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The Roman Senate as Precursor of the U.S. Senate

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The following post is written by Dante Figueroa, a senior legal information analyst at the Law Library of Congress. He has recently written for In Custodia Legis on the Italian Parliamentary LibrarySpanish Legal Documents (15th to 19th Century); Recent Legislation Enacted by Italy to Tackle COVID-19; and Italy: A New Silk Road Between Italy and China – the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Ancient Roman Senate – The Senatus Populusque Romanus

The king, the people’s assembly, and the senatus (from senex, or elder) were the three main pillars of the ancient Roman state.

The Senate was the representative of the Roman people and the repository of Roman sovereignty. However, its power wavered during the different stages of Roman history, from the republican phase to the empire.

According to tradition, Romulus instituted a Senate composed of 100 members, which was in turn divided into 10 decuries (from the decuria  [pl. decuriae], i.e. a group of ten persons, under one commander, called a decurio). The number of senators varied during republican and imperial times, with a peak of 600 under Caesar Augustus.

The Roman Senate during the Republic

The composition of the Roman Senate varied greatly throughout the centuries. Originally, only male members over 60 years of age who had retired from the Army were admitted to membership. Over time, and based on the dignity of the office held by senate candidates, that minimum age decreased. [Senato, Treccani, id.]. The republican era saw the first plebeians join the heretofore exclusively patrician [that is, full citizens, with proven honorability, and a high social condition] Roman Senate. However, the patrician arm retained most of its traditional powers concerning the most important decisions for the state. [Senato, Treccani, id.]. Plebeian members subsequently gained the right to speak on the senate floor, but during its history the Senate was mainly dominated by its patrician faction. Over time, magistrates, questores (police chiefs in a provincial capital), tribunes, and other high dignitaries became senators, until eventually its composition came to depend on popular suffrage. However, many remained the exceptions to the electoral rules and entered the senate directly as appointed by magistrates or by the emperor during imperial times. [Senato, Treccani, id.].

View of Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill [by Big Albert, Flickr user CC 2.0 license, ]
 The Inner Workings of the Roman Senate

The senatorial position was regulated to the minutiae throughout the different stages of the Roman state, including garments, qualifying professions for senatorial office, restrictions to marriage, type of property senators could hold, property administration, obligations of residence in the city of Rome, and prohibitions of absences, among many other aspects.

In particular, during the republican phase, senators could be fined for not attending senate sessions, which were scheduled for the break of day. No fixed meeting agenda existed, and Senate sessions were not public. Magistrates or tribunes presided over the sessions and senators were placed on both sides of a central lane. There were no limits to the time a senator could speak (which is an antecedent of the U.S. practice of preventing cloture known as “filibuster”), but this right became limited during the Empire. Magistrates or tribunes presided over the sessions and senators were placed on both sides of a central lane in the senate house.

The Senate had broad jurisdiction over religious and judicial matters, as well over tax, war and peace, criminal (including bills of attainder), military, foreign policy (with concurrent powers with the executive), and administrative matters. In short, the Senate controlled all areas of public life. The Senate also governed federal possessions and provinces directly, an attribute that currently lies with the entire U.S. Congress.

The Demise of the Roman Senate

As is well known, Caesar Augustus had little love for the Senate. Roman history saw the steady degradation of this millenary institution, aggravated by the barbarian and other invasions well into the sixth century, until Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.) is said to have exclaimed “where is the Senate, where is the people? The senate is missing, the people have perished. (Vendettini, 23).”

A Shared Legacy with the U.S. Senate

With the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Senate is conceived as a fully elected body, thus removing the power of state legislatures to elect senators to the U.S. Congress. This was not the original idea of the U.S. framers though, who designed the U.S. Senate as a bulwark of the states against the new federal government, as opposed to the popularly elected House of Representatives.

Scholars have drawn parallels between the Roman and the U.S. Senate. Both bodies were created to gather the most influential persons in public life, whether stemming from the political, financial, military, diplomatic and other key areas. However, the democratic nature of the U.S. Senate greatly differs from its Roman predecessor, where life appointments where usual. Despite their deep and multiple differences, the architects of the U.S. and the Roman senates calculated for these bodies to act prudently on behalf of the most vital interests of the national community, and to provide the sense of stability that the more numerous and volatile popular assembly could not achieve.

 Additional Resources on the Roman Senate at the Library of Congress:





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