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date: 07 October 2022

consulfree

consulfree

  • Francisco Pina Polo

Summary

Two annual consuls were the chief magistrates of the Roman state during the Republican period. According to tradition, the consulship existed from 509 bce when kingship was abolished in Rome, but it may have been the culmination of a longer and more complex process: its origin could possibly be dated to 367–366 bce. Consuls were elected in the centuriate assembly and were granted imperium, which implied supreme civil and military power. Consulship was part of a structured career path (cursus honorum). Consuls carried out their functions under the principle of collegiality. They were eponymous magistrates, as their names were used to establish the official chronology of Rome. Until the 1st century bce, consuls were the chief commanders of the Roman army under the authority of the senate: as such, they were the leading actors in the imperial expansion of Rome. Consuls also carried out important civil functions when they were present in Rome. During the 1st century bce the role played by consuls changed due to the fact that they remained at Rome for most or all of their term of office. Consuls no longer played the important military role they had in previous centuries, while their political role substantially increased: they were expected to be the most visible political leaders at the centre-stage of Roman politics. During the triumviral period, consuls were in practice subordinate to the triumvirs, and the consulship suffered an institutional and political depreciation. The title of consul continued to exist throughout the Empire and into Late Antiquity, but after Augustus the office lost most of its significance. The consulship lapsed in the 6th century under Justinian I.

Subjects

  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Law

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship. Digital materials and images added.

Two consuls were the chief magistrates of the Roman state during the Republican period. According to historiographical tradition, the monarchy that had existed since the foundation of Rome was abolished in 509 bce, and two magistrates of equal power called consuls replaced the king, becoming leaders of the newly-established Roman Republic. A list of consuls (the fasti consulares) has been preserved in which the first names, L. Iunius Brutus and P. Valerius Publicola, date back to the year 509. The consuls assumed the imperium that had until then belonged exclusively to the king. Imperium implied supreme civil and military power, and was granted to the consuls via the lex curiata de imperio after their election. This imperium was highlighted by some external signs of power: the sella curulis, the toga praetexta, the fasces, and twelve lictores escorting the consuls wherever they went.

Figure 1. Consul L. Junius Brutus (509 bce) walking between two lictors (coin of 54 bce).

Source: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Despite the existence of the fasti consulares, and even though ancient sources unanimously agree that the consulship existed as a dual collegium since the beginning of the Republic, modern scholarship has largely challenged this story, not least because a double magistracy with equal powers for both colleagues seems to have been exceptional in central Italy at such an early time. The institution of the consulship may have been the culmination of a much longer and more complex process, and its origin could possibly be dated to 367–366 bce with the passing of the tribunician leges Liciniae Sextiae and the simultaneous creation of the urban praetor in that year. Consequently, the 5th and early 4th centuries bce could be seen as a time of institutional experimentation. It is possible that a single magistrate—or, alternatively, a double magistracy with unequal powers for the two colleagues—replaced the king at the beginning of the Republic. Perhaps this single magistrate was a dictator, or the praetor maximus whom Livy refers to in one passage as “an archaic institution” (7.3.5). Ancient sources also mention the ephemeral government, in 451–450 bce, of the decemvirs, who were charged with putting in writing the laws in the so-called Twelve Tables, and the military tribunes with consular power whose rule apparently alternated with that of the consuls in the second half of the 5th century and the first third of the 4th.

During the history of the Republic, even as most of the other offices were shared by more and more individuals, the number of consuls remained unaltered, which increased rivalry and competition within the ranks of the aristocracy. The two consuls were elected each year in the centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata), in a meeting normally summoned and presided over by one of the current consuls or, exceptionally, by a dictator, interrex or, in the Early Republic, a military tribune with consular power. Plebeian consuls were few in the 5th century, and only in 367 bce did a Licinian plebiscite (see Licinius Stolo, C.) call for the election of at least one plebeian consul. This became regular after 342, and the first entirely plebeian collegium held office in 172. The consulship was always the highest annual magistracy, but it was only when the cursus honorum was fixed by the lex Villia Annalis in 180 bce that a minimum age for the consulship was established: thereafter, no one under the age of forty-two was eligible for the consulship. This age limit was confirmed in 81 bce by a law enacted by the dictator Sulla. The consulship could be held more than once. It became increasingly usual after the 3rd century bce that the imperium of the consuls was prorogued following the expiration of their offices: the ex-consuls then became promagistrates (pro consule) and as such each governed one of the provinces of the empire. As the culmination of a political career—except in cases where the censorship was subsequently attained (see censor)—the consulship always enjoyed great social importance, and elite individuals and families used it as symbolic capital in their self-representation, as for example in funeral orations (see laudatio funebris). When consuls left office, they became consulars and as such held a position of prestige in the senate and in Roman society more generally.

The two consuls carried out their functions under the principle of collegiality (see collegium), and each consul had the power to veto (via intercessio) his colleague as well as inferior magistrates. When a sitting consul died, a substitute was elected in his place as suffect consul (consul suffectus) for the remainder of his term of office. Consuls were eponymous magistrates, whose names were used to establish the official chronology of Rome. However, the date when consuls took office varied substantially throughout the Republican period, and consequently the consular year did as well. During the 5th and 4th centuries, there does not seem to have been a fixed date for the beginning of the consular year, since the sources give very different dates for the assumption of office by the consuls. These dates are generally in the second half of the calendar year. On the basis of the dates of Roman triumphs, Mommsen suggested that from the beginning of the 3rd century the consuls began to enter office on a fixed date, namely the Kalends of May. If this hypothesis is correct, it is only from that moment that we can properly speak of the consulship as an annual magistracy. Previously, consuls sometimes remained in office for more or less than a year, presumably according to the needs of the moment. From 217 bce, at any rate, the consular year began on the Ides of March, and a crucial change occurred in 153 bce: beginning in that year new consuls took office on the first day of January (Livy Per. 47).

The inauguration of the new consuls was always accompanied by a series of rituals which they had to perform. First, there were propitiatory religious ceremonies: the taking of auspices, the sacrifice of two oxen, and the taking of public vows (vota publica; see votum) on the Capitolium for the welfare of the community. Once these religious duties had been successfully fulfilled, the two consuls attended the first senatorial session of the consular year in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitolium. The consuls delivered speeches, after which there was a debate on the political situation of the res publica in both the political and military spheres. Specific practical issues were also generally resolved in that first meeting, such as the allocation of provinces to the two consuls (see provincia/province) and the troops that each was to command. The two consuls separately carried out the recruitment (dilectus) of these troops in the following weeks.

As the date that the consuls entered office changed, so did the date that consular elections were held. Throughout most of the history of the Republic, the election of new consuls took place at the end of the consular year, only a few weeks or even days before the designated consuls took office. The consul who was to conduct the elections was determined either by drawing lots or by mutual agreement of the two current consuls. In the late Republic, when consuls took office on January 1, elections were held months earlier, usually in July or August, and this changed the political role played by the consuls-elect (consules designati). When speaking in the senate, consuls-elect were given priority over the sitting consuls and the consulars (Cic. Phil. 5.35). This priority was not simply honorary, since through their intervention elected consuls could focus the debate in one direction and influence its outcome. It is possible that consuls-elect also had the power to issue edicts (Cass. Dio 40.66.2–3), as well as the power to call a popular assembly (contio), preside over it, and speak before the people (potestas contionandi). Ultimately, giving institutional visibility to consuls-elect facilitated a fluid transition of power from one consular year to the next and helped maintain continuity of government within the res publica.

Until the 1st century bce, consuls were first and foremost the chief commanders of the Roman army (imperatores) under the authority of the senate, and as such they were the leading actors in the imperial expansion of Rome. According to Polybius (6.12.1–9), the power of the consuls in the field was virtually unlimited. What was mainly expected from consuls was a demonstration of their military abilities, by means of which they could increase their popularity and, possibly, receive a triumph (triumphus) on their return—usually, from the 2nd century bce, after a prorogation of their mandate as proconsuls. Consequently, the presence of consuls at Rome was of a limited and seasonal nature: after completing their civil duties, consuls would leave the city to lead their troops and fight in different theatres of war: Italy in the early centuries of the Republic, and later anywhere in the Mediterranean. During the 3rd and especially during the 2nd century bce, it was not uncommon for consuls to spend only a few weeks in the city before departing to take command of their respective armies: their battlefield exploits were essential to Roman expansion but, paradoxically, for much of their term of office the most powerful Roman magistrates did not take part in the everyday administration of Rome.

Nonetheless, consuls carried out important civil functions when they were present at Rome. Firstly, they assumed the role of guardians (curatores) of the peace that the Roman community continually sought to maintain with its gods (pax deorum). Consequently, it was they—and not members of the priestly colleges (priests)—who had to perform certain rituals that concerned the res publica. They had to perform the rituals prescribed by the senate to expiate the prodigies that had been observed and officially acknowledged in previous months, and they were expected to fix the date for the celebration of the Feriae Latinae and preside over this Latin festival in the Mons Albanus (see Latini). A consul might not leave the city to lead his legions until he had carried out properly all these ceremonies. In the first weeks of their mandate, the consuls also took charge of diplomatic activities in accordance with the guidelines of the senate. They were commissioned to welcome foreign ambassadors who arrived in Rome and were authorised to speak in the senate. The consuls had to be present at any session in which ambassadors spoke, and were then required to inform the ambassadors of the relevant decisions that the senate had subsequently taken. In addition, consuls were occasionally required by the senate to conduct an investigation (quaestio) into a matter of public interest, as happened with the religious rituals of the Bacchanalia in 186 bce (Livy 39.8–19; CIL I 196 = I2 581, X 104 = ILS 18 = ILLRP 511). Furthermore, consuls promoted the construction of many roads in Italy, particularly during the 2nd century bce, and most of the temples erected in Rome during the Middle Republic were sponsored by consuls, as fulfillment of vows made to the gods in exchange for victories in battle.

Other duties of the consul included, in addition to calling and presiding over annual elections, the appointment of a dictator on those occasions when the senate had made the decision to create this extraordinary office. Consuls always had the power to issue edicts and enact laws, but until the 1st century bce they did so only sporadically. In general, the consular laws that were promulgated during the Republic seem to have been senatorial decisions, the consuls acting as the senate’s instruments and complying with its recommendations regarding such issues as declarations of war, Roman citizens’ right of appeal (provocatio), the organisation of the courts (see quaestiones), the granting of Roman citizenship, and efforts to fight corruption. When consuls were present in Rome, they could convene the senate and preside over its meetings. They could also summon popular assemblies (contiones) and deliver speeches before the people.

During the 1st century bce, the role played by consuls changed. According to Mommsen, a supposed lex Cornelia de provinciis ordinandis allegedly denied consuls military command and forced them to stay at Rome for the whole consular year. Only after the end of their consulship would they have been granted command of a province as proconsuls. This alleged law is, however, never mentioned in the ancient sources and no such law of the sort imagined by Mommsen seems to have existed: consuls were neither stripped of their imperium nor prohibited from leaving Rome to rule their provinces during their consular year. In practice, however, all consuls in the post-Sullan period remained at Rome either for their entire year in office (examples include Pompey in 70 bce, Cicero in 63 bce, and Caesar in 59 bce) or at least for most of it. Those who departed for their provinces while they were still consuls always did so after the elections, which were usually held in summer, and those for whom we have specific departure dates left Rome between October and December. Therefore, while consuls in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce spent only a few weeks at Rome, in the 1st century their presence in the city was much longer and more significant, with a consequent modification of their institutional role. Consuls never ceased to have the right of military command but many did not exercise it during their year in office. Thus, consuls no longer played the important military role they had in previous centuries. Meanwhile their political role and civil duties increased substantially and became the primary or sole arena in which they could distinguish themselves.

In the 1st century bce, consuls continued to perform the same civil functions as before (religious and diplomatic duties, organisation and conduct of elections) while the number of consular laws increased noticeably (Caesar’s activities in 59 bce provide a good instance of this), but the consuls never produced as much legislation as the tribunes of the plebs (see tribuni plebis). It was, however, to the consuls, its institutional right-hand men, that the senate turned in the event of a crisis within Rome: on most occasions when the “ultimate decree of the senate” (senatus consultum ultimum) was invoked during the Late Republic, it was the consuls who were responsible for defending the state and restoring order in accordance with the proclamation “let the consuls see to it that the republic suffer no harm” (videant consules ne res publica detrimenti capiat). At any rate, the main difference with respect to previous centuries was that consuls could (and had to) involve themselves in the day-to-day practicalities of Roman politics: they passed edicts when necessary, spoke regularly in the senate and before the people in contiones, and took part in trials as defenders or accusers. In short, consuls during the 1st century were expected to be the most visible political leaders at the centre-stage of Roman politics: the predominant military role of previous centuries gave way to the “politicisation” of the consulship.

The political scene radically changed when the tribunician lex Titia sanctioned the creation of the Triumvirate (see triumviri) on November 27, 43 bce. During the Triumviral period, the fading of Republican freedom (libertas) was accompanied by the end of consular independence as the ground was prepared for the advent of the Principate. The Triumvirate—Lepidus, Marcus Antonius, and the young Caesar—was an extraordinary and temporary office possessing the same imperium as the consulship (App. B Civ. 4.7); in practice, however, the triumvirs exercised their imperium over the consuls throughout the period: the triumvirs had the real power and under their rule the consulship became a subsidiary office.

The subordination of the consuls to the triumvirs, and the subsequent depreciation of the consulship, had a great deal to do with the appointment of consules suffecti every year between 40 and 31 bce. In fact, a permanent system in which suffect consuls were nominated every year was created in 39 (Cass. Dio 48.35.1). Thereafter, several consuls were designated each year, two of them ordinarii at the beginning of the year, the others suffecti, whose number increased throughout the period: there were in total six consuls in 34 and eight in 33. In fact, the consulship lost its annual character, given that it became unusual during the Triumvirate for a consul to remain in office for a whole year: instead, consuls remained in office for only a few months, some of them for only a few weeks. Additionally, the consuls of this era—most of whom did not meet the legal age or career requirements for holding the office—were not elected by the people in comitia and were nominated several years in advance by the triumvirs according to their personal interests and as a means of rewarding supporters and encouraging loyalty; this dependence of the choice of consuls on the will of the triumvirs served to emphasise the inferiority of the consulship. Nevertheless, consuls continued to fulfil their traditional duties and functions in day-to-day politics: they issued edicts, spoke to the people in assemblies, intervened in senate debates, and performed their religious tasks.

The title of consul continued to exist throughout the empire and into Late Antiquity, but after Augustus the office lost most of its significance. In the Augustan period the most important changes occurred in the consuls' subordination of consuls to the princeps as the new head of the state. The consular imperium came to be part of the emperor’s powers regardless of its prior association with the office of consul. The consulship definitively lost the political power that it had enjoyed in the Republic, and the functions of the consuls were redefined, but consuls still maintained social prestige in the context of Augustus’s alleged restoration of the res publica as part of his propaganda programme.

Under the Principate, the consuls remained the eponymous magistrates, and holding the consulship continued to be an honour and a means by which to progress to higher levels of the imperial administration, but consuls were deprived of their military powers and even of most of the civil functions they had performed during the Republic. Two consules ordinarii—sometimes the emperors themselves or persons proposed by them—gave their names to the year, but some suffect consuls were usually appointed as substitutes every year as well. With the suppression of the centuriate assembly and popular election, the emperors either recommended the candidates (see commendatio) or held the office themselves. The Republican age limits were often ignored, as emperors’ relatives were granted the consulship regardless of their age: even children might become consuls, and thus Honorius was made consul immediately upon his birth in 384 ce. When the Roman Empire was divided into two halves after the death of Theodosius I at the end of the 4th century ce, the emperor of each half obtained the right to appoint one of the consuls. The consulship lapsed in the 6th century under Justinian I.

Figure 2. Diptych of Anicus Petronius Probus, consul in 406 ce, depicting emperor Honorius.

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