Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Roman and Byzantine Senate

Representation of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco.

The history of the Senate pre-dates Rome and goes deep into the past of Western Civilization.

For example, ancient Athens had a 500 member Senate and the North African "Republican Empire" of Carthage was ruled by a Senate and a "Tribunal of 104".

In most nations the Senate is a deliberative assembly, often the upper house or chamber of a bicameral legislature.  Senators may be elected, appointed, have inherited the title, or gained membership by other methods, depending on the country.

Senate of the Roman Republic

The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic. It was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors.

After a Roman magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic appointment to the Senate. According to the Greek historian Polybius, our principal source on the Constitution of the Roman Republic, the Roman Senate was the predominant branch of government.

Polybius noted that it was the consuls (the highest-ranking of the regular magistrates) who led the armies and the civil government in Rome, and it was the Roman assemblies which had the ultimate authority over elections, legislation, and criminal trials. However, since the Senate controlled money, administration, and the details of foreign policy, it had the most control over day-to-day life.

The power and authority of the Senate derived from precedent, the high caliber and prestige of the senators, and the Senate's unbroken lineage, which dated back to the founding of the Republic in 509 BC.

Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council.

Senate of the Roman Empire

After the fall of the Roman Republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the "Roman Senate" to the "Roman Emperor." Beginning with the first emperor, Augustus, the Emperor and the Senate were technically two co-equal branches of government.

In practice, however the actual authority of the Imperial Senate was negligible, as the Emperor held the true power of the state. As such, membership in the Senate became sought after by individuals seeking prestige and social standing, rather than actual authority.

During the reigns of the first Emperors, legislative, judicial, and electoral powers were all transferred from the "Roman assemblies" to the Senate. However, since the control that the Emperor held over the Senate was absolute, the Senate acted as a vehicle through which the Emperor exercised his autocratic powers.

In theory, the Senate elected new emperors, while in conjunction with the popular assemblies, it would then confer upon the new emperor his command powers (imperium).

Around 300 AD, the emperor Diocletian enacted a series of constitutional reforms. In one such reform, Diocletian asserted the right of the Emperor to take power without the theoretical consent of the Senate, thus depriving the Senate of its status as the ultimate depository of supreme power. Diocletian's reforms also ended whatever illusion had remained that the Senate had independent legislative, judicial, or electoral powers. The Senate did, however, retain its legislative powers over public games in Rome, and over the senatorial order.

After Rome was recaptured by the Imperial Byzantine army, the Senate was restored, but the institution (like classical Rome itself) had been mortally weakened by the long war between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths. Many Senators had been killed and many of those who had fled to the East chose to remain there thanks to favorable legislation passed by Emperor Justinian, who however abolished virtually all senatorial offices in Italy.

The Curia Julia
The Curia Julia is the third named Curia, or Senate House, in the ancient city of Rome. It was built in 44 BC when Julius Caesar replaced Faustus Cornelius Sulla’s reconstructed Curia Cornelia, which itself had replaced the Curia Hostilia. Caesar did this in order to redesign both spaces within the Comitium and Forum Romanum.
The alterations within the Comitium reduced the prominence of the senate and cleared the original space. The work, however, was interrupted by Caesar's assassination at the Theatre of Pompey where the Senate had been meeting temporarily while the work was completed. The project was eventually finished by Caesar’s successor Augustus in 29 BC.
The Curia Julia is one of only a handful of Roman structures to survive to the modern day mostly intact.

Curia Julia from Wikipedia

Eastern Roman Senate

The Eastern Roman Senate was the continuation of the Roman Senate, established in the 4th century by Constantine I. It survived for centuries but was increasingly irrelevant until its eventual disappearance in the 13th century.

The Senate of the Eastern Roman Empire originally consisted of Roman Senators who happened to live in the East, or those who wanted to move to Constantinople, and a few other bureaucrats who were appointed to the Senate. Constantine offered free land and grain to any Roman Senators who were willing to move to the East. When Constantine founded the Eastern Senate in Byzantium, it initially resembled the councils of important cities like Antioch rather than the Roman Senate.

His son Constantius II raised it from the position of a municipal to that of an Imperial body but the Senate in Constantinople had essentially the same limited powers as the Senate in Rome. Constantius II increased the number of Senators to 2,000 by including his friends, courtiers, and various provincial officials.

From the beginning Byzantine Senators were lured east by the perks- free grain and land at the state’s expense.  There were relatively few duties to get in the way of enjoying the good life.  While the Roman Empire held on to the conceit that it was a Republic long after any trace of representative government had vanished- as late as the 6th century it was still issuing coins proclaiming the Republic- actual responsibilities were few and far between. 

Gold solidus of the two Heraclii in consular robes, struck
during their revolt against Phocas in 608.

The Great Palace Complex
The Senate lost its independent houses in the 6th century and from then on
it assembled in the Great Palace of Constantinople under the
watchful eyes of the Emperors.
Image from Istanbul Guide.net

There was an obscure clause in one of Justinian’s law codes that said any new law had to be discussed by the Senate, but it was never enforced.  Their sole administrative duty was to manage the spending of money on the exhibition of games or public works.  This was not a highly lucrative job, so most senators (there were 2,000 of them) used the office for tax reasons- namely to escape the fees levied on others. (the more things change…)

Of course the Senate never quite forgot its august history and there were sporadic attempts to grasp real power.  In 532 they participated in the Nika Riots hoping to replace Justinian with one of their own members.  (Justinian repaid them by confiscating the Senate House and turning it into a reception hall for the Great Palace.) 

In 608 they elected Heraclius as Consul, then elevated him to emperor against the usurper Phocas.  On his deathbed in 641, Heraclius thanked them by entrusting his young son Heraklonas to their care.  The Senate promptly deposed the boy and replaced him with a grandson of Heraclius named Constans II.  For the next three years the empire was openly ruled by the Senate - the first time since the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

That turned out to be the swan song of Senatorial ambition.  After Constans came of age their importance quickly declined.

The Senate's power was gradually reduced over the course of history, although it still existed into the 13th century. From the seventh century on, it could be said that it was less of an institution than a class of dignitaries, as many of its remaining powers as a body were removed under legal reforms by the Emperors Basil I and Leo VI.

The Senate itself retained considerable prestige, especially in the 11th century when the "court party" came to power following the death of Basil II. With the final triumph of the military faction on the accession of Alexius I Comnenus the Senate began to fade into irrelevance and the title of Senator could be bought from the Emperor.

The Senate's last known act was to elect Nicolaus Kanabus as Emperor in opposition against Isaac II and Alexius IV during the Fourth Crusade. Under the Palaeologus dynasty the title of Senator survived for a time, but in the crises of the mid 14th century the ancient office finally vanished for good.

Senate Houses  -  There were two Senate houses in Constantinople; one, built by Constantine and restored by Justinian, was on the east side of the Augustaion, close to the Imperial Palace, at Magnaura, whilst the other was on the north side of the Forum of Constantine. The Senate lost its houses in the 6th century and from then on assembled in the Great Palace of Constantinople.

The Eastern Senate and the Imperial Council

By J.B. Bury
History of the Later Roman Empire (1889)

Although the dyarchy, or double government of Emperor and Senate, had come to an end, and autocracy, as we have seen, was established without reserve or disguise, the Senate remained as an important constitutional body, with rights and duties, and, though it was remodelled, it maintained many of its ancient traditions.

The foundation of Constantinople had led to the formation of a second Senate, modelled on that of Rome — a great constitutional innovation. Constantine himself had not ventured upon this novelty. He did found a new senate in Byzantium, but his foundation seems rather to have resembled the senates of important cities like Antioch than the august Senatus Romanus. His son Constantius raised it from the position of a municipal to that of an Imperial body.

The principles that senatorial rank was hereditary and that the normal way of becoming a member of the Senate itself was by holding a magistracy still remained in full force. The offices of aedile and tribune had disappeared, and by the end of the fourth century the quaestorship was on the point of disappearing. Hence the praetorship remained as the portal through which the sons of senators could enter the Senate. They not only could, but they were obliged.

The sole duty of the Praetor now was to spend money on the exhibition of games or on public works. There were eight praetors in the East; the expenses were divided among them; and the Senate, which had the duty of designating them, named them ten years in advance, in order to enable them to economise or otherwise collect the necessary funds, as the cost of holding the office was extremely heavy. The burden of the consulship was not so severe, but that supreme dignity was bestowed only on men who were already senators.

Men who were not born in the senatorial order could be admitted to the Senate in various ways, whether by a decree of the Senate itself or by the Emperor, who might confer either upon an individual or upon a whole class of persons an order of rank which carried with it a seat in the Senate. Persons thus co-opted by the Senate were liable to the burden of the praetorship, and likewise those whom the Emperor ennobled, unless special exemption were granted.

Exemption was granted frequently, and it took the form of adlectio. This was the term used in the early Empire for the process by which the Emperor could introduce into the Senate a candidate of his own and make him a member of the aedilician, for instance, or of the praetorian class, though he had never filled the corresponding magistracy. In the fourth century these classes disappeared and were replaced by the three orders of illustres, spectabiles, and clarissimi, in each of which there were certain subdivisions. The Emperor could confer these orders of rank on any one, and a person to whom he granted the clarissimate became thereby a member of the lowest order of the Senate, and belonged to the adlecti who were exempt from the praetorship.

Further, under the new administrative system which will be described in the following chapter, all the important offices carried with them the title illustris, or spectabilis, or clarissimus, and thus secured to their occupants eventually, if not immediately, seats in the Senate. And in some cases, though by no means in all, this admission by virtue of office carried with it exemption. Again, there were many classes of subordinate functionaries who received, when they retired from office, the clarissimate or perhaps one of the higher titles, thus becoming senators, and these as a rule enjoyed exemption.

To resume: the Senate was recruited from men of senatorial origin, that is, sons of senators, and from men who, born outside the senatorial class, were ennobled by elevation to office, or on retiring from office, or occasionally by a special act of the Emperor or of the Senate. The praetorship was the front gate for entering the Senate, but there was also a back gate, adlection, of which the Emperor held the key, and a large and increasing number of the second section entered by this way.

One of Constantine's administrative reforms was the opening to senators of all the official posts, which hitherto had been confined to the equestrian order, so that the careers open to a young man of senatorial birth were far more numerous and varied. The equestrian order gradually disappeared altogether. On the other hand, men of the lowest origin might rise through the inferior grades of the public service to higher posts which carried with them the right of admission to the Senate.

Thus an aristocracy was formed, which was recruited every year by men whose fathers had not belonged to it, and was divided into grades depending on office or special Imperial favour, not on birth. Ancient tradition was so far preserved that those who had discharged the functions of consul (including honorary consuls) had the most exalted rank. Next to the consuls came Patricians, a new order instituted by Constantine, not connected with any office, and conferred — at first very sparingly — by the Emperor on men highly distinguished for their services to the State.

The Senate from HBO's Rome

A large number of senators preferred living on their estates in the country to residence in the capitals, and of those who actually attended the meetings of the Senate it is probable that the greater number were men who held official posts and that simple senators were few. We may conjecture that the highest and smallest class, the Illustrious, came to form the majority of the active members of the Senate, and that this fact caused the Emperors before the middle of the fifth century to permit the two inferior classes, Spectabiles and the Clarissimi, to live wherever they pleased.

A few years later all members of these classes who lived in the provinces were relieved from the Praetorship, and were graciously recommended to stay at home and enjoy their dignities. This meant that while they belonged to the senatorial class and paid the senatorial taxes, they were expressly discouraged from sitting in the Senate. The next step was to exclude entirely the two lower classes and confine the right of deliberating in the Senate to Illustres, and by the end of the fifth century this seems to have been the rule.

The functions of the Senates of Rome and Constantine were both municipal and Imperial. As the funds contributed by the praetors were exclusively applied for the benefit of the capital cities, the nomination of these magistrates and the control exercised over the distribution of the funds belonged to the municipal part of their duties. The Prefect of the City acted as chief of the Senate and as its executive officer, and conducted all its communications with the Emperor. He was the guardian of the rights of senators; and that body acted with him as an advisory council on such matters as the food supply of the capital, or the regulation of the public instruction given by professors and rhetors.
We have already seen the constitutional importance of the Senate when a vacancy on the throne occurred. It could pass resolutions (senatus consulta) which the Emperor might adopt and issue in the form of edicts. It could thus suggest Imperial legislation, and it acted from time to time as a consultative body in co-operation with the Imperial Council. Some of the Imperial laws took the form (we do not know on what principle) of "Orations to the Senate," and were read aloud before that body.

Valentinian III, in A.D. 446, definitely formulated a legislative procedure which granted to the Senate the right of co-operation. When any new law was to be promulgated, it was first to be discussed at meetings of the Senate and the Council; if agreed to, it was to be drafted (by the Quaestor), and then submitted again to the same bodies, after which it was to be confirmed by the Emperor. This regulation points to the probability that it was already the habit frequently to consult the Senate.

Personification of the Senate. From the consular diptych
of Theodore Philoxenus, 525 AD

The Senate might act as a judicial court, if the Emperor so pleased, and trials for high treason were sometimes entrusted to it. For ordinary crimes, Senators were judged by a court consisting of the Prefect of the City and five Senators chosen by lot.

There were two Senate-houses at Constantinople, one, built by Constantine, on the east side of the Augusteum, close to the Imperial Palace; the other on the north side of the Forum of Constantine. It is not clear why two houses were required. But in the sixth century we are told that the Senate had ceased to meet in its own place and used to assemble in the Palace. This change was probably connected with its co-operation with the Imperial Council.

Important decisions as to legislation and public policy were not usually taken by the Emperor on the single advice of the minister specially concerned. He was assisted by the Consistorium or Imperial Council, which was constantly summoned to deliberate on questions of moment, and we must always remember that, while the Emperor was officially and legally sole author of all laws and responsible for acts of state, the deliberations of the Imperial Council had a large share in the conduct of public affairs.

The Consistorium was derived from the legal Consilium of Hadrian, enlarged in its functions and altered in its constitution by Diocletian and Constantine. It acted as a high Court, before which important cases, such as treason, might be tried. It was consulted generally on matters of legislation and policy. The Quaestor was its president. It included the two financial Ministers and the Master of Offices; and probably the Praetor Prefect and the Masters of Soldiers who were in residence at the capital generally attended.

We have very little information about its size or its constitution; nor do we know how often it met. We have good reason to suppose that it met at stated times, and not merely when convened for a special purpose. That the transaction of a considerable amount of ordinary business devolved upon it may be inferred from the fact that it disposed of a large bureau of secretaries and officials known as Tribunes and Notaries. These clerks, who had their office in the Palace, drafted the proceedings and resolutions of the Consistorium, and were sometimes employed to execute missions in pursuance of its decisions.

Among the ordinary duties of the Council was that of receiving deputations from the provinces. But the most important part of its regular work seems to have been judicial. In serious cases, senators who did not belong to the Council were frequently called to assist. The technical term for a meeting of the Council was silentium; a meeting in which the Senate took part was called silentium et conventus. But the words et conventus were frequently dropped; and thus it becomes difficult to say in a given case whether a silentium means the Council only or the Council and Senate.

It would seem that, while the Senate and Council continued to be formally distinct, the Senate came virtually to be a larger Council and met in the great hall of council, the Consistorium in the Palace.

The Emperor, at his discretion, referred political questions either to this larger body or to a smaller body of functionaries which corresponded to the old Imperial Council. The chief occasions on which the Senate could exercise independent political action were when a vacancy to the throne occurred; but some cases are recorded in which it seems to have taken the initiative in recommending political measures.

Solidus celebrating emperorship of Leo II. The Emperor is coined as
"Saviour of the Republic" — which the Empire continued to be in theory.

J. B. Bury - History of the Later Roman Empire (1889)

Senate of the Roman Republic      Senate - Roman Empire      Senate House

Eastern Senate      Byzantine Senate      Senate

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