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.
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.

Response Essay A Crucial Lesson

In Federalist 63, James Madison writes "history informs us of no long lived republic which had not a senate," adding that "Sparta, Rome, and Carthage, are, in fact, the only states to whom that character can be applied." As Madison noted, the paucity of information about the latter case forced those interested in the history of that institution to concentrate on the first two, and although Sparta and Rome were both used frequently as shining examples of long-lasting states, it was Rome that stood out. Although Professor Kewes' focus is on early modern Europe, Madison's observation strikes me as apt because it summarizes two of her several important insights: the crucial role of a senate in an enduring state, and the fact that our understanding and employment of ancient examples is constrained by the very limited evidence available to us, which, to make matters worse, reaches us after having been processed by interested parties. Madison's observation also provides powerful evidence that Kewes is correct in claiming that Rome served as an inspiration not only in literary and antiquarian enterprises, but also in the weightiest of political debates. Even though the suggestion that the early modern sources that Kewes is interested in were the ones that paved the way for Madison's study of Roman political institutions would not raise any eyebrows, Kewes is correct in arguing that our understanding of the connection between the two is nowhere near as clear as it should be and that a new history of the Roman senate would be an important step towards improving it.

Kewes' diagnosis of the state of this field is correct, in my view, as are her hypotheses about some of the reasons for it. As she notes, the questions that we need answers to are easy to ignore, either because they require the study of tedious minutiae about extinct institutions or because those who know something about one institution or state are not sufficiently proficient in others to be able to think about them in evolutionary or comparative terms. But why is that the case, especially when at present we have readier access to more sources than ever, as well as a host of tools that can enable us to use them effectively? Many of the early modern works that would form part of the corpus on which Kewes' proposed study would be based are but a few clicks away, yet few scholars have the skills necessary to study them in their original forms and they do not qualify for translation, for several reasons. As such, they appear impenetrable. Yet, how could one seriously understand what a sophisticated reader of Latin thought about early modern or Roman sources that he read in (two different versions of) that language, something that would seem to be a requirement for any serious attempt to argue that he used those sources in this way or that? I thus expect that Kewes' project will be more challenging than it already appears, as it will require both serious translation and bringing into conversation specialists who are not used to interacting with one another.

While also correct, Kewes' second observation regarding the state of the field seems to me to be missing an important part of the story. Kewes identifies Machiavelli as a key figure in the early modern reception of Rome, and notes that because he "had little to say about the senate in the Discorsi, students of its reception have understandably skirted the issue." I think that Kewes is being charitable here. Machiavelli had plenty to say about the senate in the Discourses, but those who see him as the patron saint of republicanism would understandably indeed have little time for that part of his story. Yet that part is crucial to Machiavelli's view of Rome, whose greatness he saw as rooted in conflict between the orders. In Discourses I.2, for instance, Machiavelli argues that "remaining mixed, [Rome] made a perfect republic, to which perfection it came through the disunion of the plebs and the Senate" (Mansfield & Tarcov trans.). Before early modern European political thinkers and Madison would come to the same conclusion, Machiavelli had already noted that a "perfect republic" cannot exist without a senate.

To modern ears an institution linked so closely with aristocracy in all its forms is bound to sound antiquarian, if not odious. But why did early modern European thinkers consider it so important, not just for Rome, but also for their own states? On the most basic level, as Kewes notes, Rome, and especially the Roman republic, were seen as exemplars of strength and success. The enduring appeal of Sallust's account of Roman moral degeneration rooted in conflict between the orders that was checked only by the threat of Carthage, especially as that account was filtered through Saint Augustine's Christian reading of the history of Rome, made that ancient example a universal point of reference among educated early modern Europeans. Rome was the obvious model, often providing, in Kewes' terms, "a normative code of conduct." Even if simplistic and embellished, accounts of Roman greatness in which the senate played a big role were very appealing to anxious thinkers trapped in far less impressive states surrounded by uncertainty and danger.

As Kewes points out, it was under precisely such conditions that Jean Bodin composed his magisterial Six livres de la république, in 1576. Bodin re-issued that work as De Republica Libri Sex ten years later, in a substantially different form, clearly aimed at a wider European audience. That work, which was intended to replace Aristotle's Politics as a comprehensive treatise on political science, provided the vocabulary and conceptual framework for the Peace of Westphalia, not least by proposing a modern conception of sovereignty that has since become the dominant understanding of that elusive concept. Bodin's work is the perfect example of both the kind of work that Kewes has in mind and of the types of problems I listed above. Working from both the French and Latin originals, Richard Knolles produced an English edition in 1606, which reads like neither original on its own. That edition remains the only one ever produced in English. Bodin's work, which was used by every major political thinker since then—including such figures as Grotius, James VI/I, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant, Madison, Adams, and Jefferson—is not available in print in any language today, perhaps because in Knolles's version it contains some 600,000 words. A twentieth-century German translation from the French was completed without annotations, as that would apparently have made an already Herculean project insurmountable.

Yet that is the sort of work that contains the elements for the comparative and institutional study that Kewes is rightly calling for. Eager to understand political institutions not simply in intellectual terms, but mainly for urgent practical reasons, Bodin defines a senate as "a lawful assembly of advisors that deliberates for the commonwealth and for those who have the sovereign power of the commonwealth" (3.1). This definition is the result of his study of numerous instances of bodies that call themselves "senate," after the manner of the Roman institution, but Bodin's survey gives the Roman senate pride of place. Yet his definition is the careful product of serious reflection and, hence, not limited only to those, but rather extends to other consultative bodies, such as privy councils and parlements. Rejecting Polybius's superficial view, Bodin declares that the Roman senate had no power, since its decisions could always be overridden by other bodies and, ultimately, by the people. As Kewes notes, Bodin's emphasis on this point is animated by his own concern for the dangers inherent in even the slightest hint of divided sovereignty, the consequences of which would ravage Europe for the better part of a century.

But no power did not mean no significance. Surveying the history of the Roman senate from its inception to imperial times, Bodin argues that at its best that institution was seen as a source of the best advice for rulers, because its members were older (as its name suggests) and therefore had more experience, but also because they were rich and did not have to worry about money. Their financial independence also rendered them likelier to give frank advice. As such, they came to represent a higher form of deliberation, which quickly became associated with the rational part of the body politic, as Kewes points out. But even individuals primed for better deliberation cannot be trusted entirely, so Bodin highlights the institutional measures that were introduced to ensure better outcomes or, at least, prevent the worst ones from materializing. Of many important lessons here, one stands out: senate seats should be reserved for former magistrates. With such measures in place, the senate could advise towards the common good, in accordance with the dictates of natural law. Its lack of power, however, meant that in the wrong hands—such as Caesar's—it was exposed to insignificance at best or subject to becoming a diversionary tool for tyrants at worst.

Although Bodin's name is more recognizable to students of political institutions than Zamojski's or Manutius's the fate of his Republica, which was once mandatory reading for political scientists and statesmen, is an apt illustration of the difficulties involved in the study that Kewes is proposing. Despite these challenges, I concur with her that we reduce early modern political thought to maxims and crude summaries at our peril. Even a cursory glance at the politics of that period reveals the extent to which its central political preoccupations were very much our own. Studying the Roman senate, early modern European thinkers realized that when the deliberative organ ceases to do its job properly, the body politic is in trouble. We should heed their warning.

Response Essay The Roman Senate, The Grand Council, and John Milton’s The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth

Professor Kewes’s call to reconsider “the contemporary significance of the Roman senate—the aristocratic element of the mixed constitution” within the political thought and parliamentary culture of early modern Europe can only be met with approval and intellectual excitement. She pointedly notes that “parallels were being variously drawn between the Roman senate and a host of contemporary institutions—the royal council or council of state, the . . . Polish Senate or the English House of Lords, and even a representative assembly such as a parliament or diet tout court.” A particularly notable instance of such parallelism is John Milton’s explicit comparison of the Roman Senate with his proposed “Grand” or “General Council'' in his political tract of 1660, The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Faced with the imminent return of the Stuart monarchy and the collapse of the republican experiment for which he had been a leading advocate and government official, Milton (fruitlessly) wrote to Major General George Monk and a newly expanded Parliament that included readmitted Presbyterian and pro-Monarchist MPs inclined to restore Charles II to the throne. In his open letter, Milton—who had famously and publicly defended the regicide of Charles I—offered a plan for how to constitute “a free Commonwealth” in England (426).[1]

The single most striking feature of Milton’s schema for a republican government is his proposal to establish a Grand or General Council: “For the ground and basis of every just and free government . . . is a general councel of ablest men, chosen by the people to consult of public affairs from time to time for the public good. In this Grand Councel must the sovrantie not transferrd but delegated only, and as it were deposited, reside” (427). Milton frequently refers to this Council as “a perpetual” or “standing Senat” (428-9) which he explicitly models on several ancient and contemporary institutions including the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Athenian Areopagus, the Spartan “Ancients,” and, most importantly, the Roman Senate (429). Indeed, Milton’s most extended and detailed institutional comparison in this relatively brief tract is that between the Grand Council and Roman Senate, a comparison in which Milton offers his analysis of the rise and fall of that aristocratic body that, according to him, provided the foundation for the liberty of the Roman republic and the weakening and corruption of which marked the end of republican freedom. 

Milton proposes to abolish permanently the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Third Estate (the Lords Spiritual, to say nothing of the Church of England), thereby effectively ending any form of hereditary rule or privilege. In place of a monarchy and aristocracy defined by birth or blood, Milton would establish a new rule of “the best,” the wisest, most capable, and most virtuous men, elected for life to the Grand Council. (Milton explicitly recommends against a rotational “Senat” in which members of the Council would serve a limited term, though he is willing as a practical matter to agree to this as a kind of political compromise). Selected and filtered by an ascending series of electoral contests (Milton refers to “a third or fourth sifting and refining of exactest choice,” 431) that begin at the local level, Council members would indirectly represent each “county and commonalitie” in England (441). Milton enumerates the duties and powers of the Council: they chiefly involve directing the nation’s foreign affairs (war, peace, treaties, trade with other countries), but also include the raising and managing of public revenue (taxes), and proposing (if not necessarily making) civil laws pertinent to the duties and responsibilities of the Council (427). Wary of concentrating too much power in a single institution, Milton importantly stipulates that most matters of civil government (the making of laws, the administration of justice) will be decentralized, remaining a strictly local matter to be handled by the “nobilitie and chief gentry” of each territory and city (441). (The reader troubled by Milton’s reference here to “nobilitie” must consider his earlier assertion that a free commonwealth is the “the noblest, the manliest, the equalist, the justest government, the most agreeable to all due libertie and proportioned equalite, both human and civil,” 422). Milton refers to this decentralized and federated form of government as “many Commonwealths under one united and entrusted Sovrantie” (443). As an additional guarantee against the possibility that the Council will exceed its authority and abuse its power, Milton assures his readers that arms will remain in the hands of the people: “Neither do I think a perpetual Senat, especially chosen and trusted by the people, much in this land to be feard, where the well-affected either in a standing armie, or in a settled militia have thir arms in thir own hands” (428). All matters under the purview of the Council are to be decided by a majority vote of its members—thereby ensuring that all regions, territories, and cities within the Commonwealth have an equal say in the government of the republic. Finally, though he does not specify the total number of Council members, Milton insists that the body be sufficiently small so as to make sustained face-to-face rational deliberation and debate possible.

Milton’s explicit aim in proposing a Commonwealth is to preserve and protect “the whole freedom of man,” which consists of either “spiritual or civil libertie” (439). To be sure, Milton expects a Commonwealth that depends upon a Grand Councel as “the foundation and main pillar of the whole State” to bring about “freedom, peace, justice, [and all the] plenty that we can desire” (trade and commerce will flourish). But the overarching and enduring goal of his proposal is to insure “libertie” as opposed to the servility, slavishness, and moral darkness that Milton associates with kingship and which he consistently identifies with tyranny, moral corruption, spiritual slavery, and political and religious despotism (427, 439). In many respects, Milton’s defense of “aristocratic” (senatorial) republicanism parallels that of Paulus Manutius’s De Senatu as described by Professor Kewes, though Milton takes a far more favorable view toward trade, commerce, and the acquisition of material wealth than does his Italian predecessor.[2] Much of The Readie and Easie Way is devoted to a blistering critique of what Milton perceives as the two chief threats to “libertie”: autocratic (tyrannical) monarchs and a people far too willing and eager to abandon their freedoms and return to a state of spiritual and civil servitude. In a justly famous passage, Milton draws a lesson for his contemporaries in 1660 from the history of republican Rome. Acknowledging that many ancient republics were mixed regimes that combined “perpetual Senats” with “popular remedies against their growing too imperious,” Milton nonetheless insists that these remedies “either little availd the people, or brought them to such a licentious and unbridl’d democraties, as in fine ruind themselves with their own excessive power” (430). In Milton’s highly abbreviated and polemical characterization of the Roman republic, each increase in the power of the people (and consequent dilution of senatorial authority)—the establishment of the Tribunes, the transformation of the Censors and Praeters into offices for which Plebians were eligible—lead inevitably and predictably to the civil atrocities of the plebian and demagogic General Marius (who massacred aristocrats) and the “tryannie of Sylla” (430). Long before the civil wars between the two Triumverates that eventuated in Caesar's and then Octavius’s despotic concentration of political authority, the decline of the Roman Senate presaged the ultimate fall of the republic and the consequent loss of liberty. 

For Milton (like Plato), unbridled democracy and tyranny are two sides of the same coin: the demagogic tyrant appeals to the people’s base desires in order to form a political alliance that allows him to crush his senatorial adversaries and put an end to republican liberties. Unsurprisingly, Milton, in this tract, is unimpressed with contemporary calls to establish a large bicameral legislature with over three hundred senators and a popular assembly of a thousand (which according to Milton effectively dilutes the power of the senate while making sustained rational deliberation in the lower chamber near impossible). Suggestively, Milton rejects such a proposal and returns to a defense of that sixteen-year period in the history of republican Rome between the expulsion of the Tarquins (“the enemies of . . . libertie”) and the establishment of the Tribunate as a model of government which a Free Commonwealth might emulate (431).

Faced with the looming prospect that Charles II would be restored to the English throne, convinced that those like himself who had advocated for religious and civic liberty even to the point of justifying the execution of Charles I and the abolition of the monarchy would most certainly be persecuted as enemies of the new regime, Milton in a desperate and defiant gesture turned to republican Rome, and more specifically to an idealized characterization of the Roman Senate, in a final if futile effort to establish a Free Commonwealth and preserve both his own freedom and that of his fellow countrymen.

[1] All citations to The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth are from John Milton, Aeropagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).

[2] I have not been able to determine whether Milton, often described as the most learned man of his day, had read or was influenced by Manutius’s work of 1580.

Response Essay The Significance of the Roman Senate beyond Rome

First there is the issue of interpretation. I do not think that most historians these days talk much about “the truth” of what happened in the past as an objective reality. Rather, the tendency is to stress that history is about the interpretation of the past based on available evidence (all of which is imperfect and subject to bias in interpretation), to answer questions about the past that are generally of relevance to the present. Current conditions, then, shape the questions we ask about the past, and each historian’s individual formation, worldview, ideology, etc shapes his/her interpretation of the evidence. For example, look at how the US Founding Fathers applied their understanding of the Roman republic to the design of the US Constitution or how a medieval or modern author borrowed from the Iliad or Odyssey in writing their own epic works (as Melville drew on the classical tradition in writing Moby Dick).

The issue of interpretation is especially evident in the paper. That is, it is not clear what precisely the paper is trying to understand about the senate: its composition? number of members? Political function and powers? etc? Or is the paper asking what the senate “meant” to those viewing it from the outside? Or what it meant to later audiences (reception)? This is because the senate surely changed a lot over its 1000+ year history. How fine-grained do we want the understanding to be with respect to periodization? Michael Fronda, a Latinist and Roman historian, in a personal communication, highlights the different periods this way:

  • The regal period (before the foundation of the Republic), before c. 500 BC: what, if any, was the role of the Senate under the kings?
  • Republic: c. 500 BC to 31 BC (give or take)
  • Early Republic: c. 500 BC-295 BC (some would give a different date)
  • Middle Republic c. 295 BC to 133 BC
    • Within the middle republic, the period c. 220 or 200 BC to 150 BC is seen as the “height” of senatorial authority.
  • Late Republic 133 BC-c. 31 BC
    • After c. 80 BC there are big changes due to the legislation of the dictator Sulla and the change in the composition of the Roman citizenry due to extension of citizenship to Italy.
  • Imperial period: 31 BC to c. AD 500 (the senate lasted longer than the last Roman emperor in the west; this ignores the senate in Constantinople).

This periodization leads me to suggest that it is possible that Skinner and others mentioned by Paulina Kewes did not discuss the Senate because they did not know how to handle its long history.

More specifically, I would have liked to see a more in-depth discussion of the influence of Rome on contemporary institutions. Perhaps a closer look at the contributions on the legacy of the republican Roman Senate discussed recently in Classical Receptions Journal would have been helpful. Professor Kewes does mention the Polish case. More elaboration would have helped. I was puzzled to find no reference to the Senate of the Republic of Venice, the oldest self-organized republic in the world. There is a fine discussion of the Republic of Venice and its institutional arrangements in Contarini [1543] 2020. I did not find the reference to Manutius helpful. I would have liked to see a more in-depth discussion of the contrasting perspective on the Roman Senate in Manutius and Zamojski. Too many authors are called up there and in my view they do not advance the argument. Kewes recalls correctly Bodin’s rejection of divided sovereignty. This is a fundamental question in the history of liberty, and I would have liked to see the author explore this point at some length. This point remains fundamental in understanding the emergence of the senate as a way of addressing this issue well after the collapse of Rome.

Kewes is correct in reminding us that there is an immense wealth of material that could be brought to bear in recovering the significance of the Roman Senate for early modern thought and parliamentary culture. A sharper focus is needed. Perhaps the significance of the Roman Senate in controlling the state could provide that focus, just as Scott Gordon suggests.


Contarini, Gasparo [1543] 2020. The Republic of Venice. De magistratibus et republica Venetorum. Ed. by Filippo Sabetti. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Gordon, Scott 1999. Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Conversation Comments 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.

Conversation Comments Studying the Early Modern Reception of the Roman Senate: Challenges and Opportunities

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.

Conversation Comments 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.

Conversation Comments “What’s In a Name?”

There were some aspects of the Roman senate that attracted the attention of early modern thinkers and some that were happily left where they lay. In the former category, one finds the senate's judicial functions, which were the subject of curiosity and emulation to such a degree that in some places the terms "senatus" and "curia" came to be used interchangeably. Among the Roman senate's forgotten functions, its religious duties seem to me to stand out, something that is not surprising given the place of Christianity in early modern European politics. If Machiavelli and Madison tell us why it makes sense to study a senate and emulate at least some of the elements of the Roman version of that institution, Professor Moses reminds us that we are facing a new version of an old problem: the challenge of introducing moderating forces into a regime that forcefully tends in one direction. Moses eloquently describes the extent of contemporary democratic distrust of anything that is or is perceived to be anti-democratic.
If the problems with the word "senate" are more readily apparent, those stemming from the word "Roman" are no less important. While in early modern times a basic knowledge of Roman history was a warranted assumption, that is no longer the case. This otherwise indifferent curricular minutia seems to me to have some important consequences. For our purposes, the most immediate is that most people nowadays are unaware of the variations in Roman history that might lead one to think of the senate as a moderating force, even a safeguard against tyranny. Even among academic historians, it is not unusual to hear the term "Roman" used in ways that leave one unsure as to which of the periods that Professor Sabetti listed one is talking about. The differences between them, as Sabetti notes, are vast and crucial, but they are currently lost in what is increasingly becoming a caricature of an irrelevant past. Therein, the idea that a body of aristocratic citizens could have played a role in preserving freedom is simply lost. Further barriers are erected by the contemporary certainty that anything old was morally inferior and, therefore, to be dismissed. Rome is likelier to evoke images of war and conquest than of elaborate political institutions and thoughtful legislation. Thus, even if one were open to the proposition that not all political institutions in a democracy should be purely democratic—which, as Moses observes, is inimical to the democratic spirit of our age—it would still be challenging to accept that an aristocratic institution of one of the world's most aggressive states is the thing to be emulated.
Yet, the uncomfortable questions that arise from that realization are the very ones that contemporary democratic citizens need to ask themselves. Moses raised the key issue of excellence. One of the reasons why early modern thinkers gave serious thought to an aristocratic institution was that it was inconceivable to them that a polity without an aristocracy could exist. Listening to contemporary American and European political language, one might think that our world has achieved what no other could, but aristocratic and oligarchic elements are everywhere in contemporary democratic societies, despite profuse assurances to the contrary. To questions of aristocracy and oligarchy, I would add others about the relationship between expansion, conflict, and freedom, precisely the challenges that Machiavelli, Madison, and others grappled with. Markus Fischer has used the apt term "rapacious republicanism" to describe Machiavelli's lessons from Rome's rise, and that term seems to me pregnant with pressing questions about the material conditions of liberty that contemporary democratic thought and especially political discourse prefer not to raise. All this returns me to Professor Kewes' call for a return to the study of the Roman senate in early modern political thought. I do not harbor illusions that Sabetti's Contarini, my Bodin, and Kewes' Zamojski and Manutius will change the minds of any democratic citizens about historical and contemporary institutions, but I do hope that they will complicate even a little bit the overwhelming ease with which scholars of politics follow the crowd.