How Corrupt was the Roman Senate Really?

One of the lasting legacies of Rome in modern society is the concept of a Senate, though it wasn’t really what we think of as a Senate today. In many countries today, you can find a similar governing body of elected or appointed representatives. If you dive a little deeper, you can see different countries have very different ideas of what a senate is. Usually in a bicameral legislature, that is when a country has more than one legislative body, the Senate acts as the higher assembly. This role can be official and the members are elected, such as the American Senate. In other countries it is symbolic and made up of appointees, such as the Canadian Senate – not to be confused with the Ottawa Senators, who are a bad hockey team. However, the Roman Senate was very different from either the American, Canadian, or quite possibly any modern legislative body calling itself a Senate.
Rome’s trauma as a former kingdom plays a major role in the mythology of the Senate, both in its rise and its downfall. In the Regal period of Rome, Rome had its political and religious institutions established by kings. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, established much of its political institutions. Among those political innovations he produced was the Senate. They were elders from the top families of Rome, and were 100 members. Upon the legendary disappearance of Romulus in 716 BCE, the Senate began a year-long process to choose the next king, showing that in the absence of a king, the Senate had a role to play even so early in Rome’s history.

The religious institutions that were then created were typically ascribed to the second king, Numa. He established the religious role of the Senate, and established most of the early priesthoods. The Senate chose the third king Tullus Hostilius in 672, and he built the Senate house and established Rome’s military, and martial traditions. According to Roman legend, the neighboring Etruscans then conquered them, and they struggled with the Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. Lucius Junius Brutus deposed the last king in 512 and established the Republic. The Senate dissolved the king’s powers between them, magistrates, and other positions. There were no clearly defined roles shared between the legislative and the executive branches of the early Roman Republic. Eventually the Senate and magistrate’s powers became more clearly defined.

While scholars tend to be more sober about the shortcomings of Roman republicanism than they are about Greek democracy, it is still important to keep in mind that Roman republicanism is still not our modern republicanism or democracy. There are key differences. For one, the Roman Senate was not egalitarian, even symbolically like the Assemblies. It was an aristocratic body, and one that had a lot of power invested in it. The Senators saw themselves as belonging to the upper patrician class, and they enacted policies and laws that benefited their families and self interests. In other words, there was corruption, and a lot of it. This corruption was intended to keep the senatorial class in power and enrich individual members. This meant that senatorial families held a lot of power, which would eventually lead to the undoing of the Senate and its restructuring during the Principate era.

Another factor was that there was no democracy. Not even a shred of it. Other than the Senate, and the complex system of elected and appointed positions like consul, magistrate, proconsul, and so on, there were also assemblies. The assemblies were the closest thing to a democratic body, but that is only if you squint, and squint really hard. It was dominated by the upper classes, and the Plebians, the ordinary citizenry, were vastly underrepresented, usually consisting of one voting block. The nature of how the Assemblies worked meant that the Plebian representatives often didn’t even get a chance to vote. The relationship between the assemblies and the Senate is a complicated one, as each had their own source of powers, and the Assemblies were meant to represent the will of the people, even though in practice it represented the wealthy.

In wars, the Senators made out like bandits. Well… really, the legionaries did, but the Senators pocketed much more than the average legionary could. From spoils of wars, including civil wars, Senators could make a lot of money. Senators were already very rich during the Republic. Depending on the era and until property requirements were lifted, a legionary needed to own property valued around anywhere between 100 to 400 denarii. In contrast, Senators owned tens of millions worth of such property, which included large estates and farms in the country, or estates in the city staffed with tens to hundreds of slaves, while legionaries lived quite meagrely. When Caesar raised the salary of a legionnaire from 125 to 225 denarii a year, it was still considered too little, yet Senators lived off much, much more. This was in a period when Rome was constantly expanding, both into Italy, and out into other parts of the Mediterranean. There was more than enough money to go around, and plenty of issues keeping the legion in line and staffed. A little extra for the soldiers would have gone a long way, but the Senate was more than happy to pocket the lion’s share.

Another key difference between our modern senates and the Roman Senate is that the Roman Senate was in no way a secular institution. In all this, it is important to understand that our modern ideas of religion and secularism are not something the Romans would acknowledge. They had very different ideas of what religion and politics were, and how far the two overlapped. One could say our modern understanding of both and insistence on their separation is a long evolving discourse coming from a Christian critique of Roman religion and politics.

On all this, Roman religion had four main colleges of priests: 1. The college of the Pontifs, which had various roles that ranged from Vestal Virgins, to the Pontifex Maximus, or head priest. It was the most varied of the colleges 2. The Augurs who read divinations for the Senate and the army, as well as inaugurated temples and sacred spaces. 3. The Decemviri who were priests dedicated to the Sibylline Books, a set of ancient Greek prophecies and 4. The Fetials, the final set of priests connected to war and diplomacy. Other colleges would appear later, but these were the four main ones connected to Roman religious life. Why are we talking about priestly colleges though? Well, let’s just say the Venn diagram of Senators and priests was highly overlapping.

Many of the priests were Senators, though not all Senators were priests. Senators became priests by appointment, and in the Imperial era, by the emperor’s appointment. A priesthood was a lifetime appointment, and slots were limited. This caused Augustus to open a new college of priests just to satisfy positions for senators in priesthoods. There really were few limits as to the relationship between the priesthoods and the Senate. The only priests with significant limits were the Pontiff’s Flamens, due to the individuality their priests were afforded compared to other colleges. Flamens were not allowed to become magistrates until later during the empire, and they were allowed a very limited time away from the city of Rome, or from their own bed depending on the sub-order of the priesthood. This was not good if you lived or had duties outside of the capital. The other priest that was completely barred from any political duty was the Sacred King. The Sacred King was part of the college of Pontiffs and he inherited the religious duties of the ancient kings. It is not hard to imagine why he was barred from duty, considering Rome’s trauma about the Regal days.

The emperors quickly learned that the priestly colleges were a good way to keep senatorial friends happy, enemies flattered, and generally exercise power. In the Empire, it was the emperors who could appoint priestly positions. Regardless of empire or republic, the priests of the Pontifex college were the ones who put forward religious laws and it was up to the Senate to approve them, making their relationship quite symbiotic. Senators were so used to witnessing the priests in action, that for certain priesthoods like the Augurs, the learning process can be quite easy since they witnessed the priests in action for many years as a Senator. The Augurs inaugurated the Senate-House as a Templum, a sacred space.

Women were barred from the position of Senator, as they were of most priesthoods except for one famous exception, the position of Vestal Virgins. Even the Vestal Virgins were linked to the Senate. While only young girls could become Vestal Virgins, these girls were often drawn from the Senatorial class, and had Senators as family members. While some Senators did not want their daughters to become Vestal Virgins, others competed with each other to have the Emperor appoint their daughters. During the Republic, the Vestal Virgins were dedicated to the Goddess of the Hearth. During the Empire, they shifted their duties to devotions of the Emperor and his family, while still maintaining their connection to the hearth, connecting the Emperor directly to the heart of the Roman household regardless of class. If you were an ambitious senator, having your daughter be a priestess of the Emperor and the Hearth was a very good thing.

Obviously this is generally very different from how our modern senates or legislative bodies run or interact with religion. Were the Romans themselves alarmed about the concentration of power in such a small group of people like the priests and senators? Considering that the Senate, at its most powerful, was drawn from the Patrician and Equestrian classes, and sought to concentrate power on them, they had little regard for what the Plebians thought. In theory, the magistrate was supposed to represent the will of the Plebians, but the Senate fortified itself over the centuries. The concentration of power is what we would call a feature, not a bug. As Cicero put it: “worship of the gods and the highest interests of the state were in the hands of the same men,” and that was how he liked it.

So, where did our ancient template for modern legislative systems go wrong?
Before the emperors, it was powerful men like Pompey the Great and Julius Caeser who began to undermine the senate. Men like these two set the stage for what was to come later. It is important to note that the Emperors were not kings during the principate period. They were the high priests, gods, and had king-like power, but they had to perform a delicate dance. The Senate wasn’t so much the partner they danced with, it was the dance floor. This is as it was during the Principate, the period when the Emperors were shrouded in layers of laws, rituals, and anything they could do to not be portrayed as kings. They pretended to share power, while concentrating that power on themselves. The Senate had a huge part to play in this. They allowed the Empire to happen, and even hailed Octavian as the saviour of the Roman republic. The Senate made the position of emperor by a complex stacking of religious, civil, and military titles upon him. Over the years the Emperors better reshaped the Senate to bend to their wills.

This started in a way before the emperors, under dictators like Julius Caeser who ballooned the Senate to 1000 members. Octavian trimmed that number down to around 600. Octavian and Julius before him both literally reshaped the Senate to suit them, but Octavian’s reforms kept that 600 figure relatively stable. He also put in morality clauses, wealth clauses, and other limiting factors that saw who could become and remain a senator change starting in 18 BCE. That said, perhaps as a power play, he helped members who didn’t meet certain requirements become senators, even if it went against his own requirements. Very crafty, and in line with Augustus Caeser’s personality and method of politics. Augustus also created the formal senatorial class. New senators were given the position for life, as well as for two generations of their families: a son and grandson. This new senatorial class meant that the Emperors could shape several generations down the line into a new class of politicians that were loyal to them. Old Patrician families could continue, if they showed loyalty, but this opened the door to new members, patrician, equestrian, or plebians, as long as they met the requirements, or could show the right appreciation for an Emperor who waived their requirements.
This led to an interesting consequence that helped give the empire an increasingly cosmopolitan reorientation. Even under the Republic, Rome expanded far beyond the borders of the city and Italy, yet power was concentrated in the Senate from the city itself. In some ways, this would continue in the beginning of the Empire. With the creation of the new senatorial class, it allowed senators to come from outside of the Eternal City and from the new territories the Empire expanded into. Eventually, even the emperors themselves would come from outside of the city of Rome and Italy altogether, but it was the Senate that began to show this cosmopolitan side of the Empire.

Despite how much weaker the Senate was during the Empire, that statement comes with a huge asterisk. During the Principate period, all emperors were senators before donning the purple. But besides this, how exactly was it weakened under the emperors?

Before Augustus, many of the procedures and duties of the Senate were not enshrined in writing but were more unwritten customs. Augustus pounced on that weakness to reshape what the Senate really meant. He did not radically change procedures, but enshrined several aspects of the emperorship, and its role in the Senate. Essentially, in theory the emperor was a patrician senator; in practice, senators knew they could not openly refuse an emperor’s request. Almost instantly, the Senate became a sham when it came to matters of interest to the Emperor. He could not be openly defied. That said, the point of the principate was in a way to pretend that Rome was still a Republic, and that meant showing respect to the Senate as an institution of the Republic. As long as the Senate stood and appeared to retain its authority, it was business as usual.

So, what happened to the Senate in the later days of the Empire? Well it never really went away until the Byzantine Empire did. Emperor Constantine established a second senate in Constantinople. In the later Empire when the capital was moved there, the Senate took up a different role, and was essentially a different body. Senators were brought up through the system of administrative bureaucracy the later empire was known for. It was more of an advisory body for the emperor. The senate played a role in choosing a new emperor, along with the army, or in deposing emperors, but it was a very different senate than that of the Republic and early Empire. A noticeable difference often not discussed is the shedding of its older religious role. By this point, Rome was Christian, and regardless of church, Christianity functioned very differently from the ancient Roman religion. It didn’t have priestly colleges, or a Senate, and neither did the priests of the church have the power to radically change their religion the way the Roman priestly colleges and Senate could. The Christians themselves placed limits between church and state, as a reaction to the marriage of both under the Rome, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and render unto God what belongs to God.” The Senate passed into a purely political and administrative body. The Byzantine Senate continued in this different form and played its role in the history of the later Roman Empire, helping to place and depose Emperors until its dissolution at the end of the Empire.

Looking back from a modern lens, it isn’t easy to say the Senate is good or evil. Passing moral judgements on ancient institutions is not something inherently useful, but since we inherited this model of government, at least on the surface, it is important to evaluate its history. The Roman Senate ultimately did not live up to its own purpose. In the heights of the Republic, the Senators maintained control over the lower classes, and grew rich and fat off constant wars and expansion. As it grew, it started to prepare the way for its own decline. First, it paved the way for the return of the autocracy it so feared under the kings. It used its immense power to support the return of an autocratic figure in the Emperor until the emperors stripped the Senate of its free will and subjugated it. Finally, any religious significance of the Senate was stripped by the time Rome Christianized, making it even more of a shell of its original intent. That said, was it all bad? The Senate started to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the Empire under successive emperors. While the Senate died in the West, in the East it continued as a sort of system of checks on the emperors. Its secularization under Christianity and its gradual weakening under the Empire set it up as the ancestor of our modern form of government. Was it all bad? No, and like all history, it is best learned from and studied, especially as in this case what the Roman Senate really was and what we so often think of it as today because of the word “senate” is very different.

Expand for References

Beard, Mary, John North, and SRF Price. Religions of Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Beard, Mary. SPQR. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.
Brunt, PA. Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic.
Garnsey, Peter and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Gradel, Ittai. Emperor Worship and Roman Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
Lintott, Andrew. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1999
Scullard, HH Roman Politics 220-150 BC. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

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