Liberty Matters

The Roman Senate in Early Modern Europe (May 2023)

The rise and fall of the Roman republic continued to influence political thought for centuries after its demise. In this Liberty Matters, we invited a group of scholars, led by Paulina Kewes, to consider the influence of this history on the political thought and culture of early modern Europe. What did the rise and decline of this republican ancestor have to teach early moderns (and perhaps us today!) about the political and moral milieu within which we live?

Kewes is joined by Ioannis Evrigenis, Filippo Sabetti, and Michael Moses in this exploration of the continued relevance of this ancient republic.

The Discussion

Paulina Kewes, The Roman Senate in the Political Thought and Parliamentary Culture of Early Modern Europe

Ioannis Evrigenis, A Crucial Lesson

Michael Valdez Moses, The Roman Senate, The Grand Council, and John Milton’s The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth

Filippo Sabetti, The Significance of the Roman Senate beyond Rome

The Conversation

Read all our Scholars' responses

Paulina Kewes, The Roman Senate in the Political Thought and Parliamentary Culture of Early Modern Europe

For Polybius, the Roman senate represented the aristocratic element in the republic’s constitution alongside the consuls, who stood for the monarchical element, and the tribunes—the democratic one. Polybius’s classic definition of republican Rome as a mixed polity in Book VI of his History had reigned supreme until the later sixteenth century when Jean Bodin denied the possibility of divided sovereignty and, developing an insight of Nicolas de Grouchy, daringly categorized the republic as a popular state or democracy whose government was aristocratic. The upshot was a fundamental reappraisal of the changing stature of the Roman senate from its creation by Rome’s mythic founder and first king Romulus and flourishing in the republican period until its decline under the Caesars. Some contemporaries went so far as to equate the transition underway throughout Western Europe from limited to unlimited monarchies with the fall of the Roman republic, linking the seemingly inexorable decline of representative institutions with the servility and corruption of the Roman senate under Tiberius, luridly evoked in Tacitus’s Annals.

Yet the contest over the proper understanding of the Roman senate was no mere academic exercise. For while the debate intersected with, and drew inspiration from, rapid advances in antiquarian scholarship and the emergence of comparative historiography, jurisprudence, and political science, it also spoke directly to the immediate concerns of early modern Europe’s nations and states. This is because alongside scripture and the national past, the history of Rome was decisive in shaping how contemporaries understood, and acted in, the political world around them. It provided a normative code of conduct that melded readily with Christian teachings, and illustrated a gamut of forms of government, from monarchy to republic and back, that served as a paradigm of the rise and fall of political systems. Admittedly, we should be wary of conflating moral and constitutional perspectives since contemporaries usually tended to place more stress on how individuals’ behaviour and judgement affected political life, rather than questions of where power was lodged in legal and institutional terms. Even the death of the Roman republic seems often to have been conceptualized as the result of a change in the moral ethos of Roman society, more than a shift in the institutional balance (or, rather, the institutional balance was thought to have shifted because of the change in ethos). Nevertheless, as this essay will argue, the nascent controversy over the role and power of the Roman senate suggested links between the two spheres, as well emphasizing lessons to be deduced for the present. So, too, parallels were being variously drawn between the Roman senate and a host of contemporary institutions—the royal council or council of state, the upper chamber of a bicameral assembly such as the House of Lords in the English Parliament, and even a representative assembly such as a parliament or a diet tout court.

Modern scholarship on the early modern uses of classical historiography, the neo-Roman conception of liberty, republicanism, even rhetoric and its past master Cicero by Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock, Markku Peltonen and others has made virtually no attempt to consider the contemporary significance of the Roman senate—the aristocratic element of the mixed constitution as per Polybius. A recent volume purporting to explore The Legacy of the Republican Roman Senate (ed. C. Steel, Classical Receptions Journal, 7: 2015) characteristically skips from the late antiquity to the revolutionary era bar a few cursory remarks in the editorial introduction. Why such désintéressement? There are several reasons but two in particular stand out. First, although we are witnessing a rapprochement between intellectual history, the study of classical reception, and the history of scholarship, there has been no comparable entente between intellectual and institutional history, at least in our period. Intellectual historians tend to perceive studies of ancient Roman institutions (not just the senate but also the tribal and centuriate assemblies) and of early modern representative bodies (parliaments, diets, states, and estates) as insufferably tedious in their preoccupation about legal-procedural minutiae. Meanwhile, parliamentary historians rarely venture into the province of political thought or classical reception, let alone pursuing broader transnational and comparative approaches (P. Kewes et al., “Early Modern Parliamentary Studies: Overview and New Perspectives,” History Compass, 21: 2023). Secondly, Machiavelli, a towering and exceptionally divisive influence on early modern views of ancient Rome, had little to say about the senate as an institution in the Discorsi (1517; pub. 1531) beyond his rather stark depiction of the conflict between the plebs and the Senate as a sine qua non of “the attainment of Roman greatness.” As a result, students of Machiavelli’s reception have understandably skirted the issue (Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, I: ed. & transl. A. Gilbert (Durham, NC, 1989): 209; but cf. J. P. McCormick, “Machiavellian Democracy: Controlling Elites with Ferocious Populism,” The American Political Science Review, 95 (2001), 297-313). Hence the prevailing focus in the literature on the impact of the Roman example on early modern conceptions of liberty, monarchy, absolutism, tyranny, and popular sovereignty, and the corresponding neglect of how it shaped the views, functioning, and even the naming of representative institutions closer to home. Tellingly for our purposes, the Polish royal council comprising high ecclesiastical and secular officials appointed by the king which by the later fifteenth century had emerged as the upper chamber of the bicameral Sejm was deliberately christened the senate (“Senat” in Polish) in a pointed allusion to its Roman model.

What kinds of texts should we scour for evidence of early modern views of the Roman senate? Scholarly? Historical? Philosophical? Political? Imaginative? The answer is all of these and more. For they themselves variously drew on a plethora of generically and thematically diverse Graeco-Roman and later sources, and were in turn read or, like Shakespeare’s or Muret’s or Garnier’s Roman plays, watched, by heterogenous publics across Europe and beyond. By the mid-sixteenth century, humanist and antiquarian scholars in Italy, France, and elsewhere began systematically to investigate ancient Roman institutions. Machiavelli’s friend and fellow-Florentine Bernardo Rucellai’s pioneering De magistratibus Romanorum veterum commentaries was followed by a spate of writings devoted in part or in whole to the Roman senate and citizen assemblies: de Grouchy’s De comitiis Romanorum (1555), Carlo Sigonio’s De antiquo iure civium Romanorum libri II (1560) and his De antiquo iure Italiae libri III (1560) with a chapter De senatoribus, Marcantonio Maioraggio’s De senatu romano libellus (1561), Jan Zamojski’s De senatu romano libri duo (1563), and Paulus Manutius’s Antiquitatum Romanorum Paulli. Mannuccii. Liber de Senatu (1581), written in the early 1560s and published posthumously. Members of Europe’s respublica litterarum, these men read, cited, controverted, and refined each other’s work (W. McCuaig, Carlo Sigonio: The Changing World of the Late Renaissance, Princeton, 1989). Yet, no one has studied them as a group to assess not merely their command of the subject, sources, and methodology, but also whether and, if so, how far, their ideological commitments inflected their scholarly endeavours.

Even a brief comparison is instructive. Take Zamojski’s and Manutius’s contrasting perspectives on the Roman senate. Zamojski was Sigonio’s student and protégée in Padua, and lifelong friend of Manutius, to whom Sigonio had introduced him. He would go on to a prosperous political career in his native Poland, where he returned in 1565 in scholarly glory and armed with a letter from the Venetian Senate commending him to his king. In De senatu romano, printed in Venice under Sigonio’s patronage, Zamojski produced the most sophisticated and thorough account of the Roman senate and its origin, development, and modus operandi to that date (M. Kuryłowicz, “Rozprawa Jana Zamoyskiego o senacie rzymskim,” Historia, 49 (1994), 139-57). While he never mentions Maioraggio’s recent treatment of the subject, it is clear that he set out to outdo it. Zamojski’s ambitious treatise drew on multiple classical authorities, both Roman (Cicero, Livy, Festus, Suetonius, and Valerius Maximus) and Greek (Cassius Dio, Dionyssius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch), as well as the finest modern scholarship (Sigonio, Manutius, de Grouchy, Onofrio Panvinio, Piero Vettori, François Connan). To begin, Zamojski defines the meaning of the term “senate” as twofold, denoting respectively all senators and the meeting of them. Thus, Part I centres on the senators—their number, types, election, duties, social stature, accoutrements, privileges, grounds for expulsion; Part II on the holding of the senate—quorum, venue, timing of sessions, ceremonies and customs, order and mode of speaking, division or voting, record-keeping, legislative capacity. Zamojski points out, inter alia, that senators were allowed to read out orations prepared in advance, and reconstructs how and by whom the senate’s decrees (senatus consulta), especially the sensitive ones pertaining to treason, were noted down and archived, and to whom they were accessible.

As Zamojski’s list of topics shows, his categories are ones instantly recognizable to parliamentary historians, and we should expect both him and his readers to compare and apply the information under each rubric in reflecting on their own representative institutions, whether uni- or bicameral. Sometimes the connections were signalled by the author. Thus, when considering the wisdom and age of Roman senators, and appointment to the senatorial dignity of previous office-holders, Zamojski himself draws an analogy with the mode of appointing high ecclesiastical and civil officials to the Polish Senate. While Zamojski delineates the broad arc of the Roman senate’s evolution from Romulus to Augustus, he focuses principally on the republican period, from the abolition of kingship to Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Indeed, he stresses that his most difficult and most important chapter is the one elucidating how the senate’s power changed with the successive constitutional transformations of the Roman state.

Zamojski pays close attention to what seems to have been the first insurgence of the Roman “Conflict of the Orders,” which would last between about 494 BCE and 287 BCE. He describes the assembling of an armed crowd on Aventine Hill which then proceeds to create its own tribunes. From that point onward, he says, the senate could not manage things alone, but had to act in many matters through the people. Zamojski, hailing from a country where the political nation comprised only nobility (magnates and lesser nobles) to the exclusion of merchants and peasants, voices no criticism of this fact, perhaps because for him the minor nobles (szlachta) were the “people.” Certainly, contemporary Polish commentators such as Stanisław Orzechowski and Wawrzyniec Goślicki adapted the Polybian model to figure Poland as a mixed polity by locating the democratic element in the lower chamber of the Sejm (the Chamber of Envoys) and extolling its leaders as tribuni plebis.

Caesar, Zamojski notes, is said to have increased the number of senators to an unwieldy 900 which Augustus would then reduce to 600. Although Zamojski presents Tarquinius Superbus scaling back the senate as a bid to expand royal power, he interprets Augustus’s similar move as a reform in pursuit of efficiency. Augustus later designated certain days for holding the senate each month, giving the institution rhythm and discipline it had lacked before. Zamojski uses Dio, a monarchist historian, rather than the not-so-obliquely anti-monarchist Tacitus (whose Annals he cites elsewhere), to contextualise these two Augustan moments which evince a certain admiration for the Princeps, perchance glancing at Zamojski’s own eponymous king, Sigismund II Augustus. While the sequel in which Zamojski vouchsafed to outline the qualities of an ideal senator never appeared, within just three years Wawrzyniec Goślicki, another Pole educated in Padua (and Bologna) and destined for a successful public and ecclesiastical career at home—if not as stellar as Zamojski’s, published his De Optimo Senatore (1568). Less scholarly than Zamojski’s, Goślicki’s book became something of an international bestseller, its English translation, The Counsellor (1598) adapting his concept of the Senator to denote any counsellor, a logical extension of the widespread practice of eulogizing public figures by casting them as latter-day Roman senators. Nicholas Grimald, for one, flatteringly compared the dedicatee of his translation of Cicero’s De Officiis (1556), Thomas Thirlby, the Marian Bishop of Ely, who was also a Privy Councillor and a prominent diplomat, to “so noble a Senatour of Rome.”

Like Zamojski, Manutius (son of Aldus Manutius, who set up the Aldine press, editor of Cicero’s letters and orations, and author of several tracts on ancient Rome) emphasizes the contemporary utility of his De Senatu. Although, again like Zamojski, he does not spell out what that might be, even for his native Venice, his passionate engagement is evident. As with the Polish Senate, Venetian Senators only started calling themselves senators, and the Senate senate, in the fifteenth century in explicit reference to the Roman Senate. Manutius’s treatise is a detailed historical overview of the Roman senate from Romulus to Augustus which, however, is organized quite differently from Zamojski’s tract. Manutius treats several topics chronologically from the inception of the senate on the Spartan model. He analyses the sundry accounts of classical authors such as Livy, Dio, and Gellius, to construct his narrative, citing only two contemporary Italian scholars, Sigonio and Panvinio. The key themes of De Senatu are: the relationship of the senate to the people (populus), to wealth and empire, and to autocratic figures (whether kings, long-term dictators such as Sulla and Caesar, or emperors), which gives it a cautionary tone. The reader is promised a comparison of the Spartan, Roman and Venetian republics, as “the three most flourishing republics of three ages,” but this never materializes.

A true-blue humanist, Manutius states at the outset that his aim is to preserve knowledge for future generations. But towards the end of the prefatory address, he adduces another purpose, hence giving it prominence over the purely intellectual motive he has initially offered: “reason herself easily persuaded me, that the source of order and protection emanated from the senate, and of disturbance and ruin from the people.” Here, Manutius aligns himself with the power of reason over not only irrationality, but civil disorder, suggesting by the usage of “ratio” that both his historical account and the senate itself are illustrations of it. He explains that “just as a man is made up of mind and body, thus was [the Roman Republic] made up of the senate and the people.” Again, the senate is the rational (mind, animus) and the people the irrational (body, corpus), a palpable hit given the Platonic belief that the body was the source of the soul’s corruption, as it is polluted by earthly desires such as greed.

For Manutius, the stability of the senate, and hence of the republic itself, is threatened by the people, the wealth of empire, and autocratic figures. He is concerned with how these three factors contributed to the decay and ultimate collapse of the republic, and how he might therefore ward off a similar fate from his own state. He is most critical of the populus, which he presents as a constant menace to the republic. Intrinsic to its survival is the health of the senate, which, according to Cicero’s Pro Sestio (which Manutius edited), had been established by the first Romans as “the guardian of the republic, its greatest trust, its champion.” Manutius sets up a sharp dichotomy of senate/people and order/disorder. He conflates the people with “perturbatio” (disorder) and “interitus” (ruin), and asserts that ruin follows disorder, thus rendering the people’s responsibility for the republic’s ruin unmistakable. In the text proper, one of the most striking images is that of a ship of state. It depicts the people driving the republic to wreck before the establishment of a censor in the senate. Manutius describes how wicked and unskilled men wrench the rudder of the republic from the hands of the best and wisest citizens. The consequence of this shift in power from the senate to a mob-like populus is ruin, sickness, and the loss of freedom. The problem is the people’s unwarranted power over the senate: Manutius describes them as the senate’s master (dominus). Here is a wholesale refutation of Machiavelli’s sanguine construal of the struggle between the senate and the people.

Manutius objects to single rulers, whether kings, lifetime dictators or emperors, on the same grounds as to the populus. He bemoans the danger they pose to the senate’s power and authority, and therefore the republic’s health. In particular, this is filtered through the idea of “libertas” (freedom) and the “mos maiorum” (custom of the ancestors). Manutius depicts both as fundamental to the republic’s preservation: the republic only lives as long as the old laws and ancestral customs are obeyed. Sulla, the general who first jeopardised the senate’s jurisdiction with his army, is portrayed in exceptionally negative terms. Yet Manutius reserves his most scathing judgement for Caesar and his successors. He condemns the emperors by excluding them from his history in the manner of damnatio memoriae: “let us omit the emperors, who managed the city-state without any clear reason (ratione), or law, but rather according to their will or desire.” Instead, he concentrates on the republic and relates the acts which were begun by free citizens (a liberis civibus) in a free city-state (in libera civitate), for, where there is no liberty (libertas), virtue (virtus) cannot flourish. Manutius thus presents the emperors, including Augustus, as forces opposed to ratio and, therefore, the senate and the republic. He criticises the Caesars above all for failing to preserve the “mos maiorum” of the time-honoured order in which opinions were solicited and delivered in the senate that had been restored by Brutus after Caesar’s assassination. This is important as it was a status symbol to be asked to speak first in the senate, and could be used to favour supporters and therefore influence a motion. Manutius even uses the same verb “neglexit” (neglect) to describe the actions of both Caesar and Augustus (and later Tiberius) in relation to this custom, condemning them equally and emphasising that Augustus undid the work of Brutus to restore the republic. Hence, Manutius shows that whatever their official title or putative legitimacy, these rulers were pernicious for the republic, and their removal often heroic.

The third and final factor Manutius identifies—in Sallustian vein—as contributing to the collapse of the republic is the wealth of empire and the corruption it wrought. He stresses that the senate itself expelled members for five crimes, three of which relate to money: theft, embezzlement and extortion. Although he blames the people (populus) for Rome’s decaying morals, he holds Augustus also responsible, because of his reforms of the senate. Manutius quotes at length from Cicero’s letter to Dolabella when he indicts the deleterious effects of Augustus raising the wealth threshold for the equestrian class in a bid to limit the number of those eligible to become senators. As a result, noble families fell from the equestrian to plebeian rank if they could no longer meet the higher financial requirement. (In a corresponding passage, Zamojski not only does not condemn Augustus for raising the census, a move he sees as entirely reasonable, but converts the ancient Roman into modern Polish currency to make the sums intelligible to the reader.) Manutius laments the consequence of this decree which excluded citizens from the senate for lack of wealth to which once virtue alone had warranted entry.

In the mid-1560s both the Kingdom of Poland (personally united with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and the Republic of Venice were variously seen—and saw themselves—as Polybian mixed polities. (Around the same time, Sir Thomas Smith’s more humdrum De republica Anglorum (c. 1563-65; pub. 1583), described Elizabethan England as a mixed polity, supplying Roman counterparts to English social orders, offices, and institutions, and aligning the House of Lords with the Roman senate.) Yet the Pole Zamojski’s and the Venetian Manutius’s visions of the Roman senate, both built on solid scholarly foundations, diverged in key points of interpretation. Such divergences, stemming from the unique historical circumstances of each man’s homeland and the resultant ideological disparities between them, would become more pronounced with the outbreak of religious wars in France and the Dutch Revolt against Spain. The role of the Roman senate would be subject to close scrutiny from a comparative and transhistorical perspective in Bodin’s monumental Six livres de la Republique (1576 and later editions). Meanwhile, Monarchomach and anti-Spanish pamphleteers invoked the Roman senate to score polemical points against political and confessional adversaries. Rapidly proliferating Roman plays, both neo-Latin and vernacular ones, invited audiences across Europe to observe proceedings in the senate, from Sulla’s violent interruption in the opening scene of Thomas Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War (c. 1588) and the trial of Cremutius Cordus in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus (1603) to Cicero’s eloquent intervention in defence of the republic in Jonson’s Catiline his Conspiracy (1611). Think too of the loaded question Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar poses moments before his assassination: “Are we all ready? What is now amisse, / That Cæsar and his Senate must redresse?”—the possessive pronoun strikingly evocative of the irregularity of Caesar’s conduct.

There is an immense wealth of material that could be brought to bear in recovering the significance of the Roman senate for early modern political thought and culture. Bodin’s evolving approach in Methodus and successive French and Latin versions of the Republic would be an especially fertile area to explore given Bodin’s savvy analysis of the modern offshoots of the Roman senate, from council of state to political assemblies, in light of his own experience of participation in a representative body as delegate of the Third Estate to the French Estates General in Blois in 1576. There are also numerous earlier texts, from Erasmus’s jeu d’esprit dialogue Senatulus sive Gynaikosynedrion (1529) and its Polish recensions, Senatulus to jest sjem niewieści (Senatulus, that is, the Women’s Sejm, 1543) and Marcin Bielski’s Sjem niewieści (The Women’s Sejm, 1566/1567), to Cardinal Gasparo Contarini’s De magistratibus et republica venetorum (Paris, 1543), which delineated the correspondences between Roman and Venetian magistracies and institutions, and Donato Giannotti’s extraordinary 1540s treatise Della Republica Ecclesiastica, only recently discovered and edited by William Connell, which proposed wholesale institutional reform of the Roman Catholic Church involving transfer of power from pope to senate. Parliamentary diaries, a significant and hitherto unrecognized transnational genre, abounded in references to ancient Rome and its senate. This essay, centring mainly on the sixteenth century, is but a prolegomenon to a broader enquiry into how the Roman senate—an institution, an idea, a cultural phenomenon—was understood, contested, and adapted across early modern Europe. Such an enquiry, I think, is well worth pursuing.

Author Biographies

Paulina Kewes is Professor of English Literature and Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford, and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She has published widely on early modern literature, history, and political thought. She currently holds a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship (2021–24) awarded for “Contesting the Royal Succession in Reformation England: Latimer to Shakespeare,” the first book to examine the fierce controversy over the royal succession that dominated the reigns of Henry VIII’s childless children. She is also Principal Investigator on an international, collaborative project “Transnational Parliamentary Culture in the Early Modern World, c. 1500-1700.”

Ioannis D. Evrigenis is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Relations Program at Tufts University, where he directs the Bodin@Tufts project, aimed at a new edition of Jean Bodin's Six Books on the Commonwealth. He is the author of Images of Anarchy: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes's State of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2014), of articles on a wide range of issues in political theory, and co-editor of Johann Gottfried Herders Another Philosophy of History & Selected Political Writings (Hackett Publishing Company, 2004). He received the 2009 Delba Winthrop Award for Excellence in Political Science for his book Fear of Enemies and Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 2008), as well as the 2016 RSA-TCP Article Prize for Digital Renaissance Research, from the Renaissance Society of America, for his article "Digital Tools and the History of Political Thought: The Case of Jean Bodin."

Michael Valdez Moses is Professor of Literature and the Humanities in the Smith Institute for Political Economy & Philosophy, the Department of Philosophy, and the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University, and Associate Emeritus Professor at Duke University.  He is the author of The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (Oxford UP, 1995), co-editor of Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1900-1939 (Duke UP, 2007); Modernism, Postcolonialism, and Globalism: Anglophone Literature, 1950 to the Present (Oxford UP, 2019); and A Modernist Cinema: Film Art 1914 to 1941 (Oxford UP, 2021); and editor of The Writings of J. M. Coetzee (special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, Duke UP, 1994) and Modernism and Cinema (special issue of Modernist Cultures, Edinburgh UP, 2010). He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, a Duke Endowment Fellow at the National Humanities Center, USIA Visiting Professor at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona and at Université Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech, and the MacLean Distinguished Visiting Professor at Colorado College. He is a founding co-editor of the journal, Modernist Cultures.

Filippo Sabetti is a professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University and a senior research fellow at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University. Fascinated by the ways people come together to govern public affairs and environmental resources, he has spent many years investigating how, when, why and who is able to manage neighbourhoods, cities, and agricultural lands sustainably. By focusing on diverse research sites in the present, historic and ancient contexts within Italy, the Mediterranean world, and the Americas, he is able to better understand generalizable principles for governance around the world.

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