Friday, March 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on Livy, the origins of the Roman senate, and its inherent weaknesses

As became clear by the 1st century BC, the fundamental problem of Rome's senate was its lack of independent constitutional power. The senate's origins go back to the very foundation of Rome by Romulus.  In setting up his city, King Romulus appointed 100 leading men as his advisers.  This may have been Romulus's effort to put in place a certain kind of power-sharing arrangement that might forestall efforts to overthrow him; while, at the same time, ensuring that his autocratic rule remained unchallenged. 

Interestingly, Livy preserves hints of conflict between Romulus and his senators in AUC 1.15.6ff:  "Such were the principal achievements of the reign of Romulus, at home and in the field, nor is any of them incompatible with the belief in his divine origin and the divinity which was ascribed to the king after his death, whether one considers his spirit in recovering the kingdom of his ancestors, or his wisdom in founding the City and in strengthening it by warlike and peaceful measures. [7] For it was to him, assuredly, that Rome owed the vigour which enabled her to enjoy an untroubled peace for the next forty years. [8] Nevertheless, he was more liked by the commons than by the senate, and was preeminently dear to the hearts of his soldiers. Of these he had three hundred for a bodyguard, to whom he gave the name of Celeres,2 and kept them by him, not only in war, but also in time of peace."  To an extent, we can't read Livy's comments as separate from Livy's own late republic/early imperial context.  As Livy presents him, Romulus is very much a latter-day Caesar who drew on the support of the people and the loyalty of his troops for his authority.  Unsurprisingly, Caesar and his descendants traced their genealogy back to Romulus.

In his account of Romulus's death, Livy presents the commonly accepted version first: Romulus was taken up by a storm cloud while sitting on his curule chair and reviewing his troops.  It is a scene appropriate for a divine ruler.  The truth of this version was reinforced by Proculus, who claimed to have seen Romulus in a dream.  In the dream, Romulus declared that Rome would be the capital of the world.  Yet there was a competing narrative of Romulus's death, according to Livy: "There were some, I believe, even then who secretly asserted that the king had been rent in pieces by the hands of the senators, for this rumour, too, got abroad, but in very obscure terms; the other version obtained currency, owing to men's admiration for the hero and the intensity of their panic."  In other words, the senate--apparently tired of Romulus's autocracy and wanting a share of the power--murdered him.  Livy indicates that this version did not catch on, mostly because Romulus had the love of the citizens and they were panicked by his death; and Proculus managed to sell everyone on Romulus's divinity.  Notably, the aftermath of Romulus's death was a bit of a nightmare.  Rome resorted to using interreges--ten men who alternated rule every five days.  This solution indeed suggests that, at least in the aftermath of Romulus's death, there was debate about whether to retain a monarchy.  And, in fact, throughout the monarchy, there seems to have been considerable tension between autocracy and oligarchy, with oligarchy finally carrying the day when the Tarquins were expelled at the end of the 6th century BC.

Once Brutus et al. overthrew the monarchy and instituted a new form of government that we now retroactively view as the beginning of the Republic, senators as individuals became far more powerful.  The senate as a body, however, remained advisory and without many constitutional powers (though it did have a few crucial ones, including the ability to vote triumphs to conquering generals and the allotment of commands to elected magistrates).  From the beginning of the Roman Republic, the senate itself was designed to exercise power through such structures as patronage; and through the powers of the individual magistracies that its members held.  In the early days, this worked pretty well.  Rome was relatively small, still clan-based and therefore prone to the influences of powerful patronage structures.  As the republic developed, and especially in the vast expansion of the economy and the population in the post-Punic Wars period, the weaknesses of this model became more apparent. 

Also pressing on senatorial authority by the 2nd century BC was the growing power and influence of the equestrian class. Unlike senators, equestrians were free to engage in trade; they did with abandon and many became incredibly rich and, ultimately, able to use their wealth to influence Roman politics. The rise of the nobiles also complicated the senate's ability to influence policy.  Suddenly the very make-up of the senate was changing, from the scions of Rome's oldest families to those who had been elected to offices on the cursus honorum through their own accomplishments.  These new "nobles" didn't always share the views of their more traditional colleagues and these differences provided the foundation for the intensely factional politics of the first century BC.  Indeed, by the 1st century BC, the lack of  separate constitutional authorities for the senate combined with the ability of charismatic, successful generals to monopolize magistracies like the consulship (Marius!), revealed the extent to which the senate as a body was extraordinarily weak.

No comments:

Post a Comment