1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Consul (Roman)

CONSUL (in Gr. generally ὕπατος, a shortened form of στρατηγὸς ὕπατος, i.e. praetor maximus), the title borne by the two highest of the ordinary magistrates of the whole Roman community during the republic. In the imperial period these magistrates had ceased practically to be the heads of the state, but their technical position remained unaltered. (For the modern commercial office of consul see the separate article below.)

The consulship arose with the fall of the ancient monarchy (see further Rome: History, II. “The Republic”). The Roman reverence for the abstract conception of the magistracy, as expressed in the imperium and the auspicia, led to the preservation of the regal power weakened only by external limitations. The two new officials who replaced the king bore the titles of leaders (praetores) and of judges (judices; cf. Cicero, De legibus, iii. 3. 8, “regio imperio duo sunto iique a praeeundo judicando . . . praetores judices . . . appellamino”). But the new fact of colleagueship caused a third title to prevail, that of consules or “partners,” a word probably derived from consalio on the analogy of praesul and exul (Mommsen, Staatsrecht, ii. p. 77, n. 3). This first example of the collegiate principle assumed the form that soon became familiar in the Roman commonwealth. Each of the pair of magistrates could act up to the full powers of the imperium; but the dissent of his colleague rendered his decision or his action null and void. At the same time the principle of a merely annual tenure of office was insisted on. The two magistrates at the close of their year of office were bound to transmit their power to successors; and these successors whom they nominated were obliged to seek the suffrages of the people. The only body known to us as electing the consuls during the republican period was the comitia centuriata (see Comitia). The consulate was originally confined to patricians. During the struggle for higher office that was waged between the orders the office was suspended on fifty-one occasions between the years 444 and 367 B.C. and replaced by the military tribunate with consular power, to which plebeians were eligible. The struggle was brought to an end by the Licinio-Sextian laws of 367 B.C., which enacted that one consul must be a plebeian (see Patricians).

Most of the internal history of Rome down to the beginning of the third century B.C. consists in a series of attacks, whether intentional or accidental, on the power of the executive. As the consuls are the sole representatives of higher executive authority in early times, this history is one of a progressive decline in the originally wide and arbitrary powers of the office. Their right of summary criminal jurisdiction was weakened by the successive laws of appeal (provocatio); their capacity for interpreting the civil law at their pleasure by the publication of the Twelve Tables and the Forms of Action. The growth of the tribunate of the plebs hampered their activity both as legislators and as judges. They surrendered the duties of registration to the censors in 443 B.C., and the rights of civil jurisdiction and control over the market and police to the praetor and the curule aediles in 367 B.C.

The result of these limitations and of this specialization of functions in the community was to leave the consuls with less specific duties at home than any magistrates in the state. But the absence of specific functions may be of itself a sign of a general duty of supervision. The consuls were in a very real sense the heads of the state. Polybius describes them as controlling the whole administration (Polyb. vi. 12 πασῶν εἰσι κύριοι τῶν δημοσίων πράξεων). This control they exercised in concert with the senate, whose chief servants they were. It was they who were the most regular consultants of this council, who formulated its decrees as edicts, and who brought before the people legislative measures which the senate had approved. It was they also who represented the state to the outer world and introduced foreign envoys to the senate. The symbols of their presidency were manifold. It was marked by the twelve lictors (q.v.), a number permitted to no other ordinary magistrate, by the fact that the first act of newly-admitted consuls was to take the auspices, their second to summon the senate, and by the use of their names for dating the year. The consulate was, indeed, as Cicero expresses it, the culminating point in an official career (“Honorum populi finis est consulatus,” Cic. Pro Planco, 25. 60).

In the domestic sphere the consuls retained certain powers of jurisdiction. This jurisdiction was either (i.) administrative or (ii.) criminal. (i.) Their administrative jurisdiction was sometimes concerned with financial matters such as pecuniary claims made by the state and individuals against one another. They acted in these matters in the periods during which the censors were not in office. We also find them adjudicating in disputes about property between the cities of Italy, (ii.) Their criminal jurisdiction was of three kinds. In the first place it was their duty, before the development of the standing commissions which originated in the middle of the 2nd century B.C., to set in motion the criminal law against offenders for the cognizance of ordinary, as opposed to political, crimes. The reference of such cases to the assembly of the people was effected through their quaestors (see Quaestor). Secondly, when the people and senate, or the senate alone, appointed a special commission (see Senate), the commissioner named was often a consul. Thirdly, we find the consul conducting a criminal inquiry raised by a point of international law. It is possible that in this case his advising body (consilium) was composed of the fetiales (see Herald, ad fin.). (Cicero, De republica, iii. 18. 28; Mommsen, Staatsrecht, ii. p. 112, n. 3).

During the greater part of the republic the consuls were recognized as the heads of the administration abroad as well as at home. It thus became necessary that departments of administration (provinciae) should be determined and assigned. The method of assignment varied. The least usual device was for one consul to take the field at the head of an army, while the other remained at home to transact the civil business of state. More often foreign wars demanded the attention of both consuls. In this case the regular army of four legions was usually divided between them. When it was necessary that both armies should co-operate, the principle of rotation was adopted, each consul having the command for a single day—a practice which may be illustrated by the events preceding the battle of Cannae (Polybius iii. 110; Livy xxii. 41). During the great period of conquest from 264 to 146 B.C. Italy was generally one of the consular “provinces,” some foreign country the other; and when at the close of this period Italy was at peace, this distinction approximated to one between civil and military command. The consuls settled their departments amongst themselves by agreement or by lot (comparatio, sortitio), the power of declaring what should be the consular provinciae was usurped by the senate, (see Senate), and a lex Sempronia passed by C. Gracchus, probably in 122 B.C., ordained that the two consular provinces should be declared before the election of the consuls. At this time the consuls entered office on the 1st of January (a practice which commenced in 153 B.C.), and their military command began on the 1st of March. They could hold this military command until they were superseded in the following March, and thus their tenure of power was practically raised to fourteen months. But meanwhile the home officials invested with the imperium had proved insufficient for the military needs of the empire, and the system of prolonging the command (prorogatio imperii) had been growing up (see Province). The consul whose command had been prolonged now served abroad as proconsul. It is probable that Sulla in his legislation of 81 B.C. did something to stereotype this system. Certainly the government by pro-magistrates becomes the rule after this period (cf. Cicero, De natura deorum, ii. 3. 9; De divinatione, ii. 36. 76, 77), although there are several instances of consuls assuming the active command of provinces between the years 74 and 55 B.C. (Mommsen, Rechtsfrage, p. 30), and Cicero declares that the consul has a right to approach every province (“consules, quibus more majorum concessum est vel omnes adire provincias,” Cicero, Ad Atticum, viii. 15. 3). Certainly in theory the provinces were still regarded as “consular,” not “proconsular,” and were technically, although not practically, held from the 1st of March of the consul’s tenure of office at Rome (cf. Cicero, De provinciis consularibus, 15. 37; Mommsen, Rechtsfrage, passim). It was not until the lex Pompeia of 52 B.C. (Dio Cassius xl. 56) had established a five years’ interval between home and foreign command that the theory of the prorogatio imperii vanished and the proconsulate became a separate office.

Since the theory of the persistence of the republican constitution was of the essence of the Principate, the consuls necessarily lost little of their outward position and dignity under the rule of the Caesars. The consulship was the only office in which a citizen, other than a member of the imperial house, might have the princeps as a colleague, and in the interval between the death or deposition of one princeps and the appointment of another the consuls resumed their normal position as the heads of the state (cf. Herodian ii. 12). As the presidents of the senate, who after A.D. 14 elected them to their office, they were the chief personal representatives of those elements of sovereignty that were supposed to attach to that body, and they directed that high criminal jurisdiction which the senate of this period assumed (see Senate). A restored power of jurisdiction is indeed one of the features of their position during this time, and it is probable that the civil appeals which came to the senate were delegated to the consuls. They also acted for a time as delegates to the princeps in matters of Chancery jurisdiction such as trusts and guardianship (Mommsen, Staatsrecht, ii. p. 103). The consulship was also a preparation for certain high commands, such as the government of certain public and imperial provinces (see Province) and the praefecture of the city. It was probably due to the fact that the consulship was such a prize, and perhaps also to the expense imposed on the office by its association with the celebration of games (Dio Cassius lvi. 46, lix. 20) that the tenure was progressively shortened. In the early principate the consuls hold office for six months, later for four to two months (Mommsen, Staatsrecht, ii. pp. 84-87). The consuls appointed for the 1st of January were called ordinarii, the others suffecti; and the whole year was dated by the names of the former.

This distinction continued in the Empire that was founded by Diocletian and Constantine. The ordinarii were nominated by the emperor, the suffecti were nominated by the senate, and their appointment was ratified by the emperor. The consulship was still the greatest dignity which the Empire had to bestow; and the pomp and ceremony of the office increased in proportion to the decline in its actual power. The entry of the consuls on office was celebrated by a great procession, by games given to the people, by a distribution of gifts, such as the ivory diptychs, a long series of which has been preserved. But the senate, over which they presided until the time of Justinian, was little more than the municipal council of the city of Rome; and the justice which they meted out had dwindled down to the formal and uncontested acts of manumission and the granting of guardians. Sometimes there was a consul of the West at Rome and a consul of the East at Constantinople; at other times both consuls might be found in either capital. The last consul born in a private station was Basilius in the East in A.D. 541. But the emperors continued to bear the title for some time longer.

Authorities.—Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, ii. pp. 74-140 (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1887); Herzog, Geschichte und System der römischen Staatsverfassung, i. p. 688 foll., 827 foll. (Leipzig, 1884, &c.), Lange, Römische Alterthümer, i. p. 524 foll. (Berlin, 1856, &c.); Schiller, Staats- und Rechtsaltertümer, p. 53 foll. (Munich, 1893, Handbuch der klassischen Altertums-Wissenschaft, von Dr Iwan von Müller); Daremberg-Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, i. 1455 foll. (1875, &c.); De Ruggiero, Dizionario epigrafico di antichità Romane, ii. 679 foll., 868 foll. (Rome, 1886, &c.); Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie, iv. 1112 foll. (new edition, Stuttgart, 1893, &c.).

For the consular diptychs, cf. besides Daremberg-Saglio, l.c., Gori, Thesaurus veterum diptychorum (Florence, 1759), and Labarte, Histoire des arts industriels au moyen âge, i. p. 10 foll., 190 foll. (1st ed., Paris, 1864).  (A. H. J. G.)