Senatus consultum ultimum
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Senatus consultum ultimum ("Final decree of the Senate" or Final Act), more properly senatus consultum de re publica defendenda ("Decree of the Senate about defending the Republic") is the modern term (based on Caesar's wording at Bel. Civ. 1.5) given to a decree of the Roman Senate during the late Roman Republic passed in times of emergency. The form was usually consules darent operam ne quid detrimenti res publica caperet or videant consules ne res publica detrimenti capiat ("let the consuls see to it that the state suffer no harm"). It was first passed during the fall from power of Gaius Gracchus in 121 BC, and subsequently at several other points, including during Lepidus' march on Rome in 77 BC, the Conspiracy of Catiline in 63 BC, and when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC. The senatus consultum ultimum effectively replaced the disused dictatorship, by removing limitations on the magistrates' powers to preserve the State. After the rise of the Principate, there was little need for the Senate to issue the decree again.
Constitutional problem with the Senatus consultum ultimum
Implicit controversy, however, lay inherent in the brevity of the decree: it did not enumerate just how far-reaching those powers would be for consuls, and whether they overrode normal protections and liberties citizens enjoyed. This came to a head in 63 BC, when Marcus Tullius Cicero had men charged with complicity in the Catiline Conspiracy, including the former consul Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, executed without a trial. Cicero argued that, given the extraordinary danger of the crisis, the senatus consultum ultimum afforded him the power in that limited circumstance. Julius Caesar and others argued that the consultum could not override the basic laws of the Roman state, that it meant merely that the Consuls should do their utmost within the framework of the Roman Constitution to resolve the emergency. While Cicero's actions were popular with the Roman public during the crisis, in 58 BC his political enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher ordered his exile (through the Leges Clodiae), which was only reversed later with the assistance of Pompey and others. The success of Clodius' plan to exile Cicero was motivated by enmity, not by constitutional concern, and does not settle the question about the legality of the Final Act.
- Everitt, Anthony (2001). Cicero. Random House.