A History of Rome in Paintings: 24 The Senate

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Caesar (1859-67), oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. By courtesy of Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

From its earliest days, through the period of kings, the republic and empire, the Roman Senate was its central and most enduring institution. According to legend, once the building of the first city was complete, Romulus set up a Senate consisting of one hundred patrician councillors. At its height, wherever the Roman army went, it took those defining letters, SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Crucifixion (detail) (E&I 123) (1565), oil on canvas, 536 x 1224 cm, Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

This detail of Jacopo Tintoretto’s huge Crucifixion (1565) in the Albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice shows a flag bearing the letters SPQR representing the Roman Empire, and its link to the crucifixion through Pontius Pilate.

In its early centuries, the Senate met in various locations, sometimes even outside the city’s walls. Its first dedicated building was converted from a temple, and was known as the Curia Hostilia, which was in a commanding position close to the Forum. It burned down at least once before being enlarged in 80 BCE, then burned again in 52 BCE when it became the funeral pyre of a murdered politician.

It was replaced by the Curia Cornelia, but a few years later, in 44 BCE, Julius Caesar had that converted into a temple and work started on building its replacement, the Curia Julia. While that was taking place, the Senate met in the Curia at the end of a garden complex in the Theatre of Pompey, and it didn’t move into its new building until 29 BCE, during the reign of Augustus.

Few paintings show the interior of the Senate, except those of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, when the Senate was meeting in the Theatre of Pompey. One episode in the Senate’s long history which does appear in paint is the denouncement of Catiline by Cicero in 63 BCE, when the Senate was meeting in the original Curia Hostilia.

Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), Cicero Denounces Catiline (1889), fresco, 400 x 900 cm, Palazzo Madama, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Cesare Maccari’s Cicero Denounces Catiline from 1889 shows the latter conspicuously sat alone at the right as Cicero lambasts him from the floor of the Senate.

John Leech (1817–1864), Cicero Denouncing Catiline (c 1850), coloured print in ‘The Comic History of Rome’ by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, London, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In John Leech’s satirical version of Cicero Denouncing Catiline from about 1850, Cicero is intended to be a caricature of Disraeli, and Catiline is Disraeli’s longstanding opponent in the British House of Commons, W E Gladstone, who is sat at the far right.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, is one of the most momentous episodes in the history of Rome, and has brought several excellent paintings.

Karl von Piloty (1826–1886), The Murder of Caesar (1865), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, Hanover, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Karl von Piloty’s The Murder of Caesar from 1865 shows the moment that the emperor was presented with a petition, with him sat on a throne in the grand portico of the Senate. Immediately behind him, one of the conspirators has raised his dagger above his head, ready to strike the first blow. The surroundings are very senatorial, with lofty columns ascending to an unseen ceiling and suitably imperial statuary.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Caesar (1859), oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. By courtesy of Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

The most famous painting of this event is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Death of Caesar (1859), the second of two paintings which he made at the time. Tragically, the first has been lost.

Gérôme depicts the building as grand as its function. In addition to its imposing height, not far from the feet of Caesar’s corpse is the head of Medusa in the floor.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Caesar (detail) (1859), oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. By courtesy of Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Far off at the right edge is a lone senator, still sitting in his place. Although it has been suggested that he was asleep, that doesn’t appear supported by his posture. A white cloak has been abandoned in haste on a seat close to the front, scrolls are scattered, and some who were not part of the conspiracy are hurriedly making away in the distance.

The sad fact is that all these views of a grand Senate house are imaginary; among them, it is John Leech who comes closest to reality. Even the replacement building, the Curia Julia, wasn’t grand or imposing, and the temporary Curia in use at the time would have been smaller. Instead of seats arranged in a semicircle around an open space, the senators would have sat in straight parallel rows on either side of the building, more like a small parliament than a theatre for orators.

The Curia Julia is one of just a handful of buildings from classical Rome which have survived almost intact.

Lasha Tskhondia, L.VII.C, Sketch Up model of the Curia Julia (2012), Wikimedia Commons.

This superb recreation shows it at the height of the Roman Empire: modest, functional, and hardly the subject for gripping historical paintings, outside or within those rather dull brick-faced concrete walls.