Senate of the Roman Empire

Last updated
Bronze doors of the ancient Roman senate taken from the Roman forum, restored and placed in 1660 in the Lateran Basilica. Ancient Roman Senate Bronze doors.jpg
Bronze doors of the ancient Roman senate taken from the Roman forum, restored and placed in 1660 in the Lateran Basilica.
Roman SPQR banner.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
ancient Rome
Roman Constitution
Precedent and law
Ordinary magistrates
Extraordinary magistrates
Titles and honours

The Senate of the Roman Empire was a political institution in the ancient Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the Roman Senate to the Roman Emperor. Beginning with the first emperor, Augustus, the Emperor and the Senate were technically two co-equal branches of government. In practice, however, the actual authority of the imperial Senate was negligible, as the Emperor held the true power of the state. As such, membership in the senate became sought after by individuals seeking prestige and social standing, rather than actual authority. During the reigns of the first Emperors, legislative, judicial, and electoral powers were all transferred from the "Roman assemblies" to the Senate. However, since the control that the Emperor held over the senate was absolute, the Senate acted as a vehicle through which the Emperor exercised his autocratic powers.



The first emperor, Augustus, inherited a Senate whose membership had been increased to 900 Senators by his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. Augustus sought to reduce the size of the Senate, and did so through three revisions to the list of Senators. [1] By the time that these revisions had been completed, the Senate had been reduced to 600 members, and after this point, the size of the Senate was never again drastically altered. To reduce the size of the Senate, Augustus expelled Senators who were of low birth, [1] and then he reformed the rules which specified how an individual could become a senator. Under Augustus' reforms, a senator had to be a citizen of free birth, have not been convicted of any crimes under lex Julia de vi private, and have property worth at least 1,000,000 sesterces. [2]

Under the Empire, as was the case during the late Republic, one could become a senator by being elected quaestor. Under the Empire, however, one could only stand for election to the Quaestorship if one was of senatorial rank, and to be of senatorial rank, one had to be the son of a senator. [1] If an individual was not of senatorial rank, there were two ways for that individual to become a senator. Under the first method, the Emperor granted that individual the authority to stand for election to the Quaestorship, [1] while under the second method, the Emperor appointed that individual to the Senate by issuing a decree (the adlectio). [3]

The Curia Julia in the Roman Forum, the seat of the imperial Senate Curia Iulia.JPG
The Curia Julia in the Roman Forum, the seat of the imperial Senate

Beginning in 9 BC, with the passage of Augustus' lex Julia de senatu habendo, [2] an official list of Senators (the album senatorium) was maintained and revised each year. Individuals were added to the list if they had recently satisfied the requirements for entry into the Senate, and were removed from the list if they no longer satisfied the requirements necessary to maintain Senate membership. [3] The list named each senator by order of rank. [3] The Emperor always outranked all of his fellow Senators and was followed by "Consuls" (the highest-ranking magistrate) and former Consuls, then by "Praetors" (the next highest ranking magistrate) and former Praetors, and so on. A senator's tenure in elective office was considered when determining rank, while Senators who had been elected to an office did not necessarily outrank Senators who had been appointed to that same office by the Emperor [3]

Members of the senatorial order were distinguished by a broad reddish-purple stripe edging their togas – the formal dress of all Roman citizens.

Under the Empire, the power that the Emperor held over the Senate was absolute, which was due, in part, to the fact that the Emperor held office for life. [4] During Senate meetings, the Emperor sat between the two Consuls, [5] and usually acted as the presiding officer. Senators of the early Empire could ask extraneous questions or request that a certain action be taken by the Senate. Higher ranking senators spoke before lower ranking senators, although the Emperor could speak at any time. [5] Besides the Emperor, Consuls, and Praetors could also preside over the Senate.

The Senate ordinarily met in the Curia Julia , usually on either the Kalends (the first day of the month), or the Ides (around the fifteenth day of the month), although scheduled meetings occurred more frequently in September and October. Other meetings were held on an ad hoc basis. [3] Under Augustus, a quorum was set at 400 Senators, although eventually excessive absenteeism forced the Senate to lower the number of Senators necessary for a quorum, and, on some matters, to revoke the quorum rules altogether. [5]

Most of the bills that came before the Senate was presented by the Emperor or his supporters in the body. In the early principate, Augustus and Tiberius made conscious efforts to hide their influence on the body, lobbying in private instead of directly proposing legislation. [2] Since no senator could stand for election to a magisterial office without the Emperor's approval, Senators usually did not vote against bills that had been presented by the Emperor.[ citation needed ] If a senator disapproved of a bill, he usually showed his disapproval by not attending the Senate meeting on the day that the bill was to be voted on. [6] Each Emperor selected a quaestor to compile the proceedings of the Senate into a document (the acta senatus), which included proposed bills, official documents, and a summary of speeches that had been presented before the Senate. The document was archived, while parts of it were published (in a document called the acta diurna or "daily doings") and then distributed to the public. [6]

According to the Historia Augusta (Elagabalus 4.2 and 12.3) emperor Elagabalus had his mother or grandmother take part in Senate proceedings. "And Elagabalus was the only one of all the emperors under whom a woman attended the senate like a man, just as though she belonged to the senatorial order" (David Magie's translation). According to the same work, Elagabalus also established a women's senate called the senaculum, which enacted rules to be applied to matrons, regarding clothing, chariot riding, the wearing of jewelry etc. (Elagabalus 4.3 and Aurelian 49.6). Before this, Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, had been listening to Senate proceedings, concealed behind a curtain, according to Tacitus (Annales, 13.5).


While the Roman assemblies continued to meet after the founding of the Empire, their powers were all transferred to the Senate, and so senatorial decrees (senatus consulta) acquired the full force of law. [4] The legislative powers of the Imperial Senate were principal of a financial and an administrative nature, although the senate did retain a range of powers over the provinces. [4] The Senate could also regulate festivals and religious cults, grant special honors, excuse an individual (usually the Emperor) from legal liability, manage temples and public games, and even enact tax laws (but only with the acquiescence of the Emperor). [4] However, it had no real authority over either the state religion or over public lands.

During the early Roman Empire, all judicial powers that had been held by the Roman assemblies were also transferred to the Senate. For example, the senate now held jurisdiction over criminal trials. In these cases, a consul presided, the senators constituted the jury, and the verdict was handed down in the form of a decree (senatus consultum), [4] [7] and, while a verdict could not be appealed, the Emperor could pardon a convicted individual through a veto. Each province that was under the jurisdiction of the Senate had its own court, and, upon the recommendation of a consul, decisions of these provincial courts could be appealed to the Senate. [7]

In theory, the Senate elected new emperors, while in conjunction with the popular assemblies, it would then confer upon the new emperor his command powers ( imperium ). [7] After an emperor had died or abdicated his office, the Senate would often deify him, although sometimes it would pass a decree ( damnatio memoriae or "damnation from memory") which would attempt to cancel every trace of that emperor from the life of Rome, as if he had never existed. [7] The emperor Tiberius transferred all electoral powers from the assemblies to the Senate, [7] and, while theoretically, the senate elected new magistrates, the approval of the Emperor was always needed before an election could be finalized. Despite this fact, however, elections remained highly contested and vigorously fought. [7]

Under Vespasian (69-79 AD) senators were accorded an increased role as senior officials of the Imperial household in Rome or as provincial rulers directly representing the emperor. At the same time, members of the Equestrian order were employed in administrative positions that earlier emperors had reserved for freedmen. In the case of the Senate this expanded responsibility ensured an increased opportunity for providing advice and exercising authority. At the end of the Flavian dynasty the Senate was able to choose Nerva as the new emperor – the first time under the Empire that such an initiative had been possible. [8] However, after the death of Marcus Aurelius, the Senate became increasingly irrelevant, as Emperors become more hostile to its members and less frequently consulted it. [2] By the Severan dynasty, the Senatorial class was also increasingly separated from the actual operations of government, which were increasingly taken over by equestrians and other members of the Imperial bureaucracy. [2]

Around 300 AD, the Emperor Diocletian enacted a series of constitutional reforms. In one such reform, Diocletian asserted the right of the Emperor to take power without the theoretical consent of the Senate, thus depriving the Senate of its status as the ultimate depository of supreme power. Diocletian's reforms also ended whatever illusion had remained that the Senate had independent legislative, judicial, or electoral powers. The Senate did, however, retain its legislative powers over public games in Rome, and over the senatorial order. The Senate also retained the power to try treason cases, and to elect some magistrates, but only with the permission of the Emperor. In the final years of the Empire, the Senate would sometimes try to appoint their own emperor, such as in the case of Eugenius who was later defeated by forces loyal to Theodosius I. The Senate remained the last stronghold of the traditional Roman religion in the face of the spreading Christianity, and several times attempted to facilitate the return of the Altar of Victory, first removed by Constantius II, to the senatorial curia.

Post-Imperial period

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Roman Senate continued to function under the barbarian chieftain Odoacer, and then under Theoderic the Great who founded the Ostrogothic Kingdom. The authority of the Senate rose considerably under barbarian leaders who sought to protect the institution. This period was characterized by the rise of prominent Roman senatorial families such as the Anicii, while the Senate's leader, the princeps senatus, often served as the right hand of the barbarian leader. It is known that the Senate installed Laurentius as antipope in 498 despite the fact that both King Theoderic the Great and Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus supported Pope Symmachus.

The peaceful co-existence of senatorial and barbarian rule continued until the Ostrogothic leader Theodahad began an uprising against Emperor Justinian I and took the senators as hostages. Several senators were executed in 552 as a revenge for the death of the Ostrogothic king Totila. After Rome was recaptured by the Imperial (Byzantine) army, the Senate was restored, but the institution (like classical Rome itself) had been mortally weakened by the long war between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths. Many senators had been killed and many of those who had fled to the East chose to remain there thanks to favorable legislation passed by emperor Justinian, who however abolished virtually all senatorial offices in Italy. The importance of the Roman Senate thus declined rapidly. In 578 and again in 580, the Senate sent envoys to Constantinople who delivered 3000 pounds of gold as a gift to the new emperor Tiberius II Constantinus along with a plea for help against the Langobards who had invaded Italy ten years earlier. Pope Gregory I, in a sermon from 593 (Senatus deest, or.18), lamented the almost complete disappearance of the senatorial order and the decline of the prestigious institution. It is not clearly known when the Roman Senate disappeared in the West, but it is known from Gregorian register that the Senate acclaimed new statues of Emperor Phocas and Empress Leontia in 603. [9] The institution must have vanished by 630 when the Curia was transformed into a church by Pope Honorius I. The Senate did continue to exist in the Eastern Roman Empire's capital Constantinople, however, having been instituted there during the reign of Constantine I. The Byzantine Senate survived until at least the mid-14th century, before the ancient institution finally vanished from history.

See also

Related Research Articles

Senate of the Roman Republic

The Senate was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic. It was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a Roman magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic appointment to the Senate. According to the Greek historian Polybius, our principal source on the Constitution of the Roman Republic, the Roman Senate was the predominant branch of government. Polybius noted that it was the consuls who led the armies and the civil government in Rome, and it was the Roman assemblies which had the ultimate authority over elections, legislation, and criminal trials. However, since the Senate controlled money, administration, and the details of foreign policy, it had the most control over day-to-day life. The power and authority of the Senate derived from precedent, the high caliber and prestige of the senators, and the Senate's unbroken lineage, which dated back to the founding of the Republic in 509 BC. It developed from the Senate of the Roman Kingdom, and became the Senate of the Roman Empire.

Roman emperor Ruler of the Roman Empire in imperial period

The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the imperial period. The emperors used a variety of different titles throughout history. Often when a given Roman is described as becoming "emperor" in English, it reflects his taking of the title Augustus or Caesar. Another title often used was imperator, originally a military honorific. Early Emperors also used the title Princeps Civitatis. Emperors frequently amassed republican titles, notably princeps senatus, consul and pontifex maximus.

Promagistrate Ancient Roman office

In ancient Rome a promagistrate was an ex-consul or ex-praetor whose imperium was extended at the end of his annual term of office or later. They were called proconsuls and propraetors. This was an innovation created during the Roman Republic. Initially it was intended to provide additional military commanders to support the armies of the consuls or to lead an additional army. With the acquisitions of territories outside Italy which were annexed as provinces, proconsuls and propraetors became provincial governors or administrators. A third type of promagistrate were the proquaestors.

Conflict of the Orders political struggle (500–287 BCE) between the Plebeians and Patricians of the Roman Republic

The Conflict of the Orders, also referred to as the Struggle of the Orders, was a political struggle between the Plebeians (commoners) and Patricians (aristocrats) of the ancient Roman Republic lasting from 500 BC to 287 BC, in which the Plebeians sought political equality with the Patricians. It played a major role in the development of the Constitution of the Roman Republic. Shortly after the founding of the Republic, this conflict led to a secession from Rome by Plebeians to the Sacred Mount at a time of war. The result of this first secession was the creation of the office of Plebeian Tribune, and with it the first acquisition of real power by the Plebeians.

Byzantine Senate continuation of the Roman Senate, established in the 4th century by Constantine I

The Byzantine Senate or Eastern Roman Senate was the continuation of the Roman Senate, established in the 4th century by Constantine I. It survived for centuries, but even with its already limited power that it theoretically possessed, the Senate became increasingly irrelevant until its eventual disappearance circa 14th century.

<i>Praefectus urbi</i> magistrate of Rome

The praefectus urbanus, also called praefectus urbi or urban prefect in English, was prefect of the city of Rome, and later also of Constantinople. The office originated under the Roman kings, continued during the Republic and Empire, and held high importance in late Antiquity. The office survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and the last urban prefect of Rome, named Iohannes, is attested in 599. In the East, in Constantinople, the office survived until the 13th century.

Roman magistrate Elected official in Ancient Rome

The Roman magistrates were elected officials in Ancient Rome.

Constitution of the Roman Republic The norms, customs, and written laws, which guided the government of the Roman Republic

The constitution of the Roman Republic was a set of unwritten norms and customs which, together with various written laws, guided the procedural governance of the Roman Republic. The constitution emerged from that of the Roman kingdom, evolved substantively and significantly—almost to the point of unrecognisability—over the almost five hundred years of the republic. The collapse of republican government and norms from 133 BC would lead to the rise of Augustus and his principate.

Roman Constitution

The Roman Constitution was an uncodified set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent. The Roman constitution was not formal or even official, largely unwritten and constantly evolving. Having those characteristics, it was therefore more like the British and United States common law system than a sovereign law system like the English Constitutions of Clarendon and Great Charter or the United States Constitution, even though the constitution's evolution through the years was often directed by passage of new laws and repeal of older ones.

Roman Senate Political institution in ancient Rome

The Roman Senate was a governing and advisory assembly in ancient Rome. It was one of the most enduring institutions in Roman history, being established in the first days of the city of Rome. It survived the overthrow of the kings in 509 BC, the fall of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC, the division of the Roman Empire in AD 395, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, and the barbarian rule of Rome in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.

Roman assemblies Assemblies actve in the time of Roman rule

The Roman Assemblies were institutions in ancient Rome. They functioned as the machinery of the Roman legislative branch, and thus passed all legislation. Since the assemblies operated on the basis of direct democracy, ordinary citizens, and not elected representatives, would cast all ballots. The assemblies were subject to strong checks on their power by the executive branch and by the Roman Senate. Laws were passed by Curia, Tribes, and Centuries.

History of the Roman Constitution

The History of the Roman Constitution is a study of Ancient Rome that traces the progression of Roman political development from the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. The constitution of the Roman Kingdom vested the sovereign power in the King of Rome. The king did have two rudimentary checks on his authority, which took the form of a board of elders and a popular assembly. The arrangement was similar to the constitutional arrangements found in contemporary Greek city-states. These Greek constitutional principles probably came to Rome through the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia in southern Italy. The Roman Kingdom was overthrown in 510 BC, according to legend, and in its place the Roman Republic was founded.

Constitution of the Roman Empire Unwritten set of guidelines and principles of the Roman Empire

The Constitution of the Roman Empire was an unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent. After the fall of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the Roman Senate to the Roman Emperor. Beginning with the first emperor, Augustus, the emperor and the senate were theoretically two co-equal branches of government. In practice, however, the actual authority of the imperial Senate was negligible, as the emperor held the true power of the state. During the reign of the second emperor, Tiberius, many of the powers that had been held by the Roman assemblies were transferred to the Senate.

Executive magistrates of the Roman Empire

The executive magistrates of the Roman Empire were elected individuals of the ancient Roman Empire. During the transition from monarchy to republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the executive to the Roman Senate. During the transition from republic to empire, the constitutional balance of power shifted back to the executive. Theoretically, the senate elected each new emperor, although in practice, it was the army which made the choice. The powers of an emperor, existed, in theory at least, by virtue of his legal standing. The two most significant components to an emperor's imperium were the "tribunician powers" and the "proconsular powers". In theory at least, the tribunician powers gave the emperor authority over Rome's civil government, while the proconsular powers gave him authority over the Roman army. While these distinctions were clearly defined during the early empire, eventually they were lost, and the emperor's powers became less constitutional and more monarchical.

History of the Constitution of the Roman Republic

The history of the Constitution of the Roman Republic is a study of the ancient Roman Republic that traces the progression of Roman political development from the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 BC until the founding of the Roman Empire in 27 BC. The constitutional history of the Roman Republic can be divided into five phases. The first phase began with the revolution which overthrew the Roman Kingdom in 509 BC, and the final phase ended with the revolution which overthrew the Roman Republic, and thus created the Roman Empire, in 27 BC. Throughout the history of the republic, the constitutional evolution was driven by the struggle between the aristocracy and the ordinary citizens.

Constitution of the Late Roman Empire unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent

The constitution of the late Roman Empire was an unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down, mainly through precedent, which defined the manner in which the late Roman Empire was governed. As a matter of historical convention, the late Roman Empire emerged from the Roman Principate, with the accession of Diocletian in AD 284, his reign marking the beginning of the Tetrarchy. The constitution of the Dominate ultimately recognized monarchy as the true source of power, and thus ended the fiction of dyarchy, in which emperor and Senate governed the empire together.

History of the Constitution of the Roman Empire

The history of the constitution of the Roman Empire begins with the establishment of the Principate in 27 BC and is considered to conclude with the abolition of that constitutional structure in favour of the Dominate at Diocletian's accession in AD 284. The Roman Empire's constitution emerged as a transformation of the late Roman Republic's constitution, utilising various late Republican precedents, to legitimise the granting of incredible legal powers to one man and the centralisation of legal powers into bodies which that man controlled.

Constitutional reforms of Julius Caesar

The constitutional reforms of Julius Caesar were a series of laws to the Constitution of the Roman Republic enacted between 49 and 44 BC, during Caesar's dictatorship. Caesar was murdered in 44 BC before the implications of his constitutional actions could be realized.

<i>Senatus consultum</i>

A senatus consultum is a text emanating from the senate in Ancient Rome. It is used in the modern phrase senatus consultum ultimum.

Constitutional reforms of Augustus

The Constitutional reforms of Augustus were a series of laws that were enacted by the Roman Emperor Augustus between 30 BC and 2 BC, which transformed the Constitution of the Roman Republic into the Constitution of the Roman Empire. The era that began when Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the final war of the Roman Republic in 30 BC, and ended when the Roman Senate granted Augustus the title "Pater Patriae" in 2 BC



  1. 1 2 3 4 Abbott, 381
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Talbert, Richard (1984). The Senate of Imperial Rome. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN   0-691-05400-2.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Abbott, 382
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Abbott, 385
  5. 1 2 3 Abbott, 383
  6. 1 2 Abbott, 384
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Abbott, 386
  8. Mose Hadas pages 63-65 "Imperial Rome",|Time-Life International 1966
  9. Jeffrey Richards. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, 476-752, p. 246

Further reading

Primary sources