When trying to establish a new nation after the American Revolution, the Framers (aka “Founding Fathers”) of the new U.S. government and its Constitution realized that the only useful examples were from antiquity, so they studied the republics of ancient Greece and Rome. But rather than simply imitate classical models, the Framers literally conducted a “forensic” analysis of many earlier forms of government, attempting to understand why they failed or changed in unexpected ways. This intellectual exercise resulted in John Adams’ Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, published in 1787 and James Madison’s lectures to the Constitutional Convention, “Notes on ancient and modern confederations,” which covered the pros and cons of historic and ancient republics.
The Framers viewed the Roman Republic, which lasted almost 500 years, as the most useful historical example of a representative form of government. However, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives were established not only as law-making governmental bodies, but also as an effective check on the power of the executive (President)—two features that corrected some limitations of the Roman Senate. Therefore, the Senate we have today in the U.S. is different from that of ancient Rome, so here is a brief history of the Roman Senate that served as a model.
Like many other peoples and civilizations worldwide, and throughout time, the Romans had created their own “origin myth”—a legend about how, when, and by whom they came into existence. The Romans believed that Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were abandoned as infants and nursed by a female wolf, would go on to found the city of Rome. This great legend, however, has no factual basis in historical records.
From 753 to 509 BC/BCE, the city of Rome was ruled by a series of seven kings—Romulus being the first king. What is interesting about this early monarchy is that Rome’s kings were elected—there was no dynastic succession. However, the fifth king, Tarquinius Priscus, tried to establish a hereditary monarchy for which his family was eventually overthrown by the Romans, resulting in the establishment of the Roman Republic with a representative form of government that lasted almost 500 years (509-27 BC/BCE).
According to legend, Rome’s founder Romulus also established the first Senate, with 100 senators, as an advisory body to the king. During the 2nd century BC/BCE, the number of senators was increased to 300. A century later, the general and statesman Sulla, who wanted to enact serious land reforms, enlarged the Senate to 900. Julius Caesar increased the Senate to 1,000, bringing in members from outside of the upper class and from the provinces outside Italy. Finally, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, finalized its membership to 600.
The Romans used the name senatus for this important governmental body, which derives from the Latin word senex meaning “old” and the name Senate meant an “assembly of old men” whose collective experience and knowledge were considered valuable in ancient society. [Ironically, watching TV in today’s world, it may appear that the composition of the Senate has not changed in 2,500 years!]
Members of the Senate were recruited from the wealthiest Roman families of the patrician class, and they retained their office for life, unless they committed dishonorable acts. The Roman Senate was essentially an oligarchy and, from a social perspective, resembled the House of Lords (the upper chamber of the British Parliament). A new list of members was compiled every five years by Rome’s census officials. Senators received no salary or payment and were not permitted to engage in business with banks or foreign trade to discourage using political office for personal gain (although senators found ways to act through intermediaries).
The Roman Senate did not enact legislation but was designed more for “indirect” executive power—as an advisory board to the first kings, then to elected heads of state (consuls) during the Republic (509-27 BC/BCE), and later to the emperors of the Imperial period (27 BC/BCE to 476 AD/CE). The Senate advised officials by issuing decrees and resolutions, and its opinions were critical for the functioning of the government. The Senate’s deliberations covered both domestic and foreign policy: controlled state finances; created new provinces and determined their borders; debated the efficacy of existing laws; issued emergency decrees in a crisis; and supervised diplomatic relations with foreign powers, religious life in Rome, and deployment of the armed forces (legions). There were no limits to debating in the Senate, and various delay tactics were employed, such as the filibuster by speaking for incredible lengths of time to derail the opposition and delay voting.
After the political turmoil during the first century BC/BCE, and Julius Caesar’s destructive seizure of power and self-proclamation as dictator for life, Rome’s representative form of government collapsed. The Senate gave Octavian (Caesar’s nephew) extraordinary powers in 27 BC/BCE, and he took on the name Augustus. Emperor Augustus introduced a minimum property qualification for Senate membership and then decreed only sons of senators or those given the status by the emperor could become senators. And, as the empire expanded over the centuries so too did the geographic origins of the senators and, by the 3rd century AD/CE, up to 50% of senators came from outside Italy.
The Senate was still an influential body even after Augustus became emperor. The Senate continued to make decisions in military, fiscal, and religious matters, and appointed the governors of the provinces that were not under the emperor’s direct control. Important legal cases involving bribery, extortion, and crimes against the people were adjudicated in the Senate, and their rulings could not be overturned by the emperor. Throughout the imperial period (27 BC/BCE to 476 AD/CE), most emperors acknowledged that the Senate was an important voice of the elite of Rome, whose involvement was still necessary for the functioning of the empire. Senators continued to debate and sometimes disapproved of the emperor’s actions, and the speeches made by senators were also important. But when emperors started to attend Senate meetings, and made speeches themselves, they were subsequently quoted by jurists (legal authorities), and thus had the force of law. Over the centuries, the senators’ powers had greatly diminished—real political power was in the hands of the emperors.
The Roman Empire eventually became too large to govern—spanning three continents—so in 285 AD/CE, Emperor Diocletian divided the empire into a Western Roman Empire and an Eastern Roman Empire, resulting in the creation of two Senates, in Rome and Constantinople (Turkey), respectively. Since the emperor resided in Constantinople, the Senate in Rome deliberated only on local matters. The Senate continued on, though, and even outlasted the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD/CE, but it would never regain the power and prestige it had during the Republic. By 630 AD/CE, the Roman Senate ceased to exist as a governing body in Europe. The title of “senator” was only used as a symbolic title of nobility and had nothing to do with service in government. However, in the Eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantine Empire), the Senate existed until the early 13th century.
For more information on the Roman Senate: