In ancient Rome, what was the senate?

As part of our History Extra explains series, leading historians answer the burning questions you were too afraid to ask

Frisian envoys Malorix and Verritus before the Roman Senate at Pompey's Theatre in Rome. (Photo by INTERFOTO/Alamy)

What was the senate?

Under the Roman republican constitution the monarchy was abolished, but the king’s former advisory council of elders survived in the form of the senate (senex being Latin for ‘old man’).


Originally comprising the heads of each leading family in Rome, the senate became the key component in Roman politics, with responsibilities in finance and expenditure, foreign policy, the appointment of provincial governors, and military strategy, although legislative power was ultimately vested in the various people’s assemblies.

In order that decisive action could be taken in the field of domestic politics, the senate was guided by two annually elected consuls of equal authority, who, for the duration of their posts, possessed supreme power. Consuls needed to be in agreement if action could be taken, and each could veto the decisions of the other. In times of extreme emergency, a dictator (who ‘spoke’ for the people), was appointed to deal with the crisis.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology, with more than 25 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication.


For more burning historical Q&As on the Tudors, ancient Rome, the First World War and ancient Egypt, click here.