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Two-headed Rome – about Roman consuls and their election

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman in a toga, in the position of an orator
Roman in a toga, in the position of an orator. Although this sculpture found in Herculaneum actually depicts only a freedman, it is also proof of the prestige emanating from the image of a speaking Roman politician. Archaeological Museum of Naples. | Photo: Michał Kubicz

During the Republic, consuls were the highest state officials elected by a popular assembly called centurial committees (comitia centuriata). The election of consuls was the most important day in the Roman political calendar. When the empire later came, the office of consul became an honorary title, and centurial commissions died out. How did this happen?

Consuls were traditionally elected annually for one-year terms. The electoral process formally had a certain democratic character, although, of course, with limitations typical of the ancient era: in centurial committees, only free male citizens could vote in the consul elections, and a certain group without any property was deprived of voting rights.

However, from the very beginning, back in the times of the Republic, the democratic nature of elections was only an illusion, as the electoral system was constructed in such a way that it gave a huge advantage to the richest layers of society. First of all, the votes were not equal – citizens cast their votes in groups called centuria, and in the end each centuria had one vote. The election was won by the one who gained the majority of votes from all centuries. In other words, the choice was basically made not by citizens, but by centuries. Therefore, it was de facto a system of indirect elections in which someone who did not have a majority of citizens’ votes could win. A situation could easily arise as in the case of the last American presidential elections, in which a candidate became president who received fewer votes than his competitor across the country. In Rome, this effect was further intensified by the way centuria were organized: citizens were de facto grouped in them depending on their financial status. Although wealthy citizens were a minority, they were gathered in a larger number of centuries. The voice of the poor, although they were the largest social group, was expressed by a small number of centuries. Therefore, the weight of votes was not the same. In practice, the division into centuries was constructed in such a way that the centuries bringing together the richest citizens, if they acted unanimously, were always able to push through their candidate.

If anything worked to the advantage of the poorest layers of Roman society in this unjust system, it was the divisiveness of the Roman aristocracy. Since various competing nobles competed for the position of consul, the vote of the centuria representing the plebs was sometimes decisive.

The choices of Roman officials could be relatively easily controlled, which made it even easier for the aristocracy to obtain the desired result. This example shows the advantage of modern electoral systems over their Roman equivalent. Well, voting always took place on a designated day, in a specific place (only in Rome!) and was only possible in person. So although in Italy and in the provinces the group of people entitled to vote was very large, in practice, due to the travel costs and time that had to be devoted to it, only a small number of eligible people actually participated in the elections. There were no more than a few thousand citizens. So you can imagine that with turnout being literally a fraction of a percent, the ways the powerful could influence poor voters were almost endless.

This explains another feature of Roman elections – their susceptibility to abuse of all kinds. The stakes in the game were so high that any tricks were allowed. The candidates went so far as to corrupt entire groups of voters, and if the risk of defeat was too great, they did not hesitate to start riots to prevent them from voting.

As time passed, the system degenerated more and more. At the end of the Republic, one of the most powerful men of that time, Pompey the Great (Caesar’s famous rival), was said to have a list not only of previous consuls but also of future ones. Even for his contemporaries, it was no secret that the influential Pompey could manipulate the election results.

Note that the phenomenon of election manipulation became so widespread and obvious that during the civil wars preceding the fall of the Republic, warring politicians simply agreed among themselves in ad hoc alliances who would become consul and when.

The decline in the importance of the electoral process went hand in hand with the decline in the importance of the consulate itself. When, after the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus concluded an agreement called the second triumvirate, they de facto decided that from now on the position of triumvir (a completely extra-political function) would be above the office of consul. This approach sealed the fate of the consulate as the highest Roman office. The consuls never regained their former republican rank and prestige.

Interestingly, regardless of the fact that the function of consuls became dwarfed and the office itself became the subject of ordinary political negotiations, throughout this time consuls were still formally elected by the above-mentioned centurial commissions. However, during the civil wars, popular assemblies and the electoral process became mere shells.

When the Republic fell and the Empire came into being, Octavian (Emperor Augustus) rebuilt the state system, adapting it to the new realities, but formally left both the function of the consuls and their election by centurial commissions intact. But it was only a semblance of democracy (even in its ancient, limited version that we saw during the Republic). Augustus granted himself the right to recommend specific candidates for the position of consul. So he actually indicated who he supported. The emperor’s enormous wealth, network of influence, and tools to put pressure on voters were so great that it was virtually impossible for voters to support someone who did not have Augustus’ recommendation. Taking advantage of the fortune stolen from the Egyptian Ptolemies and the mixing of his private and state property, the emperor was able to distribute money, goods and favors on an unprecedented scale, corrupting those entitled to vote. In fact, Augustus used exactly the same methods of influencing the election results that he had known from the last years of the Republic. The difference was that then, despite all their efforts, the rivalry of the great families made the election results unpredictable. In the new reality, when the emperor had no one who could compete with him in wealth, authority and strength (political and military), there could always be only one result of the elections. This leads to a certain paradox. Since formally the function of de jure emperor was not a specific office, but only a conglomeration of various powers collected by Augustus during his long reign, it can be said that the outcome of the elections of consuls – formally still the highest officials of the state – began to be decided by a man who publicly claimed that he is only the “first senator.”

The voters gathered in the centurial committees quickly stopped seeing the point in voting contrary to Augustus’s recommendation. The elections therefore became only a formality leading to the legal approval of the choice that had previously been made by Augustus each time. The fact that the centurial committees were marginalized is best demonstrated by the fact that the large electoral square, which was started by Julius Caesar on the Campus Martius (right next to the Pantheon, built much later) and completed by Augustus, in practice ultimately served completely different purposes.

Somewhere towards the end of the reign of Augustus or at the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, even this pretense was finally abandoned, and the right to elect consuls passed to the Senate. It didn’t matter much, because senators always voted in accordance with the emperor’s will. However, it was a highly symbolic change: it showed both the collapse of the appearance of the former republic, the collapse of the quasi-democratic institution, which was originally the centurial committees, and finally the collapse of the consulate itself. The office of consul – the former “double head” of the Roman state – became only an honorary title, the achievement of which gave the great Roman families less and less luster.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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