Senatus consultum ultimum
|Precedent and law|
|Titles and honours|
The senatus consultum ultimum ("final decree of the Senate", often abbreviated to SCU) is the modern term given to resolutions of the Roman Senate lending its moral support for magistrates to use the full extent of their powers and ignore the laws to safeguard the state.
The decree has been interpreted to mean something akin to martial law, a suspension of the constitution, or a state of emergency. However, it is generally accepted that the senate did not have power to make or provide exceptions to laws. No laws were actually suspended; the senate merely lent its moral authority to defend a magistrate's extra-legal acts.
First used against Gaius Gracchus in 121 BC to suppress a violent protest against repeal of a colonisation law and accepted thereafter, recourse to the decree accelerated over the course of the last century of the republic. Its use was politically disputed, although usually in terms of whether a decree was justified by the challenges facing the state rather than in terms of its overarching legality.
The decree does not have a specific name in the sources, where it is usually mentioned "by quoting what was obviously its opening advisory statements to the magistrate who had it passed". Rather, it is a modern term that emerges from Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Civili, in which he writes:
Recourse is had to that extreme and final decree of the senate...
Caesar coined the term from his claim – "which one should take cum grano salis" – that it was passed as a last resort when, in Caesar's words, "the city of Rome itself was already practically in flames and there was despair over the safety of everyone in the state".
Since this is the shortest mention of the decree available, "the label... seems to have stuck". The specific phraseology of the senatorial resolution was much longer:
That the consuls, praetors, tribunes of the people, and proconsuls in the city, should take care that the state received no injury.
Earlier versions of the decree may have, however, mentioned only the consul presiding. A minority of modern scholars prefer the name senatus consultum de re publica defendenda rather than Caesar's coinage.
The decree was a statement of the senate advising the magistrates (usually the consuls and praetors) to defend the state.
The senatus consultum ultimum was related to a series of other emergency decrees that the republic could resort to in a crisis, such as decrees to levy soldiers, shut down public business, or declare people to be public enemies.
In the context defending the state, "it was interpreted as authorising the magistrates to employ physical repression against (unspecified) public enemies without being bound by strict legality". The decree's impact was mainly in terms of the senate establishing political cover for magistrates to take legally-dubious actions:
Contrary to the (modern) wording and the sometimes assumed notions of certain emergency powers, the s.c.u. should thus not be assessed from a legal perspective but from the point of political rhetoric.
Instead of being a formal part of the laws, "its validity rested solely on the auctoritas of the senate" with "the senate's implicit promise to use its full dignitas and auctorias to support the consuls should they be prosecuted".
The decree was generally the only way for the republic's government to stop political violence – "a political weapon largely exploited by magistrates for limited ends" – in the absence of a police force, "the notion of [which] was alien to republican thought". Actual enforcement of the decree required "the authorities [to] count on a substantial number of followers in the citizen body" to employ repression: "thus, consensus within the citizenry was a necessary precondition for the implementation of emergency measures, with respect to the physical means of power as well as to the legitimacy [thereof]".
Normally, citizens were protected against the power of magistrates by the right of provocatio and the protection of the tribune of the plebs. One of the effects of the senatus consultum ultimum may have been in directing or convincing the tribunes not to intervene; there are also cases where tribunes were "enlisted as supporters of its execution". The final decree may also have been the senate's instruction that the consuls ignore the laws and use their imperium (the power of military command) within the pomerium (the boundaries of the city), "overpower[ing] the normal potestas [civil magisterial authority] of all other magistrates, including that of the tribunes".
Because the decree was vague, its specific effects were at the discretion of the magistrates charged with putting it into effect. For example, during the Catilinarian conspiracy, Julius Caesar – according to Sallust – urged then-consul Cicero "not to transgress the laws too blatantly by executing the leading Catilinarians in the city without formal trial".
The senate itself had no authority to authorise the breaking of laws; it did not do so when moving a senatus consultum ultimum. Its vague decree, rather, urged the magistrates, with substantial discretion, to resolve a crisis; in doing so, it pinned all legal liability for those actions on the magistrates themselves. Passing the decree instead signified that the senate offered its support of the measures taken and that extra-legal measures were needed for the safety of the state.
In the aftermath of the decree's usage, those responsible for the use of force were regularly prosecuted on grounds that citizens had been killed extrajudicially ("which was in fact true"); the defence in the courts then was "whether this illegality could be justified". In the first instance, in 121 BC, the consul executing the decree justified his actions in terms of public safety; Cicero in his time may have brought a similar argument in De legibus in his tag Salus populi suprema lex esto ("Let the safety of the people be the supreme law"). By Cicero's time (c. 63 BC), the decree had been legitimised merely by custom and precedent.
There are multiple cases where magistrates or their followers taking actions armed with a senatus consultum ultimum were faced the prospect of being hauled before the courts in later years: Lucius Opimius, Gaius Rabirius, and Cicero being prime examples. The senate, at times, would attempt to use its influence to secure an acquittal of a magistrate charged, or otherwise threaten to declare anyone who brought charges hostis. Opponents, rather than disputing the validity of the senatus consultum ultimum in general, rather disputed the need or justification of a specific instance thereof.
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Livy asserts that the senatus consultum ultimum was first used in 446 and 384 BC, but scholars do not read these as actual usages of something akin to the senatus consultum ultimum of the late republic. Modern scholars believe it is likely that these claims are anachronisms inserted into the early republic to "provide a plausible account of the suppression of a revolution" and that "we should put no faith in the historical veracity of these two early appearances".
In cases of sedition in Rome, the republic faced a three-fold problem. First, there was no standing army or police force with which to maintain public order. Second, well-protected rights of provocatio and tribunician intercession constrained magisterial powers of punishment. Third, the operations of the criminal courts were insufficiently rapid and could regardless be disrupted by armed mobs. The senatus consultum ultimum may have emerged naturally as a response to these problems as a means of self-help. Theodor Mommsen, for example, argued that "the temporary neglect of legal process in a crisis was necessary and, because necessary, unproblematic". Gerhard Plaumann agreed and argued that the decree's purpose was in "render[ing] the supra-legal measures taken less arbitrary".
Its usage in the late republic also was in contrast to the general practice of the early republic to appoint dictators to resolve domestic unrest. By the time of the emergence of the senatus consultum ultimum in 121 BC, the dictatorship had been in abeyance for some time, the last having been appointed in 202 BC. The development of the final decree was likely motivated by the dictatorship's abeyance. That the consuls also were more likely to be in the city due to magisterial prorogation also made empowering the consuls to act more feasible. Moreover, appointment of a dictator was incompatible with the growing tendency of "both the senate and the people to act on their own behalf" with greater emphasis on the collective engagement of the nobility in state affairs.
Some scholars trace the senatus consultum ultimum to 133 BC with the killing of Tiberius Gracchus, arguing that the instance meets the criteria of being a senatorial action calling upon the consuls to protect the republic. However, as the consul at the time rejected the senatorial vote and Gracchus was killed by a private citizen (the then-pontifex maximus Scipio Nasica Serapio), historians disagree as to whether this qualifies as an actual senatorial decree.
The first official use of the decree was in 121 BC, when the senate passed it against Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (Tiberius' younger brother) and Marcus Fulvius Flaccus. It was issued in response to a violent protest held by Gracchus and Flaccus against repeal of legislation to establish a colony at Carthage that they and allies had passed the previous year. In the aftermath, Gracchus, Flaccus, and their supporters were killed en masse as one of the consuls of that year, Lucius Opimius, brought soldiers across the pomerium and laid siege to Gracchus and Flaccus' positions on the Aventine Hill.
The following year, Opimius was prosecuted by a tribune for killing citizens without trial, but was acquitted after he justified his actions on the basis of the senatus consultum ultimum. While this set a precedent that actions taken under an senatus consultum ultimum were normally free from legal consequence and could be used as "carte blanche for the most brutal reprisals", the decree remained controversial and continued to be debated by contemporaries.
Usage from 100 to 49 BC
Saturninus and Glaucia
It was next used against Lucius Appuleius Saturninus and Gaius Servilius Glaucia in 100 BC. Gaius Marius was then one of the consuls. The proximate cause of the senatus consultum ultimum was Saturninus and Glaucia's assassination of a fellow candidate for the consulship at that year's elections and their general usage of political violence to advance factional political interests. Marius raised a militia which besieged Saturninus and Glaucia after they seized the Capitoline Hill. They surrendered after receiving guarantees against summary execution from Marius and were imprisoned in the senate house, but were then lynched by a mob.
Marius' suppression of Saturninus and Glaucia in 100 BC was not quickly forgotten. One of his lieutenants, Gaius Rabirius, was tried twice – both times in 63 BC, decades after the suppression of Saturninus' revolt, – and almost convicted before the trials were disrupted.
A brief and muddled account suggests that a senatus consultum ultimum was moved by the senate, which at the time was under the domination of Lucius Cornelius Cinna's faction, against Sulla shortly before Sulla's civil war in the year 83 BC.
The next usage well-established was against the uprising of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 77 BC. This marked its normal application not against civil disturbance from within the city, but also against "an alleged external enemy, when there was no threat of violence in Rome at all". Lepidus, who was governor of Transalpine Gaul, marched on Rome with an army after his reform programme was blocked by his co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus Capitolinus.[a] After the senate was convinced at the urging of a senior senator, Lucius Marcius Philippus, that Lepidus' forces were a threat against the stability of the recently-established Sullan constitution, they moved the senatus consultum ultimum and in early 77, Catulus defeated him in battle outside Rome,[b] forcing him to flee to Sardinia, where he was later killed in further fighting.
Catiline and conspirators
Following Lepidus' revolt, the final decree was moved again in 63 BC against Lucius Sergius Catilina. Catiline formed a conspiracy to overthrow the government and install himself as consul after being twice defeated in consular elections and having run out of money to finance a further campaign. He then raised an army to pursue his goals by force and proclaimed himself consul after the conspiracy was discovered.
Controversially, Cicero, with the backing of the senate, executed a number of the conspirators who were captured in Rome without trial, partly because of his lack of confidence in the courts on which the Sullan republic was based. This was especially questionable because the men Cicero had killed were not actively under arms or amid armed men; both law and custom in such cases would have directed the state first to convict them before having them killed.
Cicero was immediately attacked by two of the plebeian tribunes for his death sentences. While he was reprieved for a few years by the senate's voting of immunity and its threat to declare anyone who initiated a prosecution against him a public enemy, he nevertheless was forced into a temporary exile in 58 BC when Publius Clodius Pulcher passed a new law – overriding the senatorial grant of immunity – sentencing anyone who had put to death citizens without trial to exile.
The senatus consultum ultimum was raised again in the following year against Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, who was then tribune of plebs, and Julius Caesar to suppress their attempts to violently force through a proposal to give the command against the Catilinarians to Pompey. Caesar and Metellus Nepos backed down and their careers continued (they reached the consulship in 59 and 57 BC, respectively).
Milo and Clodius
The next instance was in 52 BC, which occurred in a climate of profound political instability. For the last two years, it had been almost impossible to hold regular elections. In 53, the year started without consuls, for there had been no elections, and it proved impossible for seven months to hold elections due to constant street skirmishes between mobs loyal to Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo and tribunician vetos against election of interreges to call elections. The elections for 52 were similarly delayed; in January 52, there were no magistrates in the city, and a chance encounter between Pulcher and Milo led to Pulcher's death by Milo's hand, leading to the burning of the senate house by a mob.
"Faced with violence and bloodshed in the streets while there were still no magistrates in office", the senate moved the senatus consultum ultimum and instructed an interrex, with the support of Pompey and his troops, to restore order and suppress the Clodian and Milonian mobs. Pompey was then elected sole consul to maintain order. Order was restored relatively quickly and there were no large-scale extrajudicial killings; Milo was then duly prosecuted for murder under the lex Pompeia de vi in 52 BC.
One of the most famous usages of the senatus consultum ultimum was against Julius Caesar in 49 BC, after negotiations between him and senate broke down the first week of January that year. While the senatus consultum was vetoed by tribunes friendly to Caesar, this was ignored, as the senate, "if not [convinced] of Caesar's wickedness[,] [was] at least [convinced] of the inevitability of conflict". This, along with Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon days later, triggered his civil war.
Caesar, for his part, objected to the use of the senatus consultum ultimum: while accepting its legitimacy in general, he objected more specifically to the use of the decree – which he characterises as a last resort – in the absence of violence in the city and its use to put Caesar-aligned tribunes to flight, enabling the senate to act against him without the tribunes' interventions. Caesar's claims were not entirely accurate: there was precedent for passing a senatus consultum ultimum against a target far from Rome; moreover, Caesar's claim that the tribunes were put to flight is debated, for Cicero reports the Caesar-aligned tribunes left without the pressure of violence.
The senatus consultum ultimum remained in use during the civil war. It was used to suppress a revolt for debt relief instigated by Marcus Caelius Rufus and Titus Annius Milo in 48, resulting in both their deaths. It was used again against civil disturbance instigated by Publius Cornelius Dolabella in 47 BC when he seized the Forum in an attempt to force through a law abolishing all debts. Mark Antony, then Caesar's dictatorial lieutenant, led troops to disperse Dolabella's encampment, which resulted in the slaughter of, reportedly, eight hundred citizens. Dolabella, however, survived and was later pardoned by Caesar.
Following Caesar's civil war, the senatus consultum ultimum remained in use for a short time until its last recorded use in 40 BC.[d] During the short war between the senate and Antony, Antony was possibly targeted by a senatus consultum ultimum in 43 BC which the consuls, Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Vibius Pansa Caetronianus, enforced by marching north and engaging Antony in battle. The consuls marched north with the aid of Octavian, who had been voted imperium pro praetore and directed to join the consuls.
Although victorious, both consuls were killed in the fighting and Octavian demanded the consulship, which the senate refused; in response, he marched on Rome with his army (adduced by defections from the now-leaderless consular armies). Octavian was then targeted by another senatus consultum ultimum which directed the urban praetor – Marcus Caecilius Cornutus – to defend the city, but the remaining forces under the senate quickly defected to Octavian, leading to his irregular election as consul with Quintus Pedius. By this point, it had become clear that the resources available to the senate in declaring a senatus consultum ultimum were "insufficient for successfully countering the threats that brought the system down".
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The senatus consultum ultimum and political violence were both a symptom and a cause of the weakened elite cohesion that contributed to the fall of the republic. Its use from 121 BC onward "highlighted the basic weakness at the heart of government, which was no longer able to assert itself in the traditional manner", which would have, with its strong cohesion and norms of collective government, precluded such crises in the first place. Perspectives differ as to the extent to which this displayed senatorial weakness: while use of the senate's auctoritas in this manner itself implied its insufficiency to restrain seditious behaviour, targets (like Caesar) took "care to show that the [decree] against him had no basis", showing his at least ostensible need to respect the traditional political culture which placed the senate at the republic's heart.
Moreover, as Harriet Flower argues, "the decree itself, in tone and in effect, seems to subvert the effectiveness of the existing norms of the very republican government that it purported to uphold",  adding that its use against Gaius Gracchus and Flaccus in 121 BC set a dangerous precedent that "suggested violence as the logical and more effective alternative to political engagement, negotiation, and compromise within the parameters set by existing political norms".
Some scholars who believe in the factionalist interpretation of Roman politics between populares and optimates also frame the decree in terms of the ostensible struggle between the two factions and in terms of an attempt to disguise core sociopolitical disputes as legal arcana. Attempts by older scholarship to paint the so-called populares as opponents of the decree's use, or of the death penalty, are widely rejected as being inconsistent with the evidence of acceptance and use of the decree across the political spectrum. By the post-Sullan period, the use of the decree was both normalised and accepted: Caesar accepted its legality (although he denied its suitability in his situation), as did the late republican historian Sallust.
Source: "Senatus consultum ultimum", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, (2023, January 4th), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senatus_consultum_ultimum.
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Senate of the Roman Republic
Cato the Younger
Crisis of the Roman Republic
Constitution of the Roman Republic
Executive magistrates of the Roman Republic
History of the Constitution of the Roman Republic
Roman emergency decrees
- ^ Views on Lepidus' revolt are mixed. The traditional story is that Lepidus treasonously assumed leadership of some Etrurian rebels and used them to demand a second consulship. It may have been that he instead sought a second consulship to settle the Etrurians' grievances (related to dispossessed lands and citizenship) which had emerged in the Sullan years and was then branded by personal enemies as a insurrectionist.
- ^ Accounts differ as to who defeated Lepidus. Plutarch credits Pompey; Florus says both Catulus and Pompey defeated him; Appian and Livy both credit Catulus alone.
- ^ In Latin, habemus senatus consultum in te... vehemens et grave. Cic. Cat. 1.1.3.
- ^ The last use, in 40 BC, was against Quintus Salvius Salvidienus Rufus, whom Octavian induced the senate to condemn, resulting in Salvius' death.
- ^ a b Golden 2013, p. 105.
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j Momigliano & Lintott 2012.
- ^ Caes. BCiv., 1.5. Emphasis added.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 106. Citing Caes. BCiv., 1.5.3.
- ^ Caes. BCiv., 1.5.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 106.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 104.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. xiv.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 148. "Its main force was largely to provide political cover for a magistrate who went beyond the law in order to deal with a crisis".
- ^ a b c Lundgreen 2015.
- ^ Drogula 2015, p. 123.
- ^ Drogula 2015, p. 122.
- ^ Lintott 2012.
- ^ Nippel 1984, p. 26.
- ^ Lintott 1999, p. 89.
- ^ Drogula 2015, pp. 6, 32.
- ^ Drogula, Fred K (2007). "Imperium, Potestas, and the Pomerium in the Roman Republic". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 56 (4): 449–50. doi:10.25162/historia-2007-0027. ISSN 0018-2311. JSTOR 25598407. S2CID 159843089.
- ^ a b c Lintott 1999, p. 90.
- ^ a b Wilson 2021, p. 283.
- ^ Lintott 1999, p. 91.
- ^ a b Kelly 2016, p. 376.
- ^ Alexander 1990, pp. 14–15.
- ^ a b Alexander 1990, p. 110.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 146. "Cicero went into exile in 58 in order to avoid the odium he had incurred by putting Roman citizens to death without a trial".
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 148.
- ^ a b Mouritsen 2017, p. 161 n. 163. "Clodius accused Cicero of having produced a false senatus consultum in 63... implying he would have acepted its force had it been genuine. Caesar also accepted the use of the SCU has justified, apart from the one instance where it was aimed at himself".
- ^ Drogula 2015, p. 124 n. 258. On Livy's early invocations of the senatus consultum ultimum "the early dates and the convoluted nature of the stories... suggest both are fiction".
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 109.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 110.
- ^ Kelly 2016, p. 375.
- ^ Wilson 2021, p. 267.
- ^ Drogula 2007, p. 448.
- ^ Wilson 2021, p. 280.
- ^ Wilson 2021, p. 289.
- ^ Eg Wilson 2021, p. 284.
- ^ Mitchell, TN (1971). "Cicero and the senatus consultum ultimum". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 20 (1): 49 n. 2. ISSN 0018-2311. JSTOR 4435179. Citing Plut. TG 19.
- ^ Momigliano & Lintott 2012. "The decree was first both passed and accepted by the consul in 121 BC".
- ^ Day, Simon (2016-06-28). "Review of "Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire"". Bryn Mawr Classical Review. n. 9. ISSN 1055-7660.
the so-called senatus consultum ultimum was not first used in 133... but rather in 121
- ^ a b c Lintott 1992, p. 84.
- ^ Broughton 1951, p. 524.
- ^ Lintott 1992, pp. 84–85.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 88.
- ^ Lintott 1999, p. 89. "Probably the critical step in the establishment of this decree as an institution was the acquittal of [Opimius]... However, Opimius' acquittal was controversial, and the interpretation of the decree itself continued to be the subject of dispute during the late republic".
- ^ a b Lintott 1992, p. 101.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 88. "Both armed gangs and political assassination were closely associated with the plans of [Saturninus and Glaucia] to try to place in office... as many men as possible from their own political association ... [A]t the heart of the use of violence was the desire to appropriate political power for a small faction by circumventing republican practices..."
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 90.
- ^ Golden 2013, pp. 119–21.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 140.
- ^ Burton 2014, p. 404–05.
- ^ Burton 2014, p. 418.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 122–24.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 124; Burton 2014, pp. 407–08. Both citing Sall. Hist. 1.77M.
- ^ Cic. Cat., 1.1.3.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 127.
- ^ Golden 2013, pp. 129–30.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 146–47.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 146.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 147.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 131–32.
- ^ Gruen 1995, p. 245.
- ^ Kelly 2016, p. 377.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 132.
- ^ a b Golden 2013, p. 134.
- ^ Parrish, Eve J (1972). "The Senate on January 1, 62 BC". The Classical World. 65 (5): 160–168. doi:10.2307/4347636. ISSN 0009-8418. JSTOR 4347636.
- ^ a b Badian 2012b.
- ^ Gruen 1995, p. 141.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 151.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 136.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 137.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 138.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 139.
- ^ Ramsey, John T (2016). "How and why was Pompey Made Sole Consul in 52 BC?". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 65 (3): 298–324. doi:10.25162/historia-2016-0017. ISSN 0018-2311. JSTOR 45019234. S2CID 252459421.
- ^ a b Badian 2012a.
- ^ Gruen 1995, p. 490.
- ^ Gruen 1995, p. 489–90.
- ^ Mouritsen 2017, p. 161 n. 163.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 143.
- ^ Raaflaub, Kurt (2009). "Bellum Civile". In Griffin, Miriam (ed.). A companion to Julius Caesar. Blackwell. p. 176. ISBN 978-1-4051-4923-5. LCCN 2008046983.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 144.
- ^ Badian 2012c.
- ^ Golden 2013, pp. 146–47.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 147.
- ^ Badian 2012d.
- ^ Pelling 2012.
- ^ Rawson 1992, p. 481.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 198 n. 12.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 197.
- ^ a b Golden 2013, p. 203.
- ^ Golden 2013, p. 205.
- ^ Mouritsen 2017, pp. 169, 168. "Political violence... was a symptom of political instability as well as one of its causes, at the same time expressing and escalating underlying conflicts".
- ^ Mouritsen 2017, p. 168.
- ^ Mouritsen 2017, p. 166.
- ^ Coudry 2022, pp. 216–17.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 86.
- ^ Flower 2010, p. 87.
- ^ Duplá-Ansuategui 2022, p. 417.
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