The number of those, however, who had been magistrates was far from sufficing to keep the senate up to the normal number of three hundred; and below that point it could not be allowed to fall, especially as the list of senators was at the same time that of jurymen. Considerable room was thus always left for the exercise of the censorial right of election; but those senators who were chosen not in consequence of having held office, but by selection on the part of the censor--frequently burgesses who had filled a non-curule public office, or distinguished themselves by personal valour, who had killed an enemy in battle or saved the life of a burgess--took part in voting, but not in debate.(24) The main body of the senate, and that portion of it into whose hands government and administration were concentrated, was thus according to the Ovinian law substantially based no longer on the arbitrary will of a magistrate, but indirectly on election by the people. The Roman state in this way made some approach to, although it did not reach, the great institution of modern times, representative popular government, while the aggregate of the non-debating senators furnished--what it is so necessary and yet so difficult to get in governing corporations--a compact mass of members capable of forming and entitled to pronounce an opinion, but voting in silence.

Powers Of The Senate

The powers of the senate underwent scarcely any change in form. The senate carefully avoided giving a handle to opposition or to ambition by unpopular changes, or manifest violations, of the constitution; it permitted, though it did nor promote, the enlargement in a democratic direction of the power of the burgesses. But while the burgesses acquired the semblance, the senate acquired the substance of power --a decisive influence over legislation and the official elections, and the whole control of the state.

Its Influence In Legislation

Every new project of law was subjected to a preliminary deliberation in the senate, and scarcely ever did a magistrate venture to lay a proposal before the community without or in opposition to the senate's opinion. If he did so, the senate had--in the intercessory powers of the magistrates and the annulling powers of the priests--an ample set of means at hand to nip in the bud, or subsequently to get rid of, obnoxious proposals; and in case of extremity it had in its hands as the supreme administrative authority not only the executing, but the power of refusing to execute, the decrees of the community. The senate further with tacit consent of the community claimed the right in urgent cases of absolving from the laws, under the reservation that the community should ratify the proceeding--a reservation which from the first was of little moment, and became by degrees so entirely a form that in later times they did not even take the trouble to propose the ratifying decree.

Influence On The Elections

As to the elections, they passed, so far as they depended on the magistrates and were of political importance, practically into the hands of the senate. In this way it acquired, as has been mentioned already,(25) the right to appoint the dictator. Great regard had certainly to be shown to the community; the right of bestowing the public magistracies could not be withdrawn from it; but, as has likewise been already observed, care was taken that this election of magistrates should not be constructed into the conferring of definite functions, especially of the posts of supreme command when war was imminent. Moreover the newly introduced idea of special functions on the one hand, and on the other the right practically conceded to the senate of dispensation from the laws, gave to it an important share in official appointments. Of the influence which the senate exercised in settling the official spheres of the consuls in particular, we have already spoken.(26) One of the most important applications of the dispensing right was the dispensation of the magistrate from the legal term of his tenure of office--a dispensation which, as contrary to the fundamental laws of the community, might not according to Roman state-law be granted in the precincts of the city proper, but beyond these was at least so far valid that the consul or praetor, whose term was prolonged, continued after its expiry to discharge his functions "in a consul's or praetor's stead" (-pro consule- -pro praetore-). Of course this important right of extending the term of office --essentially on a par with the right of nomination--belonged by law to the community alone, and at the beginning was in fact exercised by it; but in 447, and regularly thenceforward, the command of the commander-in-chief was prolonged by mere decree of the senate. To this was added, in fine, the preponderating and skilfully concerted influence of the aristocracy over the elections, which guided them ordinarily, although not always, to the choice of candidates agreeable to the government.

Senatorial Government

Finally as regards administration, war, peace and alliances, the founding of colonies, the assignation of lands, building, in fact every matter of permanent and general importance, and in particular the whole system of finance, depended absolutely on the senate. It was the senate which annually issued general instructions to the magistrates, settling their spheres of duty and limiting the troops and moneys to be placed at the disposal of each; and recourse was had to its counsel in every case of importance. The keepers of the state-chest could make no payment to any magistrate with the exception of the consul, or to any private person, unless authorized by a previous decree of the senate. In the management, however, of current affairs and in the details of judicial and military administration the supreme governing corporation did not interfere; the Roman aristocracy had too much political judgment and tact to desire to convert the control of the commonwealth into a guardianship over the individual official, or to turn the instrument into a machine.

From the Abolition of the Monarchy in Rome to the Union of Italy Page 32

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Theodor Mommsen
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