The Roman Senate (Latin, Senatus) was a deliberative body which was important in the government of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The word Senatus is derived from the Latin word senex ("old man" or "elder"); literally, "Senate" is understood to mean something along the lines of Council of Elders.


Tradition held that the Senate was first established by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, as an advisory council consisting of the 100 heads of families, called Patres ("Fathers") from which the term Patrician would later come. Later, when at the start of the Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus increased the number of Senators to three hundred (according to legend), they were also called Conscripti ("Conscripted Men"), because Brutus had conscripted them. Thus, the members of the Senate were addressed as "Patres et Conscripti", which was gradually run together as "Patres Conscripti" ("Conscript Fathers").


The sum total of the Roman population was divided into two classes, the Senate and the Roman People (as seen in the famous abbreviation SPQR); the Roman People consisted of all Roman citizens who were not members of the Senate, such as the plebeians and proletarians. Domestic power was vested in the Roman People, through the Centuriate Assembly (Comitia Centuriata), the Tribal Assembly (Comitia Tributa), and the Plebeian Council (Concilium Plebis). Contrary to popular belief, the Senate was not a legislature; a senatus consultum was only a recommendation of legal practice, not a law in and of itself. Actual legislation was vested in the aforementioned Roman assemblies and the Plebeian Council, which acted on the Senate's recommendations and also elected the city's magistrates. The late republican period changed the course of the Roman Culture.

Nevertheless, the Senate held considerable clout (auctoritas) in Roman politics. As the embodiment of Rome, it was the official body that sent and received ambassadors on behalf of the city, that appointed officials to manage the public lands — including provincial governors — that conducted wars, and appropriated public funds. The Senate also bore the prerogative of authorizing the city's chief magistrates, the consuls, to nominate a dictator in a state of emergency, usually military. In the late Republic, the Senate came to avoid the dictatorate by resorting to a senatus consultum de republica defendenda, the so-called senatus consultum ultimum which declared martial law and empowered the consuls to "take care that the Republic should come to no harm", according to Cicero's first In Catilinam oration.

Like the Comitia Centuriata and the Comitia Tributa, but unlike the Concilium Plebis, the Senate operated under certain religious restrictions. It could only meet in a consecrated temple, usually the Curia Hostilia (the ceremonies of New Year's Day were in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and war meetings were held in the temple of Bellona), and its sessions could only proceed after an invocation prayer, a sacrificial offering, and the auspices were taken. The Senate could only meet between sunrise and sunset, and could not meet while any of the assemblies were in session.


The Senate had around 300 members in the middle and late Republic. Membership could be stripped by the censors if a Senator was thought to have committed an act "against the public morals." Customarily, all magistrates -- quaestors, aediles (both curulis and plebis), praetors, and consuls -- were admitted to the Senate for life, but not all senators had been magistrates; those who were not were called senatores pedarii and were not permitted to speak. As a result, the Senate was dominated by established families of patricians and plebeians, as it was much easier for these groups to climb the cursus honorum and acquire speaking rights.


The consuls alternated monthly as president of the Senate, while the princeps senatus functioned as leader of the house. If both consuls were absent (usually because of a war), the senior magistrate, most often the Praetor Urbanus, would act as the president. Originally, it was the president's duty to lay business before the Senate, either his own proposition or a topic by which he would solicit the senators for their propositions, but this soon became the domain of the princeps. Among the senators with speaking rights a rigid order defined who could speak when, with a patrician always preceding a plebeian of equal rank, and the princeps speaking first.

Notable practicesEdit

There was no limit on debate, and the practice of what is now called the filibuster or talked out was a favoured trick (a practice which continues to be accepted in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States today). Votes could be taken by voice vote or show of hands in unimportant matters, but important or formal motions were decided by division of the house; a quorum to do business was necessary, but it is not known how many senators constituted a quorum. The Senate was divided into decuries (groups of ten), each led by a patrician (thus requiring that there would be at least 30 patrician senators at any given time).

Style of dressEdit

All senators were entitled to wear a senatorial ring (originally made of iron, but later gold; old patrician families like the Julii Caesares continued to wear iron rings to the end of the Republic) and a tunica clava, a white tunic with a broad purple stripe 13 cm wide (latus clavus) on the right shoulder. A senator pedarius wore a white toga virilis (also called a toga pura) without decoration excluding those explained above, whereas a senator who had held a curule magistracy was entitled to wear the toga praetexta, a white toga with a broad purple border. Similarly, all senators wore closed maroon leather shoes, but senators who had held curule magistracies added a crescent-shaped buckle. Senators were forbidden to engage in any business unrelated to the ownership of land, but this rule was frequently disregarded.

The Equestrian classEdit

Until 123 BC, all senators were also equestrians, frequently called "knights" in English works. That year, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus legislated the separation of the two classes, and established the latter as the Ordo Equester ("Equestrian Order"). These equestrians were not restricted in their business ventures and came from a powerful plutocratic force in Roman politics. Sons of senators and other non-senatorial members of senatorial families continued to be classified as equestrians, who were entitled to wear tunics with narrow purple stripes 7.5 cm wide as a reminder of their senatorial origins.

Decline of the Senate during the Imperial Age (1st century BCE - 6th century CE)Edit

Julius Caesar introduced a different kind of membership into the Senate during his dictatorate. He increased the membership to 900 and seated many Roman citizens of Latin and Italian background, as well as loyal adherents who had proven their competence and valor during the civil wars. Although intended to break the power of obstreperous reactionary factions like the Good Men, this reform contributed to turning the Senate into a mere cipher, as it became under the Principate and beyond. A remnant of its former self, it continued to figure in Roman politics, but never regained its previous dominance. The Senate survived the end of the Empire in the West, and its last recorded acts were the dispatch of two embassies to the Imperial court of Tiberius II Constantine at Constantinople in 578 and 580.


  • The Histories by Polybius
  • Cambridge Ancient History, Volumes 9-13.
  • F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, (Duckworth, 1977, 1992).
  • A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, (Fontana Press, 1993).