Senate in Constantinople

1. Terminology and meaning

The term «Senate» (also Boulè)1 in the Byzantine history has two distinctive meanings and it can denote:

- the superior institutional class (lat. ordo) in Byzantium, which is constituted by individuals who possess specific honorary titles or offices.

- a constituted body, the right of attendance in which belongs to the members of the senatorial class, in its entirety or partly. The role of this body is sometimes ceremonial and sometimes essential. In the second case, Senate can be also characterized as a political body.

The Senate is mentioned with the first meaning throughout the Byzantine history, though they do not always describe the same thing. On the contrary, it is doubtful whether the Senate continued to exist in the middle Byzantine period as a political body.

2. The senate in the early Byzantine period

The formation of the Constantinopolitan Senate is traditionally ascribed to Constantine I during the foundation of the city in 330 A.D. Today it is generally accepted that Constantinople gradually acquired the character of a capital of the empire, that of the new Rome, during the first century of its existence. The Senate, which initially could not have been anything more than the city council of the city of Byzantium, follows a parallel development as an institution equivalent to that of the Roman Senate.2 The new role of the Senate of Constantinople becomes visible during the period of Constantine II, who designates the legislative conditions for entering the Senate, and raises the number of members to 2000, a lot more than the curiales of any other city.

In order for someone to become a member of the Senate in the 4th century, there were some requirements which were briefly a) the acquisition of the honorary title of λαμπροτάτου (clarissimus), which accompanied the more important administrative offices and was given by the emperor, b) acceptance by the Senate itself (a practice surviving from the ancient Roman times, according to which an offspring of the senatorial order became acceptable in the body as soon as he undertook the annual office of the praetor) and c) an one-time considerable contribution in money, the praetura, echoing as well the spectacles and distributions that the ancient praetors made once they assumed their of duties.3

Practically, the members of new Senate came from the officials of the administration, and from certain curiales from the local councils of the cities of the Eastern empire, who were wealthy and had political interconnections, which they used to escape the heavy obligations of their old capacity once they were included in the Senate. Those who practised activities considered as disgraceful, such as workers, tradesmen and bankers, were excluded from the Senate. Soon the senatorial order took a different form, and new titles, those of the spectabilis and the illustris were added, above the title of the clarissimus. While the number of senatorial members continued to increase, it seems that the privilege of participation in the sessions of this body was limited to the illustris, who in the end they were the only ones to be considered as senatorial members.4 This phenomenon, the “inflation” and the receding of honorary titles before new ones, is also observed in the later centuries.

3. Jurisdiction of the Senate

In the first two centuries following its establishment, the Senate of Constantinople as a body was given certain responsibilities, such as the care of city (a reminder of its initial character), formal ratification (without discussion or the possibility of intervention) of the laws that the emperor issued, and, more essentially, judicial responsibilities. Practically however the Senate, because of its composition, which reflected the administrative elite of the empire, could play important role in periods of instability or vacancy on the imperial throne, as it repeatedly happened during the second half of the 5th century. The sessions of the Senate would be chaired by the prefect of Constantinople, but also the office of the First of the Senate is attested.

4. Buildings of Senate

Two complexes are mentioned in the sources, the Senata or Sinata, where the sessions of the Senate would take place until the end of the 5th century. One of them, the most well-known, was in the Augustaion, the big central square between the Great Palace and Hagia Sophia, and the other was in the forum of Constantine, to the west (fig. 2).5 From descriptions we gather that these complexes included basilicas and porticoes, and they were decorated with many statues, both ancient ones, which had been transferred to Constantinople by other regions, and of contemporary personages whom the Senate wished to honour. Today no trace of these complexes survives. Both of them were burned and repeatedly rebuilt, and it seems they still existed in the 10th century, even in an altered form. However, from the years of Justinian I at the latest, the meetings of the Senate, if we can still call them so, took place in the palace.

5. The decline of Senate as body

It seems that from the end of the 6th century onward, the Senate ceases to be an independent body. From its previous responsibilities, only the judicial ones are still mentioned; and even in that capacity they were of no regular character and did not pertain to the whole body, but only to particular senatorial members. Henceforth, the main role of the Senate is informally advisory. It is likely that the decline of the Senate as a constitutional body is related with Justinian’s suspiciousness of the senatorial aristocracy, especially after the Nika riot. It is most likely that it was a very slow process, the stages of which are difficult to follow.6 It seems that from the 7th century onward the term Senate designates a council, which partakes in decision making with the emperor; it is however uncertain whether it is identified with the limited imperial council (the old consistorium) or if it was a more expanded council of the highest dignitaries. It is equally uncertain wether it was of a fixed composition or, on the contrary, if its composition depended each time on the emperor’s will. From the 11th century onward the term Senate does not appear to have a concrete meaning and it can either designate the court, the aristocracy, or the imperial council. This laxity in the use of the term implies that the Senate as a body does not exist anymore. What continues to exist up to the 11th century is the institutionally distinct senatorial class.

6. The senatorial class during the middle Byzantine period

During the middle Byzantine period the capacity of the member of the Senate is associated, as in the old days, with the acquisition of certain honorary titles, which are not hereditary. In the 11th century only those who had the title of protospatharios or higher were considered as members senatorial class (fig. 3).7

Such titles were necessarily conferred by the emperor and the beneficiary had to pay down a considerable lump sum. The profits were mainly symbolic: the authorisation to bring the insignias of the title, an honorary place in ceremonies or other gatherings, particular treatment in judicial affairs (e.g. the right of the members of the Senate not to take an oath in public, but in their house, or to take their legal cases to special courts).8 There was also an annual salary, the rhoga, which was linked to the hierarchical classification of the title. In the eleventh century, particularly during the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055) and his successors, the senatorial title began to be bestowed upon a growing number of people, including members of the middle class.

7. The end of the senatorial class

During the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), a new hierarchy is created, based on the degree of kinship to the emperor. The old titles were not abolished, but they lost their pecuniary value, as well as their prestige, and soon enough they ceased to be granted. The senatorial class virtually ceases to exist, and the only important social attribute, until the end of empire, is the noble origin. Even the use of term Senate/ Senatorial becomes more and more rare, although there is a resurgence of the term during the period of the Palaiologoi. The term is used with various meanings. During the last two centuries of the empire, the most characteristic use of the term it is in order to distinguish the aristocracy from other social groups (army, church, middle classes) which are represented in collective decisionmaking bodies.

1. On terminology, see Χριστοφιλοπούλου, Αικ., «Η Σύγκλητος εις το Βυζαντινόν Κράτος», Επετηρίς του αρχείου της ιστορίας του ελληνικού δικαίου 2 (1949), pp. 11-33.

2. Dagron, G., H γέννηση μίας πρωτεύουσας: Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, translation Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), pp. 137-168.

3. Dagron, G., H γέννηση μίας πρωτεύουσας: Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, translation Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), p. 177.

4. Dagron, G., H γέννηση μίας πρωτεύουσας: Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, translation Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), pp. 188-190.

5. Mango, C., The Brazen House: A Study of the Vestibule of the Imperial Palace of Constantinople (Copenhagen 1959), pp. 56-60; Dagron, G., H γέννηση μίας πρωτεύουσας: Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, translation Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), pp. 158-161.

6. Dagron, G., H γέννηση μίας πρωτεύουσας: Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, translation Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), pp. 239-240, very briefly and concisely. The earlier works on the Senate (see, Χριστοφιλοπούλου, Beck in bibliograhy) ignore the inconsistency of the Senate as an institution. More recent works discuss the Senate in terms of a senatorial class but there is no detailed monograph concerning the composition and the evolution of the decisionmaking bodies.

7. For an older phase, in the late 9th C., see. Oikonomidès, N., Les listes de préséance Byzantines des IXe et Xe siècles (paris 1972), p. 295. On the 11th century, Lemerle, P., Cinq études sur le XIe siècle Byzantin (Paris 1977), p. 287.

8. Alexios I issued a novella (in 1083?) with which he deprived the members of the Senate who were involved in commercial and other civil activities from this privilege: Zepos, Ι. -Zepos, P., Jus Graecoromanum, vol. I (Athens 1931), pp. 645-646.