Although the renowned ancient Roman Senate was greatly reduced in power and influence after the transformative era of figures such as Julius Caesar (c. 100-44 BCE) and Augustus (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE), the Roman senators kept up appearances in the age of emperors by continuing to fulfill certain bureaucratic senatorial duties that the emperors permitted. While many senators went about these reduced duties with dignity and respect, other disillusioned and disinterested senators began adding levity to their senatorial lives by bringing jokes and pranks to the senate chambers. These behaviors especially seemed to take off when senators were able to operate with some anonymity, such as through the use of secret ballots.
One documented incident of jokes and pranks in the Roman Senate occurred in the 1st century when the senators chose to forgo the usual process of casting votes through spoken word and instead temporarily opted to use a written ballot system. The purpose of this change allegedly was to quiet the senate chambers and bring back dignified conduct by stopping people from heckling and shouting over each other during votes. In keeping with the goal of quieting the assembly, only certain designated people, such as candidates for office and their sponsors, would be given the floor to speak, and attending senators were supposed to remain quiet and attentive (or at least respectful) when the designated speakers gave their speeches. After hearing the uninterrupted speeches, the statesmen were directed to quietly write down their votes on ballot slips and submit them in an orderly fashion.
When the votes were collected and tallied, many of the senators were found to have not behaved in the way proper and dignified senators were expected to act. On some of the submitted ballots, instead of vote decisions, anonymous senators left only jokes or drawings. Others, either intentionally or out of not paying attention, ignored the official choices that were on the ballot and instead wrote down names and decisions that were not relevant to the actual vote. This curious incident was noted by the avid letter-writer, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who wrote, “At the recent election some of the voting papers were found to have jokes and obscenities scribbled on them, and on one the names of the candidates were replaced by those of their sponsors” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.25). Senators who wanted seriousness and proper conduct in the chamber became angered by these joke-filled ballots, and an investigation was reportedly launched over the issue. Yet, due to the silent ballot being anonymous, the worst culprits were not identified. Jokes and invalid ballots aside, the vote evidently did end with a winner. Nevertheless, the debacle made the senators want to switch back to casting votes through a spoken word method.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Artwork labeled Trajanus in Rome, by Jacques Kuyper and Ludwig Gottlieb Portman (dated 1805), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.