Consuls were the highest officials in the government of the Roman Republic* and in theory, but not in fact, during the empire, since the emperor had supreme authority then. Each year a special assembly elected two consuls, who shared supreme civil and military power. Consuls served for one year. Although the consuls generally worked together, they had the power to veto each other’s decisions.
At the founding of the republic in 509 B.C., the consuls assumed the powers that had belonged to the king. Known as praetors until the 300s B.C., consuls were the heads of state. Military command was their most important function, but they also had civil powers. Consuls could arrest and prosecute criminals, issue edicts and decrees, summon assemblies, propose laws, preside at elections, and convene and introduce motions to the Roman Senate. In addition, consuls and former consuls were life-members of the Senate. Consuls had unlimited authority, and some people, such as the historian Polybius, thought that they had far too much power.
Some of the powers of the consuls were limited during the time of the republic. For example, a law granted citizens in Rome the right to appeal to the citizen assembly capital punishment and heavy monetary fines. The right of appeal was to protect a citizen from the severe and arbitrary power of a consul and the misuse of power. The growing power of the tribunes, who represented the lower classes of citizens, also placed limits on the actions of consuls through their right of veto.
Consuls were elected in a popular assembly, which could elect as consul anyone who was willing and qualified to serve. The consuls depended on the support of the Senate. Since they could not take decisive steps—especially those requiring money and heavy expenditures—without the backing of influential senators, consuls generally acted in accordance to the will of the Senate.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
The authority of the consuls in the military, however, remained almost unlimited during most of the republic. Consuls commanded Roman forces in the field until the time of Lucius Cornelius Sulla in the first century B.C. After Sulla, consuls remained in Italy, while former consuls, or proconsuls, commanded the Roman armies.
Although the office of consul remained during the Roman Empire, consuls had less power, since the emperor was then the supreme authority. Usually, the emperor chose the consuls or held the office himself. Although during the republic consuls (called ordinarii) served for the entire year and gave their names to the year, consuls during the empire were regularly replaced later in the year by other pairs of consuls (called suffecti). Emperors frequently named relatives or friends as consuls. Even children were consuls, and the emperor Honorius was named consul at birth. It was reported that the emperor Caligula intended to appoint his favorite horse to act as consul.
Despite this imperial* control, consuls remained important during the empire. Consuls presided at meetings of the Senate and at some elections. They also sponsored games, which increased their popularity with the public. After their term in office, many consuls governed large and important provinces* of the empire. (See also Government, Roman; Senate, Roman.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* province overseas area controlled by Rome