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Did Roman senators have any real power under the Principate?
There is no dispute that the power of the senate was limited under the Principate. In the Republic, the senate had been the political arm of the empire's social elite: it was exclusively Italian because it was in Italy that aristocratic landholding was concentrated. It had also been Rome's chief decision-making body, and its members formed the pool from which all major officers of the state were drawn. Under the emperors, a good deal of the senate's political authority was lost: control of the major frontier provinces of the empire was ceded to the princeps in Augustus' reign, with the consequence that the military power directly under the control of the senate was slashed; the introduction of imperial treasuries in the capital and the provinces meant that the senate lost its monopoly over public finances; and the growth of the imperial palace administration, staffed by members of the imperial household and increasingly by members of the equestrian order provided another channel of authority and pool and administrators that could be deployed in provincial government. Moreover, the senate was subject to the influence of the princeps: the emperor was by definition the leading member of the house, and his power of patronage provided a check to the freedom of senators that was more practical than constitutional. This is the picture in broad brushstrokes. We now have to deal with questions of extent, and answer two questions: firstly, we must know what the extent of the senate's 'constitutional' power was under the Principate; what could the senate, theoretically, do? This will let us know what the extent of its 'real' power could have been, delineating a maximum. While there is no question that the senate lost powers under the emperors, recent scholarship has challenged the traditional view that the body was relegated by them to a purely ceremonial role, arguing instead that senators retained the collective authority to legislate and administer alongside the emperor. Secondly, we can approach the question of the 'real' power of the senate: that is, how much of their theoretical authority senators were allowed to exercise. It is immediately clear that the crux of the question is the emperor himself; his power, his will to innovate and his attitude towards the senate will all have affected the senate's scope for power. Clearly, this will have varied over time, if only because later emperors were more secure in their position than their predecessors had been. If we are to see the emperor's person at the centre of the administration of the empire, then 'real' power in the Roman state may well be best expressed as a degree of influence over the man. In short, deciding what power senators could wield under the Principate probably tells us more about the principes themselves than it does about the senate. At first glance, it may seem that under the Principate the senate lost most of its theoretical authority; for Syme, it was merely an 'organ that advertised or confirmed the decisions of the government'. In reality, however, the body remained the great council of state - in appearance at least - in every part of public policy and administration. Part of the problem stems from the exaggerated portrayal of strong monarchical authority we find in the literary sources, which can skew our view of the practice of government: in Brunt's view, the emperor has sometimes been credited with powers that he did not possess, or at least did not exercise without consent of the senate and sometimes of the assembly. Brunt argues that Suetonius, Dio and to a lesser extent Tacitus have a tendency to ascribe political actions in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius to the emperors, omitting the role played by the senate in drafting, discussing and confirming business. Initiative for legislation emanated frequently from the princeps, and we can imagine that comitial formalities might not be recorded for the sake of economy as well
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