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- For modern diplomatic consuls, see Consulate general.
Under the Republic, the minimum age of election to consul for patricians was 40 years of age, for plebeians 42. Two consuls were elected each year, serving together with veto power over each other's actions. The year of their service was known by their names: for instance, the year commonly called 59 BC was called by the Romans "the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus", since the two colleagues in the consulship were Julius Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus (although Caesar dominated the consulship so thoroughly that year that it was jokingly referred to as "the consulship of Julius and Caesar").
In Latin, consules means "those who walk together". If a consul died during his term (not uncommon when consuls were in the forefront of battle), another would be elected, and be known as a suffect consul (cos. suff.).
The office of consul was believed to date back to the traditional establishment of the Republic in 509 BC, although the early history is partly legendary, and the succession of consuls is not continuous in the 5th century. Consuls executed both religious and military duties; the reading of the auguries was an essential step before leading armies into the field.
According to tradition, the consulship was initially reserved for patricians; not until 367 BC did the plebeians win the right to stand for office, when the lex Licinia Sextia provided that at least one consul each year should be plebeian. The first plebeian consul, Lucius Sextius , was thereby elected the following year. Modern historians, however, have questioned the traditional account of plebeian emancipation during the Early Republic (see Conflict of the Orders), noting for instance that about thirty per cent of the consuls prior to Sextius had plebeian, not patrician, names.
During times of war, the primary criterion for consul was military skill and reputation, but at all times the selection was politically charged. With the passage of time, the consulship became the normal endpoint of the cursus honorum, the sequence of offices pursued by the ambitious Roman.
When Augustus established the Empire, he changed the nature of the office, stripping it of most of its powers. While still a great honor and a requirement for other offices, many consuls would resign part way through the year to allow other men to finish their term as suffects. Those who held the office on January 1, known as the consules ordinarii, had the honor of associating their names with that year. As a result, about half of the men who held the rank of praetor could also reach the consulship. Sometimes these suffect consuls would in turn resign, and another suffect would be appointed. This reached its extreme under Commodus, when in AD 190 twenty-five men held the consulship.
Under the Empire, Emperors frequently appointed themselves, protégés, or relatives without regard to the age requirements. For example, Emperor Honorius was given the consulship at birth.
Holding the consulship was apparently such an honor that the break-away Gallic Empire had its own pairs of consuls during its existence (260–274). The list of consuls for this state is incomplete, drawn from inscriptions and coins.
One of the reforms of Constantine I was to assign one of the consuls to the city of Rome, and the other to Constantinople. Therefore, when the Roman Empire was divided into two halves on the death of Theodosius I, the emperor of each half acquired the right of appointing one of the consuls— although one emperor did allow his colleague to appoint both consuls for various reasons. As a result, after the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West, many years would be named for only a single consul. This rank was finally allowed to lapse in the reign of Justinian: first with the consul of Rome in 534, Decius Paulinus , then the consul of Constantinople in 541, Flavius Basilius Junior .
For a complete list of Roman consuls, see:
- List of Republican Roman Consuls (before 33 BC)
- List of Early Imperial Roman Consuls (33 BC‑AD 192)
- List of Late Imperial Roman Consuls (after AD 192)
In 1799, revolutionary France enacted a constitution that conferred supreme executive powers upon three officials that bore the title "consul". In reality, however, the state was de facto under control of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. Originally the consuls were to hold office for a period of ten years, although in 1802 Bonaparte was declared First Consul for life (lifetime consulate was introduced for Second and Third Consuls as well). The French consulate ceased to exist when Bonaparte was declared Emperor of the French in 1804.
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