Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.42

Francisco Pina Polo, The Consul at Rome: the Civil Functions of the Consuls in the Roman Republic.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 379.  ISBN 9780521190831.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by David Rafferty, University of Melbourne (


In Book 6 of his History, Polybius gave us a highly theoretical account of the Roman politeia. whereas Livy preferred to show the political system in action, telling us about the men and institutions functioning in concrete situations. Most modern scholars of Roman institutions have followed the first approach: from Mommsen through to Lintott, works on public law and the constitution have tended to be normative and schematic in nature.1 Pina Polo, by contrast, deliberately sets himself against such an attitude, and in doing so reveals himself as an unabashed Livian: “this monograph intends to have an entirely empirical rather than a theoretical approach” (p. 3). This methodological choice means that the book will serve as an important resource for scholars in various fields of Republican history, but it also allows Pina Polo to avoid certain long-running controversies on the consulship (such as the nature of imperium and the meaning of the curiate law). Such controversies are not central to his purpose; the only one with which he engages is the non-existence of Sulla’s lex Cornelia de provinciis ordinandis. Here he devotes a chapter to supporting the arguments of Balsdon and Giovannini and adding further evidence where necessary; surely this matter can now be considered closed.2

The author presents his book as the first monograph on the Republican consulship for many years. After decades of neglect, the study of Roman political institutions is again coming into vogue, with a conference proceedings on consuls and consulars to be published in 2011.3 But Pina Polo is not attempting to do for the consulship what Brennan did for the praetorship.4 Firstly, his focus is only on the consuls’ civil works, and so he leaves the whole question of military leadership out. Secondly, this is not a prosopographical book, since the prosopography of the Republican consuls has already been thoroughly investigated. And thirdly, Pina Polo does not make a comprehensive argument across the whole book about the evolution of the consulship as an institution. The strength of the book is rather its large collection of examples of Republican consuls at work. He does, however, present arguments on particular issues in many of the chapters, and it is to these that we must turn.

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these (which comprises the bulk of the monograph) deals with the consulship from 367 to 81 BC. It is based fundamentally on the testimony of Livy, citations of whom take up six and a half pages in the index of sources (by way of comparison, there are two and a half pages of Ciceronian citations). Chapter 1 describes the rituals and conventions which accompanied the start of the consuls’ term of office, and the different days on which they assumed office in different periods. The next two chapters focus on the two responsibilities which normally occupied consuls at the beginning of the year before they departed on campaign: religion and diplomacy. Chapter 2’s discussion of the consuls’ religious duties rightly concentrates on the maintenance or restoration of the pax deorum as the most important aspect. Here, Pina Polo emphasises the public nature of the expiation of prodigies: an adverse omen was only a prodigy requiring expiation if the Senate accepted it as such, while the consuls’ role was to conduct the necessary rituals. Interestingly, prodigies reported the previous year were “saved up” to be expiated by the incoming consuls. Pina Polo also notes the consuls’ duty of presiding over the feriae Latinae: only on fulfilling this obligation could they depart to their provinces. While in this section he mostly reports the different times at which the festival was celebrated, it would have been helpful to explore the importance of the completion of this ritual for legitimating a consul’s right to command.

Chapter 3 deals with diplomacy, and here Pina Polo emphasises the Senate’s supremacy in this field alongside the consuls’ essential role as agents in the diplomatic process. The focus in this chapter is on the practical constraints which created the conventions of diplomacy; it is a triumph of good sense. Diplomatic relations often determined Rome’s military focus for the coming year, while it was essential for the consuls to act as intermediaries between foreign embassies and the Senate. Both these factors ensured that diplomatic activity was concentrated in the first months of the year, when the consuls were still present in Rome. Pina Polo illustrates this general truth with a wealth of examples from Livy’s fourth and fifth decades, taking care to explore what we are able to learn from the historian’s reports.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the consuls’ relations with the People, through edicts, speeches and the sponsorship of laws. Chapter 4 is largely a collection of examples of the many different subjects on which consuls issued edicts, and the ways in which consuls used their auctoritas to weigh in on political controversies. Pina Polo reaches the unsurprising conclusion that, while consuls could be effective in politics, their absence from the city for the bulk of the year curtailed their importance. In his discussion of consular legislation in Chapter 5, the author is chiefly concerned with Sandberg’s thesis that before the first century consuls legislated only on military issues.5 After presenting a list of consular measures which he thinks disproves this contention, Pina Polo concludes that, again, it was mostly the consuls’ absence from the city in the second century and earlier which limited their legislative prominence.

Chapter 6 looks at consular jurisdiction; here Pina Polo rightly notes that consuls are almost never described as actually interfering in routine matters. The chapter is instead devoted to examples of special investigations such as the suppression of the Bacchanalia. Chapter 7 contains an extensive survey of consular involvement in public works, where the author weighs into the debate on the promotion of road-building: he sees strong consular involvement in road-building in the second century and attests several likely examples. There is also a useful discussion of consuls’ involvement in the various stages of temple-construction, where Pina Polo notes the clear pattern in which “the process of construction and consecration was linked as closely as possible to the person who had made the vow and to his family, which essentially turned each of the temples into a monument to the prestige and glory of its promoter and his descendants” (p. 168).

Chapters 8 and 9 look at land distribution and the appointment of dictators respectively. Chapter 10 examines consuls presiding over the consular elections, although there is little here about procedure. Instead, Pina Polo concentrates on the question of which consul had the responsibility for conducting the elections, responding to a question explored by Taylor and Broughton in 1949.6 He argues (convincingly, in my view) that the seniority of the consul was not important: the matter was flexible, and determined by the military situation in Italy and the consular provinces in each year. This is then followed by a summary chapter on the consular year.

Part 2 of the book is considerably shorter, consisting of three chapters about the consulship between Sulla and Caesar. The first, as mentioned above, restates Giovannini’s case that there was no Sullan law compelling consuls to remain in Rome throughout their year in office; in view of the subject of Pina Polo’s inquiry, this is a highly relevant question. But even with the law shown to be an invention, the problem remains: why did so many consuls in the first century remain at Rome for the bulk of their consulship, or even beyond, rather than going to their provinces at the first opportunity (which is the normal state of affairs as described by Livy)? A definitive answer to this question is probably beyond us, but Pina Polo raises a few interesting ideas. He links the consuls’ continuing presence at Rome to the repeated outbreaks of unrest in the fifty years between Tiberius Gracchus’ tribunate and Sulla’s dictatorship, suggesting that the Senate grew to prefer the consuls to remain near the city in order to deal with any threat to the status quo. He links this with the greater number of attested consular laws in the late second and early first centuries, which is an intriguing contribution to this ongoing debate.

Chapter 13 extends the investigations of the first part of the book into the last decades of the Republic, relying now on a wider variety of source material. The author notes in passing several important differences for the earlier period. For instance, Pina Polo emphasises the significant increase in consular legislation, particularly on the topics of electoral corruption (where consuls had passed the point in their careers of competing for office) and the grain supply. He also notes the rather different types of public works undertaken by consuls in this period, discussing the competing projects of M. Lepidus and Q. Catulus (the rival consuls of 78) as well as the suggestive fact that Pompey opened the first permanent theatre in Rome during his second consulship. Chapter 14 explores the consular year in the late Republic, using Cicero’s consulship as the best-attested example. While in many ways this is an atypical year, the disruption of political life in this period renders the “typical” consular year an illusory creature.

This is a well-researched, well-written and intelligently-argued book, and I have only a few reservations. As befits an historian who so often relies on the evidence of Livy, Pina Polo envisions consuls who are almost entirely submissive to the will of the Senate, as shown by his speculation why consuls tended to remain in Rome. This can occasionally lead him to assert what needs to be proven, as when he writes that it “seems unthinkable” that a consul could decline a province without the Senate’s explicit authorisation (p. 240). Both Cicero and Pompey are on record as having refused a province ex consulatu, and Cicero gave as his reason for doing so the desire to avoid being obligated to the tribunes, who were able to prevent funds being voted for any province.7 Yet unfriendly tribunes could just as easily veto a senatorial decree releasing Cicero from his province, which would make his reasoning pointless. So while I agree that Cicero would have announced his refusal to take a province to the Senate (and to have justified it there), I disagree that he needed the Senate’s authorisation.

Yet such quibbles are few and far between. Aesthetically, the production values are high (as one would expect from Cambridge University Press), with a notable absence of typographical mistakes. The two illustrations (of coins) are both presented clearly, while the bibliography is current through to 2009 (with the addition of chapters from the forthcoming Consuls and Res Publica). The translation from the original Spanish (by Rosa Anía and Noel Murphy, with further revision by Charlotte Tupman) is clear. In sum, Pina Polo has produced a book which will be of permanent value to all scholars studying Republican political institutions and which is a major step forward in our understanding of the consulship.


1.   See for example Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht (3 vols) (Lepizig: Hirzel, 1878-85); Pierre Willems, Le sénat de la République romaine (3 vols) (Louvain: Peeters, 1878-85); Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).
2.   J.P.V.D. Balsdon, "Consular Provinces under the Late Republic, I. General Considerations," Journal of Roman Studies 29 (1939): 57-73; Adalberto Giovannini, Consulare Imperium (Basel, F. Reinhardt, 1983).
3.   Hans Beck et al., Consuls and Res Publica: holding high office in the Roman Republic(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
4.   Corey Brennan, The praetorship in the Roman Republic (2 vols) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
5.   Kaj Sandberg, Magistrates and Assemblies: a Study of Legislative Practices in Republican Rome (Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2001).
6.   Lily Ross Taylor and T. Robert S. Broughton, "The Order of the Two Consuls' Names in the Yearly Lists," Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 19 (1949): 1-13.
7.   Cicero in Pisonem 5; Velleius Paterculus 2.31.1.

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