1902 Encyclopedia > Consul (Ancient Rome)

Consul
(Highest elected political office in ancient Rome)




CONSUL (_____), the highest magistrate of the republic of ancient Rome. It is probable that the word is compounded of con and salio, so that consules signifies those who go together. They were in early times called prcetores, imperatores, or judices.

From the abuse of the power which had been vested in the kings, the Romans were induced not only to expel the hated Tarquins from the city, but even to abolish the monarchical form of government altogether. Brutus and his companions, after the rape of Lucretia, made the people swear that no king should ever again reign at Rome. The state was henceforth ruled by two supreme magistrates called consuls. The consular office was instituted after the expulsion of the kings, 510 B.C., and continued, with few interruptions, till the establishment of the empire—a period of nearly 500 years. The leaders of the revolution which had expelled the kings were first raised to this rank. All the royal insignia were preserved except the crown. Twelve lictors preceded them alternately. The elder of the two, or he who had most children, or who had been first elected, had the fasces first, the other meanwhile being preceded by a public officer called accensus, and followed by the lictors. Sometimes they agreed to enjoy the fasces on alternate days, but generally for alternate months. By the law of Poplicola, the axe was taken from them and their fasces were lowered when they entered the assemblies of the people. A cloak with a scarlet border, and an ivory staff, were badges of their office. On public occasions they used a seat of ornamented ivory called the curule chair.

From the great power which their order originally possessed in the state, the patricians succeeded for a long time in retaining the consulship among themselves. It was not till the year 445 B.C. that the plebeians acquired sufficient courage and strength to make any attempts to acquire the right of being elected to this office. Having once begun the struggle, however, they maintained it for the space of eighty years with a spirit and resolution which made even a foreign war desirable as a relief from internal contests. Livy relates that for five years (375-371 B.C.) the opposition raised by the plebeians, under the guidance of the tribunes L. Licinius Stolo and L. Sextius, was so formidable that neither consuls nor any other magis-trates could be appointed, and there was what he calls a solitudo magistratuum. At length the patricians, after attempting an evasion by the appointment of five military tribunes, were compelled to accede to the Licinian law, by which it was ordained (367 B.C.) that in all time coming one of the consuls should be a plebeian. L. Sextius was the first plebeian consul. But the power which was effec-tual in the passing of the law was not equal to its enforcement, for in 355 B.C. both consuls were patricians ; and, as was often the case with Boman laws, it was found necessary to re-enact it. This time, however, the demands of the plebeians increased ; and not satisfied with having one consul, they tried to add a clause ordaining it to be lawful for the people to elect both consuls from their own number. Although the attempt was successful, no example of the appointment of two plebeian consuls occurs till the year 215 B.C. The honour seems for the most part to have been equally divided between the two orders. The first foreigner who obtained the consulship was Cornelius Balbus, a native of Cadiz, and a man of extraordinary wealth.

The legal age for enjoying the consulship was forty-five ; but this regulation was not strictly observed. Pompey was made consul in his thirty-sixth year, M. Valerius Corvus in his twenty-third, T. Quinctius Flaminius was created consul before he was thirty, Scipio Africanus the Elder at twenty-eight, and the Younger at thirty-eight. It was necessary for candidates to have discharged the inferior duties of quaestor, aedile, and praetor before they were eligible ; and a regulation was made that they should be present at the election in a private capacity. It was also enacted that no one should be made consul a second time till after the lapse of ten years. But we find cases in which all these conditions were disregarded. Some were elected who had not previously borne any curule magistracy; and others were appointed in their absence. Some con-tinued in office more than a year, as Marius, who was seven times consul without intermission; and others were elected before the allotted time had elapsed.





The election of consuls was made by the comitia centuriata in the Campus Martius. The assembly at which they were elected was always convoked and presided over by a consul, dictator, or interrex. It generally took place in the month of July, that an opportunity might be afforded for investigating the conduct of the successful candidates before they entered on their office, and that they might have time to become conversant with their duties. From their appointment to the day of their in-duction they were called consules designati, or consuls elect, and had the privilege of being first asked their opinion in the senate. The day upon which they assumed office was repeatedly changed. It seems originally to have been the Ides of September, when, in the rude days of Boman history, the consuls used annually to fix a nail in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus to mark the year; but as it sometimes happened, when one died before the term of his office had expired, that another was immediately chosen to fill his place, the year of his successor was naturally finished before the usual time, and this necessitated a repeated change in the days of their appointment and induction. Sometimes, too, civil commotions prevented the election taking place at the usual time. As the consul whose year was completed could not in such cases discharge any of the consular duties, it was customary for the senate to nominate a temporary magistrate called interrex. His authority being limited to five days, a succession of interreges had frequently to be chosen before tranquillity was restored. At length (154 B.C.) it was enacted that consuls and all the ordinary magistrates, with the exception of the tribunes of the people, should begin their duties on the 1st of January. That day was marked by peculiar solemnities. At day-break the consuls arose and consulted the auspices. After-wards the senate and people waited upon them at their houses, and then, with the new magistrates clad in their state robes at their head, they all marched in solemn procession to the capitol. There victims were offered,! and prayers presented for the safety and prosperity of the Roman people. After the conclusion of the religious rites a meeting of the senate was held, and the new consuls first exercised their functions by consulting it about the per-formance of religious ceremonies. Within five days after their induction they were obliged to swear, as they had done at their election, that they would strictly observe the laws ; and at the close of their consulship they were required to take a similar oath declaring that they had done nothing contrary to the constitution.

The power of the consuls appears at first to have been similar to that of the kings; but in process of time several distinctions arose which combined to render the consular authority inferior to the regal. The office of high priest, which had been discharged by the kings, was in the time of the consulship executed by a special magistrate, called rex sacrorum, or rex sacrificulus. The power of life and death was afterwards denied to the consuls, and the symbolic axe removed from the fasces. While there was only one king, there were two consuls. The obvious design of the Romans in dividing the consulship was that their power might be weakened, and the safety of the people made more secure by the resistance which the ambitious designs of the one would receive from the other. For the same reason they elected them annually, and thus prevented that insolence of authority which the long continuation of it is apt to produce. They were restrained from illegal measures still further by fear of punishment when their term of office had expired; for the people had reserved to themselves the right of bringing them to trial for misconduct. The Valerian law weakened their authority by decreeing that no magistrate should scourge or put to death a Roman citizen who appealed to the people. Even the decision of one consul could be repealed by the other. But it was the creation of the tribunes of the people that especially con-tributed to limit their prerogatives, and strengthen the cause of liberty. And as additional magistracies were instituted, many of their old privileges were taken from them. Their judicial power was transferred to the praetors, and their censorial to the censors, while other duties originally discharged by them devolved upon sediles and other new magistrates.

But notwithstanding these limitations, the power of the consuls was at all times very great. As civil magistrates they were at the head of the government, and all others, with the exception of the tribunes of the people, were sub-ject to them. They assembled and presided over the senate and comitia centuriata; they introduced subjects of deliberation, proposed laws, and executed the decrees of both senate and people. The laws proposed by them generally received their name. The year was called after them. They gave audience to embassies, and communicated with other states. Before the establishment of the praetor-ship and censorship, they discharged the highest judicial functions, and superintended the assessment of the citizens. They had the right of summoning and enforcing the presence of any one they pleased. Every person was bound to turn out of the way, dismount, rise up, uncover the head, or show some similar token of respect, on passing them.





The consul Acilius ordered the curule chair of the praetor Lucullus to be broken in pieces for a breach of this regula-tion. As military commanders they had absolute authority. They had the power of life and death over the lives of their soldiers ; and accordingly they had axes in their fasces when in the field. When any great danger threatened the state the consuls were invested by the senate with extra-ordinary powers, which made them supreme in the city as well as out of it. Accordingly, in the early days of the republic, when the patricians were in sole possession of the consulship, and wished to subdue any outbreak of the plebeians, they feigned that some powerful enemy was marching against the city, and thus succeeded in obtaining extraordinary powers for the consuls.

After the consuls had resigned their office, they were commissioned by the senate to assume the government of provinces under the title of proconsuls. It was the prerogative of the senate to determine the provinces for the consuls, although it was left to themselves to decide by lot or agreement which of them each should receive. When the time arrived for a proconsul to set out for his province, he was furnished by the senate with the troops appointed for him, and everything requisite for his command. Surrounded by a train of friends, and a numerous personal staff, he marched out of the city with great pomp. He was bound to travel direct to his province ; and the towns through which he passed had to supply him with necessaries for his journey. Within his province he had the command of the troops, and could employ them as he pleased. He was supreme judge both in criminal and in civil causes, and could inflict the punishment of death—except on Roman citizens, who could appeal to Rome. Justice was generally administered at circuit courts, held once a y ear in the principal towns. The proconsulship continued likewise for one year only, but it was often prolonged by a decree of the senate.

Under the empire the consuls were superseded by the emperors. The title, indeed, remained, and all the cere-monies were performed with exactness, and perhaps even with more magnificence than formerly. It would seem as if they attempted to conceal the loss of real power by the trappings of external pomp. The day of their induction was even more than ever a day of note in the city. Sitting on curule chairs, which were placed on lofty chariots, arrayed in rich dresses in imitation of those which used to be worn by generals in a triumph, with shoes of cloth of gold upon their feet and sceptres in their hands, they passed through the city, scattering money among the crowd, and bestowing gifts upon their friends. Their first duty, however, no longer consisted in consulting the senate about the religious duties of the state, but in formally returning thanks to the emperor for their election. The emperors had arrogated the right of assuming the consul-ship to themselves, or disposing of it as they thought proper. Julius Caesar was dictator and consul at the same time. Augustus made himself consul thirteen times during his reign. Vespasian proclaimed himself perpetual consul. A.nd in bestowing it upon others, the emperors were not content with having one pair of consuls for one year. Desirous to conciliate as many of their friends as possible, they greatly shortened the duration of the office. It was held, generally for two months, which allowed twelve con-suls during one year. But sometimes it lasted only a few weeks, a few days, or even a few hours, according to the pleasure of the emperor. There happened to be twenty-five consuls in the year 189 A.D. But those who entered upon their office on the 1st of January were held in greater respect, and gave their names to the year. They were called, as in the time of the republic, consides ordinarii : while those who were raised to the office at other times were termed consides suffecti, or cónsules minores.

While the republic lasted, the time that elapsed between the election and ordination of consuls was short, generally from July to January. In the time of the emperors, ordination was sometimes deferred several years. The triumvirs in 39 B.C. nominated consuls for eight succeed-ing years. In this way the title of désignais was frequently-enjoyed long before the actual consulship. Caius, the grandson of Augustus, was consul designatus for five years. Nero was fourteen years old when he was nominated consul designatus, and twenty when he became consul.

Besides these different kinds of consuls, all of which existed in the republic, we find another class peculiar to the later days of the empire—honorary consuls. These enjoyed the titles and badges of consuls, but nothing more. They possessed their honours, though altogether free from their duties. All the consuls, in truth, during the period of which we speak, may with propriety be termed honorary, for the substance of their power had been taken from them. They had become the mere slaves of the emperors, although they still continued the formal discharge of their functions. Nevertheless, even in this degraded condition, the consul-ship was always regarded with veneration, and considered the highest dignity to which a Roman citizen could aspire.




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