This week we will look at two sides of the legislative coin: the decrees of the Senate (Senatus consulta) and the laws passed by the Plebs (plebis scita). During the Republic, as we’ve said, the Senate was not like our Senates in the US in that it was not a representative legislative body, but rather an advisory “council of elders” made up of men previously elected to a magistracy (consul, praetor, aedile, or quaestor). It was an honorary body in many ways, and membership in it was extremely prestigious. But being a member did not mean that you wielded the kind of duly vested public authority (imperium) that the elected magistrates of that year possessed. Fundamentally, its power was a consensus of opinion on the part of the senior statesmen, generals, judges, and high priests of Rome.
The Senate passed decrees, but the authority the decrees was problematic. A Senate decree is not the same as a statutory law (lex) as passed by the voting assemblies in Rome. No doubt, some Senators imagined it should be as powerful as a law; but in form, it wasn’t, since the People of Rome did not pass it, only the Senators. We will see where this ambiguity becomes a problem later on in the Republic. However, a Senate decree is a powerful directive to the magistrates in power for the year, men who are just like their colleagues in the Senate and who share common political interests with them. So one way to think of the binding nature on the magistrates is to consider a decree of the Senate “advice that it would be foolish to neglect.” In other words, the decree has a powerful normative force, even if it legally isn’t quite on the same level as the acts of the assemblies (in later imperial times, however, the Senate will come to have a legislative function largely for its convenience—but this is much later on after the Republic has fallen).
We can see the powerful normative and moral force of a Senate decree when we look to a notorious incident from around 186 BCE, the incursion of Bacchic worship into Roman Italy. Bacchus, or the Greek god Dionysus, was a major divinity in Greece; the Dionysian festivals of Athens were the occasions when the great tragedies and comedies were performed. But this cult of the god of wine came into Italy in a private form, an initiation cult known as a “mystery religion.” Much lurid detail is alleged of this cult—and it is very hard to get to the truth of things, much as with the Salem Witch Trials. Whatever the truth of the cult, it is clear that it produced a moral panic among the upper classes of Rome. The Senate reacted vigorously in support of the consuls, and passed a decree that has come down to us thanks to its production in bronze for public posting.
General Assignment for Monday 9/27
- Read the text of the Senate Decree on the Bacchanalia, and notice its full legal structure and rhetoric.
- Read Livy’s account of the Bacchic crisis, with especial attention to the details of the investigation, the Senate’s actions, and the punishments meted out.
Aeneas: Get ready to discuss the Roman characterization of the Bacchus cult. Why is it that they are so upset about it? What key words are used to describe it? What kinds of people does it seem to attract?
Romulus: How does the consul take action to investigate the mysterious goings on? What key testimony helps them to get a fuller picture of the situation? What problems might there be with the testimony?
Remus: Discuss the consul’s speech to the Roman people (39.15 and following). What key values does it reveal? What is his attitude to religion?
Numa: Discuss the final prosecution of the Bacchic adherents and the penalties. Do these seem to fit with the general characterization the Senate and magistrates make of the danger? What particular punishments do you see as problematic or interesting?
For Wednesday 9/29
But what of the people? The Plebs of Rome, as we have seen, had its own representatives in the Tribunes of the Plebs. They could convene the Council of the Plebs and refer legislation to it, which produced a plebis scitum or plebiscite that was, particularly after the Lex Hortensia of 287 BCE, binding on both patricians and plebeians and not subject to senatorial veto or obstruction. Under the tribunates of the Gracchi brothers, this legislative mechanism was used to push through radical land reform that effectively transferred wealth from the aristocracy (more specifically, rich landowners among the senators who had acquired a lot of public land and treated it as private estates) to the poorer citizens of Rome. It wasn’t just land reform, but also the political methods of the Gracchi that caused this political maneuvering to erupt in violence, spelling the end of certain norms of political behavior, a situation that would later spiral into all out civil war.
- Read this short reading on the agrarian reforms and the Gracchi. This is from the excellent textbook, The Romans: From Village to Empire (second edition), which I highly recommend if you want a systematic grasp of Roman history.
- Read excerpts from this agrarian law of 111 BCE, which comes in the wake of the radical legislation of the Gracchi. Note that it is FULL of legislative boilerplate–i.e., long repetitive phrases that specify or restrict the scope of the legislation. I have highlighted the key elements that you can scan to understand where this law is going. There’s an art to reading legislation quickly (and plenty of congressmen don’t even read what they vote on…so this might be a dying art).
- Read the Homestead Act of 1862 and be prepared to think about how agrarian legislation played a role in American politics.
Servius: What is significant about the date of the Homestead Act, and what does it tell us about the politics of land provisions at this time? What details in the Act make this political import clear? How is the land’s use stipulated by the law, and what do you think that is trying to circumvent?