Consul (Lat. consulere, to take care for), in Roman antiquity, the title of two supreme civil and military officers, by whom the republic was governed after the expulsion of the kings about 510 B. C. The office existed during 1,050 years, and assumed distinct phases in the republic and in the Latin and Byzantine empires. The consuls were at first elected annually from the patricians, had all the insignia of royalty except the crown, and were preceded by lictors bearing the symbolic fasces. The only examples of a single consul for part of a year were in 68 and 52 B. C. The plebeians, claiming a right to elect one of the consuls from their own estate, obtained as a compromise in 444 B. C. the election of one of the military tribunes who were invested with consular power. About 366 the Licinian law opened one of the consular offices to them, and in 172 both of the consuls were for the first time plebeians. In the early days of the republic the consuls were the highest judicial as well as executive and military officers, but about 365 B. C. the praetors took the judicial functions. The consuls commanded the army, proposed laws, convoked and presided over the senate and the comitia centuriata, and received the communications from proconsuls and from foreign states.
They retained their power till Cassar became master of the republic. The office was immediately degraded under the empire, its duration often being only from two to four months, and its principal functions being transferred to the emperor or senate. In the Byzantine empire it was a merely honorary dignity conferred by nomination of the emperor, its duties being only to assist in splendid costume at a ceremonial on Jan. 1. The number of consuls was in this late period increased, and they were of various classes. Justinian ceased to nominate consuls in A. D. 541; but the office was not legally suppressed till an act of the emperor Leo the Philosopher in 886. - The title of consul was revived for a time in the French republic after the revolution of the 18th Brumaire, 1799. The directory being overthrown, those members of the council of the ancients and the five hundred who favored the revolution appointed three consuls, Sieyes, Bonaparte, and Ducos. By the constitution of the year VIII. (Dec. 13, 1799), this form of executive was confirmed, Bonaparte being made first consul with almost absolute powers, and Cambaceres and Lebrun second and third consuls.
The first consul, who was elected at first for ten years, was reelected in May, 1802, for ten years additional, and in August of the same year for life. He promulgated laws, and appointed and dismissed the ministers and nearly all the officers, military, naval, and civil. His income was fixed at 500,000 francs, and he took up his residence at the Tuileries, where he held court in great splendor. The title was displaced by that of emperor, May 18, 1804. - The term consul designates in modern times commercial agents appointed by a government to reside at seaports or other important commercial towns of foreign countries, whose special commission is to attend to the interests of the citizens of the nation represented by such agents. They were first appointed in the 12th century, after the crusades had opened to European nations a considerable intercourse with the East. Venice, Genoa, and other Italian states obtained a recognition of semi-official agents resident at places with which there was any considerable commercial intercourse. The precedent was followed by other maritime nations, and the custom has become extended so that it is now the practice of all commercial nations to have agents wherever their citizens have established a trade.
The powers and duties of consuls are in some cases regulated by treaty between the governments; in other cases there is a mere permission to send an agent, without specification of powers. A consul can do nothing that is not authorized by the government of the country to which he is sent, either by treaty or official permission; but at the present period the nature of the office is so well understood throughout the civilized world, and even by semi-civilized nations and tribes which have any commercial intercourse with other nations, that permission to appoint a consul imports that he is to he at liberty to perform the duties usually belonging to such office, unless specially provided otherwise. The duties of consuls, where they are not specified by positive stipulation between two governments, will depend upon the laws of the country represented by the consul, it being understood that such regulations are within the general scope of official powers acknowledged by the commercial world. Subject to this limitation, every nation may prescribe to its own consuls the extent and nature of their official duties.
In some countries consuls are vested with judicial authority to settle disputes between citizens of the country which they represent; but this can only be by consent of the foreign government, and it has not been the practice of the English government, or of our own, to confer such authority upon its consuls, except in semi-civilized countries, as the North African and some of the Asiatic states, where the laws are so imperfectly administered that the lives and property of foreigners could not be safely left to depend upon them. The ordinary duties of consuls relate merely to commercial affairs, such as the authentication of a ship's papers, receiving and certifying protests of masters of vessels or other persons respecting losses at sea, and giving consular certificates for various purposes. It is also required of consuls to attend' to and provide for disabled seamen of the country to which they belong, and to send them home at public expense. They are also expected to take charge of stranded vessels or property belonging to their countrymen, in the absence of the master or other legal representative of the owner, and also to take care of the property of citizens of their respective countries who die within their consulates.
In the consular convention between France and the United States of 1788, it was provided that our consuls should have judicial power for the settlement of disputes between the master and his crew in relation to wages or other matters strictly belonging to the interior of the ship. But in no other treaty has this power been provided for, and the exercise of it must therefore rest upon mere commercial usage, and perhaps does not extend beyond what the parties may voluntarily submit to. The duties of consuls of the United States are defined in several acts of congress, embracing what has been above specified (except the judicial power). Instructions in writing are generally given to them on their appointment. They must be recognized by the authorities of the country to which they are sent, and receive an exequatur before entering upon their duties. A consul is not, by the law of nations, entitled to the privileges of a public minister, and is subject to the laws of the country where he resides. In the Turkish dominions consuls enjoy the same immunities that are conceded to foreign ministers at Constantinople.