Roman Senate - Senate of The Roman Republic

Senate of The Roman Republic

The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic. The Senate passed decrees called senatus consulta, which in form constituted "advice" from the Senate to a magistrate. While these advices did not hold legal force, they usually were obeyed in practice.

If a senatus consultum conflicted with a law (lex) that was passed by an Assembly, the law overrode the senatus consultum, because the senatus consultum had its authority based in precedent, and not in law. A senatus consultum, however, could serve to interpret a law.

Through these advices, the Senate directed the magistrates, especially the Roman Consuls (the chief magistrates) in their prosecution of military conflicts. The Senate also had an enormous degree of power over the civil government in Rome. This was especially the case with regards to its management of state finances, as only it could authorize the disbursal of public fund from the treasury. As the Roman Empire grew, the senate also supervised the administration of the provinces, which were governed by former consuls and praetors, in that it decided which magistrate should govern which province.

Since the 3rd century the Senate also played a pivotal role in cases of emergency. It could call for the appointment of a dictator (a right resting with each consul with or without the senate's involvement). However, after 202 the office of Dictator fell out of use (and was revived only two more times) and was replaced with the senatus consultum ultimum ("ultimate decree of the senate"), a senatorial decree which authorised the consuls to employ any means necessary to solve the crisis.

While Senate meetings could take place either inside or outside of the formal boundary of the city (the pomerium), no meeting could take place more than a mile outside of the pomerium. The Senate operated while under various religious restrictions. For example, before any meeting could begin, a sacrifice to the gods was made, and a search for divine omens (the auspices) was taken.

Meetings usually began at dawn, and a magistrate who wished to summon the senate had to issue a compulsory order. The senate meetings were public, and were directed by a presiding magistrate, usually a Consul. While in session, the Senate had the power to act on its own, and even against the will of the presiding magistrate if it wished. The presiding magistrate began each meeting with a speech, and then referred an issue to the senators, who would discuss the issue by order of seniority.

Senators had several other ways in which they could influence (or frustrate) a presiding magistrate. For example, all senators had to speak before a vote could be held, and since all meetings had to end by nightfall, a senator could talk a proposal to death (a filibuster or diem consumere) if he could keep the debate going until nightfall. When it was time to call a vote, the presiding magistrate could bring up whatever proposals he wished, and every vote was between a proposal and its negative.

At any point before a motion passed, the proposed motion could be vetoed, usually by a tribune. If there was no veto, and the matter was of minor importance, it could be voted on by a voice vote or by a show of hands. If there was no veto, and the matter was of a significant nature, there was usually a physical division of the house, with senators voting by taking a place on either side of the chamber.

The ethical requirements of senators were significant. Senators could not engage in banking or any form of public contract. They could not own a ship that was large enough to participate in foreign commerce, and they could not leave Italy without permission from the senate. Senators were not paid a salary. Election to magisterial office resulted in automatic senate membership.

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