Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part IV: The Senate

This is the fourth part of our planned five part series (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc) on the structure of the Roman Republic during the third and second centuries, the ‘Middle’ Republic.’ Over the last few posts we looked at the role of Roman magistrates who carried out a range of executive functions for the republic. This week, we’re looking at the Roman Senate, an institution so important that it is included alongside the people of Rome in the SPQR formulation that the Romans used to represent the republic, and yet also paradoxically it is an institution that lacks any kind of formal legal powers.

Despite that lack of formal powers, the Senate of the Roman Republic largely directed the overall actions of the republic, coordinating its strategic policy (both military and diplomatic), setting priorities for legislation, handling Rome’s finances and assigning and directing the actions of the various magistrates. The Senate – not the Pontifex Maximus1 – was also the final authority for questions of religion. The paradox exists because the Senate’s power is almost entirely based in its auctoritas and the strong set of political norms and cultural assumptions which push Romans to defer to that auctoritas.

And if you want to wield the auctoritas of the ACOUP Senate, you can support this project on Patreon at the patres et matres conscripti tier, to be able to submit questions and weigh in on what topics we should cover next (I promise the long-awaited Greek-and-Phoenician colonization treatment is coming!). As always, if you like this, please share it! If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live. I am also on Bluesky ( and (less frequently) Mastodon (


We should start with who is in the Senate. Now what you will generally hear in survey courses is this neat summary: the Senate had 300 members (600 after Sulla) and included all Romans who had obtained the office of the quaestorship or higher and its members were selected by the censors. And for a basic summary, that actually serves pretty well, but thinking about it for a few minutes one quickly realizes that there must be quite a bit of uncertainty and complexity underneath those neat easy rules. And indeed, there is!

First we can start with eligibility by holding office. We know that in the Sullan constitution, holding the quaestorship entitled one into entrance into the Senate. Lintott notes that the lex repetundarum of 123/4 lumped every office aedile-and-above together in a phrasing ‘anyone who has or shall have been in the Senate’ when setting eligibility for the juries for the repetundae courts (the aim being to exclude the magistrate class from judging itself on corruption charges), and so assumes that prior to Sulla, it was aediles and up (but not quaestors) who were entitled to be in the Senate.2 The problem immediately occurs: these higher offices don’t provide enough members to reach the frequently attested 300-Senator size of the Senate with any reasonable set of life expectancies.

By contrast, if we assume that the quaestors were enrolled in the Senate, as we know them to have been post-Sulla (Cicero is a senator for sure in 73, having been quaestor in 75), we have 8 quaestors a year elected around age 30 each with roughly 30 years of life expectancy3 we get a much more reasonable 240, to which we might add some holders of senior priesthoods who didn’t go into politics and the ten sitting tribunes and perhaps a few reputable scions of important families selected by the censors to reach 300 without too much difficulty. The alternative is to assume the core membership of the Senate was aediles and up, which would provide only around 150 members, in which case the censors would have to supplement that number with important, reputable Romans.

To which we may then ask: who might they choose? The obvious candidates would be…current and former quaestors and plebeian tribunes. And so we end up with a six-of-one, half-dozen of the other situation, where it is possible that quaestors were not automatically enrolled before Sulla, but were customarily chosen by the censors to ‘fill out’ the Senate. Notably, when Sulla wants to expand the Senate, he radically expands (to twenty) the number of quaestors, which in turn provides roughly enough Senators for his reported 600-person Senate.

That leads us to the roll of the censors: if holding a sufficiently high office (be it the quaestorship or aedileship) entitles one to membership for life in the Senate, what on earth is the role of the censors in selecting the Senate’s membership? Here the answer is in the sources for us: we repeatedly see the formula that the meetings of the Senate were attended by two groups: the Senators themselves and “those who are permitted to state their opinion in the Senate.” Presumably the distinction here is between men designated as senators by the censors and men not yet so designated who nevertheless, by virtue of office-holding, have a right to speak in the Senate. It’s also plausible that men who were still iuniores might not yet be Senators (whose very name, after all, implies old age; Senator has at its root senex, “old man”) or perhaps men still under the potestas of a living father (who thus could hardly be one of the patres conscripti, a standard term for Senators) might be included in the latter group.

In any case, the censors seem to have three rolls here. First, they confirm the membership in the Senate of individuals entitled to it by having held high office. Second, they can fill out an incomplete Senate with additional Roman aristocrats so that it reaches the appropriate size. Finally, they can remove a Senator for moral turpitude, though this is rare and it is clear that the conduct generally needed to be egregious.

In this way, we get a Senate that is as our sources describe: roughly 300 members at any given time (brought to the right number every five years by the censors), consisting mostly of former office holders (with some add-ons) who have held offices at or above the quaestorship and whose membership has been approved by the censors, though office holders might enter the Senate – provisionally, as it were – immediately pending censorial confirmation at a later date. If it seems like I am giving short shrift to the ‘filling the rank’ add-ons the censors might provide, it is because – as we’ll see in a moment – Senate procedure combined with Roman cultural norms was likely to render them quite unimportant. The role of senior ex-magistrates in the Senate was to speak, the role of junior ex-magistrates (and certainly of any senator who had not held high office!) was to listen and indicate concurrence with a previously expressed opinion, as we’re going to see when we get to procedure.


Meetings of the Senate were formal affairs, but unlike modern legislatures the Senate did not stay in session over long periods. Instead, it met in specific venues – they had to be inaugurated – when called by a magistrate with the power to do so.

We may begin with place: the Senate had no single fixed meeting spot, though the curia in the Forum was the most common location, however the place the Senate met had to be religiously prepared via inauguration (the taking of the auspices by the augurs) and by sacrifices in order to make sure the gods approved of the proceedings and its results. Consequently, the Senate always met in a templum in the sense of a consecrated space, but also it tended to meet literally in temples, with meetings in the temples of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the temple of Fides, the temple of Concord, and so on. Notably, two locations, the temple of Bellona and the temple of Apollo were also used and these sat outside the pomerium, enabling the Senate to meet with magistrates who, because of their active command of an army, could not cross the pomerium; they were also sometimes used to meet with foreign dignitaries the Senate did not wish to let into the city. Later added to this number of sites outside the pomerium was Pompey’s theater, which included a temple of Venus Victrix and a curia as part of the overall complex.

Via Wikipedia, the interior of the curia Julia, the Senate’s primary meeting place. The curia Julia itself comes late, finished in 29 BC to replace the destroyed Curia Cornelia which in turn had replaced the older Curia Hostilia. Still, this gives us a sense of what a meeting place for the Senate might be like, rather less spacious than most movies would have it, with 300 senators it would have been quite crowded (and the curia Hostilia was no larger in terms of footprint).

In order to meet, the Senate had to be called or more correctly ‘driven together’ (cogere, often translated adequately as ‘summoned,’ but as Lintott notes, it has an element of compulsion to it) by a magistrate. There were a few standard dates on which this would effectively always happen, particularly the first day of the consular year, but beyond that it was expected that magistrates in Rome could call the Senate at any time to discuss any issue on relatively short notice. There was initially no requirement that Senators live in the city of Rome, but it was clearly assumed. Early on in the second century, we get regulations requiring Senators to stay close to Rome unless they had an official reason to be elsewhere, though Senators might be permitted to leave if they needed to fulfill a vow. In the Late Republic it seems to have been common also for Senators to leave the city during the spring res prolatae, a sort of recess from public business (literally “the deferring of business”), but these informal breaks did not mean the Senate was truly ‘out of session’ and it could still be summoned by a magistrate.

Via Wikipedia, two sestertii from the reign of Tiberius minted in 36/7 in Rome commemorating his restoration of the Temple of Concord, another traditional meeting place of the Senate. The large ‘SC’ on the reverse does in fact, stand for senatus consulto, because the weights and values of Roman bronze coinage was decreed by the Senate.

Generally, meetings of the Senate began at dawn, though they could begin later, and they proceeded either until the business was concluded or to dusk. Because of the ritual preparations required, no meeting of the Senate could last more than a day, much like the assemblies, so if the business was not finished, a new meeting would need to be called and the process begun from scratch. While it seems that magistrates generally tried to avoid calling the Senate during festival days, dies nefandi (days unsuited for public business) and meetings of the popular assemblies, there was no requirement to do so and the Senate might be called for any day for most of the Republic, with laws restricting the Senate’s meeting days only coming midway through the first century.

Beyond this, Senators were expected to show up and we hear of threats of fines or other censure for failure to show up, but it also seems like no meeting of the senate was ever very close to the full body and quorums for the Senate were fairly low, 100 or 150. For the Sullan Senate, notionally of 600 members, the highest attendances we know of, as noted by Lintott, are 415, 417 and 392. Of course some significant number of Senators will, at any time, have been active magistrates overseas, or serving as military tribunes, or as senatorial legati, but it seems clear that even beyond this attendance was not universal even if it was in theory supposed to be.


Once the Senate met, it had a standard procedure which was followed. The Senate was fundamentally a deliberative body, unlike the assemblies which merely voted, and so most of the procedure focused on that deliberation and debate. And this makes sense, as the notional purpose of the Senate was as a large advisory council to the magistrates, in the same way that it had once been the advisory council to the kings.

Generally, each meeting of the Senate had a set agenda item, presented by the convening magistrate, although for that traditional meeting at the start of the consular year it was common to convene the Senate de re publica infinite, “on the whole Republic.” By far the most common convening magistrate was the consul, but other magistrates could convene the Senate (notably the tribunes). The convening magistrate spoke first with an introductory speech, a relatio, with introduced the topic and often presented a proposed course of action on that topic. In some cases, that introduction might be a short one, but it could also be a long and involved speech or the introduction of an ambassador or the reading of dispatches. The Senate seems also at sometimes to have formed subcommittees and a magistrate might use an introduction to put the recommendations of a subcommittee, such as pre-drafted legislation, before the body. But it was just as common to open a debate on a broad topic.

Once the convening magistrate was done introducing the issue, the opinions of each senator, in turn, were sought. The order was set by the censors, but it was based on offices held and seniority, so while the censors could shift (‘movere’) a senator down in the order, they were expected to have a good reason (typically conspicuous moral turpitude). The order began with the princeps senatus, traditionally the most senior ex-consul, though ‘most senior’ here often meant both in age and in influence, so while the princeps senatus was never young, it might not strictly be the oldest senator. After that, the former consuls (in Latin consulares, which enters English as ‘consulars’ to mean ‘men who have held the consulship’) spoke, with the most former (and thus likely oldest) going first. And then the Senate proceeded down in rank order to ex-praetors and so on all the way down. As you may well imagine, the figures who spoke first tended to set the terms of the debate and indeed the whole reason they spoke first is because they were understood to be preeminent in auctoritas.

Each senator, as the order came to them was expected to present their opinion (sententia). The expression of their view could be as long or as short as they wished (filibusters were possible), but they had to answer. Senators were given broad latitude in their response, able to interrogate the magistrate or visiting ambassadors, respond to their fellows or wander entirely off of the origional relatio to another topic entirely They could also launch into long speeches which, again, might or might not actually pertain primarily to the topic at hand. Cato the Elder was famous for ending speeches on topics entirely unrelated to the matter with an exhortation that “Carthage must be destroyed,” while Cicero took the opportunity of a debate on some relatively minor matters of roads and mints to launch into his Seventh Philippic, a speech exhorting the Senate to move against Marcus Antonius. Still it was expected that at some point the response ought to speak to the matter at hand and so Cicero ends the Seventh Philippic with quibus de rebus refers, P. Servilio adsentior, “on the matters you refer [to the Senate], I agree with Publius Servilius.”

Via Wikipedia, Cicero Denounces Catiline (1888), painting by Cesare Maccari. As noted, the Senate’s meeting place would not have been so spacious or rounded like this, but the painting does capture the movement of the pedarii, in this case abandoning Catiline as Cicero denounces him with the First Catilinarian.

On the other hand, the minimum possible response a senator could give, and this must have been a very frequent response, was to agree with what some other senator earlier in the speaking order had said and we certainly get the sense that this was the most common thing for more junior senators to do. Indeed, we’re told that, while the more senior senators were speaking, more junior senators, termed pedarii (lit: ‘footmen’ but really ‘walkers’) by Cicero for reasons that will soon be obvious, would move in the hall to sit by the speaker with whom they agreed to show their support. Given the elimination-contest nature of the Roman office holding, the Senate must always have had far more of these junior senators than of senior consulars whose opinion would carry real weight, but their movement en masse to agree with one or another position would have carried its own auctoritas.

Now, junior senators absolutely could hold forth on their own basis and we are told of occasions where they did so. Sallust presents the debate on the fate of Catiline’s conspirators in 63 as turning on the opinions of Marcus Porcius Cato (the younger) and Gaius Julius Caesar; Cato was almost certainly one of the most junior members of the Senate, being the quaestor urbanus that very year, while Caesar was more senior as a praetor-elect and Pontifex Maximus, but still hardly the most senior fellow in the room. But in practice, moments like these were probably relatively rare (Caesar and Cato both may have felt emboldened because of their current positions, though Cato especially, a powerful speaker, maintained outsized influence in the Senate despite never rising to the consulship). Roman culture strongly encouraged deference both to elders and social superiors and the senior consulars were both, while in turn the mechanics of Roman politics will have meant that junior senators would have been wise to attach themselves to powerful consulars in any event.

At the end of this process of speaking, the presiding magistrate could put the issue to a vote. The magistrate in question set the terms of the vote, laying out a proposed senatus consultum (opinion of the Senate) and asking all senators who agreed to go to one side while everyone who disagreed go to the other. Multiple such motions could be voted in succession and the Senate might approve or disapprove of any set of them, but the order was up to the magistrate who might thus frame proposals tactically to achieve a given outcome. If the vote passed then the proposal – drafted into written form by the presiding magistrate, usually with the assistance of a few more junior senators – and issued as a formal decree of the Senate, called a senatus consultum.

A few things could interrupt this stately order. The simplest was that senators could change their mind, based presumably on the arguments of others later in the speaking order; they seem to have been able to interrupt the order to announce that change, that they now agreed with so-and-so. Alternately, there might be calls for various kinds of floor motions, akin to points of order. The most common was consule! (‘consult!’), a call to signal that the magistrate needed to consult the senators (run through the speaking order) before proceeding to a vote on a given measure; you couldn’t just propose a vote and ram it through without debate. Alternately, senators might call out divide! (‘divide!’) to signal that certain motions being presented together needed to be split up, discussed and voted on separately. Also numera! (‘numbers!’ meaning ‘count!’) was the call to demand a quorum check. The Senate might even call for discussion to be opened on an issue, demanding a new relatio to discuss issues that had been raised – most often in the reading of dispatches or the reports of ambassadors, but sometimes from debates that broke out between senators.

Consequently, while the presiding magistrate convened the Senate and in theory set the agenda, in practice the Senate was much less under their control than the voting assembly. The presiding magistrate, it must be noted, could not cut off debate, though he could simply refuse to put a motion to a vote at the end of it. In addition, just to gum up the process further, a senatus consultum could be veto’d by the consuls or the tribunes, though the opinion of the Senate was still registered, just merely as the senatus auctoritas rather than consultum, though this carried a lot less weight. A veto’d proposal could simply be brought another day, in the hope that it might escape veto subsequently and at least until the 130s, it seems to have been an accepted part of the mos maiorum that one did not maintain a veto indefinitely against either the popular will or the will of the Senate (much less both), so in the third and most of the second century, a veto was a delaying tactic rather than a decisive killing of a motion.

As an aside before we move on to the Senate’s (lack of) formal powers and (abundant) traditional prerogatives, it seems worth noting how much emphasis this sort of system placed both on the speaking ability of senators and their personal auctoritas. Unlike as in many modern legislatures, the speeches here were not cosmetic and senators were not bound to a ‘party line’ in their votes. Consequently, powerful speakers or senators with formidable reputations, if they were present (and not, say, deployed in the provinces) could exert a lot of sway among the junior members of the senate who would make up the majority of votes when it came time to approve a senatus consultum.

Powers and Prerogatives

Now we have a senatus consultum, so we may ask what power it has and the answer is ‘none.’ But it is also ‘very much.’ And that brings us to the central paradox of the Senate. On the one hand, as I have my students chant in class, the Senate has no formal powers (in the Republic, before Sulla). It cannot legislate, it cannot adjudicate court cases, it cannot create or appoint magistrates, it cannot order armies or convene assemblies. All the Senate can do is issue opinions, which are not technically binding on anyone. This is particularly true when a senatus consultum comes into conflict with a decision of a popular assembly (a lex); at all points, the lex wins.

But the advice of the Senate is almost always followed, especially in certain key areas of the Republic.

Consequently while the Senate’s de iure powers basically don’t exist, its de facto powers under the mos maiorum are vast to the point that outside observers like Polybius conclude that the Senate is the most powerful part of the Roman state.4 As a result, in the period we can see most clearly from the fourth to the second century, the Senate almost always gets its way and exercises a customary control over key aspects of Roman governance, especially foreign policy, that is nearly complete. And while the Senate might not have any clearly defined legal authority to do any of this, governments are how they function and this is how the res publica functioned during the third and second centuries.

Domestically, the auctoritas of the Senate was such that it was clearly hard to pass laws without obtaining the consilium (consultation, counsel) of the Senate and receiving a favorable senatus consultum. You can easily see the mix of pressures here: on the one hand, a politician pushing a law would be profoundly unwise to trample the Senate to do so, because at the end of his short one-year term he would go back to being just a senator and in any case reliant on the influence of other senators to win future high office or other honors. At the same time, Roman voters seem to have taken the consultum of the Senate pretty seriously, so if the Senate was strongly against a motion, they were likely to vote it down anyway. And that makes sense: the Senate is a body of the most successful, most prestigious, most respected Romans in a society where you are expected to the defer to the judgements of such men. The People were not always supine before the Senate by any means, but the auctoritas senatus meant a lot.

That said, the Senate’s authority was unevenly spread. It seems fairly clear, especially by the fourth century, that the Senate felt it necessary to yield – if only slowly – on proposals where it faced widespread popular opposition. One may, of course, immediately contrast the Senate of the late-second and early-first century, which squanders its auctoritas trying to stop proposals of this sort. So when it came to domestic affairs, the power of the Senate was perhaps at a low ebb; it could offer its approval to laws or its disapproval, but carrying out the laws was up to the magistrates and the assemblies of the people had the final say in passing or not passing proposals.

In foreign policy, the Senate was far more influential, to the point of dominance. One crucial task that is clearly regularized well before 218, when the survival of more of Livy lets us see it clearly, is the assignment of magistrates to specific jobs or provinciae. It is frankly unclear how strong the legal basis for these assignments was and in any event it doesn’t matter: what matters is that the Senate advised the magistrates and the magistrates always acted accordingly. Consequently, the Senate was the senior strategic directing organ of the Republic, coordinating strategy and indeed grand strategy over the whole of the Mediterranean through a system of provincial assignments, directives to the magistrates assigned and transfers of resources between Italy and those provinces (including province-to-province transfers) accomplished by assigned senatorial commissioners (called legati).5 What we see in Livy is a regular cycle where these assignments are decided on at the start of each consular year, along with the Senate ‘advising’ the magistrates and pro-magistrates on how many soldiers they should levy and where those troops ought to go (along with supplies, as mentioned); the Senates prerogative in this regard becomes so ironclad that it is by the career of Scipio Aemilianus treated as effectively a legal restriction, which can only be finessed by taking volunteers, but not by simply passing a law or ignoring the Senate.

Connected to this was the Senate’s oversight over state finance. The finances of the res publica, you will recall, were overseen by quite junior officials, the quaestors. In practice what that seems to have really meant was that the larger financial picture was handled by the Senate, which ,set the annual tributum (Rome’s direct tax on citizens) and approved major expenditures from the treasury, the largest of which will have been to the armies, thus neatly tying up with the above paragraph. It is not hard to see why the Senate ends up running this aspect, both because it was one which required long-term vision, but also because the quaestors, as junior magistrates looking to move further up the cursus honorum, wouldn’t have have had any incentive or sufficient personal influence to defy the Senate’s auctoritas in any event. The Senate thus ‘advised’ the quaestors on what to do with Rome’s finances, and they did it. Once again, the question of if the Senate had the legal power to do this was rather beside the point: in any event the quaestors complied.

Likewise, the Senate had a powerful role in foreign policy, though in the end only the comitia centuriata could make peace or declare wars. Foreign ambassadors had to report to the consuls, but the consuls role, in addition to hosting them, was primarily to introduce the ambassadors to speak to the Senate, and then it was the Senate which considered their positions. That makes a lot of sense, as the Senate is a continuing body: an agreement with a consul would only hold potentially for a year, but an agreement with the Senate has some permanence to it and it certainly seems like if the Senate suggested treaty ratification to the assembly, it passed. As noted previously, assemblies bucking the Senate on questions of war and peace was extremely rare; when it happened, concessions were made and eventually the People followed the advice of the Senate.

Finally, the Senate was also the effective final authority on Roman religion. Quite a few students tend to assume this authority must rest with Rome’s most senior priest, the Pontifex Maximus, but it does not. Instead, Rome’s senior priests, like the College of Pontiffs advised the Senate on religious matters, but it was the Senate which decided. Thus it was the Senate which instituted the Ludi Apollinares (Livy 25.12), it was the Senate that directed that the worship of Cybele be brought to Italy as the Magna Mater (Livy 29.10), the Senate which ordered the suppression and later regulations (Livy 39.14 and we have the text of the senatus consultum) of the Bacchanalia.

Via Wikipedia, a reproduction of the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, which regulated the the Bacchanalia in Italy, firmly asserting senatorial authority over it.

Auctoritas Senatus

All of these prerogatives are based on the Senate’s informal authority, its auctoritas, rather than any formal powers of compulsion (which it lacks). The extent of that auctoritas and the degree to which it was clearly felt by most Romans to be necessary to respect, can come as a bit of a surprise. But it is worth remembering the sort of society the Romans have and also the kind of organization the Senate is.

On the one hand, Roman culture is one where deference to age and authority is expected and normalized, with the Romans being quite comfortable with open hierarchies among citizens. These sorts of cultural values were mot than just a dry sense that one needed to be polite to the elderly; the Romans felt the demands of honor and deference quite keenly.6 The Senate was in turn a collection of the 300 very highest status individuals, the men with the most auctoritas in a society that did not have many alternative structures of power or influence. Modern politicians have to compete with journalists, pundits, business moguls and media stars for influence; but to a substantial degree the nature of Roman society meant that nearly all of the most influential men in this period were in the Senate. These were the wealthiest men in Rome and also the most politically accomplished men in Rome and also the most visible and notable men in Rome. When they spoke collectively through a senatus consultum, the auctoritas of the thing was immense.

At the same time, the Senate’s auctoritas also came from the accomplishments and in a sense the expertise of its members. Because it was a body of ex-magistrates, pretty much every Roman with senior leadership experience in either civil or military affairs was a member. It was at once a council of Rome’s most experienced political leaders and its most experienced generals, which also included its most experienced priests. And as the only deliberative part of the Roman political process, it provided those figures the opportunity to debate and discuss; it is thus perhaps unsurprising that it usually took quite a lot for the Roman People to come to the decision that the Senate was making a poor choice.

Finally, the auctoritas of the Senate clearly rested substantially on its history, something that it seems to me the senators themselves did not fully understand. In the early third century, the Senate – in as much as we can see with our often less-than-ideal sources – both managed the closing stages of the Struggle of the Orders and the successful completion of the last two wars to dominate Italy (the Third Samnite War, 298-290 and the Pyrrhic War, 280-275) against formidable opponents. Then under the leadership of the Senate, Rome emerged victorious from a long and grueling first war against Carthage (264-241). It seems little surprise then that, when deciding how to manage the governance of their new overseas provinces (Sicily, then Corsica et Sardinia) the Romans leaned on the Senate. When the Second Punic War (218-201) came around, the Senate assumed a decisive role in strategic direction, especially after the initial setbacks.

In short, the Senate’s auctoritas was also substantially rooted in the perception that its advice was generally wise, that it had been generally successful, particularly through the third century. That in turn explains substantially just how dominant the Senate is through much of the second century – its auctoritas, when we come to see it clearly – was at a high ebb.

But of course that auctoritas was to a substantial degree dependent on future performance. We see pretty clearly that faith in the Senate wanes over the back half of the second century and its auctoritas with it. Setbacks in the Third Punic War (149-146) and the Numantine War (143-133) lead the assemblies to demand unconventional generals – in both cases, electing the legally-ineligable-at-the-time Scipio Aemilianus to the task, over the objections of the Senate. And the Senate’s stubborn failure to address perceived economic problems and the boiling crisis over the status of the socii also seems to have degraded its auctoritas.

The great advantage of government by auctoritas rather than laws was that the Senate’s authority could flow wherever it was needed, enabling the Roman system to adapt to the shift from being one city in Italy to an Italian empire to a Mediterranean Empire smoothly. But such a government was also necessarily fragile in ways I am not sure the Romans ever quite realized, because if that auctoritas were squandered, there was no legal, compulsive authority for the Senate, which had become the central organ of Roman governance, to fall back on. Sulla’s effort to restore the power of the Senate by radically expanding it seems, here, particularly misguided, as if adding 300 more mediocrities could restore the respect of an institution after Marius and Sulla himself had gotten done killing nearly all of the men of experience, capability and consequence in the body.

But all of this is getting rather too close to a narrative of the collapse of the Republic, which is a formidable topic in its own right. Next time, we’ll close out the main trunk of this series with a look at Rome’s courts (but expect addenda also covering provincial government and Rome’s Italian alliance system).

  1. I stress this point because this is a common mistake: assuming that the Pontifex Maximus as Rome’s highest priest was in some way the ‘boss’ of all of Rome’s other priests. He was not; he was the presiding officer of the college of Pontiffs and the manager of the calendar (this was a very significant role), but the Pontifex Maximus was not the head of some priestly heirarchy and his power over the other pontifices was limited. Moreover his power over other religious officials (the augures, haruspices, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis and so on) was very limited. Instead, these figures report to the Senate, though the Senate will generally defer to the judgement of the pontifices.
  2. With sitting tribunes able to attend meetings of the Senate, but not being granted lifelong membership.
  3. A touch higher than the 24 years a L3 Model West life table (what we generally use to simulate Roman populations) leads us to expect, but then these are elites who are likely to be well nourished and not in hazardous occupations, so they might live a bit longer.
  4. Though it must be noted that Polybius is mostly looking at Roman foreign policy, where the Senate is strongest.
  5. I should note much of this picture is owed to Michael Taylor, with whom I am collaborating on work on this very topic; I’ll be sure to hollar if/when that work appears in print, of course.
  6. For a sense of how keenly, see C. Barton, Roman Honor: the fire in the bones (2001).

82 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part IV: The Senate

    1. Uh, yes, actually. Senators not holding a magistracy wore a tunic with the latus clavus (broad purple stripe) and the white toga virilis. Senators who held a curule magistracy instead wore the toga praetexta, which had a purple border and they wore a tunic with two purple stripes instead of one.

      1. I have tried to find sources for this, but had some problems. Do we know if equites also had two stripes or one?

        1. Equites wore the tunica angusticlava, with one narrow stripe (at least by the first century this was also worn by young men of the senatorial class before they were admitted, since by definition the senatorial class was a subgroup of the ordo equester)

          1. At least those depicted on the Fayyum portraits, now that I think of it, seem to all have tunics with two narrow stripes. Too bad there are no depictions of senators in colour, that I know of

      2. Until whit gym shorts and a hoodie with a purple stripe were accepted for some senators in 50 BC, and the Republic fell shortly afterward. Lesson learned. 🙂

  1. Given the deliberative nature of the Senate as a body, and the unequal distribution of auctoritas, it strikes me as likely that even if there isn’t a formal convention of the Senate, a few of the more senior senators could get together and arrange how they were going to vote and speak such that when the issue of the day was formally convened by a magistrate, they were waiting and ready to go and all pus h their influence in whatever the desired direction was. Do we have any record of that?

    Also, owing to the necessary wealth and accomplishment to get in the senate, I assume almost all of these senators had networks of clients, probably very significant networks of clients. Did they ever use these client networks to try to get things done in the senate itself? (Say, arranging a demonstration by your clients hollering in favor of the proposal you just happened to be in favor of yourself). I could easily see one of the reasons and ways to get a lex approved in favor of the way the senate decided is by having the senators then go out to their various clients and ‘advising’ them how to vote in the upcoming assembly.

    1. I have the feeling that the most useful clients for getting things done in the Senate are other people’s clients, because part of the system is that they represent their client’s interests in the Senate. The whole idea of the Senate having Auctoritas from being older and wiser would seem to encourage them to ignore the sort of popular appeals we’re used to unless things were at a breaking point.

  2. The fifth entry marking the rough midpoint of a five-part series is a clever way of alerting the reader to some complex, legalistic discussion within. And, of course, said discussion is quite clear and enjoyable as always.

  3. Minor correction:

    “This is the third section of the third part of our our planned five part series[…]”

    I think it’s actually the fourth part, or the first section of the fourth part.

    1. I too was puzzled by the title and first sentence:

      “Republic, Part IV: The Senate … This is the third section of the third part of our our planned five part series (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc)”

      Does IV = IIIc? or is it to be followed by Part V? and the list will be: I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc, IV, V? And how many parts is that? 5 or 7?

      Youth wants to know.

      1. IIIa through IIIc all count as one part. I don’t know why Bret counts that way, but he does. Maybe he just doesn’t want to update the intro blurb on all his drafts. Maybe he doesn’t like admitting that his five-part series has turned into a seven- or eight-part series.

        1. Maybe it’s a joke? Perhaps a bit of understated humor, poking fun at his own tendency to want to say more than he originally planned?

          Or perhaps, in this case, a bit of subtle commentary on the tendency of political and social systems to evolve over time, while keeping the original names constant?


      Here’s a thesis focused on the issue of Senatorial expulsion. It discusses both the ostensible and actual reasons for explusion by the censors. For example P. Cornelius Rufinius was expelled for the ostensible reason of owning over 10 librae of silver plate but in truth it was that the censor involved was his political opponent Gaius Fabricius Luscinus. Fabricius was notable in his “austerity and incorruptibility” so he probably really opposed the level of avarice Cornelius exhibited but he also hated his guts.

      1. Nice! And it discusses actually the role of censors… but misses some points which cannot actually be resolved with available evidence:
        1) Demographically, the Senate needed a bit over 10 new recruits per year.
        The tribunes were always 10 per year. Quaestors grew from 4 to 10 per year.
        What is the completely missing data is how far quaestors and tribunes were the same people in 2nd century. We know that some people were both (biographies of Gracchi etc). and we know that not all quaestors could have been tribunes (because some were patricians) but I don´t have an idea if it was 2 patrician quaestors and the other 8 serving as quaestors, or more like 2 quaestorian tribunes, 8 nonsenators. Which means that the range of people who were quaestors or tribunes is 12…18. Quaestors were senators automatically unless thrown out – tribunes were not, unless picked in. The chances of a non-quaestorian tribune to get picked as a senator, and the relevance of censors´ discretion in doing so, is then in a wide range!
        2) The work derives the prospect of a senator to get thrown out of Senate by censors. In short:
        *there are 4 known consuls thrown out of senate between 318 and 50 BC (in 275, 184, 115 and 70 BC) and it is so high profile event that it´s probably complete – like 4 out of 500
        *in the period 209…164 BC, for which there is good coverage (Livius, Polybius) there were 2 praetors thrown out, so extrapolation gives 10 for whole middle and late republic;
        therefore once someone got a rank of praetor, his chances of expulsion for the rest of his life were around 1/100.
        This counts for senior senators.
        How about junior senators? About 200 of them who had only served as quaestors, aediles, tribunes?
        The average was 5 expulsions per census, so a cohort of 50 admitted each census means 10% lifetime risk of expulsion.
        But when?
        About 50 by census were “probationary” senators who sat in Senate but who were sometimes not called Senators – the quaestors elected since last census. And then there were about 150 junior but non-probationary senators – quaestors who had been written in Senate roll at a census, and adlected tribunes.
        How was the expulsion risk divided between these?
        Note that we do not have direct statistics because Livius´ numbers do not distinguish between these two groups. But we have indirect indicator… somewhere it is stated that agreement of two censors was needed to confirm a new senator or expel an existing one.
        If so, this would suggest a big difference between these groups!

        1. I seem to recall from somewhere – though I can’t remember my source – that while it was theoretically possible to run successfully for the tribunate without having first been a quaestor, and it may even have happened on occasion, in general a man without some time in the Senate gathering support and name recognition had no realistic chance of getting elected.

          1. There is the obvious mathematics:
            10 tribunes (since 450s BC)
            Just 4 quaestors before 267 BC. Not over 10 till Sulla.
            Few iterations of tribunate, and not all quaestors could have been eligible for tribunate because at least some were patricians. Therefore there must have been appreciable number of non-quaestors elected as tribunes.
            The problem is preference. After 190s BC (10 quaestors yearly), did nearly all qualified (plebeian) quaestors run for tribune and get in, leaving only a few seats for others? Or was it only a few who bothered, while most plebeian quaestors chose to run for praetors next, like their partician mates did?

    2. It seems to me that senators were often removed for rather frivolous, or at least very culturally specific reasons. For instance one of Sulla’s ancestors was supposedly removed for owning too much silver tableware, and Cato the Elder is said to have expelled a man for kissing his wife in public. Of course the problem with saying this definitely on the issue is that the examples mentioned in the sources are often of censors being unusually strict

  4. Was there any sense that the assemblies might be more likely to disagree with the pronouncements of a divided Senate? If it was a knife edge vote in the Senate did that make the assembly more willing to think “eh loads of important people don’t like it too”?

    1. Probably, but it’s likely to more be a case of correlation than causation- if the Senate is divided on an issue, the People probably are going to be just as divided.

  5. It seems to me that celebrities of the day (gladiators and actors, I mean) did have a kind of influence senators wished for; we find legislation banning those of the senatorial class from partaking in these activities in the Empire, and we know some of them were part of Caesar’s exhibitions (Suetonius, Life of Caesar 39)

    1. I think that had more to do with institutional dignity: actors and gladiators along with prostitutes were considered the lowest of the low, and it just wasn’t fittin’ that senators would stoop to such activities. (Hence the later outrage over Nero and Commodus)

      1. Yes, definitely, but I think this would go somewhat against our host’s point that Roman senators had less competition in influencing the public than modern ones

    2. Presumably, the influence of gladiators and actors reflected back on their owner/employer. Who in turn is using the popularity of his bread & circuses to support his patron’s positions.

      A good job for younger sons and distaff cousins might be to manage the less savory businesses in the family portfolio.

  6. “what on earth is the role of the censors in selecting the Senate’s membership?”

    A major role was enforcing the monetary qualification. After all, the principal job of the censors was to take the census, the quintenniel count of all Rome’s citizens, and (just as important) classifying them both by tribe and by wealth. To enter – and remain in – the Senate, one needed 600,000 sesterces (a knight’s census)- at least at this period; it would be raised to 1 million under T Gracchus. And it wasn’t just any money: a Senator had to have his money respectably invested in land (and the produce thereof, like wine and olive oil). Merchants and bankers were not eligible, no matter how rich. Of course, there were lots of dodges – just look at Crassus! – usually shell companies nominally run by clients or freedmen. But at least on paper the source of income mattered, and there were definitely some very wealthy tycoons who were content to remain equites and not meddle in politics.

  7. You’re a relatively junior senator who has this brilliant idea about an item on the agenda that you think the Senate absolutely needs to hear. Do you give a speech yourself, even as a junior senator, even though you’re not Cato? Do you try to win over a more senior senator through informal talks so that he can give his own speech instead? Does the idea not even cross your mind because you know you’re a junior senator and junior senators know their place?

    1. I think you’d probably try to interest a consular in your project, or you’d run for Tribune of the Plebs.

    2. If you have an *idea,* rather than an argument (that is, not a line of reasoning to support a position that is likely to already have senior senators attached, but a genuinely different thing that could be done) you might want to broach it to the magistrate who has convened the Senate. After all, not only do you not want to be interrupting an up-or-down argument on the merits of a road from X to the ford at Y by suggesting building a bridge instead, but also the Senate isn’t going to be building the bridge even if the vote goes your way, so you might want to talk to the guy who would be and see if he’s interested or able.

      Clearly junior senators do give speeches, so if you have what you think is a strong or novel argument in support of a position already held by your seniors, you probably do give it yourself. You’re in the Senate, after all, you’re not a complete upstart.

      1. Agreed.

        I’d think that *any* senator who had a proposal would probably talk it over with allies first to build support, and if they weren’t a magistrate at the moment they’d prevail upon a friendly magistrate to introduce it for them.

        I’d expect that junior senators could do the same thing. They’re not nobodies and presumably they’d have patrons among the senior senators and magistrates to whom they could suggest courses of action or ask that something be put before the senate as a favor from a patron to a junior.

        The question – which I have no idea about but presumably other people here do – is if it would be something highly unusual for a junior senator to ask for a matter to be put before the senate, because the things the senate usually took up were such important matters like where to go to war, major expenditures that would affect everyone’s taxes, and so on where you really wouldn’t expect a junior senator to bring up something new.

        Or if they also took up the kinds of things that could be smaller favors or matter to individual senators. We need road improvements to this area that happens to run by my estate. I need the tax on product X lowered. Or …well I only really know what the modern equivalents would be, I don’t know what senators in Rome would be asking for, or if they would be asking for favors from the senate itself or if it made more sense to go to the magistrate in charge of whatever it was.

        Also, assuming they actually did have a really, really good idea that no one else in the senate had – and it was an idea that other senators would recognise as good when they heard it – then so too presumably they could take it to their patron and say, ‘here’s a great idea you might want to propose’. I’d imagine that in that case the patron would claim the ideas as their own anyway, so we wouldn’t necessarily have any records of how this worked anyway.

  8. I forgot to ask in the Cleopatra article. But I wanted to ask why you prefer Marcus Antonius over Mark Anthony while Pompey is still written as Pompey and not Pompeius.

  9. I was alerted to your blog to read the history of fabric production, which I found interesting and surprising. (How long did spinning take?? Really?) I then went back to the start and worked through all the articles. I’m now up to date. This is the first post I’ve had to wait for. Thanks for a varied and interesting series. I look forward to where you go next. (More about common people and how they lived please.)

    The senate and much of the Roman system seems to work on unwritten rules, emulated by the British upper classes to this day. UK history for the late Victorians seemed to start with Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC, and the ruling classes quite clearly saw the British Empire as the successor of Rome, even though Roman government and armies worked totally differently.

    One quibble? typo? The ebb is low tide. You can’t have a high ebb. Well, you can at neap tides, but it’s still well below the norm.

    1. Honestly, a lot of aristocratic systems run on unwritten rules.

      Written rules tend to be considerably less advantageous for aristocrats. If they’re conspicuously biased enough against the lower orders, they become a continuous point of friction that make the lower orders even more likely to rebel. If they’re not, then they usually limit the means by which an aristocrat can extralegally squash people wielding power outside their little elite clique.

      Furthermore, unwritten rules tend to favor a sort of moving-target “do things like we’ve always done them” which in practice is interpreted to mean “do things however old men who happen to be very powerful and prestigious choose to assert we’ve always done them.” This enables the aforementioned old men to sort of conveniently forget historical events that don’t represent the kind of historical tradition they want to see imitated, while embellishing or outright fabricating ‘traditions’ that support doing the things they want to do.

      Written rules make it far more feasible to actually discuss, point by point, whether we should be doing things a certain way or not.

      1. You say that as if it were an oddity of aristocratic systems.

        Democratic systems make much more extensive use of them because those exploiting them can’t appeal to the law.

    2. More about common people and how they lived please.

      Yeah, this. Reading about how the toffs and their clients made decisions about where to do genocide next can be fun, but a lot of the really high points on this blog have been about how military and social history intersect. For example, the line in the post about the kit of the soldiers in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields analyzing their armor and arguing that this shows a great deal of investment in those troops is precious.

  10. I can’t help wondering how well this would work in the modern day. A non elected body, with a minimum wealth requirement, made up primarily of former elected officials. There aren’t enough of those at the Federal level (in the US), but if you included former State Governors you could raise quite a number. Maybe senior Cabinet members as well. This is the only body allowed to deliberate, and sitting Presidents and this body can introduce legislation into the Assembly equivalent. They serve for life (or perhaps until they fail a health exam). Who would we use in place of the Censors (the Census Bureau seems inappropriate). Maybe the Supreme Court.

    Surprisingly workable.

    1. Modern governments don’t have any parts directly equivalent to what Roman Republic had, so such a senate would be slotted into a different role.

      -Consuls, Praetors, Aediles, Tribune, Quaestor, etc. roles are filled by bureaucrats picked by general purpose elected officials, not elected directly as much (More at lower levels in the U.S., with elected comptrollers, attorney generals, and such.)

      -Assemblies are replaced with a general election plus legislature.

      -Senate is replaced by a bureaucracy plus general purpose elected legislatures and leaders.

      -Modern governments handle a lot more civilian functions, and manage a lot more money, than what the Republic did.

      So a modern senate could act as something like an advisory body, but not an unusually powerful one. Other parts of government could handle its roles. Possibly has power, like the Roman one, because it has a lot of experienced and powerful people interacting, but there are more power centers outside to compete with. And politicians likely talk to each other anyway already.

      1. Most modern states don’t have an ‘Assembly’ beyond electing officials, but a few do. Most notably, Switzerland. People don’t vote on _every_ law, but at the federal level they vote 4 times a year on multiple measures, and it’s easy to bring a law to referendum, so I assume the legislature is inclined to pass laws they think will be popular. No need for the Swiss to take to the street to protest a law, they can just veto it at the ballot box. Plus initiatives for forcing things through, though it’s rare for those to pass.

        Many US states and cities also have a direct democratic component like that, though less frequently. Initiatives seem to pass more often, perhaps unfortunately. But US legislatures are less representative, and AIUI California currently makes it easier to spend money via initiative than via legislature…

        Uruguay apparently too, but I know nothing about how it’s used.

        On the flip side, while the US Senate is fairly different from the Roman Senate, you can see some similarities, no doubt inspired. 6 year terms, vs 2 or 4 for House and President, so less frenetic campaigning. Only 1/3 turning over at each election, so more continuity of membership — Senate control can flip in an election, but at least 2/3 of the membership will be the same. Approval of treaties and high appointments. There’s also the whole “representing states” thing, but even if we didn’t have that, you could imagine the Senate as a deliberative (and deliberate) buffer to popular opinion.

        OTOH, by making House and Senate both needed for laws, the condition for gridlock in getting things done is created. Vs. Carthage, where if the shofets and Senate disagreed, the assembly could break the tie.

    2. List I found was 274 former governors, in practice a bit less since that includes acting governors and criminally convicted and so on and people not in any condition to participate. Seems in fitting with original experience. Problem of course is just how it would come about. Such big change unlikely down the road. And at the start you only have 13 states and probably don’t want most former colonial governors, so pitifully small group. Ex-Cabinet members doesn’t work great given how flexible what a cabinet member is and even more so their tenure is. I suppose one initial cheat code might be to honorarily throw in the signers of the Declaration of Independence to tide you over.

      Actually looked into and not as bas as I feared. By my count in 1812, for instance, there would be 10 signers, Burr literally the only ex-P/VP beyond that, roughly 90 former governors. You see the fun thing I learned is that states early on loved year-long terms for governors…As well as 2-term limits…

      Obviously reasonable to expect states to cling to that approach longer, so by modern date might have a thousand former governors easily. But I don’t think this is realistically happening. One thing is it is very random based on state selection process. Not to mention how many a state has. Like DE would have 7 ex-governors and PA 1. And we know relative state balance of power was *huge* concern.

      1. So then a state could dominate the Senate by deliberately having short governorships and strict term limits.

    3. If you just go for inspiration rather than a direct analogy, an elected House might feed into an unelected Senate. People who’d had 5 House terms, or were elevated by their peers?

      Seems like Canada’s Senate wants to be a “body of accomplished people who can give advice” though I don’t think it has nearly the auctoritas to pull it off. Likewise the reformed House of Lords, with more “life-lords” than hereditary peers.

      Also, simply being wealthy doesn’t command the respect it allegedly did then. Many would see excess wealth as a detriment to being politically respected.

      1. On the wealth side, the top 50 senator all have net worth over $10 million. There are a few with negative net worth but I assume this has something to do with financial dealings. Wealth is hardly an impediment to gaining office though the truly wealthy seem to more invest in controlling batches of senators or whole political parties (ala the Heritage foundation and Koch brothers).

        Not sure if respect is the currency that matters in the current US political system, especially with recent revelations about supreme court justices and “gifts.”

      2. I don’t think it’s about commanding respect so much as being necessary to get anything done in a political system that is massively corrupt by modern standards.

    4. None of the parts of Roman government has an exact equivalent in modern governments. The assemblies map onto part legislature, part general elections. The magistrates map onto parts of individual bureaucracies, and some state level offices like Attorney General or Comptroller in the U.S.. The Senate combines roles of bureaucracy and legislature. General purpose leaders like governors and presidents don’t have a Roman equivalent, and the Roman government doesn’t seem to have as big a civilian role as modern governments do (There is infrastructure and money management, but concentrated in a few guys much more than modern governments can be.)

      So a modern advisory body of previous officials has more competition, both in what can fill its role and in other power centers. Almost certainly would not be as powerful for that reason. It could still make sense, though politicians probably consult with each other somewhat often anyway. You’d basically have a formalized version of these sorts of informal networks.

    5. I don’t think it would be a good idea. Ancient Rome based its political structure on the idea that being rich and prestigious retroactively justified keeping you on this extremely powerful council forever, and to a large extent senators derived their legitimacy from the fact that they had been, past tense, powerful men, and remained rich and ‘of good family.’

      Modern democracies, at least theoretically including America, derive legitimacy from direct popular support. If a powerful officeholder loses an election, that is supposed to remove them from power, not merely ‘kick them upstairs’ into a perpetual position of influence as part of the Senate.

      1. That’s an interesting point. Not everyone who was technically eligible for membership in the Senate was selected for it, evidentially, so “by way of inspiration” anyone who lost their last election wouldn’t automatically be elevated to the modern “Senate” either. If they needed to make up numbers, perhaps the current Senate could appoint new members from the losers, or maybe they get to debate but not vote.

        This is a fun mental exercise.

    6. In Italy, ex-presidents are senators for life, but that’s only six members out of a body of 206. The modern French Senate has some aspects of what you bring up, but it’s powerless. The EU has some analogs in that the European Parliament is not allowed to introduce its own laws, only to vote on laws introduced by the Commission, but this is dysfunctional and leads to do-nothing governance and nobody seriously wants to emulate this.

      Early Modern polyarchic institutions generally didn’t work the same as the Roman Republic. For example, they were based on local district representation – constituencies in the English Parliament go back to before Parliament had any significant power, and the States-General in the Dutch Republic used local representation as well. This, in turn, is because the medieval European elite was rural and local, unlike the Roman elite. Modern democracy emerged out of these Early Modern institutions, with obvious Roman influence, but legislatures in the style of the Roman Senate didn’t really take off; the French Revolution experimented with a version of this in the Council of Ancients, but there were so many coups in 1793-1804 that nobody really cared to adopt this system later.

      In the United States, the closest analog to this is the superdelegates of the Democratic primaries. These were treated as a relic until 2008, when the close primary meant they might matter, and then the system became unpopular and it was viewed as illegitimate if they would reverse the opinion of the primary voters; at any case, once all pledged delegates had been assigned and Obama had a majority of those, Hillary dropped out.

    7. My old student bar (student led) had a group of “veterans”, defined as those who had been volunteering for a certain amount of time. This loose group could provide informal advice and practical help. I could imagine such a group being gathered into a formal advisery assembly with certain duties and priviledges

      Many complex student organizations also do have a broad pool of people who have familiarity and gravitas due to their current and former engagement. This pool is often used to fill different openings in this student organizations. The european student union and their national (organizational) members probably have features like this

    8. You are fairly close to describing the modern UK House of Lords (most of whose membership are appointed-for-life former politicians these days)

  11. I can’t help wondering how well this would work in the modern day. A non elected body, with a minimum wealth requirement, made up primarily of former elected officials. There aren’t enough of those at the Federal level (in the US), but if you included former State Governors you could raise quite a number. Maybe senior Cabinet members as well. This is the only body allowed to deliberate, and sitting Presidents and this body can introduce legislation into the Assembly equivalent. They serve for life (or perhaps until they fail a health exam). Who would we use in place of the Censors (the Census Bureau seems inappropriate). Maybe the Supreme Court.

  12. You have described the cursus honorius (apologies if I butcher the spelling) as an elimination contest several times, but how did an aspiring Roman politician know he was eliminated?

    Were elections up and out, one and done? Or could a Roman politician who lost election try to run again? Were there perennial candidates like Lyndon Larouche, who ran for a given office every time?

    Similarly, you mentioned the censorship was a capstone position. How did someone know they were “ready” for a capstone? Age? Were Romans “yellow squadroned” to the censorship?

    Finally, how well did those who were eliminated take being relegated to “could have been” status?

    1. If you fail to win election (a repulsa) you can stand again. Catiline, for example, stood for the consulship thrice (candidacy rejected by president; lost; lost). Pina Polo has a ca 2002 paper cataloguing all known repulsae.

  13. You have referred to the cursus honorius as an elimination contest several times. So how did you know and accept being eliminated? Was every election sudden death, ie lose one and your career was over? Or was there an accepted threshold where you just had to accept your career was done?

    1. Since getting an office the first year you are eligible was considered a particular feat, it must have been feasible to get it later.

      1. Aye, but was it run, lose, run again, or wait until you were assured of winning, because losing was the kiss of death?

        I suspect it was the former, but it’s entirely possible there were unspoken rules and different conditions for a given office.

        1. I suspect it may have been like it is for minor-league ballplayers- after a few seasons you realize you’re never going to make it to The Show.

          Remember, no junior Senator could contemplate a run for the senior magistracies (praetor, consul) without the support of some serious Senatorial heaviweights. If the consulars who backed your losing effort last year stop taking your calls, well…..

          1. True, though with high Roman political office, there’s a bit more hope of pulling things together in middle or old age and making one more run at the big leagues. Lead a successful military campaign here, conclude a marriage alliance there, and you never know, you might be in a better position to pursue the consulship at 55 than you were at 45.

            Minor league baseball is… generally not like that, in a way that tends to simplify matters, for better or for worse.

  14. I’m curious, why was the Senate’s auctoritas enhanced by an eventual victory in the Second Punic War but then diminished by the third? The setbacks the Romans suffered in the opening of the third war seem extremely minor compared the disasters they suffered against Hannibal in the second. Sure, there were some mishaps in the opening stages by the Romans, but once Carthage had been defeated it seems to me that the relatively quick end to the war (Compared with the decades-long struggles that the other two had been) would have improved the populus’ opinion of the leaders rather than decreased it.

    1. Obvious guess n(If no response) is that Carthage was a similar sized empire in the 2nd war, but just a single city in the 3rd. And that Rome had experienced a lot of success in such wars in the 100’s.

      1. That, and the first two Punic Wars were started by Carthage, while the Third was started by Rome to the point the Carthaginians surrendered all their weapons to try and appease the Romans and the Romans *still* took 3 years to win.

        Not to mention that the commanders the Senate appointed nearly lost. Against an opponent that had surrendered all their weapons prior to the start of the war. It took the People demanding Scipio be appointed consul and commander of the African forces for the war to be won.

        So yeah, that’s probably why, since the People figured the Senate had fucked it up by the numbers, and clearly the People sometimes did actually know better than them.

  15. “I promise the long-awaited Greek-and-Phoenician colonization treatment is coming!”

    I look forward to it! I particularly hope you’ll shed some light on the prior inhabitants. As a child I just assumed the Greek colonists found empty land to move into, like farmers simply hadn’t saturated the coastal Mediterranean yet. This seems very unlikely to me now. Hoyos does mention Carthage paying a land tax to the prior locals, until it got powerful enough to stop and then reverse things

    1. Me too, I’m very interested in that! There are mentions in the sources that some native populations became helot-like underclasses, for instance the Bithynians in Byzantium and a group called Cyllyrians in Syracuse, but I don’t know how common this was

  16. “Sulla’s effort to restore the power of the Senate by radically expanding it seems, here, particularly misguided, as if adding 300 more mediocrities could restore the respect of an institution after Marius and Sulla himself had gotten done killing nearly all of the men of experience, capability and consequence in the body.”


    I note the WordPress UI seems different now.


    three rolls here — roles

    which ,set — rogue comma

    were mot than — more than

    legally-ineligable- — ineligible

      1. Also, not all of Sullas’ New Men were mediocrities. It could be argued- he certainly did! – that the Senate had become moribund, a closed club set in its ways that needed fresh blood and new ideas. In a handful of cases they were not mediocre at all, since Sulla’s constitution provided for automatic membership, without property or officeholding qualification, for any citizen who had won one of the military crowns (grass, civic, mural, naval) in battle. Of course, nobody could win the grass without already being a general and thus a senator, but the others could be awarded to common legionaries. Julius Caesar’s second membership in the Senate – after he had rid himself of the hated flamen dialis priesthood – was by virtue of having won the corona civica at the siege of Metylene, five years before his second priesthood and ten before his quaestorship.

        1. I certainly don’t know how it actually worked, but I’d imagine that for most proposals it’d be similar to today and whoever was doing them would talk to friends, allies and people who might be interested and benefit from them or just owe you a favor to gather support before even proposing them.

          So presumaby if you’re a senator, junior or senior, who is not currently a magistrate and who has an idea he wants to propose to the senate you’d go talk to a magistrate who is your ally, sponsor, or otherwise pesuadable. If you’re a senior, powerful, senator you’d have more people you could prevail upon, and they would be more willing to listen.

          But even if you’re a junior senator, you’re not nobody and you’ll have friends and allies. If it’s an idea that stands a good chance of passing in the senate I’d expect you can find a magistrate to propose it. It’d be you their junior, asking them for a favor, but the relationship no doubt includes some favors going both ways, your senior senator/magistrate expects you to support him, but you get something in return too. If it’s something you can’t get an ally to propose it’s something that the senate would never pass anyway.

  17. How did members of the Senate decide how to vote on a motion? You say there’s no party line in the Middle Republic; do individual members make up their mind based on hearing the rhetoric of early speakers? Is there any horse trading in the manner of the US Senate (or the pre-Pelosi, pre-Gingrich House)?

    1. One of the better known examples of senatorial shenanigans is that of “what do we do with Ptolemy XII Auletes”: Everyone is pulling procedural tricks from their toga folds and eventually nothing happens.

  18. Authoritas waxing and waning sounds like standard Mandate of Heaven concept. When nation is well, people don’t care if there’s dictator and they have no freedom. When not, civil wars abound.

    1. I’d love a comparative history of China and Roman Europe that took seriously the Mandate of Heaven* and “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide” as guiding concepts.

      *think “holding the confidence of the House” not “blessed”

      1. It is not the same. The idea of the mandate of heaven was more a literary device. The person of the emperor did have ritual and symbolic religious importance, but the idea of “losing the mandate of Heaven” was a thing generally applied to historical events decades after the fact.

        The line about the empire dividing isn’t even historic. It is the opening of “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” a book not written until the 1,300’s, (1100 years after the actual 3 kingdoms) and that line in particular wasn’t added until 300 years later in 1679.

        It would be like taking the 12th century French and English stories of King Arthur literally and suggesting a comparative history of Roman auctoritas vs. the traditional early medieval source of state authority, that of “strange women, lying in ponds, distributing weaponry”

        1. Arthur and his trusty servant Patsy “ride” into a field where peasants are working. They come up behind a cart which is being dragged by a hunched-over peasant in ragged clothing. Patsy slows as they near the cart.

          Arthur: Old Woman!

          The peasant turns around, revealing that he is, in fact, a man.

          Man: Man!

          Arthur: Man, sorry…. What Knight lives in that castle over there?

          Man: I’m thirty-seven!

          Arthur: (taken aback) What?

          Man: I’m thirty-seven! I’m not old–

          Arthur: Well I can’t just call you “man”…

          Man: Well you could say “Dennis”–

          Arthur: I didn’t know you were called Dennis!

          Man: Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?!

          Arthur: I did say sorry about the “old woman”, but from behind, you looked–

          Man: Well I object to your…you automatically treat me like an inferior!

          Arthur: Well I am king…

          Man: Oh, king, eh, very nice. And how’d you get that, eh? (he reaches his destination and stops, dropping the cart) By exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society. If there’s ever going to be any progress,–

          Woman: Dennis! There’s some lovely filth down ‘ere! (noticing Arthur) Oh! ‘Ow’d’ja do?

          Arthur: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, king of the Britons. Whose castle is that?

          Woman: King of the who?

          Arthur: King of the Britons.

          Woman: Who are the Britons?

          Arthur: Well we all are! We are all Britons! And I am your king.

          Woman: I didn’t know we had a king! I thought we were autonomous collective.

          Man: (agitated) You’re fooling yourself! We’re living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes–

          Woman: There you go, bringing class into it again…

          Man: That’s what it’s all about! If only people would–

          Arthur: Please, *please*, good people, I am in haste! WHO lives in that castle?

          Woman: No one lives there.

          Arthur: Then who is your lord?

          Woman: We don’t have a lord!

          Arthur: (surprised) What??

          Man: I told you! We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune! We’re taking turns to act as a sort of executive-officer-for-the-week–

          Arthur: (uninterested) Yes…

          Man: But all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting–

          Arthur: (perturbed) Yes I see!

          Man: By a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs–

          Arthur: (mad) Be quiet!

          Man: But by a two-thirds majority, in the case of more major–

          Arthur: (very angry) BE QUIET! I order you to be quiet!
          who does he think he is?

          Arthur: I am your king!

          Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!

          Arthur: You don’t vote for kings!

          Woman: Well how’d you become king then?

          Arthur: (holy choir music fades up) The Lady of the Lake– her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king!

          Man: (laughingly) Listen: Strange women, lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some… farcical aquatic ceremony!

          Arthur: (yelling) BE QUIET!

          Man: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!!

          Arthur: (coming forward and grabbing the man) Shut *UP*!

          Man: I mean, if I went ’round, saying I was an emperor, just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

          Arthur: (throwing the man around) Shut up, will you, SHUT UP!

          Man: Aha! Now we see the violence inherent in the system!

          Arthur: SHUT UP!

          Man: (yelling to all the other workers) Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP, HELP, I’M BEING REPRESSED!

          Arthur: (letting go and walking away) Bloody PEASANT!

          Man: Oh, what a giveaway! Did’j’hear that, did’j’hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw it, didn’t you?!

        2. Yes, both are literary devices that have been used for thinking about Chinese history to interesting effect; I was suggesting applying both to the history of Rome/the former Roman Empire in a similar way.

  19. Wonderful read, though I think you’re misusing life expectancy in this case. The number you’re citing (30) I’m assuming includes infant mortality and similar deaths. Whereas the number you really want is the life expectancy of a Roman who had already reached 30 years, which would be far, far higher. Boatwright suggests it could be as high as 60 for someone who had already reached 40:

    1. No, I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood. The average Roman male under a Model West, level 3 life expectancy table has 23.9 years of life expectancy at age 30, which is to say that the average Roman male 30 year old will live to be 53.9 years old. I’ve bumped that 23.9 years to 30 simply because we’re dealing with unusually well-fed elites who are less likely also to die of things like working accidents.

      Roman male life expectancy *at birth* is much lower, 22.8 years according to our life table, which accords reasonably well with our evidence. Much of that mortality is early infant mortality; by age 5, life expectancy is already bumped up to 39 years (so a mean age at death of 44 years).

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