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Rome (Lazio), Italy

Roman Senate

A little beyond the Basilica Emilia you’ll find yourself in an open space: it may seem difficult to imagine, but this piazza with its monuments was the political heart of Rome and perhaps of the entire world as it was known at the time.

The large, somewhat anonymous-looking brick building facing the piazza is the Curia Julia, seat of the Senate. It was begun by Julius Caesar and finished by Augustus, his successor and first Roman Emperor.

The Senate was the primary governing body and represented the wisdom and power of Rome. It held more than 300 senators that sat along the steps at the sides of the hall and at the center there was the presidential podium. The senators all wore their characteristic white toga, bordered with red, and so long that it was worn folded and laid over the left arm. All Roman citizens could wear the toga but usually they wore it only for religious holidays or particular ceremonies; senators, on the other hand, wore it as a badge of distinction.

Only men of a certain prestige and great experience could be senators. In fact, the word “senator” comes from the the Latin “senex” – old. Of course, there were some exceptions, as in the case of the emperor Caligula who, according to legend, had his horse made senator! Obviously this was a bit of a provocation to express his total disdain for the Senate and to show that even an animal could improve its decisions.

As you enter this majestic building, you’re struck by two things: the marvelous pavement and the spectacular height of the ceiling.

The pavement is sumptuous, made of precious marble in the style typical of late antiquity, with geometric and floral designs.

The second thing that hits your eye is the amazing height of the ceiling — a good 21 meters. It never had any upper storeys, so what was all that height for? The Senate building had to express with all its visual weight the importance and grandeur of Rome. But there was another reason, an acoustic one: the Senators’ speeches were of fundamental importance and the extreme height of the ceiling was a necessary expedient so that their voices could be heard clearly by the entire assembly.

Rome’s future was decided here, decisions were made that had repercussions for the entire Empire, even for places thousands of kilometers away. It’s easy to imagine the heated discussions, the yelling and the speeches of expert orators in red-bordered togas that were held here for centuries.

The piazza opening up in front of the Curia was called the “Comitium” and was the political and legal center of the city up until the time of Julius Caesar. Here were held town meetings to discuss new laws. There were probably wooden bleachers where the Romans would sit and discuss. On the opposite side there was the tribune from which the orators spoke. Decisions had to be made by general consensus of the people - gathered together in the Comitium — and the Senate. It’s for that reason that this piazza and the Curia seem to dialog, one with the other.