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Roman Republic Senate

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The senate was the core of the Roman Republic.  Its membership was made up of the scions of Rome’s greatest and oldest families the Julians–of which Julius Caesar was the most prominent–traced their lineage back at least eleven hundred years, much of which was probably apocryphal.  It was originally composed of one hundred members (expanded by fiat in the early republic to three hundred, hence the collective title of “conscript fathers”) whose sole source of income was supposed to be agricultural.  The senate’s principal competitors were the plebs (the “people”).  [It must be emphasized that these were not a proletariat (itself derived from the Latin word proles designating largely worthless people whose only identifiable product was their children of no account).  Rather, they were the great magnates--bankers, merchants, shipbuilders--whose economic interests often ran counter to those of the agriculturally oriented senators.] 

Roman Republic Senate

These magnates maintained power through the tribunate–the annually elected magistrates called tribunes of the people–who could veto senate legislative actions.  Election to the tribunate, as the word indicates, was by tribe (of which Roman citizens were divided into thirty-five).  Under the electoral system, each tribe had one vote.  Since virtually all the inhabitants of the city belonged to one of only four tribes, they were completely outnumbered by their rural counterparts.  Since elections were conducted in the city (at the saepta or “sheepfold”) the magnates controlled the outcome by importing rural voters, thus assuring a tribunate responsive to their interests.  Daily government was in the hands of two annually elected consuls.  In the early years of the republic legislation was enacted requiring that at least one of the consuls belong to the plebs (although it was lawful, and sometimes happened, that both consuls were members of that caste).

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