Whither the Senate?

The Curia (or Senate house) on the right. Roman Forum, my photo

The Curia (or Senate house) on the right. Roman Forum, my photo

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture about the Senate of Rome in Late Antiquity (as part of my undergrad course, ‘The Bishop and City of Rome in Late Antiquity’). I began with a quotation from the famous Pope Gregory the Great (590-604):

Where is the Senate? Where is the people now? Their bones have wasted away, their bodies have been consumed, every rank of secular offices in her is extinguished. Her entire unity is boiled away. But daily swords, daily countless troubles press upon us few who have remained thus far. Therefore it is said, ‘Also place that emptiness upon the live coals.’ For because the Senate is gone, the people has perished, and, moreover, amongst the few who remain griefs and groanings are multiplied daily, Rome, now empty, burns. Yet why do we speak these things about men when, with the ruins increasing, we also see that the buildings themselves are destroyed? Thus it is fittingly added about the now-empty city, ‘It grows warm, and its iron turns to liquid.’ For now the aula itself is consumed, in which previously both flesh and bones were consumed, because after the people have left, the walls also fall. But were are those who once rejoiced in her glory? Where their processions? Where their pride? Where the frequent and immoderate joy? –Homilies on Ezekiel 6.22

This is one of the great, famous quotations people use to demonstrate the horrors of ‘Dark Age’ Rome — Lombards are at the gates! Everything’s going to Hell in a handbasket!

But my research, beginning as it did with Gregory, couldn’t fail to notice the arrival of the images of the Emperor Phocas (602-610) and his wife:

In the sixth indiction, on the twenty-third day of November in the time of our Lord and Blessed Pope Gregory, Phocas and Leontia Augusta were crowned in Septimus in the palace which is called Secundianas, and the Emperor Maurice was killed with all of his male children [the text lists them all, as well as other male relatives and civil servants slain]. Then came the image [lit. icona] of the abovementioned Phocas and Leontia, Augusti, to Rome on the seventh day before the Kalends of May [that is, 26 April], and it was acclaimed in the Lateran in the Basilica of Julius by all the clergy and the Senate: “Hear, O Christ! Life to Phocas Augustus and Leontia Augusta!” Then the most blessed Lord and Apostolic Pope Gregory commanded that image to be place in the oratory of St Caesarius within the palace.

column-of-phocasThis event occurred in 603. It is inserted into the Register of the letters of Gregory the Great at the beginning of Book 13. Phocas also erected the last imperial monument in the Roman Forum, a tall column (pictured to the right).

When you search the works of Gregorius Magnus in the Library of Latin Texts – Series A with ‘senat*’ almost all the references you get are to senators. It would be unwise to assume that such people actually sat in the Senate and enjoyed any deliberative function as had Cicero or Symmachus. Gregory says:

Valde quippe nobiles considerat, quos senatores uocat. -Moralia in Iob (CCSL 143A) 20, 16.

Of course, one considers greatly noble those whom he calls senators.

Senators in Late Antiquity are mostly aristocrats. They held magistracies, and those at Rome even met in the ancient Senate House — the Curia — but many people of this rank lived outside of Rome, for they were extraordinarily wealthy landowners. I heard it said once that almost of all of North Africa belonged to 10 men at one point. That is real wealth.

Gregory also has a memorable phrase in the Moralia:

Curiam cordis –Moralia 35, 20.49

Senate House of the heart.

Returning to the two passages with which we began, they are easily reconcilable. If you want a long history of the Senate, you say that Gregory was using hyperbole. On the other hand, it is entirely likely that the ‘Senate’ of the anonymous note from his Register is simply the Senators as a body — not actually people with any deliberations and power.

It is this latter that is more likely. As Chris Wickham notes in Framing the Early Middle Ages:

the senate as an institution cannot be traced for sure past 580; the curia building itself was transformed into a church shortly after 625.-Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, 206

Tom Brown, in his book Gentlemen and Officers cites the final operations of the Senate as being in 578 and 580 when it requested reinforcements from Emperor Tiberius II to aid Italy in the fight against the Lombards (pp. 21-2).

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

I would previously have said that between 580 and the transformation of the Curia into the church of S. Adriano by Pope Honorius (625-638) the Senate had mysteriously vanished. However, considering its lack of any activity in the intervening decades, and the fact that Gregory assumes the Curia to be abandoned, it is my opinion, following Brown, that it ceased to have any function between 580 and 593.

This is how we make sense of our two conflicting pieces of evidence from Gregory — put them in a wider context.

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