The government of the Roman Republic came with a series of checks and balances that in theory prevented the abuse of power by ambitious politicians. One of these limitations of power came from the fact that Romans would elect two consuls instead of just one. For the entirety of the Republican period of about 5 centuries, these two consuls would share executive power over the Roman Republic.
There are 3 reasons why the Roman Republic would have 2 consuls instead of just one. First, having two consuls prevented one consul from abusing their power and becoming a king. Second, Roman custom and tradition dictated that there should always be two powers in the Republic the people and Senate, and the two consuls reflected this. Third, the Romans believed that in times of war armies would be more effective if two consuls served instead of one.
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Without further ado, here are the 3 reasons why the Roman Republic had 2 consuls instead of just one.
Having Two Consuls Prevented One From Abusing Their Power
One of the main reasons why the Roman Republic always had two consuls instead of one was to prevent the abuse of power. When the Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC the Roman people had kicked out the Roman kings. One of the biggest fears of any Roman during the time of the Republic was to have a king return to rule over the Roman people.
To prevent this fear from ever becoming a reality the Roman people would elect two consuls to rule over the Republic and share power. The elected Roman consuls would take turns leading by holding the bipennis or Fasces, a bundle of sticks with an axe in the middle. The sticks would be bound with leather around both the top and bottom.
The consuls would alternate power each month. This forced the consuls to have to work together as less than a month later the other consul could completely negate their actions. While there are some instances of consuls during the Republic going ‘rouge’ a majority of the time they would share power equally. The Roman people themselves also provided a check on the abuse of power by the consuls by electing a Tribune from among them who could veto any action performed by the consuls during times of peace.
The Roman Republic had elected two consuls as a way of limiting the abuse of power by each consul. Since each consul switched off every month and only served for one year one consul had only 6 months of the year to enact their ambitions and plans. The idea was that consuls were representative of the people of Rome and were answerable to them.
Roman Republican Custom Dictated That All Power Should Be Split Into Two
The second reason why the Roman Republic always had two consuls instead of just one is because of how Romans believed power should be distributed in their society. From the beginning of Rome whenever there was just one person in power it always lead to a dictatorship and abuse of power, the foundation myth of Romulus and Remus demonstrates this.
Across Roman society, all power is divided into two groups of people. For much of the Republic, this power was centralized around the Roman Senate and the Roman People. Many people don’t understand how delicate the balance between these two groups of people was.
Across the entirety of the Roman Republic there existed a power struggle between the people of Rome and the Optimates. From the foundation of the Republic in 509 BC up until 287 BC, the Roman Senate would continue to grow more powerful and dominate all political power in the Roman Republic.
This destabilized the power dynamic of the Roman Republic and in 287 BC the Plebians of Rome, the average people, stormed out of the city during a time of war. This caused the Roman Senate to cave and allow the Plebians to elect a Tribune from among them that could provide a check on the Senate and consular power.
This two power dynamic also boiled over to the consuls of Rome. It was ingrained in the society of the Roman Republic that all power should be shared between two individuals or groups. This remains one of the main reasons why the Roman Republic always had two consuls instead of just one.
During Times Of War The Roman Republic Used Two Consuls To Help Lead It Instead Of One
The third reason why the Roman Republic always elected two consuls instead of just one was that it was believed that having two consuls would be better than one during times of war.
The theory was that one consul would lead the army into battle while the other would stay back in Rome and govern the city. However, as the Roman Republic progressed and the demand for battlefield glory clouded the minds of the Roman Senators both consuls would start leading the legions into battle.
Normally this would not be a problem unless the Romans were going up against an enemy that knew of this weakness of communication. This was because there would be a breakdown of communication between the consuls in the heat of combat. This problem of communication was exposed by Hannibal in one of the largest battlefield defeats in human history; the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.
During this battle, Hannibal managed to expose the breakdown of intelligence between the two consuls and annihilate a Roman army of around 70,000 soldiers. After this battle, the people of Rome broke their own constitution and allowed generals to become sole commanders over the legions of Rome instead of splitting power between two consuls.
However, the reason why the Roman Republic elected two consuls was that it was believed that during times of war having two consuls was better than just one. After the Battle of Cannae one consul or general was allowed to have sole command over an army while the other consul was left in Rome.
There you have it; an entire article going over why the Roman Republic had two consuls instead of one.
For the entirety of the Roman Republic, there were two consuls that share power equally. These consuls at the end of the Republic could have been elected by anybody in ancient Rome, but they typically were elected from Senatorial families. Potential graduate students of history will find substantial amounts of research possibilities in the actions of the consuls of the Roman Republic.
Here at The History Ace, I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing it around the web.
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