The Last Known Senatus Consultum of the Roman Senate?

In Massimiliano Vitiello, Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World, University of Pennsylvania Press, (2017), p.93, we learn of the problem of bribery in Papal elections during the Ostrogothic rule of Italy.  He quotes a letter in 533 AD to Pope John II, preserved in Cassiodorus Variae, Book 9, letter 15, from which we learn that the kings tried to stop the selling of bishoprics.  Dr V. continues:

In addition, in order to avoid a future repeat of the problem, King Athalaric ordered the urban prefect to issue a decree of the Senate, the text of which was to be engraved on a marble table and displayed in front of the atrium of the Church of Saint Peter, with copies posted in public places and assemblies for a thirty-day period. This is the last known Senatus Consultum, although the Senatorial sigla SC (= Senatus consulto) on a series of bronze coins minted in Rome in 536 in the name of King Theodahad indicates that this was not the last deliberation the Senate ever made.

The senate can only have been little more than a town council by this date.  King Athalaric was in fact a minor, only 18 when he died in 534 AD.  The government was in the hands of his mother Amalaswintha.  Athalaric was succeeded by his cousin Theodahad (534-536), whose weakness and ineptitude led to Justinian’s invasion of Italy.  Theodahad in turn was replaced by Vittigis, who himself was captured and shipped off to Constantinople in 540.  By this time Rome was deserted and in ruins.

A selection of letters from the Variae have been translated in the Liverpool TTH series, including letter 15, but not letter 16, which is our source for the inscription.  The letter is addressed to one of the very last Urban Prefects, Salventius.

Here’s the letter from the edition of Mommsen in 1894, online here, p.281 (p.474 of the PDF), who dates it to the end of 533 AD.  I’ve added a couple of full-stops and split up the paragraph.

Salventio Vir Inlustris Praefecto Urbis Athalaricus Rex.

Grata res est cunctis profutura vulgare, ut generale fiat gaudium, quod potuit esse votivum, alioquin laesionis causa noscitur, si beneficia potius occulantur. Dudum siquidem senatus amplissimus, ab splendore suo cupiens maculam foedissimae suspicionis abradere, provida deliberatione constituit, ut in beatissimi papae consecratione nullus se abominabili cupiditate pollueret. Poena etiam constituta, qui talia praesumere temptavisset.

Quod nos laudantes et augentes inventum, ad beatissimum papam direximus constituta, quae his antelata praefulgent, ut ab honestate sanctae ecclesiae profanus ambitus auferatur. Hoc vos** ad notitiam senatus et Romani populi volumus sine aliqua dilatione perducere, quatenus cunctorum figatur cordi, quod cupimus omnium studio custodiri.

Verum ut principale beneficium et praesentibus haereat saeculis et futuris, tam definita nostra quam senatus consulta tabulis marmoreis praecipimus decenter incidi et ante atrium beati Petri apostoli in testimonium publicum collocari; dignus enim locus est, qui et gloriosam mercedem nostram et senatus amplissimi laudabilia decreta contineat, in quam rem illum direximus, quo redeunte noscamus impleta quae iussimus. Incertum enim videtur habere quod praecipit, cui rerum effectus tardius innotescit.

(** “vos” is what the edition says, but surely it should be “nos”?)

Here’s a quick translation.  Corrections welcome:

King Athalaric, to Salventius, Vir Inlustris, Prefect of the City.

A welcome thing is profitable to publish to everyone, so that there is general rejoicing that it has been able to be fulfilled as promised.  Otherwise it is thought of as the cause of harm if the benefits are hidden away. For a while ago the great senate, desiring to remove from its splendour the stain of the most hideous suspicion, decided with a prudent resolution, that in the consecration of the most blessed pope no one should pollute himself with abominable greed. A penalty was also established for anyone who attempted to presume such things.  This is not a wrong, because then merit is truly sought in the one chosen, when money is not loved.

This, praising and extending the plan, we have brought to the attention of the most blessed pope the decrees, which were brought before him, so that the profane sphere might be removed from the honour of the holy church.  We wish to bring this to the notice of the senate and the people of Rome without any delay, so that what we desire to be guarded by the zeal of everyone is fixed in the hearts of everyone.

However, in order that the principal benefit may be effective both now and in the future, we order that both our decision and the decrees of the senate are engraved carefully on marble tablets and placed in front of the atrium of the church of blessed Peter the Apostle as a public testimony; for the place is worthy, which contains both our glorious gift and the laudable decrees of the great senate, on which matter we instructed it, so that when we return we may know that what we ordered has been fulfilled. For no-one can be certain whether what he orders has been done if the evidence of it only becomes known much later.**

(** Lit.: For he seems to consider as uncertain what he commands, to whom the effects of things become known more slowly.)

Dr Vitiello’s statement about posting copies for thirty days is not referenced, unfortunately.

It’s not certain whether any actual senatorial action was involved in producing the coins.[1]  But the bronze coins of Athalaric already feature the “SC” inscription, such as this one, and this is continued under Theodahad, such as this 40 nummi follis (found here; another example with description here as The Final Sestertius):

D N THEO-DAHATVS REX, moustached and mantled bust right, wearing ornate Spangenhelm; mantle decorated with pectoral cross / VICTORIA PRINCIPVM, S C across field, Victory standing right on prow of galley, holding palm across left shoulder and wreath in outstretched right hand.

A selection of other coins by Theodahad may be found here, all produced by a mint in Rome, and most with SC upon them.  His successor, Vittigis, minted in Ravenna and his coins do not use SC.

  1. [1]See H. T. Hindrum, Political Culture of Ostrogothic Italy in a Numismatic Perspective, thesis (2014), p.54.  Online here. (PDF)

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