The Prestige of the Roman Senators

During this heyday of power and prestige for the senate and nobility, it was the norm for members of a relatively few families to hold the offices of consul and censor. At the same time, the consensus of senators, expressed in the form of decrees, exercised a strong influence over policy making. In the second century, the 300 senators were chosen from former officeholders, and each senator, once chosen, served for life unless he was convicted in court, or unless a subsequent pair of censors dropped him from the senatorial roll for some moral failing. When an office holder consulted the senate, senators registered their opinion in the form of an advisory decree or senatus consultum, rather than an order, since the formal role of the senate was to advise. Senatorial decrees were not determined by a strict majority vote. Instead, leading senators or principes (singular, princeps) the members who generally had held the highest offices, belonged to the leading families, and had acquired the greatest fame and glory sought to create a broad consenŽsus for or against policies and individuals.

Since the late fourth century, the senate had taken for itself a wide range of rights and privileges that enabled its members to exercise considerable influence over public affairs. In the years following the Second Punic War, the senate determined the tasks that magistrates would perform, fixed the funds that governors would receive to finance their operations, selected the magistrates whose terms in office would be extended, and ruled on the acceptability of treaties that generals in the field had negotiated. On occasion, the senate chose some of its members to serve as "legates" (legati; singular legatus) to go on embassies or to assist a governor in his province. At some point, the senate also acquired the power to determine the validity of rulings issued by priestly colleges on matters of sacred law and ritual procedure.

Altogether, the senate's place in the Roman political order rested on its great prestige and authority, and on the acquiescence of elected officials who themselves were senators. At the same time, however, the fact is that the senate lacked any specific power to command, to punish, to enact laws, or to implement policies. In law and by custom, Rome's "government" corresponded to the office holders who were elected to fill specific posts for limited periods of time. Only they could call meetings of the senate and of citizen assemblies, hear legal cases and issue judgments, command armies, and perform public rites and ceremonies. In the city, their ability to act could be obstructed by certain other officials and priests.

Higher magistrates did not command or instruct lesser magistrates in Rome, although they could forbid them to act at all in specific cases. Consuls and praetors could each block the actions of colleagues who held the same office and possessed identical powers, but they could only do this when present personally on the spot. Within the city, tribunes of the plebs could likewise block any magistrate's action, but once again personal intervention was a requirement.

In the city, too, state religion forced many magistrates to adhere closely to estab-lished procedures; on occasion, religion could equally serve to check their activities. In particular, when consuls and praetors were in Rome, a wide range of mandatory rituals surrounded their public actions. Moreover, omissions or flaws in the performance of rites could have serious consequences.

If colleges of priests found fault, and if the senate concurred, the official's act would be declared invalid. On other occasions, even a single augur could order the postponement of a public meeting, for example, if he announced that he had seen signs that the gods desired such a delay. This right of priests and senate to nullify magisterial actions in the city did not extend to the tribunes of the plebs, although some senators would advocate making them, too, subject to the same checks.

Elected officials, and through them the senate, also controlled the voting assemblies of Roman citizens, which alone could enact legislation and fill offices through elections. Only certain officials consuls, praetors, and tribunes of the plebs could call citizens together for a vote. In addition, at any legislative assembly, the presiding official alone chose the speakers to address the assembled citizens, and he alone fixed the text of each proposal, which could only be accepted or rejected without amendment.

Votes had to take place within a single day, and voters had to be present in person.

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