Tag Archives: pope honorius i

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.

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?