Liberty Matters

The Significance of the Roman Senate beyond Rome

Writing on the role of the Roman Republic and its Senate in the development of the practice of “guarding the guardians,” Scott Gordon (1999: 86) reminds us that, as recently as the first decade of the twentieth century, it would not have been necessary for any commentator on ancient Rome to remark upon its enormous influence on the history of the Western World. Now that Latin studies and Roman history have almost disappeared from school curricula, it becomes all the more important to recall the importance of Rome in the political thought and culture in shaping the institutions and practices of modern Europe. The reflections by Paulina Kewes are thus most welcome. The author insightfully refers to the Roman Senate as an institution, as an idea, and as a cultural phenomenon. These are points that, however, need further development. In a similar way, I would have liked to see the contributions on the legacy of the Republican Roman Senate in the journal Classical Reception Journal (2015) discussed more fully. Still, I found the paper by Kewes stimulating. I offer the following reflections.

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.