The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Senators in the first century AD held much less power than their predecessors, although the Senate still had the right to confer the title of emperor.

This alone ensured that the Senate and its members remained relevant and important.

The Roman Senate started life as an advisory council, filled entirely with patricians. In the last two centuries of the republic, however, it had become much more powerful and a major player in politics and government.

Civil war

Many senators had been killed in the civil war that brought Julius Caesar to power in 46 BC: as a result, the Senate was looking a little empty. Caesar increased the number of senators from around 600 to 900. This changed the membership of the Senate considerably: many of the new faces were Equestrians or came from Italian towns – some even came from Gaul.

This increase in the number of senators soon reversed itself and, during the first century, the Senate consisted of 600 men. Most were either sons of senators, or were elected quaestors (junior magistrates).

Climbing the ladder

Only Roman citizens aged 25 or over, with both military and administrative experience, could become quaestors, the lowest rung on the government ladder. Potential candidates were nominated by the emperor and the elections were merely a formality.

Once elected, an ambitious senator would progress through the different ranks of magistrates. These included the quaestorship, the aedileship, the praetorship and, ultimately, the consulship and the position held at any one time determined his senatorial rank.

Privileges of office

In addition to their political and judicial powers, senators had special privileges. They alone could hold the highest official offices and judgeships in criminal and civil courts. In addition, senators enjoyed reserved seating at public ceremonies and games, and they alone had the honor of wearing the ‘latus clavus’ – the purple striped toga.

In 27 BC, Augustus claimed he had restored the republic. In truth, Rome was governed by a dynastic monarchy and real power was held by the emperor. Augustus pretended that he valued the traditional republican institutions. He understood that it was politically important to pay lip service to the Senate and ensure it kept some prestige.

New ruler, new rules

Augustus also began a new rule that senators had to have property worth 1,000,000 sesterces (Roman coins). Senators were also not allowed to become directly involved in business – particularly shipping or government contracts where there might be a conflict of interest. Given they were also unpaid, this meant that only a small percentage of the population could afford to become deeply involved in politics.

During the empire, the senate was at the head of the government bureaucracy and was a law court. The emperor held the title of Princeps Senatus, and could appoint new senators, summon and preside over Senate discussions, and propose legislation.

The Senate therefore took its lead from the emperor and, in most important areas, was only an advisory body. However, it still had the right to confer the title of emperor and this power alone meant that the Senate and its members remained relevant and important, even during the worst years of the first century.

Where to next:

Emperors - Julius Caesar
Emperors - Augustus

Related Links:

Pliny the Elder   Pliny the Elder
Claudius   Claudius
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order
- Patricians
- Senators
- Equestrians
- Plebians
- Slaves & Freemen
- Soldiers
- Women
- On The Frontiers

Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels


The Roman Empire - In The First Century