Why were there so many suffect consuls during the Principate?

Why were there so many suffect consuls during the Principate?

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As quoted from this wikipedia article, it states:

If a consul died during his term (not uncommon when consuls were in the forefront of battle) or was removed from office, another would be elected by the Comitia Centuriata to serve the remainder of the term as consul suffectus, or suffect consul.

In the book 'Augustan Rome 44 BC to AD 14: The Restoration of the Republic and the Establishment of the Empire (The Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome)' by J. S. Richardson - he quotes Suetonius as saying:

The reason he held the consulship now was, so Suetonius tells us, for the introduction into public life of Gaius Caesar, and, given the celebrations that attended this, this is no doubt correct; but it is worth noting that the same year also saw the reintroduction of the election of suffect consuls taking office after the elected consuls stood down, a practice that had last been used in 12 BC, The year that Agrippa died.

He also says:

From now until the end of Augustus' reign the election of suffect consuls was to be the norm, with exceptions only in 3 BC and AD 14.

This would suggest that quite often during the Principate consuls either died, stood down or were removed from office.

Why is it that there were so many suffect consuls during the Principate?

You can find a list of Roman consuls here.

The change in number and frequency of the suffect consuls just reflects the changing of the job of consul with the Principate.

Under the Republic, beyond ennobling your family, allowing you to run Rome for a year, and getting the year named for you, consulship was the bridge to a plum job administering a province where you could collect money and contacts that would allow you to pay off the amount you spent getting to the consulship in the first place, and set up for the next generation. If you left the consulship before the job, you would miss that payoff.

When Augustus was in charge, he had no interest in ambitious senators using armies in the provinces to springboard themselves to power… like he had. For a while, he was always consul himself, which caused grumbling because this locked out the aristocrats. The need then was to reward aristocrats for toeing the line, and find candidates for the administrative jobs in the provinces. The multiple suffect consuls allowed a larger pool of candidates for these jobs to be created and allowed more rewards for the nobles to strive for and boost their families status.

So the main reason for the shift was that the nature of the consul's job had changed from Republic to Empire.

The Roman Empire: Augustus and the Principate Period

Officially, after the battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavius (Augustus from here on) was the sole ruler of Rome. He was never referred to as “king”, however the Romans were not fond of this word. Yet, no republican form of government could keep the Roman state in line. They resorted back to monarchy mainly because this was the only true way for Rome to be ruled.

Augustus was the beginning of the time called the Principate period, which is characterized as a time where rulers of the new monarchy tried their best to preserve aspects of the Roman Republic. Augustus was a perfect example of this. He did his best to keep all conservative forms of government and keep most political shapes in tact. Augustus’s sole purpose was to wipe out the hatred and confusion that was caused by the civil war. He proved that he was a strong politician throughout his gaining of power, and his rule proved also that he was a very successful statesman. The Roman senate were the ones who actually gave Octavius the title of Augustus, for Augustus wanting to restore power back to the Roman senate in his new reforms.

Obviously enough, being the first emperor of a very new type of monarchy for Rome, Augustus took on several new titles that provided him with the power that he held. Just to name a couple, he was bestowed proconsular power (imperium proconsulare), he retained the title of Imperator (which allowed him to stay in control of the roman army), and he was made pontifex maximus (“chief priest”). Of all the titles he had received, he was fond of being referred as by one in particular: Princeps Civitates, which means “first citizen of the state”.

Augustus made many important reforms in the beginning of his rule, having to do with both nobile causes and popular causes. He brought back a strong sense of dignity and nobility from being on the senate by decreasing the amount of people on the senate, as well as taking away some provincial powers. Augustus did not deem the populus responsible for making major political decisions, and took away a lot of power from the assemblies of the people (they were now mainly only kept to vote for new magistrates). He did not change much about the cursus honorum (which, again, is the process of moving up the ranks of the Roman magistracies) and he saw the current republic magistrates as a special, executive position. Augustus also decreased the Roman army from 50 legions to only 20 and spread them throughout the provinces so the Roman army was less of a burden on the people of Rome. Finally, he introduced the “praetorian guard”, a system of protection used for inside of Italy.

As stated above, Augustus’ goal during his reign was to attempt to make Rome as systematic, organized, and peaceful as he could. He separated the Roman city into 14 wards or districts, and put in place special “police” forces to enforce law and order throughout the city. He hoped that the introduction of these police forces to Roman society will decrease the extreme violence that had been seen in recent previous years of Roman history. The entirety of Italy was then split up into eleven regions (administrative districts), a curator viarurn (“superintendent of highways”) was installed to keep the large system of roads in good condition, and a post system was introduced all of these steps clearly showed Augustus’ desire for the Roman people to live a clean, systematic life.

Augustus did a lot of work in reorganizing not only the system of Rome’s provinces but the money flow of the provinces as well. The provinces were now divided into two separate groups. The senatorial provinces were those who remained in control of the senate, while the imperial provinces were now under control of the emperor. Under either a senate with new power, or under an emperor with good morals, it was seen that the provinces of Rome increased in both prosperity and wealth quickly. The revenues earned from the senatorial provinces were put directly into the treasury of the senate, while the inflow of money from imperial provinces went to the fiscus (treasury of the emperor). Augustus could be seen as one of the most economically smart rulers anywhere near his time. With the help of a very systematic approach to a new monarchy and a sharp mind, Augustus was able to successfully create a very strong and powerful Rome.

Tiberius © 2021. All Rights Reserved.


  • 'Principate' is etymologically derived from the Latin word princeps, meaning chief or first, and therefore represents the political regime dominated by such a political leader, whether or not he is formally head of state or head of government. This reflects the principate emperors' assertion that they were merely "first among equals" among the citizens of Rome.
  • Under the Republic, the princeps senatus, traditionally the oldest or most honoured member of the Senate, had the right to be heard first on any debate. [5] and his circle had fostered the (quasi-Platonic) idea that authority should be invested in the worthiest citizen (princeps), who would beneficently guide his compeers, an ideal of the patriot statesman later taken up by Cicero. [6]

In a more limited and precise chronological sense, the term Principate is applied either to the entire Empire (in the sense of the post-Republican Roman state), or specifically to the earlier of the two phases of "Imperial" government in the ancient Roman Empire before Rome's military collapse in the West (fall of Rome) in 476 left the Byzantine Empire as sole heir. This early, 'Principate' phase began when Augustus claimed auctoritas for himself as princeps and continued (depending on the source) up to the rule of Commodus, of Maximinus Thrax or of Diocletian. Afterwards, Imperial rule in the Empire is designated as the dominate, which is subjectively more like an (absolute) monarchy while the earlier Principate is still more 'Republican'.

The title, in full, of princeps senatus / princeps civitatis ("first amongst the senators" / "first amongst the citizens") was first adopted by Octavian Caesar Augustus (27 BC–AD 14), the first Roman "emperor" who chose, like the assassinated Julius Caesar, not to reintroduce a legal monarchy. Augustus's purpose was probably to establish the political stability desperately needed after the exhausting civil wars by a de facto dictatorial regime within the constitutional framework of the Roman Republic - what Gibbon called "an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth" [7] - as a more acceptable alternative to, for example, the early Roman Kingdom.

Although dynastic pretences crept in from the start, formalizing this in a monarchic style remained politically perilous [8] and Octavian was undoubtedly correct to work through established Republican forms to consolidate his power. [9] He began with the powers of a Roman consul, combined with those of a Tribune of the plebs later added the role of the censor and finally became Pontifex Maximus as well. [10]

Tiberius too acquired his powers piecemeal, and was proud to emphasise his place as first citizen: "a good and healthful princeps, whom you have invested with such great discretionary power, ought to be the servant of the Senate, and often of the whole citizen body". [11] Thereafter however the role of princeps became more institutionalised: as Dio Cassius put it, Caligula was "voted in a single day all the prerogatives which Augustus over so long a span of time had been voted gradually and piecemeal". [12]

Nevertheless, under this "Principate stricto sensu", the political reality of autocratic rule by the Emperor was still scrupulously masked by forms and conventions of oligarchic self-rule inherited from the political period of the 'uncrowned' Roman Republic (509 BC–27 BC) under the motto Senatus Populusque Romanus ("The Senate and people of Rome") or SPQR. Initially, the theory implied the 'first citizen' had to earn his extraordinary position (de facto evolving to nearly absolute monarchy) by merit in the style that Augustus himself had gained the position of auctoritas.

Imperial propaganda developed a paternalistic ideology, presenting the princeps as the very incarnation of all virtues attributed to the ideal ruler (much like a Greek tyrannos earlier), such as clemency and justice, and military leadership, [13] obliging the princeps to play this designated role within Roman society, as his political insurance as well as a moral duty. What specifically was expected of the princeps seems to have varied according to the times, and the observers: [14] Tiberius, who amassed a huge surplus for the city of Rome, was criticized as a miser, but Caligula was criticized for his lavish spending on games and spectacles.

Generally speaking, it was expected of the Emperor to be generous but not frivolous, not just as a good ruler but also with his personal fortune (as in the proverbial "bread and circuses" – panem et circenses) providing occasional public games, gladiators, horse races and artistic shows. Large distributions of food for the public and charitable institutions were also means that served as popularity boosters while the construction of public works provided paid employment for the poor.

Redefinition under Vespasian Edit

With the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in AD 68, the principate became more formalised under the Emperor Vespasian from AD 69 onwards. [16] The position of princeps became a distinct entity within the broader – formally still republican – Roman constitution. While many of the same cultural and political expectations remained, the civilian aspect of the Augustan ideal of the princeps gradually gave way to the military role of the imperator. [17] Rule was no longer a position (even notionally) extended on the basis of merit, or auctoritas, but on a firmer basis, allowing Vespasian and future emperors to designate their own heir without those heirs having to earn the position through years of success and public favor.

Under the Antonine dynasty, it was the norm for the Emperor to appoint a successful and politically promising individual as his successor. In modern historical analysis, this is treated by many authors as an "ideal" situation: the individual who was most capable was promoted to the position of princeps. Of the Antonine dynasty, Edward Gibbon famously wrote that this was the happiest and most productive period in human history, and credited the system of succession as the key factor.

Dominate Edit

The autocratic elements in the Principate tended to increase over time, with the style of dominus ("Lord", "Master", suggesting the citizens became servi, servants or slaves) gradually becoming current for the emperor. [18] There was however no clear constitutional turning point, with Septimius Severus and the Severan dynasty beginning to use the terminology of the Dominate in reference to the emperor, and the various emperors and their usurpers throughout the 3rd century appealing to the people as both military dominus and political princeps.

It was after the Crisis of the Third Century almost resulted in the Roman Empire's political collapse that Diocletian firmly consolidated the trend to autocracy. [19] He replaced the one-headed principate with the tetrarchy (c. AD 300, two Augusti ranking above two Caesares), [20] in which the vestigial pretence of the old Republican forms was largely abandoned. The title of princeps disappeared – like the territorial unity of the Empire – in favor of dominus and new forms of pomp and awe were deliberately used in an attempt to insulate the emperor and the civil authority from the unbridled and mutinous soldiery of the mid-century. [21]

The political role of the Senate went into final eclipse, [22] no more being heard of the division by the Augustan Principate of the provinces between imperial (militarised) provinces and senatorial provinces. [23] Lawyers developed a theory of the total delegation of authority into the hands of the emperor, [24] and the dominate developed more and more, especially in the Eastern Roman Empire, where the subjects, and even diplomatic allies, could be termed servus or the corresponding Greek term doulos ("servant/slave") so as to express the exalted position of the Emperor as second only to God, and on earth to none. [ citation needed ]


After the mythical expulsion of the last Etruscan King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and the ending of the Roman Kingdom, all the powers and authority of the King were allegedly given to the newly instituted Consulship. However, it is likely that first the chief magistrates were the Praetors. The office of Consul is believed to date back to the traditional establishment of the Republic in 509 BC but the Succession of Consuls was not continuous in the 5th century. Consuls had extensive competences in peacetime, administrative, legislative and judicial, and in (frequent) war time often held the highest military command(s) additional religious duties included certain rites which, as a sign of their formal importance, could only be carried out by top level state officials (compare Rex sacrorum) the reading of the auguries was an essential step before leading armies into the field.

Under the laws of 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, a normal principle for magistratures.

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.).

According to tradition, the consulship was initially reserved for patricians and only in 367 BC the plebeians won the right to stand for this supreme 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 have questioned the traditional account of plebeian emancipation during the Early Republic (see Conflict of the Orders), noting for instance that about thirty percent of the consuls prior to Sextius had plebeian, not patrician, names probably only the chronology has been distorted.

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.

Beginning in the late Republic, after finishing a consular year, a former consul would usually serve a lucrative term as a Proconsul, the Roman Governor of one of the (senatorial) provinces.

When Augustus established the Principate, he changed the political nature of the office, stripping it of most of its powers. While still a great honor — in fact invariably the constitutional head of state, hence eponymous — 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 190 twenty-five men held the consulship.

Emperors frequently appointed themselves, protégés, or relatives consul, even without regard to the age requirements. For example, Emperor Honorius was given the consulship at birth.

Holding the consulship was a great honor and the office was the major symbol of the still republican constitution. Probably as part of seeking formal legitimacy, 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 I: first with the consul of Rome in 534, Decius Paulinus, then the consul of Constantinople in 541, Flavius Basilius Junior.

The highest magistrates were eponymous, i.e. each year was officially identified (like a regnal year in a monarchy) by the two Consuls' names, though there was a more practical numerical dating ab urbe condita (i.e. by the era starting with the mythical foundation year of Rome). For instance, the year 59 BC in the modern calendar was called by the Romans "the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus," since the two colleagues in the consulship were (Gaius) 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 Gaius and Julius".

In Latin, the ablative absolute construction is frequently used to express the date, such as "M. Messalla et M. Pupio Pisone consulibus," translated literally as "Marcus Messalla and Marcus Pupio Piso being Consuls," which appears in Caesar's De Bello Gallico.

The consular elections were typically held during July, but occasionally postponed or held earlier under special circumstances. The consuls-designate would prepare to take office during the remainder of the year and finally assume their position in the beginning of January. Thus, their ascension to office marked the beginning of each eponymous year.

Senior and junior consuls in ancient Rome

I've been reading Colleen McCullough's book The October Horse, where she makes frequent references to "junior" and "senior" consuls. What's the difference between them? I always thought there was only one title -- consul.

There wasn't really a difference between them, they held the same powers. The senior consul was the one elected first, according to Cicero, which also meant he got more votes because of the way that elections within the comitia centuriata shut down voting once a majority was reached. The only real difference between them was in deciding who presided over the senate in each given month (the senior consul took January as I recall, and had every other month) and as I recall Cicero mentions some practices regarding the order of consular speakers within the senate, but Iɽ have to slog back through his speeches to find it. In practice, the senior consul was usually, though not always, the candidate with more influence (which isn't surprising, if he's the guy who gets more of the vote). The only other difference I can think of is that during Marius' consulship his senior consul led the first consular army and Marius only raised a force as junior consul when the senior consular army proved inadequate to the threats Rome was facing elsewhere

Powers and responsibilities

Republican duties

After the expulsion of the kings and the establishment of the Republic, all the powers that had belonged to the kings were transferred to two offices: that of the consuls and the Rex Sacrorum. While the Rex Sacrorum inherited the kings’ position as high priest of the state, the consuls were given the civil and military responsibilities (imperium). However, to prevent abuse of the kingly power, the imperium was shared by two consuls, each of whom could veto the other’s actions.

The consuls were invested with the executive power of the state and headed the government of the Republic. Initially, the consuls held vast executive and judicial power. In the gradual development of the Roman legal system, however, some important functions were detached from the consulship and assigned to new officers. Thus, in 443 BC, the responsibility to conduct the census was taken from the consuls and given to the censors. The second function taken from the consulship was their judicial power. Their position as chief judges was transferred to the praetors in 366 BC. After this time, the consul would only serve as judges in extraordinary criminal cases and only when called upon by decree of the Senate.

Civil sphere

For the most part, power was divided between civil and military spheres. As long as the consuls were in the pomerium (the city of Rome), they were at the head of government, and all the other magistrates, with the exception of the tribunes of the plebians, were subordinate to them, but retained independence of office. The internal machinery of the republic was under the consuls’ superintendence. In order to allow the consuls greater authority in executing laws, the consuls had the right of summons and arrest, which was limited only by the right of appeal from their judgment. This power of punishment even extended to inferior magistrates.

As part of their executive functions, the consuls were responsible for carrying into effect the decrees of the Senate and the laws of the assemblies. Sometimes, in great emergencies, they might even act on their own authority and responsibility. The consuls also served as the chief diplomat of the Roman state. Before any foreign ambassadors reached the Senate, they met with the consuls. The consul would introduce ambassadors to the Senate, and they alone carried on the negotiations between the Senate and foreign states.

The consuls could convene the Senate, and presided over its meetings. Each consul served as president of the Senate for a month. They could also summon any of the three Roman assemblies (Curiate, Centuriate, and Tribal) and presided over them. Thus, the consuls conducted the elections and put legislative measures to the vote. When neither consul was within the city, their civic duties were assumed by the praetor urbanus.

Each consul was accompanied in every public appearance by twelve lictors, who displayed the magnificence of the office and served as his bodyguards. Each lictor held a fasces, a bundle of rods that contained an axe. The rods symbolized the power of scourging, and the axe the power of capital punishment. When inside the pomerium, the lictors removed the axes from the fasces to show that a citizen could not be executed without a trial. Upon entering the Comitia Centuriata, the lictors would lower the fasces to show that the powers of the consuls derive from the people (populus romanus).

Military sphere

Outside the walls of Rome, the powers of the consuls were far more extensive in their role as commanders-in-chief of all Roman legions. It was in this function that the consuls were vested with full imperium. When legions were ordered by a decree of the Senate, the consuls conducted the levy in the Campus Martius. Upon entering the army, all soldiers had to take their oath of allegiance to the consuls. The consuls also oversaw the gathering of troops provided by Rome’s allies. [8]

Within the city a consul could punish and arrest a citizen, but had no power to inflict capital punishment. When on campaign, however, a consul could inflict any punishment he saw fit on any soldier, officer, citizen or ally.

Each consul commanded an army, usually two legions strong, with the help of military tribunes and a quaestor who had financial duties. In the rare case that both consuls marched together, each one held the command for a day respectively. A typical consular army was about 20,000 men strong and consisted of two citizen and two allied legions. In the early years of the republic, Rome's enemies were located in central Italy, so campaigns lasted a few months. As Rome's frontiers expanded, in the 2nd century BC, the campaigns became lengthier. Rome was a warlike society, and very seldom did not wage war. [9] So the consul upon entering office was expected by the Senate and the People to march his army against Rome's enemies, and expand the Roman frontiers. His soldiers expected to return to their homes after the campaign with spoils. If the consul won an overwhelming victory, he was hailed as imperator by his troops, and could request to be granted a triumph.

The consul could conduct the campaign as he saw fit, and had unlimited powers. However, after the campaign, he could be prosecuted for his misdeeds (for example for abusing the provinces, or wasting public money, as Scipio Africanus was accused by Cato in 205 BC).

Abuse prevention

Abuse of consular power was prevented with each consul given the power to veto his colleague. Therefore, except in the provinces as commanders-in-chief where each consul’s power was supreme, the consuls could only act in unison, or, at least, not against each other's determined will. Against the sentence of one consul, an appeal could be brought before his colleague, which, if successful, would see the sentence overturned. In order to avoid unnecessary conflicts, only one consul would actually perform the office’s duties every month. This is not to say that the other consul held no power but merely allowed the first consul to act without direct interference. Then in the next month, the consuls would switch roles with one another. This would continue until the end of the consular term.

Another point which acted as a check against consuls was the certainty that after the end of their term they would be called to account for their actions while in office.

There were also three other restrictions on consular power. Their term in office was short (one year) their duties were pre-decided by the Senate and they could not stand again for election immediately after the end of their office. Usually a period of ten years was expected between each consulship.


After leaving office, the consuls were assigned by the Senate to a province to administer as governor. The provinces each consul was assigned were drawn by lot and determined before the end of his consulship. Transferring his consular imperium to proconsular Imperium, the consul would become a proconsul and governor of one (or several) of Rome’s many provinces. As a proconsul, his imperium was limited to only a specified province and not the entire Republic. Any exercise of proconsular imperium in any other province was illegal. Also, a proconsul was not allowed to leave his province before his term was complete or before the arrival of his successor. Exceptions were given only on special permission of the Senate. Most terms as governor lasted between one and five years.

Appointment of the dictator

In times of crisis, usually when Rome's territory was in immediate danger, a dictator was appointed by the consuls for a period of no more than six months, after the proposition of the Senate. [10] While the dictator held office, the imperium of the consuls was suspended.

Imperial duties

After Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC with the establishment of the principate, the consuls lost most of their powers and responsibilities under the Roman Empire. Though still officially the highest office of the state, with the emperor’s superior imperium they were merely a symbol of Rome’s republican heritage. The consular position was often occupied by emperors themselves and eventually became reserved solely for the emperor. However, the imperial consuls still maintained the right to preside at meetings of the Senate, exercising this right at the pleasure of the emperor [citation needed] . They partially administered justice in extraordinary cases, and presented games in the Circus Maximus and all public solemnities in honor of the emperor at their own expense.After the expiration of their offices, the ex-consuls (proconsuls) [citation needed] went on to govern one of the provinces that were administered by the Senate. They usually served terms of three to five years.

What would happen if a Roman consul died mid term?

This seems like a really dumb question, but I can’t find an answer for it. Would the other consul take over? Would they have a re-election? What would happen?

Until the 80s the consuls were military commanders first and foremost, and spent almost all of their time outside the city. This can be seen in lots of the circumstances surrounding the office. For example, the revision of the calendar by shifting the beginning of consular office by adding two extra months before March may be in part a political gesture, to extend the brief time that consuls spent in the city between taking office (originally March 15, then January 1) and going off on campaign. Consular office did not have an age limit until the lex Villia in 180, and extraordinarily young consuls were occasionally elected (e.g. Scipio). But the norm was for consuls to be, shall we say, mature leaders. This, combined with the military aspect of the consulship, made it virtually certain that some consuls--and other magistrates, naturally--were likely to die in office eventually.

In consulship was a particularly knotty problem in that the consuls were the possessors of the auspices, and by religious custom these had to be passed on in an unbroken sequence. Consuls presided over the elections of their successors, and at the end of the year the former consuls laid down the auspices, which were taken up by their successors. Moreover, the auspices were required for the holding of consular elections to begin with. The death of a sitting consul therefore raised not only political and procedural problems, but religious ones as well. In ordinary cases, with the death of a single consul, the surviving consul assumed his auspices and presided over the special election (for which the consul's own auspices would suffice) of a suffect consul, who would take the deceased's position for the remainder of the year. This could cause some issues, such as the need for the surviving consul to return from campaign to elect a suffect, but usually it wasn't too big a deal. In the unfortunate event that both consuls were either killed or incapacitated, which did happen sometimes, the auspices were assumed by an interrex. The interrex, one of the handful of magistracies still exclusive to patricians by the historical period, had no colleague and was, almost uniquely, chosen by the senate from is own ranks, to which he returned after the completion of his duties. The interrex had five days to take the auspices and hold consular elections. If the auspices were bad and forbade the elections, or for some other reason he was unable to complete the elections, after five days the interrex named a successor, who likewise held the position for five days, and so on until the consular elections were held. Normally this action was carried out in an orderly fashion, and only when neither consul could preside over the elections. Towards the end of the Republic this could be an issue, however, as elections frequently became postponed to mere days before the assumption of office and turmoil disrupted normal political procedure. Interreges presided over the elections of Crassus and Pompey for the consulship of 54, and interreges presided over the elections in 53 and 52 as well. Prior to Sulla (elected to the dictatorship with an interrex presiding) interreges had not been appointed since the late third century, after which point consular elections that could not be carried out by either consul were usually handled by briefly-serving dictators who handled the auspices. The last interregnum, in 52, was caused by the rioting that occurred after Clodius' murder by Milo, which prevented the elections from occurring. After fifteen interreges eventually Pompey was made sole consul without election.

This last case is not unimportant, because the conditions under which suffect consuls were supposed to be elected were not always entirely clear. The death of a consul was obvious enough. The death of both consuls clearly necessitated some sort of special action to preserve the auspices, whether interregnum or the appointment of a dictator to preside over the elections--of course, in the most famous example of such a calamity, Octavian assumed an extraordinary magistracy immediately after the deaths of both consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, at Mutina, without resorting to either measure (the dictatorship had been outlawed by Antony recently anyway). But what if a consul was simply no longer a consul? This problem arose in 87, when Cinna was driven from the city and deprived of his consulship by senatorial decree. Under normal circumstances consular office could be revoked, but only by a vote of the people in the centuriate assembly, which was to elect a new consul to replace him. Cinna, Appian tells us, went to the army at Nola (which was not his army, but App. Claudius's, which sort of seems to sink any argument for "client armies" as the cause for civil warfare in the first century) and appealed to them, stating that they, as citizens, had granted him consular office (a common oratorical formula) and that only they had the right to take it away. The senate's actions were therefore, Appian's Cinna says, not only an insult to him but a direct assault on the power of the people to elect the magistrates. The appeal to an army particularly was more than practical, it was symbolic: the consul, as a traditionally military leader, was elected by the centuriate assembly, symbolically the Roman people in their guise as a citizen militia electing its own leaders. Cinna's further argument, that the senate by this move would (if it was allowed to stand as a precedent) legitimize the ignoring of the voting assemblies and take the state for themselves, was clearly effective, and probably was quite a real fear. The language of the texts is somewhat unclear. Appian says the senate (singular, βουλή) outlawed Cinna and that they (ἐχειροτόνησαν, plural) elected Merula as suffect consul. The switch from singular to plural might be Plutarch's expansion of the senate to the body of individual senators (particularly appropriate in an electoral context) or it might be Plutarch switching the subject to the Roman people, who are not explicitly mentioned. Likewise, the verb might mean that the senate itself elected him or that an election (presumably a normal one) was held. It's hard to say--depending on what we think, the election of the suffect consul might have suffered a serious misuse.

In the Principate the suffect consulship gained a new character. The end of free elections (originally still held as a formality, but ultimately abolished entirely) and the primacy of the emperor made the consulship more a mark of formal prestige and imperial favor than anything else. Two consuls were still created (in many years, and often in succession, including the emperor himself), but in addition to these several sets of suffect consuls were created. Initially these pairs took up consular duties for four months each, but eventually this time narrowed to only one month: in some years honorary suffect consuls, who had no actual duties, were also named. Consuls might still die, of course--but in such circumstances not only did it not matter, but they could be replaced easily anyway!

The Roman Principate (27 BC - 284 AD)

The first period of the Roman Empire is called the Roman Principate. During this period, emperors tried to give the illusion of a functioning republic when in fact they had full powers. Rome remained in theory a republic but emperors gradually destroyed all republican values. The Roman Principate was a happy period though. It was actually happier than the Roman Republic, more stable and safer, and. more glorious.

Click on any of the boxes below pertaining to each dynasty:

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The first Roman Principate dynasty: the Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BC- 14 AD)

Emperor Augustus statue in Rome

Despite this, the Roman Principate period under Augustus' rule was more peaceful than the Second Triumvirate and the economy was thriving. Augustus brought what we call the Pax Augusta. Because a lot of people were becoming richer, most of the upper class in Rome supported the emperor. Augustus was also conquering new lands: Cantabria Aquitania, Raetia, Dalmatia, Illyricum and Pannonia. Some of his generals became very popular including Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Nero Claudius Drusus and Germanicus.

Augustus' reign was also rich in literature with authors that are known to this day including poets such Vergil, Ovid and Horace and historians such as Livy. Furthermore, August changed the Roman calendar and introduced the month of August.

Tiberius (reign: 14 AD - 37 AD)
Augustus had a wife called Livia Drusilla. Livia had a son from a previous marriage called Tiberius. She pressured Augustus to have her son named as his heir. The Senate agreed and Tiberius received all the honors and held the title of princeps.

Tiberius had no interest in politics though. He retired to the island of Capri as soon as 26 AD (after getting the approval of the Senate). The city of Rome was now under the control of Sejanus and later Macro (both praetorian prefects) from 26 to 31 A.D. and from 31 A.D. to 37 A.D. respectively. Many Romans considered Tiberius as an evil emperor. They suspected him of killing his own relatives, General Germanicus (who, as we previously pointed out, was one of the very popular generals) and even his own son Drusus Julius Caesar!

Tiberius died of old age in 37 AD even though historian Tacitus gives us another account: Romans first rejoiced when news spread of Tiberius' death (from natural causes) but they became quiet upon hearing that he had recovered from his illness. Caligula and Macro then choked him to death and Romans rejoiced again.

Caligula (reign: 37 AD - 41 AD)
Caligula was Tiberius' grand nephew. There was no male in Tiberius' bloodline old enough to rule the Empire, therefore Caligula was chosen. Even today the name Caligula brings to mind the image of a mad and cruel emperor. But Caligula was actually quite popular at the beginning of his reign. It is only two years into his reign that he became mad. Historians of the time state that he organized orgies, had sexual relationships with his sisters, killed men for fun and even named a horse consul. Caligula didn't last long though. 4 years into his reign he was killed by the Praetorian Guard.

Claudius (reign: 41 AD - 54 AD)
The Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius as the new emperor with the full approval of the Senate. Claudius was Tiberius' nephew. Nobody could have ever imagined that he would one day become emperor. He didn't have the charisma, he was limping and was even slightly deaf. But he was the only man belonging to the Claudian family alive following Caligula's assassination.

Claudius turned out to be a decent emperor in the Roman Principate. His reign lasted 13 years. He wasn't as cruel as his predecessors. He managed the empire efficiently. He built many new roads, canals and aqueducts. He also conquered Thrace, Lycia and Judaea, and even started the conquest of Britain.

Nero (reign: 54 AD - 68 AD)
Claudius's reign ended when his wife Agrippina the younger poisoned him in 54 AD. Agrippina had a son from a previous marriage called Nero whom she wanted to become emperor and Nero was proclaimed emperor upon Claudius' death.

Nero is remembered to this day as a cruel and brutal emperor of the Roman Principate. Many Romans suspected him of being behind the Great Fire of Rome during the Roman Principate(according to legend, Nero was fiddling as Rome was burning). He is also known for executing many Christians. Nero faced many revolts that he squashed including the Jewish revolt also known as the First Jewish-Roman War. Eventually many in the Roman aristocracy turned against him including the entire Senate and Nero committed suicide.

Flavian dynasty (69 - 96 AD)

Year of the Four Emperors
Nero's death in 68 A.D. was followed by a brief civil war and what we call the Year of the Four Emperors during the Roman Principate. The year between 68 and 69 A.D. saw four emperors: Galba, then Otho, then Vitellius, and then Vespasian.

Vespasian (reign: 69 AD - 79 AD)
In July 69 A.D. Vespasian was the first emperor of the Flavian Dynasty in the Roman Principate. Vespasian was a general under Claudius and Nero and during the First Jewish-Roman war. Vespasian was overall a good emperor, known for rebuilding many buildings in Rome following the Great Fire of Rome, and building many new ones including the Flavian Amphitheater known today as the Colosseum which was built with the wealth acquired during the First Jewish-Roman War!

Titus (reign: 79 AD - 81 AD)
Titus was Vespasian's son and he had fought with his father during the First Jewish-Roman War. His reign was pretty short as he died from an illness (a severe fever) in 81 A.D.. Titus completed the construction of the Colosseum and organized games that lasted for one hundred days. These games actually celebrated the victory over the Jews and re-enacted battles, including naval battles inside the giant Colosseum. Gladiators fought to death and there were also impressive chariot races. Titus built many roads throughout the empire and fortifications in what is today Germany and Northern England.

Domitian (81 - 96 AD)
Dominitian was a totalitarian emperor during the Roman Principate who wanted to become the new Augustus. He wanted to establish the cult of himself, by comparing him to the Gods. He wanted to be called Dominus et Deus which means Master and God in latin. The Roman aristocracy didn't like him and he eventually was murdered by a conspiracy.

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96-192 AD)

The Nerva-Antonine dynasty was a good period for Rome during the Roman Principate. It was a stable period with no civil wars and no military defeats abroad. During this period, the Roman Empire reached its apex in terms of territory and its economy was thriving. The provinces in the Empire were more united. Emperors were selected based on their qualities and not their bloodline which is remarkable for that time. Also the constitution was respected and reverred and the Senate had more authority.

Nerva (reign: 96- 98 AD)
Nerva was selected and appointed by the Senate. Nerva was of noble ancestry. He had previously been an advisor during Nero's reign and the Flavian dynasty. Nerva restored many of the freedoms that were supressed by Dominitian and Rome's economy was thriving under his rule.

Trajan (reign: 98 - 117 AD)
Nerva had named general Trajan as his heir. Trajan was a popular general in the Roman Principate. He became the first emperor of non-Italian descent. His family was from Hispania and was not patrician. Romans were very enthusiastic about Trajan in part because of his victories as a general.

Trajan turned out to be a good emperor. He followed on Nerva's policy by reinstoring many of the freedoms lost under Domitian. Many people were freed, private property that had been confiscated during Domitian's reign was returned. Trajan is also remembered for all the construction works under his reign, for example: the Trajan Market, the Trajan Forum and Trajan's column, noting that all these buildings dating from the Roman Principate can be seen today. He also built a large bridge over the Danube in Dacia.

Trajan Market in Rome

Trajan managed to conquer Dacia, a kingdom which had humiliated Domitian in the past. There were two Dacian wars: in the First Dacian War (101-102 AD) Dacia became a client state in the Second Dacian War (105-106 AD) the Dacian army was completely destroyed and Dacia became part of the Roman Empire. Trajan also integrated another client state to the Empire: the state of Nabatea (located in today's southern Syria and northern Jordan). He also conquered Parthia (located in today's north-eastern Iran). Trajan went to war with Parthia over Armenia. Rome and Parthia shared control of Armenia. Parthia appointed a king that Rome did not like and as a result Trajan declared war. In 113, Roman troops entered Armenia and removed the king. In 115, Trajan entered Mesopotamia and conquered the cities of Nisibis ad Batnae. In 116, he conquered Seleucia and then Ctesiphon which was the capital of Parthia. In 117, Trajan died of an illness.

Hadrian (reign: 117 - 138 AD)
Trajan named Hadrian as his heir. One of the first initiatives that Hadrian took was to remove the Roman troops from Parthia and Mesopotamia and therefore loose these conquests.

The Roman economy continued to thrive under Hadrian during the Roman Principate. But Hadrian did not conquer new lands. He was a rather peaceful emperor and a humanitarian. He is known for his defensive strategies including Hadrian's Wall in northern England. He would travel to every province in the Empire to check on the military and its defenses.

He also introduced laws against torture which is quite remarkable for his day. Hadrian loved Greek culture. The Hadrian's Arch in Athens can still be admired today. He built libraries, theaters and a lot of infrastructure including many public baths and aqueducts.

Antoninus Pius (reign: 138 - 161 AD)
Antonius continued Hadrian's policies. He maintained his humanitarian laws and promoted culture and knowledge. For example, he built theaters, set up financial rewards for teachers of philosophy. He also expanded the empire in England by conquering southern Scotland and building the Antonine Wall.

Marcus Aurelius (reign: 161 - 180 AD)
Marcus Aurelius was known as the Philosopher and even wrote a philosophy book called Meditations. He ruled the Empire during this period of the Roman Principate with a co-Emperor called Lucius Verus. He fought the Marcomannic wars against the Parthian Empire. During his reign, the Empire was affected by the Antonine Plague a pandemic which killed close to 5 million people.

Commodus (reign: 180 - 192 AD)
Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius thereby breaking with the tradition of having a new emperor chosen based on his qualities. All the previous emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty were known as the Five Good Emperors. However, Commodus was not one of them. He was very different from his predecessors. For example, he executed many Roman citizens, he participated in gladiatorial combats. He was also a decadent in his personal life.

The Severan dynasty (192-235 AD)

Commodus was eventually killed by a conspiracy organized by Quintus Aemilius Laetus and his wife. The next year was a year of turmoil with Roman generals fighting for power. Eventually after many battles (including one in Gaul) General Septimius Severus became the new emperor.

Septimius Severus (reign: 192 - 211 AD)
Severus is not remembered as good emperor either. He actually wanted to restore a totalitarian state and he admired Marius and Sulla (both also known for their cruelty). In a speech in the Senate, he praised Sulla which had many senators worried.

Septimius Severus had the support of the legions. But he also paid the legions comfortably for this support. Eventually military expenditures became very high and a financial crisis emerged at the beginning of the 3rd century.

Severus was known for his fierceness and brutality on the battlefield. When Parthia entered Roman territory, Severus attacked and looted many Parthian cities including Babylon, Seleucia, Nisibis and the Parthian capital Ctesiphon. Many people were captured and executed. However the invasion of Parthia didn't end well. Many of his legions starved to death and eventually Severus had to withdraw.

Severus also intended to complete the conquest of Britain. He went to war with the Caledonians. However his army suffered a lot of casualties: the terrain was difficult and the barbarians there used the equivalent of guerilla warfare. The ferocious Severus fought himself on the battlefield but was struck down by illness and died in 211 AD.

Caracalla (reign: 211 - 217 AD)
Severus had two sons: Caracalla and Geta. Both became emperors upon his death but Caracalla quickly removed his brother. Caracalla resembled his father: he was a man of war and he was cruel. He executed many people including people close to him like his tutor or a close friend of his father. However he had the respect of the legions.

The best example of Caracalla's cruelty is the killing of most inhabitants of Alexandria. Caracalla knew that most people in Alexandria didn't like him. So he travelled to Alexandria. He had a banquet and invited Alexandria's high society. In the middle of the banquet his soldiers killed all the guests. Then Caracalla marched in Alexandria with his army and killed almost the entire city's population.

Caracalla is known for the Edict of Caracalla which gave Roman citizenship to all free men living in the Empire. He is also known for the baths of Caracalla in Rome which can still be seen today. Caracalla was killed by one of his soldiers during a campaign in Parthia in 217 A.D.. Actually the soldier just carried out an order from the Praetorian prefect Macrinus.

Elagabalus (reign: 218 - 222 AD)
Macrinus was in power for less than one year. Elagabalus who was a member of the Severi and fought against Macrinus with the support of the legions. Elagabalus was however incompetent as a ruler. He is also remembered for his extravagant lifestyle.

Alexander Severus (reign: 222 - 235 AD)
Alexander Severus was Elagabalus' cousin. Alexander had to face many conflicts during his reign. He had to fight a war with Persia and then another with invaders from Germania in Gaul. Alexander suffered great losses and many soldiers were displeased with him. Eventually he was killed by his very own soldiers during his campaign in Germania.

Crisis of the 3rd century

A period of political chaos ensued the death of Alexander Severus. There were in total 26 emperors in the ensuing 49 years of the last period of the Roman Principate. Most of these emperors became emperors through war and most did not belong to old noble Roman families.

A combination of very negative factors made things even worse towards the end of the Roman Principate: civil wars breaking out throughout the Empire, foreign invasions, a deep economic depression combined with hyperinflation and even pandemics spreading like fire (including the Plague of Cyprian in 250 AD). Actually the emperors were not concerned about the economy or defending the borders of the Empire but only about staying in power. Roman people gradually started loosing faith in their old religions and values and increasing turned to Christianity and the cult of Mithra.

In 260 AD the provinces of Egypt, Palaestina, Syria and Asia Minor separated from the Empire and formed the Palmyrene Empire ruled by Queen Zenobia from Palmyra in Syria. In that very same year, Britain and Gaul broke out too and formed the Gallic Empire. Rome lost its importance in the Empire. It is only during the reign of Aurelian (reign: 271 - 275 AD) that the Gallic and Palmyrene Empire were reconquered. The crisis totally ended during the reign of Diocletian at the end of the Roman Principate.

What exactly did consuls do during the Roman Empire?

I have a few questions all rolled into one, so I'm going to bullet them for ease of reading:

Did consuls (particularly those that weren't also part of the imperial family) continue to have substantive responsibilities during the Empire, and if so, what were they? And did a consulship under Augustus look different than, say, a consulship under Aurelian or Diocletian?

As the Republic transitioned to the Principate, was it more or less immediately apparent that the consulate was now effectively a figurehead position doled out by the emperor, or was it still seen as a prestigious and influential role?

Did Romans continue to use consular dating during the Empire ("in the year of the consulship of X and Y"), or was that replaced by dating events by the year of an emperor's reign?

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Consuls had very little real power in the principate, although they did fulfill certain ceremonial and religious functions. During the empire, most consuls did not actually serve for very long: the ordinary consuls, who still technically gave their names to the year (although dating by emperors tribunician powers quickly became the most common form of year dating), took office and then usually stepped down after 2-6 months. This allowed for new suffect consuls to be elected these in turn might only serve a few months. It was therefore not uncommon in any given year for more than six men to be consul, thus spreading the honor around. Obviously, being an ordinary consul was more prestigious than being a suffect, although often an ordinary consul had previously served as suffect.

The consulship in the empire was therefore less a practical office than an honor and a status. But while consuls were basically ceremonial, consular men were very important people in the empire and its administration, and were eligible for the most important provincial governorships, either as legati Augusti (the emperor's lieutenants commanding provinces with military forces) in key provinces or the few proconsular governorships, with the proconsular positions in either Africa or Asia generally seen as the pinnacle of a senatorial career.

So Imperial consuls in their *very* short term in office didn't do much. But generally they had done quite a bit to warrant the honor, which marked them out for even more important assignments afterwards.

Augustus & The Founding Of The Principate

Governors in senatorial provinces would be recalled and tried before the senate
Augustus improved the road network throughout the empire to aid communications - news of unacceptable behaviour in the provinces would reach him more quickly

Augustus also extended the imperial post to the provinces, again to aid communication
Provincial Councils were established to promote the imperial cult (i.e. worship of the emperor) these were made up of men representing the different areas in a province they helped unify the empire behind Augustus they could voice complaints against a governor and were a useful check on his power.

Augustus established numerous military colonies throughout the empire these were settlements of veteran soldiers military colonies encouraged the spread of Romanization and the stability of the empire.

Local communities within the empire often had a high degree of self-government - the local elite were allowed to rule as they had done in the past, so long as this didn't damage Roman interests.

Sulla's Reforms as Dictator

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (l. 138 - 78 BCE) enacted his constitutional reforms (81 BCE) as dictator to strengthen the Roman Senate's power. Sulla was born in a very turbulent era of Rome's history, which has often been described as the beginning of the fall of the Roman Republic. The political climate was marked by civil discord and rampant political violence where voting in the Assembly was sometimes settled by armed gangs. There were two primary opposing factions in Roman politics: the Optimates who emphasized the leadership and prominent role of the Senate, and the Populares who generally advocated for the rights of the people.

During this era, senatorial power was curbed and significant progress was made for the rights of the common folk, particularly the magistracy of tribune of the plebs, which was specifically created to be a guardian of the people. Sulla was an Optimate and after his rise to power, he declared himself dictator and passed several reforms to the constitution to revitalize and restore senatorial power to what it once was. Although his reforms did not last very long, his legacy greatly influenced Roman politics in the final years of the Republic until it fell in 27 BCE.


Sulla & the Late Roman Republic

Sulla was born into an ancient patrician family and so could trace his ancestry back to the original senators appointed by Romulus, the founder of Rome. Part of the cursus honorum, the unspoken but accepted career ladder of public office, was to first serve as a military officer before being able to run for public office. Sulla, by way of his patrician rank, skipped military service and was elected to the junior magistracy of quaestor in 108 BCE. He quickly made a name for himself as an excellent commander and negotiator serving under consul Gaius Marius (l. 157 - 86 BCE) - a Populare who served an extraordinary five consecutive consulships from 104 - 100 BCE - in the Jugurthine War (112 - 106 BCE). A disagreement between Marius and Sulla over who was truly responsible for Jugurtha's capture was the first seed of hatred between the two which would lead to Rome's first major civil war.

Sulla was elected praetor urbanus in 97 BCE and was governor of the province of Cilicia in Asia Minor the following year. The Senate ordered Sulla to reinstate King Ariobarzanes - a friend of Rome - back on the Cappadocian throne because he had been ousted by King Mithridates VI of Pontus (r. 120-63 BCE) who wanted to insert his son as the Cappadocian king. Sulla proved successful and was even hailed by his soldiers as imperator, or victorious commander.


In the Late Republic, Italians had long desired Roman citizenship and equal say in politics and power. The Romans had a knack for teasing the Italians with citizenship but never going the full distance in actually passing a law granting the Italians what they wanted. This civil discord reached a critical point in 91 BCE, the start of the Social War, between Rome and Italians who were eventually granted citizenship in 89 BCE after massive casualties on both sides. During the Social War, Sulla had independent command over legions in Southern Italy where he laid siege to the Italian city of Pompeii and successfully fended off armies attempting to aid Pompeii. He fought valiantly and his soldiers awarded him with the Grass Crown (corona graminea), the highest military honor. This military success made him immensely popular back in Rome and won him the consulship of 88 BCE.

Marius vs. Sulla

During his consulship, he was given eastern command of the legions to face King Mithridates VI of Pontus, one of Rome's most formidable enemies, who was wreaking havoc in the east. Mithridates VI had amassed an empire and surrounded himself with allies, and during Sulla's consulship, he ordered all cities in his Asian territories to murder all Romans and Italians. Not even women and children were spared. But before Sulla could embark on his trip to the east and defeat Mithridates VI, Marius and his ally, Sulpicius, using armed gangs and 600 equestrians as a bodyguard had 'convinced' the Assembly to remove Sulla's eastern command and had it transferred it to Marius. Marius then deployed two military tribunes to assume command of Sulla's army.

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In one of the crucial turning points in Rome's history, Sulla then gave not a military speech to his soldiers, but a political one, in which he roused his 35,000 legionaries and riled them up about the wrongs done to him and them. The east was known for its endless riches and Marius was now robbing them of the bountiful eastern plunder that would have been theirs. Sulla's stirring speech was successful, and his legions were now loyal to Sulla alone. When Marius' tribunes finally arrived, Sulla's soldiers murdered them. They then commenced their march on Rome to take back what was rightfully theirs. When asked why he would march soldiers against his own country, he replied, “to deliver her from tyrants”. Sulla, the first person to conquer Rome, then overturned Marius and Sulpicius' actions and reinstated himself as consul. Sulla and his legions had the coveted eastern command once again and Marius was forced to flee Rome.

While Sulla was in the East, his strategy was to remove Mithridates VI's control over Greece so he laid siege to Athens in the winter of 87-86 BCE. It was during this time he heard the news that Marius and his faction had returned and captured Rome, passing a decree which declared Sulla an enemy of the state. Marius then cut off money from Sulla's campaign, so he was forced to tax the local Greeks to fund his campaign. Suddenly, back in Rome, Marius died from pneumonia in 86 BCE. Sulla continued his business in the east, finally capturing Athens, successfully winning the Battle of Chaeronea (86 BCE) and the Battle of Orchomenus (85 BCE), convincingly ousting Mithridates' presence, and reinstating Roman authority in Greece. He then spent his time settling and organizing the province of Asia until he finally returned to Italy in 83 BCE to confront Marius' faction in Rome's first civil war.


Sulla and his veteran legions swept through Italy, persuading enemy legions to defect to his side and defeating in battle those who did not. He demonstrated great clemency in forgiving people and cities who decided to change sides. However, once he arrived victorious in Rome, he shed the merciful persona and proscribed (proscriptio) his enemies. The proscriptions were tablets with the names of people who were to be killed for bounty and their land confiscated. In the end, about a hundred senators and over a thousand equestrians perished.

Now that Sulla was wholly unopposed, the remaining Senate annulled the decree which made him an enemy of the state and ordered a statue of Sulla to be put up in front of the Forum Romanum. In order to legitimize his authority, Sulla then suggested that they revive the ancient office of dictator. It had been 120 years since Rome last had a dictator. The Senate, devoid of opposition, was forced to comply with his suggestion, appointing him as dictator to create laws and settle the constitution. Dictators were only appointed in times of great emergency when there was no other option but to entrust all authority and power to one person to save Rome. In the past, a dictator's term was for six months and their powers were essentially limitless. They had power over life and death and could declare war and peace, appoint and remove senators, as well as the power to found and demolish cities. Sulla, however, had no time limit imposed on his dictatorship and therefore could take as long as he needed to settle the constitution.

Reforms to the Constitution

Sulla, now dictator, appeared before the Senate with the powers of a king. 24 fasces were held in front of him as dictator, the same amount that was held before the ancient kings. As perhaps Sulla's most important reform as dictator, he severely diminished the power and prestige of the tribunes of the plebs. Tribunes were originally created to be guardians of the people. Their legal power (potestas) was vast, and because of the progress and precedents made by Populare tribunes, such as Tiberius Gracchus in 131 BCE, when he bypassed the Senate and presented his land reform laws directly to the Assembly, their power grew even stronger.


Sulla sought to undo these advancements, so he required that a tribune must seek permission from the Senate before introducing a law. Furthermore, he got rid of the tribune's all-important veto power. Sulla also stripped the office of its lure and prestige. He decreed that anyone who held the magistracy of tribune should never hold any other magistracy afterward. Understandably, the position was shunned by anyone who wanted to make a name for themselves in politics. The once-great office of tribune with its storied background as protector of the people was now just a shadow of what it once was.

Sulla also formalized the cursus honorum. He forbade anyone to hold the magistracy of praetor until after he had first been a quaestor or to be elected consul before he had been a praetor. He also prohibited any man from holding the same magistracy consecutively. Instead, he would have to wait ten years until he could hold the same office again. Furthermore, he decreed that two years must pass in between magistracies. He also expanded the number of quaestors to twenty and praetors to eight. This growing number of magistrates were needed to govern and administrate an ever-expanding empire.

Another Sullan reform saw that provincial governors would not overstay their welcome in their provinces, greatly reducing their chance to build a personal army to lead against political rivals or Rome itself, as Sulla had done. Because there were a greater number of magistrates under Sulla's reforms, this led to governors not needing to stay in their province long because there were now ample magistrates to fill a vacancy in a province after his one-year term ended. Furthermore, if a governor were to abuse or exceed his powers, they would be tried in the Treason Court (maiestas).


Because the Senate had been significantly thinned out by war, not to mention by Sulla's own proscriptions, he doubled the roll of the Senate from 300 to 600. The Senate had whittled down to a couple of hundred members after his proscriptions, so there were 400 empty spots to fill. As dictator, Sulla himself appointed many of the new Senators from a group of equestrians that he deemed worthy to be promoted to the rank of senator. For the remaining spots, he took recommendations from different people and created a large group of grateful senators thankful for their promotion in rank. The Senate was gaining power as well as strength in numbers.

In one of his most important reforms, Sulla reinstated senatorial power into the courts. Court juries were wielded as an extremely powerful tool at the time. A Populare wanted the jury to be made up of equestrians and an Optimate wanted a jury of senators. If a jury was filled with senators, then as one could expect, they rarely found their senatorial colleagues guilty, but a jury comprised of equestrians would lose very little sleep over convicting a senator accused of corruption. Populares and Optimates constantly fought each other on this. Sulla's reform reversed the tribune Gaius Gracchus' reform to the Extortion Court when he barred senators from being jurors. Sulla then set up seven new permanent courts for murder, counterfeiting and forgery, electoral fraud, embezzlement, treason, personal injury, and provincial extortion.

Sulla cast a long shadow over the Republic in these years. The Senate was very much his creation, purged of all his opponents who had failed to defect to him in time, and packed with his partisans. As a body he had strengthened the Senate's position, restoring the senatorial monopoly over juries in the courts and severely limiting the power of the tribunate. Other legislation, for instance a law restricting the behavior of provincial governors, was intended to prevent any other general from following the dictator's own example and turning the legions against the State. (Goldsworthy, Caesar, 92)

In addition to his reforms, Sulla used his powers as dictator to enact vengeance not just in Rome, but across the Italian regions that opposed him. Among the forms of punishment were massacre, exile, and confiscation for those who obeyed his enemies during the civil war. Their crime could be as little as housing his enemy, lending them money, or doing them any kind of kindness. When charges against individuals were not successful, Sulla took revenge on entire towns. He punished some by destroying their citadels or tearing down their walls, or by imposing fines and suffocating them with heavy taxes and tributes. Sulla set up his troops in colonies in the land and houses of the cities that he took revenge on.


Once he settled the constitution, he laid down the dictatorship. The following year in 80 BCE he was elected consul. In 79 BCE he retired from Roman politics altogether and went to live in his country house in Campania where he could try to finish writing his memoirs. According to Plutarch, Sulla foresaw his death in a dream and he stopped writing his memoirs two days before he died in 78 BCE.

Although Sulla's constitution was obediently followed by other Optimates such as Pompey (l. 106 - 48 BCE) and Crassus (l. 115/112 - 53 BCE) - Sulla's reforms would ultimately not endure. He sought to remedy the problems that plagued the Republic, but his solution to the problem was one-sided and only strengthened senatorial power while severely curbing the power of the tribune of the plebs and non-senatorial ranks.

Julius Caesar (l. 100 - 44 BCE) during his time as military tribune spoke out in favor of restoring the powers of tribune which Sulla had thoroughly dismantled. In 75 BCE, Caesar had his uncle, Caius Aurelius Cotta who was consul that year, to pass a bill that allowed former tribunes to seek other magistracies. This was a very important undoing of one of Sulla's key reforms because now the tribunate was no longer a dead-end magistracy, paving the way for ambitious politicians to seek the office once again.

Caesar also reformed and improved another Sullan reform. He had long held interest in the administration of the provinces and his most renowned court appearances were prosecutions of corrupt and oppressive governors. His reforms on the role and behavior of Roman provincial governors would be the standard for centuries to come. Cicero later described Caesar's reform as an “excellent law”. Lastly, Sulla's law of permitting only senators on juries was overturned when praetor Lucius Aurelius Cotta allowed juries to be comprised of both senators and equestrians, leveling the power balance.

Watch the video: Consuls (July 2022).


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