Where the senators lurk...

Cicero accusing Cataline, Maccari Hall, Italian Senate (Public domain)

Cicero accusing Cataline, Maccari Hall, Italian Senate (Public domain)

Roman senators: men in white togas, lots of waffle, drama, hot air and the odd good speech. Such is the (often wildly inaccurate) impression that we gain from television and film of Rome’s Senate.

The senatus romanus was one of the most enduring institutions of the Roman period, all 1229 years of it in the West, and beyond. Established in the first days of the city of Rome, (traditionally founded in 753 BC), it survived the overthrow of the kings in 509 BC, the end of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC, the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, even the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.  Plus it continued into the period of barbarian rule of Rome in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.

Computer generated image of the Curia Julia by the model maker, Lasha Tskhondia

Computer generated image of the Curia Julia by Lasha Tskhondia, (Creative Commons)

Said to have been created by Rome’s first king, Romulus, the Senate initially consisted of 100 men. Their descendants subsequently became the patrician class. Rome’s fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, chose a further 100 senators from the minor leading families. During the days of the kingdom, it was the ultimate repository for the executive power, it served as the king’s council, and functioned as a legislative body in concert with the people of Rome. But its most important function was to elect new kings. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, was overthrown in 509 BC in a coup d’état led by Lucius Junius Brutus.

During the early Republic, the Senate was politically weak and it took several generations before the Senate was able to assert itself over the executive magistrates by passing decrees, enabling legislation and controlling finances. By the middle Republic, the Senate had reached the apex of its republican power; senators directed the prosecution of military conflicts and the administration of provinces and could appoint a dictator or enact other emergency measures in time of national crisis.

Then along came Gaius Julius Caesar and his great-nephew Octavian, the future emperor Augustus…

Augustus, National Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome (Author photo)

Augustus, National Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome (Author photo)

After the end of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted dramatically. Though retaining its legal position as under the Republic, in practice the authority of the imperial Senate was negligible, as the emperor held the true power in 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 emperor held control over the Senate, it acted as a vehicle through which he exercised his autocratic powers.

Stripped of much of its power and prestige under the Julio-Claudian and successive emperors, the Senate was on an inexorable downhill trajectory. Around 300 AD, Emperor Diocletian enacted a series of constitutional reforms including one where he asserted the right of the emperor to take power without even 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, a fairly humiliating remnant of its former glory.

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 Western Empire, the Senate tried 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 to the senatorial curia. (The altar and statue disappeared from history, but you can read one theory about what happened to it in Victory Speaks.)

After Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476 the Senate in the West functioned under the rule of Odovacer, 476–489 and during Ostrogothic rule, 489–535. It was restored after the reconquest of Italy by Eastern Emperor Justinian I.

Curia Julia as Sant'Adriano al Foro (Etienne Dupérac c. 1575) (Public domain)

Curia Julia as Sant’Adriano al Foro (Etienne Dupérac c. 1575) (Public domain)

However, the Senate in Rome ultimately disappeared at some point after AD 603 (the year in which the last known senator was mentioned). Despite this, the title “senator” was still used well into the Middle Ages as a largely meaningless honorific. However, the Eastern Senate survived in Constantinople, until the ancient institution finally vanished there in the 14th century.

The Roman Senate building today

When I visited Rome, I was curious to see where the Senate had met, the Curia Julia, built in 44 BC, when G.Julius Caesar replaced Faustus Cornelius Sulla’s reconstructed Curia Cornelia, which itself had replaced the Curia Hostilia.

Curia Julia, back (Author photo)

Curia Julia, back (Author photo)

Caesar wanted  to redesign spaces within the comitium (traditional open air meeting place central to Roman political life) and the Roman Forum. The alterations within the comitium would reduce the prominence of the Senate.

Curia Julia, front entrance (Author photo)

Curia Julia, front entrance (Author photo)

But the work was interrupted by Caesar’s assassination at the Theatre of Pompey, where the Senate had been meeting temporarily during construction. The project was eventually finished in 29 BC by Augustus (or more likely Agrippa, his fixer).

Curia Julia, floor (Author photo)

Curia Julia, floor (Author photo)

The Curia Julia is one of a handful of Roman structures that has survived mostly intact; it was converted into the basilica of Sant’Adriano al Foro in the 7th century and underwent several later restorations. However, the roof, the upper side walls and rear façade are modern and date from the ‘remodelling’ of the deconsecrated church under Mussolini in the 1930s.

But the height is still impressive as shown my (amateur) video shot in the inside in 2012.

Even though heavily visited, the Curia Julia is well worth an hour of your time. It has, after all, been a central point for Roman life for over two millennia.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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