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The Roman Senate and Senators According to Livy


The Roman Curia or Senate

Curia Roman Senate

Judith Geary

Who Were the Roman Senators?

Ancient Roman senators (from the Latin for 'old man' senex) were originally advisors to the kings, who came from patrician (noble) families. Later, equites (wealthy, non-patricians) were drafted or conscripted into the Roman Senate. Together these patrician and equites senators were called 'conscript fathers' (patres conscripti). [Note: the military 'draft' is referred to as 'conscription'.] Eligibilty to the Senate came from serving as magistrate. Once elected to a magistracy, membership in the Senate was for life, although senators were sometimes ousted for immorality, by the censors.

Livy As a Source on the Early History of Rome and Roman Senators

In his Roman History (Ab Urbe Condita), Livy shows how the role of the Senate and its composition changed during the early years of Rome. Here are select, relevant passages of Livy, translated into English, in 1904, by John Henry Freese, Alfred John Church, and William Jackson Brodribb.

Livy on the Creation of Roman Senators

The first passage from Livy shows that senators had been part of Roman government since Romulus -- the first king of Rome -- created 100 senators to advise him. [Note: There are other explanations for the first senators. For one, the Roman people (by which is meant those Roman citizens who were not members of the Senate) may have elected them.] Romulus called the early senators 'fathers' (patres):
1. [Romulus] created one hundred senators, either because that number was sufficient, or because there were only one hundred who could be so elected. Anyhow they were called fathers, by way of respect, and their descendants patricians.

Senators Advise the King

The second passage shows from Livy that King Romulus wanted the senators to advise him, especially in the case of alliances and treaties:
2. So then, by the advice of the senators, Romulus sent around ambassadors to the neighbouring states, to solicit an alliance and the right of intermarriage for his new subjects....


The third passage from Livy takes place after Romulus died, possibly at the hands of the senators. There was no obvious candidate to replace the dead king and the Roman senators feared that one of the neighboring states would take over Rome, so they set up a temporary government. They gave power to a chosen individual for only 5 days at time, after which the next in line took over. The time under this rotating government was called an interregnum meaning it was the government between (inter) the kings.

The Roman People were happy to see the end of the interregnum because they felt that during it they were ruled by 100 masters, instead of just a single monarch:

3. The old Romans spurned the idea of a foreign prince. Amid this diversity of views, however, all were anxious to be under the government of a king, as they had not yet experienced the delights of liberty. Fear then seized the senators, lest, as the minds of many surrounding states were incensed against them, some foreign power should attack the state, now without a government, and the army, now without a leader. Therefore, although they were agreed that there should be some head, yet none could bring himself to give way to another. Accordingly, the hundred senators divided the government among themselves, ten decuries being formed, and the individual members who were to have the chief direction of affairs being chosen into each decury. Ten governed; one only was attended by the lictors and with the insignia of authority: their power was limited to the space of five days, and conferred upon all in rotation, and the interval between the government of a king lasted a year. From this fact it was called an interregnum, a term which is employed even now. Then the people began to murmur, that their slavery was multiplied, and that they had now a hundred sovereigns instead of one, and they seemed determined to submit to no authority but that of a king, and that one appointed by themselves. When the fathers perceived that such schemes were on foot, thinking it advisable to offer them, without being asked, what they were sure to lose, they conciliated the good-will of the people by yielding to them the supreme power, yet in such a manner as to surrender no greater privilege than they reserved to themselves. For they decreed, that when the people had chosen a king, the election should be valid, if the senate gave the sanction of their authority. And even to this day the same forms are observed in proposing laws and magistrates, though their power has been taken away; for before the people begin to vote, the senators ratify their choice, even while the result of the elections is still uncertain. Then the interrex, having summoned an assembly of the people, addressed them as follows: "Do you, Quirites, choose yourselves a king, and may this choice prove fortunate, happy, and auspicious; such is the will of the fathers. Then, if you shall choose a prince worthy to be reckoned next after Romulus, the fathers will ratify your choice." This concession was so pleasing to the people, that, not to appear outdone in generosity, they only voted and ordained that the senate should determine who should be king at Rome.

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