While ancient Rome is perhaps most famous for its often despotic and flamboyant emperors, for the majority of its classical past Rome did not function as an empire, but instead as a republic.
As Rome’s influence spread across the Mediterranean, the sprawling network of provinces were governed by a litany of bureaucrats and officials. Holding public office was a symbol of status and authority, and the ranks of Rome’s administrators were filled with aspiring noblemen, or patricians.
At the top of this hierarchy existed the office of consul – the most influential and powerful figures within the Roman Republic. From 509 to 27 BC, when Augustus became the first true Roman Emperor, the consuls governed Rome through some of its most formative years. But who were these men, and how did they govern?
Two by two
Consuls were elected by the citizen body and always governed in pairs, with each consul holding veto power over the other’s decisions. The two men would have total executive authority over the running of Rome and its provinces, holding office for one full year before both were replaced.
In times of peace, a consul would serve as the highest magistrate, arbitrator, and law maker within Roman society. They had the authority to convene the Roman Senate – the main chamber of government – and served as the republic’s supreme diplomats, often meeting with foreign ambassadors and emissaries.
During wartime, consuls were also expected to lead Rome’s military in the field. In effect, the two consuls were therefore frequently among Rome’s most senior generals and were often at the front line of conflict.
If a consul died during office, which was not uncommon given their military commitments, a replacement would be elected to see out the term of the deceased. Years were also known by the names of the two consuls who had served during that period.
A class-based system
Especially during the early years of the Roman Republic, the pool of men from which the consuls would be chosen was relatively limited. Candidates for the office were expected to have already climbed high within the Roman civil service, and to come from established patrician families.
Common men, known as plebeians, were initially forbidden from seeking appointment as consul. In 367 BC, plebeians were finally allowed to put themselves forward as candidates and in 366 Lucius Sextus was elected as the first consul to come from a plebeian family.
Exceptions to the rules
On occasion, the two consuls would be superseded in their responsibilities by higher authorities, especially in times of extreme need or danger. Most notably, this was in the form of the dictator – a single figure chosen by the consuls to rule for a period of six months in times of crisis.
Candidates for the position of dictator were put forward by the Senate and during a dictator’s premiership the consuls were compelled to follow his leadership.
While consuls only served for one year and were in principal only expected to run for re-election after an interval of ten years, this was frequently ignored. Military reformer Gaius Marius served a total of seven terms as consul, including five consecutively from 104 to 100 BC.
A lifetime of service
Attaining the rank of consul was naturally the pinnacle of a Roman politician’s career and was seen as the final step on the cursus honorem, or ‘course of offices’, that served as the hierarchy of Roman political service.
Age limits imposed on various offices throughout the cursus honorem dictated that a patrician had to be at least 40 years old to be eligible for the consulship, while plebeians needed to be 42. The most ambitious and able politicians would seek to be chosen as consul as soon as they were of age, known as serving suo anno – ‘in his year’.
After their year in office was complete, consuls’ service to the Roman Republic was not over. Instead they were expected to serve as proconsuls – governors responsible for administering one of Rome’s many foreign provinces.
These men were expected to serve for between one and five years and held supreme authority within their own province.
Stripped of power
With the rise of the Roman Empire, consuls were stripped of much of their power. While Rome’s emperors did not abolish the office of consul it became a largely ceremonial post, increasingly vulnerable to corruption and misuse.
Over time convention came to dictate that the ruling emperor would occupy one of the two consular positions, with the other retaining only nominal administrative authority.
Consuls continued to be appointed even beyond the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, with the Pope assuming the right to bestow the title as an honorific. However, the days of the consuls as the architects of Rome’s destiny were long over.
Header image: the Roman Forum. Credit: Carla Tavares / Commons