The Consuls held the highest political office in all of Rome and imperium over all of Roman provinces (basically they headed the government of the Republic). Two consuls were elected each year by the Comitia Centuriata (which had an patrician favoritism in its voting structure), serving together for a one-year term, each with veto power over the other’s actions. The consuls outranked all other magistrates and officials except the plebeian tribunes. They held imperium alternately each month when they were in Rome. Consuls also read auguries before leading armies into the battleground.
The Romans believed that the office of consul was born with the establishment of the Republic in 509 BC. During the 440s, the office of Consular Tribunes many times replaced that of consuls, which was instated whenever the state’s military requirements dictated the election of more than two consuls. The office of consular tribunes was abolished in 367(or 366 BC ) and the consulship was restored.
After the Republic was overthrown and the Empire established in 27 BC, the office of consul became ceremonial and merely symbolic of the city-state’s Republican roots. All their powers and authority was transferred to the Emperor and they became only delegates of the past.
Republican duties of Romans
After the expulsion of the kings, the consuls inherited all of his military and civil jurisdictions. To prevent abuse of the absolute power, two consuls were elected every year, who could veto each other’s decisions. The people could appeal to a consul, to invalidate the sentence of his colleague. Within the city a consul could punish and arrest a citizen, though he could not inflict capital punishment on his subjects.
The consuls initially had unparalleled executive and judicial power but as the Roman legal system morphed into a very real entity, several new offices were created to distribute the consuls’ functions.
Civil Duties of Romans
The Romans believed that the consulship was the highest level of the cursus honorum (an ascending sequence of public offices to which politicians aspired)
When the consuls were in the pomerium (or the city of Rome), they headed the government and oversaw the internal machinery. Each consul served as president of the Senate for a month. They had the right of summons and arrest, though the people had the right to appeal generally to the other consul. The consuls convened the Senate and supervised its meetings. In addition to this, they could also summon any of the three Roman assemblies (the Curiate, the Centuriate, and the Tribal). When neither consul was within the city, their civic duties were taken up by the praetor urbanus.
Military Duties in the Rome
In a battleground or arena, the Consuls were the commanders-in-chief of all Roman Legions. They had full imperium, matched by no one, outside Rome’s boundaries. They conducted the levy in the Campus Martius when the Senate decreed so and accepted the oaths and allegiance of all soldiers who joined the army. During war or expansion campaigns, a consul could impose any punishment he saw fit on any soldier, officer, citizen, or ally.
Each consul commanded an army (about 20,000 men strong and consisted of two citizen and two allied legions.), usually two legions strong, assisted by the military tribunes and a quaestor. If both consuls marched together which did not happen very often, each one held the command for a day alternately.
Magistrates & Officials of Rome
After the consuls’ powers were allocated elsewhere, several offices of lesser magistrates and officials came up. In 443 BC, the responsibility to conduct the census was taken from the consuls and given to the censors. The 18 month long term of the censor was highly sought after. The censor was supposed to review the citizens and their property. He could even remove members of the Senate for improper behavior. The consuls were also stripped of their judicial powers when the praetor received the powers of chief judge with civic and provincial jurisdiction in 366 BC. There was also a quaestor who administrated finances and the aedile who directed urban upkeep such as roads, water and food supplies, and the annual games and festivals. The dictator was a unique concoction of the Romans. For six months (usually), one man held absolute authority and power which after the crisis that had brought about his appointment was averted, he gave all that power up (and they did give it up surprisingly).
The Roman Republic governed its citizens in an extraordinary and unique manner. The system itself was very intricate and though not always infallible, had a quite useful system of checks and balances. One thing that stood out though was that originally, the Senate was formally supposed to advise the Consuls, but in reality, the Consuls were told what to do by the Senate and not the other way around. The Senate, as a collective body, was holding the highest political office in Rome, de facto if not de jure. As time progressed, the Senate grew in power and the Senate’s hubris and greed to keep its own power and authority intact became the reason why the Republic dissolved in 27 BC.