During the Roman Republic, the consul was the highest elected official after the censor. Consuls were elected annually by the Centuriate Assembly, serving jointly with alternating leadership each month. They held imperium, governing both Rome and its provinces. The dual consulship was designed to prevent the concentration of power in one individual, allowing each consul to veto the other’s actions.
Initially called praetors, consuls were chief military commanders. The consulship was believed to date back to the establishment of the Republic in 509 BC, but it faced interruptions, notably by consular tribunes. Plebeians gained access to the consulship in 367 BC. During war, military skill was crucial for consul selection, while in peacetime, consuls held significant administrative, legislative, and judicial powers.
Under the Empire, the consulship became symbolic, with emperors often nominating themselves or their allies. Augustus modified the suffect consulate, and consuls were de facto nominated by the princeps. The ordinary consulate remained prestigious, but its value diminished over time due to increased appointments and younger age requirements. Constantine I divided the consuls between Rome and Constantinople, and the office eventually lost its significance, with the Western consulship ending in 534 and the Eastern consulship in 541.
In the 6th century, the consulship declined and was abolished by Emperor Leo the Wise in the late 9th century. In the West, the Papacy occasionally bestowed the title of consul, notably offering it to Charles Martel in 719 and designating Alfred the Great as consul around 853.