senātūs consultum ultimum

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‘the ultimate decree of the senate’, a modern term for a declaration of emergency (see tumultus).

This decree urged magistrates, usually the consul or consuls, to take measures to defend the state and see that it came to no harm. It was interpreted as authorizing the magistrates to employ physical repression against (unspecified) public enemies without being bound by strict legality. Inevitably it was a matter of political controversy, since questions arose whether the circumstances merited this decree and what level of force and illegality was appropriate after it.

The decree was first both passed and accepted by the consul Opimius in 121 bc, against Gaius Sempronius Gracchus and Fulvius Flaccus. It was used nine times more in the years 100 to 40. It was originally passed after disturbances in Rome itself, but it came to be used when the primary threat came from outside Rome, as with the Catilinarians (63; see sergius catilina), and later was employed against an alleged external enemy, when there was no threat of violence in Rome at all (so Caesar complained in 49, and this was certainly true in 43 and 40).

When this decree had led to deaths, esp. those of eminent men, there was bitter reaction after the event against magistrates responsible—Opimius, Cicero—and, in the long‐deferred case of Rabirius (prosecuted in 63 for what he had done in 100), a man under Marius' command. The usual ground of complaint was that citizens had been killed without proper trial—which was true: the question was whether this illegality could be justified.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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