Curia Julia: the building of the Roman Senate, where the emperors and the senators met to discuss important affairs.
According to the constitutional fiction embodied in the abbreviation S.P.Q.R, the Senate and the Popular Assembly of Rome (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus) ruled the empire together. The Comitium, where the Assembly met, and the building of the Senate or Curia thus formed the administrative center of the empire. In theory the emperor merely carried out what the Senate and Popular Assembly decided, but in practice he was of course the one who made policy. The real heart of the empire was the Auditorium on the Palatine, where the ruler met with his advisors.
Even though the Senate had little influence in the imperial period, it was nevertheless in the emperor's interest to respect the privileges of that institution, because the six hundred millionaires who held seats on it could made things quite difficult, even for someone who commanded thirty legions. The Popular Assembly by contrast was silenced in the imperial period, and that can be seen in the design of this area of the Forum: Julius Caesar rebuilt the Curia in part on the Comitium, which became appreciably smaller and less significant.
The oldest assembly hall of the Senate, the Curia Hostilia, stood at the place where the church of Santi Luca e Martina now stands, or rather, ten meters below it. When the Republican dictator Sulla increased the number of senators, he had the building where they met enlarged. However this Curia Cornelia burned down during a riot in 52 BCE, which gave Caesar the opportunity to attach his name to the new building: the Curia Julia. Two years earlier he had begun building his own forum, and he now decided to integrate the two projects. Thus the Senate was moved and was given the same orientation as the Forum of Caesar. The new assembly hall was officially opened by Octavian in August 29 BCE, the same month in which he dedicated the Temple of the Divine Caesar and the new Speaker's Podium.
In front of the Curia there was a small stoa, the Chalcidicum, which housed a statue of the goddess Minerva. The building itself was covered with white marble and painted stucco, while a winged Victoria appeared to alight on the crest of the rooftop. The two goddesses symbolized the wisdom of the senators and the power of the empire.
In the assembly hall there were three hundred seats, enough for half of the senators. If more were present, the Senate would meet in the Temple of Concordia. In ancient times the walls of the room, which is quite dark nowadays, were decorated in part with colored marble, mosaics and stucco work, while the wooden roof glittered with gold fittings. In the back of the hall there were seats for the consuls and the emperor and another of Victoria. Seen from the hall the goddess appeared to be descending upon the emperor.
According to the historian Herodian, the emperor Heliogabalus, who was also a priest of the god Elagabal, felt that a portrait of a greater divinity should hang above Victoria:
Therefore he had a huge full-length painting made of himself performing his priestly duties. He was painted making a sacrifice to his god, whom he also had depicted in the painting. He sent it to Rome with the order that it be hung up in the middle of a wall in the assembly hall in the Senate, very high, above the head of Victoria, in front of which the senators would offer up incense and wine when the Senate was in session.note[Herodian, Histories 5.5.7.]
Obviously, this did not go down well. The senators could live with a supreme deity being placed above Victoria but not with the emperor presenting himself on the same level with the Supreme Being. Needless to say, the painting was promptly removed after the death of the priest-emperor.
At the time of the Republic the business of government was conducted in the Senate, but during the imperial period this was a thing of the past. Nonetheless, senatorial sessions remained important. If the Senate was not in recess (for example during the grape harvest), the emperor could announce his decisions to the richest Romans. By informing them first, he showed his appreciation, thus ensuring himself once again of the loyalty of a body which still conferred legitimacy.
In addition, the Senate functioned as a court for governors who were accused of maladministration. Although most of the governors were senators themselves, convictions were not uncommon, so that a trial was often exciting. Even in the initial phase, in which the exact charges were formulated, things could get quite heated. Pliny the Younger describes the performance of a lawyer in a blackmail case:
Being a master in provoking tears, he set his rhetorical sails and made them billow out with a veritable storm of compassion. Vehement discussions, vehement cries from both sides, with one group shouting that the jurisdiction of the Senate was constrained by law and the other yelling that it was free and unlimited and that the defendant must be tried for all his offenses.note[Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.11.3-4.]
Other sessions were less tumultuous, not to say boring. The fact that there was only space for half of the senators says enough about attendance. Much time was spent listening to speeches in which little was said with a great deal of words. Fortunately the speakers' time was limited by a water clock. A case in point is the address given by Pliny the Younger, to thank Emperor Trajan for appointing him consul in 100: for several hours he uttered only obligatory compliments, which he fortunately managed to express in riveting fashion. He said of another speech:
To be sure the speech is long, but even so I am not pessimistic that it can equal the charm of a very short one, for the rich material, the ingenious construction, the many short anecdotes and the variations in style give it a surprising quality.note[Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.33.7-8.]
But even a trained speaker can bore his audience. A few months before his encomium to Trajan, Pliny brought charges against an ex-governor and was interrupted by the emperor, who tactfully asked him to keep it short:
I spoke for approximately five hours. I know this because a four water clocks were added to the twelve extra-long water clocks I had been given [...]. The emperor for his part was so attentive and showed so much solicitude (concern would be too strong a word) that he warned my freedman, who was standing behind me, several times that I should think of my voice and my lungs.note[Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.11.15.]
Anyone who could speak in public showed himself to be a real man: not so much because he was expected to have a sonorous bass voice, but mainly because by doing so he demonstrated his willingness to take responsibility for the community. Moreover anyone listening would have had years of training as an orator behind him, so that the speaker was judged not only on the content of his speech but also on his command of the art of rhetoric. To take the floor was to take a risk. In a culture in which losing face was the worst thing that could happen to someone, an orator had to possess at least as much courage as a soldier. It goes without saying that when these men showed who they were, macho posturing was the order of the day.
The historical writings of Cassius Dio contain a striking example:
Caligula always claimed to surpass all the orators, and knowing that Gnaeus Domitius Afer [a senator who had been accused] was an extremely gifted speaker, he strove on this occasion to excel him. And he would certainly have put him to death, if the latter had entered into the least competition with him. As it was, the man made no answer or defense, but pretended to be astonished and overcome by the ability of Caligula, and repeating the accusation point by point, praised it as if have were a mere listener and not himself on trial. When the opportunity was given him to speak, he had recourse to entreaties and lamentations; and finally he threw himself on the ground and lying there prostrate played the suppliant to his accuser, pretending to fear him more as an orator than as emperor. Caligula, accordingly, when he saw and heard all this, was melted, believing that he had really overwhelmed Domitius by the eloquence of his speech. For this reason, then, [...] he gave up his resentment.note[Cassius Dio, Roman History, 59.19.3-5; tr. Earnest Carry.]
Various authors felt that rhetoric was on the decline in the imperial period because the Senate no longer played a role in the political process. That was an exaggeration. There were still plenty of opportunities for public speaking: in the courtroom, for example, or on official occasions. But still, political oratory, like debate in the Senate, had fallen silent.
This article is a translated part of Jona Lendering, Stad in marmer (2002 Amsterdam). The translation was made by S.J. Leinbach.