Convening the senate
Who might convene the senate
The senate could be convened (i.e. ordered to meet) by any magistrate with the ius agendi cum senatu (the power to consult the senate, also known as the ius agendi cum patribus). The magistrates with the ius agendi cum senatu were, in order of precedence:
Only one magistrate could convene the senate at any given time. If more than one magistrate with the ius agendi wished to convene the senate at the same time, it would be convened by the magistrate who was highest in the order of precedence listed above. However, once the senate was convened it was possible for other magistrates with the ius agendi to consult it (see below).
How the senate was convened
The convening magistrate would announce the date and time when the senate was to meet, and the place where it was to meet. The announcement was made either on the day or in advance.
If the announcement was made on the day of the meeting, the convening magistrate would simply send a herald to the forum to announce the location of the meeting and to summon the senatores to come to that location immediately. This procedure was quite common.
If the convening magistrate thought it necessary to give advance notice of the meeting, he would arrange for notices to be posted in various public locations, stating the time and place of the meeting.
During those seasons when many senatores spent time in the Italian countryside away from Rome, the convening magistrate might also send out viatores (messengers) to inform them of the meeting.
There was a very strong custom, observed throughout the republican period, that a magistrate with the ius agendi cum senatu could not be prevented from convening the senate, whether by the use of intercessio or by any other means.
Date, time and location of meetings
Date of meetings
Unlike the comitia, the senate was not restricted to particular types of day for its meetings, and it is known to have met on dies fasti, nefasti, nefasti publici, comitiales, and endotercisi, and on both dies relisiosi and even dies atri.
By custom the senate did not meet during meetings of the comitia, but there were occasional exceptions.
There were some days on which the senate normally met. In particular, the senate normally met on the day when the consules entered office.
Time of meetings
Meetings of the senate generally began early in the morning, often at sunrise. This was to allow the longest possible time for the meeting itself.
Duration of meetings
No matter when the meeting began, the senate could not conclude any valid business after sunset. Any vote taken after sunset was invalid. Informal discussion could, however, continue after sunset.
A meeting which ran out of time could be adjourned for continuation on a subsequent day. This subsequent meeting would technically be a new meeting and not a continuation of the previous one, but in practice it could pick up where the previous one had finished.
Location of meetings
It was up to the convening magistrate to choose the location of the meeting.
The only technical requirements were that the meeting must be within one mile of the city of Rome (though it could be, and often was, outside the pomerium) and that it must take place within a templum. Any vote taken in a place which did not meet these two requirements was invalid.
Beyond these technical requirements, practical considerations meant that meetings had to take place in locations where at least 100 people could comfortably sit and move around. Meetings were normally indoors, but this was purely a practical matter, and meetings could and did occur at outdoor templa: in particular, it was customary for the senate to meet in the open air to hear reports of speaking cattle (see prodigia).
The most common meeting-place was the curia Hostilia. Other common locations inside the city were the temples of Iuppiter Capitolinus, of Castor, of Concordia, of Fides, or Honor & Virtus, of Iuppiter Stator, of Tellus, and of Quirinus, and in the atrium Vestae. Common meeting-places outside the city were the temples of Apollo and of Bellona.
Right to attend
Also entitled to attend were those former magistrates who were not senatores but who possessed the ius sententiae dicendae (the right to give their opinion in the senate) by virtue of their former magistracy. These former magistrates were:
Over time lower magistrates also gained the ius sententiae:
- Aedilicii curules (from the fourth century B.C.)
- Aedilicii plebis (from the late third century B.C.)
- Tribunicii plebis (from the early second century B.C.)
- Quaestorii (from the early first century B.C.)
The ius sententiae was also held by the current occupant of any magistracy of the Roman people, who were thus entitled to attend meetings of the senate while in office, whether they were senatores or not:
- Magister equitum
- Aedilis curulis
- Aedilis plebis
- Tribunus plebis
Finally, the flamen Dialis also held the ius sententiae by virtue of his office and was therefore entitled to attend meetings of the senate while he held that priesthood (which was normally held for life).
Members of the senate
In this article, the phrase "members of the senate" is used to denote senatores, former magistrates with the ius sententiae, current magistrates, and the flamen Dialis - in other words, everyone who was entitled to participate in meetings of the senate. It should be noted that this does not correspond to any Roman technical term and is used purely for convenience.
Others by special permission
Anyone who was not normally entitled to attend meetings of the senate could be given special permission to attend a particular meeting by the presiding magistrate. Such people were entitled to attend only for so long and on such terms as the presiding magistrate permitted.
Listeners in the antechamber
Some people, though not permitted to enter the place where the senate was meeting, were customarily permitted to enter the antechamber and listen from there. These included, in particular, the young sons of men who were taking part in the meeting. This was also where the tribuni plebis listened to proceedings before they gained the ius sententiae in the third century B.C.
Meetings of the senate were not in principle secret, and although only certain people were allowed to attend meetings there was no rule preventing others from listening to the meetings. On many occasions it is recorded that members of the public stood around the doorway of the building where a meeting was taking place and listened to the proceedings; if a large crowd gathered, those closer to the door would pass on the details to those further away.
The presiding magistrate did, however, have a discretion to close the doors and thus prevent members of the public hearing the debate.
Obligation to attend
This obligation could be enforced by the presiding magistrate, who could fine absentees or even seize and threaten to destroy their property (commonly their home) in order to compel them to attend. In practice, however, this was rarely done.
A senator who was absent from Rome on public business was not obliged to attend; nor was one who was too old or infirm. In the first century B.C., and perhaps before, senatores were also permitted to be absent in order to fulfil a vow at a shrine outside Italy. This latter exemption came to be abused by some senatores to justify absences on entirely private business, and from M. Cicerone C. Antonio cos.‡ (DCXCI a.u.c.) such absences were limited to a maximum of one year.
During the republican period there was no minimum number of votes required to vote on an ordinary relatio and pass an ordinary senatus consultum. It was left to the presiding magistrate to judge whether the meeting was sufficiently full (frequens) for meaningful business to be done, and his decision was not open to challenge.
Sometimes the senate was empowered by a lex or a senatus consultum to make decisions on particular issues, and in some cases the relevant lex or senatus consultum specified that such a vote would not be valid unless the meeting was attended by a certain minimum number of senatores.
As far as we know, such leges and senatus consulta never specified a minimum of more than half the total membership of the senate, and more commonly only required the attendance of one third of the total.
It is not entirely clear whether such numbers included only senatores or also others with the ius sententiae. Almost certainly they did not include current magistrates, since current magistrates did not vote at all (see below); but it probably did include former magistrates with the ius sententiae, and the flamen Dialis.
When a minimum number was required, there was no fixed procedure for checking that the required number of people were actually present, and it may well have been possible for a vote to go ahead without the required number so long as everyone present acquiesced. Any participant in the meeting could, however, shout "numera" ("count"), whereupon the presiding magistrate was obliged to count those present and could not go ahead with the vote if the numbers were insufficient.
The senatores and other private citizens with the ius sententiae sat on benches. Where the meeting-place was square or rectangular, the benches were probably arrayed along the two walls either side of the main door. Some meeting-places, however, were built with special curved benches.
Particular areas of seating were not reserved for particular political parties or alliances, nor is there any evidence that some seats were reserved for more senior members. As will be seen below, participants were likely to change seats over the course of the meeting. In practice, however, there may have been some expectation that the more junior participants would sit where they could more easily get up and move about.
Curule magistrates with the ius agendi
In square or rectangular meeting-places, the platform was probably placed along the wall facing the main entrance. It would thus be at right-angles to the two sets of benches.
The tribuni plebis sat together on a long bench (longa subsellio), which must have been long enough to accommodate ten people.
The normal location of the long tribunician bench is uncertain. Since the tribuni had originally sat outside in the antechamber, and had exerted pressure on the senate by blocking the exit, one may conjecture that when they gained admittance to the main chamber in the third century B.C. they took up a position somewhere just inside the entrance, and their long bench may have remained near the entrance thereafter.
Entry and exit of magistrates
When a magistrate entered or left the meeting, the senatores and private citizens with the ius sententiae would stand up. They might also stand up on the arrival or departure of any individual to whom they wished to show particular respect.
Sacrifice and auspices
The presiding magistrate would generally make a sacrifice and take auspices before beginning the meeting.
Since the senate was technically an advisory body, these were private auspices and were taken merely for the satisfaction of the presiding magistrate himself. Accordingly a failure to take auspices did not render the proceedings invalid, as it would in the comitia.
For this reason, it seems also that the observation of ill omens did not abort or vitiate a meeting of the senate, and there is no evidence that nuntiatio or obuntiatio was ever used to obstruct a meeting of the senate (though this may equally be a feature of the rule, mentioned above and below, that meetings of the senate could not be vetoed).
Conduct of the meeting
The presiding magistrate
The meeting (at least to start with) would be conducted by the magistrate who had convened the meeting, referred to here as the presiding magistrate (the Romans themselves had no particular term). The presiding magistrate acted as the chairman of the meeting, and had control of its agenda: it was he who sought the advice of the senate on whatever matters he brought before it, and the purpose of the meeting was to advise him what to do.
Relatio (matter for discussion)
The presiding magistrate sought the advice of the senate on a certain matter by making a relatio. To make a relatio was to outline a particular issue, question, or problem about which the presiding magistrate wished to be advised. It is important to note that a relatio did not include a proposal for action: it merely outlined the issue for discussion.
The relatio itself was always quite brief, and followed a set pattern. It was prefaced with the words:
- Quod bonum felixque sit populó Rómánó Quiritium, referimus ad vós, patrés cónscriptí...
- (Inasmuch as it may be good and fortunate for the Roman people of the Quirites, we bring before you, conscript fathers...)
and finished with the words:
- Dé eá ré quid fierí placet?
- (What does it please you should be done about this matter?)
A relatio could be as specific or as general as the presiding magistrate wished, and could contain as many diverse subjects as he wished. On some occasions, particularly at the first meeting after the new consules entered office, the relatio might simply be infinite de re publica (about the republic in general).
The presiding magistrate might, after making the relatio, simply open the matter to debate; alternatively, he might go on to make a longer speech setting out his own views on the subject and perhaps making one or more specific proposals for the senate to approve or disapprove.
Order of business
Meetings of the senate normally began with reports from absent persons such as magistrates away on campaign, or from magistrates recently returned from campaigns abroad, and also with the reception of foreign ambassadors. The person making the report or representation might be asked questions by the senate, but no debate would take place at this stage.
If some decision needed to be taken about such a report, or if some official answer needed to be given, then it would be for the presiding magistrate to make a relatio on the subject. This might be done in the presence of the person who had made the report or representation or, if that person was not entitled to participate in the meeting in his own right, he might be asked to leave while the matter was discussed.
After such reports came the first relatio. Strictly speaking the presiding magistrate could put forward relationes in whatever order he pleased, but it was customary for relationes concerning religious matters to be made first.
Procedure per discessionem and per relationem
- Senátús cónsultum fierí duóbus modís: aut per discessiónem, sí cónsentirétur, aut sí rés dubia esset, per singulórum sententiás exquisitás.
- (A senatus consultum can be made in two ways: either by division, if it be agreed, or, if it be a doubtful matter, by asking the opinion of each.)
This outlines the two procedures which a presiding magistrate could follow after making a relatio. If he did not want a general debate, he could immediately make his own proposal and then call for a vote without discussion. This was the procedure per discessionem (by division).
Alternatively the presiding magistrate could invite at least some members of the senate to state their opinions on the relatio before calling a vote. This was the procedure per singulorum sententias exquisitas or per relationem.
As Varro indicates, the procedure per discessionem was really suitable only where the issue was uncontroversial. It was more usual to proceed per relationem. Where a presiding magistrate attempted to proceed per discessionem on a controversial relatio, members of the senate might shout "consule" ("consult"). Such a demand did not oblige the presiding magistrate to proceed per relationem, but it would put considerable pressure on him to do so.
The terms per discessionem and per relationem are both misleading, because strictly speaking both procedures involved a relatio and both procedures involved a discessio; but these were, it seems, the terms used by the Romans themselves, or at least by Varro.
Having made his relatio and any introductory remarks or proposals he wished to make, the presiding magistrate would ordinarily open the matter for debate. This was done by calling each member of the senate, in turn, to state his opinion on the matter, as follows.
Order of debate
- Consules designati
- Princeps senatus
- Censores designati
- Praetores designati
- Aediles curules designati
- Aedilicii curules
- Aediles plebis designati
- Aedilicii plebis
- Tribuni plebis designati
- Tribunicii plebis
- Quaestores designati
Within each of those categories, the order was that of the official list of senatores (the album senatorum).
In the late republic presiding magistrates occasionally called certain people earlier than their proper place as a mark of special esteem, but this was unusual.
It will be noticed that current magistrates have no place in this order of debate. This is because current magistrates were not called upon to give their opinion during meetings of the senate. The senate was the advisory body of the presiding magistrate, and the presiding magistrate wished to know the advice of the senate, not the advice of his fellow-magistrates. Current magistrates could, however, speak without being called upon to do so, at any time, subject only to the normal rules of intercessio.
Delivering a sententia
The presiding magistrate called upon each person by name, saying, for example, "díc, M. Tullí, quid cénsés" ("say, M. Tullius, what you think") or simply "díc, M. Tullí" ("speak, M. Tullius").
When called upon, a member of the senate was obliged to give some indication of his opinion, and if he refused to do so the presiding magistrate might fine him or punish him in some other way.
He could, however, express his opinion in several ways. First, he could remain seated and state simply that he agreed with a previous speaker: "Cn. Pompéió adsentior" ("I agree with Cn. Pompeius"). Secondly, he could get up and sit near a previous speaker with whom he agreed. Thirdly, he could stand up and deliver a speech.
Once he was on his feet and speaking, a member of the senate could speak not only about the relatio but about any subject he wished. He was also entitled to speak for as long as he wished without being stopped (although the presiding magistrate or another magistrate might make a brief interruption to ask a question or challenge a point). The only requirement was that he must, usually at the end of his speech, either make a specific proposal of what should be done about the relatio or else express his agreement with the proposal of a previous speaker.
Responding to a sententia
As mentioned above, a member of the senate might express his agreement with a previous speaker by getting up and going to sit near that speaker. He might do so not only when called on to give his own opinion but after hearing another speaker make a proposal with which he agreed. Possibly, though it is not explicitly recorded, he might also move away from a speaker to indicate his disapproval of that speaker's view. Thus the conclusion of a speech might be followed by a quite extensive movement of people from one place to another.
This method of expressing one's opinion seems to have been especially characteristic of the more junior members of the senate. Since members were called on to speak in order of precedence, these junior members rarely had a chance to speak until very late in proceedings, if at all, and moving from one seat to another was therefore their best way to make their views known during the main part of the debate. They were thus sometimes jokingly known as pedarii (foot-people).
A speech might also be greeted by cheers, heckles or grumbles. Moreover, senior members of the senate were sometimes allowed to return to the debate to respond briefly to speeches made after they had already spoken. In particular, a speaker who had himself put forward a proposal might wish the reply to a later proposal, whether by briefly restating his adherence to his original view or else by saying that he was changed his view and now supported the new proposal. It was also permitted for a member to speak out of turn in order to reply to a personal attack by another speaker, and this could sometimes lead to a lively exchange of sharp remarks known as an altercatio.
The end of debate
It is not entirely clear how much discretion the presiding magistrate had in deciding when to end the debate once it had begun.
P. Willems (Le Sénat de la République romaine, vol. 2 p. 190) considers that the presiding magistrate could call a vote (thus ending the debate) at any time except while a member of the senate was speaking. This would explain why debate was so obviously dominated by the more senior (and thus earlier) speakers; and it would seem both efficient and logical that, if the presiding magistrate had the power to do without a debate at all (the procedure per discessionem), he must also have had the power to curtail that debate. However, the procedures of the senate appear to have been constructed around a senator's right to speak, rather than around logic and efficiency, so this argument is not conclusive.
On the other hand, M. Bonnefond-Coudry (Le Sénat de la République romaine, p. 477), followed by A. Lintott (The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 78), contends that once the presiding magistrate had opened debate he was obliged to continue calling for opinions until he had called on every last member present at the meeting, and if there was not enough time for this in a single day then he was obliged to call a new meeting on a subsequent day to continue the debate. This interpretation is supported by references in T. Livius and M. Tullius Cicero to meetings which went on past sunset and had to be resumed on a subsequent day, but none of these references state explicitly that the meetings overran because the presiding magistrate was obliged to continue to the bitter end; it might equally be that when sunset came there were still members whose advice the presiding magistrate wished to hear, and that he therefore voluntarily chose not to call for a vote on that day.
The matter remains uncertain, but the former view seems the more likely when one considers that in the late republic meetings of the senate must often have been attended by at least 200 members and, if such meetings could not be concluded until every member's view had been stated, we would surely hear far more examples of meetings running across two or more days than we in fact find in the sources.
When introducing the relatio, the presiding magistrate would sometimes put forward a specific proposal for action to be taken by himself and / or other magistrates. If there was debate on the relatio, one or more alternative proposals might be put forward by members of the senate.
The presiding magistrate had complete freedom in deciding what to do about these proposals. He could put a proposal to a vote exactly as it had originally been suggested, or he could make changes to it, or he could refuse to put it to a vote at all. He could create entirely new proposals which had not been discussed during the debate. He was not, in fact, obliged to put any proposals to a vote at all. Normally, however, at least one proposal would be put to a vote, and it would normally be one which had been discussed during the debate. The presiding magistrate also had freedom to decide in which order he would put proposals to a vote, and the result of one vote might influence his decision about which, if any, proposal to put forward next.
Voting in parts
The presiding magistrate could decide to put a proposal to a vote as a single item or, on the other hand, to split it up into several parts and vote on each part separately.
If the presiding magistrate attempted to push through an unpopular proposal by including it in a single vote with a number of more popular items, members might protest by shouting "divide" ("split it up"). The presiding magistrate was not obliged to do so, but it seems that he would often bow to pressure.
Method of voting
Voting was always by discessio (separation). The presiding magistrate would speak the proposal and then say:
- Quí hoc cénsétis, illuc tránsite; quí alia omnia, in hanc partem.
- (Whoever thinks this, go over there; whoever thinks anything else, to this part.)
At the same time he would indicate where the first group should go, and where the second. Those supporting the proposal would normally be told to go over to the person who had originally made the proposal.
It will be noted that the two only options were to support the proposal or not to support it. No distinction was made between those who opposed the proposal and those who were indifferent. Abstentions were thus counted as votes against the proposal.
Senatores and others with the ius sententiae participated in the vote, but current magistrates did not vote. This was for the same reason they were not asked for their opinions during the ordinary course of debate: the senate was asked to give advice to the magistrates, and it was not for the magistrates themselves to be involved in deciding what advice they should be given.
Once the voting members had taken up their positions in the two parts of the meeting-place, the presiding magistrate either counted or simply assessed the relative sizes of the two groups, and then declared:
- Haec pars major vidétur.
- (This part seems larger.)
There is no evidence that his count could be challenged in any way. Every now and then, when a result was very close, this may have allowed the presiding magistrate to choose the result he preferred, but social and political pressure must in most cases have been enough to keep presiding magistrates honest in their counting.
Outcome of the vote
If the presiding magistrate declared that the number supporting a proposal was greater than the number who did not support it, and if it was not vetoed, it would be drawn up and filed as a senatus consultum.
End of business
Releasing the senate
- Senátum nón teneó.
- (I do not hold the senate.)
Other presiding magistrates
When one presiding magistrate released the senate, it was open to any other magistrate with the ius agendi cum senatu to take over the meeting. If more than one magistrate with the ius agendi was present, the most senior would take precedence.
The new presiding magistrate could then conduct the meeting in exactly the same way as described above. In principle any number of magistrates could take over the meeting in sequence, until no further magistrates had any business to conduct.
As mentioned above, it was accepted that no one could prevent a magistrate with the ius agendi cum senatu from convening the senate. Similarly, no one could prevent the senate itself from convening, or prevent the presiding magistrate from putting forward a relatio or putting a proposal to a vote. Indeed there is no record of intercessio being used to obstruct any aspect of the senate's proceedings except the outcome of the vote itself.
To veto the outcome of a vote, the tribunus plebis (for it seems that it was always a tribunus plebis and never another magistrate) would stand up either during or immediately after the vote and declare:
- (I block it.)
... or something to that effect.
Nothing prevented a proposal which had been vetoed from being put to a vote again. This was sometimes done during the same meeting, even immediately after the veto, in order to demonstrate the support of the senate and put pressure on the tribuni plebis to allow the proposal to pass. More often the proposal would be reintroduced after further debate, or at a subsequent meeting after some private negotiations had taken place.
After the meeting
After the meeting, the presiding magistrate would draw up the text of the senatus consulta and senatus auctoritates which had been passed at the meeting. This was often done immediately after the meeting, or else a few hours later; it was always done on the day of the meeting.
The presiding magistrate would choose as his assistants several members of the senate who had participated in the meeting, usually including the one who had originally put forward the proposal. In the middle republican period this group would normally comprise only two or three members, but the increasingly complex senatus consulta of the late republic sometimes required groups of seven or eight, or even up to 12. The members would normally be of various different ranks within the senatorial hierarchy.
The usual form and wording of a senatus consultum is described here.