Claiming more consulships than the familia next door?

At republican era in Rome there was one ultimate prize every active politician was after: to become a consul of the republic. In modern terms being a consul was like being both prime minister and president at the same time and then some more power. Unlike our supreme political leaders however, the Romans voted two consuls for the office for each year. So once you got your consulship, it was only for one year and you had to share the seat with a colleague, who could make your life a misery.

For the Roman nobility the consulship was the peak of the career for the most influental individuals of the family. True enough, there was the position of censor and honorary titles like princeps senatus, but those were available for so few that the consulship really was the crown of the cursus honorum.

One way to compare the success of the Roman families is to compare how many consulships they got. If the family had a consul at each generation, then that family was very influental. If the family had only one consul during many generations, then the family was not at the top of the Roman pecking order of families. This was the culture and values according to which the Roman nobiity lived and valued the success of their family.

When we look at the years 150 – 49, we can see how the number of consulships creates clear three categories of the top families: those families that had only one consulship during this 101 year period, those that had 2 or 3 consulships and those that had 4 or more consulships. The division of the consulships based on these categories seems quite fair:

Number of families for consulships

About half of the families that had at least one consulship during this period had only one. About quarter of the families that had at least one consulship had 2 or 3 them and finally about one fifth of the families had 4 or more. This can be considered pretty democratic and equal, after all it seems that consulships in general did not fall into hands of narrow top class of the families. It also seems by looking at these figures that fairly large group of families got their chance to have at least one consulship in a century.

Numbers can decieve, however. Another way to look at the numbers is to count how many consulships there were and how those available seats were divided amongst the families. During these 101 years there was individual 206 consuls (if a consul died during his term a suffect consul was elected for the remaining of the term, that is why there is 206 instead of 202 consuls). The available consulships divided amongst these three groups of families like this:

Distribution of available consulships

So half of the actual available consulships were in the hands of minority of one fifth of the families. They had very strong influence in the republic. Remaining half is almost equally divided between families with 2-3 or just with one consul. So what in the first set of numbers seemed as fairly fair distribution was in fact quite the opposite of it. Families with just one consulship got only a quarter of the available posts while numbering more than half of the families that had consuls. These one consul families were not nearly as influental than the real top of the ruling elite that grabbed half of the consulships to itself.

So who were the top scorers? Here is the top 11 of late republican families measured with number of consulships:

1. Caecilius Metellus, 15 consulships
2. – 3. Cornelius Lentulus, Marius, 8 consulships
4. Calpurnius Piso, 7 consulships
5. Aemilius Lepidus, 6 consulships
6. – 11. Aurelius Cotta, Cassius Longinus, Claudius Pulcher, Cornelius Scipio, Licinius Crassus, Papirius Carbo, 5 consulships

These 8 families took altogether 74 consulships. That is way more than every second year someone from them as a consul, if divided equally. 74 out of 206 is more than a third, while 11 from total number of consular families is about one tenth. Very narrow top in the reality!

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