Thoughts on Rome’s Senate and Senate House in the 7th Century

This past Thursday, Christopher Smith, Director of the British School at Rome, led a very informative and interesting tour of the imperial fori, the Forum, and the Palatine, with a walk along the Circus Maximus to the Forum Boarium at the end. I now have some idea of the Forum and how it all works together, as well as its history. Given that the Roman Forum is a mish-mash of ruinous stone and brick from various different eras, it is no easy feat to sort this place out. Indeed, I may be kidding myself.


Until it was decided in the 19th century that the Forum would better serve the world uncovered and exposed, it was lined with churches, several of them former ancient Roman buildings converted to new uses in the course of the Middle Ages. Such converted buildings include this temple to Antoninus Pius (d. AD 161) and his wife Faustina; note how high up the Baroque door is — evidence of the changing topography of the City (all photos my own):

IMG_5423Another is this mausoleum from c. AD 307, built by the Emperor Maxentius for his son:

IMG_5428It was converted into the Church of Sts Cosmas and Damian by Pope Felix IV (pope 526-530) and includes these wonderful 6th-century mosaics:

IMG_5407Temples are less frequently converted into churches than non-religious buildings; thus, the Temple to Antoninus Pius was not converted into a church until the 7th century at the earliest; its existence as San Lorenzo in Miranda is not confirmed until the 11th. The Pantheon, for example, was not converted into a church until the late 500s.

One building in the Forum that was not converted into a church until the 600s is the Curia, Rome’s Senate House; it’s the one on the right:

IMG_5421It would have been clad in marble in ancient days, as evidenced by the holes for such activity. The Curia was not converted into a church until the episcopate of Pope Honorius I (pope 625-638). None of its ecclesiastical garb survives due to the archaeological interventions of the early 20th century. These strike me as largely wrongheaded, because the Curia looks neither as it did in antiquity, nor as it did as a mediaeval church.

Thankfully, some of the 8th-century frescoes (painted at order of Pope Hadrian I (pope, 772-95) were preserved and can be seen today in the museum of Cripta Balbi:

13918555508_09bdb66c07_oAnyway, I’m sure you’re finding all of this very fascinating, but are wondering if I have a point amidst it all.

I do. Fear not.

The Curia, you see, could not be converted into a church while it was still in use for its secular purpose. That is, there had to be no more Senate before a pope could turn its meeting house into a diaconia. When does the Senate end, though? That’s the ongoing problem. We have, for example, the famous quotation from Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604):

For where is the senate? where any longer a people? The bones are wasted, the flesh consumed; all pride of secular dignities is perished out of it. The whole composition is sodden. Yet every day the sword, every day innumerable sorrows press upon us, the poor remaining remnant. (Homilies on Ezekiel, 2.6.22),

Years later, however, that same Gregory would join with this non-existent Senate to welcome the adventus of the imperial image. So not quite gone yet! Nevertheless, the Senate of Rome would definitively vanish by the days of Honorius in the second quarter of the 600s. It was an institution that was over 1100 years old, a body of men involved in lawmaking, personal prestige, taxation, and all that is involved in the running of civic affairs, born some time in the Regal Period (before 509ish BC) — an age from which vague tales — myths and legends incontrovertibly mingled with truths — are all that survive.

And it slowly petered out and died. But we don’t know when.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Endnote: I wonder if that final imperial intervention in the Forum, the pillar of Phocas (eastern emperor 602-10) has anything to tell us in this tale of Rome’s movement to the secular periphery?

1 thought on “Thoughts on Rome’s Senate and Senate House in the 7th Century

  1. Pingback: Discovering Late Antique Rome: The Small Stuff | The Wordhoard

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