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The afterlife of the Roman Senate

When the Senate of the Free City of Krakow oversaw the renovation of the main gate to the Royal Castle in 1827, it commemorated its action with an inscription: SENATUS POPULUSQUE CRACOVIENSIS RESTITUIT MDCCCXXVII. The phrase ‘Senatus Populusque Cracoviensis’ [the Senate and People of Krakow], and its abbreviation SPQC, clearly and consciously invoked comparison with ancient Rome and its structures of government: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome. Why did a political entity created only in 1815 find itself looking back nearly two millennia to the institutional structures of Rome and to its Senate in particular?

The situation in Krakow can be seen as a much wider phenomenon current in Europe and North America from the late eighteenth century onwards, as revolutionary movements sought models and ideals to underpin new forms of political organisation. The city-states of classical antiquity offered examples of political communities which existed and succeeded without monarchs and in the case of the Roman Republic, had conquered an empire. The Senate was a particularly intriguing element within Rome’s institutional structures. To the men constructing the American Constitution, it offered a body which could act as a check on the popular will and contribute to political stability. During the French Revolution, the perceived virtue and courage of its members offered examples of civic behaviour. But the Roman Senate was not without its difficulties. Its members could be seen as an aristocracy; and for many historians, its weaknesses were directly responsible for the collapse of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Empire.

In these modern receptions of the Roman Senate, the contrast between Republican Rome and the Roman Empire was key. The Republic could offer positive models for those engaged in reshaping and creating states, whilst the Roman Empire meant tyranny and loss of freedom. This Tacitean view was not, however, universal in the imperial period itself. Not only was the distinction we take for granted, between Republic and Empire, slow to emerge in the first century A.D.; senatorial writers of the period could celebrate the happy relationship between Senate and Emperor, as Pliny the Younger does in his Panegyricus and many of his letters. Indeed, by late antiquity senators could pride themselves on the improvement of their institution in comparison with its unruly Republican form.

The reception history of the Republican Senate of ancient Rome thus defies a simple summary. Neither purely positive nor purely negative, its use depended and continues to depend on a variety of contextual factors. But despite these caveats, the Roman Senate can still offer us a way of thinking about how we choose our politicians, what we ask them to do, and how we measure their achievements. This continuing vitality reflects too the paradoxes of the Republican institution itself. Its members owed their position to election, yet often behaved like a hereditary aristocracy; a body offering advice in a state where the citizen body was sovereign, it nonetheless controlled vast swathes of policy and action and asserted it could deprive citizens of their rights. These peculiarities contributed to making it an extraordinarily fruitful institution in subsequent political theory.

Headline image credit: Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: “Cicero Denounces Catiline.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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