According to myth, the Senate was instituted by Romulus, the first king of Rome. Originally, this body of one hundred men would advise the king on various courses of action. This role – an advisory role – is the key function of the Senate, not only under the kings, but throughout the Republic and into the Empire. The term “Senate” derives from the Latin senax, meaning “an old man.” It consisted initially of 100 members chosen at random by Romulus and was later augmented to 300, 600, and even 900 under Julius Caesar. Contrary to what one may assume, the legislative role of the Senate was rather slim. In fact, the Senate’s prestige (the most prestigious body of the Roman government) derived not from the law, but from tradition. The Romans were very conservative people, and their political, social and economic policies were dictated by the mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors.” As such, since the Senate had always played an advisory role, it would continue to do so. The Senate would exert its influence through decrees called senatus consulta, which is the formal advice of the Senate. The body would meet, discuss and debate various matters and present the magistrates and assemblies with these decrees, which are not necessarily legally binding directives. Rather, because of the prestige and tradition of the Senate, most decrees were heeded. So, although the Senate does not propose or ratify legislation, they pass their advice which usually becomes law.
The Senate did have executive control over foreign affairs and treaties as well as the management of the public treasury and accounts. This gave them plenty of authority and power. Additionally, they supervised the religious observances of the state and could grant consuls dictatorial power in a crisis. The Senate was comprised former magistrates – the only way one could join was to have held a major position in Roman government. Unlike any other position in Roman politics, Senators held their position for life. These men would wear togas with a special purple stripe to distinguish themselves in importance. Still, although the Senatorial body was hugely influential, that did not necessarily mean that each Senator was powerful in his own rights. The Senate maintained a strict hierarchy in which only the most powerful men had a chance to address the Senate. The consuls would be the first to address the Senate, followed by the consuls who served last year, then the previous year, etc.; then the praetors, ex-praetors and so on down the cursus honorum. It is clear that many members of the Senate would rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to speak and exert any political power. The term for these men who did not have authority in the Senate is pedarii, or “walkers”. This refers to the method of voting in the Senate. Rather than a show of hands, members of the Senate would walk over to the person whose position you were supporting. This was the only influence the pedarii had. On the other end of the spectrum, the “First Senator” or princeps senatus would have the privilege to address the Senate first and was the highest-ranking Senator, usually the ex-consul with the most authority and influence. The greatest power of the princeps senatus was that he, and he alone among Senators, could summon the Senate to meet and discuss legislation. This prestigious body was the most influential in all of Roman politics.
If the Senatorial decrees did not have legal bearing on Roman politics, why were they consulted at all?
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