Byzantine Senate

From Academic Kids

The Byzantine Senate was a nominal continuation of the Roman Senate, established in the 4th century by Constantine I. It survived for centuries but was increasingly irrelevant until its eventual disappearance in the 13th century.

The Senate of the Eastern Roman Empire originally consisted of Roman senators who happened to live in the east, or those who wanted to move to Constantinople, and a few other bureaucrats who were appointed to the Senate. Constantine offered free land and grain to any Roman senators who were willing to move to the east. This 300-member Senate had essentially the same powers as the contemporary Roman Senate - that is, only honorary powers. Constantine's son Constantius II increased the number of senators to 2000 by including his friends, courtiers, and various provincial officials.

The Senate served mostly as a prestigious social club for the wealthy, although the senatorial families in Constantinople tended to be less affluent and less distinguished than those in the west (where the size of the Senate had also been increased to 2000 in the 4th century). The Senate occasionally met for purely ceremonial reasons, but most aristocrats attempted to become senators purely to avoid certain taxes and duties imposed on them by Diocletian in the 3rd century. Diocletian forced them into public service as decurions, and while Valens allowed decurions to join the Senate, Theodosius I realized that they were only trying to escape their duties and decreed that they must complete their public service even if they became senators.

The Senate sometimes attempted to assert some authority: in 457 they offered to make the Alan Aspar emperor, apparently with the belief that they had the power to carry this out. In 532 some of the senators gave their support to the Nika riots against Justinian, who, with his poor origins, did not like or trust the wealthy Senate. To Justinian the Senate was little more than a source of taxes. He took away their duties as public servants, making public building projects, distribution of food, etc., an imperial concern. After 541 the Senate lost many of its members due to plague and the accompanying economic turmoil, and Justinian confiscated the wealth of many of the remaining senators. The Senate was one of the last vestiges of the Latin-speaking empire in a now mostly Greek east, and as it declined so did Latin language and literature. While Rome placed much importance on hereditary family titles, the Greeks did not, and holding a position in the Greek-speaking Senate did not include the same sense of prestige.

Yet the Senate survived, at least in name. In the 7th century the "Senate" referred to the wealthiest aristocrats, who met only to recognize a new emperor, if they ever met at all. It still existed into the 12th century, when completely meaningless honorary titles could be bought by wealthy men of any class. After the Fourth Crusade, however, the rank of senator seems to have disappeared.

See also

Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy.

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