Ancient Democracy: The Office of Roman Consul

The Office of Roman Consul was the most coveted elected position within the Roman Republic. Let’s take a quick look and find out why.

The Office of Roman Consul

Roman Consul
In case you were wondering, the Office of Consul in the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE) was the highest elected office during the days when ancient Rome has some semblance of democracy. There were two consuls who served at any given time, each one of them elected for a one-year term. Originally made up of the city’s elites, common citizens (known as plebeians) were allowed to hold the position of consul in 367 BCE. Unfortunately, this ancient form of democracy didn’t last. In 27 BCE after the death of Julius Caesar and the civil wars that followed, the Roman Republic more or less officially transformed into an Empire. Though the Office of Consul did still exist after this, it was in reality a ceremonial post. The real power was held by the Roman Emperor.

The Duties of a Roman Consul

Roman Consul…again
A consul in the Roman Republic had many duties that included an array of both civil and military tasks. Consuls were responsible for passing the laws of the Roman Senate which was the governing body made up mostly of the city’s elites and wealthy landholders. One of the consul’s great powers came from his power of veto. Basically, each consul had the power to block a Senator’s decree, thus helping to ensure that important decisions were only made in unison. Along with civil duties, the consul had vast powers over the Roman military machine. They were commanders in-chief of the Roman army and governed with the assistance of military tribunes.
Military business
The work of the consul didn’t end after his term was up. Upon leaving his post, a consul generally was assigned a particular province to govern. Unlike the consulship term of one year, governorship could vary and often spanned between one to five years. It all depended on the particular province.

Becoming a Consul

Speaking in front of the Senate was one of the main jobs of a Roman consul.
As mentioned above, by 367 BCE, the Office of Consul was open to both elites as well as more common folk. Thus, there were in theory many paths that one could take in ascending to this most high of ancient offices. Most consuls that we know of had several key characteristics in common.

Those who became consuls generally had a dominant presence that was amplified by their superb oratory skills. They also were generally well-read and regarded by their peers to be of high intelligence. These were important traits to have since their job entailed addressing the Senate in open-door assemblies. These assemblies could be held anywhere – a public hall, square or within the confines of a temple.

Though consuls were elected, that didn’t mean that elections were entirely fair or based on merit. Like in modern society, those who came from privileged backgrounds usually had huge advantages when it came to getting elected. Coming from a powerful family and networking with other, powerful families didn’t hurt either. In fact, it was the most common way of growing one’s political power. Often times this “networking” was done through marriage with other powerful houses. If you had a lot of money, that also helped, for this enabled you to be able to bribe others for votes.

Just another day as a consul.
Probably the best asset in becoming a consul was having any army at your disposal. Thus, being a general was arguably the best way to become a consul. You had a team of intimidating men who could cast ballots for you. If ultimately this didn’t move the political balance in your favor, you could always use your loyal men to cause a ruckus or some severe civil disobedience to be used in your favor. Not surprisingly, this happened on several occasions during the era of the Roman Republic and in the end helped to turn it into an empire.

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