Rome: Senate

Patrick Andrivet

1With the people and the magistrates, the Senate constituted one of the essential elements in the “Roman government”, the one which, thanks to the armies, for centuries assured the extension, then the hegemony of the Roman name. Montesquieu is very far from minimizing its role, faithful in this to a whole historiographical tradition that assured the Senage of a central place in the institutions of the Republic.

2The Senate of the royal period, to be sure, did not have the importance of the republican Senate; nevertheless, as is laid out in the early chapters of Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, as “the throne was elective”, “under the first five kings, the Senate had the largest share in the election”. Under their reign, “the Senate had great authority. The kings often took senateurs to judge with them: they did not take on the people’s business until it was deliberated in the Senate” (“le Sénat avait une grande autorité. Les rois prenaient souvent des sénateurs pour juger avec eux : ils ne portaient point d’affaire au peuple qu’elles n’eussent été délibérées dans le Sénat”). With the last two kings, things turned sour: Servius Tullius “had himself proclaimed by the people” and “took all business directly to the people”; as for Tarquin, “he took the crown as an hereditary right, exterminated most of the senators; he no longer consulted those who remained” (“il prit la couronne comme un droit héréditaire, il extermina la plupart des sénateurs ; il ne consulta plus ceux qui restaient”). The republican regime that followed the expulsion of Tarquin was to give the Senate a capital role.

3Montesquieu does not neglect the fact that the Senate was constituted by patricians, who represented a small part of the Roman population; very soon the situation became conflictual and the Senate would have to consent to significant reforms that diminished, but did not suppress, the privileges of the dominant order. Montesquieu recalls what the system of comices was like: centuriates, curiates, tributes. When the people were gathered by centuries, “the patricians, the principals, the rich, the Senate, which was about the same thing, had almost all the authority” (“les patriciens, les principaux, les gens riches, le Sénat, ce qui était à peu près la même chose, avaient presque toute l’autorité”). And the election of magistrates, even when the plebe had obtained that they could be chosen among them, was done – with the exception of the tribunes – according to the centuriate system.

4In 1719, an English lord, Stanhope, had written a memoir which he addressed to Vertot, recognized as a good specialist of Roman history: he asked “what was the common and regular voice in the first four or five centuries of the Republic that gave entrance to the Senate” (“quelle était la voie commune et régulière dans les quatre ou cinq premiers siècles de la République qui donnait entrée au Sénat”). Vertot replies conscientiously, showing that at the beginning it was the kings who chose the senators, then, after their expulsion, the consuls, and then the censors; all the patricians could not become senators; then the habit became instilled of sending magistrates leaving their office to the senate; and as the plebeians could be magistrates, plebeians could become senators. Finally a senatorial order was constituted, which supposed a certain level of fortune, higher than that necessary to belong to the equestrian order. Note this sign of invasive corruption: birth or merit are no longer considered.

5Montesquieu pays no attention to these questions, but in a paragraph of Romains (VIII) he enumerates the means that the people and the Senate respectively use in their long struggle, the first so the laws will incline “toward democracy”, the second to defend “the remains of its aristocracy” (EL, II, 3). The Senate, he writes, “defended itself with its wisdom, justice, and the love it inspired for country, by its favors, and a wise disposition of the treasury of the Republic” – all the positive aspects of this portrait are already in Bossuet – “by the respect the people had for the glory of the principal families, by the virtue of the great personages, even by religion, by the ancient institutions”; the traits that follow have more to do with political tactics, and are less honorable: “[…] by the suppression of assembly days on pretext that the auspices had not been favorable, by its clients, by opposition of one tribute to another” (“Le Sénat, écrit-il, se défendait par sa sagesse, sa justice, et l’amour qu’il inspirait pour la patrie, par ses bienfaits, et une sage disposition des trésors de la République […] par le respect que le peuple avait pour la gloire des principales familles, et la vertu des grands personnages, par la religion même, les institutions anciennes […] [par] la suppression des jours d’assemblée sous prétexte que les auspices n’avaient pas été favorables, par ses clients, par l’opposition d’un tribun à un autre”); “by the creation of a dictator” – Montesquieu elsewhere writes: “the Senate had the power to take, so to speak, the republic out of the people’s hands, by the creation of a dictator, before whom the sovereign lowered its head and the most popular laws remained silent” (“par la création d’un dictateur […] le Sénat avait le pouvoir d’ôter, pour ainsi dire, la république des mains du peuple, par la création d’un dictateur, devant lequel le souverain baissait la tête et les lois les plus populaires restaient dans le silence”, EL, XI, 16) – by “the occupations of a new war, or the misfortunes that brought everybody’s interests together, finally by paternal condescension” – perhaps again thinking of Bossuet – “to accord to the people a part of its demands so it would abandon the others, and the constant principle of preferring the preservation of the Republic to the prerogatives of whatever order or magistracy” (“à accorder au peuple une partie de ses demandes pour lui faire abandonner les autres, et cette maxime constante de préférer la conservation de la République aux prérogatives de quelque ordre, ou de quelque magistrature que ce fût”): the latter trait is evidently a fine homage to the Senate’s civic duty.

6The Roman Senate did not have the attributions one might expect from an assembly of some three hundred members, those for example of an Upper Chamber. But it was, with the magistrates and together with the people, the holder of executive power. “The share the Senate took in the executive power”, he says further, “was so great that Polybius says foreigners thought Rome was an aristocracy” (“La part que le Sénat prenait à la puissance exécutrice, était si grande, que Polybe dit que les étrangers pensaient tous que Rome était une aristocratie”). Montesquieu illustrates the importance of its role with an enumeration of its attributions, which we can list here, sorting them out by domains:
a) financial: “the Senate disposed of the public funds and gave revenues to the treasurer”;
b) political: “it decided on war and peace, and in this regard directed the consuls”;
c) military: “it fixed the number of Roman troops and allied troops, distributed the provinces and armies to the consuls or praetors; and after the year was over, could give them successors; it awarded triumphs” (“il fixait le nombre des troupes romaines et des troupes alliées, distribuait les provinces et les armées aux consuls ou aux préteurs ; et, l’an expiré, il pouvait leur donner un successeur ; il décernait les triomphes”);
d) diplomatic: “it was the arbiter of allied business […]; it received and sent embassies; it named kings, recompensed them, punished them, judged them, gave them or took away the title of allies of the Roman people” (“il était l’arbitre des affaires des alliés [...] ; il recevait des ambassades et en envoyait ; il nommait les rois, les récompensait, les punissait, les jugeait, leur donnait ou leur faisait perdre le titre d’alliés du peuple romain”).

7In sum, the Senate combined the attributions that today would be those both of a chief of state, a minister of finance, a minister of the armies, and above all a minister of foreign affairs. That is to state its importance and, in the best times of the Republic, whatever Montesquieu may think, the fact that there was hardly any counterweight to its influence in public affairs.

8The judgment of Montesquieu on the Senate seems quite divided: he exalts, on the interir level, the assembly’s capacity for running the Republic well, as much as he shows himself extremely critical with respect to the foreign policy conducted by Rome under the Senate’s impulsion. In fact, while he unequivocally condemned the quest of hegemony that characterized the Roman character, he was not a genuine admirer of institutions which, compared to the ideal construction traced in the chapter on the English Constitution, sinned in many ways. Though he may say that “the government of Rome was admirable from since its beginning its Constitution was such, either through the spirit of the people, the strength of the Senate, or the authority of certain magistrates, any abuse of power could always be corrected” (“le gouvernement de Rome fut admirable en ce que depuis sa naissance sa Constitution se trouva telle, soit par l’esprit du peuple, la force du Sénat, ou l’autorité de certains magistrats, que tout abus de pouvoir y pût toujours être corrigé”), he was obliged to recognize that “corruption” (the title of chapter X of Romas) entered the hearts and undermined the institutions: a consequence of the indefinite growth of the territories over which Rome exerted its authority, of the wealth that followed from it, corruption itself has as its consequence the end of good government functioning. Montesquieu thus very clearly decries the “government of the Roman provinces”: “those who were sent out had a power that combined that of all Roman magistracies; nay, even that of the Senate, even that of the people. They were despotic magistrates […]” (“ceux qu’on envoyait avaient une puissance qui réunissait celle de toutes les magistratures romaines ; que dis-je ? celle même du Sénat, celle même du peuple. C’étaient des magistrats despotiques [...]”, EL, XI, 19). Now many of these despotic magistrates had come from the senatorial order. But did these praetors or proconsuls have to go far from Rome? The example of Verres, governor of Sicily and notorious strongman, attests the opposite. And for one Verres, who was sanctioned, though lightly however, how many remained unpunished! The impotence of the Senate is patent, when the civil wars began that were to do in the Republic: it put all its hopes on Pompey, because he “returning to Rome able to suppress the Republic, had the modesty to dismiss his armies before he entered”; after Pharsale, there was nothing left: “Caesar, always the enemy of the Senate, could not hide the scorn he felt for that body which had become almost ridiculous since it had no power” (“César de tout temps ennemi du Sénat ne put cacher le mépris qu’il conçut pour ce corps qui était devenu presque ridicule depuis qu’il n’avait plus de puissance”); it was indeed among the senators that the conspirators of the Ides of March were recruited; but once the dictator was cut down, the Senate was incapable of action. Augustus was adept with the Senate, but he governed as a monarch. Later, under Tiberius and the emperors who succeeded him, the Senate fell into a “degradation” from which it never recovered.


Patrick Andrivet, “Rome enfin que je hais…”? Une étude sur les différentes vues de Montesquieu concernant les anciens Romains, Orléans: Paradigme, 2012.