Government of the Roman Republic - Consuls

The consuls were the two highest elected officials in the Roman Republic. They were elected by the comitia centuriata, and almost all other magistrates within the Republic had to follow orders and submit to the will of the consuls.

Consuls’ terms of office lasted one year. If one of the consuls died while in office or had to resign, the remaining consul might be allowed to rule alone, depending on how much time was left until the next regular election. Otherwise the centuries would be called to elect a replacement until the next election.

Until 366 BC, only members of the upper class of Roman citizens, the patricians, could be elected consul. Later in the republic there were actually times when both consuls were plebeians.

Consuls served as the head of the Senate and the assemblies by leading meetings and helping carry out the will of the Senate and people. The two consuls had equal power and either could overrule the others’ decision. This helped keep any consul from having too much power. The last thing most Romans wanted was to return to rule by a king. The exception to this was in times of extreme crisis when a dictator could be appointed for six months to rule with the power of a monarch.

Consuls were also commanders in chief of the Roman army except when they were inside the city itself. A consul leading an army inside the city was not allowed. It was seen as though Rome was under military rule rather than rule by the people and the Senate. Once outside the city, however, a consul could lead the armies into battle against the enemies of Rome. In times of war, one of the consuls might command the army while the other stayed in Rome to keep up with duties there.

Finally, consuls were the heads of state of the Roman Republic. They were the “face” of Rome when it came to negotiations and communications with foreign lands.

The consuls had many of the same powers as the president of America’s republican democracy. They were the heads of state and the chief executives, and the consuls were charged with making sure the will of the people was carried out. At least that was the idea, and it worked pretty well for several centuries.

A symbol of the consuls' authority and power was the fasces (pictured left). It's a bit like the crook and flail of the Egyptian pharaoh in that the consuls were somewhat of a "father" to the Roman people. They cared for and protected them (the axe), but they also had the power and authority to punish those that broke the laws of Rome (the bundle of rods).