Question about consuls in the Roman Republic

I have read that there were always 2 consuls that ruled the Roman Republic, and their authority switched around every month. One month one was superior to the other, and the next month it reversed and so on. What reason(s) did they have to create this mechanism?

Did this mechanism give rise to any interesting phenomenon?

Also, what’s the deal with so many Roman consuls being called “Flavius” as a first name? (most of them have that name)

separation of powers; checks and balances. each consul was to check the powers of the other, since neither had full powers.

I’ve never heard of the consuls being superior/inferior on a rotating monthly basis, though you will run into situations in the Republic where the consuls couldn’t agree on a course of action and would come into conflict. No specific examples spring to mind, but I’m sure a more knowledgable doper will be along shortly.

As to names: There was a fairly small circle of aristocratic families in Rome. They dominated politics generally and the consulship in particular until the late Republic, when “new men” (novii homii? The singular is novus homo; I don’t know the plural) with recently acquired wealth such as Cicero started to be able to buy their way into power. To keep things interesting for later students of history, the Romans also favored a very limited set of first names. So you wind up with the same names showing up over and over again for hundreds of years.

(BTW: “Flavius,” in particular, is a family name. Roman naming conventions were praenomen-nomen-cognomen. *Praenomen *is essentially the modern first name; *nomen *the modern family name. *Cognomen *the Romans had to invent because they couldn’t keep themselves straight–too many people had the same name, so they appended a “nickname” of sorts to identify people. It eventually developed into another, more specifically lineal, family name, passing from father to son.)

That was due to the popularity of the singer Flav-O-Flavius.

Flavius means blonde and was a common name given to light haired children.

I’m not aware of the consuls changing roles ever other month, but there are two important facts about Rome’s constitution: it was designed to prevent the rise of a king and thus it gave consuls great power, but for short periods; and it was designed as a consitution for a citystate and wasn’t really practical for running an empire.

I just finisthed The Rise of Rome which is a great read on Rome’s political history.
http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Rome-Making-Greatest/dp/1400066638/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357156636&sr=8-1&keywords=rise+of+rome

wiki agrees that they alternated on a monthly basis:

Yeah, I was looking at that a little bit earlier. I have this vague recollection of some incident when the consuls couldn’t agree about some military issue–the superior consul would go out into the field with his army for a month, and then the roles would switch and the formerly-inferior would call him back. But like I said, just a vague recollection–may be nothing like that.

I was hoping more specific reasons than “it was for abuse prevention”. They must have had some strong reasons to design it that way.

No, that was pretty much it. The Romans usually duplicated offices this way. The idea was that by giving two men the same job, neither of them was all-powerful - each acted as a check on the other.

And the alteration between them didn’t denote one was superior to the other. Their power and authority was equal at all times. The only thing the alteration represented was basically which one was on duty.

The last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, really, really pissed the Romans off. When they got rid of him and instituted the Republic, they were are at great pains to devise a system where one man would never hold supreme power, or be be in a strong position to stage a coup d’état, hence two consuls who could veto one another.

They did also have a position of Dictator where one man would take command during really serious national military emergencies, but that was a strictly temporary position. For normal rule they had two consuls because they did not want to be ruled by anyone remotely resembling a monarch, a king.

“Abuse prevention” was their strong reason for having two consuls. The last Roman king, Tarquin the Proud, was overthrown because he and his family abused their political power. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarquin_the_Proud#Overthrow_and_exile

The Romans were very afraid of a single man gaining autocratic powers and becoming a tyrant. So they elected two consuls in order to divide up the power and prevent any one man from becoming a tyrant. Consuls were hardly all powerful, the governing apparatus of the Roman Republic was complex. Check out the wiki article on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Republic#Constitution

The Battle of Cannae is a famous example where having alternating consuls in charge led to a complete disaster.

Yes. Thats the most famous case of Consuls switching roles. In that case, they alternated military command day to day and had completely opposing views on the tactics they were to use. Also they didn’t like each other very much. In a lot of cases, Consuls sort of ran for election as a team and the problem of opposing political ideologies wasn’t really a concern. However sometimes Consuls vehemently hated each other and spent most of their year as Consul ripping into the other guy. One incident (it was late Republic, but I’m blanking on the names) involved one of the Consuls fleeing to his house after a few months and refusing to go to the Senate for the rest of his term, instead just issuing denouements and criticisms for the remainder of his term.

During the Republic era and after, the Latin word “rex” (usually translated into English as “king”) had a connotation more like what we would associate with “dictator” (which ironically was a legitimate position in the Roman Republic, as others have mentioned). The Romans wanted to be very, very sure that they never again had another rex, and so built in all sorts of safeguards against it in the setup of their government. Of course, none of that mattered at all when the people actually wanted a king; they just ignored all of the new laws, and gave Caesar a different title instead of “rex”.

Women’s names can get even more confusing. During the Republic a woman usually took the feminine form of her father’s name. If there were multiple daughters they added Major (“the elder”) and Minor (“the younger”), Tertia (“the 3rd”), and so on.

The switching-each-month also had some practical advantages in Rome:[ul][li]Citizens knew which Consul they should go to that month.[/li][li]Each Consul was “on call” for only a month, then had the next month ‘off’.[/ul][/li]
The first was important because some issues for Consuls needed to be decided quickly. Not knowing which Consul is in charge would slow down decision-making. As would requiring both of them to agree on a joint decision. One Consul in charge, free to make immediate decisions is faster. And the ability of the other Consul to override the first prevents dictatorial rule. (Also, this works better for the soldiers & city officials – they know whose orders they should follow this month.)

The second just makes it easier on the men who are Consul. Remember that they were prominent men, busy with their own lives, and this was an additional (largely volunteer) task for them. Trading off duties each month gave them some respite. this is similar to many current jobs, where it is critical to have someone ‘on call’ to deal with situations requiring immediate response. Or the US Supreme Court, where each Justice is assigned as the ‘Circuit Justice’ over 1 or 2 geographic areas, to deal with requests for emergency injunctions, stays, etc. from that area.

The masters of Rome series goes into great detail about the consul system and gives dramatized accounts of both times when the consuls worked together and times when they were at each others throats. A great read.

Yes, I found the history of the ‘dictator’ position in the Roman Republic fascinating. As I recall:

[ul]
[li]The word basically means ‘He who talks’ (IE the guy giving the orders.)[/li][li]The purpose of the position was to have a single clear leader in the case of war and emergency, to avoid having ‘too many consuls on the battlefield’[/li][li]Dictators were selected for five-year maximum periods, but many stepped down early once the war or emergency was over[/li][li]Naming Julius Caesar ‘Dicator for life’ was so far outside Republic tradition that it was nearly a contradiction in terms.[/li][/ul]

Yes Caesar was assassinated exactly because people feared he was going to take the title Rex. In particular he wore a set of red boots public that apparently were too reminiscent of an outfit that superbus liked to wear. His successors Augustus and Tiberius were scrupulously careful to avoid being seen as kings . Although they were absolute rulers they were careful to have the senate rubber stamp everything .