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In the Roman senate

By: David Haas

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Dec 11, 2013 06:00 am

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Ottawa photographer Yousuf Karsh gained fame with his late 1941 photograph of a glowering British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This led to a series of commissioned portraits of British, Canadian, and U.S. Second World War leaders. These works appeared in Karsh’s 1946 book Faces of Destiny.

Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan provided an illuminating commentary on the pictures in his essay The Face of Power, published in 1949. MacLennan drew many comparisons between the men who posed before Karsh’s lens and Roman leaders of old. He described two moderns, one an American statesman and the other a British soldier, as men who “could have sat in the Roman senate after Cannae and, with Hannibal at the gate and no new army obtainable for years, have voted to resist to the end.”

The very name “senate” comes from the Romans – the official title of the Roman state was “The Senate and the Roman People.” The word persisted long after Rome’s decline and fall. A century before King Charles I’s head rolled on the scaffold in front of London’s Banquet Hall, French astrologer Nostradamus famously predicted, “The Senate at London will put their king to death.” Actually it was England’s Parliament, but the astrologer was writing in French at a time when there was no “parlement” for the whole of France. Literate people knew what “senate” meant; the term had survived into modern times – as evidenced in Shakespeare’s Othello.

The major modern impetus for senates came in the early days of the American republic. The newly independent states sought to purge some of the colonial terminology from their governmental apparatus. In 1787 the federal power followed suit by inserting a senate into the new constitution of the United States. With the growth of America’s power and influence, “senate” became the in name for an upper chamber in a bicameral legislature. In 1867 Canada adopted it for the new nation. Interestingly, the pre-Confederation equivalent of the new Senate of Canada, the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada, had been elected for the last eleven years of its existence. The new Dominion of Canada stepped backwards in adopting an appointed upper house.

Why? Canadian politicians expressed disappointment with the elective model. It is also noteworthy that the U.S. Senate was still an appointed body at that time. However, the Americans had put the appointing power with state governments, where it stayed until it was shifted to the state electorates. Canada established a Senate with the appointing power in the hands of the prime minister, and there it has famously remained.

That, and a culture of entitlement, has degraded our Senate in an era when an unelected legislative body utterly lacks credibility. It is hard to equate our Red Chamber to the image MacLennan invoked of grimly determined Roman senators opting for a fight to the last ditch. Such steel is absent from a body whose governing faction functions as the prime minister’s dancing bear.

Writer David Haas is a long term St. Albert resident.


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