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Ancient Rome

The Senate

History >> Ancient Rome

The senate was a major political body throughout the history of Ancient Rome. It was typically made up of important and wealthy men from powerful families.

Was the Roman senate powerful?

The role of the senate changed over time. In the early ages of Rome, the senate was there to advise the king. During the Roman Republic the senate became more powerful. Although the senate could only make "decrees" and not laws, its decrees were generally obeyed. The senate also controlled the spending of the state money, making it very powerful. Later, during the Roman Empire, the senate had less power and the real power was held by the emperor.
Painting of Cicero talking to the Roman Senate
A Roman Senate Meeting by Cesare Maccari

Who could become a senator?

Unlike senators of the United States, senators of Rome were not elected, they were appointed. Through much of the Roman Republic, an elected official called the censor appointed new senators. Later, the emperor controlled who could become senator.

In the early history of Rome, only men from the patrician class could become senators. Later, men from the common class, or plebeians, could also become a senator. Senators were men who had previously been an elected official (called a magistrate).

During the rule of Emperor Augustus, senators were required to have over 1 million sesterces in wealth. If they came into misfortune and lost their wealth, they were expected to resign.

How many senators were there?

Throughout most of the Roman Republic there were 300 senators. This number was increased to 600 and then 900 under Julius Caesar.

Requirements of a Senator

Senators were required to be of high moral character. They needed to be wealthy because they were not paid for their jobs and were expected to spend their wealth on helping the Roman state. They were also not allowed to be bankers, participate in foreign trade, or have committed a crime.

Did senators have any special privileges?

Although senators didn't get paid, it was still considered a lifelong goal of many Romans to become a member of the senate. With membership came great prestige and respect throughout Rome. Only senators could wear a purple striped toga and special shoes. They also got special seating at public events and could become high ranking judges.

Issuing Decrees

The senate would meet to debate current issues and then to issue decrees (advice) to the current consuls. Before issuing a decree, each senator present would speak about the subject (in order of seniority).

How did they vote?

Once every senator had the chance to speak on an issue, a vote was taken. In some cases, the senators moved to the side of the speaker or the chamber that they supported. The side with the most senators won the vote.

Interesting Facts About the Roman Senate
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