Consul: Apex of the Republic

The Position of Consul was the apex political position in the Roman Republic. Through this position a person dictated how Rome would function and respond. It was the final office of the Cursus Honorum. Reserved for the most experienced of men in the Republic, or exceptional figures or lucky (during times of crisis), Consulship had a lot of power, responsibilities and perks. Many Consuls of Rome have their names etched in history.

The legal (but at times ignored and towards the end, largely ignored) requirements of running for Consulship were to be a member of senate and be the age of 42 for Plebeians and 40 for Patricians. There was a 3 year legal age gap between the minimum age for Praetorship and Consulship. While it is generally expected to serve as a Quaestor and Praetor, there have been examples of a Quaestor directly being elected as a Consul. Some men were elected before the legal required age of 42. Prominent examples include Scipio Africanus, Pompey the Great.

Following a term in office, the consuls would be assigned to govern one of the frontier provinces of Rome, as a Proconsul. Since Consuls wielded a lot of power, there was rule to prevent accumulation of power. Consuls could only stand again for election, 10 years after their previous consulship. This was ignored during emergency times (such as the 2nd Punic War, Sulla-Marius conflicts) or blatantly ignored in the dying days of the Republic.

Once elected, the consuls were equal in power. However, they took turns in leading the government. The consul who was first to be elected (thereby considered more popular) took the lead for the first month. Then the other consul took the lead for the second month. This would alternate till their time in office was done. Taking the lead was termed as ‘holding fasces‘.


The duties of the Consuls were divided into military and civil duties.

Civil duties of the Consuls.

To get this out of the way, the consuls were the chief judges of Rome. however, as mentioned in my Praetor’s article, this function was then given to the Praetors to free the consuls of the burden. Consuls only adjudicated on an issue if it was serious enough to warrant their attention, or by senatorial decree. Within the city, Consuls were the head of state. Every magistrate was subordinated to them. They had the rights to summon and arrest anyone (but the accused had a right of appeal). They were responsible for carrying out senatorial and assembly decrees.

The Consuls were the chief diplomats as well. When any ambassador came to Rome, they’d meet the consuls, who would be the only ones involved in the negotiations. They also had the power to summon and preside over the meetings in the senate. More importantly, they had a VETO power in every decision, and thus had a lot of legislative influence. Successful legislation therefore hinged on consuls being in joint agreement. Consuls had some religious duties, as they could declare days of holidays, thanks or call out omens. On such days, no official business could take place.

Consuls, would also conduct the elections for the next years magistrates and could cast their vote in matters of tie breaks. Elections tended to happen in around July of the year, but office was changed in January of the following year.
Should the need arise, consuls could appoint a dictator to serve as the supreme commander for a period of 6 months.

Military Duties of the Consuls

When heading to war, the Consuls would be given command of the legions. A consular army was typically 2 Roman and 2 Allied legions. That’s around 20,000 men. As the Republic grew, so did the size of the armies. When war was declared, the Consuls got to supervise the mustering of the forces. These men would then swear an oath of allegiance to the consul and Rome. They generally had separate armies. If the army marched together (like Cannae), the consuls alternated command by the day.


On the field, they had imperium and the authority to inflict capital punishment on anyone they deem fit. There was no right to appeal when in the field. The consuls could campaign in any way they seem fit. They were expected to lead the forces, win glory and loot. A successful war could lead to a triumph back in Rome. Since Wars in the late republic tended to last longer, Consuls might be continually elected to allow them to campaign, or are given proconsular powers, so as not to interrupt the fighting.

Perks of the Job

With the job, came a lot of perks. Firstly, a consul was escorted by 12 lictors, each having a fasces. A true showcase of power. Secondly, within the city they were able to set agenda and really do as they please. Consuls had imperium during office and when in the field. This meant they were immune from legal prosecution. The best perquisite of the job was the Proconsular-ship awarded at the end of the term. As a proconsul, they had command of a frontier province with a larger garrison of forces. Once again, within that province, their word was law. The last perk was to be having the year named after you. The Romans had each year named after the consuls in power (this would not apply to suffect consuls). ‘J. Caesar et M. Bibulus consulibus‘, translated as ‘in the consulship of Julius Caesar and Marcus Bibulus‘. However with regards to that example, since Bibulus was non-existent in his consulship, it’s joking referred to the year as ‘In the consulship of Julius and Caesar’.
While not a direct perk of the job, consuls and ex-consuls were respected. During senatorial meetings, debates, etc., there was an order of speaking. The consul holding fasces spoke first, followed by the other sitting consul and then ex-consuls. Their word had a lot of weightage in swaying the vote of the senate.

Consular Examples

Now, some prominent Roman Consuls, who during their time in this office made large reforms or dealt with major events. It is true, all of them cannot be named though.

Gaius Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman of the Republic had 5 stints as Consul. Admittedly, only one of his consulships came before his war with Pompey. However during his consulship in 59BCE, he passed some massive legislation. The first was the land reform bill, which passed in a not completely legal manner as per Roman procedure, but was welcomed nonetheless. He also helped fulfill obligations to his fellow Triumvirs, Pompey and Crassus. He also proposed and passed a second land reform bill. As a first, he was also the first consul to be given 3 provinces for a period of 5 years.


“Caesar’s very first enactment after becoming consul was, that the proceedings both of the senate and of the people should day by day be compiled and published. He also revived a by-gone custom, that during the months when he did not have the fasces an orderly should walk before him, while the lictors followed him. He brought forward an agrarian law too, and when his colleague announced adverse omens, he resorted to arms and drove him from the Forum; and when next day Bibulus made complaint in the senate and no one could be found who ventured to make a motion, or even to express an opinion about so high-handed a proceeding (although decrees had often been passed touching less serious breaches of the peace), Caesar’s conduct drove him to such a pitch of desperation, that from that time until the end of his term he did not leave his house, but merely issued proclamations announcing adverse omens.
 From that time on Caesar managed all the affairs of state alone and after his own pleasure; so that sundry witty fellows, pretending by way of jest to sign and seal testamentary documents, wrote “Done in the consulship of Julius and Caesar,” instead of “Bibulus and Caesar,” writing down the same man twice, by name and by surname. Presently too the following verses were on everyone’s lips:—
“In Caesar’s year, not Bibulus’, an act took place of late;
For naught do I remember done in Bibulus’ consulate.”
-Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars

Marcus Tullus Cicero,  was a new man in the Roman elite circles. After making a name for himself in the courts of law, he distinguished himself in the senate, following the Cursus Honorum path to the letter. During his consulship, he had to deal with the Catiline Conspiracy. It was an attempt by Lucius Sergius Catilina and his allies to overthrow the Republic. Cicero managed to prevent the plot from escalating.



Lucius Catilina, who had twice been defeated during consular elections, conspired with praetor Lentulus, Cethegus and many others. They wanted to kill the consuls and senators, set fire to the city, and overthrow the republic. Their army was ready in Etruria. The conspiracy was suppressed by the energy of Marcus Tullius Cicero. When Catilina had been expelled from the city, the other conspirators were executed.
– Book 102, History of Rome from its beginning by Livy

Gaius Marius was an important individual who would permanently alter Rome. He was not a born patrician. Marius was a new man to the Roman senate, but one whose name will be remembered for various reasons. He became consul an unprecedented 7 times, including 5 consecutive periods between the years 104BCE-100BCE. As consul, he would end the Jugarthine war, fight a gothic invasion of Northern Italy, reform the legions into the more effective fighting force that would dominate for centuries and would plunge Rome into a civil war against his former subordinate and rival, Sulla. His ascent to power made the Julia family prominent once again. This would be beneficial for Caesar’s rise to power around 25 years after his death.


He was triumphantly elected, and at once began to levy troops. Contrary to law and custom he enlisted many a poor and insignificant man, although former commanders had not accepted such persons, but bestowed arms, just as they would any other honour, only on those whose property assessment made them worthy to receive these, each soldier being supposed to put his substance in pledge to the state. 2 It was not this, however, that brought most odium upon Marius, but the boldly insolent and arrogant speeches with which he vexed the nobles, crying out that he had carried off the consulship as spoil from the effeminacy of the rich and well-born, and that he had wounds upon his own person with which to vaunt himself before the people, not monuments of the dead nor likenesses of other men

Learning of these things from many quarters, the Romans summoned Marius to the command. And he was appointed consul for the second time, although the law forbade that a man in his absence and before the lapse of a specified time should be elected again; still, the people would not listen to those who opposed the election. For they considered that this would not be the first time that the law had given way before the demands of the general good, and that the present occasion demanded it no less imperatively than when they had made Scipio consul contrary to the laws, although at that time they were not fearful of losing their own city, but desirous of destroying that of the Carthaginians

Tidings of this were brought to Rome and helped in no small degree to secure for Marius his third consulship; at the same time, too, the Barbarians were expected in the spring, and the Romans were unwilling to risk battle with them under any other general. However, the Barbarians did not come as soon as they were expected, and once more the period of Marius’s consulship expired. 7 As the consular elections were at hand, and as his colleague in the office had died, Marius left Manius Aquillius in charge of the forces and came himself to Rome. Here many men of great merit were candidates for the consulship, but Lucius Saturninus, who had more  p501 influence with the people than any other tribune, was won over by the flattering attentions of Marius, and in his harangues urged the people to elect Marius consul

-Plutarch and the Life of Marius

Some prominent Romans who served as Consuls were Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (5 times), Titus Quincitus Flamininus (1 time), Marcus Claudius Marcellus (5 times and the last Roman commander to kill a king in battle in the 3rd Century BCE), Marcus Lincius Crassus (2 times), Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (3 times), Lucius Cornelius Cinna (4 times), Scipio Aemilianus (2 times) and Scipio Africanus (2 times).

However, after the consolidation of the Second Triumvirate and the eventual victory of the Octavian faction, the office became largely ceremonial in nature, but the attached prestige still remained. Octavian had himself elected Consul 13 times, and most years his allies would be elected as Consuls, step down and other allies of the family would be elected as suffer Consuls.

Consulship was the apex of any political career. Not many served multiple terms, the one term as Consul was enough for anyone to make a significant change on the Republic. The growth, expansion and eventual transition of the Republic to the Empire was influenced immensely by few select individuals.

Officially speaking, the Cursus Honorum ended with a term as Consul as an individual had successfully ascended all steps in the Political ladder. Most men would serve their term as proconsul and then return as Senators. There was an optional post of Censor which was available for older members of the senate.

The next article will look at the Governors of the provinces, either as a propraetor or proconsul.

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