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Roman consul

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During the reign of Emperor Commodus at the end of the 2nd century CE the consulate was held in one year by over 20 people. This led to serious restrictions on the functions of consuls and a reduction in their importance in the country.
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The consul (consul) was one of the two most senior Roman officials elected by the centurial commission (Comitia Centuriata) on one year term. The name of this position comes from the word consulere, meaning “to convene”.
praetores (“going to the head”) or iudices. The performance of the entrusted function began on August 1, and from 153 BCE. from 1 January. They held their power for 1 year, but each month one of them was in power one by one.

The appointment of the consul’s office is traditionally associated with the establishment of the Republic in 509 BCE. At first, only patricians were consuls. In 444 BCE the tribune Canuleius applied to admit plebeians to the consulate. After fierce disputes, the consulate was agreed to be suspended, and a new office of military tribunes with consular authority (tribuni militum consulari potestate) was introduced in the number from 3 to 8, available to both patricians and plebeians. However, some of the consuls’ powers were transferred to the one established then in 443 BCE. office of censor, accessible only to patricians. This form of government lasted until 366 BCE when, under the lex Licinia Sextia, the election of two consuls was returned, this time from both patricians and plebeians.

The candidate for consul (candidatus – so-called for the shiny white toga – candida toga) had to personally apply to the forum. The consul had to be 43 years old, previously held the offices provided for in the so-called cursus honourum i.e. bursar, edile and pretensions and re-election after the end of the one-year term could only take place after 10 years. In the event of death or resignation from office by one of the consuls, the other was called by a commission that elected the co-opted consul (consul suffectus). The consul, handing over his office to his successor, uttered the following sentence: feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes (“I did what I could, whoever can, let him do better”).

The consuls owned empire maius, which meant the highest military-religious authority within and outside the city. He was the head of all other officials except the people’s tribunes. He had the power to cancel the orders of other officials, and he also had the power to punish non-compliance with the orders made (coercitio). He could summon any citizen to appear (the so-called vocatio), and in the event of refusal, have him arrested and led (the so-called prensio). Their scope of activities was:

  • Controlling the activities of all officials except people’s tribunes.
  • To convene meetings of the senate (ius agendi cum patribus) and popular assemblies (ius agendi cum populo). They chaired their sessions, put motions to the vote and implemented adopted resolutions.
  • Overseeing the implementation of resolutions of the senate and people’s assemblies.
  • Annulment and modification of orders by other officials. The consul could veto his colleague’s decisions (intercedere).
  • Conducting the election of officials.
  • They had the so-called imperium militare (literally “power to fight”), the right to enlist, command and appoint military tribunes, centurions, legates, etc. In the army, the consul had unlimited power of life and death until the 2nd century BCE.
  • Organization of Latin holidays on the Albanian Mountain.
  • Receiving foreign messages.
  • Interpreting the auspices (auspicia), or official divination made by augurs – they could thus decide whether to embark on a war expedition is according to the will of the gods or not.

The power of consuls was, however, subject to several limitations. Within Rome, their power was limited by people’s tribunes, who had veto power over the consuls’ orders. Another limitation was the possibility of appealing against the sentence of death or exile to the people (provocatio ad populum). The institution of dismissal existed from the beginning of the republic, and it was introduced using lex Valeria de provocatione ad populum from 509 BCE. Also, one of the consuls could act against his “colleague” through the mentioned intercesio. At the end of the republic, the consuls were able to achieve special, far-reaching powers under the so-called Senatus consultum ultimum.

The consuls were accompanied by liqueurs in the number of 12. The symbol of the lictors’ power was a bunch of rods (fasces), in which, outside the city walls, an ax (secures), which is a symbol of the consul’s unlimited power, was attached. Other insignia of the consul’s office were: a toga with a wide purple trail (toga praetexta), a curule chair (sella curulis). The consul also had 4 quaestores (quaestores).
After the expiry of his term of office, the ex-consul was assigned the post of proconsul, viceroy of consular provinces, which he won by lot (provincias sortiri).

The surnames of consuls were used for years, e.g. 63 BCE in Rome it was not marked with a number since the founding of Rome, but with the phrase the year of the consulate of Marcus Cicero and Gaius Antony. In Rome, during the republic, the years were dated by the names of consuls. The list of consuls can be reconstructed from the extant lists, the so-called fasti consulares, led by pontiffs.

Empire period

During the empire, the rank of the consulate decreased significantly. During the principate’s early years, consuls were still elected by the centurial commission as in the Republic; in practice, however, it was the emperor who made their appointment, which with time became the rule. Under the principate, their number increased when, alongside the essential pair (consules ordinarii), additional pairs of consuls (consules suffecti) were created, who only held power for a few months.

Various uncertain situations and a multitude of offices, such as in 190 CE during the reign of Emperor Commodus led to the fact that consuls were deprived of power over the army and they no longer had any influence on the state’s policy, gaining in return secondary jurisdictional functions. During the dominance period, the function of the consul became purely honorary. Since the reforms of Constantine the Great, two consuls were still elected, but from then on one in Rome and the other in Constantinople. This rule was quickly broken, however, and there were years when only one part of the empire had a consul.

Consuls were elected even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire until 541 CE, when the Eastern Emperor, Justinian the Great, abolished office.

  • Alfoldy Geza, Historia społeczna starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2003
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1983

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