In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Roman Consulship

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Origins of the Consulship and the Fasti Consulares
  • The Consulship during the Middle and Late Republic
  • The Consulship during the Principate
  • Prosopography
  • Consuls as Holders of Imperium, the Alleged Lex Cornelia de Provinciis Ordinandis, and the Allocation of Provinces
  • Consular Elections and the Order of Consuls’ Names
  • Consuls and Religion

Classics The Roman Consulship
Francisco Pina Polo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0391


Two annual consuls with equal powers were the chief magistrates of the Roman state throughout the Republican period. According to tradition, the consulship was established in 509 BCE when kingship was abolished in Rome, as shown by the list of consuls preserved in the Fasti. However, the consulship may have been the culmination of a longer process, and its origin (or final consolidation) could possibly be dated to 367–366 BCE after the adoption of the tribunician Licinio-Sextian laws, when military tribunes with consular power were eliminated and the praetorship was created. Consuls were annually elected in the centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata) and were granted imperium, which implied supreme civil and military power. A series of external signs of power symbolized their imperium: twelve lictors with fasces, sella curulis (curule chair), and toga praetexta. Consulship was part of a structured career path (cursus honorum), and the age of forty-two to be elected consul was a requirement after the enactment of the lex Villia Annalis in 180 BCE. Consuls carried out their functions under the principle of collegiality, and each consul had the power to veto his colleague. They were eponymous magistrates, as their names were used to establish the official chronology of Rome. Nevertheless, the day on which the consuls took office varied during the Republican period: the consular year started on the Ides of March from the beginning of the Hannibalic war and on 1 January from 153 onward. Until the first century BCE, consuls were the chief commanders of the Roman army under the authority of the senate: as such, they spent most of the consular year commanding their legions and were the leading actors in the imperial expansion of Rome. Consuls also carried out important civil functions in the weeks or months they remained in Rome: they were the curatores of the pax deorum in the relation of the community with its gods; led Roman diplomacy as executors of senatorial decisions; had legislative capacity; promoted public works; convoked popular assemblies; appointed a dictator if needed; and presided over the annual elections. During the first century BCE, the role played by consuls changed: they remained at Rome for most or even all of their term of office, and only some of them took command over their legions during their consular year. As a consequence, consuls no longer played the important military role they had in previous centuries, while their role in day-to-day politics substantially increased: throughout the late Republican period the consulship underwent a process of politicization, and the consuls were expected to be the most visible political leaders at the center stage of Roman politics. During the Triumviral period (43–30 BCE), consuls kept their imperium but were in practice subordinate to the Triumvirs, and as a consequence the consulship suffered an institutional and political depreciation. The title of consul continued to exist throughout the Empire and into Late Antiquity, but after Augustus the office lost most of its significance: under the Principate the consuls were deprived of their military powers and of most of their civil tasks. The consulship, however, always remained a great honor and only lapsed in the sixth century under Justinian I.

General Overviews

As the highest office of the Roman Republic, the consulship has deserved attention in all those works that deal globally with Roman Republican institutions and in particular with the magistracies, both from the perspective of ancient history and Roman law. As usual when dealing with institutional aspects, Mommsen 1887 offers a starting point, followed by Kübler 1900 in his article of the Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Bleicken 1975 and in the more comprehensive work of Kunkel and Wittmann 1995, which was conceived as a manual of Roman law that was begun by Kunkel and completed by Wittmann. The long article of Vaglieri 1892 in the Dizionario epigrafico di antichità romane gave a lot of information on the consulship, also following on the steps of Mommsen’s view. De Martino 1972 is a classical work on the Roman constitution. A succinct overview of the consulship in the general context of the Roman constitution can be found in Lintott 1999, North 2006, Pina Polo 2016, and France and Hurlet 2019.

  • Mommsen, Theodor. 1887. Römisches Staatsrecht. Leipzig: S. Herzel.

    Mommsen, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1902, enjoyed enormous academic authority in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is imperative even today to read and cite his great work on the Roman constitution. However, his point of view is very much influenced by his misleading determination to give a very legalistic and stable image of the Roman state, even when the sources do not support it.

  • Vaglieri, M. 1892. Consul. In Dizionario epigrafico di antichità romane, Vol. 2. Edited by Ettore de Ruggiero, 679–862. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider.

    A general overview of the consulship: civil and military functions, relationship between senate and consuls, legislation, etc.

  • Kübler, B. 1900. Consul. In Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 4.1:1112–1138: Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

    In the footsteps of Mommsen, it is an analysis of the consulship from its origins to Late Antiquity with a copious use of ancient sources.

  • De Martino, Francesco. 1972. Storia della costituzione romana. 6 vols. Naples, Italy: Jovene.

    De Martino surveys the development of the Roman constitution from the beginnings of Rome to Late Antiquity. In this context, the consulship receives, as is to be expected, constant attention within the evolution of institutions during the Republic, the Principate, and Late Antiquity.

  • Bleicken, Jochen. 1975. Die Verfassung der Römischen Republik. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh Verlag.

    This book is a classic on the Roman constitution, and devotes a part of it to the consulship. It closely follows Mommsen’s views.

  • Kunkel, Wolfgang, and Wittmann, Ronald. 1995. Staatsordnung und Staatspraxis der römischen Republik. 2. Die Magistratur. Munich, Germany: C.H. Beck.

    It is an essential work for the study of the institutions of republican Rome, in particular its magistracies, although its reading may give a distorted image of immutability throughout the entire period. It devotes a chapter to the higher magistracies, including the consulship. It collects a large number of ancient sources on the consulship, although their reliability is often accepted at face value and critical analysis is lacking.

  • Lintott, Andrew. 1999. The constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    It is the most complete book in English on the institutions of Republican Rome. Lintott devotes a chapter to the higher magistracies, in which he jointly analyzes the power and functions of consuls and praetors.

  • North, John. 2006. The constitution of the Roman Republic. In A companion to the Roman Republic. Edited by Nathan Rosenstein and Robert Morstein-Marx, 256–277. Malden MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.

    Within a Companion on the Roman Republic, North gives a brief introduction on its institutions, including general information on the consulship.

  • Pina Polo, Francisco. 2016. SPQR: Institutions and popular participation in the Roman Republic. In The Oxford handbook of Roman law and society. Edited by Clifford Ando, Paul J. du Plessis, and Kaius Tuori, 85–97. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press..

    This handbook on Roman law devotes Part 3 to the constitutional structure of the Roman state, in which Pina Polo makes a general survey to the institutions of the Roman Republic.

  • France, Jérôme, and Frédéric Hurlet. 2019. Institutions romaines des origines aux Sévères. Paris: Armand Colin.

    The book is a general overview of Roman political institutions from Early Rome to the beginning of the third century CE from a historical and developmental perspective. In such a framework, the development of the consulship is examined.

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