys. ii. 47). Moreover, with one exception they agree in asserting that throughout the monarchical period the senate consisted entirely of patricians. There is undoubtedly some connexion between the increase in the numbers of the senate by the admission of new members and the distinction between two classes of patres. The most probable view seems to be that the rise in the number of the senators was due to the gradual incorporation of fresh elements into the patrician community, with a consequent increase of gentes; and that the new clans, out of which new members came into the senate, were the gentes minores. The exclusively patrician character of the senate at this period seems an inevitable inference from all that we know of the political position of the plebs at the time, and the evidence of Zonaras to the contrary is universally discredited. The appointment of senators depended entirely upon the king. They were not appointed for life, but at the pleasure of the king who summoned them. It is possible that a king might change his advisers during his reign, and a new king could certainly abstain from summoning some of those convened by his predecessors.[2] The powers of the senate at this time were very indefinite. Tradition ascribes to it the control of the interregnum and a power of sanctioning acts of state (patrum auctoritas), to which it is difficult to give any significance for this early period. It seems also to have possessed a customary right of controlling foreign policy, for the ancient formula of the Fetiales refers to the sanction of the patres (Livy i. 32). From the senate also must have been chosen the delegates appointed by the king either to be his executive representative when he was absent in the field (praefectus urbi), or to assist him in jurisdiction (Ilviri perduellionis, quaestores parricidii).

The abolition of monarchy, and the substitution of two annually elected consuls did not at first bring any important change in the position of the senate. It was the consulting body of the consuls, meeting only at their pleasure, and owing its appointment to them, andUnder the Republic. remained a power distinctly secondary to the magistrates, as it had been formerly to the king. The magistrates at this time were chosen entirely from the patrician houses, and the senate long remained a stronghold of patrician prejudice. Tradition ascribes to the first consuls some change in the class from which senators were drawn, but various accounts of the change are given (Livy ii. 1; Festus, p. 254; Dionys. v. 13; cf. Tac. Ann. xi. 25). Whatever the exact nature of the change, we may be certain that plebeians were not introduced into the senate at this time. Such a change is utterly improbable at the crisis of a patrician coup d’état, such as the expulsion of the Tarquins certainly was; and there is no evidence for the existence of a plebeian senator before the year 401 B.C. The statement that some modification in the original principle of selection was made in this year is invariably introduced as an explanation of the title patres conscripti, which is held to imply a distinction of rank within the senate, as derived from the formula of summons “ qui patres, qui conscript (estis).”[3] But either this formula is not as early as 509 B.C. or the term conscripti does not refer only to plebeians. In one respect the substitution of consuls for kings tended to the subordination of the chief magistrates to the senate. The consuls held office only for one year, while the senate was a permanent body; in experience and prestige its individual members were often superior to the consuls of the year. It was therefore improbable that the magistrate would venture to disregard the advice of his consilium, especially as he himself would pass into the senate at the close of his year of office, according to a recognized custom which was gradually modifying the theoretical freedom of choice that the consuls possessed with regard to their cons ilium. It was probably in their capacity of ex-magistrates that plebeians first entered the senate; for the first plebeian senator mentioned by Livy, P. Licinius Calvus, was also the first plebeian consular tribune. This is hardly likely to be mere coincidence. Of the two standing powers which the senate inherited from the monarchy, the interregnum and the patrum auctoritas, the first had become even rarer of exercise than before; for if either consul existed to nominate a successor, interregnum could not be resorted to. The patrum auctoritas, on the other hand, developed into a definite right claimed by the senate to give or withhold its consent to any legislative or elective act of the comitia, which could not be valid without such consent. The control, too, which it had long exercised over foreign policy must have increased the importance of the senate in a period of constant warfare with the nations of Italy. But in the early republic the senate remained primarily an advising body, and had as yet assumed no definite executive powers.

In the last two centuries of the republic we find thata great change has taken place in the position of the senate. It is now a self-existent, automatically constituted body, independent of the magistrates, a recognized factor in the constitution and the wielder of extensive powers. Its self-existence could only be secured by a transference of the selection of the senate from the magistrate to some other authority, and was actually effected by entrusting the selection to the recently instituted college of censors. The censorship was instituted in 443 B.C., and some time before the year 311 it was placed in charge of the lectio senatus. Conditions of selection had also been imposed by 311, which made the constitution of the senate practically automatic. Ex-curule magistrates were now admitted as a matter of course, together with any other persons who had done conspicuous public service in the lower grades of the magistracy or the higher ranks of the army; and for some time before Sulla’s dictatorship little power of choice can really have rested with the censors. L. Cornelius Sulla, while abolishing the censorship (immediately revived), also secured an entirely automatic composition for the senate by increasing the number of quaestors, and enacting that all ex-quaestors should pass at once into the senate. This enactment provided for the maintenance even of the increased number of 600 senators, twenty quaestorians passing into the senate every year. The senate’s powers had now extended far beyond its two ancient prerogatives of appointing an interrex, and ratifying decisions of the comitia. The first of these powers, as has been shown above, had fallen into practical disuse, and the second had for some reason become a mere form by the last century of the republic. It is improbable that the change was entirely the result of the lex Publilia of 287 B.C., which decreed that the senate should exercise its auctoritas before the voting instead of after, though this law may have formed part of a process very imperfectly known to us by which senatorial control of legislation in this form was gradually nullified. But the senate had acquired a far more effective control over the popular vote through the observance of certain unwritten rules regulating the relation between senate and magistrates. It was generally understood that the magistrate should not question the people on any important matter without the senate’s consent, nor refuse to do so at its request; that one magistrate should not employ his veto to quash the act of another except at the senate’s bidding, nor refuse to do so when directed. Such was the situation which had developed out of the tendency noticed above for the magistrate to be advised by his council in all important matters. Again, the earlier control of foreign policy developed into a definite claim put forward by the senate and recognized by the constitution to conduct all negotiations with a foreign power and frame an alliance which should merely be offered to the people for ratification. For the organization of a new Roman province even this formal ratification was dispensed with, and a commission of senators alone aided the victorious general in the organization of his conquests. The senate also held an important power in its right to distribute spheres of rule among the various magistrates. It seems also to have had entire control over the external relations of the free cities which were scattered throughout the provinces, but formed no administrative parts of those provinces, holding their rights by charter forwhich they depended upon the senate. The control of finance was also entirely in the senate’s hands. Three circumstances had combined to bring about this result. The censors, who were only occasional officials, were entrusted with the leasing of the public revenues; the senate not only directed the arrangements made by them, and received appeals against oppressive contracts, but also controlled any financial assignments that had to be made during the vacancy in the censorship. Again, the details of public expenditure had been in very early times entrusted to the quaestors, who, when the magistracies were multiplied, occupied an entirely subordinate position; this strengthened the position of the senate as the natural director of a young and inexperienced magistrate. Thirdly, the general control exercised by the senate over provincial affairs implied its direction of the income derived from the provinces, which in the later republic formed the chief property of the state. It had also claimed a right, unchallenged till the time of Tiberius Gracchus, of granting occupation and decreeing alienation of public lands, or of accepting or rejecting gifts and bequests to the state. Every branch of state finance was therefore in its hands. In matters of criminal jurisdiction the senate claimed the right to set free by its decree in case of emergency the full powers of coercilio contained in the imperium of a magistrate, but limited normally in capital cases by successive laws of appeal. The exercise of this right amounted to a declaration of martial law, and had the effect of giving the consul the same powers of summary jurisdiction which had resided in the dictatorship. It was only resorted to in cases of special urgency, such as the epidemic of poisoning in 331 B.C. (Livy viii. 18), the prevalence of Bacchanalian licence in the city in 186 B.C. (id. xxxix. 18) and the formidable preponderance of the revolutionary tribune Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C. The action of the senate on this last occasion evoked a vigorous protest from the people, on the ground that the senate was not acting on behalf of the state against its enemies, but in the interest of one party in the state against the other; and a law of C. Gracchus subsequently forbade any such exercise of capital jurisdiction on the part of a magistrate, whether authorized by the senate or not. The senate continued, however, to make use of this decree, and the question of its right to do so was one of the chief points at issue in the final struggle between the senatorial and democratic parties. The best known instance of this decretum ultimum in the last century of the republic is that of 63 B.C., when Cicero took summary action against the Catilinarians, and justified his action on the plea that this decree had authorized him to do so. The senate also exercised a police control in Rome in sudden emergencies. It dissolved by a decree passed in 64 B.C. a number of trade gilds which had become the centres of political disturbance, and framed decrees from time to time dealing with bribery and corruption. The chief feature of the democratic revolution at Rome which occupied the century following the tribunate of T. Gracchus was an uncompromising opposition to the tenure of these extensive powers by the senate. Sulla’s enactments in 81 B.C., which aimed at restoring its ascendancy, show clearly how much power it had already lost; and his attempts to reinstate it were short-lived (see Rome: History II. “The Republic ”). The Gracchi and Caesar alike found themselves obliged to override senatorial prerogative in the interests of progressive legislation, and though the senate, owing to its strong hold over the magistracy, succeeded repeatedly in dealing death to its opponents, it never regained the popular confidence; and the practical extinction of the old senate in 49 B.C. was hardly lamented.

Caesar's revision of the senatorial list and his increase of the senate to 900 was a return to the old practice by which kings and the early magistrates had chosen their own body of councillors. And though after this revision Sulla’s arrangement for the automatic replenishing of theUnder the Empire. senate was restored, yet the growing influence exercised by Caesar and his successors over elections secured their control over the personnel of the senate. Still, the senate was regarded in the early principate as the great representative of republican institutions, and Augustus took elaborate pains to divide his authority with the senate. In legislation, indeed, the senate was supreme under the principate. The legislative powers of the comitia became very gradually extinct; but long before they had disappeared senates consulta had come to take the place of leges in ordinary matters, and with this prerogative of the senate the princeps never directly interfered. Jurisdiction remained largely in the hands of the republican courts, but such cases as did not come under their cognizance were divided between princeps and senate. The senate, moreover, was left at the head of the ordinary administration of Rome and Italy, together with those provinces which, not requiring any military force nor presenting special administrative difficulties, were left to the care of the Roman people. It also retained control of the public treasury (see Aerarium), while Caesar administered his own treasury (fiscus). It gradually became the electing body for the annual magistracies; and, as entrance to it was still won chiefly through the magistracy, co-optation became practically the principle of admission. But the power the senate theoretically possessed of creating and deposing a princeps was, formally at least, the chief of its prerogatives at this time, though considerably limited in practice. It had, on the other hand, lost all its control of foreign administration, which had once been the bulwark of its power; and though occasionally consulted by the princeps, it was entirely subordinate to him in this department. It was clearly to the advantage of the early Caesars to pay an apparent deference to the senate, and so give to their rule an appearance of constitutionalism. But even in this capacity the senate did not long survive the overthrow of republican government. Though occasionally roused into activity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it ceased after the period of the Julian emperors to have any real control of affairs. Vespasian had admitted Italians and provincials into the senate, with a view, no doubt, to increasing its value as a representative council of the empire; but this widening was counterbalanced by the institution of an hereditary senatorial order by Augustus, who thus gave recognition to the practical exclusiveness which had grown up in the later republican period, while reserving to himself the right of recruiting the order.

B. Procedure.—Senatorial procedure remained comparatively unchanged throughout the republic and the first three centuries of the empire. The right of summoning the senate belonged originally to the consuls, and later to the consuls, praetors, and tribunes of the plebs. In the Ciceronian period, when all these were entitled to summon the meeting, the right belonged to them in the above order of precedence. The magistrate who summoned the senate also presided and brought business before it. He first made statements to the house on important public affairs, and might then at his discretion ask the opinion of the house on points arising out of them, or invite other senators to speak without himself putting forward any definite proposition. In both of these cases he was expected to follow a regular order of precedence in asking for votes or speeches, and the magistrates of the year were precluded from expressing their opinion. When the chief senators had expressed their opinion on the motion of the president, or made proposals of their own, in the former case the house divided on the motion, in the latter the president put to the house in succession the various proposals made. The only important modification of this procedure introduced by the principate was the extension of all the presiding magistrate’s rights to the princeps, who, however, enjoyed also the right of giving his opinion as a private senator.

C. Insignia.—The senatorial insignia were not at first distinguished from those of ex-curule magistrates. But by degrees the broad stripe (latus clavus) on the tunic and the red shoe (calceus mulleus) became distinctive of the senator (hence laticlavius, a senator). Seats in the theatre were reserved for senators; and even the sons of senators adopted the lotus claims as early as the reign of Augustus, and probably at an earlier time. Certain disqualifications were attached to senators in republican times, chief of which was their exclusion from trade; and these were increased under the principate. Failure to observe these disqualifications, or any public disgrace or gross misconduct, was punished by removal from the senate by the censors, until that office fell into abeyance after the time of Sulla. The censorial right of removing unworthy members from the senate was revived by Augustus, and was exercised by subsequent emperors at a yearly revision of the list, which supplemented the formal lectiones senatus periodically held by the princeps in his capacity of censor.

It has been questioned whether the two traditional prerogatives of the senate, the control of the interregnum and the patrum auctoritas, belonged in historical times to the senate as a body, or to its patrician members only, or, as some have maintained, to the whole body of patricians. For conflicting views on this subject, see P. Willems, Le Sénat, vol. ii. p. 1; T. Mommsen, Staatsrecht, iii. 1037 et seq.; and Röm. Forschungen, i. 218-249; C. C. L. Lange, De patrum auct. comm. (Leipzig, 1876–1877); O. Clason, Kritische Erörterungen über den röm. Staat (Rostock, 1817), p. 41 et seq. In favour of the view that the words patres and patricii are used in this connexion as the equivalent of senators may be cited the parallel use of the term patrician magistrates as the equivalent of curule magistrates, a usage due to the fact that these magistracies were for more than a century reserved for patricians.

General Bibliography.—T. Mommsen, Staatsrecht, iii. 2 (3rd edition, Leipzig, 1887); P. Willems, Le Sénat de la république romaine (2nd ed., 'Louvain, 1883); J. Rubino, Untersuchungen (iii. “ von dem Senate und dem Patriciate," Cassel, 1839); A. H. J. Greenidge, Roman Public Life, p. 261 et seq. (1901); G. W. Botsford, Roman Assemblies (1909); also art. Rome, History.  (A. M. Cl.) 

  1. With the idea of age is conjoined that of superior wisdom and experience, worthy of respect and qualified to decide; cf. the Anglo-Saxon Witanagemot, the assembly of the wise men. Originally the members were the advisers of the king, and their spirit was generally aristocratic and conservative.
  2. For other views on this point see Dionys. ii. 12, who maintains that the senators were elected by the clans, and T. Mommsen, Staatsrecht, iii. 844, 854, who maintains an automatic composition of the early senate.
  3. For another view, however, see Willems, Le Sénat, i. p. 37 seq.