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The Roman Senate in the Third Century BC

Fred Drogula

Providence College

Historians have long recognized that the Second Punic War increased the prestige and importance of the Roman Senate. Although the Romans suffered many great military defeats in the war, the steady leadership of the aristocracy in the constant state of national emergency solidified the senators’ roles as the natural leaders of the state and the proper guardians of Roman tradition. As Rome continued its conquest of the Mediterranean world in the second century BC, the senatorial elite effectively led the state and determined foreign and domestic policy, further augmenting their control of Roman politics until that control was challenged by the Gracchi in the final decades of the century.

While historians recognize this increase in the Senate’s authority that resulted from the war, the extent of this increase is significantly underestimated. This paper will argue that the Punic Wars in the third century (264-241 and 218-202 BC) were essential catalysts that transformed the Roman Senate from an advisory council into the regular governing body of the state, and expanded the roles of consuls and praetors as civilian magistrates (as well as military commanders). In this way, the Punic Wars triggered a dramatic change in the Roman government.

Harriett Flower has rightly pointed out that there was not one Roman Republic, but several, and ancient historians have recently argued that the government and leadership of early Rome may have been very different from the traditional view provided by Livy and other ancient sources. In particular, the role and nature of the Senate was dramatically changed by the lex Ovinia in the late fourth-century BC. Before this lex, the Senate was an informal body that was redefined each year by the consuls, who selected their own advisors, but the lex Ovinia made the censors responsible for determining the Senate’s membership. This change was far more important than is generally recognized, because it means the Senate only existed as an institution starting in the late fourth century—decades before the outbreak of the First Punic War.

This paper will argue that the Senate was much less important in the early third century than has been generally recognized, because it was still relatively new as a formal institution of state, and its powers, prerogatives, and authority were not yet well established. The first two Punic Wars, however, placed enormous organizational and logistic demands upon the Roman Republic, and the developing Senate was the body that met these demands. By the end of the Second Punic War, the Roman citizens had become accustomed to the Senate’s leadership of the state, and decades of war had conferred upon the Senate the moral authority it needed to assume a position as Rome’s primary governing body. Therefore, the Punic Wars did not simply increase the authority of the Senate—it transformed the Senate from a nascent advisory body into Rome’s main governing body.

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Hannibal's Legacy

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