Senatus populusque Romanus – Senate of the Republic
The Roman Senate (translated the assembly of elders) was a political institution that survived almost the whole turbulent history of ancient Rome. It was founded as early as 7th century BC and lasted even after the fall of Western Empire in the 5th century. As a political institution, the Senate had various roles over the course of history, reaching its power apex in the time of Roman Republic.
The Senate in the Roman Kingdom
During the days of the Roman kings, the Senate had an advisory role (aside from being the institution that elected the King). The King would seek advice, but decisions were almost always made by the man himself. This left the Senate unhappy with their political leverage. In the year of 509 BC the last Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was overthrown as a result of coup d’état led by Lucius Junius Brutus. He had the Senate’s support and ultimately became the founder of the new Roman political system – The Republic. This move was seen as a political Renaissance as it was influenced by the Greek democratic system. The Senate became a dominant political institution during the time of the Roman Republic.
Leadership of the Roman Republic
Each year, two Consuls were elected to serve a one year term. During this term they acted as leaders of the Republic (something like today’s prime ministers). One Consul would be oriented towards the international affairs (conquering new land for the Republic), while the other would manage internal affairs. They were also called Preators (leaders). In the times of crisis, when Roman territorial integrity was in danger, a dictator could be appointed by the Consuls. He would than regain an absolute power over the Republic. This could happen only if the Senate proposed such act, and it could last for half a year maximum.
Assemblies of the Senate:
During The Roman Republic, the Roman Senate was broken down into three main assemblies: The Century Assembly, The Tribal Assembly and The Plebian Council (People’s Council). These assemblies were introduced to ensure that the system of direct democracy worked as intended.
The Century Assembly
This was the democratic assembly of the Roman army. When a certain legislation (also known as senatus consulta) was presented, soldiers would gather within their centuriae to cast a vote. The Century Assembly was the only assembly that had the power over international relations, This basically meant the power to declare wars and pass peace treaties. They also elected the highest ranking Roman magistrates: Consuls and Censors.
The Tribal Assembly
Roman citizens were distributed within the 35 „Roman tribes“. Four of there tribes were urban while 31 were rural. Each tribe gathered to vote an a legislation of judicial or electoral matter. Each tribe was accounted as one vote in the Senate. The president of this assembly was usually a Preator. The Tribal Assembly had power to elect junior magistrates.
The Plebeian Council
The Plebeian Council was an assembly (actually it was a council) which gathered the Plebs (commoners) that had no or little political power before the Republic. The council gave a chance to the plebeians to actually vote, pass laws and even elect magistrates. The Council had the least power of the three assemblies, but it had a major role in keeping the plebeians politically influential, therefore happy.
Following the fall of the Republic the Senate lost a large fraction of it’s power, although it still remained as a political institution. The topic of the Senate following the fall of the Republic will be covered in another article.