The senate was originally the body of old men (senatus, cf. senex) called upon by the King to advise him when in doubt. It had never acquired any additional rights by law, in fact it had no constitutional powers at all, but it had come to dominate all departments of state, to be in itself the government with the magistrates as its servants.
One source of its power was its membership, the ordo senaterius. All the higher magistrates became members of the senate for life as soon as their term of office ended, and all but the quaestors were senators before their term began. The senate thus contained by indirect election all the picked men of the state. Its leaders were men trained from boyhood in the principles of government, with all the advantages of experience. All great generals, all the men who had acquaintance with foreign countries from having lived in them as governors or ambassadors, all distinguished jurists and economists, all the higher priests even were in the senate. The influence of such a body was irresistible. It is true that it could not enforce its recommendations, but its advice would not be lightly disregarded, or its good opinion forfeited, by magistrates who for one year only, and with little previous experience, were charged with the enormous responsibility of government.
The senate took cognizance of all affairs of administration, but it concerned itself chiefly with foreign affairs, finance and religion. In these its second source of influence was felt - its permanence. It was the only organized body in the state that possessed a continuous knowledge of public affairs. To it therefore the foreign nations sent embassies; with it they made treaties. Appointing as it did all promagistrates with imperium, it virtually directed war and concluded peace, although constitutionally this was the right of the comitia centuriata.
Its control over the finances was due to the interval between the abdication of one board of censors and the election of their successors. In this period of from two-and-one-half to three-and-one-half years there was at all times money to receive and to pay out on orders and contracts, with which the magistrates for the time had had nothing to do. To the senate, therefore, as the one continuous body, fell the right to direct financial matters during this period; and to it the next board would naturally look for advice in all questions of taxation and expenditure. In religious matters its influence was due to the fact that the priests, as such, had no magisterial powers, and had to act through the regular magistrates.
In all these matters, and in the countless others on which the senate acted, it must be remembered that it ruled wholly by moral influence. At any time a magistrate might become recalcitrant, and carry a question, in spite of the senate, to the only constitutionally authoritative bodies - the comitia. In such a case the senate could only oppose its influence to his, and, if the people were on his side, either give way, or try to tire out the opposition by the many means of delay that could be practiced in the comitia.
The senate came together at the call of any qualified magistrate (consul, praetor, tribune), who, by virtue of having summoned it, was its president for the time. It was the only deliberative assembly in Rome, i.e., the only one in which debate was allowed. Of course it could discuss only such questions as the president laid before it; but among the twenty magistrates who possessed the right it could always find one who would ask its advice about the business it wished to discuss. The time and place for meeting were always named in the call, which was made either through the praecones or by a written notice posted in the forum. The senate had no fixed hour or place for meeting, though usually the time was early in the day, because sunset put an end to all deliberations, and the place had to be a templum. The auspices were always taken before the meeting began.
The president laid (referre) the matters about which he desired 'advice', before the senate in general terms, and in such order as he pleased. No one could make a motion without his permission, and no one could give an opinion unless called upon by him. He might at once demand a vote; but if debate was allowed he called upon the members to express their views in a regular order, sanctioned by ancient custom, giving his own opinion at any point he pleased. The first to be called upon was the Princeps Senatus, an honorary title given by the censors to the senator (generally a patrcian) whom they deemed most worthy. After him came the consulares, praetorii and aedilicii, i.e., such members as sat in the senate by virtue of having held these offices. If, however, the debate occurred between the time of the annual elections and the inauguration of the successful candidates, these magistrates-elect (désignait) took precedence over ex-magistrates of the same rank.
It is a matter of dispute whether or not the pedarii (those who had held no curule office) had the ius sententiae, 'right of debate.' The president might, however, vary the regular order, and thus honor or slight any senator by calling him out of turn, or by passing him over altogether. As each senator was called upon he could give his opinion in full (sententiam dicere), or simply express his agreement with a previous speaker [verbo assentiri). He might also include in his remarks any other matters that he pleased, and this made it easy now to prevent action by talking against time (diem dicendo consumere) until sunset.
The final vote was taken by division (discessio). If several conflicting sententiae had been expressed the magistrate presiding put such as he pleased to the house, and they were voted upon singly until one received a majority of the members present. All present, except actual magistrates, were obliged to vote, but there was no rule as to a quorum. When a sententia had been adopted it was written out, after the adjournment of the senate, by the scribae, in the presence of the president and of its principal supporters, who attested its genuineness by their signatures. There are frequent complaints of forged sententiae.
The senate had no power to pass laws; it could merely express its opinion in the form of advice to the magistrate who convoked it. This advice might be rejected by that magistrate, or, even if he adopted it, might be vetoed by any magistrate equal or superior to him. If it successfully ran the gantlet of these vetoes, it was taken for granted that it world find no sufficient opposition in the comitia (where alone laws could be passed), and was promulgated as a senatus consultum, 'ordinance of the senate.' If vetoed by a superior magistrate it was put forth as auctoritas senatus, 'the deliberate utterance of the senate,' having all the moral weight attaching to such a body, but no binding force with either magistrates or people. If its friends looked upon the opposition to it as capricious or weak, proceeding, e.g., from the personal feeling of the individual who vetoed it, they brought to bear upon him every possible influence and argument to induce him to withdraw his opposition. If he remained firm they might still get a superior magistrate, if there was such, to bring it before the comitia, with the hope of getting it passed by the people as a regular and authoritative law.
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