The Roman Senate: The Conversation

The Conversation

Filippo Sabetti, The Roman Senate in Perspective: Learning from Others

Paulina Kewes, My Response

Michael Valdez Moses, The Roman Senate in a Democratic Age


Filippo Sabetti, The Roman Senate in Perspective: Learning from Others

I reread Paulina Kewes’s original essay and I appreciate anew what she sought to do. The evidence of early modern views of the Roman Senate is equally well discussed in the responses by Michael Moses and Ioannis Evrigenis. Reading them all has been for me a humbling experience (I thought I knew this material, and the essays pointed to how much I still don’t know) and a reminder that the story of the Roman senate and how it was understood in early modern Europe are still worth retelling.

I didn’t know much about John Milton’s comparison, and I find the discussion by Moses quite a learning experience for me. Moses suggests why Milton turned to republican Rome and the idealized version of the Roman Senate as a way of preserving freedom in his own time. 

I find Evrigenis’s “crucial lesson” quite enlightening. Again, the paper notes why the Roman Senate played a big role in appealing to later readers “trapped in far less impressive states.” The discussion of Bodin is equally important. The last paragraph of Evrigenis’s reflection is fitting and convincing.
All in all, I find reading the essays a truly educational experience. Enriching. 

I ask myself, what can I do with this learning? How can I pass it on to others, in class and beyond? And for what compelling reason? 

More specifically, the large question remains: what slices of history are worth examining today? How would we go about it, methodologically? If we find an interpretation meaningful, is it worth sharing with others? And what happens if others don’t accept it? All this to say that we need to confront the challenge of cognition. Two points in this regard.

The first comes from the introductory chapter of a work that Mark Sproule Jones, Barbara Allen, and I edited on Vincent Ostrom’s quest to understand human affairs (2008). We wrote about normative and empirical inquiries into systems of governance, how human communities struggle to devise and sustain productive relationships internally among their members and externally with other communities. Somehow I think the discussion on the Roman Senate is part of that inquiry, as a way of understanding the origins of institutions.

The second point. Reading the essays I was reminded of a point that Schumpeter made long ago and it may be worth recalling. He wrote about the social imagination of the observer before he starts on a particular topic. What is it that leads some, like Milton and Moses here, to focus on limiting power and others, like Evrigenis, on other topics, no less important, to be sure? In his history of economic analysis (1954) Schumpeter calls this “a pre-analytic cognitive act.” He labels this pre-analytic act “vision.” Visions, in Schumpeter’s view, precede the emergence of analytical efforts. Schumpeter may no longer be a popular read but I wonder if his ideas about pre-analytic cognitive acts are worth considering for the intellectual context of what we have read about the Roman Senate in the initial essay and subsequent additions.

Paulina Kewes, My Response

It is pleasing to see the respondents agree that a transnational study of the reception of the Roman senate in early modern Europe is long overdue. Transcending national silos and disciplinary frontiers, a collaborative venture of this kind would yield significant insights into the period’s political culture and thought, and illuminate a hitherto neglected aspect of contemporary engagement with ancient Rome. This would be an ambitious and demanding project but hardly an impossible one to pull off: in my experience, scholars in the humanities and social sciences are becoming increasingly open to interdisciplinary, international collaboration, especially when it promises to be innovative and original. Meanwhile, technological advances provide ever more sophisticated digital resources for communication, information gathering, and knowledge exchange. There is abundant collective expertise worldwide that could be harnessed, so the principal challenge would be securing funding, for instance from the European Research Council which has long supported similar large-scale international projects.

My own interest in the subject stems from long-term fascination with how the Roman example shaped early modern England’s imaginative writing, politics, and ideas which produced a raft of articles and an edited volume on Ancient Rome in English Political Culture, ca. 1570–1660 and a new collaborative project I lead which investigates early modern parliamentary culture – the transnational tradition of customs, ideas, and cultural expressions associated with representative assemblies such as parliaments, diets, states, riksdag, and cortes. Bringing together historians, political scientists, literary scholars, classicists, and art historians, the latter approaches parliamentary assemblies not just as formal structures of power, as has been standard in scholarship, but also as cultural phenomena and both engine and subject of political thinking. For only by doing so can we recognize a common set of assumptions, rituals, and symbolic practices across Europe and beyond, and appreciate the vitality and lasting importance of this type of political organization. In a recent overview of the field, we show how damaging has been the prevalence of legal-constitutional approaches to parliamentary history which routinely emphasize differences between assemblies and the corresponding neglect of representative institutions by students of political thought and culture, among them the Cambridge School. 

Inevitably, the question of how far contemporaries relied on classical precedents in shaping, debating, and remodelling their own parliamentary assemblies has been central to our enterprise. We have been mindful, however, that to do the topic justice, it is vital to develop a fresh comparative methodology. A country-by-country survey simply would not do. The upshot is that several of our pieces are co-authored which means that we can bring to bear command of distinct languages, sources, and historiographies. For instance, I am currently co-writing an essay on ‘Parliamentary Assemblies in the Political Imagination of Poland-Lithuania, Britain, and Ireland’, and one of our case studies involves looking closely at the uses of ancient Roman deliberative institutions, in particular the senate, in scholarly, political, and imaginative works in Latin, Polish, English, Scots, and Gaelic. And that entails considering not only the influence of classical authors but also of Bodin’s, Lipsius’s, and others’ path-breaking discussions of the Roman senate. 

In their responses, Professors Evrigenis and Moses compellingly demonstrate how much could be gained by exploring in greater depth what early modern authors, especially ones directly involved in the politics of their time such as Bodin and Milton, made of this ancient institution, and how they commandeered it for immediate polemical purposes. It is true, as Evrigenis observes, that few scholars possess the necessary skills to explicate Bodin’s work, and that the lack of a proper scholarly edition (and translation) hampers the study of his monumental Six livres. It is to be hoped that Evrigenis succeeds in producing a hypertext version of, at a minimum, the French edition of 1576 and the Latin one of 1586, alongside his own translation of the latter. Given how much effort has gone – and continues to go – into editing Shakespeare, and how many other early modern authors – Lipsius and Grotius come to mind – boast sumptuous multivolume critical editions, it is frankly astounding that Bodin, arguably the founder of modern political science, remains so inaccessible, and that students who do not have French or Latin, are forced to fall back on the defective Knolles edition. 

Evrigenis rightly points out that Bodin encompasses different things under the term senate. For instance, Bodin explains the genesis of a smaller conciliar body under Augustus and discusses the relative importance of this kind of Privy Council versus a larger assembly while calling both a senate. So too Bodin glides from ancient to contemporary deliberative institutions, especially in Book III, chapter 7, a significant and surprisingly underexplored section of his magnum opus whose textual evolution reveals Bodin’s changing perception of the role of parliamentary assemblies, including his own. 

Evrigenis wonders why an aristocratic institution such as the Roman senate commanded so lasting an influence over the early modern political imagination. One reason, I think, is that, pace Polybius, contemporaries did not associate the senate merely with the aristocratic element and patrician privilege but, rather, viewed it as a forum to which even those not high born could aspire. It is no coincidence that it is Cicero, one of the New Men, who emerged as the authority on the workings of the senate, and that it is he who was routinely hailed in our period for putting down the Catilinarian conspiracy fomented by his social superiors. In other words, the Roman senate could be and often was seen as epitomising something akin to social mobility, however limited this might have been in practice. Virtue and public service had ensured one’s entry into the senatorial class in ancient Rome, many thought, and should do so in contemporary states, whether monarchical or republican.

In contrast to Bodin’s scholarly and comparative approach to the Roman senate, Milton’s was unabashedly polemical. Professor Moses provides an insightful analysis of Milton’s startling call in his 1660 tract The Readie and Easie Way (1660) for a Grand Council or standing senate, appointed for life, akin to the one which had held sway in Rome after the abolition of the monarchy but before the establishment of the tribunes. It is striking that in advancing this argument Milton tendentiously recast both the work of Bodin, and of Marchmont Nedham, a consummate polemicist and remarkable political chameleon, and Milton’s friend. Nedham’s The Excellencie of a Free-State; Or, The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth (1656), which itself repurposed Nedham’s earlier editorials, adamantly condemned the oligarchic tyranny exercised by the Roman senate once the Tarquins had been expelled. For Nedham, the senate proved the enemy to liberty, a new oppressor:


Though the Name of King were exploded with alacrity, yet the Kingly power was retained with all Art and subtilty, and shared under another notion among themselves, who were the great ones of the City. For all Authority was confin’d within the walls of a standing Senate, out of which, two Consuls were chosen yeerly; & so by turns they dub’d one another with a new kinde of Regality: the people being no gainers at all by this alteration of Government, save onely, that (like Asses) they were sadled with new Paniers of Slavery. 


Only the erection of the tribunate, claimed Nedham, ensured Rome’s transformation into a truly free state. Nedham wrote in response to the increasing dysfunctionality and then forcible dissolution of the Rump, and the debacle of Barebone’s Parliament, and his target was the Cromwellian Protectorate; Milton, after the Protectorate’s demise when the restoration of the Rump and readmission of the members expelled in Pride’s Purge ominously presaged the return of the Stuart monarchy. Ironically, at this juncture Nedham himself came to endorse Milton’s new and quite unorthodox application of Roman history, so contrary to his own. 

As this brief discussion indicates, early modern authors fought their ideological battles by summoning – and often wilfully misrepresenting – the power and authority of the Roman senate. Nor did the phenomenon disappear in the post-Revolutionary era. None other than John Adams accused Nedham of misusing Roman history to suit his partisan ends. In doing so, however, Adams was himself misreading Nedham, whom he credited with advocating unbridled unicameralism even though Nedham had in fact made a case for what might be dubbed a separation of powers. If we want to understand the political thought of early modern Europe and its transatlantic legacy, we need to probe not only how and to what end contemporaries drew on neo-Roman concepts such as virtue and liberty, but also what kind of institutional embodiment they sought for them. 

Michael Valdez Moses, The Roman Senate in a Democratic Age

Professor Kewes writes persuasively of the many methodological and disciplinary reasons that contemporary scholarship has unduly neglected the critical influence of the Roman senate on early modern European thought and literature. Professor Evrigenis proposes that the contemporary challenges to recovering a proper appreciation of the Roman senate are, alas, even more formidable than Kewes suggests. He emphasizes that current scholars often lack the necessary training and thus access to the textual sources that might facilitate a renaissance in our understanding of that peculiar Roman political institution and its intellectual reception among modern political thinkers, both those who decisively rejected, as well as those who praised the mixed nature of the Roman republic. Happily, Professor Evrigenis’s Bodin@Tufts project, aimed at producing a new edition of Jean Bodin’s Six Books on the Commonwealth, as well as Professor Sabetti’s recent edition of Gasparo Contarini’s The Republic of Venice, mark encouraging steps towards addressing these deficiencies. Nonetheless, the heroic interventions of Kewes, Evrigensis, and Sabetti necessarily encounter an even more deeply rooted historical challenge, one likely to prove more daunting than that which a lack of scholarly interest, reliable translations of critical texts, and advanced philological training pose: what Tocqueville identified as the profound democratic spirit of the age. Evrigenis puts his finger on the problem: “To modern ears an institution linked so closely with aristocracy in all its forms is bound to sound antiquarian, if not odious.” 

While it’s generally agreed that the framers of the American republic were admirers and imitators of the “mixed regime,” one that necessarily integrated an “aristocratic” element into its constitution, at least since the Progressive era, it has been precisely that element that has fallen into extreme disfavor among “advanced” thinkers and politicians. Scholarly neglect of the legacy of the Roman senate is the predictable consequence of a widespread democratic hostility toward all things aristocratic, a hostility shared, at least in the United States (and more generally in the West) by the left and right alike. In the United States, contemporary attacks on the unrepresentative character of the Electoral College, on the outsized influence in the American Congress of thinly populated rural States, and on the unelected and undemocratic character of the Supreme Court are the predictable consequences of a deeply-rooted contemporary conviction that pure democracy is the sole legitimate form of government. But so too is the recent rise of new forms of “populism” with their profound suspicion of corrupt global elites and their ominous alliances of the people with charismatic and dangerous demagogues. 

Given the decayed historical condition of the American senate, one populated for decades almost exclusively by conspicuously wealthy individuals, directly elected by the people since the passage of the 17th Amendment, but all too frequently representing rent-seeking special interests, a body whose public duties rarely mandate a scrupulously reasoned and deliberative consideration of matters of state, and whose members seem almost solely devoted to the symbolic performance of mere partisanship, any attempt to restore an appreciation of the aristocratic element within a mixed regime will seem Quixotic or worse. The task at hand would appear to involve much more than a reconsideration of the enduring importance of the Roman senate in modern political thought. It would, more urgently, require us to reexamine the vexed relationship between that institution and the original meaning of aristoi: the best, a noble character, a right nature. Anything less will leave us in the position of Shakespeare’s Brutus, a tragic and noble figure whose most conspicuous political act ironically confirmed the decay rather than the restoration of the Republic.