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The New Senate Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes

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The empire was run by the senators, but not by the senate. Discuss. "To anyone who happened to be living in Rome when the consuls were away from the city the constitution might well appear to be completely aristocratic, since the Senate handles almost all the business of state which concerns them." This is Polybius summary of the powers of the senate under the Republican system; they control everything from finance through foreign embassies to matters of war and peace, making them the dominant body of control and legislation in the state. Under Augustus and the principate this changed; the emperor was the supreme ruler, perhaps not always in name and form but certainly in reality, such was the power his auctoritas granted him. This meant that the senate as it once was, certainly as Sulla had made it, in many ways died but that is not to say that the senators, those wealthy men from old and distinguished families, stopped having a say in the way the empire was run. Firstly, however, it is most useful to illustrate the extent to which the senate as an institution in itself became a largely impotent body under the principate. Entry into this austere institution was now at the discretion of the emperor since he made all the appointments and imperial patronage became essential to anyone nobleman who wanted to progress in politics. The growing importance of this meant that the prefecture of the city now became one of the highest honours in a senator's career along with the governorships of Africa and Asia, which were the only ones left to the senate, rather than the consulship which used to be the pinnacle of prestige and power; this is indicative of the senate's loss of power because its highest office was no longer the most desirable prize in politics. Also it would be fair to say that any institution that cannot even control its own membership is truly one that lacks any power, unless, of course, the people decide who sits, but Augustus took away this power and posted a list of his approved candidates. Tacitus (1.14) says, "The elections were now transferred from the Assembly to the senate. Up to this time, although the most important elections were settled by the emperor, some had been left to the inclinations of the national Assembly." He leaves us in no doubt as to who held the real power when it came to elections and that was the emperor. If the make-up of the senate began to become largely determined by the emperor then as a complete body it would be unlikely to ever stand against his wishes since so many of its members would owe their position and prestige to him; this took the Roman system of patronage to a whole new level because now one man was the font of all. It seems that the senate was so fearful of opposing the emperor's will that Tiberius had to urge them not to be swayed by his opinion; a noble sentiment until they actually opposed him. Dio certainly gives the impression that the emperor strongly influence the way the senate handled all issues and even if he couldn't influence them by weight of authority alone he always had the tribunician potestas to veto motions he did not like. However this, in many ways, becomes a moot point when one considers how the emperor starts to assimilate almost all the powers which the senate once had and how he started to

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