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Bill Thayer

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Book VII
Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Book VII
Chapter 14

Vol. IV
Note G

On the continued existence of the Senate of Rome
during the Seventh and Eighth Centuries

The question discussed in the previous chapter as to the duration of the local Curiae suggests one of equal difficulty with reference to the venerable mother of all Curiae, the Senate of Rome.

The harsh treatment which this body suffered at the hands of Totila has been recorded in the fourth volume.​1 Where Totila only upbraided and imprisoned, his more ruthless successor Teias put to death;​2 but this was not a universal massacre, and many Senators were at this time safely harboured in Sicily. Doubtless therefore a considerable number returned to Rome after the fall of the Gothic domination; and that they once more assembled as a Senate is proved by the before-mentioned clause in the Pragmatic Sanction, which entrusts to the Senate, in conjunction with the Pope, the superintendence of their weights and measures for the Italian provinces.​3 It does not seem, however, to have been part of the policy of the Byzantine Emperors to treat the Senate with the same deference which Theodoric generally showed towards that body. The letters of Pope Gregory do not allude to any important political action taken by them, not even when we might naturally have looked for it, as for instance in connection with the peace concluded with Agilulf. From an expression used by Gregory in his homily on Ezekiel about the 'failing of the Senate,'​4 some have inferred that the Senate actually came to an end at this time, a conclusion which seems confirmed by the words of Agnellus of Ravenna, assigning the decay of the Senate to the period of the Lombard conquest.​5 But these statements, however, may be accounted for by the tone of  p562 oratorical exaggeration natural to the pulpit. A more serious symptom is the entire silence of the Papal biographer as to any senatorial action during the seventh and the first half of the eighth centuries. As the Senate had, at an earlier time, taken a leading part in the election of the Popes, this absolute silence on the part of the Papal biographer is the more remarkable, and makes one almost ready to accept Hegel's conclusion,​6 that the Senate really did cease to exist in the lifetime of Gregory the Great, or soon after his death.

But after all this is only that most dangerous mode of reasoning, the argumentum e silentio. And the silence is broken in an extraordinary manner in the eighth century by certain letters from the Popes to the Frankish kings. In 757, Pope Paul I writes to Pippin in order to assure him of the devotion of the Roman people to his cause. The letter​7 is entitled 'Pippino Regi Francorum et Patricio Romanorum omnis Senatus atque universa Populi generalitas.' Another letter of the same Pope uses the expression, 'cunctus procerum Senatus atque diversi populi congregatio.'​8 In 776 Pope Hadrian I, in writing to the Emperor Charles, says that he 'cum Episcopis, Sacerdotibus, clero atque Senatu et universo populo,' prays God to give the victory to the Frankish king.​9 The Papal biographer also mentions that this same Pope, in his dedication of a chapel to St. Peter, was accompanied in triumphal procession 'cum cuncto Clero suo Senatuque Romano.'​10 The next Pope, Leo III (795‑816), on his return to Rome, is met by 'tam Proceres clericorum cum omnibus clericis, quamque Optimates et Senatus cunctaque Militia et universus populus Romanus.'11

These quotations certainly give us the impression that the Senate was still a visibly existing body down to the end of the ninth century. The view, however, taken by some commentators,​12 from whom I am loth to dissent, is, that Senatus is here a mere form of speech, due to the revival of memories of Old Rome at the time of the erection of the Franco- p563 Roman Empire, memories which were doubtless fostered by the great letters S. P. Q. R. on so many Roman monuments. According to this view Senatus is merely another way of saying 'the Roman nobility.'

It may be so, but I confess that I do not like, after having relied so strongly on the argument from silence drawn from the scanty records of the century and a half from 600 to 750, when at length we come to a period of much more copious information, and then meet pretty frequently with the word Senatus, to turn round and say, 'True, the word is there, but it has changed its meaning.' I should rather be inclined to suggest, that though the Roman Senate had undoubtedly fallen from its high estate, and was no longer even such as it had been in the days of Theodoric, it may have lingered on as the Roman Curia, a sort of glorified vestry, attending to so much local and urban business as the Dux Romae and the ever-widening activity of the Pope were willing to leave it.

Even so, however, it cannot have continued long. When we come to the tenth century, to the rule of Theodora and Marozia, theirs lovers and their sons, and find these miserable women wearing the title of Senatrix, and their male adherents disgra­cing the once mighty name of Senator, we see that the Senate as a body must have ceased to exist, and only dim recollections of vanished senatorial dignity can have lingered in the minds of the degenerate citizens of Rome.

Partly in this connection I may notice a suggestion of Hegel (I.294‑299), which has, I think, a very important bearing on the question of the continued existence of the Curiae. He points out that in the documents and chronicles of the eleventh and twelfth centuries we find the word Curia used obviously with the meaning of Court. Thus we have Curia Papae, Curia Regalis, and so on: curialis is equivalent to courtly, and curialitas to courtliness or courtesy. This usage in France and Germany can be traced as far back as the ninth century. It curiously, and at first rather perplexingly, intertwines itself with the use of Curtis for the same thing. This latter word, probably connected with the Latin cohors, came to mean (as our word court, derived from it, means) either the park-like entrance surrounding a mansion, or the residence and retinue of a king or great nobleman.​a

 p564  Now, how these two words, Curia and Curtis, come than so singularly interchanged? Hegel suggests that Curia, the place of meeting of the old local senate, became literally the court-house, the place where the governing bodies of later centuries (not then composed of the poor, down-trodden, and now vanished curiales, but of really influential citizens, optimates, seniores, and so forth) held their sittings. In this very building, the ruler, as he became more of a feudal lord, 'held his court.' And thus, the scent still clinging to the casket, though its original contents had disappeared, Curia as a building regained the meaning which it had possessed long centuries before, of the home of the rulers of the city.

The Author's Notes:

1 pp564, 570.

2 See vol. IV p734.

3 See p523.

4 'Quia enim Senatus deest populus interiit' (II.6).

5 'Deinde paulatim Romanus defecit Senatus, et post Romanorum libertas cum triumpho sublata est' (§ 95, p338, ed. M. G. H.).

6 I.275. Diehl, who here follows Hegel, says — too positively as it seems to me — 'un fait demeure certain, depuis la fin du sixième siècle, et durant toute l'époque byzantine, le sénat romain aviat complètement cessé d'exister' (p127).

7 Codex Carolinus, 13.º

8 Ibid. 24.

9 Ibid. 59.

10 Lib. Pont. I.506 (ed. Duchesne).

11 Ibid. II.6.

12 Especially Hegel, I.276‑281, and Diehl, 127.

Thayer's Note:

a In Italy, the application of the word curtis was eventually further extended to a whole small area surrounding such a residence: the area under the control of a local nobleman. The term has left traces in toponymy, usually in the form Cort‑.

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