Consul (abbrev. cos.; Latin plural consules) was the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic and the Empire.

During the time of ancient Rome as a Republic, the Consuls were the highest civil and military magistrates, serving as the heads of government for the Republic. There were two consuls, and they ruled together. However, under the era of early Rome as an Empire, the Consuls were merely a figurative representative of Rome’s republican heritage and held very little power and authority, with the Emperor acting as the supreme leader.

Under the Republic After the legendary expulsion of the last Etruscan King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and the end of the Roman Kingdom, most of the powers and authority of the king were ostensibly given to the newly instituted consulship. Originally, consuls were called praetors ("leader"), referring to their duties as the chief military commanders. In 305 BC the name was changed to consul and the title praetor was given to an entirely new office.

The office of consul was believed by the Romans to date back to the traditional establishment of the Republic in 509 BC but the Succession of Consuls was not continuous in the 5th century. Consuls had extensive capacities in peacetime (administrative, legislative and judicial), and in war time often held the highest military command. Additional religious duties included certain rights which, as a sign of their formal importance, could only be carried out by top level state officials. Consuls also read auguries, an essential step before leading armies into the field.

Under the laws of the Republic, the minimum age of election to consul for patricians was 41 years of age, for plebeians 42. Two consuls were elected each year, serving together with veto power over each other's actions, a normal principle for magistracies. However these laws were not always applied and there are several cases of consuls elected before the appropriate age.

Consuls were elected by the massive Comitia Centuriata, which had a profound aristocratic bias in its voting structure which only increased over the years from its foundation. However, they formally assumed powers after the ratification of their election in the older Comitia Curiata, which granted the consuls their imperium, through the passing of a bill "lex curiata de imperio".

In Latin, consulere means "to take counsel". If a consul died during his term (not uncommon when consuls were in the forefront of battle), another would be elected, and be known as a consul suffectus.

According to tradition, the consulship was initially reserved for patricians and only in 367 BC did plebeians win the right to stand for this supreme office, when the Lex Licinia Sextia provided that at least one consul each year should be plebeian. The first plebeian consul, Lucius Sextius, was thereby elected the following year. Modern historians have questioned the traditional account of plebeian emancipation during the Early Republic (see Conflict of the Orders), noting for instance that about thirty percent of the consuls prior to Sextius had plebeian, not patrician, names. It might be possible that only the chronology has been distorted, but it seems that one of the first consuls, Lucius Junius Brutus came from a plebeian family.[1] Another possible explanation is that during the 5th century social struggles, the office of consul was gradually monopolized by a patrician elite[2]

During times of war, the primary criterion for consul was military skill and reputation, but at all times the selection was politically charged. With the passage of time, the consulship became the normal endpoint of the cursus honorum, the sequence of offices pursued by the ambitious Roman.

Beginning in the late Republic, after finishing a consular year, a former consul would usually serve a lucrative term as a Proconsul, the Roman Governor of one of the (senatorial) provinces. The most commonly chosen province for the proconsulship was Cisalpine Gaul.

Under the Empire

When Augustus established the Principate, he changed the political nature of the office, stripping it of most of its military powers. While still a great honor — in fact invariably the constitutional head of state, hence eponymous — and a requirement for other offices, many consuls would resign part way through the year to allow other men to finish their term as suffects. Those who held the office on January 1, known as the consules ordinarii, had the honor of associating their names with that year. As a result, about half of the men who held the rank of praetor could also reach the consulship. Sometimes a suffect consul would in turn resign, and another suffect would be appointed. This reached its extreme under Commodus, when in 190 twenty-five men held the consulship.

Emperors frequently appointed themselves, protégés, or relatives consul, even without regard to the age requirements. For example, Emperor Honorius was given the consulship at birth. Some didn't even stick to species limitations: Cassius Dio states that Caligula intended to make his horse Incitatus consul, but was assassinated before he could do so.

Holding the consulship was a great honor and the office was the major symbol of the still republican constitution. Probably as part of seeking formal legitimacy, the break-away Gallic Empire had its own pairs of consuls during its existence (260–274). The list of consuls for this state is incomplete, drawn from inscriptions and coins.

One of the reforms of Constantine I was to assign one of the consuls to the city of Rome, and the other to Constantinople. Therefore, when the Roman Empire was divided into two halves on the death of Theodosius I, the emperor of each half acquired the right of appointing one of the consuls—although one emperor did allow his colleague to appoint both consuls for various reasons. As a result, after the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West, many years would be named for only a single consul[citation needed]. This rank was finally allowed to lapse in the reign of Justinian I: first with the consul of Rome in 534, Decius Paulinus, then the consul of Constantinople in 541, Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius. The appointment to consulship became a part of the rite of proclamation of new emperor and Constans II was the last person to hold the position until Leo the Wise finally abolished ordinary consulship and consular dating, although honorary consulship still was widely granted, although was mostly known under the Greek name of the title hypatos. Despite this, the title of Roman consul was offered by the Pope to Charles Martel in 739, although he refused[3] because this could have promoted a conflict with the Byzantine emperor.

Powers and Responsibilities
Republican duties

After the expulsion of the kings and the establishment of the Republic, all the powers that had belonged to the kings were transferred to two offices: that of the Consuls and the Rex Sacrorum. While the Rex Sacrorum inherited the kings’ position as high priest of the state, the Consuls were given the civil and military responsibilities (imperium). However, to prevent abuse of the kingly power, the imperium was shared by two Consuls, each of whom could veto the other’s actions.

The Consuls were invested with the executive power of the state and headed the government of the Republic. Initially, the Consuls' powers were vast and held considerably more power than as just executives. In the gradual development of the Roman legal system, however, some important functions were detached from the Consulship and assigned to new officers. This was the case in 443 BC when the responsibility to conduct the census was stripped from the office and given to the office of Censor. The second function taken from the Consulship was their judicial power. Their position as chief judges was transferred to the Praetors in 366 BC. After this time, the Consul would only serve as judges in extraordinary criminal cases and only when called upon by decree of the Senate.

Civil sphere

For the most part, power is divided between civil and military spheres. As long as the Consuls were in the pomerium (the city of Rome), they were at the head of government, and all the other magistrates, with the exception of the Tribunes of the Plebs, were subordinate to them, but remained independence of office. The internal machinery of the republic was under the Consuls’ superintendence. In order to allow the Consuls greater authority in executing laws, the Consuls had the right of summoning and arrest, which was limited only by the right of appeal from their judgment. This power of punishment even extended to inferior magistrates.

As part of their executive functions, the Consuls were responsible for carrying into effect the decrees of the Senate and the laws of the assemblies. Sometimes in urgent emergencies, they might even act on their own authority and responsibility. The Consuls also served as the chief diplomat of the Roman state. Before any foreign ambassadors reached the Senate, they met with the Consuls. The Consul would introduce ambassadors to the Senate, and they alone carried on the negotiations between the Senate and foreign states.

The Consuls could convene the Senate, and presided over its meetings. Each consul served, as President of the Senate, for a month. They also could convene both the Centuriate Assembly and Curiate Assembly and presided over both. Thus, the Consuls conducted the elections and put legislative measures to the vote. When both consuls were not in the city, their duties were assumed by the praetor urbanus.

Each Consul was accompanied in every public appearance by twelve lictors, who displayed the magnificence of the office and served as his bodyguard. Each lictor held the fasces, a bundle of rods that contained an axe. The rods symbolized the power of scourging, and the axe the power of capital punishment. When inside the pomerium, the lictors removed the axes from the fasces to show that a citizen couldn't be executed without a trial. Upon entering the Comitia Centuriata, the lictors would lower the fasces to show that the powers of the Consuls derive from the people (populus romanus).

Military sphere

Outside the walls of Rome, the powers of the Consuls were far more extensive in their role as commanders-in-chief of all Roman legions. It was in this function that the Consuls were vested with full imperium. When legions were ordered by a decree of the Senate, the Consuls conducted the levy in Campus Martius. Upon entering the army, all soldiers had to take their oath of allegiance to the Consuls. The Consuls also oversaw the gathering of troops provide by Rome’s allies [4].

Within the city a Consul could punish and arrest a citizen, but had not the power to inflict capital punishment. When on campaign however, the consul could inflict any punishment he saw fit to any soldier, or officer, citizen or ally.

Each consul commanded an army, usually two legions strong, with the help of military tribunes and a quaestor who had financial duties. In the rare case that both consuls marched together, each one held the command for a day respectively. Normally a consular army was about 20.000 men strong and consisted of two citizen and two allied legions. In the early years of the republic, Rome's enemies were located in central Italy, so campaigns lasted a few months. As Rome's frontiers expanded, in the 2nd century BC, the campaigns became lengthier. Romans were a warlike society, and very seldom did not wage war [5]. So the Consul upon entering office was expected by the Senate and the People to march his army against Rome's enemies, and expand the Roman frontiers. His soldiers expected to return to their homes after the campaign with spoils. If the Consul won an overwhelming victory, was hailed as imperator by his troops, and could request to be granted a triumph.

The Consul could conduct the campaign as he saw fit, and had unlimited powers. However after the campaign, he could be prosecuted for his misdeeds (for example for abusing the provinces, or wasting public money, as Scipio Africanus was accused by Cato in 205 BC).

Abuse prevention

Abuse of Consular power was prevented with each Consul given the power to veto his colleague. Therefore, except in the provinces as Commanders-in-chief where each Consul’s power was supreme, the Consuls could only act in unison, or, at least, not against each other's determined will. Against the sentence of one Consul, an appeal could be brought before his colleague and overturn the sentencing. In order to avoid unnecessary conflicts, only one Consul would actually perform the office’s duties every month. This is not to say that the other Consul held no power but merely allowed the first Consul to act without direct interference. Then in the next month, the Consuls would switch roles with one another. This would continue until the end of the Consular term.

Another point which acted as a check against Consuls was the certainty that after the end of their term they would be called to account for their actions while in office.

There were also three other restrictions on consular power. Their term in office was short (one year); their duties were pre-decided by the Senate; and they could not stand again for election immediately after the end of their office. Usually a period of ten years was expected between each consulship.


Main article: Roman Governor After leaving office, the Consuls were assigned a province to administer by the Senate as Governor. The provinces each Consul was assigned were drawn by lot and determined before the end of his Consulship. Transferring his Consular Imperium to Proconsular Imperium, the Consul would become a Proconsul and governor of one (or several) of Rome’s many provinces. As a Proconsul, his imperium was limited to only a specificed province and not the entire Republic. Any exercise of Proconsular imperium in any other province was illegal. Also, a Proconsul was not allowed to leave his province before his term was complete or before the arrival of his successor. Exceptions were given only on special permission of the Senate. Most terms as governor lasted between one and five years.

Appointment of the Dictator

In times of crisis, usually when Rome's territory was in immediate danger, a Dictator was appointed by the Consuls[citation needed] for a period of no more than six months, after the proposition of the Senate. While the Dictator held office, the imperium of the Consuls was suspended.

Imperial duties

After Augustus became the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC with the establishment of the principate, the Consuls lost most of their powers and responsibilities under the Roman Empire. Though still officially the highest office of the state and powers, with the Emperor’s superior imperium, they were merely a symbol of Rome’s republican heritage. The imperial Consuls still maintained the right to preside at meetings of the Senate, however they could only exercise this right at the pleasure of the Emperor. They partially administered justice in extraordinary cases. They presented games in the Circus Maximus and all public solemnities in honor of the Emperor at their own expense. After the expiration of their offices, the ex Consuls (Proconsuls) went on to govern one of the provinces that were administered by the Senate. They usually served terms of three to five years.

Consular dating The highest magistrates were eponymous, i.e. each year was officially identified (like a regnal year in a monarchy) by the two Consuls' names, though there was a more practical numerical dating ab urbe condita (i.e. by the era starting with the mythical foundation year of Rome). For instance, the year 59 BC in the modern calendar was called by the Romans "the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus," since the two colleagues in the consulship were (Gaius) Julius Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus — although Caesar dominated the consulship so thoroughly that year that it was jokingly referred to as "the consulship of Julius and Caesar" [6].

In Latin, the ablative absolute construction is frequently used to express the date, such as "M. Messalla et M. Pupio Pisone consulibus," translated literally as "Marcus Messalla and Marcus Pupius Piso being Consuls," which appears in Caesar's De Bello Gallico.

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