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Consuls and Proconsuls

Updated on February 22, 2012

These are terms for honored offices of authority held by distinguished Romans before the days of the Roman Empire; although the word 'proconsul' is seldom used today, the consular service remains an important branch of a nation's foreign service.

When the monarchy was overthrown in Rome in 510 BC, the royal authority passed to two supreme magistrates of the republic.

At first, they were called praetors and, later, consuls. Originally, consuls were chosen only from among the nobles, or patricians, but in 367 BC the Lex Licini ruled that one of the consuls must be of the common people, a plebeian. Although less powerful than the kings, the consuls retained marks of royal authority, including the purple bordered toga. The consuls had complete civil and military authority, but their power was limited, since they held office for only one year and could not be reelected during the next 10 years; also, tribunes, set up in 494 BC, could veto a consul's decisions. In practice, the consuls alternated monthly in their civil work, and daily when in the field.

Later, when Rome was waging many campaigns at the same time, each consul had his own force. The demand for officials eventually became so great that the office of proconsul was created. A proconsul acted on behalf of the consuls and was usually put in charge of military campaigns in foreign countries. In the days of the Roman Empire, consulship continued to be an honored office but without the authority that its holders had held during the republic.

During the eleventh century, the term 'consul' once again came into use, the chief magistrates of the autonomous cities of Italy and Germany being known as consuls.

Then, the title came to prominence again in France, in 1799, when Napoleon was made First Consul. He nominally shared the consulship with two others but all effective power was wielded by him.

In recent times, the term has come into use to refer to an officer appointed by a state to further and protect the interests of its subjects abroad. This system arose during the later Middle Ages, when traveling merchants found the need for representation and arbitration while they were trading in other countries. At present, however, a consul's duties are mainly concerned with the commercial interests of his country, and he normally has no diplomatic function.

In some countries, a consul may have to act as a diplomatic agent, but this is not the normal practice, and consuls are not usually connected with the diplomatic service.

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